Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Thursday, October 30, 2008

every issue, save one

Andrew Thompson of the Gen-X Rising blog has a dilemma. He likes a lot of what he hears from Barack Obama's campaign:

I think the Democrats are more in touch with some of our pressing problems, including healthcare, the environment, the economy, and U.S. relationships with other nations. Plus, I like Obama. True, I wish he had more national political experience. But I think he reasons well (one of the greatest political skills required of a president), and I think he will surround himself with those who can help make up for some of his areas of inexperience (e.g., his selection of Joe Biden to bolster his understanding of foreign policy). You can go down the list of issues, and in this election at least, I will check off with the Democrats on just about every issue - save one.

That one issue is abortion, and it is extremely important to Andrew — so important that he is not sure he can vote for Obama.

I understand his dilemma. I've always considered myself pro-life, and in 1992 I wrestled with this very issue when I was trying to decide whether to vote for Bill Clinton. One of the things that gave me comfort back then was Clinton's pledge that he wanted abortion to be safe, legal, and rare. As it turns out, the number of abortions did drop during seven of his eight years in office, and the overall drop was greater than that of the Reagan and Bush (Sr.) years, whether measured in absolute numbers or in percentages.

In 2004 Glen Stassen, ethics professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, made headlines when he published a study that appeared to show that abortion rates, after falling for two decades, had begun to rise again since George W. Bush took office. Stassen's study was based on incomplete data, and the additional data that has been gathered since does not support Stassen's conclusions. Data from the Alan Guttmacher Institute show a continued decline in the abortion rate at least through 2005. I haven't seen more recent data than that.

What are we to conclude from all this? Personally, I think the only conclusion that can be safely drawn at this point is that politicians and their views on this issue don't really influence the abortion rate. It rose rapidly from 1973 to 1980, then began a slow and steady decline.

One point Andrew makes in his post is that if the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade, it would lead to a much greater reduction in abortions than this slow, steady decline. Frankly, I'm skeptical that the Republicans even want to overturn Roe v. Wade: Although the last three Republican presidents have said they opposed the 1973 ruling, they all maintained that they didn't make it a litmus test for their Court appointees. I have to believe they meant it. Six of the nine current Supreme Court justices were appointed by Reagan and the two Bushes, and despite a number of challenges, Roe v. Wade is still here.

The area where the Court has overturned precedents is in the area of corporate liability. In case after case, the Court has ruled that corporations should not be held responsible for the damage the cause, especially after the arrival of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. John McCain has promised to appoint more of the same. I don't see any reason to imagine the Court will overturn abortion law, but I see every reason to believe that more Republican appointees will mean less recourse for victims of corporate malfeasance.

On the other hand, I do believe there are ways to dramatically decrease the abortion rate, but it will require simultaneous effort on a number of fronts. The 95-10 Initiative from a group known as Democrats for Life seems to me to be a solid approach. If we as a society can reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, we will reduce the number of abortions. If we as a society can help women who might keep the baby if they thought they could afford it, or who think they can't raise a child on their own, they might be more likely not just to bring the pregnancy to term, but to provide a better environment for the child growing up. Nearly half of all women who have abortions say they either can't afford to raise a child or can't handle the responsibility, so providing a community support network would have a large impact on the abortion rate, and it wouldn't require waiting and hoping for nine people in black robes in Washington D.C. to decide a previous generation's court decision was a mistake.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

jesus for president?

Jesus for President is the title of a book by Shane Claiborne. But what kind of President would Jesus actually be?

Labels: ,

dawkins abandons atheism?

That's the subject line (but with an exclamation point rather than a question mark) of a recent post on Peter Kirk's Gentle Wisdom blog. But is it true?

According to a story by Melanie Phillips in The Spectator, Dawkins said this in a recent debate:

A serious case could be made for a deistic God.

In her article, Phillips responds with this:

This was surely remarkable. Here was the arch-apostle of atheism, whose whole case is based on the assertion that believing in a creator of the universe is no different from believing in fairies at the bottom of the garden, saying that a serious case can be made for the idea that the universe was brought into being by some kind of purposeful force. A creator.

So has Richard Dawkins abandoned atheism? I doubt it.

In fact, Phillips got a clarification from Dawkins after the debate:

Afterwards, I asked Dawkins whether he had indeed changed his position and become more open to ideas which lay outside the scientific paradigm. He vehemently denied this and expressed horror that he might have given this impression.

So when Dawkins says, "A serious case could be made for a deistic God," what does he mean?

My best guess is that his meaning can be found in what he didn't say. First, he didn't say that a serious case has ever been made; he is only acknowledging that it could. Second, in saying that the serious case could be made only for a deistic God, he is in essence denying that a serious case could be made for a personal God.

Richard Dawkins has never been a friend of theism, and I don't see any reason to believe his statement last week represents a change of heart.

Labels: ,

Monday, October 27, 2008

monday music: amazing grace

I'm going to try something new. Every Monday I'm going to post a video from YouTube. We'll see how long this lasts.

This week's pick is a work of pure genius: The Blind Boys of Alabama sing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun". The haunting melody strips away the familiarity of this hymn, and re-emphasizes the dark past alluded to in the lyrics.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

too big to fail

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich argues that if a company is "too big to fail," it's just too big:

We seem to have forgotten that the original purpose of antitrust law was also to prevent companies from becoming too powerful. Too powerful in that so many other companies depended on them, so many jobs turned on them, and so many consumers or investors or depositors needed them – that the economy as a whole would be endangered if they failed. Too powerful in that they could wield inordinate political influence – of a sort that might gain them extra favors from Washington.

Favors like, maybe, a $700 billion bailout package?

The whole article can be found here.

Labels: ,

Monday, October 20, 2008

the schizochroal compound eye

Kurt Wise is perhaps the world's best educated creationist. He earned a doctorate in paleontology from Harvard, where his advisor was no less than Stephen Jay Gould. Dr. Wise has also been described by Richard Dawkins as an "honest creationist" because he freely acknowledges that his belief in creationism is grounded in his reading of scripture and not in his reading of the scientific data.

In an article for Answers in Genesis, Dr. Wise suggests that, outside the Bible, the best evidence for creation comes from "the design of organisms past and present".

The schizochroal compound eye of the trilobite (a horseshoe crab-like organism of the past), for examp le, contains the only known lens in the biological world which corrects for focusing problems that result from using non-flexible lenses. The designs of the schizochroal lenses, in fact, are the very same designs that man himself has developed to correct for the same problems. Furthermore, the design of the schizochroal eye combines this optimum focusing capability with the optimum sensitivity to motion provided by the compound eye as well as the stereoscopic (3-D) vision provided by closely spaced eyes.

For another perspective — and photos — see this article on the evolution of the trilobite eye.

This design, in fact, seems to far exceed the needs of the trilobite. The origin of the design of the schizochroal eye is not understood by means of any known natural cause. Rather, it is best understood as being due to an intelligent (design-creating) cause, through a process involving remarkably high manipulative ability. Among available hypotheses, creation by God is the most reasonable hypothesis for the origin of the complexity of the trilobite’s schizochroal eye.

One wonders, though, what is the most reasonable hypothesis for humankind's greatly inferior eyes. If I understand the hypothesis correctly, there was an intelligent (design-creating) cause named God, who crafted a very extravagant eye for some types of small hard-shelled, segmented creatures that lived more than 300 million maybe a few thousand years ago, and has never reached the same level of design perfection since. This is what results when we reduce God to the level of a scientific hypothesis.

So what happened to the intelligent (design-creating) cause named God? Has he lost his touch? Gotten distracted or lost interest? Surely he is a god! Perhaps he fell asleep, or has wandered away, or maybe he is relieving himself.

Labels: ,

Friday, October 10, 2008

solution for the financial crisis?

Sam Norton of the Elizaphanian blog offers a solution to the American financial crisis.

Take the $700bn and use it to pay off the mortgages of the poorest. Instant solvency and liquidity flowing through the system, a Jubilee for social justice, and the bankers aren't favoured over the people they misled.

(hat tip: Steve Hayes)

At first glance, it looks like a simple and just solution. But is it? While the philosophy sounds nice, I have doubts about the implementation.

First, who are "the poorest"? While many Americans own houses, many others don't. This solution wouldn't benefit the poorest of the poor, who couldn't afford to buy a home even under the relaxed standards that got the banking industry into this crisis.

So we're talking about just the poorest homeowners, then. But how do you measure "poorest"? Do you look at tax returns? If so, do you look just at last year's? Consider the case of someone who was making good money, got laid off for six months, but has now found another well-paying job. This person is not poor, and can probably make the mortgage payments without aid, but the one-year dip in salary could qualify them for the government payoff.

So do you look at several years of past returns, and average them? Again, there's a similar problem. Someone who had a low income but got a big promotion is in better shape than the average of the past seven tax returns would suggest. Past performance, as they say in the investment business, is not a guarantee of future results.

So let's forget tax returns. Maybe we should look at net worth. But that would benefit people who have maxed out their credit cards and are making only minimum payments, as well as those who have acquired large debts getting postgraduate education. Members of the latter group have intellectual capital that should reward them financially in the long run; they can probably make their own mortgage payments. Meanwhile, those in the former group need help understanding responsible money management, or a mortgage bailout will do them no good.

It's a nice sentiment, this idea of paying off the mortgages of "the poorest", but I don't see a way to put it into practice.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

understanding what motivates terrorists

Security expert Bruce Schneier has an interesting article in Wired Magazine, titled The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Terrorists.

The seven habits, first detailed in a paper by Max Abrahms, are:

  1. attack civilians, a policy that has a lousy track record of convincing those civilians to give the terrorists what they want;
  2. treat terrorism as a first resort, not a last resort, failing to embrace nonviolent alternatives like elections;
  3. don't compromise with their target country, even when those compromises are in their best interest politically;
  4. have protean political platforms, which regularly, and sometimes radically, change;
  5. often engage in anonymous attacks, which precludes the target countries making political concessions to them;
  6. regularly attack other terrorist groups with the same political platform; and
  7. resist disbanding, even when they consistently fail to achieve their political objectives or when their stated political objectives have been achieved.

Schneier argues that Abrahms' research throws into question the conventional wisdom that people become terrorists for political or ideological reasons.

Abrahms has an alternative model to explain all this: People turn to terrorism for social solidarity. He theorizes that people join terrorist organizations worldwide in order to be part of a community, much like the reason inner-city youths join gangs in the United States.

Schneier then cites evidence that many individual terrorists do not know the political agenda of the group they are fighting for; some even join multiple groups with incompatible agendas. Many of the 9/11 highjackers, for instance, had planned to fight in Chechnya, but couldn't get the paperwork to enter the country. Instead, they came to America and took flying lessons.

Schneier continues:

All of this explains the seven habits. It's not that they're ineffective; it's that they have a different goal. They might not be effective politically, but they are effective socially: They all help preserve the group's existence and cohesion.

People join terrorist groups for the same reason people join gangs or cults: The group provides a family-like environment. If this is true, then counter-terrorism measures need to be reevaluated. Schneier concludes:

We also need to pay more attention to the socially marginalized than to the politically downtrodden, like unassimilated communities in Western countries. We need to support vibrant, benign communities and organizations as alternative ways for potential terrorists to get the social cohesion they need. And finally, we need to minimize collateral damage in our counterterrorism operations, as well as clamping down on bigotry and hate crimes, which just creates more dislocation and social isolation, and the inevitable calls for revenge.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, October 05, 2008

the dishonest manager

About 2 1/2 years ago I blogged about the parable of the dishonest manager. Of all Jesus' parables, this one makes the least sense to me.

I'm currently taking a class on Jesus' parables through Grace United Methodist Church, and this was the parable for last week. One of the great things about this class is that for each parable there is a video with a modern retelling of the story.

One thing the video emphasized, which had not occurred to me in simply reading the parable, was the reaction of the debtors. This, I think, throws a new light on the parable.

The rich man is mainly concerned with keepin accurate books. He really doesn't care about sufferings of the tenant farmers who work for him. While he amasses great wealth for himself, he locks others out of financial independence.

The dishonest manager, on the other hand, understands that people are more important than rules. The less pious person turns out to be the hero (kind of like the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help the injured man while the priest and the levite had more important things to do).

But this raises the question: Are we to emulate the manager in his dishonesty? Does God want us to be like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor?

My initial reaction is no, we don't need to be quite that detailed in relating the parable to our lives. The dishonest manager is there mostly for shock value.

But in re-reading the parable, I've noticed something else. Jesus uses the phrase "dishonest manager" in verse 8, and "dishonest wealth" in verse 11. So maybe we are not supposed to relate to the manager at all. The manager is our money. We — particularly Christians living in the United States and other first-world nations — are the rich man, and we've kept others in debt for much too long. While it might be unfortunate but expected to see huge income disparity within the economic systems of the world, the church ought to hold itself to another standard.

If I understand this parable, Jesus is saying that we should give more of our "dishonest wealth" — and all wealth is dishonest, regardless of how honestly we obtained it — lest we become enslaved to it.

But just how much does Jesus want from me? Should I give up my retirement fund? (With the way it's going lately, it won't be worth much anyway.) Should I stop saving for a newer car? Should I forget about buying a house?

I liked this parable better when it made no sense at all.

Labels: , , ,