Monday, August 14, 2006

The Moon

Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, in their book Rare Earth, note that not only does our earth possess physical properties that may well make it unique in all the universe, our moon is quite special as well. It's not only rare in terms of its size relative to its planet, but it is absolutely essential in a number of ways to the existence of higher life forms on earth.

A large moon with strong gravitational pull is necessary to keep the earth's axial angle stable. If the earth's axis wobbled, as it would if it had no large moon to offset the gravitational tugs of other planets, the earth would experience enormous climatic variations which would make the evolution of higher life forms quite improbable. Moreover, the moon at its formation, pulled away from the earth many of the noxious gases that formed the early atmosphere. If the moon did not exist, for example, the earth would have retained an atmosphere high in CO2 causing a runaway greenhouse effect which would make the earth as uninhabitable as Venus.

A large moon also causes significant lunar tides which enrich the seas with nutrients and help make them more than vast biological deserts. The gravitational influence of our moon also slows the rate of earth's rotation allowing the atmosphere to be placid enough to permit life to emerge on the earth. Finally, a large moon protects the earth from meteorites from elsewhere in the solar system by drawing many of them toward itself.

Guillermo Gonzalez notes in Privileged Planet that the size of the moon is precisely what it needs to be to permit a total eclipse of the sun which allows for the study of the sun's atmosphere. This single fact has been responsible for much of the advance of scientific knowledge over the centuries. The precise fit of moon and sun during a total eclipse allowed early geometric calculations of the size and distance of celestial objects. It also allowed scientists to determine the nature of the sun's composition which has enabled them to determine much about the size and composition of other stars in our galaxy and other galaxies in the universe, including the fact that those celestial objects are rapidly receding from us and that the universe is expanding. This knowledge has enabled us to infer an initial Big Bang origin to the universe, and much else.

All of this simply because the moon is the size it is and the distance it is from the earth.

The moon was believed to be formed in a collision with a Mars-size object which impacted the earth early in its development. This collision probably melted the earth's crust and allowed surface iron to sink toward the core of the planet. This enabled the earth to develop a protective magnetic field and, by removing much of the iron from the surface where it would have bound up any oxygen in the vicinity, it permitted the atmosphere to become oxygenated.

If the material that formed the moon had taken a reverse orbit after this primordial impact, it would have decayed and fallen back to earth. If the impact had occured at a later stage in the earth's development the earth would have been too massive to allow as much material to be ejected, and the resulting moon would have been smaller and less effective.

Remarkably, in other words, this impact had to occur at just the right time, at just the right angle, with just the right force, by an impactor of just the right size and momentum, at just the right spot for a moon of just the right size to form.

What amazing coincidences nature and chance are capable of!

With Bobby and Gene in the Sixties

Readers of a certain vintage will appreciate Michael Novak's somewhat melancholy reflections on his association with Bobby Kennedy and Gene McCarthy back in the late sixties.

He closes with a thought with which probably every believer can identify:

In those days, I was fascinated by the overlap, in actions at least if not in words, of many people I knew, some of who were believers and some unbelievers. The latter seemed to me, in action, far more Christian or Jewish than they would admit to being. (They certainly were not nihilist nor even amoral, and not relativist nor morally indifferent.) And the Christians seemed to me to live in a deeper, darker night than they much speak about, closer in many ways to unbelief than to belief-at least so far as feelings go. There are many days when the believer, trying to become conscious of God's presence within, feels nothing at all, sees nothing at all.

Sometimes it is easier to act as a particular way of life demands than to say one believes in it. And it may be a quite noble way of life, indeed.

Let God sort us all out, I used to think (and still do). He sees it all more clearly.

C.S. Lewis notes in Surprised By Joy that believers (and others) often make two mistakes: They first make a state of mind their goal and then secondly attempt to produce it. He might have said that the surest way to miss a feeling of the presence of God in one's life is to seek it directly. If we set out to muster a certain spiritual feeling we usually wind up frustrated and disappointed. As in so many other areas of life, perhaps, the best course is to act as we should and not concern ourselves with feelings. We have all eternity to experience the sense of God's presence.

The Incredible Shrinking Deficit

Amity Shlaes has written a helpful column on the shrinking deficit and the causes thereof at She writes:

If a deficit falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? And if no one hears it, did the deficit really fall? That's the question that administration officials must be asking themselves after the report that the Congressional Budget Office issued earlier this month. The CBO announced that the federal deficit is indeed falling, or narrowing, the more precise verb for the phenomenon.

This year, the new report says, the deficit will be $260 billion, or $111 billion less than the CBO estimated in March. For 2006, the government deficit will be 2 percent of gross domestic product, down from the old baseline prediction for 2006 of 2.6 percent. On Aug. 17, when the more extensive annual Update of the Budget and Economic Outlook appears, that 2 percent figure is likely to show up more definitively. But neither the budgeteers' news nor the prospect of a confirmation of it is generating much discussion.

This is surprising. The Economic Report of the President shows the federal deficit for 2004 was 3.6 percent. A narrowing of more than 1 1/2 percentage points in such a short time is itself a story.

The U.S. deficit is worth comparing, for starters, with the data for European nations. In the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, European leaders set a deficit goal of 3 percent of GDP. EU member countries have had trouble meeting that target since.

A shortfall of 2 percent of GDP is also news in the U.S. context. Sure, there was the surplus in the second half of the 1990s. But 2 percent is below the average for the federal deficit between 1980 and 1995.

The 2 percent figure stands out when you compare it with the deficit level in other periods of war. In 1944, as the U.S. poured its energy into winning World War II, the federal deficit widened to 22.7 percent of GDP. In 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, the deficit was 2.9 percent of GDP.

Much of the narrowing of the deficit in the 1990s -- and even the surplus of the late 1990s -- came because of reductions in military spending following the end of the Cold War. This was the short-lived peace dividend. The late 1990s boom also played a role: It brought in hundreds of billions more than forecast.

Also interesting is what caused the change between spring 2006 and summer 2006. Thrift on the part of lawmakers, needless to say, isn't the cause, though one reason the deficit narrowed is that the government hasn't been able to spend all the cash it had allocated for projects this year.

Unexpected tax revenue also contributed to the narrowing. Some of this money is payroll taxes. With employment so high, more workers are paying into Social Security and Medicare than predicted.

Yet another source of cash is income taxes. Over the years, the tax distribution tables shifted so that higher earners paid a much larger share of income taxes. Their payments are less predictable than those of lower earners, who don't exercise options, receive bonuses or have as much discretion in choosing when to realize a capital gain.

Extra corporate taxes also flowed in and are 27 percent higher than in the year-earlier period. Overall, the data suggest that tax revenue as a share of the economy for 2006 will be 18.4 percent of GDP, above the average for the past 30 years.

All this good news doesn't preclude budgetary bankruptcy in the future. Only structural change that includes both an overhaul of Social Security and reversal of the Bush administration's Medicare drug plan can do that....

....Yet such details obscure the larger meaning of the deficit change. The new data supply evidence that President George W. Bush is right: lowering tax rates doesn't cause deficits, and can even diminish them. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is forging through a whole forest of difficulties right now -- the war, higher energy prices, a cooling housing market.

This is all to the good, of course, but the problem is that even if the deficit is just barely above zero percent of GDP the shortfall must be financed somehow and consequently the national debt continues to grow and the interest we must pay on that debt burgeons. Cutting taxes is a good step because it increases revenue, as Shlaes points out, but what we need now is for congress to cut spending so that we can achieve a revenue surplus and begin paying down the debt. Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the White House seem to be bothered by debt.

Preppie Rap

Rap: It's not just for gangsta's anymore. Go to Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, click on the video and go to the Tea Party. It's pretty funny.