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Ebola & Quarantines: The Importance of Solid Critical Thinking

Posted on Friday, October 31, 2014 No comments

Friday, October 31, 2014

A little less than a hundred years ago, the song of the crickets in the evening was joined by the banter of four women playing bridge well into the night.  The ladies retired a bit after 11pm.

By the next morning three were dead.

Medical lore from the time tells of a man boarding a cable car feeling well enough to head off to work.  He was dead six blocks later. By the end of that winter, worldwide two billion people would contract what became known as the 'Spanish Flu'.  Between 20 and 40 million of them would die from it.

We are hearing from government - and the refrain is being repeated by the media - that a person who has Ebola is only infectious when they are showing symptoms.  We are also being told that Ebola is only transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids.  I will not challenge either the science (virology and epidemiology) or the medicine (protocols for treating Ebola).  I will, though, question the quality of thinking which is coming not only from the media, but from government officials with scientific and medical training who should know better.

Let's start here: The science tells us that a person with Ebola is only 'infectious' when they start showing symptoms, and then the virus can only be transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids.  Taking these two things up one by one:
Ebola is only infectious when a carrier is showing symptoms - until a new strain proves to be infectious before then; and...
Ebola can only be transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids - until a new strain proves to be more easily transmitted.
The history of the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 should caution us against missing some important things about the nature of scientific inquiry itself.  To start with, science does not traffic in the kind of 'certainties' that mark today's pronouncements on Ebola.  Science is always aware of the possibility that new observations will challenge old dogmas.  If there is any field where this caution should be observed, it has to be the field of infectious diseases (epidemiology) - which must account for the manner in which viruses mutate.

And so we come to the controversy over quarantining health workers returning from West Africa.  Here we have to start with a basic question about public policy: Do we base public policy only on what we know?  Or do we base public policy on what we do not know?

If we are talking about a pathogen like influenza, we see a mortality rate of 0.1%, and thus it makes sense to base public policy on what we know.  But even then, we face the risk that a new strain can devastate a population as happened in 1918.  But when we are talking about a pathogen like Ebola with a historic mortality rate between 25-90 percent, prudence would seem to dictate that public policy be oriented to what we do not know.

So let's review: We do know that viruses mutate.  We do not know what the next strain of Ebola will look like.  We do not know whether or not an asymptomatic person will be infectious when the next strain emerges.  We do not know whether the next strain will be more easily transmitted than the strain we know of today.  And thus we have no idea what treatment protocols will have to look like for the next strain.  But to repeat: We do know that viruses mutate.

This, then, brings us to the matter of health workers returning from West Africa.  If one were to carry the virus, we do not know whether they will carry the currently known strain or a new strain.  Or to put it another way - we do not know whether they might be 'Patient Zero' for the next strain of Ebola.

So consider the public policy choices available: If we base public policy only on what we know, there is no reason to quarantine a health worker who is asymptomatic.  If, however, the mortality rate of Ebola cautions us to base public policy on what we do not know, we might choose to enforce a 21 day quarantine.  If the returning health worker does carry a new strain, we will discover this without the tragic consequences of allowing what we do not know to spread unabated.

Or can we go merrily on our way under the false impression that what is known about Ebola today is known for 'certain' such that we would not entertain concerns about what might develop should the virus mutate.  If we do this, a potential 'Patient Zero' can be out and about society unknowingly spreading the next strain.

We need better thinking from government - and from media as well.

"Storage Wars" & The Fed - The Legacy of Quantitative Easing

Posted on Wednesday, October 29, 2014 No comments

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Barry drives a fancy car - a different one each time - to the auction.

The auctioneer cuts the bolt on the shed, rolls up the door, and the bidders all look inside.  They're not allowed to examine the contents other than just looking - and then the auctioneer starts his riff.

As the bids come in Barry starts bidding up the unit.  It's almost like he bids on more of a whim than any sense of what he might get for the shed's contents.

It almost seems like he can print money.

So the price of the unit goes up, up and then up some more.  The other bidders start by shaking their heads.  They follow on by rolling their eyes.  Then they throw up their hands - they're out.  The riff ends with 'SOLD - to the man with the fancy car who can print money!'

As ridiculous as it might sound, A&Es "Storage Wars" is a great pivot on the end of the Federal Reserve's Quantitative Easing (QE).  This is their Orwellian term for 'printing money', only in today's computer age there is no need for paper and ink.  All the Fed does is add to its 'balance sheet' with keystrokes at the keyboard, and then tells the banks what it will pay for U.S. Treasury bonds (i.e. government debt) and home mortgage bonds.

In this world of 'bonds' (think of a mortgage, just with different payment terms), the interest rate goes down as the price goes up.  The federal government - 17+ trillion dollars in debt - cannot refinance bonds which are coming due unless the interest rate on the new bond is lower.  (No one refinances a mortgage at a higher rate.)  So the longer this goes on, the more important it becomes to suppress those interest rates - or to keep the price of bonds artificially high.

Enter Uncle Ben and Aunt Janet.

But at some point they must take away the punch bowl, as they say.  Today the Federal Reserve announced that its program of QE is ending.  Tomorrow will be an interesting day on the stock market.  In the coming weeks and months the markets will judge the results of QE.  Some commentators are already arguing that it was a success.  After all, inflation is low and the stock market has soared, right?  I'll show below that those two observations are self-contradictory.

Let's start with the stock market.  One of the most common barometers of the market is what is called the 'Price to Earnings Ratio', or P/E.  To keep it simple, divide the price of a share of stock in a company with the earnings of that company over a year.  In his book "Irrational Exuberance" Robert Shiller shows an approach to this ratio which accounts for economic cycles and relative profit margins.  His methodology produces a chart (below) which shows that the historic mean for P/E is 16.6.  If the market is at any one point significantly higher than this, it reflects an 'inflation' of stock values.

When we look at Shiller's data we can see an extreme inflation during what we remember as the 'Dot Com Bubble' which burst in 2000 when the P/E was 43.77.  We can also see that the easy money of the Greenspan years was an effort to re-inflate that bubble.  That easy money went primarily into the sub-prime mortgage world and we see that bubble burst at 27.21.  At the bottom of the last financial crisis the number is 15.17, slightly below the mean.

This the context in which we must judge Uncle Ben and Aunt Janet and their program of QE.  It has been an effort to re-inflate the bubble and has brought us to a P/E today of 25.96 - a hairbreadth away from where we were before the last crisis.

So the commentators are right in one sense: Yellen and Bernanke have brought us back to where we were before the crisis.  Whether or not that is a good thing, though, is an entirely different question.

Land and Stock as an 'Inflation-Sink'

But before we judge the merits, just take note of the deflation/inflation cycle - if we think of those things as measures of price.  The Fed is fond of telling us that inflation is low - at less than 2% lower even than they would like it.  But if we look at when the Dot Com bubble burst (22.9 in January 2003) and then right before the sub-prime bubble burst (27.21 in January 2007) we see an increase in the P/E ratio of 20.79%.  Then when we look at the bottom of the Great Recession (15.17 in January 2009) and today (25.96) the rate of increase is 71.12%.

We can see a very similar dynamic in the housing market (using the Case/Shiller Home Price Index):

In this chart we see what happens when the easy money is directed to the housing market.  From the bottom (125.36) to the top (217.86) of the sub-prime bubble we see an increase of 73.79%  There are only so many objectively qualified borrowers in the market for homes.  So after they have been financed and there is still a lot of money sitting around the result is inevitable - a lowering of lending standards.  We all know how this ended.

What this shows us is that land and stock have become an 'inflation-sink'.  By 'sink' I don't mean the kitchen sink.  I mean something more along the lines of a 'heat-sink' - surfaces designed to absorb and dissipate heat.  Land and stock have become the 'sink' that absorbs the inflation of the money supply - and dissipates it among the already wealthy.

The Deception of the "Consumer Price Index"

Not long ago, President Obama tweeted a pose for his concern for the poor and middle class.  This was an appeal to increase the minimum wage.  In his tweets, Obama points out that since 2009 the price of eggs has gone up by 23% and the price of milk by 17% - with the minimum wage remaining the same.

As an example of the ridiculousness of this as rhetoric, Mitt Romney tried the same nonsense in one of the presidential debates, noting how the price of gas has soared.  Conveniently, of course, Romney was starting at the bottom of the financial crisis in 2009 - just as Obama is here.  And Obama rightly laughed at Romney in the debate - just as we should be laughing at Obama today for trying to pull the same trick.

Eggs are sold (usually) by the dozen.  Milk is sold mainly by the gallon.  You cannot take some eggs away, keep the price the same, and still call it a 'dozen'.  You cannot lower the amount of milk in the carton, keep the price the same and call it a 'gallon'.  And it is for this reason that things like milk and eggs are perfect indicators of the truth about inflation.  They are also - along with things like energy - excluded from the Consumer Price Index.

The reason, they will say, is because these prices are more volatile.  Which means, of course, they are more susceptible to the inflation of the money supply when the money supply has been hijacked to prop up government borrowing.  (Hang in there... I'll get back to 'Storage Wars' shortly.)

Purchasing Power and Income Inequality

Let's go back really quick to the idea of a heat-sink.  These are used, for example, on computer chips because the chips themselves can run quite hot.  The heat-sink absorbs that heat and dissipates it.  With land and stock as 'inflation-sinks' the inflation of the money supply is absorbed principally by the increase in prices for land and stock. Who is it that owns land and stock?  Among whom, to ask this another way, is the inflation of the money supply dissipated?

Here is where we see how the Fed's easy money has fed income inequality.  In order to suppress government borrowing, all interest rates have to be kept artificially low.  This makes credit - which is part of the money supply - more available.  This causes lending standards to decline and the prices of things like land and stock to increase.

The rich get richer, and...

The 'lower middle class' - these are those among the middle class who do not own their own home - and the poor do not have land and stock in any significant measure.  All they have are the dollars in their purse/wallet or in their 'savings' account.  And those dollars buy 17% less milk and 23% less eggs than before, as an example.  As prices for energy and food go up, the purchasing power of the dollar in terms of these necessities goes down.

...the middle class and poor watch their standard of living slip away.

The Legacy of Quantitative Easing

Regardless of the usual liberal protests about good intentions, this is the legacy of Quantitative Easing, regardless of what happens next.  But since Uncle Ben and Aunt Janet aren't coming to the auction anymore, the demand supported by the biggest former buyer of government debt is no longer there.  It is like 'Barry' has bailed on the buyers on Storage Wars.  If he and his money tree are no longer bidding on the sheds, the price of the sheds has to come down.

When the price of bonds drop (the 10 year Treasury Bond in particular), the interest rate on all loans will rise.  As these rates rise, it becomes profitable for banks to deploy their now massive reserves - why lend now at 2% when you can lend later at higher rates?  Where will that money go?  It will not go to hiring and production as long as you can make higher margins on land, real estate and speculation in commodities like oil.

The rich will get richer... land, stock, energy and food will increase in price... and the middle class and poor will watch as their standard of living slips even further away.

And when 2% Treasury bonds mature and they cannot be replaced by new bonds at a lower rate?  Well, at the point, things will get really interesting.

The Roots & the Fruits: A Reflection on the Synod of Bishops

Posted on Tuesday, October 21, 2014 No comments

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The recent Synod of Catholic Bishops concluded with a lot less than the initial documents suggested.  I suspect this is exactly as Pope Francis designed.

The initial document was less a matter of signaling an immediate change and more a matter of opening a window into the deliberative processes of the Catholic Church.  This is, in and of itself, remarkable.  Questions about divorce and remarriage, civil marriages and homosexual persons and relationships had previously been off the table.  This was more than just an assertion of thousands-year-old teaching; the topics themselves had not been previously offered to the faithful for thoughtful discussion.

From now until this time next year that will be changing.  And that is an earthquake all by itself.  It's not the 'big one', but might be a foreshock to the 'big one'.  Hopefully it will also be an opportunity for the 'conservative' and 'liberal' sides of the Church to better understand one another.

Here is how I hope that will play out: (Note: I write as a Evangelical Protestant.  But as a student of the history and theology of Christianity, I consider myself part of a history which is playing out before us.)  We will better understand what I'll call "the roots and the fruits."

Liberal Catholics Will Better Understand the Roots

One of the things I try to do in this blog and in my book (the chapter on social conservatism in American politics) is to use stories to discuss larger issues.  I like to tell part of the story of creation from Genesis in a lighthearted, amusing way:

God brings the animals, male and female, to Adam to see what names he would give them.  Adam notices something:

"This one here," he is pointing to the male, "has something I have too."  He is looking down at his own midsection.

"But he also has something I don't."  He is pointing to the male's female partner.

God walks about in the cool of the day and Adam calls out;

"Yo, God, what's up with this?"

God comes over, smiles, chuckles and says: "Yes, I can see that it is not good for man to be alone."  And so he creates the woman...

The point of the story is that the order of creation - the heterosexual complement of nature - occurs to Adam in observing the animals.  This isn't decreed on the tablets of stone Moses would later carry down the mountain.  It is not something we believe because it was taught to us.  It is something we believe and teach because it was obvious before there was anything to believe and teach.

By opening the topic for discussion, I hope the Holy Father will lead Liberal Catholics in a path which recognizes that the moral reasoning of the Church - the roots - comes before what the Church believes and teaches (theology and doctrine).  The Church can no more change this than it can decree a change in human genetics, anatomy and biology.

Conservative Catholics Will Better Understand the Fruits

In his letter to the church at Galatia (Ankara in modern-day Turkey was the capital of Galatia in biblical times) St. Paul lists things he called the 'fruits of the Spirit'.  (This is a bit of 'church-speak' that church-going folks like me can easily fall into when talking with others.)  Paul's list included: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Notably absent is a 'good argument'.  This is notable because during the time of early Christianity 'wisdom' - being skilled in oratory and argument - was thought in other Christian circles (e.g. Corinth - Korinthos in modern day Greece) as a mark of spirituality.  The passage in the New Testament popularized in weddings that starts with "love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant..." (1 Corinthians 13:4-13) is Paul's answer to the Corinthians' misunderstanding of what spirituality is all about.

Another passage in the New Testament which is very familiar even among people who have never darkened a church door is the story of the Good Samaritan.  But there is more here than just the story of a Samaritan man who had compassion on someone.  This is a contrast of intentions and motives.

An 'expert in the law' wants to 'test' Jesus, and so asks: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus answers (and I am obviously paraphrasing): "You're the lawyer; you tell me!"

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

"You have answered correctly; do this and you will live."

Notice that the expert in the law has answered expertly.  He is right.  But he is about to find out that his expertise - his being right - is not quite up to the hope he is seeking.  St. Luke (the Gospel writer here) opens wider the window into the lawyer's intentions and motives which he opened at the beginning.  Now "wishing to justify himself..." he asks "And who is my neighbor?"

And Jesus tells the story we all know well.  The story opens the window into the Samaritan's intentions and motives.  He has compassion on the man left for dead by robbers.  And in the dialog we learn that he will return to settle any extra costs incurred by the inn-keeper in nursing the man back to health.

So Jesus asks the expert in the law: "Who was the neighbor to this man?"

The lawyer cannot even bring himself to say 'Samaritan'; they were reviled by the Jews of Jesus' day as religious half-breeds.  He entertains himself with a lawyerly dodge: "The one who showed mercy toward him."

It is what Jesus says last that is most compelling.  We are presented with the choice between making a good argument and being a good neighbor.  We are not left with any wiggle room.  There is no lawyerly parsing of the language which will get us out of having to make this choice.  Jesus looks at us and simply says: "Go and do the same."

We conservatives are the 'experts in the law.'  We are wonderfully articulate and nuanced (and hopefully I have been a little entertaining too) as we make the 'Natural Law' argument for the heterosexual complement of nature.  And we see in the Gospel a message of hope for eternal life.  I hope the Holy Father will lead conservative Catholics in a reflection which asks this basic question: Are our arguments - and all of the parsing of the language we seem to be so highly entertained by - up to the hope we are seeking?

I believe the answer must be no.

Orthodoxy, Evangelism...

This push and pull between "orthodoxy" (being right) and evangelism is not new to the Church.  Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552 - 1610) went to China with his expertise in mathematics, astronomy and cartography.  He sought to join what was known by the West to what was believed by Confucian scholars, looking first for how Confucian ideas corresponded to the teachings of the Church.  As part of this effort, he translated the New Testament into Chinese - adopting indigenous words for "God" rather than imposing Latinisms on the Chinese language.

This became controversial because Ricci taught that Chinese rites for deceased relatives were not properly "worship" as understood by the Church and thus were not incompatible with Christianity.  This and the use of indigenous language in biblical translation exposed a rift between orthodoxy (argued then mainly by the Dominican order) and evangelism (argued then by the Jesuits).

While the landscape has changed somewhat since, the defenders of what was thought to be orthodoxy won the day in Pope Clement XI's decision to ban rites for the deceased among Chinese converts and the use of Ricci's choices in the translation of Scripture.  The repercussions for the Church's mission reverberate to the present day.

In Ricci's time Korean Confucian intellectuals traveled to Peking to inquire into Ricci's astronomy.  They returned to Korea with the implements and rudiments of the Mass.  Later Catholic missionaries would gain entrance into Korea and be shocked to see the basics of the Mass already being celebrated.  Scottish Protestant missionary John Ross would use Ricci's approach to translation and produced a Korean New Testament.  He succeeded in getting it into Korea before missionaries themselves could enter.  When they did, they found the beginnings of Christianity already present.

To travel in Asia, visiting places like Japan and China, is to see what happens when the language of orthodoxy swallows up whole the language of evangelism.  And then to visit South Korea is to see and experience what happens when the language of orthodoxy is put in the service of evangelism.  When these two things are allowed to compete, both lose.  When they are joined together, the Gospel flourishes.

...and the Family as a Mission Field

The Church will reflect in the coming year leading up to another Synod in October of 2015.  It is expected that the results of that meeting will inform Pope Francis in a more formal promulgation of the pastoral direction of the Catholic Church into the future.  None of this challenges the roots of Catholic moral reasoning.  But it does challenge the Church to examine the fruits of a history which pits orthodoxy against evangelism as competing interests.

My hope is that conservative Catholic participants will see the family as a mission field and not allow "being right" to swallow up whole the imperative of the Gospel to be a good neighbor.  I also hope that conservative non-Catholics like myself will see themselves as participants in the larger history being made here and pray that Pope Francis and the bishops will be led to a transformation of the pastoral ministry of the Catholic Church.

The Federal Reserve: You Just Can't Make This Stuff Up

Posted on Friday, October 17, 2014 2 comments

Friday, October 17, 2014

Getty Images from
Oh. My. God.  You just can't make this stuff up.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen just said she was "greatly concerned" about income inequality, and the inability of people to advance economically because it is harder to get an education and start a business.

The truth of this is depressing enough.  What is depressing in the extreme is to hear no less than the Chair of the Federal Reserve sit there and wring her hands, wondering why.  Let's review:

In her speech, Yellen did not attempt to answer what she called the 'difficult questions of how best to fairly and justly promote equal opportunity.'

Uh, madam Chair, I can answer that supposedly difficult question with one word.


When the money supply is constrained by a hard asset like gold held in reserve by the Treasury, a fundamental equality between the creditor and debtor is enforced by nature and mathematics.  The creditor, because they know no one will be able to come to their rescue by printing more money, is forced to actually assume risk when lending.  The debtor is forced to think twice before borrowing because they cannot count on the value of their debt going down as more money is printed.  What this does is force a preference for actual production in the allocation of the nation's money supply.  (Credit is part of the money supply - not just the currency in our wallets.)

Right now the nation's money supply is allocated to politically preferred uses (government debt).  Make no mistake, this is true under both parties.  Under Republicans, defense programs metastasize into bureaucracies looking for ways to spend money at the end of each fiscal year.  Under Democrats it is social programs scurrying about throwing money around come "use-it-or-lose-it" time.  Either way, this is allocation toward political preferences, not towards the improvement of products and services or to the delivery of those products and services - also known as wealth creation.

The money supply is also allocated to speculative uses, also known as the Blackjack table of the commodities markets where hedge funds use Big Data to count the cards and place their bets when the count is in their favor.  Prices of end user products (like gasoline) spike higher and faster as the markets register the false demand of these bets.  The purchasing power of ordinary people in terms of the things produced with these commodities is stolen and then traded on the options market as a discount to the spot price of the commodity being contracted for.

Kinda hard to get your head wrapped around that, but at the end of the day it's called theft - pretty sophisticated theft, but theft just the same.

Consider a possible choice: I have figured out how to make a better mousetrap.  I have done my research and figure I can borrow some money, build a factory, acquire the raw materials, build my better mousetrap and make about a 5-10 percent margin.  That margin is real wealth because it results from actually improving something - the mousetrap.  But why would I bother when I can borrow that same money essentially for free and drop it in a hedge fund and make 20% speculating on oil?  That 20%, though, comes at the cost of the purchasing power of ordinary people in terms of things like a tank of gasoline.  I am getting richer stealing that purchasing power than I would otherwise get actually producing/improving things in the real economy.

And our dear Fed Chair sits there and wonders why income inequality is getting worse, kids can't go to college and small businesses cannot get loans?  As my kids would say: Really?


As she leads the Fed in their money printing enterprise - and now they're talking about keeping it up because of the market's recent volatility - she actually sits there and wonders why college is out of reach for more and more people?  Home prices skyrocketed before that bubble burst in 2008 because excess credit - made possible by an unrestrained money supply - forced lending standards down.  There is over $1T in student loans outstanding - borrowed by banks for free, lent out at 6-odd percent, guaranteed by tax-payers and not dischargeable in bankruptcy - and Yellen sits there and wonders why tuition has skyrocketed?


The Federal Reserve has turned the temple of the free market into a den of thieves.

As 'Pastoral' Earthquakes Go, This is 'The Big One'

Posted on Tuesday, October 14, 2014 No comments

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church are on the brink of triggering what some have called 'the big one' of 'pastoral earthquakes': A reform of the pastoral stance of the Church on things like couples living together in 'civil marriages' (as opposed to Church marriages), persons previously divorced re-marrying without the benefit of a prior 'annulment', and the elephant in the room - gay couples - is apparently in the works.

If my dear reader will permit, please allow me to back up on some of this conversation to provide some context from my seminary education.  But before I do that, let me go on record right here - as a social conservative - as saying I find these developments refreshing and incredibly encouraging.

The context, though, which almost certainly will be missed by the media - especially the more liberal outlets - is the difference between the 'pastoral' ministry of the Church and the underlying 'theology' and doctrine of the Church.  It is important to understand that these two things are not the same.

I suspect in the coming weeks we will discover that the Church - or the current 'Synod' of bishops (a 'synod' is a meeting place of roads and represents the coming together of Catholic bishops from around the world to discuss the direction of the Church on these issues) - will call for a re-orientation of the pastoral ministry of the Church, but not for a change in fundamental theology and doctrine.

Here is how that difference plays out in real life: The Church's moral tradition - the way right and wrong are reasoned to - is one grounded in nature.  The Church's teaching, for example, on human sexuality does not come from an ancient holy man with a flowing white beard in a temple on some mountaintop scribbling random sayings on some parchment.  It comes, rather, from simple observations of nature.

If I might take a little risk here, one cannot notice the anatomy of the man, then notice the anatomy of the woman, and then turn and claim not to know what goes where.  The 'heterosexual complement of nature' is right in front of us.  The Catholic Church - and social conservatives, both Catholics and Protestants more broadly - actually do not rely upon Scripture to teach us what is natural vs. unnatural - and therefore good vs. bad - when it comes to sexuality.  We reason, rather, from the nature of things right in front of us.

I doubt this will change, nor should it.

But what will likely change - and what must change if our message is to continue to be 'good news' - is the orientation of the pastoral work of the Church away from making good arguments (even like the one above) in favor of being a good neighbor.  The question pressing before the bishops right now is to both articulate the need for this pastoral re-orientation, and then to articulate exactly what it means in terms of how the Church will change.

The Difference Between Judgment and Condemnation

Media stories would have us believe the bishops are taking their cue from a statement Pope Francis made to reporters on a plane.  Speaking of homosexuals in general, the Pope noted that if a person who is homosexually oriented has 'good will', "who am I to judge?"  It is a little more complicated than that, but actually not by much.

'Judgment' as a biblical idiom usually means some form of punishment imposed by an authority for violating the law.  I take the Pope as asking "who am I to impose a punishment?"  But there is another much more common and ordinary use of the word 'judgment': the simple sense of judging what is natural and unnatural, right and wrong, good and bad.  The problem arises when we confuse this with 'condemnation'.

The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome in which he spoke of his own struggles with right and wrong.  He noted that there were things he knew not to do, yet he ended up doing them anyway.  And there were things he knew he ought to do, and he ended up not doing them.  Then Paul followed on with one of the most significant sentences in all of the New Testament (Romans 12:1):
There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ...
Pope Francis and the bishops are on the brink of calling the Church to a pastoral posture toward those in civil marriages, those who have re-married after a previous divorce, and homosexuals in general that welcomes them to Christian community.  This is a pastoral choice - long overdue in this conservative's opinion - to put belonging before believing.

Belonging Before Believing

Conservatives, of course, are in an uproar over all of this.  The objection will essentially be that being 'in Christ' (for the Catholic this would mean being baptized and admitted to the other Sacraments) has to precede the 'no condemnation' part of St. Paul's teaching.  This is the 'believing before belonging' that those who are my age (born in 1967) or older likely take for granted as the norm.

The days of believing before belonging are gone, and have been for a while now.  And it is no surprise that Pope Francis - a Jesuit priest - would be the one to lead the Church in realizing this.  The Jesuit order of priests have been known historically for going to parts of the world previously unreached by the Church, taking the indigenous cultural forms of the people and re-interpreting the Gospel around them rather than trying to wholly replace those forms with Western forms.  Father Mateo Ricci (1552-1610) and his mission to China is probably the best example of this.

This allows for a gradual recognition of what being 'in Christ' entails.  It is to offer the 'no condemnation' part of St. Paul's teaching as an introduction to what it means to be 'in Christ' and an invitation to take whatever first step the person is able to take in that direction at the moment.  In practical terms, this means those who were pastorally excluded from the Christian community because the Church judged their lifestyle to be sinful are now to be included as matter of pastoral ministry that the Church might re-introduce the Gospel.

It is not to abandon the judgment (using the term broadly as a recognition of right and wrong) of the Church as to what is normal and natural.  It is not - as it seems many conservative commentators have taken it - to approve of a lifestyle which the Church has taught from the beginning is not aligned with the order of God's creation.

The theology and doctrine of the Church on these things has not changed, nor will it, nor should it.  The pastoral orientation of the Church is changing dramatically - and very much for the good.

Global Warming: The Difference Between Correlation and Observation

Posted on Friday, October 10, 2014 No comments

Friday, October 10, 2014

Getty Images/Ikon Images from Wall Street Journal Op-Ed
The Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed today by Judith Curry, a professor and former chairwoman of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the president of Climate Forecast Applications Network.  It is an excellent picture into conservative frustrations with the global warming debate:

The Difference between Correlation & Observation

In the main, Curry's Op-Ed notes hers and a number of other recent "observational" studies.  This is to be distinguished from computer model projections, and shows that the models are running "too hot," or making statistical assumptions unwarranted by the data.

The reason this is important is because it brings to the forefront the essential difference between data and statistics.  As I have noted before (my most read blog post), the volume of raw data in the datasets used by NOAA to make pronouncements about the "hottest years on record" has decreased by no less than 75 percent over the past twenty years or so.  This is odd because in science - which is an example of inductive reasoning - you simply do not go from less data to more 'certainty'.

Even the manner in which the projections are discussed is misleading.  We hear that the IPCC is 98 percent 'certain' about the warming climate, its man-made causes and the potential catastrophic consequences.  The problem is science does not traffic in 'certainties', but rather in 'probabilities'.  We will know - not for certain, but with a high degree of probability - that this so-called science is rife with political agendas when they go out and tell us they are '100 percent certain'.  The whole scientific enterprise rests on the premise that future observations might force us to change our views, thus we do not assert anything to be '100 percent certain', just highly probable.  It is thus misleading at best to stick a number like '98 percent' on a term like 'certain' when science will never claim to be 100 percent certain.

Curry's research, and the others she mentions in her Op-Ed, show us that when empirical data (actual observations rather than statistical models) is favored, the impact of greenhouse gases on the climate is not as stark as the models would have us believe.  The empirical data also corresponds well to the current 'pause' in global warming.

The question in the global warming debate then becomes one of what we expect from science in public policy debates.  The answer, I believe, is first and foremost a fundamental humility in the face of the complexities of the earth's climate.  These complexities render trying to mimic an open system with a computer model for predictions anything beyond a few days into the future a fool's errand.  It is this lack of humility which is most objectionable in the public policy debates surrounding the changing climate.

The Captivity of Public Policy Debates

In January of 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower shared a prescient concern:
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. 
The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded. 
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
The context of Eisenhower's concern is partly what he saw as an emerging "military-industrial complex."  But as is clear when reading the whole speech, it was a trend beginning with the emergence of defense contracting and defense-funded research against which Eisenhower was warning.

We see that exact captivity of public policy to a "scientific-technological elite" in the global warming debate today.

Immigration Reform: The Promise of Civil Society

Posted on Wednesday, October 1, 2014 No comments

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

There is a parallel hidden by history between the Great Depression and the surge of women and children from Central America across our southern border.  It is a parallel crisis of confidence.

As bank after bank failed during the Great Depression and our grandparents (or great-grandparents - I realize to my deep dismay I am actually getting old) abandoned the traditional banking system, an alternative which originated decades earlier in Europe gained currency here.

While credit unions already had an established history back as far as 1850, it was out of the Great Depression that they were formalized here in the United States.  In 1934 the Federal Credit Union Act became law, and provided a chartering process for non-profit, member-owned bank-like institutions.  Services and membership groups were limited at first, but in 1977 legislation allowed credit unions to offer a wider range of products like mortgages and credit cards.  Membership groups also expanded and today credit unions serve 96 million people, roughly 43.7% of economically active Americans.

It is this triumph of civil society which suggests a way forward in the immigration reform debate.

To explain, I first need to explain very briefly that by civil society I mean organic, non-profit organizations which form to meet specific needs.  Political society describes government, its constituent bureaucracies and the dynamics which emerge as those bureaucracies inevitably compete with each other for budget dollars.  Conservative political philosophy, as I advocate for it here in this blog, simply prefers civil society over political society for most of the challenges we face.

And now to the crisis of confidence over immigration.

As I have written elsewhere, the problem here is not at the border and frankly has nothing to do with border security.  It is simply a matter of expecting people to wait in a line that is not moving.  And this particular line is not moving - and thus creating a market for human smuggling - because we have an immigration system built by and for political society.  While the details of the solution will certainly be complex, the solution itself is quite simple.  Immigration is a problem we face together, and we need to take it back from political society.

A High Level Overview

If we take a high-altitude view of this, the solution looks very much like the credit union idea in that employers who depend on immigrant labor could form an immigrant labor cooperative.  Just as banking services are highly regulated, immigrant labor must also be tightly regulated.  But as credit unions have shown us, civil society - audited and regulated by political society - is easily up to the task.  Immigrant labor cooperatives would have to meet the requirements outlined in a federal charter.  Here are a few things which might be called out in that charter:

Security Clearances: We already have a very mature system for evaluating people who will be asked to work with sensitive information and oversee sensitive processes.  National security clearances all the way up to Top Secret/SCI (Sensitive Compartmented Information) are granted to those working in the Defense and Homeland Security arenas.  Those employed by immigrant labor cooperatives would be required to obtain at least a Secret level clearance.

SAS 70, SSAE 16 & SOC1/2/3: The banking system is required to house its information technology in data centers which meet standards for security, along with external and internal control processes.  While there is technically no "SAS70" certification (it originated as an accounting reporting standard), SSAE 16 provides for stringent auditing, producing a Service Organization Control 1 (SOC1) report.  SOC2 and SOC 3 provide strict audit guidelines for data center service organizations.  At a minimum, an immigrant labor cooperative should be required to meet the same information security standards which are applied to the banking sector.  These requirements can be met by leasing data center space from SSAE 16/SOC2 & 3 compliant datacenters.

Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI): Carnegie Mellon University oversees and markets CMMI as a model for defining processes, including audits to confirm that processes are followed and statistical modeling to measure the degree to which changes improve or degrade efficiency.  (Other similar process evaluation models like Lean Six Sigma offer similar outcomes.)  An immigrant labor cooperative should be required to attain CMMI "Level III" within one year of commencing operation (not an easy target to hit, as any information technology professional who has been involved in these efforts can attest).  Level V (the highest level) should be required within 5-7 years.  Certification would have to be maintained via periodic audits.

Example: The California Central Valley

Here in California, the Central Valley is one of the most important agricultural regions in the United States, and is very dependent on immigrant labor.  As I pointed out in my last post on this topic, this is not because Americans will not do this kind of work.  It is because our economy is usually strong enough that American citizens usually have other options.  Given the choice between working under the very hot Central Valley sun (summers easily break the 100°F mark on a daily basis) or working as an entry level teller, for example, in an air conditioned credit union branch... well, which would you choose?

Thus Central Valley growers depend on immigrant labor, and folks in Mexico and Central America would like to come here to fill these jobs.  At this point the typical conservative position is "that's fine, but they should follow the law and wait in line like everyone else."

As one who has waited in a similar line to get my then-fiancee a visa, I agree.  We will not solve the problem of illegal immigration by making a sham of legal immigration and a fool of people like myself and my wife.  But when the line is not moving, incentives are created for employing illegal immigrants.  This, in turn, then creates the market for human smuggling - and the ugliness we see today at the border.

If the opportunity existed for Central Valley growers to create an immigrant labor cooperative under federal charter with the authority to grant work permits to immigrant workers who will work in the Central Valley, I suspect the growers will happily pool their financial resources to create such a non-profit organization.  Since these growers will themselves be the owners of the non-profit (exactly as account holders are member-owners in credit unions), incentives for efficiency (i.e. for making sure the line is moving) are built in - and the budgetary competition of political society which incentivizes inefficiencies is built out.

Real Immigration Reform

If we are serious about immigration reform, pioneering it in the Central Valley by creating a pilot immigrant labor cooperative under federal charter, funded by the Central Valley growers themselves, offers us - civil society - the opportunity to own one of the biggest challenges we face today as a nation and in our several communities.  Our call for immigration reform should start with a clear, explicit and detailed call for returning as much of this issue to civil society as we can.

As conservatives this also offers us the opportunity to speak clearly to our neighbors - past the sophisticated Progressive public relations ridicule machine - about our conservative view of American life.  It is a view that takes seriously the problems we face - but one which believes civil society will always solve them quicker and more efficiently than political society.

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