Sunday, December 21, 2008

How Did We Get to This Point?

In the 1980's America enjoyed its best-ever economic cycles; by 2008, we are facing substantial economic difficulties. How did this happen? Two factors seemed to have injured our economy: government regulation of free markets, and government spending. [Note: this post was greatly influenced Lara Khadr, who wrote and posted a text making some of the same or similar points. I have shamelessly stolen both ideas and actual paragraphs of text from her posting. Lara did, at some points, take a very different view of things, so no assumptions about her convictions should be taken from this post. Whatever is worthy about this post is probably her thinking, whatever is deficient about it is probably mine.]

Ronald Reagan is simultaneously considered one of the greatest and most controversial presidents in United States history. His presidency was marked by many political transformations, especially in the realm of economics. The economic doctrine Reagan adopted during his presidency, commonly referred to as “Reaganomics,” contributed to an era of Great Expansion in the mid-1980s. However, some argue that the effects of economic expansion, and the long-term growth that Reagan had envisioned, were undermined by later fiscal and monetary policy decisions made after Reagan left office.

Ronald Reagan’s economic program consisted of four major pillars: reduce the rate of growth of federal spending, carry on with deregulation, attain a low stable growth of money supply, and reduce tax rates. The goal of Reaganomics was to reduce government interference with the economy and develop an entrepreneurial-based self-sufficient market. His goals and the pillars that outlined his program embraced the principles of supply-side economics that gained popularity during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Supply-side economics focused more on creating supplies versus worrying about demand. Reductions in taxes did this, as more businesses could afford to open and they would increase productivity. An increase in productivity brought more jobs and reduced unemployment that had reached a record high at the time Reagan initially took office.

Reagan used deregulation to ease inflation, which was also very high at the time, by lowering the cost to start a business. Prices were reduced and as a result, competition increased, in the trucking, airline, railroad, and telecommunications industries. Growth in prosperity in these industries spread to other industries, as transportation and telecommunications are central to society.

By deregulating the communications industry, there was a burst in technological innovation, which helped the United States become competitive on an international level in that arena. This correlated perfectly with the technological revolution of the 1980’s, as personal computers and video games burst in popularity. A further conversation on deregulation and its possible effects is beyond the scope of this paper, and the aspects of it that pertain directly to supply-side economics have been discussed.

As a result of the implementation of Reaganomics, the 1980’s saw a tremendous growth in jobs and businesses, and a reduction in inflation in a short period of time. Tax cuts helped bring 19.3 million jobs during the decade, with the majority of them being highly paid. The unemployment rate fell from 10.8 percent in 1981 to 5.3 percent in 1989. When Reagan first entered office in 1981, the United States was in the worst recession the country had seen since the Great Depression. By 1982, the recession was alleviated, and the country entered a period of sustained economic growth.

In early 1983, economists saw the first signs that the economy was recovering. It would soon take-off with dramatic force. Lasting 93 consecutive months, it was the biggest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history.

The background of Reaganomics can be traced back to post-war economies, a vague term that roughly describes the economies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, which leaned towards the Keynesian theory. This “demand-side” theory, presented by British economist John Maynard Keynes in his 1936 book The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, focuses on short-term economic fluctuations due to the belief that unemployment results from insufficient demand for goods and services. Keynes ultimately believed that government action could directly influence demand for goods and services by altering tax policies and expenditures.

The 1970’s brought an increase in the popularity of supply-side economics, which greatly challenged Keynesian theory and was a term that Reaganomics would make a household name. Jack Kemp, a New York representative and an intern in California for then-governor Ronald Reagan’s staff, was an adamant proponent of supply-side economics. He believed that growth allowed social problems “to take care of themselves.” In his opinion, tax reduction was a key to economic growth and could be done by affecting supply-side incentives. In 1977, Kemp and Delaware senator William Roth introduced the Kemp-Roth Tax Reduction Bill, calling for a 30% reduction in personal income rates over a three-year phase. Due to large inflation accompanied by stagflation at the time, there was large public support for the bill. Although the tax cut did not pass, it was influential due to new intellectual ideas appearing at the time.

University of Southern California professor Arthur Laffer, along with Columbia University’s Robert Mundell popularized their idea of ongoing and informal supply-side economics with politicians and journalists. Laffer is probably famous for introducing the Laffer curve, which emphasized tax reduction as a solution to economic issues. The curve starts at zero tax, but then shows an upside-parabolic curve to demonstrate that up until a certain point (the absolute maximum on the curve) an increase in tax rates will result in an increase in revenue. After this point, an increase in tax will hurt revenue. Despite sharp criticism from Keynesian economists, supply-side was given serious thought in various places. Joint Election Committee (JEC) chairman Lloyd Bensen liked supply-side economics, saying that it was “the start of a new era of economic thinking.” It provided policy makers with a novel way to envision the country’s economic problems versus the conventional way of aggregating demand in post-war America.

The nation first saw an outline of Reaganomics in August of 1979, when Martin Anderson, Reagan’s chief domestic policy advisor, drafted the Reagan for President Campaign’s “Policy Memorandum No. 1.” The plan included suggestions for the economy such as across-the-board tax cuts of at least three years duration accompanied by an indexation of federal income tax brackets. There would also be a reduction in rate of increase in federal spending, vigorous deregulation, and a strict monetary policy to deal with inflation. Reagan would attempt to implement these principles throughout his presidency, and would introduce acts, bills, reforms that would have long-term effects, reducing debt and deficit numbers even after he left the presidency.

In 1981, Reagan made two influential policy decisions that would increase investment by Americans over a long period of time. A general reduction in tax rates, one of the major pillars of Reaganomics, yields great feedback in terms of faster economic growth, a larger tax base, and larger tax revenues.

Reagan introduced a tax-cut bill in 1981 that established tax deductions for Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) that resulted in 12 million taxpayers contributing $28.3 billion towards their retirement. In addition, his administration established a principle that employees could have a tax-free income if matched by employers and channeled into their retirement accounts. As a result, the number of Americans with 401k plans increased. By implementing such policies, a massive class of small investors were created that were previously non-existent.

Not only did this new wave of investors create jobs by fueling business growth, but they also pro-actively addressed concerns about the ability of major employers to fund the retirement of the “baby-boomer” generation.

The economic growth, initiated by Reagan, was threatened, however by Congressional actions. Congress did not prepare itself properly for the outcomes of Reagan’s economic doctrines, as government spending increased. For example, Congress resisted cuts in domestic spending, and did not reform basic entitlement plans, which provide unearned payments to individuals. Increased spending in these programs, which include Medicare and Social Security, caused problems for Congress controlling the exact size of budget deficit and surplus. According to the White House’s website, the federal gross debt as a percentage of GDP rose when Congress acted by increasing spending (and therefore increasing both the deficit and the debt). With more businesses opening during Reagan’s presidency and a growing, aging population that relies on the benefits of Social Security and Medicare, federal spending has only increased at a pace far faster than domestic output has increased. Given the spending plans put forth in the mid-1990’s, the government can barely afford to sustain many of its programs. Because the experience of the 1980’s shows that higher taxes will hurt any potential economic growth, Congress must enact disciplined spending cuts.

To maintain sustainable economic growth, not only must Congress consistently reduce federal spending, but there must also be a supply of quality opportunities for new capital investment. During the 1990’s, the Clinton administration introduced policies centered on Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac; these policies diluted the quality of investment opportunities, and eventually culminated in the 2007/2008 “housing bubble.” Reagan’s deregulated mortgage market had allowed lending institutions to loan money to customers who were most likely to repay. Clinton’s policies forced the lenders to loan money to those identified as unlikely to repay. Clinton’s regulation of the market in the 1990’s created massive defaults in 2007 and 2008.

In conclusion, former President Ronald Reagan slashed tax rates by introducing bills in the early 1980’s that increased American investment and productivity. However, Congress did not make the necessary adjustments needed: spending cuts, and sustained deregulation of the mortgage market.

The lesson: free markets aren't free if the government is regulating them, and if the government is spending lots of money, it either creates debt which slows the economy, or it raises tax rates which slow the economy.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

When the News is Too Complicated for the News Media

The economy is big news right now. We’re all absorbing as much of it as we can, but is it helping ... or hurting?

According to Poynter Institute Media Business Analyst Rick Edmonds, most newsrooms are doing their best to cover the ever-changing economic story, but it's so complex, it's almost a losing battle.

"Local reporters and certainly national reporters can definitely handle the 'how it's impacting individuals' angle," he says. "But let’s face it, trying to explain complicated financial economic terms is a losing game."

Realize that, if you have experience in the business world, or have a master's degree, you may well be able to understand the situation better than the reporter on your TV screen. Grab a book on economics or investing from your local library, and soon you'll be pointing out the flaws in the TV news.

Add on the fact that news is ratings-driven, and colorful words and dramatic headlines are the norm.

"It's a practice that has crept into coverage over the last decade," says Edmonds. "When there is a big story, ratings go up. You can’t just say, 'we're reporting on the war in Iraq,' you have to have a title for your coverage."

So what should consumers do to keep up-to-date on financial news?

"Having access to professionals in the financial industry is your best bet," says Edmonds.

Remember, the people on TV weren't hired for their understanding of complex economics. They were hired because they look good, and can use their voices in impressive ways. Get yourself an ECON 101 textbook, or a FINANCE 101 textbook, and ten minutes of reading will tell you more than a week's worth of the evening news on TV.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Helping

On December 26, 2004, a tsunami struck several different countries in and around the Indian Ocean. Many different governments sent help; the U.S. government sent more aid than any other government.

President Bush sent an aircraft carrier to Indonesia to help the tsunami victims. The largest ships in the fleet, aircraft carriers have three hospitals on board that can treat several hundred people; they are nuclear powered and can supply emergency electrical power to shore facilities; they have three cafeterias with the capacity to feed 3,000 people three meals a day, they can produce several thousand gallons of fresh water from sea water each day, and they carry half a dozen helicopters for use in transporting victims and injured to and from their flight deck. The U.S. military saved thousands of lives in the days following the tsunami.

But, although the U.S. government sent more aid than any other government, there was another source of help which was much larger still. The charities in America sent billions of dollars in food, medicine, and supplies. In addition, the charities funded teams of nurses and doctors to set up hospitals, and teams of builders to remove rubble and start rebuilding.

The private charitable organizations in America not only sent more aid than the U.S. government, they sent more aid than all the governments of the world combined!

Which shows that, in offering significant help and making progress, private sector charity trumps government programs.

Not Building an Empire

One constant feature of human nature is the desire to take over and rule large amounts of territory. Whether in ancient history (Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cyrus of Persia, etc.), or in modern history (Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Napoleon), people want to build empires.

By contrast, there are those armies who defeat their enemies, and yet allow those enemies to keep their land afterward: nations which do aim to absorb their enemies, but rather to turn their enemies into friends. In the modern world, there is one such nation: the United States.

After two world wars, we returned all conquered lands to their own nations. After Operation Desert Storm, we returned all territory. We are preparing now to return Iraq to the Iraqis.

Colin Powell, former secretary of state, said, "Over the years, the United States has sent many of its fine young men and women into great peril to fight for freedom beyond our borders. The only amount of land we have ever asked for in return is enough to bury those that did not return."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Keeping the Peace

In late 1814 and early 1815, Napoleon's career was coming to an end, and Europe had suffered twenty-five years of nearly continuous chaos and bloodshed: first, the ten years of the French Revolution (1789 - 1799), and then Napoleon's dictatorship. France had conducted wars against, or involving, nearly all of Europe. The misery was wide-spread.

The leaders of European nations gathered at the Congress of Vienna to answer the question, how can we keep Europe safe and peaceful. The conference was organized and lead by Metternich. The starting point for discussion was the Treaty of Paris, first signed in 1814; during the conference, Napoleon attempted his comeback, and when that failed, a second Treaty of Paris was issued in 1815. The Bourbon absolutist monarchy was reinstated, and France lost the territory which had stolen from other nations after 1789.

It was clear that Europe would assume a new shape on the map, and a new political tone, especially because Napoleon had also officially ended the Holy Roman Empire. The Congress of Vienna wanted to ensure that Europe's new layout would lead to peace and stability.

The official dates of the conference were from November 1, 1814 until June 8, 1815.

England was represented by Castlereagh and Wellington; Napoleon gave England two of its greatest heros, Wellington and Nelson, and Wellington also was immortalized in the famous beef recipe. Wellington's real name was Arthur Wellesley, but he was called Wellington because he was the Duke of Wellington.

Metternich represented Austria, and Prussia was represented by Hardenberg and Humboldt. Alexander I represented Russia. Talleyrand represented France, and almost single-handedly saved his country, because the other nations wanted to punish it for the twenty-five years of butchery it caused. Talleyrand persuaded the other leaders that they would have nothing to gain by devastating France, but that if they left the country intact, it would benefit all of Europe.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Do You Exist? Do I?

Only a philosopher would spend time trying to answer the question, "do I exist?"

It's not that philosophers are worried about the answer. They know that they exist. But given that the answer is automatically "yes", how do we prove that answer? It's not enough to answer a question - you must offer evidence to support that answer. What evidence can you offer in order to convince me that you exist?

Descartes and Augustine share not only the argument Cogito ergo sum - in Augustine Si fallor, sum - but also the corollary argument claiming to prove that the mind (Augustine) or, as Descartes puts it, this I, is not any kind of body. "I could suppose I had no body," wrote Descartes, "but not that I was not", and inferred that "this I" is not a body. Augustine says "The mind knows itself to think", and "it knows its own substance": hence "it is certain of being that alone, which alone it is certain of being." Augustine is not here explicitly offering an argument in the first person, as Descartes is. The first-person character of Descartes's argument means that each person must administer it to himself in the first person; and the assent to Augustine's various propositions will equally be made, if at all, by appropriating them in the first person. In these writers there is the assumption that when one says "I" or "the mind", one is naming something such that the knowledge of its existence, which is a knowledge of itself as thinking in all the various modes, determines what it is that is known to exist.

But Descartes recognized that his use of this form of argument is quite different from Augustine's: "I do indeed find that Augustine does use it to prove the certainty of our existence. He goes on to show that there is a certain likeness of the Trinity in us, in that we exist, we know that we exist, and we love the existence and the knowledge we have. I, on the other hand, use the argument to show that this I that is thinking is an immaterial substance with no bodily element. These are two very different things."

Augustine's purpose in the larger context is to establish the continuing goodness of the world following the fall. To this end, Augustine argues that "we recognize in ourselves ... an image of God, that is of the Supreme trinity. It is not an adequate image, but a very distant parallel." And this premise leads to the conclusion that "we are human beings, created in our Creator's image." Thus, for Augustine, "Self-certainty thus leads self-consciousness back to the inner consciousness of God, which is found to be more essential to consciousness than itself. For the si fallor, sum does not aim at the ego, nor does it come to a half in the res cogitans, seeing as the interior intimo meo transports it, as a derived image, toward the original exemplar. The si fallor, sum remains the simply, though first, moment of a path that, in two other more rich moments (knowing one's Being and loving it), disappropriates the mind from itself by the movement of reappropriating it to its original, God. The si fallor, sum does not assure the mind of having its principle in itself, since it does not grant it Being in itself nor saying itself by itself (like substance). On the contrary, si fallor sum forbids the mind to remain in itself, exiled from its truth, in order to send it back to the infinite original. The mind is retrieved only insofar as it is exceeded.

Descartes wants to show that "by means of the certainty of Being that thought secures for what from now on becomes an ego" that the I is an immaterial substance: "What is at stake, then, is not found simply in the connection of thought and existence, however certain this connection might be. That the mind thinks, therefore that it is insofar as it thinks – this belongs to an inference that is if not banal ... at least quite commonplace. What is peculiar to Descartes consists, as he so lucidly indicates, in interpreting the certain and necessary connection of the cogitatio and existence as establishing a substance, and moreover a substance that plays the role of first principle."

We may conclude that, despite the rather different goals of their writings, Augustine anticipated Descartes by over a thousand years, and even anticipated Anselm by five hundred years, in composing what amounts to an a priori argument directed against radical skepticism. For, although Augustine's argument makes reference to sensation, the structure of his argument is essentially a priori.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Mind or The Brain?

Modem philosophy of science has been devoted largely to the formal and systematic description of the successful practices of working scientists. The philosopher does not try to dictate how scientific inquiry and argument ought to be conducted. Instead he tries to enumerate the principles and practices that have contributed to good science. The philosopher has devoted the most attention to analyzing the methodological peculiarities of the physical sciences. The analysis has helped to clarify the nature of confirmation, the logical structure of scientific theories, the formal properties of statements that express laws and the question of whether theoretical entities actually exist.

It is only rather recently that philosophers have become seriously interested in the methodological tenets of psychology. Psychological explanations of behavior refer liberally to the mind and to states, operations and processes of the mind. The philosophical difficulty comes in stating in unambiguous language what such references imply.

Traditional philosophies of mind can be divided into two broad categories: dualist theories and materialist theories. In the dualist approach the mind is a nonphysical substance. In materialist theories the mental is not distinct from the physical; indeed, all mental states, properties, processes and operations are in principle identical with physical states, properties, processes and operations. Some materialists, known as behaviorists, maintain that all talk of mental causes can be eliminated from the language of psychology in favor of talk of environmental stimuli and behavioral responses. Other materialists, the identity theorists, contend that there are mental causes and that they are identical with neurophysiological events in the brain.

In the past fifteen years a philosophy of mind called functionalism that is neither dualist nor materialist has emerged from philosophical reflection on developments in artificial intelligence, computational theory, linguistics, cybernetics and psychology. All these fields, which are collectively known as the cognitive sciences, have in common a certain level of abstraction and a concern with systems that process information. Functionalism, which seeks to provide a philosophical account of this level of abstraction, recognizes the possibility that systems as diverse as human beings, calculating machines and disembodied spirits could all have mental states. In the functionalist view the psychology of a system depends not on the stuff it is made of (living cells, metal or spiritual energy) but on how the stuff is put together. Functionalism is a difficult concept, and one way of coming to grips with it is to review the deficiencies of the dualist and materialist philosophies of mind it aims to displace.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Gettin' Sneaky

Samuel Adams was a man of courage and integrity. As one of our founding fathers, not only does our nation owe its existence to him and his colleagues, but the world owes its concepts of modern freedom and democracy to this same group.

His contribution was to organize in Massachusetts the local committees of correspondence. After he had formed the first one in Boston during 1772, some eighty towns in the colony speedily set up similar organizations. Their chief function was to spread the spirit of resistance by exchanging letters and thus keep alive opposition to British policy. One critic referred to the committees as "the foulest, subtlest, and most venomous serpent ever issued from the egg of sedition."

Inter-colonial committees of correspondence were the next logical step. Virginia led the way in 1773 by creating such a body as a standing committee of the House of Burgesses. Within a short time, every colony had established a central committee through which it could exchange ideas and information with other colonies. These inter-colonial groups were supremely significant in stimulating and disseminating sentiment in favor of united action. They evolved directly into the first American congresses.

So, if you have liberty, if you enjoy both civil rights and human rights, if you are to express opinions and beliefs freely, if you able to make some decisions about your own life ... thank this group of sneaky note-writers!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Movie Director, the Football Coach, and the Boy Scouts

A controversial motion picture producer, Michael Moore, is lover by some, hated by others, and probably misunderstood by many. A lifetime member of the NRA, an Eagle Scout, and an active supporter of the Scouting Movement, he refuses to be painted into narrow category of "left-wing" or "right-wing".

A University of Michigan football coach has a demanding job, especially if he wants to claim a national title. He has very little free time, and has to make his choices carefully, because the actions of the head coach will reflect on the U of M. Yet Fielding Yost spent a great deal of time and effort promoting the Boy Scouts, with the approval of U of M's president.

Two very different high-profile people, but one common goal: to ensure that young people in America have the opportunity to be involved in the Scouting Movement.

Bill Clinton - liberal, conservative, or other?

The Clinton presidency is generally seen as "liberal" - being sandwiched between the two Bush presidencies - but, as we have learned, those words "liberal" and "conservative" can be misleading.

During his first term in office - long before the Lewinsky scandal which made him famous - Bill Clinton signed into law the bill known as the "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA), which is the strongest statement to date against homosexual marriage, and which prevents any attempt at diverting federal benefits away from traditional marriages and toward same-sex legal unions.

Now, this may surprise those who see Clinton as a liberal. But Clinton's chief of staff and other close advisers directed him to do this in the same way that they directed him to his other political actions: they kept a close eye on the majority opinion among the electorate. With over 80% of the voters opposed to federal benefits being used to create this novel legal category, Clinton knew that his political future would depend on his following their lead.

Is Clinton a liberal? Perhaps. But perhaps he was simply following the direction set by the democratic process. Which raises a second question: should a president in a democratic society be a "leader" or a "follower"? Although we call him a "leader," we paradoxically expect him to "follow" the majority of the voters.

In either case, Clinton's 1996 support for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) stands as one of the strongest political moves to date against the "gay marriage" movement.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Greeks Unite in the Struggle Against the Persians

Most of the Greek city-states developed similarly to Athens. Around the year 500 BC, all of Greece felt itself threatened by something external, by a powerful enemy in the east: Persia. The Persians were an equestrian nation, which came out of the rough highlands of the area we today call Iran. They ruled an empire which stretched from India to the Mediterranean coast, and which encompassed the ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt. One can truly speak of a world empire in this case.

The Persian emperor (or "king of kings") allowed the subjugated nations to have their religions and customs, but they had to pay tribute (money) regularly, and supply soldiers when the Persian king demanded this of them. In the assembled army, the empire because visible in its expanse, and in successful campaigns, the invincibility of the king showed itself. Because of the great distances and the limited opportunities for direct control, the emperor placed his representatives to rule the individual regions; they were called "satraps" or "tyrants" or governors.

Naturally, the Persian king could not tolerate it, if parts of his kingdom would attempt to gain their independence. But exactly this is what the Greek cities in Asia Minor did, in his opinion, when they undertook a rebellion in 500 BC under the leadership of Miletus. In 494 BC, Miletus was destroyed on his orders.

The Athenians had supported the rebellion. The Persian king Darius sent therefore, in 490 BC, a rather small army across the sea in the direction of Greece. The Athenians didn't want to subjugate themselves, and decided to fight.

In the battle of Marathon, an Athenian army defeated the Persians. A military tactic, not practiced by the Persians, played a decisive role: the Athenians fought as heavily-armed foot soldiers, as "hoplites", and appeared thereby in closed ranks, as a "phalanx". The hoplites, formed in several rows, one after another, were "fired up" by means of music, and followed orders as a unit. If the man in front fell, the one behind him had to step forth immediately. Each one had to rely on the other.

The Persian were not content to be defeated at Marathon. Xerxes, the son of Darius, in 480 BC, undertook for this reason better-prepared attack on all of Greece, with perhaps 100,000 soldiers and approximately 1000 ships.

Many states in northern and middle Greece subjugated themselves, either under threat of force, or voluntarily, but not a confederation led by Sparta and including Athens with its fleet of 200 new battle ships. Sparta was, at that time, the most powerful city-state in Greece, and determined to resist unconditionally.

The first attempt to stop the Persian, at Thermopyle, a narrow pass between the mountains and the sea, gained for 300 Spartans a heroic death, but didn't succeed. The path toward Athens was now open to the Persians. There, the inhabitants left the city, and they hoped for a victory by the fleet. The Persians entered Athens, plundered it, and destroyed the more important temples. They considered this to be revenge for a similar deed by the rebellious Greeks in Asia Minor.

But the war was decided in two large battles. First, the Greeks defeated, with luck and skill, the numerically superior Persian fleet in the straights near the island of Salamis. And in 479 BC, the Persian army was devastatingly defeated by the Spartans and some allies at Plataea. A confederation of Greek city-states had thereby defended its own independence against an empire which appeared incredibly powerful.

In Greece, the opinion now spread about the Persians, that they were not only different than the Greeks, but rather by nature inferior humans. These "Barbarians" were seen as enemies, whom one simultaneously despised and feared. The Greek word "barbar" had, until then, designated someone who did not speak Greek and was thereby unintelligible. After the Greeks used this word on the Persians, it took on the negative connotation which it still has today.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Caught!

As "green" politics becomes an ever bigger force in world politics, various countries using, or abusing, environmental information as part of their rhetoric and public relations campaigns.

Mainland Communist China (in contrast to Formosa Taiwan China) has long had a rather poor record in its treatment of the planet. Dumping chemicals of all sorts into rivers and burning high-sulfur coal have been standard practices in the twenty-first century, despite the global focus on clean air and clean water.

In an effort to improve its image, the Chinese government released several photos. One showed a tiger, belonging to a species thought already extinct, roaming through the woods in China. Another showed a large herd of endangered Tibetan antelopes grazing peacefully in a prairie. These pictures were designed to reassure the international community that China was making progress in learning to protect the environment, and would soon "catch up" to Europe and North America.

The problem? University students analyzed the images, and determined that they were fake! Chinese intelligence agencies had done a "cut-and-paste" job, placing old photos of these long-dead animals into images of their former habitats.

Monday, April 14, 2008

True Dialogue

In our diverse and multi-cultural society, how does a Muslim carry on a dialogue with a Jew? Or a Republican with a Democrat? Or a Pro-Lifer with a Pro-Abortionist?

There are ways for people, who have profound disagreements and even conflicts, to engage in civil and polite discussion. This is much more like to preserve peace than angry confrontations and name-calling.

How do we engage in civil dialogue?

First, whatever your personal opinion, remember that there are such things as right and wrong interpretations of historical texts, political texts, or biblical texts. A text - a piece of writing - can't have any random meaning. There is a set of meanings it can have, and a set of meanings it can't have. There are actual historical facts to which texts do or do not correspond, and true and false propositions, true and false statements, about the relationship between the story and reality. Consequently, we become upset with someone we suspect of lying, intentionally trying to obscure the facts, unduly disrupting the conversation, or doing anything that seems contrary to the spirit of truth-telling.

Second, remember that there are things called objective moral truths. We might disagree about what they are, or we might not even know what they are, but they are there. In our dialogues, we are not just courteous; we try to be responsible and fair in our interpretations of what the other is saying. We don't deliberately mis-understand or twist the other's words to make the opposing viewpoint seem stupid or illogical. We do not abide anyone who fails to respect the intentions of another. It is not permissible to treat anyone in the circle as anything less than an autonomous end-in-himself. We must attribute the best possible meaning and intentions to our opponent's words. Only this way, only by means of moral standards, is a dialogue possible.

Third, our efforts at conversation should begin with introductions, work slowly into the subtly submerged tensions between us, eventually get around to stating our disagreements, and then build toward a resolution in which we could agree on some matters, and agree to disagree about others. In this way, we can forge a consensus, even a community. It is an aesthetic idea; an artistic whole of different voices blended together. We want people to air their differences, but we do not permit disruption for disruption's sake. Radical intrusions serve, somehow, the ends of the group, the good of the whole. We orchestrate seemingly random sounds into the melody pursued by the rest.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is a religious leader for most of the world's Buddhists; he is also a political symbol. Coming from Tibet, the center of world Buddhism, his very presence reminds people of the harsh manner in which the Chinese army took over Tibet, and, under the leadership of Maoist Chinese Communism, brutally attempted - and still attempts today - to enforce atheism on that country's population.

How is the Dalai Lama received in the United States, when he comes to visit? He is enthusiastically welcomed by Republicans and Conservative Christian groups, because he embodies the issue of religious freedom: these groups believe that the Tibetan Buddhists should be allowed to engage in their faith, just as the U.S. Constitution gives Americans the right to "free exercise" of their religions. Presidents like Bush and Reagan have warmly greeted him in the White House. Churches of various types have invited him as a guest speaker.

Make no mistake, there are important differences between Christians and Buddhists, and the two belief systems will never agree on spiritual questions about what happens to the human soul after death; but they also see that they have some things in common, and can speak together in a friendly and peaceful manner.

Democrats and liberals, however, are not so eager to welcome the Dalai Lama to the United States. These political groups fear that, if we show hospitality to the Dalai Lama, we might irritate the Chinese government, which still wants to enforce atheism on Tibet, and does not want Tibet or its Buddhists to have any political freedom. So you won't see them on TV, smiling and shaking hands with the Dalai Lama.

Is it not ironic, that the Christians, who speak most firmly against the religious beliefs of the Dalai Lama, are the ones who show him the most hospitality and friendship? It is truly an amazing form of tolerance, to be friends with the person whose beliefs you oppose.

Further irony is found in the lack of warmth from the Democrats and liberals; one would expect them to embrace anyone who publicly proclaims a belief system which is opposed to Christianity.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Federal Courts Say “Merry Christmas!”

School districts may not ban teachers and students from saying “Merry Christmas.” The Supreme Court has stated that teachers and students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” [Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969) (holding that the wearing of armbands by students to show disapproval of Vietnam hostilities was constitutionally protected speech).]

Under the direction of President Clinton, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley issued guidelines concerning religious discussion of students, which stated, “Students therefore have the same right to engage in . . . religious discussion during the school day as they do to engage in other comparable activity.” [U.S. Dept. of Educ., Religious Expression in Public Schools, Archived Information, Guidelines, available at http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/08-1995/religion.html (last modified Jan. 26, 2000).]

Teachers also have the right to greet students with the words “Merry Christmas,” in spite of their role as agents of the state. In order to violate the Establishment Clause, a teacher would have to use her authority to promote religion to impressionable youth. [School Dist. of Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963).] Saying a simple greeting that people commonly use in December does not rise to a state endorsement of religion.

Additional precedents confirmed by Supreme Court rulings: The Constitution protects all speech, including religious speech in public schools; the first amendment protects religious speech; the first amendment’s establishment clause does not require school officials to suppress seasonal religious expression; school officials may call a school break “Christmas” vacation; public school officials; public schools may have students sing religious Christmas carols; public schools may close on religious holidays, such as Christmas and Good Friday; publicly acknowledging Christmas does not require public officials to recognize all religious holidays; free speech includes the right to say “Merry Christmas!”; Students may study the religious origins of Christmas and read the biblical accounts of the birth of Christ in public schools; public schools may exhibit religious symbols; students have a constitutional right to be exempt from activities with a religious content; the constitution protects religious speech; students have a constitutional right to express their faith and religious ideas in a public school; students have the right to distribute religious materials such as Christmas cards containing Bible verses in public schools; students have the right to express religious viewpoints in schools assignments, reading materials, and clothing.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Rest In Peace?

In the war-torn country of Sudan, even when you're dead, you're still in trouble!

In the on-going genocidal civil war in that region, the Islamic army, in its attempt to exterminate all traces of the Christian faith, has appropriate the graveyards in which Christians are buried, and is using them as used car lots. The cemeteries in which Muslim are buried are protected by those same armies. So if you want a good deal on a two-year-old Chevy, simply follow the herse after the funeral!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Kierkegaard: a Comedian?

Soren Kierkegaard is generally considered to be the first existentialist, and the father of existentialism. Professor C. Stephen Evans (from Yale) offers these comments about him:

Kierkegaard ... wants to claim that there is an essential connection between humor and religious life ... Kierkegaard holds that the highest and deepest kind of humor is rooted in a life-view which is recognizably religious, and that all humor is at bottom made possible by those very features of human life which make the religious life possible.

Kierkegaard was a Lutheran pastor who lived in Denmark, and did most of his writing in the 1840's. Evans continues:

To understand Kierkegaard's claims here one must try to understand the place of humor in his theory of the stages or spheres of existence ... there are three stages or spheres of existence. The aesthetic life is the natural or immediate kind of life in which everyone begins, where one simply attempts to satisfy one's natural desires or urges. The aesthete lives for the moment. The ethical life is the life in which one grasps the significance of the eternal and by ethical resolve attempts to transcend one's natural desires and create a unified life. The religious life is the life in which one recognizes the impossibility of actualizing the eternal through positive action and instead one attempts to grasp it through repentance and suffering.

In short, the third stage is the stage in which you figure out that the second stage is impossible! The options here for irony and humor should be self-evident. As Evans phrases it:

Irony constitutes the boundary between the aesthetic and the ethical, while humor constitutes the boundary between the ethical and the religious.

Because a sense of ethical outrage, even if hidden, motivates irony, it carries one from the aesthetic phase to the ethical phase; when one finally realizes the absurdity of being, on the one hand, obliged to always act ethically, and being, on the other hand, incapable of always acting ethically, it is then humor which allows one to transcend the ethical phase and enter the religious phase. It is in this absurdity and humor that Kierkegaard's Lutheranism shows itself. Professor Evans puts it this way:

... forgiveness which is offered freely ... makes it possible for the earnest individual to smile at the contradiction between his life and the ideal he sees in Christ.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Cultural Understandings and Mis-Understandings

The history of interactions between Muslims and the other cultures of the world is one of painful conflicts. In some cases, these conflicts have been based on accurate mutual perceptions: when Islam looks at other world cultures and accuses them of lowering their moral standards, Islam is correct. When Islam has made the assessment that the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is incompatible with the core teachings of Islam, because Islam rejects the concept of a God who loves and forgives unconditionally, Islam is correct in that assessment.

Sometimes conflicts are based on actual disagreements, such as the two listed above. Muslims are correct that other world cultures have lowered their moral standards: when one considers alcohol abuse, other forms of drug abuse, tobacco use, premarital sex, and other forms of inappropriate sexual activity, it is clear that there is a moral gap between Islam and the rest of the world. Muslims are correct when they judge that other religions are incompatible with their own: the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that humans cannot merit or earn God's favor or forgiveness, but rather that He gives it freely and unconditional to those who do not deserve it; a Muslim cannot accept that view of God.

But sometimes conflicts are based, not on real differences, but on perceived differences. Mis-perceptions can create the impression of disagreements, even when there are none. Four examples: Muslims sometimes perceive Christians as polytheists, because of the concept of the Trinity; but in fact, Christians are as monotheistic as Muslims, and core of the concept of the Trinity is monotheistic. Muslims sometimes perceive that there cannot be a father-son relationship between God the Father and God the Son; yet in the Qur'an and other Muslim writings, paternal and filial language is used to describe Allah's spiritual fatherhood. Muslims sometimes perceive the execution of Jesus as unbelievable; but the historical record of Roman rule in the province of Judea makes such an execution entirely in keeping with the rule of Roman governor like Pilate. Muslims sometimes perceive the written records of non-Islamic cultures as unreliable; but the historical records of the ancient world are verifiable and have shown themselves to be at least as accurate as Islamic histories.

There are enough real differences between Islam and the rest of the world to create problems; the situation is complicated by fictional differences as well.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In 1837, Emerson wrote this poem, entitled "Concord Hymn", for a ceremony dedicating a monument at the site of the battle.

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood;
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps,
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream that seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We place with joy a votive stone,
That memory may their deeds redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

O Thou who made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free, -
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raised to them and Thee.

Emerson's work is often considered to be an example of Romanticism, but this is debatable, to the extent that one must clearly define what, and does not, constitute Romanticist art. Emerson did share, with Richard Wagner and some other extreme European Romanticists, a belief in vegetarianism. In any case, Emerson was a strong advocate for the abolition of slavery in America. Emerson was very religious, but held some unusual views of religious activity: "Books are for the scholar's idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings." Religion is usually construed to center around the scientific investigation of sacred texts: religion is essentially reading. But for Emerson, reading was an auxiliary activity for the scholar: direct experience of God was possible, desirable, and preferable. It is this type of thought which has earned the label "transcendental" for Emerson. Emerson's exact religious views are difficult to categorize: Christianity and Unitarianism are usually considered opposites, and he seems to be neither. But his passionate belief in God motivated his abolitionist views: "The broad ethics of Jesus were quickly narrowed to village theologies, which preach an election or favoritism." Emerson sees himself as adhering to the real ethics of Jesus, not what he takes to be a commonly-accepted but distorted version of those ethics
.

Monday, March 24, 2008

I Hate You, You Hate Me, We're a Happy Family ...

No, it's not the Barney show. But it was broadcast around the world on satellite TV. The May 7, 2002, episode of the "Muslim Woman" show, filmed in studios located in Saudi Arabia, featured an example of what the program's producers considered to be good parenting. A three-year-old girl was interviewed by the program's hostess, to demonstrate her mother's good teaching.

In response to questions, the girl said that "Jews are apes and pigs, because it says so in the Koran."

This same show was part of a larger fund-raising telethon which gathered $109 million, money donated to support the families of suicide bombers. One of the telethon's hosts declared, " I am against America forever. My hatred of America is great."

One might be tempted to think that these kinds of statements are examples of the post 9/11 atmosphere in the Middle East. But long before the attacks of September 11, 2001, this kind of propaganda was being generated.

In 1979, Iran's Shah, who had favored an open and free society, was overthrown by the Islamic leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who promptly shut down the universities (where discussion and debate could take place), and returned women to a confined existence in which they must wear veils and are denied education. Khomeini began a propaganda campaign against Jews and Americans, stirring up hate. But he did more than talk. His army captured sixty-three American civilians and held them hostage for over a year.

On November 20 of the same year, in Mecca, in the Great Mosque which is a very important shrine in the Islamic faith, a group of two thousand radicals held thousands of pilgrims hostage. After two weeks of fighting, the Saudi government, aided by the French intelligence agency, and armed with blueprints of the complex of buildings surrounding the Great Mosque, finally rescued the hostages. Who provided the blueprints? An engineering company operated by Osama bin Laden.

The attack in the Great Mosque emphasized an internal tension in Saudi government and society: the moderate royal family against the radical Wahhabi Muslim leaders. These two groups had worked together, despite differences, as long as the royal family could convince Wahhabi leaders that it would support their political and social views. In 1973, the Saudi royal family funded the "World Assembly of Muslim Youth" which proclaimed that "Jews are the source of all conflicts of the world." The groups further fueled the view that the Shiite Muslims are inferior to the Sunni Muslims, and that "Muslims, Christians, and Christians cannot live together." Although the Saudi royal family found these views personally distasteful, they funded them in order to maintain political coalition which supported their rule. It was this coalition which threatened to fracture after the gunfight at the Great Mosque.

The coalition was saved by the fact that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 26, 1979. The royal family and the Wahhabi temporarily put aside their disagreements, so that they could work together to keep Afghanistan in the hands of the Muslim leaders. Nothing unites people like a common enemy!

As part of a larger strategy to keep Afghanistan in Islamic hands, the coalition also funded radical Muslim organizations in Pakistan, because it neighbors Afghanistan.

From these efforts, a series of training camps would arise in Afghanistan and Pakistan. From these camps would come the organization which would eventually kill over three thousand civilians on September 11, 2001.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Recipe for Success in Life

Many people function on a daily basis - whether they consciously express it to themselves or not - on the following principle: "figure out what you want, and figure out how to get it." This may seem like common sense; it may seem like the logical way to approach life. However, it will ultimately lead to a sense of meaninglessness and depression.

A more effective way to view one's existence is to ask: "what do other people want or need, and how can I help them get it?" This is a much more satisfying way to live.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The World Economy 2008: Factoids

Sun Microsystems, one of the world's leading computer research and development firms, was founded by Andreas von Bechtolsheim, who went on to provide the capital for the launching of Google. Bechtolsheim was born in Germany and studied at the University of Munich.

The global creativity index was created to measure how well different nations create new technology and business opportunities. The current leaders are Finland, Sweden, the USA, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and Germany.

Airbus is now the world's leading manufacturer of aircraft, and Hamburg, Germany, is now the leading aircraft-production city in the world.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Waiting for the Right Time

The Centers for Disease Control reported in August 2006 that fewer U.S. high school students are having sex, and the ones who do are less likely to have multiple partners, reports ABC news. In a 2005 survey, 46.8 percent of students said they engaged in sexual intercourse, which is down from 54.1 percent in 1991.

Figures for 2007 indicate that more students are waiting until marriage for sexual intercourse; the reasons seem to be split: some because of fear pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, others because they intend to have a satisfying and successful marriage based on mutual respect.

God, Money, Education, and Love

Most people who are marrired, or who are going to be married one day, don't want to be divorced. But how can you improve your chances of having a successful marriage?

Researchers investigating marriage and divorce have stumbled upon a peculiar phenomenon. Couples who attend church together are more likely to stay together than couples who attend separately. Edna Brown, a former psychology research fellow in U-M’s Institute for Social Research now at the University of Tennessee, led a team as part of the Early Years of Marriage project, which has followed 373 couples since 1986.

Remarkably, though there’s a distinct difference between couples who do and do not attend church together, the study found no difference in divorce rates between those individuals who attend church regularly and those who never do. A couple’s marital stability, in short, seems to depend less on whether each individual worships in church or not, and more on whether they do so together as a couple.

What else contributes to remaining married? For women, the likelihood of staying hitched increases with education level. For men, income is decisive: the more they earn, the less likely they are to divorce.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Spinning a Coin?

It's always important to keep our eyes open for "spin" when we talk about history. People tell historical narratives with a spin, with a slant or bias designed to advance their agendas and promote their viewpoints. But sometimes it's not so obvious. Let's take an example from the seemingly innocent topic of the history of American coins.

If we consider the four most commonly used coins (quarter, dime, nickel, cent), and we look at whose picture shows up on them over the years, we might see a trend: in 1950 all four contained the portraits of men. In 1960 and 1970, all four carried the images of men. By 1980, we see the introduction of a new coin: the one dollar coin carrying the image of Susan B. Anthony. By the year 2000, we find a coin bearing the image of Sacajawea, who is not only a woman, but a Native American as well! This narrative shows progress - we've gone from all men, to including women and Indians.

The above paragraph is a narrative, carefully designed to make the "old days" look narrow-minded and bigoted, and present the current time segment as more progressive. The problem is, it's not true. But most readers don't know that, and don't detect the "spin" or bias woven into the narrative.

A more complete version of the story would tell you that only women were pictured on commonly used coins until 1909: Abraham Lincoln was the first male portrayed on a coin when the penny began carrying his image in that year. Not only did coins carry the images of women, but many of them were Native Americans.

Adding those missing facts makes the story look quite different. Now, most people don't really care a whole lot about whose picture is on a coin, but this example of how the story is told is a good example of why we need to be skeptical of anybody's version of history.