Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Kevin McCarthy: Least Experienced Speaker in 100 years?

Kevin McCarthy would be the least experienced Speaker of the House since 1891, says Philip Bump in the Washington Post. McCarthy (b. 1/26/65) has been in Congress just eight years and it shows.

McCarthy was born in Bakersfield CA and is a fourth generation native of Kern County. He obtained a B.S. in marketing from the local college (Cal State Bakersfield) in 1989, and an M.B.A. from the same college in 1994.

His parents were Democrats, but McCarthy set his sights to rise in the Republican party. It's where the action's at in Bakersfield. In 1995 he became chairman of the California Young Republicans. According to Wiki, California Young Republicans is open to registered members of the Republican party between the ages of 18 and 40.  Local chapters have strong independence; they sponsor various social events and networking events and assist Republican political candidates and causes.

McCarthy made the most of his CAYR chairmanship. In 1999 he was elected chairman of the Young Republican National federation. He's been a sterling Republican team player. At the same time, in the late 1990's until 2000, he also acted as a district director for House of Representative Member Bill Thomas (R-CA).

McCarthy was elected as Kern County Community College District trustee in 2000, and elected to the California State Assembly in 2002. He was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006 and has been substantially unopposed in his district since.

McCarthy, in short, has been a professional politician, a striver who has gained success in an extremely narrow bubble of Republican politics during the last 20 years.  He lacks any meaningful life experience outside of this Republican political bubble.

McCarthy has been a protege of John Boehner.  In 2008 Boehner appointed him to chair of the Republican platform committee.  "The Republican Party is the party of opportunity," says the preamble to the final 2012 Republican platform. And so it has been for Kevin McCarthy.

Here are some notable items in the 2008 Republican platform overseen by McCarthy:
  • "[T]he achieving of peace — should never be micromanaged in a party platform, or on the floor of the Senate and House of Representatives for that matter."  What happened, we might ask, to this principle during the recent Iran treaty negotiation?
  • "The gravest threat we face — nuclear terrorism — demands a comprehensive strategy for reducing the world's nuclear stockpiles and preventing proliferation." One might ask today, isn't that what the Iran deal was about? 
  • "Returning veterans must have access to education benefits, job training, and a wide variety of employment options."  We might ask, what have Republicans done to advance education benefits, job training, and employment options for veterans in the past seven years? See Daily Kos report (2013) on actual Republican actions. 
  • "To be successful international leaders, we must uphold international law, including the laws of war, and update them when necessary." We might ask, how did the Bush administration uphold these values in invading Iraq in violation of international law, killing more than 160,000 civilians in an illegal war? 
  • "Our success in Iraq will deny al Qaeda a safe haven, limit Iranian influence in the Middle East, strengthen moderate forces there, and give us a strategic ally in the struggle against extremism." What success, we might ask. Is it not our illegal war in Iraq that has directly lead to the rise of ISIS?  
  • "Short-term politics overshadow the long-term interests of the nation." We might ask, what has the Republican party done in the last seven years to improve that situation? Res Ipsa Loquitor.
  • "We pledge a business-like, cost-effective approach for infrastructure spending, always mindful of the special needs of both rural and urban communities." We might ask what have Republicans done to put the Highway Trust fund on a business-like, cost effective basis? What have Republicans done in the past seven years to fund infrastructure, let alone to fund it in a business-like cost effective manner?
  • "We believe government should tax only to raise money for its essential functions." Right: no progressive taxation to redistribute income or to fund "non-essential" things like parks, free higher education, etc.
  • "We believe that real reform is about improving your access to a health care provider, your control over care, and your ability to afford that care. We will continue to advocate for simplification of the system and the empowerment of patients." We might ask, what have Republicans done to promote patient control over care, or to make care more affordable for individuals in the last seven years?
  • "To empower families, we must make insurance more affordable and more secure, and give employees the option of owning coverage that is not tied to their job." We might ask, has Obamacare not given employees the option of owning coverage not tied to their job?
  • "Individuals with pre-existing conditions must be protected."  We might ask, is this not what Obamacare has accomplished? 
Inexperienced and emerging from a Republican political bubble may account for McCarthy's gaffe to Sean Hannity on Fox last night. Inexperience and living in a Republican bubble is what leads someone to say to Sean Hannity on FOX the following: 
McCarthy:  The question I think you want to ask me is "How am I going to be different (than Boehner)? ... What you're going to see is a conservative Speaker, it takes a conservative Congress, it puts (sic) a strategy to fight and win. And let me give you one example.  Everyone thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustworthy, but noone would have know any of that had happened had we not fought and (inaudible). 
The first give away here, the part that Democrats have jumped all over, is that McCarthy is defending his leadership as "strategic" because he and the Republican leadership instigated the Benghazi investigation in order to take down Hillary Clinton in the polls.  That sounds like an abuse of office on the Republican leadership's part.

The second give away, equally telling, is his claim that "noone would have known any of that" but for the hearings. But, in fact, the hearings have revealed absolutely NOTHING SIGNIFICANT  WHATSOEVER. The fact that nothing came from the hearings--contrary to McCarthy's misleading assertion--of course, simply highlights that the Benghazi investigation is purely politically motivated.

Sean Hannity may have a net worth of $80 million, but last I checked he is not elected to make public policy of the country. So why is he sounding like he's dictating public policy to Kevin McCarthy? Hannity, at 10:00 in the video here, laments that Boehner has not been taking his calls for the past couple of years. Good for John Boehner. McCarthy looks like a wimp kowtowing to Hannity and the far right Republican wing to get the Speakership.  It does not bode well.

"You don't know me, but you don't like me, 
How many of you who judge me, ever walked the streets of Bakersfield"

Monday, September 28, 2015

On Why we Support a Large Welfare State: Separating the Factual from the Moral Arguments

Why do we support a large welfare state? Why do we want to broadly redistribute wealth in our society? This morning, Brad DeLong sent us to Matthew Yglesias at Vox who notes:
So the Pope, amongst other things, has a bunch of left-wing anti-capitalist views. Lots of people on the right have decided that they want to argue with the Pope about this and the general line that they take is that the Pope is wrong and capitalism is good because you can see that well-functioning market economies actually do a great deal to raise living standards broadly.
Capitalism raises living standards broadly.  That's a factual argument, and across the political spectrum we accept it.  Yglesias says "that's true, but it does not raise living standards as broadly as capitalism plus a large welfare state."

Republicans say we should shrink the welfare state (we should have minimal regulation, low taxation, and less redistribution) because this will raise living standards broadly. And that is factually incorrect.  A small-government-low-taxation-low regulation state does not raise living standards broadly--it results in great disparities in income and wealth.  In addition, of course, it results in a degraded environment, less safe working environments, inadequate health care for large portions of the population, and a degraded social safety net. Truth is, although capitalism raises living standards broadly, it does so a lot less broadly than capitalism plus a large welfare state. Yglesias claims that "thoughtful opponents of the welfare state" agree with this.

[T]houghtful opponents of the welfare state have generally avoided making the (factual, ed.) argument that capitalism is good because it promotes human well-being. Since capitalism does promote human well-being, "capitalism promotes human well-being" sounds like a good argument in its favor. But it turns out that capitalism plus a large welfare state promotes human well-being even more. So you either need to embrace the welfare state (the correct answer) or come up with another justification of capitalism.
I'm not sure who these "thoughtful opponents of the welfare state" are. It seems to me that Republican politicians running for office are routinely asking low level service employees, secretaries, janitors, construction workers, factory workers, and the unemployed to vote Republican because, they claim, unregulated capitalism, with low taxation, will raise living standards broadly; and, they claim, capitalism plus a large welfare state will kill jobs, create debt, and result in broadly lower living standards.

Thoughtful right wing economists, like Harvard's Greg Mankiew, says Yglesias, don't actually believe that argument. They have avoided making the factual argument that capitalism (with only a minimal welfare state) promotes human well being. The real argument, says Yglesias, is over whether we should adopt redistributive policies at all:
"the really big thing we argue over is whether people with high market incomes should be taxed in order to provide 'free stuff' to the poor and the middle class."
And as Pope Francis points out, that is a moral argument. The fact that well implemented redistributive policies, part of a large welfare state, raises living standards more broadly than capitalism with a minimal welfare state and low taxation is factually beyond question, says Yglesias:
"the evidence is pretty overwhelming that you can design a growth-friendly tax code that still raises a ton of money and then improve living standards by giving people some free stuff."
"Thoughtful opponents of the welfare state" like Mankiew, suggests Yglesias, don't dispute this. Instead, they argue we should not redistribute wealth for moral reasons.

In practice, of course, politicians do their best to muddle and obscure the factual and moral questions. The factual question gets mixed up with Republican pseudo-moral rationales for dismantling the welfare state:
One (moral argument, ed.) that frequently arises is what Greg Mankiw has referred to as the "just deserts" perspective in which "people should receive compensation congruent with their contributions" and we should aim for a society in which public policy ought to ensure that "every individual would earn the value of his or her own marginal product."
So if, for example, you are blind and inability to see makes it hard for you to earn a living in an unregulated market that's too bad for you. Your vision impairment means your ability to contribute to market production is limited, and therefore it is morally appropriate that your living standards be limited as well. By the same token, if a combination of genetics and childhood living conditions have left you with an IQ that is 2 standard deviations below average (this is about five percent of people) then, again, it's just the case that you deserve to have a much lower standard of living than society could provide for you if it were willing to do more redistribution.
Mankiw's moralized capitalism seems bone-chilling to me but I don't really think I can prove him wrong. It is, however, pretty trivial to see that Mankiwism isn't a Christian worldview. Jesus didn't preach "blessed are those with high marginal products, for they shall inherit incomes proportionate to their contributions." The practical benefits of capitalism are something that maybe a Christian should care about, but the practical benefits of capitalism-plus-welfare-state are bigger. To justify the tax cutter policy agenda, you need some thicker ethical theory and it ends up being a distinctly non-Christian one.
And to that we can say, Amen.

So why do we have a large welfare state with redistributive policies? Because we are with Yglesias and Mankiew that pro-growth redistributive policies are possible and can be effective; because we are with Pope Francis that it seems like the morally right thing to do; because it is the only way to raise living standards broadly; because we should help the disadvantaged among us; because we want to protect and preserve our environment; because we want to raise the quality of life most broadly. In short, the ongoing Republican argument that we should substantially retrench the welfare state "because this will broadly promote human well being" is factually incorrect and morally bankrupt.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Resignation of John Boehner and the Election for Speaker

On Friday, September 25, 2015, the Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) announced he will relinquish his Speakership and retire from Congress, effective October 30, 2015.

John Boehner came by his Republican credentials honestly. He was born in Reading, Ohio (north of Cincinnati), the second of twelve children. The family lived in a two bedroom house where the parents slept on a pull-out sofa in the living room. As a boy of eight he started working in his father's bar, a business started by his grandfather in 1938.

John attended Xavier University in Cincinnati, supporting himself with several jobs. He was the first of his family to attend college. He graduated college in 1977 and took a job with a plastics packing company, steadily rising to president of the firm. He did not resign until after he was elected to Congress.

He has lived in Southwest Ohio all his life (and Washington DC since 1991, of course); most of his siblings live in the area still and are working in blue collar jobs.

Boehner entered politics in 1981, serving three years as a Trustee of Union Township, followed by five years in the Ohio legislature. He was elected to the House in 1990 from the Ohio 8th Congressional District, which starts on the northern outskirts of Cincinnati and runs along the Indiana border and juts east to include Springfield.

Boehner was one of the engineers of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America, which sparked the heightened partisan divide we have seen in Congress the last 20 years. Following Tom DeLay's (R Texas) resignation as Republican House leader (DeLay was indicted for money laundering and campaign finance violations) Boehner was elected leader of the Republican Party in the House in 2006 and Speaker of the House in 2011. He was most recently elected to his House seat last November.

John Boehner has talked the talk and walked the walk for Republicans. They will miss him... even if we won't miss the partisan divisive era he helped spark and presided over. For now, it looks like the divisiveness may ratchet up another notch with his departure.

In his announcement Boehner said that he had planned to retire at the end of the year, but that he decided impulsively after the Pope's address to Congress to move up his departure. He says he did it to "protect the institution," apparently because Tea Party Republicans were plotting another palace coup. It shows how badly the Republicans are in disarray, says Nancy Pelosi.

The Speaker of the House is the presiding officer of the House of Representatives, and second in line for the Presidency after the vice-President. Crucially, the Speaker decides which legislation is assigned to which committee, and which legislation will be brought to the floor for a vote. The Speaker also coordinates the legislative agenda with leaders of the House and the Senate and the President. He or she swears in members of the House,  keeps order in the chamber, recognizing members to speak on the House floor, and making rulings about House procedures. The Speaker gets to appoint committee members, including a majority of members to the Rules Committee.

A new Speaker will now have to be elected, and it might be a battle. Each of the 435 members in the House will get a vote. The front runner is currently the Republican majority leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy from California. He's no shoo-in, says Breitbart. The most conservative wing of the party wants one of its own, potentially setting up a leadership fight.

In order to be elected, the next Speaker will require 218 votes. There are 247 Republicans and 188 Democrats in the House, so the next speaker will certainly be a Republican (although Nancy Pelosi will be offered up as a nominee by the Democrats). With a pitched battle for the speakership, potentially Democratic votes will play a role.  In 1856 it took two months and 133 ballots to elect Nathaniel Banks as Speaker.  It might be interesting.

Nathaniel Banks 1856
first elected Republican House Speaker

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Marco Rubio's Foreign Policy Vision

Marco Rubio has an essay in the Sept/Oct issue of Foreign Affairs setting out his vision for a U.S. foreign policy. His youth and inexperience speak for themselves in this article.

Natural born U.S. citizens are eligible to be president at 35 years of age. Age and life experiences matter and it's hard to imagine someone with sufficient world experience and wisdom at such a young age. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt, 42 years old when he assumed the presidency, remains our youngest president (1901-1909).  John F. Kennedy was 43 when he assumed office, Bill Clinton was 46, Barak Obama was 47. Rubio will be 44 years of age in 2016. People mature at different ages, of course; but based on his Foreign Affairs article, I'm not prepared to hand the reigns to Rubio.

Because we are "the greatest and most influential nation on earth," he says, we have enemies "wishing to undermine us" and "allies dependent on our strength and constancy." But this is a melodramatic and self-absorbed emphasis. In fact, it's not all about us. Other nations don't want to tear us down "because we are greatest;" no, other nations are pursuing their own advantage even if interests sometimes conflict. The vision of the world embodied in the UN Charter is for nations to support each other for the common good as citizens of the world. Yesterday Pope Francis challenged world leaders to work together to alleviate world wide poverty and environmental destruction.  Rubio does not see himself working with other nations to alleviate poverty and environmental destruction--he sees a dog-eat-dog world where America strives to stay on top through strength, where America imposes its will to stay on top, and where others necessarily strive to topple us. It's like the One Percent saying to the 99 percent: "we are the greatest, and we will do what we must to remain the greatest, even as we offer support to those of you who support us." This is a vision of Putin's Russia--not an American vision of liberal democracy.

Anytime we exercise or refrain from exercising our power, he says, "(it) has tremendous human and geopolitical consequences." No quarrel there.  Since World War II we have fought a war in Korea that may have resulted in as many as 3,000,000 war dead; we fought in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos with another 3 million dead; we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan which resulted in more than 1 million war dead. Not that the United States is to blame for all these conflicts or their consequences, but there is no denying that our actions had tremendous human consequences. Not that this is what Rubio is thinking of.

Rubio touts three pillars to his foreign policy: 1) strength; 2) protection of an open international economy through the use of force; and 3) defending freedom and championing human rights and liberal democratic values.  Talk tough and lead from strength and the world will naturally fall in line with our leadership is the message.

Rubio would reinforce our strength by adding billions of dollars to our military and security budgets.  In negotiating with Iran he would have maneuvered our armed forces to signal an imminent attack on Iran while actively opposing them on every front--and surely they would have acquiesced to all our wishes he fantasizes.  Rubio would supply weapons to Ukraine, train its troops, and station U.S. troops in Eastern Europe to "discourage further Russian aggression." He would firmly band together against China with India, Taiwan and other Asian democracies. Although China won't like it, he conjectures, by preserving freedom on the Chinese periphery (with our aircraft carriers and battle groups?), China will fall in line and honor human rights at home, and cease its aggression abroad.  To counter ISIS he would "build a broadened coalition of regional partners." He does not say which partners he has in mind. And he has no further words of wisdom on how to solve the Syria crisis.  He says nothing about refugees, nothing about Russian and Iranian support for Assad, and nothing for Saudi Arabia and Qatar's support for Islamic extremist militias.

For an enlightening explanation of the problems posed by the Syrian conflict, read Philip Gordon, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who was the White House coordinator for the Middle East (2013-2015). READ Philip Gordon here.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Morality Cannot be Found Under a Rock 3: Yaacov Yadgar on "Traditionism"

Yaacov Yadgar, Traditionism 
Cogent Social Sciences (July 9, 2015)

This is the third post in a series on morality. The first post (link here) took exception to a New York Times op-ed piece about how there seem to be no right, correct, and well justified reasons for condemning "honor killings." I argued that the author framed the issue all wrong and that we can indeed find right, correct, and well justified reasons within our legal, philosophical, and religious traditions. The second piece (link here) examined more closely how our emotions are an unreliable guide to different moral situations and how we have to look to our legal, philosophical, and religious traditions (not our emotions) to come up with right, correct, and well justified answers to moral problems. 

In this third piece, as promised, I take a look at Yaacov Yadgar's recent article discussing the false dichotomy he sees between our secular-rationalist Enlightenment endowment (legal, philosophical, scientific traditions) and our conservative-religious traditions. In reality, he says, rational-secular traditions are not rational and secular in a vacuum--they reflect our understanding from earlier traditions; and conservative-religious traditions are not passed down to us in a sealed box--they also require our active engagement to make them current and alive for our time. He calls this dialogue "traditionism." Traditionism requires us to continually reinterpret and update our traditions in order to carry them forward and to maintain them as meaningful. 

Tradition, Identity, and a False Dichotomy

There is a false dichotomy between our secular rational traditions and our conservative-religious traditions, says Yadgar.  Secular rationalism found expression during the Enlightenment as a reaction to centuries of religious conservatism. The Enlightenment emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism over traditional lines of (religious) authority. Ever since, says Yadgar, there has been a temptation to divide our ways of looking at the world into mutually exclusive categories of secular rationalism (looking at the world without regard to tradition) on the one hand, and (unquestioning) adherence to orthodoxy and tradition on the other hand.  

By secular rationalism we mean the hard sciences, the social sciences, the modern nation state and all its trappings. To be a secular rationalist is to look to reason and human constructs for our morality and to reject the irrational; it is rejecting God as an explanatory force in life. Instead of looking to morality as a set of God given rules, secular rationalists conceive of morality in terms of rules of reason: e.g. the greatest good for the greatest number, rules that bring happiness or utility to the greatest number, a commitment to rights that one imagines no one would want to give up. Secular rationalism thinks of human rights not as God given rights, but as rights that are guaranteed by the modern secular nation state, or by nature and reason. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the orthodox religious attitude accepts tradition as sealed, unchanging, and binding. Yadgar describes orthodox religious conservatism as follows: 

Conservatism views tradition as sovereign in an absolute manner, set and eternal; it views tradition as the way of nature, a set, finite and unchanging body of rules, values, practices, and norms.... As such, conservatism ... freezes tradition in a static past....[T]he conservative stance strives at constituting all-encompassing social orders, which are aimed at preserving, sanctifying, and perpetuating tradition, while guaranteeing absolute loyalty, a presumed self-conscious submission of individuals and community to that sealed image of the past. From a conservative point of view, humans are the dutiful, passive creation of tradition, which “determines what is legitimate and what is illegitimate in all realms of life: proper behaviors, perceptions, and aims. It sets the standards for evaluating everything. .... Conservatism does not leave room for challenging tradition, for a reflexive examination of it, or for introducing it into dialog with competing traditions.

Self-conscious submission of the individual and community to a sealed image of the past is the key idea here. The orthodox religious attitude, as described here, chooses to forego reflexive examination. 

We have a tendency, says Yadgar, to view the world in this binary manner: secular rationalism on the one hand, and rigid orthodoxy on the other. Everyone who falls awkwardly in between these two extremes, we are tempted to think, is simply muddled; they are waiting to become fully enlightened as secular rationalists, or to become fully inspired with faithful adherence to orthodox religiosity. 

But this binary way of viewing our traditions is false, says Yadgar. Most people inhabit this in-between world. And in fact, tradition is never fully anchored to an immutable past, just like reason is never fully adrift of our connection to the past. Because we are born into tradition, raised in traditions, and because our traditions provide a language and infrastructure by which we come to experience and understand the world, we are always and necessarily in conversation with our traditions. And even if we rebel against tradition, it is away from and in the context of our inherited traditions.

The Recognition of Tradition

We do not become aware of human tradition as tradition, says Yadgar, until it is named. And tradition is not named until it is noticed, and it is almost never noticed until it is challenged and its existence becomes a matter of concern.

Before the Enlightenment, Yadgar implies, the moral authority of God and religion appeared self-evident. Popes in the 13th century did not have to justify religious orthodoxy because there was no alternative. By establishing reason, analysis, and individualism as an alternative to religious orthodoxy, the Enlightenment forced communities to make a conscious choice: would they continue to accept conservative orthodoxy as authoritative, or not.

So what are people doing in churches and synagogues and mosques today?  Once tradition is named and becomes just one option among others, its source of authority is no longer self-evident and inherent in the tradition itself, rather its source of authority necessarily becomes a declaration of loyalty towards it by adherents of the tradition.

Such a declaration of loyalty implies a dialogue with tradition. Although we carry the past within us from the moment we are born, as bearers of tradition it is up to us to interpret it and instill it with meaning. Such interpretation and comprehension of tradition in current terms is a necessary condition for the very existence of tradition, says Yadgar.  He quotes Shils (1958):

“Tradition is not the dead hand of the past but rather the hand of the gardener, which nourishes and elicits tendencies of judgment which would otherwise not be strong enough to emerge on their own. In this respect tradition is an encouragement to incipient individuality rather than its enemy.”


The choices we make with respect to tradition are therefore not all or nothing. There is no binary choice between tradition and no tradition. We can never completely shake tradition we are born into, any more than tradition can remain unchanged through the march of human history.

Dutiful subjects of tradition cannot be non-reflexive followers aping standards of acceptable thought and behavior handed down by tradition. We are and must be in an ongoing dialogue with our traditions.


“Traditionism acknowledges that the tradition is no longer obvious or self-evident and given; “traditionism does not address tradition as an eternal, total and unchanging element, whose authority is absolute and all encompassing, but rather offers a complex stance of basic yet not “fanatical” loyalty to tradition, as the main practice with which to address this reality.
“[W]hile conservatism views tradition as being “reported” or “dictated” from the past to a passive audience in the present, in a one-directional manner, traditionism—and, at that, the very concept of tradition—assigns both sides taking part in the act of transmission with similar (though not necessarily equal) responsibilities: the loyal receiver is assigned with the task of interpreting and applying the “message” (or custom, practice, etc.) from the past in an ever changing present setting. Reflexive, interpretive subjectivity, in other words, is an essential element of this act of transmission.

This strikes me as correct. If we can’t make tradition our own, it will soon lose its force.

So What of It

Yadgar’s article is largely about tradition as it relates to secular rationalism vs. religious orthodoxy. But the attitude of “Traditionism” he describes applies equally to all traditions: scientific traditions within a specific field, philosophic moral reasoning, social sciences, and law. All these fields have their traditions. And each field must engage with its tradition and carry it forward.

When we think through moral problems, we are not limited to one tradition. We are not limited to secular rationalism vs. religious traditionism. Our inheritance is broader than that. We are born into a national tradition, a legal tradition, a constitutional tradition, several cultural traditions, philosophic traditions, scientific traditions, professional traditions, family traditions, as well as religious traditions. Each of these traditions is subject to its own “traditionist” process, and all of these have a hold on us to varying extents. These traditions overlap and our connections to them is of varying depth and sophistication. But, consciously or unconsciously, they all come into play in our moral reasoning.

It’s noteworthy that in Yadgar’s discussion of traditionism the concept of God does not enter the picture. Secular rationalists might find that surprising because if there is no God, shouldn’t that end the discussion? But I think Yadgar’s omission is not an oversight and it would not end the discussion. As a traditionally religious community engages with its tradition, revising and reinterpreting the tradition to carry it forward, who is to say that God having existence is an essential element. There seems to be no reason that a religious tradition cannot be revised and reinterpreted to bring God forward as a character in a story.

Scholars have long recognized that the existence or non-existence of biblical figures are not essential to the impact of the stories. [See Jonathan Freedman’s fascinating book Music in Biblical Life] Freedman quotes this excerpt from Ahad Ha’am’s 1904 essay Moses:

I care not whether this man Moses really existed; whether his life and his activity really corresponded to our traditional account of him; whether he was really the savior of Israel and gave his people the Law in the form in which it is preserved; and so forth. I have one short and simple answer for all these conundrums. This Moses, I say, this man of old time,whose existence and character you are trying to elucidate, matters to nobody but scholars like you. We have another Moses of our own, whose image has ben enshrined in the hearts of the Jewish people for generations, and whose influence on our national life has never ceased from ancient times till the present day. The existence of this Moses, as a historical fact, depends in no way on our investigations. For even if you succeeded in demonstrating conclusively that the man Moses never existed, or that he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses—the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all the wildernesses in which we have wandered since the Exodus.

And what is true for the man Moses is equally true for the deity God. Of course, the fact that God can be made a leading character in a story highlights that there is no insurmountable schism between secular rationalism and religious orthodoxy. It brings religion firmly into the secular rationalist conversation, which after all easily encompasses literature and stories. Although this reinterprets the tradition, it does not abolish the tradition.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Saturday Morning Facebook Rant: "Talk of rounding up and deporting 11 million immigrants in order to preserve a Northern European caucasian demographic is profoundly UN-AMERICAN."

Most of us congregate in the same political corner on Facebook. A study published on May 7, 2015 in Science magazine concluded that Facebook users choose to hang out with like minded users. In fact, most of us cull our news feeds to obtain news that are more in line with our politics, overriding what Facebook's algorithms would otherwise provide. 

Also, most of us aren't so skilled at engaging opposing views in a civil and substantive manner. We tend to react emotionally, and who wants to go to Facebook just to be upset? That's not why we share cute cat pictures.

Yet sometimes we can't help it. Sometimes we run across contrary views, right there standing on a soap box in our living rooms. The frequency goes up during the political season. 

Two issues in the fore of the current Republican candidates forums are abortion and immigration. This morning, these two issues crossed paths in one of my Facebook friends' musings. 

It started when a share of the Carly Fiorina rant about how we can't fund Planned Parenthood because "fully formed kicking fetuses, with heart beating" showed up in my Facebook feed.  I bit, pointing out that no such image in fact exists in the sting PP tapes Fiorina was referring to. I tried to steer the discussion towards a factual basis by sharing a baby gestation timeline, and pointing out that 92 percent of all abortions occur prior to week 13, at which point a fetus weighs just one-half ounce. 

I also tried to focus on the good work PP does in the areas of education, testing and treatment of S.T.D's and U.T.D's, and providing birth control counseling and contraceptives, which greatly reduces the incidence of unwanted pregnancies and improves sexual health. Even if one is opposed to abortion, these are issues that should be discussed separately--something which the current efforts in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood utterly fails to do. 

And then I got this: "I don't think Carly expects a lot of diehard pro-choice votes, but it is time to readdress the issue (of abortion). Western civilization is being seriously impacted by the low birth rate."

And I thought "holy shit"... and I said: 
Don't leave us hanging like that. By "Western" civilization do you mean Northern European caucasian "civilization." Are you saying we need to do away with abortion in order to increase the Northern European caucasian birthrate, in order to preserve the Northern European caucasian "civilization" in North America??

The American civilization I am proud of is a free society that values free speech and a free press; that values liberty; where the right to due process from our government is guaranteed; where civil rights are valued; where private industry and personal initiative can flourish, supported by a strong education system and a lack of barriers based on narrow prejudice; where we can follow our conscience and practice our religions without coercing each other; where we have a commitment to clean air and water, and to a safe food chain for all;  where we care about consumer safety; where we have a first class infrastructure, great parks, public beach access, universal suffrage; where we have a caring and an engaged public; where we have great football, baseball, and athletics of all types; where we have open and transparent dealings with a minimal amount of corruption; where we can do. 
None of these qualities of our American civilization have anything to do with the racial demographic make up of the country. Preserving a white majority is not a positive value that fits into American values. Donald Trump's talk of rounding up and deporting 11 million, and to seal the border, in order to preserve a Northern European caucasian demographic is profoundly UN-AMERICAN. The fact that such talk is tolerated if not tacitly supported by the other Republican candidates is shameful.

Twenty-five percent of Switzerland's 8 million population are foreign born residents. Switzerland is doing quite fine with its civilization. California's economy and culture is doing quite fine with only a 40% share of Northern European caucasians. The fact that the U.S. has an overall birthrate of 1.88/woman, of course, is a reason to be pro-immigration, not a reason to expel 11 million immigrants. [Fiorina is dog-whistling with her "let's secure the border" talk]

The U.S. can do just fine with its "civilization" despite, nay because of a changing demographic.
photo credit/Wiki commons

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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Shari Motro Coins a Word: Rosholushion

As an antidote to my depressing Rosh Hashana post, I direct you to Shari Motro's much more transcendent post in Tikkun Daily. [1] Shari writes on the peculiar type of New Year's resolutions practiced by Jews between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: 
[I]nstead of dancing, Jews usher in the New Year by swimming in a river of tears. ... [F]rom the start it weaves the sweet with the bitter. On the first day of the holiday, we read about a jealous wife who, after the miracle of her own late conception and childbirth, demands that another mother and son be banished to the desert, something that would result in their near certain death. On the second day, we read about a father who nearly kills his beloved son, even marshalling him to carry the wood for the altar on which he is to be slaughtered and burned.
Somehow, despite these utterly unlovable chapters in their lives, these people are loved; indeed they are revered. They are Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imenu – the father and mother of us all. Rosh Hashanah invites us to look at the darkest corners of our soul, at our deepest regrets and wounds, and out of this to fashion a wish, a decision, an intention. The Rosh Hashana resolution is born out of a cry.


[1] Tikkun Daily is a group blog off-shoot of the quarterly publication Tikkun Magazine.  Here is a link to their main site. It's worth keeping an eye on.

From their "About Page: "Tikkun Daily aims to serve as a central hub on the Web where people interested in a spiritual progressive perspective on politics, art, religion, and activism can go to put their finger on the pulse of an interfaith spiritual progressive response to the world. ... Tikkun Daily embraces an interfaith worldview that is based on the knowledge that most of us share but rarely have the gall to express overtly: that in this appalling and beautiful world, love can be embodied and become the basis for social relations."

I invite you to follow me on Twitter here: @RolandNikles

Wherein God Establishes an Ethnocracy and Jewish Settlers Commit Murder

Sa'ad and Reham Dawabshe and their son Ali
who were killed in the 7/31/15 fire bombing of their home/family photo
This past Monday I attended a Rosh Hashanah service at a synagogue in San Francisco. It is customary during this service to dwell on Genesis 21:1-19, which tells the story of Sarah bearing a son to Abraham and her banishing Hagar and Ishmael to the desert. Three members of the congregation delivered the Drash (an interpretation/meditation on the Biblical text). These drashers were courageous and well intentioned. The Drash addressed Sarah's unjust banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, God's problematic endorsement of this, and the recent murders of the Palestinian Dawabsha family by religious Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

The point of the Drash was that we should clearly stand against religious settlers who commit violence against Palestinians in the name of God, just like we should clearly stand against Sarah's banishment of Hagar and Ishmael to what Sarah must have thought was their near certain death in the desert.

Why did Sarah do it? She was jealous; she may have been angry because he "mocked;" she did not want the son of this bondwoman to be a rival to her son Isaac. Above all, Hagar and Ishmael were other. Indeed they are the ones that the Dawabsha family would look to as their matriarch and patriarch--along with Abraham, just like Jews look to Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac.
Hagar and Ishmael banished in the desert
During the night of July 31, 2015, near the Palestinian village of Duma, just south of Nablus, four members of a Jewish settlement threw a fire bomb into the bedroom of the Dawabsha family, killing 18 month old Ali Dawabsha, killing his father Sa'ad who died not long after, and killing his mother Reham who died last week, on her 27th birthday. A four year old brother remains in the hospital with burns over 60% of his body.

Eye witnesses to the attack observed four men retreat to the nearby Jewish settlement of Maaleh Ephraim. They left behind graffiti saying "revenge" and "long live the Messiah" next to a star of David.  The New York Times reported that witnesses observed two masked men watching as the family burned.
“The hardest thing for me, was that there were two burning people on the ground, and two people were just standing over them,” said a neighbor, Ibrahim Dawabsheh, who like many in this Palestinian village shared a common last name. “They didn’t even care that the child was still crying inside.”
A senior Israeli army officer told the press last week that the security offices had no doubt that the attack was carried out by settlers. See this report in the Middle East Eye.

After loud profession by Israeli politicians right after the event that the murderers would be brought to justice, on September 10, 2015 Haaretz reported that Israel's defense minister Moshe Ya'alon had told a group of young Likud activists at a closed door meeting in Tel Aviv that the defense establishment "knows who is responsible for the arson attack... but has chosen to prevent legal recourse in order to protect the identity of their sources."

Ya'alon has since said that there is insufficient evidence to make arrests. We are left to choose between believing the statement he reportedly gave to Likud activists behind closed doors, or believing that Israel is serious about wanting to prosecute these crimes but lacks evidence.

According to an Al Haq 2013 report [a Palestinian human rights organization] "Attacks by Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank against members of the Palestinian population and their property are an extensive, long-term, and worsening phenomenon." And attackers are routinely not prosecuted.

Haaretz backs this up:

The Defense Minister Ya'alom's statement to Likud supporters behind closed doors would appear to conform to this pattern.

In the meantime, Netanyahu is asking to change police policy so the police can shoot stone throwers with live ammunition. The IDF, of course, has been doing it for years.

The Drash alluded to Israeli security forces who claim that most Jewish terrorists come from one particular Yeshiva where they are under the influence of a zealous rabbi.  We must clearly condemn such Jews and such rationales and such actions, said the Drash, just like we should clearly condemn Sarah's actions in asking Hagar and Ishmael to be banished to the desert to die. The drashers asked for absolution for the Jews who killed the Dawabsha family, for Sarah, and--if he is still with us in these terrible times--for God for condoning Sarah's banishment of Hagar and Ishmael and for putting up with the actions of these Jewish terrorists.

But that is too easy.

The sin of God--not that God thinks he can sin (just ask Job)--is not that he condoned Sarah's banishment of Hagar and Ishmael to near certain death in the desert. After all, he's God, and he promised to make a great nation of Ishmael also, and he magically provided a well to quench the thirst of Hagar and Ishmael. He took care of them.

No, God's sin in Genesis 21:1-19 is that God endorses and creates an ethnocracy. He promised to make a great nation of Isaac to lord it (pun intended) over everyone else; and by making a separate great nation of Ishmael he condemned these two peoples to strife.

The problem with the Dawabsha murders is not 100 Jewish extremists in a nutty Yeshiva in the West Bank. The problem is the occupation and the systematic condoning of attacks on Palestinians by failing to vigorously prosecute these cases. The problem is ethnocracy instead of democracy.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Bleak Condition of Gaza

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development ("UNCTD") issued a report (9/1/15) on the status of its assistance to the Palestinian people in the occupied territories (Gaza and the West Bank).  The report  paints a bleak picture. It does not clearly separate between the Gaza strip and the West Bank. For example, it does not spell out the revenues available to Hamas in its administration of Gaza. Nevertheless, the following can be gleaned with respect to Gaza.

Gaza is predicted to be uninhabitable within five years.

The population of Gaza is 1.8 million people, approximately the combined total of the cities of San Francisco and San Jose California.

Through eight years of military blockade and three successive wars in 2008, 2012, and 2014, Israel has destroyed and degraded the Gazan infrastructure and economy. Unemployment in the Gaza strip is at 44 percent. Six in 10 households suffer from food insecurity.

Since 2007 exports from Gaza are banned and imports and transfers of cash are severely limited. Flow of all but the most basic humanitarian goods has been suspended. Per capita GDP in Gaza is 74% of what it was prior to the Oslo accords. The report indicates a real GDP per capita in constant 2004 dollars of ~$1,000--about $2.70/day.

Among young women the unemployment rate is 80%. The ramifications of persistently high unemployment will be devastating in the long term, says the report,  as training and education among the long term unemployed become obsolete.

The latest military operation in 2014 has destroyed virtually all of what was left of the middle class in Gaza, says the report, relegating "almost all of the population into destitution and dependance on international humanitarian aid."

During the military operation last summer, more than 500,000 Gazans were displaced, and more than 100,000 remain so as of mid-2015. A partial list of damage listed in the report includes:

  • 18,000 housing units destroyed or badly damaged 
  • 26 schools destroyed and 226 damaged
  • 17 hospitals and 56 primary health centers damaged
  • Gaza's sole power plant severely affected by damage, lack of fuel, and extensive damage to power lines
  • 20-30% of the water and sewage network damaged
  • Water de-salination plant in Deir al-Balah damaged
  • 220 agricultural wells destroyed or badly damaged
  • 40,000 agricultural workers affected by damage to land and destruction of livestock
  • 247 factories and 300 commercial establishments destroyed or badly damaged
The combined damage from the past three wars totals more than 300% of Gaza's potential GDP at full employment. 

Gaza faces a severe water crisis. It relies almost completely on a coastal aquifer as the source of its drinking water, but 95% of this water is not potable without treatment. Years of over-extraction have left the aquifer on the verge of collapse, threatening its long-term viability. Groundwater levels have declined and seawater has rushed in, increasing salinity and making the water not safe for drinking according to WHO standards. The aquifer may become unusable as early as 2016. 

Destruction of sewage facilities has made matters worse. About 33 million cubic meters of untreated or inadequately treated sewage are dumped into the Mediterranean every year. 

The electricity demand of the strip cannot be met. Only a fraction of needed electricity is available. 

The development of gas fields discovered within Gaza's waters could help a lot, but Israel's occupation does not permit these fields to be developed. 

As of now, Gaza lacks the resources and support to reconstruct the damage, it lacks the ability to develop its economy. The situation is bleak.


Friday, September 11, 2015

Joe Biden's Religion

The Washington Post has the two parts (separated by commercial break) of Stephen Colbert's interview with Joe Biden last night. Biden and Colbert are both prominent Catholics, and they have suffered similar tragedies. "Brothers in grief" Russell Burman calls them in the Atlantic.

Biden lost his wife and young daughter in a car crash soon after entering Congress in 1972.  His son, Beau, was badly injured in that accident, but grew up to serve in the military, become a lawyer and a two-term Attorney General for the State of Delaware. In the spring of 2014 he announced he would run for governor of Delaware. This summer, on June 6, 2015 Beau Biden died of brain cancer.

Stephen Colbert is just five years older than Beau Biden. He was the youngest of 11 children and grew up in Charleston South Carolina. On September 11, 1974 (when Stephen was 10 years old) his father and two brothers were killed in a commercial plane crash at the Charlotte N.C. airport. They were returning from a college trip.

In the first half of the interview last night Colbert asked Biden to share some stories about Beau. Biden talked about loss, and support he has had from many people in his life. And then Colbert asked Biden how his faith has helped him cope, first with his wife's and daughter's loss, and now with the loss of Beau. In response, Biden gave an eloquent explanation of what religion means to him:
Colbert: How has your faith helped you respond to having lost your first wife and your daughter, and now your son? How important is that in your life, and in what ways has it helped you? 
Biden: First of all, it's a little embarrassing to speak about me. There are so many people, and perhaps some people in the audience, who've had loss as severe or worse than mine and haven't had the incredible support I have. I have such an incredible family. And so I feel self-conscious talking about--loss is serious and consequential, but there's so many other people going through this--but for me.... My wife, she's a professor, and when she wants to leave me messages, she literally tapes them on my mirror when I'm shaving. She put up a quote from Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard said, faith sees best in the dark. And for me, my religion is just an enormous sense of solace. Some of it relates to ritual, some of it relates to comfort and what you've done your whole life.... I go to mass and I'm able to be just alone. Even in a crowd you're alone. I say the Rosarie. I find it to be incredibly comforting. 
What my faith has done, it takes everything about my life with my parents and my siblings, all the comforting things and all the good things that have happened, have happened around the culture of my religion, and the theology of my religion. I don't know how to explain it more than that; but it's just the place you can go. A lot of you have been through this. 
The faith doesn't always stick with you. Sometimes it leaves me; sometimes .....   My mom had an expression. She'd say as long as you're alive you have an obligation to strive, and you're not dead 'til you have seen the face of God. It really, really has been imbued in me, my siblings, my mother, my grandfather: life is .... no one owes you anything. You've got to get up, and I feel like I was letting down Beau, letting down my parents letting down my family .... if I didn't just get up. I mean you just got to get up. Think of all the people you know who are going through horrible things and they put one foot in front of the other, and they don't have anything like the support I have. I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up, and most of them do it with an incredible sense of empathy to other people.

Religion in the 21st century, of course, is not about metaphysics. Although religions have traditions and doctrines about the world and our place in it, today, any serious person looking to find out how the world really works, and how we fit in it, will look to physics, biology, chemistry, medicine, psychology, psychiatry, law, political philosophy, moral philosophy,  sociology, anthropology, economics. We read the news, we consider political analysis, documentaries, movies, poetry and novels. We may also study religion and its traditions because it continues to have a hold on people, and--as with Joe Biden--it can provide a tremendous sense of solace. But we don't study religion to find out how the world works.

That's relatively new. And not everyone has gotten the message. In the 17 century Descartes, Leibniz, and Locke still thought of their science in terms of God. When they did science and metaphysics they thought they were also doing religion. Descartes, as John Searle says, sent us down a 200 year false alley with his conception of the mind/body split motivated in part by his religion. (Here is an e.g. of Searle speaking of consciousness--listen long enough and Descartes will come into it) We've come out the other end of this. Today we don't look to religion for cosmology, metaphysics, or to figure out what consciousness is. Religion and metaphysics have been split.

When Biden refers to Kirkegaard and his advice that faith sees best in the dark, I understand him to be hinting at this truth: that we don't look to religion for enlightenment, we look to religion for solace. How much solace we get will depend on how familiar it is to us, how much we've studied, how much we've practiced the rituals. Like anything, the more we spend time with a religion and its rituals, the more we know about its history and symbolism, the more solace we can derive from it.

In Biden's case, for him and his parents, siblings, and children, everything good and everything bad that has happened has happened around the religion. Around those magnificent buildings, the rituals, the culture and the doctrine. It has and continues to be "incredibly comforting."

Sometimes faith (and what is faith, really, in this context?) leaves him, says Biden. What he means is the courage to go on. And when that happens, his mom reminds him: nobody (meaning "and not God") owes us anything. When things are bad, we've got an obligation to get back up and strive, and to do it with empathy for other people, and to do it 'til we're gone. And, if while doing that, we can retreat into a cool, magnificent space, with others and derive comfort and resolve from the rituals..., then why not?

Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome/Nikles photo

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Examined Life: a Guided Tour

Memos from Midlife
by Franklin E. Zimring
(Quid Pro Books, 2015)

Frank Zimring, professor of law at Berkeley, has published a slim, but wonderful new book styled Memos from Midlife. It contains 24 parables inspired by philosophical reflections honed over the better part of an examined life. These reflections about life as an adult in our world are grouped into six sections. They start with the care and feeding of the self in a busy world,  and move to love and family, success and failure in America (with a great chapter on Portnoy's Complaint), coping with intelligence and money, dealing with our origins and influences, and the psychology of visiting landmarks and owning status symbols.  Each chapter stands alone and contains chew-sized musings on issues that are familiar to us all. They are not uniformly successful, but if a well written tour through some life lessons and insights led by an entertaining guide sounds of interest to you, buy this book.

Frank Zimring is a friend. My wife has taught his wife fiddle for a decade and all the while Frank has lovingly and dutifully accompanied her to many of my wife's performances in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's a sport.

We are not peers. He was born in Los Angeles, a year after Pearl Harbor.  When he was ~10 years old his parents built a new house in the hills of Studio City and his mother built a rose garden. It made an impression; read the book. His father was the screenwriter Maurice Zimm.  A big fish. Zimm (a pen name) was the screenwriter for The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

His mother was a 1936 graduate of Southwestern Law School. Formed in 1911, Southwestern is one of the oldest law schools in California and the second oldest in Los Angeles.  It was a non-profit ahead of its time, promoting women and minorities. 

An early class at Southwestern Law School
Sexual preoccupations notwithstanding, Alexander Portnoy, the protagonist in Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint, notes Zimring in his Memos, was really a conformist and super-achiever: "He is at thirty-three, Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity in Mayor Lindsay's then-fashionable New York City government. He has been, in his words, first in every class he's been in, including law school." It's pretty much the story of Frank Zimring, who finished first in his class at the University of Chicago law school, and who was hired to be a law professor there right out of school. 

There is a review of Memos on Amazon by one of Frank's classmates. He looks back at how Frank stood out from the crowd:  
Fifty years ago we had just finished our first year of law school. We'd stand up when called upon and it seemed that no matter what we said the Professor could ask a follow-up question that put everything we'd said into doubt. Almost all of us had always been the smartest kid in the room and yet we floundered. Much later we came to understand that we were being taught to stand on our feet and defend our positions, but that took a while to grasp. The task wasn't made easier by our classmate Frank Zimring. When he stood up, he spoke the language of the Professors. The rest of us were often at a loss to understand either Frank or them. Zimring was head and shoulders the smartest person in a room full of smart people.
Frank Zimring delivered on his promise. Over a distinguished career at the University of Chicago and Berkeley law schools, and the bloom's not off yet, he has become a pre-eminent expert on criminal law, juvenile justice, the death penalty, and efforts to control violent crime. His work is research based, as demonstrated by his books on the death penalty (The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, Oxford University Press, 2003) and the decline of crime in New York City (The City That Became Safe, Oxford University Press, 2012). His CV takes 24 pages to list the books, articles and reports he's published, the boards and commissions he's served on, the lectures he's given and the appointments he's held. He has written numerous articles for the popular press.

So, as I said, Frank is not my peer.  I never was the smartest kid in the room, and I never was the hardest working kid in the room.  Yet, when it comes to life, we are all Frank's peers. I like to think about the democratizing force of life's non-delegable duties; I like to think about life-boat problems--like what do you tell your eight year old son who asks you whether you would save him or his sister if there was only room for one of them in the life-boat? I like to think about what lessons we can glean from an examined life. For these and many other reasons, I like this book.