Wednesday, December 31, 2008

So what to do

In my previous post I suggested that what has happened to the economy is that we have discovered that we have been victimized by a massive Ponzi scheme. The fact that we victimized ourselves doesn't make it any better. The fact is assets we thought we had don't exist. So now what do we do?

Replace those assets! Let's assume that a total of about $3 trillion has been lost—or never really existed. What if we essentially printed that money and spread it evenly among the citizens of the US.

Here's one way to do that. Three trillion divided among 300 million people is about $10,000 apiece. Let's distribute it over a period of 7 (biblical) years. If I did it right, at 5% interest the present value of $200/month for a year followed by $150/month for 3 more years followed by $100/month for 4 more years (making a total of 7 fat years) is a bit less than $10,000. (This is what I put into my XL spreadsheet (=PV(0.05/12, 12, 50) + PV(0.05/12, 48, 50) + PV(0.05/12, 84, 100)).

Since this makes spending decisions bottom-up it is the purest market based approach to stimulating the economy. Money is not aggregated and then allocated top-down; it is spent bottom-up. Spending decisions are made at the lowest possible level by individual agents.

Each person would make his or her own decision about what to do with the money. People could spend it or save it. They could vote to increase taxes to pay for public works. Or they could let the infrastructure crumble. All the decisions are made by "the crowd."

One must hope that the citizens of the country (who form "the crowd") have learned enough from this experience to make wise decisions. And certainly it would be a good idea for public minded citizens and politicians to take this opportunity to attempt to teach the crowd whatever lessons we think should be learned. But ultimately, we have to trust the citizens to make wise decisions, or the country will always be dependent on rulers rather than its citizens.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The US Ponzi scheme

In his Stop Being Stupid column Bob Herbert makes the point that we have been a victim of our own ponzi scheme.
The mind-boggling stupidity that we’ve indulged in was hammered home by a comment almost casually delivered by, of all people, Bernie Madoff, the mild-mannered creator of what appears to have been a nuclear-powered Ponzi scheme. Madoff summed up his activities with devastating simplicity. He is said to have told the F.B.I. that he “paid investors with money that wasn’t there.”

Somehow, over the past few decades, that has become the American way: to pay for things — from wars to Wall Street bonuses to flat-screen TVs to video games — with money that wasn’t there.

Something for nothing became the order of the day. You want to invade Iraq? Convince yourself that oil revenues out of Baghdad will pay for it. (Meanwhile, carve out another deficit channel in the federal budget.) You want to pump up profits in the financial sector? End the oversight and let the lunatics in the asylum run wild.

For those who wanted a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood, there were mortgages with absurdly easy terms. Credit-card offers came in the mail like confetti, and we used them like there was no tomorrow. For students stunned by the skyrocketing cost of tuition, there were college loans that could last a lifetime.

Money that wasn’t there.
Perhaps this can give us some idea of what's happening in the economy. If you had the bulk of your savings invested with Madoff, how would you change you behavior when you discovered that your investments were gone? Would you cut back on your spending? Even if your income was unchanged? Would you want to save more to make up for the lost investments? Would you be more cautious with your savings, not taking a chance on investment opportunities that you might once have tried? Would you at least initially attempt to ensure that whatever savings you had elsewhere was safe, perhaps removing it from it current investment and putting it somewhere that you knew absolutely was safe?

Might you also reach out to others who had lost money the same way you did and attempt to form a support community? Perhaps you could provide some comfort (and perhaps more importantly in economic terms financial security) to each other even if you could no longer be sure that you could provide your own security. But would you also be more suspicious of anyone who looked like they might be trying to take advantage of you?

I suspect that many of these things are happening at the national and global scale. Those who have more time to think about it than I should work through these impulses and see what they imply for the economy and the national spirit. Some of them, like increased frugality, will reduce economic activity further. There is little we can (and little we probably should) do about it. People rightfully have become economically more conservative. That's appropriate and wise.

But I suspect that people will be more open to community activities, mechanisms whereby we can support each other, now that we all are more in need of support. But at the same time, we will be especially suspicious of anyone who seems to be taking unfair advantage of these community support systems.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Highly Evolved Propensity for Deceit

Would you trust this chimp?

From an article by Natalie Angier in the
Frans B. M. de Waal, a professor at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Emory University, said chimpanzees or orangutans in captivity sometimes tried to lure human strangers over to their enclosure by holding out a piece of straw while putting on their friendliest face.

“People think, Oh, he likes me, and they approach,” Dr. de Waal said. “And before you know it, the ape has grabbed their ankle and is closing in for the bite. It’s a very dangerous situation.”

Apes wouldn’t try this on their own kind. “They know each other too well to get away with it,” Dr. de Waal said. “Holding out a straw with a sweet face is such a cheap trick, only a naïve human would fall for it.”

Apes do try to deceive one another. Chimpanzees grin when they’re nervous, and when rival adult males approach each other, they sometimes take a moment to turn away and close their grins with their hands. Similarly, should a young male be courting a female and spot the alpha male nearby, the subordinate chimpanzee will instantly try to cloak his amorous intentions by dropping his hands over his erection.

Rhesus monkeys are also artful dodgers. “There’s a long set of studies showing that the monkeys are very good at stealing from us,” said Laurie R. Santos, an associate professor of psychology at Yale University.

Reporting recently in Animal Behavior, Dr. Santos and her colleagues also showed that, after watching food being placed in two different boxes, one with merrily jingling bells on the lid and the other with bells from which the clappers had been removed, rhesus monkeys preferentially stole from the box with the silenced bells. “We’ve been hard-pressed to come up with an explanation that’s not mentalistic,” Dr. Santos said. “The monkeys have to make a generalization — I can hear these things, so they, the humans, can, too.”

One safe generalization seems to be that humans are real suckers. After dolphin trainers at the Institute for Marine Mammals Studies in Mississippi had taught the dolphins to clean the pools of trash by rewarding the mammals with a fish for every haul they brought in, one female dolphin figured out how to hide trash under a rock at the bottom of the pool and bring it up to the trainers one small piece at a time.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

I guess it's too much to hope for that this sort of thing will stop when Obama takes office

"Cheney says Congress failed struggling automakers"
(WASHINGTON) Vice President Dick Cheney blamed Congress for failing to bail out the auto industry, saying the White House was forced to step in to save U.S. car companies.

In an interview broadcast Sunday, Cheney said the economy is in such bad shape that the car companies might not have survived without the $17.4 billion in emergency loans that President George W. Bush approved on Friday.

'The president decided specifically that he wanted to try to deal with it and not preside over the collapse of the automobile industry just as he goes out of office,' Cheney said in an interview broadcast on 'Fox News Sunday.'

Lawmakers 'had ample opportunity to deal with this issue and they failed,' Cheney said. 'The president had no choice but to step in.'
Cheney may believe that what Bush did was the right thing to do. If so, that's what he should have discussed. Why was it right—and how this case is different from most other situations in which the normal Republican position would be to keep the government out of the economy. Does Cheney have a standard that helps him determine when government intervention is appropriate?

If he discussed these issues, that would be an interesting and useful interview. It's not useful for him to say that Bush rescued the auto companies because congress failed to act. The point is not to spend all your time blaming someone else. Just talk about what went into your own decision. Perhaps Obama will be more constructive in this regard.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Big Picture -

Great series of photos from the Boston Globe: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Nuriel Roubini, aka Dr. Doom

From Power 2009: Economist Nuriel Roubini, aka Dr. Doom | Newsweek The Global Elite |
Roubini says he takes no pleasure from the current economic hardship. Still, he's not saying he'd prefer to have been wrong. 'You're glad in the sense that, if you're intellectually honest, you're found out to be right, [even if] you don't go around and gloat,' he says. Despite his prescience, he's suffered just like the rest of us: he's remained fully invested in stock index funds through the market downturn, causing his portfolio to plummet. And he has no expectation of a quick turnaround. He thinks the recession will last until the end of 2009, with the economy contracting a severe 4 or 5 percent, and unemployment peaking at above 9 percent in 2010. Stocks have further to fall, he says, suggesting the Dow could bottom out around 7,000. He's encouraged by the incoming Obama administration's talk of a big stimulus package, though, and expresses confidence that Summers and Geithner will prove aggressive recession fighters. And though critics may dismiss Roubini as permanently dour, he says that's not necessarily so. 'Eventually, when we get out of this crisis, I'll be the first one to call the recovery,' he says. 'Then maybe I'll be called Dr. Boom.' In his view, alas, that name change could be a long time coming.
Why do you suppose he did that?

Friday, December 19, 2008 member priorities

On December 17th, MoveOn members began 2 days of voting to decide our top goals for 2009. Each member was able to vote for 3 goals. Here are the final results, with the percentage of members who included each goal in their top 3. The graph below shows how many votes each goal received, as a share of the total.


  1. Universal health care 64.9%
  2. Economic recovery and job creation 62.1%
  3. Build a green economy, stop climate change 49.6%
  4. End the war in Iraq 48.3%
  5. Improve public schools 21.6%
  6. Restore civil liberties 16.8%
  7. Hold the Bush Administration accountable 15.2%
  8. Gay rights/LGBT equality 8.6%
  9. Increase access to higher education 7.6%
10. Reform campaigns and elections 5.7%
I'm impressed with this ordering. The list itself came from MoveOn. I had put Reform campaigns and elections and Improve public schools higher on my list. But I can't argue with health care, economic recovery, and environmental issues. One of the questions I considered was whether MoveOn could make a difference. It's not that civil rights isn't important. But I think Obama will do all right there without MoveOn. Also, even though ending the war in Iraq is important, I suspect that will happen at its own pace. I'm glad to see that the spirit of vengeance was way down on the list. The Bush administration should be held accountable. But that's not the most important thing to do. Let the historians worry about that. With Gay rights, I think that's important, but it's much narrower and more parochial than the other issues.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Organizations to Support

A number of us have decided to contribute to various organizations this year in lieu of presents. Here is my list.

"Who Could Have Known?"

Arianna Huffington has a piece criticizing the "Who could have know" era. She says, for example, that Iraq, Fannie Mae, Citigroup, and Bernie Madoff were each
entirely predictable. And, indeed, [each] was predicted. But those who rang the alarm bells were aggressively ignored, which is why it's important that we not let those responsible get away with the "Who Could Have Known?" excuse.
Here is the comment I posted in reply.
It would be nice if it were that easy. Just be sensitive to all the risks. But it's not. Certainly there are some things that people should have been aware of. Bush and co. were particularly skilled at ignoring information they didn't like.

But we are all now aware of the black swan effect, the possibility that something unexpected will occur that will cause a disaster. One simply cannot be aware of all the possible black swans. That's true by definition. A black swan is something one has never before seen and therefore is something for which one cannot prepare explicitly and cannot be on the lookout for. The only way to prepare for black swans is to remain strong and healthy in a generic sense. That's the best one can do. If one is sufficiently strong, healthy, resilient, and creative in times of stress, one has a good change of being able to deal with black swans when the appear even though one cannot anticipate them all.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Reader, Beware

In today's NT Times Chris Suellentrop notes (without apparent judgment)
a long essay in The New Atlantis [by] Christine Rosen [who] laments the replacement of print literacy with “screen literacy.” She concludes: “Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen savvy. The paper book, the tool that built modernity, is to be phased out in favor of fractured, unfixed information. All in the name of progress.” …

Rosen approvingly cites David A. Bell, a Johns Hopkins historian, who wrote in The New Republic in 2005 of the dangers of screen reading: “Bell cautions, ‘You are the master, not some dead author. And that is precisely where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should not be the master’; you should be the student. ‘Surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns,’ he observes.”

Screen reading is fundamentally different from print reading, Rosen argues. “Instead of a reader, you become a user; instead of submitting to an author, you become the master,
I agree that there is a difference between being "the master" and "surrendering to the organizing logic of the book." When I read a book, I want to be the master. I don't want to wait until the author is ready to tell me what he has to say. I want the message immediately, and I want to be able to use the book to find out about the message and to see how the author supports his claims. I'm not willing to sit back and wait for the author to build his argument or trot out his story. I want the information in my way.

Is this different from how people read books in the past? I suspect that I always read books that way—at least when I was reading for information. There are, of course, times when I want to surrender to the author. When I'm reading fiction, I give the author the opportunity to build the narration. I can't do that. Part of the point of fiction is that the author is in charge of the story. But that's completely different from reading for information.

When I have a book that I read for information, the most important part for me is the index. I want to be able to look up a term and find out where the author talks about it. So yes, I want to be the master. I also suspect that being the master results in better comprehension than sitting back and letting the information flow over you. It's called active learning, which is the best way to learn.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Vatican Issues Instruction on Bioethics

The Vatican issued its most authoritative and sweeping document on bioethical issues in more than 20 years on Friday, taking into account recent developments in biomedical technology and reinforcing the church’s opposition to in vitro fertilization, human cloning, genetic testing on embryos before implantation and embryonic stem cell research.
Even though I disagree with it, let's take as given the Catholic position on souls. What I find interesting and uncertain is how that position justifies the positions in this document—at least as reported in the Times.

The most obvious issue is in vitro fertilization. Why is that banned? The article quotes Josephine Johnston, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in Garrison, N.Y. as follows.
“For a married couple who go to get in vitro fertilization, the Vatican’s idea that it’s not done with a serious amount of love and commitment is very bizarre to me, because it’s such a deliberate act, done in the cold light of day, with enormous amounts of thought and intention attached to it,” she said. “The idea that it’s not done within the spirit of marital love, I find very strange.”
I wonder what the Catholic response to that is.

Although according to the Times the Vatican opposes human cloning and embryonic stem cell research it does not oppose "research on stem cells derived from adults; blood from umbilical cords; or fetuses “who have died of natural causes.” Why not? What's the difference (in soul terms) between a stem cell derived in an acceptable way and one derived in an unacceptable way? Probably more difficult is the distinction between a stem cell and a clone. As I understand it, stem cells can be programmed to become any type of cell but they cannot be programmed to become full-fledged human beings. I wonder how absolute that limit is. Will we ever be able to turn a stem cell into a human being? And if we learn how to do that will the Vatican object to research on stem cells that they now accept?

The closer we get to being able to construct a human being "from scratch" the more difficult it is likely to become for the Catholic church. What if we are able to take a bunch of chemicals, mix them up to create a cell and then nurture that cell until it is a baby. Which step in the process is the line that the Catholic church will say is the line that shouldn't be crossed?

I agree that this possibility raises some very serious ethical issues. But I don't think the answer is to be found by asking when during that process the proto-baby becomes endowed with a soul on theological grounds.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Car company costs

David Leonhardt has a great article in the NY Times about the car company costs. First of all, if you don't count the costs of retirees—which current workers obviously don't get as part of their pay package—labor costs for the big three are not that different from labor costs for Japanese automakers in the US. But even more striking, if you reduced the big three labor costs to Japanese levels, that would cut only $800 from the cost of each car. And that's because labor costs are only 10% of the cost of an automobile. That's amazing. Where does the rest of it go?

Being Good for Goodness' Sake?

The Pew Forum discusses a 2007 survey.
This holiday season, the American Humanist Association has launched a campaign featuring ads on Washington, D.C., buses that proclaim, 'Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake.' But a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project found that a majority of Americans say it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values. People in Canada and many Western European countries are much less likely to hold this view, while throughout much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East there is widespread agreement that belief in God is a prerequisite for morality. For the complete 46-country comparison, see the full report at

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

More good ways to spend the stimulus money

We all know about infrastructure. And we certainly need it. But we also need imaginative ways to spend the stimulus money we will be spending. Thomas Friedman had one suggestion. Are there others? I'm sure there are. Usually when the government spends money it invites proposals. Why not do the same thing this time. Divide the money into a number of categories such as infrastructure, labor intensive, and far out. Let people submit proposals. Start a DARPA-like stimulus agency which is given the job of finding imaginative and productive—but possibly experimental—ways to spend money that will have a positive effect on the future of the economy. I'm sure there will be lots of good ideas.

One criterion should be that the programs are primarily labor intensive. We don't want to spend money buying gold, for example. So a program gets points for doing things that require people. It shouldn't use people when technology can be used instead. But there are things only people can do, e.g., medicine, education, counseling, policing, research, software development, etc.

There are programs that deserve experimental trials, such as solar energy farms in the desert What can we learn about building solar energy farms that would be useful to know in the future? Here's our chance to find out.

Give some of the money to successful venture capitalists, not for them to spend but for them to invest as part of their portfolio as if the government is another investor.

There must be lots of good ideas out there. Let's not just spend the money on traditional government make-work programs. Let's be creative, imaginative, and productive about it.

While Detroit Slept

Thomas Friedman has a better way to spend stimulus money.
The Better Place electric car charging system involves generating electrons from as much renewable energy — such as wind and solar — as possible and then feeding those clean electrons into a national electric car charging infrastructure. This consists of electricity charging spots with plug-in outlets — the first pilots were opened in Israel this week — plus battery-exchange stations all over the respective country. The whole system is then coordinated by a service control center that integrates and does the billing.

Under the Better Place model, consumers can either buy or lease an electric car from the French automaker Renault or Japanese companies like Nissan (General Motors snubbed Agassi) and then buy miles on their electric car batteries from Better Place the way you now buy an Apple cellphone and the minutes from AT&T. That way Better Place, or any car company that partners with it, benefits from each mile you drive. G.M. sells cars. Better Place is selling mobility miles.

The first Renault and Nissan electric cars are scheduled to hit Denmark and Israel in 2011, when the whole system should be up and running. On Tuesday, Japan’s Ministry of Environment invited Better Place to join the first government-led electric car project along with Honda, Mitsubishi and Subaru. Better Place was the only foreign company invited to participate, working with Japan’s leading auto companies, to build a battery swap station for electric cars in Yokohama, the Detroit of Japan.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Pass a Pardons Disclosure Act

From American Freedom Campaign
Tell Congress to pass a Pardons Disclosure Act to prevent President Bush from issuing secretive, blanket pardons to members of his administration

For eight years, we have been forced to sit by helplessly as President George W. Bush and top members of his administration eviscerated the Constitution, broke federal laws, and defied the will of Congress.

Now, President Bush is poised to give each and every one of his accomplices -- from Dick Cheney to Karl Rove to Alberto Gonzales -- a full pardon, ensuring that they will never receive the punishments they deserve for their activities. Worse, Bush may issue a preemptive “blanket” pardon, covering all officials within his administration without disclosing either the names of the officials involved or the crimes for which they are being absolved.

Congress can, however, stop this most objectionable action before it occurs. The American Freedom Campaign has proposed a Pardons Disclosure Act, which would force the president to specifically name any political appointees for whom pardons are granted along with the crime or crimes for which they are being pardoned.

Please tell your representatives in Congress to support a Pardons Disclosure Act, by filling out your information below and clicking on “Send My Message!”

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Important warnings for Obama from Frank Rich and Tom Friedman

Frank Rich writes:
As Barack Obama rolls out his cabinet, “the best and the brightest” has become the accolade du jour from Democrats (Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri), Republicans (Senator John Warner of Virginia) and the press (George Stephanopoulos). Few seem to recall that the phrase, in its original coinage, was meant to strike a sardonic, not a flattering, note. &helliop;

[The] economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin. His appearance in the photo op for Obama-transition economic advisers three days after the election was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. Ever since his acclaimed service as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, Rubin has labored as a senior adviser and director at Citigroup, now being bailed out by taxpayers to the potential tune of some $300 billion. Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn’t notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi’s books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.
And Tom Friedman says:
We not only need to bail out industries of the past but to build up industries of the future — to offer the kind of big thinking and risk-taking that transforms enormous challenges into world-changing opportunities. That is what made the Greatest Generation great. This money can’t just go to patch up our jalopies.

“Remember, this money will not be neutral,” said Andy Karsner, a former U.S. assistant secretary of energy. “We are talking about directing an unprecedented volume of cash at our housing, energy, transportation and infrastructure industries. This cash will either fortify the incumbent players and calcify the energy status quo, or it will facilitate the economic transformation we seek. The stimulus will either be white blood cells that will heal us or malignant cells that will continue to sap our strength.” …

Let us not mince words: The Obama presidency will be shaped in many ways by how it spends this stimulus. I am sure he will articulate the right goals. But if the means — the price signals, conditions and standards — that he imposes on his stimulus are not as creative, bold and tough as his goals, it will all be for naught.

In sum, our kids will remember the Obama stimulus as either the burden of their lifetime or the investment of their lifetime. Let’s hope it’s the latter. I like that book title much better.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Civilian employment population ratio

Paul Krugman posted this graph of the ratio of civilian employment to population. But this graph is a small part of another graph posted by the Federal reserve Bank of St. Louis.

So we are now back to the level of the recession of the early 1990s—which is far above anything seen before the mid 1980s.

Friday, December 05, 2008

GM's Failed Saturn Brand Goes On The Block

From CBS News
Richard Wagoner, chief executive of General Motors, Robert L. Nardelli, chief executive of Chrysler, Alan R. Mulally, chief executive of Ford, and Ron Gettelfinger, head of the United Automobile Workers, during the House Financial Services Committee hearing on the bailout of the Detroit automakers on Friday
When General Motors unveiled the Saturn in 1990, customers loved the brand's 'no haggle pricing' policy. But they're not buying anymore. Saturn has just 1 percent of the market and GM has slapped a 'for sale' sign on the brand, as CBS News Business Correspondent Anthony Mason reports.

'They have to sell Saturn. They also probably have to do something with Pontiac,' says Kevin Tynan, senior auto analyst at Argus Research.

Tynan says the problem is simple. General Motors has eight brands and 57 models. Toyota sells nearly as many cars and trucks with just three brands and 32 models.
So my question is: does GM (or the other auto-makers) have any brands that anyone is willing to buy? If so, then have them sell them. That will minimize the impact of bankruptcy on the economy. If not, then the only reason to prop the companies up is to keep its employees—and their suppliers—off unemployment. It's essentially unemployment benefits disguised as a job. But as long as the government is paying them to work, why not get something productive from their labors, like a bridge or other infrastructure.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Without Hot Air

This image is from Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, a freely downloadable and very readable book about energy by David McKay, Professor of Physics at Cambridge. The width of a bar represents relative population size; the height per capita energy use.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why Bankruptcy Is the Best Option for GM

A great opinion piece in the
General Motors is a once-great company caught in a web of relationships designed for another era. It should not be fed while still caught, because that will leave it trapped until we get tired of feeding it. Then it will die. The only possibility of saving it is to take the risk of cutting it free. In other words, GM should be allowed to go bankrupt.

Brother can you spare a dime

NPR had a great piece on this depression-era song this morning. It was musically interesting and emotionally touching. I recommend that you listen to it and not just read the text on the web page. (To listen click the "Listen Now" directly under the headline.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

A religious basis for secular doubt

In "The value of uncertainty" I quoted Feynman on the value of uncertainty—that it's a positive value to be willing to live without knowing anything for sure. This is something that would be difficult for most religious thinkers, especially naive religious thinkers, to accept. But it need not be incompatible with religion.

First of all, the uncertainty need only apply to the secular world. One need not insist on holding that uncertainty in faith is a good.

Secondly, one can point to biblical pronouncements that man should hold dominion over everything he sees and that he should be a good steward of the land. To be faithful to those pronouncements one should understand that over which one is expected to exercise wise stewardship. To achieve that understanding requires science. And to be successful at science (as Feynman says) requires that one welcome doubt and never insist that today's answer is necessarily the answer forever.

So there is a religious argument for secular doubt. It would be very beneficial for this country if that argument would be made by respected religious leaders. To the best of my knowledge it hasn't been. At best enlightened religious leaders have said that science is not incompatible with religion. But none of them (as far as I know) have argued that science—and therefore secular doubt—is a religious good.

The value of uncertainty

In "Is religion good or bad?" I asked whether religion was good or bad. A related concept is the value of uncertainty. Here is what Richard Feynman said about it.
We scientists … take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure — that it is possible to live and not know. But I don't know whether everyone realizes that this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle. Permit us to question — to doubt, that's all — not to be sure. And I think it is important that we do not forget the importance of this struggle. …

This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason. This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under. The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, tossed out, more new ideas brought in; a trial and error system. This method was a result of the fact that science was already showing itself to be a successful venture at the end of the 18th century. Even then it was clear to socially minded people that the openness of the possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar. …

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Is religion good or bad?

Obviously that's much too broad a question. And when it is asked, people usually respond by pointing to the good and bad things people do in the name of religion—e.g., like helping those in need (good) and the crusades (bad).

But I think there is a real answer. A column by George Monbiot in The Guardian reminded me why, in general, I think religion is bad: at its core religion teaches people to favor faith over taking responsibility for one's beliefs and actions.

One can probably stop there. Is it ever a good idea to encourage people not to think for themselves? I doubt it. Even when people come to incorrect conclusions by thinking for themselves, one at least has a chance with them if they are open to the idea that one should think things through. Religion closes that door by closing people's mind. It encourages a perspective in which a given opinion is to be accepted no matter what—because it is God's will or God's word, for example. The point is not whether some particular position is or is not "God's will" or "God's word." The problem is with the idea that one should decide something by asking whether it is "God's will" or "God's word." That sort of thinking allows people to let themselves off the hook of taking responsibility for their own actions and decisions.

It's a lot easier simply to go along with the crowd or to do whatever one's religious leader says. That's true whether one is religious or not. But the problem with religion (and any cult) is that it encourages that sort of behavior. By its very definition, one of the fundamental teachings of a faith-based religion is mindless faith.

I'm finding it difficult to express how deeply angry I feel about this. A country whose citizens are trained to be meek (and sometimes not so meek) followers of their religious leaders will inevitably become a backwater of ignorance and stupidity. That's what religion is doing to this country, and I hate it for that.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A McCain heart attack

I'd like to see what would happen if a rumor started on November 3 that John McCain had a heart attack and was in the hospital in critical condition. If he and Palin win the election and if he remains in that state until after the inauguration, Sarah Palin will become Acting President until he either dies (in which case she will become President) or recovers.


1a. Build a fast LA - SF train. No.
2. Gets laying chickens out of cages. No matter what, the chickens are doomed. Yes.
3. Bonds for children's hospitals. Still have unissued authorized bonds. State can't take on more debt anyway. No.
4. Parental notification. No.
5. Probation instead of jail for drug offenses. Yes.
6. More crime stuff and more prisons. No.
7. Increases the clean-generation requirement on investor-owned utilities. Most environmental groups oppose it. No.
8. Outlaws same-sex marriage. No.
9. "Victim's rights." No.
10. Subsidize natural gas for T. Boone Pickens. No.
11. Removes redistricting from legislature. Will probably help Republicans but may make for better government and is probably a good idea. Yes.
12. Bonds to back Cal-Vet mortgages. Yes.

Danny Elfman: Battling Our Greatest Fear

From Danny Elfman
About a month ago, I found myself dropping into an all too familiar pre-election depression. I was having dinner with my wife, a writer and a journalist friend. The jovial topic of discussion was where we were thinking of moving when McCain-Palin won and the inevitable Supreme Court changes occurred. My wife and I had discussed England and my friend informed me that she and her husband had considered New Zealand.

Yes. It had seemed that bleak. Am I a pessimist? Yes, I am. That's the way I'm wired. And the last two presidential elections really nailed it for me -- big time. The Republicans, had in my opinion gotten too big, too nasty, mean spirited and ruthless to be stopped. They were able to 'copyright' the word FEAR and use it again and again to effectively hammer the American public. And the Democrats, it seemed, had become too easy to attack. Like a mismatched boxing opponent in a ring with no referee, their reactions were too slow, leaving them open to low groin shots and head butts.

In short, the Dems seemed to make lousy fighters.
So he did something about it.
I won't go into how difficult it really is to begin a political non-profit group, to understand the myriad of rules and regulations, the differences of 527 groups and PAC organizations. It's really boring....'nough said on that.

But once started, it was hard to stop. And suffice it to say, it was a great relief for my wife to see me doing something that both shut me up with my constant whining and seemed to have snapped me out of the terrible hopeless mental state I had fallen into.

So here we are a month later, with a TV ad and internet ad and a PAC called And it's interesting to see how this message is even more relevant now that the Palin effect has mushroomed to such monumental proportions.
I just gave them $100. You can too.

Please Fight Proposition 8's Assault On Same-Sex Marriage

From Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU.
I'm angry and heartsick about what may happen in California on November 4th.

In the most personal way possible, I'm asking you for a favor: help us ensure that gay couples all across California keep their fundamental right to marriage — the basic right to be treated just like anybody else.

I hope you will forgive the indulgence when I speak from the heart and tell you my personal story.

You see, I grew up in a loving and supportive household, where my family believed I could be anything I chose — anything except being an openly gay man. Neither of my parents finished high school, and yet, they believed I could accomplish all I set out to do as I went off to Princeton University and Stanford Law School.

They got me through the toughest of times, scrimped and saved, and always believed that failure wasn't in the cards for me. They had more faith in me than I often had in myself. Whenever my parents visited me at Princeton, my Dad would slip a $20 bill in my pocket when my Mom wasn't looking. I never had the courage to tell him that the $20 wouldn't go very far towards my bills, books and tuition. But, it was his support and belief in me that sustained me more than the tens of thousands of dollars I received in scholarships.

When I finished college, they were hugely proud of my — and their — accomplishments. That was until I told them I was gay and wanted to live life as an openly gay man.

Though I always knew I was gay, I didn't come out to them for many years, as I was afraid of losing the love and support that had allowed me to succeed against all odds. When I did tell them, they cried and even shouted. I ended up leaving their home that night to spend a sleepless night on a friend's sofa. We were all heartbroken.

When my Mom and I spoke later, my Mom said, "But, Antonio (that's the name she uses with me), hasn't your life been hard enough? People will hurt you and hate you because of this." She, of course, was right — as gay and lesbian people didn't only suffer discrimination from working-class, Puerto Rican Catholics, but from the broader society. She felt that I had escaped the public housing projects in the Bronx, only to suffer another prejudice — one that might be harder to beat — as the law wasn't on my side. At the time, it felt like her own homophobia. Now I see there was also a mother's love and a real desire to protect her son. She was not wrong at a very fundamental level. She knew that treating gay and lesbian people like second class citizens — people who may be worthy of "tolerance, " as Sarah Palin asserts, but not of equality — was and still is the last socially-acceptable prejudice.

Even before I came out to them, I struggled to accept myself as a gay man. I didn't want to lose the love of my family, and I wanted a family of my own — however I defined it. I ultimately chose to find my own way in life as a gay man. This wasn't as easy as it sounds even though it was the mid-1980s. I watched loved ones and friends die of AIDS. I was convinced I would never see my 40th birthday, much less find a partner whom I could marry.

As years passed, my Mom, Dad and I came to a peace, and they came to love and respect me for who I am. They even came to defend my right to live with equality and dignity — often fighting against the homophobia they heard among their family and friends and in church.

The right to be equal citizens and to marry whomever we wish — unimaginable to me when I first came out — is now ours to lose in California unless we stand up for what's right. All of us must fight against what's wrong. In my 43 short years of life, I have seen gay and lesbian people go from pariahs and objects of legally-sanctioned discrimination to being on the cusp of full equality. The unimaginable comes true in our America if we make it happen. But, it requires effort and struggle.

One of the things I love about the ACLU is that it's an organization that understands we are all in this together. We recognize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

Given what's at stake in the outcome of this election, I am personally appealing to you for help to fight the forces of intolerance from carrying the day in California next Tuesday.

If you have friends and family in California, please contact them right now, and ask them to vote NO on Proposition 8. You can send them a message here.

We need to make sure people keep in mind that gay people are part of every family and every community — that like everyone else, gay people want the same rights to commit to their partners, to take care of each other and to take responsibility for each other. We shouldn’t deny that, and we shouldn’t write discrimination into any constitution in any state. Certainly, we can't let that happen in California after the highest court in the state granted gay and lesbian people their full equality.

Unfortunately, due to a vicious, deceitful $30 million advertising blitz, the supporters of Prop 8 may be within days of taking that fundamental right away.

To stop the forces of discrimination from succeeding, we have to win over conflicted voters who aren't sure they're ready for gay marriage but who are also uncomfortable going into a voting booth and stripping away people's rights. With the ACLU contributing time, energy and millions of dollars to the effort, we're working hard to reach those key voters before next Tuesday.

If you have friends and family in California, please contact them right now, and ask them to vote NO on Proposition 8. Share this email with them. Call them. Direct them to the ACLU of Northern California's Prop. 8 webpage for more information.

Don't let other young people grow up to be afraid to be who they are because of the discrimination and prejudice they might face. Let them see a future that the generation before them couldn't even dream of — a future as full and equal citizens of the greatest democracy on earth.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." As we strive to defeat Prop. 8 and the injustice it represents, the ACLU is trying to make that arc a little shorter.

On behalf of my Mom and family, and on behalf of all the people who will never face legally-sanctioned discrimination, I thank you for being part of this struggle and for doing everything you can to help.

It is a privilege and honor to have you as allies in this fight for dignity and equality.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Tell Mukasey: Don't suppress Ohio voters.

From Credo Action.
This year, there are over 600,000 newly registered Ohio voters, but President Bush has asked Attorney General Mukasey to investigate as many as 200,000 of them. Why? Because Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has refused to use an "exact match" standard before adding these voters to the rolls.

What is this "exact match" standard? Basically, it works like this: After you fill out your voter registration card, a local or state employee has to type in your information to add you to the voter rolls, and check to see that you really exist, usually by verifying your driver's license number or Social Security number. And as you can imagine, sometimes there are typos or other disparities when the information gets entered and matched - for example, if your last name is "De la Rosa" and it got entered as "Delarosa", you would fail to meet the exact match standard, and your registration form would be invalid.

Secretary Brunner has refused to use this standard on the grounds that it would erroneously deprive tens or even hundreds of thousands of Ohioans of their right to vote. The Ohio GOP sued her a month ago to try and get the courts to compel her to use the exact match standard, but the Supreme Court ruled that they had no standing to make that case.

Now, President Bush is trying to run around the Supreme Court by getting the Department of Justice to intervene. On Friday, October 24th, Bush reportedly asked Attorney General Mukasey to investigate whether as many as 200,000 voters need to reconfirm their registrations before November 4th - which would almost certainly result in forcing them to vote provisionally.

I just signed a petition urging Attorney General Mukasey not to act on President Bush's sickening request. I hope you will, too.

Please have a look and take action.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Obama and McCain Tax Proposals

This Washington Post graphic illustrates the differences between the Obama and McCain tax plans.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

McCain lies again—apparently deliberately and shamelessly

From Talking Points Memo
CNN just played the Social Security portion of John McCain's interview with Wolf Blitzer. And two key points stood out.

First, McCain fabricated an alternative history of the 2005 Social Security battle in order to create a new tax talking points. According to McCain, and he repeated this again and again, 'the [Social Security] talks broke down because the Democrats insisted as a precondition that we raise taxes.'

That's very weird. First, there were no Social Security talks. And the Democrats didn't make any demands to raise taxes. They didn't even propose raising taxes. As many of you know, I followed that debate extremely closely. And McCain just made this stuff out of whole cloth. Really bizarre.

Second, Blitzer asked if McCain still would have favored President Bush's privatization plan, as he did in 2005, that we see how volatile the stock market it is. McCain repeatedly refused to answer the question and instead repeated the tax precondition fib. …

After standing behind privatization as recently as a few weeks ago, now McCain refuses to say he still supports it.
But he blames the tax-and-spend Democrats for preventing it from happening.

Pew Forum: Trends in Candidate Preferences Among Religious Groups

From the Pew Forum.

Shown in order of most to least favorable to Obama.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment

Before he began his recent travels, it seemed to Phil Zuckerman as if humans all over the globe were “getting religion” — praising deities, performing holy rites, and soberly defending the world from sin. But most residents of Denmark and Sweden, he found, don’t worship any god at all, don’t pray, and don’t give much credence to religious dogma of any kind. Instead of being bastions of sin and corruption, however, as the Christian Right has suggested a godless society would be, these countries are filled with residents who score at the very top of the “happiness index” and enjoy their healthy societies, which boast some of the lowest rates of violent crime in the world (along with some of the lowest levels of corruption), excellent educational systems, strong economies, well-supported arts, free health care, egalitarian social policies, outstanding bike paths, and great beer.

Zuckerman formally interviewed nearly 150 Danes and Swedes of all ages and educational backgrounds over the course of fourteen months, beginning in 2005. He was particularly interested in the worldviews of people who live their lives without religious orientation. How do they think about and cope with death? Are they worried about an afterlife? What he found is that nearly all of his interviewees live their lives without much fear of the Grim Reaper or worries about the hereafter. This led him to wonder how and why it is that certain societies are nonreligious in a world that seems to be marked by increasing religiosity. Drawing on prominent sociological theories and his own extensive research, Zuckerman ventures some interesting answers.

This fascinating approach directly counters the claims of outspoken, conservative American Christians who argue that a society without God would be hell on earth. It is crucial, Zuckerman believes, for Americans to know that “society without God is not only possible, but it can be quite civil and pleasant.”
And here's a nice review from Louis Bayard on

Here are some of the points made by commentors.
I asked my Danish friends about their high taxes, and they all agreed that the taxes were high, but in return they received excellent universal health care and wonderful public transportation and excellent education and other free and top notch public services, so no, they didn't mind the high taxes because of what those taxes brought them.
The most significant difference, however, is they expect their government to work, and when it doesn't, they clean house. They hold their public servants to account, and expect the government to run efficiently and effectively.

This Election’s Poster Child - Campaign Stops Blog -

RNC shells out $150K for Palin fashion

The Republican National Committee has spent more than $150,000 to clothe and accessorize vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her family since her surprise pick by John McCain in late August.

According to financial disclosure records, the accessorizing began in early September and included bills from Saks Fifth Avenue in St. Louis and New York for a combined $49,425.74.

The records also document a couple of big-time shopping trips to Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis, including one $75,062.63 spree in early September.

The RNC also spent $4,716.49 on hair and makeup through September after reporting no such costs in August. …

Hours after the story was posted on Politico's website and legal issues were raised, the campaign issued a new statement:

"With all of the important issues facing the country right now, it’s remarkable that we’re spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses."

Monday, October 20, 2008

Is there any point debating with William Kristol?

His column this week is so full of self-contradictions and poor thinking that it's very tempting to point them out. But the fundamental point of his column is that the Joe-the-plumbers of the country are a better guide to how to run things than anyone else. He says, for example,
Most of the recent mistakes of American public policy, and most of the contemporary delusions of American public life, haven’t come from an ignorant and excitable public. They’ve been produced by highly educated and sophisticated elites.
Does this mean that we are in agreement that the recent mistakes of American public policy have been the product of people like him (an elite) and the non-thinking fools (like Bush) who took their advice? If we agree on that, then the only question is whether this has been a good thing. Apparently Kristol likes the results produced by this combination of neo-conservative elites and Bush-the-plumber followers. So perhaps there is nothing to talk about. And I guess that his column is simply a way to demonstrate how Joe thinks, which is not very well.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tjhe framers of the constitution knew

In a nice piece in the Los Angeles Times Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes point out that our constitution was written to encode the lesson that societies need regulation. They start out talking about the financial debacle based on
largely unregulated investments known as derivatives -- which Greenspan encouraged and defended. … Greenspan's defense of these investments was based in part on an optimistic view of human nature. Excesses, he believed, would be prevented because individuals would restrain the worst of their greed and self-interest to protect their own reputations.

In a speech two weeks ago at Georgetown University, Greenspan expressed distress that this turned out not to be true. But he should not have been surprised. A rereading of American History 101 would have reminded him that the framers already went through the same rude awakening about human nature.

Greenspan's speech at Georgetown was largely a rousing reaffirmation of the vital role played by the Constitution in the growth of the American economy, but he missed the central genius of the document. It was based on a view of human behavior considerably less sanguine and idealistic than Greenspan's.

The framers did not start out as cynics or realists. The belief that Americans would be better as people and, particularly, as citizens than others had been was widely held among the revolutionaries in 1776. Frankly, it gave them the guts to throw off the English. Both Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, who later would be among the strongest proponents of strong government to channel self-interest, were more optimistic about Americans in the country's early days. No one captured the belief better than Thomas Paine, who argued that once they were independent, Americans could "begin the world over again."

Paine believed that the citizens of the new republic would learn the habit of "public virtue" -- and would suppress their individual interests for the public good. Americans rallied to this vision. And from this faith in people, the founders constructed the first version of the United States after 1776, a confederation featuring a central government left intentionally weak because the founders could not imagine that citizens and states would refuse to set aside local or personal interests for the larger good.

The result of this experiment was chaos. The nation was beset by internal factions, greed and self-dealing. The Army nearly starved to death in the field because no one would pay for it. States competed for trade advantages, preventing the creation of any semblance of a national economy.

The entire country, John Quincy Adams noted, was "groaning under the intolerable burdens of ... accumulated evils." Some Americans were even considering the restoration of a king as the only solution. The most famous founder of them all, George Washington, recognized that the problem stemmed from the rosy view of human behavior on which they had built the government.

When Greenspan said in his Georgetown speech that he was "distressed at how far we have let concerns for reputation slip in recent years," he sounded a bit like Washington, who in 1786 wrote to John Jay: "We probably had too good of an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. ... We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals." Only the intervention of "coercive power," wrote Washington, would ensure measures best suited for the common good.

What the framers had learned over the 11 years that separated independence from the Constitutional Convention was that people could not be counted on to suppress their greed and self-interest, but would pursue them relentlessly. In Philadelphia in 1787, the challenge at the Constitutional Convention became how to create the coercive power Washington had referred to without abandoning the dream of democracy -- how to frame a government that would guarantee individual liberty while protecting people from excesses caused by unbridled pursuit of that liberty. They needed, James Madison said, "a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government."

The answer they came up with was to make a virtue of the vice of self-interest. A reliance on public virtue was to be replaced by a "policy of supplying by opposite and rival interests, the defect of a better motive," Madison explained. From this flowed the original American idea of separation of powers and checks and balances. The result was the most enduring democratic government in history.

The framers left us their document, the Constitution, and a fundamental lesson in self-government that we could all benefit from recalling: Systems that count on individuals to restrain their self-interest have historically failed, but systems that anticipate and encourage the pursuit of self-interest while creating checks on it can succeed magnificently.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

"Dudes for Palin"

From the New York Times, if they can be trusted.
“You rock me out, Sarah,” yelled one man, wearing a red- checked hunting jacket as Ms. Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, strode into an airplane hangar here on Thursday. He held a homemade “Dudes for Sarah” sign and wore a National Rifle Association hat. Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” blared over the loudspeakers, and the man even danced a little — yes, a guy in an N.R.A. hat dancing in a hangar, kind of a Sarah Palin rally thing.

“I feel like I’m at home,” Ms. Palin said, looking out at a boisterous crowd of about 6,000. “I see the Carhartts and the steel-toed boots,” she said, the first reference being to a clothing brand favored by construction workers and the burly types who make up much of the “Sarah Dude” population. “You guys are great,” she said while signing autographs. …

She has been widely attacked, even by a growing number of conservatives, as being essentially unserious and uncurious. “She doesn’t think aloud. She just ...says things,” the Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote Friday. “She does not speak seriously but attempts to excite sensation.” …

The testosterone flows at many of her events. Head-banging guitar chords greet her: she entered a fund-raiser in North Carolina on Thursday to the decidedly un-dainty chords of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” “That was kinda cool,” she marveled from the stage. Everyone laughed. …

The dudes tend to make themselves noticed. “You tell ’em baby,” a man yelled out at a rally Wednesday night on a high school football field in Salem, N.H.

And Ms. Palin tells ’em, peppering her rallies with references to guy-themed stuff — hunting, fishing, hockey. She introduced her husband, Todd, as Alaska’s First Dude.

“He is a guy who knows how to work with his hands,” she said to loud applause.

Her recent events drew scruffy high-schoolers in backward baseball caps, tank-topped bikers in bandanas and long-bearded veterans in berets. They crashed the rope line for photos and autographs. “Marry me, Sarah,” a man implored in Weirs Beach, N.H., while Ms. Palin held up a tow-headed toddler and patted his little chest. She ignored, or didn’t hear, the proposal, but signed the dude’s ratty baseball cap.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The "Democrat party"

The latest Republican dirty trick is an email message pointing to a video that claims to cast doubt on Obama's citizenship. First of all, if there were anything to it, this wouldn't be an underground campaign. McCain would be howling to the winds about it. But secondly, the letter presents itself as an attempt to protect the "Democrat party" from the prospect of decades of damage. The only people in the world who use the term "Democrat party" are Republicans, and they have no interest in protecting the Democratic Party. In other words, don't believe it.

Wave Of McCain Robocalls Reported,

From Huffington Post
The McCain-Palin campaign and the Republican National Committee launched a massive robocall campaign on Thursday designed to alarm voters about Barack Obama's past association with former radical Bill Ayers. The committee may be violating state law in the process.

The call begins: 'Hello. I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC,' before telling recipients that they 'need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist, Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans.'

"Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher Not Voting for McCain

From Huffington Post: Off The Bus
It might be heartening to McCain to know that he has at least one vote in Democratic stronghold Lucas County, Ohio, but for one small fact. A download of the Lucas County voter rolls from the Ohio Secretary of State's website lists four Wurzelbachers, two in Holland, but none of them named Sam or Joe or Samuel Joseph. There's a Robert Lee and a Frank Edward Wurzelbacher, but no Joe.

Apparently, Joe the Plumber don't vote.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

President Hosts Conference on Minority Homeownership

Barry Ritholtz noted the following. Conference on Minority Homeownership
More and more people own their homes in America today. Two-thirds of all Americans own their homes, yet we have a problem here in America because few than half of the Hispanics and half the African Americans own the home. That's a homeownership gap. It's a -- it's a gap that we've got to work together to close for the good of our country, for the sake of a more hopeful future. We've got to work to knock down the barriers that have created a homeownership gap.

I set an ambitious goal. It's one that I believe we can achieve. It's a clear goal, that by the end of this decade we'll increase the number of minority homeowners by at least 5.5 million families. (Applause.)

Some may think that's a stretch. I don't think it is. I think it is realistic. I know we're going to have to work together to achieve it. But when we do our communities will be stronger and so will our economy. Achieving the goal is going to require some good policies out of Washington. And it's going to require a strong commitment from those of you involved in the housing industry.

Just by showing up at the conference, you show your commitment. And together, together we will work over the next decade to enable millions of our fellow Americans to own a piece of their own property, and that's their home.

I appreciate so very much the home owners who are with us today, the Arias family, newly arrived from Peru. They live in Baltimore. Thanks to the Association of Real Estate Brokers, the help of some good folks in Baltimore, they figured out how to purchase their own home. Imagine to be coming to our country without a home, with a simple dream. And now they're on stage here at this conference being one of the new home owners in the greatest land on the face of the Earth. I appreciate the Arias family coming. (Applause.)

We've got the Horton family from Little Rock, Arkansas, here today. Actually, it's not Little Rock; it's North Little Rock, Arkansas. I was corrected. (Laughter.) I appreciate so very much these good folks coming all the way up from the South. They were helped by HUD, they were helped by Freddie Mac. Obviously, they've got a young family. And when we start talking about owning a home, a smile spread right across the face of the dad that could have lit up the entire town of Washington, D.C. (Applause.) I appreciate you all coming. Thanks for coming. He had to make sure I knew that he was educated in Texas. (Laughter.)

Finally, Kim Berry from New York is here. She's a single mom. You're not going to believe this, but her son is 18 years old. (Laughter.) She barely looked like she was 18 to me. And being a single mom is the hardest job in America. And the idea of this fine American working hard to provide for her child, at the same time working hard to realize her dream, which is owning a home on Long Island, is really a special tribute to the character of this particular person and to the character of a lot of Americans. So we're honored to have you here, Kim, and thanks for being such a good mom and a fine American.
Is the wild-eyed liberal who said that responsible for the housing bubble and the subprime mess? It was George W. Bush.

Empty space full of mass!

In his current column in American Scientist, Brian Hayes points out that the
three quarks inside a proton account for only about 1 percent of the proton's measured mass; all the rest of the mass comes from the energy that binds the quarks together. We already knew that atoms are mostly empty space; now we learn that the nuclei inside atoms are mere puffballs, with almost no solid substance.

Monday, October 13, 2008

McCain should "Fire the Campaign" — and support Obama

William Kristol writes,
It’s time for John McCain to fire his campaign. …

McCain should stop unveiling gimmicky proposals every couple of days that pretend to deal with the financial crisis. He should tell the truth — we’re in uncharted waters, no one is certain what to do, and no one knows what the situation will be on Jan. 20, 2009. But what we do know is that we could use someone as president who’s shown in his career the kind of sound judgment and strong leadership we’ll need to make it through the crisis. …

At Wednesday night’s debate at Hofstra, McCain might want to volunteer a mild mea culpa about the extent to which the presidential race has degenerated into a shouting match.
I agree. But instead of re-organizing his campaign, McCain can do himself and the country a lot of good by withdrawing and urging everyone to support Obama.

As a country we need to come together, to stop fighting each other, to heal, to regain the respect of the rest of the world. The first step is to respect ourselves. McCain can help. By taking this very difficult step not only with he will strengthen the country, he will help himself as well.

McCain has virtually destroyed his reputation for honesty and integrity during the campaign. Instead of country first, he has acted as he believed that winning by any means—even by destroying the country—is most important. By withdrawing from the campaign, he establish himself both as the maverick he wants to be and as a man of strength, honor, and courage.

Perhaps McCain thinks that a good soldier (or fighter pilot) never gives up. But this is not giving up. It's doing something more difficult—acknowledging that the best thing for the country is to terminate his campaign right now. Does McCain really believe in "country first?" If so, this is how he can demonstrate it.

Besides, in the very unlikely event that McCain were to win, he would become president of a country, a majority of whose citizens would feel that the election had been stolen. That's not a good way to start a presidency.

Senator McCain, do what's best for the country. Withdraw and throw your support to Obama.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

McCain's campaign manager is almost as good at answering questions as Palin

From - Transcript: Rick Davis, David Axelrod on 'FOX News Sunday' with Chris Wallace
WALLACE: Well, Rick Davis, let me bring you in. It is a fact that has been reported by reporters who have been at these rallies that some people in the crowds—not the majority, but some people in the crowds have been saying, 'Terrorist, kill him, off with his head.'

Do Palin and McCain bear some responsibility for, in their ads and their campaign stumps, calling Obama a liar who pals around with terrorists?

DAVIS: Look, Chris, I think we have to take this very seriously. And the kind of comments made by Congressman Lewis, a big Obama supporter, are reprehensible.

The idea that you're going to compare John McCain to the kinds of hate spread in the '60s by somebody like George Wallace is outrageous.

Where was John McCain when George Wallace was spreading his hate and segregationist policies at that time? He was in a Vietnam prison camp serving his country with his civil rights also denied. Nobody knows sacrifice like John McCain does.
Lewis said that he was
deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign [and that the Republican running mates are] playing with fire.

What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse.

During another period, in the not too distant past, there was a governor of the state of Alabama named George Wallace who also became a presidential candidate. George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights. Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Prescience: what we need in a President

Gay Marriage Is Ruled Legal in Connecticut

The Connecticut supreme court certainly did the right thing. But what I think is most interesting about the case was that
it was the first state high court ruling to hold that civil union statutes specifically violated the equal protection clause of a state constitution.
Civil unions, according to the court, violate the equal protection clause because they are not called marriage and only heterosexual couples are eligible to be married. That creates an obvious way out of this culture clash. Connecticut (and all other states) should simply stop "marrying" people. Then there won't be any such thing as state-defined marriage that only heterosexual couples can enter.

Let states issue civil union certificates to any couple who are otherwise qualified. There is no need for the state to define what marriage means. If religious organizations want to do that, let them. It's not the state's business. What matters legally are the rights and privileges defined by a civil union. Let the state worry about that issue, and let others worry about the word marriage.

This would also solve the problem of the marriage penalty. Since there would be no legally defined marriages, there would be no married filing status. Of course the federal government could change the tax law so that anyone in a civil union would pay at the married rate. But I'll bet it would be very hard for congress to do that!

Debora asked what would happen if in a religious ceremony someone married multiple partners—but took only one of them as a civil partner. Would that be considered polygamy? What if a married couple who were also civil partners dissolved their civil partnership but not their marriage—or vice versa? What about a Catholic couple who remain married in the church but divorced civilly? And what if one or both of them hooked up civilly with other partners, while still remaining married in the church? Would religious marriages have any weight in intestate estates?

One could imagine all sorts of issues that would arise. But it would be interesting to explore them.

McCain's temper

I'm surprised this hasn't been more of an issue. The following is from Michael Kinsley,
For this entire presidential campaign, the media have been waiting for John McCain’s famous temper to explode. A few small examples have been reported without anyone trying to make a big deal about it. The rule seems to be that if he can keep it bottled until November 5, he’s home free. But if he explodes in the interim, it becomes an official issue. This isn’t completely nuts. If he can’t hold it in for just the few months he is under maximum scrutiny, then he has a real problem. Otherwise, hey—Bill Clinton also had a temper, it was said, along with other uncontrollable passions.

Until recently this anger business didn’t bother me much. There is a lot to be angry about. Furthermore, I was not confident that McCain’s anger passed the whose-ox-is-gored test: As an Obama supporter, would I be equally alarmed if my preferred candidate had anger issues? (Which some folks say he does, by the way.) Then I heard the following story.
Click here for the rest.

Friday, October 10, 2008

From the politics of hate to the politics of respect?

From the
When a man told [McCain at a rally that] he was “scared” of an Obama presidency, Mr. McCain replied, “I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Senator Obama to be, but I have to tell you — I have to tell you — he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.” The crowd booed loudly at Mr. McCain’s response.

Later, a woman stood up at the meeting, held at Lakeville South High School in a far suburb of Minneapolis, and told Mr. McCain that she could not trust Mr. Obama because he was an “Arab.”

Mr. McCain replied: “No, ma’am, he’s a decent family man, a citizen, who I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. And that’s what this campaign is all about.” At that, the crowd applauded. …

At one point, after a voter told him he wanted to see a “real fight” at the debate and the crowd responded with a roar, Mr. McCain replied, “We want to fight, and I will fight, but we will be respectful.”

Then he added, “I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments, I will respect him.” The crowd interrupted Mr. McCain to boo, but he kept talking. “I want everyone to be respectful and let’s make sure we are, because that’s the way politics — —”

At that point, Mr. McCain was drowned out by applause.
McCain seems to have become aware that winning isn't everything. That's good. McCain can secure his place in history—and his reputation as a maverick by announcing his withdrawal from the race and urging his backers to support for Obama. That would be a tonic the country needs, and one for which McCain could truly take credit.

At this point what does he have to lose. He is almost certain to lose the election. Why not end the campaign in a way that will make the country stronger — and that will enhance his reputation as well.

We are at a turning point in history. (We always seem to be, but this is a sharper turn than usual.) Our strength as a country is at a low point. We are disrespected in the world. The economy is in serious trouble. This is the time for the country to unite and heal itself and to pull the rest of the world back from a brink. McCain can be an agent of "the change we need," the change from the politics of hate to the politics of respect.

Palin as the prototypical Republican

David Brooks: [emphases added]
Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads.

Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

Republicans developed their own leadership style. If Democratic leaders prized deliberation and self-examination, then Republicans would govern from the gut.

George W. Bush restrained some of the populist excesses of his party — the anti-immigration fervor, the isolationism — but stylistically he fit right in. As Fred Barnes wrote in his book, “Rebel-in-Chief,” Bush “reflects the political views and cultural tastes of the vast majority of Americans who don’t live along the East or West Coast. He’s not a sophisticate and doesn’t spend his discretionary time with sophisticates. As First Lady Laura Bush once said, she and the president didn’t come to Washington to make new friends. And they haven’t.”

The political effects of this trend have been obvious. Republicans have alienated the highly educated regions — Silicon Valley, northern Virginia, the suburbs outside of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Raleigh-Durham. The West Coast and the Northeast are mostly gone.

The Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it’s 2-to-1. With tech executives, it’s 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it’s 2-to-1. It took talent for Republicans to lose the banking community.

Conservatives are as rare in elite universities and the mainstream media as they were 30 years ago. The smartest young Americans are now educated in an overwhelmingly liberal environment.

This year could have changed things. The G.O.P. had three urbane presidential candidates. But the class-warfare clichés took control. Rudy Giuliani disdained cosmopolitans at the Republican convention. Mitt Romney gave a speech attacking “eastern elites.” (Mitt Romney!) John McCain picked Sarah Palin.

Palin is smart, politically skilled, courageous and likable. Her convention and debate performances were impressive. But no American politician plays the class-warfare card as constantly as Palin. Nobody so relentlessly divides the world between the “normal Joe Sixpack American” and the coastal elite.

She is another step in the Republican change of personality. Once conservatives admired Churchill and Lincoln above all — men from wildly different backgrounds who prepared for leadership through constant reading, historical understanding and sophisticated thinking. Now those attributes bow down before the common touch.

And so, politically, the G.O.P. is squeezed at both ends. The party is losing the working class by sins of omission — because it has not developed policies to address economic anxiety. It has lost the educated class by sins of commission — by telling members of that class to go away.

A Conservative for Obama: My party has slipped its moorings. It’s time for a true pragmatist to lead the country.

Wick Allison is the former editor and publisher of the National Review.
I now see that Obama is almost the ideal candidate for this moment in American history. I disagree with him on many issues. But those don’t matter as much as what Obama offers, which is a deeply conservative view of the world. Nobody can read Obama’s books (which, it is worth noting, he wrote himself) or listen to him speak without realizing that this is a thoughtful, pragmatic, and prudent man. It gives me comfort just to think that after eight years of George W. Bush we will have a president who has actually read the Federalist Papers.

Most important, Obama will be a realist. I doubt he will taunt Russia, as McCain has, at the very moment when our national interest requires it as an ally. The crucial distinction in my mind is that, unlike John McCain, I am convinced he will not impulsively take us into another war unless American national interests are directly threatened.

“Every great cause,” Eric Hoffer wrote, “begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” As a cause, conservatism may be dead. But as a stance, as a way of making judgments in a complex and difficult world, I believe it it is very much alive in the instincts and predispositions of a liberal named Barack Obama.