Saturday, July 30, 2011

Honest Politicians

A lot of people seem to be of the opinion that the debt ceiling impasse has shown that our system of governance is broken. We're too divided and unable to get anything done any longer, the argument goes, and it's all the fault of the Tea Party wing of the Republican party. The Tea Party congressmen and women are nutty obstructionists, a scourge on our politics, and we need to vote them out in order to save our democracy.

I think this is all exactly wrong. I think our system is working fine. Americans are learning the difference between contrasting visions of what government should be and learning, too, that their votes matter, that they have the power to elect people who will truly represent them. So far from being the end of democracy, as some are saying, I believe we're seeing it's reinvigoration.

We're also seeing politicians model what we've always said we wanted political leaders to be.

For years we've heard that the problem with Washington is that the people we send there can't be trusted to do what they said they would do, they're too easily bought off, all they care about is their next election, they have no principles, they lie, etc.

Now for the first time in my memory a significant fraction of the House and Senate is comprised of people who are doing exactly what they said they'd do, who can't be bought with earmarks or promises of campaign funding, who don't care about being re-elected, whose only ambition is to see their principles upheld, who are genuinely putting the country's future ahead of their own political careers, and a lot of people, mostly on the left but also in the GOP (Senator John McCain, for example), are beside themselves with frustration and even anger.

To watch the fulminations of some of the commentators at MSNBC you'd think that people who refuse to be complicit in burdening our children with crushing debt are going to be the end of the Republic. Some are calling them "terrorists" and "anarchists". A casual viewer would gain the impression that these evil people were deliberately trying to destroy the country rather than save it.

What we're now hearing is that all that talk about the need for principled leadership is no longer "operative". What we really need are people who can compromise, who'll shrug off their principles, who'll renege on the campaign promises they made their constituents. In other words, what we need, we're now being told, are precisely the kind of politicians that everyone has for decades held in contempt.

It seems that what some folks mean when they say they want politicians with integrity is that they want honest politicians as long as those politicians are reliably liberal. Otherwise, they want them to be as weak and unprincipled as they can be.

Friday, July 29, 2011


The journal New Scientist has an article that seeks to explain how something could come from nothing as it must have in the creation of the universe ex nihilo. I'm not sure how well they succeed.

Here's an excerpt from the article's lede followed by a video clip on the topic:
Around 13.7 billion years ago time and space spontaneously sprang from the void. How did that happen? Or to put it another way: why does anything exist at all? It's a big question, perhaps the biggest. The idea that the universe simply appeared out of nothing is difficult enough; trying to conceive of nothingness is perhaps even harder.
The question this all raises, I guess, is where did the quantum energy and the force of gravity come from that made the universe possible? If the universe sprung from the quantum flux then how do we explain that?

After all, if there was a preexisting quantum vaccum such that the universe didn't really emerge from nothing, then that vaccum is in fact the embryo of the universe and we're still left with the question of where it came from. Did it always exist? Where did the laws which govern the quantum world come from? Are we to just consider this level of explanation the terminus, and say that the quantum vacuum just is a brute fact with no need of explanation? Is that not a science-stopper?

Bad Day for the AGW Community

Yesterday was a bad day for the global warming community. First there was an article by James Taylor at Forbes in which Taylor notes that more heat escapes the earth's atmosphere than the climatologists' computer models had predicted:
NASA satellite data from the years 2000 through 2011 show the Earth's atmosphere is allowing far more heat to be released into space than alarmist computer models have predicted, reports a new study in the peer-reviewed science journal Remote Sensing. The study indicates far less future global warming will occur than United Nations computer models have predicted, and supports prior studies indicating increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide trap far less heat than alarmists have claimed.

The new findings are extremely important and should dramatically alter the global warming debate.

Scientists on all sides of the global warming debate are in general agreement about how much heat is being directly trapped by human emissions of carbon dioxide (the answer is "not much"). However, the single most important issue in the global warming debate is whether carbon dioxide emissions will indirectly trap far more heat by causing large increases in atmospheric humidity and cirrus clouds.

Alarmist computer models assume human carbon dioxide emissions indirectly cause substantial increases in atmospheric humidity and cirrus clouds (each of which are very effective at trapping heat), but real-world data have long shown that carbon dioxide emissions are not causing as much atmospheric humidity and cirrus clouds as the alarmist computer models have predicted.
Then there was the revelation that the initial warnings of polar bear peril that served as the symbol of global climate change have been called into question and the research scientist responsible for them suspended from his duties for suspected fraud.

All in all, not the sort of news one would hope for when one is trying to rebuild public trust and mobilize the world to radically alter our way of life.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tipping Point

I don't know what to make of this article in Science Daily. It raises a lot of questions, but whether it's correct or not it's certainly interesting.
Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. The scientists, who are members of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer, used computational and analytical methods to discover the tipping point where a minority belief becomes the majority opinion. The finding has implications for the study and influence of societal interactions ranging from the spread of innovations to the movement of political ideals.

"When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority," said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. "Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame."
What I don't understand is why, if this is true, there are so many issues in which the country appears to be evenly split. For example, more than 10% of Americans believe fervently in either the pro-life or pro-choice position on abortion. Yet the country seems to be evenly divided on the question. Likewise with Darwinian evolution. It seems certain that 10% of the population is strongly committed to Darwinism, but the majority of people in the country is not.

An important aspect of the finding is that the percent of committed opinion holders required to shift majority opinion does not change significantly regardless of the type of network in which the opinion holders are working. In other words, the percentage of committed opinion holders required to influence a society remains at approximately 10 percent, regardless of how or where that opinion starts and spreads in the society.
This all seems counterintuitive, but perhaps not. Perhaps there's a kind of cultural critical mass at which point a new idea explodes through the society. The article offers some examples, none of which seems convincing, but perhaps readers can think of some historical examples which confirm this research.

Flight of the Millenials

Michael Barone cites some polling statistics that show a general abandonment of the Democratic party by white voters, but the flight of younger white voters, the so-called millenials, is stunning:
The most noteworthy movement among whites has been among voters under 30, the so-called Millennial generation. Millennials voted 66 to 32 percent for Barack Obama in 2008 and identified as Democrats rather than Republicans by a 60 to 32 percent margin.

But white Millennials have been moving away from the Democrats. The Democratic edge in party identification among white Millennials dropped from 7 points in 2008 to 3 points in 2009 to a 1-point Republican edge in 2010 and an 11-point Republican lead in 2011.
Barone's column attributes the disenchantment with the Democrats, particularly the president, to disillusionment over the economy after candidate Obama had held out such high hopes for young people. The reality has been dispiriting. Many young people are graduating from college in debt up to their ears and unable to find work that will enable them to pay off their loans.

Nothing like the prospect of fruitless job searches and endless loan payments to disabuse one of the romantic seductions of the euphoric rhetoric of hope and change.

Why Are They So Vile?

Andrew Klavan at City Journal comments on the increasing hate and vulgarity directed by liberal personalities like Bill Maher at attractive conservative women.
Comedian-commentator Bill Maher has been getting a lot of attention lately for trying to get a lot of attention. He generally goes about this by using sexist hate speech against attractive, powerful, and intelligent conservative women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, calling them female vulgarisms, for instance, or, as most recently, hosting comedians who fantasize aloud about sexually abusing them.
Maher has been particularly bad, but he's far from the only one. Neither have Keith Olberman, John Stewart, and others been shy in displaying their misogynism.
But...there does seem to me to be one thing worth saying about Maher and the others. Their ugliness seems to be escalating day by day, and with it the dishonesty, distortions, and bullying anger of their mainstream-media fellow travelers. There’s a reason for this, I think. It’s the increasingly apparent failure of Barack Obama. With the notable exception of Osama bin Laden’s execution, the Obama presidency has resembled nothing so much as an episode of Mr. Bean, one slapstick misadventure after another. The stagnant economy, the rising unemployment, the staggering, soon-to-be-crippling debt—hiked more under Obama than under every president from Washington to Reagan combined—these can no longer be blamed on his predecessor but are his to own.
This has to be fantastically humiliating for our left-wing media. If you’ve forgotten what they were like during Obama’s 2008 candidacy—the weirdly sexual thrills up their legs, the unreasoning comparison of Obama with America’s greatest men, the pseudo-religious idolatry—you have only to turn to August’s edition of Esquire to find a representative reminder that has to be read to be believed. It’s a column from Canadian writer Stephen Marche hilariously titled “How Can We Not Love Obama?” and subtitled “Because like it or not, he is all of us.” At one point, Marche writes: “‘I am large, I contain multitudes,’ Walt Whitman wrote, and Obama lives that lyrical prophecy.” And later—and I swear I’m not making this up: “Barack Obama is developing into what Hegel called a ‘world-historical soul,’ an embodiment of the spirit of the times. He is what we hope we can be.”
Klavan might have included Evan Thomas swooning on MSNBC that Mr. Obama is "sort of God" bestriding the world.

At any rate, the left was so emotionally invested in the apotheosis of Obama that when they began to realize that conservatives were right all along that the man was an unqualified poseur, they found the truth so galling that in their humiliation and resentment they cast aside their ersatz liberal facades and lashed out against those whose judgment of Mr. Obama had been vindicated with as much venom and ugliness as they could get away with.

What many observers have wondered is where the feminist groups have been on this. There've been a few expressions of censure for Maher's sleaziness, to be sure, but there's been no sustained media demand for these people to be fired of the sort we'd certainly see had the offenders been conservatives insulting liberal women.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Was Breivik a Christian?

Perhaps you've heard that the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik was a Christian fundamentalist. Perhaps you were disheartened that a Christian would do such a horrific thing, or perhaps you felt a bit of schadenfreude in thinking that Christians are just as bad as anyone else, or perhaps you thought that the New Atheists are right in alleging that religion is the source of most of the world's evil.

Well, as a lot of people suspected when the media first put it out that this evil man was a Christian, the meme didn't survive a careful reading of his own manifesto.

John West at Evolution News and Views has done the leg work in uncovering Breivik's beliefs, and it turns out that he's in fact an atheistic Social Darwinist who used Christianity as cultural camouflage.

If you're one of the folks mentioned above you really should read West's essay. Here's a sample:
[I]t now turns out Breivik really isn't a Christian fundamentalist after all. According to his 1518-page manifesto "A European Declaration of Independence," he may not even believe in God. Instead of Christianity, his views are largely based on what might be described as a virulent mixture of scientific fundamentalism and Social Darwinism.

To be sure, Breivik identifies himself as "100% Christian" in his manifesto (p. 1403), and he certainly talks incessantly about defending "Christian" civilization. But he also makes clear that his Christianity is simply a pose adopted for political reasons.

Answering why he chose to align himself with a group supposedly espousing "Christian values," he states: "My choice was based purely [on] pragmatism." (p. 1380) He goes on to explain that "Christianity" has far more "mass appeal" than nationalism, white supremacy, or a revival of paganism, and so it is a more effective "banner" under which to build his movement. (p. 1381) In sum, Breivik views religion like Machiavelli viewed religion--as a political tool. It's worth noting that Machiavelli's The Prince is listed by Breivik as one of his favorite books. (p. 1407)

As for his own religious beliefs and practices, Breivik frankly admits: "I'm not going to pretend I'm a very religious person as that would be a lie. I've always been very pragmatic and influenced by my secular surroundings and environment." (p. 1344, emphasis added) Indeed, Breivik acknowledges that he used to believe that "Religion is a crutch for weak people. What is the point in believing in a higher power if you have confidence in yourself!? Pathetic."

[Breivik] continues: "Perhaps this is true for many cases. Religion is a crutch for many weak people and many embrace religion for self serving reasons as a source for drawing mental strength (to feed their weak emotional state f[or] example during illness, death, poverty etc.). Since I am not a hypocrite, I'll say directly that this is my agenda as well." (p. 1344, emphasis added)
Breivik's claim to be a Christian was a cynical attempt to appear socially innocuous. In fact, he was a Christian in the same sense that Hitler was a Christian.

Breivik was a Social Darwinist and an atheist, which, I think, is significant. Ask yourself this question, If both atheism and Darwinism are true in what sense did Breivik do anything wrong? What objective ground does an atheistic Darwinian have for believing that it's wrong for the strong to kill the weak?

Richard Dawkins, who is both a Darwinist and an atheist, makes this very point when he asks, "What's to prevent us from saying that Hitler was right? I mean, that's a genuinely difficult question."

He's right, it is a difficult question, at least it is for a man who accepts no transcendent moral law or authority. Were Anders Breivik actually a Christian he would have acted in utter violation of all that Christ taught. On atheism, however, his massacre of those young people violated no objective moral law and thus incurs no moral, only legal, guilt.

Freedom or Statism

Tony Blankley of the Washington Times explains why the current debate in Washington over how best to handle the debt ceiling is really an exercise in niggling around the margins. Spending needs to be cut and needs to be cut much more drastically than either party is proposing. What's at stake is nothing less than our liberty. Here's the crux of his essay:
Until a couple of years ago, I never actually expected to see a constitutional restoration. I assumed that America was on a slow, irreversible trek to the statist side. But the sheer incompetence and, in some cases, mendacity, of the current crop of statist politicians in both the legislative and executive branches seem likely to bring on an economic crisis that will actually force Americans to decide between a constitutional restoration and a full embrace of statism.

When the current, failing effort to fund our medical and retirement benefits programs creates an American bond crisis (Greece today, Spain, Portugal, Ireland tomorrow, America probably soon) that will lead to actually running out of money to pay the promised benefits. When that avoidable crisis hits, I'm pretty sure the American people will overthrow statism for restored constitutionally limited government. If we flop on the statist side, then the great American freedom experiment will be over.

The Washington power holders could and should avoid that stark choice if they would actually try to get our fiscal condition under control. But they have drifted into fantasyland. It is hard not to suspect that even the recent "big solution," a $4 trillion alleged reduction-in-deficit plan (rumored to be $1.3 trillion in taxes and $2.7 trillion in spending cuts) is inadequate to the challenge.

First, it is too small a reduction — we need to reduce deficits by at least $10 trillion over 10 years. Second, President Obama talks about attaining that $4 trillion in the 12th out-year. That is another way of saying that such proposed spending cuts will mostly be backloaded to the years 2023 and 2024 — three presidential administrations and six Congresses from now. That would constitute the world's longest can-kick.

Meanwhile, the proposed tax increases that are described beguilingly by their advocates as responsible, sensible and necessary are both excessive and inadequate - and misrepresented. Not only is raising tax revenues during an economic slowdown a violation of even Keynesian principles, which recommend both deficit spending and tax cuts during economic contractions, but if the George W. Bush tax cuts were repealed for all couples with incomes of more than $250,000, it would yield just $700 billion over 10 years, while the entitlement shortfalls will be about $10 trillion. That would include severely limiting mortgage interest deductions and charitable deductions.

It is representative of the dysfunctions that arise when symbolism replaces policy calculation that the president has recently taken to calling for raising the taxes on corporate jets — a provision of the tax code that the Democratic Congress passed in 2009 and the president signed into law — reasonably justified at the time as an effort to protect more than 11,000 workers on corporate-jet construction who were losing their jobs. Now, with unemployment again going up, that same policy, which once symbolized helping workers, is characterized as needed punishment for the plutocrats.

If the federal government really went after all those billionaires the Democrats snarl about and confiscated all the property of the country's 400 billionaires (down to their last set of cuff links and children's baseball mitts) it would yield only $1.3 trillion — about five months of federal spending.
We're headed for a cliff and the only party in Washington that seems to be serious about averting catastrophe are the Republicans. They keep putting forward proposals to at least limit the rate of increase in spending, but the Democrats keep shooting them down. The problem is that we spend far more than we have. Conservatives want to roll back projected spending increases, liberals want to raise taxes, but as Blankley and others have pointed out, even if the government confiscated everything that the "millionaires and billionaires" owned it would only solve the problem for a few months.

Any long term solution to the problem, any restoration of fiscal stability, is going to require that we severely curtail how much we spend and borrow. It'll be painful, to be sure, but if we don't do it our children and grandchildren will find themselves living in a third world country.

Making it in America

Mona Charen tells us a wonderful story with a couple of valuable lessons for a lot of Americans who complain they can't get ahead because the deck is stacked against them or the playing field isn't level. Her column is based on a memoir written by a Chinese immigrant named Ying Ma who overcame enormous hardship and obstacles to graduate from Cornell and then Stanford Law school. Here's Charen's lede:
It's impossible to read Ying Ma's fascinating memoir, "Chinese Girl in the Ghetto," without wincing. She was born in Guangzhou, China's third largest city. Throughout her mostly carefree early childhood years, she kept her family's secret: that her parents repeatedly sought permission to emigrate to the United States.

Her family was not poor, at least not by Chinese standards of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet her daily life would be considered squalid by first world standards. Her family lived in a two-bedroom apartment. She, her brother and her parents shared one bedroom (and two plank beds). Her paternal grandparents and an uncle shared the other. At times, another uncle slept in the living room. They shared the kitchen and bathroom (such as it was) with the family next door. There was no running hot water, and the toilet was a hole in the floor. The elderly had a particularly hard time crouching.

Ying Ma's childhood was nonetheless relatively carefree. She longed for more possessions and eagerly consumed whatever Western products — like nail polish and candy — her relatives brought from nearby Hong Kong. But she excelled in school, was surrounded by friends, was doted upon by her grandfather and looked forward (here's the wince) to a fantastic new life in America.

As a child, Ying could not comprehend the more menacing aspects of totalitarian rule. Her third grade teacher, for example, announced one day that instead of doing math, "You are all going to spend the hour confessing." When the pupils expressed confusion, teacher Fu explained, "The school knows that each of you, or someone you know, has behaved wrongly....Now start writing."

Ying recalls, "I always believed my teachers. Now I was genuinely worried. Did the school already know I had relatives from Hong Kong who brought me toys and clothing from the world of the capitalist running dogs? Did it know I really, really liked American movies...?"
The rest of the narrative is fascinating, especially the glimpse Charen gives us of what Ying had to endure when she arrived in the States as a child unable to speak English. Her experience in U.S. public schools reminds me of the story of the Vietnamese family portrayed in the movie Journey from the Fall.

There are a couple of take-away lessons in Ying Ma's story. One is that the belief, evidently widespread in the minority community, that racism is a sin that only whites are guilty of is risible.

The second, also prevalent among those in the minority community who wish to rationalize their own failure to achieve, is that the reason minorities can't get ahead is because they're so disadvantaged due to poverty and racial discrimination that they simply can't compete with the more fortunate. Ying Ma's accomplishment shows what a cop out this is.

Ying succeeded in the same way anyone can succeed in this country - through hard work, tenacity, good choices, and a determination to rise above her circumstances.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Astronomers have for decades now been searching for evidence of life elsewhere in the galaxy, and for those eager to prove that life is the product of natural processes and that wherever conditions are suitable life will emerge, a lot is at stake. If it can be shown to exist elsewhere in the universe it would, the thinking goes, make it harder to believe that God created life specially here on earth.

Thus news like that contained in this article is decidedly uncongenial to many who would like nothing more than to show that life is not only not exclusive to earth, but is actually common in the galaxy and the universe.

Here's part of it:
Scientists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) work under the assumption that there is, in fact, intelligent life out there to be found. A new analysis may crush their optimism.

To calculate the likelihood that they'll make radio contact with extraterrestrials, SETI scientists use what's known as the Drake Equation. Formulated in the 1960s by Frank Drake of the SETI Institute in California, it approximates the number of radio-transmitting civilizations in our galaxy at any one time by multiplying a string of factors: the number of stars, the fraction that have planets, the fraction of those that are habitable, the probability of life arising on such planets, its likelihood of becoming intelligent and so on.

The values of almost all these factors are highly speculative. Nonetheless, Drake and others have plugged in their best guesses, and estimate that there are about 10,000 tech-savvy civilizations in the galaxy currently sending signals our way — a number that has led some scientists to predict that we'll detect alien signals within two decades.

Their optimism relies on one factor in particular: In the equation, the probability of life arising on suitably habitable planets (ones with water, rocky surfaces and atmospheres) is almost always taken to be 100 percent. As the reasoning goes, the same fundamental laws apply to the entire universe, and because those laws engendered the genesis of life on Earth — and relatively early in its history at that — they must readily spawn life elsewhere, too. As the Russian astrobiologist Andrei Finkelstein put it at a recent SETI press conference, "the genesis of life is as inevitable as the formation of atoms."

But in a new paper published on, astrophysicist David Spiegel at Princeton University and physicist Edwin Turner at the University of Tokyo argue that this thinking is dead wrong. Using a statistical method called Bayesian reasoning, they argue that the life here on Earth could be common, or it could be extremely rare — there's no reason to prefer one conclusion over the other. With their new analysis, Spiegel and Turner say they have erased the one Drake factor scientists felt confident about and replaced it with a question mark.

While it's true that life arose quickly on Earth (within the planet's first few hundred million years), the researchers point out that if it hadn't done so, there wouldn't have been enough time for intelligent life — humans — to have evolved. So, in effect, we're biased. It took at least 3.5 billion years for intelligent life to evolve on Earth, and the only reason we're able to contemplate the likelihood of life today is that its evolution happened to get started early. This requisite good luck is entirely independent of the actual probability of life emerging on a habitable planet.

"Although life began on this planet fairly soon after the Earth became habitable, this fact is consistent with … life being arbitrarily rare in the Universe," the authors state. In the paper, they prove this statement mathematically.
In other words, the position of those who have been saying for fifty years that naturalistic abiogenesis is extraordinarily improbable has been strengthened by the Spiegel and Turner paper, and the argument of those who have argued that life elsewhere in the galaxy is inevitable has been severely weakened. The view that intelligent human life is special and that earth may well be the only place in the universe where intelligent life, or life of any kind, exists seemingly grows more difficult to gainsay with every development of modern science.

All Whites Are Racist

The Blaze featues a video of a Los Angeles man who holds a dim, and uninformed, view of the Tea Party, at whose rally he was protesting:
Consider some of what the first gentleman interviewed in the video said:
“You hate the president because he is black, and you think the white race is superior.”

“As far as the black sell-outs who wish they were white and are part of the Tea Party, these sell-out Negroes have no business speaking for and joining with racists who want to kick them back into slavery.”

“No, they’re not talking, they’re too dumb to talk. All they’re talking about is Tea Party, or white supremacy, blacks should go back to Africa, America was better 400 years ago.”
Perhaps he is unaware that there was no America 400 years ago.
"All the Tea Party cares about is “hating black people.”
What evidence does he have of this? Look at the people in the background of the video. Do they look like the caricature this man has of Tea Party whites?
Racism is “a genetic trait of whites.”

“You can’t find that kind of hatred in anybody but white people."
Maybe he should look in the mirror. He might find that no raced has a monopoly on racism.
“This is hatred. This is racism....And it’s only [something] white people are capable of. Only white people.”
In other words, whites are inherently immoral and thus inherently inferior (morally) to non-whites. Isn't that itself racist a statement?

Forgive me for making a politically incorrect observation, but if this man's cognitive abilities are typical of members of non-white groups in general it's understandable why whites would feel superior.

By the way, what Michele Bachman actually said was that,
Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born in to slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African- American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President.
Whether the statement is true or false it's certainly not an unreasonable claim, and it certainly wasn't racist.

How to Reverse Our Economic Malaise

There's one thing the Obama administration could do, according to Jack Gerard, the head of the American Petroleum Industry, that would almost overnight create hundreds of thousands of jobs, help close the deficit, and make us independent of foreign sources of energy, but Mr. Obama won't do it.

Despite his pledge to cut red tape for job-creating industries, regulations and other delays are holding up billions of dollars in investments and thousands of jobs for oil and gas producers, Mr. Gerard alleges. Why Mr. Obama won't do it certainly is a mystery, at least to people like Mr. Gerard:
“Why would you take away from the very industry that’s creating hundreds of thousands of jobs?” “Why would you punish one of the … industries that is creating more revenue for the federal government today than perhaps any industry? Why would you penalize them?”

Oil and natural gas companies could create millions more jobs if allowed to drill domestically, Mr. Gerard said, adding that it also would help wean Americans away from oppressive foreign governments and companies responsible for high gas prices. Another plus would be the generation of billions of tax dollars.
Overbearing regulators, however, are keeping that from happening, he said.
“We’re still very troubled by not only the number of regulations, but the extreme nature of them,” Mr. Gerard said. “The president called on his people to review the regulatory processes. But we can point to a number of regulatory processes that have been initiated or continue to go forward that discourage the development of oil and natural gas in this country.”

In one instance, three agencies are reviewing the same process, even though it has been safely used for 65 years, he said. The Environmental Protection Agency — despite its early study that found the practice safe — along with the Interior and Energy departments are investigating the process.
Mr. Gerard emphasizes that domestic drilling is extremely safe but that regulations and taxes discourage oil companies from pursuing it:
The industry pays an effective tax rate of about 41 percent and contributes $86 million a day to the Treasury Department, but that hasn’t stopped calls for higher taxes to punish the companies.

[I]f the government opened America to domestic drilling, it would solve the country’s most pressing problems, he argued. The industry, which employs 9.2 million Americans and represents 7.7 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, could create another 190,000 jobs by 2013. By 2025, it could generate another $194 billion in tax revenue. By 2030, American could produce 92 percent of its liquid fuels in the U.S. and Canada.

The Commerce Department reported Tuesday that the U.S. trade deficit is the largest since the height of the recession in October 2008, and it blamed oil imports for the problem. Mr. Gerard said the potential exists to produce another 5 million barrels a day in the U.S. and Canada.

“If we produce more at home, we import less,” he said. “We can really produce the oil and natural gas the country needs for many, many years to come.”
The solution to so many of our problems is right at hand for the president. Unleashing our petroleum industry would put us on the road to economic recovery and restore us to a position of world prominence. As long as Mr. Obama refuses to support domestic oil and gas production nothing he says about his desire to reverse joblessness and get the economy humming again sounds sincere. He has a lot to answer for to the millions of unemployed when putting many of them back to work would be so easy.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Paul Krugman of the New York Times, an economist for whom the U.S. cannot embrace socialism soon enough to suit, is growing disenchanted with Mr. Obama. Unfortunately, his disenchantment arises from reasons opposite those which consternate conservatives about Mr. Obama.

Krugman writes:
I am among those in a state of suppressed rage and panic over the president’s negotiating strategy.

I’d like to believe that it’s all 11-dimensional political chess; but at this point — after the midterm debacle, after the big concession on taxes without even getting a raise in the debt limit — what evidence do we have that Obama knows what he’s doing?

It’s very hard to avoid the impression that three things are going on:

1. Obama really just isn’t that into Democratic priorities. He really doesn’t much care about preserving Medicare for all seniors, keeping Social Security intact, and so on.

2. What he is into is his vision of himself as a figure who can transcend the partisan divide. He imagines that he can be the one who brings about a big transformation that settles disputes for decades to come — and has been unwilling to drop that vision no matter how many times the GOP shows itself utterly uninterested in anything except gaining the upper hand.

3. As a result, he can’t or won’t see what’s obvious to everyone else: that any Grand Bargain will last precisely as long as Democrats control the Senate and the White House, and will be torn up in favor of privatization and big tax cuts for the wealthy as soon as the GOP has the chance.

I hope I’m wrong about all this. But when has Obama given progressives any reason to believe they can trust him?
The President finds himself caught between the rock of conservative opposition and the hard place of outraged progressives who want a Marxist utopia yesterday. I know he enjoys the vacations and the golf and flying around on Air Force One, but one wonders, if he keeps getting the heat that he's beginning to get from a heretofore adoring media, why he would ever want a second term.

America's View of the Bible

A recently released Gallup poll on Americans attitudes toward the Bible offered some interesting, if unsurprising, numbers. Respondents were asked if they thought the Bible was 1) the actual word of God, 2) the inspired word of God, or 3) a collection of myths and fables:
Three in 10 Americans interpret the Bible literally, saying it is the actual word of God. That is similar to what Gallup has measured over the last two decades, but down from the 1970s and 1980s. A 49% plurality of Americans say the Bible is the inspired word of God but that it should not be taken literally, consistently the most common view in Gallup's nearly 40-year history of this question. Another 17% consider the Bible an ancient book of stories recorded by man.
None of these views has changed much since 1977 according to the charts accompanying the article at the link. The high point in the percentage of Americans favoring a literal interpretation of the Bible was 40%, recorded in 1980 and 1984. The low point was 27% in 2001.

The data are charted according to church attendance, educational attainment, income level, whether the respondent was protestant, Catholic, or none, and whether the respondent was Republican or Democrat, politically conservative or liberal.

As one might expect, those with low church attendance, high education, high income, no religious preference, and liberal Democrat tended to view the Bible as a collection of legends and myths. Those with high church attendance, less education, lower income, and who are protestant, conservative Republicans tended to see the Bible as either the actual word of God or as inspired by God. The latter group, however, those who see the Bible as in some sense the word of God, comprises 79% of those polled.

The report concludes with this summary:
In general, the dominant view of Americans is that the Bible is the word of God, be it inspired or actual, as opposed to a collection of stories recorded by man. That is consistent with the findings that the United States is a predominantly Christian nation and that Americans overwhelmingly believe in God.
Be that as it may, perhaps the really important question is how relevant that belief is to how people live their lives.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Philosophical Spanking

Aquinas scholar Edward Feser administers a condign thrashing to those among the New Atheists who misrepresent what is known as the Cosmological argument (CA) for the existence of God and who should know better than to say about it what they do.

The CA comes in many forms but basically it goes something like this:
All contingent beings (i.e. beings which could possibly not exist, like trees and planets) require a necessary being (a being which cannot not exist and which is not contingent upon anything else) as their ultimate cause.
There are some contingent beings.
Thus there must exist a necessary being that is the ultimate cause of their existence.
Feser examines nine common objections to, or misconceptions about, this argument and shows each of them to be ineffectual. It's simply incorrect, for example, to assert, as many do, that the argument rests on the premise that “Everything has a cause,” or to think that “What caused God?” is a serious objection to the argument. Neither do challenges like,“Why assume that the universe had a beginning?” or “No one has given any reason to think that the First Cause is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, etc.” make even a dent in the CA.

It's a very good essay for those interested in philosophy of religion, not just for what Feser says about the CA but also for the quotes he lists from several of his atheist colleagues about the weakness of the case for naturalism.

Here's one well-known example from Quentin Smith who is an atheist philosopher of religion who writes that, "The great majority of naturalist philosophers have an unjustified belief that naturalism is true and an unjustified belief that theism (or supernaturalism) is false.” Their naturalism typically rests on nothing more than an ill-informed “hand waving dismissal of theism” which ignores “the erudite brilliance of theistic philosophizing today."

Smith continues:
If each naturalist who does not specialize in the philosophy of religion (i.e., over ninety-nine percent of naturalists) were locked in a room with theists who do specialize in the philosophy of religion, and if the ensuing debates were refereed by a naturalist who had a specialization in the philosophy of religion, the naturalist referee could at most hope the outcome would be that “no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding the rationality of faith,” although I expect the most probable outcome is that the naturalist, wanting to be a fair and objective referee, would have to conclude that the theists definitely had the upper hand in every single argument or debate.
Due to the typical attitude of the contemporary naturalist...the vast majority of naturalist philosophers have come to hold (since the late 1960s) an unjustified belief in naturalism. Their justifications have been defeated by arguments developed by theistic philosophers, and now naturalist philosophers, for the most part, live in darkness about the justification for naturalism. They may have a true belief in naturalism, but they have no knowledge that naturalism is true since they do not have an undefeated justification for their belief. If naturalism is true, then their belief in naturalism is accidentally true. [“The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo: A Journal of Philosophy (Fall-Winter 2001)]
This and similar quotes are found toward the end of the post on Feser's blog.

I admire Smith's intellectual humility and honesty. There are few things more risible in academia than the pompous pronouncements and condescending derision of atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens who presume to lecture professional philosophers on the validity of arguments for the existence of God. It is as one observer put it, like someone whose only knowledge of biology was a familiarity with the Handbook of British Birds lecturing Dawkins on cell biology.

No Clue in Libya

Joel sends along a piece featured at CBS News by The New Republic's David Reiff which exposes the utter incoherence of Obama's war in Libya.

Writes Reiff:
Less than a month before he left office, outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates estimated the U.S. would spend $750 million on the Libyan operation, while a Department of Defense document published in May revealed the American contribution to Operation Unified Protector involved 75 aircraft (including drones), flying 70 percent of the reconnaissance missions, 75% of refueling missions, and more than one-quarter of all air sorties.

And yet, from March 28, when President Obama announced Operation United Protector’s predecessor, Operation Odyssey Dawn, until now, the fog of incoherent justification for the war has been at least as thick of the proverbial fog of war itself.

Have we gone to war? Well, no, not exactly. We were, Obama said in that first speech, “[committing] resources to stop the killings” of innocent Libyan civilians by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. If the United States has initiated combat operations, this really amounted not to war-fighting, but to taking “all necessary measures to protect the Libyan people” and to “save lives.” And did our actions mean that the goal of the mission was regime change, Iraq- or Afghanistan-style? Not at all, the president insisted.

Taking a predictable swipe at the Bush administration, he said dismissively that we had already gone “down that road in Iraq.” It was an apt metaphor, if, perhaps, unconsciously so, since regime change would have required just that: sending troops down the road, on the ground in Libya. And that, the president argued, would be far more dangerous than what he was ordering the military to do.

This may have sounded like the prudent thing, but what it was — what it is, for nothing has changed at all in this regard over the course of the past four months, even though we have officially recognized the Libyan rebels — is the incoherent, internally self-contradictory thing. We believe Qaddafi must go, and we will not let him make significant advances on the ground, but we refuse to take responsibility for his overthrow. So, to use a military term of art, we have an end state — Qaddafi’s ouster —but we are not willing to do what is needed to attain that goal expeditiously, which, of course, is why there is at least, for the moment, still a stalemate on the ground in Libya.

The stark fact is that the outcome Obama wants and the means he is willing to use to secure it are hopelessly mismatched. And this is leaving aside the fact that this...intervention flies in the face of the sense of the War Powers Act and represents one more ornament in the crown of the imperial executive.
Machiavelli warns in The Prince that if you undertake to depose a ruler you can't just wound him, you must kill him. Our Commander in Chief seems not to have learned the lesson and thus the war drags on and hundreds, probably thousands, of innocent lives continue to be lost and tens of thousands more continue to suffer - mostly because our president seems totally confused about what he's doing.

Machiavelli also cautioned that the worst thing for a Prince is not to be hated but rather to become contemptible, to become a joke among the people he rules as well as among his enemies. This loss of respect creeps subtly over the people when they realize that their Prince has no idea what he's doing.

Our experience in Libya, as with our economy, suggests Mr. Obama has not learned this lesson either.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Shared Sacrifice

A group of religious notables went to the White House recently to urge President Obama to be sure that whatever solution to our deficit crisis is ultimately decided upon it not worsen the situation of the poor. One of the attendees, Jim Wallis, writes about the visit on his blog God's Politics.

Several times in his column Wallis says things like this:
We reminded ourselves that people of faith must evaluate big decisions on issues like a budget by how they impact the most vulnerable.

We urged the president to protect programs for low-income people in the ongoing budget and deficit debate, and in any deal concerning the debt ceiling and default crisis. In an engaging back and forth conversation, the president and faith leaders discussed how we can get our fiscal house in order without doing so on the backs of those who are most vulnerable. We shared the concern that the deficit must be cut in a way that protects the safety net, and struggling families and children, and maintains our national investments in the future of all of us.

[P]rograms serving poor and hungry people should be protected and exempted from any budget cuts.

We agreed that we need both fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice. Those already hurting should not be made to hurt more, and those doing well should do their part in sacrificing.

Our goal is simply this: Whenever a new budget or deficit reduction proposal is put forth, somebody should ask how it will impact the poorest and most vulnerable. This is a biblical question, a fair question, and a question of justice.
Well, yes, but there are other questions of justice which are also "fair and biblical" which need to be answered as well. Until they are statements like Wallis' are pretty much meaningless. Here are some examples:
What exactly is a "fair share" from those who are doing well? What percentage of one's income is a just contribution to the welfare of the poor? Ten percent? Twenty percent? The highest income tax bracket in this country is 35% on those making more than $379,000. Is that a just figure? Should it be higher? If so, why?

How much of the burden should the wealthy be justly expected to bear? The top 1% of income earners (those who earn $410,000 or more) currently pay over 40% of the federal income taxes in this country. Is that a "fair share"? If not, would it be more fair for them to bear a greater percentage of the burden? Why? And what effect would it have on the working poor if small businesses making over $250,000 had their taxes raised?

What, specifically, is our government's obligation to the poor? How much of our income should we be compelled to allocate toward helping them? Should the poor be subsidized to the point where they have as much of the world's goods as everyone else?

Are there really any poor in America, anyway? Should people who have electricity, air conditioning, refrigeration, heated houses, indoor plumbing, cars, televisions, cell phones, computers, and access to food, shelter, schools, medical care etc. be considered poor just because they don't have as many of these things as others do? How much more do we owe them, especially given that poverty in America is largely a function of personal choices that people make (e.g. the choice to drop out of school, to use drugs and alcohol, to not get married before one has children, to not develop a disciplined work ethic, etc.).
These are questions that always seemed to be glossed over when people like Wallis wax eloquent about our moral duties to the poor. Everyone agrees that there should be "shared sacrifice" and that we need to "help the poor", but what exactly these words mean is left very, very fuzzy, and Wallis doesn't do anything, at least in this recent essay, to help clear things up.

Bible Phobia

The phobic reaction to the Bible of those who call themselves scholars is not infrequently a source of genuine amusement. It's understandable, perhaps, that cosmologists or biologists might disregard clues that the Bible gives to where truth may lie in those disciplines, but for historians or archeologists to do so seems quite irrational.

Uncommon Descent directs us to an article in the journal Biblical Archeology in which archeologist Hershel Shanks relates a story about two friends and colleagues that reflects the absurd lengths to which people who reject the religious pronouncements of the Bible will go to demonstrate their utter contempt for any information whatsoever that's found in the book.

An archeologist named Eilat Mazar deduced from the Biblical evidence that the ancient palace of King David might be found by digging at a particular location. This apparently scandalized another colleague named Ronny Reich who accused Mazar of breaching professional ethics for basing her hunch on the Biblical record.

Here's Shanks' account:
One of Eilat’s crimes, according to Ronny, is using the Bible as a guide to where to excavate. Let me unpack this: As Eilat read the Bible, it seemed to indicate just where King David’s palace might be buried in the City of David—at least, it did to her. On this basis, she decided to dig there.

This was highly improper and unscientific, according to Ronny. When he heard that Eilat was using reasoning like this to find King David’s palace, he knew immediately that, proceeding in this way, “she would certainly find that building” (emphasis in original).

According to Ronny, that is the wrong way to proceed. Ronny refers to “minimalists,” who do it properly, “correlat[ing] their teachings first and foremost to the archaeological findings” and only then looking at the Bible. Ronny counts himself as one of these “minimalists,” who permit the use of the Biblical text “only if it is supported by another historical source (for example, Assyrian documents) or clearly supported by appropriate, unambiguously dated archaeological data (for example, an inscription found on a site).”

I would have thought that Eilat would have been praised for proceeding quite scientifically—according to the vaunted scientific method that has produced so much for our civilization. As I understand it, you formulate a hypothesis and then you proceed to test it, either proving or disproving it. Eilat had a hypothesis and she wanted to test it by digging.

But you can’t do that in the case of the Bible, according to Ronny. The reason appears to be that you can’t trust the archaeologist to test his or her hypothesis in an unbiased way once he or she formulates a hypothesis based on the Bible. If the archaeologist proceeds in this way, he or she will “certainly” find what was hypothesized....Ronny, of course, is not the only archaeologist to espouse these views. Indeed, in many archaeological circles, it is the prevailing view. It is OK, they say, to bring in the Bible after you have your archaeological results, but you can’t use the Bible to formulate a hypothesis or decide where to dig.
Why not? If the Bible were to tell us where to look for Mose's stone tablets or Jesus' tomb why would it be professionally offensive to look there without waiting until some other corroborating historical document was found which provided the same information?

Shanks enjoys a little sport with this bizarre principle:
I wonder if this rule would apply to other ancient Near Eastern texts. If, for example, an archaeologist working in ancient Babylon thought a cuneiform text indicated that a city extended beyond the limits hitherto accepted and decided to test this hypothesis by digging outside what was then thought to be the city wall, would anyone question proceeding in this way?

And I wonder what poor Eilat should have done when it occurred to her on reading her Bible that the text seemed to indicate the very spot in this small 12-acre site where David’s palace was located. Drive it from her mind? Perish the thought! Or perhaps she should formulate the hypothesis and then enlist some other archaeologist, untainted by her bias, to excavate the site.
Reich is apparently a materialist who seems nervous about people making archeological predictions based on Biblical data that may turn out to be confirmed. It's better to hold one's colleagues to an asinine rule, even if it means that great discoveries will not be made, than to risk confirming that perhaps the Bible is historically correct. This sort of perverse reasoning is a symptom that the materialist worldview is entering the latter stages of philosophical dementia.

The episode reminds me of a wonderful quote from William James: “A rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth, if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.” Indeed, and irrational rules are one indication that people are struggling to cling to an intellectually unsustainable metaphysics.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Big Society, Just Society

All people of good will, whether liberal or conservative, desire a society which is maximally just. The disputes between liberals and conservatives orbit around how best to achieve that common goal.

My friend Byron forwards an article by Jonathan Chaplin at Cardus which lays out how British conservatives are seeking to maximize social justice by implementing what they call a "Big Society" (as distinct from big government). The Big Society essentially draws upon the Catholic idea of subsidiarity and the Reformed notion of sphere sovereignty:
According to the UK government, there are three parts to the Big Society agenda, all of which will have their parallels in other countries: “community empowerment,” “opening up public services,” and “social action.”

The first of these (“community empowerment”) involves giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power over planning decisions. This amounts to a process of administrative decentralization within the sphere of government (from central to local), and a strengthening of democratic accountability (of local governments to the neighbourhoods they govern).

The second (“opening up public services”) involves an expansion of the existing policy of contracting out selected public services to non-governmental organizations (charities, social enterprises, private companies, and employee-owned cooperatives), where these might deliver a better or more efficient service. Such services will include not only routine tasks such as catering and cleaning but also specialist health services, employment support programmes, or drug rehabilitation centres. This amounts to a process of institutional devolution (from state to “third sector” civil society organisations or to commercial bodies operating in the market).

The third part (“social action”) is defined rather blandly as “encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society,” but takes concrete shape in three specific initiatives: the National Citizenship Service (a youth volunteering scheme), Community Organizers (a training scheme for local activists), and Community First (a fund for community groups in deprived neighbourhoods). This amounts to governmental enabling of voluntary action by individuals and local organizations. This is the smallest plank of the Big Society agenda and, while worthy enough in itself, is not likely to make that much impact.
In the U.S. the ideas comprising the "Big Society" have been talked about for a long time among conservatives. They were implicit in Marvin Olasky's book The Tragedy of American Compassion and in George Bush's abortive attempt to gin up support for community faith-based organizations which seek to deliver goods and services to the poor and the elderly. They were also embedded in his notion of "compassionate conservatism", a fine concept with an unfortunate name, suggesting, falsely, that most conservatism is flinty, niggardly, and hard-hearted.

Anyway, there's not much chance that the "Big Society" will catch on in the U.S. as long as Barack Obama is president and the Democrats control the Senate since the principles above (except the utilization of community organizers) run counter to the Democrat philosophy of a strong central government. If conservatives prevail in 2012, however, the principles discussed in Chaplin's article may have a real opening.

Chaplin says that the "Big Society" means both that people must never be allowed to fall below an agreed threshold of basic human dignity—a dignity shared equally by all and ultimately guaranteed by the state—and that they must never be denied the opportunity to exercise the full range of basic human responsibilities—a calling to which all must be invited in a society big enough for human flourishing.

This is precisely right. The social safety net has for too many become a hammock. One in seven Americans are on food stamps. Almost fifty percent pay no federal income taxes, essentially living off the largesse of the other fifty percent. We must continue to work toward a society where help for those who need it is seen as a kind of temporary loan to be paid back (or forward) and not as a permanent way of life.

After all, once people become permanent dependents of the state we can dismiss high-sounding talk of their dignity. Once an individual has lost his sense of self-reliance he'll have lost along with it whatever sense of dignity he might have had.

No Sacred Right

Victor Stenger is a retired physicist and active atheist who endorses an aggressive assault on all forms of religious faith. In a recent article titled Why Religion Must Be Confronted he argues that too many non-believers treat religious belief with a level of respect that it doesn't deserve and that therefore the public thinks that the case for the existence of God is stronger than it really is.

One sentence in particular sums up Stenger's attitude. He states:
It’s time for secularists to stop sucking up to Christians—and Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and any others who claim they have some sacred right to decide what kind of society the rest of us must live in or what a human being can do with her (or his) own body.
This sentence is interesting for several reasons. First, I know no one, at least among Christians, who claims a "sacred right" to decide the kind of society in which others should live. I doubt that Stenger knows any such people either. I do know people who believe that in a democracy everyone gets a vote and that if you're in the majority you do get to decide, within the constraints of the Constitution, what will be acceptable and what won't.

Stenger apparently thinks that Christians should not have a vote and that the only people who should are those who agree with him. He's tacitly arguing that Christians have no right to impose their moral views on society, but he's also deviously trying to impose on us his moral views by delegitimizing the opposition.

The second reason Stenger's claim is interesting is that if he's right and atheism is true then the whole question of "rights" is moot. A person has the right to do whatever he has the power - legal, political, or otherwise - to do. It's simply nonsensical for an atheist to complain that Christians are claiming a right they don't really have. On atheism, might makes right. If someone has the power to impose his will on others, either through fiat or the democratic process, then there's no moral authority that forbids him and no reason, other than perhaps prudential reasons, why he shouldn't do it.

The irony people like Stenger fail to perceive is that the only way it can be true that there's no right to impose one's morality on others is if there's a transcendent, personal, moral authority who prohibits such coercion. Stenger discounts the existence of such an authority and so should accept, if he's going to be consistent, that those insufferable, deluded believers do indeed have a "right" to do whatever they have the power to do.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Prize

Harry Lonsdale is an atheist activist and a very wealthy man. So wealthy that he has offered a prize of $50,000 to anyone who can come up with a solution to the problems inherent in naturalistic abiogenesis (i.e. the origin of life from non-life through purely natural means).

The offer is revealing for a couple of reasons. First, it spotlights the fact that there is at the moment no plausible explanation as to how living things could have arisen apart from some sort of intelligent guidance. Second, it spotlights the desperation that this lack of an explanation for something so fundamental to a naturalistic worldview has induced among atheists.

Ever since Darwin naturalists have assured us that in time a solution will be discovered to the problem of how life originated, but every attempt to solve the riddle has come to naught. Worse, from their point of view, discoveries in molecular biology keep making the problem more and more intractable.

As long as the cell was thought to be a tiny glob of jelly there was every reason to be confident that chemistry would yield an answer to the problem of how the first glob arose. But now the cell is seen as more like a computer complete with a very sophisticated operating system, and a materialistic explanation for how such a thing could have arisen by chance and chemistry seems more remote than ever.

Add to that the problem that the cell is filled with specified complex information and that all of our experience has been that such information is invariably the product of a mind and never the product of chance, and you can understand why rich atheists are willing to part with $50,000 to try to motivate someone, anyone, to proffer a plausible hypothesis.

Mr. Lonsdale explains:
My goal in supporting Origin of Life research is to help scientists solve one of the great remaining problems in biology. A solution will give every science teacher in the world, from high school to college, a fundamental understanding of how life probably began on the Earth. In time, the world will learn that the laws of chemistry and physics, and the principle of evolution by natural selection, are sufficient to explain life’s origin.
I'm an expert on neither origin of life science nor finances, but I nevertheless have good news and bad news for Mr. Lonsdale. The bad news is that it's highly unlikely that anyone will qualify for his prize. The good news is that means his money is safe.

HT: Telic Thoughts

Skin to Brain in One Step

Developments in the field of tissue regeneration are proceeding apace. Now comes word of yet another major advance in the use of skin cells to develop neural tissue:
Skin cells from a 30-year-old woman have been turned directly into mature nerve cells similar to those found in the brain using a procedure that promises to revolutionise the emerging field of regenerative medicine.

Scientists said they were astonished to discover that they could convert a person's skin tissue into functioning nerve cells – bypassing an intermediate stem-cell stage – by the relatively simple procedure of adding a few short strands of RNA, a genetic molecule similar to DNA.

The breakthrough could soon lead to the generation of different types of human brain cells in a test tube which could be used to study a range of neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.
It seems that so much of the progress we read about in this field is based on the use of somatic cells rather than embryonic stem cells. This is wonderful news in that it renders moot the ethical controversy over the killing of human embryos to harvest their stem cells for research.

The Thrill Is Gone

Naomie Emery declares that our 70 year fling with welfare statism is over. It doesn't work, and the evidence is there for all to see. Here's the heart of her brief:
In the United States, the states patterned most on the Old Europe model—those with high taxes, high spending, and strong public unions—suffered the same plight as Europe, while those with free-market models did not. “The eight states with no state income tax grew 18 percent in the past decade,” Michael Barone tells us. “The other states grew just 8 percent.”

The 22 states with right-to-work laws grew 15 percent in the past decade, the 28 others grew 6 percent. The 16 states that don’t require collective bargaining with state employees grew 15 percent, the others grew 7 percent. The most rapid growth—21 percent—was in the Rocky Mountain states and Texas, which have low taxes, weak unions, and light regulation.

Among the states with high taxes, strong unions, and heavy public employee pension burdens are those in the Rust Belt around the Great Lakes. As Matt Continetti writes in the Washington Post, “Five of the eight states that border the Great Lakes now have Republican governors working to limit union power,” while one Democrat, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, son of a much revered liberal icon, has been praised by New Jersey’s Chris Christie as his cost-cutting twin. And to everyone’s shock, the Democratic legislature in Massachusetts has voted to rein in unions, too.

“For decades, the Great Lakes states have subscribed to a high-tax, high-spend, closed-shop political model,” explains Continetti. “That hasn’t worked out.” That didn’t work out in Europe (whose welfare states the American left has always looked up to); that didn’t work out in American states such as California and Michigan; that didn’t work out in Detroit, which is becoming a wasteland in spite of massive infusions of government money, and that didn’t work out for General Motors, which turned in time into a retirement plan with a car company attached to it, which priced itself out of the general market while foreign car companies built factories in right-to-work states in the South, employed hundreds of thousands of people, and took its share of the market away.

It probably won’t work out in Illinois, either, where the Democratic governor passed a massive tax increase, and the Republican governors of neighboring states invited Illinois businessmen to relocate there.
Of course, this overwhelming evidence of failure will be blithely ignored by true believers like Mr. Obama who insist, despite the contrary record provided by human experience, that if we just raise taxes on the rich high enough the rest of us can all have a good life at their expense.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Six in Ten Palestinians

When people wonder who it is that stands in the way of peace in the Middle East we might point to a recent poll that shows that 60% of Palestinians reject a two state solution:
Only one in three Palestinians (34 percent) accepts two states for two peoples as the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to an intensive, face-to-face survey in Arabic of 1,010 Palestinian adults in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip completed this week by American pollster Stanley Greenberg.

Respondents were asked about US President Barack Obama’s statement that “there should be two states: Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people and Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people.”

Just 34% said they accepted that concept, while 61% rejected it.

Sixty-six percent said the Palestinians’ real goal should be to start with a two-state solution but then move to it all being one Palestinian state.

Asked about the fate of Jerusalem, 92% said it should be the capital of Palestine, 1% said the capital of Israel, 3% the capital of both, and 4% a neutral international city.

Seventy-two percent backed denying the thousands of years of Jewish history in Jerusalem, 62% supported kidnapping IDF soldiers and holding them hostage, and 53% were in favor or teaching songs about hating Jews in Palestinian schools.

When given a quote from the Hamas Charter about the need for battalions from the Arab and Islamic world to defeat the Jews, 80% agreed. Seventy-three percent agreed with a quote from the charter (and a hadith, or tradition ascribed to the prophet Muhammad) about the need to kill Jews hiding behind stones and trees.
These results will unfortunately leave much of world opinion unmoved. It's an odd thing about the Left that they always seem to assume that where there's conflict the fault must lie with the party most closely allied with the U.S.

Or they see the conflict through the lens of Marxism: The Palestinians live in squalor, the thinking goes, and the Israelis are relatively wealthy, so the Palestinian plight must be caused by Israeli oppression, exploitation and intransigence. The problem would go away if the Israelis would simply stop defending themselves and/or just went away themselves, and then there'd be peace in the region.

According to the Left, since the Israelis unreasonably refuse to do the one thing that would bring peace, i.e. commit suicide, Palestinian anger and violence is manifestly the Jews' fault. QED.

The Other Hockey Stick

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein posts a graph that illustrates how the national debt has exploded in the last several years and impresses upon us the imminent disaster that's looming ahead.

Klein notes that the colors showing control of the House of Representatives seem to be backwards, but that doesn't diminish the frightening significance of the data.

One wonders why those who oppose spending cuts in Washington aren't terrified out of their wits by this chart. After all, a similar "hockey stick" pattern of global temperatures has precipitated near panic and cries among liberals to take immediate remedial action to save us from impending disaster, so why doesn't this?

If Democrats are prepared to raise gas prices to discourage carbon consumption because they fear carbon dioxide is causing global temperatures to rise out of control - a fear that may well be unfounded - why are they not atremble over the data depicted in this graph? The threat it poses to our national survival is far more obvious and urgent than is the data on global warming.

Why are Democrats not demanding that we cut government programs immediately and severely in order to rein in spending? Why does President Obama insist on a carbon cap but not a cap on our bloated budget? Why does he allow fear of global warming and runaway greenhouse gasses keep us from drilling for American oil, but seems to have no qualms at all about the runaway spending that's leading us to the brink of a global economic collapse that could visit enormous calamity upon the world and far sooner than would climate change?

Thanks to Bill for passing along the link.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Call His Bluff

Charles Krauthammer puts the dart in the small red circle in his recent column in the Washington Post on President Obama's insincerity in the debt ceiling negotiations. Krauthammer begins with this:
President Obama is demanding a big long-term budget deal. He won’t sign anything less, he warns, asking, “If not now, when?” How about last December, when he ignored his own debt commission’s recommendations? How about February, when he presented a budget that increases debt by $10 trillion over the next decade? How about April, when he sought a debt-ceiling increase with zero debt reduction attached?

All of a sudden he’s a born-again budget balancer prepared to bravely take on his own party by making deep cuts in entitlements. Really? Name one. He’s been saying forever that he’s prepared to discuss, engage, converse about entitlement cuts. But never once has he publicly proposed a single structural change to any entitlement. Hasn’t the White House leaked that he’s prepared to raise the Medicare age or change the cost-of-living calculation?

Anonymous talk is cheap. Leaks are designed to manipulate. Offers are floated and disappear.

Say it, Mr. President. Give us one single structural change in entitlements. In public.
The rest of the column is very much worth reading.

Continually raising the debt ceiling is foolish. It just puts us deeper in debt and ties a heavy weight around our children's necks as they embark on their swim across the lake of life. The reason the debt ceiling needs to be raised is because we've spent much more than we have. We're like an unemployed man maxing out his credit cards and asking for his credit limit to be raised.

Given these realities the obvious course of action is to tear up the credit cards and sharply reduce our spending, which is what the Republicans want to do, but which the president refuses to do, at least in any meaningful way.

Instead, his solution is to require the top 5% of wage earners, people and small businesses who are already bearing about 55% of the federal income tax burden in this country, to pay even more.

The Republicans lack the power to impose the common sense solution on our spending addiction, but Krauthammer offers some suggestions:
It's time to call Obama’s bluff.

The Republican House should immediately pass a short-term debt-ceiling hike of $500 billion containing $500 billion in budget cuts. That would give us about five months to work on something larger.

The fat-cat tax breaks (those corporate jets) that Obama’s talking points endlessly recycle? Republicans should call for urgent negotiations on tax reform along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles commission that, in one option, strips out annually $1.1 trillion of deductions, credits and loopholes while lowering tax rates across the board to a top rate of 23 percent. The president says he wants tax reform, doesn’t he? Well, Mr. President, here are five months to do so.

Will the Democratic Senate or the Democratic president refuse this offer and allow the country to default — with all the cataclysmic consequences that the Democrats have been warning about for months — because Obama insists on a deal that is 10 months and seven days longer?

That’s indefensible and transparently self-serving. Dare the president to make that case. Dare him to veto — or the Democratic Senate to block — a short-term debt-limit increase.
What do the Republicans have to lose?

Primer on Fine-Tuning

Readers who've heard of the argument for an intelligent designer based on the fine-tuning of the universe, but aren't sure what, exactly, the argument is can find an excellent summary in this excerpt from the film Privileged Planet:
Dozens of these parameters and constants are set to unimaginably precise values. In some cases the tolerance for error is as little as one part in 10^100. Deviation of just that much from the actual value would result in either no universe at all or a universe unfit for life.

When one considers that there are only 10^80 atoms in the entire universe the unimaginable exactitude with which it is put together is breathtaking.

Slaughtering Wildlife with Green Energy

Here's a good illustration of the law of unintended consequences:
Bats are something of a one-species stimulus program for farmers, every year gobbling up millions of bugs that could ruin a harvest. But the same biology that allows the winged creatures to sweep the night sky for fine dining also has made them susceptible to one of Pennsylvania's fastest-growing energy tools.

The 420 wind turbines now in use across Pennsylvania killed more than 10,000 bats last year -- mostly in the late summer months, according to the state Game Commission. That's an average of 25 bats per turbine per year, and the Nature Conservancy predicts as many as 2,900 turbines will be set up across the state by 2030.

Bats are nature's pesticide, consuming as many as 500 insects in one hour, or nearly 3,000 insects in one night, said Miguel Saviroff, the agricultural financial manager at the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Somerset County.

"A colony of just 100 little brown bats may consume a quarter of a million mosquitoes and other small insects in a night," he said. "That benefits neighbors and reduces the insect problem with crops."

If one turbine kills 25 bats in a year, that means one turbine accounted for about 17 million uneaten bugs in 2010.

Bats save farmers a lot of money: About $74 per acre, according to an April report in Science magazine that calculated the economic value of bats on a county-by-county basis.

In Allegheny County, bats save farmers an estimated $642,986 in a year. That's nothing compared with more agricultural counties in the region such as Somerset ($6.7 million saved), Washington ($5.5 million) or Westmoreland ($6.1 million).

Lancaster County? You owe bats $22 million.

It's not just bats that are dying around wind turbines. An estimated 1,680 birds were killed by turbines last year, according to the state Game Commission report.

The disparity in mortality stems from biology. Birds typically crash into the blade and die from blunt force trauma, while bats suffer from a condition called barotrauma. It's the bat equivalent of the "bends" that scuba divers can suffer if they surface too quickly.

The rapid drop in air pressure around the blades causes the bats' lungs to burst, and they collapse with no ostensible lacerations or scars on the body.
I'll bet the bats and birds are happy to know that green energy sources are so much more earth-friendly than those awful fossil fuels.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Congressional Buffoonery

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D, TX) continues the tradition of congressional buffoonery, a tradition to which she has herself generously contributed over the years, claiming on the House floor that opposition to President Obama's position on the debt ceiling issue is racist:
Only this president has been treated disrespectfully, according to Ms Lee. Apparently she has forgotten how the Democrats and the media treated Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Ms Lee's is another example of the following syllogism which circulates among Mr. Obama's supporters:

Mr. Obama is black
Mr. Obama is opposed by Republicans
Therefore, Republicans oppose Mr. Obama because he is black
I'm loath to pose the question for fear that it would be deemed either racist or sexist, or both, in Ms Lee's "community", but how did someone of her particular intellectual skill set ever make it to the House of Representatives?

Actually the question isn't racist because I wonder the same thing about Nancy Pelosi (D, CA):
Does she even know the story of Job? Is she not embarrassed to claim that Mr. Obama's situation with an antagonistic congress is far worse than that of a man who lost everything he owned, including his family?

Nor is it sexist to question Ms Lee's intellectual gifts because I wonder the same thing about Congressman Hank Johnson(D,GA) who's concerned that too many Marines on Guam may cause it to capsize:
These are the people who are, as you read this, deciding the fate of our nation. Sleep tight.

Push/Pull Immigration

Damien Cave has a very interesting article in the New York Times which states that illegal immigration from Mexico has slowed to a trickle and for some surprising reasons. He explains that immigration has always been a "push/pull" phenomenon - conditions in Mexico push people out while conditions in the U.S. pull them in. Neither of those forces is as strong today as they were just five years ago.

Here's Cave:
The extraordinary Mexican migration that delivered millions of illegal immigrants to the United States over the past 30 years has sputtered to a trickle, and research points to a surprising cause: unheralded changes in Mexico that have made staying home more attractive.

A growing body of evidence suggests that a mix of developments — expanding economic and educational opportunities, rising border crime and shrinking families — are suppressing illegal traffic as much as economic slowdowns or immigrant crackdowns in the United States.

American census figures analyzed by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center also show that the illegal Mexican population in the United States has shrunk and that fewer than 100,000 illegal border-crossers and visa-violators from Mexico settled in the United States in 2010, down from about 525,000 annually from 2000 to 2004. Although some advocates for more limited immigration argue that the Pew studies offer estimates that do not include short-term migrants, most experts agree that far fewer illegal immigrants have been arriving in recent years.

The question is why. Experts and American politicians from both parties have generally looked inward, arguing about the success or failure of the buildup of border enforcement and tougher laws limiting illegal immigrants’ rights — like those recently passed in Alabama and Arizona. Deportations have reached record highs as total border apprehensions and apprehensions of Mexicans have fallen by more than 70 percent since 2000.

But Mexican immigration has always been defined by both the push (from Mexico) and the pull (of the United States). The decision to leave home involves a comparison, a wrenching cost-benefit analysis, and just as a Mexican baby boom and economic crises kicked off the emigration waves in the 1980s and ’90s, research now shows that the easing of demographic and economic pressures is helping keep departures in check.
This could all change very quickly, of course, if conditions both there and here were reversed. Cave calls one hundred thousand illegals a year "a trickle" but it's still a substantial figure.

That's why the need to secure the border and to address the problem of what to do with illegal immigrants who are already here remains pressing.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Gold Rush

World economic uncertainty is fueling a flight to gold that shows every sign, experts say, of accelerating. My brother Bill sends along a column by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at the British Telegraph which is full of foreboding. Here are a couple of salient lines from the column:
"It is very scary: the flight to gold is accelerating at a faster and faster speed," said Peter Hambro, chairman of Britain's biggest pure gold listing Petropavlovsk.

"One of the big US banks texted me today to say that if QE3 actually happens, we could see gold at $5,000 and silver at $1,000. I feel terribly sorry for anybody on fixed incomes tied to a fiat currency because they are not going to be able to buy things with that paper money."
As a point of reference gold is presently selling for just shy of $1600 an ounce and silver is at about $39 an ounce.

QE3 would be the third round of an infusion of dollars (actually electronic credits) into the money supply to buy government debt which we're going to have more of because the president and his party refuse to stop spending money we don't have. The more money the Fed pumps into the economy the less it'll be worth and the more people will look to convert their rapidly depreciating dollars into something that will hold its value.

Evans-Pritchard leaves us with this observation:
Step by step, the world is edging towards a revived Gold Standard as it becomes clearer that Japan and the West have reached debt saturation. World Bank chief Robert Zoellick said it was time to "consider employing gold as an international reference point." The Swiss parliament is to hold hearings on a parallel "Gold Franc". Utah has recognised gold as legal tender for tax payments.
This is an indication that people around the world are losing confidence in the American government's willingness and ability to properly manage its economy. The rush to gold means a loss of faith in the dollar and there's no other currency right now to take its place.

Drone War

One of the frequent objections to the use of predator drones and their armaments to dispatch terrorists in Pakistan is that all we're doing is alienating the local tribesmen and thus creating more recruits for the terrorists. Strategy Page, however, offers a very different perspective on this:
While the Islamic terrorist groups in Pakistan's tribal territories are not happy with the six year CIA decapitation (kill the leaders) campaign, many of the local tribesmen are. Attacked by Predator and Reaper UAVs, armed with missiles, the terrorists (al Qaeda, Taliban and the Haqqani Network) have lost over 40 senior leaders in the last six years, most of them in the last three years. These losses are not only bad for morale at the top, but are seriously disrupting terrorist activities.

The locals love this, because the Islamic radicals have been nothing but trouble. For one thing, the radicals come across as a bunch of self-righteous bullies, and use their weapons to intimidate, or kill, anyone who crosses them. This includes coercing families to provide daughters to be wives of bachelor terrorists.

Then there is the terrorist tactic of using civilians as human shields for protection from the missile attacks. Here's where the CIA won hearts and minds, by scrupulously avoiding casualties among the innocent tribesmen. Moreover, the tribes eventually drew the line on human shields, bringing out their own guns and forcing the Islamic radicals to back off on hostages.

The locals also abandoned their compounds when the terrorists came by to spend the night. If the CIA hit the compound (after noting how the owners fled), the tribesmen blamed the Islamic radicals, not the CIA, for the damage.

The Islamic radicals know that the tribesmen have been cheering, not so much for the CIA, as against the radicals, but don't make an issue of it. On the surface, everyone is a good Moslem. But the local Moslems make no secret of wishing that the super-Moslems would go somewhere else.

The Afghan Taliban have created the same animosities, and American troops have long noted the pleas from local civilians to kill the local Taliban. This was often a matter of life and death for these civilians, because the Taliban would, if they were still alive after foreign troops left the area, come back and kill any civilians they believed had helped the foreign soldiers.
As with the war against al Qaeda in Iraq everyone benefits when one of these brutal thugs is eliminated and even though indigenous Muslims may prefer that it not be infidels to whom they should be grateful, evidently they're still glad that the infidels are doing it.

Wimpy's Bargain

Karl Rove has written a very helpful piece on the debt ceiling crisis for the Wall Street Journal. He clears away a lot of the fog about what exactly would happen if the situation remains unresolved come August 2nd:
President Barack Obama and Congress face a mess if the federal government hits the debt ceiling Aug. 2. The Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, projects that the government will receive $172 billion in revenues between Aug. 3 and Aug. 31, but it is on the hook to spend $306 billion, leaving a shortfall of $134 billion.

On Tuesday, Mr. Obama told Scott Pelley of CBS News that "there may simply not be the money in the coffers" to issue Social Security, veterans and disability checks after Aug. 3.

Not so. The $172 billion in revenues collected over the rest of the month can pay the $29 billion interest charges on the national debt, Social Security benefits ($49 billion), Medicaid and Medicare ($50 billion), active duty military pay ($2.9 billion), Department of Defense vendors ($31.7 billion), IRS refunds ($3.9 billion), and about a quarter of the $12.8 billion in unemployment checks due that month.

There will, however, be no cash for highway construction, no checks for federal workers or retirees, no agriculture payments, no open national parks. Interest rates are also likely to rise if U.S. debt is downgraded, adding massively to the deficit and further damaging the economy. This would be a disaster with no political winners.
So what's preventing our leaders from arriving at a solution? The Republicans want spending cuts in return for raising the debt ceiling. The Democrats want tax increases in return for agreeing to spending cuts:
The president wants a $2.4 trillion debt-ceiling increase to get him past next year's election—and the deal he's proposing is based on promised future cuts paired with substantial tax increases on households earning more than $250,000 a year.
This means that it's not just millionaires and billionaires whose taxes would rise, but thousands of small businesses working on tight margins would have their costs go up as well. This would inevitably lead to higher unemployment and more business failures. This the Republican negotiators refuse to agree to, and even though Mr. Obama is willing to agree to spending cuts in exchange for his tax increase there's another problem:
[T]he $4 trillion in deficit reduction that Mr. Obama talks about is shy on details. No one who's attended his frequent negotiating sessions knows what his proposal really is.

The president has made a bipartisan agreement even more difficult by declaring certain spending off-limits to cuts. Mr. Obama's "untouchable" list includes his $1 trillion health-care reform, $128 billion in unspent stimulus funds, education and training outlays, his $53 billion high-speed rail proposal, spending on "green" jobs and student loans, and virtually any structural changes to entitlements except further squeezing payments to doctors, hospitals and health-care professionals.

Republicans have wisely declined. Demanding the GOP vote for immediate tax increases that would be offset by vague, future tax cuts conjures up images of Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football. The tax increases would be real—the future tax rate cuts would be imaginary.
The Democrats complain that the Republicans are not willing to compromise by raising taxes, but why should they? Tax increases would only worsen the economy and it's profligate spending that got us into the mess in the first place. Why, then should we not just cut spending?

The president offers what might be called the Wimpy (of the old Popeye cartoons) bargain - he'll gladly pay us on Tuesday (spending cuts) for a hamburger (tax increases) today, but giving Mr. Obama the hamburger just fattens government even more and there's no guarantee that Tuesday will ever come. Some deal.