Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Time Magazine Reporter Visits Brighton

[Excerpts from an article written by Joe Klein for Time Magazine] Jason Pless, a deputy police chief in one of Detroit's exurbs, thinks of himself as pretty careful and cautious person: "Politically, financially, every which way. But I guess you'd have to say I'm underwater. We bought our house for $148,000, took a mortgage for $100,000. And I think I might be able to sell it for $80,000 now."

We're at a restaurant in Brighton, Mich., 40 miles from the center of Detroit, having brunch. There are 10 of us at the table — a group of cops, firefighters, emergency responders and a few lawyers put together by Kevin Gentry, a deputy fire chief and adjunct law professor at Michigan State — and all but one of them think that their mortgages now surpass the value of their homes.

They have stories about friends and neighbors gaming the system. They are angry about the Obama Administration's giving aid to people facing foreclosure while they're playing by the rules and struggling. A lawyer named Carla Testani tells a story about a neighbor who had a brief, scheduled layoff and was able to parlay that into mortgage-rate relief from the government. "It was like she got a raise. She bought her kids a swing set." And Pless, the deputy police chief, is infuriated by his neighbors, some of whom were friends of his, who are just walking away from their mortgages — which means the banks will foreclose on their homes and lower his property's value. "It's immoral," he says. "But where's the payback? I hope the banks hunt them down."

People are freaked out. They're frustrated and anxious. They're not too thrilled with Barack Obama's policies, and the anti-incumbent, anti-Establishment mood is palpable. They can diagnose the problems, but they don't have any strong ideas about solutions. Most of the people at brunch say the government is spending too much.

Even devoted Obama supporters are frustrated with the President. "After he didn't get a single Republican vote on the stimulus package, why did he spend all year trying to get Republican votes for health care?" asks John McGraw, the former president of a small division of a power-tool company that was closed down by its European owners. "He's a smart guy. Didn't he understand what he was facing?"

McGraw has been laid off for 17 months. His wife Sally, a clerical worker, has held five jobs in the past two years and was laid off from four of them. "I've sent out maybe 4,000 to 5,000 resumes, all over the world," McGraw told me. "This is my full-time job. I do it seven days a week. I've got 2,300 rejection letters sitting in my computer; the rest didn't even bother to respond. I understand. I'm 61. They can hire someone 20 years younger than me for less money... But you wonder where this country is going. You wonder how the kids will find jobs and buy houses." Illinois is in a fiscal crisis; its deficit is nearly half the size of its budget, largely because of pension and health obligations to public employees. Taxes keep rising to close that gap. "I could go to work three days a week at Walmart, and my salary would just about cover my tax bill," McGraw says. "With all these jobs going overseas, you wonder how anybody who isn't a genius nuclear physicist is going to find work. I can't believe we're letting this happen to our country."

Introspection seems the order of the day. When you scratch just a bit beneath the surface, people stop lacerating politicians and start talking about American values. "You've got to figure that our parents wouldn't have walked away from a mortgage," Pless says. "I'm not walking away from mine. But people I know well, friends, are taking a hike, and I wonder, What has happened to us as people?"

Monday, September 27, 2010

Privacy, Anyone?

The Obama administration is developing plans that would require all Internet-based communication services - such as encrypted BlackBerry e-mail, Facebook, and Skype - to be capable of complying with federal wiretap orders, according to a report published Monday.

National security officials and federal law enforcement argue their ability to eavesdrop on terror suspects is increasingly "going dark," as more communication takes place via Internet services, rather than by traditional telephone.

The bill, which Obama plans to deliver to Congress next year, would require communication service providers be technically capable of intercepting and decrypting messages, raising serious privacy concerns, the Times said.

The proposal has "huge implications" and poses a test to the "fundamental elements of the Internet revolution," vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, James Dempsey, told the Times.

"They basically want to turn back the clock and make Internet services function the way that the telephone system used to function," he was quoted as saying.

Officials contend, however, that without new regulations their ability to prevent attacks could be hindered.

"We're not talking expanding authority," FBI general counsel Valerie Caproni told the Times. "We're talking about preserving our ability to execute our existing authority in order to protect the public safety and national security."

Internet and phone networks are already required to have eavesdropping abilities thanks to a Clinton administration law called the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, but the mandate does not apply to communication service providers - like Research in Motion, maker of BlackBerry devices.

Essentially, this move is the Obama administration's attempt to bring the Clinton-era "Carnivore" program up-to-date. In 1994, the main source of such data was email. Now we have cell phone texting and other data transmission protocols which do not fall under the email heading.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Questions About Augustine

Augustine is a Christian philosopher from the late fourth and early fifth centuries. He was born in North Africa and had a childhood that was full of mischief and trouble. After being baptized, around the age of thirty-three, his life took off in a different direction. He rose up through the hierarchy of the church culminating in his being appointed bishop of Hippo, a north African town. When Rome was sacked in 410 AD, Augustine eloquently argued as why Christians should remain faithful and not turn their backs on God, even when life turned very bleak and dark. His ideas, expressed in his two famous works, Confessions and City of God, had immense influence on medieval thinking and later Protestantism. Some of his controversial ideas include the doctrine of predestination, based on his interpretations of Paul’s writings, and original sin. Augustine was said to have a foot in both the Classical and medieval worlds. While he lived during the decline of the Roman Empire, his philosophies are often considered part of medieval thinking, and beyond. Why do so many historians, theologians and philosophers refer to Augustine as a transitional figure? What aspects of his life and ideas make him both a Classical and a Medieval figure? How is he both a product of the past, and original in his conclusions?

Monday, September 20, 2010


Although several books have been written about the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he continues to fascinate both the public and the scholars. Eric Metaxas recently released his biography of Bonhoeffer, attracting both attention and praise. Review the book, S.T. Karnick writes:

The too-brief life of the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has been the subject of much film and literary interest in recent year, and Eric Metaxas's insightful biography of this heroic figure helps us understand why. Bonhoeffer's life vividly demonstrated the natural and indeed inevitable tensions between the individual and the modern state, and it pointed toward a response based firmly in Christian thought.

Bonhoeffer is, of course, fascinating because he was part of the heroic German resistance movement which undermined Hitler's power, slowed the Nazi military advances, and saved the lives of thousands of Jews. But beyond that, Bonhoeffer is of interest because he represents the general concept of an individual human being in the face of modern statism. He specifically resisted Hitler's Naziism, but shows us also how one would resist Stalin's Leninism, Mao's Marxism, or Castro's Communism - and, less obviously, any government which absorbs more and more of the society into itself. Karnich continues:

There are two powerful presences throughout the book: Bonhoeffer himself and Adolf Hitler, as the two head for the great confrontation in which the theologian engaged in an ambitious conspiracy to kill the F├╝hrer and topple his regime. Metaxas's book make the reader acutely aware that the same nation that produced Hitler engendered this heroic opponent and many other of similar integrity.

The great irony is that one of history's most cruel dictators took power in a country which gave birth to so many defenders of freedom. Unlike Russia or China, which had no long-standing tradition of liberty, or of valuing the dignity of every individual human being, Germany's philosophical and literary heritage had boldly stated the worth of every person and every life. Hitler's militarism, his genocide, and his assault on society's freedom were a direct violation of the traditional German ethic - the ethic which gave birth to large resistance movement.

His family's unusual religious life was a huge formative influence on Bonhoeffer. The Bonhoeffers seldom attended church, Metaxas writes, but their "daily life was filled with Bible reading and hymn singing, all of it led by Frau Bonhoeffer." In addition, the children learned that a real love of God must be manifested in one's actions. "Exhibiting selflessness, expressing generosity, and helping others were central to the family culture."

Only a child raised in such a family could become an adult brave enough to face Hitler. Only a person formed by this lifestyle would have the nerve to oppose the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer went on to study theology at Berlin University, earning his doctorate in 1927, at age 21. The theological faculty was then dominated by proponents of the "historical-critical method." They had concluded "that the miracles [the Bible] described never happened, and that the Gospel of John never happened," Metaxas notes. Bonhoeffer courageously refused to accept their thinking, arguing against them politely but confidently, "on positive theological grounds," as a fellow student described it.

The intellectual honesty and integrity which Bonhoeffer demonstrated as a student would fuel his opposition to the Nazi government. At the university, Bonhoeffer's opponents had to at least respect his brilliance and genius, but the Gestapo would not care about his intelligence.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ancient Causes, Today's Effects

Harvard Sociologist Thomas Sowell reviews the contributions made by Americans of German heritage. Millions of people in the United States trace a part of their heritage back to Switzerland, Austria, or some other German-speaking land. Although less than half of our population (approximately fifty million people identify their ancestry as "mostly German," according to the Census Bureau), they represent an extremely large percentage of our Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winner, and leading scientists. Why would this one ethnic group produce most of America's technological innovators, physicists, chemists, engineers - but also poets and composers? As a sociologist, Sowell speculates that it comes from the roots of this culture:

A very substantial portion of the German immigration to America occurred when there was no Germany. It was not until 1871 that Prussia, Bavaria, Baden, Mecklenburg, Hesse, and other Germanic states were united by Bismarck to form the nation of Germany. However, the German language is recorded as far back as 750 A.D. and Germanic peoples - who do not include the Huns - as far back as the first century B.C.

It can be noted that the Goths, a Germanic group, left extensive written documents as far back as the 380's A.D. (The Huns from Asia invaded Germanic regions.) Sowell's point, however, is that there is a rich and ancient linguistic and cultural heritage at work:

In the early days of the Roman Empire, the Germans were among the barbarian warriors on the northern frontier described by Julius Caesar. Over the centuries, through the shifting fortunes of war and politics, as well as migrations, some Germanic people acquired the civilization of the Romans, and ultimately influence in the Roman Empire. In the later empire, German soldiers replaced Romans in the Roman legions, which were not often commanded by German generals, who were sometimes de facto rulers behind figurehead Roman emperors. At the same time, other German peoples on the northern frontiers of the empire continued to be a major menace to its existence. Many of the great battles in the declining phase of the Roman Empire were battles of Germans against other Germans. Within the empire, Germans were never fully accepted or fully assimilated. Intermarriage between Romans and Germans was forbidden. The Roman aristocracy referred to Germans as "blond barbarians" and denounced them for "the nauseating stink of the bodies and clothing." To some extent, Germans themselves were apologetic about their racial origins. For example, a tombstone among the Germans buried in Gaul referred to their ancestry as "part of the stain that baptism has washed away." Other Germans simply returned the resentment and hatred that Romans felt toward them.

While Sowell's interpretation of the inscription can be disputed - it was more probably the common imperfections of human nature which were "washed away," not the peculiar ethnicity - his broader point is valid: the Germans made to feel inferior and ashamed. Roman arrogance left a collective emotional wound which would take centuries to heal, if indeed it ever did heal.

More than a thousand years of history - and the evolution of language, culture, and peoples - elapsed between these early Germans and the people who began immigrating to colonial America. Modern Germany - even before it became a nation - was in the forefront of Western civilization in science, the arts, music, literature, and philosophy. It was the home of Goethe, Beethoven, Kant, and Leibniz. Technology and craftsmanship were German hallmarks. Zeiss and Voigtlander were renowned names in optics long before they (and other German names) became famous in the later era of photography.

Was it the anguish of Roman racism and hatred which drove the Germans to excel? Did they bring that focused perseverance with them to America, and thereby create America's leading role in technological progress and scientific discovery?

Germans, once disdained as inferior barbarians by the Romans, now easily surpassed Italy, where "the glory that was Rome" had become only a memory and a bitter mockery of Italian weakness, disunity, and lagging technology and economy. In a still later era, the German ancestry that some had felt ashamed of in Roman times was to become an object of fanatical worship under Hitler and the Nazis.

The Roman geo-political dominance during the first century A.D. served only as a painful contrast during the Middle Ages, when Germany took the lead in technology and culture. One need only think of Gutenberg and his printing press, Kepler and his orbits, the Fugger family and their economic conquest of the Medici, Luther and his destruction of the Papal monopoly, and other such examples, to see how the early Roman hegemony gave way to Germanic inventiveness. It was this creativity which came to America:

Emigration from the German states (and later the German nation) ebbed and flowed with historic event.

The earliest documented German presence in North America is probably the families who came to New York around 1620. There were almost certainly earlier Germans here (probably sailors), but written evidence has been lost. A steady stream of Austrians and Swiss followed as well, but in every decade, the reasons changed.

The German states of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were separately ruled by petty princes and were in a state of turmoil. The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation had created religious refugees in both Catholic and Protestant German states, and the Thirty Years' War disrupted their economies, as well as reduced the total German population by about one-third. A sever winter in 1708-09 destroyed the German wine industry for years to come. In short, the domestic problems that often stimulate emigration were present in the German state. However, there were also restrictions and prohibitions on emigration, which led to much internal migration instead.

The three classic causes of emigration (politics, economics, and religion) led some of the most skilled and talented people to bring Germanic creativity and innovation to America.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Five Parts of Freedom

The U.S. economic system of free enterprise operates according to five main principles: the freedom to choose our businesses, the right to private property, the profit motive, competition, and consumer sovereignty.

Freedom to Choose Our Businesses: In this country, the decision whether or not you should go into computer services or any other kind of enterprise (business) is basically yours alone to make. You will decide what fees to charge and what hours to work. Certain laws prohibit you from cheating or harming your customers or other people. But, in general, you will be left alone to run your business as you see fit.

Right to Private Property: Private property is a piece of land, a home, or a car owned by an individual, a family, or a group. It differs from a public building, or public property, such as the city hall, a park, or a highway, all of which provide a government service for all citizens. In the U.S. economic system, people's right to buy and sell private property is guaranteed by law. People must use the property in safe and reasonable ways, of course. In setting up computer systems for your customers, for example, you do not have the right to interfere with the electrical, telephone, or computer systems of other people.

Profit Motive: The main reason why you or any enterprising person organizes a business is to make money. You do this by earning more money than you spend. The amount of money left over after subtracting your business expenses from your business income is known as your profit. In the free enterprise system, business firms try hard to keep costs down and increase their income from sales. The better they succeed at this, the higher are their profits. Economists describe the efforts by business firms to earn the greatest profits as the profit motive.

Competition: Just as you are free to start a computer business, so is everyone else. The rivalry between sellers in the same field for consumers' dollars is called competition. If your business is profitable, it is likely that others will enter the same business hoping to be as successful as you are. They will be competing with you for the same customers. To win a share of the computer business, other sellers may try to offer more and better services, or services at lower prices. Because of the pressure of competition, business firms must constantly try to provide the best services and create the best products at the lowest possible prices.

Consumer Sovereignty: In the end, it is the customers, or consumers, who determine whether any business succeeds or fails. In the U.S. free enterprise economy, consumers are said to have sovereignty-the power or freedom to have final say. Consumers are free to spend their money for Product X or for Product Y. If they prefer Y over X, then the company making X may lose money, go out of business, or decide to manufacture something else (perhaps Product Z). Thus, how consumers choose to spend their dollars causes business firms of all kinds to produce certain goods and services and not others.

The Nazis vs. the Scouts

After Adolf Hitler seized political power in Germany in early 1933, he began to transform many areas of daily life. Within a few years, practically every normal activity in life had been in some way impacted by the Nazi government. The German people were being re-programmed to allow Hitler to have total control.

Among the many organizations targeted was the Boy Scouts. By the mid-1930's, all traces of the Scouting organization had disappeared. Why? The Nazis would not tolerate the Scouts; the reasons for this are several.

First, Scouting is an international organization. Every year, Scouts from many different nations gather at large festivals: Poland, Hungary, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, France, Holland, Luxembourg, Finland, etc. Scouts observe a total equality between nations, and cooperate in their wilderness adventures as partners. Hitler would not allow an organization which would teach young people to form constructive plans with people from other countries; the Nazis could not tolerate a spiritual of peaceful cooperation.

Second, the Scouts take an oath to "help other people at all times," the laws of Scouting state that an individual should strive to be "kind, courteous, friendly, helpful, and cheerful." But Hitler wanted young people to be aggressive, hostile, and violent.

Finally, the Scouts promise to do their "duty to God" and be "reverent." But the Nazis wanted to remove all forms of faith and religion from German society, making the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler into the highest authorities. The Nazis knew that any form of faith in God would undermine the total control of their party, and would undermine the hatred and oppression which Hitler wanted to spread through the nation.

In order for Hitler to eventually plan the Holocaust and launch brutal wars against most of the neighboring countries, he first had to reshape the beliefs of the German people, and that meant getting rid of the Scouts.