Alibris Secondhand Books Standard

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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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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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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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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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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Thursday, January 22, 2009

rev. lowery's prayer

Amid the controversies surrounding the selections of Rick Warren and Gene Robinson to offer prayers at inaugural events, this guy didn't get much attention. But the Reverend Joseph Lowery managed to deliver a prayer that was both humble and eloquent, both inclusive and true to his own faith tradition.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

the religious left agenda

It's starting already: Rabbi Michael Lerner is expressing displeasure with Barack Obama's selection of Rahm Emanuel as White House Chief of Staff.

Lerner is concerned first of all that the selection of Emanuel is a signal that Obama is dropping his commitment to end the Iraq war. That's one possibility; another is that Obama sees Representative Emanuel as a possible obstruction to a peace agenda, and the appointment is Obama's way of removing him from Congress. Or maybe the selection is a pragmatic recognition that Emanuel's skills are a good fit for the position. In any case, the Chief of Staff is usually expected to support the President's agenda, not the other way around.

Lerner goes on to add:

It’s not just the pro-peace and reconciliation forces that are unlikely to be given a serious hearing in a White House in which Rahm Emanuel controls who gets to talk to the President. Emanuel will almost certainly be protecting Obama from all of us spiritual progressives and those of us who describe ourselves as the Religious Left—so that our commitment to single-payer universal health care, carbon taxes for environmental protection, a Homeland Security strategy based on generosity and implemented through a Global Marshall Plan, will be unlikely to get a serious hearing in the White House.

All I can respond is, I sincerely hope so. I don't see anything in Lerner's "religious left" agenda that is the least bit religious. Certainly we a religious duty to take care of sick people, but we can do that without a single-payer health care system. Environmental stewardship is also a religious duty, I believe, but I don't think carbon taxes are the way to do it. And I just can't find the entry for "Global Marshall Plan" in my Bible concordance.

The Religious Right has poisoned the U.S. political system and U.S. churches for three decades, but we are finally starting to purge that toxin from our system. Now is not the time to swallow the drug called "Religious Left". It's likely to have very unpleasant side effects.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

ten worst presidents

Keith McIlWain offers a list of the Top Ten U.S. Presidents. I thought I'd offer my views on the ten worst U.S. Presidents. Nine of my ten appear on most "worst presidents" lists; I'm perplexed why the other one doesn't.

10. William Henry Harrison: This former war hero demonstrated an astonishing lack of judgment by insisting on holding his inauguration outside on a cold, rainy day. He gave a two-hour speech, then rode his horse through the streets for the inaugural parade. And he refused to wear a coat. It was all downhill from there; less than a month later he was dead from pneumonia.

9. Richard Nixon: His coverup of the Watergate breakin, and his subsequent resignation two years later, produced the politics of secrecy and suspicion that now hangs over Washington D.C. and hinders leaders of bother parties from accomplishing much of significance

8. Herbert Hoover: Had no solution to the financial crisis which struck 6 months into his presidency. Spent the rest of his term advocating volunteer efforts to combat the effects of the Great Depression. Also signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff, a tax on foreign-made goods, which spurred retaliatory taxes by other nations and further depressed the global economy.

7. Ulysses S. Grant: Appointed his friends to government posts, even when they lacked the skills and experience to do the job. Took no action against his appointees who embezzled millions of dollars of taxpayer money. Also made no attempt to stem the financial crisis of 1873 that led to the longest depression in U.S. history.

6. Andrew Johnson: After the Civil War, Johnson allowed Southern states to return to the Union even after most of them passed laws prohibiting the freed slaves from attaining full citizenship. Furthermore, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which gave Freedmen their citizenship despite state laws. (Congress overrode his veto.) He also vetoed the Tenure of Office act, which forbade the President from single-handedly removing a Presidential appointee from office. (Once again, Congress overrode his veto.) Despite the congressional override, Johnson tried to remove Secretary of War Edward Stanton from office, and as a result became the first President to be impeached.

5. Millard Fillmore: Fillmore assumed office in 1850 on the death of Zachary Taylor, and began reversing many of Taylor's policies. Some Southern states were beginning to talk about seceding from the Union due to increased Federal restrictions on slavery. Taylor, a former military leader, had pledged to lead the army himself against rebellious slave states. Fillmore preferred a policy of appeasement that gave us the Compromise of 1850: A set of laws that expanded protection for slavery in some areas as a balance against restrictions on slavery elsewhere.

Fillmore left office in 1852 having damaged not only his personal reputation, but also his party's. He was the last Whig ever to hold the office of President. He was succeeded in office by Franklin Pierce.

4. Franklin Pierce: A "doughface" (a Northerner who supported slavery), Pierce took Fillmore's appeasement one step further. He promoted and signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing the potential spread of slavery northward beyond the boundaries established three decades earlier by the Missouri Compromise. A group of diplomats appointed by Pierce wrote the Ostend Manifesto, which advocated that the U.S. acquire Cuba from Spain — either by purchase or by force — to add to the Union as another slave state.

Pierce was such a disaster that when he ran for re-election he failed to win his party's nomination; he was, however, succeeded in office by an even worse president, James Buchanan.

3. Warren G. Harding: Like Ulysses S. Grant before him, Harding did nothing as his staff members became involved in scandal after scandal. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was sent to prison for accepting bribes in exchange for leasing publicly-owned oil fields to his friends. Director of the Veterans' Bureau Charles R. Forbes was convicted of fraud and bribery after embezzling a quarter of a billion dollars from his agency. Harding's personal life was scandalous, too; he had an affair with his wife's friend Carrie Phillips. The Republican Party agreed to pay Phillips an annual stipend for the rest of her life to keep the affair secret.

2. James Buchanan: A "doughface" like Pierce, Buchanan lobbied the Supreme Court to issue a pro-slavery ruling in the Dred Scott case. He angered fellow Northerners by claiming that the only way to resolve the slavery issue was to enforce its legality. In a State of the Union speech, Buchanan referred to slave masters as philanthropists. Early in his presidency, Buchanan sent the United States Army to Utah after hearing rumors that Utah governor Brigham Young was planning a rebellion. However, after the election of 1860, lame duck President Buchanan sat idly while eleven Southern states seceded from the Union. He is the only president ever to fail to hold the United States intact during his term of office.

And the single worst President in U.S. history? You'll find out in the comments. And no, it's not George W. Bush.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

agenda-driven or christ-driven?

Keith McIlWain has a good post on competing Christologies within the United Methodist Church.

He begins with a quote from Mark Tooley's book Taking Back the United Methodist Church. (See Keith's post for the details.)

Keith offers this insightful comment about the competing views of scripture:

I would take issue with Mr. Tooley's depiction of conservatives viewing Scripture as divine while liberals view it as a human document. We affirm that Jesus is both divine and human; surely, we can do the same for Scripture, without losing sight of the fact that it is our primary authority. Jesus, then, is both Savior and Liberator. For conservatives or liberals to forget this would be (and has been, at times) painful for the Church.

I agree. Christology has always been more a case of both/and rather than either/or. The paradoxical nature of Christian theology doesn't necessarily mesh well with modernist binary logic that would force us to choose one or the other, but we can't really expect any secular culture to be a perfect fit with Christianity.

Keith then adds:

That said, in all honesty, it is my opinion that in recent years it has more often than not been the theological Left which has forgotten these truths. Many on the theological Left (not all) seem to be more agenda-driven than mission-driven, doctrine-driven, Scripture-driven, or Christ-driven.

Here I disagree, not with Keith's assertion about those on the theological left who are agenda-driven, but with the implication that this is not equally true of some on the right.

In fact, in a post that begins with a quote from Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, it's highly ironic to accuse the theological left of being agenda-driven. Tooley is the poster boy for agenda-driven right-wing nationalism gilded with a thin layer of Christ-talk.

Mark Tooley supports torture and nationalist warmongering, against broad coalitions of conservative, moderate, and liberal Christians whose agreement on these matters is remarkable primarily because there are so few issues that unite Christians so strongly.

Confessing Christ in a World of Violence (CCWV) is a statement signed by many Christian leaders, both Protestants and Catholics, including liberals, moderates, and conservatives.

CCWV includes five confessions, of which the first two are:

1. Jesus Christ, as attested in Holy Scripture, knows no national boundaries. Those who confess his name are found throughout the earth. Our allegiance to Christ takes priority over national identity.
2. Christ commits Christians to a strong presumption against war. The wanton destructiveness of modern warfare strengthens this obligation. Standing in the shadow of the Cross, Christians have a responsibility to count the cost, speak out for the victims, and explore every alternative before a nation goes to war. We are committed to international cooperation rather than unilateral policies.

We've seen the benefits of international cooperation in the recent past: George Bush Sr. built a coalition of 80 nations, including 30 nations that supplied more than a quarter of a million troops, before the first Iraq war. George W. Bush, on the other hand, gave speeches dividing the world into "with us" and "against us," Donald Rumsfeld ridiculed any foreign leaders who voiced reservations, and we ended up with a much smaller force for a much larger task. The first Iraq war was finished in three months; the second has lasted longer than U.S. involvement in Word War II. International cooperation makes a difference.

Somehow, though, Mark Tooley manages to twist cooperation to mean idolatrous faith in the United Nations. He writes:

CCWV places great hope on "international" processes. "A policy that rejects the wisdom of international consultation should not be baptized by religiosity," it declares near the beginning, and "We are committed to international cooperation rather than unilateral policies" near the end. While warning that "no nation-state may usurp the place of God" it did not likewise insist that neither the United Nations nor any other international force can usurp the heavenly throne.

That reliance on international groups might be just as idolatrous as nation-state patriotism, it did not admit. Nor did it explain why international consensus must be a prerequisite for virtuous action in a world that is, according to Christian teaching, perpetually fallen and in rebellion against the divine order—and in which those the United States would consult and cooperate with have their own self-interests, which may include collaboration with oppressive regimes.

Note how Tooley deftly changes "cooperation" to "consensus" in the second paragraph. That's a much easier target to attack, but the word consensus does not appear in CCWV. Nor does the document mention the United Nations. But Tooley is more focused on his political agenda than on the actual contents of the CCWV document.

Another of CCWV's confessions is this:

4. Christ shows us that enemy-love is the heart of the gospel. While we were yet enemies, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8, 10). We are to show love to our enemies even as we believe God in Christ has shown love to us and the whole world. Enemy-love does not mean capitulating to hostile agendas or domination. It does mean refusing to demonize any human being created in God's image.

To which Tooley replies:

CCWV was also very concerned about America’s “demonization” of “perceived enemies.” One wonders if the signers acknowledge the possibility that America has enemies, or that any of those enemies may be demonic in their behavior. Is criticism of the Iranian theocracy, or of North Korea’s Stalinist regime, an act of “demonization”? Or is it simply describing the reality of those regimes?

Surely Mark Tooley is intelligent enough to know the difference between criticism and demonization. It's one thing to criticize someone's actions; it's quite another to degrade the person and treat them as less than human. But Tooley is clever enough not to directly criticize the language of the CCWV. Instead he leads with a hypothetical, "One wonders if..." and follows up with insinuating rhetorical questions, leaving the reader to consider possible answers. Again, Tooley is concerned with advancing his political agenda rather than actually considering the text of the CCWV confessions. Belittling the signers of the CCWV is only a side effect.

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) is a faith-based organization trying to press our government to take the high road in matters of human dignity. Because the U.S. is global economic leader, we have a responsibility to set a good moral example as well.

I've written previously about Mark Tooley's issues with the NRCAT. Essentially, he complains that the NRCAT is not foucsed on torture by other nations.

The torture committed by nations like Syria, China, Iran, North Korea, and other nations is reprehensible, to be sure. But we have no moral authority to speak against it if we remain silent when our own government commits acts of torture. Because the United States is a democracy, its citizens have the power to affect our nation's policies. It is our responsibility to speak up when those policies violate human dignity. That's why the National Religious Campaign Against Torture focuses on abuses by the U.S. government.

Mark Tooley's agenda, on the other hand, is to neuter the church in its role as an independent voice. In Tooley's vision, the church should be a lap dog that passively accepts anything decreed by the powers of this age.

This is not the sort of renewal the United Methodist Church needs.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

toward a political philosophy

In this election season, my thoughts are turning more to politics than usual. Right now I'm thinking through something I've never been able to formally put into words: my political philosophy, and how it relates to my faith (if the two are related at all).

I've never been comfortable with the politics of the religious right. In fact, I believe the reputation of the Christian faith has been badly damaged by this group. So now that the "religious left" seems to be on the ascendency, I should be overjoyed. Right?

The truth is, the religious left makes me just as nervous as the religious right. Even though I agree with many of the causes that religious liberals are championing -- stewardship of the environment and a social safety net for the most vulnerable citizens, to name a couple examples -- I'm not convinced that these problems have purely political solutions. Or, to be more precise, I don't think the available political solutions are specificially Christian.

The United States is not, and has never been, a Christian nation. Nor has any other nation. Neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party was founded on Christian principles, and neither party today espouses Christian principles in its party platform. There are issues, to be sure, where each party's philosophy coincides with Christian values, but that does not mean that either party is seeking first the Kingdom of God. (Nor should they. Our political leaders ought to be concerned with ensuring that the nation's citizens have freedom and opportunity in this life, and leave the preaching to the churches.)

Still, I think governments can and should play a role in alleviating the problems their citizens inflict on themselves and others. The libertarian notion that government inaction will lead to a better life for all of us is simply too naive to be successfully put into practice. Human beings are inherently selfish, and in any political climate there will be ruthless people who will use any means available to them -- government power, corporate power, military power, sexual power, even religious power -- to oppress others.

So just what is the government's role? I must confess, my concept of the proper role for government has always been a little nebulous. If I had to state it succinctly, I'd probably have to describe my political philosophy as generally utilitarian. The government should act in such a way as to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people -- or as the United States Constitution puts it, "to promote the general welfare."

But what does that mean? How does that principle translate into policy? As the Wikipedia article linked above states, utilitarianism has been adopted even by Marxists and libertarians as a basis of their political theory.

So to say my political views are utilitarian is not really to say anything at all. It's a great starting point, but it could lead to any number of conclusions.

I'll have more to say in a later post.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

would it be wrong to pray for rain?

Henry Neufeld links to an MSNBC article about Stuart Shepard of Focus on the Family, who called for "Christians" to pray for rain during Barack Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Shepard made a video of his call for rain, which has been preserved for posterity at YouTube.

"Would it be wrong," asks Shepard, "to pray for rain?"

I can only conclude that Shepard doesn't understand what prayer is all about. From the MSNBC article:

He prayed for there to be rain—abundant rain, torrential rain, “rain of Biblical proportions”—in Denver on August 28th. “I’m praying for unexpected, unanticipated, unforecasted rain that starts two minutes before the speech is set to begin,” he said, adding, “I know there will probably be people who will pray for seventy-two degrees and clear skies, but this isn’t a contest.”

At least Shepard is correct that prayer isn't a contest. Still, he ought to take some time to consider what it might mean if we ask God to do something and it doesn't happen.

Years ago, I read Richard Foster's book, Celebration of Discipline. The chapter on prayer includes these words:

Perhaps the most astonishing characteristic of Jesus' praying is that when he prayed for others he never concluded by saying, "If it be thy will." Nor did the apostles or prophets when they were praying for others. They obviously believed that they knew what the will of God was before they prayed the prayer of faith. They were so immersed in the milieu of the Holy Spirit that when they encountered a specific situation, they knew what should be done.

The point is so important, Foster restates it later from another angle:

One of the most critical aspects in learning to pray for others is to get in contact with God so that his life and power can flow through us into others. Often we assume we are in contact when we are not. For example, dozens of radio and television signals went through your room while you read these words, but you failed to pick them up because you were not tuned to the proper frequencies. Often people pray and pray with all the faith in the world, but nothing happens. Naturally, they were not tuned in to God. We begin praying for others by first quieting our fleshly activity and listening to the silent thunder of the Lord of hosts.

In both of these passages, Foster is talking about prayers for others. Though he doesn't say so, the same ought to be true about prayers against others as well.

I won't presume to say that imprecatory prayer is always wrong. But before praying for a calamity, I would want to be sure God is preparing to bring one. Was it wrong for Stuart Shepard to pray for rain during Barack Obama's speech? Clearly, it was.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

why diss community organizers?

Sarah Palin, in her acceptance speech at the GOP convention, criticized the leadership experience Barack Obama gained working as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project, a Christian ministry that works for social justice by helping adults with job training and continuing education, and by teaching kids about anger management, conflict resolution, and saying no to drugs.

Palin claims that, by contrast, she has had "actual responsibilities" serving as an elected official.

The truly puzzling aspect of Governor Palin's criticism is that her Republican Party has long advocated non-governmental alternatives — particularly faith-based solutions — as the best remedy for social problems. Can someone help me understand?

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

the church of america

In a recent Townhall article, Michael Medved writes about the possibility (or impossibility) of an atheist president. (hat tip: Daylight Atheism)

Medved says:
Just as the Queen plays a formal role as head of the Church of England, the President functions as head of the “Church of America” – that informal, tolerant but profoundly important civic religion that dominates all our national holidays and historic milestones.

Medved is not merely wrong, he is very confused about his faith.

I've written previously about my concerns with civic religion. It seems to me that nothing can be more destructive of genuine religion than to let it be co-opted by those in power.

For instance, try to imagine an atheist president issuing the annual Thanksgiving proclamation. To whom would he extend thanks in the name of his grateful nation –-the Indians in Massachusetts?

Then there’s the significant matter of the Pledge of Allegiance. Would President Atheist pronounce the controversial words “under God”? If he did, he’d stand accused (rightly) of rank hypocrisy. And if he didn’t, he’d pointedly excuse himself from a daily ritual that overwhelming majorities of his fellow citizens consider meaningful.

Yes, these are the solemn duties of the head of the Church of America, according to Michael Medved. Because if the President doesn't know who to thank on Thanksgiving, or wants to revert to the original version of the Pledge of Allegiance (the words "under God" were not added until the 1950s), then the Church of America will collapse.

A non-Christian (like Joe Lieberman) could easily preside over state occasions because even though his faith differs significantly from that of the Christian majority, his obvious attachment to faith in God and Old Testament principles shows sympathy, not hostility, to the generalized value of faith.

This just underscores my objections to civic religion. There is nothing about Thanksgiving or the Pledge of Allegiance which is in any sense Christian. Patriotism is not a Christian value. Kingdoms rise and fall, and all that.

Thankfulness is good, but it is not exclusively Christian, or even religious. If an atheist president urged Americans just to be thankful, I don't see how anybody could object. After all, if Americans didn't know who to thank without explicit orders from their leaders, we'd have to call it the Cult of America.

Personally, I don't care what the President says on the fourth Thursday of November, or how he or she recites the Pledge of Allegiance. That's not the foundation of my faith -- or, for that matter, any part of my faith. Civic religion often amounts to no more than lip service -- inserting the word "God" into an otherwise secular observance or ritual. Civic religion is an insincere and shallow attempt by the state to force God into a box.

Medved considers the recent candidacies of Joe Lieberman, a Jew, and Mitt Romney, a Mormon, but then adds:

There’s a difference between an atheist, however, and a Mormon or a Jew – despite the fact that the same U.S. population (about five million) claims membership in each of the three groups. For Mitt and Joe, their religious affiliation reflected their heritage and demonstrated their preference for a faith tradition differing from larger Christian denominations. But embrace of Jewish or Mormon practices doesn’t show contempt for the Protestant or Catholic faith of the majority, but affirmation of atheism does.

Medved overstates the case here, I think. Granted, Sam Harris would have trouble connecting with voters in Pascagoula, Mississippi. But not all atheists are contemptuous of people of faith.

And let's face it -- though many recent Presidents (and Congressional leaders) have been very vocal about their Christianity, most of them have not lived up to the standards they proclaimed were they were elected. From Bill Clinton's affair with an intern, to George W. Bush's deceptions leading to the invasion of Iraq, our leaders haven't demonstrated Christian values while in office.

I don't think an atheist could do much worse. Chances are, the average atheist would be better: Maybe that's what Medved is really worried about.

Modern secularism rejects the notion that human beings feel a deep-seated, unquenchable craving for making connections with Godliness, in its various definitions and manifestations. For Osama bin Laden and other jihadist preachers, Islam understands that yearning but “infidel” America does not. Our enemies insist that God plays the central role in the current war and that they affirm and defend him, while we reject and ignore him. The proper response to such assertions involves the citation of our religious traditions and commitments, and the credible argument that embrace of modernity, tolerance and democracy need not lead to godless materialism.

I think Medved does state some truth here: Osama bin Laden wants his followers to believe that Western society is godless and decadent. Medved misses the mark, though, in his claim that the proper response is "the citation of our religious traditions and commitments," especially when the only examples he can list involve secular traditions that have had the word "God" grafted in.

By replacing God with "God," civic religion maintains the appearance of godliness while emptying the words of meaning. The United States may be the most overtly religious nation in the Western world in the way we speak, but our actions tell a different story. The ever widening gap between rich and poor, the increasing number of families who can't afford needed medical care, the violence of our inner cities, the ongoing decimation of nature, all testify that this is not a nation under God. It is a nation of short-sighted, self-centered individuals who think invoking the name of "God" is enough. Osama bin Laden is not the only one who is not fooled.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

foreign aid: does it hurt more than it helps?

Massive amounts of aid in the form of free food have been going to Ethiopia since famine was first reported in the Western press, and we were in Lalibela the day one of the monthly shipments arrived. People from all over the countryside came into town on their donkeys -- well, not into town, but near it. The poorer you are, the more food you get, and no one wanted to show off his possessions, so everyone parked his donkeys about three kilometers from town and walked the rest of the way. There were hundreds of donkeys around, waiting on the edge of town, and hundreds of people in the center of town, waiting for the food trucks to arrive. With their arrival, fifty-kilogram sacks of wheat stenciled with the name of the contributing country -- some from the United States, some from Germany on this occasion -- were distributed.

While this was going on, glorious, lush fields all around Lalibela lay fallow because nobody farmed them anymore. An entire generation of Ethiopians has grown up without learning how to farm. Instead, to put food on the table, they go to town every month, park the donkey, and collect grain. Some recipients, the day we were in Lalibela, carried their ration of wheat directly over to the town market and started selling it. And so, in addition to that generation that has never learned how to farm, there is a generation of farmers who have simply stopped farming because they can no longer sell the fruits of their labor -- there is no way to compete with free grain.

Jim Rogers, Adventure Capitalist

At the turn of the millennium, retired investor Jim Rogers took a trip around the world with his fiancee. What he saw, particularly in Africa, was distressing:

Throughout the continent there are huge markets where on can find bundle upon bundle of T-shirts spread out for sale, donated by places such as the YMCA of Cleveland and the First Baptist Church of Charlotte. These and clothing of all kinds are given as donations in the United States destined for the poor of Africa, but by the time they reach the continent, they are sold as a commercial product. Not only do they enrich the entrepreneurs involved in the traffic, they also put local tailors out of business. The tailors cannot compete, nor can the people who weave cloth, spin yarn, or grow cotton, the people whose costs the tailor incurs. In Africa you used to see tailors everywhere. You would see them by the side of the road with their sewing machines. Now you see them only rarely. How can any of them compete with a product that the entrepreneur gets virtually free?

Has well-intentioned foreign aid hurt the people it was meant to help? Is Africa worse off today than it was before the West began sending massive amounts of goods in their direction?

But it gets worse. Non-government organizations (NGOs) have raised billions of dollars to send representatives to Africa to make their expertise freely available to the locals. But this form of "aid" may be the worst:

The Bangladesh International Network (BIAN), while we were there, filed suit against UNICEF, WHO, the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, NGO Forum, and other groups that were responsible for funding the sinking of wells contaminated by arsenic and other poisons. ... As a local newspaper reported, "The short and long term effect of arsenic poisoning is lethal. Research has proved beyond doubt that the source of arsenic poisoning is the shallow tube wells from which ninety-seven percent of the rural population receives its drinking water. People are drinking poisonous water every day from shallow tube wells while policymakers and their implementing agencies continue to sink these. While World Bank's own figures claim 20 million people are currently at risk and 75 million are potentially at risk of arsenic poisoning from tube wells, donors continue funding to sink tube wells."

Rather than stop digging wells, international agencies were conducting the Third International Symposium on Reducing the Impact of Toxic Chemicals on Bengal Basin's Economies -- the third -- in the midst of what may be the largest mass poisoning in history.

If all this is true, is there anything we can do to fix the problem? Rogers has the outline of a solution:

Forgive all the debt. Right now. African countries, combined, owe some $350 billion plus in foreign debt, according to the International Monetary Fund. While no one really expects these countries to pay back that debt, they are still required to finance it, making annual payments on the loans. If we assume the interest on the loans to be 8 percent, it means that African countries must collectively pay $26 billion a year in interest. That does not include principal payments. If we assume principal payments to be another 2 to 3 percent, annual payments to finance the debt total over $30 billion. Once the debt is forgiven, Africa's leaders will have an additional $30 billion annually that can be put to productive use, plus no debt hanging over them. Call the $350 billion reparation for supposed past sins, if it makes you feel better.

This much has been suggested before, by charitable organizations and even some western governments.

However, part of the deal would be no more foreign aid.

The effects would undoubtedly be profound. Africa would be left to survive on its own. The people of Africa, no longer relying on handouts, would learn to fend for themselves. The Ethiopian teenagers I met who had never learned how to farm would have to take up the plow. The madmen fighting on the Horn of Africa would stop receiving arms from around the world. Nigerian leaders would no longer be able to walk into banks and walk out with sacks of U.S. dollars. Those who run Mozambique would no longer be able to solicit flood relief money with which to line their coffers. The IMF and World Bank would go bankrupt, and local NGOs would be forced out of business.

Would it work? I don't know how this last part could possibly be enforced. But enabling Africans to solve their own problems is the only way to solve them.

More than eight hundred years ago, Moses Maimonides wrote that the best type of charity was to help people become more self-sufficient. When will today's advanced societies learn this lesson?

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Friday, October 26, 2007

church and statism

Update: When I first posted this, my concluding paragraph did not get pasted into the edit window. I've corrected the omission.

A few weeks ago, John the Methodist linked to an essay titled The Liberal Temptation. John argued that the phenomenon discussed in that essay -- using state power to advance the church's agenda -- is a temptation of conservatives as well as liberals. He more accurately labeled it a statist temptation.

In the comments, Dan Trabue gave a lengthy defense of the idea that Christians should expect the state to help care for the poor -- and quoted several Bible verses to back his points.

I can understand both of their points of view, and to some extent I agree with both. There's no better indicator than that: John and Dan were actually discussing two different issues. I'll try to touch on both of them here.

First, the role of the state. The United States Constitution outlines the role of the national government and specifies its duties, one of which is "to promote the general welfare." Article I, Section 8 authorizes Congress to collect taxes for this purpose (among others).

So it would seem there should be no controversy there: If giving aid to people living in poverty promotes the general welfare (and I think it does), then the federal government has not just the right, but the duty to collect taxes for welfare programs.

Furthermore, through tax revenues the government has access to more resources than any individual or group could ever hope to collect. While most private charities do the best they can with the resources they have, the need is just too great. If we were to rely solely on voluntary charitable giving, a lot more people would fall into poverty.

The second issue here is the mandate Jesus gave to Christians to take care of those in need. Our salvation depends on it, according to Matthew 25:31-46.

But, as John points out in his post:

Compulsion is the enemy of evangelism, for there is no true conversion or sanctification unless is is uncoerced. Forced virtue, Left or Right, is no virtue at all.

If Congress votes to use our taxes -- everyone's taxes -- to fund a program to help the poor, we haven't fulfilled Jesus' mandate. Christian giving isn't simply a matter of helping those in need: It's also a matter of giving up our own desires and truly loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we give nothing more than what is automatically withdrawn from our paychecks, we are not really giving of ourselves.

Legislation of morality never works: The Volstead Act of 1919, which outlawed the sale of alcohol in the United States, did not eliminate the drinking of alcohol -- it merely created a new class of criminals.

Neither the right nor the left seem to be immune to the statist temptation: Just as we can't make people righteous by passing laws against abortion or homosexuality, we can't make people righteous by donating their money for them through tax laws. Laws may change a person's outward behavior -- or at least a person's public behavior --- but they cannot change people's hearts.

So I am left with two seemingly contradictory beliefs: Without the resources that only the state can muster, we can't hope to take care of all the people in need... but giving by proxy through taxes is not true charity.

But these are not mutually exclusive. It's not impossible to give to private charities and pay our taxes. It's no sin to expect our government to be responsive to the needs of its citizens. It's also no sin to give of ourselves to take care of our brothers and sisters.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

still no living wage

The new Iraq spending bill, passed by Congress last month and signed by President Bush, contains a rider that will raise the minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $7.25.

It may sound like a big raise, but it will be phased in slowly over three years, and even after the second increase minimum-wage workers will be earning less (adjusted for inflation) than they were in 1997. The third phase doesn't even occur until after the next election, which means that Congress members will be able to boast for two election cycles about how they have helped the working poor, even as they keep the minimum wage below the poverty line.

I, for one, am not impressed. The purpose of a minimum wage should be to lift people out of poverty, not to keep them in it.

I've heard all the arguments about how some work is more valuable than other work, and I think there is some merit in that. But that misses the point. The minimum wage is not a nationwide mandatory one-size-fits-all income for all people. Let the corporate CEOs, the baseball players, and the movie stars make their millions, but give the janitors, the dishwashers, the farm hands, and the administrative assitants enough to take care of a family.

Now it may be true that some of these people don't need to make enough to raise a family. Maybe that administrative assitant is married to that janitor, and with their combined incomes, they can already make ends meet. But there was a time in American history when a family did not need two incomes just to stay out of poverty. There was a time, not too long ago, when even families of modest means could make a choice of whether to have one parent stay home and raise the children while the other parent brought home enough money to cover expenses. For an increasing number of families, that choice is no longer available.

I'm quite aware that some families make comfortably more than a poverty wage, and still choose to have both parents work. That's fine. I'm all for letting people have that choice. I just think that the same choice should be available to those at the bottom of the employment ladder.

Furthermore, a living wage would benefit the growing number of families who, for whatever reason, have only one adult in the household. If a single parent could stave off poverty with a single job, they will have more time to devote to their children.

Ultimately, that's what minimum wage laws are all about: Enabling parents to spend more time with their families. In a nation as prosperous as the United States, a nation whose leaders consistently give bold lip service to "family values," we could afford to keep working families out of poverty if we wanted to.

Do we want to?

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

on war and peace in iraq

Last weekend, to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war, peace groups held vigils in many cities throughout the United States. In Kansas City the vigil was cosponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and the KC Iraq Task Force.

There were several gifted speakers, but the one who made the biggest impression on me was Tomas Young, who fought in this war before being paralyzed from the chest down due to injuries sustained in combat. He was rolled onto the stage in his wheelchair and started to speak. After only a few sentences he looked down at what appeared to be notes, then said something that was completely unrelated to what he had been saying. He looked down at the notes again, then looked up and apologized. Because of the side effects of his pain medication, he said, he couldn't continue. He rolled off the stage.

This is what war does to young, idealistic people who are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause. Before we ask them to make these sacrifices, we'd better be sure the cause is worth the cost. George W. Bush's failure to count the cost has destroyed far more lives than the 9/11 attacks did.

I've been attending peace vigils since before the war began, but at this one there seemed to be a general sense of hopefulness that I haven't perceived in previous years. Perhaps one factor is that I've moved from Wichita to Kansas City, where people seem to be a little more positive about life in general, but the biggest factor has to be the 2006 Congressional elections and the troop withdrawal bill now going through Congress.

Nonetheless, I can't bring myself to feel any more hopeful about the prospects for peace than I did four years ago. In fact, I'm probably less hopeful, for two reasons.

First, I really believed, prior to the war, that something might possibly be done to prevent the invasion. If our leaders -- and other world leaders -- could see the level of opposition, they might be persuaded to change their strategy. The very fact of this war has left me jaded about the prospects of ever turning leaders' opinion through protest.

Second, I don't see a possibility for a successful Iraqi nation. Many factors are contributing to the ongoing difficulties there, and numerous pundits have given a far more thorough analysis than I ever could, but the underlying reality is that the Iraqi people are not prepared to run their own government -- especially while facing insurgents intent on ripping the nation to shreds.

The United States could certainly cut its own losses by withdrawing its troops, just as most of its coalition partners already have. But at what cost to Iraq? Already more than 60,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed as a result of this war (and that's the most conservative estimate -- some have suggested that the true number is more than ten times that). If the U.S. were to pull out, do we have any reason to think the insurgents would lay their weapons down? Or would a U.S. withdrawal simply abandon Iraq to chaos?

I don't have any answers, just questions.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

why christians should support torture

In a recent article Mark Tooley, head of the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), questions Christian support for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT).

Tooley's main beef seems to be that the NRCAT is not focusing on torture in other countries, but is pushing the United States government to promise not to use torture. But what does Tooley expect of a national campaign? Any U.S. organization is going to have a better chance persuading its own government than persuading despotic thugs half a world away.

And if we want to have any moral authority to speak out against torturers elsewhere, we need to make it clear that we don't condone the use of it by our own nation. After the revelations from Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and secret CIA prisons around the world, the United States has lost that moral authority. Earlier this year Congress overwhelmingly approved the McCain Amendment, banning the use of torture. George W. Bush had threatened to veto the bill, but he backed down after it was approved by a wide enough margin to override the veto. Instead, Bush issued a signing statement explaining that the ban does not apply in all cases.

Because of Bush's moral ambiguity about torture, American Christians need to speak up, to make it clear that we do not blindly support all our government's policies. That's why the NRCAT was formed.

So why does Mark Tooley have a problem with the NRCAT? The answer, it seems to me, is in the nature of Tooley's organization, the IRD. The IRD claims to be a church renewal group. However, in this and other public statements, the IRD appears to be actively attempting to squelch the voice of the church whenever it speaks out against U.S. policy. The IRD wants a lap dog church that lacks a prophetic voice.

For the church to adopt Tooley's agenda, it would have to abandon Christ's agenda.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

With those words, Jesus inaugurated a challenge, not just to the rulers of his day, but to all those who would try to maintain power by keeping others down. The kingdom of God does not work that way. The kingdom of God turns all our expectations upside down. To be great, one must become a servant, a child.

As Mary sang while Jesus was still in the womb:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Jesus didn't come to earth to teach his followers to be jingoistic supporters of their government's morally dubious policies. The Mark Tooleys of the world can complain all they want, but the church must remain true to its prophetic mission. And that means never to align itself with any earthly kingdom, but to stand with the Prince of Peace in calling political leaders to account.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

congressional stuff

Senator Sam Brownback has succeeded in adding a provision to the Senate's immigration bill, to bring more nurses to the U.S. This will have a negative effect on health care in the poorer countries that have educated and trained these nurses. The New York Times has the story (registration required).

It's a case of seeking the easy solution to a complex problem. The United States has a shortage of nurses, the Senate is discussing immigration policy, so Senator Brownback finds a quick fix. The problem is, this does not eliminate the shortage. It just moves it out of our sight -- and places it squarely in the worst possible location. The places that are most desperately in need of health care workers will now suffer even more. A better solution, it seems to me, would be to train more nurses. Provide funding to schools that want to expand their nursing programs, or to create new ones. As the population ages, this is one profession that will only increase in demand in the coming years. We shouldn't have to steal from other countries to make up for our shortsightedness.

* * *

Meanwhile, President Bush is urging Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment to ban same-sex marriages. See the story at To amend the Constitution requires support from 2/3 of the members of both houses of Congress. This amendment appears headed for defeat: The Senate does not even have a simple majority in favor.

Bush's attempt to pander to his base will likely end up hurting him. This maneuver shows his lack of leadership ability and his misunderstanding of the role of the federal government. Even some who oppose same-sex marriage are nervous about rewriting the Constitution over it. Those who know their history will recall that the last time the Constitution was amended to outlaw a specific behavior of citizens -- the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcohol -- was a dismal failure. Alcohol consumption rates may have dropped, but some people still found ways to get it, and those who broke the law to supply it became much more sophisticated in their efforts to evade prosecution. One unintended side effect of prohibition was the rise of organized crime. It would have been better to let Uncle Fred have his beer after dinner than to provide Al Capone with an additional source of income.

A same-sex marriage prohibition probably wouldn't have quite so dire consequences, but haven't we learned the lesson that the federal government isn't up to the task of overseeing our morality?

Personally, I think the government should get out of the marriage business altogether. When states are given the right to say who should be married and who should not, they can easily abuse their power. The wave of no-fault divorce laws that have swept the United States since the 1970s have probably done more to destroy the American family than any other factor. After the states introduced this innovation, churches have learned to accept it. How can they do otherwise, when half of all marriages now end in divorce?

Same-sex marriage wouldn't have nearly the impact that no-fault divorce has had; the number of people affected would be much smaller. And taking it out of the states' hands wouldn't end the controversy; many churches are wrestling with this issue as well. But they should have the freedom to wrestle and to come to their conclusions, without being forced to follow the dictates of the state. That's why this country's founders proposed to separate church and state in the first place.

* * *

Hat tips to Seth at Samaritanity for the first article, and to Eddie(F) at Edge of Faith for the second.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

cover the uninsured

May 1-7 is Cover the Uninsured Week.

The past 100 years have given us medical advances that have doubled the average human life span. Unfortunately, medical advances are not free. Indeed, health care costs have increased, over the past several years, faster than any other segment of the economy. In order to control costs, every industrial nation except the United States has built a system to ensure universal healthcare coverage. Some, like Canada, have single-payer systems, in which the government acts as the sole insurance provider. Others, like Germany, have multi-payer systems, in which the government and private payers both provide insurance, and everyone is guaranteed some form of coverage.

In the United States, private insurance companies write healthcare coverage plans for employers, who choose a plan for their employees. The employees then have the option of buying the plan or not. Some employers choose not to offer health insurance to their employees. Many people cannot afford to buy the health insurance their employers provide. As a result, more than 42 million people in the U.S. have no health insurace at all. That's about one out of every seven U.S. citizens.

In theory, the competition among insurers drives the cost down. In reality, Americans pay about twice as much per person as the rest of the industrial world. In part, the higher costs are a result of the high number of uninsured. If medical providers are forced to write off one out of every seven charges, they need to recoup the money from somewhere.

Physicians aren't the only ones who stand to gain by making health insurance universal. Employers would benefit as they would shoulder a smaller burden of rising health care costs. And, of course, the 42 million people who currently do not have insurance would benefit.

So what is the answer? Although some, even in the medical community, are advocating for a single payer system, it is simply not going to happen in the current political climate. A multi-payer system would be easier to implement -- in fact, our current system is essentially a screwed up multi-payer system. The problem is, we need to find a way to provide health insurance for the 14% of our population who now lack it.

But who has the money and the will to get there? Private insurance companies are not going to add beneficiaries as charity cases.

The federal government has run up too much debt in the last five years to take on any additional financial responsibilities. State governments are being squeezed already as the federal government cuts its subsidies to the states.

Employers are not going to lead the way in reform. The ones who currently don't provide insurance don't have the resources to do so. Any additional expense might drive them out of business.

The uninsured themselves aren't going to solve the problem. If they could afford health insurance, they'd have it.

So is there an answer at all?

Ultimately, I don't think we can get there from here in our lifetime. The United States health care system is the largest industry on the planet, and it's not going to change overnight. Indeed, if the 1996 HIPAA law is any indication, it will take more than a decade to bring about even modest reforms to the system.

But what sort of reforms could we put into place before this generation is beyond the need of health care? Here are a few ideas:

  • Several states have already established health insurance pools that allow high-risk patients to buy medical insurance when they are unable to afford it elsewhere, or have previously been turned down by a private insurer. This concept could be extended to offer affordable group insurance for the self-employed and for small business owners who cannot afford to buy insurance for a handful of people.

  • Some churches offer health insurance plans for their members. This idea, too, could be extended. Maybe some churches could provide health insurance as a ministry. Civic groups, possibly, could establish health insurance pools. Genuine competition in health insurance plans should benefit everyone.

  • Although most Americans are wary of "government health care," Congress's health insurance plan is one of the best and most affordable in the country. One intriguing idea, proposed by John Kerry in his 2004 presidential bid, is to open up this insurance plan to allow others to buy into it.

  • The COBRA law of 1986 allows an individual to keep the same insurance from a previous employer until the insurance plan kicks in at the new employer. The individual must pay the entire cost of the plan. Most people in job transitions need help paying for this temporary coverage. It's just a matter of finding a source for the money.

At best, these are all stopgap measures. None of them will get us to universal coverage. But as thoroughly inefficient as our health care system is today, and as cold as the political will is, we can't hope for much.

In fact, there's only one reason that we don't have universal coverage already: apathy. Americans have let ourselves accept a second rate health care system even while our medical facilities are the best in the world. In no other industrial nation would such a state of affairs be tolerated. Other health care systems have their problems, but nowhere else can 42 million people fall through the cracks at the same time.

So that's what Cover the Uninsured Week is about. It's time to acknowledge that the United States is shooting itself in the foot with its current health care system. It's time to acknowledge that we could do much better, and save money at the same time. It's time to raise the awareness that we don't have to settle for second rate health care. It's time to let our elected officials know that we want -- and deserve -- something better.

It's time for the United States to make health care for all its citizens a priority.

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