September 24, 2011

The Terror of Dominionism

One of the reasons I’m frightened by the religious right stems from the emergence of Dominionism.  Until recently, Dominionist views were considered elements of fanatical fringe groups, but today, with two republican presidential candidates professing links to such organizations, it’s clear that the influence of this philosophy is expanding.  This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the mainstream media, which has begun to write extensively on the topic.

Dominionism takes its mandate from Genesis 1:28, in which God tells Adam and Eve to:

Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.  

Devoted Dominionists, in the words of Time Magazine’s Jon Meacham,

“…believe it their obligation to control (the hard-line term) or influence (the softer version) what are called the ‘seven mountains’ of business, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family and religion.  The more extreme elements of this movement seek conquest and theocracy.  Others insist they want only to transform the culture into something more in keeping with God’s kingdom of justice and mercy.”

There is a lot to be frightened by this.  If not countered, Dominionism’s desire to transform—which extends even into realms of education and family life—would result in a kind of religious policing typical of some Islamic countries.  But ignoring this obvious incompatibility with the First Amendment’s prohibition on the free exercise of religion (or no religion), an equally disturbing problem is that Dominionism’s version of justice and mercy is based upon the Mosaic Law, rather than Christ’s teachings. 

Influenced by the radical Christian Reconstructionism espoused by RJ Rushdoony, Dominionists seek to replace our legal system with the 613 strictures of Leviticus, including its call for the death penalty to homosexuals.  Its purists also defend slavery.  In reference to the Old Testament’s acceptance of this immoral practice, Rushdoony writes in his Institutes of Biblical Law, “The law here is humane and also unsentimental.  It recognizes that some people are by nature slaves and will always be so.”  He goes on to say, “God’s laws concerning slavery provided parameters for treatment of slaves, which were for the benefit of all involved.”

Ignoring the weighty issues of Dominionism’s single-minded desire for control, my greatest concern is that it completely misconstrues what Christ attempted to accomplish during his ministry, which was to overturn much of the Mosaic Law.  Leviticus was meant to influence its followers to love God and to love God’s children, but it fails in this regard.  Instead, its adherents fear God as vengeful and jealous and, in lieu of brotherly love, it focuses on the intricacies of a law that has no soul or charity.  That’s why, near the end of His ministry—when His rebuke was most strident—Christ loosed His indignation against scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! likening them to painted sepulchers that were decorous on the outside, but full of filth and decay. 

September 21, 2011

Class Warfare

To use a football metaphor, conservatives must have called a huddle and settled on a play because they’re all speaking from the same game plan.  In response to President Obama’s proposed tax policy, they say it would provoke class warfare.

Do I understand the implication correctly?  Are they saying that the President’s proposal, which would require millionaires to pay no less than the same tax rate paid by middle-class Americans, would cause serious—possibly even violent—division among us?  If that’s the message, it’s just another example of language rules that disparage by playing into a strong prevailing emotion.  Don’t just say your opponent has misconstrued the facts.  Say he lied, or better yet, say he committed a blood libel! 

The idea that class warfare will result from requiring rich American’s to forgo the myriad tax deductions of which they can avail themselves is laughable.  If anything, it was the Bush-era tax cuts that have caused the kind of class division that has resulted in economic collapse or revolution every time it has occurred in the past.  President Obama said his policy was based upon “math.”  He could also have said it was the fair thing to do.  But I’ll repeat something I’ve said before.  If we’re truly a Christian nation, we’ll seek ways to share in each other’s burdens and the fact is too many corporations and billionaires have been getting off light for too many years.

Conservatives will say tax increases result in job losses.  If that’s true, why did Clinton create an unprecedented 25 million jobs while raising taxes?  And why did Bush create no more than 3 million jobs—the fewest for a two-term president since records were kept—while lowering taxes?  Today, corporations and the rich have pocketed increasingly high after-tax incomes, due partly to our country’s economic policies over the last decade.  According to a report issued by Forbes, the 400 wealthiest Americans—who, by the way, have a combined net worth of $1.53 trillion—saw their personal wealth rise by 12% in 2010.  This happened while the rest of the nation suffered from declining home prices and crushing unemployment.  

The truth is, the rich and their corporate interests are not employing new workers and they will do so only when consumer demand increases, which won’t happen if middle-class Americans are forced to cover a disproportionately high percentage of the national debt.  But that’s only economics.  The bigger issue as far as I’m concerned is this: If you’re a rich Christian, you’ll vote for the privilege of contributing an equitable share toward funding the nation’s financial burden and you’ll demand the money be used for something greater than the building of WMDs.  You’ll hope to achieve our nation’s most noble desires—to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and administer to the sick.  And you’ll do it, in part, because that’s what Jesus has asked of us. 

September 15, 2011

Our Civil Rights

Here’s a great idea.  Let’s agree that only people who’ve actually read the Constitution be allowed to use the phrase, “my Constitutional rights.”  And while we’re at it, let’s subject the expression “the intent of the founding fathers,” to the same restriction.  The Constitution is, in fact, a lot like the Bible—treasured and often referenced, but universally misunderstood and almost never read.  (Both Bachmann and Boehner have quoted from the Declaration of Independence saying it came from the Constitution).  It’s also similar to the Bible in that many people believe it’s an inspired document that God had a role in developing.  That’s fine, but what distresses me is that nearly everyone thinks the Constitution’s intent is clear, when in fact, just like the Bible, it’s subject to a range of interpretations. 

For example, the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution—part of what we refer to as the Bill of Rights—reads as follows:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Short isn’t it?  That’s the whole enchilada and it’s not particularly well written, either.  In combination, these 27 words are often referred to as the right to bear arms, but it’s, at once, both more and less than that.  As is evident from the text, it’s meant to allow local agencies to hire and maintain police forces.  In this way, the amendment was instituted to allow groups of people to use weapons to protect themselves against enemies.  What enemies?  Recall that the founding fathers had just experienced a revolution and were as concerned with the tyranny of a federal government gone astray than with the acts of common criminals and thugs.  And they wanted citizens to have a way to counteract all possible dangers.

That’s a notion that the NRA and fringe survivalists remind us of continually, however, one aspect of the gun rights conversation that never gets mentioned is the question of what constitutes a protective counterbalance to a tyrannical regime?  In a world where the federal government controls an arsenal of nuclear arms, is it constitutional to allow a state—Texas, for example—to develop a hydrogen bomb to counter an effort to prevent it from seceding?  (Now, that’s something for Rick Perry to ponder).

On the other hand, since the Amendment has been defined as a right of individuals—and not just local governments—to bear arms, we don’t have to be talking about the right of a state.  Can a group of polygamists, therefore, buy a black market A-bomb in order to protect its way of life?  I’m sure very few of us would agree to either of these scenarios, however, they both could be seen as consistent with the handful of words that make up the amendment.

It sounds awfully patriotic to talk of God-given rights under the Constitution, but any single definition of what the Constitution means is open to debate.   In the end, an interpretation that might protect one group of people could be devastating to another. 

September 10, 2011

The Banality of Evil

I have a book that’s in perfect condition, which is to say it’s tattered and dog eared with many notes in the margins and underlined passages.  Its title is Eichmann in Jerusalem and aside from the New Testament, it has influenced me more than any other book.

It covers, however, the grim topic of the holocaust and is therefore not an easy read.  The author, Hannah Arendt, was a brilliant thinker who tried to answer in its 300, or so, pages the question: How did a relatively well educated and informed German public allow six million of its neighbors to be murdered?  I won’t try to summarize her conclusions, but they are at once insightful and frightening.

The book, of course, is about Adolf Eichmann, who was the man in charge of transporting Jews to their deaths during World War II.  After his kidnapping by Israeli commandos, Eichmann was taken from his hiding place in Argentina and put on trial in Jerusalem.  The hearing was meant to showcase to the world the sufferings of the Jews and the demonic nature of the people who’d caused it.  In the end, however, Eichmann was seen as a pathetic figure, who was only trying to do his job.  In short, he performed a heinous work without ever considering its underlying immorality.  This led Arendt to coin the phrase the banality of evil, as if evil could be so commonplace that it’s unremarkable.  She writes: 

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.  From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied—as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels—that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani, commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.

One of the implications of Arendt’s conclusions is that when people are made to think they’re alone in their beliefs, they will adopt what appears to be the prevailing worldview.  People will, in the sad but accurate parlance of today’s youth, go with the flow.  But this can also work in the reverse.  In a few countries—Denmark, for instance—Nazis who were sent to fulfill the terms of the Final Solution changed their views in the face of majority opposition.  In other words, they not only defied orders, but recognized and admitted to the depravity of their goal. 

It’s essential, therefore, that we refuse to go with the flow and hold dear to personal philosophies that are consistent with moral axioms, but let’s not take the Bible in its entirety as a safe standard.  Quite the contrary, the Bible is unreliable as a definition of moral behavior, because it contains both Mosaic and Christian values that are inconsistent in their descriptions of what is Godly.  In some cases the Bible tells us that Godliness incorporates vengeance and anger.  In other passages it requires unconditional forgiveness.  My suggestion, therefore, is to hold Christ’s great commandments as inviolate—no matter what the Bible might say otherwise—and above all else love our neigbors. 

How Christians can do so and still fight against universal healthcare is beyond any logic that I can understand.  Similarly, I don’t see how we can love our neighbors and not support gay men and women in their efforts to express fidelity in marriage.  In this way, by refusing to hold Christ’s great commandments as inviolate, we are as shifting as the tide.  After all, there is nothing more frightening than a human being with evil intent, unless it’s the mass of humanity with no intent at all. 

September 9, 2011

The Fallacy of $2 Gas

A republican candidate for president recently added to an already confusing political platform the promise that, if elected, he/she would keep gas prices at $2 a gallon.  (I won't mention who made the statement since it would seem like I'm picking on a single individual too much).  It's important, however, to understand the implications of putting such a measure into practice.

If you've ever taken an introductory macroeconomics class, you'll know what I'm about to say.  The fact, however, that someone seeking the highest office in the country doesn't understand the implications of his/her campaign promises is disheartening.

The first point to be made is about the nature of demand as it relates to changes in price.  We as consumers—when all other features of a product are held constant—demand (or purchase) more of the product as its price falls.  The opposite, of course, is true as well: We restrict our purchases as prices rise.  This, I realize, is intuitive, especially to anyone who likes to shop and get a good deal. 

The nature of supply is equally apparent.  As prices rise for a given product, producers want to make and sell more of it as it becomes more profitable to do so.  In contrast, as prices fall, production declines.  This is especially true of oil and other commodities.  In fact, provable oil reserves are generally measured relative to their costs of production.  In other words, as the price of oil rises, the calculation of provable oil reserves increase, because now there is more oil that can be brought out of the ground profitably.

So what does this have to do with $2 a gallon gas?  The effect of enforcing such a policy would be two-fold:

·    Suppliers will restrict production, because they'll no longer make a profit on a portion of their former volume.  In other words, they will drill from only low-cost reserves.
·    Consumers will want to purchase more gas, because it has suddenly become cheap.

The overall result would be gas shortages that could only be dealt with in a few unsatisfactory ways.  One is to simply let the shortages occur and tolerate the long lines and inability to supply gas to the extent it's truly needed.  This would be destructive to the economy and likely require some sort of rationing, as was experienced in the mid-70s. 

Another solution avoids shortages but creates an equally unsettling problem.  The resolution requires the government to purchase gas at the higher market rate and sell it to consumers at the lower enforced rate.  This of course, is government involvement in the extreme and would contribute to a widening budget deficit and a diminishing of strategic reserves. 

And there you have the only two results of implementing, by fiat, a lowering of commodity prices.  We can have shortages, or government intervention that will eventually force consumers to pay through taxation anyway.  Since the proposal came from a Tea Party candidate, I have to assume that either the person has no understanding of fundamental economics, or is willing to say anything to get a few more votes.  If the Tea Party really wanted to help consumers, it would require Exxon Mobile (which paid no taxes in 2010) to pay a fair share and put some of that money in the pockets of the dispossessed. 

September 3, 2011

Capital Markets Dysfunction

Here is what worries me about our financial markets. 

The public knows more about quantum mechanics than it knows about capital.  This is due, in part, to the way new discoveries are promulgated.  Advances in physics are made in universities, where newly acquired insights are quickly published for the entire world to absorb.  In contrast, new trading algorithms and hedging strategies are developed on Wall Street trading floors—often by physics and math PhDs—where the information is kept confidential and considered trade secrets.  Information, therefore, isn’t disseminated to people who can effect appropriate change.  Let me give you an example.  Remember how the Obama Administration introduced a loan modification program and hoped to prevent six million foreclosures with it?  People who understood how loans are aggregated and placed into CDOs knew it would do little good.  Why?  Because the owners of the loans—those who had the legal right to approve the modifications—were hedge funds that were now bankrupt!

Governments are ill-equipped to evaluate and regulate the investment industry.  This is because of two main factors.  First, as mentioned above, Wall Street deems its trading strategies as proprietary.  They report balance sheet positions in aggregate, but offer few explanations of how risks are mitigated.  Regulators monitor key metrics—such as overall leverage and credit quality—but in the end they can only assume the other risks are being managed well.  More importantly, however, if regulators could understand the complex strategies of the companies they monitored, they could make far more money trading.  In other words, those who can, do, and those who can’t work for the SEC.   

Many senior banking executives lack training in the management of key risks.  Just like a pediatrician may not know much about neurology, a salesperson on the commercial paper desk understands little about mortgage derivatives or other esoteric instruments.  This is a significant problem, because many proprietary traders—those who manage the largest and most problematic balance sheet exposures at investment banks—often leave to run their own hedge funds or eschew promotion to remain in their positions where they can demand compensation packages rivaling that of homerun hitters.  The executives who do get promoted, therefore, usually have little experience in managing complex risks.  That was true at Lehman Brothers, where the top executives had grown up together selling commercial paper.  This least complex of financial instruments is not a place to learn how to mitigate financial risks, and this showed in the management of the company.  I can recall, for example, a meeting with key Lehman executives during which I sought approval for a complex transaction.  By the questions I was asked it was clear the executives didn’t understand the trade, but they gave me approval anyway. 

What should be done?  Well, I believe many things ought to be done to enhance transparency and increase financial literacy, but the key to regulating the industry is to incentivize investment banks to do what is proper.  That isn’t to say they should, in all cases, be allowed to fail.  In fact, if all the recipients of TARP money had gone bankrupt, we’d be scrounging for food and guns to protect ourselves today.  (I’m not kidding.  It would be that bad).  What I suggest is that investment banks be allowed to book trading profits, ONLY after all the liabilities associated with such transactions are extinguished.  That’s how owners treat their businesses.  In fact, a good way to insure appropriate risk-taking is to make employees owners of the firms where they work, so that they’re exposed to both the long-term profits and adverse effects of their decisions.  

September 2, 2011

Michele Bachmann's God

I’m frightened by religious conservatives.  I worry that if the world is put under their control, we’ll have a society that cares only about getting the government off our backs (except when it comes to the regulation of bedroom behavior).  The flip side of their ideals is the elimination of policies and programs that were meant to actualize our most unselfish and laudable dreams. 

For now, the poster child of the movement seems to be Michele Bachmann, who recently said in a campaign speech:

I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians.  We’ve had an earthquake, we’ve had a hurricane.  He (God) said, “Are you going to start listening to me here?”

If this was meant as a joke, it doesn’t even deserve a smirk.  Irene left 24 dead and billions of dollars in property damage in her wake.  To suggest that the storm was God’s will is ridiculous, but the sentiment is consistent with a belief among right wing Christians that God is vengeful and angry and quick to destroy what He has created in order to get attention.  If that’s God’s true nature, why do we worship Him except to avoid destruction?  And if we only worship Him to avoid destruction, how can we say He’s a God of love, or that we’re unselfish in our obedience?

Bachmann’s assertion reminds me of the language rules that Nazi Germany once employed to make unconscionable acts appear noble and to mitigate the opinions of detractors.  The murder of Jews, for example, was described in reports and other documents as The Final Solution, as if the holocaust was just a small problem on the way to getting fixed.  Heinrich Himmler could move grown men to tears with speeches that acknowledged the horror of the genocide, but would assure troops that the work was for a grand and righteous purpose that only the strong in heart had the moral character to fulfill.  Yet it was still murder.

Is it true that God took 24 lives to show His displeasure over Washington politics?  Not the God I worship.

September 1, 2011

What I Want (From a Facebook Post)

Here's an actual posting on Facebook that keeps reappearing.  Maybe you've seen it, too.

Every day you always hear people saying what they want and bought.  Well, this is what I want.  I want people who are sick with no cure to be able to be cured.  I want children with no families to be adopted.  I want the disabled to be fully abled.  I want people to never have to worry about food, shelter and heat.  Most of all I would like to see our nation turn back to God.  Now let's see how many people re-post this.  I have a feeling I am gonna see almost no re-posts.

A fine sentiment, except that at the end of one such entry was the following caveat:

Just to clarify, no, I don't believe it's the government's responsibility for all of those things.

Now, this is what I'd like to know.  Isn't our government the institution by which WE THE PEOPLE vote to actualize our most selfless dreams?  Isn't government the way we pool our collective resources to effect--as the Declaration of Independence demands--the safety and happiness of all?

Waiting for God to make it happen is equivalent to kicking the ball into His court.  Our nation will turn back to God only when we choose (at the ballot box and elsewhere) to be the tools He uses to bless His children.