Thursday, April 21, 2011

Texas Governor now praying for rain

A couple years ago, Gov. Perry talked of Texas seceding from the union:

“I believe the federal government has become oppressive. I believe it’s become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of its citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state

A few days ago, Gov. Perry appealed to that same "oppressive" union for federal help from wild fires.

Governor Perry says Texas is reaching its capacity to respond to so many emergencies.

Now, Gov. Perry is asking God for some help.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal and robust way of life.

I guess Gov. Perry didn't like the answer he got from the President. Good luck.

Breitbart's Lord of the Flies moment

... with Glenn Beck playing the part of Piggy. Breitbart called Shirley Sherrod a racist (bearing false witness) and blames Beck. To wit:

According to Mr. Breitbart, fellow Tea Partier Glenn Beck first joined him in editing and eviscerating Ms. Sherrod's 2010 N.A.A.C.P. speech on the radio, before publishing the unedited version on his Web site, discrediting Mr. Breitbart on television and calling for his apology.

"Next thing I know, I'm under complete attack without the support of Glenn Beck, who I thought was somebody I could count on," Mr. Breitbart told the Transom. "He threw me under the bus."

It seems Glenn Beck is becoming the fall guy for all seasons among conservatives who, like the boys in Lord of the Flies, pick on doughy nerd, but Glenn's not going down without a fight, and the feud is righteous.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

If the Meek are Going to Inherit the Earth....

... they are going to have kick ass for it.

I tend to see the liberal point of view as more workable, not because it's better or more logical but because the human condition yearns for the security of safety nets, so they aren't going away. Also, I believe (although I cannot prove it) that such security tends to promote innovation and creativity in society. Would someone really spend 15 years learning medicine or law or invest years in an esoteric field of science or literature if they felt vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the free market at all times?

Conservatism and libertarianism are okay as ideologies go, but our society and Western civilization in general has decided by several large actions over the past few decades that free markets need to be mitigated, old folks need to be kept out of penury, kids need vaccines, and we all need to contribute, which we all do via payroll taxes. Call it socialism if you wish, but it's not. Some call it legislated morality, and others call it enlightened self-interest, ie, the only practical way to run a big country.

The Republicans have presented a budget plan written by Rep Paul Ryan that dismantles the social safety nets and changes the fundamental charge of Medicare. Instead of giving retirees an access card for health care, he wants to give them a voucher to purchase a policy on the free market and this voucher may or may not be adequate depending on pre-existing illnesses, thus leaving the individuals to fend for themselves and pay the difference, or not. What do we do with the 75 year-old who failed to buy insurance due to poverty, dementia, ideology, or some other reason when they show up in the Emergency department in congestive heart failure. Who pays?

Safety nets need to be nurtured and respected. When Social Security payroll tax money is put into the general revenue fund to pay for wars and pork, that is not respectful. If you use your IRA fund to buy a shotgun or Lexus, then don't expect it to be there when you're 65. And this is the biggest failure of liberalism in the 20th century: we've built huge social programs and then failed to fund them. We could see the impending demographic doom of an aging population five decades ago, yet we stayed in Vietnam 8 years too long and continue to subsidize corporate farms or build bridges to nowhere, and now we must borrow more money to pay for grandma's hip replacement.

Liberals are to blame because they have allowed conservatives to fearmonger and spend on wars and derail our economy by lax regulation and cut taxes for the rich. I hold the conservatives less blameworthy because they have always had the explicit goal of doing exactly that to our nation: to make government so small that they can drown it in the bathtub. Despite the conservatives' succinct and honest rhetoric about their desire to destroy Social Security and Medicare, liberals have ignored these warnings and slouched toward bankrupting what should be our precious retirement and health care funds. Medicare has been disrepectfully damaged for years and Social Security has been underfunded since before Al Gore took ridicule for his "lockbox" proposal in 2000.

Now the joke is on us. Despite having contributed payroll taxes for an entire lifetime with the expressed understanding of a defined benefit, now we are faced with a re-negotiation of these benefits and perhaps a longer working career or a poorer retirement. Democratic and Republican Congressmen never will have to worry about their health care or their pensions. Is Senator Durbin's or Rep. Ryan's pension up for re-negotiation? Can we give Trent Lott a voucher to pay 40% of his health insurance premium?

We get what we deserve and if we cannot be responsible enough to manage Social Security and Medicare, then we don't deserve them. Liberalism works only when it is nurtured and tended in a responsible manner... because the jackals will be more than happy to dissociate us from our retirement benefits if we let them.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright

Grade: B+
Concepts: B
Writing quality: A

Robert Wright comes through with yet another marvelously conceived thesis, thoroughly referenced and masterfully constructed. Admittedly, I had misgivings about the title, fearing yet another heist of biological Evolution (capital E) for some social theme, but my fears were unfounded. Wright delves into the growth and maturation of the Abrahamic God through it's various tribal, regional and, finally, worldwide iterations. Having read much of Karen Armstrong's work, I would say Wright does a better job of conceptualizing God as a social and cultural construct.

Make no mistake, Wright, an admitted agnostic, paints a vision of God as something manufactured by humans and transformed consciously and unconsciously to fit society. He looks at the political and economic milieu of the Jews, Christians and Muslims throughout the ages to see how God was adapted in order to fit the various purposes of the various cultures. Believers may have some problem with Wright's concept of God as reliant on the human condition and changing according to the facts on the ground, but readers could just as easily see the causation emanating from God as well, I suppose. Wright grapples with the idea that morality has a direction, an evolution of sorts, and God can be defined as that moral order.

Yahweh was a tribal God that incorporated Baal and other minor gods from the polytheistic sects into one Being. For centuries this God protected the Jews and gave them cover to destroy enemies and claim territory for His chosen people. Wright teases out the language to demonstrate the various words used for God, with one motive to include or exclude other ethnicities according to the interests of the Jews. This was not a universal religion and represented a departure from the more tolerant milieu of the polytheistic societies.

Paul the Apostle (although he never knew Jesus personally) seized on the idea of Christ in order to create a new worldwide religion, potentially inclusive of any convert: Gentile, Jew, or otherwise. Wright makes the point that this era was marked with an established globalization borne from the Pax Romana with roads, shipping and commerce. Early Christianity provided a religion that emphasized universal goodwill among its members, something sorely needed for the economic growth to flower across the Middle East, Europe and North Africa. Conversely, Wright conjectures also that an inclusive religion like Christianity was borne from this need for more nonzero sum relationships throughout the civilized world. The Roman Empire was already begrudgingly tolerant of the various local religious practices and thus had provided the commercial, military and legal structure that served as the perfect birthplace for the nascent religion that Paul developed. Was Christianity the cause or the effect of the integrated commercial network? Wright feels that if Paul had not disseminated Christianity, then some other inclusive religion would have eventually been developed.

While Christianity under Paul, and then Constantine and future regimes, allowed converts, the Church actually became less tolerant of other religions and those who refused to convert to Christianity; this is in contradistinction to the previous tendencies of the Roman Empire.

“Why did Paul become the point man for a God whose love knows no ethnic bounds? Is it because he was naturally loving and tolerant, a man who effortlessly imbued all he met with a sense of belonging? Unlikely. Even in his correspondence, which presumably reflects a filtered version of the inner Paul, we see him declaring that followers of Jesus who disagree with him about the gospel message should be ‘accursed’—that is, condemned by God to eternal suffering.”

This "with us or against us" policy threw down the gauntlet to non-Christians, and the gamble (of sorts) paid off as Christianity flourished with new faithful members. Was their conversion primarily based on theology, economics, or political survival?

Likewise, Muhammad's divine revelations were conveniently inclusive of various Arab sects, thereby increasing cooperation through nonzero sum relationships among the groups. Wright reviews the timing of the Koran's suras to show that the revelations alternated from warrior ethos to compassion to cooperation depending on the needs of the Muslims and their leader at a given time. God's dictates evolved into a more or less inclusive religion as the Muslims required.

Wright's thesis will not be universally accepted by believers. Even non-believers have trouble with many of the concepts: evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne called it "Creationism for Liberals." Wright took issue with Coyne, claiming that many of his arguments were misrepresented, and I'd have to agree with Wright on this. The Evolution of God is a long book (>500 pp) with a lot of history and a solid thesis about how Western human cultures have steered theism toward the extant morality of our current Western civilization. To imagine our culture without monotheism is impossible, and vice versa. Like Wright's other books, it's written in an easy to understand conversational tone.

I'll finish with a quote from Robert Wright in response to Jerry Coyne's criticism of an apparent moral direction, or progress. The reason I bring this up is that the same concept was broached in our church group's discussion of The Evolution of God. Does morality as demonstrated in monotheistic religions, have an inexorable direction, ie, a progressive evolution? Wright says,

"Though I argue in this book that all three Abrahamic religions... generally get more tolerant, less belligerent, in response to non-zero-sum dynamics—I emphasize that there’s no guarantee that, as social organization approaches the global level, humankind will make the necessary moral adaptation; we may instead see social chaos on an unprecedented scale."


"Pap Smears: between the Swiffer refills and the cat food..."

Why Colbert wins all the awards:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Paul Ryan's Catch 22 on health care

Milo's mustache was unfortunate because the separated halves never matched; they were like Milo's disunited eyes which never looked at the same thing at the same time. Milo could see more things than most people, but he could see none of them too distinctly.

-description of Milo Minderbinder, Catch 22, by Joseph Heller.


Paul Ryan has a plan for health care, and it's based on the free market. From Fox:

Ryan offered a personal example in why he believes a market-dominated system will work in health care. He said a decade ago he spent $4,000 for LASIK eye surgery. It's an out-of-pocket expense that now costs 1/3 as much for a more technically advanced procedure. "People shouldn't tell us that health care is immune from free market principles," Ryan observed.

And this is exactly why Republicans should just stay out of the debate about health care: they cannot differentiate between a cosmetic procedure and necessary medical care. Think of health care as law enforcement or the military: necessary interventions that can only be done efficiently and justly on a large scale. Health care economics is chock full of asymmetric information and competing interests, and add to that the sheer complexity of integrating standards of care while trying to police skill levels.

LASIK surgery has about as much resemblance to health care as buying your kid's bicycle does to purchasing an F-16 Tomcat. The former is an elective purchase that can be done at your leisure while the latter must be done with expertise and perform perfectly reliably. When dad goes to the Emergency Dept with chest pain do we shop around for the lowest cost provider for his urgent cardiac catheterization?

Ryan has this conversation as a pretext for eliminating Medicare as we know it, forcing seniors to shop for health insurance with their government voucher in hand. Good luck. He also wants to save $729 billion over 10 years by repealing the Affordable Care Act thus sentencing 30 million Americans to a life without health insurance. The arithmetic says that the savings would be quite low for the amount of insurance purchased for the 30 million, not to mention the benefits of a healthier citizenry. Much more benefit than the trillions of dollars in war funding that Ryan has voted for.

Ironically, the Affordable Care Act does in fact provide market forces by requiring individuals to purchase health insurance on the open market. I have no idea what the motives of Mr. Ryan actually are, but my hunch is that he means well, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assumes he's just clueless. The Collective at Esquire is not so magnanimous:

Paul Ryan believes the true mission of government is to bring as much pain to the parasites as it can because, by doing so, it can liberate the genius of those people who deserve to live. When Paul Ryan dreams of a free nation, it is one in which the seventy-two-year-old spouses of seventy-five-year-old patients are free to go out and shop in a rigged insurance market for the $100,000-plus they're going to need over a lifetime of tending to that patient....

...Look at him when he talks about dismantling the hard-won protections of the shrinking middle class. He is so positively lubricious about it that his teeth seem to be sweating. Pain (not his) purifies the nation. Pain (not his) makes us free. This is what Paul Ryan dreams of when he dreams of a free people.

So maybe the LASIK has disunited Paul Ryan's eyes, and that's the Catch 22: for all that he envisions for America, he's blind to what we really need.