28 March 2015

The Religious Right - Those Christians Who Understand Christianity Better Than Christ

"I have as much authority as the pope, only fewer people believe it."
- George Carlin

83% of Americans claim to be Christian. If you have a proposal you want supported, it is a great idea to tell people that what you're advocating is Christian. Given that 83% of Americans have not read the Bible, this gives you great liberty. 

I don't mind the fact that the religious right have made up a new religion. People do that all the time - and inescapably so. Even if your intention is to conscientiously apply the words of the New Testament, you have to make judgments about what to take metaphorically and what to take literally. And of course conscientious Christians - like conscientious Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists - have to decide what to do in situations that Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha could never have imagined (artificial insemination?), so creativity is inevitable. This is why we have over 40,000 religious denominations around the world.

I do mind that the religious right are Christians who essentially claim to understand Christianity better than Christ did. They are ignoring what he taught and making topics he ignored central to their religion. I think by that point you have an obligation to call yourself something other than Christian. 

Jesus did not condemn homosexuality but he did condemn wealth. He did not condemn abortion but he did say that people will be judged by how they treated the least - and specifies that he's talking about the least as in people who are hungry, naked, and in prison, criminals and the destitute. Jesus made no mention of either abortion or homosexuality, leaving one to assume that it didn't really matter to him as much as turning the other cheek. Jesus did not ban alcohol. His first miracle was to make water into wine, and late at the wedding party after people had drunk quite a lot.

Paul seems to have condemned homosexuality (the verse cited is not really clear) and also condemned credit (this verse is really clear). Early in the 20th century, American clergy preached against consumer credit in the same way that they preached against homosexuality in the late 20th century. 

So now people advocate a modern world with credit and standing armies and prison sentences for criminals instead of forgiveness and divorce and making alcohol illegal for people under 21 and the accumulation of wealth and all of that seems to me like progress. We ought to embrace that without pretending that it aligns with Christ's teaching, though. If you argue for such things, you can't just say, "It's Christian." You have to make your case (and by the way, there are pretty good cases for these.) 

Meanwhile, if you want to claim that at the instant of conception that sperm and egg - human life that is not considered a human being - becomes a person, fine. Make your argument. But don't pretend that you are making it as a Christian, that something Christ said backs you on this point. Same with smaller government and the insistence that individuals not be supported by a welfare state. There are arguments for ignoring the poor but they stem from the teachings of people like Ayn Rand (who was an atheist) not Jesus. (There are religious arguments for not having a welfare state. As it turns out, the less financially secure people feel, the more likely they are to be religious. According to Jonathon Haidt, this is the primary reason that Americans are more religious than Europeans.)

I don't just have a problem with the religious right's insistence on bringing their religion into the public sphere. I have a problem with the fact that they've mis-labeled it as Christianity. 

12 March 2015

As a Matter of Fact, This is the Spanish Inquisition (or Why Singapore and Canada are More Affluent Than the Philippines and Mexico)

The Spanish Inquisition
Put people in a terrible position.
I don’t even like to think about it.
Well sometimes, I like to think about it.
-          Randy Newman
After the discovery of the new world, Spain should have gained an insurmountable advantage over all the rest of the West. At its peak, the Spanish Empire ruled about 13% of the earth, a swath of land exceeded up until then only by the Mongols, whose expansion had been stopped by the first use of gunpowder in a cannon during the mid-thirteenth century. Instead, France and England surpassed Spain in economic development. Spain even lost a prolonged war against the tiny Netherlands. It was not just a brute measure of land that mattered to progress in the first economy. Social invention and revolution were essential.
As trade grew in importance, so did diversity. If everyone is the same, has the same things, there is no value in trading. As people and economies become more distinct, trade becomes even more valuable. In the midst of this first economy, Isabella and Ferdinand tried to make Spain pure. They did it by subordinating their emerging nation-state to religion. This was to prove economically disastrous, but not in their lifetime.
Isabella (1451-1504) and Ferdinand (1452-1516) rightfully realized that Europe was not just getting exposure to new products with the emergent global trade. Europe was losing its cultural purity as the network of Jews, Muslims, and Asians who formed the trade network along the orient exposed Europeans to strange beliefs and practices. One response was to draw best practices from these new people. Spain tried instead to reject them.
After conquering Granada - the last Muslim territory in what is now Spain - these Catholic Monarchs gave Jews and Muslims the choice to convert or leave. This could have made the economy collapse, since so many Jews filled the role of financiers, chief public officers, and artisans but a seeming miracle saved them.
Ferdinand decided to finance Columbus’s venture. Ferdinand had purchased a copy of Ptolemy’s Geography and confirmed what Columbus told them about how short a route he might find to the Indies. (Ptolemy had made a little miscalculation in his estimate of the circumference of the earth, persuading readers that the distance from Europe to Asia by heading west was about as far as the distance from Europe to America. Columbus died believing that he had found this route. He never realized he had instead found a new world.) The decision to finance Columbus’s venture was part of their decision not to rely on so many nonbelievers. They knew that they needed economic breakthroughs to replace the infidels who formed such a big part of the economy.
“They announced an official policy of homogeneity of cultural practices, dress and religion, and the ruthless suppression of local custom, ritual, and belief. In spite of the fact that the growing prosperity of Spain, as of other European nations, depended on vigorous and heterogeneous trade throughout the known world, and in spite of the fact that the artisanal skills which supported lucrative industries like carpet manufacture, ceramics or brocade-weaving were tightly associated with specific ethnic and religious groupings, the victorious Spanish regime declared ethnic and doctrinal purity as the foundations of the stability of the new state.” [1]
Their bold moved paid off. In 1521, Cortes conquered Mexico and by 1533, Pissarro had conquered Peru. The Americas provided a staggering amount of gold and silver. Between 1516 and 1520, Spain’s average yearly income in gold was 200,000 pesos; between 1551 and 1555 it was nearly 2,000,000.[2] “By 1650, 16,000 tons of silver had come to Europe, to say nothing of 180 tons of gold objects."[3]
It would be hard to turn this treasure into economic stagnation but, in their pursuit of purity, Spain did.
Further, the flow of gold seemed to distort Spain’s economy. No agricultural advances were made during the prosperity of Charles’s reign; with a monopoly on selling supplies to the New World, there was no pressure to improve methods. Commercial techniques in the sixteenth century remained basically unchanged from those imported by Italian merchants during medieval times. Following a century of falling prices, Spain suffered unprecedented inflation. Currency was gold and silver and both poured in from the New World. From 1501 to 1550, prices more than doubled; by the end of the century, they had quadrupled. With prices rising so much faster in Spain than in the rest of Europe, Spain’s products soon could not compete with foreign goods. The Genoese “flooded the country with cheap manufactured products, designed especially for the Indies, to the serious detriment of local industry.”[4]
Spain used its income to buy goods rather than develop its own productive capacity, leading the Venetian ambassador to write, “The gold that comes from the Indies does on Spain as rain does on a roof—it pours on her and it flows away.”[5]
Worst of all, Spain moved in the opposite direction of England and France. Rather than subordinate the church to the state, it brutally asserted church power. As the rest of the West was gradually lurching towards something akin to religious freedom, Ferdinand and Isabella launched the infamous Spanish Inquisition.
While the English were gradually accepting freedom of thought, the Spanish were insisting on purity of thought. While the Spanish were out conquering the people in the new world, the English were giving more freedoms to the people in their own. Freeman rose to prominence in England, increasingly taking the place of serfs as farmers. Spain made slaves of Mexicans and Peruvians, forcing them to work in mines in brutal conditions that shortened their lives by decades.
It seems odd to contrast English farmers to Spanish conquistadors. Yet it was something as prosaic as farming that fueled England’s economic progress, bringing it to a point that it could challenge the supremacy of an empire that had so much of the newly discovered Americas even as its emperor ruled a large portion of Europe. Leading what could be called a “food- producing revolution,” English farmers were a key reason that “In the eighteenth century European agriculture was already capable of obtaining about two and a half times the yield on its seed normal in the Middle Ages. . . .By 1750 the best English agriculture was the best in the world. The most advanced techniques were practiced and the integration of agriculture with a commercial market economy had gone furthest in England, whose lead was to be maintained for another century or so."[6]
When the Spanish established colonies in foreign lands, they were exploiting and extracting. When the British began colonizing later, they were actually bringing with them a blend of technological and social inventions that made land more productive. To this day, former British colonies generally outperform former colonies of France and Spain. In Africa, former British colony Ghana has per capita GDP about 4X higher than the former French colony Democratic Republic of Congo. In North America, per capita incomes in Canada are about 5X higher than in Mexico, a country that had formerly been under Spanish and French rule. In Southeast Asia, Singapore has per capita income that is about 20X higher than the Philippines, where Spain left a legacy of medieval Catholic family planning. As with a family, past generations largely define prosperity or poverty. History does not stay in the past. It even defines the options you have for tomorrow.
The mix of social and technological inventions that made land more productive – as transformative as they were – proved to be mere prelude to the big revolutions of the industrial economy.

[1] Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance (New York:
W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), 86–88.
[2] Gertrude von  Schwarzenfeld, Charles V: Father of Europe (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1957), 261–62.
[3] Roberts, The Penguin History of the World, 620.
[4] Vicens, An Economic History of Spain, 336–37.
[5] Carlo M. Cipolla, Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400–1700 (Manhattan, Kans.: Sunflower University Press, 1965, Sixth Printing 2002), 36.
[6] Roberts, The Penguin History of the World , 679.

08 March 2015

Lindsey Graham Insists the Economy is No Better Than it Was at the Height of the Great Recession (The Republican Dilemma)

Since Obama has taken office on January 20, 2009, the NASDAQ has more than tripled and the S&P 500 has more than doubled, unemployment has been cut in half and the deficit has been cut by about three-quarters. Instead of losing 5 million jobs a year - its worst performance since the 1930s - it is gaining 3 million jobs a year - its best performance since 1999.

Lindsey Graham was asked Sunday whether he would admit that the economy was getting better even though he had warned Americans that Obama would destroy the economy.

"I think that we do have stagnant middle-class wage growth, and I think the labor participation rate is at an all-time low," Graham said. "So if your argument is that we’re on the road to recovery, we had a sound economy under President Obama, no I don’t agree with that at all."
Still not on the road to recovery. This in a nutshell is the dilemma Republican candidates face in their run for the presidency. Here are their options.

  1. Deny that the economy was great under Clinton and Obama but terrible under Bush. With this strategy they have to sell American voters on the narrative that George W. Bush had just gotten the economy into good shape, just managed to recover from Clinton's reckless mismanagement, when Obama came along and wrecked it again. Because Democratic presidents actually make things worse - or at best, don't really improve things - Americans should once again put their faith in a Republican president, perhaps even another Bush. If this sounds like a bad strategy, remember that more Louisiana Republicans blame the government's poor response in the wake of Katrina on Obama than on Bush. Katrina happened 3 years before Obama took office, whereas the Great Recession, which started 6 months before Obama won the election, hit hardest during Obama's first year.
  2. Admit that the economy was great under Clinton and Obama but terrible under Bush. With this strategy they have to convince American voters that while the economy will perform great in spite of awful policies (that is to say, Clinton and Obama were incredibly lucky) and will perform disastrously in spite of great policies (which is to say that Bush just had bad luck), American voters should care deeply about who is president because otherwise .... well, otherwise things could become, you know, either bad or good ... it's hard to tell. It might not even make a difference. But it might make a difference. It might even make a different difference than we previously thought it would. You know.

So while Lindsey Graham sounds like either a liar or an idiot for denying that the economy has actually done well during Obama's presidency, he can never admit it because then he has to admit one of two things that would lose him voters: either Democratic president's policies are good for the economy or president's policies don't matter. To acknowledge reality would force him to change his position.

Of course Graham and his fellow GOP candidates are not going after thoughtful voters - just 51% of voters. This strategy of denial could work for them.

Numbers since Obama took office.

The NASDAQ is up 242%, and the broader measure of the S&P 500 is up 144%.

Unemployment is 5.5%, nearly half the 10% it peaked at shortly after Obama took office.

The deficit as % of GDP has been reduced 72%, more than half, from 9.8% of GDP to 2.8% of GDP.

The year Obama took office the economy lost 5.1 million jobs and last year it created 3.1 million jobs, a swing of 8.2 million.

07 March 2015

350th Anniversary of Newton's Miracle Year and the Scientific Peer-Reviewed Journal

Perhaps all we need to see a flowering of creativity is a mini-apocalypse. Not a collapse of society or bombings that destroy buildings and people. Just a loss of electricity for, say, 2 to 6 months. Maybe even a virus targeted at anyone under 65 that blocks them from the internet, TV or radio.

Leo Buscaglia had a great line. His kids would say, "Dad! I'm bored." "Good," he would respond. "Let me know how it works out."

Undistracted by the glut of information in this information age, forced to amuse themselves with their own inventions and insights, it would be fascinating to see what was produced. It was such conditions that created two extraordinary advances in science.

Yesterday was the 350th anniversary of the first peer-reviewed, scientific journal, a model we continue to use to this day. It is also the anniversary of Newton's annus mirabilis, or miracle year. A plague had driven everyone out of Cambridge, and Newton, full of ideas in an intellectually fecund place like Cambridge, suddenly found himself stuck at his mothers's home, alone, with time enough to fully develop his ideas. He went home in 1665 and by 1666 he had developed integral calculus, verified the composite nature of light with experiments and calculated that gravity holds the moon in orbit to the earth (this last proof presumably involved only equations and no actual experiments). It was an extraordinary set of breakthroughs, laying the foundation for Newtonian physics, a cornerstone for Enlightenment thinking.

Whether the same plague forced the British Royal Society to resort to peer reviewed literature instead of their regular meetings is unclear. What is clear is that such journals have made the 350 years since the most extraordinary time in all of history.

Read about the 350th anniversary of  The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society here at the Guardian. Thanks to Bret Bearup's always interesting, often hilarious, mind for alerting me to this big deal. 

06 March 2015

Are We On Track to Create 4 Million Jobs in 2015?

Today's jobs report has great news and yet it'll likely be reported with lots of caveats and caution.

Last year the economy created over 3 million jobs, something it hadn't done since 1999. And yet in the first two months of 2015, the economy has created 50% more jobs than it did in the first two months of 2014. 50% more. A rate that would translate into more than 4 million jobs for 2015. The American economy has created 4 million jobs only once, back in 1978. Back then, the labor force was only 100,000. Today it is 157,000, so creating 4 million jobs in 2015 would be more akin to creating 3 million in 1978. It is very plausible.

The unemployment rate is dropping faster now than it was at the beginning of the economic recovery. It's is now at 5.5% and yet the drop in unemployment rate is accelerating. Consumer confidence is up, credit markets are loosening, and companies are hiring. 

But of course people will be commenting on wages. Inflation is near zero and wages are growing about 2.1% a year. Is that good? 

What is curious about 2.1% wage growth? It will double wages in 33 years, meaning that the roughly $50,000 median wage for 2000 will be $100,000 in 2033, $200,000 in 2066, and $400,000 in 2100. Sound outlandish? It is what happened last century. And of course we will be able to buy things at the end of the century that we could not buy at its beginning. For instance, this week I ordered a personal genetic analysis kit for $79, a considerable discount from the $3 billion it cost for the first human genome sequencing completed in 2000, the first year of this century. It's impossible to predict what remarkable things our grandchildren will be able to buy in 2100 with their $400,000 salary.

And yet, all of today's analysis will begin or end with caveats about how wage growth isn't really growing enough ... about how people are still dropping out of the job market ... about how there is still some question about the recovery. It's hard to break the gloom and doom addiction, but this is, quite simply, more good news.