Friday, October 7, 2011

Sweet Disposition

Bias. What a bitter word. I can remember I was introduced to it my by 9th grade biology teacher in the context of learning about how science should be taught in schools. We had a whole lesson plan, going through weeks of learning about how what we are taught in the classroom and read on the news is ultimately a formulation of some producer, reporter, or legislator's views. Following the lesson, we gave a class presentation, in which we were given the opportunity to "expose the bias" which we felt pervaded a particular area of science, politics or daily life. As a result of my recent interest I had taken to attending church, perhaps combined with a naivete of what a controversial topic I was undertaking, I decided to give a whole spiel in  front of class of how high schoolers were being brainwashed by the "biased" point of view which taught evolution as fact. At an age where most kids haven't begun to think seriously or care about such matters, my presentation was met with uninterested stares and a forced applause, even after closing my routine with holding a Bible in one hand, my science book in the other, and tossing the science book dramatically on the floor. It was met with disinterest with all but one person, that is: my science teacher. Ms. Willertz, a young,  former biker-gang riding blond who allowed her class to make up the rules and only assigned grades because the district made her, was appalled. I certainly learned a lesson in bias, however, when she marked on her evaluation of my project that basing my world-view on a book written by several men over the course of hundreds of years was "pretty shoddy."

I'm not relating this story to make myself appear some sort of Christian crusader. I was far from it in those days and indeed today as well. In fact, just the year before in English class, I can recall choosing the topic of abortion for our class debate, and pulling out several Bible verses to support my pro-choice point of view at the time. Needless to say, I wish I could meet that opinionated and silly 1999 version of Kurt and either explain or knock some sense into him.

Now that ten years have passed by from that first (formal and informal) lesson I had on the topic of "bias", I've gotten the opportunity to experience it first hand thousands and thousands of times. To be sure, even my final year in academics was largely a study of bias: in economic analysis, every assumption made can and usually will bias a study, your results, and any conclusion you may make.  I'm not sure any amount of formal education about  bias can actually prepare one for the kind of bias encountered on a day to day basis. All I know is that being informed starts with knowing it's there, why it's there, and why that often makes the majority of what enters your ears on a given day a load of garbage.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

On mammals and dairy

Journalists and bloggers love to be the first to break a story. They love to have history validate their predictions, and be able to have the satisfaction of citing a story they wrote months ago so that they can sit back in their spinney computer chair, and with a grin, type: “I’ve been saying this all along!” or “Told you so!” So naturally, if today we are seeing beginnings of the second recession in three years, I wanted to have a blog entry writing about it.  But rather than just sounding the alarms based on one day’s slide (which nonetheless quite significant, the DOW is down 300 as I write) it’s important to separate fact from fiction.
FACTS: The market’s reaction to the debt deal recently signed by President, which was predicted to bring calm to the recent choppy waters, has been: so what? The reason for this is probably that it simply postponed the debate in a not so inconspicuous manner. The “super-congress” which must reach an agreement by December faces much of the same challenges which congressional leaders and the president faced in formulating the current deal. While the deal was no doubt necessary to prevent even more catastrophic losses on Wall Street, and to the U.S. economy in general, the deal did nothing to halt the downtrend the markets have been seeing thus far in 2011.
Over the past several weeks, market gains have generally been an exception to the rule. They have come with occasional “better than expected” (usually weekly) reports on manufacturing, consumer spending, etc… but have not been frequent enough to categorize as a trend. The fact is, the trend of the markets in the first and second quarter of 2011 has been a downward one – the NBER classifies a recession as two consecutive quarterly contractions of economic growth; while GDP growth in the second quarter was not negative, it was certainly nothing to be happy about, at 1.3%, driven mainly by increased exports as a result of a weak dollar. For those of you keeping track, with the baby-makin’ capacity of the U.S., that’s not enough to sustain job-growth. In a nutshell: we are well on our way to the dreaded “double-dip”, and when we’re not talking ice-cream, this is cause for fear.
FICTION: The market is a reliable barometer for the state of the macroeconomy.  If the macroconomy is Mayberry, the market is Barney Fife; always entertaining, but often lacking in sound judgment and prone to overreaction and silly yet sitcom-worthy antics. It's good that he's there to keep us on our toes, but we'd never want him at the helm of the Mayberry County Sheriff's Department. It cannot be disputed, though, that long term market trends generally reflect GDP movements (not sure how that fits in the Mayberry metaphor, but worth noting).    
In conclusion, I’m not jumping on the “double-dip” bandwagon because I’m conservative. I’m not jumping on because the markets are sliding in similar proportions as they were when investment banks were collapsing left and right in 2008. I’m not even jumping on because I’m vain, and I want to be among the first to write about it (indeed, the ship has sailed there anyway, because many have been crying about a second recession the day we were reportedly out of the first). I am only becoming worried now because our economy has been in a state of contraction all year, and our government has proved unable to create growth, or pursue policies which give consumers confidence that there will be any growth in the future. The contraction hasn’t been as a result of unpredictable shocks, as many (myself included) believed with the disaster in Japan, and the unrest in the Middle-East; it has been the result of the fundamentals of our economy being weak, and Americans having no reason to believe a change for the better is on the way.
I’m not even writing this post to claim we are on the brink of a double dip recession, but I do believe we’re at the point where the economic data show that it’s rational to think so. At the end of the day, I don’t think it’s debatable that a huge number of Americans feel this way, and are at the very best going to stick their heads in the sand and sit on the their investments to weather this storm over the rest of the year – a scary proposition for the job market. What does this mean? Someone in the White House has some serious ‘splainin to do over the next several months, and dare-I-say, in November of 2012.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Manifestos, Madmen, and Misinterpretation

The world was horrified and saddened to turn on the news last Friday, with reports of a man gunning down scores of children on the tiny Norwegian island of Utoya. The shooter, Anders Behring Breivik, apparently adhered to "right-wing" extremist ideologies, and was a self identified Christian. Naturally, when a tragedy such as this one happens, the human response is of course: why?

To answer that question, we're now looking into his past: the blogs he's written, what he's posted on Facebook, what religion he adheres to.. Among the many elements of his past being scoured through is a 1500 page manifesto posted only days before the attack,  in which Breivik attributes his actions to his anti-Islamic views and opposition to multiculturalism. The man's faith has been given particular attention, given his violent anti-Islamic views. Is he a "jihadist" of the Christian sort... a "fundamentalist Christian"... a "tea-partier"????  In the age of terror in which we live, it would be valuable to know if this man was simply insane, or he has an agenda to which many others could adhere (ie fundamentalist Christianity). Many in our country know little about this group, resulting in apprehension... fear... false assumptions. Before many in the media begin linking a few lines in Breivik's verbose manifesto to his being a "fundamentalist", it would probably be valuable for them to know what that actually means. At this point please sit down if you aren't already, and if you're prone to seizures or heart attacks, you may want to stop reading... because I have a confession to make:

I am a fundamentalist Christian.

Before you report me to the authorities, let me just say I've never bombed an abortion clinic, I've never picketed with the Westborough Baptist Church, and Lord as my witness, I've never plotted a mass murder. Now that I've cleared that up, I'll clear up what I believe the term actually means, and why I would admit I consider myself a part of such a despised and misunderstood group of people.

Fundamentalist Christianity as it's known today is largely as a result of a movement in our country in which protestants in the early 1900s began to change their interpretation of the Bible so that they would be more acceptable. Many parts of the Bible are offensive or hard to believe, and excluding of these parts makes a whole lot of sense if your goal is to increase church attendance.  Those that decided that these changes were essentially doing a disservice to Christ by "watering down" His message, have become known as "fundamentalists". Since then, even these "fundamentalists" have splintered... resulting in movements known as the "emerging" and "emergent" church, to name a few, and we again have prominent pastors who preach popular but un-biblical messages such as those in the best selling novel Love Wins by Rob Bell... (which I wont get into here... that's for another day).

There are still some who believe the Bible should be taken literally for the most part, and we should believe that Jesus spoke only truth, controversial or not - and these are the "fundamentalists." If you'd like to talk to me about whether or not I believe the world is just 5000 years old, and whether I've met a dinosaur, you can engage me privately, because to get into it here would be a significant digression from the purpose of the post. So now that you may know a little more about what the term means, which apparently many in the media have not done, we can analyze statements made by Breivik and determine if he too, is a fundamentalist, like me.

Here's what he said:
“If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian. Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian.”
Now that we know what Mr Breivik's interpretation of what a Christian is... Why don't we hear about... hmm. how bout Jesus':
 18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
 21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22 NIV)
 The picture painted here is Jesus telling his followers that to be a follower of Him (a Christian), you must give up what you are doing in life, and take up Jesus' mission instead... which is "fishing for people" as he says. Winning souls for Him. If Jesus used a metaphor of "harpooning" people for Him, I may be more inclined to believe Breivik when he said that he was a Christian.  But what we have instead is a metaphor of being a fisher of men, giving up self, having a personal tie to Jesus and His mission. (notice I'm prepared to accept this is a metaphor, and not a call to go get my new Orvis rod, tie on a veggie burger, and try to hook people in downtown Denver - fundamentalists can believe some passages are metaphorical when they obviously are).

I don't think there's really much to be said here about the difference between a raging madman's interpretation of Christians, and Christ's... but some these days are giving the benefit of the doubt to the former. At its best, this is simply ignorant... at its worst, its an attack on Christianity. But I'll give them  the benefit of the doubt and just hope they haven't done their research.

One of the most "fundamental" things about "fundamentalists",  and the thing which is probably the source of the most controversy about them these days... are the ten commandments. Have we forgotten that one of them was "Thou shalt not kill."? Anyone still believing this man is a "fundamentalist" maybe needs to think just for a second about the things "fundamentalists" believe.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Taking the Long Way to Church, Metaphorically Speaking

Sometimes life provides metaphors that are just too perfect not to acknowledge - last Sunday I was provided with such an experience which will help me relate a topic which has weighed heavy on me, and fortuitously happens to be fitting with the general theme of the blog.

The day began just as it usually does: I woke up, had my coffee and caught some of the Sunday morning news shows - this week happened to be Christiane Amanpour paying tribute to Barack Oba... I mean fathers -that's right, it was Father's Day!- by showing a segment on Barack Obama's views on fatherhood. A lovely segment, really.

My drive to church is usually a quick and direct one: fifteen blocks north on Broadway, and I'm right in the parking lot. This Sunday was different, though. Approaching downtown, I noticed a large part of Broadway was shut down - my usual strategy of leaving only minutes ahead of time to shoot up the road and into church was quickly thwarted. As I made my way through the detour, I noticed a few fellows walking towards the shutdown section of the street in their underpants. Now is when I began to question whether this detour was simply due to the construction.

After a few more gentleman attired in this fashion, as well as one who seemed to be taking another for a walk by the looks of the leash and collar, I realized that this was not your typical Sunday morning in the Mile High City - it was Denver's annual Pride-Fest, the event has been going strong since 1976, and draws around 200,000 spectators each year. And boy, did I have to take quite the detour around it to arrive at the the comfy confines of my usual Sunday morning church routine (for those of you who thought I had abandoned the metaphor point I opened with, bingo, there it is - more on that later). Before you stop reading because you have pegged me a homophobe for pointing out the irony in this situation, know that I'm not saying that taking part in Pride-Fest excludes you from the practice of attending church (or being a Christian for that matter), as that is precisely the view I'm writing to challenge.

I couldn't help but notice the remarkable and unique lifestyle espoused by the Pride-Fest. These proud gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (hereafter GLBT) individuals don't just embrace a different choice in partners, but a completely different lifestyle altogether - one of flamboyance and a love of being publically controversial. As much as gay rights advocates claim that what one does in the confines of their own bedroom is a private choice which should not separate one individual from another in the public sphere, these GLBT's sexuality and "private life" was most assuredly on display for all to see this particular morning. I am no sociologist, and honestly did my best to stay away from such classes in college, but I cannot help but advance a theory as to just why this is - and I'm ashamed to say, Christians are at least partly responsible.

To Christians, being gay has often become a sin of the sort which is elevated beyond all others - one which is the mark of a depraved life which is unrepentantly turned away from God. Many churches show no love towards people who are gay, and would feel quite uncomfortable associating, not to mention sharing their pews, with one. Unfortunately for Jesus, often times those who are supposed to be His ambassadors in this world truly do not act as He would. As a result, gay people have no doubt seen an out-lash against their way of life from "religious" people in a way which has made them feel demeaned and judged unlike any other group. One common theme throughout history worth noting: where there is out-lash, there is backlash.

The reason why we don't see an annual "Swim-in-Your-Money Fest" in Civic Center Park in which greedy CEO's throw around hundred dollar bills and participate in Maserati raffles in plain sight of Denver's homeless, middle, and lower class is because being a greedy rich person has not received the degree of judgment and hatred over the years which being gay certainly has. Yes, there has been class warfare in which the rich are called on to pay more taxes, but as far what a man or woman does with his or her after tax paycheck? That's their own business. For some reason we've decided what one tithes is their own business, but who someone goes to bed with is. Guess those people were too busy patting themselves on the back to remember that greed is one of the seven deadly sins. Oops.

Up to this point, I believe I've made a relatively benign case here of love and acceptance, and probably haven't offended anyone, unless any of you are among the depravedly greedy who thought that Money Fest seemed like a great idea. Well I suppose it's time to change that: I believe homosexuality to be sinful - I just don't believe it to be any greater of sin than the many other lifestyles which completely ignore what Jesus taught. I really have no idea why this particular sin has been elevated above all others; maybe it's because this is one which most of us find so foriegn, unlike greediness, lust, gluttony or pride, for example, which many of us find all too often irresistible.

While I was taken aback that Sunday morning by all the men in their underpants obstructing my usual route to church, I believe if Newton had been with me that he would have been decidedly unimpressed, for obviously with every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When considering how great the "reaction" part is, it becomes sad to think of the hate these people have been exposed to over the years, not as a result of festivals like these, but simply due to their life choices which are often just as wrong as those first to throw the stones.

When I finally made it to church that morning, I snuck in the back, sat down, and reflected on not how different we all were from the leather and chain clad flaboyant homosexuals just blocks away, but how similar we are. Are we all not fallen and in need of a saviour? Have we all not chosen to live a life of rebellion from the God who has created us to have fellowship with Him? Do we all not despise being told how to live our lives by people who themselves are nowhere near perfect?

As the saying that goes, "there are no coincidences with God" - If we are to believe that God has designed the world, and is soverign over all that has ever happened and ever will, it logically follows that nothing should happen by accident. Of course then, it was no accident that the sermon that morning was this: the Gospel is applicable to everyone. From the uber religious to atheists; from the straight-edged to the depraved; from nuns to flamboyant homosexuals. Maybe if the Christians had shown less disdain and more compassion for GLBT's over the years, the latter would feel less of a need to block off roads, get in their skivys, and flaunt their private choices for all to see.

Well, it's now time to wrap up the metaphor. After church, having been struck by the irony of all of the churchgoers need to detour around Pride-Fest, and having been reminded anew that Christ came not to call the righteous, but sinners, I decided to forgo the detour after church, and instead go right on through, even have a beer and hang around for a while. Main two lessons learned that day: 1) Hate and evangelism are mutually exclusive. 2) Slim men can make very good and believable Chers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Excuses, excuses...

For those of you who religiously check for updates to my blog (thanks mom!), I have to offer an apology for what may be a lack of content for a short period of time.

My housemate Abby decided that my computer charger either seemed to be of nutritious value, or just a good toy, and attempted to eat it without my knowledge - therefore limiting my ability to both post new content, and stream youtube videos of laughing babies (which happen to be the two primary uses of my computer these days).

So that you don't go home empty handed, here's a few links worth checking out that I've found cool these days:

  • History of Rome - Great (free) 138 part podcast providing a COMPLETE history of the Roman empire... since I'm cheap, and have been turned off by books any thicker than the Bible after reading My Life, I find this an adequate substitute for purchasing Gibbon's famous Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. I'm on episode 53, and I can't get enough.
  • Literally Unbelievable - Blog I've been checking everyday for a while now (thanks Jason). I can't believe some of the crazy news out there!!
  • - relatively obscure internet startup based out of California. Think this one may take off. Check it out - and feel free to "friend" me once you have created your "page" - it takes a while but it's worth the hassle!
  • Cowboy Blog - If only this kid wrote more. He is charming, brilliant and one day will be a successful lawyer and the consigliere to my crime family based on dominating the vibrant yet still untapped Boulder County pot trade.

Oh Abby, why must you find rubber and copper wiring so appetizing?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Our True National Debt

With all of the political debates going on these days, dividing Americans and stirring up passion and emotion, it can be refreshing to think what it is that has held us together as a country, and who we pay tribute to this Memorial Day: our veterans.

This is our most immense national debt. One which increases everyday, and can never be repaid. Only with our thoughts, prayers, memories and support can we begin to scratch the surface of repaying the debt we owe to our men and women in uniform, past and present.

My paternal granfather, Stan Grimes is among those who sacrificed so much for the cause of our freedom. He served in the European Theatre of Operations in the Second World War - in Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, France and Germany. He did not pay the ultimate sacrifice as so many like him did in the war, but today we remember him and those who did.

A Tribute to SSGT Grimes, Battery C, 451 AAA

When we were twenty-three...

I was thinking about where to spend my summer vacation after my senior year in college;
You were crossing the Atlantic with your men on the USS Cristobol.

I was applying to graduate school at Miami University;
You were helping establish a beachhead in Nazi occupied North Africa.

I was deciding what classes to take now that my first semester was coming to a close;
You were defending the airstrip at Mostaganem from nighttime attacks by the Luftwaffe.
When we were twenty-four..
I was saying goodbye to old friends as graduation came and went;
You were huddled in a foxhole while bombs fell on Monte Cassino.
I was driving to Massachusetts for my summer job at camp;
You were landing at Marseilles – ready to push towards the Siegfried line and into Nazi Germany.

I was finding it a challenge to keep up with all of the readings in my economics classes;
You were liberating the camp at Stuttgart -witnessing atrocities that few in the world had ever seen.

And then came the day...

I stood by with pride as the guns rang out in the crisp November air;
And you were laid to rest under the flag you had so honorably served.

What a story. What a soldier. What an American. What a life.
In memory of Staff Sergeant Stan Grimes. 
February 21, 1919 - November 6, 2009.

... and all of his brothers in arms who have fought to keep our country free.

Consider making this Memorial Day more than a fishing trip, a picnic, or an extra day off work. Tell a veteran how much you appreciate their service, pay respects to a soldier's grave, say a prayer for our men and women overseas - we owe them much more than this - but what they have given, we can not give back.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

An Objective Look at My Life

For those of you who were hoping to find here a thoughtful reflection of the joys and heartbreak of my childhood, I should disclose to you now that the subject matter of this post relates to Bill Clinton’s autobiography, “My Life”, published in 2004 by the Knopf Publishing Group. So, if that’s not what you were looking for, I’m sorry to disappoint; that post may come someday when I’ve had a few too many Glenlivets and I’m feeling weepy and homesick, but not today.
Let me say first that I’m not a speed-reader, and I’ve always been amazed by people that can get through a thick book in the course of two nights and be able to retain more than just the title. That being said, I’ve also known how to read for several years now, and would consider myself fairly apt at the task of reading… I can usually complete a book in a week or two if I put my mind to it. All of that is to say this: I’d been reading this book for four months. When Bill sat down to write this book, he made darn sure you knew not only that he grew up in Hope, but that on the day of his birth, the population of Hope was 5,020, which made him at the time he was delivered 0.0001992% of the population, which is ironic because, as he recounts in subsequent chapters, that was the year of his election to the presidency! Well, I’ll admit that I made that one up, but I will tell you that unless you plan to compete in a quiz bowl on useless trivia of Bill Clinton’s life, most of the information you get out of the book is absolutely superfluous.
It is clear that Clinton did not want to leave out any fact about his life, and he did not want to let any person that helped him along his way to success go unmentioned - I can appreciate the thought, but it makes for an unnecessarily long book for the majority its readers. For that reason, I don’t think this will go down in history as a great autobiography, simply because it frequently reads like an Academy Awards acceptance speech (before they began the practice of playing people off the stage with the orchestra). But unfortunately, since there is no orchestra, and since he’s calling the shots since it is his book, you are forced to trudge through it all if you actually want to undertake the daunting task of reading the thing from cover to cover. He also does not title the chapters, so it is exceedingly difficult to just open it to the Monica chapter, read that, and sell it on Amazon - it can be done, mind you, but since there’s 3,668 chapters, even that seemingly simple task is going to require your entire evening.  
Well since I don’t want this post to get too “My Life-ish”, I’ll actually try to form some sort of coherent review of its content, rather than go on at length about its length. Bill Clinton did have a fascinating story, and one worth retelling (in a more succinct way, preferably… last comment about the length, I promise). He is an intelligent man and an adept politician in many ways. Both of these qualities are evident in the book. Although I often found him to be on the wrong side of history many regards concerning the economy and foreign policy, I found his deliberations and thought process in reaching many decisions to be fair and objective. He also seemed to have had a knack for engaging other world leaders and fostering trust and personal diplomacy.
That being said, the man spends a good amount of time in the book defending indefensible positions. He seems to cry foul that even back to his campaign for governor in 1978 the right was unfairly attacking him for his character. Maybe it’s just me, but the big elephant in the room at this point seemed to indicate that maybe there was in fact truth to some of these claims, and maybe in fact some years down the road he would provide a few reasons why maybe people should question his character… or it could all just be a “vast right-wing conspiracy” too right?
If one takes Clinton at his word, you would think Ken Starr was just a lawless, hateful right-wing nut job, out to simply ruin the president and all of his friends’ lives at any cost. Clinton seemed to think that he was in some sort of holy war with the right-wing, and that the front line of that war was Starr’s investigation and his impeachment in the US House of Representatives. He seems to think that the Republicans were impeaching him “just because they could,” and not because he turned the Oval Office into a forum for acts which I cannot even begin to recount, because I haven’t checked the “adult content” filter for this blog.
If one is hoping for a humble, repentant man who is sorry for what he did to the office or the presidency (in both a literal and figurative sense), you will not find that man in My Life. What you will find is a shrewd politician, and a man that couldn’t see that the outcry against what he did was not just the right yet again playing politics with him.
To paraphrase Mark Dever, a Baptist preacher from Capitol Hill Baptist Church in D.C., true repentance is when if convicted of sin, you side not with your sin – but with God, against yourself. Unfortunately, Bill, the good politician that he is, can’t seem to come to side against himself, even when it’s clear that he probably should.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Justice Has Been Done

Tonight is a night which I will remember all of my life. Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the mass murder of September 11th, was killed in Pakistan. Nothing can be said or written about how profoundly changed the lives of thousands of Americans were as a result of the hate and cowardice of one man. President Obama said it well:

" ... we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world.  The empty seat at the dinner table.  Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father.  Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace."

Most of us will never know the pain that still torments those who lost their fathers, wives, husbands, and children that horrible day - but tonight we can say with certainty that the murderer of their loved ones has been brought to justice. No, Osama will never see the inside of a courtroom. But I still take heart. He will not ever see the justice that a gallows has to offer, but still... I take heart tonight. I take heart because tonight he faces the justice of an almighty God. The God that has been at the side of all of the widows whose husbands did not wake up by their side on September 12th 2001. The God of Love - counselor, redeemer, creator, but so importantly tonight: judge. I take heart that there was no cave, compound, or network of terror which could protect bin Laden from the fate that he deserved.

What a great night for not just America, but for those who love justice everywhere. God bless America.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Importance of Incentives

Those who know me know that I have an unhealthy addiction to talk
radio. I don't discriminate much in my listening habits, I'll listen
to conservative, progressive, book talk, baseball, whatever. I find
the combination of dynamic radio personalities and often ridiculous
callers to be a recipie for first rate entertainment. My fiancee (and
almost any everday American) disagees, so I am limited to listening to
it when I am in the car alone... which happens to be about 97% of the
time. So, needless to say, I get a healthy (?) dose of it everyday.
My go-to station lately has been 850 KOA, which is Colorado's version
of the famous station of my hometown Cincinnati, home of the Reds and
the ever entertaining Willie Cunningham, who my step-dad once called
in to yell at on air for calling liberals "baby-killers". Not that I
don't enjoy listening to conservative talk radio, which by-and-large
is way further right of center than I would claim to be, but for the
sake of my sanity as well as my propensity to be fair and balanced
(not unlike my favorite news network), I sometimes turn to Colorado's
Progressive Talk radio station.

It's funny what one can notice when they are listening to a program,
or to anyone for that matter, if they don't have the "everything you
say is right" filter on. The blatant untruths I hear across the board
when listening to this station is sometimes nothing short of
laughable. The primtime personality of  Colorado's progressive talk
radio station, Mario, is an interesting and bombastic fellow, who
refuses to pronounce "Colorado" like an American, and is never in
short of completely fallacious and ridiculous ideas.

His latest gem was his show a few days ago, which was completely
devoted to defending the recently defeated "tuition equality" bill in
the Colorado House. The proposed bill would have allowed undocumented
residers of Colorado to attend Colorado schools and pay in-state
tuition. Mario went at length to emphasize that this was a "black and
white issue" ; to oppose it would be simply to be oppose the dreams of
innocent children.

What Mario refuses to consider is what incentives such a bill would
provide for parents in Mexico considering illegaly crossing the
border. Just as I would have taken a much closer look at Colorado
schools if I knew I could get cheaper tuition here, a Mexican parent
would surely be incentivized to bring their child to Colorado illegaly
if this bill had passed. Here's an idea: let's pass a bill which gives
tuition breaks for naturalized citizens, therefore providing
incentives for LEGAL behavior? I'll put a bumper sticker on my car for
that one. Apparently, Mario thinks that encouraging parents to cross a
raging river and desolate desert (alliteration anyone?) with little
food and water while being chased by law enforcement, WITH THEIR
CHILDREN, is the compassionate thing to do.

Mario, on second thought, this IS black and white issue, I'll agree
with you on that one. I applaud the members of the Coloardo house who
refused to give in to such an ill-conceived piece of legislation.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An Inconvenient Truth About the Economic Environment - Part II

This post is largely in response to a claim made by a reader, Michael. He is a soon to be fellow Miami University alumnus, who pointed out his perception that politicians (particularly speaker John Boehner) tend to oversimplify their assesments of the economy (See response to Feb 17th post). Michael is a bright guy, has the benefit of the education from an ABSOLUTELY first rate academic institution (Go Hawks!), and no doubt has a bright future as an economist should he choose that path, despite his misguided views in some areas - I mean, heck... Krugman hardly ever knows what he's talking about... and the guy won the Nobel Prize! I kid, I kid, Micheal. I do have to say, however, as a supplemental instructor in his introductory macroeconomics course, I did catch him sleeping on many occasions... this may explain some of the holes in his thought process on the matter - but I will attempt do my best to fill them here. So stay awake, Michael!
I think that the perception about politicians’ tendency to generalize complex problems is a fair one. We live in a day and age in which Speaker Boehner knows if he says something that lasts more than ten seconds, the media is going to pick out just a piece of it that will be aired on the evening news, and that’s all the American people will hear. I’m not faulting the media for that, but it just the way things go. Whether or not that means Boehner is ignorant of the complex economics and gray areas which accompany his statements, I don’t know – but if he were to go into a complex explanation of the components of GDP, what role government spending plays in all of it, and how that may or may not contribute to growth, he would probably find most reporters in the room YouTubing piano playing cats on their I-phones rather than listening to his response.
What I believe the Speaker is bringing light to is the fundamental difference in the fiscal ideas between the political right and left. In the age of sound-byte politics and hyper partisanship, Democrats and Republicans seem to retreat in to the corners and be less likely to admit there is a middle ground in these matters.  I’m sure the Speaker knows this, but at the end of the day, he is a politician, not an economist – and moreover, he’s the voice of the republican house majority, as well as the millions of Americans who put the majority there. When push comes to shove, the American people voted in these Republicans based on two observations : (1) They saw spending dramatically increase under the Obama administration (2) They did not see a dramatic recovery.  Simplistic? Yes. Rash? Maybe. Wrongheaded? No – or at least not if there is any truth to all this crowding out stuff we’ve been talking about, or if it’s true that running yearly deficits can have real effects on the economy. Boehner is a conservative first, a politician second, and economist last – so I’m not necessarily faulting him for his over-simplified claims, especially given he will be in the next crate thrown into the Boston Harbor if the Partiers in congress think for one second he advocates increased federal spending (on anything but defense that is).
Sometimes Washington is a place where great ideas go to die. Good policy instead becomes the policy that works best for your viewpont. I’m not being cynical, just realistic about the way things work. But the decision we have to make is do we really want to always give the benefit of the doubt to the government  that  it  will lead us to prosperity? Or should we leave more money in the hands of firms and individuals and hope that consumption, investment spending, and international trade will grow our economy. There’s not a simple story being told here – there is so much at play that politicians will never heed, and probably don’t care about, but there is a clear divide between what the right and the left believe when it comes to this matter.  Perhaps each side believing that there is no middle ground will in and of itself lead us to that middle ground… either that or shutdown the government. Oh democracy, how beautiful.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Who has the last word?

The topic even He wouldn't have dared brought up that night.

Some of my posts lately, it may be noted, do not necessarily hold true to the original intent of this blog. You may have been thinking for example, that talking about a backpacking trip may be an OK, or perhaps even pleasant dinner table discussion, provided your mouth wasn’t full. I admit such topics lack the controversy and spice that all of my thousands of avid readers hope for week after week, given that the blog’s title suggests such contentious material. Well, in order to stay true to the theme, I felt that it was about time that an issue be addressed that would truly be inappropriate for a dinner table discussion; one that may even cause some to stand up and walk away to avoid the topic and discussion. So here it is: abortion – read on if you dare.

I was inspired to think about this issue anew a few days ago, after Lawrence O’donnell, on his show “The Last Word,” passionately defended federal funding of Planned Parenthood. In tears, O’donnell read the email of a woman who pleaded with him to “yell some sense into [the] people” who desire to prohibit taxpayer money from funding the organization.

First of all, I’d like to reiterate what I said months ago in a previous post. I think that politicizing God and religion is a dangerous road on which to travel. I doubt a single person has ever been converted by the argument that God endorses a particular party – and I believe making such a claim cheapens God, and even borders on blasphemy. That being said, I don’t ever like approaching topics like this with the intent of “getting people riled up,” or to put anyone or any viewpoint down – but I think that on certain occasions, the two things (religion and politics) cannot be separated.

I should also disclose where I come from on the matter (which you may have gathered from some previous posts of mine). I am an evangelical Christian, I do believe in moral absolutes, absolute truth, and the Bible to be the divinely inspired Word of God. I realize that I have lost all credibility with many people on the subject after saying this, but I don’t desire to fool anyone by claiming my worldview doesn’t inform my opinion on the matter. I would only say read on, and acknowledge that your worldview informs yours too (more on that later).

The truth of the matter is, anyone reading this post by this point has already decided where they stand on this matter. I’d be quite silly to think that there is someone out there that is on the fence who is going to read this and end up having their minds changed by what I’m about to say. That being said, you faithful dissenters out there, I don’t think that means that we should avoid engaging each other on this issue. Honest and civil discussion even on controversial issues can lead to a mutual understanding which puts both parties in a better place than where they began.

Now that most people have gotten up from the dinner table, let’s discuss.

I could not help but wonder when I saw O’donnell - a grown man and a seasoned political commentator and debator - in tears while talking about this issue: “How have we come to this point?” How have we come to this point where an individual’s right to choose what they want for their life (and others lives) is so sacred that it can make a grown man cry? Choice has been elevated to such a high level that it is actually immoral of me or anyone to claim that there is some over-arching truth, some law of right and wrong that should inform the choice you should or can make.

Many out there claim that science and religion are irreconcilable – that we live in an age of reason, and that there is no room for the superstitions in the Bible or any other “Holy Book.” But on this issue, no one is debating whether or not an abortion is taking a human life or not. Any scientist would tell you that terminating a fetus at any point after conception is ending the life of a human being – I have not said anything controversial yet. Here’s the controversy: it’s not for us to choose whether that human can live or not.

Martin Luther King once said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I believe King to truly be a gift from God to a society which had things dangerously wrong about what it believed the “moral universe” was. There is so much truth in his statement, and we should always be asking ourselves whether we are living out God’s call for us from Micah 6:8 to “act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” But I think that as a society, we are beginning to bend that arc so as to point toward the "justice" that is an individual’s right to live however he or she wants. Many believe that the next great battle of our time is the battle between conservative fundamentalists and those who believe in sacred individual rights.

What if we are bending this arc too far? At what point does this arc snap, and we are left with no moral universe at all? I don’t think that’s what King would have wanted – and I would venture to say that the Reverend would never have agreed with the claim that an individual’s right to choose the way they live their life trumps and absolute moral law in society which exists whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

I am aware that I am treading on thin ice right now with many people - as any exclusivity claim as to an “absolute” moral law is viewed as immoral in our day. At the end of the day, however, every one of us is making an exclusivity claim. One may say when I open up my Bible to Micah and say “God says here that… [yadi, yadi, yada...]” (A very wise claim from God by the way), that I am no longer credible, because I am citing from a book which only I believe is true and they do not – but have you not at this point “opened up your Bible,” so to speak, in saying that the word-view of moral relativism and individual choice is exclusive and authoritative over what the Bible says? I could just as easily say to you: “Close that book too!” My point is that we should both acknowledge that we both have our “Holy Books”, and rather than yell at each other to close them, let’s just think about why we have them open in the first place.

I think that our postmodern society is not necessarily straying away from the idea that there is in fact a “moral universe” of which King is speaking. No, it is instead just redefining what King meant when he said the words. It no longer means the "moral universe" means saying “this is right,” or “that is wrong” – it means : “I am allowed to make up my own mind about that which is right and wrong.” To those who believe the latter, including Mr. O’donnell, I don’t desire to smack you across the face with the Bible in order to enlighten you with my claims to absolute truth, I would just ask why do you believe what you believe? Why is an individual’s choice so sacred, and why do we get to define what is moral and what is not in our society? Those that believe the former can answer such a question definitively, but I fear that everyone else is simply writing their “Holy Book” as they go along.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Road to Growth

It is day four of our trek into Machu Picchu. For the past three days I have been immersed in what can only be described as paradise on Earth: Hummingbirds, orchids, wildlife, and views that truly take your breath away.

The Salkantay Trail
Trekking through the Peruvian jungle along the Salkantay Trail is described as the "back way" into Machu Picchu; used as a farmer's trail for hundreds of years, and before that, the Inca themselves, tourists have for the most part left the trail undisturbed.

While there is clearly a sense of beauty in the austerity of everything encountered along the way of the trail, one thing is striking about nearly every local you pass: they live in destitute poverty. It is no accident that the humble Peruvians living in the shadows of the mighty Andes here resemble their Incan anscestors; the modern world has simply passed them by.

As we relax at a modest shack near a farm, I notice a stand selling bananas, grown from a tree no doubt nearby. Argelia, the woman behind the stand, has rough and dirty hands, which can only come from an honest day's work to which few Americans these days are accustomed. After handing over mere cents I eat what is probably the best tasting "platano" I'll ever have. I would have paid many times over what I was charged here picking a vastly inferior one up from the local grocery store back home.

Perhaps it was just the novelty of seeing the banana tree from which I was eating that made it taste so good, or maybe it was the contrast with the power bars and granola I'd been eating the entire day before, but something about that banana told me it was worth more that what I'd paid.

Peruvian Chico
Any economist would laugh at such a statement, as nothing is ever really "worth more" than what you pay - the market price is paid for each and every transaction, which leaves both parties better off. Right? Kind of. The problem with this market, though, is it consists of a few hungry hikers a day, and perhaps a donkey train every once and a while. Where supply intersects demand, there is the price. Holy cow, my econ 101 professor was right! This price is low because there simply isn't a market, and therefore any demand for these bananas! After coming to this realization and giving my banana peel back to "pacha mama," or Mother Earth as the Incans say, I make my way further down the trail.

There was a book in class that I read once called "Economics is Everywhere," by Daniel Hamermesh - after turning down the next valley, the pages of the book came crashing back down towards me: A road under construction.

The past three days of only the sounds of birds chirping, horses neighing, and the dirt under my boots, and now I was greeted by the sound of backhoes and men working!

What most would observe as a grave affront to mother nature's beauty, I saw as a once in lifetime opportunity for impoverished Peruvian farmers to bring their goods to market. Yes, I agree an unspoiled jungle mountainside is much more easy on the eyes than men with shovels and jackhammers; but what is also beautiful is the advancement of human lives.

Road construction in the Santa Teresa River Valley
Farmers selling bananas for three cents to hikers along the Salkantay Trail may now have a chance to bring them to market ten miles down the road in Santa Teresa, a considerable task with just a muddy trail under your feet.

Before you know it, Argelia is selling her bananas for ten cents a piece, not three, and she can now afford to buy her daugter the proper footwear to get to school without getting blisters each day.

Who knows, maybe next year that road will lead to Cuzco, and the little girl may have the chance to start her own rafting company, or save up enough money to go to college in Lima, or heck, even America, when she's old enough.

The point is, when it comes to economic growth, infrastructure is vital. We should never underestimate the power that a road has in getting us to school, work, or just the neighbor down the road.

Human beings in isolation can only provide for their own needs day by day. This is what society did for thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution catupulted the West into an unprecedented period of economic growth. This is what society is like now for Argelia and BILLIONS of others living in the third world. Markets connect us, roads connect markets, markets enable growth.

Maybe Argelia will never get rich off of selling those bananas, but I'd bet my boots that there are thousands of Americans who'd pay an awful lot more than three cents to taste one like her's. You do the math.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Season of Revolution

Thomas Jefferson once said that every generation needs a new revolution. That's sometimes a difficult statement to unpack for a thriving democracy such as our own, as I'm sure TJ wouldn't have advocated our middle class picking up their pichforks and storming their capital every 35 years (and they're coming dangerously close to that in Wisconsin at the moment)...cultural?  racial? artistic? I don't know... but I think what he meant was that it's important to have a dynamic society which responds to the times.

Revolution is in the air across the globe in the middle-east, however. And these people have gone many generations without a revolution, and many of their societies epitomize a failure of responding to calls for changes in culture, politics, liberty. So how does TJ's word of advice apply to them? Grab your pitchforks.

After the attacks on September 11th, America's attitude towards the middle-east underwent a radical shift. Under the Bush Doctrine, it was believed that liberty was a transformative, and infective, ideal. Like the domino effect of communism against which Truman and his predecessors fought so hard in the mid to late 20th century, many totalitarian leaders of the middle-east are now facing the domino effect that liberty is having throughout the region. Could it be that Bush was right??? The seeds of democracy were sown in Baghdad as a result of a costly and bitterly fought war. It was won house by house in the streets, and many Americans lost their lives ensuring it was secured; as a result, we don't see protestors marching in central square of  that city demanding regime change... why's that??? Because they can voice their concerns about their regime at the ballot box.

Freedom is in the air now in Baghdad, and it's smelling sweet to the people of Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, and Iran. Obviously, a word of caution must be addressed: the fall of a regime can give way to something similar or worse: Iran 1979. We must be cautious in supporting any revolution which manifests itself in the region, especially when the main backers are a group which goes by the name of "The Muslim Brotherhood"; an Egpyt under Shariah Law for the next 30 years would probably be no better for the world, if not worse, than the Mubarak regime has been.

At the same time though, we can't expect that even a pro-democratic regime will be friendly to the US. This is OK. As Condaleeza Rice pointed out in a recent Washignton post op-ed (The future of a democratic Egypt)
"United States should support the forces of democracy, not because they will be friendlier to us but because they will be friendlier to their own people."
I think it's safe to say that the transformative power of liberty is beginning to take a foothold in the middle-east. Maybe now we're starting to see some of the benefits of Iraq. Maybe now those thousands of American soldiers who gave their lives for what many back at home said was for a vain cause, are beginning to prove their purpose. Maybe now those thousands of people whose lives were lost on September 11th are beginning to see the solution which the Bush Doctrine gave on how to rid the world of evil and ideals and hate which came out of such an opressed region. Arabs are NOT a people who hate freedom and democracy; given their chance, they too will embrace it as Iraqis have and Egyptians are just beginning to. This season of revolution should be looked on with caution but great excitement for Americans and Arabs alike. It is time for the dominoes to start falling, the only question is who is next: grab your pitchforks Iran.

(DISCLAIMER - I'm not entirely sure, and would not be suprised if pichforks are not used at all in the middle-east... I apologize if this is culturally insensitive)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

An Inconvenient Truth About the Economic Environment

Speaker John Boehner forwarded at three paragraph letter (wow, that must have been pretty comprehensive!) to the White House from 150 economists saying, among other things, "To support real economic growth and support the creation of private-sector jobs, immediate action is needed to rein in federal spending." An interesting and valid claim, but one which does not fail to evoke controversy, especially among the general Washington concensus that the best solution to any economic problem is to throw money on it. The only thing most Rebublicans and Democrats really disagree on concerning this topic is whether they're spending to make their constituents happy, or because they actually believe it's going to solve any problems.

So naturally, this letter has triggered backlash from other economists, claiming that THEY, in fact, are the enlightened ones, and that evidence to support the claim that federal spending hurts job growth is "thin to non-existent" (see "crowding out" section in any Econ 101 textbook to read up on this "non-existent" evidence). I find it somewhat amusing that often times when a person gets a PhD in a particular discipline, they seem to believe that when they offer their take on a given issue, it must be fact. I understand that when one spends 6 years in graduate school, lives off of a steady diet of ramen and saltine crackers, and all the while gives up their social life, they tend to think that they are entitled assert their opinion in some priveledged fashion. Lets be honest though, these are economists we're talking about, they weren't going to have a social life anyway.

What none of these economists from either side seem to want to admit, is that at the end of they day, the real answer to the question of whether federal spending crowds out job growth is : it depends. Very anti-climatic, agreed, and doesn't make for such a sensational letter to the president, but it unfortunately is true. Republicans are shy to admit that one of the best things that happened to our country over the last century was the creation of the interstate highway system for example, which was a MASSIVE federal spending program which worked, and DID spur long term growth... but not so fast here, what Democrats will not admit is that perhaps a federal stimulus which subsidizes butterfly research and blindly gives out checks to every administrative and regulatory body in the country may not actually create jobs (This was not included in the three paragraph letter from the etseemed economists to Mr Obama).

Let's at least agree that this is not a black and white issue... and when the real answer is "it depends," we should admit it, and not pretend our Princeton degree entites us to claim that it only depends if we say so... because when it comes down to it, ramen noodles aren't that bad anyway, so get over yourselves, economists.