March 31, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 3:20 PM

60-40 NATION:

No, the 2012 election didn't prove the Republican Party needs a reboot (John Sides, March 31, 2013, Washington Post)

The forecasting model here on Wonkblog--which I helped develop--predicted an Obama win.  As did models that relied on a broader survey of economic indicators, like that of political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien (here) and that of Nate Silver.  As did a statistical averaging of all the major forecasting models.  It is hard to defeat an incumbent even in a slowly growing economy, and we could easily chalk up Romney's loss to that fact.  This makes most of Gerson and Wehner's advice, however sensible, beside the point.

Claim: "Romney's biggest general-election problem is that he did not believe he could beat a GOP primary field...without tacking sharply right on key issues."

That is from the National Journal's Ron Brownstein, although he is far from the only one to make this claim.  And it does seem true that Romney had to tack right in the primary.  But when the general election rolled around, who did voters perceived as ideologically closer to them, on average: Romney or Obama?  Romney. [...]

Claim: "Obama may not have created a new liberal movement--and he may not do so in the next four years. But the emerging liberal majority can."

That is from Bob Moser of The American Prospect.  There were similar sentiments in many other places--as in this Buzzfeed headline "Welcome to Liberal America."  The same thing was said after Obama won in 2008. For example, John Judis wrote a piece entitled "America the Liberal."

It is certainly true that Americans are moving left on some issues--most notably same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization.  But Obama did not win the election because America is becoming more liberal, he won it despite the fact that America has become more conservative.

Posted by orrinj at 1:43 PM


Obama is channeling Bush fever in Iran : Ten years after the Iraq debacle, are we -- mind-bogglingly -- headed to war with Iran? The signals suggest yes (FALGUNI A. SHETH, 3/31/13, Salon)

It doesn't seem far-fetched to surmise that the eagerness with which so many anticipated a change in the U.S. administration back in 2009 was due in part to being rid of that "warmonger" President Bush. To many, including the committee that selects the Nobel Peace Prize, President Bush's exit signaled a more dovish and fact-based foreign policy. But the change in administrations, as many liberals might concede today, did not bring about a different foreign policy. It is true that as recently as one year ago, President Obama warned against "loose talk" of invading Iran. Yet, his position seems to have changed substantially over the last six months. During a visit to Israel last week, the president assured Israel that "America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran."

Lest anyone worry about internal discord, be assured that the president's Cabinet is in line with this increasing hawkishness. In a speech delivered at AIPAC's 2013 conference at the beginning of March, Vice President Biden insisted that the president "was not bluffing" and that "all options, including military force, are on the table" regarding Iran. Obama's new secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, whose mildly critical voice on Iran and Israel once offered hope to liberals, was criticized at his confirmation hearings by his fellow Republicans for not being aggressive enough on Iran. Happily for Obama and Israel, Hagel has remained perfectly silent since his confirmation. But just in case you worry about Hagel's unduly dovish influence on the president, you can breathe easy. To hear the president speak, no one -- neither Hagel nor his new Secretary of State John Kerry -- will prevent Obama from taking an aggressive stance on Iran. As Josh Gerstein reported 10 days ago, the president assured anyone who cared to listen that:

"When I say that we intend to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, that we're going to pursue all avenues to make sure that that does not happen ... I think my Cabinet is prepared for a whole range of contingencies, but Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel share my fundamental view that the issue of Iran's nuclear capability is an issue of U.S. national security interests as well as Israel's national security interests and they also share my view that our commitment to Israel's security is unbreakable."

The president's words echoed Israeli President Shimon Peres' insistence that the U.S. must launch a military strike against Iran in the event that Iran's nuclear program moves past "the point of no return." Even Fox News, a most vigilant observer of all capitulations to Iran, no matter how negligible, enthusiastically described Obama's Israel speech as signaling "all systems go," to Benjamin Netanyahu to attack Iran. All of these speeches and public postures foreshadow another war 10 years after the "reassessments"/errors/apologies/regrets over the invasion of Iraq on visibly false pretenses.

Posted by orrinj at 1:37 PM


Meet the 'Boomstick,' baseball's largest hot dog (Melanie Hicken, March 31, 2013, CNNMoney)

What started as a novel food experiment at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas has turned into a super-sized food franchise -- all centered around a two-foot-long hot dog affectionately known as the "Boomstick."

Named after the bat used by Texas Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz, the $26 Boomstick is a 2-foot all-beef hot dog, smothered in chili, nacho cheese, jalapenos and caramelized onions, all on top of a massive potato bun. The whole thing weighs in at 3 pounds.

Posted by orrinj at 8:52 AM


Pete Peterson: The ex-POW teaching Vietnam to swim (William Kremer, 3/22/13, BBC World Service)

As ambassador, his big political agenda included overseeing a trade agreement between the US and Vietnam. Peterson also made it his aim to see as much of the country as he could. He visited at least one different province each week, always making a point of stopping by a school, a hospital and a company or factory.

It was on his visits to the overcrowded hospitals that he began to adopt his new cause.

"What I realised in these visits was at least half the people being treated in those facilities shouldn't have been there at all because they were suffering from injuries that could have been prevented," he says.
Raising awareness of health and safety became a major goal of his embassy. In his office, a few blocks from the site of the Hanoi Hilton, Peterson began a programme called Safe Vietnam. He applied diplomatic pressure to the Vietnamese government to improve safety practices.

One of the first areas Peterson focused on was the use of helmets for cyclists and moped riders.

He encouraged the Vietnamese to introduce legislation making helmets mandatory and negotiated a deal with the shipping line APL to donate container space to import them. Today, in contrast to most south-east Asian countries, almost all Vietnamese riders wear helmets - they have become something of a fashion accessory. Peterson says that head trauma in Vietnam has been halved as a result.
In 2000, the Vietnamese Red Cross awarded Peterson their Highest Merit award. Already the owner of a US forces Legion of Merit, the ambassador became one of the few US Vietnam veterans - perhaps the only one - to own a medal featuring the face of Ho Chi Minh.

The following year, Peterson oversaw a landmark mortality and injury study, which showed that the leading cause of child deaths in Vietnam was not infectious disease but accidental injury. The results helped focus the work of a new NGO, The Alliance for Safe Children (Tasc), which Peterson set up with his Vietnamese wife Vi Le (Carlotta having died in 1995).

"We started to look at drowning prevention specifically, because drowning in our statistics was the biggest killer of children in the countries where we had conducted surveys - it was the biggest killer by far," he says.
Tasc estimates one child drowns every hour in Vietnam. In Bangladesh it's one every 25 minutes. Across Asia, the group estimates the death toll to be between 200,000 and 280,000 children per year - around the same as the total number of deaths from the Asian Tsunami in 2004. Nearly half of these victims are toddlers.

Large parts of south-east Asia are covered in rivers and lakes - around 16% of Vietnam, for example - and although children and their parents bathe at dawn and dusk across the region, relatively few people can swim.
"There is a fear of water," says Peterson. "It is not normal for a family to teach the children to swim, because the parents can't swim, because they are absolutely petrified of water."

Working with the Royal Life Saving Society in Australia, Tasc has developed a drowning prevention programme called Swimsafe. More than 300,000 children in Vietnam and Bangladesh have taken the programme and learned basic survival swimming skills.

Although the programme mainly focuses on rural areas, it is also conducted in the Vietnamese port city of Da Nang, which during the war was the location of a major US airbase. Even though the city has beaches on two sides, the training takes place in inflatable swimming pools to allay parents' fears.

Da Nang's government has now committed to ensuring that, by 2020, every child can swim before leaving secondary school.

Posted by orrinj at 8:33 AM


Owners of energy-efficient homes less likely to default on loans (Kenneth R. Harney, March 29, 2013, LA Times)

Using a sample of 71,000 home loans from across the country that were originated between 2002 and 2012, researchers found that mortgages on homes with Energy Star certifications were on average 32% less likely to default compared with loans on homes with no energy-efficiency improvements. Energy Star homes, which can be renovated dwellings or newly built, provide documentable savings of 15% or higher on utility bills compared with houses containing minimal energy improvements. [...]

So why the big difference in payment performance among borrowers during the roller-coaster decade that saw the mortgage bubble, the housing price boom, the calamitous bust and the start of a recovery? To Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, a Washington, D.C., think tank that sponsored the research, there's no question.

"It stands to reason," he said, "that energy-efficient homes should have a lower default rate because the owners of these homes save money on their utility bills, and they can put that money toward their mortgage payments."

Posted by orrinj at 8:23 AM


New baseball gloves a rite of spring (PETE CALDERA, 3/17/13, THE RECORD)

[T]he methods for making a glove game ready are as wide as the assortment of brands on players' hands.

For instance, Chris Stewart shuns the oils or creams fellow catchers might apply to a new glove.

"I just play catch with it and throw it in my bag," said Stewart, who might take up to a full season of catching bullpen sessions to break in a new gamer. "I like my glove really broken in. A good soft glove that most guys would maybe throw away, that's game ready for me."

Suzuki's gloves arrive from the manufacturer already soft and pliable.

"He could use it in a game that night right out of the box," Brett Gardner said of the 10-time Gold Glove winning Suzuki, who normally goes through one glove per month during the season.

"I usually break in two," Gardner said of his spring training glove ritual. "But if my backup from last year is worthy of being a gamer, I'll use that and break in one."

Gloves of a generation or so ago had to be prepped during the winter.

Kelleher's method was a dab of Vaseline diluted with water rubbed into the pocket. He'd pound the pocket with a bat, put two baseballs inside and keep the glove tied until it was time to play catch -- repeating the process over and over.

Some players use shaving cream to soften the leather instead of Vaseline. Others have put gloves in the clothes dryer to tumble around and soften up.

As pros, Gardner (who uses Mizuno) and Stewart (who uses All-Star) never have kept one glove for more than two seasons.

"But when you find a good one, it's tough to get rid of," Stewart said. "One time, I had a hole in my glove but I kept using it."

Posted by orrinj at 8:17 AM


Stocks' upbeat signs are no mirage (Mark Zandi, March 31, 2013,

Corporate profits, the basis for valuing stocks, have never been higher. U.S. businesses did a marvelous job of raising productivity and lowering costs during the recession, and firms are now highly competitive in global markets. Lower energy costs and a softer U.S. dollar add to their market strength. Companies are also flush with cash, and they have very low debt loads.

The Federal Reserve clearly wants higher stock prices to help lift the economy. The central bank has committed to buying trillions of dollars in U.S. Treasury bonds to push interest rates close to record lows. That makes it less attractive for households to put their savings into Treasuries or bank certificates of deposit. While stocks are riskier, they look enticing by comparison.

Stocks also look better because threats to the economic recovery have faded. Despite the banking crisis in Cyprus, the eurozone seems much less likely to crack up today than it did a year ago. The European Central Bank, the eurozone's version of the Federal Reserve, has signaled an unshakable commitment to preserving the currency union, taking a series of extraordinary measures that have lifted the markets' confidence.

America's fiscal problems also look much less daunting than they once did. Only a couple of years ago, lawmakers appeared ready to trigger a default on U.S. Treasury debt, and only a few months ago, Washington threatened to drive us over a fiscal cliff. But the politics have clearly changed, and neither party seems likely to threaten a government shutdown or a debt default. Even the rancorous debate over government spending cuts and tax increases should soon recede to the inside pages of the newspapers.

Investors can once again smile as they watch cable business shows and linger over their 401(k) statements. Even though house prices haven't recovered much, the net worth of American households is as high as it has ever been.

Posted by orrinj at 7:50 AM


Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead? (SUSAN DOMINUS, 3/31/13, NY Times Magazine)

The study of job design in the middle- and late-20th century focused on how to improve the drudge work of manufacturing: Grant is credited with reviving the field, shifting the thinking toward the more modern conditions of a service and knowledge economy. He first realized that his ideas about giving at work might actually yield quantifiable results when he was a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan, and he proposed a study set in a university fund-raising call center. Call centers, even on college campuses, are notoriously unsatisfying places to work. The job is repetitive and can be emotionally taxing, as callers absorb verbal abuse while also facing rejection (the rejection rate at that call center was about 93 percent).

The manager, Howard Heevner, did not have a lot of faith that Grant would be able to motivate his student-employees. He had already tried, in a previous job at a call center, the usual incentives -- cash prizes, competitive games -- and was generally unimpressed with the results. But Grant had a different idea. When he was an undergraduate at Harvard, he took a job selling advertisements for the travel guide series "Let's Go," but he was terrible at it. "I was a pushover," he says in "Give and Take," "losing revenues for the company and sacrificing my own commission." Then he met another undergraduate whose job at "Let's Go" was helping her pay her way through college. Suddenly the impact of his role became clear to him: without advertising revenues, the company could not make money, which in turn meant it couldn't provide jobs to students who needed them. With that in mind, he was willing to make a harder sell, to take a tougher line on negotiations. "When I was representing the interests of students, I was willing to fight to protect them," he writes. It would not be a mass-market psychology book if every anecdote did not have a dramatic ending: Grant eventually sold the largest advertising package in company history and less than a year later, at 19, was promoted to director of advertising sales, overseeing a budget of $1 million.

As a psychology major, Grant always hoped to do a study on the "Let's Go" staff, in which the books' editors and writers would meet with or read letters by people whose travels had been enhanced by their work. Would knowing how the books benefited others inspire them to work harder? Now, at the call center, Grant proposed a simple, low-cost experiment: given that one of the center's primary purposes was funding scholarships, Grant brought in a student who had benefited from that fund-raising. The callers took a 10-minute break as the young man told them how much the scholarship had changed his life and how excited he now was to work as a teacher with Teach for America.

The results were surprising even to Grant. A month after the testimonial, the workers were spending 142 percent more time on the phone and bringing in 171 percent more revenue, even though they were using the same script. In a subsequent study, the revenues soared by more than 400 percent. Even simply showing the callers letters from grateful recipients was found to increase their fund-raising draws.

When Grant went back and talked to the callers about their improvement, many actively discounted the possibility that the brief encounter with a scholarship student helped. "Several of them were stunned," Grant said. "Their response was, 'Yeah, I knew I was more effective, but that was because I had more practice,' or, 'That was because I had a better alumni pool in that period -- I got lucky.' " Eventually, having replicated the test five times, Grant was confident that he had eliminated other explanations. It was almost as if the good feelings had bypassed the callers' conscious cognitive processes and gone straight to a more subconscious source of motivation. They were more driven to succeed, even if they could not pinpoint the trigger for that drive.

The study quickly raised Grant's profile in his field, partly because it relied on hard data: dollars, as opposed to manager assessments or self-reports. "I don't know the last time there was a study in our field that had such striking results," says Stuart Bunderson, a professor of organizational behavior at Washington University. "In terms of an intervention that has practical significance and moves the needle on employee behavior -- you don't see them that often." The intervention was also a manager's dream: fast and practically free.

Over the years, Grant has followed up that study with other experiments testing his theories about prosocial motivation -- the desire to help others, independent of easily foreseeable payback. In one study, Grant put up two different signs at hand-washing stations in a hospital. One reminded doctors and nurses, "Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases"; another read, "Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases." Grant measured the amount of soap used at each station. Doctors and nurses at the station where the sign referred to their patients used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer.

These studies, two of Grant's best known, focus on typically worthy beneficiaries: needy students and vulnerable patients. But some of his other research makes the case that prosocial behavior is as applicable in corporate America as it is in a hospital or a university. "Think of it this way," he said. "In corporate America, people do sometimes feel that the work they do isn't meaningful. And contributing to co-workers can be a substitute for that."

Take, for example, Grant's study of workers at Borders who contributed to an employee-beneficiary fund managed by the staff, with Borders matching donated funds. The money was set aside for employees in need -- someone facing a pregnancy that would put a strain on their finances, for example, or the funeral of a loved one. Interestingly, Grant found that it was not the beneficiaries who showed the most significant increase in their commitment to Borders; it was the donors, even those who gave just a few dollars a week. Through interviews and questionnaires, Grant determined that "as a result of gratitude to the company for the opportunity to affirm a valued aspect of their identities, they developed stronger affective commitment to the company."

The study is uplifting and troubling at the same time: even Grant acknowledges the possibility of corporations playing off their employees' generous impulses, as a sop to compensate for other failings -- poor pay or demeaning work. (After all, if the employees at Borders had better benefits and pay, they might not have needed the emergency fund.) Jerry Davis, a management professor who taught Grant at the University of Michigan and is generally a fan of his former student's work, couldn't help making a pointed critique about its inherent limits when they were on a panel together: "So you think those workers at the Apple factory in China would stop committing suicide if only we showed them someone who was incredibly happy with their iPhone?"

Grant's answer to these questions is academic: he tries to understand how these mechanisms function but does not necessarily advocate implementation. "I am also skeptical about the motivations of corporations," he said. "My concern is ultimately for the success and well-being of people in organizations. To the extent that individual and group accomplishments and quality of work life contribute to profits, I'm happy, but that's not my primary goal." [...]

Grant's book, incorporating several decades of social-science research on reciprocity, divides the world into three categories: givers, matchers and takers. Givers give without expectation of immediate gain; they never seem too busy to help, share credit actively and mentor generously. Matchers go through life with a master chit list in mind, giving when they can see how they will get something of equal value back and to people who they think can help them. And takers seek to come out ahead in every exchange; they manage up and are defensive about their turf. Most people surveyed fall into the matcher category -- but givers, Grant says, are overrepresented at both ends of the spectrum of success: they are the doormats who go nowhere or burn out, and they are the stars whose giving motivates them or distinguishes them as leaders. Much of Grant's book sets out to establish the difference between the givers who are exploited and those who end up as models of achievement. The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving -- they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying. (Grant incorporates his field's findings into his own life with methodical rigor: one reason he meets with students four and a half hours in one day rather than spreading it out over the week is that a study found that consolidating giving yields more happiness.)

The studies are elaborate, the findings nuanced -- but it is easy to walk away from the book forgetting the cautionary tales about people who give too much and remembering only the wash of stories about boundless generosity resulting in surprising rewards: a computer programmer who built a Web site at no cost for music fans (one of whom turns out to be an influential figure in Silicon Valley); a financial adviser who travels to take on a client thought to be impoverished (only to find that person sitting on a significant fortune); the writers who start out working free on a project for a friend (and somehow end up among the most successful in Hollywood).

I had assumed that Grant, and the other examples of extreme givers in his book, were simply superhuman in one way or another -- not only in the acute empathy that makes giving so rewarding for them but also in their unusual focus and stamina and mental-processing speed, traits that allow them to bend time and squeeze in more generosity than the rest of us. Grant, clearly, has some advantages beyond his propensity to help: more than one of his colleagues told me, for example, that when they cannot find the citation for a particular paper, they simply e-mail Grant directly, who is more reliable than Google and almost as fast (his childhood friends called him Mr. Facts).

But Grant believes that in terms of giving, we all have the same muscle; it's just that he and the other givers in his book have exercised it more. In "Give and Take," he cites a study that found that most people lose physical strength after enduring a test of will, like resisting chocolate-chip cookies when they are hungry. Typically, the study's subjects could squeeze a handgrip for only 25 seconds after an exercise in willpower. But one group distinguished itself, squeezing the grip for 35 seconds after the test of will. They were people who were on the giving end of the other-directedness scale. "By consistently overriding their selfish impulses in order to help others, they had strengthened their psychological muscles, to the point where using willpower for painful tasks was no longer exhausting," writes Grant of the study, conducted by researchers at Northwestern University. It seems too simple to assume that Grant just happens to be capable of great discipline across all facets of his life; all those exercises in will, he would argue, feed each other, with one making the others possible.

I like to think I am a typically helpful person, but after reading Grant's book, I found myself experimenting with being more proactive about it. I started ending e-mails by encouraging people to let me know if I could help them in one way or another. I put more effort into answering random entreaties from students trying to place articles. I encouraged contacts seeking work or connections to see me as a resource.

And I did notice that simply avoiding the mental lag of deciding whether to help or not was helpful. At a minimum, Grant's example presents a bright-line rule: Unless the person on the other end is a proven taker, just do it -- collaborate, offer up, grant the favor. just be flattered that folks want your help?

NB: After my annual review last year my supervisors tried getting me to move out of the warehouse to a purchasing job.  At the interview it was made clear that Purchasing was looking for someone who would sit at their desk for the next twenty years and never raise their head.  After it became clear that I was profoundly unsuited to such work, the interviewer asked what my goals were at my review.  I said that, working with so many younger people who had no experience navigating corporate bureaucracy, I wanted to help mentor them and make them better advocates for themselves.  The response?  "God, you'd never get to do anything like that in this job!"   

Posted by Orrin Judd at 5:30 AM


The pope, the musicians and the Jews (Spengler, 5/10/05, Asia Times)

Despite heroic and well-intended labors stretching over half a century, the Catholic Church cannot come to terms with the Jewish side of Christianity, not, at least, in the way that American evangelicals do. As a theologian and exegete of the Bible, Benedict XVI believes that the Christian promise to the gentiles merely extends God's promise to the Jews, and he has expounded this view in numerous speeches and articles [4]. But that promise has small credibility if no living Jews are present to receive it. Few Jews remain in Europe outside of the half million in France, a community whose future status may be incompatible with the accommodation of 10 million Arab immigrants [5]. If the Vatican addressed large communities of observant Jews in Poland, for example, its message would resonate with the heavens. The nearest large population of Jews, however, is to be found in Israel, and therein lies a problem.

For a Catholic theologian, dependence on biblical exegesis rather than church tradition amounts to a revolutionary innovation. Benedict XVI broke with hoary church tradition when he argued (for example) that in the Epistles of Paul "the covenant with the Patriarchs is regarded as eternally in force". Scripture is not quite enough, however. American evangelicals of the past generation look not only to the promises of scripture, but also to the fact of Jewish continuity over more than three millennia. As the Reverend Pat Robertson observes, this makes credible God's promise to Abraham in the Hebrew scriptures. If God kept his promise to Abraham's seed, the argument continues, so well he may to Christians who enter into God's covenant through the crucifixion. If the Jewish people were to disappear, the Christian promise of salvation would die with it.

The German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig put it this way:

The Old Testament ... is more than a mere book. Had the Jews of the Old Testament disappeared from the earth like Christ, they would now denote the idea of the People, and Zion the idea of the Center of the World, just as Christ denotes the idea of Man. But the stalwart, undeniable vitality of the Jewish people, attested in the very hatred of the Jews, resists such "idealizing". Whether Christ is more than idea - no Christian can know it. But that Israel is more than idea, that he knows, that he sees. For we live. We are eternal, not as an idea may be eternal: if we are eternal, it is in full reality. For the Christian we are thus the really indubitable. The pastor who was asked for the proof of Christianity by Frederick the Great argued conclusively when he answered: "Your majesty, the Jews!" The Christians can have no doubts about us. Our existence stands surety for their truth.

Even more convincing for American evangelicals is Michael Wyschogrod's contention that God's love for all peoples begins with his particular love for the Jews. As the Methodist theologian R Kendall Soulen writes, "By allowing room for God's freedom to fall in love with Abraham, the gentiles gain a heavenly Father who is also concretely concerned with them, and not just with humanity in the abstract".

A crucial difference of opinion between Benedict XVI and the American evangelicals lies in the question of when Jews shall recognize Jesus as their Messiah. Although Benedict believes that Christians should not "force their faith" upon Jews and should live with them in mutual respect, he would prefer that they do so immediately. Although the evangelicals proselytize Jews to the endless annoyance of Jewish religious authorities, they believe that Jews will recognize Jesus only at the end of time. Liberal Jews object that the evangelicals wish for a new Battle of Armageddon in the Middle East, which is a silly complaint; on the contrary, the evangelicals mean that they would prefer that Jews remain Jews until Jesus extends an invitation in person.

American Protestantism, to be sure, was tinged with a Judaizing heresy from the outset (What makes the US a Christian nation, November 28, 2004). Founded by Protestant separatists who wished to bring a new chosen people to a new promised land, America may be the only country in the world in which Christians openly might adopt Rosenzweig's perspective.

It's surely significant that they're Americans, but both Father Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak have written compellingly about the essential unity of Judaism and Christianity and from a Catholic perspective.

[Originally posted: 5/09/05]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 1:00 AM


THE DISPUTATION: A Passion for Censorship (David Klinghoffer, 8/01/03, The Forward)

[T]he second reason we Jews need to learn some deep-breathing and other relaxation techniques is the one that always gets lost when others less meticulous than Fredriksen publicly humiliate a Christian for espousing his beliefs. If we are empowered to edit their doctrine, then why are they not empowered to edit ours?

In the past, Christians felt justified in telling Jews what we were entitled to write and read if it touched upon their savior. The Talmud was censored with their denunciations, and worse, in mind.

There seems little danger "The Passion" will incite violence. However, if it were to arouse Christians to demand that Jews similarly submit our faith for their approval - well, then, the attempt to cow Mel Gibson will have been most helpful to would-be Christian censors in making their case.

If Gibson someday says he would like to have a look at the Talmud with a view to fixing it up with some additional corrections, we should let Paula Fredriksen have a go at explaining to him why this would be inappropriate.

This dispute has reached the point where both the story of the Crucifixion and Mel Gibson's attempt to defend himself against charges of anti-Semitism are being characterized as inherently anti-Semitic. Such arguments push anti-anti-Semitism towards anti-Christianism.

-Passion Play: The controversy over Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie on the death of Jesus Christ. (Michael Novak, 08/25/2003, Weekly Standard)

The claims Christ made for himself seemed at the time divisive and dangerous. Many people, the Jewish authorities told Pilate, were following this man's lead. His history, they said, showed that he worked magic, performed miracles, and consorted with demons. He had been sent by God, he as much as said, to "fulfill the Scriptures." His continued preaching might lead to riot and rebellion. But only the Romans had the power to do to Jesus what was actually done, and so it was under the authority of Pontius Pilate, and at the hands of the Roman Empire, that Jesus "was crucified, died, and was buried."

AT THE TIME of Christ's death, Christianity was still internal to Judaism. The Christian Church itself began not at the Passion, but fifty-three days later on Pentecost, when the apostles left an "upper room" in Jerusalem speaking in tongues. With his preaching Jesus had clearly put a challenge to Judaism, expressly announcing a "new" covenant, whose mandate was to "complete" and "fulfill" the "old" covenant. And there is no doubt that Jesus' death meant a parting of the ways between Christians and Jews. Nonetheless, from a Christian point of view, the life and teachings of Jesus and his new covenant do not remove or destroy the old covenant. God cannot be unfaithful to his promises. Besides, if the Creator is not faithful to his first covenant with the Jews, how can Christians expect Him to be faithful to His new covenant with them?

Thus, Christians hold that Christianity fulfills the hopes launched into the world by Judaism. They also hold that those Jews who reject Christianity remain vessels of God's first love. In God's mysterious plan, the continuation of Judaism in time is a grace to be respected, on the same principle on which the faith of Christians rests--the fidelity of God to his everlasting promises.

The Jewish leaders of the generation that knew him did in fact reject Jesus and his claims, and they did accuse him of blasphemy. "Nevertheless," as the Second Vatican Council said in its statement on Judaism, "the Jews still remain very dear to God, for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made." The Council strictly forbids Catholics to hold Jews to be "repudiated or cursed by God, as if such views followed from the Holy Scriptures." And it deplores "all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time and from any source against the Jews." This condemnation includes the Church's own sins. The Council stressed the two covenants' common spiritual heritage and foresaw a future in which both communities would serve God "shoulder to shoulder."

Gibson's film is wholly consistent with the Second Vatican Council's presentation of the relations of Judaism and the Christian Church. But "The Passion" will not be easy for Jews to watch. One reason is simply that its entire subject is the death of one who, for many Jews, is a
figure of division, Jesus Christ. And a second reason is that it is never easy to relive a moment in which the leaders of one's community, however justified they might have been by their own lights and their own sense of responsibility, do not appear to viewers to be acting in a noble way. As a Catholic, I cringe every time I go to the theater when a pope, cardinal, archbishop, or even priest is portrayed in an unflattering light. Even when they deserve it, I do not enjoy the spectacle.

In the first part of the gospels' account of the Passion, the high priests of Jerusalem standing before Pilate are, painfully no doubt to contemporary Jews, the voice for the prosecution. During the early scenes of the movie, which I tried to watch as if I were Jewish or seated alongside a Jewish colleague, I thought: This is too painful. Having sat through many analogous moments as a Catholic, I did not like the experience.

VERY SOON, though, the action in the film belongs to the Romans. Roman soldiers inflict systematic pain on Jesus with gusto, lighthearted bantering, and the practiced sadism of those who know how to keep subdued populations subdued. The overwhelming drama consists in Christ's willing endurance of unbearable suffering, for the purpose of inaugurating an entirely new order in human life. The movie, like the gospels, is unmistakable in setting this meaning before our eyes. It is, somehow, our sins for which Jesus is dying.

The Passion of Jesus Christ is not a drama about ethnicity. It is about our humanity. The hero of this movie is Jewish, his mother is Jewish, his apostles and followers are Jewish. But one misses the whole point of the Passion of Jesus unless one sees that he submitted to his suffering for all of us.

-Are observant Jews racists?: Intermarriage bad. Jewish continuity good. Discuss. (Rabbi Avi Shafran, October 11, 2003,
Countless Jews of faith work closely with, are neighbors of, or are friends with, non-Jews. And while the Torah clearly identifies the Jews as God's "chosen nation," and imposes upon them special obligations befitting that status, at the same time Jewish tradition clearly regards non-Jews as created as well "in God's image" and as full partners in humanity, as per the Talmudic assertion that meaningful lives and the World-to-Come are the potential provinces of all people.

What is more, while Judaism neither demands nor seeks converts, any non-Jew who is truly willing and ready to undertake observance of the Torah's laws can, according to the Torah itself, join the Jewish people. How objectionable, in the end, can an "exclusive club" be if anyone at all can join it by sheer force of will?

There may well be prejudiced people within the religious Jewish world, as there are among all communities, but they are not representative of that world. In fact, the Jewish religious imperative of "darkei shalom -- the ways of peace" mandates exemplary behavior toward all humankind.

And yet, all the same, it is certainly true: observant Jews do not choose non-Jews as spouses and want all Jews to marry other Jews.

How can that be understood?

Well, for starters, it needn't be. Judaism is a religion of laws, some of which are understandable and others puzzling. Like eating pork or creating fire on the Sabbath, intermarriage is prohibited by the Torah, period.

Leaving aside, though, the religious component, is Jewish support for Jewish in-marriage really beyond comprehension?

[Originally posted: October 30, 2003]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:32 AM


Deicide and The Passion (Jeff Snyder, September 22, 2003, Enter Stage Right)

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and various religious scholars have expressed grave concern that Mel Gibson's new film, The Passion, a portrayal of the final 12 hours of Christ's life based on the Gospels will, if released in its present form, increase anti-Semitism
throughout the world because of the manner in which it portrays Jews. The controversy has generated lots of news coverage and articles, despite the fact that almost no one who is criticizing the film has actually seen it. When fundamentalist Christian groups criticized The Last Temptation of Christ years ago without having seen the film, this was taken as a sign of their intolerance, narrow-mindedness and overall nuttiness. So far, however, the news reports of criticisms of Mr. Gibson's film by people who have not seen the movie are reported, and seemingly supposed to be taken, with utmost seriousness. [...]

Although Mr. Gibson has from the beginning insisted that he is endeavoring to make a movie that is faithful to the Gospels, Mr. Boyer's New Yorker article makes it clear that that is precisely what the group finds troubling. He quotes a group of Catholic ecumenical scholars as stating that "One cannot assume that by simply conforming to the New Testament, that antisemitism will not be promoted. . . . After all, for centuries sermons and passion plays based on the New Testament have incited Christian animosity and violence toward Jews." This is actually a horrifying statement. One would hope that Catholics and all Christians would be shocked by the suggestion that anti- Semitism springs forth as a near automatic and somehow "natural" response from a literal reading and telling of the Gospels. Mr. Boyer also cites an example of one of the recommended changes -- that the two thieves crucified with Christ be referred to as "insurgents," despite the fact that the original Greek does not support that interpretation. Evidently such efforts are thought necessary to subtly direct people's minds away from thoughts about Jewish culpability to Roman political concerns over a potential revolt in the province. However, at bottom such revisionism betrays a profound lack of trust in the Gospels and a cynical, distressing lack of faith in the ability of the Church to bring Christ's message to its members.

Mr. Snyder's essay, in the invaluable ESR, is the most thorough we've seen so far, dealing with both the atmospherics and the substance of the controversy. It implicates what seems an important question: is Mr. Foxman's anti-anti-Semitism per se anti-Christian?

NB: If you've got a link that we don't have iincluded in our list, please send it along.

Passion Play: The controversy over Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie on the death of Jesus Christ. (Michael Novak, 08/25/2003, Weekly Standard)

[O]n July 21, [Mel Gibson] brought a rough cut of the film (with English subtitles) to Washington for a few commentators and interested writers to see.

It is the most powerful movie I have ever seen. In the days since watching that rough cut, I have not been able to get the film out of my mind. [...]

There are, in a sense, only five historical accounts of the Passion: in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and, in bare but vivid outline, in the letters of St. Paul. Paul's accounts are by some thirty years the earliest and represent in large strokes the settled beliefs of the first generation of Christians. Down the centuries, the narrative of Christ's death and its meaning have remained much the same.

The fuller accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John supplement each other, often overlapping and sometimes contradicting one another on the sort of contingent details that eyewitnesses (or their note-takers) often report differently. But all the Christian accounts agree that Jesus Christ suffered and died for the sins of all human beings of all time, under the command of the Roman consul in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate.

Jewish accounts concur that Jesus was a Jew who suffered and died under the Roman authorities. His claims for himself seemed to Jewish authorities then (and since) to be blasphemous--for Christ clearly announced that he owned an authority higher than the high priests and the rabbis', said forthrightly that he was greater than Solomon, and put himself on a higher plane than Moses. He went even further, daring to call God his father.

The claims Christ made for himself seemed at the time divisive and dangerous. Many people, the Jewish authorities told Pilate, were following this man's lead. His history, they said, showed that he worked magic, performed miracles, and consorted with demons. He had been sent by God, he as much as said, to "fulfill the Scriptures." His continued preaching might lead to riot and rebellion. But only the Romans had the power to do to Jesus what was actually done, and so it was under the authority of Pontius Pilate, and at the hands of the Roman Empire, that Jesus "was crucified, died, and was buried."

AT THE TIME of Christ's death, Christianity was still internal to Judaism. The Christian Church itself began not at the Passion, but fifty-three days later on Pentecost, when the apostles left an "upper room" in Jerusalem speaking in tongues. With his preaching Jesus had clearly put a challenge to Judaism, expressly announcing a "new" covenant, whose mandate was to "complete" and "fulfill" the "old" covenant. And there is no doubt that Jesus' death meant a parting of the ways between Christians and Jews. Nonetheless, from a Christian point of view, the life and teachings of Jesus and his new covenant do not remove or destroy the old covenant. God cannot be unfaithful to his promises. Besides, if the Creator is not faithful to his first covenant with the Jews, how can Christians expect Him to be faithful to His new covenant with them?

Thus, Christians hold that Christianity fulfills the hopes launched into the world by Judaism. They also hold that those Jews who reject Christianity remain vessels of God's first love.

[Originally posted: October 5, 2003]

Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:00 AM


So God's Really in the Details? (EMILY EAKIN, May 11, 2002, NY Times)
Economists use probability theory to make forecasts about consumer spending. Actuaries use it to calculate insurance premiums. Last month, Richard Swinburne, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, put it to work toward less mundane ends: he invoked it to defend the belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

"For someone dead for 36 hours to come to life again is, according to the laws of nature, extremely improbable," Mr. Swinburne told an audience of more than 100 philosophers who had convened at Yale University in April for a conference on ethics and belief. "But if there is a God of the traditional kind, natural laws only operate because he makes them operate."

Mr. Swinburne, a commanding figure with snow-white hair and piercing blue eyes, proceeded to weigh evidence for and against the Resurrection, assigning values to factors like the probability that there is a God, the nature of Jesus' behavior during his lifetime and the quality of witness testimony after his death. Then, while his audience followed along on printed lecture notes, he plugged his numbers into a dense thicket of letters and symbols--using a probability formula known as Bayes's theorem--and did the math. "Given e and k, h is true if and only if c is true," he said. "The probability of h given e and k is .97"

In plain English, this means that, by Mr. Swinburne's calculations, the probability of the Resurrection comes out to be a whopping 97 percent.

Well, Ivory Soap still has it beat anyway... [Originally posted: May 13, 2002]
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Posted by Orrin Judd at 12:00 AM


The Return of the Warrior Jesus (DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, 4/04/04, NY Times)

[S]ome scholars who study religion say that the phenomenal popularity of their "Left Behind" series of apocalyptic thrillers - now the best-selling adult novels in the United States - are part of a shift in American culture's image of Jesus. The gentle, pacifist Jesus of the Crucifixion is sharing the spotlight with a more muscular warrior Jesus of the Second Coming, the Lamb making way for the Lion.

Scholars who study religion in American culture say the trend partly reflects the growing clout of evangelical Christians and the relative decline of the liberal mainline Protestant denominations over the last 30 years. The image of a fearsome Jesus who will turn the tables on the unbelieving earthly authorities corresponds to a widespread sense among many conservative Christians that their values are under assault in a culture war with the secular society around them. The shift coincides with a surging interest in Biblical prophecies of the apocalypse around the turn of the millennium, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the two wars with Iraq. And the warlike image of Jesus also fits with President George W. Bush's discussions of a godly purpose behind American military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There are signs of the same shift in Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ," which dealt almost exclusively with the submissive Jesus of the Crucifixion. "When you see him stand up at the end of the movie, he reminds you of Schwarzenegger,'' said Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University and author of "American Jesus," a new cultural history. "I think that movie shows more of a macho Jesus, who, in this case, is brutalized instead of brutalizing."

He added, "I definitely think the pendulum is swinging toward a darker, more martial, macho concept of the Messiah."

Some worry that the turn toward a more warlike Jesus reflects a dangerous tendency to see earthly conflicts in cosmic terms. "I think a lot of people are looking at contemporary conflict around the world and seeing it as a kind of religious war," said Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton. "And there is no kind of conflict that becomes more intractable than when people are convinced that they alone have access to God's truth and the other side are the people of Satan."

But Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, called the warrior Jesus of the "Left Behind" novels a healthy corrective, reminding people that Jesus is judgmental as well as merciful. "The fear of God is a worthy emotion," he said.

He argued that the wrathful Jesus in the book series was an antidote to what he called "the effeminate Jesus" that has sometimes prevailed in the culture. "In our stained-glass windows and our popular culture, Jesus is a kind of marshmallowy, Santa Claus Jesus, which is not at all in keeping with the gospels," he said.

The fight for a manly Jesus has been long-running. At the beginning of the 20th century, some Christian critics railed against what they called "bearded lady'' portraits of Jesus of the Victorian era. But the battle over the manliness of Jesus had settled down by the middle of the 20th century, when the relatively liberal, mainline Protestant denominations were at their apex.

Few liberal Protestants believed in a literal hell or talked much about the Second Coming. Their masculine but soft-spoken image of Jesus was exemplified by the once-ubiquitous portrait "Head of Christ,'' made by Warner Sallman in 1941, which depicted a handsome man looking serenely upward. "It is the classic Mr. Rogers Jesus picture," Professor Prothero said in an interview.

But a less visible subculture of more evangelical Protestants held on to a far sterner, more bellicose image of Jesus that centered on the apocalypse. [...]

The overarching themes in such Biblical interpretation also bear a strong resemblance to contemporary talk of a culture war pitting secular liberals against conservative Christians, said Timothy Weber, president of Memphis Theological Seminary. "The culture war fits into the pre-millennialists' expectation of the end of history - the decline of civilization, the breakdown of morality, a general breakdown of order,'' he said. "The warrior Jesus returns to set everything right again."

One need hardly look to the Apocalypse for the belligerent Christ:

16. "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.

17. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues.

18. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.

19. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak;

20. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.

21. Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death.

22. And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.

23. When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

24. A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.

25. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!

26. Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known.

27. "Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops.

28. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

29. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father's will.

30. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.

31. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

32. "Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven.

33. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.

34. "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.

35. For I have come to 'set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law';

36. And 'a man's enemies will be those of his own household.'

He brought the culture war and had no problem withwaging it Himself.

Easter brings harsh new religious reality (Ted Byfield, 4/11/04, Calgary Sun)

It's a safe bet that, across the U.S., today's Easter services will be better attended than they have been in years.

In fact, even in soft, pampered, easily deluded Canada, the harsh realities that seem to be gradually emerging with the 21st century may have discernible religious consequence .

Those realities are being forced on the western world by terrorists, always in the name of Islam. Apart from the 2,800 killed in the attack on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, we were shown in the next 14 or so months -- 118 killed in a Moscow theatre, 180 killed in a Bali nightclub, more than 200 killed in Nigeria in a protest that followed a planned beauty contest, then a further several hundred killed last month in Spain.

These attacks are working a major change in the western world's view of religion. We had been led to believe by our liberal establishment that all religions were essentially the same -- caring, sharing, in a word "nice."

Well, from the start of the second millennium, we began finding this erroneous. Some are downright nasty. For instance, so-called "fundamentalist Islam," we're told, is teaching its 200 million adherents to hate all things western, and to serve God by killing us.

Now, that's not nice.

This has stirred a considerable interest in Christianity which, it is gradually being discovered, has been fighting this Islamic tendency for about 1,600 years.

But all this terror is provoking, one notes, a remarkable change in Christianity. The "gentle Jesus" of Victorian art, who came in pastel colours, was soft-skinned, and infinitely sweet, is being rapidly retired, a welcome departure since he bears very little resemblance to the alarming figure who appears in the four Christian gospels.

[Originally posted: April 11, 2004]

March 30, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:45 PM


A Sustainable Budget Should Endure Any Storm (N. GREGORY MANKIW, March 30, 2013, NY Times)

[T]he federal government can run budget deficits year after year, racking up ever-higher debt. And, indeed, that is pretty much what it has done throughout history. With the exception of a few years starting in the late 1990s, when the Internet bubble fueled an economic boom, goosed tax revenue and made President Clinton look like a miracle worker, the federal government has run a budget deficit consistently for the last 40 years. The debt that the federal government owes to the public has risen to about $12 trillion, from $341 billion in 1973.

It may be tempting to look at these facts and to conclude that there's no limit to what the federal government can borrow. But that would be a mistake. Even though the credit markets give the government more latitude than they give to ordinary individuals, the government still faces limits. It can borrow for a long time, perhaps even forever, but it can't go nuts about it.

A metric that economists often use to evaluate a government's fiscal position is the ratio of the government debt to the nation's gross domestic product. G.D.P. measures the total income in the economy and thus reflects the government's tax base. The higher the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio, the more a government will struggle to service its outstanding liabilities.

As a nation, the United States was born with a debt-to-G.D.P. ratio of about 42 percent, thanks to loans that were taken out to finance the American Revolution. In fact, throughout the nation's history, the most common cause of increases in the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio has been the expenses associated with military conflict.

The Civil War increased the ratio from 2 percent in 1860 to 34 percent in 1865. World War I increased it from 3 percent in 1914 to 31 percent in 1919. And World War II increased it from 44 percent in 1941 to 109 percent in 1946, the highest level in history.

...we're just now finishing up the Long War at 77% of GDP and we saw during the interval after the Wall fell how quickly we could turn deficits into surpluses.  The question is whether the global economy can withstand a declining US debt.  It seems unlikely.

Posted by orrinj at 2:21 PM


Jordan's king swears in reformist new cabinet  (AP, 3/30/13)

Jordan's royal palace says King Abdullah II has sworn in a new Cabinet led for the first time by a prime minister elected by lawmakers. [...]

The reforms granted parliament the power for the first time to pick a premier. The task was previously the king's prerogative.

Abdullah has vowed a gradual transfer of some of his powers to parliament.

At the End of History only representative government is legitimate.

Posted by orrinj at 10:39 AM


My Week As Robert Moses, With Oil Wells : An architecture critic takes up residence in SimCity. (Justin Davidson, Mar 24, 2013, New York)

SimCity is a mostly nonviolent computer game (if you don't count the occasional ­giant-lizard attack), but at times it feels more savage than the usual gore-splattered fare. It allows the player--or multiple players, spread across the globe--to build communities, block by block, and then run them into the ground. Such a centralized system requires constant attention. When the player gets distracted (or wanders away for a snack), crime can spike, budgets can crumble, and unemployment can go haywire. The pursuit of prosperity is booby-trapped. The slightest misstep is enough to turn your shiny new metropolis into 1968 Newark.

Compared with the last full revision, which came out in 2003, the new SimCity offers a fantastically rich palette of urban measures. Roads snake, climb, and stretch into bridges and causeways. Pollution drifts across valleys. You can have your city specialize in electronics or mining (provided the map shows enough ore). Thanks to the game's perpetual Internet connection, the mayor of a city adjacent to yours might be governing from a laptop in Nebraska or Tashkent. Form a relationship with that person, and you could collaborate on the construction of an "arcology," a towering vertical metropolis on a "great works" site out in the desert.

Yet you are not God. It is the programmers who have shaped the topography, distributed natural resources, and equipped us amateur bureaucrats with all the data, maps, and charts we need to make rational, terrible decisions. It is they who demand growth but box it into tiny borders, who see no value in old buildings, who force people into their cars. Maybe the software makes it possible to cultivate an equitable, sustainable, livable city and keep it flourishing, but I haven't achieved that level of mastery.

SimCity has existed since 1989, long enough to introduce a couple of generations to the enchantments of urban planning. When Electronic Arts released the new version, I plunged in, eager to see what a game could teach about managing a real city. My challenge was to create a passable cyber-simulacrum of New York. Instead, I discovered a strangely addictive, deeply wonky experience, producing cities where I would never want to live. Roads unfurled at my command, towers popped up, water flowed, budgets burbled, and tens of thousands of individually named and ethnically diverse Sims sped around in various states of contentment. The exercise of meaningless power is so enjoyable that at the end of a twelve-hour session, I barely stopped to wonder why I had spent so much of my weekend frantically building sewage plants.

The game is a totalitarian dream. The player-mayor single-handedly scatters parks and runs utilities. There is no Con Ed to blame for service failures, only a Department of Utilities: me. Education policy flows from functionaries lodged in a monstrous, space-consuming building that takes its marching orders from a centralized administration: me.
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Posted by orrinj at 10:24 AM


The Passion of Lew Wallace : The incredible story of how a disgraced Civil War general became one of the best-selling novelists in American history. (John Swansburg, March 26, 2013, Slate)

Lew Wallace was making conversation with the other gentlemen in his sleeper car when a man in a nightgown appeared in the doorway. The train was bound for Indianapolis and the Third National Soldiers Reunion, where thousands of Union Army veterans planned to rally, reminisce, and march in a parade the New York Times would later describe as "the grandest street display ever seen in the United States." It was Sept. 19, 1876, more than a decade since the Civil War had ended. Wallace had grayed a bit, but still wore the sweeping imperial moustache he'd had at the Battle of Shiloh. "Is that you, General Wallace?" the man in the nightgown asked. "Won't you come to my room? I want to talk."

Robert Ingersoll, also a veteran of Shiloh, was now the nation's most prominent atheist, a renowned orator who toured the country challenging religious orthodoxy and championing a healthy separation of church and state. Wallace recognized him from earlier that summer, when he'd heard Ingersoll, a fellow Republican, make a rousing speech at the party's nominating convention. Wallace accepted his invitation and suggested they take up a subject near to Ingersoll's heart: the existence of God.

Ingersoll talked until the train reached its destination. "He went over the whole question of the Bible, of the immortality of the soul, of the divinity of God, and of heaven and hell," Wallace later recalled. "He vomited forth ideas and arguments like an intellectual volcano." The arguments had a powerful effect on Wallace. Departing the train, he walked the pre-dawn streets of Indianapolis alone. In the past he had been indifferent to religion, but after his talk with Ingersoll his ignorance struck him as problematic, "a spot of deeper darkness in the darkness." He resolved to devote himself to a study of theology, "if only for the gratification there might be in having convictions of one kind or another."

But how to go about such a study? Wallace knew himself well enough to predict that a syllabus of sermons and Biblical commentaries would fail to hold his interest. He devised instead what he called "an incidental employment," a task that would compel him to complete a thorough investigation of the eternal questions while entertaining his distractible mind. A few years earlier, he'd published a historical romance about the Spanish conquest of Mexico, to modest success. His idea now was to inquire after the divinity of Christ by writing a novel about him.

It took four years, but in 1880, Wallace finished his incidental employment. He called it Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It's one of the great if little known ironies in the history of American literature: Having set out to win another soul to the side of skepticism, Robert Ingersoll instead inspired a Biblical epic that would rival the actual Bible for influence and popularity in Gilded Age America--and a folk story that has been reborn, in one medium or another, in every generation since.

Every time you hear a Richard Dawkins rage against God it dims your own skepticism.
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Posted by orrinj at 9:20 AM


Why British critics don't get The Book of Mormon (Oliver Burkeman, 3/26/13,

The first strange thing about this difference of opinion: you'd have thought it might have been the other way around. Surely, it's the Brits who'd be belly-laughing at the idea of two deluded Yanks leaving their Salt Lake City comfort zone to impose their preposterous religion on sceptical rural Ugandans? And oughtn't it to be the prudish, super-religious Americans pursing their lips at the show's song-and-dance centrepiece, a parody of The Lion King, with its multiple obscene references about what the embattled Ugandan villagers would like to do to God?

The second curiosity is how much the unimpressed Brits disagree with each other. Is The Book of Mormon conservative, as Billington argues, because it allows that there might be some upsides to religious belief? (The show's missionaries are deluded and emotionally repressed, but by the end, you can't help liking them.) Or does it consist of vicious "liberal ... sneers" against Mormons, as Letts claims? (Mormons themselves disagree, actually, but never mind.)

Letts even trots out that laziest of criticisms, never far away whenever Christians are being satirised:

"If you want to attack a religious group, why not militant Islam?"

Ah, yes: Trey Parker and Matt Stone, dogmatic line-toeing liberals, who'd never risk offending the PC left. Quentin Letts, please take the rest of the week off, and spend it catching up on South Park and Team America: World Police.

But all of this points towards the great value of Parker and Stone's comedy, which elevates "take no prisoners" to the status of an ethical principle. Just as you're getting comfortable laughing at others from the safe haven of your smugness, you look down to find nothing but air. Their special talent is to do this without succumbing to hollow nihilism, thanks mainly to the sincerity with which they appreciate old-fashioned showtunes and scatological humour. You come away from The Book of Mormon - if you're more like me than Letts, anyhow - with the sense that religious people can be ridiculous, but not in ways to which the non-religious are necessarily immune. And that, besides, even ridiculous people can have non-ridiculous qualities; they need not provoke only our monotone disdain.

If you'll allow a vast cultural generalisation from the perspective of a British person living in the United States: comfort with this kind of complexity, I suspect, is something at which Americans are peculiarly good. Perhaps this explains the transatlantic disagreement. You can't really function in America - you can't even turn on the television - without a high tolerance threshold for people with absurd beliefs. Many of them deserve condemnation, of course; this isn't an argument for passively tolerating bigotry. But if you can't countenance the idea that even these people might have some redeeming features as humans, too, you'll find yourself ceaselessly embattled, enraged and exhausted.

That last bit is a perfect description of the modern Left--"embattled, enraged and exhausted."  

Posted by orrinj at 7:51 AM


Hybrid vehicle sales speed up ( Jerry Hirsch, 3/29/13, Los Angeles Times)

When Ferrari's biggest and baddest supercar is a hybrid, you know the world has changed.

Once considered the province of techies and the eco-friendly, hybrids are catching on in almost every vehicle segment.

Hybrid sales were up 32% in the first two months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to research firm Autodata Corp.

That's driven by a combination of trends, including upward-creeping gas prices, a growing track record for reliability and the wider selection of hybrid offerings -- everything from the entry-level Toyota Prius C to the spacious Ford Fusion sedan to the LaFerrari, a 949-horsepower, million-dollar monster.

Posted by orrinj at 7:44 AM


Farewell to The Greatest League Ever (Paul Newberry, 3/30/13, AP)

No matter what, there's no denying what the Big East once was -- and still is for another week or so.

The best in the land.

"I wish we weren't playing each other," said Marquette coach Buzz Williams, whose school will be moving on to the new Big East. "Maybe if we were in different regions, maybe we could both continue to play."

Very shortly, it won't matter. All that will be left are memories, tattered clippings and old TV footage.

Thankfully, Boeheim took a moment to reflect on yesterday during his turn at the podium.

"It's remarkable that you could start a league and it could be good right away, like the Big East was," he said wistfully, remembering some of the early stars such as Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Pearl Washington and Walter Berry. "It has been an unbelievable 34 years. Over that 34-year period, it's been as good as any league. You can easily make that argument."

Boeheim said he understands why it's happening, even though it really has nothing to do with his sport.

"It was almost inevitable that the football schools would need to get with football schools," he said. "I think it will work for the basketball schools now that they're going to get together, and they will have a really good basketball league. I think that's for the best. I think it will work out, and we have a great challenge going to what will be a tremendous basketball league."

Sorry, Jim, we disagree. There's nothing good about breaking up the Big East.

Maybe there will come a day when we'll at least acknowledge that it was all a big mistake, acknowledge how much we've lost. At that point, of course, it will be far too late to do anything about it.

Thanks for nothing.

It was bad enough when they expanded the field (either every Division 1 team should make it or only conference tourney winners), saturated television with games (anyone remember when an indy network had to purchase rights to Sampson v. Ewing?) and players started leaving after a year (Ewing, for one, played 4, though he was NBA ready at 18), but the constant shuffling of conferences was the final straw.

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March 29, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:24 PM


Detroit's Green Leap Forward Pulls In to New York Auto Show (Daniel Gross, Mar 29, 2013, Daily Beast)

Not too long ago, the conversation about fuel-efficient cars was led and conducted almost entirely by foreign companies--hybrids from Toyota, clean-diesel vehicles from Germany, the Nissan Leaf. But that's changed. And this year, American companies in particular seem to be leading with efficiency. The revival of the U.S. auto industry--the recovery of GM and Chrysler from bankruptcy, and Ford's wrenching restructuring--has been one of the great, under-appreciated stories of the last several years. In New York this week, however, the comeback is on full display.

In the GM pavilion, the attractive spokesperson held a group of dealers spellbound as she ran through the virtues of the Cadillac ELR, which in many ways is a more upscale version of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. "It can be an electric car for those who want to drive it as one," she said. The corridor leading to GM-land was lined with small gas sippers; it looked like the lineup at a car-rental stall in Italy. There was the tiny Spark, which arrived last July and retails for $12,995; the subcompact Sonic; and the slightly bigger Cruze, which can get up to 42 miles per gallon.

At GM, small is the new big beautiful. And 30 miles per gallon is the new 20 miles per gallon. The Impala, the boat of my Michigan youth, and the Camaro, the 2013 edition of which was growling loudly in the back of GM's area, both get 30 miles per gallon on the highway. "Most of the car markets are demanding efficiency," said Christie Landy, marketing director at GM for small vehicles like the Spark and Volt. The Volt, which can run for about 30 miles on electricity and has been slow to catch on, has been mocked by critics of GM. But there are 30,000 on the road, and their drivers have collectively driven more than 150 million miles on electricity. More important, notes Landy, "we have the most satisfied buyers in the industry, and we've shared the technology in the Volt with other vehicles." The system that powers the Volt can be found in the Cadillac ELR and in the new Spark EV, an all-electric car that GM will launch in select markets this summer.

Posted by orrinj at 8:21 PM


White House Weighing Entitlement Limits (DAMIAN PALETTA, 3/29/13)

The White House is strongly considering including limits on entitlement benefits in its fiscal 2014 budget--a proposal it first offered Republicans in December. The move would be aimed in part at keeping alive bipartisan talks on a major budget deal.

Such a proposal could include steps that make many Democrats queasy, such as reductions in future Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security payments, but also items resisted by Republicans, such as higher taxes through limits on tax breaks, people close to the White House said.

Posted by orrinj at 8:09 PM


Free Online Courses Mean College Will Never Be the Same (Smithsonian, 3/29/13)

Depending on who you're listening to, Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs, are either the greatest boon to the spread of knowledge since Gutenberg cranked his first press or the biggest threat to learning on campus since the coming of cheap beer.

March 28, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:48 PM


Health Savings Accounts Will Survive ObamaCare -- At Least For Now (Merrill Matthews, 3/28/13, Forbes)

It appears that Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) will slip under the Affordable Care Act's threshold for qualified coverage--although just barely.  And given the fact that HSAs, and similar high deductible health insurance options, are about the only type of health coverage bending down the health care cost curve, they may even thrive. [...]

This is great news for two related reasons.  First, employers have been increasingly shifting to HSAs.  A recent Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health survey found that 66 percent of large companies (1,000 employees or more) offered employees at least one account-based plan option this year, and that number is expected to grow to 80 percent next year.

However, 15 percent of those companies offer only an account-based plan.  Many smaller companies that provide coverage have also been shifting to HSA-type coverage.

The second reason is that HSA plans slow the growth in health care spending.  For example, a 2012 study from the Rand Corporation, a policy research institute, found that families with consumer-directed health coverage, like HSA plans, spent an average of 21 percent less the first year after switching from traditional coverage.  And that if half of those with employer-sponsored coverage were in such plans, health care costs would fall by $57 billion.

That's because HSAs encourage people to be value-conscious shoppers in the health care marketplace, just like they are in every other sector of the economy.

Now use the mandate and make them universal.

Posted by orrinj at 8:44 PM


Did My Taxes Go Up? I Hadn't Noticed. (Daniel Gross Mar 27, 2013, Daily Beast)

On January 1, a new set of allegedly confidence-killing, consumption-destroying, investment-unfriendly taxes hit the economy. The payroll tax rose from 4.2 percent to 6.2 percent on the first $113,700 of income. The top marginal rate rose from 36 percent to 39.6 percent for families with adjusted gross income above $450,000. Taxes on capital gains and dividends for those same top earners rose from 15 percent to 20 percent. Meanwhile, the Affordable Care Act levied an additional 3.8 percent tax on investments, and an additional .9 percent Medicare payroll tax on families with adjusted gross income of more than $250,000.

The notion was that putting these taxes on the rich and middle-class, taxing income and investments, at a time when the economy was going at a painfully slow rate, would cause people to stop spending and investing, go Galt, and send the economy into a recession. To read the Wall Street Journal editorial page, you would have thought Hugo Chávez had been named to succeed Barack Obama.

But three months into this new experiment in extremely mild socialism, it seems like Americans are generally shrugging off the tax increases.

Posted by orrinj at 8:25 PM


U.S. flies stealth bombers over South Korea (AP, 3/28/13)

The U.S military says two nuclear-capable B-2 bombers have completed a training mission in South Korea amid threats from North Korea that include nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul.

Wrong Korea.

Posted by orrinj at 7:42 PM


Will the Chinese Be Supreme? (Ian Johnson, 4/04/13, NY Review of Books)

The most entertaining and provocative is Edward Luttwak's The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, a bold book that flatly predicts that China won't successfully rise as a superpower, indeed that it cannot in its current incarnation. This isn't due to growth rates or debt ratios--Luttwak concedes the force of both with a wave of the hand--but because of what he sees as the iron law of strategy, which he says "applies in perfect equality to every culture in every age."

Luttwak says observers like Subramanian look at China's economic growth and the rate of military spending and, even allowing for recessions or depressions, project into the future the day that China rules the waves. "Yet that must be the least likely of outcomes, because it would collide with the very logic of strategy in a world of diverse states, each jealous of its autonomy."

Luttwak argues that China's growth will cause countries to band together and stymie its rise. Just as nineteenth-century Germany's economic and military growth caused one-time enemies like France and England to ally with each other (and England to swallow its disgust over tsarist Russia's primitive repression of human rights and make friends with it), China's beeline to the top is already causing a reaction, as we see with Japan and the Philippines, not to mention the new welcome being shown to the United States in the region.

Why doesn't China change course? Here is one of Luttwak's most interesting ideas, which he calls "great-state autism"--the failure of powers to break free of ways of acting and behaving. Just as Wilhelminian Germany should surely have seen that building a blue-water navy would cause Britain to form alliances against it, so too should China understand that demanding control over islands far from its shores but close to its neighbors' would cause a backlash. (Here one thinks not so much of the Senkaku/Diaoyus but of the shoals, reefs, and islets in the South China Sea.) Even the battle for the Senkaku/Diaoyus seems to have no satisfactory endgame for China except a permanent state of tension with its most important neighbor.

China's blindered approach to international affairs leads Luttwak to a humorous discussion of many Chinese people's conviction that they are heirs to a tactically clever and sophisticated civilization. The Chinese, Luttwak notes, often assume that foreigners are stupid or naive--certainly not up to the wiles of the people who begat The Art of War. In 2011, Luttwak writes, Wang Qishan, a Chinese official who is a head of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue with the United States (and currently a member of the powerful seven-man Standing Committee of the Politburo), said of Americans and Chinese: "It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilization...[whereas] the American people, they're very simple."

And yet Luttwak points out that these assumptions haven't served China well historically or today. Two of China's last three dynasties were controlled by tiny nomadic groups who outmaneuvered the Chinese, while today the country's tactics have left it surrounded by suspicious and increasingly hostile countries; indeed, it's probably no exaggeration to say that China has no real allies. The reason is that Chinese thinking about diplomacy originated in an era when relations were between Chinese states--the Qin, Chu, Lu, Qi, and the others that populated Sun Tzu's classic work. Almost all were essentially Chinese, facilitating practices like espionage, subversion, and quickly changing sides to cut a quick deal. "Chinese foreign policy evidently presumes that foreign states can be just as practical and opportunistic in their dealings with China."

And yet this repeatedly fails, as Luttwak demonstrates, because other countries emphasize other practices. In 2007, for example, India was to send 107 young elite civil servants to China as part of a goodwill tour. But China refused to grant a visa to one, saying that because he was from a part of India claimed by China, he didn't need a visa. Luttwak sees this as part of China's strategy of manufacturing crises in hopes of obtaining a favorable solution.

Likewise in 2010, China responded to the arrest of a Chinese fishing captain who had violated Japanese territorial waters by issuing inflammatory statements, arresting Japanese businessmen, and effectively suspending rare earth shipments to Japan. Then it did an about-face and sought to make a deal with Japan. But the Japanese were shocked and frightened by China's actions and this led directly to the 2012 crisis, with an emboldened nationalist governor of Tokyo threatening to buy the lands claimed by China and assert Japanese sovereignty, which forced the national government to step in to buy the land. This purchase was then the basis for Beijing permitting yet more protests against Japan last autumn that lasted the requisite week before being shut down.

This sounds like bad leadership but Luttwak says that even Bismarck couldn't fix China's problem. All rising powers cause a reaction, he says, and rarely gain hegemony unless they create or take advantage of a historic turning point, such as a war. The United States used Japan's defeat and the decline of Britain and France after World War II to move decisively into the Pacific. Even so, the United States didn't enter the region making loud demands for territory but as a donor of economic aid. This helped soften America's rise in the Pacific, even though it was still accompanied by much bitterness--consider how it lost its air and sea bases in the Philippines. By contrast, China is already seen as a predator and has achieved almost nothing.

If accurate, Luttwak's theory means Americans don't have to worry too much. China will essentially self-destruct, at least diplomatically. And the list of problems facing China make it seem that this could well be happening right now. [...]

Luttwak doesn't rule out China's ability to change but puts it another way: only by changing in a way that it has so far resisted, can China rise:

Only a fully democratic China could advance unimpeded to global hegemony, but then the governments of a full democratic China would undoubtedly seek to pursue quite other aims.

Posted by orrinj at 7:24 PM


Moral Imagination and the Fate of the World (ROBERT WRIGHT, AUG 22 2012, The Atlantic)

I call this particular form of perspective taking--seeing things as they're seen from the perspective of someone in circumstances very different from your own, particularly someone on the other side of some cultural, national, or ethnic divide--"moral imagination." (That term has been defined various other ways by various other people, though no definition seems to have stuck).

There are several reasons I think the word "moral" is appropriate here, but for now I'll just mention one. I'm a utilitarian, more or less, which means I believe that, all other things being equal, that which increases overall human welfare is morally good. And what I'm calling moral imagination tends to increase human welfare.

That's because when two parties see things from each other's perspective, it's easier for them to successfully play non-zero-sum games--that is, games that don't necessarily have a win-lose outcome, but can have win-win or lose-lose outcomes, depending on how they're played. And the more successfully non-zero-sum games are played--the more win-win outcomes there are--the more human welfare will increase.

The Eurozone crisis is a good example of a non-zero-sum game. The various members of the union are to a large extent in the same boat: their future fortunes are to some degree positively correlated, and you can imagine scenarios where they all win and scenarios where they all lose.

Of course, the Eurozone crisis is far from the only non-zero-sum game in the headlines. There's Israel-Palestine, Iran-and-the-West, etc. In all such cases you can imagine outcomes that would be bad for both sides, and you can imagine alternatives that would be much better for both sides. And the latter, the win-win outcomes, are, I contend, easier to reach if moral imagination is exercised robustly.

But again--and this is the good news--that doesn't mean we need to see a lot of deep interethnic or international bonding. It isn't necessary for Israelis and Palestinians to get misty-eyed when they imagine each other's suffering (though that might help). What's necessary is that they understand the naturalness and reasonableness of, say, the Palestinian quest for dignity on the one hand, or Israeli fears about security on the other. They just need to understand, intellectually, that if they were in the shoes of that person on the other side of the fence, they would see the world much as the person does, and would behave accordingly, however jarring some of this behavior might seem to an outsider. I'm not saying this is easy, or that it involves no emotional work. But it's easier than loving someone you've thought of as an enemy for decades.

I heard a peculiar sentiment at a peculiar time recently: at our Seder someone said that the liberation of Iraq hadn't been worth a single life.  Such pacifism/isolationism is morally blind at the best of times, but when you're celebrating the massive slaughter that freed your own people it's especially jarring.

Posted by orrinj at 7:11 PM


The Red-State Path to Prosperity (ARTHUR B. LAFFER AND STEPHEN MOORE, 3/28/13, WSJ)

Red states in the Southeast and Sunbelt are following the Reagan model by reducing tax rates and easing regulations. They also offer right-to-work laws as an enticement for businesses to come and set up shop. Meanwhile, the blue states of the Northeast, joined by California, Minnesota and Illinois, are implementing the Obama model of raising taxes on businesses and the wealthy to fund government "investments" and union power.

The contrast sets up a wonderful natural laboratory to test rival economic ideas.

Consider the South. We predict that within a decade five or six states in Dixie could entirely eliminate their income taxes. This would mean that the region stretching from Florida through Texas and Louisiana could become a vast state income-tax free zone.

Three of these states--Florida, Texas and Tennessee--already impose no income tax. Louisiana and North Carolina, both with bold Republican governors and legislatures, are moving quickly ahead with plans to eliminate theirs. Just to the west, Kansas and Oklahoma are also devising plans to replace their income taxes with more growth-friendly expanded sales taxes and energy extraction taxes. Utah, while not a Southern state, leads the tax-cutting pack under Republican Gov. Gary Herbert.

Much of this is the result of GOP victories in the 2010 and 2012 elections. Today 10 of the 12 governors in the Southern states are Republican, and in nine of those states the Republicans control both chambers of the legislature.

Posted by orrinj at 7:08 PM


MyJihad: Just a Spiritual Journey? (Amitai Etzioni,  03/28/2013, Huffington Post)

The ads that recently appeared to the sides of buses in several American major cities declare: "#MyJihad is to march on despite losing my son," "#MyJihad: Modesty is not a weakness," "#MyJihad is to build bridges through friendship," and "#MyJihad is to not take the simple things in life for granted." The ads are part of a public education campaign sponsored by the Chicago Council of American-Islamic Relations. They remind me of a noble moment during President George W. Bush's presidency when, on Sept 17, 2001, while the ruins of the Twin Towers were still billowing smoke and many of the bodies had not yet been pulled out, he stated that, "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace." It was a magnanimous and even courageous statement to make -- although not a particularly accurate one.

Those behind the #MyJihad campaign argue that the term "jihad," which is defined as "struggling in the way of God," has been misrepresented by extreme Islamists and Islamophobes alike. Countering common associations of jihad with violence, terrorism, and religious extremism, the #MyJihad campaign presents jihad as, "a concerted and noble effort against injustice, hate, misunderstanding, war, violence, poverty, hunger, abuse or whatever challenge big or small we face in daily life, with the purpose of getting to a better place."

Actually, an intensive study of Muslim texts and preaching that we conducted leaves little doubt that Jihad can be understood in two different ways. For some, jihad is a holy war waged against the infidels while others see it as a spiritual struggle for moral self-improvement. Regarding the former, textual support can be found in Quranic verses urging Muslims to "Slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them," (9:5) or the Hadith's statement that "the Messenger of Allah declared: I have been directed to fight against people so long as they do not say: There is no god but Allah."

A rather different interpretation of jihad, associated with the Sufis, is that it refers primarily to the internal spiritual struggle against immorality rather than an outward battle against one's enemies. Thus, Sufis attribute to Muhammad the statement "The greater jihad is the struggle against the self." And as the twelfth-century Sufi master Abd al-Qdier al-Jilani explained, "[There are] two types of jihad: the outer and the inner. The inner is the jihad of the soul, the passion, the nature, and Satan. The outer is the jihad of the infidels who resist Him and His Messenger." When a pollster asked 10,004 adults in predominantly Muslim countries "what jihad means to you," he found that the majority of responses spoke of jihad as a "duty toward God," a "divine duty," or a "worship of god" -- "with no explicit militaristic connotation at all."

Posted by orrinj at 7:05 PM


Immigrants to EU countries less likely to live on benefits (Patrick Wintour, 3/28/13, The Guardian)

Immigrants to the European Union are, for the most part, less likely to live on welfare than the native population, according to academic research due to be published which challenges the idea that benefits are a "pull factor" for migration.

The study, Unemployment Benefits and Immigration: Evidence from the EU, says there is no correlation between levels of unemployment benefit and immigration. It is based on figures from 18 EU countries plus Switzerland and is due to be published in the International Journal of Manpower. It covers the years between 1999 and 2007.

All three main British party leaders have accepted the need to control migrants' access to public services, including benefits, arguing that generous benefits in the UK act as a draw for some migrants.

But the study finds rates of people receiving benefits are statistically higher for non-EU migrants in just seven countries and in none of them if only unemployment benefit is taken into account. The findings suggest that the causal effect between social welfare spending and immigration is statistically insignificant; in other words, there is no evidence of a "welfare magnet".

Posted by orrinj at 6:58 PM


Want to Help People? Just Give Them Money (Jacquelline Fuller, March 28, 2013. Harvard Business Review)

Paul and Michael started GiveDirectly in 2008 while pursuing advanced degrees in economics at Harvard. Their graduate research had uncovered multiple reports demonstrating the effectiveness of cash transfers as a model to alleviate poverty. They wanted to donate, but couldn't find a single nonprofit using this approach, so they created their own.

Today, GiveDirectly remains the first and only nonprofit devoted to unconditional cash transfers directly to the impoverished. Their lean model uses mobile-based banking technology from M-Pesa to transfer 90% of the money raised into the hands of the poor. Just 10% is spent on transfer fees and the cost of locating and enrolling recipients.

Since launching in Kenya, GiveDirectly continues to evaluate its approach with randomized control trials. They use a lottery system similar to medical trials and compare developmental outcomes of households who have received funding against those who haven't. Their rigorous data shows that no-strings-attached cash transfers improve health and downstream financial gains. They also use this data to refine their model, and make it available on their website.

Recipients, who are often living on less than 65 cents a day, invest in everything from food for starving children to long-term assets, including land, livestock and housing. The data fights conventional wisdom: Money spent on alcohol and cigarettes either decreases, stays constant or increases in the same proportion as total other expenses (approximately 2% to 3%).

Paul and Michael shared all of this data with us last fall and left us convinced. In December 2012, we provided GiveDirectly with $2.4 million to scale to multiple countries and test the model's effectiveness across geographies.

Investments in common goods such as roads, schools and wells are critical in helping people out of poverty. But GiveDirectly has a new concept: What if cash transfers are used as a standard benchmark against which to measure all development aid? What if every nonprofit that focused on poverty alleviation had to prove they could do more for the poor with a dollar than the poor could do for themselves?

March 27, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:28 PM


A sensitive matter (The Economist, Mar 30th 2013)

OVER the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth's surface have been flat while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar. The world added roughly 100 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere between 2000 and 2010. That is about a quarter of all the CO₂ put there by humanity since 1750. And yet, as James Hansen, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, observes, "the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade."

Temperatures fluctuate over short periods, but this lack of new warming is a surprise. Ed Hawkins, of the University of Reading, in Britain, points out that surface temperatures since 2005 are already at the low end of the range of projections derived from 20 climate models. If they remain flat, they will fall outside the models' range within a few years.

Posted by orrinj at 9:09 PM


The Perfect Parking Garage: No Drivers Required (Will Knight on March 27, 2013, tECHNOLOGY rEVIEW)

Drivers who use a parking garage in Ingolstadt, Germany, could be forgiven for thinking they've died and gone to commuter heaven. They can pull up outside, step out of their car, and let it drive into the garage to find a parking spot for itself. Later, they simply press a button on a smartphone app and their car will obediently return to the garage entrance.

The garage is an experimental project run by the German carmaker Audi; outfitted with numerous laser systems that map the environment in 3-D, it allows specially outfitted cars equipped with radar and wireless receivers to snake their way up through the garage while navigating past other cars, sense an open spot, pull in, and shut off the motor--potentially shaving minutes off a person's daily commute.

It will likely take a decade to perfect and implement the technology. But the project demonstrates how fully autonomous driving may one day be possible. Vehicle autonomy is advancing at remarkable speed, and it promises to make driving safer, easier, and considerably less annoying, but will appear first in very controlled contexts such as the closed environment of a parking garage.

Posted by orrinj at 8:50 PM


Aung San Suu Kyi surprise spectator at Burma Armed Forces Day parade (Kate Hodal, 3/27/13, The Guardian)

Helicopters buzzed overhead, tanks thundered past, and fighter jets snaked into the sky during Burma's annual Armed Forces Day celebration on Wednesday, where one very unexpected guest sat watching all the pomp and ceremony from a front-row seat: opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Once an ardent critic of Burma's military and its heavy-handed role in politics, Aung San Suu Kyi sat amid many of the same generals who had kept her under house arrest for nearly 20 years, and watched with them as military jeeps rolled by.

Posted by orrinj at 8:10 PM


The American Revival Is Underway (RICK NEWMAN, March 27, 2013, US NEWS)

In the United States by contrast, regulators have been more aggressive about unearthing problems at banks, which is why the U.S. financial system is generally stable less than five years after it nearly collapsed. And the U.S. economy is growing faster than expected. Forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers, for instance, recently raised its estimate of first-quarter GDP growth from 2.3 percent to a healthy 3.2 percent.

The U.S. economy has outperformed Japan's for a long time, and that will probably continue to be the case. Japan's central bank seems to be undertaking new efforts to defibrillate the stagnant Japanese economy, which may help. But it's five years behind the U.S. Federal Reserve, whose aggressive easy-money policies are now helping boost home and car sales, while also pushing stock prices higher.

Many Americans believe China's economy is the world's most powerful, even though China's GDP per capita is still less than one-fifth that of the United States. China is growing rapidly, of course, yet it remains a corrupt nation with choking pollution, inefficient state-run conglomerates and a legal system so fishy that thousands of dead pigs can show up in a major river outside of Shanghai and nobody can figure out why. Despite its industrial prowess, China is still a long way from being a modern, first-rate information economy.

America's standing has dropped noticeably in rankings such as the World Economic Forum's global competitiveness index, in which the United States has fallen from first to seventh since 2008. But the reasons for that decline may be reversing themselves. The biggest U.S. weakness in the latest WEF survey was its macroeconomic environment. That is clearly improving, with the financial meltdown of 2008 and subsequent recession finally generating reforms such as tougher banking regulations and a sharp reduction in private-sector debt that will make the U.S. economy stronger in the long run.

Posted by orrinj at 7:39 PM


Reid faces dilemma over Dem defections after close budget vote (Russell Berman, 03/27/13, The Hill)

While Reid (D-Nev.) will need Republican votes to achieve the 60-vote threshold that has become the standard for major legislation, the vote on the budget, which required only a simple majority, shows that keeping his own party in line is not a foregone conclusion.

The 50-49 vote on the budget could spell the most trouble for gun control legislation, which is next on the Senate docket.

Democrats have struggled to unify behind gun legislation, and budget defectors Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Baucus all hail from states where restrictions on firearms are unpopular. 

Posted by orrinj at 7:35 PM


Bad at Their Jobs, and Loving It (Lauren Weber, 3/27/13, WSJ)

A new study finds that, in 42% of companies, low performers actually report being more engaged - more motivated and more likely to enjoy working at their organization, for example - than middle and high performers do.

The findings suggest many organizations are not holding employees accountable for their work, allowing the worst workers to skate by, says Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ, the Atlanta-based consulting firm that conducted the survey.

"Low performers often end up with the easiest jobs because managers don't ask much of them," he said, so they're under less stress and they're more satisfied with their daily work lives.

Meanwhile, dedicated and conscientious workers end up staying at the office late, correcting the work of the low performers, and making sure clients or customers are satisfied.

Of course, the top performers' jobs are easy enough that they can do the "work" of two or three people.

Posted by orrinj at 7:03 PM


Why I'm leaving China (Marc van der Chijs, March 26, 2013, CNN Money)

Over the years, doing business had become more and more difficult for a non-Chinese. Although many areas have opened up for foreign investment, outsiders are not always able to do business on equal terms with Chinese entrepreneurs.

For example, foreigners need more capital to set up a business. Once you have a business up and running, it will be more closely scrutinized than Chinese firms. There are still tons of business opportunities available in China, but I generally felt less welcome in recent years as a foreign entrepreneur.

Much more important than this, however, was the fact that air pollution and food quality were getting worse in my adopted home.

I have a family with two young kids, and found myself wondering about the health effects of long-term exposure to hazardous air. Without children, the pollution may not have been as important a factor to me, but I want my kids to grow up in a healthy environment. I also missed being able to exercise outside, having been forced to run indoors on a treadmill for several years -- even while training for marathons.

I also won't miss China's slow and restricted access to the Internet. Because I traveled internationally at least twice a month, I was able to see how fast connection speeds were in other countries, and it frustrated me every time I came back to China and the Great Firewall. The fact that more and more sites were censored and only accessible with a Virtual Private Network didn't make life easier either. When the government also started to block VPNs, I realized that the situation was not likely to improve anytime soon.

After looking at many places, my family eventually decided that Vancouver would be our preferred place to live.

Posted by orrinj at 6:54 PM


A least-worst tax : A levy on carbon is an idea whose time has come (Financial Times, 3/15/13)

One of the few uncontroversial conclusions of economics is that it is better to tax "bads" than "goods". Wages and profits are desirable objectives, and governments have no good excuse for obstructing them. They are taxed largely for reasons of convenience, at the cost of disincentives to wage-earning and profitmaking that are a drag on the economy.

Energy consumption, on the other hand, is not an objective for anyone. Indeed, the negative externalities of energy use, including local pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, mean that, other things being equal, an economy that burns less fuel is better off.

That insight lies behind support from across the political spectrum for a tax linked to the carbon content of fossil fuels, generating revenue that could be recycled through cuts in other taxes. 
Four leading Democrats in Congress this month proposed such a tax, and asked for suggestions for how it could be implemented. On the Republican side, a carbon tax has been backed by several prominent figures, most notably Greg Mankiw of Harvard, a former economic adviser to George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. [...]

While the adjustment to higher energy costs would have some negative impact, it would be offset by the benefits of cuts in other taxes. Curbing consumption would also improve energy security, making the economy less vulnerable to commodity price shocks. President Barack Obama on Friday set out an energy agenda including reduced oil imports, greater use of natural gas and increased energy efficiency. A carbon tax would help meet all of those goals.

Posted by orrinj at 6:51 PM


Bad roads cost California drivers $13.9 billion annually, report says ( Ronald D. White, March 25, 2013, LA Times)

The woeful condition of California's road surfaces is costing drivers $13.9 billion a year in repairs and operating costs, according to a new report by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). [...]

Barrineau said that the $13.9 billion represented what the state's drivers were paying for repairs and operation costs that they would not have incurred if they were driving on roads in good condition.

The cost works out to an average of $586 per driver, the report said.

Posted by orrinj at 6:42 PM


...which is: why would you report it if you're married? Isn't half a million dollars worth it to keep your wife from knowing?

March 26, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:14 PM

Robert Cray On Mountain Stage (NPR, March 25, 2013)

Mountain Stage kicks off its 29th season with the Robert Cray Band at the Culture Center Theater in Charleston, W.Va. Unlike some American blues guitarists of his generation, Cray found his way to his instrument through The Beatles.

After legendary bluesman Albert Collins played Cray's high school graduation, the young musician's fate was sealed. It wasn't long before Cray was in Collins' backing band.

Cray's own recordings helped fuel the '80s blues revival, earning him five Grammy Awards and solidifying his position at festivals around the world.

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Posted by orrinj at 9:12 PM


Why are the French drinking less wine? (Hugh Schofield, 3/25/13, BBC News)

Recent figures merely confirm what has been observed for years, that the number of regular drinkers of wine in France is in freefall.

In 1980 more than half of adults were consuming wine on a near-daily basis. Today that figure has fallen to 17%.

Meanwhile, the proportion of French people who never drink wine at all has doubled to 38%.

In 1965, the amount of wine consumed per head of population was 160 litres a year. In 2010 that had fallen to 57 litres, and will most likely dip to no more than 30 litres in the years ahead.

At dinner, wine is the third most popular drink after tap and bottled water. Sodas and fruit juices are catching up fast and are now just a short way behind.

Posted by orrinj at 8:56 PM


National Digest: N.D. limits abortions; Ind. upholds school voucher program (Associated Press, March 26, 2003)

Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R) signed legislation Tuesday that would make North Dakota the nation's most restrictive state on abortion rights, banning the procedure if a fetal heartbeat can be detected -- something that can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy.

School vouchers give choice, court rules 

The Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the law creating the nation's broadest school voucher program, clearing the way for a possible expansion.

In a unanimous vote, the five justices rejected claims that the law primarily benefited religious institutions that run private schools and accepted arguments that it gave families choice and allowed parents to determine where the money went.

Posted by orrinj at 6:20 PM


Bill Bradley Goes Right (ALLYSIA FINLEY, 3/26/13, WSJ)

Mr. Bradley, who now advises the investment firm Dimensional Fund Advisors, visited Topeka last week to promote defined contribution plans for government workers. "This is an innovation that is desperately needed in the pension area," the Democrat told a senate committee. "Your choice is: Do we really try to innovate here and in this case make Kansas really the cutting edge?"

Mr. Bradley was taking on public unions that groused that 401(k)-style plans transfer investment risk to workers. They also complained that moving new employees to defined contributions, as Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed, wouldn't reduce the state's $9 billion unfunded liability. That's true as far as it goes, but the switch would take taxpayers off the hook for untold billions in liabilities for future workers.

March 25, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:25 PM


Platonic Form : What makes the seder night different? Its Greek roots. (Judith Shulevitz, March 25, 2010, The Tablet)

There's a reason the haggadah feels goyish: Formally speaking, it's Greek. It's a Judaicized version of a Greek genre called "symposium literature." You've read other examples in philosophy class. Plato loved the form. So did his fellow student of Socrates, Xenophon. The symposium enshrined the most appealing traits of the Hellenic personality: conviviality, Epicureanism, a love of good conversation.

Symposia came in many flavors. Some featured communal singing; some began with prayer. But all revolved around table talk, freewheeling discussions of everything from the origins of the world to the peculiarities of different kinds of fish, meat, and  vegetables. These conversations were recorded (or made up), says the Greek historian Plutarch, to further "a deeper insight into those points that were debated at table." For, he continued, "the remembrance of those pleasures which arise from meat and drink is ungenteel and short-lived ... but the subjects of philosophical queries and discussions remain always fresh after they have been imparted."

Posted by orrinj at 9:20 PM


The King of the Accidental Phone Call (BRIAN COSTA, 3/24/13, WSJ)

Like most butt dials, the ones from Horwitz's phone are caused when it shifts in the pocket of his pants. It usually happens when he's walking or sitting. For whatever reason, he refuses to lock his BlackBerry.

As one of Major League Baseball's longest-tenured employees--he has been on the job since 1980--Horwitz also has a massive contacts list. He estimates there are more than 1,000 numbers stored in his phone. How this happens is a mystery to him, but more often than not, the people he butt-dials are the ones he rarely, if ever, intentionally calls.

"It's so strange because there is no rhyme or reason to who gets called," said outfielder Mike Baxter, the recipient of a 4 a.m. Horwitz butt dial last winter. "He just calls random people."

Even when they're on the field, players aren't safe from the butt dialer. First baseman Ike Davis said he's received more than 100 butt dials from Horwitz, but none confused him more than the one he received during a game.

"When I got back to my locker, I checked my phone and the missed call was from 8:10 p.m.," Davis said. "I'm like, why would he call me at that time? I'm at first base. He sees me at first base."

Players try to seek refuge during the off-season, but the butt dialer finds them. Ex-Met Jason Bay learned that the hard way a few winters ago. "I called him back right away and said, 'What's going on?'" Bay said. "He said, 'What do you mean what's going on?'"

Players have tried fleeing to other teams, but wherever they go, the butt dialer follows them. Ramon Ramirez, a forgettable Mets relief pitcher in 2012, was in spring training with the San Francisco Giants last month when the butt dialer struck.

"I was like, 'Who is this?'" Ramirez said. "I called back, but he didn't answer." A month later, Ramirez is still perplexed by the whole episode. "I don't know why he was calling me."

Posted by orrinj at 9:14 PM


The 'Skills Gap' Myth (Roger Bybee, March 25, 2013, The Progressive)

In stunning contrast to the calls of corporate, political and media elites for a better-educated workforce, forecasts of future needs show an increased demand in occupations that require a high school degree or less. No less than 22 of the 25 jobs projected by the Wisconsin Dept. of Workforce Development as providing the largest number of job openings between 2010-2020 require only a high school degree or less.

This grim picture suggests that we will continue to see mostly low-pay, low-benefit jobs being created, like the majority of those we have witnessed since 2010.

In this context, the "skills gap" myth plays a vital role in taking the spotlight off corporate decisions and pro-corporate government policies, Levine writes: "There's a strong ideological component behind the skills gap trope: it diverts attention (and policies) from the deep inequalities and market fundamentalism that created the unemployment crisis, and focuses on a fake skills gap that had nothing to do with the surge in unemployment since 2007.

The "skills gap" narrative, says Levine, diverts public discourse away from "such inconvenient questions as 1) why corporate profits are at record levels while unemployment remains high and wages stagnant; 2) Why U.S. manufacturers invested in less domestic capacity than competitors over the last decade, and 3) How offshoring and other management strategies have devastated the employment base of cities like Milwaukee, and how Wisconsin employment is especially at risk from trade with China and Mexico."

First we made jobs so easy that women could do them, then so easy that the Third World could do them, now so easy that machines can.  The result is that we have an overemployment crisis.
Posted by orrinj at 9:06 PM


Grand Old Opportunity (Yuval Levin, April 1 - April 8, 2013, Weekly Standard)

The sectors of the private economy most dominated by government--education and health care--are burdened by outdated institutions and irrational economic arrangements. Modernizing both (by breaking union monopolies, deflating the higher-education bubble, and using competition to drive higher-value health care and reduce entitlement costs) would help train tomorrow's workers and avoid crushing them with both public and private debt, and it would help save the safety net for the vulnerable from fiscal collapse. Meanwhile, the sector with the most potential for fueling a near-term boom--energy--is being held back by an administration uncomfortable with newly discovered domestic fossil-fuel reserves.

Reforms in other key areas are also badly needed. A simpler, leaner tax code would reduce the government's drag on the economy and could allow us to focus tax relief on lower-middle-class families struggling under the payroll tax. Monetary policy focused on steady nominal growth could power a real recovery. And reinforcing the work of civil-society institutions to strengthen families and communities could help restrain the disastrous social trends that undermine mobility and hold back the poor.

The political and economic appeal of lower health care, education, energy, and tax bills should be obvious, and the moral force of saving the safety net and combating the collapse of poor families and communities is plain. Yet amazingly, neither party has seriously offered such an agenda. 

Whether it's Jeb or not, the next nominee will sound just like W.
Posted by orrinj at 9:01 PM


Sitting on too much money, Norway risks going off course (Balazs Koranyi and Victoria Klesty, Mar 24, 2013, Reuters) 

Middle East-style oil wealth combined with a generous Nordic welfare model is slowly throttling big chunks of Norway's economy, threatening western Europe's biggest success story.

On the surface, Norway is the envy of the world: growth is strong, per capita GDP has exceeded $100,000 and the nation sits on a $700 billion rainy day cash reserve, or $140,000 per man, woman and child.

But it may just be too much money as Norwegians, more keen on leisure and family life are working less and less. [...]
Wage costs are up 63 percent since 2000, about six times more than in Germany or Sweden, while the employment rate, adjusted for part time work, is 61 percent, below rates anywhere in the Nordics and even below Greece, the central bank says.

Still, unemployment is a barely visible 3 percent as more prefer part time work. [...]

With a budget surplus worth 12 percent of GDP, Norway can afford just about anything now but unless it scales down benefits like neighbor Sweden did in the 1990s, that surplus will melt away.

They particularly need to give the young their money up front so that their savings mean they wont have to--nor be able to--tap into welfare later.

Posted by orrinj at 8:10 PM


The 'Science' of Same-Sex Marriage (Andrew Ferguson, April 1 - April 8, 2013, Weekly Standard)

It is the aim of Kass and Mansfield to wave the Supreme Court away from "scientific findings" that are produced by culture warriors, as the findings in the field of "gay studies" nearly always are. "The social and behavioral sciences," they write, "have a long history of being shaped and driven by politics and ideology." They note pointedly that two generations ago, the "scientific consensus," as represented by the American Psychiatric Association, was that homosexuality was a "mental disorder." The consensus was publicly reversed in 1973, and science, to paraphrase Mae West, had nothing to do with it: Both positions, before and after, were determined by political and cultural considerations. 

Now, of course, the American Psychological Association, which waited until 1975 to "depathologize" homosexuality, tries to lend its shaky intellectual credibility to the cause of gay marriage in general and gay parenting in particular. In 2005, it issued a bull declaring the "no difference" finding a matter of settled science. Kass and Mansfield point to a recent paper by Loren Marks of LSU, who had the temerity (and professional death wish) to go back and actually read the 59 studies the APA cited in its decree. They were shot through with conceptual and methodological flaws: small, nonrandom "convenience" samples, a recurring lack of control groups, shifting and poorly defined outcomes, and a steady pattern of comparing apples to oranges--for example, placing the children of intact, well-to-do lesbian households up against children reared by single heterosexual parents. 

In all aspects of gay marriage, Kass and Mansfield write, the "body of research .  .  . is radically inconclusive." There's good reason for this, aside from the suspect motives and methods of the researchers themselves. Same-sex marriage and child rearing by self-defined same-sex couples are recent innovations. Whatever effects may flow from these unprecedented arrangements, good or bad or neutral, they are scientifically unknowable until gay marriage and child rearing are widespread enough to yield large samples that can be studied according to a rigorous methodology. "Large amounts of data collected over decades," write Kass and Mansfield, "would be required before any responsible researcher could make meaningful scientific estimates of the effects." And on these issues disinterested researchers are hard to come by.

...and it's all negative.  The notion that the state should sanction such destructive and self-destructive behavior is bizarre.  Pretending that such behavior amounts to acts of love is even stranger.

Posted by orrinj at 8:07 PM


For repo men, economic recovery is a blow to business (Andrew Welsch, 3/25/13, CNNMoney)

Repossession specialists, better known as "repo men," are suffering a nationwide decline in business. There were about 1.3 million auto repossessions in 2012, down from 1.9 million at the height of the recession in 2009, according to Tom Webb, chief economist for Manheim Auctions. Data from Experian Automotive shows a one-third drop in repossessions over the same time period.

As the economy recovers, more Americans have been able to keep up with their car payments. The percentage of Americans more than 90 days late on a car loan declined to 4% in the fourth quarter of 2012, down from 5.3% in the fourth quarter of 2010, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

For those in the repossession business, those are grim statistics.

Posted by orrinj at 7:54 PM


Government Payrolls Are Facing New Pressures (Sudeep Reddy, 3/24/13, WSJ)

Governments bled hundreds of thousands of jobs after the U.S. economic recovery started. Now they're preparing to pass the knife around again as the federal budget comes under pressure.

The cuts in the public-sector workforce--at the federal, state and local levels--marked the deepest retrenchment in government employment of civilians since just after World War II. About 21.8 million civilians were directly employed by a government in the U.S. in February, accounting for roughly one out of every six nonfarm payroll jobs, according to the Labor Department. That is down by about 740,000 jobs since the recession ended in June 2009. At the same time, the private sector has added more than 5.2 million jobs over the course of the recovery.

Posted by orrinj at 7:52 PM


Why such a fuss about extinction? (David Shukman, 3/24/13, BBC)

[T]aking a long view, extinction has been part of the natural order of things throughout Earth's history.

The most famous mass wipe-out was the loss of the dinosaurs. And four other great die-offs have been identified - one of them killing off something like 90% of species.

But there is so-called "background" extinction as well - species fading out year by year, creatures quietly losing out to others and disappearing. These losses might not be spectacular - in fact, they're routine.

The result is that the average species only lasts a few million years. Mammals do worst, surviving between one and two million years. Clams do better at five to seven million.

A few hardy survivors - the leatherback turtle is a prime example of a sturdy design - cling on for tens of millions of years.

But the blunt truth is that the living world is a restless, churning enterprise in which nothing endures forever. Astonishingly, almost every life form that has ever existed on the planet has died out.

It is worth pausing to absorb what that means. Something like 90% - or even 99%, according to some estimates - of every kind of sea creature or land animal or insect or plant that enjoyed a spell on Earth then vanished into oblivion.

Posted by orrinj at 7:21 PM


States Build Cash Reserves, Raising Rainy-Day Debate (JOSH MITCHELL, 3/24/13, WSJ)

Marking a milestone in the economy's recovery, states are now collectively boosting their cash reserves to the highest levels since 2008, giving lawmakers the rare luxury of arguing over how to use the cash.

During the recession and subsequent years of sluggish growth, state governments raided their so-called rainy-day funds and slashed spending deeply to plug budget gaps caused by falling tax receipts.

Now, with revenue rebounding along with housing values and employment, most states are breaking even or running small surpluses.

Posted by orrinj at 7:15 PM


Google was worth 1,838,389 workers in 1998, maybe Ethan Herdrick)

What is an innovation worth? I'm not asking how much money it makes, because that's just part of it. To take an extreme example, if you give an invention away to the public it can still provide value to people, it's just that you're not getting any of it, or no more than anyone else. But the cash value of the uncaptured part is notoriously hard to quantify. How about a different approach?

Human labor has always been a fundamental good. And lots of new technologies have been called "labor saving devices". If we can figure out a way to calculate an innovation's equivalent in human work, we'd have a measure that works across history, even prehistory. [...]

 On the day Google launched they were providing, free of charge and with less than 1/120th the latency, what you'd need 1,838,389 smart workers to do the day before.

Posted by orrinj at 7:13 PM


Too much choice leads to riskier decisions, new study finds (EurekAlert, 3/25/13)

The more choices people have, the riskier the decisions they make, according to a new study which sheds light on how we behave when faced with large amounts of information.

Researchers at the University of Warwick and the University of Lugano set up a gambling game in which they analysed how decision-making is affected when people are faced with a large number of potential gambles. They found that a bias in the way people gather information leads them to take more risks when they choose a gamble from a large set of options, a phenomenon which researchers have labelled 'search-amplified risk'.

This means that, when faced with a large number of choices - each having outcomes associated with different probabilities of occurring - people are more likely to overestimate the probabilities of some of the rarest events.

The study, published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, found that with large choice sets, people took riskier gambles based on a flawed perception that there was a higher probability of 'winning big' - but in reality they more often went away empty-handed.

Dr Thomas Hills of the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick said: "It's not that people just give up and make random decisions when faced with a large number of options.

"They are making rational decisions, but these decisions are based on faulty information gathering.

"The problem is with the information search strategies people use when faced with a large number of options.

"People search more when they have many choices, increasing the likelihood that they will encounter rare, risky events.

"The problem is that they don't sample any given choice enough to understand its underlying probabilities. This leaves the rare events sticking out like sore thumbs.

"As a consequence, people choose these riskier gambles more often."

Posted by orrinj at 7:08 PM


The New Industrial Revolution : A coming wave of robots could redefine our jobs. Will that redefine us? (Jeffrey R. Young, 3/25/13, The Chronicle Review)

What if we're nearing an inflection point where automation is so cheap and efficient that human workers are simply outmatched? What if machines are now leading to a net loss of jobs rather than a net gain? Two professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, raised that concern in Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution Is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy (Digital Frontier Press, 2011). A recent report on 60 Minutes featured the book's thesis and quoted critics concerned about the potential economic crisis caused by robots, despite the cute faces on their monitors.

But robots raise an even bigger question than how many jobs are left over for humans. A number of scholars are now arguing that all this automation could make many goods and services so cheap that a full-time jobs could become optional for most people. Baxter, then, would become a liberator of the human spirit rather than an enemy of the working man.

That utopian dream would require resetting the role work plays in our lives. If our destiny is to be freed from toil by robot helpers, what are we supposed to do with our days?

...that the great crisis of your times is that you don't need to work.

March 24, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:09 PM


Placebo Effect Produces Higher Test Scores (Tom Jacobs, 3/24/13, Pacific Standard)

Scientists are increasingly convinced of the power of the placebo effect. Believing that one is receiving treatment when you're not--say, in the form of a pill that supposedly contains a powerful drug that is actually just sugar--can produce surprisingly strong results, at least for some patients, some of the time.

Newly published research suggests a placebo process can produce a similarly positive outcome for test-takers. In short, the belief that you have access to the answers makes it more likely you will get them right.

"People have powerful psychological resources to deal with challenges, but those resources cannot always be used deliberately," German psychologist Ulrich Weger and Australian psychologist Stephen Loughnan write in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. Just as a dummy pill can help people access their ability to tolerate pain, they report, a false conviction can help test-takers relax and improve their performance.

Posted by orrinj at 8:03 PM


'Sequester' causing pain -- to Congress (Doyle McManus, March 24, 2013, LA Times)

Tea Party Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) has decried cuts to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which he called "one of the few legitimate functions of government." (The Johnson Space Center, with about 3,000 civilian employees, happens to be in his Houston-area district.) The sequester, Stockman warned, could put all Americans in danger -- by hampering NASA's work to protect the Earth from asteroids.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who became famous for shouting "You Lie!" at President Obama during the 2010 State of the Union address, has argued that a big nuclear reprocessing plant in his district should be spared. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) has suggested that all civilian defense employees, including the thousands in his Gulf Coast district, should be exempted from the threat of furloughs.

And dozens of Republicans from rural areas have protested the Federal Aviation Administration's plans to close control towers at 173 small airports, arguing that the needs of plane-flying farmers should come before competing priorities.

It's funny how budget cuts seem more palatable when they affect someone else.

Posted by orrinj at 7:57 PM


Shadow of Roe v. Wade Looms Over Ruling on Gay Marriage (ADAM LIPTAK, 3/24/13, NY Times)

When the Supreme Court hears a pair of cases on same-sex marriage on Tuesday and Wednesday, the justices will be working in the shadow of a 40-year-old decision on another subject entirely: Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a constitutional right to abortion.

Judges, lawyers and scholars have drawn varying lessons from that decision, with some saying that it was needlessly rash and created a culture war.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal and a champion of women's rights, has long harbored doubts about the ruling.

"It's not that the judgment was wrong, but it moved too far, too fast," she said last year at Columbia Law School.

Briefs from opponents of same-sex marriage, including one from 17 states, are studded with references to the aftermath of the abortion decision and to Justice Ginsburg's critiques of it. They say the lesson from the Roe decision is that states should be allowed to work out delicate matters like abortion and same-sex marriage for themselves.

is the looming reversal on the issue.  Recall that at the time of Roe even folks like the Southern Baptists were officially pro-abortion. 

Posted by orrinj at 10:31 AM


Alexander Solzhenitsyn: The Courage to be Christian (Joseph Pearce, 3/21/13, Imaginative Conservative)

Serving in the Soviet army on the Eastern Front during the Second World War he witnessed cold blooded murder and the raping of women and children as the Red Army took its "revenge" on the Germans. Disillusioned, he committed the indiscretion of criticizing the Soviet leader Josef Stalin and was imprisoned for eight years as a political dissident.

While in prison, he resolved to expose the horrors of the Soviet system. Shortly after his release, during a period of compulsory exile in Kazakhstan, he was diagnosed with a malignant cancer in its advanced stages and was not expected to live. In the face of what appeared to be impending death, he converted to Christianity and was astonished by what he considered to be a miraculous recovery.

Throughout the 1960s Solzhenitsyn published three novels exposing the secularist tyranny of the Soviet Union and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. Following the publication in 1973 of his seminal work, The Gulag Archipelago, an exposé of the treatment of political dissidents in the Soviet prison system, he was arrested and expelled from the Soviet Union, thereafter living the life of an exile in Switzerland and the United States. He finally returned to Russia in 1994, after the collapse of the Soviet system.

In 1978, Solzhenitsyn caused great controversy when he criticized the secularism and hedonism of the West in his famous commencement address at Harvard University. Condemning the nations of the so-called free West for being morally bankrupt, he urged that it was time "to defend not so much human rights as human obligations."

The emphasis on rights instead of responsibilities was leading to "the abyss of human decadence" and to the committing of "moral violence against young people, such as motion pictures full of pornography, crime, and horror." At the root of the modern malaise was the modern philosophy of "rationalistic humanism or humanistic autonomy," which declared the "autonomy of man from any higher authority above him." Such a view "could also be called anthropocentrity, with man seen as the centre of all."

It is ultimately of little matter whether the sickness that is slowly poisoning the West is given the labels that Solzhenitsyn affixed to it, or whether we prefer to give it the name of secular fundamentalism. The disease by any other name would be as deadly.

Furthermore, this disease is not merely destructive but self-destructive. It has no long-term future. Although secular fundamentalist "progressives" might believe in a future "golden age," such an age does not exist. The future that they herald is merely one of gathering gloom and ever darkening clouds. This fate has ever been so for those who proclaim their "Pride." They have nothing to expect in the future but their fall.

As for the Christian, he has nothing to fear but his falling into the pride of despair.

What is the belief that secularism is winning but despair?

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Posted by orrinj at 10:05 AM


The Irrationalism of Nationalism (Daniel McInerny , 3/23, Imaginative Conservative)

Let's begin with Pat Buchanan's thought-provoking article, "America's Role in a Darkening Age."  In the article Buchanan asks hard questions of Robert Kaplan's essay, "The Return of Toxic Nationalism." Kaplan's essay concludes with the claim that, to combat the rise of nationalism throughout the world and to ensure that it can lead with moral legitimacy, the U.S. needs to put our "values" forward "right alongside its own exclusivist national interests, such as preserving a favorable balance of power." Without "universal values in our foreign policy," attests Kaplan, we "have no identity as a nation" and no moral credibility as we seek to quell nationalism in North Africa, the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and the Far East.

To which Buchanan asks, "Is this not utopian?"

First, he argues, how are we to affirm our "values" to nationalist groups and polities who have no truck with them? And second, what does it even mean to talk about our "values" when our nation is so internally conflicted about what our "values" are?

Buchanan concludes: "Other nations believe in indoctrinating their children in their own beliefs and values. Where do we get the right to push ours in their societies?"

It's a good question. The U.S. does, of course, have admirable values articulated in our founding documents. But insofar as we have undercut the religious and moral grounding of those values-as in the case of the "rights" that Kaplan insists are so central to our national identity and moral legitimacy-how can we with any effectiveness, much less legitimacy, trumpet those values to the world? Without a transcendent basis for our values, in other words, our foreign policy is simply one more "interest" within the matrix of national interests in violent competition throughout the world. is our universalism that is irrational, or, rather, spiritual.  For all the desire of Left and Right to see America as post-Christian, that universalizing impulse reveals how God-addled we remain. Our case simply is morally superior.

Posted by orrinj at 9:42 AM


Big Data Is Opening Doors, but Maybe Too Many (STEVE LOHR, 3/24/13, NY Times)

Proponents of this new technology say it is allowing us to see and measure things as never before -- much as the microscope allowed scientists to examine the mysteries of life at the cellular level. Big Data, they say, will open the door to making smarter decisions in every field from business and biology to public health and energy conservation.

"This data is a new asset," says Alex Pentland, a computational social scientist and director of the Human Dynamics Lab at the M.I.T. "You want it to be liquid and to be used."

But the latest leaps in data collection are raising new concern about infringements on privacy -- an issue so crucial that it could trump all others and upset the Big Data bandwagon. Dr. Pentland is a champion of the Big Data vision and believes the future will be a data-driven society. Yet the surveillance possibilities of the technology, he acknowledges, could leave George Orwell in the dust.

The World Economic Forum published a report late last month that offered one path -- one that leans heavily on technology to protect privacy. The report grew out of a series of workshops on privacy held over the last year, sponsored by the forum and attended by government officials and privacy advocates, as well as business executives. The corporate members, more than others, shaped the final document.

The report, "Unlocking the Value of Personal Data: From Collection to Usage," recommends a major shift in the focus of regulation toward restricting the use of data. Curbs on the use of personal data, combined with new technological options, can give individuals control of their own information, according to the report, while permitting important data assets to flow relatively freely.

"There's no bad data, only bad uses of data," says Craig Mundie, a senior adviser at Microsoft, who worked on the position paper.

...concerned the thin bedroom walls in his house growing up.  Privacy is a bogus concern.

Posted by orrinj at 9:29 AM


With Lebanese PM's resignation, a blow to Sunnis (ELHANAN MILLER March 24, 2013,Times of Israel)

The Saudi news website Elaph reports that Mikati's resignation has brought Lebanon to "its worst crisis since the start of the Syrian crisis." The daily says Mikati's decision came against the backdrop of "a Sunni sense of political alienation in a country controlled by Hezbollah."

"Prime Minister Najib Mikati did well to resign the day before yesterday," writes Imad A-Din Adib in an op-ed Sunday in the Saudi-owned newspaper A-Sharq Al-Awsat.

"The man has struggled to please forces that are impossible to please at the same time. He cannot be the first Sunni politician amid strong Sunni doubts regarding the political role of Shiite forces within the ruling coalition."

He could lead the popular governor of a Sunni nation, but Lebanon isn't one.

March 23, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 11:28 PM


Same-Sex Marriage and the Abyss of Nihilism (Carson Holloway, March 18th, 2013, Public Discourse)

To embrace same-sex marriage is to plunge headlong into the abyss of nihilism. It is to step into a realm in which there are no longer any solid or reliable public standards of judgment as to what is right and wrong, just and unjust. It goes without saying, I hope, that this is not what the defenders of same-sex marriage intend. It is nevertheless the end toward which their position tends.

Tradition plays a larger role in some societies than in others. Put another way, some societies are more dynamic and forward-looking than others. Nevertheless, tradition is an important source of public standards in all societies. No community can afford to be so "progressive" as to disregard tradition entirely. To do so would be, in principle, to embrace chaos, since it would require constant renegotiation of the rules by which its members interact.

There is, however, no older or more widespread notion than that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. It would be no exaggeration to call this definition a tradition of the human race. It is safe to say that a society that rejects this definition has also, whether it wants to admit it or not, rejected the idea that tradition should exert any authority over the present.

America, however, has never been guided only by tradition. It has looked to other and loftier sources of guidance. America is a branch of Western civilization, which has been defined since its origins by its quest for principles of judgment more solid than any particular society's traditions, and by its willingness to judge its own traditions by these higher standards.

Perhaps, then, we could reject the traditional understanding of marriage without making the leap into nihilism, since we could still orient ourselves by the higher principles of right to which we have always been dedicated. A few moments' reflection, however, would show that affirming same-sex marriage necessarily entails rejecting these higher principles as well.

As Leo Strauss famously observed, for Western civilization those higher standards have come from faith and reason, or from biblical revelation, on the one hand, and nature as understood by philosophy, on the other. Same-sex marriage is incompatible with both of these sources of wisdom.

The Bible could hardly be clearer that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. In both the Old and New Testaments it never speaks of marriage as anything else. When it speaks of sexual unions outside of marriage, it identifies them in order to disapprove of them.

No doubt many liberal Christians will want to deny such claims, but they really cannot do so without throwing overboard the very basis of their own identity as Christians.

Posted by orrinj at 11:13 PM

Pope Francis's Beautiful Silence (Stephen L. Carter Mar 14, 2013, Bloomberg)

There were, of course, no Catholics in Latin America until about 500 years ago. We all make mistakes, but in this case, the error is probably explained less by exuberance at the selection of a new pontiff than by the inexorable demand of the medium for gab unceasing.

Contrast the endless and largely pointless chatter of the modern world with the minutes Pope Francis spent standing silently on the balcony before addressing the thousands in St. Peter's Square and the hundreds of millions around the world. The silence was beautiful and eloquent, projecting both a sense of peace and a sense of occasion. An even longer silence followed, when Francis asked the faithful to pray for him -- a silence, evidently, that was mimicked in Catholic households and schools around the world. [...]

Francis's predecessor, Benedict XVI, was eloquent on the value of silence: "In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves. By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible."

March 22, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 5:54 PM


Third World poverty is on the run ( Geoffrey Lean,  22 Mar 2013, The Telegraph)

Here's a forecast that brought me up short this week. Within 20 years, on present trends, dire poverty will have been eliminated in Bangladesh - and others among the world's poorest countries.

It seems incredible. The South Asian nation - the most densely populated sizeable country on earth - had long been written off. But the prediction is based on exhaustive, if pioneering, Oxford University research and backed up by other authoritative reports.

In a study published this month, covering 22 developing countries with two billion people, the university's Poverty and Human Development Initiative concludes that half - including Bangladesh, Nepal and Rwanda - will have "eradicated" destitution within two decades if they "continue reducing poverty steadily at the current absolute rate". Another seven, including India, will achieve it "within 41 years".

And this is just one indication among many that the poor may not, after all, always be with us, in what is one of the great under-reported developments of our time.

Thank you, Globalization.
Posted by orrinj at 5:46 PM


Why Global Economies Face an Age of Deflation (A. Gary Shilling Mar 20, 2013, Bloomberg)

Deflation is a peacetime phenomenon.

The U.S.'s bouts of inflation, however, have historically occurred during wartime. That applies not only to shooting wars, but to the Cold War and the War on Poverty. These are periods when vast overspending by the federal government is combined with a robust private economy. These aren't the conditions we have today, when government stimulus can't offset private-sector weakness.

In the 95 wartime years since 1749, wholesale price increases averaged 5.7 percent. In the 168 peacetime years, they fell 1.2 percent annually on average. As the U.S. withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan and as defense spending declines, peacetime conditions are likely to prevail.

Furthermore, we tend to have biases that cloud our perception of inflation. When we pay higher prices, we think inflation is at work, but we believe lower prices are a result of our smart shopping and bargaining skills.

Posted by orrinj at 5:36 PM


Chinua Achebe, African Literary Titan, Dies at 82 (JONATHAN KANDELL, 3/22/13, NY Times)

"Things Fall Apart" gave expression to Mr. Achebe's first stirrings of anti-colonialism and a desire to use literature as a weapon against Western biases. As if to sharpen it with irony, he borrowed from the Western canon itself in using as its title a line from Yeats's apocalyptic poem"The Second Coming."

"In the end, I began to understand," Mr. Achebe later wrote. "There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like."

Though Mr. Achebe spent his later decades teaching at American universities, most recently Brown, his writings -- novels, stories, poems, essays and memoirs -- were almost invariably rooted in the countryside and cities of his native Nigeria. His most memorable fictional characters were buffeted and bewildered by the competing pulls of traditional African culture and invasive Western values.

"Things Fall Apart," which is set in the late 19th century, tells the story of Okonkwo, who rises from poverty to become a wealthy farmer and Igbo village leader. British colonial rule throws his life into turmoil, and in the end, unable to adapt, he explodes in frustration, killing an African in the employ of the British and then committing suicide.

The acclaim for "Things Fall Apart" was not unanimous. Some British critics thought it idealized pre-colonial African culture at the expense of the former empire.

"An offended and highly critical English reviewer in a London Sunday paper titled her piece cleverly, I must admit, 'Hurray to Mere Anarchy!' " Mr. Achebe wrote in "Home and Exile," a 200o collection of autobiographical essays. Some critics found his early novels to be stronger on ideology than on narrative interest. But his stature grew, until he was considered a literary and political beacon, influencing generations of African writers as well as many in the West.

"It would be impossible to say how 'Things Fall Apart' influenced African writing," the Princeton scholarKwame Anthony Appiah once wrote. "It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians."

Of course, No Longer At Ease essentially laments the end of colonial rule.
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Posted by orrinj at 5:23 PM


To Save, Workers Take On Health-Cost Risk ( ANNA WILDE MATHEWS, 3/17/13, WSJ)

Last fall, two big employers embarked on a radical new approach to employee health benefits, offering workers a sum of money and allowing them to choose their health plans on an online marketplace. Now, the first results are in: Many workers were willing to choose lower-priced plans that required them to pay more out of their pockets for health care.

The new online marketplace, operated by consulting firm Aon AON +1.39% Hewitt, a unit of Aon PLC, was used by more than 100,000 employees of Sears Holdings Corp. SHLD +0.71% and Darden Restaurants Inc., DRI +1.31% as well as Aon itself, to pick plans for 2013. The employers gave workers a set contribution to use toward health benefits, and they could opt to pay more each month to get richer plans, or choose cheaper ones that might have bigger out-of-pocket fees, such as higher deductibles.

"When people are spending their own money, they tend to be more consumeristic," said Ken Sperling, Aon Hewitt's national health exchange strategy leader.

Posted by orrinj at 5:12 PM


Israeli Apology to Turkey Sets Up Renewal of Diplomatic Ties (MARK LANDLER and JODI RUDOREN, 3/22/13, NY Times)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Friday apologized in a personal phone call to Turkey's prime minister for a deadly commando raid on a Turkish ship in 2010, in a sudden reconciliation between the two countries that was partly brokered by President Obama during his visit to Israel this week, according to Israeli, Turkish and American officials.

In the call, Mr. Netanyahu expressed regret for the raid, which took place as Israeli troops were enforcing a naval embargo on Gaza, and offered compensation, Turkish and Israeli officials said. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accepted Israel's gesture in the phone call.

Afterward, officials from both countries said that diplomatic relations had been fully restored and that ambassadors would be reinstated.

Posted by orrinj at 5:06 PM


Construction Firms Say Labor is Harder to Come By (DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, March 22, 2013, US News)

Anyone who watches the job market closely knows that the construction sector has been weak in this recovery. Employment in construction is still down 25 percent from its pre-recession peak, and the industry has a 15.7 percent unemployment rate. So it came as something of a surprise when a trade association representing the construction industry announced that it was experiencing a growing labor shortage.

In its most recent survey of its members, the National Association of Home Builders found that labor shortages have grown across a variety of positions and professions since June 2012.

March 21, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:42 PM


Eat Like a Caveman? The Trouble With Paleo Living (Robert Herritt, Mar 21, 2013, Daily Beast)

The reasoning deployed by such aspiring cavemen goes something like this: since humans evolved in a an environment far different from the one we currently inhabit, the road to health and happiness lies in adopting a few of the practices of our hunter-gatherer forbears.

In other words, some paleo proponents have it, we've evolved to eat meat, nuts, and fruit, not grains and dairy. And our bodies are better suited to irregular bursts of predator-evading or prey-tracking activities, not daily, long-distance jogs in designer running shoes. What's more, many of our most common health problems have arisen because of our unfortunate deviation from such prelapsarian modes of action.

Among the most prominent defenders of this view is Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University's health and exercise science department. He and his fellow researchers have argued that hunter-gatherers rarely or never suffer from coronary heart disease, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, epithelial cell cancers, autoimmune disease, and osteoporosis--"diseases of civilization." It is the "mismatch" between our ancient bodies and the modern diet and lifestyle that brings about these problems.

And you wonder why Cain slew Abel?

Posted by orrinj at 9:39 PM


Religious conservatives make moral case for immigration reform (Rosalind S. Helderman, March 20, 2013, Washington Post)

The Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of religious groups that represent more than 100,000 churches, is making grass-roots phone calls and a widespread effort to get Christians to read 40 Bible verses that deal with how to treat strangers and neighbors as part of a prayer challenge called "I Was a Stranger."

The name is taken from a verse in Matthew 25:35: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

The main targets of the effort are lawmakers who in the past have paid closer attention to constituent concerns about amnesty or whether illegal immigrants drive up the costs of government services.

"I think in the past many of us thought it would be the economic argument that would bring Republicans along," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the group America's Voice. "But for many Republicans . . . this has become viewed more as a cultural issue -- almost a social issue. So when you have pastors preaching that the Bible says we should welcome the stranger in 40 different ways, that becomes a very powerful message."

Posted by orrinj at 9:36 PM


Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan declares ceasefire with Turkey (Constanze Letsch, 3/20/13, The Guardian)

Kurds in Istanbul wave banners depicting PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who said the ceasefire was an 'historical call'. Photograph: Burhan Ozbilici/AP
Kurdish separatists in Turkey are poised today to take the most critical step yet in efforts to end a 30-year conflict with the Turkish state when they call a ceasefire.

Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK), is due to use the Kurdish new year's celebrations today to announce a truce, according to Kurdish politicians who recently visited the Turkish prison island of Imrali, where Ocalan has been held for the past 14 years. [...]

While Ocalan stressed in his peace roadmap that the Kurds did not demand a separate independent state, he did underline the importance of substantial constitutional and judicial changes that would guarantee Turkey's Kurdish population all cultural rights and give more power to local authorities.

Posted by orrinj at 9:25 PM


Legendary Pals Cabin in West Orange to close pending approval (Peter Genovese, 3/20/13, The Star-Ledger)

 A tiny clapboard-and-tin cabin opened at the lonely corner of Prospect and Eagle Rock avenues in West Orange at the height of the Depression in 1932, selling hot dogs for a dime.

Five years later, co-owners Marty Horn and Roy Sale, who by then had added a dining room called the Pine Room, helped launch the career of an 18-year-old piano player from Wisconsin named Wladziu Valentino Liberace. The flamboyant performer played at Pals for six months, earning $40 a week; the piano Horn bought especially for him is still in the bar, known as the Tap Room.

Pals Cabin -- a favorite haunt of Babe Ruth, who loved to chow down on its hot dogs after a round of golf at nearby Crestmont Country Club -- would make any short list of Jersey food landmarks.

But it likely won't make it past this year; pending approval at a zoning board meeting tonight, the legendary restaurant will soon be torn down to make way for a CVS. [...]

The bills include $20,000 a month for gas and electric and nearly $200,000 a year in property taxes.
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Posted by orrinj at 8:32 PM


New Reasons to Change Light Bulbs (DAVID POGUE, March 20, 2013, NY Times)

[L]ED bulbs are a gigantic improvement over incandescent bulbs and even the compact fluorescents, or CFLs, that the world spent several years telling us to buy.

LEDs last about 25 times as long as incandescents and three times as long as CFLs; we're talking maybe 25,000 hours of light. Install one today, and you may not own your house, or even live, long enough to see it burn out. (Actually, LED bulbs generally don't burn out at all; they just get dimmer.)

You know how hot incandescent bulbs become. That's because they convert only 5 to 10 percent of your electricity into light; they waste the rest as heat. LED bulbs are far more efficient. They convert 60 percent of their electricity into light, so they consume far less electricity. You pay less, you pollute less.

But wait, there's more: LED bulbs also turn on to full brightness instantly. They're dimmable. The light color is wonderful; you can choose whiter or warmer bulbs. They're rugged, too. It's hard to break an LED bulb, but if the worst should come to pass, a special coating prevents flying shards.

Yet despite all of these advantages, few people install LED lights. They never get farther than: "$30 for a light bulb? That's nuts!" Never mind that they will save about $200 in replacement bulbs and electricity over 25 years. (More, if your electric company offers LED-lighting rebates.)

Surely there's some price, though, where that math isn't so off-putting. What if each bulb were only $15? Or $10?

Well, guess what? We're there. LED bulbs now cost less than $10. 

March 20, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:43 PM


Supreme Liberal Washout : The Justices unite against the trial bar and overzealous greens. (WSJ, 3/20/13)

It's been a good week at the Supreme Court for law and the economy. On Tuesday, the Justices unanimously knocked back trial-lawyer forum shopping, and a day later they voted 7-1 to reverse a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the Clean Water Act should include federal government regulation of water runoff on forest roads, a position that contradicted 35 years of environmental law.

Posted by orrinj at 3:56 PM


The America that works : Luckily, dysfunction in Washington is only one side of America's story (The Economist, 3/16/13)

One reason for optimism is that America's inventors are as busy as they have ever been, and its entrepreneurs are seizing on their ideas with the same alacrity as always. Investment in research and development as a share of output recently matched the previous record, 2.9% of GDP, set at the height of the space race. America is home to 27 of the 30 universities that put out the most-cited scientific research--and it is still good at developing those ideas. Although many countries possess big reserves of oil and gas trapped in impermeable rocks, American businesses worked out how to free that energy and then commercialised that technology at a rapid pace; the resulting "shale gale" is now billowing the economy's sails.

Some of the money for fracking technology came from the federal government, but the shale revolution has largely happened despite Mr Obama and his tribe of green regulators. It has been driven from the bottom up--by entrepreneurs and by states like North Dakota (see article) competing to lure in investors with notably more fervour than, say, France.

This fits a pattern. Pressed for cash, states are adopting sweeping reforms as they vie to attract investments and migrants. Louisiana and Nebraska want to abolish corporate and personal income taxes. Kansas has created a post called "the Repealer" to get rid of red tape and pays a "bounty" to high schools for every vocational qualification their students earn in certain fields; Ohio has privatised its economic-development agency; Virginia has just reformed its petrol-tax system.

In this second, can-do America, creative policymaking is being applied to the very problems Congress runs away from, like infrastructure spending. While the federal government twiddles its thumbs, states and cities, which are much shorter of cash, are coming up with new ways to raise money for roads, bridges and schools. Chicago has a special trust to drum up private funds to refurbish decrepit city buildings. Indiana has turned to privatisation to raise money for road-building.

Even education is showing some signs of change. The states are giving America's schools their biggest overhaul in living memory. Forty-five of them are developing new curriculums. Tests are becoming more rigorous, and schools and teachers are at last being held accountable for results. Thirty-eight states have reformed teachers' pay, tying it, in many instances, to their students' exam results. Forty-two now allow independently managed, but government-funded, "charter schools". It is too soon to tell what this upheaval will yield, but a long overdue shake-up is finally under way.

Posted by orrinj at 3:52 PM


Democrats Come Up Short In Sequestration Standoff (BRIAN BEUTLER MARCH 20, 2013, TPM)

In the same week Congress is expected to pass government funding legislation that effectively locks in sequestration until the end of September, an unexpected reality is dawning on Washington: as bad as sequestration is, and was intended to be, it's not bad enough to do what it was designed to do.

That's left Democrats resigned to malfunctioning and underfunded government in perpetuity, and Republicans confident they can weather the coming months and turn sequestration spending levels into a new normal.

...the GOP isn't going to settle for just these.

Posted by orrinj at 3:26 PM


Medicare Cost Slowdown Could Close U.S. Budget Gap (Peter Orszag, 3/19/13, Bloomberg) 

As one example of progress, the report highlights a noticeable decline over the past few years in the hospital readmission rate (that is, the share of discharged patients who are readmitted within 30 days). This decline, the report argues, is probably due, at least partly, to the Partnership for Patients program, a public-private effort involving 3,700 U.S. hospitals to improve the quality of care provided to patients, including after they have been discharged. Declines in readmission rates have been larger at hospitals that are part of this partnership than at other hospitals.

What are the consequences if the slower growth continues? Official projections, which do not fully incorporate the recent slowdown, suggest that spending on Medicare will rise from 3.7 percent of gross domestic product in 2011 to 6.7 percent in 2085. In contrast, the Economic Report of the President shows in an illustrative calculation that it will rise only to 3.8 percent of GDP by 2085 -- not much higher than it is today -- if the per-beneficiary growth rate we have seen in the past five years keeps going.

If this happens, in other words, a major part of our long- term budget problem would disappear. And the nation's long-term fiscal gap would narrow by almost a third, according to a recent study by the economists William Gale of the Brookings Institution and Alan Auerbach of the University of California at Berkeley.

March 19, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:35 PM


Interview: Zev Chafets Discusses Roger Ailes: Off Camera (Ed Driscoll, March 19th, 2013, PJM)
Veteran author and columnist Zev Chafets drops by to discuss his latest book, Roger Ailes:  Off Camera, which, as its title implies, is a biography of the Fox News impresario, and a history of how dramatically the media and political landscape has changed since Ailes cut his teeth producing the venerable Mike Douglas syndicated talk show in the mid-1960s. His chance meeting with Richard Nixon while producing Douglas set in motion a series of career events, including advising the campaigns of multiple Republican presidents.  From the late 1980s through the mid-'90s, Ailes launched CNBC, produced Rush Limbaugh's syndicated TV series, and created the immediate predecessor to MSNBC. All of which were the prelude to Ailes being tapped by Rupert Murdoch in 1996 to build Fox News and give it an iconoclastic worldview

Posted by orrinj at 8:26 PM


A New Concert of Nations : In 1990, a billion people earned enough income to consider making discretionary purchases. By 2010, the figure had more than doubled. (TOM NAGORSKI, 3/19/13, WSJ)

Anyone feeling the weight of the world's woes will be grateful for Kishore Mahbubani's "The Great Convergence," a sweeping survey that proves to be, in large measure, a counterweight to global gloom and doom. Mr. Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, is under no illusions about the troubles we face, but he takes the longer view, reaching back a few decades to see an upward trend and to marvel at how far we have come.

Under Mr. Mahbubani's lens, we see a plunge in the rates of extreme poverty and early-childhood deaths; a rise in literacy; a drop in the number of armed conflicts. "Major interstate wars," says Mr. Mahbubani, "have become a sunset industry." The good-news numbers are remarkable. In 1990, one billion human beings earned enough income to consider making discretionary purchases beyond mere necessity; by 2010, the figure had more than doubled. Mr. Mahbubani has lived this change. He was raised, he says, in "a typical third world city . . . [with] no flush toilets, some malnutrition, ethnic riots and, most importantly of all, no sense of hope for the future." The city was Singapore, today an economic juggernaut with a per-capita income that outranks America's.

Such statistics are presented as evidence of a "great convergence," a phrase that Mr. Mahbubani first spotted in a Financial Times column by Martin Wolf, in which the columnist was describing a convergence of global interests, values and economic fortunes. Of course, nothing says "convergence" like the rush to connectivity, and while we know this story well, Mr. Mahbubani's treatment still startles: Eleven million cellphone subscriptions, world-wide, in 1990; 5½ billion today. In 1985 the world's fastest computer, the Cray 2, the size of a washing machine, was prohibitively expensive and required coolants to avoid overheating. Today the Cray 2's match is the iPad 2, and it runs on 10 watts of power.

Posted by orrinj at 5:07 PM


Eve of Destruction : What it was like to oppose the Iraq War in 2003 (JOHN B. JUDIS, 3/19/13, New Republic)

In the six months before the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the six weeks after the invasion (culminating in George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech), I often compared my situation in Washington to that of Jeannette Rankin, the Montana congresswoman and pacifist who voted against entry into both World War I and II.  Not that I would have voted against declaring war in 1941; the comparison was to her isolation, not with her isolationism.

But, of course, the point is the comparison to her isolationism.  There's always someone in America who thinks that the freedom of others--negroes, Jews, Muslims, etc.--is none of our business.  They are always on the wrong side of history.  

Posted by orrinj at 4:22 PM


Two House Handicappers Punch the Donkey (Ed Kilgore, 3/19/13, Washington Monthly)

By coincidence, I assume, two big names in the electoral handicapping biz came out with initial thoughts about the House landscape for 2014 today.

At the Wall Street Journal, Larry Sabato (with Kyle Kondik) took a macro approach, mainly noting the historical record suggesting the kind of gains Democrats would need to regain control of the House:

Since the start of the modern two-party system in the mid-19th century, the party of an incumbent president has never captured control of the House from the other party in a midterm election. While many presidents have held the House for their party, in 35 of 38 midterms since the Civil War the incumbent's party has lost ground. [...]

Meanwhile, Roll Call's Stu Rothenberg takes the micro approach, and looks at specific districts where Democrats would need to make the gains necessary to produce a net gain of 17 seats and win control of the House:

[L]ooking over the list of 30 Republicans who won by less than 10 points, I see no more than 11 who deserve to be on a list of initially vulnerable GOPers. But let's be generous and add Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (who is likely to again win a narrow victory) to the list, bringing it to an even dozen.

Well, they at least Shawshanked the notion of the House turning over.

Posted by orrinj at 4:18 PM


Science: Beef Good, Bacon Not So Bad (Stephanie Mencimer, Mar. 18, 201, Mother Jones)

Earlier this month, researchers announced the results of a big new nutritional study in Europe that seemed to yield more evidence that processed meats like bacon and sausage can lead to an early grave. The media responded with the usual "Death by Salami" headlines. What news outlets downplayed about the study, though, is that despite their best efforts, the EU researchers couldn't find any evidence that red meat will kill you. In fact, the study shows that not eating red meat is a risk factor for an early demise.

After correcting some measurement errors, the researchers in Europe had to conclude that not only was red meat intake "no longer associated with mortality" but "all-cause mortality was higher among participants with very low or no red meat consumption." 

Posted by orrinj at 4:16 PM


False-positive mammograms take mental toll, study finds (Eryn Brown, 3/18/13, Los Angeles Times)

Six months after hearing they did not have breast cancer, women with these false positives experienced changes in "existential values" and "inner calmness" as great as for women who had cancer. They reported having more anxiety, feeling more pessimistic and having more problems with their sleep and sex lives -- as well as other negative outcomes -- than women who had normal mammograms.

The effects moderated over time but were still apparent three years after the initial screening.

The findings suggest that healthcare providers need to pay closer attention to the harmful effects of screening programs, said University of Copenhagen physician-researcher Dr. John Brodersen, lead author of a study detailing the work published Monday in the journal Annals of Family Medicine.

"When I became a doctor and I took the Hippocratic Oath, I said, 'Do no harm,'" he said. "But this is harm."

Posted by orrinj at 4:12 PM


What 'Lean In' Misunderstands About Gender Differences : What if difference between men and women turns out to be a phenomenon not of oppression, but rather of social well-being? (CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS, MAR 19 2013, The Atlantic)

Sandberg's goal is to liberate her fellow Americans from the stereotypes of gender. But is that truly liberating? In a 2008 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a group of international researchers compared data on gender and personality across 55 nations. Throughout the world, women tend to be more nurturing, risk averse and emotionally expressive, while men are usually more competitive, risk taking, and emotionally flat. But the most fascinating finding is this: Personality differences between men and women are the largest and most robust in the more prosperous, egalitarian, and educated societies. According to the authors, "Higher levels of human development--including long and healthy life, equal access to knowledge and education, and economic wealth--were the main nation-level predictors of sex difference variation across cultures." New York Times science columnist John Tierney summarized the study this way: "It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India's or Zimbabwe's than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France."

Why should that be? The authors of the study hypothesize that prosperity and equality bring greater opportunities for self-actualization. Wealth, freedom, and education empower men and women to be who they are. 

Setting aside, for the moment, the fascinating main point, there's another equally important one hinted at : poverty, not government, is the most important historical limit on freedom.  

Posted by orrinj at 4:08 PM


Europe's leaders run out of credit in Cyprus (Gideon Rachman, 3/19/13, Financial Times)

The bigger problem remains, however, the gap in trust and political cultures between northern and southern Europe. Back before the crisis, when things were going well, it was considered politically incorrect, even xenophobic, to suggest that standards of probity in public life vary widely across Europe and that this is a problem for an organisation dedicated to "ever closer union".

Now, however, it is apparent that this lack of convergence in trust and political culture is at least as important as a lack of economic convergence. It is also true that the Germans, the Dutch and the Scandinavians have their own problems with corruption in public life, and that the caricature of the whole of southern Europe as corrupt and lazy is grossly unfair.

And yet it is a fact that tax-evasion is rife in countries such as Greece and Italy. That has always made it hard to persuade northern voters to bail out the south.
Even casual observation confirms that attitudes to public money vary widely. A couple of years ago, I was invited to a meeting of all Dutch ambassadors from around the world. Lunch was a not terribly appetising array of sandwiches and crisps, eaten standing up. I suspected that, even though the public finances of Italy or Greece were in worse shape, their ambassadors were eating better.

It is a trivial anecdote. But it is the kind of cultural difference that explains why the northern Europeans have now said "basta", when it comes to the Cypriot banks.

Posted by orrinj at 4:02 PM


Does [Bush] have a plan for [Iraq]? (Richard Cohen, March 18, 2013, Washington Post)

The [Bush] administration's fear of blowback in [Iraq] -- weapons falling into the hands of jihadists and other bad guys -- can be avoided in only one sure way: Throw America's support behind [Saddam Hussein] , the vile dictator the White House wants gone. This contradiction is at the heart of President [Bush]s incoherent [Iraq] policy.

Posted by orrinj at 3:51 PM


The Great Potential of a U.S.-Moroccan Relationship (Ahmed Charai, March 19, 2013, National Interest)

In order to scale back military commitments, strengthen indigenous military capabilities, and benefit from the business opportunities Africa poses, the United States would do well to find a local partner that can facilitate all three. A strong candidate to play this role is a staunch US ally, the Kingdom of Morocco: Since Muhammad VI assumed the throne in 1999, the country has worked to establish goodwill, political and economic ties, and a strong security footprint across the continent--both north and south of the Sahara.

King Mohammed VI visited three countries in sub-Saharan Africa last week: Senegal, Gabon, and Ivory Coast. As in forays to seven other African states since February 2005, he brought along teams of intelligence, political and cultural advisors, as well as Moroccan entrepreneurs. This mixed portfolio, unleashed in a series of working sessions with counterparts in each country, reflects the monarchy's approach to building ties deep into Africa while bolstering continent-wide security as well.

King Mohammed appears to believe that security in any developing country rests on a combination of military operations, intelligence work and policing on the one hand, and anti-poverty measures, the promotion of religious tolerance and opportunity-boosting political reforms on the other. This is the approach he has employed in his own country since a 2003 triple suicide bombing rattled the kingdom. It was recently consolidated by a new constitution that grants sweeping domestic authorities to an elected chief of government, mandates equal opportunity for women and minorities, and democratizes domestic security by establishing a consultative security council bringing the monarchy and elected officials together.
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Posted by orrinj at 3:45 PM


5 Ways Reince Priebus Is Channeling George W. Bush and Bill Clinton : Blueprint in hand, GOP now needs leader with enough guts, skills, and imagination for 2016.
(Ron Fournier, March 18, 2013, National Journal)

Thirteen months before his first presidential election, George W. Bush was on a California campaign swing with a single reporter. The news in Washington was a House GOP plan to slash federal spending, and his spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, encouraged me to ask Bush about it.

"We shouldn't balance the budget on the backs of the poor," the Texas governor told me. And so began Bush's successful rebranding of the Republican Party: He separated himself from unpopular congressional Republicans and rode "compassionate conservatism" to the White House. [...]

Immigration is a no-brainer: " ... We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only." Bush's inroads with Hispanic voters were squandered by anti-immigration conservatives who blocked reforms during his presidency. But Priebus later refused to discuss specifics such as whether illegal immigrants should be given a pathway to citizenship, according to AP. "I think it's healthy for our party to have this discussion, but the details of that, and what that legislation looks like, is not something that the RNC chair does," he said, distancing himself from the issue.

The House GOP is not the GOP: Like Bush, the Priebus report tries to distance the party's reputation from Congress. "The GOP today is a tale of two parties. One of them, the gubernatorial wing, is growing and successful. The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future." The report cites policy successes of several GOP governors, including Nathan Deal of Georgia, who saved the state's popular scholarship program from bankruptcy. The report also praises New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a conservative condemned by some right-wing partisans because he worked with President Obama on hurricane recovery.

Whichever nominee is most closely identified with the Third Way (New Democrat/Compassionate Conservative) will win in 2016 and that will, necessarily, be a governor.
Posted by orrinj at 3:35 PM


Why We Can't Tell Good Wine From Bad (David McRaney, 3/19/13, Lifehacker)

In 2001, Frederic Brochet conducted two experiments at the University of Bordeaux. In one experiment, he got 54 oenology (the study of wine tasting and wine making) undergraduates together and had them taste one glass of red wine and one glass of white wine. He had them describe each wine in as much detail as their expertise would allow. What he didn't tell them was both were the same wine. He just dyed the white one red. In the other experiment, he asked the experts to rate two different bottles of red wine. One was very expensive, the other was cheap. Again, he tricked them. This time he had put the cheap wine in both bottles. So what were the results?

The tasters in the first experiment, the one with the dyed wine, described the sorts of berries and grapes and tannins they could detect in the red wine just as if it really was red. Every single one, all 54, could not tell it was white. In the second experiment, the one with the switched labels, the subjects went on and on about the cheap wine in the expensive bottle. They called it complex and rounded. They called the same wine in the cheap bottle weak and flat.

Another experiment at Cal-Tech pitted five bottles of wine against each other. They ranged in price from $5 to $90. Similarly, the experimenters put cheap wine in the expensive bottles--but this time they put the tasters in a brain scanner. While tasting the wine, the same parts of the brain would light up in the machine every time, but with the wine the tasters thought was expensive, one particular region of the brain became more active. Another study had tasters rate cheese eaten with two different wines. One they were told was from California, the other from North Dakota. The same wine was in both bottles. The tasters rated the cheese they ate with the California wine as being better quality, and they ate more of it.

So is the fancy world of wine tasting all pretentious bunk? Not exactly. The wine tasters in the experiments above were being influenced by the nasty beast of expectation. A wine expert's objectivity and powers of taste under normal circumstance might be amazing, but Brochet's manipulations of the environment misled his subjects enough to dampen their acumen. An expert's own expectation can act like Kryptonite on their superpowers. Expectation, as it turns out, is just as important as raw sensation. The build up to an experience can completely change how you interpret the information reaching your brain from your otherwise objective senses. In psychology, true objectivity is pretty much considered to be impossible. Memories, emotions, conditioning, and all sorts of other mental flotsam taint every new experience you gain.

Posted by orrinj at 3:26 PM


Say Goodbye to the Assault Weapons Ban (DAVID FIRESTONE, 3/19/13, NY Times)

Fans of military-style assault weapons can stop worrying -- their gun lobby has done its work, and all but assured that Congress will not pass a ban on their dangerous toys.

Senate Democratic leaders have decided not to include the ban, proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, in the official gun bill that will reach the floor in the next few weeks. It was always a long shot, but now Democrats have officially given the ban the cold shoulder.

March 18, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 5:17 AM


CALIFORNIA NEEDS MORE IMMIGRANTS (Joel Kotkin 03/18/2013, New Geography)

[H]istorically, a decline in new migration also suggests something else: a picture oddly reminiscent of the kind of demographic stagnation long associated with places like Cleveland, Buffalo, N.Y., Pittsburgh and Detroit. A more native-dominated region may be both more socially stable but increasingly hidebound and lacking innovation.

For cities, demographic stagnation is not a recipe for success. Over the past decade, notes demographer Wendell Cox, the Los Angeles-Orange County area has seen the fifth-highest growth in the percentage of locally born people in its population, among nation's 51 largest metropolitan areas. The concern is not so much that people are leaving these places in droves; the real issue is that not enough new people, with new ideas and great ambition, are coming in.

Already, notes economist Bill Watkins, large parts of the state, particularly along the coast, are evolving into "geriatric ghettos" populated by aging, often-affluent baby boomers. And, as for keeping the "best," the steady decline in California's relative educational ranking, particularly in the younger cohorts, should convince us that we cannot reasonably rely on native-born residents to meet the challenges of the future.

Watkins also points out that California has been losing domestic migrants for 10 of the past 15 years. It's been worse in this region; over the past decade the Los Angeles-Orange County area suffered the third-highest rate in the country of net outmigration, slightly above New York's. Amazingly, on a per capita basis, people are leaving our sun-drenched metropolis more rapidly than from Rust Belt disaster areas such as Cleveland and Detroit.

In recent decades, this shortfall has been more than made up by foreign immigration. But in a stunning reversal of the trends in past decades, the number of foreign-born in our region has started to stagnate. Indeed, over the most-recent decade, the Southland has experienced the slowest rate of growth in its foreign-born population of any major region in the country. Los Angeles-Orange County gained 110,000 immigrants over the decade, one-sixth as many as New York City and only a quarter as many as Houston. Our immigrant population has grown less than that of much smaller regions such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, Austin, Texas, Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth.

These patterns suggest a dangerous shift in our demographic DNA and a decline in our historic archetype as one of the world's most culturally and economically innovative regions.

Posted by orrinj at 4:59 AM


New Zealand as a US Partner in the Pacific? (Edward Mortimer, 18 March 2013, ISN Blog)

The US has the most to gain from re-engagement with New Zealand. China, among other Asian powers, is actively courting the South Pacific island states and the US is now responding in kind. Last August, Hillary Clinton became the first Secretary of State to attend the Pacific Islands Forum, giving the clearest indication so far that Washington views the South Pacific as an important part of its strategic re-orientation. Stronger ties with New Zealand fall directly under this strategy. However, a closer relationship is also useful in a broader sense.

New Zealand has long had close political, economic and cultural links with the South Pacific island states. It is actively involved in development and governance programs in the region and two states - the Cook Islands and Niue - are in free association arrangements. The US hopes that strategic engagement with New Zealand will encourage Wellington to advocate a more pro-US line in its dealings with South Pacific states.

Yet New Zealand's interests nevertheless differ from the United States. While it has a stake in regional stability, its location shields it from Asia's strategic rivalries. Its need for strategic partnerships and defense guarantees is less than many US allies. This has allowed New Zealand to build a more independent foreign policy which Wellington views as an asset.

Limited defense cooperation complements its greater interest of incorporating the US into regional, particularly economic, initiatives. Trade is an important component of this strategy and John Key's National Government is prioritizing this issue in 2013. While it would likely accept a US-New Zealand bilateral trade deal, Wellington's first choice is to get the US into a regional free trade area, potentially by the end of this year. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would build on the current multilateral free trade association including New Zealand and a handful of Asia-Pacific countries. The US is in negotiations to join and New Zealand has shown considerable enthusiasm for bringing Washington on board. It is also hoped that US membership of the TPP will give New Zealand greater access to the world's largest economy.

Wellington knows that brokering the US' membership of the TPP will be a difficult task given that successive US administrations have faced significant domestic opposition in negotiating free trade agreements. New Zealand, along with other potential TPP states, needs to react positively to the US pivot so that free trade agreements can be 'sold' to the US public and, crucially, Congress. Wellington's current rapprochement is part of this wider effort.
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Posted by orrinj at 4:56 AM


Australia and Burma open defence talks (Reuters, 18 March 2013)

Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, with President Thein Sein of Burma. Photograph: Alan Porritt/Getty
Australia is to ease restrictions on military engagement with Burma following democratic reforms carried out since the country's ruling generals relinquished their half-century grip on power in 2011.

The Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, said restrictions would be lifted on military humanitarian aid and peacekeeping but an arms sales embargo would stay in place.

Gillard met in Canberra with Burma's president, Thein Sein, on Monday. Thein Sein is the first leader of Burma to visit the Australian capital since 1974.
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Posted by orrinj at 4:52 AM


Many underwater homeowners are coming up for air (Kenneth R. Harney, March 15, 2013, LA Times)

According to the latest data from the Federal Reserve, Americans' net equity in their houses jumped nearly $500 billion during the last three months of 2012 and $1.7 trillion since spring 2011.

What does this mean to you personally? Depending on where your home is, it could mean that finally -- after years of struggling with an underwater mortgage, one that exceeds the value of the home -- you are seeing the market value of your property rise into positive equity territory, or at least closer to the break-even mark. Zillow Real Estate Research estimates that nearly 2 million U.S. homeowners exited negative equity status during 2012 alone.

It could also mean that should you wish to sell your house, you're now in a better position to do so. And if your home is in one of dozens of markets that are experiencing severe shortages of listings for sale combined with strong demand from buyers, this spring could bring you a higher price than at any time in the last seven years.

March 17, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:26 AM


Is capitalism moral? (Steven Pearlstein, March 15, 2013, Washington Post)

Careening from debt-ceiling crisis to sequestration to a looming government shutdown, the nation is caught up in a historic debate over the proper size and role of government.

That's certainly one way to think about it. Another is that we are caught up in a historic debate over free-market capitalism. After all, if markets were making most of us better off, regulating their own excesses, guaranteeing equal opportunity and fairly dividing the economic pie, then we wouldn't need government to take on all the things it does.

For most of the past 30 years, the world has been moving in the direction of markets. The grand experiment with communism has been thoroughly discredited, a billion people have been lifted from poverty through free-market competition, and even European socialists have given up on state ownership and the nanny state.

Here at home, large swaths of the economy have been deregulated, and tax rates have been cut. A good portion of what is left of government has been outsourced, while even education is moving toward school choice. In embracing welfare reform, Americans have acknowledged that numerous programs meant to lift up the poor instead trapped them in permanent dependency and poverty.

But more recently, we've seen another side of free markets: stagnant incomes, gaping inequality, a string of crippling financial crises and 20-somethings still living in their parents' basements. These realities are forcing free-market advocates and their allies in the Republican Party to pursue a new strategy. Instead of arguing that free markets are good for you, they're saying that they're good -- mounting a moral defense of free-market capitalism.

This is, of course, the wrong question and the wrong answer.  Markets exist on a spectrum, with those that are totally closed and those that are totally open being immoral or amoral, but with those in-between not being obviously moral or immoral to any great degree.  Revealingly, morality really only enters the marketplace at the points where governments establish the rules that govern them and where citizens make decisions within them.  

The simple fact of the matter is that markets do not exist to produce morality.  The market (or Capitalism) exists to create wealth. It unquestionably does this more successfully than any other economy Man has yet discovered or can imagine.  [Thus, the End of History.]

The question then that Mr. Pearlstein means to ask and that all of us need to confront : is the way that we distribute the wealth that our chosen economy creates moral?

This, one notes, is not an economic question but a political one.  It has, therefore, political answers.

Sure, both the Right and the Left once hoped that all of the redistribution could occur within the economy, through jobs.  But their hopes were born during an epoch when massive amounts of labor were required to produce wealth.  This is no longer the case and the labor required is dwindling rapidly.  The Labor Theory of Value is dead.

So now that we recognize that employment is not universal, that such employment as exists has rather little value and that the monetary value of the things we create is approaching zero, how can our political system distribute wealth in a manner that most of us will accept achieves moral ends?  

Because the answer, necessarily, does not include (or, at least, does not depend) on traditional employment, it is not something that anyone is eager to articulate.  The political liabilities of doing so are steep and immediate, while the benefits are uncertain and prospective.  The Right and Left, for sometimes differing but sometimes identical reasons, will howl in anger as we start to transition to a system that rewards domestic "work" instead of workplace labor, that rewards involvement in the community, that defines (and makes) the contribution, instead of defining the benefit, that eliminates taxes that impede wealth creation and imposes taxes on consumption, that reduces protections for workers and producers alike, and so on and so forth.  Meanwhile, such a revolution will justifiably make the vast middle extremely uncomfortable.  We are journeying into the unknown and no sensible soul can help but be nervous about that prospect.

On the other hand, refusing to confront the revolution that we are in the midst of will not make the revolutionary conditions disappear.  Nor have political parties that refuse to accept the existence of revolutionary forces tended to fare well in the long run.  The parties of the right that fought the creation of the modern welfare-state spent decades in the wilderness, while the parties of the left, that fight against bringing market forces to bear on those welfare systems tend to cede power to conservatives.  

The successful parties throughout the Anglosphere--and the citizenry consistently demonstrates that it doesn't give a damn which side of the political spectrum they come from--are those that advocate Third Way solutions, eschewing the old arguments of Right (First Way) and Left (Second Way).  Political systems throughout the English-speaking world increasingly seek to liberalize wealth creation (Capitalism) in order that ever greater wealth can finance ever more generous social welfare (personal retirement, HSAs, etc.).  The market, in this vision, is not a moral end in itself, but a means to a moral end : universal affluence.  

This is the vision our politics needs to be, and will be, organized around.  It is this vision that will consistently produce governing majorities.  On the fringes will be a Left that counter-argues that markets ought not be free, which would reduce affluence for everyone, and a Right that counters that the wealth should not be shared, reducing the universal benefit of the economic system we've chosen.   These are the arguments of History's losers.

Behind the historic shift in poverty (Monitor's Editorial Board / March 15, 2013, CS Monitor)

The share of the world's people living in extreme poverty has fallen by half - from 43 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2010, according to a new United Nations report, which also forecasts that by 2030 most of the world's middle-class people will be living in countries once considered poor.

"Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast," concludes the 2013 Human Development report from the UN Development Program.

A Profession With an Egalitarian Core (TYLER COWEN, 3/17/13, NY Times)

ECONOMICS is sometimes associated with the study and defense of selfishness and material inequality, but it has an egalitarian and civil libertarian core that should be celebrated. And that core may guide us in some surprising directions.

Economic analysis is itself value-free, but in practice it encourages a cosmopolitan interest in natural equality. Many economic models, of course, assume that all individuals are motivated by rational self-interest or some variant thereof; even the so-called behavioral theories tweak only the fringes of a basically common, rational understanding of people. The crucial implication is this: If you treat all individuals as fundamentally the same in your theoretical constructs, it would be odd to insist that the law should suddenly start treating them differently.

At least since the 19th century, the interest of economists in personal liberty can be easily documented. In 1829, all 15 economists who held seats in the British Parliament voted to allow Roman Catholics as members. In 1858, the 13 economists in Parliament voted unanimously to extend full civil rights to Jews. (While both measures were approved, they were controversial among many non-economist members.) For many years leading up to the various abolitions of slavery, economists were generally critics of slavery and advocates of people's natural equality, as documented by David M. Levy, professor of economics at George Mason University, and Sandra J. Peart, dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, in "The 'Vanity of the Philosopher': From Equality to Hierarchy in Post-Classical Economics."

Professors Levy and Peart coined the phrase "analytical egalitarianism" to describe the underpinnings of this tradition. For example, Adam Smith cited birth and fortune, as opposed to intrinsically different capabilities, as the primary reasons for differences in social rank. And the classical economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill promoted equal legal and institutional rights for women long before such views were fashionable. Their utilitarian moral theories placed individuals on a par in the social calculus by asking about the greatest good for the greatest number. 

Posted by orrinj at 9:02 AM


Iraq war: Lessons learned? (Doyle McManus, March 17, 2013, LA Times)

Ten years have passed since the United States invaded Iraq, a decision that almost everyone now ranks as one of the worst foreign policy blunders of our time. Why "almost"? Former President George W. Bush and his top aides still maintain that the invasion was a good idea, even though the premise on which the war was based -- that Saddam Hussein had acquired weapons of mass destruction -- proved false, and even though the ensuing war claimed the lives of more than 4,500 Americans and an estimated 127,000 Iraqis.

The debate over what went wrong -- which is also a debate over who deserves blame -- is still under way. Was it bad intelligence? Bad policymaking? A spineless Congress? Insufficiently skeptical media? Or, most likely, all of the above?

But the more important question for the future is this: Have we learned enough from the experience to make a difference the next time?

It's bad enough that the argument of Mr. McManus and his ilk is wrong on its own terms--Wikileaks and other sources having revealed the WMD that were found in Iraq.

More importantly, their argument is wrong in historical terms--we didn't fight the war over WMD, but rather to depose Saddam and liberate the people of Iraq.  There was even a hope--much scoffed at then--that such a liberation would unleash sufficient unrest among other captive peoples in the Islamic world to bring down other rotten regimes and liberate more Muslims. 

Understood in these -- George W. Bush's -- terms, the war was a spectacular success.  Let us name some of the places where the reverberations were felt: Indonesia, Turkish Kurdistan, Shi'a Lebanon, Palestine, Liberia, Somalia, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt...

Contra the Realists, the singular lesson of the Iraq War is that at extraordinarily little cost we can destabilize large regions to the extent that their peoples will have the spiritual motivation and the political room to assert their own God-given rights.

Happily for everyone--not least the McManus-like isolationists--there are precious few regions left where the lesson needs to be applied.  Arguably, the only obvious place where we are morally obligated to put what we learned into effect is North Korea, where removing the world's worst regime would destabilize the PRC.  We can not do so quickly enough. 

A Historian's Take on Islam Steers U.S. in Terrorism Fight : Bernard Lewis's Blueprint -- Sowing Arab Democracy -- Is Facing a Test in Iraq (Peter Waldman, February 3, 2004, The Wall Street Journal)

Call it the Lewis Doctrine. Though never debated in Congress or sanctified by presidential decree, Mr. Lewis's diagnosis of the Muslim world's malaise, and his call for a U.S. military invasion to seed democracy in the Mideast, have helped define the boldest shift in U.S. foreign policy in 50 years. The occupation of Iraq is putting the doctrine to the test.

For much of the second half of the last century, America viewed the Mideast and the rest of the world through a prism shaped by George Kennan, author of the doctrine of "containment." In a celebrated 1947 article in Foreign Affairs focused on the Soviet Union, Mr. Kennan gave structure to U.S. policy in the Cold War. It placed the need to contain Soviet ambitions above all else.

Terrorism has replaced Moscow as the global foe. And now America, having outlasted the Soviets to become the sole superpower, no longer seeks to contain but to confront, defeat and transform. How successful it is at remolding Iraq and the rest of the Mideast could have a huge impact on what sort of superpower America will be for decades to come: bold and assertive — or inward, defensive and cut off.

As mentor and informal adviser to some top U.S. officials, Mr. Lewis has helped coax the White House to shed decades of thinking about Arab regimes and the use of military power. Gone is the notion that U.S. policy in the oil-rich region should promote stability above all, even if it means taking tyrants as friends. Also gone is the corollary notion that fostering democratic values in these lands risks destabilizing them. Instead, the Lewis Doctrine says fostering Mideast democracy is not only wise but imperative.

Posted by orrinj at 8:57 AM


Why Conservatives Want to Break Up the Banks, Too (TIMOTHY NOAH, 3/16/13, New Republic)

Conservatives were wrong to oppose the government's bank rescue, but about one thing they were right: No bank should be "too big to fail." Dodd-Frank, the Obama administration explained, set in place prudent safeguards, but the right didn't believe these would work. The more left-leaning liberals (as distinct from centrist liberals, who place more faith in institutional authority) had their doubts, too. Why not just prevent any bank from being so large that its failure might wreck the economy? Averting a future bailout was the main concern, but not the only one. The implicit guarantee of a bailout for megabanks also amounted to a subsidy, skewing the market unfairly in their favor.

A bipartisan conversation began between left and right over the heads of the respectable center. It started in earnest with the publication of MIT economist Simon Johnson's influential 2010 book, 13 Bankers (co-authored with James Kwak), and has since then been percolating in publications like National Review and The Nation. Jon Huntsman called for bank breakup; so did Dean Baker, a left-leaning economist, and Richard W. Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. "Too big to fail is too big to continue," Peggy Noonan wrote in a January Wall Street Journal column.

The critique has lately been embraced by a bipartisan cohort of working politicians. Vitter and Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown will soon co-sponsor legislation to limit bank size. Elizabeth Warren, a fellow banking committee member, will likely support their effort. A similar measure introduced by Brown in 2010 was opposed by the Obama administration and by all but one banking-committee Democrat. It failed on a Senate floor vote, 61-33. But Brown told me, "We would get a majority of [committee] Democrats today." Even in 2010, two current banking-committee Republicans--Richard Shelby and Tom Coburn--supported the bill.

Getting the Obama administration on board is the greater challenge, but Jacob Lew, the newly installed treasury secretary, has yet to demonstrate strong opinions on the matter. (His predecessor, Tim Geithner, was adamantly against bank breakup.) House financial services committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Republican, continually complains that Dodd-Frank never solved "too big to fail." It isn't clear he'd support bank breakup, but Republican John Campbell is pushing a somewhat similar bill.

For conservatives who feel queasy advocating the breakup of private enterprises, MIT's Johnson offers this consolation: Remember George Stigler. Stigler, a conservative economist who died in 1991, won the Nobel for a theory that basically said Galbraith's partnership approach didn't work because of "regulatory capture," i.e., the various ways corporations tame their minders--for example, by maintaining a revolving door between industry and government. Rather than try to control powerful corporations, Stigler thought government should use antitrust law to break them up and let competition rein them in.

Posted by orrinj at 6:58 AM


JPMorgan's Follies, for All to See (GRETCHEN MORGENSON, 3/16/13, NY Times)

Its pages of e-mails, testimony, telephone transcripts and analysis show that traders in the bank's chief investment office hid money-losing derivatives positions, if only temporarily; that risk limits created by the bank to protect itself were exceeded routinely; that risk models were changed to minimize losses; that bank executives misled investors and the public; and that regulations are only as good as the regulators enforcing them. [...]

Hoping to understand JPMorgan's practice of relaxing its valuation method on the troubled investment portfolio, Mr. Levin asked of Mr. Braunstein: "Is it common for JPMorgan to change its pricing practices when losses start to pile up in order to minimize the losses?"

After a bit of back and forth, Mr. Braunstein said: "No, that is not acceptable practice."

Not acceptable, perhaps, but that is what occurred, as the Senate report shows. Normal practice at the bank and across the industry is to value these kinds of derivatives at the midpoint between the bid and offer prices available in the market. But in early 2012, as it became apparent that JPMorgan's big trades at the chief investment office were going bad, the bank began valuing the portfolio well outside the midpoint. This reduced its losses.

For example, in January 2012, the portfolio valuations hewed closely to the midpoint on all but 2 of the 18 measures, the Senate investigators found. A month later, 5 of the 18 valuation measures deviated from the midpoint. In March, however, all 18 deviated, and 16 were at the outer bounds of price ranges. In every case, the prices used by the bank understated its losses.

While these valuation shifts were taking place in the chief investment office, JPMorgan's investment bank officials continued to mark their identical positions using the midpoint value.

RISK limits, intended to protect the bank from losses, were also routinely breached at JPMorgan Chase, the report found. From late 2011 to the first quarter of 2012, Senate investigators saw a huge jump in the number of risk-limit breaches -- to more than 170, from 6. Then, in April 2012 alone, risk limits were exceeded 160 times.

"Should someone have investigated the risky trading activities that triggered all these breaches?" Mr. Levin asked. Yes, but no one did, the report concluded. The risk limits were either ignored or modified to make the portfolio look better.

Bank fraud...all the way down....
Posted by orrinj at 6:54 AM


Days of Promise Fade for Ethanol (JOHN ELIGON and MATTHEW L. WALD, 3/17/13, NY Times)

Backed by government subsidies and mandates, hundreds of ethanol plants rose among the golden fields of the Corn Belt, bringing jobs and business to small towns, providing farmers with a new market for their crops and generating billions of dollars in revenue for the producers of this corn-based fuel blend.

Those days of promise and prosperity are vanishing.

Nearly 10 percent of the nation's ethanol plants have stopped production over the past year, in part because the drought that has ravaged much of the nation's crops pushed commodity prices so high that ethanol has become too expensive to produce.

A dip in gasoline consumption has compounded the industry's problem by reducing the demand for ethanol.

Markets are tough mistresses.  They won't let government pick winners, but do allow it to create losers.
Posted by orrinj at 6:50 AM


Facing Bailout Tax, Cypriots Try to Get Cash Out of Banks (LIZ ALDERMAN, 3/17/13, NY Times)

Under an emergency deal reached early Saturday in Brussels, a one-time tax of 9.9 percent is to be levied on Cypriot bank deposits of more than 100,000 euros effective Tuesday, hitting wealthy depositors -- mostly Russians who have put vast sums into Cyprus's banks in recent years. But even deposits under that amount are to be taxed at 6.75 percent, meaning that Cyprus's creditors will be confiscating money directly from pensioners, workers and regular depositors to pay off the bailout tab.

Cyprus's newly elected president, Nicos Anastasiades, said taxing depositors would allow Cyprus to avoid implementing harsher austerity measures, including pension cuts and tax increases, of the type that have wreaked havoc in neighboring Greece. That thinking appealed to some Cypriots, including Stala Georgoudi, 56. "A one-time thing would be better than worse measures," she said. "Procrastinating and beating around the bush would be worse."

But Sharon Bowles, a British member of the European Parliament who is the head of the body's influential Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, said the accord amounted to a "grabbing of ordinary depositors' money," billed as a tax.

"What the deal reflects is that being an unsecured or even secured depositor in euro-area banks is not as safe as it used to be," said Jacob Kirkegaard, an economist and European specialist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. 

Posted by orrinj at 6:08 AM


Right Again : The passions of John Stuart Mill (Adam Gopnik, 10/06/08, The New Yorker)

After Harriet's death, Mill entered Parliament, in 1865, as a liberal backbencher, and did about as well as intellectuals usually do there. He was often hooted, and became notorious for having once described the Conservatives as "necessarily the stupidest party." What he meant wasn't that Conservatives were stupid; Disraeli, who was running the Tory Party then, was probably the cleverest man ever to run a political party, and Mill's own influences from the right were immense and varied. He meant that, since true conservatism is a complicated position, demanding a good deal of restraint when action is what seems to be wanted, and a long view of history when an immediate call to arms is about...

Who would argue against the truism that conservatism is restrained, rather than impulsive, and based on taking the long view rather than seeking immediate gratification?
Posted by orrinj at 5:56 AM


It's Lose-Lose vs. Win-Win-Win-Win-Win (THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, 3/17/13, NY Times)

Writing in this newspaper in support of a carbon tax back in 2007, N. Gregory Mankiw, the Harvard economist, who was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush and to Mitt Romney, argued that "the idea of using taxes to fix problems, rather than merely raise government revenue, has a long history. The British economist Arthur Pigou advocated such corrective taxes to deal with pollution in the early 20th century. In his honor, economics textbooks now call them 'Pigovian taxes.' Using a Pigovian tax to address global warming is also an old idea. It was proposed as far back as 1992 by Martin S. Feldstein on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. ... Those vying for elected office, however, are reluctant to sign on to this agenda. Their political consultants are no fans of taxes, Pigovian or otherwise. Republican consultants advise using the word 'tax' only if followed immediately by the word 'cut.' Democratic consultants recommend the word 'tax' be followed by 'on the rich.' "

Yes, to win passage of any carbon tax, Republicans would insist that it be revenue neutral -- to be offset entirely by cuts in corporate taxes and taxes on personal income. But maybe they could be persuaded otherwise. In an ideal world, you would have 45 percent go to pay down the deficit so that we don't have to cut entitlements as much -- appealing to liberals and greens -- and have 45 percent go to reducing corporate and income taxes -- to encourage work and investment and appeal to conservatives. The remaining 10 percent could be rebated to low-income households for whom such a tax would be a burden.

Just a thought here, maybe Mr. Friedman could explain why his refusal to reform entitlements in any fashion is more thoughtful than the conservative desire to make them more generous but also more cost-effective and why he'd retain corporate and income taxes that he concedes discourage work?  

Of course, since he's not a yucky conservative we know that his position can't just be reflexive, so why not articulate his thought processes for advocating positions he knows to be Lose-Lose?

Sen. Corker: Deal Is Possible on Taxes, Entitlements (WSJ, 3/17/13)

Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) said in an interview that for members of his party to accept a "grand bargain" on fiscal issues, Mr. Obama must embrace fundamental changes to Social Security and Medicare that would make the entitlement programs viable over the long term.

"We'd like to see these programs available for future generations," Mr. Corker said. "And, so, if the president is willing to sit down and look at structural reforms that will generate a 75-year soundness for these programs, I think that through tax reform, most Republicans would be willing to look at revenue."

The GOP is the pro-entitlements party.
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Posted by orrinj at 5:46 AM


Why an MRI costs $1,080 in America and $280 in France (Ezra Klein, March 15, 2013, Washington Post)

There is a simple reason health care in the United States costs more than it does anywhere else: The prices are higher. [...]

There are many possible explanations for why Americans pay so much more. It could be that we're sicker. Or that we go to the doctor more frequently. But health researchers have largely discarded these theories. As Gerard Anderson, Uwe Reinhardt, Peter Hussey and Varduhi Petrosyan put it in the title of their influential 2003 study on international health-care costs, "it's the prices, stupid."

As it's difficult to get good data on prices, that paper blamed prices largely by eliminating the other possible culprits. They authors considered, for instance, the idea that Americans were simply using more health-care services, but on close inspection, found that Americans don't see the doctor more often or stay longer in the hospital than residents of other countries. Quite the opposite, actually. We spend less time in the hospital than Germans and see the doctor less often than the Canadians.

"The United States spends more on health care than any of the other OECD countries spend, without providing more services than the other countries do," they concluded. "This suggests that the difference in spending is mostly attributable to higher prices of goods and services."

...but we do know how to drive down the prices of goods and services : make consumers pay for them out of their own pockets.  If my insurer is footing the bill I don't care what it costs.  If the money comes out of my savings account I suddenly do.

Importantly, this difference remains even if government funds the entire health care system.  The difference is between funding the benefit and funding the contribution.

Posted by orrinj at 5:43 AM


Coffee-Bean Prices Sag (LESLIE JOSEPHS, 3/17/13, WSJ)

Mounting stockpiles of arabica coffee around the world have soured traders' outlook on the commodity, pushing prices down to a 33-month low.

Arabica coffee in 60-kilogram (132-pound) sacks stored in exchange-certified warehouses rose to more than 2.74 million bags Friday, up 6.7% from the start of the year.

Beans are also accumulating in Brazil, the source of about one-third of the world's coffee. Growers there have been holding back some of their crop, waiting for higher prices. According to Safras & Mercado, a Brazilian consulting firm, farmers there had sold 71% of their 2012 crop by the end of February, down from 87% at the same point last year.

"There's too much Brazilian [coffee], too much arabica," said Thiago Cazarini, a coffee broker based in Varginha, Brazil.

Posted by orrinj at 5:37 AM


NFL medical standards, practices are different than almost anywhere else (Sally Jenkins and Rick Maese, March 16, 2013, Washington Post)

When Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III gimped onto FedEx Field in the fourth quarter of a January playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, he was under the gaze of no fewer than six physicians and assorted medical personnel. There was an internist, two orthopedists, an emergency medicine specialist, a neurologist and a renowned knee surgeon. There were five certified athletic trainers on the sideline, and another stationed in a booth high above, an "eye in the sky" tasked with spotting injuries.

It was visible to all of them, as it was to the audience, that Griffin was so compromised by a strained right knee ligament that he could barely run. Yet the experts did not intervene. In the next moment, something became plain: There is medicine, and then there is National Football League medicine, and the practice of the two isn't always the same.

Griffin tried to field a bad snap, and his leg collapsed at a weird angle, his knee so unstable that even a cumbersome brace could not keep him upright. He fell to the ground like a doll with a broken spring, injured with torn anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments. With that, a central tenet of the Hippocratic oath -- "Do no harm" -- instantly seemed turned on its head. Asked later how Griffin could have been permitted to retake the field, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called it "a medical decision." Yet in the aftermath, even longtime NFL loyalists questioned why doctors allowed a brilliant rookie quarterback to play hurt and jeopardize his future.

It's quite possible that the only thing that can save the NFL is jury nullification.

Posted by orrinj at 5:26 AM


Obsessed fan who shot player, inspired movie, dies (Associated Press, 3/17/13)

The story began with what appeared to be just another young woman's crush on Eddie Waittkus, the Chicago Cubs' handsome first baseman. So complete was this crush that the teenager set a place for Waitkus, whom she'd never met, at the family dinner table. She turned her bedroom into a shrine to him, and put his photo under her pillow.

After the 1948 season, Waitkus was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies _ a fateful turn. "When he went to the Phillies, that's when she decided to kill him," Theodore said in an interview.

Steinhagen had her chance the next season, when the Phillies came to Chicago to play the Cubs at Wrigley Field. She checked into a room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel where he was staying and invited him to her room.

"We're not acquainted, but I have something of importance to speak to you about," she wrote in a note to him after a game at Wrigley on June 14, 1949.

It worked. Waitkus arrived at her room. After he sat down, Steinhagen walked to a closet, said, "I have a surprise for you," then turned with the rifle she had hidden there and shot him in the chest. Theodore wrote that she then knelt by his side and held his hand on her lap. She told a psychiatrist afterward about how she had dreamed of killing him and found it strange that she was now "holding him in my arms."

Newspapers devoured and trumpeted the lurid story of a 19-year-old baseball groupie, known in the parlance of the day as a "Baseball Annie." Among the sensational and probably staged photos was one showing Steinhagen writing in her journal at a table in her jail cell with a framed photograph of Waitkus propped nearby.

A judge determined she was insane and committed her to a mental hospital. She was released three years later, after doctors determined she had regained her sanity.

March 16, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:00 PM


Evolution and Existentialism, an Intellectual Odd Couple (David P. Barash, 3/11/13, Chronicle Review)

The Danish philosopher and existentialist pioneer Søren Kierkegaard asked that only this should be written below his name on his gravestone: "The Individual." And in his masterful Man in the Modern Age, the existential psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers, although rejecting the label of existentialism, focused on the struggle of individuals to achieve an authentic life in the face of pressures for mass conformity.

In a parallel track, much of the intellectual impetus of evolutionary biology has come from abandoning comfortable but outmoded group-level arguments. Although the public still tends to think that evolution acts, as it's commonly put, "for the good of the species," evolutionary biologists are essentially unanimous that natural selection acts most strongly at the smallest level: individuals. Actually, the process goes farther yet, focusing when possible on individual genes. Species-wide effects are simply the arithmetic summation of these micro-impacts.

That individual, gene-centered perspective has given rise to criticism that sociobiology--the application of evolutionary insights to complex social behavior, including that of our own species­--is inherently cynical, promoting a gloomy, egocentric Weltansicht. The same, of course, has been said of existentialism, whose stereotypical practitioner is the anguished, angst-ridden loner, wearing a black turtleneck and obsessing, Hamlet-like, about the meaninglessness of life.

Let's look more closely at that critique by taking an extreme position and granting, if only for the sake of argument, that human beings, like other living things, are merely survival machines for their genes, organic robots whose biologically mandated purpose is neither more nor less than the promulgation of those genes. And let's grant that existentialists are very much occupied with the meaninglessness of life and the consequent need for people to assert their own meaning, to define themselves against an absurd universe. Furthermore, let's consider the less-well-known fact that, although evolutionary biology makes no claim that it or what it produces is inherently good, it also teaches that life is absurd.

Scientific paradigms are, after all, just a function of intellectual climate.

Posted by orrinj at 9:33 PM


The Great Green Con no. 1: The hard proof that finally shows global warming forecasts that are costing you billions were WRONG all along    (DAVID ROSE, 16 March 2013, Daily Mail)

The graph on this page blows apart the 'scientific basis' for Britain reshaping its entire economy and spending billions in taxes and subsidies in order to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. These moves have already added £100 a year to household energy bills.

global warming graph

The estimates - given with 75 per cent and 95 per cent certainty - suggest only a five per cent chance of the real temperature falling outside both bands.
But when the latest official global temperature figures from the Met Office are placed over the predictions, they show how wrong the estimates have been, to the point of falling out of the '95 per cent' band completely.

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Posted by orrinj at 9:27 PM


World poverty is shrinking rapidly, new index reveals (Tracy McVeigh, 3/16/13, The Observer,)

Some of the poorest people in the world are becoming significantly less poor, according to a groundbreaking academic study which has taken a new approach to measuring deprivation. The report, by Oxford University's poverty and human development initiative, predicts that countries among the most impoverished in the world could see acute poverty eradicated within 20 years if they continue at present rates.

It identifies "star performer" nations such as Rwanda, Nepal and Bangladesh as places where deprivation could disappear within the lifetime of present generations. Close on their heels with reductions in poverty levels were Ghana, Tanzania, Cambodia and Bolivia.

The study comes after the UN's latest development report published last week which stated that poverty reduction drives in the developing world were exceeding all expectations. It says: "The world is witnessing a epochal 'global rebalancing' with higher growth in at least 40 poor countries helping lift hundreds of millions out of poverty and into a new 'global middle class'. Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast."

The brighter global picture is the result of international and national aid and development projects investing in schools, health clinics, housing, infrastructure and improved access to water. The UN also pointed to trade as being a key factor which was improving conditions in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. 

Thank you, globalization.
Posted by orrinj at 6:28 PM

WHO DOESN'T? (via The Other Brother):

The Man with a Train Car in His Basement (Goli Mohammadi , March 15th, 2013, Make)

Canadian train enthusiast Jason Shron has a special place in his heart for VIA trains, Canada's intercity passenger rail cars. His lifelong dream was to have a train car in his basement. When he was 12, he wrote VIA a letter asking if there was any way he could buy a seat from one of the trains, but the return letter said no.

Fast forward to his adulthood, when he heard that VIA coach #5647 was due to be scrapped. Luckily, he and a group of friends were able to get a hold of it. Four and a half years and over 2500 hours of build time later, right past the shelf of Doctor Who figurines and down a couple of stairs, Jason Shron has a train car in his basement with all the authentic bells and whistles. He started building the coach in May 2008 in a 12′x20′ pink room in the basement and finally finished in November 2011.

Posted by orrinj at 8:02 AM


Ignoble Experiment : This is what happens when dogma distorts science. (Michael Rosen, March 18, 2013, Weekly Standard)

A meta-study that appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine last September found no "strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods." A dozen Stanford researchers combed some 237 studies that analyzed food consumption and health outcomes among thousands of people, only to conclude (in the words of the study's senior author) that "there isn't much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you're an adult and making a decision based solely on your health." 

In the weeks that followed, progressive foodies and activists were, predictably, apoplectic. The study was "an exercise in misdirection" and "junk science" that "conveniently obscur[ed] important features of organic agriculture," according to Mark Bittman of the New York Times, who likened the Stanford findings to "declaring guns no more dangerous than baseball bats" and to "comparing milk and Elmer's glue on the basis of whiteness."

When scientific facts collide with the ingrained worldview of left-wing activists like Bittman, chaos ensues--and it is such disorder among progressives that Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell capably catalogue in this penetrating, entertaining world tour of what they label the "anti-scientific left."

For all the bluster on opposition to science emanating from conservatives, Berezow and Campbell note that it's progressives--whom they distinguish from less-leftist liberals--who "have mastered feel-good fallacies" and "bully the scientific community into playing along."

...what choice do they have but bullying?
Posted by orrinj at 6:57 AM


Why Wait for Democracy? (Larry Diamond, Winter 2013, Wilson Quarterly)

These doubts about the suitability of democracy for other peoples are far from new. From the era of Western colonial domination well into what became known as "the Third Wave" of global democratization (which began with the Portuguese Revolution in 1974), writers and policymakers questioned whether democracy could travel beyond the West. They not only questioned whether other cultures (and religions) could sustain democracy, but also whether it was in the West's interest to have these other countries governed on the basis of elections that might mobilize the passions of the uneducated and poorly informed "masses." Moreover, there was an empirical basis for this skepticism. Although democracy had emerged during the post-World War II era in a few developing countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, and Botswana, most of the newly decolonized states had fairly quickly settled into authoritarian patterns of governance. During the Cold War, many countries were, in effect, forced to choose between becoming a right-wing, often military autocracy backed by the West or a socialist one-party state, frequently born of violent revolution, backed by the Soviet Union and China.

The cultural arguments against the prospects for democracy in developing nations were the most tenacious, and they came both from the West and from political and intellectual leaders in the developing world. Latin America came into focus first because of its many Marxist insurgencies, left-wing populist movements, and military coups in the 1960s and '70s. During most of the Cold War, many conservative scholars and writers in the United States dismissed the idea of establishing democracy in the region as infeasible (or at least contrary to American interests, since it would mean sacrificing U.S. ties to friendly anticommunist autocrats). Because of their long histories of centralized, absolutist rule deriving from their experience of Spanish or Portuguese imperial rule and the hierarchical and authoritarian traditions of the Catholic Church, the Latin American countries were said to lack the emphasis on individual freedom, the willingness among their citizens to question authority, and the appreciation of pluralism and equality necessary to sustain democracy. Similar arguments were made about Asia and the Middle East. "Asian values" and Islamic culture were seen to value order over freedom, consensus over competition, and the community over the individual. They not only lacked the intrinsic suspicion of authority that buoyed democracy in the West, it was said, but practiced a deference to authority that answered "deep psychological cravings for the security of dependency," in the words of Lucian Pye, one of the most respected scholars of Asian political cultures. Elie Kedourie, a famous British historian of the Middle East, dismissed "the political traditions of the Arab world--which are the political traditions of Islam," as completely lacking any understanding of "the organizing ideas of constitutional and representative government."

In his influential 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations, the American political scientist Samuel Huntington warned more generally of "fundamental [civilizational] divides." He stressed the cultural distinctiveness of the West, "most notably its Christianity, pluralism, individualism, and the rule of law," adding that "Western civilization," in its commitment to liberal democratic values, "is valuable not because it is universal but because it is unique.

Though they were not intended for this purpose, such cultural arguments served well the purposes of autocrats looking to justify their rule. [...]

The developments of the last four decades, however, have proved the skeptics wrong. Even as Huntington was writing the words quoted above, a wave of democratic expansion was gathering momentum, which Huntington himself would document and analyze definitively just seven years later in his influential book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. In the decade following his 1984 article, the world witnessed the greatest expansion of democracy in history, as political freedom spread from southern Europe and Latin America to Asia, then central and eastern Europe, then Africa. By the mid-1990s, three of every five states in the world were democracies--a proportion that persists more or less to this day.

While it remains true that democracy is more sustainable at higher levels of development, an unprecedented number of poor countries adopted democratic forms of government during the 1980s and '90s, and many of them have sustained democracy for well over a decade. These include several African countries, such as Ghana, Benin, and Senegal, and one of the poorest Asian countries, Bangladesh. Other very poor countries, such as East Timor, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, are now using the political institutions of democracy as they rebuild their economies and states after civil war. Although the world has been in a mild democratic recession since about 2006, with reversals concentrated disproportionately in low-income and lower-middle-income states, a significant number of democracies in these income categories continue to function.

The lower- and middle-income democracies that did come through the last two decades intact have shown that authoritarianism confers no intrinsic developmental advantage. For every Singapore-style authoritarian economic "miracle," there have been many more instances of implosion or stagnation--as in Zaire, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and (until recently) Burma-- resulting from predatory authoritarian rule. Numerous studies have shown that democracies do a better job of reducing infant mortality and protecting the environment, and recent evidence from sub-Saharan Africa (see, for example, economist Steven Radelet's 2010 book Emerging Africa: How Seventeen Countries are Leading the Way) shows that the highest rates of economic growth in Africa since the mid-1990s have generally occurred in the democratic states. Once they achieved democracy, South Korea and Taiwan continued to record brisk economic growth. When the G-20 was formed at the end of the '90s out of the old G-8 organization of the world's major economies, eight of the 10 emerging-market countries that joined were democracies, including India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey, and South Korea.

Further refuting the skeptics, democracy has taken root or at least been embraced by every major cultural group, not just the societies of the West with their Protestant traditions. Most Catholic countries are now democracies, and very stable ones at that. Democracy has thrived in a Hindu state, Buddhist states, and a Jewish state. And many predominantly Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Bangladesh, Senegal, and Indonesia, have by now had significant and mainly positive experience with democracy.
Finally, the claim that democracy was unsuitable for these other cultures--that their peoples did not value democracy as those in the West did--has been invalidated, both by experience and by a profusion of public opinion survey data showing that the desire for democracy is very much a global phenomenon. Although there is wide variation across countries and regions, with low levels of trust in parties and politicians in the wealthier democracies of Asia, Latin America, and postcommunist Europe, people virtually everywhere say they prefer democracy to authoritarianism. What people want is not a retreat to dictatorship but a more accountable and deeper democracy.

Posted by orrinj at 6:47 AM


The Heretic : Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him? (Andrew Ferguson, March 25, 2013, Weekly Standard)

"Evolutionists," one reviewer huffily wrote, "will feel they've been ravaged by a sheep." Many reviewers attacked the book on cultural as well as philosophical or scientific grounds, wondering aloud how a distinguished house like Oxford University Press could allow such a book to be published. The Philosophers' Magazine described it with the curious word "irresponsible." How so? In Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, the British philosopher John Dupré explained. Mind and Cosmos, he wrote, "will certainly lend comfort (and sell a lot of copies) to the religious enemies of Darwinism." Simon Blackburn of Cambridge University made the same point: "I regret the appearance of this book. It will only bring comfort to creationists and fans of 'intelligent design.' "

But what about fans of apostasy? You don't have to be a biblical fundamentalist or a young-earth creationist or an intelligent design enthusiast--I'm none of the above, for what it's worth--to find Mind and Cosmos exhilarating. "For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe," Nagel writes. "It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection." The prima facie impression, reinforced by common sense, should carry more weight than the clerisy gives it. "I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life."  

The incredulity is not simply a matter of scientific ignorance, as the materialists would have it. It arises from something more fundamental and intimate. The neo-Darwinian materialist account offers a picture of the world that is unrecognizable to us--a world without color or sound, and also a world without free will or consciousness or good and evil or selves or, when it comes to that, selflessness. "It flies in the face of common sense," he says. Materialism is an explanation for a world we don't live in.

Nagel's tone is measured and tentative, but there's no disguising the book's renegade quality. There are flashes of exasperation and dismissive impatience. What's exhilarating is that the source of Nagel's exasperation is, so to speak, his own tribe: the "secular theoretical establishment and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates." The establishment today, he says, is devoted beyond all reason to a "dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against attacks from religion." I'm sure Nagel would recoil at the phrase, but Mind and Cosmos is a work of philosophical populism, defending our everyday understanding from the highly implausible worldview of a secular clerisy. His working assumption is, in today's intellectual climate, radical: If the materialist, neo-Darwinian orthodoxy contradicts common sense, then this is a mark against the orthodoxy, not against common sense. When a chain of reasoning leads us to deny the obvious, we should double-check the chain of reasoning before we give up on the obvious. 

Nagel follows the materialist chain of reasoning all the way into the cul de sac where it inevitably winds up. Nagel's touchier critics have accused him of launching an assault on science, when really it is an assault on the nonscientific uses to which materialism has been put. Though he does praise intelligent design advocates for having the nerve to annoy the secular establishment, he's no creationist himself. He has no doubt that "we are products of the long history of the universe since the big bang, descended from bacteria through millions of years of natural selection." And he assumes that the self and the body go together. "So far as we can tell," he writes, "our mental lives, including our subjective experiences, and those of other creatures are strongly connected with and probably strictly dependent on physical events in our brains and on the physical interaction of our bodies with the rest of the physical world." To believe otherwise is to believe, as the materialists derisively say, in "spooky stuff." (Along with jumped-up monkeys and moist robots and countless other much-too-cute phrases, the use of spooky stuff proves that our popular science writers have spent a lot of time watching Scooby-Doo.) Nagel doesn't believe in spooky stuff.

Materialism, then, is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn't go as far as materialists want it to. It is a premise of science, not a finding. Scientists do their work by assuming that every phenomenon can be reduced to a material, mechanistic cause and by excluding any possibility of nonmaterial explanations. And the materialist assumption works really, really well--in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation. Materialism has allowed us to predict and control what happens in nature with astonishing success. The jaw-dropping edifice of modern science, from space probes to nanosurgery, is the result. 

But the success has gone to the materialists' heads. From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: If science can't quantify something, it doesn't exist, and so the subjective, unquantifiable, immaterial "manifest image" of our mental life is proved to be an illusion.

Here materialism bumps up against itself. Nagel insists that we know some things to exist even if materialism omits or ignores or is oblivious to them. Reductive materialism doesn't account for the "brute facts" of existence--it doesn't explain, for example, why the world exists at all, or how life arose from nonlife. Closer to home, it doesn't plausibly explain the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren't. These failures, Nagel says, aren't just temporary gaps in our knowledge, waiting to be filled in by new discoveries in science. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. "There is little or no possibility," he writes, "that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics."  [...]

Applied beyond its own usefulness as a scientific methodology, materialism is, as Nagel suggests, self-evidently absurd. Mind and Cosmos can be read as an extended paraphrase of Orwell's famous insult: "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool." Materialism can only be taken seriously as a philosophy through a heroic feat of cognitive dissonance; pretending, in our abstract, intellectual life, that values like truth and goodness have no objective content even as, in our private life, we try to learn what's really true and behave in a way we know to be good. Nagel has sealed his ostracism from the intelligentsia by idly speculating why his fellow intellectuals would undertake such a feat. 

"The priority given to evolutionary naturalism in the face of its implausible conclusions," he writes, "is due, I think, to the secular consensus that this is the only form of external understanding of ourselves that provides an alternative to theism."

In a recent review in the New York Review of Books of Where the Conflict Really Lies, by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Nagel told how instinctively he recoils from theism, and how hungry he is for a reasonable alternative. "If I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true," he wrote, "the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith." He admits that he finds the evident failure of materialism as a worldview alarming--precisely because the alternative is, for a secular intellectual, unthinkable. He calls this intellectual tic "fear of religion." 

"I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear," he wrote not long ago in an essay called "Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion." "I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."

Nagel believes this "cosmic authority problem" is widely shared among intellectuals, and I believe him. It accounts for the stubbornness with which they cling to materialism--and for the hostility that greets an intellectual who starts to wander off from the herd. Materialism must be true because it "liberates us from religion." The positive mission Nagel undertakes in Mind and Cosmos is to outline, cautiously, a possible Third Way between theism and materialism, given that the first is unacceptable--emotionally, if not intellectually--and the second is untenable. Perhaps matter itself has a bias toward producing conscious creatures. Nature in that case would be "teleological"--not random, not fully subject to chance, but tending toward a particular end. Our mental life would be accounted for--phew!--without reference to God. 

I don't think Nagel succeeds in finding his Third Way, and I doubt he or his successors ever will, but then I have biases of my own. There's no doubting the honesty and intellectual courage--the free thinking and ennobling good faith--that shine through his attempt.

The Darwinists are like those Japanese soldiers left behind on tiny islands -- they're the last ones to hear that the war is over and their side was annihilated.

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March 15, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:25 PM


It's OK to Call Yourself a Christian (LILLIAN DANIEL, MARCH 14, 2013, Relevant)

The latest to stake a claim for not staking a claim is Marcus Mumford, the front man of the wildly popular Mumford & Sons, whose Christian-themed lyrics have been a source of fascination to believers and nonbelievers alike.

In Rolling Stone's upcoming cover story, Mumford demurred when asked if he considered himself a Christian, as a teaser on the magazine's website revealed. "I don't really like that word. It comes with so much baggage," he said, in terms that many fans will relate to. "So, no, I wouldn't call myself a Christian."

Mumford, the son of the U.K. founders of the evangelical Vineyard movement is hardly the first church kid to question or reject the faith tradition he was raised in. In fact, the words he uses to describe himself in Rolling Stone will resonate with the fast growing group within Millennial culture--the "nones." As the Pew Research Center reported last year, 32 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds listed "none" as their religious affiliation.

Mumford's remarks certainly aren't a rarity, but they may disappoint the multitude of Christian fans who have seen in Mumford & Sons an intelligent and artistic articulation of their faith. Christian.

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Posted by orrinj at 10:21 PM


My Train Fantasy : Where's our high-speed rail? (Jeremy Stahl, March 15, 2013, Slate)

America 2050 has been heavily involved in attempting to establish which corridors make the most sense for high-speed rail. In 2011, it published a comprehensive report analyzing 7,870 potential high-speed rail corridors in the country's 11 "mega-regions" where 70 percent of the nation's population resides. Typical mega-regions include the Northeast corridor, the Great Lakes states, California and the Southwest, and the Northwestern "Cascadia" region of Washington and Oregon. Using a handful of criteria, including population, employment, the market for air travel, and automobile traffic congestion, the study attempted to establish which routes would be most ideal for high-speed rail construction. Routes with scores of 19 or more were deemed best-suited for the most modern high-speed rail systems, scores of 17 were projected to be well-suited for top-of-the-line systems if population growth were to continue at projected rates, and scores of 10 or below were said to not justify priority federal funding because of their sparse and spread-out populations.

Twu's map included some of the highest scoring routes, including Washington, D.C., to New York City (with a score of 20.15), Boston to New York (19.87), New York to Philadelphia (19.86), Los Angeles to San Diego (19.62), Chicago to Milwaukee (19.38), Los Angeles to San Francisco (17.98), and Portland to Seattle (17.37). But it also included many of the low-scoring routes as well, such as Chicago to Memphis (10.79), Kansas City to St. Louis (9.62), Little Rock to Dallas (10.66), Baton Rouge to New Orleans (8.48), and Birmingham to New Orleans (4.95). Twu also drew four routes connecting Albuquerque, El Paso, Denver, Omaha, and Salt Lake City that all scored between 4.67 and 9.91, and two separate lines in the low-scoring Florida region. "Some of these city pairs are so far apart that we didn't even rank them," says Schned.

Corridors that couldn't attract sufficient numbers of riders would likely detract from the potential economic and environmental benefits gained from the more sensible routes. "If newly built high-speed rail services do not attract projected ridership over time, they will not only fail to deliver their promised benefits but they may waste energy, resources, and require excessive operating subsidies," the America 2050 report concluded.

Experts who study light rail often mention a "sweet spot" of between 100 and 600 miles for high-speed rail corridor trips. Shorter than 100 miles, and a rider is more likely to want to take a conventional train, a car, or a bus. Longer than 600 miles and a rider is better off flying.

The potential efficiencies of high-speed rail along corridors with proven ridership figures are getting tougher and tougher to deny. "We have millions of people living right now in this country in places where they don't have adequate inter-city transportation," says Christopher Barkan, director of the railroad engineering program at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "They're entirely dependent upon congested highways. They're entirely dependent upon using airplanes."

If we could connect those people in a way that cuts greenhouse emissions, comes at a lower cost for commuters, allows them to access wireless networks and work during trips, and is profitable, the potential economic and environmental efficiencies would easily be worth the initial investment. But that initial investment would be steep. 

Posted by orrinj at 9:35 PM


EPA may delay proposed greenhouse gas limits for power plants (Juliet Eilperin and Philip Rucker, 3/15/13, Washington Post)

The Obama administration is leaning toward revising its landmark proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, according to several individuals briefed on the matter, a move that would delay tougher restrictions and anger many environmentalists.

The discussions center on the first greenhouse gas limits for power plants, which were proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency nearly a year ago. Rewriting the proposal would significantly postpone any action and also might allow the agency to set more permissive standards for coal-fired power plants, which are roughly twice as polluting as those fueled by natural gas.

Posted by orrinj at 9:26 PM


The Road to Republican Revival : The central mission of conservatives is to reignite American social mobility--restoring the right to rise. (JEB BUSH, 3/15/13, WSJ)

 America could be on the threshold of its greatest century.

With new drilling technologies, the United States will soon have an energy surplus. This means trillions of dollars in new wealth and a foreign policy not dominated by oil.

Given advances in agriculture and bioengineering, America could be the Saudi Arabia of grain in a century when the world is clamoring for more food. Wireless communication, artificial intelligence and rapid advances in life sciences are transforming every facet of American business and daily life. Entire classes of diseases are on the verge of being eradicated by manipulating individual molecules on the surfaces of living cells.

Technological innovation means that in the coming decades, driverless vehicles will flawlessly move people and products on our highways, never getting lost, never having accidents. The development of 3D printing machines is racing ahead--and they will be down-scaled for home use, so that consumers can instantly create thousands of objects at the touch of a button.

This country is younger than all other industrialized nations, and if we get immigration right, we're going to stay young. 

Posted by orrinj at 9:23 PM


Ridding The Country's Roads Of Potholes, With An Army Of Online Inspectors (Michael J. Coren, 3/15/13, Co.Exist)

Our roads are in a sorry state. The American Society of Civil Engineers (whose members wouldn't mind being hired to fix them) gives our roads a D- for the poor conditions costing U.S. motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs, about $333 per motorist.

Posted by orrinj at 9:20 PM


A new era for gold? (Izabella Kaminska, Mar 15, 2013, Financial Times)

Money debasement doesn't seem a viable threat in a world facing ongoing deflation rather than inflation, since debasement only helps to spread the wealth which would otherwise concentrate in the hands of savers and safe fixed income asset holders (in a totally disproportional sense). Consequently, debasement helps to keep the system stabilised, making it a vital central banking tool.

The quantity theory of money, meanwhile, is all too often quoted forgetting the output part of the equation. It's the velocity of money and the quantity that matters, but always as relative to output. If output is accelerating more quickly than the quantity of money or its velocity, there is no risk of inflation, since no shortage of goods prevails. Furthermore, output doesn't necessarily mean growth as measured by GDP, including as it does almost anything that's free as well as monetised.

As free goods become increasingly plentiful throughout the economy, and people learn to recycle, swap and exchange goods without monetary transaction, it becomes very difficult to engineer an inflation problem.

Posted by orrinj at 9:03 PM


Bacon-shell tacos, or Bacos, on the menu at Mich. minor-league park (Associated Press / March 15, 2013)

Those who come to see the West Michigan Whitecaps play will have the opportunity to chow down on a Baco, ataco with a specially made bacon shell.

March 14, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:32 PM


U.S. economy improving faster than expected, data show (Don Lee, 3/15/13, Los Angeles Times)

Piece by piece, evidence has begun to accumulate that after four years of lackluster performance, the U.S. economy is on track for stronger growth than many people had expected.

The latest support for that view comes from data on consumer spending, which grew at a surprisingly quick pace in February, pushed upward by robust demand for cars and building materials. [...]

The more optimistic among them have forecast that the economy would begin to accelerate once consumers and companies worked through the damage left behind by the housing bubble and debt crisis that triggered the recession. That process of "de-leveraging" has now largely run its course, and the new evidence may suggest faster growth in the coming months.

"What's changed in the economy is that the key cyclical drivers of economic growth are kicking in," said Wells Fargo Securities economist Mark Vitner, noting the gains in the automobile and housing markets. "We are further along the recovery process than many people realize."

Posted by orrinj at 9:24 PM


Mere Anarchy : a review of TWO CHEERS FOR ANARCHISM: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play By James C. Scott (Nick Gillespie, Wilson Quarterly)

In Two Cheers for Anarchism, James C. Scott channels Proudhon more than punk while making a case for a kinder, gentler form of rebellion than the sort of bomb-throwing, street-fighting revolution typically associated with anarchism. Following Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the 19th-century French theorist who asserted that "property is theft," Scott defines anarchism loosely as "mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule" (emphasis in the original). His rejection of "a comprehensive anarchist worldview and philosophy" is mirrored in the structure of the book, which consists of what he terms "fragments" rather than traditional chapters, the better to underscore the provisionality and narrow scope of his insights.

For Scott, anarchy is less a full-blown program than a tendency that privileges "politics, conflict, and debate" and shows a robust "tolerance for confusion and improvisation that accompanies social learning." Most of all, it's a rejection of rule by elites of any and all stripes, especially those who seek to remove themselves from scrutiny by claiming some sort of impersonal scientific basis for their rule.

Scott recognizes that total revolution often leads to something worse than what it replaces. "Virtually every major successful revolution ended by creating a state more powerful than the one it overthrew, a state that in turn was able to extract more resources from and exercise more control over the very populations it was designed to serve," he writes.

The Spanish Civil War (Hugh Thomas)

The nature of the crisis in Spain was described on 16 June 1936 by Gil Robles, the sleek, fat and almost bald, but still young, leader of the Spanish Catholic party, the CEDA.4 His party was conservative, and Catholic, and it included those who wanted to restore a monarchy, as well as those who desired a christian democratic republic. Some in the CEDA, particularly in the youth movement (JAP),1 were almost fascists; and some admired Dollfuss's corporate Austria. Gil Robles was eloquent and able, but hesitant and devious. He was as hated by monarchists and fascists as he was by socialists. Yet he had created the first middle-class Spanish mass party. Now he recalled that the government had had, since the elections in February, exceptional powers, including press censorship and the suspension of constitutional guarantees. Nevertheless, during those four months, 160 churches, he said, had been burned to the ground, there had been 269 political murders, and 1,287 assaults of varying seriousness. Sixty-nine political centres had been wrecked, there had been 113 general strikes and 228 partial strikes, while 10 newspaper offices had been sacked. 'Let us not deceive ourselves!' concluded Gil Robles. 'A country can live under a monarchy or a republic, with a parliamentary or a presidential system, under communism or fascism! But it cannot live in anarchy. Now, alas, Spain is in anarchy. And we are today present at the funeral of democracy!' 

Posted by orrinj at 9:17 PM


US exceptionalism a matter of faith (Spengler, 3/12/13, Pajamas Media)

To speak of an "exceptional culture" would be a pleonasm; national cultures are unique by construction. Nonetheless some cultures may be radically exceptional. Unlike all the other nations of the world, America's Exceptionalism rests on a political culture informed by the biblical idea of covenant - not on common language, race, borders, or history. That is why the US emerged as the survivor out of the 20th century while the ethnocentric cultures of Europe plunged into mutual destruction.

Posted by orrinj at 9:07 PM


Havildar Lachhiman Gurung, VC (The Telegraph, 13 Dec 2010)

At 1.20am, more than 200 Japanese attacked the company position. The brunt of the assault fell on Gurung's section and, in particular, on his post, which dominated a jungle track leading up to his platoon's position. Had the enemy been able to overrun it and occupy Gurung's trench, they would have secured control over the whole of the field before them.

One grenade fell on the lip of Gurung's trench. He quickly grabbed it and hurled it back at the enemy. Almost immediately another grenade came over. This one fell directly inside the trench. Again Gurung snatched it up and threw it back.

A third grenade landed just in front of the trench. Gurung attempted to throw it back, but it exploded in his hand, blowing off his fingers, shattering his right arm and severely wounding him in the face, body and right leg. His two comrades were also badly wounded and lay helpless in the bottom of the trench.

The enemy, screaming and yelling, now formed up shoulder to shoulder and attempted to rush the position by sheer weight of numbers. Gurung, regardless of his wounds, loaded and fired his rifle with his left hand and kept up a steady rate of fire.

The attacks came in wave after wave, but the Japanese were beaten back with heavy losses. For four hours Gurung remained alone at his post, calmly waiting for each new onslaught, firing into his attackers at point blank range, determined not to yield an inch of ground. His comrades could hear him shouting: "Come and fight a Gurkha!"

The following morning, of the 87 enemy dead found in the company's immediate locality, 31 lay in front of Gurung's section

Posted by orrinj at 6:00 PM


Falkland islands referendum: who were the three 'No' votes? (Neil Tweedie, 12 Mar 2013, The Telegraph)

So who exactly are the 'Falklands Three', the trio of dissenters who voted 'No' to the Falkland Islands remaining as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom?

That was the inevitable subject of conversation in Port Stanley, together with satisfaction at the resounding victory for the Yes-vote in a referendum on the future of the territory. Of 1,518 votes cast during the two-day poll, 1,513 came out in favour of maintaining the islands' current political status, representing 99.8 per cent of the vote. One ballot paper was rejected and one remained unaccounted for after the count on Monday night. That left three people who desire either immediate independence from Britain or a transfer of sovereignty, presumably to Argentina, which claims the islands as its own.

Stanley is a small place - the entire Falklands enjoy a population of only 2,900 permanent and guest residents - and most things do not remain secret for long, but a secret ballot is a secret ballot.
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Posted by orrinj at 5:53 PM


Years in the Making, Promising Rechargeable Metal-Air Batteries Head to Market (Kevin Bullis, March 14, 2013, Technology Review)

After years of development, a novel battery technology from the startup Fluidic Energy is being commercialized (see "Betting on a Metal-Air Battery Breakthrough"). It's a rechargeable metal-air battery whose first application is replacing diesel and lead-acid battery backup systems for telecommunications towers, and for other businesses that need a steady supply of power. The company has been quietly demonstrating its battery with customers for a year. In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Fluidic Energy founder and chief technology officer Cody Friesen made details about its product publicly available for the first time.  

Metal-air batteries have the potential to store more energy than lithium-ion batteries, which are now used in electric vehicles and some grid applications. Based on the materials used, metal-air batteries could also be less expensive than lead-acid batteries, the cheapest, widely used rechargeable batteries. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:49 PM


Women wake up grumpier than men (AFP, MARCH 14, 2013)

A new study finds that women are prone to waking up grumpier than men in the morning.

The rationale: women just need more sleep, and if she's grumpy, chances are she's running short on mood-boosting zzzs.

Researchers from Duke University in the US revealed that women suffer more than men, both mentally and physically, if they go without sufficient sleep, CBS News reported.

Posted by orrinj at 5:40 AM

Quick Crescent Pecan Pie Bars  (Miami Herald, 3/14/13)


1 (8-ounce) can refrigerated crescent rolls


1/2 cup chopped pecans

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup corn syrup

1 tablespoon butter or margarine, melted

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1 egg, beaten

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Unroll dough and separate into 2 long rectangles. Place in ungreased 9-by-13-inch pan, pressing over bottom and 1/2 inch up sides to form crust. Firmly press perforations to seal. Bake 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, in medium bowl, mix filling ingredients. Pour filling over partially baked crust. Bake 18 to 22 minutes longer or until golden brown. Cool completely, about 1 hour, before cutting into bars. 

March 13, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:44 PM

OBIT: Allan Calhamer (The Telegraph, 3/12/13)

Play consists of alternating phases of negotiation (when players go into furtive huddles, form alliances and plot ) and action (when players simultaneously write their instructions on a piece of paper). The instructions are then revealed, and moves executed -- typically to cries of "You promised me you would attack Berlin!" or "I don't believe it, my best friend has just taken Paris from me!"

The game ends when a player has captured 18 of the board's 34 strategic "supply centres" or, since the average game lasts eight hours, when everyone is too tired or bored to continue. [...]

After graduating in 1953, Calhamer had been intending to do a PhD, with the eventual aim of joining the Foreign Service; but Diplomacy distracted him from his studies and he dropped out to develop and market the game, which he later sold to a games manufacturer. By the time he applied to join the Foreign Service he was told he was too old.

Instead, Calhamer found work as a park ranger at the Statue of Liberty and later became a postman in La Grange Park, Illinois, where he supplemented his income with royalties from his game.

An amiably eccentric man who enjoyed working out the prime factors of car number plates he passed on his rounds, Calhamer would sing his children to sleep with The Battle Hymn of the Republic and posted a notice above his cat's bowl which read: "It is essential in this life that you be your own cat."

Although he was an honoured guest at Diplomacy tournaments, he was far too nice to be proficient at his own game.
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Posted by orrinj at 7:41 PM


Balanced Budget Dispute Is Fiscal and Philosophical (ANNIE LOWREY, 3/12/13, NY Times)

Economists offered more nuanced views. Closing the budget gap over the longer term could be vital to sustaining economic health, some stressed, by ensuring that the government did not crowd out private investment and by helping to keep interest rates low. But that does not make it an immediate necessity.

"Over a long period of time, you'd have a higher standard of living if you moved to a balanced budget and stayed there," said Joel Prakken, a senior managing director at Macroeconomic Advisers, a forecasting firm in St. Louis. "But you suffer some short-run pain, and you don't want to inflict that when the unemployment rate is already high, the economy is still recovering from the legacy of the Great Recession, and the Federal Reserve has used up most of what's in its quiver."

Other goals -- including stabilizing debt as a proportion of economic output, rationalizing the tax code and tackling the long-term fiscal challenge posed by entitlement programs -- might prove more important in the coming years, several experts said.

"We need to do fundamental reforms to the system, and if we did fundamental reforms to the system, that would help so much that we wouldn't need to worry about the deficit as much," said Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard.

As sensible as a balanced budget might sound -- much like a balanced checkbook for a family -- countries are generally able to run modest deficits for years on end while still keeping debt stable as a share of economic output. One year's deficit is effectively paid off by later economic growth, especially if a government is investing in public goods like roads and schools. [...]

The Senate Democratic proposal does not balance the budget, but it does reduce deficits to below 3 percent of economic output -- a level that would stabilize the debt, economists said. During the 10-year budget window, the debt would start to shrink as a proportion of the economy.

Mr. Ryan's budget balances by 2023. It keeps the current levels of projected tax revenue, and makes ambitious if lightly detailed cuts in a wide variety of domestic government programs, including turning the Medicaid program into a block grant to states.

A broader question, economists said, is the long-term effect the country's debt load might impose on the economy. In the past few years, a number of broad-based studies have suggested that having government debt equivalent to or greater than about 85 or 90 percent of economic output might eventually cut into growth. Currently, public debt in the United States is about 76 percent of the size of the economy. 

Posted by orrinj at 3:36 PM


Papabile of the Day: The Men Who Could Be Pope : Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina (John L. Allen Jr.  |  Mar. 3, 2013 NCR Today)

After the dust settled from the election of Benedict XVI, various reports identified the Argentine Jesuit as the main challenger to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. One cardinal later said the conclave had been "something of a horse race" between Ratzinger and Bergoglio, and an anonymous conclave diary splashed across the Italian media in September 2005 claimed that Bergoglio received 40 votes on the third ballot, just before Ratzinger crossed the two-thirds threshold and became pope.

Though it's hard to say how seriously one should take the specifics, the general consensus is that Bergoglio was indeed the "runner-up" last time around. He appealed to conservatives in the College of Cardinals as a man who had held the line against liberalizing currents among the Jesuits, and to moderates as a symbol of the church's commitment to the developing world.

Back in 2005, Bergoglio drew high marks as an accomplished intellectual, having studied theology in Germany. His leading role during the Argentine economic crisis burnished his reputation as a voice of conscience, and made him a potent symbol of the costs globalization can impose on the world's poor.

Bergoglio's reputation for personal simplicity also exercised an undeniable appeal - a Prince of the Church who chose to live in a simple apartment rather than the archbishop's palace, who gave up his chauffeured limousine in favor of taking the bus to work, and who cooked his own meals.

Posted by orrinj at 4:36 AM


Stars align for big dollar bull run (Michael Mackenzie, 3/12/13, Financial Times)

The stars are aligning for a major bull run in the dollar. As America emerges from the Great Recession in better shape than the rest of the developed world, the US currency is on a roll.

A wave of upbeat economic figures, the latest being Friday's robust February jobs data, have pushed the 10-year benchmark Treasury yield back above 2 per cent and left the S&P 500 stock market index sitting just 1 per cent below a record high. And that is good news for the dollar.

On a trade-weighted basis, the world's foremost reserve currency has marched 4.5 per cent higher over the past five weeks - gaining with relatively risky assets such as equities as US recovery prospects have brightened - while the euro, sterling and yen have all retreated. [...]

This relative US outperformance is restoring the role of interest rates to foreign exchange markets. Put simply, the rise in the dollar is attracting more foreign investors wanting to own US assets that generate additional currency gain.

Posted by orrinj at 4:16 AM


What the Steamship and the Landline Can Tell Us About the Decline of the Private Car (EMILY BADGER, MAR 11, 2013 The Atlantic)

This prediction sounds bold primarily for the fact that most of us don't think about technology - or the history of technology - in century-long increments: "We're probably closer to the end of the automobility era than we are to its beginning," says Maurie Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "If we're 100 years into the automobile era, it seems pretty inconceivable that the car as we know it is going to be around for another 100 years."

Cohen figures that we're unlikely to maintain the deteriorating Interstate Highway System for the next century, or to perpetuate for generations to come the public policies and subsidies that have supported the car up until now. Sitting in the present, automobiles are so embedded in society that it's hard to envision any future without them. But no technology - no matter how essential it seems in its own era - is ever permanent. Consider, just to borrow some examples from transportation history, the sailboat, the steamship, the canal system, the carriage, and the streetcar.

All of those technologies rose, became ubiquitous, and were eventually replaced. And that process followed a pattern that can tell us much about the future of the automobile - that is, if we're willing to think about it not in the language of today's "war on cars," but in the broad arc of time.

The replacement of the car is probably out there. We just don't fully recognize it yet.

"There's not going to be a cataclysmic moment," Cohen says of what's coming for the car. "Like any other technology that outlives its usefulness, it just sort of disappears into the background and we slowly forget about it." The landline telephone is undergoing that process right now. 

Posted by orrinj at 4:10 AM


A Darwinist Mob Goes After a Serious Philosopher (LEON WIESELTIER, 3/08/13, New Republic)

 For the bargain-basement atheism of our day, it is not enough that there be no God: there must be only matter. Now Nagel's new book fulfills his old warning. A mob is indeed forming, a mob of materialists, of free-thinking inquisitors. "In the present climate of a dominant scientific naturalism, heavily dependent on speculative Darwinian explanations of practically everything, and armed to the teeth against religion," Nagel calmly writes, "... I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world." This cannot be allowed! And so the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Secular Faith sprang into action. "If there were a philosophical Vatican," Simon Blackburn declared in the New Statesman, "the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index." I hope that one day he regrets that sentence. It is not what Bruno, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Voltaire, Hume, Locke, Kant, and the other victims of the anti-philosophical Vatican had in mind.

I understand that nobody is going to burn Nagel's book or ban it. These inquisitors are just more professors. But he is being denounced not merely for being wrong. He is being denounced also for being heretical. [...]

The most shabby aspect of the attack on Nagel's heterodoxy has been its political motive. His book will be "an instrument of mischief," it will "lend comfort (and sell a lot of copies) to the religious enemies of Darwinism," and so on. It is bad for the left's own culture war. Whose side is he on, anyway? Almost taunting the materialist left, which teaches skepticism but not self-skepticism, Nagel, who does not subscribe to intelligent design, describes some of its proponents as "iconoclasts" who "do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met." I find this delicious, because it defies the prevailing regimentation of opinion and exemplifies a rebellious willingness to go wherever the reasoning mind leads. 

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Posted by orrinj at 4:02 AM


Why jobs still aren't coming back (JOHN STEELE GORDON, 3/13/13, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)

Most important, however, is the fact that the economy is in the middle of the most profound technological revolution since the steam engine and the factory system of production kicked off the Industrial Revolution, remaking the world 250 years ago.

The microprocessor, developed in 1969, is still reshaping the world economy -- for it has caused a huge decline in the cost of storing, retrieving and manipulating information. Thus, many of the tasks that were once performed by human beings -- for example, file clerks and assembly-line workers -- are now instead done by computers and robots.

Millions of jobs that were once at the heart of the American economy are disappearing forever. The United States is still one of the world's biggest steel producers, for instance, but we have about one-fifth as many steelworkers as we did 40 years ago.

Of course, new jobs -- computer programmers, app developers -- are also being created. But as the recession hit, many of the old jobs that were fading away but not yet gone suddenly ended. As the economy began to recover, companies invested in technology rather than rehiring for those old jobs.

Posted by orrinj at 3:48 AM


Obama's approval drops as Americans take a dimmer view of his economic policies (Jon Cohen and Karen Tumulty, March 13, 2013, Washington Post)

The afterglow of President Obama's reelection and inauguration appears to have vanished as increasingly negative views among Americans about his stewardship of the economy have forced his public approval rating back down to the 50 percent mark, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

President Obama Won't Balance Budget 'Just for the Sake of Balance' (George Stephanopoulos, Mar 12, 2013, ABC News)

In an exclusive interview with ABC News, President Obama rejected calls to balance the federal budget in the next ten years and instead argued that his primary economic concern was not balancing the budget, but rather growing the economy.

"My goal is not to chase a balanced budget just for the sake of balance." [...]

"We're not gonna balance the budget in ten years because if you look at what Paul Ryan does to balance the budget, it means that you have to voucher-ize Medicare, you have to slash deeply into programs like Medicaid, you've essentially got to -- either tax -- middle class families a lot higher than you currently are, or you can't lower rates the way he's promised," the president told me.

Senate Democrats pepper Obama with questions about entitlement reform (Alexander Bolton and Justin Sink,  03/12/13, The Hill)
President Obama launched his Capitol Hill outreach effort Tuesday with an attempt to ease Senate Democrats' concerns about his willingness to negotiate entitlement reform with Republicans. 

But Obama stood firm when pressed to back away from benefit cuts during the meeting with the Senate Democratic caucus, according to lawmakers who attended. 

Because so much of it will come from cuts, the UR can not claim credit for the work of eliminating the deficit, which will largely be done by the time he leaves office.  His own caucus will excoriate him and the psychological break involved in being Ike instead of FDR is more than he can process.  

The GOP needs to accept the credit, exclusively, if he's letting them.  The simple dynamics of the 2016 election require Democrats to choose a Second Way candidate--a congressman--while the GOP selects a Third Way figure--a governor.

Posted by orrinj at 3:38 AM


How the GOP Learned to Love Defense Cuts (DAVID FRANCIS, 3/12/13, The Fiscal Times)

"Eisenhower decreased defense spending while in office. So did Nixon and George H.W. Bush, who oversaw the drawdown from 1989 to 1992," Adams said. "Colin Powell (chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Bush) used to brag about how much they cut."

Adams said the current debate in the Republican Party has been happening in one form or another for decades. The split between the hawks and doves, however, is becoming more apparent as the party struggles to redefine itself.

"There is a history here of Republicans being more concerned with the fiscal then they are about defense. The tensions you see are not surprising," Adams said. "There's always been a part of the party that thought fiscal discipline was a top priority, a higher priority than defense."

$200 billion will buy us plenty of defense.

March 12, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:48 PM


For Republicans, Time to Think Ahead (James Pethokoukis, March 11, 2013, National Review)

Here's a scary thought for the already demoralized Republican party: If consensus economic forecasts are correct -- and of course that's always a big if -- the 2016 Democratic nominee will appear to have a strong case for a de facto third Obama term. A new forecast from IHS Global Insight is more or less typical: The firm sees GDP growth averaging roughly 3 percent a year from 2014 through 2016. Now, that would hardly be a Reaganesque or Clintonesque boom; it would fall well short of the sort of growth normally expected after a deep downturn. But such an acceleration would make the final years of the Obama presidency the strongest since the financial crisis

And it would be far from a jobless recovery. Unemployment in that presidential-election year would average 6.3 percent, according to IHS. A little back-of-the-envelope math suggests that unemployment could dip under 6 percent by Election Day 2016. Hitting that mark would mean the Democratic nominee, such as, say, Hillary Clinton, would able to claim that Obamanomics created a net 13 million new jobs since the labor market started to recover. Stay the course, America.

At least Republicans could argue the boomlet is unsustainable, a mirage built on trillion-dollar deficits, right? Well, they could try. But the Congressional Budget Office predicts the budget deficit in 2016 will be $476 billion, down a whopping two-thirds from where it was in 2009, and just 2.5 percent of GDP. Federal debt as a share of the economy will have more or less stabilized around 75 percent of GDP (if only temporarily, before the entitlements deluge). And despite Obamacare, total federal spending as a share of the economy will be down nearly 15 percent since the end of the Great Recession. The Obama legacy: More growth, more jobs, less debt, smaller government. And universal health care.

This is an economy the GOP ought to own.
Posted by orrinj at 7:45 PM


The Enigma of the Syrian Nation (Franck Salameh,  March 11, 2013, National Interest)

Much is often said about the artificiality of the modern Middle Eastern state-system, particularly Syria. Often highlighted are the region's current "republics" as the outcome of Anglo-French colonial fancy: "contrived points on a map" in Fouad Ajami's telling, joining together disparate peoples, fractious ethnic groups, apprehensive confessional communities and distinct autonomous provinces--into uneasy, compulsory and ultimately unhappy matrimony. This picture of Western intrusions and failed cartography is not entirely off-kilter. Yet this restive Syria protruding out of the sad canvas of the modern Middle East remains an entity that influential pundits insist on defending and preserving in its current form.

In Syria (and for that matter Iraq), more so than in neighboring Lebanon and Egypt, there has never been a uniquely Syrian territorial identity nor a Syrian entity as such. Indeed, in what became Syria in 1936--out of the carved out Ottoman Vilayets (or States) of Aleppo, Beirut, and Damascus--there was great difficulty accommodating the transition from distinct administrative units to a cohesive territorial state.

Posted by orrinj at 7:40 PM


An ugly bit of blame-the-borrowers (Ryan Chittum, 3/12/13, CJR)

[I]t's just a matter of historical record that many, many borrowers were either financially unsophisticated and taken advantage of or actively defrauded. And defrauded borrowers were no exception to the rule. Broker and lender fraud was an epidemic.

And it wasn't even a newfangled thing. It was the third or so subprime push in fifteen years--one that happened to be supercharged by Wall Street innovation unmoored from any sense of propriety and--unlike the previous flare-ups--unchecked by any real regulation.

This is from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's report:

But many borrowers do not understand the most basic aspects of their mortgage. A study by two Federal Reserve economists estimated at least 38% of borrowers with adjustable-rate mortgages did not understand how much their interest rates could reset at one time, and more than half underestimated how high their rates could reach over the years. The same lack of awareness extended to other terms of the loan--for example, the level of documentation provided to the lender.
Subprime mortgage brokers, to put it very mildly, were not known for their morals or ethics, and these . Ninety percent of appraisers surveyed in 2006 said they were pressured to artificially inflate home values, mostly by mortgage brokers.

Countrywide dangled serious monetary incentives in front of its brokers to put borrowers in subprime loans even when they qualified for better mortgages. That was because Countrywide itself made twice or three times the profit margin on subprime as it did on prime. New Century paid its brokers a 2 percentage point cut if they were able to put borrowers in loans 1.25 percent higher than its listed rates.

New Century went bust in 2007, but Countrywide (now part of Bank of America) settled predatory lending lawsuits for $8.4 billion a year and a half later. That settlement covered 400,000 borrowers.

Wells Fargo coughed up $175 million for predatory loans to 30,000 minority borrowers. Countrywide settled another lawsuit for $335 million covering 15,000 minority borrowers. Then there was the $26 billion settlement reached with JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Ally Financial, Bank of America, and Citigroup for egregious foreclosure abuses.

...but for the fraudulent derivatives they then created.

Posted by orrinj at 7:35 PM


Cuts Give Obama Path to Create Leaner Military (DAVID E. SANGER and THOM SHANKER, 3/11/13, NY Times)

At a time when $46 billion in mandatory budget cuts are causing anxiety at the Pentagon, administration officials see one potential benefit: there may be an opening to argue for deep reductions in programs long in President Obama's sights, and long resisted by Congress.

On the list are not only base closings but also an additional reduction in deployed nuclear weapons and stockpiles and a restructuring of the military medical insurance program that costs more than America spends on all of its diplomacy and foreign aid around the world. Also being considered is yet another scaling back in next-generation warplanes, starting with the F-35, the most expensive weapons program in United States history.

None of those programs would go away. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:37 AM


Crude Gets Left Out of Latest Rally (DAN STRUMPF, 3/11/13, WSJ)

A combination of tepid global oil demand and steadily improving supply has taken the steam out of high oil prices and overshadowed otherwise bullish forces like the improving U.S. jobs market, traders and analysts said. A stable supply cushion has also blunted the impact of possible political turmoil in Venezuela following the death of President Hugo Chávez.

"We have some of the highest oil supplies ever," said Stephen Schork, president of the trading advisory firm the Schork Group. "We're practically swimming in oil."
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March 10, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:17 PM


Michael Sandel's Famous Harvard Course on Justice Launches as a MOOC on Tuesday (Dan Colman, March 10th, 2013, Open Culture)

Back in 2009, Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel made his course, Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, available on the web for free (YouTube - iTunes - Web). Suddenly lifelong learners around the world had access to a popular course enjoyed by more than 14,000 Harvard students over 30 years. Starting this Tuesday, Sandel plans to offer Justice as a free course through edX, the provider of MOOCs (or Massive Open Online Courses) created by Harvard and MIT. And here's one thing you can guarantee: In a single offering, Sandel will bring his course to more students worldwide than he did through his decades teaching at Harvard. 

Of all the price implosions we've seen in recent decades, college costs is going to be the most spectacular.
Posted by orrinj at 9:13 PM


Taking a Nafta Approach to Immigration : If workers were allowed to move freely in North America, the 'path to U.S. citizenship' problem would fade away. (ARGEO PAUL CELLUCCI And STEPHEN R. KELLY, 3/10/13, WSJ)

Take the final logical step of the North American Free Trade Agreement--and allow the citizens of the U.S., Canada and Mexico to work legally in any of the three countries, making the U.S. border as open to workers as it has been for nearly two decades to goods and investment.

In one market-based move, which President Obama could negotiate with America's Nafta partners and submit to the Senate for ratification, the U.S. could solve a huge part of its immigration problem while breathing new life into North American trade.

When Nafta took effect in 1994, it was a precedent-setting regional trade agreement that created the largest free-trade area in the world. Merchandise trade between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. has more than tripled since 1994 and now exceeds $1 trillion annually, or more than $3 billion a day.

The U.S. sells more goods to Canada alone than to all 27 countries of the European Union combined. Nafta-facilitated foreign direct investment has also soared over this same period, with two-way U.S.-Mexican investment alone more than quadrupling from 1994-2011.

For all its benefits, however, Nafta did little to facilitate the movement of people. the free movement of people.
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Posted by orrinj at 4:55 PM


Most Americans approve of foreign drone strikes (John Sides, March 10, 2013, Washington Post)

Only last month, the Pew Center asked a random sample of Americans whether they supported "the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia?" A majority, 56 percent, approved while 26 percent disapproved and 18 percent were not sure -- numbers similar to two 2012 polls.

drone poll

In fact, drone strikes attracted roughly similar amounts of support from across the partisan spectrum: 68 percent of Republicans approved, as did 58 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents. A pattern of relative bipartisanship is not all that common in public opinion today, but it is predictable in this case. When leaders in the two parties don't really disagree on something, there is no reason for partisans in the public to disagree either.  In John Zaller's magisterial account of how public opinion is formed and evolves, he refers to a pattern of bipartisanship like this one as a "mainstream effect." Like it or not, drone warfare has become so common that "mainstream" does not sound inapt. why aren't they circling Pyongyang?

Posted by orrinj at 4:40 PM


Chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen enters endgame for world title (Stephen Moss, 3/10/13, The Guardian)

Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen is the Tiger Woods of chess. In a good way. Just as Woods, before his fall, established an iron grip on golf, so Carlsen, at the age of 22, has made himself supreme in his own more esoteric field. He became world No 1 while still a teenager, and is now officially rated the strongest player of all time.

What he is not, however, is world champion. That title has been held since 2007 by India's Viswanathan Anand, a great player but 20 years older than Carlsen and now rated only No 6 in the world. The time may be ripe for the young genius, and, in a three-week tournament that starts in London on Thursday, Carlsen and seven other top grandmasters will compete for the right to challenge Anand for his crown later in the year.

The so-called Candidates tournament is the strongest ever, and the Norwegian will be warm favourite. [...]

"If there was an interesting tournament," says Carlsen, "I thought there was no reason to go to school instead." "Most of us are occupied with mediocre activities in every direction," says Henrik, "so if there is someone with a talent and an interest to do something extraordinary, then why not? At least we should not stop him. If he wants to stop, fine." But Carlsen never did want to stop.

"Magnus is a maximalist," says his manager, Espen Agdestein. Whatever he does, he wants to do to the utmost. He is a fanatical follower of basketball, having to learn every detail about every player and every team. For a while, says his father, he was interested in poker and became brilliant at it. "He could do the statistics of the poker hands quicker than me," says Henrik, "and I'm quite good with numbers. In a few months he had picked up all he needed to be extraordinary. He likes to go into things very deeply."

His father says the secret of nurturing his genius was to let him do what he wanted - a very Norwegian approach. "In the conventional sense he's lazy," says Henrik. "If you had told him to do something that he wasn't motivated to do, he wouldn't do it. But I don't think that sort of laziness hurts his chess. What's important is his interest, competitiveness and curiosity. He's always done what he wants in chess, and he's there because he loves to be there and fight, whereas many of his rivals have already spent a lot of their energy by the time they arrive at the table."

Nor should a kid who likes to fix cars or do carpentry waste time in school.

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Posted by orrinj at 4:36 PM


In experiencing real freedom, the importance of boundaries (Dasee Berkowitz, March 10, 2013, JTA) 

We have a love-hate relationship with boundaries.

We hate being confined or told what to do. Many adults don't like having a boss, and many schoolchildren get annoyed when the answer is "no." Boundaries limit our individuality, intrude upon what we want to do and sometimes feel like an arbitrary obstacle to getting what we want.

For children, limits of time (bedtime), sources of enjoyment (how much ice cream for dessert) or behavior (being scolded for shooting a toy bow and arrow around the living room) can seem like arbitrary rules that stymie their ability to fully enjoy the activity at hand in favor of some far-off goal that only their parent understands. As a grown-up, when I see a sign that says "Keep off the grass," I want nothing more than to frolic in my bucolic surroundings.

But we also love boundaries because we know that without them, life would be chaotic.

As a parent, we know setting firm boundaries helps us raise our children and run our households. As a global citizen, we know that boundaries help us create civilized societies. And as Jews we know that boundaries help define who we are and what our purpose is.

No holiday helps us understand this more than Passover.

The form of the holiday is all about boundaries. [...]

[W]e are encouraged to reflect how liberation from Egypt is a process from physical subjugation to forging a new relationship with God.

Posted by orrinj at 10:17 AM


How a U.S. Citizen Came to Be in America's Cross Hairs (MARK MAZZETTI, CHARLIE SAVAGE and SCOTT SHANE, 3/09/13, NY Times)

One morning in late September 2011, a group of American drones took off from an airstrip the C.I.A. had built in the remote southern expanse of Saudi Arabia. The drones crossed the border into Yemen, and were soon hovering over a group of trucks clustered in a desert patch of Jawf Province, a region of the impoverished country once renowned for breeding Arabian horses.

A group of men who had just finished breakfast scrambled to get to their trucks. One was Anwar al-Awlaki, the firebrand preacher, born in New Mexico, who had evolved from a peddler of Internet hatred to a senior operative in Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen. Another was Samir Khan, another American citizen who had moved to Yemen from North Carolina and was the creative force behind Inspire, the militant group's English-language Internet magazine.

Two of the Predator drones pointed lasers on the trucks to pinpoint the targets, while the larger Reapers took aim. The Reaper pilots, operating their planes from thousands of miles away, readied for the missile shots, and fired.

It was the culmination of years of painstaking intelligence work, intense deliberation by lawyers working for President Obama and turf fights between the Pentagon and the C.I.A., whose parallel drone wars converged on the killing grounds of Yemen. For what was apparently the first time since the Civil War, the United States government had carried out the deliberate killing of an American citizen as a wartime enemy and without a trial.

Eighteen months later, despite the Obama administration's effort to keep it cloaked in secrecy, the decision to hunt and kill Mr. Awlaki has become the subject of new public scrutiny and debate, touched off by the nomination of John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama's counterterrorism adviser, to be head of the C.I.A.

The leak last month of an unclassified Justice Department "white paper" summarizing the administration's abstract legal arguments -- prepared months after the Awlaki and Khan killings amid an internal debate over how much to disclose -- has ignited demands for even greater transparency, culminating last week in a 13-hour Senate filibuster that temporarily delayed Mr. Brennan's confirmation.

Why not televise the strikes?  The ratings will be astronomical. Want to know what the American people think of them?  Have viewers vote on whether to launch.  

Posted by orrinj at 10:10 AM


Workers' Share of Health Costs Is Likely to Continue Rising (ANN CARRNS, 3/07/13, NY Times)

Workers are paying a greater share of their health care costs, and that trend is likely to continue over the next several years, a new report on employer-based health plans finds.

Employers still bear most of the cost of workplace health plans. But employees contribute 42 percent more for heath plan coverage than they did five years ago, as against a 32 percent increase for employers, according to the study from the benefits consultant Towers Watson and the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit industry group whose members are large employers concerned rising about health care costs. (This change is shown in the graphic above.)

Meanwhile, though, the share of the total cost of health care borne by employees, including both premiums and costs paid out-of-pocket, climbed to 37 percent in 2013, from 34 percent in 2011, the report found.

Not coincidentally, Health Costs Slow To Lowest Rate In 15 Years...
Posted by orrinj at 10:03 AM


Two more districts consider later start times for high school (Editorial Board, March 8, 2013)

TWO MORE area school districts have decided to study later start times for their high school students. That's evidence of the growing demand that school schedules be shaped not by mindless adherence to tradition but by what is best for student learning. Let's hope that school officials who have undertaken examinations of this issue are not just going through the motions. [...]

The four school systems start high school classes between 7:17 a.m. and 7:25 a.m., which requires many students to be up and headed to school by 6 a.m. or soon after. In pushing for start times after 8 a.m., parents point to the persuasive body of research establishing that adolescent sleep patterns make it hard for them to go to sleep or wake up early. Biology -- not a parent's nagging or a teen's self-discipline -- is the determining factor. Schools with later start times have demonstrated the benefits to students, schools and communities in the way of better academic performance, less tardiness and absenteeism and lowered risks for depression and car crashes.

...but 10-2 with a lunch break seems optimal.
Posted by orrinj at 9:48 AM


Hamas chief evokes Arab Spring in push to lead all Palestinians (Paul McGeough, 3/02/13, Sydney Morning Herald)

THE Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas is planning to install its controversial chief, Khalid Mishal, as leader of all the Palestinians.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Hamas is banking on a surge of regional support for Islamism to move, Mr Mishal to the top of the Palestinian pile, possibly as leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. [...]

Speaking with a new, almost triumphalist air, Mr Mishal argued: ''The Arab Spring implies the beginning of a tilt in the balance of power towards the Palestinian position, and international and regional actors are being convinced of the importance of Hamas as a player. The imbalance of the past is being corrected.'' [...]

Mr Mishal has no doubt about the meaning of the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world since the end of 2010: ''Foreign powers that are keen to preserve their interests in the region will have to please the emerging regimes, instead of behaving as if they are of no moment.''

And of the new governments in the region, he added: ''It is important to note that these new rulers know that they are no longer free to behave, to act and to decide as they like personally ... they know the people expect them to serve their best interests.''

Assessing its performance against the perceived failure of Fatah's embrace of a peace process based on the Oslo Accords, and brimming with confidence after surviving the Israeli military's Operation Pillar of Defence late last year, Hamas claims it has proved the viability of armed resistance and is ready to share once more in leadership and decision-making with the other Palestinian factions.

A senior figure in the movement said: ''Hamas is planning and preparing and building to accomplish all this. And if the people eventually have an opportunity to democratically elect the leadership, then Hamas will be in a position to win their hearts and minds.''

It's a simple matter of the self-determination of a nation.

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Posted by orrinj at 9:33 AM


Environmental activists reeling as Keystone pipeline gains momentum (Zack Colman, 03/05/13, The Hill)
Green groups are reeling after the release of a draft State Department report that seemed to put the Keystone XL oil pipeline on track for approval. [...]

The assessment is not final, but could indicate the arguments in favor of the pipeline are winning the day within the administration.

That's an alarming prospect for green activists, who argue that approval of the project would be a betrayal of Obama's second-term promise to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

"I think he already has laid out the decision he has to make on Keystone," Moffitt said, regarding the president's commitments on climate.

Posted by orrinj at 9:12 AM


Cuts and Reforms (Yuval Levin, March 9, 2013, National Review)
They are wrong because they assume that Republicans just want to cut entitlement spending. They say so rather plainly. Ezra Klein, for instance, describes the Republicans' goals at this point as: "1) Cut the deficit, 2) Cut entitlement spending, 3) Protect defense spending, and possibly even increase it, 4) Simplify the tax code by cleaning out deductions and loopholes, 5) Lower tax rates." Jonathan Chait says that by proceeding with the sequester rather than Obama's substitute, Republicans are "giving up a chance to cut spending on Medicare and Social Security."
But Republicans are trying to do more than simply cut spending on entitlement programs. They're trying to reform these programs--especially the health entitlements--so that they better serve their purposes and spending on them doesn't keep growing at the sorts of rates that make it totally unsustainable in the coming years. They've proposed a premium-support reform of Medicare and a cap on federal Medicaid spending combined with greater flexibility for the states, in both cases in an effort to drive these programs and the underlying health-care system toward a more economically rational financing model that would help restrain cost growth without undermining quality and access. With the exception of his CPI reform for Social Security, the president's proposals above simply don't meet these goals and do not constitute a step forward on entitlement reform. [...]

So what would real Medicare reforms that the president might accept look like? Let's start from what conservatives want to achieve with Medicare reform. We know Republicans seek to transform Medicare into a premium-support system, but why? They want to do that because that sort of reform would use the leverage of the program's immense spending to drive efficiency improvements in the health system by having insurers (and their affiliated systems of providers) compete for seniors' business and taxpayer dollars. The goal of that kind of reform is to move away from administrative pricing and centralized command and control economics to competitive pricing and a more economically sensible health system--providing the same comprehensive, guaranteed package of benefits but at a much lower cost and with more choices for seniors. Basically, it would turn beneficiaries into consumers and providers into competitors. 
Such a reform is not on the table while Barack Obama is president, unfortunately. And to the extent that it will be possible to take steps in this direction, they will be pretty modest, since Democrats are expressly opposed to both the means and the ends of this approach to Medicare's future. Those modest steps would have the two kinds of goals that the larger reform has, and which would tend to reinforce one another: to encourage providers of care to pursue more efficient business practices and to encourage Medicare beneficiaries to behave more like consumers. A combination of these two forces is what makes markets work, and what could turn Medicare into a sustainable public program that fosters a competitive and productive health-care system rather than a program careening toward fiscal doom and taking American health care with it.

Rather than limiting premium-support to Medicare, make it universal (though means-tested) and give the Obamacare mandate an HSA/catastrophic floor.


March 9, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:38 PM


The Bonds of Freedom : There is paradox in the Christian understanding of what it means to be free. (Roger Olson, 10/5/2012, Christianity Today)

The contrast between the gospel truth of real freedom and its satanic substitute begins to unfold in the Genesis story of humanity's origins and fall. According to Genesis 2, God gave the first humans freedom: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat" (Gen. 2:16-17, RSV). Conditioned as we are by modernity and its obsession with autonomy, our first reaction is: "How is that freedom?" To us, freedom with limitations is not freedom at all.

We know, however, how grasping for that sort of freedom turned out for Adam and Eve, and indeed for the whole human race. It's a story of shame, hiding, alienation, enmity, toil, and death--in short, the absolute antithesis of freedom. In Paradise Lost, John Milton parodied humanity's Promethean rage against limitations when he had Lucifer declare, "Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven!" The question presses in upon us: When were Adam and Eve most free? In the Garden of Eden, when they could eat of all the trees except one? Or after they lost paradise, and were "free" to roam around and eat whatever they wanted?

The implication of the Genesis story is unavoidable: True freedom is found only in obedience to God and the fellowship that comes with it. Loss of true freedom comes with self-assertion, the idolatrous desire to rule my own square inch of hell rather than enjoy the blessings of God's favor.

The entire biblical narrative can be read this way--as a "theo-drama" of freedom and its loss through the desire and attempt to enjoy unfettered autonomy.
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Posted by orrinj at 9:11 PM


The Future Of Education Eliminates The Classroom, Because The World Is Your Class (Marina Gorbis, 3/04/13, Co.Exist)

This probably sounds familiar: You are with a group of friends arguing about some piece of trivia or historical fact. Someone says, "Wait, let me look this up on Wikipedia," and proceeds to read the information out loud to the whole group, thus resolving the argument. Don't dismiss this as a trivial occasion. It represents a learning moment, or more precisely, a microlearning moment, and it foreshadows a much larger transformation--to what I call socialstructed learning.

Socialstructed learning is an aggregation of microlearning experiences drawn from a rich ecology of content and driven not by grades but by social and intrinsic rewards. The microlearning moment may last a few minutes, hours, or days (if you are absorbed in reading something, tinkering with something, or listening to something from which you just can't walk away). Socialstructed learning may be the future, but the foundations of this kind of education lie far in the past. Leading philosophers of education--from Socrates to Plutarch, Rousseau to Dewey--talked about many of these ideals centuries ago. Today, we have a host of tools to make their vision reality.

Think of a simple augmented reality app on your iPhone such as Yelp Monocle. When you point the phone's camera toward a particular location, it displays "points of interest" in that location, such as restaurants, stores, and museums. But this is just the beginning. What if, instead of restaurant and store information, we could access historical, artistic, demographic, environmental, architectural, and other kinds of information embedded in the real world?

This is exactly what a project from USC and UCLA called HyperCities is doing: layering historical information on the actual city terrain.

..the Daughter Judd had an 8th grade test the other day that consisted of regurgitating the dates of events.  Is it 1950?  Has the teacher not heard of Google?

Time spent on such material in school is a complete waste.

Posted by orrinj at 8:55 PM


Obama flails as Republicans stand firm on sequester (Michael Barone, 3/09/13, The Washington Examiner)

[T]he Republicans didn't deal. They decided to take the sequester cuts and make them the basis for a continuing resolution funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year.

Obama responded by threatening all sorts of dire consequences -- Head Start kids left out in the snow, airline security lines as far as the eye can see.

Republicans would take the blame, the Obama folks believed. Polls showed they were far less popular than the president.

Then on Tuesday it was announced that White House tours were cancelled. The sequester meant there wasn't enough money to host those kids from Waverly, Iowa.

Suddenly it became apparent that it was Obama's poll numbers that were falling. Not to the level of congressional Republicans' admittedly dreadful numbers. But enough that the Quinnipiac poll -- whose 2012 numbers tilted a bit toward Democrats -- showed him with only 45 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval. think America would even notice the cuts?
Posted by orrinj at 4:19 PM


A New Alignment : Strengthening America's Commitment to Passenger Rail (Robert Puentes, Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane, 3/01/13, Brookings)

American passenger rail is in the midst of a renaissance. Ridership on Amtrak--the primary U.S. carrier--is now at record levels and growing fast. This research shows that the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas are primarily behind this trend, especially ten major metros responsible for nearly two-thirds of total ridership.

Driving the connection between these metropolitan areas are short-distance corridors, or routes traveling less than 400 miles, that carry 83 percent of all Amtrak passengers. States now have formalized relationships with Amtrak to upgrade tracks, operate routes, and redevelop stations. The result is a new federalist partnership where Amtrak, the federal government, and states share responsibility for the network's successes and failures.

This report is the first analysis to focus on metropolitan area statistics for passenger rail rather than individual stations or cities. Its findings will help policymakers and state leaders better understand the location dynamics of Amtrak: where it works well, and the areas poised to benefit from new and expanded services.
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Posted by orrinj at 4:14 PM


The Republican Case for Waste in Health Care (Phillip Longman, March/April 2013, Washington Monthly)

Even people who take their health very seriously calculate costs and benefits. Time spent at the gym, for example, is time we cannot spend playing with our kids, or making the money we need to pay for our ever-rising health insurance premiums. Submitting to a colonoscopy, while minimally costing time, money, and discomfort, may not provide us with any personal benefit whatsoever--all of which we put into the mix before deciding if this is the day we have the test done.

In short, in our day-to-day lives we regularly apply a kind of informal cost-benefit analysis to the decisions we make about health care. To take another example, say you decide it's worth the effort to lose twenty pounds and firmly resolve to do so. Then your mind will instantly turn to mulling what would be the most cost-effective way to go about it: eat less or exercise more, for example, or perhaps take a pill or undergo a liposuction operation or some combination of all of those.

In making this decision, you may well act on assumptions that are shortsighted or misinformed. You may ascribe more effectiveness to those interventions that seem easy (taking a diet pill) than to those that seem hard (giving up sweets and sweating it out in the gym more often).

Similarly, you may underestimate the risk that a liposuction will bring with it a hospital infection and other complications that will get you killed. Your decision may also be constrained by lack of money to throw at the problem, or lack of time, or competing ambitions. Yet however imperfectly, your mental energies will be directed at how to achieve your goal of losing those twenty pounds at the least cost in other things that matter to you.

This pattern of "rationing," if you will, our own health and health care on the basis of perceived costs and benefits is arguably a defining feature of what makes us human. 

An eloquent statement of why we need to be forced to pay out of pocket, so that we bear the cost.
Posted by orrinj at 4:07 PM


UP ALL NIGHT : The science of sleeplessness. (ELIZABETH KOLBERT, MARCH 11, 2013, The New Yorker)

The electric light bulb has made darkness optional, eliminating the enforced idleness that used to begin at sunset. Modern mattresses and bedclothes trap the heat that the body gives off as its core temperature drops each night. Obesity increases the chances of developing sleep apnea, a condition that combines choking and waking in an exhausting, sometimes life-threatening cycle. For all these reasons and more, Randall anticipates a bright future for the emerging field of "fatigue management." One sleep expert he interviews predicts that "fatigue management officers" will soon be as common at major corporations as accountants. Like time, sleep, it turns out, is money.

Perhaps the most provocative claim that Randall has to make about sleep is that we'd all be better off doing it alone. Research studies consistently find, he writes, that adults "sleep better when given their own bed." One such study monitored couples over a span of several nights. Half of these nights they spent in one bed and the other half in separate rooms. When the subjects woke, they tended to say that they'd slept better when they'd been together. In fact, on average they'd spent thirty minutes more a night in the deeper stages of sleep when they were apart. Randall cites the work of Neil Stanley, a sleep researcher at the University of Surrey, in England, who likes to say that there's only one good reason to share a mattress.

"The Slumbering Masses," by Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, takes a more polemical view of what might be called the "sleep question." Wolf-Meyer, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, spent four years interviewing just about everyone involved in sleep research: physicians, technicians, patients, members of patients' families. He concludes that what Americans have come to think of as sleep problems are mostly just problems in the way Americans have come to think about sleep. "Normal sleep is always pathological sleep, or at least potentially so," he writes.

Wolf-Meyer refers to the practice of going to bed at around eleven o'clock at night and staying there until about seven in the morning as sleeping "in a consolidated fashion." Nowadays, adults are expected to sleep in this manner; anything else--sleeping during the day, sleeping in bursts, waking up in the middle of the night--is taken to be unsound, even deviant. This didn't use to be the case. Until a century and a half or so ago, Wolf-Meyer observes, "Americans, like other people around the world, used to sleep in an unconsolidated fashion, that is, in two or more periods throughout the day." They went to bed not long after the sun went down. Four or five hours later, they woke from their "first sleep" and rattled around--praying, chatting, smoking, or making love. (Benjamin Franklin reportedly liked to spend this time reading naked in a chair.) Eventually, they went back to bed for their "second sleep."

Wolf-Meyer blames capitalism in general and American capitalism in particular for transforming once perfectly ordinary behavior into conduct worthy of medication. "The consolidated model of sleep is predicated upon the solidification of other institutional times in American society, foremost among them work time," he writes. It is "largely the by-product of the industrial workday, which began as a dawn-to-dusk twelve-to-sixteen hour stretch and shrank to an eight-hour period only at the turn of the twentieth century." So many people have trouble getting enough sleep between eleven at night and seven in the morning because sleeping from eleven to seven isn't what people were designed to do.

Till Roenneberg, the author of "Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You're So Tired" and a professor of medical psychology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, also blames the modern workday for our general drowsiness. But Roenneberg sees this not so much as a by-product of industrial capitalism as a quirk of human physiology.

Each of us has an internal clock, or, to use Roenneberg's term, a "chronotype." Either we're inclined to go to bed early and wake up at dawn, in which case we're "larks," or we like to stay up late and get up later, which makes us "owls." (One's chronotype seems to be largely inherited, although Roenneberg notes, not altogether helpfully, that the "genetics are complex.") During the week, everyone is expected to get to the office more or less at the same time--let's say 9 a.m. This suits larks just fine. Owls know they ought to go to bed at a reasonable time, but they can't--they're owls. So they end up having to get up one, two, or, in extreme cases, three hours earlier than their internal clock would dictate. This is what Roenneberg refers to as "social jet lag"--each workday, owls fall asleep in one time zone and, in effect, wake up in another. By the time the week is over, they're exhausted. They "fly back" to their internal time zone on weekends and sleep in on Saturday and Sunday. Then, on Monday, they start the process all over again.

For larks, the problem is reversed. Social life is arranged so that it's hard to have one unless you stay out late on Friday and Saturday nights. But, even when larks have partied till 3 a.m., they can't sleep in the following day--they're larks. So they stagger through until Monday, when they can finally get some rest.

According to Roenneberg, age also has a big influence on chronotype. Toddlers tend to be larks, which is why they drive their parents crazy by getting up at sunrise. Teen-agers are owls, which is why high schools are filled with students who look (and act) like zombies. Roenneberg advocates scheduling high-school classes to begin later in the day, and he cites studies showing that schools that delay the start of first period see performance, motivation, and attendance all increase. (A school district in Minnesota that switched to a later schedule found that the average S.A.T. scores for the top ten per cent of the class rose by more than two hundred points, a result that the head of the College Board called "truly flabbergasting.") But, Roenneberg notes, teachers and school administrators generally resist the change, preferring to believe that the problem is insoluble.

Posted by orrinj at 10:23 AM


Two books about revolutionary Iran by James Buchan and Michael Axworthy: review : Two accounts of revolutionary Iran, Days of God by James Buchan and Revolutionary Iran by Michael Axworthy, shed a subtle light on events, says Sameer Rahim. (Sameer Rahim, 04 Mar 2013. The Telegraph)

If there was no compelling economic or political reason for the revolution then how did it happen? The answer is Khomeini, the enigma at the heart of both books. Axworthy's description of his "simple, direct, charismatic leadership" is right but we should not underestimate his originality or cunning. In the absence of a divinely guided leader - the Prophet Mohammad or one of his saintly descendants called Imams - the Shia clergy have traditionally avoided politics. Khomeini's theory that a Grand Ayatollah, a kind of Shia Pope, could turn himself into a political leader was wholly new and not widely accepted by most Shia - let alone Sunnis. Returning from exile, Khomeini announced he was appointing the prime minister "through the guardianship that I have from the Holy Prophet". His statement verged on blasphemous. [...]

The new Islamic Republic had democratic elements: it elected a parliament and president - though religious authorities vetted the candidates, and the Supreme Leader had the final say. Khomeini's power was tested when Iraq invaded in 1980. The new republic, bolstered by the Shah's US F-14s, struck back swiftly and made gains. Saddam Hussein was keen on a face-saving peace but Khomeini was intoxicated by victory. A brutal eight-year war followed that cost 200,000 Iranian lives. Only when Saddam used gas was Khomeini forced, in his own words, to "drink the bitter poison" of defeat.

Shortly before his death in 1989, Khomeini made two decisions that still haunt Iran. The Leftists he had outmanoeuvred launched terrorist attacks from Iraq. A furious Khomeini ordered that all political prisoners in Tehran's Evin prison should be executed. "To show clemency to those who make war on God is simple-minded," he wrote. Even loyal supporters were shocked when 4,000 prisoners were shot dead. Ayatollah Montazeri, the designated successor as Supreme Leader, could not hide his disgust. He was stripped of his titles and put under house arrest. In 2009, he came to prominence as the spiritual leader of the pro-democracy Green movement. The other blunder was the death sentence on Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, which needlessly damaged Iran's relationship with the West for years.

Governments built on charismatic personalities are tough to sustain once they are gone. Axworthy ends his book with an appeal to Western policymakers to extend the hand of friendship, even if it is slapped away. Buchan ends by hinting that the current Supreme Leader, the leaden and authoritarian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will compromise on the nuclear issue if the regime is under threat. The next test will be June's presidential election. If the new man is a reformer he will have to battle the Supreme Leader, whose duty is to impose Khomeini's will from beyond the grave.
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Posted by orrinj at 10:14 AM


Good Fences Make Good Bankers (William J. Quirk, Spring 2013, American Scholar)

Everywhere you look, the big banks continue to wallow in scandal. Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and others are being sued by prosecutors, regulators, and investors for an estimated $300 billion for fraud involving mortgage-backed securities. These are the bizarre "innovations" at the heart of the housing crisis that nearly brought down the economy in 2008, creating an international recession from which the world still suffers. On top of that, in early January of this year, 10 banks settled for $8.5 billion with federal regulators for mortgage foreclosure abuses. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup, and Ally Financial agreed to pay regulators and state attorneys general $26 billion last year for the same foreclosure abuses. In November, a London jury found a bank trader guilty of the biggest banking fraud in British history; he had lost $2.3 billion in rogue trades. In December, an Italian court ruled that JPMorgan Chase was guilty of fraud in the sale of derivatives to the city of Milan.

Banks have not always caused so much trouble. The last time they did so--in the 1920s and early '30s--Congress passed the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act to prevent them from doing it again. Before writing that law, Congress convened the Pecora Investigation to inquire into the causes of the collapse. Glass-Steagall separated securities trading from traditional commercial banking--taking deposits and making loans. Heavily regulated and their deposits insured, commercial banks performed the important job of allocating capital to productive purposes. Investment banks, by contrast, could buy and sell securities. They might make a lot of money or lose a lot, but they were on their own; they kept their gains and ate their losses.

What Glass-Steagall said, as former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker has put it, was very simple: "A bank can't trade." Glass-Steagall rested on the idea that greed, although too strong to be regulated, should be isolated--sealed off from the banking system. Because lending money and protecting savings are essential to the working of a capitalist system, Glass-Steagall required that deposit-taking banks stay out of any other business, essentially functioning as utilities. And the Glass-Steagall barriers worked. As long as the act was in effect, the country had no systemic commercial bank problems.

Posted by orrinj at 10:11 AM


How Genetically-Modified Crops Can Save Hundreds of Thousands from Malnutrition (Mark Lynas, 3/07/13, The Breakthrough)

Although it has been a long time in development, vitamin A-enriched 'golden rice' could soon be a breakthrough intervention in south and east Asia, where the largest-scale deficiency problem persists. It has now been scientifically established that golden rice "is an effective source of vitamin A" (to quote from the title of Tang et al, 2009, Am. J. Clin. Nutr) and thereby potentially an effective intervention to save lives in areas where white rice is the staple food. (Technically golden rice, like other vitamin A-fortified foods, contains enhanced levels of beta-carotene, the precursor to vitamin A.)

Even so, continued opposition threatens to derail this progress. Much of this focuses around the idea that other approaches to vitamin A deficiency are more 'appropriate' than one involving GMOs and should be tried first. This seems to me to run counter to the WHO's 'arsenal' approach - why not try everything you can in response to a crisis which takes the lives of up to a quarter of a million young children per year? A common variant is the 'let them eat broccoli' argument (with apologies to Marie Antoinette) - that promoting a more balanced diet is more appropriate than fortification of staple foods.

No-one disputes that a balanced and nutritionally-adequate diet is the best long-term soluton to vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition in general. But achieving this requires the elimination of poverty (which is why rich countries do not have this problem), something which will take time and decades of economic growth in the developing world. In the meantime, millions of preventable deaths will occur, and many of those children that survive will have their life prospects permanently harmed.

A useful analogy might be providing water and sanitation - another issue which can only be solved permanently by povery elimination. As far as I know, no-one argues that charities are wrong to provide clean water in African villages because it this is merely a short-term 'fix' for a long-term problem. (And dirty water is the biggest killer of all.) The challenge is to save lives of vulnerable people right here, right now, in any way that works.

Posted by orrinj at 10:07 AM


Net benefits : How to quantify the gains that the internet has brought to consumers (Mar 9th 2013 , The Economist)

Measuring the economic impact of all the ways the internet has changed people's lives is devilishly difficult because so much of it has no price. It is easier to quantify the losses Wikipedia has inflicted on encyclopedia publishers than the benefits it has generated for users like Ms Mollica. This problem is an old one in economics. GDP measures monetary transactions, not welfare. Consider someone who would pay $50 for the latest Harry Potter novel but only has to pay $20. The $30 difference represents a non-monetary benefit called "consumer surplus". The amount of internet activity that actually shows up in GDP--Google's ad sales, for example--significantly understates its contribution to welfare by excluding the consumer surplus that accrues to Google's users. The hard question to answer is by how much.

Shane Greenstein of Northwestern University and Ryan McDevitt of the University of Rochester calculated the consumer surplus generated by the spread of broadband access (which ought to include the surplus generated by internet services, since that is why consumers pay for broadband). They did so by constructing a demand curve. Say that in 1999 a person pays $20 a month for internet access. By 2006 the spread of broadband has lowered the real price to $17. That subscriber now enjoys consumer surplus of $3 per year, even as the lower price lures more subscribers. The authors reckon that by 2006 broadband was generating $39 billion in revenue and $5 billion-$7 billion in consumer surplus a year. Based on its share of online viewing, Mr Greenstein thinks Wikipedia accounted for up to $50m of that surplus.

Such numbers probably understate things. The authors' calculations assume internet access meant the same thing in 2006 as it did in 1999. But the advent of new services such as Google and Facebook meant internet access in 2006 was worth much more than in 1999. So the surplus would have been bigger, too.

More important, consumers may not incorporate the value of free internet services when deciding what to pay for internet access. Another approach is simply to ask consumers what they would pay if they had to. In a study commissioned by IAB Europe, a web-advertising industry group, McKinsey, a consultancy, asked 3,360 consumers in six countries what they would pay for 16 internet services that are now largely financed by ads. On average, households would pay €38 ($50) a month each for services they now get free. After subtracting the costs associated with intrusive ads and forgone privacy, McKinsey reckoned free ad-supported internet services generated €32 billion of consumer surplus in America and €69 billion in Europe. E-mail accounted for 16% of the total surplus across America and Europe, search 15% and social networks 11%.

Another way to infer consumer surplus is from the time saved using the internet. In a paper partly funded by Google, Yan Chen, Grace YoungJoo Jeon and Yong-Mi Kim, all of the University of Michigan, asked a team of researchers to answer questions culled from web searches. The questions included teasers like: "In making cookies, does the use of butter or margarine affect the size of the cookie?" On average, it took participants seven minutes to answer the questions using a search engine, and 22 minutes using the University of Michigan's library. Hal Varian, Google's chief economist, then calculated that those savings worked out to 3.75 minutes per day for the typical user. Assigning that time a value of $22 per hour (the average wage in America), he reckons search generates $500 of consumer surplus per user annually, or $65 billion-$150 billion nationally.

Yet another technique is to assign a value to the leisure time spent on the web.

Posted by orrinj at 9:25 AM


Mission Accomplished: Iraq as America's biggest Blunder (Peter van Buren, 3/07/13,

Anniversaries are times for reflection, in part because it's often only with hindsight that we recognize the most significant moments in our lives. On the other hand, on anniversaries it's often hard to remember what it was really like back when it all began. Amid the chaos of the Middle East today, it's easy, for instance, to forget what things looked like as 2003 began. Afghanistan, it appeared, had been invaded and occupied quickly and cleanly, in a way the Soviets (the British, the ancient Greeks...) could never have dreamed of. Iran was frightened, seeing the mighty American military on its eastern border and soon to be on the western one as well, and was ready to deal. Syria was controlled by the stable thuggery of Bashar al-Assad and relations were so good that the U.S. was rendering terror suspects to his secret prisons for torture.

Most of the rest of the Middle East was tucked in for a long sleep with dictators reliable enough to maintain stability. Libya was an exception, though predictions were that before too long Muammar Qaddafi would make some sort of deal. (He did.) All that was needed was a quick slash into Iraq to establish a permanent American military presence in the heart of Mesopotamia. Our future garrisons there could obviously oversee things, providing the necessary muscle to swat down any future destabilizing elements. It all made so much sense to the neocon visionaries of the early Bush years. The only thing that Washington couldn't imagine was this: that the primary destabilizing element would be us.

Except, of course, that the entire point of deposing Saddam was to trigger destabilization in the Middle East, which the author bizarrely thinks should be kept quiet by brutal dictatorships.  That is always the Realist view -- that our peace and quiet matters more than the freedom and quality of life of the wogs -- but it is unAmerican and we never hew to such a line for long.  

Every war we fight destabilizes regimes that deny their people--or some significant portion of them--their God given rights.  Every war becomes unpopular in the fighting, because we are not serving our own selfish interests but are accepting personal costs.  Then every war becomes popular once it's won and the liberated "enemy" evolves into a friend not unlike us.

W's wars won't be fully appreciated, by us or them, until the rest of the Arab world liberalizes.  In other words, until every regime has been destabilized.


Sovereignty Redefined (Edward B. Driscoll, November 3, 2005, TCS)

The second section of Judd's book illustrates how America and its allies represent a great threat to the idea of classical sovereignty, "because of our willingness to impose liberal democracy abroad, to effectively hasten what contributor Francis Fukuyama has dubbed the 'end of history.'" The essays that Judd chose for this section illustrate his opinion that America itself has redefined sovereignty so that the right to maintain the governance of a nation now depends on a regime's ability to maintain basic civil rights, and a conform to liberal democratic norms.

Judd notes that the isolationist (or non-interventionist) Right has been quite hostile to this development, "which does of course involve us in the internal affairs of states from Syria to Burma to Somalia to Haiti." However, Judd's selections demonstrate that this is consistent with America's past. Americans after all settled the continent all the way to the Pacific, fought a Civil War at home, and abroad fought Imperialism, Nazism, and Communism successively, all the while requiring other peoples to adopt our own foundational principles.

Judd hopes that his book will help "to convince Americans in general, but reluctant conservatives in particular, that George W. Bush's expansive mission of democratizing the Middle East is not just vital to the future of the region and our own national security, but entirely consistent with American history, is indeed quintessentially American.

"Whereas some argue that we have no right to tell others how to govern themselves" Judd says, "we always have, and our Declaration of Independence makes universalist claims that there is a duty to organize regimes as we've organized our own".

Posted by orrinj at 9:21 AM


There Is Good And Bad Austerity, And Italy Chose Bad (Alberto Alesina & Veronique de Rugy, 3/07/13, Forbes)

[T]he Italian government implemented the wrong kind of austerity.

First, it raised the tax burden on its workers.  Tax revenues consumed an additional 2.5 percent of GDP, bringing the total up to 45 percent.  While some of those increases were already in place when Monti took office in November 2011, he chose to continue with the tax hikes.  Considering the large amount of tax evasion in Italy (estimated conservatively at around 15 per cent of GDP) those who actually pay their taxes are truly squeezed.

Second, with the exception of good pension reform, the effect of which will not be felt on the budget for a few years, the actual spending cuts have been minuscule. Traditionally, the "cuts" in the budget presented in parliament are mostly a reduction in transfers from the central government to local governments. But the latter often reacts by raising local taxes, effectively wiping out the good from "spending cuts."  The only real cuts approved by the Monti government in 2012 were tiny; somewhere between 1 billion and 8 billion euros, representing at best, less than 1 percent of the $790 billion budget. These are a tiny fraction of Italy's GDP, plus it remains uncertain whether or not they'll be fully implemented to begin with.

This is unfortunate when we consider a 2012 report by a government appointed commission that suggested a better path: major cuts to corporate subsidies and elimination of "tax expenditures" in exchange for generalized reduction of taxation on labor costs for firms. However, the suggestions were ignored, possibly, but not exclusively, for lack of time. One result of ignoring these recommendations is increasing unit labor costs in Italy, while they are falling in countries like Spain and Greece. This, in turn, makes it more expensive for firms to hire workers, and exacerbates already high unemployment.

Even worse, the Monti government was unable to aggressively attack what has become the most odious form of government spending in Italy:  the pure waste taking place among elected officials locally and nationally; the latter rationalized as "the cost of doing politics." Under the pretense of austerity, Italians were asked to pay more taxes while observing inept politicians enjoy their luxurious life style.

Posted by orrinj at 9:10 AM


And yet the labor force participation rate is still falling (Tyler Cowen, March 9, 2013, Marginal Revolution)


By the way, my point is not to deny the "good news" aspects of the report, as summarized by Matthews and discussed elsewhere.  I would instead put it this way: we are recovering OK from the AD crisis, but the structural problems in the labor market are getting worse.

On the other hand, if you simply extend the employment participation graph back a few decades you could come to the conclusion that the structural problem with employment is being repaired. 

Arguably, the high participation rates we had for thirty years were just a function of adding women and minorities to the workforce for political reasons, rather than economic ones. Since the white men hiring them weren't about to give up their own jobs to do so, we merely ended up with massive numbers of makework jobs.

A generation later, and thanks to that integration, white men no longer enjoy that exclusive power so their own jobs are open to everyone and boondoggles are being shed. Thus employment participation is returning to the historical norm.

The bigger question becomes, given that computers, robots, and free trade all should have been driving employment participation lower during the past several decades, is there any reason to believe the number will stabilize at the historical norm? Shouldn't it be far lower than that?

March 8, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 7:39 PM


These Electric Buses Charge Themselves While They Drive : A new set of German buses doesn't just run on electricity. They also don't have to pause for hours to get a new charge. (Ben Schiller, 3/08/13, Co.Exist)

We wrote about an "auto-tram" in Germany a while back. And now a bus operator in Germany is trialing two electric buses in Mannheim, using the same idea. Running the 63 route, the Rhein-Neckar-Verkehr (RNV) vehicles will be charged "as soon as the vehicle completely covers the charging segment" at the stop.

It "enables electric buses to serve routes originally designed for conventional buses operating to tight timetables," says Jérémie Desjardins, at Bombardier Transportation, which developed the power-train. "It fully integrates the charging process into normal bus operations, so you don't need more vehicles than with current diesel bus fleets."

The trial is for 12 months, during which RNV hopes to "determine a framework for infrastructure, batteries, inductive energy transfer and daily operation by testing the new technology on a real-life route." The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology will build a "simulation that demonstrates the entire power flow in the electric buses and at the inductive charging stations." RNV is also testing an electric van equipped with the same wireless equipment.

Posted by orrinj at 7:25 PM


Our Wait-and-See Culture (ROBERT J. ABRAMSON, 3/08/13, NY Times)

Unexpected finds -- which the medical community has labeled "incidentalomas" -- are ever more common because of an increase in scans, driven in part by legal concerns. For me, the concept of incidentalomas went from somewhat abstract to all too real when, about two years ago, an abdominal sonogram of my bladder revealed an abnormality on my pancreas. Pancreatic lesions have always had an ominous air about them because of the historically high mortality rate for pancreatic cancer, but luckily an M.R.I. and an endoscopic ultrasound confirmed the lesion as a cyst with very low malignant potential. I was advised to follow up in six months. [...]

As the physicist Niels Bohr said, "prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." But this is the exact position that many physicians and patients find themselves in. We must make life-altering decisions based on incomplete information. In my case, the decision to follow up in six months appeared to be the prudent one -- and it turned out to be the right one as well. My six-month follow-up revealed the lesion unchanged. It was recommended that I follow up in another 6 to 12 months.

Welcome to the "follow-up culture."

Posted by orrinj at 6:42 PM


The Director of Evolution (Jennifer Ouellette, March 8, 2013, Slate)

Charles Darwin spent a lot of time with pigeon breeders and was fascinated by how they selectively bred individual birds to produce offspring with neck ruffles or other distinctive traits. It was one more piece of evidence for his theory of evolution through natural selection: the notion that nature preferentially selects those organisms best suited to a given environment and ensures that the fittest reproduce and survive.

Frances Arnold designed a way to direct evolution--to take over the wheel from nature. In her lab at Caltech, she can essentially rewrite DNA then use it to change the way organisms behave, creating new proteins for renewable energy--"green" chemistry. Her methods revolutionized the field of protein engineering and are now used in hundreds of labs around the world.


Posted by orrinj at 5:56 PM


Construction jobs soar on housing recovery (Chris Isidore, 3/08/13, CNNMoney)

The employment numbers reiterate what other housing reports have found: Home prices are up, as are home sales. Near record low mortgage rates and a drop in foreclosures have created a much better market for builders. In January, they filed for the greatest number of building permits since 2008.

"Our members are hiring so much that they're starting to get worried about finding enough labor out there," said Paul Emrath, economist with the National Association of Home Builders.

Posted by orrinj at 5:47 PM

March 7, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:03 PM


C. Everett Koop and the religious right (Randall Balmer, 3/06/13, Christian Century)

The 1978 elections persuaded Weyrich that abortion could be that issue. On the Sunday before the election, pro-lifers in Iowa and Minnesota leafleted church parking lots. Two days later, they defeated a popular incumbent Democratic senator in Iowa, and in Minnesota they captured the governorship and both Senate seats.

What Weyrich still lacked was a way to alert grassroots evangelicals to the scourge of abortion, and here is where C. Everett Koop figures into the story. Koop, a distinguished pediatric surgeon, had long opposed abortion, but in 1978 he teamed up with Francis A. Schaeffer, a goateed, knicker-wearing evangelical philosopher, to produce a film series called Whatever Happened to the Human Race? 

Schaeffer had long excoriated what he called "secular humanism" and warned that the legalization of abortion would soon lead to infanticide and euthanasia. Koop's sterling reputation as a physician added credibility to the argument. As the film series toured American cities in 1979, the term "secular humanism" entered the political lexicon--and Falwell, Weyrich and other leaders of the religious right harvested popular anger over abortion. They adroitly mobilized politically conservative evangelicals into a potent voting bloc in time for the 1980 election.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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Posted by orrinj at 9:57 PM


Transatlantic Trade's Transformative Potential (Mohamed A. El-Erian, 3/06/13, Project Syndicate)

The real promise of freer transatlantic trade consists in its potential to transform global trade, production networks, and multilateral organizations to the benefit of all. At the most general level, it would act to rationalize the current system of four poorly functioning blocs - centered on China, Europe, the US, and the rest - to three, and eventually (and perhaps quite quickly) to two better-functioning blocs that would have little choice but to work well together: one dominated by China, and the other by the EU/US.

Such a global structure has the potential to encourage better medium-term alignments to reduce trade barriers, set proper standards, and enhance mutually beneficial cooperation. It would facilitate coordination on stronger global rules and principles, including those pertaining to intellectual-property rights and trade in services. And it would force multilateral organizations to reform if they wish to retain even the limited relevance that they have now.

The proposal for freer transatlantic trade is potentially transformational. It comes at a time when the West is increasingly being dragged down by short-term disruptions and continued policy inertia. Yet the implementation prospects are far from promising. The proposal has the capacity to act as a catalyst for adapting policy approaches to current realities; but it is subject to the dulling forces of twentieth-century mindsets and institutions that are too slow to adapt to twenty-first-century challenges and opportunities.

Posted by orrinj at 9:39 PM


End the GOP Attacks on the Fed : Republicans rip Bernanke, but what would Uncle Miltie do? (James Pethokoukis, 3/04/13, National Review)

Bernanke effortlessly deflected Corker's zingers. He pointed out, for instance, that inflation has been lower during his tenure than in that of any other postwar Fed boss (actually since the early 1930s). But Bernanke's responses were of secondary importance once it became clear that Corker's critique was genuine. Which isn't surprising, really. Republicans are locked in a collective Jedi mind meld when it comes to the Bernanke Fed. They see its bond-buying, or quantitative-easing, strategy as a reckless monetary experiment that risks dangerous asset bubbles and rising inflation for little benefit. In response, they are pushing legislation that would narrow the Fed's dual mandate, which is to promote both maximum employment and stable prices; GOP critics contend that the Fed should instead focus primarily on keeping prices stable.

And they are making this argument while inflation is at less than 2 percent, growth at less than 2 percent, and unemployment at nearly 8 percent. Really? Maybe Republican policymakers have spent too much time listening to inflationista gold-fund hawkers and reading anonymous Zero Hedge posts rather than, say, brushing up on the writings of Milton Friedman. Right-of-center policymakers have forgotten the full scope of the Nobel laureate's economic legacy. Yes, Friedman was a fierce and eloquent advocate of economic freedom. But Friedman was also one of the world's greatest scholars of monetary policy, whose magisterial A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, co-authored with Anna Schwartz, pinned the Great Depression on the failings of the Fed.

If Friedman had the same intellectual standing with Republicans today as Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek does, the GOP might at least be aware of the possibility that (1) it was a tightening of monetary policy in 2008 that exploded a modest downturn into the Great Recession, (2) today's low interest rates signal tight money, not loose, and (3) bond buying is exactly the right policy when interest rates are near zero, inflation quiescent, and the economy moribund.
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Posted by orrinj at 9:36 PM


Gold Bugs Paulson Fund (GREGORY ZUCKERMAN And JULIET CHUNG, 3/07/13, WSJ)

Gold prices are falling fast. But John Paulson's gold investments are dropping even faster.

Behind the problems: a derivative bet on gold that has gone awry, according to someone close to the matter.

Mr. Paulson, who runs the $19 billion hedge-fund firm Paulson & Co., told his investors in a letter dated March 6 that his gold hedge fund is down nearly 26% so far this year, after tumbling almost 18% in February.

Posted by orrinj at 9:30 PM


Fracktivists for Global Warming : How Celebrity NIMBYism Turned Environmentalism Against Natural Gas (Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus, 3/06/13, The Breakthrough)

Over the last year, celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Robert Redford, Mark Ruffalo, Mario Batali, Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin, and Matt Damon have spoken out against the expansion of natural gas drilling. "Fracking kills," says Ono, who has a country home in New York. "It threatens the air we breathe," says Redford. 

In fact, "gas provides a very substantial health benefit in reducing air pollution," according to Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University's Center for the Environment. There have been "tremendous health gains" from the coal-to-gas switch, MIT economist Michael Greenstone told The Associated Press. Indeed, air pollution in Pennsylvania has plummeted in recent years thanks to the coal-to-gas switch. "Honestly," added Greenstone, "the environmentalists need to hear it."

Fracktivism might be dismissed as so much celebrity self-involvement had it not reversed the national environmental movement's longstanding support of natural gas as a bridge to zero-carbon energy -- and kept shale drilling out of New York state. 

We're not talking about deep thinkers here.  They're reactionaries.
Posted by orrinj at 9:20 PM


Jeb Bush is back in the spotlight -- and thinking about 2016 (Peter Wallsten and David Nakamura, March 5, 2013, Washington Post)

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who has remained on the sidelines since his older brother left the White House with dismal ratings four years ago, has jumped back into the political fray this week with a new book, wall-to-wall television interviews and a round of public speaking engagements.

His appearances mark a change in approach for Bush, 60, who has operated as more of a Republican elder statesman since leaving Tallahassee in 2007 but is now clearly considering a run for the White House.

In interview after interview this week, Bush, who had long dismissed the suggestion of a presidential run, spoke openly about his thinking on the matter, and his longtime political adviser, Sally Bradshaw, said Tuesday in an interview that Bush "will seriously think about it."

"This is a guy who has big ideas and cares deeply about the future of the party and hopes to play a role in the rebirth of the party, but at what level I don't think he knows," Bradshaw said.

He can clearly use some spring training to get his fastball back.
Posted by orrinj at 9:14 PM


Evangelicals Use Bible to Sway Republicans on Immigration (Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Mar 6, 2013, Bloomberg)

Last week, as Senator Marco Rubio's office was fielding phone calls from opponents of an immigration law rewrite, an appeal went out to evangelical Christians to counter the onslaught.

"Senator Rubio is working hard on common-sense immigration reform that upholds the biblical commandment to welcome the stranger," a recorded voice said before automatically connecting callers to the Florida Republican's Washington office. They were asked to tell whomever answered that they backed a set of evangelical principles on immigration, including providing a path toward citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented residents.

The call-in campaign demonstrates an intensifying push by evangelical Christians, a key part of the Republican Party base, in favor of revamping immigration laws in ways most Republicans have until recently rejected.

While some evangelical leaders have long favored an immigration revision, it's only now -- in the wake of the 2012 elections that spotlighted Republicans' weakness with Hispanic voters -- that they are stepping up their activism.

Posted by orrinj at 8:51 PM


Color Lines (W. Ralph Eubanks, Spring 2013, American Scholar)

In late 2005, scientists reported the discovery of a gene mutation that had led to the first appearance of white skin in humans. Other than this minor mutation--just one letter of DNA code out of 3.1 billion letters in the human genome--most people are 99.9 percent identical genetically. And yet, what divisions have arisen as a result of such a seemingly inconsequential genetic anomaly. Moreover, this mutation had separated members of my family along tightly demarcated racial lines for three generations. As this discovery became known, I was invited to join a class on race relations at Pennsylvania State University in which all the students participated in DNA ancestry testing as a way of discussing contemporary attitudes about race and cultural identity.

Through the DNA tests, students came to realize that the racial or ethnic identities they grew up with were sometimes in conflict with their genetic material, belying the notion of racial purity. In class, I listened to students talk about racial labels and identities, and whether ancestry testing had changed their perceptions of themselves. Most embraced the newly found diversity that their DNA test revealed, and none felt that ancestry testing had changed their personal identities. Still, the discovery of mixed ancestry was a struggle for a few. One white student wondered whether her African heritage came from "a rape in my past," and another thought that her African DNA must have come from "promiscuous family members." These comments were indicative of the stigma that any hint of African ancestry carries for many white Americans. No one suggested that racial passing--which I'd immediately brought up in the discussion--might explain some of these traces of mixed heritage. Only one student even seemed to understand the idea of racial passing. He grew up in an interracial home, with a father of Jamaican descent and an Irish mother, and he was close to both sides of his family. Although issues of race were discussed openly at home, he told me, no one ever forced him to choose between being black and being white. And in spite of having fair skin, he did not claim to be white, choosing instead to forge his own identity as multiracial, thus embracing his phenotypic ambiguity.

When the instructor, sociologist Sam Richards, asked whether I would be interested in taking my own DNA ancestry test, as part of a larger DNA study being conducted by anthropologist Mark Shriver, I did not hesitate to say yes. Given that I already knew my mixed-race background, the results weren't shocking: 60 percent West African ancestry combined with 32 percent European, six percent East Asian, and two percent Native American. The East Asian ancestry was the only surprise, but Mark explained that Asians and Native Americans are closely related evolutionarily. (Several years later, I took a second and more sophisticated DNA test that revealed slightly different results: 50 percent African, 44 percent European, and six percent Asian. These two sets of results are within the margin of error.)

Outside Mark's office at Penn State, I studied a wall of photographs showing the faces of various people from his DNA study, from Penn State and around the world, each image accompanied by the ethnic designation that person identified with. Beside the photograph was a paper flap, which, when lifted, showed what a DNA sample revealed about that person's ethnic background. As I went through photograph after photograph, few of the personal ethnic identities matched the DNA profiles. Most people had some mixture of DNA from at least two groups; many, like me, had genetic ancestry from Europe, East Asia, West Africa, and Native American groups. Blond people had African and Asian ancestry, and several dark-skinned people had more than half of their DNA from Europe.

What we see when we look at a person may or may not correlate to his or her ancestral and ethnic background. DNA results confirmed for me that identity cannot be constructed based on a "percentage" of African ancestry, and that our society's generally accepted racial categories cannot begin to address the complexity and nuance of our heritage. I soon began to think about race only in terms of culture and biology together. And as race became an abstract rather than a concrete concept, the categorical ways in which I had thought about race in the past were quickly broken down. Once we see how small the differences are that bring about the characteristics we think of as racial--hair, skin color, eyes, facial features--in relation to the entire human genome, it's hard to make a fuss about them. Our differences are astonishingly slight.

Posted by orrinj at 8:27 PM


Virginia's Liberty transforms into evangelical mega-university (Nick Anderson, March 4, 2013, Washington Post)

 The small Baptist college that television preacher Jerry Falwell founded here in 1971 has capitalized on the online education boom to become an evangelical mega-university with global reach.

In the almost six years since Falwell's death, Liberty University has doubled its student head count -- twice.

Total enrollment now exceeds 74,000, with nearly 62,000 working toward degrees online in fields such as psychology, business, education, criminal justice and, of course, religion. That makes Liberty the largest university in Virginia -- with more than double the number of students at No. 2 George Mason -- and the largest private, nonprofit university in the country. With a slogan of "training champions for Christ," Liberty also is the nation's largest university with a religious affiliation.

The surging enrollment for a bastion of Christian conservatism in the central Virginia foothills highlights the school as a market leader at the crossroads of religion and higher education. Liberty figured out how to recruit masses of students via the Internet years before elite universities began ballyhooed experiments with free online courses.

Posted by orrinj at 8:23 PM


Moore's law is not just for computers (Philip Ball, 05 March 2013, Nature)

In a study published in PLoS ONE1, they compared several mathematical laws that purport to describe how the costs of technologies evolve, and found that the most accurate was one proposed as early as 1936. [...]

The most accurate was Wright's law, but Moore's law was close behind, at least for a relatively modest time horizon of a few decades. The predictions were so similar for these two laws, in fact, that the researchers suspected they might be related.

A link seems quite likely. In 1979, political scientist Devendra Sahal pointed out that if production of an item grows at an exponential rate, then Wright's law and Moore's law are equivalent4. The data confirm that production does indeed grow exponentially for a wide range of products. "You wouldn't necessarily expect that," says Trancik.

That Moore's law applies at all to so many different industries is a surprise, since computing has often been regarded as a special case. "It's a much more general thing," says author Doyne Farmer, currently at the University of Oxford, UK.

Posted by orrinj at 8:19 PM


The War On Entitlements (Tom Edsall, 3/07/13, NY Times)

Currently, earned income in excess of $113,700 is entirely exempt from the 6.2 percent payroll tax that funds Social Security benefits (employers pay a matching 6.2 percent). 5.2 percent of working Americans make more than $113,700 a year. Simply by eliminating the payroll tax earnings cap -- and thus ending this regressive exemption for the top 5.2 percent of earners -- would, according to the Congressional Budget Office, solve the financial crisis facing the Social Security system.

...that you risk removing the impetus for reform unless you hold out for a Grand Bargain.

Posted by orrinj at 7:54 PM


Ten Books That Shaped America's Conservative Renaissance (Jeffrey O. Nelson, 3/07/13, Intellectual Conservative)

If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild society; if it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite. --Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind
The above words were written, of course, with reference to the great inheritance of conservative thought in the West, the long drama of lived experience as glimpsed by poets and novelists, social philosophers and practical statesmen. But these words could also be applied to a more particular conservative experience, that of post-World War II America. If we are to know and rebuild a conservative civil social order in this country, then we need to "rake from the ashes" of recent American history the books that influenced a generation of conservative scholars and public figures, books whose message resonated with much of the American populace and resulted in astonishing political triumphs.

At the time these books were published there was no conservative movement, only a belief among a disparate group of thinkers that conservative ideas had something to say to a society sated with liberalism. As Frederick D. Wilhelmsen put it, the only thing conservatives had was their vision. Today, conservatism has become so much a part of American life that it is difficult to comprehend what an astonishing achievement it was to lay the foundations of a movement that was, as the publisher Henry Regnery once remarked, not only an "opposing force to liberalism, but a vital force in its own right." With all the opportunities and outlets now available to conservatives it is easy for us to forget that the movement which arose at the century's midpoint came after a long reign of doctrinaire liberalism, and was greeted, according to Regnery, almost as an escape from bondage.

William Bennett observed that one of the primary concerns of conservatives should be to re-articulate a philosophical case for the kind of conservative government and society we advocate and oppose it to the one advanced by activist liberals. The first step in this effort must be to reacquaint ourselves with the tradition--the books, the figures, and the ideas--that enlivened conservatism, that made it "a fact and a force" on the American political and social landscape. [...]

One of the great classical liberal journals was the Freeman, founded by Albert Jay Nock. An incisive author who deserves to be studied more often today, Nock was read by many of the key intellectual figures of the burgeoning conservative movement, profoundly influencing the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, and Robert Nisbet. Nock's Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, passionately read as it was by most post-war conservatives, left its mark on the shape the movement was to take. Memoirs of a Superfluous Man is no confessional autobiography, but rather "an autobiography of a mind," an extended musing on Nock's life and strongly anti-statist prejudices. According to Nock, the state is "our enemy," aggressively interfering with the economic and social life of its citizens and arrogantly assuming the right to direct human affairs. He believed that "custom and agreement," rather than "conquest and confiscation," were to be the means by which government could be changed. In an influential essay entitled "Isaiah's Job," Nock invoked the biblical prophet to suggest that societies dedicated to freedom and individualism must be kept alive by a "remnant," by those people, as Charles Hamilton put it, "who were capable of transcending mass culture, materialism, and political opportunism in order to seek a more humane life." ought to be Nock.

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March 6, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:06 PM


How To Build A Top Quality Classical Music Library For $100 (Jens F. Laurson and George Pieler,)

[W]e set ourselves a few rules. The first is adopted from Tyler Cowen who gave us the idea: "Never buy an inferior recording simply because it is cheaper. In the long run it is more expensive." It's hard to tell what inferior (or "best") really means in a market saturated with the greatest artists from six decades competing with each other, often with multiple entries each, in the crowded field of recording classical evergreens. We interpret it thus: include it only if it really knocks your socks off. This uncompromising approach does conflict with the budget limit and the urge to cover a good deal of territory. But wherever compromise tried to sneak in at the expense of absolute quality, we tried to resist it.

Another rule was not to include box sets. It's tempting when you can get the complete works of Bach, Mozart, or Brahms for $84.99... and all the Wagner operas for $30. But that's unstructured overkill and, in our experience, detrimental to listening habits. Each recording included in this list, and each composer, deserves at least the focus and concentration that goes with listening specifically to one album. The kind of focus that used to happen necessarily when people put a vinyl album on their record player. (It makes all the difference: many of them still think vinyl sounds better!) Experiencing this music for the first time should be a piece-by-piece event, even in an age where the media--hard drives, clouds--have practically no physical confines.

Finally we tried--and failed--to make the list compatible for iTunes downloading, hard-copypurchasing, and Spotify streaming. We've come close, and picked only albums currently in print(which might, granted, change tomorrow). But Spotify, apart from proving near-unsearchable for specific albums, doesn't carry a few essential, high quality labels (Hyperion, ECM, Harmonia Mundi et al.) that we are not ready to exclude. In the Spotify playlist we have substituted for the missing recordings similar or near-best choices. (Incidentally the Naxos Music Library, for those interested in streaming, covers many of the lacunae Spotify leaves.)
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Posted by orrinj at 7:54 PM


More Americans Working Remotely (NEIL SHAH, 3/06/13, WSJ)

More American employees are working from home at least one day a week--a trend that could lower companies' costs and boost productivity.  [...]

[A] study by academics at Stanford University and Beijing University found Chinese call-center workers who stayed home took fewer breaks and worked more efficiently. Allowing employees to work from home can also lower a company's costs--especially for real estate, given the reduced need for office space.

And employees who mix working from home and office are often paid more. The median household income for such workers was over $96,000 in 2010, compared with around $66,000 for "on-site" workers, according to the Census's Survey of Income and Program Participation.

The home-working trend isn't hitting all types of workers equally. One in four home-based workers is in management, business and finance.

Posted by orrinj at 7:48 PM


The (Very) Quiet Peace Talks Between Israel and Hamas : The Middle East's storm clouds have a silver lining (EFRAIM HALEVY, 3/06/13, New Republic)

What hasn't earned much attention are the successive rounds of negotiations between Israeli army officers and other security officials and their Egyptian counterparts, mostly in Cairo, parallel to those that the Egyptians have been conducting with Hamas personnel. These "non-negotiations" between Israel and Hamas might be critical in finding a durable solution for their conflict.

But both sides prefer to keep the talks quiet. Hamas and Israel each appreciate the advantages of maintaining a diplomatic fiction while they pursue their real interests. Each side can thus publicly maintain its ideological purity, biding its time as it ascertains the intentions of the other. The ultimate effect may be to lay the groundwork for a pragmatic, and unprecedented, system of coexistence.

Posted by orrinj at 7:45 PM


The Deluge : Rapidly advancing technologies are opening up astonishing sources of oil and gas all over the world. We are entering a new era of fossil fuels that is reshaping global economics and politics--and the planet. (Vince Beiser, 3/04/13, Pacific Standard)

The story of Kern River reflects our entire history with oil: every time we think we're starting to run out of it, new technologies arise that find us more. The widely circulated fears of a few years ago that we were approaching "peak oil" have turned out to be completely wrong. From the Arctic to Africa, nanoengineered materials, underwater robots, side-scanning 3-D sonar, specially engineered lubricants, and myriad other advances are opening up titanic new supplies of fossil fuels, many of them in unexpected places--Brazil, Australia, and, perhaps most significantly, North America. "Contrary to what most people believe," declares a recent study from the Harvard Kennedy School, "oil supply capacity is growing worldwide at such an unprecedented level that it might outpace consumption."
FOR CENTURIES, THE EVER-SHIFTING MAP of where energy comes from has defined much of the character of our world. When people used whale oil for indoor lighting, Nantucket was a bustling center of commerce. Coal drove the rise of places like Newcastle upon Tyne in England and Centralia in Pennsylvania--and then powered the industrial and geographic expansion of the United States. Oil helped fund the creation of Texas and California. Since then, fossil fuels have shaped the development of countries around the world, especially in the Middle East.

Right now, the map of who sells and who buys oil and natural gas is being radically redrawn. Just a few years ago, imported oil made up nearly two-thirds of the United States' annual consumption; now it's less than half. Within a decade, the U.S. is expected to overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to regain its title as the world's top energy producer. Countries that have never had an energy industry worth mentioning are on the brink of becoming major players, while established fossil fuel powerhouses are facing challenges to their dominance. We are witnessing a shift that heralds major new opportunities--and dangers--for individual nations, international politics and economics, and the planet.

Oil is perhaps the only commodity used, in one way or another, by almost everyone on earth. We depend on it for much more than just gasoline. Oil and natural gas provide the raw materials for asphalt, plastics, and chemicals and fertilizers without which modern agriculture would collapse. To say that we're "addicted" to oil, as though it were a bad habit we could kick through force of will, is to drastically understate the degree of our dependence. In short: no petroleum, no modern civilization.

Little surprise, then, that practically since we started using the stuff, we have fretted that we were running out of it. In 1922, a federal commission predicted that "production of oil cannot long maintain its present rate." In 1977, President Jimmy Carter declared that world oil production would peak by 1985.

It turns out, though, that the problem has never been exactly about supply; it's always been about our ability to profitably tap that supply. We human beings have consumed, over our entire history, about a trillion barrels of oil. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there is still seven to eight times that much left in the ground.

Posted by orrinj at 7:05 PM


Machinery orders jump as U.S. businesses show confidence (Shan Li, 3/06/13, LA Times)

In another sign of a recovering economy, U.S. orders for machinery and factory goods jumped in January as businesses invested for future growth.

The Commerce Department said U.S. companies upped their orders for such goods by 7.2% in January from the month before, the biggest jump in more than a year.

March 5, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 9:12 PM


Posted by orrinj at 8:52 PM


Hugo Chavez leaves Venezuela in economic muddle (Robert Plummer, 3/05/13, BBC News)

Time and again, the president would make major decisions on an ad hoc basis, often during the course of his rambling and unscripted weekly TV broadcast to the nation, known as Alo Presidente.

He was particularly prone to quick-fix solutions in economic policy, resorting to regular currency devaluations, expropriations of private firms and inflation-busting public-sector pay rises rather than tackling the economy's underlying structural problems.

This fire-fighting approach continued even as Mr Chavez lingered on his Cuban sickbed, with Vice-President Nicolas Maduro implementing a 32% devaluation of the bolivar in February.

As a result, Mr Chavez bequeaths a nation beset by crumbling infrastructure, unsustainable public spending and underperforming industry.

Thanks to his social programmes, poorer Venezuelans have certainly benefited from the country's oil wealth more than they did under what he called the rotten elites that used to be in charge.

But there are strong suspicions that much money has been wasted - not just through corruption, but also sheer incompetence.

Posted by orrinj at 8:47 PM

Posted by orrinj at 6:05 PM


Record High Close for Dow, Spurred by Fed and Profits (PETER EAVIS, 3/05/13, NY Times)

After the crash of 1929, it took 25 years for the Dow to get back to the nominal level it plunged from. The severe economic contractions of the 1930s, during which scores of banks collapsed, weighed heavily on stocks.

But one essential government institution did things differently after the 2009 low point, and that has bolstered the stock market. The Federal Reserve has added more than $3 trillion of monetary stimulus to the economy and more than $1 trillion of bailout loans to financial firms since the 2008 financial crisis. This was done to prevent a widespread banking crash and help the wider economy.

Perhaps as important is the psychological shot in the arm: when investors believe the Fed is providing a systemic backstop, they will be more likely to get back into the market, and stay there.

"The Federal Reserve is here, and is going to do everything possible to support this recovery," Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Fed, said in an interview with "60 Minutes" in March 2009. It is probably more than coincidence that stocks began to recover strongly after that broadcast.

"Central banks do matter. Central banks have always mattered," said David Rosenberg, a chief economist at Gluskin Sheff and Associates, who started work as a Wall Street economist on the day of the 1987 stock market crash. "So long as the Fed is in an accommodative mode and the economy is out of recession, the odds are that you will have a bull market."

That's not to say that the Fed's largess is the only reason stocks are up. 

Company profits, which theoretically provide the basis for investing in stocks, have also surged. "Corporate earnings have been doing very nicely, thank you," said Alan S. Blinder, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University. In aggregate, companies in the S.&P. 500 have not reported a decline in earnings since the third quarter of 2009.

The focus on profits explains why the stock market can be doing well while most people are not experiencing a resurgent economy. A bet on an index like the Dow is effectively a narrow wager on the profits of 30 companies, not necessarily the economic health of average Americans, said Mr. Blinder. "Corporate profits have done better than median wages," he said.

 The big question is whether the stock market can keep going up from here. 

 One determinant is whether stocks are seen by traders as relatively expensive, and therefore vulnerable to a sell-off. Robert J. Shiller, a professor of economics at Yale University, has built a model for gauging whether stocks are cheap or pricey. Right now, stock valuations are above historical averages, but well below the stratospheric highs they've reached in bubbles, he said. According to his model, stocks are signaling that they can return about 3 to 4 percent a year.

Posted by orrinj at 5:59 PM


Why stocks are up while wages are down (Robert Reich, March 5, 2013, CS Monitor)

First, productivity gains. Corporations have been investing in technology rather than their workers. They get tax credits and deductions for such investments; they get no such tax benefits for improving the skills of  their employees. As a result, corporations can now do more with fewer people on their payrolls. That means higher profits.

Second, high unemployment itself. Joblessness all but eliminates the bargaining power of most workers - allowing corporations to keep wages low. Public policies that might otherwise reduce unemployment - a new WPA or CCC to hire the long-term unemployed, major investments in the nation's crumbling infrastructure - have been rejected in favor of austerity economics. This also means higher profits, at least in the short run. 

Third, globalization. 

Posted by orrinj at 5:50 PM


A New Ultra-Cheap LED Light Looks And Acts Like An Incandescent Bulb (Ariel Schwartz, 3/05/13, Co.Exist)

Cree, a company that has been in the LED lighting business for 25 years is doing Philips one better: This week, it announced the release of a series of LED bulbs that look like incandescents, light up rooms like incandescents--and cost as little as $10.

"The idea was, we have this great technology but for some reason consumers aren't trying it today--whether it's too expensive, they don't like the look, or whatever," explains Chuck Swoboda, CEO of Cree. "We have the first LED bulb that really looks like an [incandescent] lightbulb, and we've designed it in a way that it works like a lightbulb. Those two things combined with the price we think can get consumers to really try LED lighting."

March 4, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 8:50 PM


Larger Spending Cuts Would Help the Economy (MICHAEL J. BOSKIN, 3/04/13, WSJ)

Since World War II, OECD countries that stabilized their budgets without recession averaged $5-$6 of actual spending cuts per dollar of tax hikes. Examples include the Netherlands in the mid-1990s and Sweden in the mid-2000s. In a paper last year for the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Stanford's John Cogan and John Taylor, with Volker Wieland and Maik Wolters of Frankfurt, Germany's Goethe University, show that a reduction in federal spending over several years amounting to 3% of GDP--bringing noninterest spending down to pre-financial-crisis levels--will increase short-term GDP.

Why? Because expectations of lower future taxes and debt, and therefore higher incomes, increase private spending. The U.S. reduced spending as a share of GDP by 5% from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. Canada reduced its spending as share of GDP by 8% in the mid-'90s and 2000s. In both cases, the reductions reinforced a period of strong growth.

An economically "balanced" deficit-reduction program today would mean $5 of actual, not hypothetical, spending cuts per dollar of tax hikes. The fiscal-cliff deal reached on Jan. 1 instead was scored at $1 of spending cuts for every $40 of tax hikes.

Posted by orrinj at 4:37 PM


Republicans and Their Faulty Moral Arithmetic : Conservative values and money issues are worth less than concern for the poor. (ARTHUR C. BROOKS, 3/04/13, WSJ)

As New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown in his research on 132,000 Americans, care for the vulnerable is a universal moral concern in the U.S. In his best-selling 2012 book "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion," Mr. Haidt demonstrated that citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority--to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis--resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country's growing entitlement spending, don't register morally at all.

Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support--care for the vulnerable--to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints. [...]

Some say the solution for conservatives is either to redouble the attacks on big government per se, or give up and try to build a better welfare state. Neither path is correct. Raging against government debt and tax rates that most Americans don't pay gets conservatives nowhere, and it will always be an exercise in futility to compete with liberals on government spending and transfers.

Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly--it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats--too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns--but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.

...conservative (Third Way) policies outbid the Left by quite a margin, they just pay at the front end instead of the back.  For instance, O'Neill accounts for every child in America are enormously generous, but they pay off in policy terms, as well as financial, in the long run.

Posted by orrinj at 4:31 PM


Memo to Yahoo: the office is overrated (Nikil Saval, March 3, 2013, LA Times)

Rather than obsessing over serendipitous encounters, workplaces should be more concerned with the variety of work that people do all day, only some of which calls for an office setting.

A more promising, and expansive, model of work, popular in northern Europe, is called "activity-based working." The employee chooses the best place for the work that he or she needs to do that day.

Based on research showing that workers in the typical traditional office rarely spend more than a third of their day at their desks, activity-based working encourages the genuine mobility and autonomy that modern information technology such as email and video conferencing affords, while also handily decreasing the costs of maintaining expensive office space (though the initial investment in creating an accommodating environment is much higher).

In contemporary workplaces in the Netherlands, such as those at the insurance company Interpolis and the Amsterdam offices of Microsoft, workers don't have their own desks. Instead, they can choose from a variety of spaces -- a private office, a semi-open informal meeting space or a cafe. Because most of the workers spend at least one to two days a week working from home, there's never a scramble for space. Employees can choose to collaborate or not, and many informal meetings can take place off-site.

Even the Dutch central government is taking steps to make its work more time- and place-independent, allowing some of it to be done at home. Studies of some of these workplaces suggest an increase in internal communication and ad hoc encounters. Staff have positive evaluations of their own productivity. And, in fact, it can become easier to reach people. The reason isn't hard to fathom: Workplaces that aren't so dependent on executive or managerial oversight can make for more cooperation among workers themselves.

At home you don't have to waste time pretending to be working.

Posted by orrinj at 4:25 PM


Recovery in U.S. Is Lifting Profits, but Not Adding Jobs (NELSON D. SCHWARTZ, 3/04/13, NY Times)

With millions still out of work, companies face little pressure to raise salaries, while productivity gains allow them to increase sales without adding workers. [...]

As a percentage of national income, corporate profits stood at 14.2 percent in the third quarter of 2012, the largest share at any time since 1950, while the portion of income that went to employees was 61.7 percent, near its lowest point since 1966. In recent years, the shift has accelerated during the slow recovery that followed the financial crisis and ensuing recession of 2008 and 2009, said Dean Maki, chief United States economist at Barclays.

Corporate earnings have risen at an annualized rate of 20.1 percent since the end of 2008, he said, but disposable income inched ahead by 1.4 percent annually over the same period, after adjusting for inflation.

...those of us with jobs seek to take ever more of our compensation in the form of contributions to accounts where we hold stocks.

Posted by orrinj at 4:21 PM


The "Internet of Things" Could Save 9 Billion Tons of Carbon : Networked smart devices could cut carbon by almost a fifth and create a $1 trillion industry to boot. (Anya Kamnenetz, 3/04/13, Co.Exist))

Huge carbon savings come from seemingly little things done smarter: air conditioners backing the temperature off a few degrees in high-rise buildings in the summer, truck drivers taking the best route, container ships loaded a tiny bit more efficiently, or crops getting just the right amount of water.

In total, the authors say, the smart grid-enabled energy industry could save two billion tons of carbon by 2020, transportation another 1.9 billion, and buildings and farms, 1.6 billion tons each.

Carbon is just cost.

March 3, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:39 AM


How budget cuts could affect you (ASSOCIATED PRESS, 3/03/12)

...they won't matter to most of us?

Posted by orrinj at 10:13 AM


Israeli bus company institutes special Palestinian bus lines (JTA, 3/03/13) 

An Israeli bus company will offer special bus lines to transport Palestinian passengers from the West Bank into central Israel. [...]

Palestinians cannot enter Jewish settlements. They board the buses at stops on the Trans-Samaria Highway. 
The implementation of the bus lines comes after complaints from Jewish bus riders, who said that the buses were overcrowded and that they were concerned about security risks, Ynet reported. 

Posted by orrinj at 10:08 AM


Content economics, part 2: payments (Felix Salmon MARCH 3, 2013, Reuters)

A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I asked Andrew Sullivan why he chose to put up a paywall rather than putting up a tip jar. His answer (at about 23:00) was unambiguous:

This is not a tip jar. And it is not a pledge drive. It is a subscription. And that makes it a different proposition. It's telling people I'm not an amateur, and I'm not a charity. I'm doing work that I'm asking people to pay for. And it seems to me that at some point, we have to say that, in new media. Or else it is not going to continue to exist...

I had two pledge drives early on, in 2002 and 2003, which netted a certain amount of money. But this is a different model. This is trying to make it sustainable, long term: don't give it money just because you like me. We are trying to create an actual site that is news and opinion that people value and pay for, and become associated with in the long run. We could have done a tip jar. We decided no. We wanted to be a business. And do it the right way.

The distinctions here are subtle ones: Sullivan still nags his readers, just as public radio does during its pledge drives, but in his mind those nags aren't part of a pledge drive, because he's a business, rather than an amateur, or a charity. And similarly, although he raised $500,000 from readers before his paywall even existed, those dollars weren't donations, for much the same reason. There's something shameful, on this view, about working for tips; there's an unpleasant neediness about asking for charity. And it was those reasons, as much as any simply financial considerations, which resulted in Sullivan plumping for a paywall model.

Truth be told, Sullivan's paywall is not much of a wall at all. 70% of his readers don't click on the read-on links at all; they just stay on the home page, which is always free. And of the 30% who do click on read-on links, 91% are still within their allocation of seven free stories. Which means that overall, just 2.7% of his readers are reaching the point at which it gets a little bit harder to read what they want to read. And the actual number is lower even than that: many of his readers use RSS readers to consume his content, or else they disable cookies, or otherwise don't get counted among the people visiting his website.

But as Sullivan would probably agree, the choice between a paywall or a tip jar is not as clear-cut as it sounds: realistically, it's more of a spectrum. Some paywalls are forbiddingly high "Berliners": if you don't cough up, you have no access. Most, however, are porous to a greater or lesser extent. The Times and Sunday Times of London will give you the first 75 words or so of any story; the New York Times will allow you a certain number of free articles per month, plus all articles arrived at from external sites; the WSJ will let you in if you're coming from Google, or from a link which has been emailed to you by a subscriber. At other sites, the wall is drawn around some content but not all: the New Yorker, for instance, puts only some of its magazine content online for free, while the Boston Globe hides all of its content behind a Berliner paywall but then allows a subset of that content onto for free. [...]

The real reason why Fortune put up a paywall, of course, has nothing to do with how valuable Andy Serwer thinks the magazine's content is. Instead, the paywall is just another way for the Time Inc brass to try to make money and keep the magazine's rate base high, the idea being that people will be less likely to cancel their magazine subscriptions if they know that they won't be able to read that content online for free.

Which brings up a fundamental rule of online subscriptions: there is zero correlation between value and price. There are lots of incredibly expensive stock-tipping newsletters which have a negative value: you'd be much better off if you didn't subscribe to any of them at all. And of course there's an almost infinite amount of wonderfully valuable content available online for free, starting with Wikipedia and moving on through the sites of organizations like Reuters, Bloomberg, the Guardian, and the BBC. [...]

But there's another consideration, too: the more formidable the paywall, the more money you might generate in the short term, but the less likely it is that new readers are going to discover your content and want to subscribe to you in the future. Amazing offline resources like the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encylopedia Britannica are facing existential threats not only because their paywalls are too high for people to feel that they're worth subscribing to, but also because their audiences are not being replaced at nearly the rate at which they're dying off. The FT, for instance, has discovered that its current subscriber base is pretty price-insensitive, and has taken the opportunity to raise its subscription prices aggressively. That makes perfect sense if Pearson, the FT's parent, is looking to maximize short term cashflows, especially if it's going to sell off the FT sooner rather than later anyway. But if you're trying to build a brand which will flourish over the long term, it's important to make that brand as discoverable as possible.

And the lesson of very porous paywalls, like Sullivan's, or even of pure tip jars, like Maria Popova's, is that on the internet, people prefer carrots to sticks. That's one of the lessons of Kickstarter, too. To put it in Palmer's terms: if you want to give money, you're likely to give more, and to give more happily, than if you feel that you're being forced to spend money. If you look at the $611,000 that Sullivan has raised to date, essentially none of it has come from people who feel forced to cough up $20 per year in order to be able to read his website. To a first approximation, all of that money has come from supporters: people who want Sullivan, and the Dish, to continue.

Palmer concludes her talk by saying that "people have been obsessed with the wrong question: how do we make people pay for music. What if we started asking: how do we let people pay for music?" The same question can and should be asked about other forms of online content, too. Tomorrow Magazine raised $45,452 -- more than three times its goal -- from 1,779 people, none of whom felt in the slightest bit grudging about the money they were spending. A mere 296 people clubbed together to raise $24,624 for Baltimore Brew. 99% Invisible, a radio show, raised $170,477 from 5,661 people. And that's just a few of the Kickstarter journalism projects which were funded in 2012. There are lots of other models, too, like membership of Longreads, or, which helps to fund all manner of interesting and amazing journalism. What all of these projects have in common is that they're free online even as they're asking for money: they're not going to punish anybody for not supporting them by throwing up a paywall and saying "well, in that case, we won't give you access".

...that BrothersJudd doesn't cost us money.  

Posted by orrinj at 9:30 AM


Breaking the logjam (Washington Post, March 2, 2013)

WHAT IF THERE were a policy that could cut future deficits, slash taxes, eliminate wasteful government spending and reduce climate change? As sequestration kicks in, you'd think every politician in Washington would be desperate to embrace such a win-win-win-win.

Last week the Brookings Institution's Adele Morris laid out what an intelligent tax on carbon emissions could accomplish  and the results will astonish anyone -- seemingly much of Congress -- who hasn't given the idea the consideration it deserves. Ms. Morris proposed starting with a $16-per-ton charge on carbon dioxide, setting it to rise by 4 percent annually and using most of the money to cut corporate taxes and the deficit.

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Posted by orrinj at 8:33 AM


The Christian Origins of Islam (Peter J. Leithart, 12/07/13, First Things)

According to the standard Muslim account, the Quran contains revelations that Allah delivered to Mohammed through the angel Jibril between 609 and 632. They were fixed in written form under the third Caliph in the mid seventh century. Islamic scholar Christoph Luxenberg doubts most of this. In 2000, he published the German edition of The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran, whose restrained title and dispassionate tone belie its explosive arguments-explosive enough for the author to hide behind a pseudonym. The book has been banned in several Islamic countries.

One of Luxenbergs central arguments is that the Quran is an Arabic translation of an original Syriac/Aramaic text. Luxenberg is able to resolve oddities in the Arabic text by treating them as erroneous Arabic translations of an original Syriac text. Words that have no Arabic source turn out to be garbled versions of common Syriac terms. Luxenberg even finds evidence in the Quran itself for treating it as a translation. By his rendering, Sura 44:58 says "we have translated [the Koran] into your language so that they may allow themselves to be reminded." 

Luxenberg has become notorious for challenging the common translation of huri, usually understood as the hot-bodied virgins with whom faithful Islamic men hope to be rewarded in paradise. According to Luxenberg, they arent wide-eyed virgins, but white grapes, "juicy fruits hanging down," ready for picking (Sura 38:52). Its a vision of paradise similar to that of the fourth-century Christian poet, Ephrem the Syrian: "He who abstained from the wine here below, for him yearn the grapevines of Paradise. Each of them extends him a drooping cluster."

That reference to Ephrem is not accidental, for Luxenberg argues that the Quran derives from a Syriac Christian lectionary. Again, the evidence is hiding in plain sight. It has become commonplace among scholars of Islam to recognize that the word Quran means lectionarium, but few draw the controversial conclusion: "If Koran . . . really means lectionary, then one can assume that the Koran intended itself first of all to be understood as nothing more than a liturgical book with selected texts from the Scriptures (the Old and New Testament) and not at all as a substitute for the Scriptures . . . as an independent Scripture." [...]

Other early Islamic texts support the notion that Islam emerged not as a new religion but as a novel development within a Syriac Christian milieu. In his contribution to Hidden Origins, Luxenberg applies his method to the inscription on the Dome of the Rock, which seems to contain a straightforward Islamic confession: "There is no god but God alone . . . Mohammed the servant of God and messenger." Luxenberg points out that Mohammed, usually understood as a proper name, means "exalted be" or "praised be," and also notes that Syriac Christians, who were skeptical of the Nicene doctrine of Jesus divine sonship, preferred Isaiahs title "Servant" for Jesus. He contends that the inscription should read: "There is no god but God alone . . . Praised be the servant of God and his messenger." This makes better sense of the sequel, which explicitly identifies "Messiah Jesus, son of Mary" as "the messenger of God and his Word." An inscription about Jesus was later reinterpreted as a confession of a different faith entirely.

In his book, Did Mohammed Exist?, Robert Spencer--who, as the title suggests, pushes the argument further than he needs to--shows how central Christian iconography was to early Islam, appearing in art, currency, etc.  

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Posted by orrinj at 8:09 AM


Evan S. Connell: A Master Of Fact And Fiction (ALAN CHEUSE, January 12, 2013, NPR)

For most of his career, Connell had two reading publics: those folks who admired his fiction and those who admired his nonfiction. The first group scarcely kept him in supplies. Connell began writing after a stint as a Navy pilot during the Second World War, and then a return to Kansas to finish his undergraduate degree. But he always had a day job -- first working as a clerk in San Francisco, and later reading utility meters in Santa Cruz. Only after the huge success of his Custer book, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn, did he have some money to put away for old age.

Connell was one of my early writing heroes. I met him at a signing for my first novel, some 30 years ago in a San Francisco bookstore called Minerva's Owl. He walked in, introduced himself to me, and bought three books that he asked me to sign. One for him, and the others for family members back in Kansas City. I never forgot that gesture of his -- who could? The writer's writer, doffing his cap to a new young fiction novice. What a thrilling moment! Over the years we met a few times, over coffee or a drink, and once at what he called his favorite breakfast place in Marin County -- which turned out to be a McDonald's in Mill Valley.

Mrs. Bridge is one of those classic novels where the author loses control of his own narrative.

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Posted by orrinj at 8:04 AM


Never the Twain : What the idea of the "two cultures" is really about (William Deresiewicz, 3/03/13, The American Scholar)
Literary culture on the one hand, and scientific culture on the other, Snow lamented, are failing to communicate. A scientifically trained civil servant who also wrote novels (rather bad ones, apparently), Snow left no doubt as to who was to blame: "Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites." A scientist would be ashamed to admit that he hadn't read Shakespeare, but where's the humanist who can explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

The breasts have been abeating ever since. If only humanists weren't so obtuse! If only we could "bridge the two cultures"! The trouble with that noble desideratum is that no one's ever known what it means, least of all Snow. Never mind the objections raised by F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling, two of the leading literary critics of Snow's day. There aren't two cultures, Leavis pointed out; there are many--not only beside and between science and the humanities (most notably that habitually slighted tertium quid, the social sciences), but within each one, as well. As for that alleged literary culture, Snow seems to have meant traditional upper-class English culture--the culture of people who might have studied literature at Oxford or Cambridge but were hardly in the business of creating it. The latter, Trilling notes in response to Snow's charge that the great English writers failed to adequately respond to the Industrial Revolution, could hardly have been more aware of the changes that science had brought to society (think of Blake or Dickens or H. G. Wells), an observation that can be extended to the writers of our own day.

No, the biggest problem with Snow--the problem he bequeathed to all who've taken up his cry--is that he doesn't have the vaguest idea what "bridging" or "bringing together" the two cultures would actually entail. His essay contains not a single solid suggestion--not even a liquid or gaseous suggestion--as to how he thinks contemporary science should, as he puts it, "be assimilated" into art. As for higher education, a major part of his concern, his famous jibe about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, is not the beginning of a program; it is the whole of it. But why should humanists be taught the Second Law of Thermodynamics? 

...after all, since they're both wrong, what would be gained.  It is that they can't speak to anyone.

Posted by orrinj at 8:00 AM


The Rich Get Richer: Obama-Style Crony Capitalism (Lloyd Green Mar 3, 2013, Daily Beast)

The stock market yawned at sequestration and then rose. The S&P is near a five-year high and is up by 10 percent over the past 12 months.

How concerned is Obama by the bad news and the sequester cuts that on Friday he termed "dumb," "unnecessary," "arbitrary," and "inexcusable"? Not very, one would think, since his own 2012 budget forecast projected the very cuts in discretionary spending that the president now abjures, and described them in glowing terms. As Columbia's Jeffrey Sachs recently pointed out. "the level of spending for fiscal year 2013 under the sequestration will be nearly the same as Mr. Obama called for in the draft budget presented in mid-2012." Indeed, the White House budget forecast boasted that it would "bring domestic discretionary spending to its lowest level as a share of the economy since the Eisenhower administration."

For some reason, none of this feels like government by or for the people, and it isn't. Rather, it seems as though "crony capitalism" is the watchword for this administration.

...then shouldn't public policy be based on getting 100% of the citizenry into such accounts and boosting our holdings? 

Posted by orrinj at 7:55 AM


Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier: review : A call to rebalance the information economy intrigues Matt Warman (Matt Warman,  03 Mar 2013, The Telegraph)

Corporations such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, PayPal, eBay and many more are apparently becoming unendingly profitable thanks in part to the amount of data they are gathering about us.

Lanier argues that we need to rebalance this information economy. For every little bit of data we provide a business with, we should be compensated, he argues. Just as a market research company might pay you £50 to take part in a focus group, so he claims we are all, effectively, one giant focus group upon which internet profits are based.

Lanier conjures images of us each being remunerated by ever-cleverer technologies: if you're a great customer of a casino, why shouldn't it decide it's in its economic interest to fix your heart condition?

In essence, however, he claims the logical extension of the current digital divide, between the tech-savvy and the less so, is that a decreasing number of people will gather to themselves the knowledge that comes from owning giant databases, and consequently take the profits. Online, he says, we are all consumers, and only some of us are employers. These are economic changes on an unprecedented scale.

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March 2, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:37 PM


G. K. Chesterton: It's Not Gay, and It's Not Marriage (Dale Ahlquist, 2/21/13, Crisis)

Chesterton shows that the problem of homosexuality as an enemy of civilization is quite old. In The Everlasting Man, he describes the nature-worship and "mere mythology" that produced a perversion among the Greeks. "Just as they became unnatural by worshipping nature, so they actually became unmanly by worshipping man." Any young man, he says, "who has the luck to grow up sane and simple" is naturally repulsed by homosexuality because "it is not true to human nature or to common sense." He argues that if we attempt to act indifferent about it, we are fooling ourselves. It is "the illusion of familiarity," when "a perversion become[s] a convention."

In Heretics, Chesterton almost makes a prophecy of the misuse of the word "gay." He writes of "the very powerful and very desolate philosophy of Oscar Wilde. It is the carpe diem religion." Carpe diem means "seize the day," do whatever you want and don't think about the consequences, live only for the moment. "But the carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people." There is a hopelessness as well as a haplessness to it. When sex is only a momentary pleasure, when it offers nothing beyond itself, it brings no fulfillment. It is literally lifeless. And as Chesterton writes in his book St. Francis of Assisi, the minute sex ceases to be a servant, it becomes a tyrant. This is perhaps the most profound analysis of the problem of homosexuals: they are slaves to sex. They are trying to "pervert the future and unmake the past." They need to be set free.

Sin has consequences. Yet Chesterton always maintains that we must condemn the sin and not the sinner. And no one shows more compassion for the fallen than G.K. Chesterton. Of Oscar Wilde, whom he calls "the Chief of the Decadents," he says that Wilde committed "a monstrous wrong" but also suffered monstrously for it, going to an awful prison, where he was forgotten by all the people who had earlier toasted his cavalier rebelliousness. "His was a complete life, in that awful sense in which your life and mine are incomplete; since we have not yet paid for our sins. In that sense one might call it a perfect life, as one speaks of a perfect equation; it cancels out. On the one hand we have the healthy horror of the evil; on the other the healthy horror of the punishment."

Chesterton referred to Wilde's homosexual behavior as a "highly civilized" sin, something that was a worse affliction among the wealthy and cultured classes. It was a sin that was never a temptation for Chesterton, and he says that it is no great virtue for us never to commit a sin for which we are not tempted. That is another reason we must treat our homosexual brothers and sisters with compassion. We know our own sins and weaknesses well enough. Philo of Alexandria said, "Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a terrible battle." But compassion must never compromise with evil. Chesterton points out that balance that our truth must not be pitiless, but neither can our pity be untruthful. Homosexuality is a disorder. It is contrary to order. Homosexual acts are sinful, that is, they are contrary to God's order. They can never be normal. And worse yet, they can never even be even. As Chesterton's great detective Father Brown says:  "Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no man has ever been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down."

Marriage is between a man and a woman. That is the order. 
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Posted by orrinj at 10:09 PM


A MODEST MASTERPIECE : "Local Hero" turns 30 this month. In this article, from five years ago, Jasper Rees spoke to those who made the film (Jasper Rees, Intelligent Life)

"Local Hero" came about when the producer David Puttnam, who was about to win an Oscar for "Chariots of Fire", advised Forsyth that there would be studio money for a Scottish script with parts for a couple of American actors. One was the role of the star-gazing petro-mogul Felix Happer. "I wrote it with Burt Lancaster in my head from the very beginning," Forsyth says. "I'd read in an interview that he'd like to do some real comedy." He also drew on a recent deal struck with an oil consortium in Orkney. "The chief executive of the council realised he had a strong position and got the community a cut of the revenue and incredible things like care of libraries and community centres."

Thus was conceived the alluring figure of Gordon Urquhart, the savvy hotelier and accountant ("we tend to double up on jobs around here," as he explains). He was played, or beautifully underplayed, by Lawson. "Around that time it was quite hard to find a contemporary Scottish character who wasn't in wellies and a kilt or a Gorbals heavy," says Lawson. "I had hardly ever used my own voice. It's the most enjoyable experience I've ever had." The same endorsement comes from Riegert, who had to fight off Michael Douglas and half of Hollywood to land the part of MacIntyre. "If you could storyboard the best possible experience for an actor, this would be it," he says. "It was effortless. I recognised the material right off the page. My only question was how well could the director direct this movie? And 'Gregory's Girl' pretty much convinced me there wouldn't be any problem."

It was in "Gregory's Girl", his no-budget comedy of teenage angst, that Forsyth, then mainly a documentary-maker, paraded a taste for offbeat whimsy. In "Local Hero" he quietly folded it into a capacious narrative about sea and sky and the tectonic plates of the cold war. By night the northern lights twinkle benignly in a sky that daily swarms with NATO test jets, while the ancient waters yield lobsters, embargoed South African oranges and a hearty trawlerman from Murmansk, who boats in to sing at the ceilidh and check on his investment portfolio.

This colourful character was no fanciful invention. "There were Russian trawlers that anchored off Ullapool," says Forsyth. "In the thick of the cold war it was quite interesting that half a dozen Russians would come ashore and go into a pub. A very basic motivation was to let people feel that Scotland had a cosmopolitan aspect." Hence the plot's other fish out of water, the west African vicar.

The film has had a healthy afterlife on VHS and DVD. Its environmental credentials have crystallised into what now looks like a timely sermon about our over-reliance on oil. Happer choppers in like a deus ex machina to close the deal, only to come up against old Ben, the wise man of the beach, who persuades him to switch from oil to astronomy. MacIntyre is expelled back to his snazzy Houston high-rise with only sea shells and snapshots as mementoes. Remarkably, Riegert played the exquisitely melancholy final scene before he'd clapped eyes on Pennan or Arisaig on the west coast, where the beach scenes were filmed.

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Posted by orrinj at 12:22 PM


The Pope Who was Actually a Bear (Charlie McKinney, 3/02/13, Crisis)

In the final three paragraphs of the fascinating memoir he wrote while still Prefect of the Congregation, Cardinal Ratzinger explained the significance of the bear:

According to legend, on his way from Germany to Rome in the early 700s, St. Corbinian's horse was torn to pieces by a bear. Corbinian reprimanded the bear, loaded onto it the pack the horse had been carrying, and made the bear haul that burden all the way to Rome. Only then did Corbinian release the bear. [...]

And then, years before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger says:

The heavily laden bear that took the place of St. Corbinian's horse, or rather donkey--the bear that became his donkey against its will: is this not an image of what I should do and of what I am?

His answer?

 For the last eight years, he's placed it right before us, right there on his Papal Coat of Arms.


The future Benedict XVI concludes his 1998 memoir with the following touching words that came suddenly to my mind yesterday as he stepped into the helicopter that took him from the Vatican:

It is said of St. Corbinian that, once in Rome, he again released the bear to its freedom. The legend is not concerned about whether it went up into the Abruzzi or returned to the Alps. In the meantime I have carried my load to Rome and have now been wandering the streets of the Eternal City for a long time. I do not know when I will be released, but one thing I do know. Augustine's remark applies to me, too: 

"I am become your donkey, and in just this way I abide with you."

Less than 24 hours ago--God be praised!--and after 36 years of carrying burdens he would never have chosen himself, our faithful bear was finally released, traveling neither into the nearby hills of Abruzzi nor back over his beloved Alps, but merely the short distance to Castel Gandolfo where he can pray and think and write, far from the increasingly shrill and reckless attacks that countless souls and organizations have unleashed against him and his beloved Church.

Posted by orrinj at 12:04 PM


Yes, Hospital Pricing Is Insane, But Why? : Time magazine issues a 24,000-word memo on what we already knew. (Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., 3/02/13, WSJ)

"What is so different about the medical ecosystem that causes technology advances to drive bills up instead of down?" Mr. Brill asks. But his question is rhetorical since he doesn't exhibit much urge to understand why the system behaves as it does, treating its nature as a given.

In fact, what he describes--big institutions dictating care and assigning prices in ways that make no sense to an outsider--is exactly what you get in a system that insulates consumers from the cost of their health care.

Your time might be better spent reading Duke University's Clark Havighurst in a brilliant 2002 article that describes the regulatory, legal and tax subsidies that deprive consumers of both the incentive and opportunity to demand value from medical providers. Americans end up with a "Hobson's choice: either coverage for 'Cadillac' care or no health coverage at all."

"The market failure most responsible for economic inefficiency in the health-care sector is not consumers' ignorance about the quality of care," Mr. Havighurst writes, "but rather their ignorance of the cost of care, which ensures that neither the choices they make in the marketplace nor the opinions they express in the political process reveal their true preferences."

You might turn next to an equally fabulous 2001 article by Berkeley economist James C. Robinson, who shows how the "pernicious" doctrine that health care is different--that consumers must shut up, do as they're told and be prepared to write a blank check--is used to "justify every inefficiency, idiosyncrasy, and interest-serving institution in the health care industry."

Hospitals, insurers and other institutions involved in health care may battle over available dollars, but they also share an interest in increasing the nation's resources being diverted into health care--which is exactly what happens when costs are hidden from those who pay them.

By which he means, hidden from those who don't pay them.  The simple reform to Obamacare is to make us pay those bills, via mandating HSAs.
Posted by orrinj at 9:58 AM


Underrated: Jonathan Swift (DANIEL JOHNSON, March 2013, StandPoint)

Why, then, have critics declined to follow Captain Lemuel Gulliver on his adventures in Lilliput and Brobdingnag? Samuel Johnson set the tone with his mean-spirited Life of Swift and his disparaging comment to Boswell: "When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest." Yet the young Johnson had not disdained to entitle his satirical parliamentary sketches for the Gentleman's Magazine of 1738-44 "State of Affairs in Lilliput", thus demonstrating that within 20 years of its appearance Gulliver's Travels was required reading. On their tour of the Hebrides, Boswell recorded Johnson's conversation with a "sensible clever woman", Lady MacLeod, who asked if no man was naturally good. "No, madam, no more than a wolf," he replied. "Nor no woman, sir?" Boswell interpolated. "No, sir." Lady Mac-Leod: "This is worse than Swift." Her startled aside is revealing, both of Swift's reputation and of his influence on Johnson.

And so it has been ever since. The great Whig critics, such as Jeffrey and Macaulay, were repelled by Swift's love of the morbid, the bawdy and the grotesque and by a cultural pessimism they saw as reactionary. Later critics were similarly harsh, with the partial exception of George Orwell. In his essay of 1946, Orwell denounces "a world-view which only just passes the test of sanity", yet also declares: "If I had to make a list of six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed, I would certainly put Gulliver's Travels among them." He treats Swift primarily as a polemicist, and his satire as merely a tool of his political ideology ("Tory anarchism"), but this is surely the wrong way round. Swift, like Orwell, changed his mind about politics; this did not diminish the quality of their writing. Indeed, the author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would be inconceivable without Gulliver's Travels.

Why has Gulliver's Travels such a universal appeal? The supposed author is a ship's surgeon, not a savant writing for the savvy. Along with the usual apparatus, Womersley's edition includes "long notes" which are really short essays on aspects of the book. One of these quotes his publisher, George Faulkner, on Swift's practice of having read aloud his works with two servants present, "which, if they did not comprehend, he would alter and amend until they understood it perfectly well, and then would say, This will do; for I write to the Vulgar, more than to the Learned." How many other writers take such pains to make themselves clear?

A charge made against Gulliver is that it is a clever persiflage of Queen Anne's day, but limited to its own time and place. Swift replied to one such critic, his French translator the Abbé Desfontaines, that "an author who writes for only one town, one province, one kingdom, or one age is completely despicable. But those who admire Mr Gulliver say, on the contrary, that his writings will last as long as our language, because they are not based on certain fashions and ways of speaking and thinking, but on faults and follies which are fixed in human nature." The Dean spoke more truly than the Abbé.

The Truth About Human Nature (Lee Perlman, Spring 2012, New Atlantis)

In Swift's poem "The Beasts' Confession" (1738), written several years after Gulliver's Travels was published, he makes clear that lying, as a human condition, is neither accidental nor escapable. The beasts, speaking as the voice of this poem, do confess their faults, but they defend themselves also, on the basis that what they do is simply who they are. If that weren't true -- if the beasts could be mistaken about who they are, or could deceive themselves -- then they would "degenerate into men." Swift's essentialist understanding of human nature -- what distinguishes it from all other natures -- is that we are the creatures who lie to ourselves about who we are.

This is why in Gulliver's Travels, Swift presents his ostensibly ideal race, the Houyhnhnms, as an entirely different species -- a kind of horse that speaks, but is incapable of saying or comprehending "the thing which is not." But if the distinction between humans and animals is the capacity to lie -- which is entailed in the capacity or perhaps necessity of being other than we are -- then the Houyhnhnms are the perfection or the fulfilled telos of animal nature, not of human nature. The Houyhnhnms are passionless and perhaps compassionless. They are a projection of the mistaken British empiricist view of what we truly are. The Yahoos, meanwhile, are humanlike in appearance, and a grotesque cartoon of the existentialist understanding of what we truly are -- creatures that are a random tumble of irrational drives. The Yahoos and Houyhnhnms are mirror depictions of humanity shorn of its capacity to deceive; yet neither the self-less Houyhnhnm nor the selfish Yahoo is a picture of our true nature -- not its source, nor its perfected or authentic state. It is far from clear, then, that getting beyond the capacity to commit falsehood perfects human nature.

Houyhnhnm reason is the purely unimaginative, non-speculative, dispassionate grasping of bare facts. When Gulliver tells the Master Horse where he is from and how he got to their land, the horse replies

that I must needs be mistaken, or that I said the thing which was not.... He knew it was impossible that there could be a country beyond the sea, or that a parcel of brutes could move a wooden vessel whither they pleased upon water. He was sure no Houyhnhnm alive could make such a vessel, nor would trust Yahoos to manage it.

What the Houyhnhnm cannot easily imagine must be untrue. Their inability to knowingly lie is identical with their inability to see beyond facts -- to imagine, to speculate, and even to have opinions. As Gulliver reports, "I remember it was with extreme difficulty that I could bring my master to understand the meaning of the word opinion, or how a point could be disputable; because reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain; and beyond our knowledge we cannot do either." Despite their seemingly hard-nosed rational empiricism, there is in fact dogmatism in their rejection of anything beyond what is familiar to them.

The irony is thus that, in their insistence on not saying "things which are not," the Houyhnhnms do not truly understand what is -- and so are after all capable of speaking falsehoods. The Master Horse, for example, claims to know that there could not be a country beyond the sea. And without opinions, they are incapable of genuine and potentially truth-revealing speculation and inquiry. Moreover, not understanding what could be, they cannot even begin to grasp what should be. (Indeed, Swift tells us that the word Houyhnhnm even means "the perfection of nature" -- and of course when in a state of perfection, the notion of should has no meaning.) In the Houyhnhnms' incapacity to see anything as representing, evoking, or pointing to something else, they are enemies of the muses. Houyhnhnms show no concern for a search for Truth; they are a species that simply tells the "truth" -- or at least, the facts of the matter. To those who never delude themselves, nothing is ever hidden -- and therefore truth is not something that need be sought, but rather something that lies always plainly before us.

A life devoted to Truth as mere fact is repulsive to human beings. This is nowhere as obvious as when the Houyhnhnms look at death: They are incapable of experiencing loss, because they never abstract themselves from the immediate present and immediate facts. They are animals that have perfected their animal nature, living lives of truth as pure factuality. It is of course a common human pretension to strive for just such a thing. Gulliver, in his narrative, claims "to relate plain matter of fact in the simplest manner and style." This claim, of course, is absurd, made as it is in a story that is wildly satirical fiction, and it is clearly not the view of Swift, the true narrator. The truth he seeks is not one of plain facts, plainly stated, but of something else.

So lies, which Swift takes to be part of our essential nature, are not the target of his satire. The enemy of human authenticity and flourishing is pride, the pinnacle of which is the denial of the lies inherent in our nature. After his sojourn with the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver resigns himself to the idea that he and his species are just a bunch of Yahoos, and writes:

My reconcilement to the Yahoo kind in general might not ... be so difficult, if they would be content with those vices and follies only, which nature has entitled them to.... But when I behold a lump of deformity, and diseases both in body and mind, smitten with pride, it immediately breaks all the measures of my patience.

Gulliver's disgust with the pride, rather than simply the vices of the Yahoos, brings to mind Swift's criticism of human hypocrisy in "The Beasts' Confession": our defining vice is fooling ourselves about our vices. The ultimate form of this vice -- fooling ourselves about our capacity to fool ourselves -- is what takes us outside the realm of nature; it is the essence of not being who we are.

A prime source of this delusory pride is the detachment of reason from passion and the apotheosis of mere fact-grabbing as the essential nature of reason itself. In the land of the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos, we see reason and passion precisely separated, housed respectively in these two creatures. In the Houyhnhnms, we see reason without passion, and in the Yahoos, a depiction of our raw nature, absent reason -- and that nature is shown as grotesque, suggesting that our reason masks our natural depravity. Yet it is not at all clear whether simply "adding" reason to this nature, if we somehow could, would ameliorate or intensify its odiousness.

When Gulliver's Houyhnhnm host hears his sympathetic account of the ways of law and war of contemporary Europe, Gulliver reports that he responds, "When a creature pretending to reason, could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded lest the corruption of that faculty might be worse than brutality itself." Gulliver's host later adds that he views humans as having been given "some small pittance of reason," of which we have made "no other use than by its assistance to aggravate our natural corruptions, and to acquire new ones which Nature had not given us."

Indeed, through most of Gulliver's Travels, Swift seems to present rationality as enslaved to passion -- which might lead us to consider the liberation of reason from passion to be Swift's ideal. But in his depiction of the Houyhnhnms, we begin to see that rationality detached from life and feeling would make us strangers to ourselves. This point is even more obvious in A Modest Proposal, the famous 1729 tract in which Swift proposes a decidedly novel solution to the problems poverty and unemployment. The satire in that work rests on the trope of treating human affairs as if they were only factual matters -- in this case, questions of economics.

The pretense is that moral thought can be reduced to practical calculation. Swift criticizes the moral weakness of mothers who have abortions or commit infanticide, which he describes as a "horrid practice," while himself posing the more economically sound solution of selling children for food. The joke, of course, is that, in earnestly proposing a solution to monstrosity, the author casually proposes one far greater. It is the reduction of moral thought to nothing more than calculating rationality that is the true source of the writer's cruelty -- and perhaps of the peculiar track record of modernity for the same, in spite of its Enlightenment.

The second essay here is so good that it made me re-read the book for the first time in 30 years.  I'm ashamed to say I'd not realized how squarely Swift fit with what we've argued is the quintessentially Anmglospheric rejection of Reason.
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Posted by orrinj at 9:49 AM


Law, Liberty, and Life Together (Jordan Ballor, 2/27/13, Acton)

The Christian vision of the human person also includes the reality of the fall, when Adam and Eve transgress this original limit. As many commentators have observed, the fall affects all three of the basic relationships: between God and human beings, between individual human beings themselves, and between people and the created order. At this point the reality of law comes to the fore. Where limit had been embedded in the natural order before the fall, some institutions of preservation and restraint become necessary given the sinful nature of post-lapsarian humanity.

We see how the sinful nature of human beings comes to social expression right away. Cain's envy over his brother Abel's acceptance by God breaks out into murderous rage. [...]

When sin is understood in its anti-social aspects we can better understand the positive use of law and political order. As James Madison puts it in Federalist #51, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." Without sin, the coercive and punitive aspects of legal order would be superfluous. But since we live in a world marred by sin and evil, political order takes on an aspect of force, attempting to restrain the most destructive anti-social expressions of sin. Since we do not always govern ourselves as we ought to, in accord with the moral order, there must be some external checks and limits on our behavior.

As Lord Acton said, "Liberty is the harmony between the will and the law." In this sense, then, law and legal constraint protect true liberty, and prevent our earthly existence from degenerating into a hellish existence, a libertinism in which our anti-social desires are given full rein.

The conservative defense of republican liberty can never be squared with the libertarian desire for freedom instead.  And that divide is, indeed, predominantly religious.
Posted by orrinj at 9:44 AM


To create growth, unleash the invisible foot (Reihan Salam MARCH 1, 2013, Reuters)

As it turns out, the U.S. tax code does give large incumbents an enormous advantage over start-ups by subsidizing corporate debt. When businesses want to raise money for operations, they can pour their profits back into the business, they can sell shares or they can borrow. In an ideal world, we'd want business enterprises to make these decisions on the basis of what makes the most sense based on underlying economic conditions. But in the United States, we allow companies to deduct interest expenses from their taxes but not dividends on their stocks. This makes it far cheaper for companies to raise money by borrowing than by selling shares.

One reason this debt bias is a problem is that it leads companies to take on large amounts of debt, which raises the risk that they will go bankrupt. Yet there is another problem: It is much easier for some companies to borrow than for others. Specifically, well-established firms ‑ for example, large incumbents with pricing power that have been around for years ‑ find it much easier to borrow than new, unproven firms with high-growth potential, which have little choice but to rely on selling shares to finance investment. And so the tax-deductibility of interest expenses and not dividends gives the entrenched corporate Goliaths that have the option to borrow a big boost, while doing nothing for the would-be corporate Davids eager to take them on.

With this in mind, Robert Pozen of the Brookings Institution and Harvard Business School and his research associate, Lucas Goodman, have devised an ingenious plan to level the playing field. First, they call for cutting the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. This lower statutory rate will make the U.S. a much more attractive destination for profitable investment projects, particularly since our current corporate tax rate of 35 percent is the highest in the industrialized world. To finance this substantial cut, Pozen and Goodman propose a modest 60 percent to 85 percent cap on the amount of interest companies can deduct from their tax bills, sharply reducing debt bias and keeping the proposal revenue-neutral. Firms that rely heavily on debt would cry foul, and for some the process of reducing debt levels would be painful. Yet start-ups that don't have the option of raising money by taking on enormous amounts of debt would find themselves at far less of a disadvantage. The end result could be an entrepreneurial renaissance, as lumbering corporate dinosaurs that had used cheap credit to scare off competitors are forced to reckon with innovative new rivals.

...that as we transition to an Ownership Society we're increasing the demand for stocks.  So why would we tax corporations or favor them taking on debt instead of issuing stocks at all?

Posted by orrinj at 9:18 AM


Tale Told by a Modern Romantic : JONAH' (C. 1885-95) BY ALBERT PINKHAM RYDER (SIDNEY LAWRENCE, 3/02/13, WSJ)

Ryder's most deeply affecting work is "Jonah" (c. 1885-95), his masterly portrayal of the biblical tale. Now the centerpiece of a gallery of other, smaller Ryders in Washington's Smithsonian American Art Museum, this explosively composed, dark-toned painting, measuring about 2½ feet by 3 feet within a hefty period frame, uses abstract design, clear storytelling and dense, obsessive paint to draw the viewer in. The rewards are many.

This is not Jonah in the belly of the whale, or "great fish," but a prelude to that biblical episode. A gesturing, folk-art-like God figure appears on the horizon in a blazing halo holding an orb and surrounded by angel-wing clouds. Raging below are the roiling contours of the fierce seas God has created to punish the prophet for defying a divine order to preach in the sinful city of Nineveh. Instead, Jonah has set sail in the opposite direction. Cast out by frightened shipmates, Jonah expresses terror, arms upraised, within the swells outside a bent, dark, roller-coaster vessel that creates a strong diagonal in the composition. On board, the shipmates huddle in fear. A gigantic wave threatens both to capsize the boat and to drown Jonah as the murky, bulbous-headed whale, mouth agape and eyes hungry, moves stealthily toward him. [...]


A grammar-school dropout with a history of vision problems, the affable, bearded Ryder loved literature and poetry, which he also wrote and recited, and the operas of Richard Wagner, whose swelling musical cadences can be sensed in many of his seascapes, including "Jonah." Ryder's youthful studies at the National Academy of Design, a grand tour of Europe in 1882 and the intimate tonal landscapes of painter friends in New York also had an impact.

But the sea was Ryder's true passion. Once he found his footing as an artist, he arranged his life so he could study its moods at night from city wharves and on ferry rides to and from New Jersey. On ocean crossings to Europe in 1887 and 1896, Ryder spent most of the time en route sketching the sea from the ship's deck, alighting only briefly in his destination, London, before heading home again. "Jonah" brilliantly reflects the artist's obsession.

Overwhelmed by Ryder's work, one contemporary critic called it "the only successful religious painting produced since the Renaissance."
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Posted by orrinj at 9:06 AM


Enlightened Conservatism (Lee Harris, February 18, 2013, American)

But what exactly is Nature's objective in bringing about this carefully contrived balance of political temperaments? Though Willis does not explain this point himself, I think he might well have something like this in mind: those who are born a little liberal bring something to the table that those who are born a little conservative cannot. The temperamental conservative, because he is by nature suspicious of change, will often oppose even those changes that are clearly improvements. Without the liberal to egg him on, the temperamental conservative would fall easily into what is known as the "status quo bias," defined as an irrational preference for the current state of affairs, both within one's personal domain and the wider political arena.

This is the point at which the enlightened conservative enters helpfully into the picture. He, too, is born a little conservative and is thus in a position to understand the feelings and sentiments of his fellow temperamental conservatives. But, like Private Willis, he is able to rise above his temperament. He does this by recognizing that the only way to keep his own inborn status quo bias from doing harm is to acknowledge it openly and to seek correction for it from the inborn counterbias of the liberally inclined, just as a nearsighted man will ask the help of the farsighted in reading a distant sign.

This recognition of his own inherent limits, however, does not mean that the enlightened conservative will not push forcefully for his own conservative views. Yes, he is aware of his own bias, but he is also aware that his conservative bias is a necessary corrective to the liberal bias of his political opponents. For if conservatives are naturally prone to exhibit status quo bias, liberals are just as naturally prone to what might be called "reformist bias," defined as an irrational preference for change or, to put it more colorfully, for fixing what ain't broke -- a bias that has all too often led to disastrous and ill-fated experiments in social engineering.

Nowhere is this liberal bias more obvious than when liberals decide to champion a cause -- usually a cause with a capital "C." Liberals have always had a passion for causes -- many sensible, others a bit daft. But all such causes tend to leave the temperamental conservative cold. You cannot espouse a cause, after all, without becoming an activist, and an activist, by definition, is someone who wants to alter the status quo, often quite radically. The born conservative, in contrast, sees nothing wrong with the status quo. Indeed, in his unenlightened state, the born conservative is an adamant foe of all suggested reforms and so-called improvements. He is a firm stand-patter, who would fully concur with Alexander Pope's famous dictum: whatever is, is right.

Here the enlightened conservative begs to differ. He is willing to accept some measure of reform, though only when his refusal to accept it would endanger the order and stability that he holds so dear. Even then, he prefers the change to come gradually and by sensible increments, and not through revolutionary upheaval. It is his very sensible fear of the nasty consequences of such upheavals that prods him, however reluctantly, to accede to change at all. For example, Teddy Roosevelt was playing the role of the enlightened conservative when he argued that it is better to accept some economic reforms in the capitalist system than to leave it alone and thereby invite the triumph of socialism.

Yet despite his willingness to accept some reforms, the enlightened conservative will -- and should -- remain deeply suspicious of all causes. As he sees it, a cause is to politics what fanaticism is to religion -- a plague to be avoided at all costs.

Posted by orrinj at 8:40 AM


Obama's Lost Leverage (Steven T. Dennis and Daniel Newhauser, 3/01/13, Roll Call )

[O]bama gave away the one big legislative stick he has in his arsenal. He said he wouldn't risk a government shutdown by demanding a sequester fix in the continuing resolution needed to fund the government past March 27.

"I think it's the right thing to do to make sure that we don't have a government shutdown," he said on March 1.

The White House had been quietly signaling to its Democratic allies on the Hill that Obama would not threaten a veto out of fear the public would blame Democrats for the shutdown.

But the decision only underscored what many Hill Democrats believe was a major negotiating error by the White House and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the fiscal-cliff deal.

By making all of the tax cuts permanent but only avoiding the sequester for two months, the president traded away most of his leverage in return for only half of the revenue he had been seeking -- and no clear way to force Republicans to the table for more.

"It's playing out exactly as we warned them it would," a senior Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

It's not as if Republicans were shy about making that argument at the time: GOP leaders immediately said that the deal effectively set in stone revenue for the president's second term. that Democrats are acting like they don't believe the sequester will harm the economy, by letting it happen, and Republicans are acting like they think it will be harmful, by not taking the credit for what they've achieved.

March 1, 2013

Posted by orrinj at 10:18 PM


The Norse Code (NANCY DEWOLF SMITH, 3/01/13, WSJ)

As History's new "Vikings" drama begins, all it takes is the dateline on the screen--Eastern Baltic 793 A.D.--to send a shiver up the contemporary spine. Screaming ravens are everywhere as two blood-splattered men stab and slash their way across a corpse-strewn battlefield under a gray sky in some green and foreign land.

They are the heroes of the series, Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother Rollo. While they are every bit as wild and woolly as the historical figures of Norse sagas, such is the power of "Vikings" that we come to know and even root for them, so enthralling are they and almost everything else here.

Posted by orrinj at 10:09 PM


World Doesn't End, Obama Hardest Hit (WSJ, 3/01/13)

'Just to make the final point about the sequester," said President Obama at his press conference Friday, "we will get through this. This is not going to be an apocalypse, I think, as some people have said." That's a relief, but it is also a major walk-back, since the "some people" who have been predicting apocalypse are the President and senior members of his Administration.

Posted by orrinj at 10:05 PM


Keystone XL Pipeline Does Little Environmental Harm, US Finds ( Devin Dwyer, Mar 1, 2013 , ABC News)

The Obama administration today moved one step closer to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, concluding in a draft environmental impact statement that the project would not accelerate global greenhouse gas emissions or significantly harm the natural habitats along its route.

Posted by orrinj at 6:26 PM


Memories of Peak Oil (Vaclav Smil, February 21, 2013, American)

These are the percentage increases for crude oil extraction between 2001 and 2011: global production was up by 10.8 percent, and Saudi Arabia's output was 20 percent larger. So much for any imminent collapse of the country's supergiant oilfields, a claim that made Matthew Simmons a temporary celebrity. Russia's production was 47 percent higher, but that large rise reflects the recovery from a prolonged post-1991 extraction dip caused by the economic problems of post-Soviet Russia. Much more impressive gains were achieved by two former Soviet republics: Kazakh oil output doubled in the 10 year period, and Azeri oil production tripled!

Total output in the Middle East in the decade after 2001 -- despite continued politically induced underperformance of the oil industry in Iraq and production problems and trade sanctions affecting Iran -- rose by 17 percent. High flyers in other regions included Canada (output was up 37 percent, nearly all of it due to the rising recovery from Alberta's oil-bearing sands), Colombia (up 49 percent), Brazil (up 63 percent), and Angola (2.3 times higher in 2011 than in 2001).

But the most remarkable story has been unfolding in the United States, where horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as fracking, pioneered on a large commercial scale by natural gas producers) have been rapidly adopted by oil drillers and have led to a remarkable turnaround in U.S. crude oil extraction. Until 2008, the country's crude oil production kept following its long-established gradual decline (the output peaked in 1970 at 533.5 Mt), and between 2001 and 2008 it dropped by nearly 13 percent, from 349.2 Mt to 304.9 Mt.

The reversal has been impressive: from 2008 to 2011, extraction rose by nearly 50 Mt to just over 352 Mt, a level last seen in the year 2000; the increase over those three years was more than the total 2011 output of such oil powers as Indonesia or Azerbaijan. North Dakota (Bakken shale) has been the principal locus of this production renaissance. At the beginning of the year 2000 there were fewer than 200 oil wells producing from the Bakken deposits, averaging about 10 barrels a day per well; by October 2012, there were nearly 4,800 wells with average daily flow of about 140 barrels of oil per well. North Dakota's oil output was 37 percent ahead of Alaska's North Slope extraction and behind only Texas and the offshore production in the Gulf of Mexico.

A forecast by the U.S. Department of Energy sees a possible production increase of as much as 140 Mt/year by 2025, and the most recent review by the International Energy Agency (IEA) even sees the United States as the world's largest crude oil producer as early as 2017.