Sunday, April 30, 2006

Who's Counting?

Since I didn't grow up Buddhist or Hindu, I got a rather poor, but maybe typically American exposure to the term "karma"...from the Beatles. It seemed like it was a score card. I didn't notice anyone treating the concept much differently than the Christian and Jewish notions that only your good deeds would be able to speak up for you when you wanted to pick your destination at the Afterlife Travel Agency.

My dear old dad often acknowledged any little sacrifices or labors I volunteered for with a warmly mock-cynical "You'll get your reward in heaven". Which I soon enough recognized to mean "you might as well feel good about it 'cause that's all your getting". Grown up, I find no evidence whatsoever of a tit-for-tat, or any commerce at all in deeds and fates. You only see those things if you want to and can block out all contrary events.

If others can just see what they like to see, why can't I? I don't really know what karma is but here's what I'd like it to be:
Karma as I see it operate, is not anyone else’s bookkeeping: it is you wearing out your own potential to be a force beneficent to all creatures….or building up your potential. Each kindness you knew you could have done but declined to do wears away a bit of your own faith in yourself. Either way , the records are kept in your own soul, inked as the force of habits, in much the way your care in maintaining your car is recorded when it is breaking down at 45k miles …or going strong at 150k miles.

This definition leaves me a little room for tshuvah, but a last minute change of heart will do me no good. And the insanity plea for the feeble minded seems to apply.

But who's counting?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The General Problem With Rumsfeld

The general problem with Rumsfeld is that everybody wants to know what is the significance of a steady stream of generals denouncing Rumsfeld's botched followthrough on the initial military successes in Iraq, an eighth general in the last two days. These old soldiers have better records than Rummy at leading a big fight. And, nearly alone among the administration's hawks, Rummy at least has a military record so you'd expect the generals had to overcome an extra pang of conscience to speak aginst him. A few on the left dismiss their calls for resigntion as too little too late. And we've had our hopes for his departure dashed before[grep "two years too late"]. March a mile in their boots before you say that. Even O'Reilly has beaten up Kristol on the air about the accountability of the secdef. [now THERE we have a case of too little too late!] We liberals can't take too much joy in this humliation of a man who is incapable of humility. I scoured the conservative blogs for some cogent defense of Rumsfeld and found little more than "Not staying the course signals weakness, admits failure!" This is an idiotic defense beause it amounts to saying we will just keep trying to run with our pants down and hope nobody notices. Palast has the most bruising rationale for Rummy to stay on. But even he doesn't have much of an appreciation for the circumstances of these generals who all got to watch Shinseki twisting slowly in the hot air wafting from Rummy's pentagon. The swiftboating attempts, such as rumors the generals have been paid to talk, are getting lead canoe results. Gelb has a perspective that I find more credible than most.

To understand a moment in history, you need to look at more than the bloody wreck of that moment. It helps to consider the formative experiences of the actors in this moment of history.

These generals have made the defense of their country their life's work. Several of these men have been in battles and manage to sleep with the memory of men they have sent in to battles. Aside from fortitude, intelligence, self discipline and political skills of a good executive, military men raise to the rank of general with years of having internalized a value not so prized in civil society: a feelingof bone-deep fidelity and obligation to the men you fight with and the men who give you orders. I was listening to a segment on NPR's Morning Edition yesterday where they discussed the family discord that arose in families of soldiers dispatched to Iraq, some now going for a third tour: spouses seriously questioning if they were loved or being abandoned. Imagine the character of a man who had dealt with this tug of emotions intermittently throughout of his career? They may speak of it as patriotism but the operation of these reflexes is more short range and most strongly effects their relation to superiors and comrads. I have no romantic ideals about generals. These are men who can plan on the basis of "acceptable losses" but they would never have gotten anywhere if the planning they were responsible for throughout their careers had not worked: planning is what generals do. It is a safe bet that as a professional matter, they despise those who lose through a lack of planning.

Such men now speak up. It cannot have been easy for them to break ranks even if they consider the facts of the matter compelling about Rummy: in the culture of the military, you eat your complaints quietly and bad mouthing the brass is bad form and seldom done when sober. When you put yourself in the boots of these men and realize just who is talking, you might even ask why did they speak up? They have retired, relaxing the bond of obedience but they cannot as easily escape the bond of fidelity to their former peers and subordinates. I suspect one thing that pries open those pursed lips is their allegiance to those who fight on, overexposed to danger because Rumsfeld and his ideologues tossed out years of planning the military had made for stabilizing the captured territory. You don't have to agree with the original plans to appreciate the motives here.

Those of liberal stripe who always opposed the war in Iraq can't take too much comfort in a few good men calling Rummy on his bullshit mismanagement: The war these gentlemen would have fought would have been more successful but still, it would have been a war. Their dissent is not our dissent. Our dissent rises from roots that say most wars are wasteful exerciseses entred into for dumb reasons. Our dissent recognized early that Rumsfeld was a cold, arrogant man who should not be entrusted with a capacity to get tens of thousands of people killed because his character flaws precluded reckoning war plans in human terms. The secretary of defense has a vision thing: robots and computer networks and instant dataflows up from sensors and down from commmanders. The generals labored under the secdef's desktop war to transform the military. The generals have a provison thing: you provide adequate troop strength and overwhelming firepower advantages, you secure your supply lines and most of all, you provide for the peace or the war is never over.

The about face of commentators like Andrew Sullivan [who lists a few other conservatives that he now joins in this belated rethinking] is NOT what the generals have engaged in. While it may be a source of glee to watch a neocon ideologue and a rightwing gasbag fight over the crumbs of an historical trend they were heralding only a year ago, we who never bought the lies and rationales should pause to think and curb our delight at the emerging disillusion of senior military commanders. A military career that includes combat leaves one with few illusions one hasn't willed upon himself. What we witness here is more in the nature of dissolution. The faithfulness of these officers no longer sufficing to bind them to a rotting enterprise, the facade of unity is crumbling. It is a sad thing. And our enemies have already read the signal.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

World's Most Obvious Snark Bait

The news that the news from the witless whitehouse will come spinning out of a new mouth has underwhelmed the liberals and comforted the tighly knit conservative community. A press secretary for Dubya perfectly groomed for the job by being a Fox news orifice. How poetic! How surprising!

I think this appointment will give a whole new meaning to the phrase "Snow Job".

...or maybe not.

Why science loses in public what it has won in the lab

I am coming to a realization that the arena in which public opinion is fought over is anything but fair, open minded, considerate or even grounded on the most basic understanding of how science, as an agnostic discipline, goes about finding answers. In those matters where science should have some weighty insights to add to the debate, it enters the arena with one hand tied behind its back. The newspapers, most news-and-opinion blogs and even Fox News all try, relative to their own sometimes narrow world views, to get clear answers for their audiences. The scientifically unprepared news writer can't even "report the controversy" without making fact-sausage by giving the preacher and the geneticist each a 150 word sound bite.

The scientist may admit, but if honestly hewing to process rather than answer will at least discover, that all science ever does for certain is eliminate answers and refine questions. In a winner take all match with parties that wield certain truth before a market that wants certain truth, the scientist taking care to have the tentativeness of a scientific finding captured in the sound bite will mostly lose.

It is not just a problem of inconclusive sounding questions pitted against alluringly simple twaddle and politically acceptable religious cant. It is a failure to equip voters with the awareness that a good question tells you more about the world than a simple answer. That audience needs an education that leaves it able to function when asked to make its decisions on "the preponderance of evidence" or the "best theory we have" rather than falling for one-sentence offers of "truth".

A list of the issues where the science has better claim to guide us than any other source is long with some items absolutely critical to human survival. It would have to include global warming, the need to eliminate toxic byproducts of industry entering the environment, the imbalance of human population with its dwindling resources, vaccinations etc, a long and vital list. I blog this generalization because the disadvantage of the scientific point of view is turning up frequently as I think through various posts I am drafting. It is a meta-problem to so many other problems and one to be tackled explicitly if we are going to make progress in any of those vital debates.

UPDATE: I found this great quote from a scientist the Bushies tried to muzzle for his sounding the alarms loud and early regarding global warming: Hansen is interviewed in MIT's Tech Review
He often employs a favorite quote from the late physicist Richard Feynman to explain his approach: "The only way to have real success in science ... is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what's good about it and what's bad about it equally. In science you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty." Hansen invariably points out the shortcomings in his own arguments. When another scientist presents only the points that support his conclusion, Hansen will chide him for acting "like a lawyer."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

One Man's Dignity is his Neighbor's Indignity

We sat shiva for the father of a friend recently. That is a grieving ritual, a well worn and thoroughly worked out tradition you could think of as an extended wake. A central facet of any such proceeding is to crystallize and share memories of the departed, cementing the residue of their existence and their nature into the minds of the living. The recountings on this occasion were memorable indeed. The gentleman had a hard life but surmounted his difficulties and took it as his mission that his hard work and endurance would spare his family from the privation that marred his early life. He reached his mid eighties having succeeded in this. But, missing the purpose his recently deceased wife had given his life, racked with pain and gaunt from a cancer that would have killed him in a few weeks, he had gathered his last bit of strength to go out in his garden and shoot himself. He had not acted impulsively, dispatching his ever-present care givers on an errand to provide himself the opportunity. He had been a member of the hemlock society. The note he left was clear and entirely in character: he knew what remained of his days would only be burdensome for all. But despite the purposeful and fitting end of his stay here, his neighbors murmured constantly of the "scandal". This was a man's last willful act and clearly more dignified than the passive default option. All that medicine could do for him at that point was let his consciousness dissolve into a cloud of morphine induced stupor...and take another bite out of any savings he had left. One should not have to beg the right of choice, one should just choose. Many suicides are tragic mistakes but to me, this clearly was not. I have no idea what statistical company this man has among his peers but I doubt he is alone.

What prompts me to blog this event is the reaction of his neighbors. Like many people in his stage of life, he lived in a retirement/assisted living community. His neighbors were his peers and have better cause than any other group to ponder the reality of the reaper patiently waiting at the gates. Why did they all talk in whispers as if it were some terrible sin for the man to take arms against the sea of troubles? My theory is that right to the end, most people can not face mortality honestly. Rather than think through that last bit of life, right to the point where thinking stops, too many leap over that most uncomfortable and most universal inconvenience and think about somehow living for ever.

There is hardly a greater indignity you can impose on those who live in denial of death than to expose their fear of death by purposely ending your own life.

And the indignity is so onerous that those who insist on operating in a state of self administered intellectual anesthesia would invoke law and hellfire to take away the choice rather than deal with that eloquence that can have no rejoinder.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Irreducible Beauty

I was enjoying a spirited discussion with my study group recently. The topic was not so much Dennett's Breaking the Spell as it was the concerns that book raises in the minds of liberal but religious thinkers. My memory and paraphrasing could not possibly do justice to the range and depth of the discussion but one thought sticks with me like a warm mitten on a cold day.

More or less, the discussion had come to the question of whether or not, despite his disclaimers, Dennett had an agenda to deconstruct religion and just leave it in pieces. The concern was that analyzing the mind and probing religious experience with the expectation of finding only Darwinian workings might succeed [we all doubted that such investigation had a usable body of data to work with] and would then give a basis to discount all the comforting internal transformations that some people work upon their experiences as they practice their religion. In other words the prospect of a mechanistic rationalization of religious experience , whatever the benefits of that experience, posed the much greater risk that the frankly emotional connection that some people sense between themselves and their world could be shown to be illusory in some way, their awe a misapprehension that would evaporate, even from the minds that had taken comfort in the illusion.

With some abstentions, we were roughly of two points of view about this. Some considered the risk real or perhaps that the risk was not so high but the proposed rationalization was a slightly obscene attempt to lay bare in generalizing theories what was always intensely personal...and the attempt would fail to do anything but annoy. The faction in which I found myself was more sanguine. Our experience has been that understanding refraction does not cause us to cease admiring rainbows. Our experience has been that working out F=GM1M2/r2 has not stopped us from staring with a curious longing into the night sky where Mars has predictably come into alignment with Jupiter. Wonder is not so frail nor do we sense that probing the complexity at work beneath the surface of beauty tarnishes the beauty. Perhaps it all comes down to what we each make of awe and whether, when struck by the beauty of something, our very next thought is a kind of gratitude or a kind of curiosity. If you see no beauty in the world, why imagine a god? Just to have someone else to blame?

I consider those of us who trust there is irreducible beauty in this world to be the lucky ones.

I dearly love and revere each mind in that study group. They often lead me into the realms where I suspect no one has, or could have, the knowledge to settle a matter absolutely. I would not seek to change any mind that is so willing to level with mine and speak respectfully and plainly. I need differences of thought and experience so much more than I need another me.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Wired for priests

It was at least as early as 1996 that Harvard Medical School researcher Herbert Benson had concluded that human neurology and physiology not only incorporated mechanisms that provided measurable medical benefits from meditation but that we were "wired for god". That coinage is wonderfully vague, inviting some rather poorly supported speculations and a host of easily faulted "theory of everything" writings for a topic we only barely begin to understand.

Lately Dennett has suggested an even more aggressive examination of religion , an investigation that could not be comfortably lodged in a department of sociology, social psychology or some seminary's Comparative Religion survey course. I see the "wired for god" contentions as one set of findings that would emerge from the exploration Dennett challenges us pursue. I am not the one to pursue it but we are all the ones to benefit from the pursuit. It could go either way: What if hard science sets out to determine if our propensity for setting up divisive belief systems around supernatural agents is universal because the evolution of our brains is incomplete or cognitive functions bog down without some sleight of mind to leap the knowledge gaps and the research gets a negative result, failing to find any plausible "god genes"? The faithful will have something to crow about then. Science stands ready to take that one should stand in the way of that trial. As an old software engineer with bills to pay, I am almost relieved to admit such research is beyond my means as a scholar. My fascination with scientific theories about religion as an artifact of mind will remain avocational not just because its going to be hard and contentious academic work but becuase I figure a body could starve to death writing grant proposals to turn over the rock of ages in search of the neurological and psychological critters that lurk under it.

Not that I don't have lots of my own observations and self-satisfied thoughts about what a "man-made" [a phrase conventionally held to be gender neutral, but the gender reference in this case is quite intentional] character most gods and religions exhibit. Granted that I experience most religions from an outsider's perspective. I join nearly all such outsiders in noting certain features are, with little stretching, found to be common among most major religions. Among these features one might include: permanence of soul, a scheme of metaphysical or supernatural rules that govern the world we sense and inhabit and with which the "morality" of our actions in this world are entwined. I am sure I had a lot of quiet company when I began decades ago to think of religion in an evolutionary framework. My incapacity for belief does not, in my mind, invalidate anyone else's experience but I want, and may have a right, to live in a safe social environment. If I ran the circus, I'd reinvent the hopeful suggestion that the beneficial programs and insights of religions could be skimmed from their traditional packing, cleaned/translated from their inbred jargon and set side by side, added to the benefits of mankind without taxing the beneficiaries to repay by professing to "believe" any hokum or buy robes and temples for some preisthood. The UUs and the Baha'is [at horrific cost to themselves in Islamic states] have taken steps in that direction.

My purpose here is not to promote any existing or new universal religion. Though I personally expect the world would be a happier place under some more inclusive creed, most of humanity is already quite resolutely entrenched with one belief system or another. Moreover, I don't know of any political or cultural environment that is ready to host such progress. Humans do not yet have anywhere a civil society curious enough to grow our religions. I only mention this possibility to underscore a point that is implicit in all these findings and expositions about organized religion being a general trait of human behavior. Just as some common ethics might be filtered from the positive precepts and programs of the various existing religions, there might be some common negatives we could study how to avoid. I think those negatives are among the stumbling blocks to the evolution of religious thought away from fundamentalism.

I just want to argue that the good from our apparently evolved appetite for deities and such comes with a bad: our appetite for unquestionable leaders who are actually just other ordinary humans. We are wired for priests as much as we are wired for god. We may be so hungry to find god or so ready to set down the burden of personal existential responsibility that we suspend normal caution in placing our trust in would-be guides to the holy. The organized priesthoods know it and use it. The mythic schemes become fused with the power pyramids that promote them which renders objective study or progressive refinement almost impossible. I hate to extend an overlong essay but I expect few readers here are steeped in any particular religion and might therefore want examples of that claim. The least offensive evidence for that claim is a bit of church history illustrating the contrapositive: less authority heirarchy enables progressive religion. Consider the Puritans. In the 20th century, in the country the Puritans helped found, the very name became a synonym for overstrict, prudish, even obsessive observance. That is ironic. This snip from Wikipedia's article on congregationalism shows a sweeping evolution the Puritan churches enabled by shuning hierarchy with a congregational form of governance [yes!, UU's are descended from Puritans sure as you are descended from apes]:

Congregationalists include the Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which were organized in union by the Cambridge Platform in 1648. These settlers had John Cotton as their most influential leader, beginning in 1633. Cotton's writings persuaded the Calvinist theologian John Owen to separate from the Presbyterian church, after which he became very influential in the development of Congregationalist theology and ideas of church government. Jonathan Edwards, considered by some to be the most important theologian ever produced in America, was also a Congregationalist.

The history of Congregational churches in the United States is closely intertwined with that of the Presbyterian church, especially in New England where Congregationalist influence spilled over into the Presbyterian church. The first colleges and universities in America, including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Amherst, all were founded by the Congregationalists, as were later Carleton, Grinnell, Oberlin, and Pomona.

Without higher courts to ensure doctrinal uniformity among the congregations, Congregationalists have been more diverse than other Reformed churches. Despite the efforts of Calvinists to maintain the dominance of their system, the Congregationalist churches, especially in New England, gradually gave way to the influences of Arminianism, Unitarianism, and transcendentalism. Thus, the Congregationalist churches were at the same time the first example of the American theocratic ideal and also the seed-bed from which American liberal religion and society arose.

I look at what I have written so far and I am saddened. I am talking about organized religion as if all it ever produced was pogroms, inquisitions, jihads, crusades and witch burnings. I read Merton. I know who Mother Teresa is. There are sutras full of light sitting next to Sufi wisdom literature on my shelf. The few congregational spiritual leaders I know personally are people with worldly sensitivities and a commitment to doing good in this world. I can't deny their good any more than others can deny the evils and piles of victims of organized religion down through the ages. Why on earth or heaven wouldn't people want to get to the bottom of that? What dent have forays into ecumenism made in this Jekyll and Hyde record to date?

Though a debate now rages *over the merits of Dennett's premise, its a debate with no material losers. Whether one wishes to believe our hunger for god is god-given or one argues that it must have evolved, neither are claiming that on the whole, it is unhealthy for us. The "wired for god" idea that preceded it was, after all, arrived at by studying the physical benefits of a spiritual practice. The harms such as sectarian violence and intolerance cited by critics of religion-as-practiced also arise from the merely human, the evolved and the explainable traits of us upgraded cousins of the chimpanzee. Or so I contend. And I am 100% with Dennett in asking why we are so afraid to try the contention, to discover or prove false any principles that might account for why the mind is such a willing Petri dish for the growth of religious notions.

The little contribution I'd like to suggest is that before we go dissecting the selection pressures, the genetic and cultural elements that dispose us to find deity, we first excise the better understood alpha males and alpha females that generally show up at the hub of any belief system's institutional operations. The human authority structures of the various faiths share more features than the structures of divine action those faiths project onto the heavens.

I risk repeating myself but there are several angles from which to argue that the cleaving of religious experience from religious organization is a fruitful way to launch the general inquiry. Consider the heretics who escaped complete erasure from the history books [that would be the tip of the iceberg of objections]. What kind of people were they? To the institutional orthodxies they faced, they were enemies, though now, some are known as reformers. What was their relationship to the institution or the person that represented the institution? Were they likely to be people, moved primarily by authority hang-ups, who took up alternate religious opinions as convenient flag for their resistance? Were they faithful organization men, apparatchiks who reluctantly peeled away from doctrine when intellect and conscience choked on the dogma. The latter are the ones we love, those who find a thought stronger than faith. But they and the bad boys like Bruno were treated all alike by the institutions that took their thought as apostasy: burnt, executed, excommunicated, locked up, forced recantings and house arrest, fatwas and pronouncements from the Robertsons and Fallwells that those apostasies were the cause of quakes and floods.

Theology doesn't strike me as intrinsically strongly coupled to institutional forces and prerogatives, yet as a practical matter, they are entangled. So entangled that physical armies have been raised to promote spiritual teachings. We constantly marvel at how nutty and sad that is but why? What is so unobvious about the role of simple human power lust, ego and the urge to control in the development of incorporated, institutionalized and sometimes armed religion? My personal observations persuade me that thoughtful individuals who possess faith are not so defensive as the institutions of their faith in responding to questions. Persons who wear the mask of the institution, hold its scepter and feel charged to speak for the institution do not seem to do so much thinking. But the faces and names that speak for organized religion are far too varied and often too unapproachable for much generalizing and study would come down to cataloging. This is why I think the most profitable path starts with a detour around the institution.

The study program I would pursue says "first crack and discard the armoring shell of institution and hierarchy so that you can concentrate on the soft part, the experience of awe and mystery that fuels religions. Deal separately with the tendency to organize and invest men with holy authority". It won't be tidy or easy but I know it is possible. My interactions with people who have a genuine and internal experience of faith often point up a disconnect or distance between their interior experience and the programs and forms imposed by the institutions associated with their faith. That attempt at sepration will, of course, be "counterattacked" as a denial of the divine nature of the institutions. It is not an attack. A question is not an attack unless you are afraid of the answer. Not faith but bureaucracy will resist the attempt to discriminate between the work of priesthoods and the evidence that god is at work in the minds or the lives of those ministered to by the priesthood. I maintain that a creed that had true faith in its core beliefs would welcome the examination and let the chips fall where they may. But experience tells me there won't be any takers. I suppose if anyone ever gets to the point of performing the sort of research Dennett points to, they might be way ahead of me and only interested in the personal rather than interpersonal domains of religious experience but they will never get that far if they ignore the hierarchies, institutions and social organizing that come with the experiences.

I count no end of evidence that humans when acting in organized sects have repeatedly demonstrated that we tend to be "wired for priests". From social psychology to ethnobiology, scientific approaches do provide intriguing clues as to why we have so long and bloody a history of god-kings, divine right kings and cults of personality. It is living without those clues that has given us mortal power structures with immortal claims. These leaders knew a good power source when they saw one and hot wired it.

The more centralized or hierarchical its authority structure, the more likely that a religion's good works have been sullied or obliterated by wars endorsed if not wars launched.

That is a generalization but holds up well. Why wouldn't we want to improve such a pathetically ironic pattern?

* Note: if you are not disposed to wading through NYTime's ID-wall, you only miss Leon Wieseltier's hatchet job reveiw of Dennett's book. I quote the second paragraph of that review here so you can get the flavor of his treatment. In this pragraph, Wieseltier widens the very gulf between the inquiring and the absolutist views that he complains about:
The orthodoxies of evolutionary psychology are all here, its tiresome way of roaming widely but never leaving its house, its legendary curiosity that somehow always discovers the same thing. The excited materialism of American society — I refer not to the American creed of shopping, according to which a person's qualities may be known by a person's brands, but more ominously to the adoption by American culture of biological, economic and technological ways of describing the purposes of human existence — abounds in Dennett's usefully uninhibited pages. And Dennett's book is also a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

What we really need in a Whitehouse staff shuffle

If Bush were truly serious about mending his fortunes by purging those who have given him bad advice, he'd send God packing since that is the source of what has proven to be some terrible advice.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

What a difference the decayed makes

The NYTimes reports that the FBI is trying to get its hands on all of the collected notes and records of the great old investigative journalist Jack Anderson. The FBI says it expects to find classified documents, but it only has a particular investigation of suspected Israeli spying as a justification for taking the "potential" evidence.

Jack Anderson died in 1983 and Parkinson's disease curtailed most of his activity for a decade prior to his death. Nothing newer than 1983 could be in these papers. If indeed there are classified documents among them, they were there a quarter century ago. And Anderson was never on the FBI's list of friends. So why now? What is different all of a sudden from the situation a decade ago when those papers, no longer the notes of living journalist, contained what could only have been fresher material than they do today? The administration of the federal government that we now endure exhibits a mindset far more like the paranoid and rights-shredding FBI of the 1950's. Finding politically propitious moments to settle old personal scores is uncivil and should be unamerican. As a re-emerging institutional reflex, it resembles Levrenty Beria's way of operating secret intelligence services more than any American should tolerate.

Monday, April 17, 2006

No spin cycle for laundry left out on the clothsline.

A man who makes no secret, to himself or others, about his own shortcomings simply has one less shortcoming than his neighbors.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Why is this seder different from last years?

Last year I whined that while the text [haggadah] for our seder last year was progressive enough, discontent with the Pharoh from Texas had not progressed at all.

Last night was different. As we pronouced the 10 plagues, one by one several of the particpants began spontaneously adding new plagues to the list: "Rumsfeld", "Cheney" and so on.

We may yet be free. And it may not take a miracle this time around.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

If you are only paid for what you think,

A downside of putting thoughts on paper is that the thinker becomes dispensable.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Act locally

I am so proud of my town.

The annual town meeting had 45 articles for the townsfolk to debate and vote up or down. Most of it was the humdrum but vital underpinnings of our lives here such as sums of money to be raised for repairs to bridges and water supplies. Near the end of a grueling agenda of debates and votes, we came to Article 43: "To endorse a resolution censuring President George W. Bush". There was debate. The article as proposed in the warrant for the meeting had tied the resolution to US House Resolution 636. That resolution having become demonstration of what a feckless flock our congress is, our resolution was amended to make it simply the sense of the town on the matter of the President's execution of his duties.

The article passed.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Do you get what you subsidize?

Not that a blogger lacking any newsfeed beside the noise in his head doesn't come to dread the daily chasm of blank white space. Not that the "Publish Post" button does not sometimes become a nagging presence ....but I really do have an excuse for my absence last week: My homework ate the blog.

Well, specifically, my homework for the last week of the quarter is to complete my taxes. I take more than pride in doing the taxes myself. H&R block, who can't even do their own taxes, were getting hundreds of dollars from me for preparing my returns and may have been planning to reward my years as a loyal customer by selling my tax data. The taxing exercise provoked me to examine an old idea which, when I was younger and still the child of a republican household, I held pretty comfortably because I could make it fit most of the instances of subsidies I was aware of. We were a farming family, but not entitled to any of the farm subsidy programs of the era and we struggled: subsidizing uncompetitive crops only perpetuated kinds of farming whose time, perhaps sadly, had passed.

The notion that you get what you subsidize has a powerful grip on the conservative mind.
I admit that is a pretty sweeping generalization. But generalizations are not always invalidated by their counter examples and sometimes, as when one must deal with the winds of "averaged sentiment" that fill all political sails, generalizations are useful. The fewer exceptions and the more common and harmful the supporting examples, the more useful the generalization is. As one of a gazillion examples one could dredge from the political blogs of the world, look at the comments that came up when Gothamist put up a post mapping the incarceration demographics of Brooklyn. The comment thread is knotted with various restatements of the idea that tax money spent to remedy poverty only sowed more poverty. The negative form of the idea, that the power to tax is the power to destroy has a New York example as well: a negative subsidy in the form of rent control is claimed to make the landlord's economics untenable and leads to abandoned apartments.

When filling out your 1040, note carefully the question about expenses you can use to reduce your taxable income:
  1. Margin interest you pay your broker
  2. Interest paid on raw land held for speculation
  3. Interest on a loan taken to invest in business with someone else
  4. Investment interest you couldn't deduct on your 2004 return
  5. Money borrowed for investment in oil or gas activities
I have none of these expenses. Few readers of this blog [admittedly already a very small sample;] have these expenses. Except for landlords, very few in the red zone of Cadora's map of Brooklyn have these expenses. That is because these tax breaks are subsidies for the risks taken by the rich.

I wish I were a Brad DeLong or some other such smart person well read up in economics because I am keenly curious to know if there are any currently credible laws, theories or maxims among economists that state [or refute for that matter] the idea that subsidies effectively promote certain conditions, institutions or activities. It is clear that the idea has long been gospel in the minds of legislatures as they forge, fudge and tweak the tax codes.
I want to be quite clear about one thing: if subsidies do promote something, it may not be the things those subsidies, negative or positive, were crafted to support. What seems obvious to me is that every releveling of the playing field eventually benefits whatever organization or class is most agile and able to turn the new subsidy into a food source. That agility is best provided by a tax lawyer. That ability is hard at work in a corporation building biodiesel plants with DOE grants and tax breaks, or building a privatized prison facility.
The people least able to make any economically advantageous shift of accounting or economic activity are the people who barely participate in the economy at all. So I am not surprised that drug traffic is a huge part of the economy in "bad neighborhoods" but I do NOT see the drugs as the cause of that. They are more the result of having few other opportunities. Junkies don't run the cartels or the distribution network, a pathetic species of entrepreneur does.

The commenters to that Gothamist post who said the money spent on anti-poverty programs only produced more poor and more crime seem unaware that family size is very strongly inversely correlated with family income. Talking about the morals or family values of ghetto dwellers being the root of the poverty cycle is a smokescreen, the talkers fool only themselves. Those commenters are unlikely to be aware of the cost/benefit analysis of head start programs. It was not the good students in those Brooklyn neighborhoods that wound up in prison.

I may not be able to answer my own question. It begs other questions.
What is a subsidy?
Lets say it is any financial relief or resource given or lent by a community to one element, member or class among that community. Tax relief for a specific segment of a community where others must pay the tax is not exactly the same thing as putting money in their pockets but close enough. Raising money by a tax on the community in order to pay for work done by a small segment of the community, particularly work that would not otherwise be done because it has no market or no benefit beside the creation of employment is a subsidy. Oil drillers and defense contractors look heavily subsidized from my perspective. Providing financial support to someone who can't work or can't be paid enough for the work they get to be able to meet basic needs of food, shelter etc would seem to fit my definition of subsidy.

How do you tell who or what is the real beneficiary of a subsidy?
Sometimes its clear: An industry lobbies congress for a boon in some form: trade barriers to competing goods, tax breaks, outright payments to shore up waning markets. Then to overcome resistance to an expensive give-away, it becomes less clear: trickle-down theories are invoked and more often the "make jobs=get votes" arguments are applied to direct new monies to corporations. This means of spreading money around through wages is inefficient in that much of the money is retained by the corporation as profit or plowed back into lobbying and sometimes the actual product is something no one will ever use or something that may never work.
Sometimes its not clear. Buying health insurance for the poor is actually a subsidy to the hospitals, many of which would otherwise shut down because they are now operated for profit by large corporations. I know Waltham Hospital in Massachusetts had a well regarded maternity program but served a town with many underinsured immigrant laborers: it was closed by its parent company for its perennial lack of profit. The new Mass health insurance law may change that. If the cost to society of welfare, crime and punishment for semi-literate dropouts is much greater than the cost of early education intervention which forestalls the social ills, as this Rand Corp. study concludes, what heartlessness and fear would prompt one to save a little tax money and let lives go to rot? Why react as if the only beneficiaries were those who would gain a chance at normal livelihood and productivity when the society as a whole clearly, if not directly, will benefit?

I am actually grateful that so many conservatives are so blatant and their selfishness so widely publicized because it lessens the danger that I could fall into the trap of faulting a straw man. If there is any danger of attacking a nonexistent target, I suppose it might lie in the question of who is a conservative. Could a political view point that includes authors of these opinions, some fascist, some simply failing to look at the causes and effects they talk about, still demand respect for its views?

So I am sitting here looking at the Form 1040, Sched A and wondering if I should borrow a few million bucks and form a software start-up. Having worked in at least ten such [now defunct] start-ups, I've learned a lot that might impress a banker. But I'll make sure to give my self a good salary and get the papers of incorporation set up so my personal assets aren't scratched by any bankruptcy proceedings. I think I must be entitled to some kind of subsidy but I better hurry up and get it while the Republicans are still in power.

And I think the answer to my question is yes, you do bring about some change via subsidy but no, most don't expect and the rest don't admit what the change is actually going to turn out to be.

Examples of "conservative" comments on how society should treat its dregs. Michael Savage:
[P]eople on welfare should not have the right to vote while they're on welfare. Period. End of story. People with less than 100 IQ should not have the right to vote...
Oh sure. Social services are the answer. Throw money at the problem!
Does anyone bother to notice that the neighborhoods with the most crimes are also the ones receiving a lions share of social service money to begin with?
Nah... No one bothered to correlate the two.
Giving more money to the black population will not solve anything. It has been tried again and again, and it is a failure. Admit it!
Typical liberal elites with their heads in the sand.
Meanwhile the white population of the world is declining by 1-2% per year. By 2050, less than 3% of the world's population will be white. By 2100, less that number will be 0.5%.
Where are our priorities?

Craig Smith and Rush Limbaugh
Blaming the Safety Net: An “Entitlement Mentality”

Countless right-wing pundits quickly blamed the tragic aftermath of Katrina—and the glaring portrait of American poverty the hurricane revealed—on the remaining programs of the social safety net, or what Craig Smith described as “the psychological consequences of the modern welfare state.” Radio extremist Rush Limbaugh lashed out at what he called an “entitlement mentality,” and the editors of the right-wing Washington Times purported to observe a “malfeasance of citizenship” that was “largely the product of a mental state of dependency induced by deliberate government policy.”
ETC. Its too easy to find this stuff to call it quote mining...these really are their thoughts.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

When should we start to celebrate?

We should celebrate without delay.

BTW, Truth Out is a good news service, I support them and suggest others do the same. They are one of the clearing houses that don't suffer the myopia of the for-profit media. I don't have to surf to know that this bit of news is on a million blogs this morning. On mornings when I don't have time to surf, I go to TO.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Go see "Why we fight"

I'm telling you again but you just gotta go see it.

Kwiatkoski was interviewed at length on CSPAN. I hope it aired at better times than the 11PM Sunday slot where I caught it. See the inteview if you can. I find her even more genuine and convincing on the small screen than she was in the film. This woman is a real hero. Her simple delivery flows with the urgency of a well-considered thought in a clear mind.

The interview is more dense with news than Jarecki's movie although more with backstory tidbits than with the sweeping indictment of the MIC. For instance
" But, I can tell you, I’ll tell you something about George Schultz, that - there was a fax that came into the office. It wasn’t for me. I happened to get it, and I looked at this fax. It was a short note from George Schultz, who was on - who at that time, I don’t know if he still is - but he was on the Defense Policy Board, along with Richard Perle. It was a fax, a copy of a fax that he had sent to Don Rumsfeld in June of 2002, June of 2002 I believe it was. It was the summer of 2002.

And on this fax, it was a short, one-note thing, from Schultz to Rummy. Basically, we have to get together and talk about what we do after the victory in Iraq, and this was in the summer of 2002, long before even the president and the vice president had begun their round of why we fight-type propaganda speeches."

I'd fill pages with quotable things from the interview but of many things I will remember for a while, one really sticks with me because it is sad and points to a root of the problem: it is not that power-hungry fools can do much evil but a that majority of Americans don't bother to become informed and concerned about how foreign policy gets made.

"LAMB: The name of the move is ”Why We Fight.” Did you get any feedback since this movie’s been running in the theaters?

KWIATKOSKI: Lots of feedback. People are looking up my e-mail address on the Internet and sending me e-mails saying they’re really moved by it. But of course, it’s - again, the people that are watching ”Why We Fight” right now are people that are connected in some way to the documentary world and connected in some serious way, interested in a serious way, in our foreign policy. That’s not everyone in this country, OK? We could never go to a number of wars that we’ve gone to if Americans were totally engaged with what goes on in Washington, and most of them are not. But, there has been - the last word that I got from a viewer was that they went to this movie, and it was standing room only, and that’s very different than it was when it first opened."

And remember, this is from a retired Air Force Lt. Col with 20 years of service to her country.

You may also enjoy the way she takes a scalpel to the term "neocononservative".

She is a true patriot. Anyone wishing to shove the Iraq war back up the ass from which the Bush league delivered it, should get seen with or endorse this woman and her appeal.

Note: What looks like a valid URL is in fact a link to a page of ads for paramilitary shoppers: get your swords and stunguns there but the website of the remarkable David Hackworth to whom she refers is which is still up but rendering empty whitespace for much of the former content and looking partly disabled or unmaintained. I am still hunting for the material she wrote for that site.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Dating advice

Readership numbers suck around here. The executioner is going to have to broaden the product line. In addition to dubious metaphors and aphorisms and the infrequent [I saw those eyes roll heavenward!] long winded preachings overwrought and under researched, we will now add dating advice.

Today's advice is directed to the ladies. If any of the women reading this have wondered why they keep dating married guys, its the oxytocin. Granted, knock-out gene studies in mice may produce conclusions that need a little tailoring for Cosmo readers but there is a hint here. And besides gals, haven't you sworn that some of the "men" you dated really turned out to be rats?

The executioner offers the following advice. To make sure that you don't fall for the oldest trick in the book [pheromones have been operating since before there were primates], try the following ploy to remove the scents that make you lose your good sense. Ask the guy to shower and change to some fresh cloths or, better yet, make that first date a tennis date so he HAS to shower, before you make any decisions about a second date. Never hurts to know the guys a with a good overhand from the guys that are underhanded.