Wednesday, December 29, 2010

BUDGET ART


(Click on the Chart for a bigger, clearer image)

Wow.

If I'm not mistaken, that deficit figure means if it was my budget, say $38,300 a year, I'd be putting $12,700 a year on my credit cards to pay the bills.

Got to tell you, that's not gonna last very long. Even when I start accepting all those credit card deals with the zero percent interest for 6 months. Pretty soon I'm printing money in the basement or knocking over 7-11s.

BTW, our credit card company (China) has nukes. I am not liking this picture.

Here's a link to a fabulous video on budget cuts. This is one of the best graphic representations I've ever seen on the subject. Just a few minutes long. Tells the story.

The President is talking about cutting $100,000,000 (one hundred million) from the budget.

The budget is $3,830,000,000,000 (3.83 trillion).

So, if this was my budget of $38,300, the President would be cutting 1 dollar.

100 pennies. That gets us down to $12,699 on my credit card bill. Which is better than $12,700, to be sure, so maybe I should not whine. 100 million here, 100 million there. Do it 12,700 times and VOILA! Problem solved, as Ross Perot used to say.

If the President finds 35 of these 100 million cuts (3.5 billion) per day for the next year, we are back at ground zero, my friends.

Sadly, I am unimpressed with the math. More importantly, so is Mrs. Optimist, who is the budget maven around here. When she cuts a budget, she cuts a budget. With a serrated knife her mom bought when Eisenhower was President.

You can hear the screaming and crying, the begging for mercy, for blocks. Usually the neighbors call the police and an ambulance.

I'm not saying that's the only way to do it. I'm just saying that's my experience.

Here's my impression of the current budget process:


Actually, I much prefer Jackson Pollack's results to the current federal budget situation. Why?


Photo Credit.

Told you. Much better.

THE MANATEES ARE DYING

I just saw a T.V. news story about the manatees freezing to death off the Florida coast. Apparently Florida has required its power companies to dump warm water into the ocean, at some minimal extra expense to taxpayers, to give the manatees a refuge from the unusually cold water. I applaud this effort to save an endangered species from the effects of the cold weather.

Manatee in Better Times.

I found an article on the subject. The same problem cropped up last winter.

Florida, and much of the Southeast, are experiencing an extremely cold winter. Like last winter. India is having freezing weather, too. Which, what's that about?

Europe was way cold last winter. Northern Europe has been hammered again this year.

It is apparently very tricky figuring out if it will be cold in Europe and the U.S. Siberian snow fall has a lot to do with it, but it is hard to predict whether Siberia will have a big snow fall or not. If they do, the Artic gets warmer and pushes cold weather south on us. So polar bears get stranded on ice floes, while manatees die. Weather scientists have a hard time getting this one right. See this interesting Washington Post article.

I called 9-1-1 about all this. They already have someone responding. Still, I felt good about taking some responsibility.

My fervent hope is that global climate change (formerly global warming) will hit Big Cold Town (BCT) right about when I move back there in a few months. The plan is that Mrs. Optimist and I will not need to move south when we retire. Instead, the south will retire toward us.

At least that's what I tell myself. So far, BCT's been smacked with a big Christmas blizzard. Ditto last winter, when BCT got crushed all winter long.


The Huffington Post bloggers tell us that the freezing Manatees are due entirely to President Obama's craven extension of the Bush tax cuts, which have enriched Republicans by allowing them to keep their own money.


Arianna Huffington (formerly married to rich
Republican, now big-time liberal blog host)

Rich old Republicans have cold hearts, which grow much bigger and colder when they get to keep their own money. Since so many rich old Republicans live near the Florida coast, it is obvious that their increasingly wealthy and frigid hearts have lowered the water temperatures, imperiling the manatees.

The article finishes by calling for a criminal prosecution of Dick Cheney for crimes against manateekind. Leaving manatees in water less than 68 degrees Fahrenheit is a violation of the Geneva Convention, and Dick was in charge of manatees and stingrays during the Bush Administration.

(By the way, the Huffington reported no such thing. I made all this up on my own. I just like to say the word "Huffington." Makes me think of sniffing glue. But that's another story.)

So I'll be busy the next few days, following the freezing India story, as well as the chill manatee story. In the meantime I will figure out if "Shotgun" Dick Cheney is to blame for global warmcooling, or wobal glorming.

Or something.

Is it chilly in here or is that just me? Excuse me, I've got to go turn the heat up.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

BARACK ATTLEE OBAMA

Clement Attlee generated a memorable quote: "He was a modest man, with much to be modest about." Churchill described him as a "sheep in sheep's clothing."


Clement the Great.

Great Britain won WWII, against all odds, then fired Winston Churchill immediately and hired Clement Attlee as its Prime Minister. From 1945-1951, under Attlee, Great Britain acquired a huge, Anaconda-like welfare state, for which Churchill coined the phrase "cradle to grave." To pay for this they divested themselves of their Empire around the world and nationalized great swathes of their economy.

In all they did, the Attlee government was guided by complete confidence in the power of smart bureaucrats and politicians to make smarter decisions about the economy than the market could. Their great prophet was John Maynard Keynes.


Lord Keynes.
The Attleeites' great fear was a return to the Depression and political chaos of the 1930s. Their great myth was that free markets wrought the Great Depression. In fact, it was a series of politically motivated decisions imposed by governments on the economies of Europe and North America that gave birth to the Great Depression.

At the time the grand project seemed like a marvelous idea to everyone involved, Labour, Liberals, Conservatives.
It was the right thing to do, the only moral thing to do. Anyone who opposed it was a selfish. unreconstructed troglodyte, out to stiff the working man. There were a few lonely economists who predicted that the whole business would come to no good. They were vilified, marginalized, and ultimately proven to be correct.

Friedrich Hayak. Read his "Road to Serfdom." Chilling.

By the 1970s Great Britain was in desperate economic shape as a result of the grand experiment. The very smart politicians and bureaucrats had proven quite incompetent at running an economy. The British economy was suffering from both stagnation and inflation, memorably dubbed "stagflation."

Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 (very much as did Reagan, in 1980) with a mandate to dismantle the welfare state. The notion at the time was that however unpleasant a less regulated economy might be, it couldn't be much worse than the ramshackle, broken muddle Britain was living with.


Margaret Thatcher
Thatcher's efforts, while not completely successful, did result in a substantial unwinding of government controls over the economy, and an economic boom.

If you think a welfare state is the right thing to do, never mind the economic consequences; if you think good intentions allow you to ignore economic facts; Clement Attlee is "The Man."

For a hip-hip hooray! rendition of the jolly good Attlee years, see the Guardian. For a less enthusiastic view, see Andrew Stuttaford.

For an explanation of the phrase "mess of pottage" check the link, or read Genesis 25:29-34.

Right now my Democratic friends are building Attlee Progressivism right here in River City. Never mind the Brits have spent the last 30 years trying to unwind the Anaconda from around their necks.

We continue to ignore the fact that we cannot afford to tax our economy at the rate necessary to support our present wealth of government expenditures. We spend and borrow, believing that economics is like politics. If we have smart enough people in charge and give them enough power, somehow they can command the tide to stop coming in and the rivers to flow uphill.

President Obama Parts the Red Ink
But economics is not like politics. Economics is like gravity. Step off a cliff and you will fall down. Every time.

Here. Listen to Garry Marshall from the movie "Lost in America." He's trying to explain all this economics stuff to Albert Brooks, whose wife just lost their "nest egg" in a casino.





I am not concerned because I am afraid of the future. I am concerned because I am aware of the past.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

CALIFORNIA!


An article by an author from Central California, musing on the "two Californias" he saw on a bike ride through his home, caught my attention. It is well worth reading.

Other writers have given a great deal of attention to California, from General Sherman to John Steinbeck to The Grateful Dead. It is safe to say that none of them focused on California's fiscal future circa 2010. Given the astonishing wealth of the land, there seemed no point in such musings.

California owes $8.8 billion in short-term loans that have to be paid off by June [2010], and over $120 billion in outstanding bonds and interest that will be paid over decades. The state’s pension fund, CalPers, has $16.3 billion more in liabilities than assets, plus California also faces a $51.8 billion expense for the health and dental benefits of state retirees and future retirees. Read more here.

Well, here we are.

Right now the sobering fact is that our richest, most populous state is in the end stages of social disintegration. It is like watching the prom queen become a bag lady.


Prom Queen?
Photo Credit

The government can't govern. The wealthy and their jobs are leaving. The middle class are following. The state does not or cannot control illegal immigration. The state is insolvent. It cannot pay its bills, except by borrowing about $28 billion this year alone.

California is the canary in the coal mine for the rest of America. And right now, California is expiring. The fumes killing it are emanating from the welfare state assumptions under which it has been run for many years. Matters not if the government was Republican or Democratic, the underlying engines of the social welfare state were purring along.

Canary and Coal Miner.

My guess is that California will have to completely break before there will be change. When it does, it may help the rest of us sober up and realize that however noble an ideology, if it spends more money than it takes in, it breaks. And when a state breaks, the average Joe winds up hurting.

I'm not going to fuss about the correct balance of taxes versus spending. I think there is a great deal of flexibility on that subject. I happen to be on the "southern" end of that debate - I think we should err on the side of low taxes and low government spending, as a general matter, with certain limited exceptions.

Mostly I am there because it seems much easier for people in government to justify increases in spending, rather than decreases. As a general rule it seems wise to keep as far from the icebergs of overspending as possible, adjusting for the fundamental human bias toward overspending. It is much easier to pump up spending quickly, if the need arises, than it is to cut back on spending in a hurry. Just a practical observation.

But two things are for sure: there is an upper limit to how much money a government can suck from its people in taxes before the people stop cooperating, and there is an upper limit to how much a government can borrow before lenders stop cooperating. Liberal ideology over the last 50-100 year has essentially ignored both upper limits in the (now more clearly) mistaken belief that those limits were far, far away, if they existed at all.

They may have been, at one time. But now, like all long journeys, this one is coming to an end. Now we feel silly for assuming the trip would never stop.


End Of The World As We Know It?
In California, Greece, and Ireland, and in other locations around the globe (cast your eyes on New York) we are now seeing practical illustrations of the limits on government spending, taxation and borrowing.

The next year or two will be very interesting. I hope for the sake of the regular people in California that the government is able to step back from the cliff somehow. I don't see that happening, however. I predict the Wiley Coyote conclusion to this mess, the one where he speeds off the cliff while chasing the roadrunner, realizes where he is for just a second, then plummets to the canyon floor a thousand feet below.

Wiley E. California Just Before the Fall.

We will see what emerges. It may be that the rest of the U.S. votes for California to secede, kind of the reverse of 1861. Can they do that? It will be full employment for lawyers, that's for sure.

I don't think that will happen, but people in less crazy-ass states might get irked when Cali comes looking for a federal bailout. I guess it depends on the Cali attitude at the time, but nothing about California politics in the last few years tells me that reasonableness will be the keynote to that discussion.

EXECUTION AS A MORAL DUTY

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about the death penalty:

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined,the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing, crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself- the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

Catechism, par. 2267.

Sadly, there is a facile and aggressive assumption many absolute opponents of the death penalty make: that modern society actually has the ability to defend itself or its citizens in all cases without the use of the death penalty. (I will call absolute opponents of the death penalty "Absolutists," for short.)

This is a false assumption, perhaps based on ignorance about what goes on within modern prisons. More troubling than ignorance is the devaluation of the lives of prisoners and guards that is an unspoken but very real foundation and consequence of Absolutism.

It is true that in most cases a modern American prison suffices to protect society from the murder, rape and assault practiced by its prisoners. But it is also true that a modern prison does not suffice in a relatively small but significant set of circumstances.

Eternal Optimist, just off the top of his head, is aware of two cases that illustrate the point. In one case, out of Virginia, a prisoner named Caro had committed multiple violent assaults while in jail, and had been sentenced to an additional prison term as a result. He then brutally strangled a fellow prisoner with a knotted towel for "disrespecting" him while he was housed in the "SHU" (Special Housing Unit - the "prison's prison") at a high-security federal prison. Caro casually mentioned to the guards that they should get the body out of the cell, because it was "stinking." Read the Caro opinion. It is sickening.

In another case in Pennsylvania, an indictment alleges that a federal prisoner named Savage (appropriately enough), housed in the SHU in a Federal Detention Center during his pending prosecution for running a large drug organization, got word to fellow inmates to kill a witness' family. An accomplice firebombed a witness' house, killing 6 people, including 4 small children. Read the news story

A SHU represents state of the art prisoner security. SHUs are not enough to protect against murder by certain prisoners. We have an entire federal penitentiary - Florence ADMAX in Colorado - devoted to housing prisoners we can't safely house at "ordinary" federal penitentiaries. Men are incalculably evil and incredibly creative in inflicting their evil on others. ADMAX can't prevent murders, only reduce the chances, at an unconscionable expense.

The two prison murder cases mentioned above - and prison assaults, rapes and murders are not uncommon - illustrate a basic point: there are many cases where the modern state does not have the ability to keep people safe from men intent on murder or mayhem, because "people" include the prisoners, guards and witnesses victimized by prison predators.

Absolutists prefer to gloss over this fact, as if the predictable deaths of prisoners and guards is an acceptable price for not having to pronounce judgments of death and act upon them in extreme cases.

The requirement in the Catechism to use "non-lethal means," if possible, to protect society is founded on the simple consideration that respect for human life requires us to respect the life of the killer as well as his victims, because all human life is sacred, no matter how it has been warped. If we can protect others without having to execute a murderer, we should do that. (Note: I am not addressing other traditional lines of thought about the justifications for the death penalty, which include deterrence and just desserts. I am simply addressing Absolutism from within Catholic doctrine.)

But this does not mean we can simply disregard the other side of the equation: society's right and duty to protect the lives of victims. Just as we have to value the life of the killer, we also have to value and protect the lives of his future victims. And these victims, or potential victims, include prisoners and guards, whose lives are every bit as precious, in God's eyes, as the loveliest child's.

Absolutists pretend that modern prisons always satisfy the Catechism's important predicate, "rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm." They are ignoring the deaths and injuries to prison guards, prisoners, and witnesses inflicted in and from prison by determined predators. Society owes a duty to protect these lives as much as any others. It is not acceptable to trade the lives of victims for the comfort of never having to carry out an execution.

Some people not only deserve to die; it is a moral evil not to kill them, because killing them is the only way to prevent them from committing new murders, rapes and assaults.

That's why this part of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism exists:

the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

It will not do to manufacture "possible" - and outlandishly expensive - ways of "effectively defending human lives" in prisons that outdo a federal SHU. "Possible," in the context of this moral teaching, must have some finite, reasonable meaning. It is not morally defensible to divert an unlimited amount of society's resources away from hungry children, aging veterans and national defense to construct infinitely safe super-prisons.

Neither is it an answer that juries consist of flawed men and women, and death sentences are sometimes wrongfully inflicted. The very rare instances in modern America of men dying wrongfully at the hands of the state are horrible. But they are no more horrible - or morally reprehensible - than murders committed by men whom the prison system cannot effectively prevent from committing murder. In both instances society has failed its duty, and that failure has cost a life.

The sobering thing about human evil is that there are a lot of situations in which it is not possible to "effectively defend[] human lives" without a fair trial, a verdict of death, and an execution. And in America today these situations far outnumber the surpassingly rare instances of an actually innocent man being executed by the state.

As an aside, the vast majority of men whose verdicts are set aside on appeal or in post-appeal proceedings in America are not actually innocent of the crime for which they were convicted. Instead, there is typically some procedural flaw in the trial for which our system requires a re-trial, and the re-trial may or may not be possible. One hopes that at some juncture the media will tire of being "useful idiots" for propagandists on this issue and try to report on this distinction accurately.

I do not dismiss arguments about systemic inequities or faulty jury verdicts. But systemic problems do not absolve us of the duty to execute, after a fair trial and finding of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, where execution is "the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against [an] unjust aggressor."

Men found guilty of murdering others in or from prison should be executed. They have conclusively demonstrated that society is unable to safeguard others from their depredations through any other means.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

PROGRESSIVE STRATEGERY

Michael Learner wrote an earnest article in Sunday's Washington Post in which he said the Obama presidency can only be saved by running a candidate against him in the Democratic primary in 2012 that is unabashedly "Progressive." Read it here. By the device of running a "true" Progressive, Mr. Learner hopes to discipline the errant Obama, who has been scrambling in heavy winds because of the the drubbing taken by Democrats in the November election.

Mr. Learner is himself a proud Progressive, a publisher of his own magazine, Tikkun, and a mucky-muck in the Network of Spiritual Progressives. I'm not familiar with either organization.

Here is Mr. Learner's Progressive shopping-list for his True Progressive candidate in the Democratic primary in 2012:
  • immediate pull-out in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan,
  • Global Marshall Plan that roots homeland security in a strategy of generosity and concern for the well-being of everyone on the planet.
  • a massive jobs program;
  • a freeze on mortgage foreclosures;
  • a national bank offering interest-free loans to those seeking to create or expand small businesses;
  • immediate implementation of the parts of the Obama health-care plan that would benefit ordinary citizens;
  • dramatically lower prices for drugs that treat critical diseases such as AIDS and cancer;
  • big carbon emissions tax;
  • immediate prosecution of those government employees involved in torture or cover-ups to justify the invasion of Iraq;
  • media to provide free and equal time to all major candidates for national office;
  • constitutional amendments requiring only public financing in elections;
  • corporations to prove every five years to a jury of ordinary citizens that they have a satisfactory history of environmental responsibility (much like the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment, or ESRA, advocated by the Network of Spiritual Progressives).
  • new New Deal, which in the 21st century could be the Caring Society: "Caring for Each Other and the Earth."
Conspicuously absent is any mention of how any of this gets paid for. Presumably not by Mr. Learner. The government is already running a deficit of 1 trillion or so a year. Just the "Marshall Plan for the Whole Earth" alone will probably cost many times the Iraq/Afghanistan conflict, so I think the answer to how we would pay for all this would look something like the chart which follows:
  • raise taxes by 5 trillion dollars (take money)
  • issue a bunch of debt worth 5 trillion dollars (print money)
Of course, this will literally and rapidly throttle the economy. Now, ruining the economy may be a Progressive goal. If it is, Mr. Learner's a genius. If not, the policies he outlines, taken together, are puerile. Anytime you start throwing policies around without getting real about how it gets paid for, you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Which may be why Progressives did poorly at the polls in 2010. People hated to vote for "ruin the country" and "puerile," so instead they voted Republican. We will see how honestly Republicans tackle government spending. Last time they were in the majority they reminded me of Julie Hagerty in "Lost in America," losing the family "nest egg" in a night of compulsive gambling in Las Vegas.

Based on Mr. Learner's article, Progressives are convinced that huge government spending and high taxation are moral imperatives. Complain as they might, Obama is one of their own. I do not see the possibility of much change in Administration policy or practice between now and 2012. Deficits will continue to grow and Progressives will continue to insist that the only way to balance the budget is to raise taxes dramatically, because spending cuts in government are taboo. Can't make Progress if you don't spend gobs of taxpayer money.

Which is going to make an interesting election day in 2012.

Monday, November 8, 2010

LAND OF THE HEADLESS ZOMBIES

Been in Sicily the past few days, visiting my daughter, who lives here. Thank heavens for Sicilian food. The food is a constant reminder that Sicilians are not demons from the planet Urpton come to destroy earth by driving around with their heads removed.

After 2 days of Sicilian traffic, I am ready to begin slashing tires on every single vehicle near me, purely out of a sense of self-preservation. Let me be more precise. My plan is that, before I drive, I want to go out and slash the tires of everyone within a 10-block radius, so that I don't have to scream and cry like a baby out of sheer animal terror the first few minutes of each commute.

Driving in Sicily I suddenly understand why zombies never die, and there is an inexhaustible supply of them. It's because the producers of zombie movies lived in Sicily, and had to drive here each day. The peculiar horror of zombie movies - "where do they all come from? what do they want? why can't I kill them?" - actually originated with Sicilian drivers. The producers of zombie films perceived that the rest of the world would not believe their Sicilian driving stories, so they cloaked them with much more credible, down to earth plot devices, like West Indian voodoo tales of the un-dead rising to feed on the bowels of the living.

Typical Sicilian Driver Photo Credit

By the way, remind me never, ever to make a sarcastic comment about U.S. Postal Service employees again. Ever. My daughter and I went to the Post Office in town yesterday morning to mail a letter. One hour and 15 minutes after we entered the post office, after waiting in line behind 2 people, we emerged, letter mailed.

The guy immediately in front of us had 6 letters to mail. Let me tell you about that.

I commented to my daughter, after 25 minutes of watching "6 letter guy" (I'll call him "6," for short) get "served," that the U.S. could arm and launch a nuclear warhead faster than this. She nodded in agreement. She actually knows about such things. At one point the post-mistress left the poor guy standing there for 15 minutes. No news on where she went, or why. As far as I could see, he just had 6 letters. No special colored paper, no special boxes. Just 6 letters.

I am not kidding; I am not making this up; I am not exaggerating. I kept checking my watch, in disbelief.

At one point during the 35-40 minutes lavished on "6," a small old Sicilian man came up and began screaming at the post-mistress. Apparently he had little sticker #10 in his hand, and Mr. "6" had sticker #11. My daughter and I held sticker #13. For a fleeting moment I actually felt sorry for the post-mistress. She sent "6" back to stand with us, and waited on the little screaming Sicilian man. It was after she got done with Little Screamer that she disappeared for 15 minutes on "6." Probably had to go smoke a joint or something.

Little Screaming Sicilian Man Photo Credit

The sticker thingies are fascinating. When you come in the P.O. you punch a button on a machine and get a sticker with a number on it. Very much like a deli. At some point during your stay at the P.O. your number will come up on an electronic screen at one of the P.O. windows. You don't know where or when. This is important, because there is no line. There is what looks like a rugby scrum, or a rush for the last boat out of France as the Nazis were taking over in 1940. So the little sticker thingies are actually a survival mechanism for the post-mistresses and the few shell-shocked people in attendance who cannot stomach the idea of trampling or beating another human being to get to a P.O. window.

Absent the sticker thingies, tramplings and beatings would be the order of the day. Much like the traffic right outside the door. The mangled, lifeless bodies of two people were scraped off the highway outside the P.O. in the 1:15 we waited. (I made this last sentence up. Sorry. I had to exaggerate something. It was too stressful remaining entirely factual.

So the sticker thingies represent, not a triumph of civilization, but a brave and lonely voice of civilization in a culture that veers frighteningly close to the "tohu bohu" mentioned in Genesis 1. Except, of course, for their food, which I mentioned. The food is highly organized, varied, delicious, and reminds one there is a God in heaven and he will return in glory.

As for our post-mistress, when she re-emerged she was much slower than when she started with "6." Which I wouldn't have thought possible, except I saw it all with my own eyes.

I've decided that as between the Post Office on ludes and the headless zombie Sicilian drivers on methamphetamine, I will choose the headless zombies. I would prefer someone else kill me than to take my own life.

I'm beginning to understand the stressed out tone my daughter's voice has when she calls home.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A THEOLOGIAN IN SHEEP'S CLOTHING

"Stupefying."

"Public relations disaster."

"Scandalously negative attitude toward women."

These and even harsher words are uttered by Richard McBrien, a Notre Dame theologian writing in the National Catholic Register about a recent Vatican document. McBrien, who doesn't agree with the Church's refusal to ordain women as priests, claims that the document defines the ordination of female priests as a moral wrong on par with the sexual abuse of minors.

What the Vatican document actually did was to add several different kinds of forbidden conduct ("delicts") to the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (see link for the full text, or see a letter summarizing the changes.) There are a variety of "delicts" added to the Congregation's jurisdiction, among them possession of child pornography by priests, abuse of a developmentally disabled person over 18, various ways of wrongly celebrating the Eucharist, the recording or divulging of confessions, and the attempt to ordain a female priest.

Historically, wrongful ordination of priests is exactly the kind of doctrinal "delict" the Congregation is supposed to deal with - issues that require the Church to define what is and is not faithful to the Church's teaching. The whole business of having the Congregation take jurisdiction in cases of priests accused of sexual abuse is a recent addition (2001) to their jurisdiction caused by the grave threat to the Church posed by the abuse problem. It was the Pope's way to ensure the cases get handled properly, and not left to kick around at the Diocesan level.

So McBrien's argument actually has the whole thing quite backward, historically and logically. The historically and logically correct argument would be that including sexual abuse cases in the Congregation's portfolio was a bit of a stretch. Doctrinal disputes, like female ordination, are right up the Congregation's historical "alley."

McBrien may have blundered because he actually doesn't understand this. Or he he may be interested in making a propaganda point and figures nobody will call him on the details. Either way, this is a sad performance by a man with a doctorate in theology.

In any event his argument is foolish and ought to be dismissed. If he wants to argue about female ordination, by all means, argue the merits, but don't confuse bogus posturing with argument.

3 BLIND MICE

Just read a New York Times article decrying the ouster of 3 Iowa judges on election day. The judges had been part of a unanimous decision invalidating Iowa's traditional marriage law. Iowa's voters didn't like the decision and dumped 3 of the judges who were up for re-election November 2.

The article had quotes from two law school professors, another from a former California judge who was ousted by voters there, and a final quote from a gay advocacy group spokesperson. All talked about how awful it is that the judges were voted out of office. No surprises there, eh?

Just a quick question, though: weren't the judges voted into office? I mean, that's the system in Iowa, right? The people vote for judges, just like they vote for other political candidates? So is the point of all the hand-wringing that it's okay to vote judges into office, but wrong to vote them out?

Really? Because that makes no sense. If critics want to argue that Iowa shouldn't elect judges, make the argument. Many would agree. But to argue that once a judge is elected he or she should never be voted out of office, well, that is absurd.

What made the article truly uber-strange was that the only perspective from those who ousted the judges was the hope that the election would send a "message." No one explained why a Constitutional right to gay marriage is legally and historically shaky. No one spelled out the political legitimacy problem when judges insist on doing the legislature's policy-making business. No one supplied the plentiful sociological reasons for favoring traditional marriage. (For an interesting story on the subject read this Time Magazine article from 2009. I mention Time deliberately, the point being that even Time gets it. Which is saying something.)

Nada. It's as if only one side of the debate was allowed to explain itself. The majority of Iowans who voted the judges out, well, apparently no one's allowed to explain anything. At least not in the NYT.

Not surprising, from the Times. That's what's sad.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

BARACK MILHOUS NIXON

Wow.

In a Washington Post editorial this past Saturday, two prominent Democratic pollsters wrote that President Obama, who promised a new, post-partisan era during his campaign, has been the most bitterly divisive and partisan President since Richard Nixon. The authors then spell out the parallels between Presidents Obama and Nixon.


Making America Safe for Partisans.
President Obama has used the office of the President to make wildly false and partisan attacks against political enemies. Even the New York Times has noted the lack of evidence to back up the White House claims that Rove and others have been funneling illegal foreign money to Republican candidates.

And the President's troublingly flaccid grip on the truth is not limited to false accusations against Karl Rove, but extends to major policy initiatives:

Obama is walking a knife's edge. He has said that the 3.5 million "shovel-ready jobs" he had referred to as justification for the passage of the stimulus bill didn't exist - throwing all the Democratic incumbents who had defended the stimulus in their campaigns under the proverbial bus.

Although he said, as part of his effort to enact health-care reform, that the health-care mandates were not taxes, now his administration acknowledges in court papers that they are, in fact, taxes.

The editorial makes sobering reading. It is more sobering when you read the warning these same two pollsters made in March of this year about the consequences of pushing an extremely unpopular health care bill through Congress.

When influential members of the President's own party begin denouncing the President's behavior in Washington Post editorials, one is hard pressed to think of any word to describe the situation but "Nixonian."

I wonder what the remaining Dems in Congress will say about the President Wednesday. My prediction: not pretty.

Perhaps the phrase "not pretty" is understated. Maybe "coyote ugly" would be more accurate.

DRAW ME NEARER

Today at Mass, during the consecration of the host, this old hymn began singing itself in my head. These hymns often pop into my head during the consecration of the host. It is one way I know a miracle is happening.

A beautiful, simple hymn:

I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,
And it told Thy love to me;
But I long to rise in the arms of faith
And be closer drawn to Thee.

Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord,
To the cross where Thou hast died;
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord,
To Thy precious, bleeding side.

Consecrate me now to Thy service, Lord,
By the pow’r of grace divine;
Let my soul look up with a steadfast hope,
And my will be lost in Thine.

I remembered on the way home that a version of this hymn is sung in the movie "Bella" as the young protagonist understands what he must do.

If you haven't seen the movie, rent it. Beautiful. The hymn is a perfect fit.

Speaking of wonderful hymns, listen to this, by Ladysmith Black Mambazo. You may remember them from Paul Simon's "Graceland" album.






"The Lord bless you, and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace." Numbers 6:22-27.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

PROGRESSIVE'S REGRESS

A recent article in a left-leaning blog lambasted President Obama for not "getting it," The article quotes Rabbi Michael Learner, a liberal political figure, in a massive, oxygen sucking sentence that complains about every last thing Obama has not done for Progressives. The good Rabbi left no whine unopened.

Just Not Liberal Enough

"Progressives" are now raging against President Obama, in an effort to get what crumbs are left before the political avalanche in November. Jon Stewart is bashing Obama on a regular basis for being clueless.

The "Progressive" diagnosis is that the President has not been liberal enough. Apparently the trouble facing the Democrats in November would not have occurred had Obama spent more, taxed more and punished business more.

Wow. That's like betting your underwear because you lost your car shooting craps.

Go Ahead. You're On a Roll.

16 months ago Eternal Optimist suggested that the "Progressive" agenda would succeed or fail politically based on whether it worked. It will not be punished politically because the American people are too dumb to "get it," but because the American people are unhappy with the results. After all, Americans voted for President Obama and the Democratic party in droves in 2008. They are not averse to voting for a Progressive agenda, provided it works.

"Progressives" won in 2008 because the economy was tanking. Two years later "Progressives" are busy running on anti-Bush: "W" is the reason the economy continues a-crappy (new word EO has coined) and unemployment is stuck at about 10%.

Progressives cannot be blamed for this tactic. Roosevelt did it for 3 election cycles in the 30s, as his economic policies extended the Depression from an ordinary 2-3 year cycle to the "Great Depression." Apparently America does not have the stomach for this anymore.



Stop the Whining
Photo Credit

News flash (this just in): VOTERS DON'T CARE ABOUT DIALECTIC. They don't care about Bush anymore, either. Americans hired President Obama to fix the economy, not to make great speeches explaining how the crappiness is not his fault.


Economy: Craptastic. Mathematical Opposite of Fantastic.
Photo Credit

Bottom line: we've forked over a couple trillion (literally) in debt over the last 22 months to fix the economy and pay for all the cool government stuff. And the economy is still stuck. And our entitlement programs are not fixed. Goldman, Sachs is doing well, thank you, having invested heavily in President Obama. The rest of us, not so much.

Having themselves invested a couple trillion (I like how that sounds) in President Obama, middle-class Americans want unemployment fixed. What they see at present is NADA (a technical economic term). So they are ticked off. Making well-crafted speeches about why the investment went sour is not the same thing as fixing the problem.

That's how Americans are. Ask the Yankees or Phillies how their fans react when they lose. "Boo!" say the fans. Doesn't matter you just won 97 games. "Boooooo!" Then they say things like "YOU S#$@" And much worse.

Yankee Fans Booing World Champions
Aside from having been very expensive and not having worked, the "Progressive" vision suffers from an historical disadvantage. The "Progressive" diagnosis is that America is not regulated enough, not taxed enough, and doesn't have enough entitlements. The solution? More government. MUCH more government. Everywhere, all the time.

But if this is so, then somewhere, somehow a perfect command society should be humming along in perpetual bliss, a living rebuke to our selfish and stupid American aversion to big government. There's been no lack of commitment to the "Progressive" vision during the last century. Plenty of societies have taken the vision to its logical conclusion: Lenin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, Castro's Cuba, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

It hasn't worked out. All command societies wind up delivering the same basic product: (a) a chronically broken economy (b) mass starvation and (c) the Gulag. This historical fact has a way of rapidly eroding confidence in the "Progressive" vision, no matter how earnestly peddled or honestly believed. No matter how good the speeches are, and no matter how bovine the opposition is.

One does not have to be a fan of unbridled capitalism to be nervous about Progressives in control.


Typical Progressive Worker's Paradise
(Soviet prisoners walking to Gulag)

An electoral tsunami is headed toward Washington. There are still a lot of hopeful articles about how voter discontent and the Tea Party will hurt Republicans as much as Democrats. My suspicion is that this is magical thinking, of the "I am the Emperor Napoleon and I shall ride a winged unicorn from barren Elba" variety.


Napoleon: A La Recherche Du Temps Perdue.

Election Day will not be pretty for "Progressives." The question is how badly it will go, not whether it will go badly.


Democrat Vision of Conservatives, ca. Election Day, 2010

Fortunately for Democrats, their opposition party is the Republicans. Based on past history, these folks are more likely to make a stop for a highball at the "Ear-Mark Bar and Grill" than they are to bring the electoral paycheck home to the wife and kiddies. When they come out of the bar there is an 80% chance they will trip on their own shoe-laces and fall off a curb. So Progressives can just relax for a couple years. Things will be better in 2012.


Republicans ca. 2012
Photo Credit

Come to think of it, both parties tend to be more attractive while out of power. This ensures they rotate endlessly, which probably helps ensure our freedom, in a painful but strangely human way. "Through institutionalized folly, freedom."

God bless America, spectacle that I love.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

MAWWIAGE & BICYCLES

It's been a fascinating 3 weeks in the life of Eternal Optimist and Mrs. Optimist. We are racing toward our 29th wedding anniversary, but continue to be astonished at the things we learn about each other.

"Mawwiage, its what bwings us togever."



For instance, about 2 months ago EO decided he would buy his lovely wife a bicycle for her birthday. The calculus was simple. Wife's bike - purchased many years ago at WalMart (don't hate us) - doesn't shift anymore. Brakes work, sometimes. Getting it fixed will cost more than the price of the bike. Wife likes to ride bikes.

Therefore, reasoned EO, buy her a bike.

EO hatched a plan to get this done, involving other people chipping in for the bike.

In the meantime, unbeknown to EO, Mrs. EO had hatched a plan to buy a bike for EO. This situation resembles the time, 15 years ago, when both of us bought the complete Fawlty Towers videos for each others' Christmas presents. If you've ever seen "The Germans," you'd understand why this was THE BEST PRESENT EVER!!



One evening Mrs. Optimist gloatingly told EO that she had thought up the best present for him, and he would never guess. I said "I know what you're getting me. It's a bike." The stunned look on Mrs. EO's face said it all. It took her a day to admit it, but eventually she did, saying "how did you guess?"

At which point I had two paths before me, that of deception and power, or truth and humility. I could have pretended I have supernatural powers that enable me to read her mind. Or I could just tell the truth, which is that I've been keeping a secret too long, and "bike" was forefront in my mind, and it was a total guess. Although the Fawlty Towers episode did flash in my mind right before I blurted. So there was a little ESP involved.

ESP is easy. Just need the right technology.

I told the truth, which made her laugh. She remembered Fawlty Towers very well. We both laughed a lot.

That's not the end. Oh no. 29 years of mawwiage is much more involved than that.

We go bike shopping at the local Hotville bike shop, which is way cool. Lots of bicyclists in Hotville. We (kind of) settle on a combo-mountain-road bike, since I like both. Meanwhile Mrs. EO picks out her own present, which always works better in the end. She buys a cute little lime green Schwinn bike-about-town, with fenders and a back platform from which she can hang panniers (bike-ese for carry bags). Mrs. EO orders same from WalMart (don't hate us), for much, much cheaper than at the local bike store.


Mrs. EO's new bike: Schwinn Solitaire.
One day we are in the car, talking, and somehow we get on the subject of Mrs. EO's bike, mostly because the issue has been gnawing at me. There is something off kilter, and I don't know what it is. I question Mrs. Optimist closely, and learn that the reason she "wants" the bike for a present is because it's something I like, and she has a vision of riding bikes with me - it is something we can do TOGETHER.

On to something now, I press her. "No, I mean, what do you WANT? What do YOU want?" She reiterates her want. I say "No. What if I were dead? What would you want then?" She looks stunned, then says, "oh, that's easy, I'd take a trip to see my daughters."

Epiphany. I hear angels singing.


Finally, the very center of the onion. It has taken several weeks to get to this point. What my wife really WANTS, in her heart of hearts, is to take some trips to see her daughters.

When someone asks me what I want for my birthday, my answers are very simple. The answer will be something I want. It does not involve togetherness, or how this will connect with me doing things with my wife and family. That would be icing on the cake, but it is not the cake. It is not that I don't love them; I do, with all my heart. It's that my mind just doesn't work that way.

When someone asks Mrs. EO what she wants, it is a much more complex question. Her own wants and likes are so wrapped up in the welfare and happiness of her husband and children that it is nearly impossible to disentangle them all. It can only be done over weeks, with repeated, intense interrogation.

So that's it, right? Not so fast.

The WalMart bike (don't hate us) comes in, but we have to ask several layers of management to get them to actually put it together like they said they would. Then, when the Schwinn is finally "put together," we go to the store to pick it up. Back brakes are locking, seat doesn't work, gears are not shifting. We leave WalMart and thank the young unter-manager for actually getting wheels on the bike.


I go back to the bike store and ask them to tune the bike up. They are very gracious, in part because I have decided to go ahead and buy me a bike. And not the sensible combo-mountain-road bike, mind you, but a straight, fast, road bike.

Why? Well, my daughter's father-in-law is basically the Pope of bicycling in Big Cold Town, where we are from. I ask him and he says "don't get the combo. It doesn't do either thing well. Just make a decision." I tell him its road, then. He tells me what bike to buy, in my price range.

So there I am at the cool bike store getting my wife's WalMart bike worked on, and lo and behold, the young and earnest bike salesman has the very bike recommended by the Bike Pope, like it is waiting there for me. All silver and light and fast. I take a test ride. I've never ridden anything close to this. I'm buying it.


EO's new, much faster bike.

I buy it. I bring it home. The wife is SO proud I've finally taken the plunge and quit studying all this. She LOVES the bike.

Last week we took three long rides together, Mrs. Optimist riding my old mountain bike and me, I'm riding my new, lyrically fast road bike. Great stuff! I love being able to accelerate up hills! Wow!

This morning we picked up the WalMart bike, all fixed up. Mrs. Optimist rides her bike to the car, in the parking lot, just to test it out. "Now I get to ride this one and see if I can keep up with you" she says, off-handedly. Just as off-handedly I say "not gonna happen. It's too heavy."

Just FYI, when I say something off-handedly, it is off-handed. When my wife says something off-handedly, not so much.

We stopped for breakfast. Mrs. Optimist is looking at me with her beautiful, sad eyes. I say "what's wrong?" She says "I realize I bought this bike when I thought you were getting the mountain-combo bike. But I'm not going to be able to keep up with you on this one."

I start laughing. "but I thought you liked that bike." Silly me.

"It's The Relationship, Stupid."

Eternal Optimist and Mrs. EO dancing.

Bottom line: WalMart bike goes back to WalMart, Mrs. EO will be buying fast street bike to keep up with EO. Cause EO likes riding fast. And Mrs. EO likes talking with EO. So Mrs. EO has to ride fast.

Not to worry. By our 50th wedding anniversary we will have this all ironed out.

By the way, Mrs. EO will be taking trips to see her daughters for her birthday.

And they lived happily ever after.

Friday, September 3, 2010

TIMMMMAAAYYYYYY!!!!

Timothy Geithner is the Secretary of the Treasury. Eternal Optimist will call him Timmy, since he is starting to bug me.


Timmy recently said that letting Bush tax cuts expire - they had a "sunset" provision when passed - would be the "responsible" thing to do, since the higher taxes would help balance our budget and send a message that we are serious about getting control of the deficit.


Timmy said extending the Bush tax cuts would be "irresponsible," and would actually hurt the economy, because bond investors would think we were not serious about deficit control. Letting the tax cuts expire brings in an estimated $700 billion in taxes over 10 years, says Timmy. About $70 billion a year.

BTW, letting "tax cuts expire" is the same as "increasing taxes." We'll just call it tax increases (what it is) from now on.

And double BTW, having just burned through about $900 billion in debt for "economic stimulus" while having no effect on joblessness is fine, okie-dokie, no problema, good for America. Never mind the moon-sized hole you just blew in the budget in 2009, the generations of interest payments you just laid on my children.

And FYI, the jobless needle is still stuck on "E" - 10%. No movement for that $900 billion we just forked over in 2009. Still driving on fumes.



And double FYI, this budget fart was $900 billion in ONE YEAR, not over 10 years. So triple FYI, investors already know Timmy's views on "deficit control," and spraying some air freshener around is not going to make the smell go away.



We will call this "Timonomics." Under Timonomics, when you increase the deficit by borrowing $900 billion, that is good, and opposition is irresponsible. When you reduce the deficit by raising taxes, that is also good, and opposition is irresponsible. Heads Timmy wins, tails you lose.

The only way to make sense of Timonomics is to realize that in both cases government gets more power - that is, more money.

Enlightenment.

It is one thing to insist that government needs to get bigger, no matter what. It is quite another thing for Timmy to pose as fiscally prudent while Super-Sizing the government's beer belly. The first is a straightforward political position that I happen to disagree with. The second is a fraud scheme.

Call Popeye Doyle, please.


I had a friend, an old criminal investigator from Virginia. He had a great expression for this:

"Don't piss in my ear and tell me it's raining."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

BIG LIES

Eternal Optimist does not believe it when the Congressional Budget Office says our new health care system will be in the black.

CBO reports are not like an audit from an independent accountant. When a company gets audited, the accountants have to follow generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). Of course, the accountants can be bribed, or bamboozled, but there are objective standards to apply. If the accountants have integrity and savvy, they will catch the problems and report them in a way everyone can understand.

CBO logo: is that really a labyrinth?
Photo Credit

Not so the CBO and Congress. Congress makes up its own accounting standards, and then has CBO do the math and issue reports. It is as if Enron got to make up its own accounting standards and have its in house accountants issue "audit" reports.

In fact, one of the great scandals in the Enron case was that Enron pushed and bullied its way to get changes in GAAP that helped conceal billions of real world problems. This was a sobering lesson about how bad it gets when a company hides its rotten financial condition by hi-jacking the auditing process. The lesson applies to Congress, except that Enron was a single-cell protozoa compared to the Congressional Moby Dick.

Congress makes up its own accounting rules, and the very smart people at CBO and other government accounting offices have to accept Congress' rules about how to add up the numbers. This means that whatever crackpot assumptions Congress makes, the CBO has to grin and bear it. If Congress says its new health care bill will cause Martians to invest in the stock market and pay income tax, CBO has to assume that is correct, and add up the new tax revenue from Mars based on Congressional formulas. Which means CBO reports are normally smoke-screens, sometimes more, sometimes less.

It seems insane, but that's how it works. To get an accurate accounting to the mass population, you have to rely on the media to do the hard work of digesting and fairly reporting independent accounting analysis. And if the media wants to believe the smoke-screen, that ain't happening.

Take Medicare. Tim Geithner, Secretary of Treasury, said that Obamacare has put Medicare on the road to financial soundness. But Medicare's own actuary recently said the assumptions on which the program's soundness is being predicted are ludicrous. Based on the assumptions used in previous (less crazy) years, the program is in deep trouble. Read about it here.

Geithner 'splaining. TIMMMMYYYYYY!!!!!
Photo Credit

The actuary said that the Medicare Trustee's Report - on which Geithner based his happy talk - radically underestimates the actual costs of the program and radically overestimates other savings. The Report does this because it is required to accept Congress' scoring and budget rules, however crazy they are.

A smart guy like Geithner comes out and says Medicare is in great shape, people can't believe he would be flatly, clearly wrong. That would be a lie, which simply does not compute. A classic text on propaganda had this to say about why big lies work better than small lies to fool the average joe:

It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation.

Monday, August 16, 2010

CLEVELAND

Eternal Optimist read an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about St. Peter's, a Catholic parish in downtown Cleveland that has decided to defy its bishop by retaining its worship services at a new building after the bishop closed the church. Of course the article's viewpoint is a kind of sympathetic "power to the people" "democracy in action" take. To be expected. The bishop wouldn't comment for the article, which meant all the talking was done by the priest and his congregation.

St. Peter's in Cleveland

Lots of dioceses around the country are merging parishes and closing churches, usually because the parishes and their dwindling congregations can no longer afford to stay open. The closings usually affect inner city parishes, because they are older, their populations have moved or are aging, and they have big, old, expensive buildings to support. They can't make it financially. The closings are usually unpopular and often face vocal opposition.

The bishops take enormous flak for these decisions. I am relatively sure none of them like or enjoy closing churches. The congregations are not simply turned out into the street. Parishes are typically merged with other parishes, and one of the priests involved may lose his pastoral role and be reassigned elsewhere.

The Cleveland situation is made more painful by the open disobedience of a priest. The bishop directed that the congregation not celebrate mass except in a church or other location authorized by the bishop. Under church rules, this is the bishop's right. The priest and the congregation have decided to disobey.

My suggestion to the priest and his congregation is that they are now "protestant." They've found something they can't tolerate about the Catholic church, and are now in revolt.


Famous Protestant.

Having lived most of my life as a Protestant, here are some things you may want to iron out before they become problems. You will be amazed at how quickly they come up.
  • Your priest is now your new Pope. Or something more like a Pope than he was before. That is, there will be some type of authority structure in your church. The question is typically "who," not "whether."
  • From whence does his authority arise?
  • If from his personal virtue, that's good, except who determines what is virtuous? Do you use the norms of the Church? Why?
  • If from God's anointing, when and where?
  • At some point he will exercise some authority to balk someone's good idea for reasons that seem unconvincing to you. What happens then?
  • Why him? Why not a Council of Elders? A Board of trustees? Presbyters? No one?
  • Why not you?
  • What happens when he dies?
  • Bible still authoritative? Why? Historically the Catholic Church wrote and selected the books of the New Testament. Does that part of Church law still apply? Which parts do and don't, and why?
These and many more questions will arise and have to be ironed out. All of them, and 10,000 besides, have vexed Protestantism since its advent in the 16th century.

Another Famous Protestant. Different denomination.

I wish you all well on your journey, and hope you find what you are looking for. My long and painful experiences with church splits suggest otherwise. There are presently about 30,000 separate Protestant denominations out there. So chances are you'll get to experience more than one split during your Protestant career.

Each split will leave its own, distinct taste of bitterness in your mouth, its own distinct aroma of failure.

Double Ditto.

A little insight on how this usually pans out. Some of you will wind up back in Catholic Church, some in a dwindling congregation under an increasingly irascible and bitter former priest, some in another Protestant congregation, and some in no church at all.

Neither Famous Protestant nor famous
Enlightenment Philosopher.

I don't wish this on anyone. But experience - unfortunately, copious amounts of painful experience - tells me I'm right.

Peace be with you all. God has a wonderful way of bringing his children home to himself by ways as diverse as they are mysterious.

PS: A Navy ship saves a man on a desert island, where he has lived for 3 years by himself. The man proudly shows the captain all he has built in order to survive and even thrive. The captain is quite impressed with the man's expansive palm hutch, which contains a kitchen, dining room, living room, bath and two bedrooms.

The captain sees another, even bigger grass hutch a little way down the path. The captain asks what the building is and the man responds warmly "that's my church." The captain sees another grass hutch nearby and asks what it is. The man's lips tighten and he says "that's my old church."