Another Conservative Atheist?

The Human BibleI really like Robert M. Price as a New Testament scholar. He does good work and I’ve learned a lot from him. But by listening to his lectures and reading his blog, it is clear that when it comes to politics, he isn’t a very clear thinker. For example, during one interview, he mentioned that he thought that abortion was almost always morally wrong. By that, I assume he means that abortions could be all right in the case of the life of the mother. I think too highly of him to think that he would be for the pernicious rape exception. But that’s still quite a statement: the right of a woman to her own body is trumped by a brainless three day old fetus.

That stuck out to me because I had heard a comment of his about the comic strip Jesus and Mo. It is kind of like a road picture, but instead of Hope and Crosby, it has Jesus and Mohammad. It is silly and insightful and even, I would say, sort of sweet. Price asked rhetorically why there hadn’t been a fatwa taken out against the writer. Here’s this week’s cartoon; see if you can’t spot a reason why Muslim’s might not find this cartoon so offensive:

Jesus and Mo

I think that there isn’t anything particularly hateful about the cartoon and that it makes fun of a number of religious icons (Moses is sometimes in the strip as well). I think that Muslims probably feel a little insecure when it comes to their faith given the dominance of the United States and our creepy obsession with Christianity. So given that this comic is making fun of religion generally and not their religion in particular, I suspect that don’t see a big problem.

The picture that this paints to me of Price, however, is of a guy with very typical conservative prejudices. And other than his formal work and his pop culture obsessions, I don’t see him as a particularly reflective guy. And that’s all fine. I just hope I don’t start hearing a lot more of his ideology when all I really want to know is more about the Bible from a historical and analytical standpoint.

Comfortably Roger Waters

Roger WatersThe Italian Baroque composer Isabella Leonarda was born in 1620. Here is her Twelfth Sonata in D Minor for Violin:

German Baroque composer Sebastian Knupfer was born in 1633. Here is his Was Mein Gott Will, das G’Scheh Allzeit:

Jewish Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was born in 1729. The great chemist John Dalton was born in 1766. Archaeologist Zelia Nuttall was born in 1857. Social worker Jane Addams was born in 1860. Composer Walford Davies was born in 1869. Here is his Solemn Melody:

Physicist Edward Victor Appleton was born in 1892. The great biochemist Luis Federico Leloir was born in 1906. And Christopher Nolan was born in 1965—not to be mistaken with Christopher Nolan and Chris Nolan.

Actor Jane Curtin is 66 today. Artist Ali Divandari 56. And comedian Jeff Foxworthy is 55.

But there are two other birthdays that I want to point out because I dislike them both so much. First is Carly Fiorina who is 59. I don’t dislike her simply because she got paid huge amounts of money to almost destroy Hewlett-Packard. That’s pretty typical and it is one of the reasons everyone should know that we live in a class society. People like her get paid well not because they are brilliant but simply because they are the sort of people who get paid really well. The reason I most dislike her is that I’ve seen her on political talk shows and she doesn’t know anything about business or economics. All I’ve ever heard from her is typical Very Serious statements that are simply false.

The other person is Chris Christie who is 51, the truly vile governor of New Jersey. The only reason the man wins elections is because he has the whole New Jersey rudeness thing down. So he’s great at signaling to the voters that he’s one of them. And talk about your “idiot America,” the people vote for him despite the fact that pretty much everything he stands for goes against what the people of New Jersey believe in. But in America, style matters far more than substance. I hope he goes away very soon, even though there are tons of assholes just like him.

The day, however, belongs to former Pink Floyd frontman, Roger Waters who is 70 today. I am a fan, although he seems to be a fairly terrible human being. Here he is doing “Comfortably Numb”:

Happy birthday Roger Waters!

We’ve Always Been Idiots

Idiot AmericaI just finished reading Charles Pierce’s Idiot America. It is an easy and funny read. It perhaps helps that I agree with Pierce on all the specifics. Saddles on dinosaurs are indeed funny. Why else would they have done that in The Flintstones? And I will even yield part of what he’s getting at: America certainly is more stupid than the people in other advanced economies. But there’s a very simple reason for that: Americans are more religious than other advanced countries. I don’t mean just any religion here; I mean “fundamentalism”: the belief that the literal word of God is written down in some book. (Even if it was written down in a language they don’t read.)

But there was something that bothered me throughout the book. It was something I learned from my old pal Chuck Dickens. But let me put it in a more modern context: “Same as it ever was!”

This especially came to mind last night when I was watching Ken Burns: Prohibition. And so I was watching as the abstinence movement of the 19th century tried to train kids not to drink alcohol. And what were they doing? Exactly what the modern day sex abstinence movement does to kids: lie! One drop of alcohol will destroy your stomach. Condoms don’t work. Whatever! Lie to the kids, it is for their own good!

Pierce pays special attention to Iganatius Donnelly, the curious fellow who brought us things like the modern myth of Atlantis and the never tiring idea that everyone but Shakespeare wrote all those plays that rubes think were written by Shakespeare. And Pierce clearly admires Donnelly as I do. But he thinks that something is different now. Donnelly was just a crank then but now he would be on television. Fox News would have brought him on to discuss whether the Atlanteans would have preferred Romney or Obama.

The problem is that Donnelly was on the television of his day. He was a best selling author. People the world over paid to hear him speak. So I don’t think that our technologies have made us stupider. They have just made it easier for cranks to make a living. And really, what’s wrong with that? When I turn on the NBC Nightly News, I don’t see anyone saying that the world is only 6,000 years old. The people in America believe that for different reasons. It isn’t because cranks get more exposure than they used to.

So Pierce is right that we are a very stupid and ignorant people. But as my pal Chuck would say:

It was the smartest of times, it was the dumbest of times—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Alcoholics Anonymous is Not Like the Washingtonian Movement

Washingtonian Movement

I just watched the Ken Burns: Prohibition documentary. I’m going write about it more generally in a moment, but I just want to address a minor point here. The documentary gives the obligatory shout out to Alcoholics Anonymous at the end. And it notes that the founders of AA did not know about the 19th century Washingtonian movement. The implication is that the two are similar. Well, in the sense that they were both (at least at the start) movements of drunks who helped each other to stay off alcohol. But that’s about all that binds them together.

AA was always and still is an explicitly religious movement. In recent years, the group has tried to deny this fact now by claiming that it is a “spiritual” movement and that one’s higher power can be a “bedpan.” But the 12 steps date back to the Oxford Group. According to Wikipedia:

The Oxford Group was a Christian fellowship founded by American Christian missionary Dr. Franklin Nathaniel Daniel Buchman. Buchman was a Lutheran minister who had a conversion experience in 1908 in a chapel in Keswick, England. As a result of that experience, he founded a movement called A First Century Christian Fellowship in 1921, which had become known as the Oxford Group by 1931.

Buchman summed up the group’s philosophy in a few sentences: “All people are sinners”; “All sinners can be changed”; “Confession is a prerequisite to change”; “The change can access God directly”; “Miracles are again possible”; and “The change must change others.”

The Washingtonians, in contrast, were not a bunch Bible thumpers trying to purify themselves. They were just trying to stop drinking. In fact, they were attacked by evangelicals of that time because they explicitly weren’t using God to help them.

For the record, I think groups like the Washingtonians are really good. I have no problem with drug users trying to help themselves in groups. I have three primary problems with the whole 12 Step movement. First, it is explicitly religious and seems more interested in pushing religion in a general sense than abstinence specifically. Second, it isn’t an effective treatment for those who want to stop ingesting intoxicants (and it blames the user for the program’s worthlessness). And third, the program is forced by courts on the vast majority of those who participate. In fact, if it weren’t for the courts pushing AA, it would be a very small group today.

So let us not soil the great work done by the Washingtonian movement by comparing it to the religious Alcoholics Anonymous movement. And please let us not compare it to the bastardized modern movement that would offend even its founders. Drug addition is an important issue to many people. As a society, we choose to ignore it and assume all is well because of this badly studied, paranoid, and anti-intellectual group, which is now little more than an extension of the criminal justice system. People with actual drug problems deserve better. As a society, we should be ashamed.

Bad Jobs Report So Let’s Play Frisbee

Dog Catches FrisbeeAll this week, people have been very hopeful about today’s jobs report. It was gonna be good—green shoots, turning corners, whatever handy platitude that was available. And then the jobs report came out and it was bad: the economy added only 169,000 jobs. Neil Irwin did a great job of putting this in perspective. For the last three months, the economy averaged 148,000 new jobs per month. For the last six months it is 160,000 jobs. For the last year it is 184,000 jobs. In other words, far from our economy taking off, it is stalling out. Similarly, the employment to population ratio is exactly the same today as it was six months ago. Go team!

But what should we do about this terrible situation? I say we all go out and play Frisbee! Look: playing Frisbee won’t help the economy at all, but it is fun. What all the economic reporters are calling for is more Quantitative Easing (QE), which also won’t help, but isn’t fun at all. QE is the process by which the Federal Reserve buys financial assets from private businesses. It is the weakest of tea. In general, I’ve been for it because it isn’t hurting anything and it perhaps helps around the edges. But for the last several months, Bernanke and company have been talking about reversing course because of the supposed economic recovery.

We didn’t need this bad jobs report to know that this was nonsense. For one thing, as minor a thing as QE is, when the Fed talked about stopping it, the markets flipped out. They saw it as an indication that the Fed was going to tighten up the money supply and start raising interest rates. So bond rates went up. From my perspective, the Fed can do very little in the current situation to make things better. But it has almost unlimited power to harm the economy.

Everyone writing about the jobs report this morning is pointing out that it should prove to the Fed that it needs to reverse course on reversing course on QE. Okay, fine. But that’s not the source of our economic woes. This year, we’ve had two changes in federal government policies that are doing great harm to the economy. The first was the Fiscal Cliff deal that raised taxes. That took money away from people who would spend at least part of it and gave it to the government. That would have been fine if the government spent the money. But it didn’t! It just sat on it in the name of lowering the budget deficit. So that’s money that could have gone to employing people that isn’t. The second was even more important: the Sequester. That took money that the government was spending and again just sat on it in the name of lowering the budget deficit. That’s lots more money that could have gone to employing people that isn’t.[1]

The problem we have now is that the Federal Reserve can do very little about our poor economy. What we need is fiscal stimulus. Last week, Paul Krugman wrote about what it would mean to our national debt to have gotten us back to full employment. It would have meant raising our current debt by 4 percentage points. That’s what we needed to do and that is what we still need to do. But most economic observers have become so disillusioned that they don’t even talk about us doing something that would work because it is politically impossible (at least right now). So instead, they focus on extremely marginal Federal Reserve policy.

Anyone up for a nice bit of Frisbee?


[1] In a good economy, this policy would be fine. The money the government sat on would be loaned out to businesses that would invest it. But now there is way more money than people want to borrow. So the money just sits around doing nothing and millions of people are forced to do the same.