Thursday, June 30, 2011

What Went Wrong

Hillel Ofek has a wonderful essay in The New Atlantis on why the engine of Muslim science and learning ground to a halt despite having been one time the world leader in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Ofek writes:
To anyone familiar with this Golden Age, roughly spanning the eighth through the thirteenth centuries a.d., the disparity between the intellectual achievements of the Middle East then and now — particularly relative to the rest of the world — is staggering indeed. In his 2002 book What Went Wrong?, historian Bernard Lewis notes that “for many centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement.” “Nothing in Europe,” notes Jamil Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, “could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600.”

Algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol, alkali, nadir, zenith, coffee, and lemon: these words all derive from Arabic, reflecting Islam’s contribution to the West.

Today, however, the spirit of science in the Muslim world is as dry as the desert. Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy laid out the grim statistics in a 2007 Physics Today article: Muslim countries have nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand people, compared with a world average of forty-one. In these nations, there are approximately 1,800 universities, but only 312 of those universities have scholars who have published journal articles.

There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together.

In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed, “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”
So what changed and why?
As Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, an influential figure in contemporary pan-Islamism, said in the late nineteenth century, “It is permissible ... to ask oneself why Arab civilization, after having thrown such a live light on the world, suddenly became extinguished; why this torch has not been relit since; and why the Arab world still remains buried in profound darkness.”
Ofek goes on to assert that the Islamic disinterest in secular scholarship can be traced back to the ascendency in the tenth and eleventh centuries of the Ash’arism school among Sunni Muslims, who comprise the vast majority of the Muslim world:
With the rise of the Ash’arites, the ethos in the Islamic world was increasingly opposed to original scholarship and any scientific inquiry that did not directly aid in religious regulation of private and public life.

While the Mu’tazilites [predecessors to the Ash'arites] had contended that the Koran was created and so God’s purpose for man must be interpreted through reason, the Ash’arites believed the Koran to be coeval with God — and therefore unchallengeable. At the heart of Ash’ari metaphysics is the idea of occasionalism, a doctrine that denies natural causality. Put simply, it suggests natural necessity cannot exist because God’s will is completely free. Ash’arites believed that God is the only cause, so that the world is a series of discrete physical events each willed by God.

According to the occasionalist view, tomorrow coldness might follow fire, and satiety might follow lack of food. God wills every single atomic event and God’s will is not bound up with reason. This amounts to a denial of the coherence and comprehensibility of the natural world.....It is not difficult to see how this doctrine could lead to dogma and eventually to the end of free inquiry in science and philosophy.
Ofek sheds further light on the problem by contrasting Islam with Christianity:
... [I]t is helpful to briefly compare Islam with Christianity. Christianity acknowledges a private-public distinction and (theoretically, at least) allows adherents the liberty to decide much about their social and political lives. Islam, on the other hand, denies any private-public distinction and includes laws regulating the most minute details of private life. Put another way, Islam does not acknowledge any difference between religious and political ends: it is a religion that specifies political rules for the community.

Such differences between the two faiths can be traced to the differences between their prophets. While Christ was an outsider of the state who ruled no one, and while Christianity did not become a state religion until centuries after Christ’s birth, Mohammed was not only a prophet but also a chief magistrate, a political leader who conquered and governed a religious community he founded.

Because Islam was born outside of the Roman Empire, it was never subordinate to politics. As Bernard Lewis puts it, Mohammed was his own Constantine. This means that, for Islam, religion and politics were interdependent from the beginning; Islam needs a state to enforce its laws, and the state needs a basis in Islam to be legitimate. To what extent, then, do Islam’s political proclivities make free inquiry — which is inherently subversive to established rules and customs — possible at a deep and enduring institutional level?
There's much, much more in this fascinating essay for those who wish to gain a deeper understanding of the Islamic world and how a society's fundamental religious presuppositions can be either high octane fuel for the engine of technological progress or sand in its gears. I encourage you to read it.

It Took Long Enough

Finally, after years of huge financial losses, dozens of deaths, and dozens of people taken hostage the U.N. has finally done what it should have done years ago:
The UN has kind of, sort of, unofficially but grudgingly given shipping companies "permission" to hire armed guards for vessels passing through pirate infested waters off the Somali coast. This was done via "interim guidelines" issued last month by the UN and the IMO (International Maritime Organization)..

Until now, it was understood that armed guards on merchant ships was a grey area, and companies allowing it were risking lawsuits from their victims (even if they were armed pirates) and anyone caught in the crossfire. Some countries flatly forbid ships flying their flag from employing armed guards. This has caused some shipping companies to shift the registration of ships plying pirate infested waters, or threatening to do so if their current country of registration does not openly allow armed guards. Some nations, like the United States and France, have done this, and gone after any pirates seizing ships flying the French or American flag..

Before the new UN/IMO guidelines, only about ten percent of the ships moving through pirate infested waters carried armed guards. It was noted by all that these were the ships least likely to be taken, and frequently the cause of pirates being shot dead (and not officially reported). With the new guidelines, more ships are believed ready to employ armed guards.

The pirates may respond by threatening to kill hostages, but this would invite what the pirates least want; an invasion of their coastal bases. So the UN move may prove to be one of the most effective anti-piracy actions in years.
Sometimes it takes bureaucrats a long time to see the common sense solutions that ordinary people espy at once.

Here's another suggestion that would improve not only this situation but the efficiency and vigor of economies throughout the Western world: Decertify 80% of the lawyers who specialize in tort law or at least reform the law. Lawsuits and the threat of them are perhaps one of the greatest impediments to our communal well-being and our national economic growth. Reducing the number of people who get rich off of suing others will greatly improve the quality of life of the rest of us.

Think of it as another attempt to thwart piracy.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Chauncey in the White House

Maureen Dowd wondered last Sunday in the New York Times who, exactly, the president is and what, exactly, he believes. No one, at least among the public, seems to know. Writes Dowd:
Our president likes to be on both sides at once.

In Afghanistan, he wants to go but he wants to stay. He’s surging and withdrawing simultaneously. He’s leaving fewer troops than are needed for a counterinsurgency strategy and more troops than are needed for a counterterrorism strategy — and he seems to want both strategies at the same time. Our work is done but we have to still be there. Our work isn’t done but we can go.

On Libya, President Obama wants to lead from behind. He’s engaging in hostilities against Qaddafi while telling Congress he’s not engaging in hostilities against Qaddafi.

On the budget, he wants to cut spending and increase spending. On the environment, he wants to increase energy production but is reluctant to drill.. On health care, he wants to get everybody covered but will not press for a universal system. On Wall Street, he assails fat cats, but at cocktail parties, he wants to collect some of their fat for his campaign.

On politics, he likes to be friends with the other side but bash ’em at the same time. For others, bipartisanship means transcending their own prior political identities. For President Obama, it means that he participates in all political identities. He does not seem deeply affiliated with any side except his own.

He was elected on the idea of bold change, but now — except for the capture of Osama and his drone campaign in Pakistan and Yemen — he plays it safe. He shirks politics as usual but gets all twisted up in politics.

[H]e has tried to explain his reluctance on gay marriage as an expression of his Christianity, even though he rarely goes to church and is the picture of a secular humanist.

The man who was able to beat the Clintons in 2008 because the country wanted a break from Clintonian euphemism and casuistry is now breaking creative new ground in euphemism and casuistry.
Here's my take on Obama. He's a progressive leftist in the sense that many undergrads are progressive leftists. The socialist dream sounds good to them in the abstract and in general, but they don't really understand the history, the details of what collectivism entails, or the best arguments against it.

Thus, Mr. Obama rode the wave to election in 2008 in the hope of being able to change the country, not by leading it to a new socialist paradise, but by appointing people who themselves had the competence to articulate the principles and the power to impose them.

Despite the image of confidence that he projects, Mr. Obama, I suspect, realizes that he's largely ignorant of economics, history, and world affairs and is thus reluctant to get out front on any issue that bears on these matters. Nothing in his background, after all, has prepared him to wrestle with complex economic issues. I imagine that he came to office knowing that he wanted to have government pay for everyone's health care, for instance, but what the economic implications of this would be he had no idea and little concern. Those were for others to worry about while he gave speeches written by others, played golf, and flew off to exotic vacation spots.

Mr. Obama, in other words, is a symbol, a figurehead, like the Queen of England. Calls for him to show up at the debt-ceiling negotiations will be resisted because he fears being exposed as knowing little about the questions being debated and having nothing helpful to contribute. He fears being exposed as a real life Chauncey Gardiner.

But this is only my opinion. I could, of course, be completely mistaken.

Bellow, Jr.

Adam Bellow, son of Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow, is a former editor at Doubleday and is currently in senior management at HarperCollins. He's also a former liberal who began to wander rightward when he realized that the myth of the open-minded tolerant liberal is all too often not the reality.

World magazine has an interview with him in which he says some interesting things about his journey from left to right and about the emergence of conservative media. Some excerpts (questions are in boldface):
What did you learn there [at an early job at the New York Daily News]? My time at the News got me out of my liberal cocoon. I grew up going to school with the New York City elite. Everyone had the same political opinions: anti-war movement, hatred of Nixon. At Princeton, I was among people of the same background. It wasn't until I went to the News that I met people outside of my background.

A lot of these guys had never gone to college, and in many cases, their fathers had worked at the paper as well, and their sons worked there. I saw a strong core of decency, of patriotism, of willingness to go out of their way for someone who was considered part of the family. Once I had gone through the hazing, I was embraced.

When you went to graduate school at the University of Chicago and Columbia, which professor most influenced you? I studied with Alan Bloom before he wrote his best-selling book, The Closing of the American Mind, a book of inestimable value. The next blow to my liberalism was that liberal intellectuals were too dishonest to read the book, and instead joined the chorus of Orwellian hate for having broached a wall they had thought unbroachable. They merely branded him a thought criminal.. This offended me personally and I got into a number of discussions and debates about the book with people. I would ask people if they had read the book, and if they said no, I told them that I didn't think that they should have an opinion on the book until they had read it. It took my opinion of the Columbia faculty down several notches.

While liberalism is still dominant in academia and media, don't we now have a conservative media establishment? What do you think of it? It's possible now to make known books by conservatives without the help of the liberals. In my humble opinion, the Becks, the Hannitys, and the O'Reillys are all a bunch of inflated egos, like balloons at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, bumping into each other. I shouldn't be saying this, but part of what you're thinking as an editor is "How can I make this more interesting to Glenn Beck?" You really don't want to be doing that, but it's like in the solar system, certain planets affect the gravitational fields.
In my own opinion Bellow might have substituted Rush Limbaugh for Glenn Beck and he'd have been more accurate. Beck seems to me to be the most humble guy of all the major talkers on radio or television. He's certainly the one most able to criticize and laugh at himself. It's a big part, I think, of why people like him and why he's so effective.

Limbaugh, Hannity, and O'Reilly do indeed have the most inflated egos among radio/television talkers, at least on the conservative side, but in my opinion only Limbaugh's ego is justified by his ability. O'Reilly too often comes across as arrogant, rude, and pompous, and Hannity often sounds like a narcissistic mediocrity with no particular qualifications, other than good looks, for doing what he's doing - sort of a conservative mirror image of ... well, never mind.

Anyway, Bellow finishes with this:
Many publications in the late 19th and early 20th centuries began by being sensational, as Glenn Beck tends to be. Then, to become more respectable, they became serious. Eventually they became solemn, and then lost the fun of it and became a snooze. That lost them their audience, and the cycle would begin again, with people who were having fun as they published. Having fun in business is important. When you're watching TV, you can tell when the actors are having fun.

When I was young and Saturday Night Live debuted, it was clear that they were having a blast. It's clear that they're having a blast at 30 Rock, at the Daily Show, and at Glenn Beck, whereas at 60 Minutes, I don't think they're having fun. I think part of why they're not having as much fun is that they've realized that they don't have as much clout as they once did. At one time, they sat at the top of the media pyramid, and now that's not the case, and I think it takes away from some of the enjoyment of what they do.
There's something to this. When people are no longer having fun doing their jobs they appear to be just going through the motions, and, as anyone who has ever sat in a classroom or stood at the front of one can tell you, it's hard to keep people interested when they suspect that the speaker himself doesn't really love and enjoy what he's doing.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Stepping Onto the Slippery Slope

New York state has struck a blow for equality, so we are told, by legalizing gay marriage.

I'd like to register a dissent. This is not just about equality. If it were there'd be little reason to oppose granting homosexuals the right to legal marriage. For many who have struggled to get gay marriage passed into law it may be an equal rights issue, but for many others it's about preserving marriage.

As we've argued here before, once marriage is no longer to be regarded as one man uniting with one woman, once the gender of the people entering into the relationship no longer matters, then there's no longer any logical reason for insisting that the number of people matters, or for that matter, that they even have to be people.

Once we've crossed the threshold of erasing the gender distinction in marriage we've placed ourselves on a slippery slope and will slide ineluctably to a nadir where marriage will be anything anyone wants it to be.

Some object that this is preposterous, that no one will want to legalize polyamory (group marriage), polygyny (multiple wives), polyandry (multiple husbands), or most bizarre, interspecies marriage. The objection is naive. There are already groups advocating all of these things and having eliminated the traditional gender distinction, there remains no logical, non-arbitrary basis to prevent society from going further if someone has the financial resources to press the matter in the courts and legislatures.

It's unfortunate that our politicians don't seem to care about the long-term consequences of what they're doing to marriage, but it's not surprising. None of the media discussion on the issue seems to be concerned with what transforming marriage portends for the future either.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Darwin's Influence

Marvin Olasky at World Magazine pens an essay that serves as an illustration of the aphorism that ideas have consequences.

Darwinism has inspired ideas in matters as diverse as politics, economics, sociology, morality, theology and many others. Indeed, it is probably the case that no thinker in modern times, except maybe Marx, has had the influence on the world that Darwin has had. Daniel Dennett in Darwin's Dangerous Idea maintains that Darwin's theory of evolution is a "universal acid" that eats through every idea, ideology, and worldview, dissolving them all in the corrosive solution of Darwinian materialism.

On politics, for example, Olasky writes that:
Woodrow Wilson started federal government expansion in 1912 by opposing the "Newtonian" view that the government should have an unchanging constitutional foundation, somewhat like "the law of gravitation." He argued that government should be "accountable to Darwin, not to Newton. It is modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life. . . . Living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice." Wilson was the president who started the modern pattern of disregarding the Constitution, and in the 2012 election we will either start a second century of governmental expansion or yell, "Stop!"
Olasky has more to say on how Darwin influenced our attitudes on sex, abortion, infanticide, and economics. Check out his column at the link.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sex Selection

Byron forwards us a link to a piece about a book by Mara Hvistendahl which makes the case that the freedom to choose (as in the freedom to choose whether to terminate a child's life or not) has not worked out so well for women. Hvistendahl, who is strongly pro-choice is nevertheless alarmed that in the last thirty five years or so 163 million female babies have been aborted by mothers who wanted a boy.

Here's some of what the article says about Hvistendahl and her book:
Mara Hvistendahl, a noted journalist, influential writer and a feminist, has become so alarmed by the global trend of choosing boys over girls---sex-selective abortion, that she has written new book titled, "Unnatural Selection".

She is not pro-life, nor is she writing from a moral or even political point of view .... Although unintended, her book is a gift to the pro-life cause.

She documents that in nature, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This ratio is universal in all cultures and economic levels.
And herein lies the tale. This natural ratio is being seriously skewed in numerous countries around the world where female children are not valued as highly as males. A sign in an Indian clinic is illustrative: "Better 500 rupees now, than 5000 later." Five thousand rupees is the average cost of a girl's dowry.

Hvistendahl notes that:
In India today, there are 112 boys born for every 100 girls. In China the number is 121, with some Chinese towns over 150 to 100.

This growing imbalance is not unique to Asia. Azerbaijan has 115, Georgia 118, and Armenia is 120.
So why is this a problem? The case she makes is that artificially created gender imbalance leads to cultural violence, particularly violence against women, and that organizations like Planned Parenthood are unwittingly promoting policies that will make life more dangerous for women a generation or two from now:

"Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live---often unstable, sometimes violent," noting high sex ratios in fourth century BC Athens, China's Taiping Rebellion in the 1800s, and even America's early western frontier.

There is compelling evidence, she claims, of a link between high sex ratios and violence. According to her research, historically, high sex ratios mean a society is going to have "surplus men" with no hope of marrying due to a lack of women. "In Chinese provinces where sex ratios have spiked, a crime wave has followed," she says.

She found that in India today the best predictor of violence and crime for any given area is not income, but sex ratio....Unnatural sex ratios lead to abuse of women, more prostitution, etc.
When males significantly outnumber females a host of other problems arise. A society in which males cannot find mates leads to roving gangs of men preying on the weak, which usually means women. It also leads to solutions for solving the problem that involve territorial expansion or raiding other countries for their women, or some other form of war in which the surplus males are simply cannon fodder.

All of this raises a vexing problem for people like Hvistendahl. The policy they endorse, unlimited access to abortion for any reason, is leading the world to a much darker place, especially for women, but doing away with abortion would also in her view make the world a darker place, because then women would have to endure their pregnancies.

I wonder which in her mind is worse in the long run.

Those Nefarious Israelis

From Strategy Page:
On June 22 Israeli aircraft bombed a tunnel leading from Gaza into Israel. Apparently the Israelis detect these tunneling operations and let the work proceed, then destroy the tunnel when it is nearly complete. This keeps the tunnel workers busy and unable to start another tunnel that might not get discovered. Hamas and other terror groups dig these tunnels so they can move terrorists across the border and kidnap Israelis, or carry out other kinds of terror attacks.
This account conjures childhood images of Wiley Coyote on the Saturday morning cartoons, but, despite the similarity, this is not a cartoon. The Israelis are literally fighting for their lives. Hamas has now stockpiled over 10,000 rockets in Gaza, and Hezbollah has even more in Lebanon. Neither group is likely to let those weapons rust nor do they plan to use them against Egypt or Syria.

Another war in the region is virtually inevitable as soon as Israel's enemies feel they're strong enough to inflict serious pain on the Israeli people. They don't even have to believe that they'll win such a war because they know the international community will not allow the Israelis to decisively defeat them.

Thus, groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Fatah hope that by continually pushing Israel into financially and psychologically draining wars they can wear them down and cause them to just give up and leave so they can then get about the business of killing each other.

Advice for GOP Candidates

Philosopher of science Jay Richards co-wrote a column for the American Spectator with David Klinghoffer in which they offer some advice to presidential candidates about how to handle the inevitable evolution/creationism question. Journalists who themselves know little about the issue seem to delight in ambushing political candidates, or more precisely Republican political candidates - since they're not likely ever to do this to a Democrat - with a question about teaching creationism in public schools.

So far this campaign season a version of the question has been posed to Michelle Bachman, Tim Pawlenty, and Chris Christie (who is not a declared candidate, but they fear he will be). There's only one reason for asking politicians to respond to what is usually a very poorly framed query and that is to embarrass them as they struggle to come up with an answer that makes them sound neither uninformed nor unsophisticated. There can be no other reason, at least no good reason, since what a president believes about what should be taught in schools is pretty much irrelevant, the case law on the matter being what it is.

Anyway, what Richards and Klinghoffer suggest is this:
Asked about evolution, here's what Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, or Chris Christie could have said:

"Life has a very long history and things change over time. However, I don't think living creatures are nothing but the product of a purposeless Darwinian process. I support teaching all about evolution, including the scientific evidence offered against it."

Dogmatic neo-Darwinians won't like that answer (they admit of no scientific arguments against their theory, unlike in any other area of scientific inquiry). But some other scientists will be fine with it, and, according to Zogby polling data, so will the 80 percent of Americans who favor allowing students and teachers to discuss evolutionary theory's strengths and weaknesses.

Such a formulation, true to the scientific evidence and to the Constitution, would also be devilishly hard for rival candidates to disagree with. Campaign staff and advisors would do well to commit something like it to memory.
Of course, they shouldn't have to, but sadly, given the shallowness of so much contemporary journalism, they do. I wouldn't be surprised if the next thing they'll have to have an opinion on is the Casey Anthony trial. Maybe John King of CNN can work the creation/evolution thing into a "This or That" question if anyone ever lets him moderate another debate.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Dunam by Dunam

Israel stole Palestinian land. According to Daniel Pipes that's what almost every Arab child is taught, certainly every Palestinian Arab child, but, says Pipes, the charge is simply not true. In a column at NRO he proffers a cursory history of the region and what actually happened to the Palestinians and Jews who inhabited it.

He has a lot of interesting things to say in his piece, including this:
In Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel, Eric H. Cline writes of Jerusalem: “No other city has been more bitterly fought over throughout its history.” He backs up that claim, counting “at least 118 separate conflicts in and for Jerusalem during the past four millennia.”

He calculates Jerusalem to have been destroyed completely at least twice, besieged 23 times, captured 44 times, and attacked 52 times. The Palestinian Authority fantasizes that today’s Palestinians are descended from a tribe of ancient Canaan, the Jebusites; in fact, they are overwhelmingly the offspring of invaders and immigrants seeking economic opportunities.
He goes on to argue that unlike almost every other instance in history where a new nation was formed, Israel did not arise out of conquest but through purchase.
[The Jews] could not possibly achieve statehood through conquest. Instead, they purchased land. Acquiring property dunam by dunam, farm by farm, house by house, lay at the heart of the Zionist enterprise until 1948. The Jewish National Fund, founded in 1901 to buy land in Palestine “to assist in the foundation of a new community of free Jews engaged in active and peaceable industry,” was the key institution — and not the Haganah, the clandestine defense organization founded in 1920.

Zionists also focused on the rehabilitation of what was barren and considered unusable. They not only made the desert bloom, but drained swamps, cleared water channels, reclaimed wasteland, forested bare hills, cleared rocks, and removed salt from the soil. Jewish reclamation and sanitation work precipitously reduced the number of disease-related deaths.
Pipes concludes his column with this observation:
The building of [Israel] was based on the least violent and most civilized movement of any people in history. Gangs did not steal Palestine. Merchants purchased Israel.
To what extent Pipes is correct about what he says in his article, I can't say, but the view of the history of the region he presents is certainly one that most Americans are unaware of.

Reckless Endangerment

Mona Charen reviews a book written by a New York Times reporter, Gretchen Morgenson, and a financial analyst, Joshua Rosner titled Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon. The authors explain how the financial collapse of 2008 came about, and though there's lots of blame to go around, the lion's share falls squarely on the shoulders of, well, let's let Charen tell it:
In Reckless Endangerment, Morgenson and Rosner offer considerable censure for reckless bankers, lax rating agencies, captured regulators and unscrupulous businessmen. But the greatest responsibility for the collapse of the housing market and the near "Armageddon" of the American economy belongs to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and to the politicians who created and protected them.

With a couple of prominent exceptions, the politicians were Democrats claiming to do good for the poor. Along the way, they enriched themselves and their friends, stuffed their campaign coffers, and resisted all attempts to enforce market discipline. When the inevitable collapse arrived, the entire economy suffered, but no one more than the poor.

Jim Johnson, adviser to Walter Mondale and John Kerry, amassed a personal fortune estimated at $100 million during his nine years as CEO of Fannie Mae. "Under Johnson," Morgenson and Rosner write, "Fannie Mae led the way in encouraging loose lending practices among the banks whose loans the company bought. A Pied Piper of the financial sector, Johnson led both the private and public sectors down a path that led directly to the credit crisis of 2008."

Fannie Mae lied about its profits, intimidated adversaries, bought off members of Congress with lavish contributions, hired (and thereby co-opted) academics, purchased political ads (through its foundation) and stacked congressional hearings with friendly bankers, community activists and advocacy groups (including ACORN). Fannie Mae also hired the friends and relations of key members of Congress (including Rep. Barney Frank's partner).
There's more in Charen's column. Reckless Endangerment sounds like a book that every voter interested in knowing why the economy is suffering its current woes should read. I certainly plan to.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Caring for the Poor

R.R. Reno of First Things argues compellingly that if one cares about the poor one really should be a social conservative. By implication one who's a social liberal, no matter how much compassion he might feel for people mired in poverty, holds beliefs which, when acted upon, actually exacerbate the plight of poor people.

Here's the heart of his essay:
When we think about politics and culture, our first question should be: “What are the needs of the poor?”

Some say the best way to meet these needs involves adopting tax policies designed to stimulate economic growth, along with redoubled efforts of private charity. Others emphasize public programs and increased government intervention. It’s an argument worth having, of course, and to a great degree our contemporary political debates turn on these issues. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there is a unifying consensus: The moral character of a nation is measured to a large degree by its concern for the poor.

On this point I agree with many friends on the left who argue that America doesn’t have a proper concern for the poor. Our failure, however, is not merely economic. In fact, it’s not even mostly economic. A visit to the poorest neighborhoods of New York City or the most impoverished towns of rural Iowa immediately reveals poverty more profound and more pervasive than simple material want.

Drugs, crime, sexual exploitation, the collapse of marriage—the sheer brutality and ugliness of the lives of many of the poor in America is shocking. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, poverty is not only material; it is also moral, cultural, and religious (CCC 2444), and just these sorts of poverty are painfully evident today. Increasing the minimum wage or the earned-income tax credit won’t help alleviate this impoverishment.

We can’t restore a culture of marriage, for example, by spending more money on it. A recent report on marriage in America from the National Marriage Project under the leadership of W. Bradford Wilcox, When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America, paints a grim picture. The lower you are on the social scale, the more likely you are to be divorced, to cohabit while unmarried, to have more sexual partners, and to commit adultery.

One of the most arresting statistics concerns children born out of wedlock. In the late 2000s, among women fifteen to forty-four years old who have dropped out of high school, more than half of those who give birth do so while unmarried. And this is true not only of those at the bottom. Among high-school graduates and women with technical training—in other words, the struggling middle class—nearly half of the women who give birth are unmarried.

A friend of mine who works as a nurse’s aide recently observed that his coworkers careen from personal crisis to personal crisis. As he told me, “Only yesterday I had to hear the complaints of one woman who was fighting with both her husband and her boyfriend.” It’s this atmosphere of personal disintegration and not the drudgery of the job—which is by no means negligible for a nurse’s aide—that he finds demoralizing.

I must admit that I often feel frustrated by my liberal friends who worry so much about income inequality and not at all about moral inequality. Their answer is to give reparations. Are we to palliate with cash—can we palliate with cash—the disorder wrought by Gucci bohemians?

Want to help the poor? By all means pay your taxes and give to agencies that provide social services. By all means volunteer in a soup kitchen or help build houses for those who can’t afford them. But you can do much more for the poor by getting married and remaining faithful to your spouse. Have the courage to use old-fashioned words such as chaste and honorable. Put on a tie. Turn off the trashy reality TV shows. Sit down to dinner every night with your family. Stop using expletives as exclamation marks. Go to church or synagogue.
There's much more good stuff in Reno's column. In fact, I was tempted to just copy the whole thing. Go to the link and read the rest.

The CBO Report

Yuval Levin wrote yesterday at National Review Online about the release of the Congressional Budget Office long-term budget projections. The future the report portends is depressing:
[Last year the] CBO projected that our national debt would be 91% of GDP in 2021; they now say it will be 101% of GDP in 2021—that is, a decade from now our debt will be larger than our economy, and of course still growing quickly.

By 2030, they project it will top 150% of GDP, and by 2037 it will be 200% of GDP. They assume it will continue to grow swiftly after that, but (although they extend long-range projections for spending and revenues all the way to 2085) their specific numerical projections for debt stop after 2037, when we cross 200% of GDP.
Levin notes that this is our fate if we continue along the current path of entitlement spending and Obamacare. If we reform the former and eliminate the latter we can save our children and grandchildren from economic ruin, but first we have to understand where the boat the president and his party have embarked us upon is leading us. Only then can we elect people to office who care about the consequences of spending and debt and who have the competence to turn the boat around.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Don't Know Much About History

I've read and thoroughly enjoyed several books written by historian David McCullough, so when I saw that he was interviewed in the Wall Street Journal on the subject of teaching history to our children, I wanted to see what he had to say. To summarize his view succinctly, he's not pleased.

Here's the lede:
'We're raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate," David McCullough tells me on a recent afternoon in a quiet meeting room at the Boston Public Library. Having lectured at more than 100 colleges and universities over the past 25 years, he says, "I know how much these young people—even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning—don't know." Slowly, he shakes his head in dismay. "It's shocking."

He's right. This week, the Department of Education released the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that only 12% of high-school seniors have a firm grasp of our nation's history. And consider: Just 2% of those students understand the significance of Brown v. Board of Education.

Mr. McCullough began worrying about the history gap some 20 years ago, when a college sophomore approached him after an appearance at "a very good university in the Midwest." She thanked him for coming and admitted, "Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast." Remembering the incident, Mr. McCullough's snow-white eyebrows curl in pain. "I thought, 'What have we been doing so wrong that this obviously bright young woman could get this far and not know that?'"

Answer: We've been teaching history poorly. And Mr. McCullough wants us to amend our ways.
So what's wrong with the way history is taught today? McCullough focuses on three things, teacher education, method, and political correctness:
One problem is personnel. "People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively," Mr. McCullough argues. "Because they're often assigned to teach subjects about which they know little or nothing." The great teachers love what they're teaching, he says, and "you can't love something you don't know anymore than you can love someone you don't know."

Another problem is method. "History is often taught in categories—women's history, African American history, environmental history—so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what."

What's more, many textbooks have become "so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back"—such as, say, Thomas Edison—"are given very little space or none at all."
This is, of course, what happens when the left takes over an institution, as they've taken over American education. History is not taught for the sake of helping students understand and appreciate their heritage, but rather as a means to indoctrinate them with a political or social agenda.

The same thing is happening to some extent in the sciences. Students in many schools are taught about various environmental problems, often inculcated with left-wing political views in the process, and often at the expense of learning basic science. They're also often indoctrinated in Darwinian materialism regardless of the offense this might cause to the students', or their parents', deepest beliefs.

Literature classes are likewise often politicized. In many schools the classics are eschewed in favor of works which have a liberal socio-political message. Students in many cases are required to read novels that emphasize race, class, gender, or sexual orientation, but are never exposed, except superficially, to Shakespeare.

Perhaps as time goes on the pendulum will swing back to the side of common sense, assuming that we have time. Perhaps in time people will realize that the left has the Midas touch in reverse, pretty much vitiating everything it handles. Perhaps in time people will have had enough.

Jacoby on Free Will and the Mind

It's important to understand at the outset here that Susan Jacoby is an atheistic materialist. Materialists, if consistent, should be skeptical of free will given that in a purely material world everything is governed by the laws of physics, including the chemical processes in our brains that give rise to our choices. Jacoby is indeed such a skeptic so to that degree she's consistent, but that's pretty much where the consistency ends.

She composes a somewhat rambling essay in the Washington Post in which she voices her doubts about whether human beings make genuinely free choices. Here's a part:
Even if our ostensibly free choices are ultimately bound by genetic and environmental factors stretching back over millennia, that does not mean that our choices, in the here and now, are inconsequential. Free will may or may not exist in an ultimate sense, but proximate decisions must be, and are, made as if free will does exist.
She seems to be saying here that we have to live as if we are free even if we aren't. In other words, a materialist worldview does not permit us to live consistently with the truth. We can't live consistently with the knowledge that our behavior is the product of genes, environment, and physical laws. It's strange, I think, that a process, natural selection, that's supposed to adapt us to the world as it is would create in us an illusory belief, the belief that we're in fact free to choose when in fact we are not.

Jacoby adds this:
There is clearly a deep human need—yes, encoded in our DNA as a species—to believe that we are in some way set apart from and superior to the rest of nature.
But why should this be? Why hasn't evolution molded us to conform to reality, to accept our lot as just another mammal, a cog in the machine of existence? And if we are just another animal in the world of nature then our morality is just another illusion because there's no morality in nature.

As a materialist Ms Jacoby is also unwilling to posit any immaterial substances as part of the make-up of reality:
I don’t believe any of this [i.e. God, soul, consciousness, mind] and consider the idea of a “mind” independent of our physical brain as just another attempt to inflate humans above nature. Call it what you will, but consciousness is the literally marvelous result of what the brain makes of various stimuli over a lifetime. Nothing more, but also nothing less.
I don't know how familiar Ms Jacoby is with the problems posed by sensation, intentionality, incorrigibility, memory, etc. for her view of consciousness, but I commend to her this fine piece on the subject by Raymond Tallis in The New Atlantis. Perhaps reading it will help her to realize the utter inadequacy of materialist explanations of consciousness.

Ms Jacoby concludes her column with this perplexing thought:
Insofar as real evil is concerned, I think that the philosophical question of whether ultimate free will exists is as irrelevant as it is in more ordinary matters. If there are, as I believe, significant limitations on free will as defined in either religious or secular terms, that does not negate the existence of good and evil any more than it does the consequential nature of the lesser choices we make.
This is simply confused. There can be no good and no evil if there's no genuine choice nor if we're not somehow "inflated" above nature. We don't consider animals to be moral creatures because their behavior is genetically determined. A cat torments a mouse, presumably causing it much pain, but we don't call this behavior evil because the cat is simply obeying imperatives which it's simply not free to override. If we're not free to do other than what we do then human cruelty is no different than what the cat does. It's neither good nor evil, it just is.

It may be that there really is no free will. A free choice is a difficult thing to conceptualize in any event, but if we're not in some sense free then no one ever deserves punishment or reward, there's no such thing as moral obligation, and our notions of human dignity and human rights are absurd. It's no wonder that atheistic materialists find it so hard to live by the implications of their worldview. Indeed, one wonders how Ms Jacoby might answer the question whether she has actually chosen not to believe that her choices are free.

If someone believes in the existence of free will, moral duties, moral accountability, human dignity, human rights and a conscious immaterial mind distinct from the brain they almost have to be a theist if they aspire to be logically consistent. If they're an atheist they have almost no grounds for believing that any of these exist.

Another essay by Raymond Tallis at The New Atlantis addresses the question of free will and determinism that Ms Jacoby raises. You can find it here. Both of his essays are a bit lengthy but well worth the time it takes to read them.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Good News for Old Guys

And for lots of other people, too:
A vaccine that destroys advanced prostate cancers while leaving healthy tissue untouched has been developed by scientists. In laboratory tests, the gene therapy jab successfully wiped out 80 per cent of cancers without causing serious side effects.

The British researchers behind its creation said it was a 'completely new approach' and predicted that it could start trials on people within a few years.

Although the jab has been tested on prostate tumors, they believe it could work on a range of other deadly cancers including breast, lung and pancreatic cancer.

Unlike a conventional vaccine which is given to prevent infection with a virus or bacteria, the new treatment is used after someone has contracted cancer.
See here for the rest of the article. It's not something you have to be an old guy to appreciate.

Palin Is Stupid, Obama Is Brilliant

The purpose of posting the following video is not to try and make Mr. Obama look stupid. Brain freezes, solecisms, and gaffes of various sorts are part of the human condition and afflict us all. Rather the purpose is to provoke us to wonder what it is about people that makes them say the most vicious, hurtful things about someone with whom they disagree, especially when they wouldn't dream of saying those things about someone who is equally as vulnerable to the criticisms but with whom they do agree:
I want to extend to both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt, knowing that were I under the pressure they're under I'd probably be just as bollixed up as they, on occasion, find themselves.

Nevertheless, one cannot extend that benefit to the inexcusable, and inexcusable is what I think the president's remarks were last week when he blamed the difficulties of job creation in part on technological innovations like ATMs.

The president has been severely mocked for his belief that ATMs are an example of how technology is hurting job growth, and it is distressing that someone with so little understanding of how an economy works has been ensconced in the highest office of the land, but mocking is unkind. The proper response, perhaps, is dismay.

When the president delivered himself of this opinion people wondered how someone who is reputed to be so smart and so well-educated could say something which evinces such startling ignorance about job creation. That so many Americans depend upon his grasp of economics for their own livelihoods is profoundly alarming.

An ATM might displace one bank teller, but dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people are employed in designing, manufacturing, and servicing these machines.

ATMs are a large chunk of the business done by armored car companies like Dunbar and Brinks which employ drivers, guards, cash and coin handlers, etc. to support this business. These companies in turn lease facilities and purchase machinery and vehicles from other companies in order to service their ATM contracts. If ATMs were to disappear overnight, dozens of banks in a region might have to hire another teller, but hundreds of people would find themselves out of work altogether.

Moreover, the convenience to the customer of being able to access his cash 24 hours a day 7 days a week from an ATM rather than having to travel to his bank during working hours to make his transactions must also be taken into account. That convenience translates into greater economic productivity on the part of the customer.

It's as incredible as it is distressing that this is apparently all news to Mr. Obama.

On Accurately Depicting Intelligent Design

In a CNN report on Michelle Bachman's assertion that intelligent design should be taught in schools reporter Peter Hamby offered this definition of intelligent design:
Intelligent design suggests that the complexity of the universe cannot be explained by evolution alone, and must also be attributed to a creator or supernatural being.
Kairosfocus at Uncommon Descent takes issue with Hamby's portrayal, which is indeed a little misleading. It implies, for example, that ID is an argument from ignorance, an argument which asserts that since we can't explain the complexity of life therefore life must have a supernatural provenience. It also implies that ID is a religious hypothesis that invokes a God of some sort as the explanation for life. In fact, neither of these implications is correct.

Kairosfocus directs us to a much more satisfactory explanation of intelligent design at the New World Encyclopedia:
Intelligent design is the view that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection”.

Intelligent design cannot be inferred from complexity alone, since complex patterns often happen by chance. ID focuses on just those sorts of complex patterns that in human experience are produced by a mind that conceives and executes a plan. According to adherents, intelligent design can be detected in the natural laws and structure of the cosmos; it also can be detected in at least some features of living things.
In other words, it's not that we can't explain complexity and must therefore conclude there's a divine creator. Rather, it's that the world manifests properties which, in our experience, are produced only by minds. One of these is the specified information found in DNA which is in many respects like computer software. Randomness and unguided chemistry don't produce the kind of specified complexity which constitutes semantic (meaningful) information and which we find in living things. Only minds, as far as we know, can do that.

The Encyclopedia goes on to give a more detailed description of ID:
Greater clarity on the topic may be gained from a discussion of what ID is not considered to be by its leading theorists. Intelligent design generally is not defined the same as creationism, with proponents maintaining that ID relies on scientific evidence rather than on Scripture or religious doctrines. ID makes no claims about biblical chronology, and technically a person does not have to believe in God to infer intelligent design in nature.

As a theory, ID also does not specify the identity or nature of the designer, so it is not the same as natural theology, which reasons from nature to the existence and attributes of God. ID does not claim that all species of living things were created in their present forms, and it does not claim to provide a complete account of the history of the universe or of living things.

ID also is not considered by its theorists to be an “argument from ignorance”; that is, intelligent design is not to be inferred simply on the basis that the cause of something is unknown (any more than a person accused of willful intent can be convicted without evidence). According to various adherents, ID does not claim that design must be optimal; something may be intelligently designed even if it is flawed (as are many objects made by humans).

ID may be considered to consist only of the minimal assertion that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent agent. It conflicts with views claiming that there is no real design in the cosmos (e.g., materialistic philosophy) or in living things (e.g., Darwinian evolution) or that design, though real, is undetectable (e.g., some forms of theistic evolution).
Perhaps nothing is more often mischaracterized in the popular press, or by its sophisticated despisers, than is the theory of intelligent design. It might be useful to bookmark this brief summary and consult it the next time you come across a story on ID.

Incidentally, Bachman's opinion on teaching ID in schools sounded pretty reasonable to me.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Over-Representation of Factual Presentations

One of the fears expressed by people concerned about global warming is that melting ice caps will cause sea levels to rise and cover large swaths of coastline with water by the end of the century or thereabouts. In his book, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore predicted that the seas were going to rise twenty feet submerging Manhattan Island by early in the next century.

An article at Fox News casts doubt on this and similar fears about rising sea levels:
Is climate change raising sea levels, as Al Gore has argued -- or are climate scientists doctoring the data?

The University of Colorado’s Sea Level Research Group decided in May to add 0.3 millimeters -- or about the thickness of a fingernail -- every year to its actual measurements of sea levels, sparking criticism from experts who called it an attempt to exaggerate the effects of global warming.

"Gatekeepers of our sea level data are manufacturing a fictitious sea level rise that is not occurring," said James M. Taylor, a lawyer who focuses on environmental issues for the Heartland Institute.

Steve Nerem, the director of the widely relied-upon research center, told that his group added the 0.3 millimeters per year to the actual sea level measurements because land masses, still rebounding from the ice age, are rising and increasing the amount of water that oceans can hold.

"We have to account for the fact that the ocean basins are actually getting slightly bigger... water volume is expanding," he said, a phenomenon they call glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA).
Global water volume is increasing but the land is rising so the net change in sea level is minor. The impression people are getting, however, is that sea levels are rising rapidly relative to our coastlines and that we'll soon be inundated. This isn't happening, apparently, or at least not at rates that would justify concern.

Nerem acknowledges that:
"If we correct our data to remove [the effect of rising land], it actually does cause the rate of sea level (a.k.a. ocean water volume change) rise to be bigger. The adjustment is trivial, and not worth public attention."

"For the layperson, this correction is a non-issue and certainly not newsworthy… [The] effect is tiny -- only 1 inch over 100 years."
Well. That certainly makes a difference. Instead of facing the prospect of twenty foot sea level rises in the next hundred years the sea is really only going to rise about an inch. Taylor urges people to be wary of sea level rise estimates:
"When Al Gore talks about Manhattan flooding this century, and 20 feet of sea level rise, that’s simply not going to happen. If it were going to happen, he wouldn’t have bought his multi-million dollar mansion along the coast in California."
By the way, when Mr. Gore came out with the movie based on his book he said this:
“Nobody is interested in solutions if they don’t think there’s a problem. Given that starting point, I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are, and how hopeful it is that we are going to solve this crisis.” (emphasis mine)
An "over-representation of factual presentations" is a euphemism for "lie". It's pretty hard to trust people you know will lie to you in order to persuade you to accept what they're selling.

Update on The Epidemic of Sex-Trafficking

Readers who were interested in our post on sex trafficking last month will be interested to learn that the man who beat and pimped "Jane", a piece of human offal by the name of James Albert Jackson, has been sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Chuck Neubauer, who wrote the original story in the Washington Times has some details on Jackson's conviction in a follow-up column in the Times. Here's the lede:
A federal judge in Oregon on Friday sentenced a 39-year-old man to 40 years in prison for taking a teenage girl from Seattle and forcing her with beatings to work as a prostitute in Portland. The girl’s story was the cornerstone of an April 25 article in The Washington Times on sex trafficking in this country.

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman in Portland handed James Albert Jackson the sentence sought by prosecutors after Jackson pleaded guilty in March to sex trafficking a minor through force, fraud and coercion. Jackson also was sentenced to five years of supervised release.

“Today, the 40-year sentence handed down ... for James Jackson, a violent and predatory sex trafficker of children, sends a firm but clear message to others in the District of Oregon who are engaged in this form of modern-day slavery,” said U.S. Attorney Dwight C. Holton.

Prosecutors said Jackson beat the girl, then 15, about three times a week and had a history of violence against women. He had 26 prior criminal convictions on various assault and drug charges, they said.

The girl, whom The Washington Times called Jane, wrote the judge that Jackson “deserves all the time you can give him.”
This is as close to justice as we can expect to get in this life, I suppose, but it irks me that Jackson will now be supported for the next 40 years by the tax dollars of people who have suffered grievously at the hands of people like him. Theoretically, part of whatever Jane earns as she moves forward with her life will go to provide food, shelter, and recreation for the man who terrorized and traumatized her. There's something deeply wrong with that.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fatherless America

When David Blankenhorn's Fatherless America came out in 1995 it became an instant classic on the importance of men to the well-being of the American family. Blankenhorn said so many things in that book that needed to be said after our society had suffered through two decades of radical feminism with its relentless downplaying of the need for traditional two-parent families. Recall Gloria Steinem's aphorism that "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." It turned out that women and children both need men, at least fathers, as much as a fish needs water.

On this Father's day weekend it might be good to remind ourselves of some of the salient points Blankenhorn illuminates in Fatherless America.

He tells us, for instance, that men need to be fathers. Fatherhood is society's most important role for men. More than any other activity it helps men become good men. Fathers are more likely to obey the law, to be good citizens, and to care about the needs of others. Men who remain single are more likely than those who marry to die young, or commit crimes, or both (This is a point also made by George Gilder in his equally fine 1986 book Men and Marriage which I heartily recommend).

Children need fathers as protectors. Eighty-four percent of all cases of non-parental child abuse occur in single parent homes and of these cases, 64% of them occur at the hands of mom's boyfriend. Statistically speaking, teenage girls are far safer in the company of their father than in the company of any other man.

Children need fathers as providers. Fatherlessness is the single most powerful determinant of childhood poverty. Regardless of how poverty is measured, single women with children are the poorest of all demographic groups. Children who come from two-parent families are much more likely to inherit wealth from paternal grandparents, much more likely to get financial support at an age when they're going to school, buying a home, or starting their own families than children from single parent homes.

The economic fault line in this country doesn't run between races, it runs between those families in which fathers are present and those in which they are not.

Children need fathers as role models. Boys raised by a traditionally masculine father are much less likely to commit crimes, whereas boys raised without a father are much more likely to do poorly in school and wind up in prison or dead.

Valuing fatherhood has to be instilled in boys from a young age by a masculine father. Commitment to one woman and to their children is not something that comes naturally to men. It's almost impossible, for instance, to find a culture in which women voluntarily abandon their children in large numbers, but to find a culture in which men in large numbers voluntarily abandon their children all one need do is look around.

Boys who grow up without fathers tend to become louts, misogynistic, abusive, authoritarian, and violent. Girls who grow up without fathers tend to become promiscuous. A society in which a father is little more than a sperm donor is a society of fourteen year-old girls with babies and fourteen year-old boys with guns.

Stepfathers and boyfriends (Blankenhorn calls them "nearby guys") cannot replace the biological father. For stepfathers and boyfriends the main object of desire and commitment, to the extent they exist, is the mother, not the child. For the married father this distinction hardly exists. The married father says "My mate, my child". The stepfather and boyfriend must say "My mate, the other guy's child".

Children are a glue for biological parents that serves to hold them together, but they're a wedge between non-biological parents, tending to be a source of tension which pushes them apart.

Fatherhood means fathers teaching children a way of life, which is the heart of what it is to be a father. More than providing for their material needs, or shielding them from harm, or even caring for them and showing them affection, paternal sponsorship means cultural transmission - endowing children with competence and character by showing them how to live a certain kind of life.

One wishes every man - and woman - would read Blankenhorn's Fatherless America. It's loaded with great insight.

Happy Fathers' Day.

The Democrats Predict the Rapture

The bad news is the misery index (the sum of the inflation rate and the unemployment rate) is the highest it's been since 1983:
When it comes to measuring the combination of unemployment and inflation, it doesn’t get much more miserable than this. In fact, misery, as measured in the unofficial Misery Index that simply totals the unemployment and inflation rates, is at a 28-year high, reflective of how weak the economic recovery has been and how far there is to go.

The index, first compiled during the soaring inflation days of the 1970s by economist Arthur Okun, is registering a nausea-inducing 12.7, 9.1 percent for unemployment and 3.6 percent for annualized inflation, a number not seen since 1983. The index has been above 10 since November 2009 and had been under double-digits from June 1993 through May 2008.
The good news is that it's all Bush's fault and that the Hope and Change we were promised with the election of Barack Obama is just around the corner. At least that's what they've been telling us, rather like Harold Camping predicting the end of the world, since Mr. Obama's accession in January of 2009.

This ad features DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz on Meet the Press doing a pretty good Camping impersonation:
Well, where's the evidence that the administration has "turned the economy around"? Are we just supposed to accept this on faith? Is there any empirical reason why we should believe Ms. Wasserman-Schultz when she tells us that the rapture .... I mean the economic recovery .... is immanent?

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Few Interesting Facts

Joseph Farah, an Arab-American journalist, has a column in the Washington Times that presents an interesting picture of the history of the plight of the Palestinian people. If Farah is correct then perhaps a lot of what we believe about this troubled region may not be historically accurate. He makes the following claims, for example:
The idea of giving the Palestinians their own state is not new. The plan actually dates back to 1948 when Israel was re-created. At that time, so-called "Palestinian" Arabs got their own state – but they rejected it along with the rest of the Arab world.

Prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, there was no serious movement for a "Palestinian" homeland. In the Six-Day War, Israel captured Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem. But they didn't capture these territories from the "Palestinian Authority" or Hamas. They captured them from Jordan's King Hussein.

The name Palestine was assigned to the region by the Romans in 70 A.D. after they committed genocide against the Jews, smashed the Temple and declared the land of Israel would be no more. From then on, the Romans promised, it would be known as 'Palestine.' The name was derived from the Philistines, a Goliathian people conquered by the Jews centuries earlier. It was a way for the Romans to add insult to injury.

"Palestine" has never existed – before or since – as an autonomous entity.

There is no language known as Palestinian. There is no distinct Palestinian culture. There has never been a land known as Palestine governed by Palestinians. Palestinians are Arabs, indistinguishable from Jordanians (another recent invention), Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, etc.

Arabs control 99.9 percent of the Middle East lands. Israel represents one-tenth of 1 percent of the landmass.
Farah also argues that Jerusalem's status as Islam's third most holy site has no basis, at least not in the Koran.
[T]he Quran says nothing about Jerusalem. It mentions Mecca hundreds of times. It mentions Medina countless times. It never mentions Jerusalem. With good reason. There is no historical evidence to suggest Muhammad ever visited Jerusalem.
Whatever the degree of agreement among scholars over the points Farah makes it's a fascinating fact that modern Israel occupies a land area about the size of Belize and yet it has been the focus of the world's attention and Arab animosity ever since it was carved out of Jordan in 1948. Why? What makes Israel different from all the other countries in the world, almost all of which were created by displacing and/or assimilating far more people over far more territory than was Israel?

Moreover, why is it that Arab nations have so much land at their disposal, yet they refuse to assimilate the original Palestinian refugees and their descendents, instead keeping them confined in miserable refugee camps? Moreover, why is it that Arabs are better off living in Israel as Israeli citizens than they are in almost any majority-Arab country?

One last question: Does anyone really believe that there would be peace between Israelis and Palestinians if the Palestinians had their own state?

More on Fast and Furious

Bob Owens at Pajamas Media lays out the details of Project Fast and Furious (also called Gun-Runner) that we talked about yesterday. After explaining what the Iran-Contra scandal was about back in the 80s, Owens outlines the basic contours of Gun-Runner, a scandal he concludes, with very good reason, to be far worse than Iran-Contra.

Owens takes the following from a 51-page report based on testimony of ATF field agents released by Darrell Issa's congressional oversight committee Tuesday. The report consists of testimony from ATF field agents, states Owens, who objected to orders from their supervisors that directly conflicted with their primary order: to always follow the suspect with the gun and always interdict to keep the weapon from being used in a crime. Here's owens' summary of the report's findings:
  • DOJ and ATF inappropriately and recklessly relied on a 20-year-old ATF order to allow guns to walk.” The agencies misrepresented the intention of the order to justify their actions.
  • Supervisors told the agents to ‘get with the program’ because senior ATF officials had sanctioned the operation.” At least one agent was cautioned that if he didn’t stop complaining about the dangerous nature of the operation, he would find himself out of a job, and lucky to be working in a prison.
  • Operation Fast and Furious contributed to the increasing violence and deaths in Mexico. This result was regarded with giddy optimism by ATF supervisors hoping that guns recovered at crime scenes in Mexico would provide the nexus to straw purchasers in Phoenix. ATF officials were seemingly unconcerned over the deaths of Mexican law enforcement officers, soldiers, and innocent civilians, noting that you had to “scramble a few eggs” to make an omelette, in a callous disregard of human life.
  • Senior ATF personnel including Acting Director Ken Melson, and senior Department of Justice officials at least up to an assistant attorney general, were well aware of and supported the operation.
  • Department of Justice officials hid behind semantics to lie and deny that they allowed guns to be walked across the border.
  • When asked by the Oversight Committee how many of 1,750 specific weapons that “walked” under orders of the ATF and DOJ could have been interdicted if agents were allowed to act as they were trained, the agents answered they could have stopped every single one.
  • The more than 2,000 weapons that the Obama Justice Department allowed to be delivered to Mexican narco-terrorist cartels are thought to have been used in the shooting of an estimated 150 Mexican law enforcement officers and soldiers battling the cartels. Two American law enforcement officers have also presumably fallen prey to these weapons, along with an unknown number of civilians on both sides of the border.
  • President Barack Obama’s Department of Justice has purposefully armed narco-terrorist drug cartels that have been accused of bombings, ambushes, mass murders, public executions, and the assassination of police, politicians, and civic leaders.
  • Obama’s Justice Department armed the enemy of our neighbor and ally, providing enough arms to equip ten infantry companies, or two battalions, of violent drug dealers.
So when will our media stop talking about the Anthonys (Weiner and Casey) and start talking about this?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lying's No Big Deal

Anthony Weiner finally resigned his seat in congress today after having disgraced both himself and his office. Fox News commentator Alan Colmes, who is a liberal, argues that he should not have. Colmes argues that character doesn't matter as long as the congressman votes the way he wants him to vote, and that lying to the American people is not sufficient reason to relinquish one's power.
This is pretty stunning, I think. Is it not the case that if someone lies to his employer in the private sector it's grounds for firing? Is it not the case that our elected representatives, whom we remunerate with six-figure salaries and handsome benefit packages, should be held to a higher standard of conduct than the average American? Any elected official of whatever party who did what Weiner did should have resigned or been thrown out of office. Why should taxpayers be compelled to continue to pay people like this?

Colmes takes a stab at rationalizing Weiner's lying by saying that he was trying to preserve his dignity and marriage, but everyone who lies has some self-serving motive for doing so. Preserving one's personal dignity hardly justifies lying to the American people and further eroding the trust we have in our political class. When one believes that the greatest good is advancing one's political agenda (Weiner and Colmes are both left-liberals) then anything which accomplishes those goals is morally acceptable. This reasoning, though, puts us on course to agreeing that if lying would have enabled Weiner to ride out the scandal then lying is no big deal, and this leads inevitably to the conclusion that lying is almost never wrong.

People criticize Rush Limbaugh for asserting that it's in the nature of liberals to lie, but Colmes, to the extent that he's representative of the left, gives us a pretty vivid confirmation of Rush's claim.

Parenthetically, Colmes seems to have momentarily forgotten that he was on Fox News when he said that if we're going to demand Weiner's resignation we should also have demanded President Clinton's resignation for lying to the nation about his tryst with Monica Lewinsky. I think most Fox viewers watching that exchange were vigorously nodding their heads in agreement with that conclusion.

Fast and Furious

For those who may have missed the story the Department of Justice via the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms was apparently running an operation named "Fast and Furious" that allowed criminals to smuggle guns from the U.S. to gangs in Mexico.

The ostensible purpose was to track the weapons to drug cartels to ascertain their hideouts, but several ATF agents complained about the operation, arging that it was illegal and predicting that allowing guns into the hands of criminals would not turn out well. Several of the guns subsequently turned up at the scene of violent crimes including the murder of an American border patrol agent and now the DoJ is on the hot seat.

Congressman Darryl Issa is holding hearings on the operation, and it looks as if some DoJ officials may have lied to his committee. If so, there will be contempt citations and more pressure on Attorney General Holder to resign.

Hot Air has the details. The evening news probably won't.

Bypassing Stem Cells

Science Daily is reporting another fascinating development in the quest to reprogram skin cells to build other kinds of tissue:
A research breakthrough has proven that it is possible to reprogram mature cells from human skin directly into brain cells, without passing through the stem cell stage. The unexpectedly simple technique involves activating three genes in the skin cells; genes which are already known to be active in the formation of brain cells at the fetal stage. The new technique avoids many of the ethical dilemmas that stem cell research has faced.

For the first time, a research group at Lund University in Sweden has succeeded in creating specific types of nerve cells from human skin. By reprogramming connective tissue cells, called fibroblasts, directly into nerve cells, a new field has been opened up with the potential to take research on cell transplants to the next level. The discovery represents a fundamental change in the view of the function and capacity of mature cells. By taking mature cells as their starting point instead of stem cells, the Lund researchers also avoid the ethical issues linked to research on embryonic stem cells.

In experiments where two further genes were activated, the researchers have been able to produce dopamine brain cells, the type of cell which dies in Parkinson's disease. The research findings are therefore an important step towards the goal of producing nerve cells for transplant which originate from the patients themselves. The cells could also be used as disease models in research on various neurodegenerative diseases.
There's more at the link. The article doesn't talk about all the applications of this research, but if fibroblasts can be turned into nerve cells the implications for people who have suffered spinal cord and brain injuries are staggering. Permanently paralyzing injuries might become as rare as polio. It sounds too good to be true.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Long, Hot Summer

Bill sends along a link to the following video of a recent CNN broadcast. CNN is very supportive of the Obama presidency, so if their people are talking like this the president is in serious trouble. More importantly, if what Jack Cafferty says is true the nation is in serious trouble:
We could be in for a long hot summer and it won't have anything to do with global warming.

Plenty of Greenhouse Gas but No Warming

James M. Taylor is senior fellow for environment policy at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News. He has a column in Forbes in which he makes an interesting claim and poses a tough question to global warming "alarmists":
Global greenhouse gas emissions have risen even faster during the past decade than predicted by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other international agencies. According to alarmist groups, this proves global warming is much worse than previously feared. The increase in emissions “should shock even the most jaded negotiators” at international climate talks currently taking place in Bonn, Germany, the UK Guardian reports. But there’s only one problem with this storyline; global temperatures have not increased at all during the past decade.

The evidence is powerful, straightforward, and damning. NASA satellite instruments precisely measuring global temperatures show absolutely no warming during the past the past 10 years. This is the case for the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes, including the United States. This is the case for the Arctic, where the signs of human-caused global warming are supposed to be first and most powerfully felt. This is the case for global sea surface temperatures, which alarmists claim should be sucking up much of the predicted human-induced warming. This is the case for the planet as a whole.

If atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions are the sole or primary driver of global temperatures, then where is all the global warming? We’re talking 10 years of higher-than-expected increases in greenhouse gases, yet 10 years of absolutely no warming.
Taylor does not object to what he calls global warming theory, but he does think the alarmists have gone too far with their extrapolations and concerns. His brief column offers some helpful data on this issue.

Is Syria Next?

There are indications that the Obama administration has had enough of the massacres in Syria and is about to do something to stop it. At least that's what a report from debkafile suggests:
Debkafile's military and intelligence sources report that Monday, June 13, the US deployed the USS Bataan amphibian air carrier strike vessel opposite Syria's Mediterranean coast with 2,000 marines, 6 war planes, 15 attack helicopters, including new V-22 Ospreys, and 27 choppers for landing forces aboard. Also this week, US naval units went operational in the Aegean, Adriatic and Black Seas as part of the joint US-Ukrainian Sea Breeze 2011 exercise.

The USS Monterrey cruiser armed with Aegis surface missile interceptors has additionally been stationed in the Black Sea. Western sources additonally report a build-up of ship-borne anti-missile missile strength in the Mediterranean basin.

This huge concentration of naval missile interceptor units looks like preparations by Washington for the contingency of Iran, Syria and Hizballah letting loose with surface missiles against US and Israeli targets in the event of US military intervention to stop the anti-opposition slaughter underway in Syria.

Moscow, Tehran and Damascus, in particular, are taking this exceptional spate of American military movements in and around the Mediterranean as realistically portending American intervention in Syria.
That Obama would initiate yet a fourth major conflict in the Middle East is hard to believe, especially since the Libyan imbroglio seems to have sputtered to an inconclusive and embarrassing stalemate, and since Congress is now demanding that he secure their approval for continued military action in Libya as called for by the War Powers Act, and since any action against Syria will almost certainly elicit some sort of retaliation by Iran.

On the other hand, it costs a lot of money to move those naval assets around so there must be some reason for doing it.

Parenthetically, it seems peculiar that such portentous military preparations are apparently happening below the media radar. At least I haven't seen anything in the American press about them, but to be fair, the media have had a lot on their plate lately what with the Casey Anthony trial, Anthony Weiner's lewd text messages, Sarah Palin's emails, and other matters of equal importance for our nation's future. I'm sure they'll catch up soon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


In last Saturday's post Chasing Down Dawkins I mistakenly attributed the video to William Lane Craig's organization Reasonable Faith. The actual creator of the video is a talented fellow by the name of Peter Byrom (He's the gentleman asking the question in the clip below) who promises more great entertainment in the months between now and Craig's trip to England in October. We're looking forward to it.

My apologies to Peter.

Hitler's Ethic

A brief review of a new book by Richard Weikart is posted at Evolution News and Views:
One of the most controversial parts of the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed was the segment where Ben Stein interviewed the history professor Richard Weikart about his book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. Darwinists went apoplectic, deriding Stein and Weikart for daring to sully the good name of Darwin by showing the way that Hitler and German scientists and physicians used evolutionary theory to justify some of their atrocities, such as their campaign to kill the disabled.

Some critics even denied that the Nazis believed in Darwinism at all. Weikart challenges his critics to examine the evidence in his fascinating sequel, Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (Palgrave Macmillan, new in paperback), which examines the role of Darwinism and evolutionary ethics in Hitler's worldview.

In this work Weikart helps unlock the mystery of Hitler's evil by vividly demonstrating the surprising conclusion that Hitler's immorality flowed from a coherent ethic. Hitler was inspired by evolutionary ethics to pursue the utopian project of biologically improving the human race. Hitler's evolutionary ethic underlay or influenced almost every major feature of Nazi policy: eugenics (i.e., measures to improve human heredity, including compulsory sterilization), euthanasia, racism, population expansion, offensive warfare, and racial extermination.
Once people reject the idea that morality is rooted in an omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good being the next logical step is to abandon the idea that there's any objective moral standard at all. This leads inevitably to moral arbitrariness and subjectivity, i.e. what's right is whatever feels right to me. Moral subjectivism leads directly to egoism, i.e. the belief that one should put one's own interests ahead of the interests of others, and egoism leads to the ethic of "might makes right".

Hitler's "morality" was completely consistent with his rejection of a belief in a personal God. Hitler was who every atheist would also be if they a) had the power and b) were logically consistent. Thankfully, few of them are both powerful and consistent, but in the 20th century some were. Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot all were atheists who had complete power within their sphere and acted consistently with their naturalistic, materialistic worldview. The consequences were completely predictable.

Cartesian Theist makes a similar point in this video:

Pro-Life Progress

Elections have consequences and the election last November has had more than most. One arena in which this is especially the case is the matter of abortion legislation. This interesting article by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra explains why:
The Oregon bill is one of 576 measures related to abortion that have been introduced so far in 2011 in 48 states, according to Elizabeth Nash, public policy associate for the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute.

[B]y early April, 142 abortion-related provisions had passed at least one chamber of a state legislature, compared with 67 in 2009. More than half of the 142 bills (57 percent) introduced this year seek to restrict abortion access, compared with 38 percent in 2010.

About 40 new anti-abortion laws were on the books by mid-April. They include:
  • expanding the waiting period requirement in South Dakota from 24 hours to 72 hours, and requiring women to visit a crisis pregnancy center in the interim.
  • requiring a physician who performs an abortion in South Dakota to provide counseling on all risk factors related to abortion.
  • allowing any hospital employee in Utah to refuse to "participate in any way" in an abortion.
  • making it a felony in Arizona to perform or provide money for abortions sought because of a baby's race or sex.
  • prohibiting insurance plans that participate in the state insurance exchange from including abortion coverage in Virginia, Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee.
  • prohibiting the abortion of a fetus capable of feeling pain in Nebraska, Kansas, Idaho, and Oklahoma.

Republican victories in the 2010 mid-term elections account for much of the legislative surge. Republicans....took 29 governorships and 680 seats in state legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The November elections brought huge change in the state houses," said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life.

The legislation has been snowballing since the Republican sweep: "Just in the first three months of this year, we've provided testimony on 17 life-related legislative matters," she said. In previous years, the average number of testimonies provided was two or three for the entire year.

Restricting abortion through new state laws seems to be highly effective in reducing abortion rates. "We see that the number of abortions has gone down by 22 percent between 1990 and 2005," said Michael New, political science professor at the University of Alabama. "An important reason is the restrictions that more and more states are passing."
There's much more at the link. One interesting aspect of this that's not mentioned in the article has to do with how the rhetoric in the debate has changed. Back in the decades after Roe v. Wade (1973) we were often told by those who wanted to liberalize abortion laws that the majority of people in the country were pro-choice. We seldom hear that claim anymore. It'd be hard to explain, after all, why pro-choice majorities keep electing pro-life legislators to their state governments.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Politically Correct Beauty Pageants

I have very little interest in beauty contests, but I do have an interest in the suffocating miasma of political correctness that seeks to envelop all of American culture and social life, including beauty pageants. According to an article at Fox News Miss USA pageant contestants are now being required to answer questions about their beliefs concerning teaching evolution in schools and posing for nude photos:
According to Paula Shugart, President of the Miss Universe Organization (MUO), which also operates Miss USA, these “topics are very relevant and in the news.”
That they're in the news may be so, but what relevance does a young woman's opinion on teaching Darwinism in schools or her views on public nudity have to her qualifications for winning a beauty contest? None that I can see, so why ask about them? How would her answer affect her chances of winning?

A cynical observer might be forgiven for suspecting that these questions are intended to isolate and eliminate contestants who have strong religious commitments and values. Who else, after all, would be expected to object to either of these proposals?

Thanks to Uncommon Descent for the tip.

Hitler Plays Dawkins

On Saturday I posted on the difficulty debate organizers have had persuading atheist Richard Dawkins to debate philosopher William Lane Craig on the existence of God.

Here's a funny You Tube video that uses a film clip from a movie about Hitler - a clip that's been put to many similar uses over the last year or so - to make the point.
Thanks to Uncommon Descent for the tip.

Interracial Crime in Chicago

Chicago has recently been rocked by gang violence and crimes against innocent victims ranging in age from 14 to 68, and people are wondering why the Chicago Tribune omitted mention of one of the salient facts of the story. There was no mention in the original news reports of the races of the perpetrators and their victims and readers wanted to know why not. In response to their queries Times editor Gerould Kern offers an explanation, and several staff writers state their views on the matter here.

Kern writes:
We do not reference race unless it is a fact that is central to telling the story.

By all indication, these attacks were motivated by theft, not race. Further, there is no evidence to suggest that the victims were singled out because of their race. Therefore we did not include racial descriptions in our initial news reports.

There are circumstances when race may be relevant, such as describing a criminal suspect being sought by police. But this description must be accompanied by other detailed information, such as height, weight, scars, clothing, etc. By adhering to this practice, we guard against subjecting an entire group of people to suspicion because of the color of their skin.
I'm afraid this all seems a little lame to me, as did the thoughts of the paper's staffers on the matter.

There are at least two more plausible reasons Kern might have given as to why the Tribune does not mention the races of the thugs and their victims:

First, it'd be superfluous. There are certain crimes that one knows within a high degree of certainty when one reads about them the racial identity of the perps. If a report concerns white-collar crime or serial murder one can be fairly confident that the criminal is white. If the report is about violent gang crime, say, girls beating a victim in a MacDonald's or on a school bus, one is reasonably sure that the girls are black. Anyone who denies this simply isn't familiar with the logic of induction.

A second more plausible explanation is that the perps were in fact black, the victims were white, and newspapers feel a subliminal obligation to downplay black on white violence. I can't prove what I'm about to allege, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and speculate that were the thugs in these crimes white and the victims black the Tribune would have shown much less reticence about mentioning the races of the people involved. Indeed, if they didn't mention the races they'd have been accused of covering up an obvious instance of white racism. If a gang of whites had beaten a 68 year old black man I suspect the races of the parties would have then been "a fact central to the telling of the story."

Liberals, however, don't believe that there is any such thing as black racism, even though most of the racial animosity in this country today is directed against whites, and so when whites are victimized it simply doesn't occur to a liberal to think that race was a factor. Thus, there's a deep reluctance among liberals to call attention to black thuggery directed against whites but no corresponding reluctance to call attention to the racial nature of white aggression directed against blacks. Indeed, such crimes, on the relatively rare occasions in which they occur, often become national stories.

We have several serious social problems in this country, one of which is black violence (which stems largely from the breakdown of the black family which is largely a consequence of the Great Society welfare programs of the 60s and 70s). Pretending that race is irrelevant and sweeping it under the rug does nothing to help ameliorate the problems. The first step in any solution is clearly and definitively describing the nature of what we are up against. Violent crime in the U.S., including interracial violent crime, is largely minority generated, and we shouldn't cover it up or ignore it just because it's minorities who are doing it any more than we should cover it up if it were whites who were responsible.

Indeed, to treat people differently because of their race is the essence of what it is to be racist.