Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Humor break: Mrs. Yetta Goldberg teaches theology

Mrs. Yetta Goldberg gets off the train in Miami in the 1940's, and being tired from the trip, goes to the first hotel she sees in order to get a room. She walks up to the desk and tells the clerk, "I'm Mrs. Yetta Goldboig and I desire a room for de night."

The clerk looks at her disdainfully and coldly says, "I'm sorry, madam, but our hotel is completely booked."

Just then, a man with his suitcase in hand drops his key and a check at the desk, and heads for the door. "Oy, vot luck," says Mrs. Goldberg. "I can take his room."

"I'm sorry, madam," says the clerk, "but I thought you understood my meaning. To be blunt, we do not cater to Jews."

"Jews?" exclaims Mrs. Goldberg. "So, who's a Jew? I'm a Cat'lic."

In obvious disbelief, the clerk asks her, "If you're a Catholic, then answer this question: Who is the Son of God?"

"Dat's easy," says Mrs. Goldberg, "Jesus Christ."

The clerk, still not convinced, then asks, "Who was Jesus's mother and father?'"

"Mary and Joseph," replies Mrs. Goldberg, testily.

Then the clerk asks, "And where was Jesus born?"

"In a manger in a barn!" answers Mrs. Goldberg, becoming agitated.

"And why was Jesus born in a manger in a barn?" asks the clerk.

"Cause a schmuck like you vouldn't rent a room to Jews!!"

Sunday, October 26, 2008

To a "conservative" concerning empty labels

In answer to my query, your reply was interesting, but if left- and right-wing mean anything more than labels, like blue and red in a dodgeball game, it was meaningless, because on every issue Republicans and Democrats exist on both sides.

On abortion and homosexual rights, for instance, Republicans range from Giuliani, once the Presidential front-runner and a hearty supporter of the current ticket, to Sarah Palin. Democrats range from Kate Michelman to Bob Casey and beyond.

On war and empire, Republicans range from Ron Paul and Walter Jones to Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh. Democrats range from Cynthia McKinney and Dennis Kucinich to the Clintons, Madeleine Albright, and Barack Obama, who wanted to attack Pakistan when even Bush didn't want to go there.

On big government, which you have said you oppose, Republicans range from Ron Paul to George Bush and his companions, who have made government bigger by far than anyone in either party up to now has ever imagined. Democrats likewise range from disciplined small-state governors to the many in Congress that have eagerly supported Bush in his expansion of government over the past 8 years, and even have ideas of their own.

As far as socialization of the economy, it's hard to exceed the reach of the Federal government under Bush, a Republican, who is now nationalizing banks and insurance companies.

I trust that it is clear that if left-wing and right-wing mean Democrat and Republican, all will see that these "wings" are just empty words describing nothing specific. Unlike in some other nations, Democrats and Republicans are not now, and have never been, parties based on ideology or political principles. They are aggregations of interest groups, often having nothing real in common. Was it ideology that included Dixiecrats and northern blacks in FDR's coalition? Does ideology put the likes of James Dobson and Rudolf Giuliani together?

You also spoke of liberals and conservatives. What exactly do these mean? There was a time when "conservative" meant wanting to conserve things. A conservative wanted to stick close to the Constitution, strictly interpreted; he didn't want to spend money if he didn't have to; and he generally took the position that things were more easily broken than fixed, so that preserving even the imperfect was generally a better idea than breaking it in the expectation of engineering a bright new world. Apparently, you consider the Republican party today "conservative," as exemplified by Bush and the McCain-Palin ticket.

What is conservative about these people? Bush on good authority has described the Constitution that he has sworn to uphold as a "goddamn piece of paper," and if you read that document you'll find that he has certainly acted on that belief in many ways. McCain proposes the same in a variety of ways, being on record in favor of the President being above the law and even free to torture anyone he likes, after opposing that at one time. They have acted as though war is the answer for every problem, when every conservative from Sun Tzu up has understood that war is the most radicalizing unpredictable thing you can do - witness World War 1 or the consequences of the Japanese invasion of China in World War 2, if other examples nearer to hand are too close for you to see them.

And then what is a liberal? It used to mean free market fundamentalists like Adam Smith. Now it means other things, but not so easy to define. Even after World War 2, it was liberals that pursued world domination and more and more armaments, while conservative Republicans like Taft and Vandenberg resisted for a while. Even as late as the 1960s, it was liberals like Kennedy, Johnson, and Nelson Rockefeller that wanted more and more for the Pentagon, while conservatives like Everett Dirksen ("A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money") hung back. It's clear that Eisenhower would never have countenanced Johnson's adventure in Vietnam, because he declined his own chance to jump in in 1954.

Even today, it is conservatives like Paul Craig Roberts, Bob Barr, and Pat Buchanan - that is, people anxious to conserve what's right in the past - who most consistently oppose the reckless, spendthrift adventurism of the "conservatives" that you support. I think they have their problems, and I'm not quite one of them, but I do like the idea that the word "conservative" should have something to do with conserving something. Asperger's pickiness about the dictionary, perhaps.

Thoughts on leadership (Uri Avnery)

Below is the endorsement of Barack Obama by Uri Avnery, an 83-year-old Israeli, former member of Knesset, who began his career in the Stern Gang in the 1940s and has come very far from there since. I am more pessimistic about Obama than he is. I expect nothing good - maybe just not as bad - unless God intervenes remarkably in the American people in such fashion as has never happened before. With God all things are possible, although impossible with man, so that could happen.

The main value of the piece for me are the attributes required of leaders, which should tell us what the King of Kings is like and what we should be like too. For best results, forget about McCain and Obama and concentrate on that, so as to apply it to our own lives and so as to know what to expect from God in our dealings with him. The contrast he draws between Kennedy and Bush, and between Yigal Alon and Menachem Begin, is seen also in the same contrast between David and Saul, so it is worth careful attention and application to our own lives.

Uri Avnery


King of the Planet

THE PRESIDENT of the United States is the king of this planet. I live on this planet. Therefore, the election of the President concerns me, too. Very much so.

The President is not the sole ruler of the world. There are other rulers too, albeit less powerful ones. His decisions are subject to many constraints beyond his control. But there is no other person on earth whose decisions have such an impact on our lives.

The eight years of George W. Bush can serve as an example. The primitive character of the man, his low intellectual level, his past as a born-again zealot - all these have influenced the state of the world, from his failure in preventing 9/11, through his bloody adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the collapse of the world economy.

But still, every one of us, the citizens of the world who cannot vote in this election, has at least the right to say which of the candidates he or she would prefer in the White House.

I prefer Barack Obama.

ELECTIONS ARE not beauty contests. A wise voter must define the criteria according to which he intends to make his choice.

For me, the main attribute, overshadowing all others, is the ability to quickly recognize major changes when they occur and draw the necessary conclusions without delay.

In the words of the ancient Greek philosopher, "everything flows" - we know that the world does not stand still for a moment. In our time, with the rapid pace of modern life, the changes are quicker and more dramatic then they were 200 years ago. The development of technology, the spread of the internet, globalization, climate change, the instability of the economy, the currents of human migration, shifts in the world-wide balance of power - these and a thousand other factors ensure that changes will become more and more frequent and more and more radical.

The ability to adapt quickly to new situations is a decisive requirement for a leader. After dealing successfully with the world economic crisis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt reacted rapidly to Pearl Harbor. Winston Churchill recognized before others the danger inherent in Hitler's ascent to power in Germany. The young and inexperienced John Kennedy dealt decisively with the Cuban missile crisis, which had brought the world to the brink of World War III. Mikhail Gorbachev oversaw the sudden collapse of the Soviet Bloc and avoided world-wide bloodshed. The next American President will be faced right away with an economic crisis that is changing the face of the world.

The President resembles the helmsman of a sailing-boat who has to be ready at every moment for a sudden change of the wind and even for a hurricane.

Which of the two - Barack Obama or John McCain - is better suited for that job? The elderly Republican, who sees himself as the successor of a long row of Admirals and whose spiritual world is stuck in the middle of the 20th century, or the (comparatively) young Democrat, a man of the 21st?

THE SECOND test, in my eyes, concerns the character of the candidates. A person can change his opinions, but hardly his character. A solid - but not exaggerated - self-confidence, self-discipline, cool-headedness in a crisis - these will have a large influence on his ability to carry out his duties.

We have seen the two in the great debates. One should not pay too much attention to what was said there - everything said in an election campaign is merely a tool to catch votes. But we saw how the two candidates function under extreme stress. Obama controlled himself admirably. His self-discipline did not falter for a moment. He did not respond to provocations and he kept his cool at all times. McCain was much less in control of himself.

The most important decision the two had to make in the course of the campaign was the choice of a running mate. Since the Vice-President can assume power at a moment's notice - and there is indeed a significant probability that this may happen - the decision tells us much about the decision maker.

Obama's decision was responsible and reasonable. He did not choose a brilliant or charismatic person, but someone who is versed in the affairs of state and could assume office without a problem.

McCain's decision was a scandal that cries to high heaven. It suffices by itself to disqualify him from high office - not because of Sarah Palin's opinions or her character, but because she is totally incapable of filling the role of President.

The choice testifies to a basic flaw in McCain's character. He chose her because of the needs of the moment - to revive a flagging campaign and surprise the media, while appealing to the most primitive strata of American society. He jeopardized the future of the country for momentary expediency.

A person who is capable of making such a mistake should not be in a position to lead the most powerful country and to command the strongest military force on earth.

Moreover, the voter must ask himself or herself: if the President suffers a stroke, like Ariel Sharon, or is assassinated, like John F. Kennedy - would I prefer to see Biden or Palin in the Oval Office?

As for myself, I shrink back from the very idea of this primitive and venomous demagogue, Sarah Palin, becoming the "Leader of the Free World".

A THIRD test is the ability to choose aides. This, too, is an important attribute.

A strong leader, confident of himself, chooses highly qualified assistants, people who are prepared to advance independent opinions and contradict the boss to his face. A leader lacking self-confidence surrounds himself with flatterers and yes-men, who tell him only what he wants to hear. John Kennedy surrounded himself with the best and the brightest. George W. belongs to the second category.

I judge Israeli leaders by this measure. Yigal Allon, a much admired general and politician, surrounded himself with bright young men, who did not hesitate to interrupt him in mid-speech and contradict him. Menachem Begin was surrounded by people who agreed with his every word.

A strong leader invites disagreement, debate, brainstorming. A leader who only acts strong does not brook any opposition. (Like the ultimate dictator, Adolf Hitler, who broke out in fits of rage if anyone dared to contradict him.)

Politics is a profession by itself. Most politicians have no profound knowledge of other matters, certainly not in the areas in which they have to make fateful decisions - from economics to military strategy. So the choice of the right advisors and the readiness to listen with an open mind, to learn and to think anew are essential qualities. I have the impression that Obama can do it. I am not so sure about McCain.

THERE IS another important consideration to take into account while making the choice: in a week and a half not only will a president be chosen, but also a very large group of senior officials in all areas of government.

In the American system, the new occupant of the White House brings with him thousands of other office-holders, whose equivalents in other countries belong to the permanent civil service. It is easy to imagine the huge difference between those Obama would bring with him and those who would come with McCain.

One should not forget the Supreme Court, which plays a central part in the American system (as it does now in Israel). It is the President who chooses new justices. The appointment of one or two can bring about far-reaching changes.

WHEN ONE speaks about the election of a President of the United States, it is also very important to consider the candidate's openness to the wide world.

The United States is not just a country, it's half a continent. Many of its citizens don't give a damn about the world outside and don't want to hear about it. School children are unable to place China or Brazil on the map. Like previous empires, the USA sees itself as an island of civilization in a sea of barbarians. (Just like Ehud Barak, with his Israel as a "villa in the middle of the jungle".)

George Bush came to the White House with minimal knowledge about the world. John McCain does not know much more. True, he was born in the American military ghetto in Panama and languished for five years in a Vietnamese prison, but that does not make him a citizen of the world.

In this respect, Obama has an advantage unmatched by any previous president. He is the son of a black father who came from Kenya and a white American mother. In his childhood he attended a school in Indonesia. His manifold roots and experience give him much wider horizons. For a new arrival at the White House, that is an important treasure. There are things one cannot learn from others. Personal experience counts.

I MUST add a subjective remark. I belong to a generation that grew up admiring America. We saw the US as the freeest country in the world, an idealistic society, the bastion of democracy and human rights. In two world wars it rushed to the rescue of the opponents of tyranny.

When we had grown up, we found out that it ain't necessarily so. We saw that the US is like most other states, and worse than some. During the last eight years, the US has presented itself to the world as an arrogant, bullying, primitive and aggressive country that rides roughshod over the human rights of its own and foreign citizens, justifies torture, keeps abominable concentration camps, and the list goes on.

The election of Barack Obama, a man who is half black and half white and whose convictions are liberal and democratic, can give us back some of our faith in the United States. It would show that, as has happened several times in the past, America can draw back from the brink in time and find itself again, as it did at the end of the Joe McCarthy era.

I do not entertain many illusions. I know that even in the best of circumstances, one single person cannot turn such a huge ship around and reverse its direction completely. But even small changes can be of immense importance to the world.

Perhaps, some day, I shall regret every word I have written here. Obama may prove to be a disappointment, and very much so. We cannot know the future. Today we can judge only on the basis of what we know today, according to our impressions and feelings today.

And these tell me: Obama.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A few thoughts on debt and economic crashes

I've had enough conversati0ns to think it's worthwhile to go over some financial basics.

People discover that you can make a lot more money with borrowed money. You can buy $1000 worth of stock on 10% margin by putting up $100 and borrowing the rest from the broker. Then if it goes up 10%, $100, you sell and double your money. The problem is if the price falls and your collateral loses value. The broker sends you a margin call, telling you to put up more collateral, and if you don't, he sells out of your account to pay himself off. Margin calls make people sell in a falling market, which forces prices down farther, and it's very easy to lose everything. The October 1929 crash was much worsened by forced selling due to margin calls, even apart from the panic selling that followed.

Margin-buying in stocks is considered very risky, and the regulators restrict it. But in housing it's been routine since the 1940s - put up 20% and borrow the rest - and it has always seemed fine. It is, if home values are fairly stable and houses are a place to live in rather than a speculative asset. The mortgage payments amount to rent, except that you gradually become a full owner.

Houses became instruments of speculation when people began buying more house than they could afford, expecting that way to make more money on its appreciation. Just as a rising stock market ultimately rests on the underlying economy, so do housing prices, although in both cases that seems not to be the case as prices rise and make people rich without actually producing anything. Some of this seems real, because people spend these paper profits for things, actually enriching the producers, but it's illusory because what they're spending is bubble wealth.

On the way up, we prove that there is definitely a free lunch. Without producing anything, people just keep making money, and they spend it without seeming to be living too high because the assets they borrow against are greater. Just as the summer of 1929 had brought a "New Era" in which the business cycle was over and everyone would just get richer and richer, we had the "New Economy" in our own day.

Eventually, things get so that "values" must keep rising to keep the music playing. To keep servicing debt there has to be more to borrow against. When we reach that point, there will be trouble. Somehow the bubble will pop, and the effects depend on how fundamental it is to the real economy. Tulips, or even the tech bubble - not so bad.

There are several differences between stocks and housing. They crash differently, and with different results. A stock market crash is in itself not a very big deal. The October 1987 crash was 22% in one day, and it made no real difference. A housing crash, especially on borrowed money, is a very big deal.

Unlike a bull market in stocks, the recent housing boom fed everything else. People could buy because they could use their appreciating houses as ATMs, and they could keep up with their credit cards. People remodeled and more houses were built, giving work to many people. Being able to sell easily, houses turned into a fairly liquid asset - they were easily flipped, like stocks.

As Paul Krugman pointed out in 2005, the housing crash started out with sales resistance. Prices kept slowly rising in late 2005, but houses were getting hard to sell, and inventory piled up. That meant that the free money from housing appreciation began drying up fast and hurting the real economy, although denial kept people from realizing it for a while. When the subprime crisis made the news, prices were falling, but a great deal of damage had already been done. The drying up of home equity wasn't margin calls, but the effect was similar, although less abrupt.

With people unable to keep borrowing on houses, the brakes were slammed on the real economy. People maxed out their credit cards, but with no more home equity to eat, the picnic was over. People have had to stop buying, and it's harder to make payments. Foreclosures have begun on a big scale, and apart from the damage to the speculative financial system, this means more downward pressure on housing prices. Everything that rested on the housing bubble, which unlike the case with stocks is pretty much everything, is unraveling.

Leveraging worked like magic on the way up, but the same magic in reverse is working on the way down. Falling prices make value disappear everywhere else. Foreclosures reduce the values of all other properties in the neighborhood, but they also destroy the value of mortgages and everything based on them in the books of banks and everyone else that owns them, multiplied by the leveraging which was creating funny money on the way up. It really does fall down like a house of cards, the cards above knocking down those below, the weight and downward pressure quickly increasing.

Trillions of dollars in credit card debt are beginning to go bad and threaten those that hold a lot of it, like Bank of America. The housing market is by no means done crashing, so even more loans and paper based on them will go bad that haven't yet. There are something like $55 trillion in credit default swaps (CDS) going bad out there.

Let me describe briefly how those work. You loan Judy $10,000,000 at 6%, so she's supposed to pay you $600,000 a year plus some principal. You buy a credit default swap from me for say 1%, $100,000. This lets you sell the loan for more money to somebody else who will need to collect the money from Judy, because being insured against default the loan is much safer, so you certainly get your $100,000 back. Giving me the money causes you no pain - everybody wins, right? Now this is a completely unregulated business, so although this is an insurance contract, I don't need any money to pay off with in the event that the borrower doesn't pay. That's all right if I make a lot of these contracts, and if I don't spend too much of the money paying myself for being a Really Smart Guy, and if less than 1% of the borrowers go south.

That's a lot of ifs, and lately they haven't been coming off, which is how Lehman Brothers wound up in the dumper. The CDS isn't paid off when Judy quits paying, and whoever owns the loan gets stiffed. He didn't just get stiffed on bad paper. This was a good loan: the credit raters said so, because, look, it's insured against default! We're going to all be seeing a LOT more little surprises like this in months to come, maybe trillions of dollars worth.

So maybe the lunch isn't free after all, in the financial system, although there is free lunch with God. As Jesus taught us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." Only that lunch, while free, is not served with lying, theft, and four-flushing, which the world has taught us to look to for our free lunches. It turns out that God's free lunch costs us all we have in certain ways - but then so does the world's free lunch, doesn't it?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Obama on kids with disabilities

First, several disclaimers. It must be remembered that the writer below works for Obama. Moreover, from where I sit at least, Obama holds some odious views - although who knows, Mikhail Gorbachev didn't get to be General Secretary of the Communist Party by professing the views he later proved to hold. And I must admit that my main reason for favoring Obama over McCain is my conservative impulse: I know things can be worse and probably will be, and having adults in charge seems less rash than the Katrina boys for another four years, led by an increasingly senile and reckless old man who will probably give place to Sarah Palin as President.

But knowing on my hide how school districts flout the law to the ruin of kids, especially my own, the thought that a President Obama might actually enforce it sounds good to me! It looks like I'll soon have to bring my case to the US Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), and the Office of Civil Rights. So I care who will be in charge of the US Dept. of Education in January.

From Barack Obama's Chief Counsel and Friend:


by Mike Strautmanis

My son Jori has a disability. He is on the Autism Spectrum. Jori is
a daily gift to our family, but we face challenges. Fortunately,
Jori has a friend named Barack Obama. Literally. Barack has watched
Jori grow up. He stands by Jori, his mother, and me as we struggle
with the barriers society places in the way of people with
disabilities. Every American with a disability, or who has a loved
one with a disability, should be fortunate enough to have a friend ---
or even a President --- like Barack Obama.

I want our country to provide support to families like mine --- the
families who face the practical, financial, and emotional challenges
of a loved one with a disability. Jori has taught Barack about these
challenges. These days, I work on the Obama-Biden campaign after
serving on Barack's Senate staff as his Chief Counsel since he
arrived in Washington. But long before that, Barack and I were
friends. He and Michelle have been a big part of our family's life
and a great help to my wife and me. To them, Jori is not a
statistic; he's a kid they see around town or at the office. They see
how our family, which has more advantages than many, struggles to
help Jori to get the care he needs, which is sometimes more than a
loving family can provide, and the education he deserves, but few
public schools have the resources to deliver.

When Barack gives a friendly hello to Jori, he shows his kindness;
when he accommodates my schedule to enable me to be a fully engaged
parent, he shows that he understands what families like ours go
through. He understands that as a leader, he has an obligation to
help us to keep all of America's promises to our loved ones and give
us the tools we need as parents to ensure that our children won't be

As President, Barack will begin by creating a new White House post:
Assistant to the President for Disability Policy. He will press
Congress to pass the CLASS Act and the Community Choice Act to help
Americans with disabilities to choose to live independently in the
community and to help them pay for the direct care workers, assistive
technology and other tools that make independent, community-based
living possible. For our children, Barack will continue his fight
for full funding of IDEA so that students with disabilities are
assured of a free appropriate public education. Barack agrees that
funding IDEA at less than half its authorized level is a disgrace,
but he also understands that merely wringing more money out of
Congress is not enough. His Secretary of Education will fully
implement and enforce IDEA. Local school districts' foot-dragging
and resistance to IDEA, denying teachers what they need to serve kids
with disabilities in the most inclusive possible setting, will no
longer be tolerated.

It's easy for me to say that my friend Barack will do these things,
but this isn't just friendship talking. I know he will do the right
thing, for two reasons. First, there is his record: As an Illinois
state senator Barack Obama sponsored legislation that created an
autism spectrum diagnosis program, designed to implement evidence-
based best practices. Barack worked with Illinois families to build
the Easter Seals academic programs that prepare students for
independent living. Moreover, Barack helped pass Illinois' mental
health parity law as a State Senator. Barack understands that we
need universal screening, education and early intervention strategies
for all children, but especially children with disabilities. That's
why he intends to provide $10 billion per year in funding for
developmental programs serving children between birth and age five.
Barack has long supported the Family and Medical Leave Act; as
President, he will expand it and help the states create paid leave
systems to ease the tough choices that are faced every day by working
families providing support to a disabled member.

But there is a second reason that I have faith that a President Obama
will fight for people with disabilities, and one that I find more
compelling: I have seen Barack Obama with my son and other people
with disabilities. I have seen how he puts his arm on Jori's
shoulder, how he smiles at Jori and speaks to him as the person that
he is. I see his understanding that Jori and every other American
with a disability is a fellow child of God with potential worth
developing and dignity worth protecting. I see this and I know that
Barack understands why I would do anything to secure real opportunity
for that precious child, why any parent in my place would do the
same. I see that Barack Obama comprehends all of that, and he wants
to help us get there. And I know that if we can help Barack Obama to
get to the White House, he will do more than any President ever has
done to help those of us who love and care for loved ones with
disabilities to achieve everything they can achieve. I know this
man. So does Jori. And he gives us hope.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"The cruel man troubles his own flesh" (Proverbs 11:17)

Asia Times recounts today, for those who understand the wisdom in today's verse from Proverbs, what the Americans did in 2007 that is causing them to be losing in Afghanistan today. Read it here. It begins thus:

KABUL - A bit past midnight on a balmy night in late August, Hedayatullah awoke to a deafening blast. He stumbled out of bed and heard angry voices drawing closer. Suddenly, his bedroom doors banged open and dozens of silhouetted figures burst in, some shouting in a strange language.

The intruders blindfolded Hedayatullah and, screaming with fury, forced him to the ground. An Afghan voice told him not to move or speak or he would be killed. He listened for sounds from the next room, where his brother Noorullah slept with his family. He could hear his nephew, eight months old, crying hysterically. Then came the sound of an automatic rifle, after which his nephew fell silent.

Both major Presidential candidates are on the record wanting to do more of the same in Afghanistan, supposing, I guess, that Afghan humans can be expected to feel differently about people who do such things than Americans would. I offer this without further comment, but with just a question.

O Christians, what would you think of people doing such things where you live? How would you feel about the Christians in the country that invaded you supporting these acts and averting their eyes to make sure they don't learn about them? Is that what Jesus would do?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

So who's at fault?

I was talking last night after Bible study with a couple of women about the phenomenon of woman-hating, and how prevalent it is, so that even women often hate themselves and one another. In the first place, anyone who takes the Bible in any way seriously ought to set our hearts to its teaching in Genesis 3 that woman-hating is the first and fundamental injustice among human beings. For more detail on this, see my "The Bible on Woman." If you think the Bible is nonsense, that's OK. You can get the same teaching by just looking around.

As we were driving home, the topic of slavery in the Bible came up. The Bible tolerates slavery. It then turns around and says that if a slave runs away, you no way return him to his master but let him live among you where he likes, in no way oppressing him (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). That ordinance makes slavery impossible, as southern slave owners understood very well before the Civil War. They knew that they needed the Fugitive Slave Law and the Dred Scott decision to enforce their institution in the whole country, if they were going to have it on their own plantations.

Elsewhere in Moses, we see this same approach to wrongdoing. Moses wrote that you can divorce your wife if you hate her. But it forbids you to hate her, saying, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Torah is always about what is really the issue, not about forbidding certain bad behaviors while looking no further.

In particular, just like slavery, incest and other sexual abuse is a societal act. The women I know who have experienced it have always had it supported by the cops, social workers, teachers, and school counselors who knew about it and punished them for saying anything about it before they would ever act to stop it. In almost every case at least the other parent and other family members are complicit, giving the abuser essential support. Without that societal support, such abominations do not happen.

Now I better understand Jeremiah's complaint: "Your sins have withheld good from you because among my people are found the wicked" (Jeremiah 5:25-26). I used to say to myself, "Why is the complaint against the whole people, instead of just the wicked among them?" Well, the wicked wouldn't be there if we didn't approve. They're the poisonous flower, but the rest of us are the stem and the roots that uphold them. Thus Torah's viewpoint concerning slavery and other evil acts among us.

That makes things simple for me. I don't need for starters to do great things for people. For starters, let me just look around and see how I'm enabling their abusers. Our neutrality is not enough, maybe, but the wretched of the earth will give us a big sigh of thanksgiving if we just stop giving cover to their tormentors.

How about you? How much anguish and torment in your life has come not from those that cruelly oppressed you but from those who silently went along? It's costly, but if we want to be decent human beings, let's resign from that company of the complicit, just as we would like others to do for us.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Smoot-Hawley again?

The bailout for bankers and speculators - to be taken of course from the hides of Americans who do real work - has passed Congress. It says something about our times that its passage is flagrantly unconstitutional, since revenue measures must originate in the House of Representatives and this one was first passed in the Senate. Who cares about the Constitution, which is in the words of constitutional scholar George Bush "just a goddamned piece of paper?"

The economic details and their consequences are very well explained here in Asia Times, and also here in Money Morning. Plenty of economists have warned against this folly, just as they warned against the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in 1929, which Congress passed and Hoover signed in 1930, helping to turn the rough times of 1930 into a whole new thing in 1931 and 1932.

From a simple theological standpoint, the problem is this, as almost all average Americans understand, and which only the best and the brightest don't get:

It robs the poor in order to give to the rich - for which the Bible promises you will come to poverty - and what's even worse, it punishes the innocent in order to reward theft. This paper being foisted on the taxpayers has become crap because the underlying assets - mostly houses so far - have lost their value and can't be sold. Since nothing is being done to keep people from being thrown out of them, they're going to keep losing value, because one foreclosure promptly drops the price of all other houses around. People who are getting thrown out of their houses, or fearing that they will be, don't buy things, so businesses who can't sell anything will fire their workers, who in turn will fail to make their payments and will get thrown out of their homes.

Robbing these people so that rich thieves can keep their millions does nothing to stop this downward spiral. What would have worked is to protect the homeowners involved by forbidding foreclosures, seizing and liquidating irresponsible institutions and using their assets to defend common people from financial ruin. Such people would be much more likely to buy things, and that would actually help the real economy, even though there might be a crash in the yacht market.

It should be obvious that this bailout, which even if it were sound in principle is grossly underfunded for its stated purpose, is a calamity. By further wrecking the real economy, it will do to us as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff did in 1930. This turd got through the House of Representatives because Barack Obama pressed the Democrats hard to vote for it. He deserves to become President to reap the storm whose seeds he sowed last week.

Here's why ridiculous mortgages were written in the first place. The people lending the money knew it didn't matter whether they'd get paid back, because they'd have the loan sold and out of their lives in less than a month. The kickback to us who got these at the time was being able to get mortgages we weren't qualified for at lower rates than made any sense in view of the risk that somebody somewhere was going to eat, so we all liked it at the time. It was easy to overlook the really grand thefts of our lenders, because, as the proverb says, "A bribe blinds the heart."

"He that covers his sins shall not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find mercy." This is a good time for all of us to consider our ways, because if not, those ways will bite us some more in the coming days as we continue in them.

To lend money recklessly because you don't have to worry about getting paid, passing the risk off on someone else by lying about it, is simply theft. To make the taxpayers buy that crap is to do more of that same theft that made the problem happen in the first place. Banks and speculators around the world stuck with this trash because they aren't qualified to be bailed out can now sell it to those that are, who will then cash it in at Uncle Sam's Bank of Sugar Daddies and Suckers, draining even more money from the real economy. Massive government borrowing to finance this nonsense will dry up credit for all other entities, thus actually worsening the credit crunch in the end.

The scripture is true: "He who robs the poor, and he who gives to the rich, both alike will come to poverty."