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The NSA, Data Mining and Civil Liberties - Who Owns the Data?

Posted on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 No comments

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Today in the news it appears President Obama is calling on Congress to pass legislation which would prevent the NSA from its "bulk data collection" activities that have been in the news lately.  I am afraid legislation will not cut it, because once the public's attention is elsewhere, Congress can simply go back and change the law.  In Chapter 9 of my book I explain why only an amendment to the Constitution can really address what is happening here.  In order to fully understand the implications of how data is originated by our economic activity, we first have to ask the right question.  That question is this: Who owns the data?  When I make a call on my cell phone, I originate data on my carrier's computer network.  Who owns that data?

As part of this shameless plug to convince you to throw $3.99 my way for my book, I'll provide Chapter 9 here:  (See the bottom of this post for those who do not own a Kindle.)


Chapter 9 - Civil Liberties & the Digital Age: Who Owns the Data?

The father of a young girl stormed into the local Target angrily waving the flier he held in his hands.[1] Demanding to speak to a manager, he wanted an explanation as to why Target was sending his daughter information on products for expectant mothers. His daughter was not pregnant and it was patently offensive for them to suggest she was. The manager calmed him down and took his information so she could investigate and get back to him. A few days later the father received a letter from upper management apologizing for the offense and promising to remove his family from their mailings.

Sometime during those few days the young woman approached her father: “Um, dad, we need to talk.”

Not only had Target correctly predicted she was pregnant, they even correctly predicted roughly when the baby was due. They did this by employing an Information Technology discipline known as Knowledge Management. But before we dive into what that is, we need to step back and look at this recent controversy over the NSA collecting cell phone records of ordinary Americans. This issue actually touches on just about every part of our economic life and is like many other issues: We will not resolve this in keeping with our civil liberties until we start asking the right questions. 

The Right Question: Data Ownership

That ‘right’ question is this: To whom does the ‘data’ belong?  Whose property is it?  If we pull our cell phone bill out of its envelope, does the data shown on the bill – the numbers we have called and from which we have received calls and the date, time and duration of those calls – belong to us as a result of being inside an envelope addressed to us?  It is likely many of us see it this way. It is certain the cell phone carriers do not.

The carriers own the networks on which we make our calls. The ‘data’ which originates on their networks as a result of our use of those networks is thus ‘owned’ by the carriers. The privacy policies which are part of the typical cell phone contract may differ from carrier to carrier, but will generally acknowledge the carrier may share information about their customers in response to “lawful requests or legal process.” As such, if the NSA has been granted permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to gather cell phone usage data, this “lawful request” is encompassed by the privacy policy of most cell phone contracts. However, the pertinent point must not be obscured by the minutiae of FISC warrants, privacy policies etc.:  The ‘data’ about our cell phone usage is not ours – it belongs to the carriers by virtue of having been originated on their network.


Knowledge Management: Data, Information & Knowledge

To use the Target story as an example, each purchase by the young woman at Target represents data originated on systems owned by Target. Target also has an online baby registry where expectant mothers can pick out the things they need so friends and family can choose gifts without overlapping each other. That is also data originated on a system owned by Target. The young woman does not own this data. Target can now take the data they have from the gift registry, the other spending data they have from the same expectant mother, do the same with other expectant mothers – who don’t own the data originated from their spending – and begin to build a profile of the spending patterns of an expectant mother. Or a third party firm – they’re calling them ‘Big Data’ these days – could do this by pulling in data from all sorts of retailers with a baby gift registry and sell the results to a firm like Target.

The baby registry entries and each purchase are all pieces of ‘data’. The mathematical profile of spending patterns is produced by bringing data in context with other data; this is the definition of ‘information’ in Knowledge Management. Then, if we take spending patterns of other young women not in the registry and run them against our new model, our system can spit out a number which indicates the likelihood the young woman is pregnant. Let’s say the spending patterns of the daughter of our angry father scored 95% against that ‘expectant mother spending pattern’ model. Target now sends out a flier for products which expectant moms usually buy, and encourages the young woman to use the gift registry for the upcoming baby shower!  The assertion of the likelihood a specific young woman is pregnant – based on the spending pattern ‘information’ gleaned from the ‘data’ – is called ‘knowledge’ in Knowledge Management.

So let’s now take this idea into the world about which we are learning as the NSA scandal is reported.   First, we need to be clear on how some terms we hear on the news or read in our cell phone contracts are used in the world of Information Technology. The President has used the term ‘metadata.’  While it is apparent the NSA is not listening to our calls, they are examining usage patterns – time of calls, volume of calls, duration of calls, etc. ‘Metadata’ is the industry term used to describe these facts (time, volume and duration) which can be gleaned from the ‘data’.

Most cell phone privacy policies will refer to ‘personal information’. We generally understand this to refer to data about us – gender, birth date, address, income, etc. However, as described above, in Knowledge Management, ‘information’ is derived by putting data in context with other data. If cell phone usage data is compiled on a large scale, by putting the records for each number in context with the others, and then by applying statistical methods to the ‘metadata’, a mathematical profile of ‘normal’ cell phone use can be established. This profile would be considered ‘information’ because it is the result of data in context with other data.

We can then seek to recognize and identify anomalies in these usage patterns. To use a benign example, common sense would suggest an outside sales professional’s cell phone usage patterns would deviate significantly from the ‘norm’. It becomes possible to establish a mathematical deviation from the norm which would identify a cell phone as likely being used by an outside sales professional. To say that – based on the ‘information’ of ‘data’ in context with other data – a particular cell phone is probably being used by an outside sales professional is now to have asserted ‘knowledge’.


Knowledge Management, National Security & Constitutional Liberties

With this understanding of how cell phone usage ‘metadata’ is derived from ‘data’ which can be combined with other data/metadata to provide ‘information’ from which we can glean ‘knowledge’, it is not hard to imagine applying this capability to the disruption of terrorism, or even to organized crime or the hunt for fugitives from justice. But if these benefits are to be weighed against the possible erosion of constitutional liberties, the implications of the question of data ownership have to remain at the center of the discussion.

Currently data ownership with respect to cell phone usage is asserted by the cell phone carriers – the data originates on their networks and is thus owned by them. Their handling of this data is spelled out in their privacy policies. They have asserted the right and intent to share this data in response to lawful requests and legal process. Under these circumstances it is unlikely such collecting of data and analysis of metadata will be seen by the Courts as a violation of the 4th Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure; they are, after all, neither searching nor seizing our property.

But it has to be asked: If illegal activity can be identified and disrupted by applying Knowledge Management to cell phone usage data, what is to prevent an Executive from applying this capability to identifying and disrupting otherwise perfectly legal opposition to its policies?  While this is no stretch in terms of the technology, it would have seemed a political stretch to suggest such – before hearing of targeted scrutiny on the part of the IRS and the criminalization of standard journalism by the Department of Justice.


Data Ownership, Privacy & the Constitution

Recent stories in the news have covered this same question surrounding ‘black box’ type devices in automobiles. It appears the government may be on the cusp of requiring these in every vehicle. The question which has not been answered, though – but at least is being asked – is “who owns this data?” Privacy advocates are campaigning to establish the owner of the vehicle as the owner of the data because they recognize this to be the only way to secure this data against a whole raft of opportunities for abuse.[2]

If, in light of the NSA scandal, we are left feeling something is very wrong with this larger picture of data collection, it is how the question of data ownership touches not only on our cell phone usage or driving habits, but on just about every other manner of economic activity. From our ATM/debit cards and credit cards to our library cards to our grocery store discount cards to our use of the Internet – both our browsing of the web and our email – our daily economic activity originates data on networks owned by others. This means we have no 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure with respect to this data – we do not own it.

The best resolution is the most difficult to attain, but is remarkably simple and easy to understand: An amendment to the U.S. Constitution stating: “All data pertaining to the identity and economic activity of a person, to include any information gathered from such data, shall remain the property of the person.”

Speaking particularly of cell phone usage and the NSAs desire to collect and analyze such data, this would immediately place the data under the protection of the 4th Amendment. If the data is personal property – ‘intellectual property’ – cell phone carriers would be required to obtain a license from the customer to make any use of the data and the government would have to meet the same standards which apply to any other search or seizure of our property.

But such an amendment would have much farther reaching consequences. At the most fundamental level, data about our DNA would be considered our intellectual property. Not just the DNA itself, mind you – but our genetic code as it might exist in bits and bytes on some computer network as genetic medicine progresses. As Americans we would have proper control over data generated by our economic activity, regardless of who owns the computer network. The preeminence of individual liberty – and the privacy which follows from it – would be returned to its proper place in the digital age. But perhaps most importantly, both industry and government would be returned to their proper places in light of individual liberty.



[1] I owe this story to a financial newsletter written by Frank Curzio about small cap market stocks. The story was told to illustrate companies which gather information and make marketing predictions for companies like Target.

[2] For an article about this see http://www.motorists.org/black-boxes/data-ownership.

Christianity, Politics and a Promise - Genesis 14

Posted on Sunday, March 23, 2014 2 comments

Sunday, March 23, 2014

There is a unique difference in perspective between the American who was born here of a family whose previous generations also lived here and the American who immigrated and took the oath of U.S. citizenship.  As one who was born here, I am blessed to be married to a wonderful woman who wasn't.  In January of 2010 my boys and I enjoyed the unique experience of watching their mom take the oath of U.S. citizenship.  Listening to a few of the others who were also becoming citizens talk of what this meant was eye-opening and inspiring.

But I write on the Lord's Day having just listened to a sermon which reminds me that this isn't necessarily our home - at least not in the eternal sense.  We have another allegiance.  It is one which an otherwise difficult-to-interpret chapter in Genesis points us to.  If we were to use 'New Testament' language to describe this, we would call it the 'kingdom of God'.  But if we pull back to the very beginning of the Bible we see in Abraham ('Abram' at this point in Genesis) an allegiance to a 'Promise'.

When we look at commentaries on Genesis 14 the presuppositions of the commentator becomes very clear very quickly.  A typical commentator form my Evangelical tradition will almost always start by observing at least the opportunity to locate Abraham in history by way of the names of the kings, five of whom ally against four others in this chapter.  (More recently John Walton does this, as does Gordon Wenham earlier.)  While Wenham posits possible corresponding kings known from archaeology (it is not uncommon for the same name to have different spellings in different Semitic languages) Walton pretty quickly admits that no really convincing evidence has yet been found outside of the Bible for the kings listed in this account.

But when a commentator like Robert Alter, coming from a modern Jewish point of view more concerned with discovering the story-telling conventions of the Hebrew Bible, the first observation is entirely different, and reveals a very different perspective.  Alter's first note has nothing to do with how to locate these kings in history from non-biblical sources.  He notes how different the form of the story is here from the chapters which precede it.

Ancient Near Eastern literature is rich with examples of what could be called 'Annals of the King'.  These are written accounts kept by a royal court, usually of the daily activities of the king.  Also very common are accounts of the king's successes in battle.  So, if we are reading Genesis from the start, and we get here to Chapter 14, if we have been paying attention to how the stories are being told, this chapter should be a bit jarring.  Alter's first observation is how this chapter is 'annalistic'.  If we, as Evangelicals, set aside our preoccupation with factual accuracy as we are used to expecting it in historical narrative long enough to recognize the biblical author's conventions may differ substantially from ours, there are some very compelling observations to be made by recognizing the 'annals of the king' form which this chapter takes.

The first of these observations is that a story told in the 'annals of the king' form would be expected by the reader/hearer to be told from the perspective of the royal court.  Because the stories in Genesis have been told to this point from the perspective of the narrator - as one who belongs to the people of God - this use of the 'annals of the king' form would likely be found very intriguing.  The reader/hearer is powerfully drawn into the story because the perspective of the story has changed so dramatically.

This change in perspective is then the key to understand the rest of what we note in this chapter.  When Abram's nephew Lot is taken captive by the alliance of kings which have come against the king of Sodom and his allies, a 'fugitive' makes this known to 'Abram the Hebrew'.  As Walton explains in his commentary, each time the word 'Hebrew' is used in the TaNaK/Old Testament, it is how God's people are described by others.  Also noted is a term common in ANE literature - the 'habiru' or 'apiru'.  This term was not used to describe an ethnic group as much as a social class of people, and came with negative connotations like mercenary and bandit.  'Habiru' were people who did not subscribe an oath to the political order of the day - which in this case would mean to one of the 'city-state' kings like the ones described in this chapter.

The habiru were also know to flout what was otherwise the expectation of  the 'civil society' of the time.  If a slave were to flee his owner and come upon another group of people, it was expected that the slave be 'extradited' to its owner.  Interestingly enough, Deuteronomy 23:15-16 explicitly forbids Israel from extraditing a fleeing slave.  So to hear of a 'fugitive' coming to Abram strongly suggests that in Abram's household such fugitives could find refuge and would neither be returned nor mistreated.  It seems quite likely this fugitive would have been a slave conscripted into the army of one of these kings.  Because of these things, which are known to us from outside the Bible, the description 'Abram the Hebrew' could very well be 'Abram the habiru' and reflect the pejorative perspective of these royal courts.

To then read - in an account stylized as an 'annal of the king', no less - of Abram and his 318 men routing the previously victorious alliance of kings is terrifically rich with irony.  Remember, the 'annal of king' would report the king's activities and success in battle.  The very last thing you expect from an annal of a king is report of defeat.  But that is what we have here.  The literary form is literally turned on its ear to associate Abram's success in battle to the very thing which had him scorned by the royal court as a 'habiru'.

Abram's allegiance was not to any earthly king.  His allegiance was to the LORD and His Promise.

And we see this upon his return.  Melchizedek, 'king of Salem' (who was not part of the reported battle) comes out to receive Abram, blesses him and ascribes his victory to 'God Most High'.  Abram honors this 'priest of God Most High' with a tithe of his booty.  And then the king of Sodom, in dialog which seems contemptuous compared to what is said by Melchizedek, asks for his people back.  Abram responds by not only returning the people, but also the booty because he has taken an oath to God Most High that no one be able to say that Sodom had made him rich.

And so here we are.  Many thousands of years later, looking back to Abraham as a 'father in the faith' we are left to make sense of such ancient stories.  In its original setting, Israel would regularly have to decide their allegiance.  Would it be to the rulers of the people among whom they lived?  Would they serve the foreign gods of these people instead of the LORD?  For them, a recognizable form of story draws them in to an unexpected end and drives home the allegiance to which the covenant (which is introduced in the next chapter) calls them.

We find ourselves in a situation which is similar in what might be seen as a dangerous sense.  Our American political scene is one where prominent and politically active Evangelical leaders often contribute to a sense that Evangelical Christianity and Republican politics are one in the same.  This is dangerous because the perception of spiritual authority in the minds of our church members can confuse an allegiance to the LORD and His Promise with a political allegiance to a party and its 'anointed' candidates.  And those who refuse to so subscribe to a supposedly anointed political orthodoxy are then denigrated - they are the 'habiru' of our day.

Scriptures speak powerfully and authoritatively on many issues which are politically charged.  We should not shy away from an honest effort to explain the Scriptures on these issues.  But the Scriptures speak from a dramatically unique point of view - one that is not political in the temporal sense, but rather one that is from beginning to end a story of redemption.  Where Scriptures speak to issues which are current in our politics, it speaks not of organizing our side to defeat their side, but of our side acting from beginning to end out of allegiance to the LORD and to His Promise - that in Abraham all nations would be blessed.  That the Seed of the woman would come from his loins to redeem the heavens and the earth.

My allegiance to Him and His Promise is an oath to see my own life as part of His story of redemption, that others might also be drawn into the story.

The 'Idolatry of Statism' - Pope Francis and the Blind Spot of Roman Catholic Social Teaching

Posted on Saturday, March 15, 2014 No comments

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Right out of the gate I have to respond to a tendency among conservatives like myself to use words like 'statism', assuming the reader is familiar with the vocabulary we conservatives like to employ in our effort to articulate conservative values.  In titling this post "The 'Idolatry of Statism' - Pope Francis and the Blind Spot of Roman Catholic Social Teaching," I am using the word 'statism' to describe a view which sees the State as the most significant unit of society.  In this view the individual exists for the benefit of the state, rather than the other way around.  Another way of putting this would be to distinguish between 'political society' (meaning governments and their respective bureaucracies) and 'civil society' (meaning those organic associations of individuals which form in communities - churches, mosques, temples, scouting troops, town councils, etc.).  'Statism', then, is a view which prefers 'political society' over 'civil society' and subordinates the individual to the needs of the State.

Pope Francis has provoked much discussion and debate with his Apostolic Exhortation 'Evangelii Gaudium'.  This is as it should be, as this kind of document in Catholic tradition is not an expression of the formal 'teaching authority' claimed in Roman Catholic tradition - as is the case on other topics like contraception.  In others words the 'pastoral opinions' of a siting Pope are not the same thing as official church doctrine.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, Francis coined the term 'the idolatry of money'.  As is becoming clear in subsequent interviews, he is neither promoting Marxism nor condemning capitalism.  He is, rather, promoting an examination of the conscience.  He is asking that we consider whether money has replaced the individual and her dignity at the center of how we look at out life together as a community.  He is pointing our attention to increasing income inequality and asking us to consider the underlying causes.  He is asking us to think about how technology creates what he calls "new and often anonymous forms of power."  There is, however, a blind spot in his Exhortation.  It is one likely caused by European history and experience.


From the Church to the State to the Individual

With apologies for oversimplifying things somewhat, when Constantine made Catholicism the official religion of the Roman Empire we saw the development of a 'Churchist' society.  The Church developed as the most significant unit of society and was the institutional embodiment of the community.  The Reformation was eventually provoked by the corruption which resulted from this intersection of spiritual and political authority.

The Reformation then provoked the creation of competing religious loyalties.  But the Church remained the most significant unit of society.  If you lived in the 'Lutheran' parts of Germany, you were 'Lutheran'.  And if you weren't, well, the Church would see to it you did not live in those parts of Germany.  If you lived in the Roman Catholic parts of Germany, you were loyal to the Bishop of Rome.  And if you weren't, well, you would be summarily run out of town (and that is putting it quite euphemistically).

This dynamic produced decades of religious wars in Europe, followed by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1498.  The 'nation state' as we know it - largely following ethnic lines - along with the idea of 'international law', was born, and where the Church had been the most significant unit of society, the State now began to take its place; Europe went from being a 'Churchist' society to a 'Statist' society, and largely remains so today.

The American Founding Fathers, however, had what was then a radically different idea.  They looked at this history and saw that a national identity formed around ethnicity and religion played to the worst aspects of human nature, and all but guaranteed social conflict.  Reasoning that there were rights belonging to the individual person by her nature, they sought to form a national identity around these ideas rather than around ethnicity and religion.  'America' was born.  But at the heart of the idea of America is the necessary conviction that the individual, not the Church and not the State, is the most significant unit of society.


The 'Idolatry of Statism': The Blind Spot of Roman Catholic Tradition

In his Apostolic Exhortation it seems Pope Francis assumes the benevolence of the State toward the poor.  If we respond with good will to the Holy Father's exhortation to remember the poor - which I believe we should -  we have to ask ourselves and the Pope a penetrating question: Who knows best what the actual needs of the poor are?  Pope Francis - having worked among the poor his whole life - would likely agree that the people who are closest to them in their communities are most likely to best understand these needs.  This is where the distinction between 'political society' and 'civil society' becomes very important.  Europe's political orientation is toward 'political society', so when something is broken, nobody local and close to the problem has a sense of ownership towards it.  If something is broken and nobody owns it, fixing it is always someone else's job.

In Europe that 'someone else' is the State.  But again, the assumption is that the State has the best grasp of the true nature of the problem.  If there is one subject about which the Church rightly claims a unique expertise, it is the human condition.  An individual in civil society with a conscience formed by Christian tradition will always - ALWAYS - understand the needs of the poor among them better than a distant bureaucracy animated first by the need to maintain its claim on the budgetary decisions of political society.  The question, though, is whether or not the individual attends both to his place in civil society and to the formation of his conscience.  The Pope properly calls our attention to this matter.  But if the problem of the poor is a problem for the State to solve, the formation of our conscience towards the poor is aborted.  If the dictates of political society take precedence over the voice of the Holy Spirit spoken to the heart of the individual Christian, we have set the State up as our idol.  And it is this 'Idolatry of Statism' which then produces the 'Idolatry of Money' about which Francis writes.

For a little over 40 years the industrialized world has been experimenting with money.  In the case of the U.S. dollar, each unit used to be equivalent to a certain amount of gold or silver.  The quantity of dollars circulating in the economy was thus limited by the amount of silver and gold held in reserve by the Treasury.  During the Civil War, the dollar was taken off this 'bi-metallic' standard so dollars could be printed to pay war costs.  After the war, the dollar was returned to what would be called the 'gold standard' (silver was dropped).  With the money supply standing in for gold reserves held by the Treasury on behalf of the American people, it could be said that the money supply expressed the wealth of the nation.

This ended in 1971.  After World War II, with the U.S. rebuilding Europe, the dollar became the strongest and most stable currency.  This made goods imported from Europe very cheap.  To a certain extent it was necessary that European manufacturers had customers for their goods, so American consumption patterns were part of how Europe was rebuilt.  But when presented with the choice between using the strength of the dollar to repay debts or consume cheap imported products, we chose not only to not repay these debts, but to add to them by way of consumption all but completely divorced from a level of production necessary to support it.  As consumption began to be divorced from production, dollars flowed out of the country and into the reserves of other nations.  In the late 60's and early 70's, these countries began demanding these dollars be converted to gold.  A 'run' on U.S. gold reserves forced President Nixon to 'close the gold window' and untie the dollar from gold.

It is difficult to overstate how significant this change was.  Without the natural limits of gold held in reserve on behalf of the people, the money supply (in the form of credit) could be expanded at will - the will, of course, of politicians who have to run for office.  This change is seen in the growth of private debt since the early 70's.  The same expansion of credit to private individuals made possible by an unrestrained money supply also made it possible to extend public credit to governments.  The steep rise in 'sovereign debt' (exemplified in the US by the US Treasury Bond) can also be traced to this 1971 decision.

None of this expansion of public and private debt would have been possible with a money supply tied to public reserves of things like gold and silver.  With no limits to the money supply, politicians quickly figured out they could get elected by making promises which otherwise could not possibly have been kept.  And the banking sector was quite happy to profit from making the loans to pay for these promises.  It should be no surprise to see that the rise in income inequality began at the same time as the rise in public and private debt - immediately following the removal of the dollar from the gold standard in 1971.  This is easy to understand: the people to which you owe money will always have more of it than you.

While the Pope is right to point our attention to the way today's economies direct resources to the enrichment of the few and the debasement of the poor, he may not yet have a fully formed sense of who the 'few' actually are.  The Occupy Movement in the United States has taken to calling them the '1%', but have an equally poor sense of who exactly the 1% are.  This is due to a failure to appreciate the link between debt and income inequality.  Private debt is a function of an excess in the supply of money.  Bank shareholders are loath to put up with high amounts of mere 'cash' on their bank's balance sheet.  They insist it be lent out that the interest revenue might support the value of their bank stock holdings.  This excess of credit in the housing market is what caused the most recent financial crises.

Public debt is similarly a function of an excess of credit extended to governments; the promises of elected officials are completely divorced from the economy's ability to create the wealth necessary to keep these promises.  Credit replaces true wealth creation; it should be no surprise, then, to see the creditor becoming rich at a pace well ahead of everyone else.  Were the money supply actually restricted by publicly held reserves of gold and silver, credit would have to again give way to true wealth creation.  Our American form of government was originally conceived to secure an equal opportunity for all to do just that.  Were the money supply actually restricted by publicly held reserves, banks would not be able to profit from funding outrageous political promises.  And the politicians making them would be immediately outed as charlatans.

This, then, shows us that the 'few' - or to 'occupy' the language, the '1%' - are specifically the political and financial sectors.  But it is not enough to identify the 'few' this way.  The most significant reality existing in the blind spot of Roman Catholic tradition is the relationship between the political and financial class and our money.  Again, when money is redeemable for publicly held reserves of gold and silver, the money supply expresses the wealth of the nation's people.  When it isn't, the money supply gradually - at the same rate as the increase in public debt -  becomes an expression of the wealth of the political and financial sectors.  Income inequality rises, the 'few' are enriched and the poor are debased, just as the Pope has observed.


The Forming of our Christian Conscience

We need to come back to what I think is the main thrust of the Pope's Exhortation - attending to the formation of a distinctly Christian conscience towards our economics and how it affects the poor.  But before we address our conscience to the 'Idolatry of Money' we must first address it to the 'Idolatry of Statism' - which is the blind spot of Roman Catholic social teaching.  The growth of the State is fueled by the promises of elected officials, which can only be funded by debt made possible by an unrestricted money supply.  The larger the State grows, the less likely it has the information necessary to efficiently and effectively address the needs of the poor.  Compounding this is how the debt-fueled growth of the State causes more and more of a nation's wealth to be concentrated in the hands of those holding that debt - the banking sector.

There are two responses, the first a moral response and the second a political response, I believe follow from a well-formed Christian conscience:

First, the problem of the poor is not someone else's problem to solve.  It is ours.  But if we take ownership of it, we then must insist our political order be oriented away from 'political society' (meaning big government) and toward 'civil society" (meaning local community groups like our churches).  A deeper sense of dignity for the poor will only follow a strengthened sense of community where they reside.  That sense of community is discovered when individuals in the community together assume responsibilities for its problems.  And that sense of responsibility follows a sense of ownership.  Again, the problem of the poor is not someone else's - not the State's problem - to solve for us.

The argument for free markets and small government is not, then, as the Pope may view it.  It is not an argument for unfettered capitalism.  It is an insistence that the State not confiscate that sense of ownership we as individuals might otherwise nurture toward the problems of the poor.  It is an insistence that we be free to nurture this sense of ownership, and the responsibility and community which follow...  that we might then attend together to the dignity of the needy among us.

Secondly, the problem of the State confiscating our sense of ownership is practically a problem of the nation's money supply and how it has been hijacked by the political and financial sectors.  The public debt necessary to fund the 'Idolatry of Statism' can only exist in an economy with an unrestricted money supply.  If we are to tear down the 'Idolatry of Money' we must first tear down the 'Idolary of Statism' by returning our money supply to once again being a representation of the wealth of the nation's people rather than its bankers and politicians.

The Best Path to a College Degree - and Actually Learning Something as You Go

Posted on Saturday, March 8, 2014 1 comment

Saturday, March 8, 2014

I have two high school age boys.  The older is a junior and the younger is a freshman.  This is the time when students start getting notices from colleges and the perennial solicitations for test prep classes show up in the mail box.

The schools our boys attend have a "college-bound" ethos that assumes their students will head on to college after graduating.

No beef with that here.  But...

There is an unspoken assumption, and it is not unique to our kids' school.  To be "college-bound" is assumed to mean you will apply to be accepted into a four-year university after graduating.  High school requirements are calibrated to this assumption.  Here in California we have the University of California (UC) system (e.g. UC San Diego, or UCSD) and the California State University (CSU) system (e.g. San Diego State University - GO AZTECS!).  The UC system has a requirements track which most high schools - public and private - follow.

Before going further, let me make sure I am not misunderstood.  I do not challenge the assumption that a college degree is a worthy goal - worthy both in the sense of overall personal development and in the sense of future economic opportunities.  I do not even challenge the assumption that getting that degree from a reputable four-year university is a worthy goal.  The assumption I do challenge here is the assumption that the best path to this end - a college degree from a reputable school - is to go directly from high school into that reputable four-year university.

Let me put the challenge out there up front:  There are two numbers we can look at.  The first in the percentage of kids who are accepted and enrolled in a four-year university right out of high school.  Our schools - again, both public and private - like to point to that number when establishing the value they provide.  But there is another number: the percentage of our kids who graduate from a four-year university.  I think that is the far more important number.

Unfortunately, though, these are the only numbers we usually see when discussing value in education.  There is yet another number to consider: the amount of student debt incurred by those students who graduate from a four year university.  In our private school circles (contrary to what many might think) not all parents have the means to pay for their kids' college education.  Some do, but even then, whether the money is provided by the bank or by "The First Bank of Mom & Dad", the amount of money spent on that four-year university degree is a number you will never see in those mailings we are getting right now.

Here is why I believe that number is crucial to the overall goal of education for our children.  There are essentially three phases of life.  You are a student, you are a worker and then you are a retiree.  We want our kids to graduate from the first into the second with the knowledge and skills to be productive and to create wealth - even if it is only a little for themselves in retirement.  And our schools should understand this - we regularly are told that tuition only pays for part of the costs of running a school.  The rest has to be raised.  But there wouldn't be any money to donate if we are not first out in the economy creating wealth - which we can then share by donating to a school.  And you do not create wealth by ignoring value.  This is a central lesson our kids should be learning.

So let's go back to the assumption that the path to a four degree from a reputable school goes through acceptance and enrollment in that four-year university right out of high school.  In most parts of the United States, an alternative exists - the 'Community College' or 'Junior College'.  Part of the assumption I challenge here is a cultural message that the 'brighter' students go straight into a four-year university.  Again, this goes back to choosing to highlight that percentage or the percentage who graduate from a four-year university.

If I might be forgiven for a slight tinge of sarcasm - let's see how 'bright' the conventional path really is.  The first two years of college invariably involve the 100- and 200 series classes.  If you go to a large school - which is large mainly by virtue of being 'reputable' - many of these classes have upwards of 200 students in them and meet in a large lecture hall - on the very rare occasion everyone actually shows up!  It is also likely the lecturer will be a graduate assistant.  After all, the school is 'reputable' because the supervising faculty member is off doing some cutting edge research.  So the class is being taught by a graduate assistant who has little experience in the classroom and less, if any yet, in the field related to the subject of the class.

Now if you were to go to a Community College for these first two years, you will take the same 100- and 200- series classes.  You will be in a classroom with maybe 20-40 students, taught by someone who has a lot of experience teaching (because that is what they do for a living) and who likely has some real-world experience in the field related to the subject of the class.  And for that - compared to what you will spend at the reputable four year university - you will likely pay... wait for it...

$0.10 on the dollar.

After those first two years, having spent only $0.10 on the dollar, in many cases you will be well-positioned (sometimes by state policy as is the case here in California) to gain admission to that reputable four year university to complete your degree.  Remembering that the number which really matters is the percentage of students who graduate from a reputable four year university, let's now push past the second half of this college career and compare two students:

Student A went straight from high school into the reputable four year university.  Student A's parents were not well-off enough to pay for it, so Student A signed up for the student loans so assiduously 'sold' on college campuses today.  Student A successfully completed his four years and now has a Bachelor's Degree from that reputable university.  Student A also has (and this is the number - again - you will never see in those mailings) probably somewhere in range of $50K - $100K in student debt at interests rates significantly higher than the rates charged to the bank (by the Federal Reserve) for the money lent out.

Student B went straight from high school into the local Community College.  Student B paid $0.10 on the dollar during those first two years, and thus came out with the two-year Associates Degree with no student debt.  Student B transferred into the same reputable university and, like Student A, needed to take out student loans to pay for those last two years.  But let's say Student B learned something important along the way.  He noticed when he enrolled in the reputable four year university that he was exactly where his classmate - Student A - was, but he only spent $0.10 on Student A's dollar to get there.  That value lesson having been learned, Student B decides to work some to pay for things like books and supplies and general spending money.  He minimizes his debt to pay only for the bigger expenses - the tuition and fees.

So now we come to the Great Hall for the graduation ceremony.  Student A and Student B will both get the same Bachelor's Degree from the same reputable four year university.  Even before graduating, Student A's parents were paying for the pricey SAT/ACT test prep classes in the news today.  Student A was 'paying' as well, in a sense, by managing the stress of preparing for and taking the test (and all of the 'practice' tests offered by the school).  Student A was a 'bright' kid.  After all, he scored really well on the test and that is what the test tells us, right?  So Student A went straight into the four year "U".

Student B, though, reckoned that he could be in exactly the same place as Student A half-way through college and spend $0.10 on the dollar getting there.  And for having chosen the path through Community College, Student B was relieved of the stress of having to worry about the SAT/ACT.  And his parents were relieved of the expense of having to pay for pricey test prep classes.  Having learned to consider value when making educational decisions, once in the four year "U" he only borrowed what was needed for tuition and fees and now graduates with the exact same degree from the same school - with all of the same cachet the 'reputation' of the school confers.  Only he goes into the adult world with far less debt than Student A.

Again - with apologies if the question is perceived to be sarcastic - which one is the 'bright' student again?

There are a whole raft of cultural assumptions about higher education present today.  And they are carefully nurtured by the higher education and banking sectors.  The banks, in particular, are making a killing.  They pay around 1% for money they lend out to students at 6%.  And since student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and are guaranteed by the taxpayer, they get to make this premium without taking any real risk.  While this has 'democratized' higher education to a certain extent, it also represents an inflation of the money supply available to the higher education sector.  And the inflation in tuition costs is the direct result.

I regularly interact with 20-something young people who work for local elected representatives.  And I hear the same story over and over again.  I hear how they would like to buy a home and start a family, but buying that home is out of the question what with their student loan obligations.  They drive the same beat up hand-me-down car they used in college, again, because a new car is out of the question for the same reason.  They cannot even take the very first step in creating wealth they might later be able to share - buying a home.

If we are genuinely concerned that our children graduate into the workforce with the knowledge and skills to be productive members of society - and to be able to create some wealth they can later share with schools, churches and other community organization, we simply must start calling out some of these assumptions - especially about the supposed prestige of going straight into a four year "U" from high school - and start asking some really tough questions about value in education.

Noah Goes to the Movies

Posted on Saturday, March 1, 2014 No comments

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Paramount Pictures is set to release the movie "Noah" on March 28th, and the conversation about movies based on biblical stories is making its rounds on news sites.

The main question seems to be whether or not the movie will follow the biblical story and the degree to which the biblical character of Noah will be "based on the Bible."

Making a movie about the Flood where the main character follows the character of Noah would be an interesting accomplishment - seeing as the Bible's story does not develop the character of Noah.

In order to explain this, three related things need to be established: the relationship between "story" and "history"; the development of characters in ancient Hebrew storytelling; and how the Bible's Flood story compares with similar stories from the literature of the Ancient Near East (ANE).


Stories as Windows into History

For Evangelical Christians like myself, the most difficult thing about the first chapters in Genesis is appreciating the relationship between literature and history.  By 'history' here I mean simply the things that actually happened.  By 'literature' I mean how people write about things that actually happen.  I would hope it would not be controversial to say that the vast majority of what we know about history is the result of reading books.  The rest is the result of what we have been told by the previous generation.

'Literature', broadly thought of, is thus the 'window' through which we view most of history.  Understanding the differences between how we use literature today to account for our history and how the people of the Ancient Near East did the same is crucial to understanding the first chapters of Genesis.  Most will agree that the development of movable type and the printing press changed society and culture probably more significantly than any other single development.  In the ANE, long before the printing press of course, the ability to read and write was limited and writing materials were scarce.  From our perspective, then, the masses were 'illiterate'.

Or were they?

It might be better to describe them as 'heteroliterate'.  They had a very highly developed sense of 'story', even if those stories were transmitted orally.  Now to say they were telling 'stories' is not to say they were merely making things up.  It is to say the oral form of passing down history through generations placed a greater premium on things like how background information set up the story and how the story developed the characters of the persons involved than our modern conventions, which place a premium on the actual sequence of events (chronology) and verbatim reports of things said.

The texts of the ANE, then, are 'literary artifacts'.  Much in the same way that pottery and other similar artifacts are studied by archaeologists to reveal aspects of culture and everyday life, ancient texts give us a window into the 'heteroliteracy' of ordinary people in the Ancient Near East.  When we consider the Hebrew Bible, we do not have to abandon our belief in the unique inspiration of the Scriptures to recognize the Hebrew Bible as part of the larger ANE literary tradition.  As Evangelicals we generally do not subscribe to a 'dictation theory' of inspiration (the idea that God somehow 'dictated' the Scriptures word for word).  Our belief in inspiration allows for the human authors to exercise the literary conventions with which they were otherwise familiar.

So if we narrow our view of ANE literature to the texts of the Hebrew Bible, we see many similarities.  Background information is provided to set the stage for dialog.  The intentions and motives of the round characters are integral to the point of the story in the mind of the author.  'Accuracy' with incidents of 'fact' as we are used to testing it in our modern reading of history is less important.  This isn't to say the things reported in stories in Genesis did not happen.  It is to say that the question of exactly how these things happened is far less important to the biblical author who comes from the ANE literary world than it would otherwise be to us.  The question of why these things happened is, however, particularly important to the biblical authors.  They craft their stories accordingly, taking liberal license with things like chronology and reported speech and appropriating their literary world and its forms in ways that if we step back and see this world as 'heteroliterate' might actually shock and amaze us with its sophistication.

Throughout Hebrew storytelling the why of events is developed in dialog which is cast to reveal the intentions of the God of the Bible; over and again the stories in the Hebrew Bible reveal that the God of the Hebrew Bible is not like the other 'gods' of their literary world.


Character Development in Hebrew Stories

A Jewish scholar from the University of Maryland - Adele Berlin - describes character development in ancient Hebrew stories.  Some of her description is familiar: Stories have flat characters and round characters.  A flat character is one who acts in the story merely to help advance the narrative.  A round character is more central to the suspense of the story.  If we find ourselves wondering in a story what one of the characters will do next, that character is a round character.  But the easiest way to tell between the two is by looking for intentions, motives and emotions.  Rarely will a story delve into the emotions, motives and intentions of a character merely inserted to advance the narrative.  But in order to draw us into wondering what the round character will do next we first have to learn something about who they are - their inner life.  So where we rarely learn anything about the inner life of a flat character, it is how the story draws us into the inner life of emotions, motives and intentions of the main characters that make those characters round.

But Berlin adds to this a third, sort of 'middle' character - the 'type character'.  This is a character in a story who acts and speaks in ways the hearer of the story would recognize to be stereotypical.  Berlin uses the character of Haman in Esther as an example.  Parodies of the pretensions of the Persian court were common during that time and the book of Esther reads in many respects very much like such parodies.  Characters like Haman act in exactly the stereotypical fashion we expect them to, and we enjoy some sense of satisfaction when they get their comeuppance at the end.  But the literary genius that is the Book of Esther is found in how right in the middle of what otherwise reads as a whimsical parody for the Feast of Purim is found the serious matter of trust in God's superintendence of history - that Esther was brought to her truly honored place in the Court to preserve the Jewish people.


The Character of 'Noah' and the Character of God

And this is where we have to start if we are going to evaluate the Noah movie for how it conforms to the biblical account of the Flood.  We have to start by identifying the characters, and we do this by first looking for intentions, motives and emotions.  So what do we find?

Noah is reported to us and being 'righteous', 'blameless' and as having "walked with God."  But that is it.  We do not learn how it is that he reckoned himself to God in the midst of godlessness.  We do not learn about his emotions.  The closest we get to learning about his motives is the sparse report of Noah doing all that God commanded him concerning the ark.

But even before we get to that point in the story we learn of the intentions of 'mankind': "Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." (Genesis 6:5).  And we learn of the emotions of God: "The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The Lord said, 'I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.' But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord." (6:6-8).

The round characters in this story are mankind (collectively) and God.  While Noah is clearly very important in God's larger plan to redeem mankind and the earth, in the Flood story itself, Noah is actually a flat character.  He is certainly crucial to advancing the narrative of redemption, but the Flood story invests little in developing the character of Noah.  Indeed, in the Flood story Noah never speaks.

And it is in this exact respect that the Bible's version of the Flood differs dramatically from the most developed 'Flood narrative' in other ANE literature.  In Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Gilgamesh version of the Flood story is dramatically similar to the Bible's version.  But what can be seen immediately through the dialog is how the Gilgamesh version develops the "Noah" character as the hero of the story.  The utter, complete silence of Noah in the Bible's version sets the Bible's version apart quite dramatically in this respect.

The dialog in the Gilgamesh version also provides a stark contrast between the God of the Bible and the 'gods' in the Gilgamesh story.  The latter are portrayed as unleashing the flood because of pique at mankind's noisiness.  They are shown as cowering in fear at the violence of the storm.  And at the end they engage in petty finger pointing and quarreling.  The dialog in Genesis presents the firm judgment and omnipotence of God, in stark contrast to capriciousness of the gods of ANE literature.

What the Bible's version accomplishes in light of these similarities and differences is establishing the character of God.  It does this by deliberately not developing the character of Noah.  In doing this, the Flood story establishes a contrast between the intentions of mankind and the intentions of God.  Mankind's intentions are toward self-destruction.  God's intentions are toward redemption.  Recognizing this contrast is absolutely essential to understanding the Bible's view of God's judgment.


Genesis, Storytelling and the Cinema

And this is why Christians ought to welcome a retelling of the Flood story.  I am looking forward to seeing "Noah" upon its release.  I am hoping to see a thoughtful treatment of God's redemptive intentions in judging the earth and how they might be contrasted with mankind's corrupt and violent intentions.  I am quite sure the screen writers and director will take artistic license with their development of the character of Noah - they will have to since the Bible's version does not develop the Noah character in any storytelling sense.

If the Ancient Near East handed down its stories orally, and began the development of written history, the printing press transformed this centuries ago.  And we have further transformed this dynamic through the 20th century to the present day in the cinema.  The relationship between story and history will always pose challenges when we consider God's desire to reveal Himself to us in His Word.  The arguments which come with these challenges are important arguments.  But we will be missing a significant opportunity if we allow an argument over the character of Noah to overshadow the contrast between the intentions of mankind and the intentions of God.  The character development in the biblical story develops this contrast.  The Noah movie will renew our opportunity to engage in our own dialog with our neighbors about the intentions of God to redeem His creation - and how His judgment is a necessary part of those intentions.

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