Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

on reducing global carbon emissions

Rachel Smokler and Gary Houser are no fans of carbon cap and trade. They outline their objections in an opinion piece for

There are two leading theories on how best to compel a reduction of global carbon emissions. The direct approach would be to levy a tax on carbon emissions. The idea behind this is to set a minimum price for pollution. Some progressives see a carbon tax as an opportunity to shift the tax burden or to increase revenues without raising income taxes.

A cap and trade system relies on market forces to reduce emissions. Every corporation whose factories emit carbon waste (essentially, every corporation) is assigned an emissions cap — an amount of carbon it is allowed to release into the air in a year. The company receives permits for this amount of carbon. A company that reduces emissions below its cap is allowed to sell the excess permits to companies that aren't able to reach their caps.

Unlike a carbon tax, a cap and trade system allows companies to profit from good environmental stewardship. This appears to be Smokler and Houser's first objection to carbon markets:

Many of these people, representing some of the most powerful institutions and industries in the world, will get together this week to see just how (and how much) they can squeeze out of the Earth's impending woes. On January 12th and 13th - within the conference rooms of the Embassy Suites Hotel in New York City - the Second Annual Carbon Summit will convene, bringing together representatives from industry, finance, government, and the corporate environmental groups.

Inside the summit, these monied interests will be enthusiastically discussing how to best take advantage of the emerging carbon markets.

I am just shocked, shocked to learn that representatives of for-profit institutions would gather to talk about making money. Who could have imagined such a scene?

But Smokler and Houser have a much more serious objection to cap and trade:

Unfortunately, theory and practice in carbon markets simply do not jive. We have plenty of evidence that marketing carbon doesn't work to reduce emissions.

Their evidence, though, is not so plentiful as they suggest.

The EU experiment with a carbon trade system has been soundly declared a failure.

Well, yes, it has been declared a failure — by advocates of carbon taxes. When the system was introduced in 2005 officials weren't sure at what level to set the emissions caps, so they started with a level that should have been achievable by most companies. Unfortunately, since most companies finished the first year under their limits, they were not able to sell the excess carbon permits as they expected.

What's more, between 2005 and 2007, more than half of the participating nations saw a net increase in their emissions. The caps were so permissive that companies were able to release more carbon and still meet their quotas. During these two years, the E.U. as a whole increased its emissions by nearly 2 percent.

Meanwhile, global emissions increased by more than 3% each year during this span, about 6.7% over the two years. Compared to the rest of the world, the EU under the cap and trade system exhibited much better restraint on emissions increases.

Compared to the status quo, then, cap and trade can't be considered a failure in carbon reduction. And compared to a carbon tax, a cap and trade system offers the tangible benefit of having been implemented.

Nonetheless, Smokler and Houser favor the tax. Yet the strongest argument they can muster is:

The issue of justice is central to the opposition to carbon markets. Protestors on the streets in Copenhagen called for "climate justice now" and "system change not climate change". With the gross inequities that leave billions starving in dire poverty, while a small portion of humanity gobbles resources and spews greenhouse gases, it seems unlikely that marketing carbon will resolve the problems. The power structures that have created those inequities, and made such a mess of our planet must be challenged if we are to have a chance at a liveable future. We will have to address the roots of the problem.

Granted, carbon cap and trade will not solve the problems of global inequality. But what it can do is give us a non-punative way to enforce reductions in global emissions. It will leave us with an economy that is strong enough that we will have resources for tackling other problems. Overturning the existing power structures would likely lead to greater poverty all around.

Nontheless, Smokler and Houser are optimistic about the prospects for a carbon tax:

We cannot spend, or consume, or manipulate our way out of this mess; We must take account of our behavior and make the radical shifts that the problem demands. As you will see exhibited again this week in New York, there is increasingly more wisdom, knowledge, and maturity outside on the cold streets than exhibited in the warm conference rooms of the world.

But don't hold your breath. A poll by the Pew Reserach Center in October showed that 1/3 of all U.S. residents don't even acknowledge the world is getting warmer. Don't look for radical shifts of behavior here. If carbon tax advocates join climate deniers in sinking cap and trade legislation, we'll have no mechanism for curbing carbon emissions. And if we don't cut emissions soon, we're going to have a host of other problems demanding our attention.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

john graham-cumming analyzes climate data

Mathematician and programmer John Graham-Cumming has taken a look at the climate data compiled by the Met Office, the UK’s National Weather Service.

He has reconstructed the temperature trends since 1850, found an error in the Met Office's data, examined the "very artificial correction" to tree-ring data, mapped a grid of global temperature data, and produced an explanatory video:

All in all, it's a very thorough and informative analysis.

Here are the papers referenced in his video and blogs (PDF files):

Uncertainty estimates in regional and global observed temperature changes

Hemispheric and Large-Scale Surface Air Temperature Variations

Trees tell of past climates: but are they speaking less clearly today?

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

the problem with the new atheists

Since 9/11, several atheists — most prominently Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett — have stepped up their criticism of religious beliefs. To these "New Atheists", religious moderates are as bad as religious extremists:

Here's Dawkins:

However, the moderate, sensible religious people you've cited make the world safe for the extremists by bringing up children -- sometimes even indoctrinating children -- to believe that faith trumps everything and by influencing society to respect faith.

And Harris:

However, religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others.

They are completely wrong, of course. Dawkins and Harris have absolutely no idea what religious moderates teach our kids. Questioning is an important part of learning, and faith-learning is no exception. If we have a healthy faith, we can question our own beliefs; and we'll be very skeptical of the crazy views of extremists.

Ironically, Robert Wright suggests in Foreign Policy magazine that the New Atheists are the ones inadvertently lending support to the extremists:

If you're a Midwestern American, fighting to keep Darwin in the public schools and intelligent design out, the case you make to conservative Christians is that teaching evolution won't turn their children into atheists. So the last thing you need is for the world's most famous teacher of evolution, Richard Dawkins, to be among the world's most zealously proselytizing atheists. These atmospherics only empower your enemies.

So too with foreign policy: Making "Western" synonymous with "aggressively atheist" isn't a recipe for quelling anti-Western Islamist radicalism.

Now Wright may be wrong. It may not be the case that extremists are benefitting from the campaigns of the New Atheists. But Wright does bring an important perspective to the table.

The New Atheists tend to speak in the world of abstracts, where all problems can be solved by simply not teaching kids about religion. Unfortunately, the real world has very concrete problems that require much greater cooperation among people who may not share the same viewpoints about things that cannot be objectively understood.

Living in Kansas, I have watched creationism rear its ugly head more than once in statewide politics. If religious moderates and non-religious people can't band together to put this monster down, Kansas students will be doomed to substandard education. That's a much more serious problem than trying to figure out exactly who is friendlier toward extremists.

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Tuesday, December 01, 2009

where's the climate data?

In a late comment to my September post titled Has the World's Climate Date Really Gone Missing? William Shields asserts:

Well, this all looks very different in light of the released emails from CRU that show deliberate moves to block FoIA requests and then delete relevant data, which is actually a crime.

The problem with this allegation is the same weakness found in the original tabloid-style articles from the Register and the National Review which prompted that post. The Climate Research Unit (CRU) is not, and never has been, the world's sole repository of climate information. Furthermore, CRU is not the source of the raw data in question, and is not under any obligation to store this data.

Fortunately for us all, the helpful climatologists at RealClimate are busy gathering links to the many online sources of climate data. Whether you're looking for raw data, processed data, paleo-data, models, reconstructions, or analysis, they can help you find it.

But I wouldn't be surprised if the climate deniers ignore the data and focus on the stolen emails. Raw data is useful for science, but informal exchanges stripped from their original context make better conspiracy theories.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

exelon severs ties with chamber of commerce

Exelon, the United States' largest public utility, has announced that it will sever ties with United States Chamber of Commerce because of the Chamber's opposition to climate change legislation.

Last year Exelon launched its Exelon 2020 strategy to reduce its carbon footprint by 15 million metric tons by the year 2020.

Exelon CEO John Rowe explained in a speech at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) that a cap-and-trade system is the most efficient way to transform the world's energy supply:

The carbon-based free lunch is over. But while we can’t fix our climate problems for free, the price signal sent through a cap-and-trade system will drive low-carbon investments in the most inexpensive and efficient way possible. Putting a price on carbon is essential, because it will force us to do the cheapest things, like energy efficiency, first.

Exelon joins California utility PG&E and New Mexico utility PNM in severing ties with the Chamber of Commerce.

As more energy companies get on board with cap and trade, deniers like the Chamber of Commerce will be increasingly isolated. The United States just might join the rest of the world in tackling climate change before it's too late.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

a capitalist case for curbing banker pay

from Bearish News:

There are two arguments for curbing pay on Wall Street. The two sides argue bankers should not receive such huge compensation because:

  1. Socialist view: No individual should be allowed to earn such a disproportionate salary.

  2. Capitalist view: Government intervention allows banks to be so profitable, at cost to other members of society.

Bank apologists always attack the socialist (straw man) argument. Labeling something as “socialist” is a lot easier than addressing the real issues. “Fine, that’s just fine!”, they say. “But I hope you like communism, cause we’re gonna have to cap everyone’s salary – Bill Gates, A-Rod, Britney Spears, and Steve Jobs.”

Only the capitalists’ case holds water. America’s banks cannot be described as free-market enterprises by any rational person. I will outline various ways our government subsidizes bank profits, while eating their losses. I will explain why bank executives do not deserve their current level of pay, and why this view is not socialist or anti-free-market in nature, as many claim.

I can't say I fully follow the logic, but it seems to stem from the notion that banks are free to use other people's money however they see fit — without fear of repercussion. They have no disincentive to make risky gambles, since if the gamble pays off they will profit, and if the gamble doesn't pay off they will be bailed out by the FDIC. Banks are not subject to the risks associated with free-market capitalism, and therefore cannot be considered capitalist institutions. I guess.

What do you think? Is this guy on to something, or is he just blowing smoke?

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

has the world's temperature data really gone missing?

The climate change deniers are raising another stink. Global Warming ate my data, frets Andrew Orlowski in the Register. The Dog Ate Global Warming, pines Patrick J. Michaels in the National Review.

What exactly has been eaten here?

Michaels asks us to:

Imagine if there were no reliable records of global surface temperature. Raucous policy debates such as cap-and-trade would have no scientific basis, Al Gore would at this point be little more than a historical footnote, and President Obama would not be spending this U.N. session talking up a (likely unattainable) international climate deal in Copenhagen in December.

Orlowski, on the other hand, gets right to the point:

The world's source for global temperature record admits it's lost or destroyed all the original data that would allow a third party to construct a global temperature record. The destruction (or loss) of the data comes at a convenient time for the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in East Anglia - permitting it to snub FoIA requests to see the data.

On the face of it, this sounds preposterous. Could it really be true that all the world's historical temperature records from thousands of measurement sites were stored in one location only, and have suddenly been destroyed in one fell swoop?

Michaels is a little more careful; he's not making such absolute statements without some hedging:

Steel yourself for the new reality, because the data needed to verify the gloom-and-doom warming forecasts have disappeared.

Or so it seems. Apparently, they were either lost or purged from some discarded computer. Only a very few people know what really happened, and they aren’t talking much. And what little they are saying makes no sense.

What data are they talking about, and where did it go?

Much of what we know about climate change is due to the efforts of two organizations that have spent decades collecting and aggregating temperature measurements from around the world. The Climate Research Unit, headed by Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, has been collecting climate data from around the world since 1978. The Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), a division of NASA headed by James Hansen, has been gathering climate data since 1961.

Apparently the data controversy began in 2004 (per Orlowski) or 2005 (per Michaels), when one Warwick Hughes — a "free lance earth scientist" (his own description) — requested raw climate data from Phil Jones. According to Michaels:

Jones’s response to a fellow scientist attempting to replicate his work was, “We have 25 years or so invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?”

If the question sounds harsh, it's perhaps because Warwick Hughes has a long history of antagonism toward Phil Jones. On his website and his blog, Hughes devotes numerous pages to criticism of Jones. For example, in an Ongoing review of 1986 Jones et al papers compiling global temperature trends that now define "IPCC global warming", Hughes calls on Jones to "measure global temperature trends using data that does not include many hundreds of temperature records contaminated by local urban heat islands."

The underlying issue here is that buildings, roads, and other human-built structures trap heat during the daytime. At night, these structures release the heat back into the air. The result is nighttime temperatures that are warmer than the surrounding countryside. A true picture of global temperatures must either measure both urban and rural temperatures, or adjust the urban temperatures to account for the urban heat island (UHI) effect.

Hughes's website also includes an open letter to all authors of the Jones et al 1986 papers and DoE documentation books. In this one, Hughes objects to the inclusion of temperature data from a station in Atlanta:

Personally, I would have thought there was an abundance of evidence in the early 1980's that Atlanta was UHI affected and that evidence has compounded since with NASA web pages portraying satellite thermal imagery defining the Atlanta UHI which they characterise as Hotlanta.

Hughes includes the reply he received from Phil Jones. Dr Jones states, in part:

The Atlanta station you refer to is one of 22 sites within the grid box (30-35N, 80-85W) where Atlanta is located. So even if the data have become more urban affected through time, the effect on the grid-box average would be minor. For the 1985/1986 papers/reports you refer to all the stations were assessed for homogeneity problems.

UHI appears to be a major issue for Hughes. He seems not to be satisfied with the adjustments to the climate aggregations to account for the UHI factor. In fact, Hughes gives his game away in his "ongoing review," where he insists that CRU not adjust, but eliminate, any measurements "contaminated by local urban heat islands".

Perhaps it is the UHI issue that drove Hughes to request the raw data from Jones, or perhaps it was something else. Either way, Jones was unable to supply it.

The problem is, the raw data does not belong to Jones. What Jones and CRU have produced over the last quarter century are a series of aggregates of monthly temperatures collected from more than 3000 sites around the world. The most current dataset is known as CRUTEM3, and is available for download from the CRU website. CRU has obtained these temperature readings from a variety of sources, some of whom are happy to share their data with anyone who asks, and some of whom have strict policies concerning its reuse.

There is nothing sinister about either the agreements CRU signed to obtain the data from disparate sources, or the way CRU has built their aggregation of the measurements. And certainly CRU is being open in sharing its own data.

But the spark lit by Hughes was kindled in 2007 when statistician and mineral exploration expert Stephen McIntyre filed a Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) request for the raw source data. Jones again refused; his curt explanation for not having to supply the data was, as Orlowski's article notes:

Information accessible to applicant via other means. Some information is publicly available on external websites.

In plain English, the data does not belong to CRU, but can be obtained from the original sources. Some of it is quite easy to obtain; just go to the appropriate websites. What Jones leaves unsaid is that some of the data may be difficult to obtain from the sources. But he has gone to great lengths to gather as much data as he possibly could, and anybody else who wants to put forth the effort can obtain the same data.

Jones alludes to some of the difficulty in his later remarks, also reported in Orlowski's Register article:

We are not in a position to supply data for a particular country not covered by the example agreements referred to earlier, as we have never had sufficient resources to keep track of the exact source of each individual monthly value. Since the 1980s, we have merged the data we have received into existing series or begun new ones, so it is impossible to say if all stations within a particular country or if all of an individual record should be freely available. Data storage availability in the 1980s meant that we were not able to keep the multiple sources for some sites, only the station series after adjustment for homogeneity issues.

This is in no way inconsistent with his reply to the FoIA request. Again, all the data should be retrievable from the sources, and some of the sources make it quite easy to do so. Some don't, and obtaining their data could be difficult.

Michaels grouses in his National Review article that keeping the data shouldn't have been that difficult for CRU, even with the limited storage available in the 1980s.

The statement about “data storage” is balderdash. They got the records from somewhere. The files went onto a computer. All of the original data could easily fit on the 9-inch tape drives common in the mid-1980s. I had all of the world’s surface barometric pressure data on one such tape in 1979.

But Michaels misses the point. CRU, in fact, did merge the records to fit everything into the available storage. But in merging, CRU lost the distinctions among the original sources. It's not, as Michaels insinuates, that the temperature data has been lost or destroyed. CRU has processed the data and kept the results. The original data can still be obtained from the original sources.

Furthermore, Jones and CRU are not the only ones who have collected and aggregated all this data. In the United States, GISS has been keeping independent climate records since before CRU was established. GISS also makes their data available from their website, so even if CRU had destroyed their data, we would still have global temperature datasets for review. And if GISS and CRU can do it, others can build their own data collections if they are willing to put forth the effort.

The problem is, the climate change deniers don't want to do the work. They simply want to criticize and complain. Because they are too lazy to go to all the sources of temperature measurements around the world, they question whether the measurements even exist. And because organizations like the Register and the National Review give them a free platform for making allegations, they just might confuse a lot of people into thinking there is still some controversy over the reality of global warming.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

barack obama's liberal speech to school children

Hi! Flush Flimflaw here, and I am just outraged by Barack "Osama" Hussein Obama's speech to school kids last week. And I'm even more outraged that the liberal media is not outraged by it.

Obama said, and I quote, "I’m glad you all could join us today."

Can you believe that? It's outrageous! What a bunch of liberal hooey. "I'm glad you all could join us today."

Now I want to explain to you what liberals mean when they say that. Because when an ordinary person says, "I'm glad you all could join us today," it's just a greeting. But when a liberal says it, it's just outrageous what the liberal media lets him get away with.

You see, what he's telling the kids is that gay marriage is OK. When a liberal says "all" he means that same-sex couples should have "all" the same benefits as normal people. That's what the word "all" means there. Obama is indoctrinating our school children right in front of our eyes.

And he does it with such plain-sounding language, that most people won't even realize what he's really saying. But the kids will know. "I'm glad you all could join us today."

The next thing you're going to see, when the kids go to recess, boys will be playing with other boys, and girls with other girls. It's just not natural. And the liberal media won't say a word.

Obama also said this: "And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it’s your first day in a new school, so it’s understandable if you’re a little nervous." Can you believe that!? "It's understandable if you're a little nervous."

Let me tell you, Barack "Osama" Hussein Obama: I'll tell you what makes me nervous. I get nervous every year around April 15. You see, folks, what Obama is doing is telling kids that they should learn to love paying taxes. "It's understandable if you're a little nervous." It's not understandable, Mr. President. It's outrageous! And the liberal media lets him get away with it!

You don't think he means it? Listen to this. Here's what he also said in this speech, that he claims was a non-partisan speech: "I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year." You see? He wants to talk about what the government expects of all the little comrades this year. Can you believe it? The next thing you know, he'll be talking about responsibility!

You don't believe me? Just listen to what he said next. This part is a little long, so I'm going to put it in one of these boxes here:

Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.

I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.

I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.

I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.

Now do you believe me? He said it, it's right there in his own words. He's telling the children that their teachers are government toadys, their parents are government shills, and the government is omni-benevolent. "Setting high standards," he says, and he expects everyone to just fall in line. And see, the government is also "turning around schools that aren't working…" He said it right there. That's an exact quote! "Schools that aren't working." Of course, when a liberal talks about schools working, he means working to indoctrinate children into being nervous so they'll fall in line and pay their taxes when they grow up and marry someone of the same sex. I'm not making this up. He said it, not me! Read the speech, see for yourself.

And here's why he wants their tax money: so he can give them the "opportunities they deserve." Can you believe what the liberal media lets this man get away with? "Opportunities they deserve." That is just outright communism, folks. Opportunities, indeed.

Next we come to the most chilling part of the whole speech.

But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities.

Can you believe it!? This man is telling children they have to be responsible too. That's outrageous! And the liberal media just lets him get away with it.

Now when liberals talk about responsibility, watch out. Better hold on to your wallet, because when a liberal talks about responsibility, he means taxes. You don't believe me? Just look back through his speech and see how many times he's mentioned taxes already: "It's understandable if you're a little nervous…setting high standards…" He can't open his mouth without saying the word taxes.

I'm telling you, what Obama is saying here is that the death tax is coming back with a vengeance. Rich kids won't be able to live off their inheritance anymore, that's what this is all about. They are going to have to do well in school and get a good job. It's outrageous! Class warfare, that's what "responsibility" means. Telling kids to be responsible is just another anti-American plot from the liberals.

You don't believe me? Just listen to what Obama said about it. These are his own words, from later in the same speech: "You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job." Outrageous! He actually said that to school children. And do you think the liberal media called him out on it? No!

I tell you, if we let him get away with this, it's only a matter of time before he starts telling kids, "Don't smoke, don't take drugs." We'll have a whole generation of Americans who won't know the pleasures of Cuban cigars and OxyContin. Folks, we can't afford to let the liberals do that to this country!

So let's review: "I'm glad you all could join us today…it’s understandable if you’re a little nervous…setting high standards…fulfill your responsibilities…opportunities they deserve." The five pillars of liberalism, just like the five pillars of Islam. And the liberal media still won't admit he's a closet Muslim.

Folks, the good old U.S. of A. is in a dire situation here. I mean, it is dire. We can't just roll over and let the liberals keep ramming these doctrines down our children's throats. We must take a stand against the five liberal pillars of welcoming, understanding, high standards, responsibility, and opportunity. I can only imagine what kind of nation we might have if our children learn these liberal values.

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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

pulling the trigger on the public option

Robert Reich has some concerns about Senator Olympia Snowe's 'trigger' health care proposal:

Her idea (evidently encouraged by Rahm Emanuel, the President's chief of staff) is to hold off on any public option. Give the private insurance companies a period of time -- say, five years -- within which to make changes that extend coverage to more people and also drive down long-term costs. If those goals for coverage and cost aren't met by end of the five-year grace period, kaboom: the public option is triggered -- which will force such changes on the insurance companies.

In principle it sounds like a good idea. But in the reality of Washington D.C. …

The problem is twofold. First, it's impossible to design airtight goals for coverage and cost reductions that won't be picked over by five thousand lobbyists and as many lawyers and litigators even if, at the end of the grace period, it's apparent to everyone else that the goals aren't met. Washington is a vast cesspool of well-paid specialists who know how to stop anything resembling a "trigger." Believe me, they will.

Second, any controversial proposal with some powerful support behind it that gets delayed -- for five years or three years or whenever -- is politically dead.

President Obama has remained noncommittal about what the health care reform legislation should look like by the time it reaches his desk. But if Reich is right, Obama's refusal to take sides puts him firmly in the camp opposing the public option. If Obama really cares about the public option, he needs to speak up now. And if he doesn't, he should say it and be done. Health care reform is too critical an issue, and the President is too critical a player to sit on the sidelines.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

being honest about health care reform

Charles Krauthammer is concerned about the language in the health care reform bill HR 3200, and makes his concerns known in an essay titled Let’s Be Honest about Death Counseling.

Noting that the bill contains a provision in section 1233 for a Medicare-paid advance care planning consutation between the patient and the doctor, Krauthammer opines:

What do you think such a chat would be like? Do you think the doctor will go on and on about the fantastic new million-dollar high-tech gizmo that can prolong the patient’s otherwise hopeless condition for another six months? Or do you think he’s going to talk about — as the bill specifically spells out — hospice care and palliative care and other ways of letting go of life?

Yes, the bill says that the doctor must mention palliative care and hospice options. Specifically, the consultation must include, among other things:

(E) An explanation by the practitioner of the continuum of end-of-life services and supports available, including palliative care and hospice, and benefits for such services and supports that are available under this title.

The sentence containing the words "palliative care and hospice" clearly puts them in the context of "the continuum of end-of-life services and supports". As I read it, there's nothing in the bill to prevent the physician from getting paid if he or she advocates heroic life-sustaining treatment even in the most hopeless cases, as long as the range of options is discussed in the consutation.

Now it may be the case that Krauthammer does not read it the same way, and it may be the case that he would like to see the other side of the continuum spelled out in more detail. That's a valid concern; perhaps the language is not clear enough, and this section of the bill should be modified. That's a reasonable criticism.

After a brief digression into why he thinks living wills are worthless and irrelevant, Krauthammer returns to the reform bill, concluding:

So why get Medicare to pay the doctor to do the counseling? Because we know that if this white-coated authority whose chosen vocation is curing and healing is the one opening your mind to hospice and palliative care, we’ve nudged you ever so slightly toward letting go.

It’s not an outrage. It’s surely not a death panel. But it is subtle pressure applied by society through your doctor. And when you include it in a health-care reform whose major objective is to bend the cost curve downward, you have to be a fool or a knave to deny that it’s intended to gently point you in a certain direction, toward the corner of the sick room where stands a ghostly figure, scythe in hand, offering release.

Were it not for this conclusion, I'd believe Krauthammer was voicing an honest concern about the bill. But his final two paragraphs make no sense whatsoever, unless we make one huge assumption: That physicians can't think for themselves; that they are incapable of doing anything unless Medicare orders it.

I worked for a medical billing agency for ten years. I can't imagine a competent physician would ever say, "Since Medicare is paying for this consultation, I should probably advise my patient to choose death." The reaction will probably be more along the lines of, "Medicare isn't paying any more than that?" Because that's the general reaction to anything Medicare pays for.

Medicare, in my experience, is actually less bureaucratic than most private insurances, but it requires physicians to take deep, deep discounts. And since Medicare patients usually need more care than patients with private insurance, doctors must take these discounts on a high percentage of their services.

As I stated above, I don't see anything in the bill requiring physicians to push their patients toward palliative care for chronic illnesses. I can't imagine any physician would read the bill that way either. I certainly can't imagine a physician would advise patients to opt out of any care that might cure their condition.

Only someone filled with disdain for the medical community would suggest otherwise.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

coercion in context: reading ecoscience, part 2

In a trio of previous posts, I've looked at some of the controversial passages of the 1977 book Ecoscience by Paul Ehrlich, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren. The controversy was stirred anew last month when a blogger using the name Zombietime made ten allegations about the book's content. If the Ehrlichs and Holdren had their way, according to Zombietime:

  1. Compulsory abortions would be legal

  2. Single mothers should have their babies taken away by the government; or they could be forced to have abortions

  3. Mass sterilization of humans though drugs in the water supply is OK as long as it doesn't harm livestock

  4. The government could control women's reproduction by either sterilizing them or implanting mandatory long-term birth control

  5. The kind of people who cause "social deterioration" can be compelled to not have children

  6. Nothing is wrong or illegal about the government dictating family size

  7. A "Planetary Regime" should control the global economy and dictate by force the number of children allowed to be born

  8. We will need to surrender national sovereignty to an armed international police force

  9. Pro-family and pro-birth attitudes are caused by ethnic chauvinism

  10. As of 1977, we are facing a global overpopulation catastrophe that must be resolved at all costs by the year 2000

I've obtained a copy of the book and am writing in response to Zombietime's allegations. So far, I've looked at claims #2, 3, 4, and 10. Today, I'll focus on claims #1, 5, and 6. (Unfortunately, this is likely to be my last post on the subject, as I must return the book to the library today.)

These three claims all appear on pages 837 and 838 of the book, and all describe coercive measures to control population size. (Zombietime has helpfully supplied full page scans of these pages: 837 838 839). These are all horrid ideas, and would be hard to justify even if the sky really were falling, as Holdren and the Ehrlichs believed in the late 1970s. But once again, Zombietime has quotemined the book in an attempt to tie Holdren and the Ehrlichs to ideas they argued against.

You can see, at the end of Zombietime's scan of page 839, where the authors of Ecoscience have proposed specific legal reforms. Note the words, "we recommended," which are completely absent from the suggestions about forced abortions, forced sterilizations, and compelling the wrong kind of people not to have children.

Had Zombietime scanned page 840, you'd be able to see the conclusion of the section, where once again the Ehrlichs and Holdren reiterate their belief that non-coercive changes are necessary immediately to prevent the advocates of coercive change from winning the day later.

First I'm going to summarize the five legal reforms proposed by Holdren and the Ehrlichs:

  1. Prohibit restrictions on access to birth control

  2. Subsidize voluntary contraception

  3. Tax incentives for late marriage and small families

  4. Mandatory sex education in schools

  5. Federal support for finding more effective forms of birth control drugs

None of these are coercive. And, in fact, the authors applaud the progress that had been made in some of these areas since the publication of their first book. They saw this as a hopeful sign that population growth could be stopped before the disaster which they feared was imminent.

The authors conclude the section with this paragraph on page 840:

There has been considerable talk in some quarters at times of forcibly suppressing reproduction among welfare recipients (perhaps by requiring the use of contraceptives or even by involuntary sterilization). This may sadly foreshadow what our society might do if the human predicament gets out of hand. We hope that population growth can be controlled in the United States without resorting to such discriminatory and socially disruptive measures. That, in fact, has been one purpose of this and our previous books—to stimulate population control by the least coercive means before it is too late.

Once again, the context makes it clear that John Holdren and Paul and Anne Ehrlich were not bent on controlling population by coercive measures as Zombietime alleges. But I'd say they were a little too paranoid, a little too willing to trust in their darkest nightmares, and perhaps not willing enough to listen to other perspectives that might have tempered their fears. It seems to me that Zombietime, in his critique of Ecoscience, suffers from the same weakness.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

the twitter opera

The Royal Opera House in London has a new opera in the works, with the lyrics being written by Twitter users. Details here.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

on the theology of health care reform

Marie Callahan Brown, blogging in support of health care reform, asks some pointed questions:

I was raised in a loving and respectful Christian environment. In it, I learned that Jesus wanted humanity to be generous, forgiving, supportive and loving in every aspect of life. If you come across people who are hungry, feed them. Someone who’s cold, give him your coat. To people who are down, and not “being all they can be”, give them kindness and respect, not advice and condemnation.

That said; I genuinely want to know how certain, other viewpoints are honestly justified. If this is a Christian Nation, how is it that citizens are so afraid of losing anything or everything here? Why is sharing so difficult? What about “reaping what we sow” aka “what comes around goes around”?

I find myself in an awkward position here. While I too support health care reform, I don't think it has anything to do with the question of whether the United States is, in any sense of the term, a Christian nation. So at this point, I'm already leery of where this is going. Sure enough:

Jesus shared His fish and bread without reserve, and I feel pretty safe in saying He believed in Free Healthcare with all that healing and comforting He did pro bono.

That's quite an exegetical stretch. Christian teaching has always been that genuine healing comes only from Christ, so it's very hard to see how Jesus' healings can be taken as support for "Free Healthcare," whatever that is.

And let's be honest: Even under the most radical reform of the system, health care would not be free. Medical care has a cost, and that cost must be paid by someone. It's likely that any system we put in place would lower the overall cost, but some cost will remain.

I think perhaps the only request put forward by Jesus when He healed people, was that they continue to share with others the same loving kindness He showed them. Why don’t Christians do more of this?

A good question, but one that is easily answered by opponents of health care reform. The most common reply is that charity must be voluntary, not mandated by the state.

And therein lies one major problem with attempting a theological defense of national health care reform. Jesus didn't ever explicitly give his opinion about the political issues of our day. He barely touched on the politics of his own time. Since we have no clear mandate from him, it's easy for people on both sides of the issue to read their own politics back into the gospels. In my experience, that's not a healthy way to grow as a Christian.

There are other problems with this approach, too, as Ms. Brown seems to recognize later in her blog:

Personally, I couldn’t care less whether someone is a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Satanist or an Atheist. At healthcare reform rallies Americans have been known to drive by shouting “FU#K THE POOR!” Forget religion. That is the most UNAMERICAN thing I’ve EVER HEARD.

Now we're getting somewhere. In a nation whose founding documents speak of equality of all people, we are being untrue to our heritage if we don't want poor people to have the same opportunities as the rest of us. This is a foundational American value. On the other hand, it is not a Christian value. Jesus didn't die on the cross to give us greater opportunity for personal advancement.

It seems to me that our politics and our theology will both be healthier if we can remember which of our values belong to which sphere. There are some very good reasons why overhauling America's health care system is morally necessary, but "Jesus would have supported it" is not one of them.

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Monday, August 03, 2009

a real snake oil salesman

Reuters News reports on a man who sells snake oil for a living. I find it morbidly fascinating, the depths to which the old-line news services have sunk.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

writers and nazis

This started out as a reply to a comment, but I've written so much that I'm going to make it into a post of its own.

John of the Zeray Gazette writes, in reply to my earlier post,

I'm looking at the passages that you and Zombietime have copied, and I don't see how these can be seen as anything other than normative. For example, on pp.787-788, Holdren talks about placing sterilants in drinking water. And he writes: "To be acceptable, such a substance...." And he lists various qualities.

John argues that the phrase, "To be acceptable," indicates that the authors of Ecoscience found this proposal acceptable.

However, the authors explain in the very next paragraph that it is not they but one "Physiologist Melvin Ketchel, of the Tufts University School of Medicine" who has advocated this extreme measure. That paragraph concludes with Holdren and Ehrlich's assessment:

And the risk of serious, unforeseen side effects would, in our opinion, militate against the use of any such agent, even though this plan has the advantage of avoiding the need for socioeconomic pressures that might tend to discriminate against particular groups or penalize children.

I don't see how the phrase "militate against the use of any such agent" (emphasis in the original) could in any way be understood as advocacy of this particular policy, particularly when the authors conclude the section with their fear that others might advocate coercive measures:

Compulsory control of family size is an unpalatable idea, but the alternatives may be much more horrifying. As those alternatives become clearer to an increasing number of people in the 1980s, they may begin demanding such control.

And explicitly stating their hope that it won't come to that:

A far better choice, in our view, is to expand the use of milder methods of influencing family size preferences, while redoubling efforts to ensure that the means of birth control, including abortion and sterilization, are accessible to every human being on Earth within the shortest possible time. If effective action is taken promptly against population growth, perhaps the need for the more extreme involuntary or repressive measures can be averted in most countries.

Were Ehrlich and Holdren advocating extremist policies? Yes, undoubtedly. But what they were doing in this section of the book was listing policies that were even more extreme, to make their own alarmist views appear more reasonable.

They were driven by the mistaken view that the earth's population was spiralling out of control, and that governments would need to enact policies to deal with the problem.

They were wrong about the facts of the problem, and they were wrong about the urgency.

I'll go further than that: Even though I see no indication that they were advocating coercive measures, I believe they were wrong to even mention such things. They had no reason to even discuss the possibility that these policies might be enacted, except to instill fear in their readers in order to win support for their own policy preferences. When you need to use fear as your motivator, you don't have much of an argument.

But I must stop short of what John has said at his own blog:

And Holdren's policy proposals represent crimes on par with the worst actions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

To equate the authors of Ecoscience with Nazis is beyond the pale. To say such a thing of any political leader in this country — past or present — is to diminish the horrors of the Holocaust.

It may be wise to recall what Jonah Goldberg of the National Review said in 2003, when it was fashionable for liberals to compare George W. Bush to the Nazis:

Nazis murdered millions of unarmed people. They put them in ovens. They made soap out of them. They carted off children in boxcars to die and used some of the kids for medical experiments, including injecting dyes into their eyes to see if they could improve their looks. Lower on the list of charges, the Nazis enslaved millions and launched wars for territorial and egotistical gain (and sent many of the conquered populations to death camps as well). Lower still, they banned books and burned them too. They expropriated homes and businesses, banned religions, etc.

If Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren were advocating limiting the population by making unwanted children into soap, I could understand the comparison. But the worst I could find in Ecoscience was their advocacy of allowing abortions for sex selection, something which is already legal in the United States, Canada, Australia, and much of Europe. If you want to make the case that all these nations are morally equivalent to Nazi Germany, then you're tacitly claiming that the Nazis were not particularly evil. And that, I believe, is as dangerous as any of the ideas advocated in Ecoscience.

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Friday, July 31, 2009

family news

It's been a while since I last saw my cousin Mary, but I've learned that her youngest son has landed a leading role in a theatrical production that opens tonight here. If you happen to be in the area, come see it!

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

eugenics in context: reading ecoscience, part 1

In a recent post I wrote about the allegations blogger "Zombietime" has made against the new Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, John Holdren.

Zombietime makes ten allegations, based on quotes from Ecoscience a book Holdren co-authored with Paul and Anne Ehrlich. You can see the quoted passages, along with full page scans of the pages on which they appear, at Zombietime.

According to Zombietime, Holdren advocates a world in which:

  1. Compulsory abortions would be legal

  2. Single mothers should have their babies taken away by the government; or they could be forced to have abortions

  3. Mass sterilization of humans though drugs in the water supply is OK as long as it doesn't harm livestock

  4. The government could control women's reproduction by either sterilizing them or implanting mandatory long-term birth control

  5. The kind of people who cause "social deterioration" can be compelled to not have children

  6. Nothing is wrong or illegal about the government dictating family size

  7. A "Planetary Regime" should control the global economy and dictate by force the number of children allowed to be born

  8. We will need to surrender national sovereignty to an armed international police force

  9. Pro-family and pro-birth attitudes are caused by ethnic chauvinism

  10. As of 1977, we are facing a global overpopulation catastrophe that must be resolved at all costs by the year 2000

Through my employer I have obtained a copy of Ecoscience. I have looked at each of the passages in question; of the ten, at most three have any substance behind them.

I'm going to provide some context for all ten quotes, and show why most of them are not positions favored by Holdren and the Ehrlichs. In some cases, the mitigating factors appear in the material quoted by Zombietime, but Zombietime fails to see it.

I'll be going through these in a different order than Zombietime, and I'll be referring to them according to the numbers in my list above. If you want to see the original passages quoted by Zombietime, you'll have to go there.

I'm going to start with #10, because that is the easiest to verify. As Zombietime notes, this is the closing sentence of the book. It is clear that the Ehrlichs and Holdren believed that a crisis was looming, and that policies must be changed immediately. This "sky is falling" mentality can be seen in numerous places throughout the book. More than 30 years later, we can see how wrong they were.

This leads us to the context of #2, #3, and #4. These quotes are all taken from a section entitled "Population Control: Direct Measures", which begins on page 783 and ends on page 789. Zombietime has scanned images of pages 786, 787, 788, and 789.

On page 783 the authors introduce the subject of population control as policy. In the second paragraph of that section, they say:

People should long ago have begun exploring, developing, and discussing all means of population control. But they did not, and the time has nearly run out. Policies that may seem totally unacceptable today to the majority of people at large or to their national leaders may be seen as very much the lesser of two evils only a few years from now. The decade of 1965-1975 witnessed a virtual revolution in attitudes toward curbing population growth among LDC leaders, if not necessarily among their people. Even family planning, easily justified on health and welfare grounds alone and economically feasible for even the poorest of countries, was widely considered totally unacceptable as a government policy as recently as 1960.

(LDC is the authors' abbreviation for "less developed countries")

Here again, we can see the "sky is falling" mentality — "the time has nearly run out." The authors point out how quickly attitudes can change. They mention this latter fact again on the following page:

Moral acceptability is very likely to change as social and economic conditions change in most societies, as demonstrated by the reversal of abortion policies in many countries between 1967 and 1975.

The struggle for economic development in the LDCs is producing considerable social upheaval, which will particularly affect such basic elements of society as family structure. Radical changes in family structure and relationships are inevitable, whether population control is instituted or not. Inaction, attended by a steady deterioration in living conditions for the poor majority, will bring changes everywhere that no one could consider beneficial. Thus, it is beside the point to object to population-control measures simply on the grounds that they might change the social structure or family relationships.

Among proposed general approaches to population control are family planning, the use of socioeconomic pressures, and compulsory fertility control. Maximum freedom of choice is provided by traditional family planning; but family planning alone should not be regarded as "population control" when it includes no consideration of optimum population size for the society and makes no attempt to influence parental goals.

At Holdren's confirmation hearing, he was questioned whether he still believes that the government should be in the business of determining "optimum population size". He said he does not believe that is a proper role for the government. But you can see from this passage why the question might arise.

The authors continue:

The use of abortion and voluntary sterilization to supplement other forms of birth control can quite properly be included as part of family planning and made available at costs everyone can afford. This, of course, has been done in a few countries with considerable success (Table 13-4). Moreover, there is still a good deal of room for expansion of family planning services in LDCs, where they are not yet available to more than a fraction of most populations. Family planning programs not only provide the means of contraception, but, through their activities and educational campaigns, they spread the idea of birth control among the people. These programs should be expanded and supported throughout the world as rapidly and as fully as possible, but other measures should be instituted immediately as well. Given the family size aspirations of people everywhere, additional measures beyond family planning will unquestionably be required in order to halt the population explosion—quite possibly in many DCs as well as LDCs.

The italics are in the original. The italicized sentence contains an important verb—should—attached to family planning. That verb is a strong indication the authors are endorsing this idea. This verb appears twice in the quotes mined by Zombietime, and I'll take a close look at both.

But first, I'll note that the authors of Ecoscience say that family planning is not enough to save us from the falling sky. But they are not . On pages 784-785, after having noted that U.S. tax laws provide tax incentives for marriage and childbearing, they list some alternatives:

In countries that are affluent enough for the majority of citizens to pay taxes, tax laws could be adjusted to favor (instead of penalize) single people, working wives, and small families. Other tax measures might also include high marriage fees, taxes on luxury baby goods and toys, and removal of family allowances where they exist.

Other possibilities include the limitation of maternal or educational benefits to two children per family. These proposals, however, have the potential disadvantage of heavily penalizing children (and in the long run society as well). The same criticism may be made of some other tax plans, unless they can be carefully adjusted to avoid denying at least minimum care for poor families, regardless of the number of children they may have.

The authors are clearly aware of the limitations of using punitive tax measures as a means of coercive population control. Next, they look at new tax incentives:

A somewhat different approach might be to provide incentives for late marriage and childlessness, such as paying bonuses to first-time brides who are over 25, to couples after five childless years, or to men who accept vasectomies after their wives have had a given number of children.

These measures would be much less coercive, and would allow people to choose whether to voluntarily limit their contribution to population growth, without imposing a penalty on those who don't.

The authors also take a positive view of adoption:

Adoption to supplement small families for couples who especially enjoy children can be encouraged through subsidies and simplified procedures. It can also be a way to satisfy couples who have a definite desire for a son or a daughter;

I'll get to the rest of this sentence in a moment. But first I want to point out how radically this differs from the totalitarian picture painted by Zombietime, who has made a concerted effort to see only one side of the picture. Ecoscience contains many positive ideas for controlling population growth while still preserving, or even enhancing, individual liberties.

But not all is rosy:

…further research on sex determination should be pursued for the same reason.

Though Zombietime does not draw attention to this one, in my opinion this is one of the worst suggestions in the book. The authors apparently are advocating improving ultrasound technology (which at the time had been in widespread use for only a few years) to determine the sex of a child so the parents can make a decision to abort. And the word "should" makes it clear that this is no mere description of possibilities. For the record, though, this policy puts the decision in the hands of the parents, not the government, and that's the issue at hand.

The authors also look at expanding opportunities for women, noting that:

With some exceptions, women have traditionally been allowed to fulfill only the roles of wife and mother. Although this has changed in most DCs in recent decades, it is still the prevailing situation in most LDCs, particularly among the poor and uneducated. Anything that can be done to diminish the emphasis upon these traditional roles and provide women with equal opportunities in education, employment, and other areas is likely to reduce the birth rate. Measures that postpone marriage and then delay the first child's birth also help to encourage a reduction in birth rates. The later that marriage and the first child occur, the more time the woman will have to develop other interests. One of the most important potential measures for delaying marriage, and directly influencing childbearing goals as well, is educating and providing employment for women.

Women can be encouraged to develop interests outside the family other than employment, and social life could be centered around these outside interests or the couple's work, rather than exclusively within the neighborhood and family. Adequate care for pre-school children should be provided at low cost (which, moreover, could provide an important new source of employment). Provision of child care seems more likely to encourage employment outside the home, with concomitant low reproduction, than to encourage reproduction. Women represent a large, relatively untapped pool of intellectual and technical talent; tapping that pool effectively could help reduce population growth and also would provide many other direct benefits to any society.

Once again, this is the diametrical opposite of the totalitarian state alleged by Zombietime.

The authors continue:

Social pressures on both men and women to marry and have children must be removed.

They don't go into any of the details on how this might be achieved, other than to suggest that this is likely to happen naturally as women have more opportunties. This is on page 786, and you can follow the links above to see the rest of this discussion.

I will only note the word "must" in that sentence, which contrasts sharply with the "might" in the next paragraph:

Although free and easy association of the sexes might be tolerated in such a society, responsible parenthood ought to be encouraged and illegitimate childbearing could be strongly discouraged. One way to carry out this disapproval might be to insist that all illegitimate babies be put up for adoption—especially those born to minors, who generally are not capable of caring properly for a child alone. If a single mother really wished to keep her baby, she might be obliged to go through adoption proceedings and demonstrate her ability to support and care for it.

Here is where Zombietime starts quotemining this section. Up to this point, Holdren and the Ehrlichs have focused mostly on positive steps toward controlling population growth, but from this point they look at more coercive measures.

However, the authors end this section by clearly stating their preference:

Compulsory control of family size is an unpalatable idea, but the alternatives may be much more horrifying. As those alternatives become clearer to an increasing number of people in the 1980s, they may begin demanding such control. A far better choice, in our view, is to expand the use of milder methods of influencing family size preferences, while redoubling efforts to ensure that the means of birth control, including abortion and sterilization, are accessible to every human being on Earth within the shortest possible time. If effective action is taken promptly against population growth, perhaps the need for the more extreme involuntary or repressive measures can be averted in most countries.

This quote is taken from the bottom of page 788 and the top of page 789. You can see it in Zombietime's scanned pages. The authors have clearly stated their preference for non-coercive measures, and their fear that others might put the stricter measures in place.

In their discussion on pages 787-788, the authors name people who had already by 1977 proposed schemes to implement coercive measures, and had noted that China and India had already tried to write such measures into law. So the phrase "most countries" above is an acknowledgement that it was already too late in some places.

I've tried to provide enough context for these passages to demonstrate that Zombietime completely misunderstood the intent of Holdren and the Ehrlichs, and misrepresented their words to portray a much harsher worldview than the one the authors of Ecoscience truly endorsed.

I've still got six passages to look at from Zombietime's list. I'll get to them in future posts.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

jimmy carter and the southern baptist convention

In a recent article for the Australian online news site The Age, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter explained his reasons for cutting ties with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This was reported on several blogs I follow, and I was surprised because I remembered hearing the same thing several years ago.

But now, Beliefnet reveals that there may be much less to this story than first appears:

But I have this question: What does it mean for Jimmy Carter to resign from the SBC when (1) individuals aren't members of the SBC but of local churches that are associated with the SBC? And, more importantly, (2) when he continues to be a member of his SBC church and teaches Sunday School there?

I have a great deal of respect for Jimmy Carter because of his humantarian work since he left office, but I have no idea what he is trying to do here. Maybe it's a Baptist thing that I just don't understand, but how can a person cut ties with his denomination while continuing in a leadership position in a church that still belongs to that denomination?

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

evil ecoscience?

John at the Zeray Gazette is all up in arms about the alleged policy views of President Obama's "science czar" John Holdren.

A blogger who uses the name Zombietime alleges that Holdren was once a proponent of extremist population-control measures such as involuntary sterilization and forced abortions. These allegations are based on statements from the 1977 book Ecoscience co-authored by Holdren with entomologist Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich.

Zombietime pulls quotes from Ecoscience and add his (her?) commentary. John suggests Zombietime's evidence makes Holdren the moral equivalent of the Nazis, and offers:

In a civilization that still believed in itself, men like John Holdren would be outcasts on the fringes of society, unable to hold a job or keep friends, let alone become senior government officials.

I'm not convinced, for many reasons. First, Zombietime's sloppy reasoning and shaky command of the English language do not inspire confidence that these allegations are true. What's more, I'm sure these issues would have been thoroughly discussed in Holdren's Senate confirmation hearing, had there been a real issue to discuss. Apparently Holdren's views on population control were briefly touched upon in the hearing:

Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) questioned Holdren using a selection of a handful of statements Holdren has made on climate and other environmentally related issues over the last 35 years, challenging Holdren on each one. Vitter was the only senator who struck an oppositional pose at the hearing. Holdren answered each of the questions, some by clarifying issues for Vitter, some by clarifying or modulating his earlier statements (some of which dated back to the 1970s), and some by indicating that, over the years, he has come to change his views as his understanding of various issues has developed.

I haven't found a complete transcript of the hearing, but evidently Vitter asked Holdren whether he believes population control is a proper role for government, and Holdren said no. Vitter did not follow up. But if Holdren's book really advocated draconian population control measures, there certainly would have been more than just the one question.

Science writer Chris Mooney says that has read Ecoscience, and that Holdren and the Ehrlichs were not advocating these policies; they were merely describing what might happen if the population spiraled out of control:

In one vast 66 page chapter devoted to “Population Policies,” the authors surveyed a gamut of measures that had been undertaken or considered to control human population growth—including the most extreme. Those included coercive or “involuntary fertility control” measures, such as forced abortions and sterilizations.

However, to describe these measures is different from advocating them. And in fact, the Ehrlichs and Holdren concluded by arguing that noncoercive measures were what they suppported: “A far better choice, in our view, is to expand the use of milder methods of influencing family size preferences”—such as birth control and access to abortions.

I'm trying to obtain a copy of the book to verify this. Perhaps the chapter has a disclaimer or an introductory paragraph stating something like, "This is what could happen if we don't take measures to reduce population growth now."

But even if that's the case, Holdren doesn't come out of this looking like a saint. At best, he and the Ehrlichs were engaging in fearmongering to to make their own views on population sustainability seem more reasonable. The authors of Ecoscience warned that the U.S. would have trouble sustaining a population of 280 million; we are now about 9% higher than that level, and no one is calling for the draconian measures described in Ecoscience.

There is a danger in presenting the worst-case scenario as a plausible future: Your words can come back to haunt you.

Update: I've got more commentary on Ecoscience after borrowing a copy of the book.

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Monday, July 20, 2009

small step, giant leap

Forty years ago today I was at my grandparents' house. The whole family gathered around the television to watch Neil Armstrong step out of the lunar module onto the surface of Earth's only natural satellite. My Dad kept telling me what a historic event this was.

I don't remember a bit of it. I was only ten months old. I do remember the house, though, and I am able to recreate the entire scene in my mind.

I was only four years old when Apollo 17 made the last of the six U.S. manned moon landings, but growing up in the 1970s I was captivated by the wonders of space exploration.

Today, as a professional computer programmer, I am amazed at how NASA managed to accomplish so much with such primitive technology.

But the wonder and amazement is tempered by the reality that in the last 36 1/2 years, we've never made it back to the moon. This wistful quote is attributed to science fiction author Jerry Pournelle:

I always knew I'd live to see the first man walk on the Moon. I never dreamed I'd see the last.

I sincerely hope we haven't seen the last.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

number crunching the election results from iran

Political scientists Bernd Beber and Alexandra Scacco have found some peculiarities in the Iran election results. While many people around the world are questioning the validity of the results, Beber and Scacco have gone a step further and looked at some statistical anomalies.

Beber and Scacco looked at the final digit of the results from each province for the top four candidates, and found two anomalies. Since there are ten possible digits, we would expect each number 0 - 9 to appear in about 10 percent of all the precinct totals, give or take a few percentage points due to random variability.

We wouldn't expect the number 7 to be the last digit for 17% of all precinct totals, or the number 5 to be the last digit in only 4% of all precincts. But that's exactly what Beber and Scacco found. The chances of seeing two such unusual distributions in a fair election are about 3.7%. On the other hand, when people attempt to create random-looking numbers, they often pick numbers ending with 7.

Another pattern found in human-generated numbers is what are called adjacent digits. People tend to follow a digit with the next higher or next lower digit, e.g. 23 or 54. In the Iran election totals Beber and Scacco looked at the final two digits from each precint, and found that fully 38% of all the pairs of digits were adjacent digits. The chances of seeing this in a fair election are about 4.2%.

So we have two unlikely scenarios, independently appearing in the same set of election results. Beber and Scacco calculate the chances of seeing both of these anomalies at half of a percent. In other words, we would expect to see results like this in only one of every two hundred fair elections.

When we combine these anomalies with the discrepancy between vote results and pre-election polling, and the fact that in many cities the vote totals were greater than the number of eligible voters, it becomes very hard to believe this election is in any way legitimate.

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Friday, June 12, 2009


Some monasteries make cheese, others make jam, chocolate or wine.

The monks here at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank make their money from the sale of ink and toner cartridges, and little of the labor is their own.

It's an unusual income source for a monastery. The idea came to the Rev. Bernard McCoy while the monks were working on an earlier income-generating plan:

One day, the monks were in the midst of a big report on the golf project when the printer ran out of toner and Father McCoy went to order more. “I thought, that’s way too much for a bunch of black dust,” he said.


[Sarah] Caniglia and Cindy Griffith were looking to sell their online ink and toner business, based in Loveland, Colo., and called Father McCoy to see if LaserMonks wanted to buy their database.

The two women drove to Wisconsin to visit the monastery, and never left. They now operate the business from a small house on monastery grounds. LaserMonks took in $4.5 million in gross revenue last year.

As reported in the New York Times

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Saturday, June 06, 2009

cursing from the pulpit

From the Associated Baptist Press:

A former Southern Baptist Convention officer who on June 2 called the death of abortion provider George Tiller an answer to prayer said later in the day he is also praying "imprecatory prayer" against President Obama.

The pastor, Wiley Drake, made the remarks in an interview with Alan Colmes of Fox News Radio. Later in the interview, Colmes tried to clarify:

Colmes: Are you praying for his death?

Drake: Yes.

Colmes: So you're praying for the death of the president of the United States?

Drake: Yes.

Drake says his cursing is justified because:

I don't just preach part of it. I don't just preach the soft, fuzzy, warm stuff where we're supposed to be nice to everybody. I preach the whole Bible.

Apparently he is using a Bible translation that does not contain Romans 12:14, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them."

Now to be honest, I'd like to call down a few curses against Wiley Drake. In my heart, I'm no better than he is. That's not the direction I really wanted to go with this post, but there it is.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

does "pro-life" mean anything at all?

Pro-life leaders and the pro-life movement are not responsible for George Tiller's death. George Tiller was a mass-murder and, horrifically, he reaped what he sowed.

- Randall Terry, Operation Rescue

First of all, just let me say that I believe all life is sacred. Until the mid-1990s I even called myself pro-life. But in 1993 I moved to Wichita and saw how militant were some of the pro-life activists there, I found it difficult to identify myself using that label — at least without serious qualifications.

Real-Life Stories

Shortly after I moved to Wichita, something else happened: I came into contact with someone who had had an abortion at age 17. She didn't defend it as a personal choice. She didn't think of the baby as nothing more than a lump of tissue. To her the abortion was a personal tragedy, but she remained staunchly pro-choice. She insisted that families, and not the government, were the best equipped to make this choice, even though she had regrets about the decision her parents made for her.

I began to see the entire "abortion issue" in a new light. It's not about killing babies as a matter of convenience, as some pro-life advocates have suggested. It's not about being selfish vs. treating the unborn baby as a human being. The decision to have an abortion is not something to be taken lightly.

But what I realized more than anything else is that the mother's life is also precious. That's what gets lost in the pro-life rhetoric about "baby killers" and the "American holocaust."

The Questing Parson tells about his family's heart-wrenching choice:

I couldn’t talk to my daughter, Leon, because she’d gone into a coma. And nobody had a clue what was going on. She was four months pregnant, Leon, four months. The hospital Chief of Staff was a friend o mine so my daughter was getting some exceptional attention. Still no one knew what had caused the seizure or the coma. But it was clear she was deteriorating rapidly. It didn’t take much to realize what the wrinkled foreheads of the doctors and nurses and their averted eyes meant.

At some point, Leon, that famous neurosurgeon came and sat down with my daughter’s husband and the rest of us. He admitted he still didn’t know the cause of her coma, but he said he wanted to try something, a treatment with some drug. He explained the risks to my daughter to us and quickly added it was the only thing he knew to try. And then he informed us the drug would kill the baby.

Now I want you to fully understand, Leon, that my son-in-law did what I was screaming inside myself for him to do when that doctor presented him with a choice. He chose life, Leon. He chose my daughter’s life. I want you to clearly understand that when it came to making the choice, it was my son-in-law’s choice, not yours.

In the end, Leon, the doctor was right and the doctor was wrong. The drug did work. But the baby lived. She lived, Leon, despite all the medical people said, she lived. That’s why she was named ‘Faith.’

And the fact that Faith is the bubbly precious child she is today does not change the fact that the choice that was made was made.


Dr. Warren Hern, an abortion provider, gives the statistics on late-term abortions in a letter to the Washington Post:

Third-trimester abortions are extremely uncommon; fewer than 600 are performed per year. This irrefutable fact is documented by the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI), the institution acknowledged by the Centers for Disease Control as having the most complete information on abortion practice. When Richard Cohen wrote in a June 1995 op-ed column that “just four one-hundredths of one percent of abortions are performed after 24 weeks,” and that “most, if not all, are performed because the fetus is found to be severely damanged or because the life of the mother is clearly in danger,” he was absolutely correct.

The National Right to Life Committee has a different take on the numbers.

There is no evidence that the reasons for which late-term abortions are performed by the partial-birth abortion method are any different, in general, than the reasons for which late-term abortions are performed by other methods -- and it is well established that the great majority of late-term abortions do not involve any illness of the mother or the baby. They are purely "elective" procedures-- that is, they are performed for purely "social" reasons.

Oddly, both sides get their statistics from the same study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute. The discrepancy between the two is the ambiguous phrase "late term." The NRLC considers all abortions after 16 weeks to be late-term. By that time, it's getting hard to hide the pregnancy. The baby is about to begin a growth spurt, and the mother will soon feel the baby moving inside her. But at this stage the baby is not yet able to survive outside the womb, and won't be until about the 23rd or 24th week.

Dr. Hern is looking at third trimester abortions, those done after more than 26 weeks. By this point, the baby is not only swimming around the uterus, but also listening to sounds that penetrate the womb. If the mother goes into early labor at this stage, there is a change the baby may survive.

Since the vast majority of late-term abortions are performed between the 16th and 22nd weeks, the NRLC is correct in its breakdown of the reasons for late-term abortions. But the reasons for aborting a 26-week fetus are very different from the reasons for aborting a 16-week fetus. For abortions from 23 weeks into the third trimester, Dr. Hern's statistics are accurate.

By the time the baby is viable, very few parents choose an abortion. When they do, it is nearly always because something has gone terribly wrong.

Logical Consequences

Fifteen years ago, after former pastor Paul Hill shot and killed Dr. John Britton, Michael Kinsley wrote a Time Magazine editorial arguing that Hill, unlike many pro-life leaders, was at least being true to his beliefs:

After all, the practical effect of such actions is not merely to put one baby killer out of business but to chill the entire practice of abortion in America. Surely during the real Holocaust it would have been "justifiable homicide" to kill a German camp guard, if that would have slowed the feeding of the gas chambers.

Megan McArdle of the Atlantic Magazine says the same thing today:

We accept that when the law is powerless, people are entitled to kill in order to prevent other murders--had Tiller whipped out a gun at an elementary school, we would now be applauding his murderer's actions. In this case, the law was powerless because the law supported late-term abortions. Moreover, that law had been ruled outside the normal political process by the Supreme Court. If you think that someone is committing hundreds of gruesome murders a year, and that the law cannot touch him, what is the moral action? To shrug? Is that what you think of ordinary Germans who ignored Nazi crimes?

The murder of abortion doctors is the bitter fruit of three decades of pro-life organizations referring to abortion as the "American holocaust." If you're convinced that a doctor who performs abortions is a mass murderer, and you see no legal means of bringing him to justice, then you will probably have no ethical qualms about killing him.

When a group of prominent German citizens hatched a plan to assasinate Adolf Hitler, they did so because they believed that killing him would prevent future deaths. When the United States made the decision to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they did so because they believed that it would end the war quickly and prevent an even greater loss of life. When Caiaphas agreed to send Jesus to Pilate for execution, he believed it would be better for one man to die than for the entire nation of Judea to be destroyed by Rome.

Regardless whether any of these analyses were correct, they were rational. So it's not surprising that the pro-life movement has spawned a handful of vigilantes willing to kill one person to protect many.

The Value of a Life

But it doesn't need to be this way. While I agree that every life is precious, I don't think it follows that every life is to be equally valued. And I would argue that this view is even biblical.

I've seen Leviticus 27:2-7 trotted out in several places this week.

Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When a person makes an explicit vow to the Lord concerning the equivalent for a human being, the equivalent for a male shall be: from twenty to sixty years of age the equivalent shall be fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary shekel. If the person is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels. If the age is from five to twenty years of age, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female. If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a male is five shekels of silver, and for a female the equivalent is three shekels of silver. And if the person is sixty years old or over, then the equivalent for a male is fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels.

But even more relevant to the issue of abortion, I think, is Exodus 21:22-25.

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

According to this, the pregnant woman is clearly more valuable than the unborn child. This suggests, it seems to me, that when a family is facing a difficult pregnancy that could potentially harm or kill the mother, there is justification for choosing her life over that of the developing baby. Either way, it must be a difficult, painful choice to make.

We can do better than to resort to name-calling. We can do better than to casually toss around comparisons to Nazi death camps. I suspect that nobody ever wants to have an abortion. I suspect that doctors who perform late-term abortions aren't doing it because of a hatred of Fetal Americans.

Dr. Tiller, in fact, appears to have been very attuned to his patients' emotional needs. His list of post-abortion services includes, among other things, the following:

  • Viewing or holding your baby after delivery
  • Photographs of your baby
  • Baptism of your baby, with or without a certificate
  • Footprints and handprints of your baby

These aren't the sort of things people do with a lump of tissue, and they are not the sort of things a physician would encourage if he were trying to diminish the worth of the dead child.


So what can I say? I still believe in the sacredness of all life. Somehow, though, I find myself more in sympathy with those who identify as pro-choice. More and more I wonder if "pro-life" means anything at all.

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

dr. george tiller murdered in church

I'm shocked and saddened by this morning's tragedy in Wichita. I'll have a longer post when I've collected my thoughts. For now, here are some links:

The story from Associated Press

The George Tiller I Knew by "loree920"

Whoever Killed Tiller Was Not a Christian by Dan "pastordan" Schultz of Street Prophets

Jesus's Jihadis by Sara Robinson

and the disturbingly titled George Tiller — Killed! from Operation Rescue

Update 6/5: More perspectives

On George Tiller, Reformation Lutheran Church, and "excessive certainty" by John B, a member of of the same church as Tiller

Tough Questions about George Tiller's Murder by Ken Brown

The Ethics of Murder from Charlie at Another Think

Tiller, Operation Rescue, and Bonhoeffer by Julie Bogart, refuting the notion that Dr. Tiller's murder is equivalent to the assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

just how bad is it?

We've been told we are currently in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Just how bad is it? CNN has the scoop.

Sample comparisons:

Bank failures: 9,096 between January 1930 and March 1933
57 between December 2007 and May 2009

Unemployment rate: 25% during the Great Depression
8.5% during the "Great Recession"

Times may be tough, but they could be a lot worse.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

the case against torture

Ted Koppel has a practical and succinct definition of torture:

If we would define a given technique as torture when it is inflicted on a citizen of ours, then that is also torture when our interrogators employ the methods.

Koppel is calling for the U.S. to outlaw torture, and to impose stiff penalties for violating that law. He further calls for us to act now, during a time of relative calm, so we don't descend into the murky legal ambiguities of post-9/11 interrogations:

A series of revelations about U.S. prisoners being subjected to sleep deprivation, extreme heat and cold, loud music, stress positions, wall-slamming, enclosure in small, dark boxes (with or without the company of insects) and, of course, waterboarding, were euphemistically sanitized under the catchall category of "enhanced interrogation techniques." (How many angels can writhe on the head of a pin?)

The issues, as Daniel Schorr points out, are twofold:

whether inflicting pain on terrorism suspects is effective in loosening their lips, and whether the practice can be morally and legally justified.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, for one, claims that U.S. interrogators "saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of lives," due to information gleaned from tortured captives. He has asked the CIA to release documents that he says will back his claims.

Koppel counters that tortured prisoners don't always give good information:

Of course torture works, in some measure. There have, no doubt, been brave and incredibly strong-willed men and women who have resisted the most horrific tortures and given up nothing. The greater likelihood, however, is that a torture subject will give up not just all, but frequently more than he knows; anything, just to put an end to the pain.

By definition, this information must be something for which we have no independent verification; otherwise, the Dick Cheneys of the world could not argue that it was the torture that got us the information.

So the captive can say anything, and we have to trust them while we act on what they said. Schorr points to an instance where this led us down the wrong trail:

Only this week, word came of the death in a Libyan prison of Ibn al Sheikh al-Libi — apparently a suicide, according to a Libyan newspaper. The Washington Post called him a one-time "high-value source for the CIA." Under pressure in an Egyptian jail, he told of training al-Qaida militants in Iraq for chemical and biological warfare.

The information prodded out of him served to undergird the speech of Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations Security Council in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The coerced confessions of al-Libi, combined with the fabricated testimony of Ahmad Chalabi, were the grounds for returning to war in Iraq. That conflict has resulted in approximately 100,000 documented deaths in 6+ years. And this is only one example. So even if Cheney is being truthful that torture has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, it has come at an enormous cost.

The moral case against torture is more clear. Koppel's definition itself contains the seeds of the answer. Two millennia ago, Rabbi Hillel expressed it like this: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Law." Against this golden rule, all of the slick justifications for "enhanced interrogation techniques" fall flat. Even if torture showed itself to be effective for gathering information, it's not worthwhile if it turns us into the type of people that we don't want to be.

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