Saturday, January 31, 2009

No New Tax Cuts

I see that the cut-the-payroll-tax meme out and about.

I don't get it, for several reasons:

First, the only people who pay the payroll tax are who have jobs. That's going to be a declining number of us in this year and potentially for several years. We are not the ones who need tax relief.

Second, payroll taxes fund social security. Even if we assume that a payroll tax cut automatically cuts benefits for future retirees, it does nothing to reduce the present retirees' benefits, which is where the payroll tax revenue is actually being spent. However, it will hasten the day in which Social Security is insolvent.

I would be the first to favor a broad policy review that addresses the question of what we want Social Security to look like, and how best to transition. In the mean time, however, about the only payroll tax reform I could recommend is doing away with the fiction of the "employer share" of the tax. This would reduce labor costs, overcome the problem of wage "downward stickiness" during a deflation, and potentially limit future layoffs. The revenue could be made up by shifting the burden to the employees. Those in competitive fields could presumably renegotiate higher wages with their employers to make up the difference. Those in at-risk industries will see their take-home pay fall . . . but at least they keep their jobs!

We won't do this, of course. The Republicans wouldn't like it because it would look like a tax increase on workers. The Democrats wouldn't like it because it would look like a tax cut for business, and they like to pretend that Social Security is a good deal for workers because somebody else pays for part of it.

. . . . .

If I'm doing my math correctly, this is my 31st blog post this January -- one for each day of the month. This pace is unsustainable. I'm maybe a 12 posts a month level of writer, and my school work is suffering.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

Rahm Emmanuel on the stimulus:

“You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.”

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Review of Fireproof

Tonight I watched Fireproof, last year's movie by Sherwood Pictures, the south Georgia Baptist amateurs who made a splash in 2006 with Facing the Giants.

Like Giants, Fireproof was made with a walk-on cast and crew and budget of $500K. The only professional in evidence was Kirk Cameron. So the fairest judgment should be in the context of the movie's own weight class, but even by Hollywood standards the movie was far more watchable that the secular scorn would suggest.

A few thoughts:

1. Is anyone's house really that tidy? The Sopranos' house was neat in a way that communicated upper-middle-class vapidity. It's a subtle distinction, but the Holt house was neat in a way that communicated . . . nobody really lived there.

2. Is there really a public park with a cross erected on it? Don't tell the ACLU!

3. On the one hand, it is gratifying to hear authentic, unironic south Georgia accents uttered in a movie. But there are limits to this. The accent of the Dr. Keller character (the weakest of the bunch; more on this later) was implausibly pronounced. In real life, class and education affect how even a southerner speaks. For another, I have the impression that doctors seldom wind up practicing in their own hometowns. For instance, my sister-in-law is completing her residency this year, and the entire country is her job market. The chances that a man bred in S. Georgia returns to practice medicine in S. Georgia must surely be small. Conversely, the accent of Kirk Cameron's character Caleb Holt is implausibly weak. On the one hand, if Cameron can't do southern well, I'm glad he didn't do it badly. On the other, he's a firefighter, and his accent ought to reflect his background.

4. More on Dr. Keller. The story calls for this man to be the lothario trying to romance away Caleb's wife Catherine; what the movie unwittingly serves us, however, is a catalog of beta-male incompetence. Even Φ has better game than this guy! I can understand that a bunch of Baptist churchgoers have no idea what compelling "doctor game" looks like, but they should have found an acting coach who did!

5. Still more on Dr. Keller. The confrontation between the firefighter and the doctor trying to seduce his wife should have at least nodded to the class conflict involved, and its failure to do this robbed the film of authenticity.

6. On the subject of authenticity: the film's handling of race and race relations didn't have it. I can understand that race, like class, wasn't the film's message. But in real life, I bet you couldn't find a black atheist firefighter in the whole state of Georgia. As far as race relations goes, the gold standard here is Season Two of The Wire. Simon showed how race can impact how working-class people relate to each other even when the impact is not hostility and adversity. But this kind of deft was simply outside of Fireproof's ability.

7. Substantively, the film handled its subject well. It is reported that the two greatest stresses on a marriage are money and sex, and both play take their toll on this one. Caleb likes internet porn, to Catherine's humiliation; Catherine, for her part, wants to buy more stuff despite Caleb's frugality. Unfortunately, the movie never addresses Catherine's materialism; only Caleb's vice comes in for criticism. But then, the film is really about Caleb's uphill battle to save his marriage in the face of his wife's demands for divorce. And the advice that Caleb's father John (the movie's second weakest character; does the man do nothing but sit around waiting for his son to call?) gives Caleb on how to do this is pretty good, and doesn't really require the film's Christian metaphysics to appreciate.

My biggest fear going into this movie (other than that it would be badly done) was that the film would peddle "magical thinking": become a Christian --> have a better marriage. (Usually it works out that way, but not always, and not always for the reasons supposed.) There is certainly an element of this: Caleb cleans up his act and starts treating his wife better on the way to winning her over. But the change in Caleb's behavior also serves the movie's larger theological point: that the marriage relationship models that between Christ and the church. In becoming a Christian, Caleb becomes a Christ-figure: as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us even while we were yet sinners, even when we called for his crucifixion, so Caleb loves his wife sacrificially (in his way) even as Catherine professes her hatred for him.

Bottom line: definitely worth the $2.99 at family video.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Graduation Rates by Race

In the vein of my other posts on the education bubble, here is an application, courtesy of the Education Trust, that allows the user to obtain a university's graduation rate by race for years 2002 to 2006. It has multiple search options available.

For instance, compare the graduation rates between two engineering schools: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). We note, first of all, that MIT is both more competitive (1500 median SAT vs. 1335) and has a higher graduation rate overall (93.1% vs. 77%).

Yet compare the gap in graduation rates between black men and white men. At MIT, the gap is only 6.5% (difference between 94% and 87.5%), but at Georgia Tech the gap is 17.2% (difference between 74.7% and 57.5%). This despite the greater representation of minorities at MIT (18.6% vs. 11.1%).

There are some difficulties with the tool. For instance, it doesn't break out the minority enrollment by specific races, nor does it give the median SAT by race. But it appears on the surface that an acceptance letter from MIT tells a black applicant much more about MIT's confidence in him than an acceptance letter from Georgia Tech tells an applicant of any race.

It also shows that affirmative action costs the elite tier of universities and their students relatively little. MIT admits of all races seem abundantly qualified for the MIT program. So MIT can boost its minority enrollment with affirmative action without generating an excessively large dropout population.

As we drop to the second tier, the cost becomes significant. MIT's affirmative action admits reduce the qualified pool of minorities from which Georgia Tech would otherwise draw its students. Georgia Tech must dig even deeper into the social barrel to come up with even a modest percentage of minorities, and it then proceed to flunk close to half of these prior to graduation.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Higher Lending Standards: Φ Refinances

You may recall my adventures, some 18 months ago now, obtaining financing for the house we purchased when we moved from the Mountain West to the Midwest. During the last month, I went through the whole process again to drop my interest rate a full percent, from 5 7/8 to 4 7/8.

I periodically check interest rates at Realtor.com and had noticed that they had fallen since I closed on the house, but not enough to justify the usual closing costs. But December brought what seemed to be exceptionally low rates, and I was able to lock in 4 7/8 with closing costs around $3k. As a slumlord, my finances are above-average complicated, but I impressed the loan officer with the speed at which I was able to pull together financial statements, tax returns, W2s, leases -- about twenty or so documents other than the application package.

The first hurdle was the appraisal. The house had appraised in 2007 for well over what I paid, and I had paid the principal down by an additional $3k, so I thought I had plenty of cushion to absorb any drop in housing prices, pay closing costs from equity, make a 20% down payment and still walk away with some change. But alas, notwithstanding all the improvements to the house I had made, our current appraiser started with the 2007 sale price, factored in a general decline in real estate prices, and appraised the property at $9k less than what we paid.

Our loan officer told us that it's not very difficult to reduce the down payment to 15%, but we would have to pay PMI that amounts to around 7% APY on the difference, this over and above the 4.875% interest on the pricipal. Thus the effective interest rate on that money would be nearly 13%, much more than it would likely earn anywhere else. So we bit the bullet, pulled together closing costs, down payment shortfall, and escrows, and prepared to write a check for over $12k. (My escrow balance with the old lender rebates back to me, but not until two weeks after the loan closes.)

The second problem was one I had never before encountered: accounting for the down payment. The mortgage company had given us a 30-day lock on the interest rate. A week before it expired, they approached us and said, "Since the bank statement you sent us when you applied for the loan doesn't show a balance of $12k, we need to know how you intend to pay it." I sent them a screen shot of my present account balance, but they then asked for a 30 day transaction history ". . . to make sure that there are no large deposits." Well, duh! Of course there was a large deposit since I had transferred assets into the account to prepare to write them a check! Then they asked out of which account the money came and ". . . the terms of the withdrawal."

Here is where things got dicey. Other than tax-preferred accounts, most of my liquid assets are in a whole-life insurance policy. For those of you with simpler finances, a whole life policy is an insurance policy in which a portion of the premiums accumulates in the policy's "cash values". These cash values, in turn, earn dividends, so the policy works kind of like a bank account. The dividend rate can vary depending on the insurance company's profits, but the existing balance is as secure as the company itself: it cannot decrease in value unless the company tanks. At least, that is my understanding.

The problem is that the foregoing description is not necessarily how the financial world understands an insurance policy. For instance, the only way that I can actually withdraw the cash values is if I "cash out" the policy; in other words, cancel it. But I also have the option of "borrowing" the cash values at interest. So the cash values continue to earn dividends, but the interest is higher, so policy loans are wisely done only for a short term. Otherwise, cashing out the policy makes more sense.

About half of the $12k due at closing came from a policy loan, and I really, really didn't want to explain all this to the mortgage lender. In my previous mortgages, the mortage company didn't really care where the down payment came from so long as it got its money; now, however, the mortgage company seemed determined to put teeth in the prohibition against borrowing a down payment, and I was concerned that they might not get that a policy loan meant that I was "borrowing" my own money! And it didn't help that the loan came from my wife's cash values rather than mine. Indeed, I had a tense couple of days after I realized that I had endorsed and deposited a check made out to her. Would the insurance company honor the check? I was now running out of time to order a withdrawal from my own policy.

As it happened, the check was honored, I ultimately succeeded in convincing the mortgage company not to insist on looking very closely at the origin of the $6k deposit, and the loan closed successfully. Between the lower interest rate, the smaller principal, and restarting the 30-year clock, I should save about $240 per month. Still, it's clear that lenders are much more scrupulous about examining borrowers than they were a short 18 months ago.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Φ Opposes the Fiscal Stimulus

I opposed the housing bailout.

I opposed the financial bailout.

I opposed the auto bailout.

And today, I am opposing the $825B giveaway to politically connected developers and left-wing activists. This money will do nothing to actually stimulate aggregate demand. It will do almost nothing to improve infrastructure in a way that actually grows the real economy. It will succeed at nothing other than entrenching the same status quo that brought us this mess to being with.

Click here to write your Congresscritters.

That said, I personalized the FreedomWorks letter by taking out the request for tax cuts, since these struck me as beside the point. Do as you think best.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Frank Abagnale on Divorce

T.V. played Spielberg's 2002 film Catch Me If You Can tonight. My curiosity on the real life Abagnale led me to this video, in which Abagnale tells his own story, and gives at least as good a performance as the movie. He speaks powerfully on the pain of divorce on children. Worth watching in its entirely. (There are some stutters in the film as it starts; don't worry, they don't last.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Losing Derb's Religion: a partial review of Camp of the Saints

We've been studying the book of Revelations in Sunday School for several months. A few weeks ago we came to the passage describing the battle of Armageddon (or Gog and Magog, depending on your timeline):

7And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

I presently use the English Standard Version for personal study, but I grew up with the New International Version, which renders "camp of the saints" as "camp of God's people". So I didn't recognize the origin of the phrase when I read Derbyshire's review of the Jean Raspail's book,Camp of the Saints,several years ago. (O. D.: I can't find Derb's review online; it may have appeared exclusively in the dead tree edition of NR.) But knowing the origin, my curiosity was piqued, and I ordered it from the library last weekend.

Raspail's novel, first published in 1977, describes the collapse of Western Civilization in the face of a "peaceful invasion" of nearly a million impoverished third-worlders wading ashore on the southern coast of France. This invasion is greeted, not with force, but by the moral paralysis of a governing elite that no longer believes in its own country's right to self-preservation.

I offered this post as a review, but that's not quite right. This novel, which at this writing I haven't finished, is perhaps one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. (Perhaps I have lead a sheltered life.) It is disturbing on several levels. First, the physical and moral squalor of the invaders is horrifying. The details don't bear repeating (and are in any case easily found online) and surely exaggerate -- though perhaps not: I've never been to Calcutta, only to South America.

Second, and more noteworthy, the book disturbs in its amorality. In contrast to, say, Altas Shrugged, a novel which deals with not-dissimilar premises, Raspail's novel steadfastly refuses to make grand metaphysical claims of justice. On the contrary, it explicitly concedes, far more than I believe to be warranted, that Western power and prosperity is built on the oppression of the Third World. Raspail's point is not moral, but historical: this is the way all nations play the game. A people, through luck of natural selection, becomes strong: Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, Mongols, Aztecs, Incans, Mayans, Europeans. These peoples rise to prominence on that strength; they maintain their position by their strength; and as their strength fades, they are violently displaced by those stronger than they are. Every people is in this same struggle, but only the Europeans tell themselves that their own pre-eminence is wrong, and only they believe that they must atone for their victories by choosing submission to destruction at the hands of peoples less powerful than themselves.

There is a lot to argue here (and if I ever get any commenters, we shall indeed argue it), but hashing out Raspail's overall thesis is not my primary intent. What I want to address is Raspail's decision to lay the suicide of the West directly at the feet of Christianity.

Consider this exchange between a retired professor, observing the armada from his house on the coast, and the spoiled shopkeeper's son come to loot him. The young looter refers to the invaders as "a million Christs."

"I got it from this priest. One of those worker types from the wrong side of town. I ran into him an hour ago. I was on my way up here, and he was running like crazy down the hill. Not in rags or anything, but kind of weird. He kept stopping and lifting his arms in the air, like the ones down there, and he'd yell out, 'Thank you, God! Thank you!' And then he'd take off again, down to the beach. They say there's more on the way."

"More what?"

"More priests, just like him . . ."

But Raspail isn't content with attacking only those clerics seeking radical redemption from the sins of their ancestors; this was but an extreme example. Witness this conversation between a Belgian consul in India and a group of missionaries. The missionaries were leading a protest against the Belgian suspension of transnational adoptions.

"Are you saying you've lost control?"

I'm afraid we have. But it doesn't matter. Most of us are glad to go along. You're right. There is something brewing, and it's going to be tremendous. The crowds can feel it, even if they have no notion what it's all about. Myself, I have one explanation. Instead of the piecemeal adoptions that these poor folk have hoped for and lived for, perhaps now they're hoping and living for something much bigger, something wild and impossible, like a kind of adoption en masse. In a country like this that's all it would take to push a movement beyond the point of no return."

"Nice work your Grace," the Consul retorted, simply. "A lovely job for a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church! Mercenary, hireling to the pagans, all of a sudden! What is this, the Crusades in reverse? Judas leaping up on Peter the Hermit's nag, and crying, 'Down with Jerusalem!'? ... Well, you chose a good time. There's no shortage of poor. There are millions and millions! The year isn't three months old, and already half of this province alone is starving. And the government won't do a thing. They've had it. Whatever happens now, they're going to wash their hands. That's what every consul in the city heard this morning. And what have you all been doing in the meantime? You've been 'bearing witness.' Isn't that what you call it? ... Bearing witness to what? To your faith? Your religion? To your Christian civlization? Oh no, none of that! Bearing witness against yourselves, like the anti-Western cynics you've all become. Do you think the poor devils that flock to your side aren't any the wiser? Nonsense! They see right through you. For them, white skin means weak convictions. They know how weak yours are, they know you've given in. You can thank yourselves for that. The one thing your struggle for their souls has left them is the knowledge that the West -- your West -- is rich. To them, you're the symbols of abundance. By your presence alone, they see that it does exist somewhere, and they see that your conscience hurts you for keeping it all to yourselves. You can dress up in rags and pretend to be poor , eat handfuls of curry to your hearts' content. You can spread your acolytes far and wide, let them live like the peasants and dispense their wise advice ... It's no use, they'll always envy you, no matter how you try. You know I'm right. After all your help -- all the seeds, and drugs, and technology -- they found it so much simpler just to say, "Here's my son, here's my daughter. Take them. Take me. Take us all to your country.' And the idea caught on. You thought it was fine. You encouraged it, organized it. But now it's too big, now it's out fo your hands. It's a flood. A deluge. And it's out of control ..."

Raspail would impeach, if not the whole of Christian morality, then the universal application of that morality. He would presumably have no objection to the intra-societal exercise of philanthropy, where the charity alone does not define the relationship between giver and receiver. Such charity rightly springs from "the mystic chords of memory," as Lincoln put it in his inaugural address. But Raspail sees in the universality of the gospel message -- "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." -- an insidious prejudice against loyalty to, and preference for, one's own, and he indicts this prejudice as the seed of our destruction.

Which brings me to John Derbyshire.

When I started reading him, and at least up until he reviewed Camp of the Saints, Derb described himself as "a feeble Christian" -- feeble, that is, in his attachment to the central Christian truth. Given his policy priorites, and given that his exposure to Christianity was in the Episcopal Church, Derb undoubtedly found Raspail's argument powerfully resonant, and his own faith far too feeble to resist it. If any outsider can point to the place where Derb abandoned Christianity, I would point to the pages of Camp of the Saints.

As for myself, by God's grace my faith is stronger, I have aligned myself with the more muscular branches of Christianity, and I am in any case more comfortable with the paradoxes in my worldview. But none of this is an argument. The blogger known as Vera and I went back and forth a while back on the question of what, if anything, contemporary Christianity (as opposed to the medieval kind) brings to the defense of Western Civilization. I did, in fact, bring up some practical uses for orthodox Christianity as it is lived by its adherents, but these were admittedly small-bore.

But let's turn the question around. How does Derb's present war on religion (which, in practice, means a war on Christianity) help advance his vision of a secure West? Does he really think that a receding Christianity will be replaced by a more muscular paganism? Does he really think that being atheist will encourage us to set about the bloody business of resisting the invasion? Or rather, will it not further empower the very forces seeking our destruction?

The question answers itself.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Death of the Right

This is how to build a political coalition:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is how to destroy one:

If [a Christian] can’t, in a few plain sentences, give us some good reason to think that God exists, why would we go delving into arguments about the Trinity and Hypostatic Union? And if we invested all that time and effort, and still came away unconvinced of the existence of God, who would recompense us for our trouble?

Any questions?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The College Education Bubble

Megan points to the Forbes article, "The Great College Hoax", about how crushing student loan debt makes college a bad buy for many if not most students.

I should pause to mention my own recommendations on this very subject.

Megan tells her experience in the "gray market" of education: vo-tec "certificate" programs:

I decided to learn to be a network administrator, which I'd enjoyed doing briefly at my previous firm, before the venture capitalists had shut off the money spigot.

I don't know how I ended up at Career Blazers (yes, I cringe myself at the name). It was like one of those plucky, poor-but-honest people you read about in Victorian novels--everything clean, freshly painted, and nonetheless falling apart. But I was too desperate to get out of that secretary's chair to be picky. I gave them something like $5,000, in 1995, to teach me to be a Certified Netware Engineer--an administrator of Novell's corporate networking software.

The technies in the audience are wincing, and believe me, I am too. As I found out after I'd wasted thousands of dollars and three months, a CNE was a necessary, but not sufficient, credential to get a job in IT. The minute anyone tells you that he has one (or an MCSE, the Microsoft equivalent), any seasoned professional will bar that person from touching his equipment. Anyone who would actually mention his CNE is definitionally too ignorant to be useful, and just knowledgeable enough to be dangerous. Of course anyone competent usually had the credentials--but all the credentials proved, by themselves, was that you could breathe and answer a multiple choice test.

As far as I know, out of my class of fifteen people, a lot of whom were harder up than me and using the last of their severance to "retrain", two ended up with jobs after "graduation".

One of the things I love about Megan's writing is that it is informed by the viscisitudes of real life, not just academic theory. But still, this aspect of the story is especially depressing. It is precisely this kind of non-traditional education that I would have recommended for those folks not-quite-smart enough to benefit from a four-year degree.

The Forbes article points out that many trades (it especially mentions plumbing) are likely to pay better than a liberal arts degree. This is an aspect of education that seldom goes mentioned by the salesmen who promote it. Sure, go to college and you might get to work on something interesting. Maybe you won't have to take a shower before hugging your children at the end of the day. But you won't likely make much money, so you should evaluate the cost of your loans against that expected income. Educational institutions should submit to a standard, realistic methodology for calculating the debt-to-income ratios of its graduates, an realistically appraise students of their chances of academic success given their portfolio.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mark Driscoll on Female Initiative

Yesterday I commented at length on Mark Driscoll. Trumwill pointed me to Driscolls collection of sermons on YouTube:

While not especially Calvinist, or even uniquely Christian, this strikes me as outstanding advice to women: do NOT chase men, lest you spend the entire relationship doing it; DO make sure you signal your interest; DO require suitors to declare their intentions, enlisting your father's intervention if necessary.

Driscoll's diagnosis of the problem, that Christian men are "wimps" over-feminized my mainline Christianity, is a little more problematic. As I have pointed out myself, it is true that, in its present context, Christianity does not especially select for assertive men, and sexually assertive men in particular. But it is also true that Christian women have not examined, and are seldom encouraged to examine, the extent to which the broader secular culture has, in the name of license, made them prisoners to their most basic biological responses.

Furthermore, I would assert from personal experience that a man (or, at any rate, almost all Christian men) does not initiate romantic overtures with a woman for one of two reasons: either he isn't interested, or he believes that she wouldn't be interested. Driscoll appears to imply that there is some third category of men that ARE interested, KNOW that the woman would respond favorably, and yet STILL need extra "encouragement". I don't really get that frame of mind, and I'm pretty sure that it never applied to me.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Meet Mark Driscoll

Meet Mark Driscoll, the man from Seattle who's "making Calvinism cool." (H.T.: H.S.)

Since I self-identify as Calvinist, and am known in our blogring as "that Calvinist dude," I need to make a couple of points.

First, I adhere specifically to the doctrines of the English Reformers as expressed in the Westminster Confession* and as presently institutionalized in the Presbyterian Church. While we emphasize our continuity with the core teachings of John Calvin, we do not necessarily give a blanket endorsement to everything the man himself said or did. Let me put it this way: I would consult Calvin's writings to better understand the Confession or to address matters on which the Confession is silent. I would not, however, substitute his writings for the Confession.

Second, in the context of Mark Driscoll's ministry, this distinction is most specifically relevant on the matter of church government. The NYT article -- fairly written for the most part -- tells the following story:

Nowhere is the connection between Driscoll’s hypermasculinity and his Calvinist theology clearer than in his refusal to tolerate opposition at Mars Hill. The Reformed tradition’s resistance to compromise and emphasis on the purity of the worshipping community has always contained the seeds of authoritarianism: John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness. Mars Hill is not 16th-century Geneva, but Driscoll has little patience for dissent. In 2007, two elders protested a plan to reorganize the church that, according to critics, consolidated power in the hands of Driscoll and his closest aides. Driscoll told the congregation that he asked advice on how to handle stubborn subordinates from a “mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighter, good guy” who attends Mars Hill. “His answer was brilliant,” Driscoll reported. “He said, ‘I break their nose.’ ” When one of the renegade elders refused to repent, the church leadership ordered members to shun him. One member complained on an online message board and instantly found his membership privileges suspended. “They are sinning through questioning,” Driscoll preached. John Calvin couldn’t have said it better himself.

First, for Molly Worthen to characterize the Anabaptist leaders executed in Geneva as mere "heretics" is misleading: these men were, in fact, political anarchists. While I would concede that state power should not be used to enforce religious conformity, it is a little naive to expect any 16th-century government to have tolerated political agitation under the guise of religious freedom.

Second, while I will need to research how Geneva's churches were actually run, Driscoll by this account departs dramatically from Presbyterian church government, which, like republicanism, is chock-a-block with checks and balances. In a typical Presbyterian church, a pastor has but one vote on the board of directors. (Presbyterians have their own words for this stuff, which I won't confuse you with at present.) It is the board, not the pastor, that wields authority in the local church, including the power to hire the pastor (though this is subject to ratification by the congregation). The board itself submits to yearly election by the members of the congregation: usually, the outgoing board chooses a slate of candidates for the incoming board, which the congregation votes up-or-down. (I've never seen a "down" vote, so I'm not sure what happens in that event.) Becoming a voting member of the congregation requires examination and approval by the board, and a public profession of faith. (This isn't as difficult as it sounds: my wife was admitted to membership despite not being particularly Calvinist in her own theology.) The board can also call a member to account for misbehavior, and even discipline him by withholding the sacraments, although I've only ever seen this done once; people so called to account almost always straighten up.

Local churches, in turn, are subject to the discipline of the denomination, whose leadership is elected by representatives of the local churches. And so it goes.

The issue of dissent is a little trickier. Dissent is not prohibited, but it is constrained by process. A member, and even a board member, is prohibited from subverting the authority of the leadership, but the notion that they are "sinning through questioning" would be alien to Presbyterian government.

These checks and balances are not without cost. A ministry such as Driscoll's, or like Dobson's Focus on the Family, would be much, much more difficult to get started, and in practice are vanishingly rare among Presbyterians. So I will stipulate that American religious life is made much more dynamic by the work of "religious entrepreneurs" who have an idea, put out a shingle, and thrive or perish on their ability to draw a following. But the point here is that Presbyterian Calvinists are not authoritarian; in fact, we actively resist the cults of personality from whence derive the authoritarianism of such as Mark Driscoll.

*I should make clear, and not just pro forma, that the Confession is a "subordinate standard" -- subordinate, that is, to the Scriptures.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Death of the Death of the Death Tax

Half Sigma, in a rare break from PDS, alerts us to a possible compromise on the Estate Tax:

Obama plans to propose locking in the estate tax at the current year's levels: the first $3.5 million is exempt ($7 million for couples, and I'm not sure how that works), and after that there is a 45% tax.

This is far superior to the current law which has no estate tax at all in 2010, followed by a return to the 55% rate [with a $1M exemption - Φ].

To answer H.S.' question: the exemption is doubled by use of a device called a "living revocable trust". Let's consider a family with a net worth of $7M. Essentially, their common property is divided between the husband and wife by the terms of the trust. That way, both retain their separate $3.5M exemption. When the first of a couple dies, his half of the estate, $3.5M, is held in trust for the children pending the death of the other. In the mean time, she can draw on the income generated by the assets held in trust but may not directly dispose of it; this power rests with the trustees who, one hopes, are diligent in their duties.

On the substance, Obama's proposed compromise is probably close to the best possible deal. But I have to point out is that the debate thus far entirely misses the impact the estate tax structure has on large families. The exemption is constant regardless among how many heirs it is divided. If a couple has one heir, he gets the whole $7M, but if they have ten heirs, each only recieves $700K.

A viable Republican counter-offer would be to propose that each heir be exempted $7M, or some other amount perhaps. This would highlight the burden on large families, and may find in Obama a receptive consideration.

Also, why 45%? Why not tax the money at each heir's top marginal rate?

Also, can we get indexing? I predict that before this economic crisis is over, $7M will buy a lot less than it does now.

I will write my Congresscritter.

Megan on the Israeli Lobby

An excellent, thoughtful post:

I share the discomfort with noting the obvious fact that Jewish Americans, like every other hyphenated-american, actively seek the benefit of their ethnic compatriots by influencing US policy. Other hyphenated Americans don't have the same history of accusations that they are engaged in a virulent conspiracy to run the world for their benefit, and thus we have no need to pretend that all the Turks just happen to take a different position on the Armenian genocide than all the Armenians do--nay, not even the Turks and Armenians themselves bother to claim this . . . .

But though I understand why statements like this have to be made very carefully, if at all, the strenuous efforts to avoid making them have become cancerous. The reluctance to state the obvious allows Israel's partisans to duck the undeniable fact that AIPAC and so forth do actively attempt to influence American policy, and frequently succeed. Questions about whether this is really best for America, or the world, can be countered with more-or-less sly insinuations of anti-semitism. In part because almost the only people who will state the obvious are looney-tunes anti-semites who think that there's a Jewish conspiracy, rather than . . . Jews acting boringly just like every other ethnic group to ever hit our shores. Or Arabs with tin ears who come off as mostly mad because they're way behind in the ethnic lobbying sweepstakes.

It will not do my career much good to say it, but here goes. America has an influential Israel lobby in large part because of ethnic affinity. Not just Jewish ethnic affinity, I hasten to point out. Yes, we have a large number of Jewish people--many more than we have Arabs. And those Jewish people mostly strongly identify with Israel in the conflict . . . .

But America also has an influential Israel lobby because it has a much larger group of people who identify, quasi-ethnically, with Israel: evangelical Christians who think of themselves as in some way descended from the ten tribes of Israel. [As noted in the comments, these are Mormons, not evangelicals. - Φ] (Not to mention the lunatic fringe who hopes that the Israelis can in some way hasten the End Times. [These are the evangelicals, sadly. - Φ] As if God could be influenced by a sufficiently robust foreign policy.)

And then most of the rest of us, because almost all Americans see Israelis as sharing a common European cultural heritage that the Palestinians do not. (I believe Al-Qaeda agrees.)

Such identifications are, I'd wager, rooted deeply in our genes--our selfish alleles want to advance alleles more similar to them, which is why we tend to side with our family against our nation, our nation against foreigners, and foreigners against sabre-toothed tigers. Those ties are not all-powerful, of course, which is why mothers don't let their children kill all the other children on the block. But they are often decisive in complicated situations like the one in Gaza.

So we are the Israel lobby, to a greater or a lesser extent--all Americans who think of themselves as more like the Israelis than the Palestinians.

Read the whole thing. Megan, unfortunately, is pretty sanguine about how multicultural immigration has turned our foreign policy into little more than special interest pork. But still and all the most balanced treatment I've read on this subject.

UPDATE: For the record, and in the context of the Walt thought experiment she quotes, I should acknowledge that there is more than just affinity -- the Jews are like us, their adversaries not like us -- at work here. Israel benefits from the widespread perception that we share the same enemies, going back to at least the Beirut barracks bombing if not before, and including at a minimum Achille Lauro, Berlin, Lockerbie, Aden, and 9/11. Yes, I know: different groups with different grievences, perhaps, but all Moslems. Meanwhile, it very difficult to imagine circumstances in which Jews would murder my family and me for being Christians.

Facebook, wherein Φ triumphs at long last in the high school status competition

I first joined Facebook while a university instructor. I had read about it in the Washington Post, via a blog post (I forget whose) that characterized the site, as, well, a little creepy. It was strictly a college ghetto back then, and I was mainly interested to see how many of my students would be so foolish as to put personal information about themselves on the internet in front of God and everybody.

Quite a few, as it turned out. I was an "early adopter" among the faculty and received a few "friend requests" from my students, but there really didn't seem to be much there to keep a grownup interested.

Flash forward to last summer. A couple of old high school classmates alerted me to the fact that Facebook had since gone mainstream, and that the graduates of our small Christian high school had established a substantial network.

Facebook "friending" is very viral. By friending those initial couple of people, my name appeared on the "Walls" of all the people on their "friends list." (If you don't know what the Facebook "Wall" is, you pretty much have to join to understand it.) Anyway, I began receiving a steady stream of messages and/or friend requests that only died down close to saturation. (Like I said, it was a small school.)

High School. What can I say about it? Well, it's not like the movie, obviously, but because it was small, and Christian, it wasn't the dystopian social hell that it would have been at a public school. On the contrary, I had a great time. I found there an unprecedented (for me) level of social acceptance that would not be again matched until after I was married. And this despite the fact that my religious background (mainline Presbyterian) was different from the school's (fundamentalist).

But it was high school. Religion did indeed moderate behavior, and size kept us relatively unified as a student body, but there were still cliques, status hierarchies, and the like. Even here I should be hesitant to complain. I was an elected member of student government, for instance; I was pretty tight with a couple of the acknowledged alpha males; and I was the school's recognized "math brain". But the fact is that these don't translate into much in the way of female attention (or, to be fair, not enough to compensate for whatever other drawbacks I possessed).

How to handle all this on Facebook?

Facebook friending rules. Maybe Facebook should have called it something else, but "friend request" sounds . . . I don't know, needy maybe, or a little creepy if the recipient doesn't know or sufficiently like the sender. So to manage this psychology, I had a few simple rules (because Φ is hyperanalytical that way). First, while I would approve "friend requests" from anyone who initiated, I would try to never myself initiate a request to anyone whose high school status exceeded my own. Second, I limited my friend requests to people with whom I already had established an email correspondence. Third, I limit my friend requests to people with whom we shared no common friends, on the grounds that they know how to find me if they want me.

And, finally, I never sent a friend request to a woman. If I had something specific to communicate to her, I would send a Facebook message, but I would always leave the friending for her to initiate.

It wasn't long before, with no prior message from me, I received a friend request from one of them. One of The Clique. A certified Alpha Girl. A member of The Trio of girls with whom I associate all my feelings of being locked out of the high school dating scene (or what passed for it). A girl who, twenty-odd years later, is still really attractive

A couple of months later, the second one rolled in. Φ's social momentum starts to build.

[delusional]

Finally, last weekend, I bagged her. The queen mother of the trio. The genesis of Φ's twenty-three-year bout with misogyny. From my fortress of solitude I had waited her out! Now, in desperation, she has finally come with what remains of her fading powers to bestow the social recognition Φ deserves!

[\delusional]

Something like that, anyway.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Jedi Mind Trickery

Roissy makes a distinction

There are genuine assholes who are loved, and there are spiteful assholes who get nowhere. The difference is crucial.

Uncaring asshole = success with women.

Caring asshole = failure with women.

When women say they don’t fall for assholes, they are thinking of the second kind. A caring asshole comes from a place of bitterness and spite. His assholery is reactive rather than proactive. He is poor at calibrating which women will be responsive to his dick attitude. Caring assholes are crassly insulting and transparently invested in the outcome of their game.

Uncaring assholes are assholes as a consequence of their indifference. It is the aloofness of the man she loves that drives women crazy with obsession*, and that aloofness is manifest as asshole behavior. An uncaring asshole demonstrates clearly in his body language and tone of voice, not to mention his dearth of words, that he could take her or leave her.

Leaving aside the ethics of all this, a couple of points. First, speaking personally, being an a$$hole is a lot of work. When I really am indifferent, there are easier ways of showing it, and when I'm not indifferent, it's rather difficult to avoid falling into the "caring asshole" category.

Second, it doesn't seem consistent to say that the "[caring asshole] is reactive rather than proactive." If someone is proactive (i.e. takes the initiative), isn't he already putting skin in the game? Likewise, broadcasting indifference seems to require that the girl has already put herself forward in way to which he can respond. I'm skeptical that a man can seduce a random woman by walking up and being mean to her. But perhaps Roissy is saying that the meanness can't be obviously retaliatory.

Monday, January 12, 2009

On Get Smart

I saw the 2008 remake of Get Smart on DVD over the weekend. A few thoughts.

First, very well done! The film amply fulfills its modest ambitions. Its blend of action and comedy is comparable to the Bond films during the Brosnan era, especially in its nudge-wink over-the-top action sequences. In fact, Steve Carrell's version of Maxwell Smart is not unlike a typical James Bond, but without the edginess. I never watched the old television series, but my impression is that Don Adams played him as a nitwit. Carrell's Smart, in contrast, is a savant: a brilliant intelligence analyst who trains for years to make "agent". Finally paired with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) on his first assignment, Smart finds himself in possession of abundant competence in narrow technical areas (including, as it happens, gunfighting) but making various screw-ups due to inexperience. However, Smart has deadpan courage and dedication to the mission.

Carrell is a full 20 years older than Hathaway. Normally this kind of male/female age mismatch goes unremarked in the movies, especially since Carrell appears in excellent physical shape for his age. But this movie makes a point of telling the audience that Agent 99 is a lot older than she looks. Which leads to a comedy moment as Smart tries to convince her, in the context of their husband/wife cover story, that her "eggs will dry up and fall out" if she doesn't have children soon. I mean, wow: how often does a movie put that out there, even as a joke!

Come to think of it, the movie might be the most conservative film last year. Its handling of the intelligence/covert ops community is played with zero ambiguity. Bumblers they may sometimes be, but there is no question that CONTROL are the good guys defending America against KAOS' foreign bad guys. The president and vice president are loosely played as a good-ole-boy George Bush and a machiavellian Dick Cheney, but they come off here better than in any other movie I can think of.

Bottom line: a fun way to spend 110 minutes.

Addendum: I also saw the movie Pineapple Express, which, sadly, isn't even good enough to merit a full review. Seth Rogan and James Franco make of the material what they can, but . . . what was that movie about anyway? That illegal drugs make you stoopid? That's pretty much the story.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Farewell, Richard John Neuhaus

From Ross's obituary:

Neuhaus was an archetypal post-Vatican II figure, whose deepest intellectual interests lay in finding compatibilities and building bridges - between Jews and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, faith and the free market, and above all between Christianity and liberalism . . . . [H]is magazine's most apocalyptic moment - the famous "End of Democracy" symposium, a few years after Planned Parenthood v. Casey was handed down - doubled as a passionate brief for constitutionalism and democratic self-government, and a defense, however excessive, of a particular interpretation of American liberalism against the usurpations of meritocracy. No modern intellectual did so much to make the case for the compatibility between Christian belief and liberal democratic politics - and in the future, when the two have parted ways (as I suspect they will) more completely than at present, both Christians and liberals will look back on the synthesis he argued for with nostalgia, and regret.

I was introduced to Neuhaus in the pages of National Review in college, back when he was still a Lutheran, and I promptly devoured The Naked Public Square. His work stood out for exactly the reason Ross cites: he articulated a synthesis of Christian faith and morals on the one hand and an 18th century understanding of liberalism on the other.

As time went by, I drifted away from Neuhaus. Not self-consciously really; indeed, I haven't really thought about him much at all lately. But I realize on reflection that by the time First Things appeared on the 'net, his work no longer arrested my attention in the way in once did. For one thing, it became apparent that there were no modern liberals left on the other end of the conversation that Neuhaus wished to have. For another, I was becoming less classically liberal, more Burkean in my own political philosophy.

But the main reason I drifted away is: 9/11 happened. That terrorist attack illuminated the most unpleasant realities of the world in which we live. And liberalism, of whatever variety or era, was simply inadequate to the challenges before us. Goodness knows, President Bush tried: he and the neo-conservatives surrounding him dusted off the intellectual paradigms of Cold War liberalism and reapplied them to the war against The Threat We Dare Not Name. They told us that the biggest problem of the Middle East was its despotism. They insisted all that the peoples of the region wanted was Jeffersonian democracy. And they asserted, in the teeth of the evidence, that the world's hatred for America would melt away in the bright light of mutual understanding.

In the ashes of that project, I have bid farewell to consistency and embraced a fully bifurcated objective: Christian ends, sought with Darwinian means. I cannot, and do not try, to reconcile this fundamental contradiction. But may God bless Fr. Neuhaus for having fought the good fight to the end. RIP.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

I'm so pissed, I can't even think of a clever title to this post

This makes me want to throw up:

NEW YORK – The many Bernard Madoff investors who withdrew money from their accounts over the years are now wrestling with an ethical and legal quandary.

What they thought were profits was likely money stolen from other clients in what prosecutors are calling the largest Ponzi scheme in history. Now, they are confronting the possibility they may have to pay some of it back.

The issue came to the forefront this week as about 8,000 former Madoff clients began to receive letters inviting them to apply for up to $500,000 in aid from the Securities Investor Protection Corp.

Lawyers for investors have been warning clients to do some tough math before they apply for any funds set aside for the victims, and figure out whether they were a winner or loser in the scheme.

Hundreds and maybe thousands of investors in Madoff's funds have been withdrawing money from their accounts for many years. In many cases, those investors have withdrawn far more than their principal investment.

"I had a call yesterday from a guy who said, 'I've taken out more money then I originally put in, but I still had $1 million left with Madoff. Should I file a $1 million claim?'" said Steven Caruso, a New York attorney specializing in securities and investment fraud.

"I'm hard-pressed to give advice in that situation," Caruso said.

I'm hard-pressed to keep my breakfast down.

Let me make it personal: 2008 left my investment portfolio about $50K poorer than it found it, roughly 40% of its value, about the market performance. Nobody is going to jail over these losses, and no one has been indemnified. These are the risks of equity investing.

Madoff's clients, in contrast, invested with a criminal, and furthermore someone that they probably suspected as a criminal. This criminal did, in fact, pay out profitably some of his early investors with the funds of later investors.

It requires incandescent sociopathy for such people to even consider going to this outfit, the "Securities Investor Protection Corp.", which I suspect is a codeword for "American taxpayer", to ask that their remaining balance with Madoff come out of my pocket and into theirs.

So here is my counter-proposal:

  1. First, whatever link that the Securites Investor Protection Corp. (hereafter SIPC) has to the treasury should be severed. If investors what insurance against fraud, they should pay premiums like everybody else.
  2. Second, the SIPC should take all necessary legal action to recover from Madoff's early investors every dime of profit they extracted.
  3. Third, from such recovered funds, and whatever other funds that the government can extract from Madoff, the SIPC should pay out no more than $.60 on the dollar to Madoff's victims. This is the going rate of return for 2008, and they would be no more poorer than if they had invested in an index fund. This, until the money runs out. After that, they can take their pick of Madoff's appendages.

On the Costs of National Honor

I had lunch with the guys yesterday. Granted, it wasn't a representative sample, but I was surprised at the extent of the pro-Israel sympathy with regards to its conflict in Gaza.

I took the opportunity try out some of Steve Sailer's arguments and received a respectful hearing. But one of them asked me this:

Suppose that a group of Mexicans, with some nudging and winking from their government, started hurling rockets over the border into El Paso, in an quixotic effort to recover the Southwest. What do you think would be our reaction?

A fair question! In the long run, I suspect that we would pursue some combination of defensive measures and accomodation, and in this respect I would anticipate that our political parties would play to type.

In the short run, however, even our president-elect would recognize that in the suffering of the people of El Paso our national honor was on the line. And the measures by which we would vindicate that honor would be unlike those by which Israel is now vindicating its honor in Gaza.

On Abortion, Religion, and Proxy Issues

Trumwill has an excellent post on his mixed feelings toward parental consent laws:

The thing is, if I had a daughter that was pregnant and intended to have an abortion, I don’t think that I would want to be notified. A part of me thinks that if I could convince her not to, I would want that opportunity. I would want to be able to tell her that we would work with her so that she could go to college and establish herself. We’d (informally or formally) adopt the kid as our own if that would change her mind or help her place the child for adoption with an agency. I would want her to know that while I may be disappointed in what led up to the pregnancy that I understand that things happen and how we respond to the consequences of our mistakes says as much about us as the mistakes themselves.

The other part of me, however, fears that it would tear our family apart if she declined to go along. If the law were notification, it would be excruciating to try to talk her into having the baby and not being able to do so. She would know how vehemently I disapprove of her decision and I would know that she did something that I have strong moral objections to. It gets more difficult with parental consent laws because I would have a lot of difficulty consenting to it. If her mental health were obviously on the line, I would probably not drag her to court over the issue and so would consent. But such things are extremely difficult to judge. She may overestimate the mental health effects of having the baby or I might underestimate it. If I did not provide consent and she got a judicial bypass (most of which are granted, from what I understand), it could cause a permanent cut that’s never entirely sewn up.

In this case, I have to wonder if ignorance is bliss.

Trumwill's written enough that I feel comfortable making the generalization that his views on extramarital sex are more latitudinarian than my own. And for myself, my opposition to abortion is strong enough that I would seize at the opportunity to dissuade my daughter from aborting a child.

But the risks to the relationship that Trumwill identifies are very real. The scenario he describes, wherein my anti-abortion counseling is ignored, would engage mental modules that go beyond the narrow issue of abortion. I can specifically name two of those modules: first, my authority, and God's, over her behavior; second, her loyalty to her family and to the moral tradition in which she was raised. In this context, my daughter's abortion would have do premeditated violence to both authority and loyality. While in the abstract I could forgive abortion, I would have a much harder time forgiving this violence. Indeed, the context would make it difficult for her to genuinely seek that forgiveness.

I can imagine having a conversation with my daughters that goes something like this:

  1. First, don't have sex outside of marriage. God says so, and I say so.
  2. Second, if you choose to ignore this instruction, take whatever precautions.
  3. Third, if you choose to ignore that advice, please don't get an abortion. Come to your parents. Yes, we will be disappointed and upset. But we will also work with you on the alternatives.
  4. Finally, if you ignore all the above: never, ever tell me about it.

It occurred to me that this is not dissimilar to my attitude toward apostasy. As a Calvinist, I really don't have any stake in anyone's religion, or lack thereof: I did not choose my faith, nor you your unbelief, but God is sovereign over all. So I daily pray for the souls of my children and seek to nurture them in every way I know how; but, if in spite of this, they wander away, then I can only submit to God's perfect justice.

Think of this as "narrow-sense" religion, or "elite" religion as Razib once called it.

But there is also a broader sense in which religious faith is a measure of in-group loyalty: to family, community, and nation. And should my children, in the manner of some, become anti-Christian, and attempt to rub my nose in their new-found hostility, then there will be no refuge for them in a counter-claim that, really, they still want a relationship with me, for they will have rejected more than than just God.

Galbraith on Bubbles

I want to quote at length from Chapter One of John Kenneth Galbraith's 1955 book The Great Crash:

One thing in the twenties should have been visible even to [President Calvin] Coolidge. It concerned the American people of whose character he had spoken so well. Along with the sterling qualities he praised, they were also displaying an inordinate desire to get rich quickly with a minimum of physical effort. The first striking manifestation of this personality traint was in Florida. There, in the mid-twenties, Miami, Miami Beach, Coral Gables, the East Coast as far north as Palm Beach, and the cities over on the Gulf had been struck by the great Forida real estate boom. The Florida boom contained all of the elements of the classic speculative bubble. There was the indispensable element of substance. Forida had a better winter climate than New York, Chicago, or Minneapolis. Higher incomes and better transportation were making it increasingly accessible to the frost-bound North. The time indeed was coming when the annual flight to the South would be as regular and impressive as the migrations of the Canada Goose.

On that indispensable element of fact men and women had proceeded to build a world of speculative make-believe. This is a world inhabited not by people who have to be persuaded to believe but by people who want an excuse to believe. In the case of Florida, they wanted to believe that the whole peninsula would soon be populated by the holiday-makers and the sun-worshippers of a new and remarkably indolent era. So great would be the crush that beaches, bogs, swamps, and common scrubland would all have value. The Florida climate obviously did not insure that this would happen. But it did enable people who wanted to believe it would happen so to believe.

However, speculation does not depned entirely on the capacity for self-delusion. In Florida land was divided into building lots and sold for a 10 percent down payment. Palpably, much of the unlovely terrain that thus changed hands was as repugnant to the people who bought it as to the passer-by. The buyers did not expect to live on it; it was not easy to suppose that anyone ever would. But these were academic considerations. The reality was that this dubious asset was gaining in value by the day and could be sold at a handsome profit in a fortnight. It is another feature of the speculative mood that, as time passes, the tendency to look beyond the simple fact of increasing values to the reasons on which it depends greatly diminishes. And there is no reason why anyone should do so as long as the supply of people who buy with the expectation of selling at a profit continues to be augmented at a sufficiently rapid rate to keep prices rising.

I suppose now is a good time to drag up that old saying about how history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Whose Risk is Important? Why?

Sitting around in my collection of unopened moving boxes is a copy of In Pursuit: of Happiness and Good Government, in which Charles Murray offers an invaluable insight into how social risk should be calculated. With regard to the link between speed limits and highway deaths, Murray argues that the proper quantity with which we should be concerned is the risk that a driver moving at a proposed speed limit (70 mph, in Murray's example) poses to those driving at the existing speed limit (55 mph, at the time of the book's publication). He wrote that the danger posed by the "fast" driver to himself and to other "fast" drivers is not properly a public concern in a free society. Only the true externality should be accounted, and weighed against the positive goods of the increased limit.

This strikes me as a powerful argument, and one that came immediately to mind when Megan, indicating support for mandatory vaccinations, issued the following obiter dictum.

[P]arents who don't vaccinate their children are able to do so only because most parents do vaccinate theirs.

This is almost certainly true, but it struck me as a poor argument for mandatory vaccinations. I'm not an immunologist, and I don't actually know what the risks actually are, but in the comments, I put forth that only the risk that unvaccinated people pose to vaccinated ones merits consideration. Commenter Rob Lyman enumerated such risks thusly:

Because [1] sometimes the vaccine doesn't "take," because [2] immunity wears off over time, because [3] populations of inccubators encourage mutations which might not have been included in vaccines, and because [4] some number of people can't be vaccinated, the failure of herd immunity cause by elective non-vaccination poses a threat to the non-elective ones.

I replied:

So it appears that between groups 1, 2, and 4, above, there remains a core of effectively un-vaccinated people posing a risk primarily to each other, but also some risk to the vaccinated population by incubating mutations. It is this last risk that should be quantified.

I would then ask: to what extent does the marginal electively unvaccinated person increase that risk. I would then ask how that risk compares to the risk of receiving the vaccine. I don't know what these risks actually are, but it seems reasonable to insist that the first risk outweigh the second before resorting to coercive measures.

Rob subsequently objected to my dismissal of the marginal risk posed by the electively unvaccinated to the non-electively unvaccinated on the grounds that, through either bad health or ignorance, the latter couldn't help their own vulnerability and externalized risk, while the former group could.

My first reaction is to rebel at this distinction. Those in group [4] clearly have not run the risk they would seek to impose on others, and perhaps in group [1] as well. People in group [2] presumably run the risk, but in both case [1] and [2], are there no other alternatives? Cannot anyone concerned about the effectiveness of their own vaccination be tested for the antibodies? My impulse is to look for alternatives before reflexively resorting to coercive vaccinations. But perhaps I am being myopic or hard-hearted.

Unfortunately, I can't end this essay without pulling back the curtain, so to speak, on my own suspicions. No small amount of the energy put into the calls for mandatory vaccinations is simple herd-think: we have accepted the risk of vaccinations for ourselves, and thereby produced some externalized good; you therefore must not be allowed to enjoy that benefit without accepting the same risk. This syllogism is powerfully seductive as a psychological matter, but it's not the same thing as risk management.

And at the risk of descending even further into tinfoil hat territory, I have difficulty in trusting the motivations of Megan's more zealous commenters. I suspect that the enthusiasm of many self-identified "progressives" for mandatory vaccinations is a function of their perception, not entirely unjustified, that resistance to vaccination programs is overrepresented among highly religious people, and that coercive measures is yet another front in their ongoing efforts at "conservative ethnic cleansing" about which I have written much.

UPDATE: After taking me to task for my tinfoil hattery, Trumwill brings up another class of unvaccinated persons that I had not considered: children too young to receive the vaccine but who are nonetheless vulnerable to the disease. I want to state that absolutely the risk to such children should be accounted when contemplating mandatory vaccination programs on the grounds that such risk is univeral -- although I would still insist that such programs result in positive-sum utility.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Batman the Republican

Thus was titled the NR review when Tim Burton's stylized vision of the Caped Crusader debuted some 20 years ago. While I have forgotten the precise spirit in which it was written, I believe the review made the point that Batman's ideology was discerned in his open embrace of vengeance as a motivation for chasing the Joker. None of Superman's "truth, justice and the American Way" in the abstract for him; no, with Batman, it was personal.

This particular aspect of Batman's character didn't last even through the second movie, and is nowhere present in Chris Nolan's more gritty reimagining of 2005. Yet, it is hard not to view last year's The Dark Knight as other than an extended apology for the War on Terror, and specifically the widespread use of electronic surveillance by the Bush administration.

That said, Batman's alleged infractions are pretty tame. Other than monitoring the cellular network, his exercise of private violence is common to the superhero genre. He doesn't even kill the Joker! And the express theme at the close -- that Batman will choose to shoulder the burden of public obloquy -- is, in context, a head-scratcher. For he doesn't shoulder this burden for the public safety: for "doing disagreeable things so that common people can sleep safely in their beds at night," in John le Carre's memorable phrase. Rather, he shoulders it for something he didn't do, so as to protect the reputation of prosecutor Harvey Dent. Why? Something about how Dent's reputation gives people faith and hope in . . . something. But Dent understandably went off the deep end, and he's dead anyway, so what's the point, why not come up with a better cover story than this?

The film is ambitious and raises some good questions, but the story ultimately falls short of its potential.

No Country for Old Men

I saw No Country for Old Men on DVD. A few thoughts:

First, don't watch it. Yeah, it's a good movie, but it's depressing as hell. Spare yourself the assault on your mental health.

As a technical matter, Josh Broslin is a little old for his role. If his character was 18 years old on enlisting in the army in 1965, he would be only 33 by 1980, not the 39 that Broslin was when the movie was released.

I can't help comparing the movie to A Simple Plan, another movie about how the discovery of a suitcase full of money can ruin your happiness. But there are differences:

In A Simple Plan, Bill Paxton and his pretty, younger (by nine years) wife (Bridget Fonda) are happily living a lower-middle-class life (he's a clerk, she's a librarian) when he discovers the suitcase in a plane wreck. As their efforts to conceal the discovery lead them to ever-greater acts of evil, it is her greed and ambition as much as his that spur them on.

In No Country, Josh Broslin and his pretty, younger (by eight years) wife (Kelly Macdonald) are living a lower-working-class life -- in a trailer park no less -- when he discovers the suitcase at the site of a drug deal gone horrifically bad. "Happy" would be exaggerating their level of contentment with their circumstances; "resigned" might be more appropriate. But they love each other in a quiet been-married-awhile way, which is where, as a man, I would assert that true happiness lies. Interestingly, although she has less, the prospect of great wealth delights her less. Indeed, her immediate reaction is fear for her husband's safety and loosing the little she has.

Obviously, between the two, I would rather be married to Kelly Macdonald's character, but I'm mainly curious about which, if either, character could be generalized as representative.

"Yourself", v1.0

Following links from Hit Coffee (I forget which), I discovered Why Women Hate Men, where writer Weasel airs the excrescence of the man-seeking-woman personal ads and subjects them to his florid and caustic wit. Gird thyself for major-league nasty. And not in the good way.

While I am now largely beyond shock at revelations of female misbehavior, I have some difficulty imagining a large population of women scanning the personals in search of commitment-free sex. (Roissy claims to have found them, for what it's worth.) Yes, by all accounts there are women willing -- indeed, eager -- to be gamed into a casual hook-up. But my impression is that successful game requires social context: a bar, club, lounge . . . something. But a personal ad? Perhaps if it is written with sufficient poetry, an ad might capture a woman's imagination. But the space to poetically express the desire to bang a random woman has to be pretty narrow.

So why do men write these personals? It may be that, however small the market for the, um, services thus advertised, it remains yet underexploited. More likely, however, is that the writers are looking to rise above the vast plain of nice-guy C.V.s and have overestimated the appeal of this particular tack.

I can see myself in those ads. No, I never wrote ads like these. But I can imagine that they are the kind of ads that I might have written if: (1) I was sexually promiscuous; (2) I thought person ads were a good way of meeting people; and (3), I was even more bereft of class than I actually am.

But I can relate to this display of ignorance and incompetence in attracting women. A wise blogger once known as Bobvis wrote the following:

Be yourself. But not the version of yourself you are now.

But the devil, as it were, is in the details. I understand the importance of self-improvement, but once the big ticket items were squared away, I had no clue what it was I supposed to become, the internet didn't exist, and I didn't have the kind of relationships with anyone who knew the answer whereby that knowledge might have been transmitted. So, left to my own devices, I spent my early twenties desperately flailing about for a version of "self" that women would want to buy. And in that flailing were mistakes every bit deserving of the mockery with which Weasel regards his list of personals.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Whose Life?

Ross has a great article about the uses and limitations of Just War thinking. But this part jumped out:

But for the [Just War] framework to have the desired restraining effect on statesmen and warmakers, it has to marry practicality to idealism, and strike enough of a balance between the two to make it seem applicable to real-world crises. And if it's important not to stretch the theory to justify any goal or end you seek, it's also important not to narrow it to the point where it seems so unrealistic and disconnected from the realities of war that policymakers will feel comfortable ignoring it . . . . If you find yourself saying that a modern state cannot take the fight to a terrorist regime if doing so unavoidably involves civilian casualties, you're advancing a theory of jus in bello that no state can accept - and ultimately, I suspect, you're giving ammunition to the side of the debate that wants to do away with moral restraint in the struggle against terrorism entirely.

Yep, he's talking about me. It's not that I am eager to shrug off moral restraint; rather, it is that I decline to be bound by restraints that do not likewise bind our adversaries. As Ross himself points out, jus in bello may be tedious, but reciprocity is clarifying. In warfare, I will abide a "framework of restraint" if I believe my enemies are also restrained; if not, then not.

Meanwhile, Freddie offers the obvious:

There is a basic calculus at work in your posts on this subject, Joe [Carter], that I find remarkably in vogue in this debate: that the life of a Palestinian is simply worth less than the life of an Israeli. You won’t admit to it, of course, but it is an assumption that undergirds your argument at every turn.

I don't know who Joe Carter is, but this party is already well attended. It should come as no surprise that Israel regards Israeli lives as worth more than Palestinian ones. On the contrary, the very purpose of the Israeli government, or any government for that matter, is to preferentially promote the security of its own citizens.

But the thing is, Hamas also regards Israeli lives as worth more, but from the equation's other side. Hamas chooses to expend disproportionate Palestinian blood to spill Jewish blood, and not just in the sense that they-should-have-seen-this-coming; no, Hamas rejoices specifically in the opportunity to close with the IDF in urban warfare on its home ground; and there is every indication that Hamas sees the consequent suffering of its people as primarily a source of a propaganda. All this, so they can kill a few Jews.

As I've written, I would recommend to Joe Carter that he stay out of other people's messes; however, if both parties to the conflict regard Israelis as worth more than Palestinians, then I don't see a problem with taking the point to be well-stipulated.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

On Yet Another Foreign War

While I've been preoccupied with home repairs during the Christmas break, it appears that the Jews and Arabs are fighting again.

So it goes.

Put me with Megan in that it is difficult for me to find any moral issue here to get much exercised about. The tit-for-tat has accrued a Kabuki-theater aspect to it, as has our canned diplomatic reaction. I can't even get much enthused that IDF might strike a blow against terrorism, seeing as how I got all enthused when they went after Hezbollah in 2006, and look how that turned out.

America needs, to borrow a term from game theory, a "dominant strategy" for the region, i.e. one that minimizes our exposure regardless of what the local players do, and regardless of who prevails. To which end, I offer my one-point plan for dealing with the Middle East:

Don't get any of it on you.

I'm somewhat less sanguine, however, about this (H.T.: Ace)

Bluntly: these people and their pagan god have no place living amongst us. The only reason such a scene occurs is the utter contempt with which the elites that control our immigration system hold America's historic civilization. Those elites must be deposed, and their work undone as expeditiously as possible.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

On The Wire, Season 5

I just wrapped up watching the last season of The Wire on DVD. Truly, we have lived in the Golden Age of television.

In no particular order:

  • Has there ever been a series in which almost every word and gesture of every major character has been so cranked up on full-octane testosterone? Will there ever be again?

  • Am I the only viewer who didn't figure out until this season that Snoop was actually a woman? I thought she was a twelve year old boy.

  • Did the series jump the shark when it made Detective Freamon the mastermind of an illegal wiretap? McNulty, I can see, except that he didn't have the brains to do it alone. But Freamon never showed any bend-the-rules kind of attitude. Without being a scold, he knew the rules of evidence and was always careful and meticulous about building a solid case.

  • The show's verisimilitude has been the subject of much more intelligent commentary than I could offer. But I have to say: whatever it's accuracy in depicting the complex interaction between the media, politicians, police, educators, and their underclass clients, never once were we shown, say, a small business owner struggling along under Baltimore's oppressive taxation and property crime. Sometimes, I got the impression that David Simon doesn't know, or doesn't care, about where all the tax revenue comes from that funds this vast enterprise, and the series was poorer for it.

Maybe other trenchant observations will eventually occur to me.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Senator Webb on Prison Reform

Via Ross, a Washington Post article on Jim Webb looking to reform . . . something having to do with prisons. In between assertions about how mavericky Webb is for taking on this issue, we read:

This spring, Webb (D-Va.) plans to introduce legislation on a long-standing passion of his: reforming the U.S. prison system. Jails teem with young black men who later struggle to rejoin society, he says. Drug addicts and the mentally ill take up cells that would be better used for violent criminals.

[snip]

In speeches and in a book that devotes a chapter to prison issues, Webb describes a U.S. prison system that is deeply flawed in how it targets, punishes and releases those identified as criminals.

[snip]

A disproportionate number of those who are incarcerated are black, Webb notes. African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, but they comprise more than half of all prison inmates, compared with one-third two decades ago. Today, Webb says, a black man without a high school diploma has a 60 percent chance of going to prison.

Webb aims much of his criticism at enforcement efforts that he says too often target low-level drug offenders and parole violators, rather than those who perpetrate violence, such as gang members. He also blames policies that strip felons of citizenship rights and can hinder their chances of finding a job after release. He says he believes society can be made safer while making the system more humane and cost-effective.

Nothing here about protecting white prisoners from rape and assault by black prisoners. Instead, he's concerned about (I gather) ex-cons' "citizenship rights". What rights would those be, Senator? The right to keep and bear arms? Somehow I doubt that makes his list. Indeed, I would bet you that the only "right" that concerns him is their right to vote in overwhelming numbers for Democrat candidates.

Meanwhile, the problem of ex-con employment is real enough. But what "policy" of the government "hinders" their ability to find work on release? The policy of massive immigration that makes a relatively crime-free Mexican a better bet for an employer than a black with a sheet? Somehow I doubt that makes his list either. In fact, the only government "policy" I can think of are those that make criminal background checks easy for employers to make; the employers thereby reserve job offers for those who haven't been in trouble with the law. What, exactly, is Webb proposing here? That ex-cons become a protected class? That discrimination against them in hiring be illegal? This isn't as far fetched as it sounds: all it would take would be to find that such discrimination has a "disparate impact" on minorities.

To its credit, the Washington Post prints the push-back:

Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Policy Initiatives, said it has become an "urban myth" that the nation imprisons vast numbers of low-level drug offenders.

People are often surprised to learn that less than one-half of 1 percent of all inmates are in for marijuana possession, he said. And those offenders were caught holding, on average, 100 pounds.

"That's a pretty different picture than I think most people have," Riley said. "It's true, we have way too many people in prison. But it's not because the laws are unjust, but because there are too many people who are causing havoc and misery in the community."

I've read before that simple drug possession charges are almost exclusively reserved for the very gang members that Webb says he wants to target but for whom it is very difficult to make any other case. But I doubt Webb will care. This is his SWPL play to attack law enforcement for not arresting more whites.

Senator Webb has gradually pissed away everything about himself that made him such an interesting candidate in the first place. He's now just a garden variety liberal with fawning press coverage.