Octavo Dia

Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Eye for an Eye

Today's sermon was on part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said, "You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you...'" It seems such a straight-forward reading, and I've known it all my life, but I had no idea how much my cultural understanding has skewed my interpretation of this verse.

I no longer live in a period or culture, such as that of the Kanun, where blood feuds could be triggered over dinner arrangements. An eye for an eye--which is today a model of cruel and draconian punishment--was at the time a revolutionary idea of justice. That one should not, as Lamech said, "Kill a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me." but rather fit the punishment to the crime was a startling idea.

I have completely misunderstood that verse my entire life.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why I Don't have a Bumper Sticker

There are two kinds of drivers in the world: jerks and idiots. If you cannot categorize yourself as one of the two, either you are the world's sole exception, or you need to deal with your self-deception. I myself lean heavily towards the idiot side.

That being said, do you really want to have a cause you care about be associated with either jerks or idiots? If anything, you should put a flashy bumper sticker for some group you dislike on your bumper. That way, when you cut someone off, try to merge across five lanes of traffic, or take up two spaces in the parking lot, people will associate them with jerks and idiots instead.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Managing Globalization

I was talking with a coworker a while back who is a die-hard capitalist. He argued that we shouldn't be bothering to do anything about immigration, off-shoring, currency manipulation, etc., because the free market would ultimately triumph and correct all of these problems.

Yes, of course the market will ultimately take care of things; but time and weather will eventually clean up Superfund Sites too. In the meantime, you've created a lot of loss and waste. Just because it will be corrected doesn't mean you shouldn't help it along.

One of the biggest examples in that regard is income disparity in the United States. I read countless columns, from many reputable, and otherwise competent, sources, who blame growing income disparity on some new-found greed among the upper classes. In my mind, that can be easily classed as bologna. The upper classes today are no more greedy than they were in generations past. The difference is the comparative value of labor.

In the last thirty years, China and India joined the global economy. They were virtually undeveloped countries with massive supplies of labor. With that huge infusion of labor, to make the supply and demand curves match, either the cost of labor had to drop, or the cost of capital had to rise. What we've witnessed is a huge increase in the value of capital, and those who own it have become tremendously wealthy. That wages have stagnated is no surprise--they should have fallen.

Managing globalization, in this case, should include efforts to increase the supply of capital. The more capital to be used, the more labor will be needed to use it, the more wages will rise. Investing in infrastructure, which is badly needed in the United States, would probably be one of the best things we could do at the moment, despite the "inevitability" of globalization.

Monday, February 21, 2011

When is a Civilian Not a Civilian?

In a typical military, the ratio between combat and support troops is between 1:5 and 1:15. I believe the United States army is currently about 1:11. In WWII, the U.S. military was 1:12. In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence stated that for every guerilla he fielded, there were fifty supporters carrying supplies, messages, providing intelligence, or shielding their activities. If that is a typical number, the ratio in an insurgency is 1:50.

In an insurgent war, however, those 50 are counted as civilians, though analogous functions within a military would clearly be uniformed personnel. A general's driver would be a soldier and a legitimate military target. The guy driving a forklift on the base would be a soldier and a legitimate military target. The mess cook would be a soldier and a legitimate military target. In an insurgency, the driver is a civilian, the porter is a civilian, and the cook is a civilian. Clearly, the uniformed services are playing against a stacked deck.

Now, I hesitate to move entirely toward a role-based definition of military personnel, as that was the rubric under which total war was constructed (contributing to the economy helps the war effort, after all), but I think that, in terms of insurgency, we define "civilian" too broadly. I think that we should define insurgent civilians as military personnel based on whether the role they perform in relation to the insurgents is analogous to a role performed by uniformed support troops in regular militaries. If most militaries have that function performed by a soldier, the "civilian" performing that role could rightly be counted as an insurgent, and thus legitimately targeted.

Of course, short of finding an extensive org chart, all of this is extensively impractical, but I bet, where in rigorously applied, the number of "civilian" casualties in insurgent wars would be astoundingly reduced.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Arm Chair Sociology of New Yorkers

Having lived among them for three years and interviewed literally thousands of them, I am going to engage in some arm chair sociology of New Yorkers.

By New Yorkers, I mean the people who were born and raised in New York--who have never left the metropolitan area for more than a vacation. And yes, I am engaging in rampant stereotyping and generalization. I'm fine with that.

Native New Yorkers are the least imaginative, least intellectually curious, and the least able to entertain themselves people I've ever met. This is ironic because the transplants to New York City are among the most imaginative, most curious, and most entertaining people I've ever met.

I theorize that the very energy of New York City is what saps the energy of the native New Yorkers.

They have no need to be creative, because down the block, around the corner, up the street, pretty well everywhere, there is creativity already made, packaged, and delivered.

They don't need intellectual curiosity because the diversity of New York comes to them. The true difficulty in New York is not finding something new, it is NOT finding something new. If you don't have to work for something, you will never become skilled in it.

But the part that was most annoying to me was their inability to be content within themselves. No matter where they were, if it wasn't NYC, they would whine, "There's nothing to DO here!" They couldn't make their own fun. They couldn't entertain themselves. They couldn't enjoy themselves unless they were ceaselessly overwhelmed with new experiences and activities. I think you could torture New Yorkers by forcing them to play a board game.

But I love New York. If it weren't for New York, they would all be out in the real world with the rest of us.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Egypt: Cynicism and Long-Term Cynicism

I'm making a two-for-one prediction on the future of Egypt.

My first cynical prediction, shortly after the revolution in Egypt went down, was "Remember the Orange Revolution? No? Well that's what's going to happen." They'll throw the old regime out, start fighting among themselves, and the old regime, if not its elderly leader, will wend their way back into power.

I have updated by cynicism to include a second, more cynical, but longer-term prediction. The Muslim Brotherhood will dominate Egyptian politics. They'll turn puritanical. A new theocracy will be established, much of Egypt's heritage will be destroyed, ala the Buddhas of Bamyan. Two generations from now another revolution will overthrow the theocratic Egyptian state and a secular regime will be established.

That's the long road to democracy.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Losing its saltiness

Last Sunday's sermon was on the text of Matthew 5:13 "You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men."

I've heard quite a few sermons on this text, and they all have a combination of the same points:

1. Salt is used to preserve things. Christians preserve the good in the world.
2. The English word salary comes from the Latin for salt. It was so important in Jesus time that people were paid in it. Christians are that important in the world.
3. Salt improves the taste of things. Christians improve the tastes of society.
4. In Jesus time, salt was not purified, so it was filled with other minerals and could lose its saltiness by the way they cooked with it. Christians are similarly not pure, so we need to guard against losing our saltiness.

Now all of those are good points, but I think they do a disservice to both salt and the text. If you not only had a low-salt diet, but a no-salt diet, what would happen? What if you leached the salt out of all your foods and drinks before you consumed them? You would be dead in a matter of days. Once it had depleted its stores, your body could no longer control the water content in its cells and they would burst or shrivel and die.

That's how important Christianity is for the world. Without it, once the remnants of Christianity were gone, the world would die. I don't care what the Latin for salt was. Tell me the true importance of being the salt of the world.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

For Whom the HOV Tolls

Every day, as I wait for the shuttle to the Metro, I see lines of cars stretching off into the distance. Ninety plus percent of them have a single occupant, heading to work.

Of course DC does have reversible HOV lanes, and is known for the practice called "slugging," in which people in the outer areas park their cars in designated lots, and people stop by to pick up random fellow commuters so they can use the HOV lanes to head to work. Still, the limitless stream of bumper-to-bumper cars with single occupants demonstrate that people don't value their time as much as they do their independence.

What we need to do, therefore, is raise the cost of independence through a means other than time. Since the HOV lanes are already separated from the rest of the traffic flow, I propose putting tolls on the non-HOV lanes. Single occupant vehicles would be taxed via the tolls, whereas high occupant vehicles could cruise straight through onto the toll-free HOV lanes. If nothing else convinces people to take the bus, metro, train, or slug, watching their fellow commuters zip by while they wait to pay a toll might do it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Balancing the Budget by Cuts Alone

The Dilbert Blog has been conducting mock interviews concerning how to balance the budget by cuts alone.

In the short term, it can't be done. Period. The scope of the cuts needed would torpedo the economy. The revenue gained by cutting would be more than offset by the damage to the economy.

In the long term, we can only prevent balancing the budget by being stupid, a.k.a., doing what we have been doing.

In the medium term, however, balancing budget is very much up for grabs by cuts alone. The key is that we do so many stupid, counter-productive, and unsustainable things. Ceasing or replacing those policies with better policies would generate sufficient economic growth to balance the budget in the medium term.

Without getting too deep in the weeds, here's my plan:

Social Security

Social Security is actually the political issue that makes me more cynical. It makes me cynical because it is childishly simple to fix, yet we can't do it. Social Security did not anticipate reduced population growth nor extending lifespans. Fortunately, those are probably one-off changes. Therefore, they require a one-off solution. My plan is simple. In 2012, the retirement age will be 65.25 years. In 2013, 65.5. In 2014, 65.75. In 2015, 66. You increase the retirement age by a quarter every year until it becomes feasible to peg the retirement age to life-expectancy.

Medicare

It is much better to give money than goods, mainly because it can be delivered more efficiently. For those aspects of Medicare and Medicaid that are pretty well universal, such as doctor visits, we should remove that funding from Medicare and add it to Social Security. Rather than devoting money to a notoriously inefficient sector, we could delivery the same benefits more cheaply.

Taxes

The basic principle of effective taxation is that you tax things you don't want to fund things you do. In the U.S., we've turned that principle on its head. We tax things we do want--income, capital gains, sales, property--and don't tax things that we don't--pollution, congestion, sprawl. If we replaced the taxes on things we do want and replace them with things we do, it will generate more of the goods, and less of the harms. This is where the long-hanging policy fruit that will generate out-sized economic growth lies.

Also on the subject of taxes, just because we don't collect revenue doesn't mean they're free. The main culprit in this regard is the mortgage interest deduction. It skews our economy tremendously towards real estate, particularly single-family homes, rather than more productive uses. It also generates more pollution, congestion, and sprawl. Removing this deduction would be political suicide, though we may be able to avoid it by ceasing to tax income. If we don't, the best solution would be to freeze the maximum amount and let inflation reduce the value of the deduction. That's basically my solution for all of the deductions. Freeze the amount and reduce them through inflation.

The Military

I'm quite confident that there's systematic waste in the military, just based on our total spending as compared to other nations. Enough people have pontificated on military waste, that I don't need to add to the cacophony.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lutheran Revolutions

In Luther: The Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career, James M. Kittelson spent a great deal of time on Luther's theory of revolution, particularly his emphasis on submitting oneself to the governing authorities. Luther argued that, since all government is established by God, all revolts are, for that reason, sinful.

Lutherans have traditionally followed Luther's interpretation, even going so far as to condemn the American Revolution. It may be, as an heir of both Luther and the American Revolution, that I am biased in this regard, but I think Luther was correct, but that the American Revolution was also valid.

The seat of doctrine in Luther's theory of revolution was St. Paul's statement, "submit yourself to the governing authorities..." The key word is "governing." In the American revolution, one of the complaints made in the Declaration of Independence was that the Crown was not governing--it was unduly delaying the passage of needed legislation. The body that was handling the day-to-day operations of the colonies were the colonial governments. Thus, a revolt by the government of the colonies (the Continental Congress was comprised of the chief men of the colonies) was not a revolt of the people against the government, but a war of the governing authority against an alien power. Thus, it was a legitimate revolution.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Modest Proposal: The Non-Sanguinary Version

Prior to the industrial revolution, productivity growth was always exceeded by population growth in the long term. It doesn't matter if your economy gets two percent more productive this year if your population grows by four percent. Even the brief spurts of innovation were quickly overwhelmed by the perpetually high birth rate.

Consequently, it is argued that the black death was key to the industrial revolution, as productivity gains finally exceeded population growth, due to a reduced population to capital ratio.

In the last fifty years, we've discovered that this "demographic dividend" doesn't require massive depopulation. If birth rates fall and remain suppressed, the population will age so that there are more productive workers for every dependent (either old or young). Of course, as the aging process continues, the demographic dividend will be reversed, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Anyway, this was just a long way of getting around to my point. The Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were even less productive then we imagined. During the Cold War, Eastern Europe made the transition to low birthrates, yet they have nothing to show for it. Communism ate the demographic dividend.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review: Luther the Reformer

Kittelson, James M. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986.

It's really quite amazing that, being a well-read Lutheran and all, that I have never read a biography of Luther. The only reason I read this one was a coworker of mine wanted to read a good biography of Luther, so I asked my pastor for a recommendation, and he loaned me this one. My coworker gave me the book back right before I moved, so I was unable to return it directly to pastor. With the rest of my books packed in boxes, I read this one during the move and my first few day's commute.

My familiarity with Luther's life comes almost entirely from the classic move. It was truly astonishing how much detail was left out of the movie. They chopped off the second half of his life!

The part that most intrigued me, however, was the outsized role played by Elector Frederick the Wise. I knew he was deeply involved in defending Luther, but I had no idea just how far he stuck his neck out. I don’t think anyone could argue that Christians should not be involved in politics after reading a biography of Luther. The entire Reformation could have been snuffed out so easily had not one politically powerful man stood in the way.

Also, as someone who has been raised in the church, it's hard to understand what conversion really means. My faith is so central to who I am, how do you strike out the foundation of your person like that, or is it always as it was with Luther--a gradual weakening followed by a death-blow?

It's really sad what happened to Katie Luther. After Martin died, she spent the rest of her life fleeing from her home. Twice as a refugee from invading armies, and her last trip fleeing the plague--and on that trip her carriage flipped and dumped her into a canal, where she drowned. Not what one might call a happy ending.

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Monday, February 07, 2011

Commentary on the Commentary II

Continuing to wade through my archeological study Bible, I ran across two, contradictory references on opposite pages. Their comment on Genesis 7:1-19 repeated the old canard that it was assuredly a local flood, yet on the facing page, their comment on Genesis 9:1-7 shows that God would never send a flood to destroy all life again. I can't believe people can still argue that it was a local flood. Just two chapters later you have irrefutable evidence that either it was a global flood or God brazenly lied. I still have trouble understanding how such flagrantly contradictory theses can still be proposed!