Friday, February 5, 2016

No "Hillarycare" Did not Solve Our Healthcare Woes: Why do you Ask?

In the debate last night, Hillary Clinton gave the impression that Obamacare (she embraced it as "Hillarycare") took care of most of the problem. All that remains is some tweaking to improve it. 

Bernie Sanders pointed out we still have millions of uninsured persons, and we spend far more than Europeans and Canadians for poorer results. So healthcare must remain a very top priority.

According to this Kaiser website the number of uninsured is 32 million (2015). Obamacare brought coverage to millions, but the job is far from done. 

Sanders also reminds us that we spend much more per capita than Europeans. The chart below (OECD Health Data 2010) suggests Clinton's complacency is misplaced. 

This OECD data from 2010 suggest average life expectancy in U.S. is 78 years.  And we achieved this with a per person expenditure of ~$7,800/year or about 2.4 trillion. That was back in 2010.  By 2014, our health care spending rose to $3.8 trillion.  That is 21% of our GDP spent on healthcare.

By comparison Great Britain spends just 9.6% of GDP on healthcare--Less than half what we do.  And life expectancy in Britain is 2 years greater than in the U.S.

The U.S. is a huge outlier: we are horribly inefficient with our health care delivery.  How to fix this remains a matter of great urgency for our society and economy.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Hillary Clinton is Emblematic of an "Honorarium Problem" in Politics

"We came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt" Hillary Clinton told Diane Sawyer.  Sixteen years later the Clintons are reputed to be worth $111 million. Much of that wealth has come from speaking fees with "honorariums" of up to $675,000. Hundreds of speeches. By both Clintons. Pretty soon you're talking about real money.

In the video above Anderson Cooper asks Hillary Clinton about $675,000 Goldman Sachs paid her for three speeches after she resigned her position as Secretary of State (February 2013) and before she announced her run for the presidency (April 12,  2015).
"Honorarium":  a payment for a service (as making a speech) on which custom or propriety forbids a price to be set. 
In the world where I come from honorariums are tokens of appreciation, they are not real money meant to compensate or to secure influence and loyalty. But in the case of politicians who hold powerful offices, or are likely to hold powerful offices in the future, honorariums are not token: they are so large that they are bound to influence. And there is not much propriety.

Consider the relationship between Hillary and Corning, Inc., a New York glass company when she was the junior senator from New York. Here's Jonathan Allen at Vox (updated 5/16/15):
[When] Hillary Clinton ran for reelection to the Senate on her way to seeking the presidency for the first time, the New York Times reported on her unusually close relationship with Corning, Inc., an upstate glass titan. Clinton advanced the company's interests, racking up a big assist by getting China to ease a trade barrier. And the firm's mostly Republican executives opened up their wallets for her campaign. During Clinton's tenure as secretary of state, Corning lobbied the department on a variety of trade issues, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The company has donated between $100,000 and $250,000 to her family's foundation. And last July, when it was clear that Clinton would again seek the presidency in 2016, Corning coughed up a $225,500 honorarium for Clinton to speak.....Together, Hillary and Bill Clinton cleared $25 million on the lecture circuit over the last 16 months, according to a Hillary Clinton's personal financial disclosure required of presidential candidates. .... [Will] they [be] able to listen to all of the various interests without being unduly influenced by any of them[?] There's a reason government officials can't accept gifts: They tend to have a corrupting effect. 
Chris Cillizza correctly notes in the Washington Times this morning that Clinton seems annoyed by Anderson Cooper's question in the video above, and he shakes his head:
[S]ure, $675,000 is a lot of money to take for speeches but she is a former first lady, senator and secretary of state. It's not out of the ballpark that someone with that résumé would be compensated at such high levels. That's what Clinton truly believes. And she's not good — as she made plain with her answer last night — at hiding her disdain/ skepticism when questioned about it. But, politics is all about playing up your strengths and taking attention away from your weaknesses. The amount of money Hillary and Bill Clinton made from speech-giving — more than $25 million in 16 months — is a weakness. Period. It undercuts the idea that she is a committed fighter for wage equality or a voice of the 99 percent trying to level the playing field with the one percent. In short: Clinton needs to find a WAY better answer to questions about her speaking fees than "that's what they offered." And soon.
This is not just about the Clintons, of course. Ben Carson was paid $4.1 million in speaking fees in advance of his presidential campaign. Jeb Bush "left the governorship of Florida in 2007 with a declared net worth of less than $1.3 million, which he’s multiplied nearly 16-fold on the back of his prestigious last name, extensive network, and executive experience," says Forbes. Similarly, Mike Huckabee "leveraged a failed 2008 presidential bid into a highly successful media career that included a TV show and appearances on Fox News, radio gigs, books and speeches. He’s now worth $9 million." It's the system, as Bernie Sanders points out.

The Clintons are obviously very good at playing the system: $111-million-of-personal-wealth-in-15-years worth of good at playing the system. There are good arguments to be made that this should disqualify a person from seeking higher office. It's emblematic of the problem of money in politics.

Others are paid high speaking fees. A sum of $200,000 per speech seems to be within the ballpark of the going rate for big stars speaking to large assemblies. And ex-presidents and secretaries of state are certainly big stars. We don't compensate our politicians very well. They are supremely talented people who forego the opportunity to pursue business or more lucrative professions in order to serve the public, so why should we begrudge them high speaking fees after they have completed their service? No reason--and good for them--I say. But not while they are in office, and not if they want to run for office in future.

Politicians are addicted to money and to raising money. Our democratic system is corrupted by money. And some of that money makes its way into the personal bank accounts of politicians in the form of "honorariums." The first step to overcome any addiction, of course, is to admit that we have a problem.  Based on her response to Anderson Cooper, in her heart of hearts Hillary Clinton is not ready to admit that she has a problem or that the system has a problem.

It's the issue Bernie Sanders is running on....

You can follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Road to the Republican Convention

The GOP Convention will be held
July 18-21, 2016 in the Quicken Arena
in Cleveland, OH

The Republican convention will be held on July 18-21, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  There will be a total of 2,472 delegates in attendance (560 base at large, 1,305 relating to the congressional districts, 168 for the party, and 439 bonus). Twenty-seven delegates were distributed at the Iowa caucuses (one percent of the total).

Here is the tally after Iowa:

  • Cruz:         51,666 (27.65%)  7 delegates
  • Trump:      45,427 (24.31%)  7 delegates
  • Rubio:       43,165 (23.10%)  6 delegates
  • Carson:     17,395 (9.31%)     3 delegates
  • Paul:          8,481  (4.5%)       1 delegate
  • Bush:         5,238  (2.8%)       1 delegate
  • Fiorina:      3,485  (1.86%)     1 delegate
  • Kasich:      3,474  (1.86%)     1 delegate
  • Christie:     3,284   (1.76%)
  • Santorum:  1,783  (9.95%)

Cruz and Trump both were awarded seven delegates, Rubio six, Carson three, and Paul, Bush, Fiorina, and Kasich one each.

Carson got about a third as many votes (17,395) as Cruz (51,666).

Here is the primary schedule by state for both parties. Note that in some states Republicans and Democrats will hold their caucuses on different dates:

February 9: 
  • New Hampshire primary
February 20: 
  • Nevada caucuses (D) 
  • South Carolina primary (R)
February 23: 
  • Nevada caucuses (R)
February 27: 
  • South Carolina primary (D)
March 1: 
  • Alabama primary 
  • Alaska caucuses (R) 
  • Arkansas primary 
  • Colorado caucuses (D) 
  • Georgia primary 
  • Massachusetts primary,
  • Minnesota caucuses
  • Oklahoma primary
  • Tennessee primary, 
  • Texas primary 
  • Vermont primary 
  • Virginia primary,
  • Wyoming caucuses (R)
March 5: 
  • Kansas caucuses 
  • Kentucky caucuses (R) 
  • Louisiana primary
  • Maine caucuses (R)
  • Nebraska caucuses (D)
March 6: 
  • Maine caucuses (D), 
  • Puerto Rico primary
March 8: 
  • Hawaii caucuses (R) 
  • Idaho primary (R)
  • Michigan primary
  • Mississippi primary
March 15: 
  • Florida primary
  • Illinois primary 
  • Missouri primary
  • North Carolina primary 
  • North Marianas Island caucuses (R)
  • Ohio primary
March 19: 
  • U.S. Virgin Islands caucuses (R)
March 22: 
  • Arizona primary 
  • Idaho caucuses (D)
  • Utah caucuses
March 26: 
  • Alaska caucuses (D) 
  • Hawaii caucuses (D)
  • Washington caucuses (D)
April 5: 
  • Wisconsin primary
April 9: 
  • Wyoming caucuses (D)
April 19: 
  • New York primary
April 26: 
  • Connecticut primary
  • Delaware primary 
  • Maryland primary
  • Pennsylvania primary
  • Rhode Island primary
May 3: 
  • Indiana primary
May 10: 
  • Nebraska primary (R) 
  • West Virginia primary
May 17: 
  • Kentucky primary (D) 
  • Oregon primary
May 24: 
  • Washington primary (R)
June 4: 
  • U.S. Virgin Islands caucuses (D)
June 7: 
  • California primary
  • Montana primary
  • New Jersey primary 
  • New Mexico primary 
  • North Dakota caucuses (D) 
  • South Dakota primary

June 14: 
  • District of Columbia primary
July 18-21:  Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.
Cleveland, OH

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Of Heroes, Villains, Nobility, Innovation, and Backwardness

I ran across an interesting few sentences in a chapter about the challenges of archeology in the Middle East by Archeologist Neil Silberman.

Consider this: 
Ottoman history [14th to 20th centuries] .... was filled with ups and downs, heroes and villains, nobility, innovation, and backwardness—in short, a history that is fully as vital as that of the ancient Middle East or the modern West. ....
We live in a vital period. The American empire, with its roots in the 16th century, has been ascendant on the world stage for nearly two centuries now. That vitality, like the vitality of any vital power of the past, is filled with ups and downs, heroes and villains, nobility, innovation, and backwardness. It's something to think about as we watch the Republican primary field this year. The villainy and backwardness we see on display there comes with the territory. The fight for nobility and innovation and progress is never done. True heroes are rare. The fight is never done.

...and this:
What makes the study of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern historical archaeology so intriguing is the possibility that it might offer some concepts and historical formation utterly outside the experience or even analytical categories of the European colonial and, later, capitalist world. For the Ottoman Empire seems to have been based on the maintenance of cultural diversity as the fulcrum of imperial coherence and profit—not in the tendencies toward rigid hierarchization and centralization one sees in the West (Lewis 1995; Brummet 1994). And maybe part of the reason we are today so utterly confused by the surging nationalisms and religious passions of the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Balkans is because we have been trained as archaeologists—both New World and Old World--to disregard the history, function, and vitality of Middle Eastern religions and cultures as inconsequential or irrelevant to our own experience. 
I look at that and I think--myopic and parochial views of the world, as one sees too often in our political discussions, go hand in hand with backwardness and villainy and down cycles in our national life; and to be mindful and appreciative of cultural diversities, and aware of the history, function, and vitality of other cultures goes hand in hand with nobility and innovation in our problem solving. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Identity over Ideology?

Sarah Palin has endorsed Donald Trump for President. She was popular with Tea Party Republican voters (she was the keynote speaker at the first Tea Party convention in 2010) and the word is she might well help Trump in his battle with Ted Cruz in Iowa.

It's a matter of identity says David Frum in The Atlantic. Trump and Palin appeal to aggrieved white Republican voters of Iowa because they identify with their stories as outsiders; they don't support them because of their conservative ideologies. That's why it doesn't matter that Trump and Palin have weak and inconsistent (or incoherent?) conservative ideologies.

Trump, Palin, and disaffected white Republican voters feel betrayed by the established order. Is this right? I doubt Trump the supreme manipulator of the established order feels betrayed by it.... but he does talk like it: "the system is broken and immigrants are making things worse; vote for me, I'll make America Great again." This is not an ideology; it's tapping into know nothing disaffection.

Other voters are more motivated by ideology, says Frum. Cruz, the Princeton debate champion and Harvard lawyer, is a movement Republican. He is endorsed by many of the prophets of movement conservatism: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, James Dobson, Brent Bozell and Ginni Thomas among many other conservative luminaries who have endorsed Cruz over Trump. Cruz, unlike Trump, is an ideologue who wants to shrink government, is hostile to welfare programs, wants to implement lower taxes, reduce progressive taxation, reduce regulations, restrict abortion, and build the military.

Trump and Palin just want to raise hell.

Here's Frum:
Since Donald Trump entered the race, one opponent after another has attacked him as not a real conservative. They’ve been right, too! And the same could have been said about Sarah Palin in 2008. Palin knew little and cared less about most of the issues that excited conservative activists and media. .... What defined her was an identity as a “real American”—and her conviction that she was slighted and insulted and persecuted because of this identity..... 
That’s exactly the same feeling to which Donald Trump speaks, and which has buoyed his campaign. When he’s president, he tells voters, department stores will say “Merry Christmas” again in their advertisements. Probably most of his listeners would know, if they considered it, that the president of the United States does not determine the ad copy for Walmart and Nordstrom’s. They still appreciate the thought: He’s one of us—and he’s standing up for us against all of them—at a time when we feel weak and poor and beleaguered....
In the contrast between Cruz’s support and Trump’s, one sees something truly new and disrupting—a battle between those for whom conservatism is an ideology, and those for whom conservatism is an identity.
Back in the day when Kevin Phillips was a political operative (he devised Nixon's Southern strategy), says Gary Wills in the NYRB, "he said all politics comes down to who hates whom." Palin and Trump are extremely skilled at exploiting disaffections among a segment of Republican voters.

Last week I met a Trump voter while skiing in Aspen. This was an affluent successful business man, in his seventies and retired. He does not follow politics. He is what we would consider a low information voter. But he hates Hillary. He hates Bernie. "Hate" may be too strong a word because he is not a hateful person. In fact he listens and is reasonably open to discussion. But the hateful talk we hear from Trump and Palin resonates with him.

It's identity over ideology says Frum.

To the extent this makes sense I would think this holds true on the Democratic side as well. How many voters have a meaningful grasp of the policy differences between Clinton, Sanders, and O'Malley. How much does support for a given candidate break down along the lines of who identifies with their stories, their looks, their demeanor... because they remind us of our parents? A mentor? Our fantasies?

Beats me.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Cultural Zionism Good; Political Zionism Bad

Back in 2012 Peter Beinart wrote a book, The Crisis of Zionism, suggesting that Zionism has lost its way from the path promised in Israel's declaration of independence. That promise was to develop the country for all its inhabitants based on precepts of liberty and justice; the promise was to achieve social and political equality for all its citizens. Beinart argued that Zionism breached this promise and has become illiberal. Beinart argued that liberal Zionism must be restored.

Bernard Avishai published an interesting essay about Beinart's book in The Nation when the book came out. Avishai distinguished between political Zionism and cultural Zionism. Political Zionism, argued Avishai, was necessarily illiberal at its founding--and remains illiberal to this day. That same point was made by Ari Shavit's My Promised Land in the chapter about the ethnic cleansing of Lydda that was excerpted in the New Yorker. Without some profoundly illiberal actions (without political Zionism), said Shavit, the state would never have been born.

Avishai suggests that in order to build a Hebrew culture that did not exist in the land in 1900, Jewish settlers needed self-segregated contiguous collectives--otherwise they would become Arab speaking overseers of Arab labor. Socialism fit the bill. And so from 1905 on, says Avishai, the socialist Jewish pioneers built a segregated Jewish political economy and culture. The currents of state building were segregationist, not integrationist. The founding forces of Zionism did not worry about how to integrate Jews and Arabs into a cohesive, harmonious, and non-discriminatory political whole in the small shared plot of land that is Israel/Palestine; they worked in the opposite direction. The founding forces of the state established a separate language, separate political structures, separate institutions, and separate spaces in which the Hebrew culture could emerge.

But the Sturm und Drang of building a Jewish nation has resulted in a (virtually) all Jewish army, Jewish only settlements, expropriation of land from Palestinians to build settlements, contiguous Jewish land-ownership were Arabs are kept out, Jewish courts and institutions, a Jewish-only law of return in combination with a complete prohibition of Arab refugees to return to the land, a refusal to sanction intermarriage, and a 48 year occupation.

From Avishai's description, it seems clear that all this illiberality is baked into the DNA of political Zionism because political Zionism says "the land is mine." In order to become a modern liberal democracy the state must abandon its political Zionism.

But the real accomplishments of Zionism, suggested Avishai, are cultural: the creation of 8 million Hebrew speakers who are running a $360 billion economy. The Hebrew language and the culture it has created are now secure. These accomplishments are not going away, no matter what the politics of the country are. The amazing thing about the Zionist venture he suggested is that couples in tank tops and shorts can walk down the street holding hands in Tel Aviv, speaking a language that Moses would have understood. That is a cultural achievement, a cultural legacy that will survive a more liberal politics. These eight million Hebrew speakers and the culture they have created will not go away if the state stops its discrimination against Arabs.

It seems apparent that political Zionism, as described by Avishai, is necessarily illiberal and must go. Cultural Zionism need not be illiberal; it should be preserved and defended.

"Labor Zionists cherished civil and artistic freedoms," says Avishai, "but questions of how to promote political liberty in a pluralistic inclusive state, once the separation engendered by Zionist activity ended, seemed like a distant problem" during the formative stages of the country. I deduce from this that the focus could have/would have/should have changed starting in 1966 when the military occupation of Arab towns ended. But integration was undermined and interrupted first by the Six Day War, then the Yom Kippur war, Lebanon wars, and the Gaza wars, and (most of all) by the occupation and renewed efforts of political Zionist activity in settling the West Bank--setting up contiguous spaces and separate infrastructure, Jewish only political structures, and land confiscation all over again in the expanded space.

It's time to do away with this political supremacist Zionism.

Here are the sounds of political Zionism. When Netanyahu spoke to a joint session of Congress on March 3, 2015, he said: "The days when the Jewish people remain passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over." He meant not only "genocidal enemies," of course, but all enemies--the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Persians, the American President. When soldiers marching to Sinai in 1967 proudly proclaimed "no longer are we tailors, doctors, lawyers," as shown in the film Censored Voices, they also meant that Israeli Jews are now self-reliant and strong. The bully, not the bullied. Israel's hawkish former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman showed off his political Zionism this past December at the annual Saban Forum conference in Washington DC. When asked about the concerns of liberal Jewish students who find it hard to defend Israel's occupation on American college campuses, he said "I don't care; I really don't care."

This is the sound of the political Zionism that thinks of itself as the Jewish state instead of a modern democracy with a secure Jewish culture. To the extent that Netanyahu's comments to Congress, the soldiers's gloating about muscular Judaism, and Lieberman's indifference to people's feelings about the occupation imply a theory of justice, surely they embrace the view of Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic. "Listen, then," says Thrasymachus to Socrates, "I say justice is nothing other than what is advantageous for the stronger." John Holbo recently expressed this in a cartoon (check it out).

Avishai's essay suggests that the real remedy is to abandon political Zionism (which is necessarily illiberal), and to embrace the liberal politics of a modern democratic state. The work of political Zionism is complete. In order to achieve justice, political Zionism has got to go. It must be replaced with a modern democratic state that is Jewish not because it is run by and for Jews, but that is Jewish and Palestinian because it has thriving Jewish and Palestinian cultures.

Now that a Hebrew culture, language, and economy have been created, it's past time to ease up on this illiberal political Zionism. In fact, it's time to jettison political Zionism altogether and trade it for the politics of a modern liberal democratic state. And this does not mean abandoning cultural Zionism or the Hebrew culture that has been built. I think that's the implication of what Avishai is saying, but he's being a bit kabbalistic about the way forward--so read him for yourself [HERE].

Avishai does not foresee one state with one government administration governing all the people between the river and the sea. He speaks of confederated arrangements. Whatever those arrangements will be, they must strive to provide equal protection and equal rights and equal benefits for everyone between the river and the sea, and governmental structures that strive to promote Zionist culture and Palestinian culture equally. Avishai does not expressly say this, but that is what I take away from what he is saying.

"The earliest Zionists" said Avishai, "assumed that the ethical qualities of traditional Judaism, coupled with the experience of being a persecuted minority would naturally make any Jewish state liberal." But this was a false assumption. The political structures that Zionism had to build in order to bring the state into existence as a culturally Jewish state necessarily nudged the state in illiberal directions. Instead of fading over time, the illiberal tendencies of political Zionism have accelerated in recent years.

This trend must be reversed. But instead of working to reverse the illiberal effects of political Zionism, the Netanyahu governments have worked to strengthen political Zionism.

Political Zionism's Thrasymachus rationale is dressed up with anti-semitism, the Holocaust, and religious justifications. For Netanyahu the most compelling fact about Jewish life is the intractability of its enemies, said Beinart. The purpose of the Jewish state in this view is to erect a wall against anti-Semitic forces. It's a life-boat philosophy with a strong streak of paranoia. But these are misleading and self-deluding rationales. As the United States and today's Europe have proven, assimilation is possible. Anti-Semitism is not an eternal law of nature. But even if it were, it would not prove Thrasymachus right.

The very success of cultural Zionism in creating a society conducting a $336 billion economy in a language that Moses would have understood, makes political compromise possible, says Avishai. He does not spell out what that compromise might be. But the principles are apparent enough: structures of the state must be made equitable and non-discriminatory, the support that political structures provides to its citizens cannot be based on ethnicity and religion. Political Zionism which reigns supreme now must be balanced with Palestinian structures and slowly dismantled. Palestinian culture must be strengthened and allowed to thrive next to the Hebrew culture.

There surely are too many political forces in play to predict outcomes. Building a modern state in Israel/Palestine will require buy in from Palestinians and good will from people across the spectrum. But political Zionism--the idea that the state belongs to Jews and everyone is there at their pleasure—this has got to go.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Man's Free Will and the Problem of Evil

F. W. Murnau (1926)
Second Act, San Francisco
January 22, 2016

The Second Act is the ever more thriving remnant of the Red Vic, a small San Francisco repertory movie theater in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. A few years ago the theater was converted to hold several food outlets and there remains only a small movie screen in a room holding ~60 persons. The owners have been experimenting to find events that can attract a full audience there. In the summer of 2014 we watched  the U.S. national soccer team giving  much stronger opposition to the Germans than Brazil did in their embarrassing 7-1 semi-final loss. There were barely 20 people in attendance. Of late The Second Act has taken to showing old silent films, with local musicians providing the music. Check out their website for all upcoming events.

Last night they showed F. W. Murnau's Faust, with live music by That Hideous Strength to a packed house. The film is loosley based on Goethe's story but it also reaches back to older versions. The story was a popular puppet show at carnivals in the 16th century.

Murnau's film is a powerful production, with special effects that were reprised in the Wizard of Oz and many other more recent films. The original music score was by Werner Richard Heyman. In 1995 a modern score was written for the film by Timothy Brock. Last night's production was at least partially improvised with Theresa Wong on cello and voice, Benjamin Ethan Tinker on synthesizer and keyboards, David Phillips on pedal steel guitar, Charles Lloyd on electric Sitar, Josephine Torrio on vocals and hammered dulcimer, Adria Ott on violin and electronics, and Tania Chen on piano. The effect was haunting. Even with a movie streaming from You Tube, this is a labor of love. With 60 people paying on a sliding scale from $7 to $10, there is not a lot of money to go around.

Murnau was born in 1888 and was 36 years old when he made this film. He left for Hollywood and Fox theaters as Faust was being finished. In Hollywood he made three films for Fox (Sunrise, 4 Devils,and City Girl). He died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident on the Pacific Coast Highway near Santa Barbara in 1931.

Although Murnau left Germany in 1926 and was dead two years before the Nazi takeover, Faust is infected by its time. Mephisto (the devil) is an extreme Jewish caricature reminiscent of Shakespeare's scheming Shylock. Halfway into the film, Mephisto is transformed into a younger black-caped count, a vampire figure. Vampire figures are, of course, also closely tied to anti-semitic symbolism.

The story revolves around a bargain made by Mephisto with the archangel Gabriel. They behold Faust, the Lord's loyal servant, who pursues knowledge for the good of mankind. The devil scoffs, "Like all men, Faust seeks to do good but winds up doing evil." Mephisto points out that Faust is an alchemist--seeking to turn base metals into gold. The bet is on: if Mephisto can turn Faust's soul away from God, the earth will be his.

The devil is confident. "No man can resist evil," he crows. To prove it he spreads his menacing black wings wide over the city and brings on the ravages of the plague. Faust engages in earnest prayer for God to intervene and to stop the plague, but God abstains. God will not intervene.

God will not interfere with the wager. In a way the devil is right, the world is his plaything to act upon as he sees fit; to test and corrupt mankind. Neither the archangel nor God interfere with the devil's schemes and torments of mankind. Man is left to his and her own devices, our own free will, to resist a fall into evil.

It's a  Manechean conception of man as a by-product of the eternal struggle between the (good) forces of God and the evil forces of Satan. But here, God does not enter the fight on behalf of the Good; mankind is left to struggle against evil with only his wits and his free will.

And of course man is a weak creature in this fight.

Faust soon finds that prayer is ineffective to stave off the evils of the plague. Similarly, his knowledge and the medicines derived from his knowledge are ineffective. The priests rail against sin and proclaim sinners will perish, but promise the virtuous will be saved. It's folly, an illusion. God does not save the priests and they too fall victim to the plague along with the sinners.

We are lost Faust realizes. Neither prayer nor knowledge can save us in the battle against the evils of the plague. He looks  at the promise in the bible of the everlasting goodness of Jesus Christ--the all powerful God--and he cries in despair. He throws the bible in the fire along with his books of science. The pages open to an occult text revealing the key for overcoming evil spirits. Three times you must summon the Lord of darkness at the cross-roads, says the text. Like Robert Johnson, Faust heeds the call; and Mephisto appears in his Jewish guise.

Mephisto tempts Faust with the power to heal if only he would renounce God. He offers a free trial for a day. And suddenly, Faust is able to bring about miracle cures.

And it does not take long for Faust to corrupt his new found powers from helping mankind to helping himself. With the help of Mephisto he first seduces a lovely countess at her marriage ceremony, and later a fine Christian girl. Nothing good comes of it. But there is true love.... and therein lies salvation.

The next silent film program is at the end of February. Keep an eye on the Second Act website. Check it out!