Thursday, December 11, 2008

Congratulations to Melody!

My wonderful daughter just turned 16, and she is sweet. She also works very diligently in her studies, and practices music all the time. (It is a great pleasure to hear the wonderful tones waft through the house from her french horn or piano.) So it is not surprising at all that Melody is in the top 10 out of roughly 700 students in her class...or that she was invited to perform with the Governor's All-Star Band at this year's Carolighting. Unfortunately, the event was rained out...but the honor remains. Yeah, Mel!

Congratulations to Benjamin and Archelle!

I have been blessed to stay in touch with my dear friend Benjamin Lincoln, even though he moved to Atlanta almost 10 years ago. He has had great success as a software developer, which surprises no one who is familiar with his smarts, friendliness, and integrity.

A young woman named Archelle has also noticed his admirable qualities--and he, hers--so they will be tying the knot at their A.M.E. church in March. A round of applause!

Congratulations to Benjamin!

My hulk of a 12-year-old, Benjamin Falter, recently earned a green belt in karate. He has manifested enterprise, persistence and humility in his approach to karate, so you can rest assured that I will be making plenty of posts about his success in many other endeavors.

The Inevitability of Booms and Busts

It seems that the Mises Institute is tilting at windmills in its hope to end economic booms and busts by reenacting the gold standard and outlawing fractional reserve banking. As long as human beings are making decisions about the prices of goods and services--i.e., as long as you and I, dear readers, are investing and consuming--we will be experiencing the crazy ups and downs. We can turn back the repeal of the Glass-Stegall Act, but we can't outlaw human nature.

This month's Atlantic Monthly published a couple of very impressive articles about how our wonderful, wacky humanity is the root of the problem. "Pop Psychology" describes experiments done by economists where a dozen participants are each given a certain amount of "securities" (for example, a certificate that yields a 24-cent dividend every 4 minutes) and cash (the real stuff, negotiable instruments). The experiment is limited to 15 rounds of dividends, so after an hour of trading the participants get to keep whatever money remains from their trading activity and dividends.

It is a trivial exercise to calculate the economic value of the security: during the first round it is $3.60 (15 times $.24), in the second round it is $3.36, etc. Anyone who believes that the trading price of the securities for these 60-minute securities in the 12-person market will largely reflect their apparent economic value, though, does not understand human behavior. (And truth be told, I must count myself among the misinformed/astonished.) What drives the market price of the securities is not their apparent economic value, but the desire of the participants to buy low and sell high. So what happens 90% of the time in these experiments is that the profit-seekers drive the price of the securities skyward--until the 15th round, at which point the market crashes.

Sound familiar?

So now you know why reverting to the gold standard will never end the cycle of booms and busts; we can change the banking system, but we are powerless to stop the tide of human behavior. I pointed out in a previous post that the cycle of expansion and contraction has occurred both when currency has been pegged to the gold standard and when it hasn't. I would be overstating the case to see that good banking policy is inconsequential; good policy might reduce the amplitude of the swings. At the same time, we do need to recognize that there is no policy that can relegate booms and busts to the dustbin of history.

In the second article, Henry Blodget (of Wall Street notoriety) examines the conduct of participants in the recent real estate and credit bubble, and finds it to be completely unremarkable. Of course home purchasers kept bidding up the price of real estate; they wanted to keep making profits. Investment bankers wanted to keep earning their bonuses. Politicians wanted the good times to keep rolling. Mortgage lenders wanted to keep earning origination fees. It takes a village to raise a child, and I guess it takes a village to cause a stampede in the real estate market.

In the wake of the inevitable bust, there has been much finger-pointing, but far too little self-examination. Perhaps we will learn our lesson for a generation, but eventually people will start saying "It's different this time, prices really can keep spiraling upward" and the next boom and crash will happen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"Money, Banking and the Federal Reserve"

I just finished viewing a youtube video produced by the Mises Institute that gives an interesting explanation of how money and banking works. Every freshman in Econ 101 needs to watch this video to learn why berries or wampum could be the currency of choice, rather than reserve notes, and what fractional reserve banking is all about. It also covers a good bit of banking history, although as I will discuss in a bit, it is highly selective in its coverage of the subject.

Then the video engages in a long rejection of central banking, and calls for a return to the gold standard. There are several related themes that the Mises Institute cites:

  1. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors (FRB) is not accountable to anyone. No one audits their operations; they can buy and sell assets as they please. You cannot obtain a transcript of their deliberations; they only publish a brief summary.
  2. Inflation is baked in to the current banking system--300% in the 25 years after Nixon ended Bretton Woods! But you don't want a low inflation environment; you want the currency you own to gain value over time. Only a deflationary environment can provide the confidence that investors and entrepreneurs need to do their part for economic growth.
  3. Central banking is the cause of all economic booms and busts. It leads to booms and busts because the presence of a "lender of last resort" removes the need for banks to lend prudently during the good years.
  4. History shows that a return to the gold standard will stabilize the economy; for example, sound money was the impetus for a pleasant 18-year expansion from 1879 to 1896. On the other hand, the video implicates central banking as the ultimate cause of the Great Depression.
The video's analysis ignores so much history, so much about how banking operates, and so many serious pragmatic issues, that I scarcely know where to begin my critique. For now, since my time is limited, I'll just list some semi-random thoughts:

  1. The members of the Federal Reserve Board are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Opinions vary as to whether this provides enough accountability for the Board, but the appointment/confirmation process certainly mitigates the problem. In addition, the video is dramatically wrong about the availability of transcripts for the FRB's meetings; they have been available since 1994. The video was produced in 1996, so there is no excuse for this misleading argument.
  2. Central banking's promotion of monetary inflation is not the only cause of the boom/bust cycle. Any time investors believe that outsized profits can be gained from some new resource, technology or business practice, they stampede into the capital market and produce a rush of new lending. This is a boom cycle, and it doesn't need the assistance of central banking. The Holland tulip craze, the 19th century railroad boom, and the 21st century housing boom were driven primarily by investors' appetites for enormous and easy returns. The video praises the reliability of a market-regulated currency, but in point of fact the rush into the housing market by Wall Street lenders and Main Street borrowers that we saw during W's early years is but the latest example of how the market can drive a currency boom. An earlier example, provided by the video itself, is how the long expansion after the Civil War was followed by a decade's worth of instability that culminated in the Crash of 1907. That crash in turn led to the birth to the Federal Reserve during a 1910 meeting of Wall Street titans on Jekyll Island. Of course, the fact that 18 years of boom followed by a decade of instability and bust occurred when the Fed did not yet exist is an extremely strong refutation of the video's argument, but the producers rise to the challenge of completely overlooking this inconvenient fact.
  3. While few are happy during the bust after a boom, Daniel Gross argues that the boom/bust cycle is critical for a healthy economy. Booms often give us infrastructure (like telegraphs, railroads, and fiber-optic cable) that can boost production for decades. Of course, not all booms are of equal value (think tulip bulbs and vacant housing), but you've got to expect some chaff with the wheat. At the risk of redundancy, I again point out that booms are what happen when investors get excited about emerging opportunities; history has proven that you can't have marvelous new opportunities without a boom/bust cycle.
  4. Do not believe the video when it states that you want your money to gain value over time. The years 1929 - 1940 saw the greatest increase in the value of money in American history; this period is also referred to as the Great Depression. The link between increasing money value and severe economic depression is quite obvious. If the value of goods I can buy with money will increase over time, I have no incentive at all to invest it; I can get a risk-free increase in value just by stuffing my money in a mattress. So from the viewpoint of society, when the value of money is increasing, investment naturally falls sharply. Furthermore, this fall in value can be a vicious circle: as the value of money increases, investment drops; as investment drops, economic activity drops; as economic activity drops, the value of money in hand goes up; as the value of money in hand goes up, investment drops more, etc. This, in a nutshell, is how the Great Depression happened.
  5. The video attacks fractional reserve banking from pillar to post, but it is impossible for a conversion to the gold standard to eliminate fractional reserve banking. Here's why: the world's outstanding gold reserves are but a tiny fraction of the world's economic output. As long as the reserve assets on hand are but a fraction of the lending in the economy, there will be fractional reserve banking. It is mathematically impossible to have any form of banking other than fractional reserve banking when aggregate reserves are lower than aggregate deposits. "Well, we'll just revalue gold so that banking reserves and demand deposits are in equilibrium," Ron Paul might reply. While that is possible, I'm not sure I want to give a windfall profit of $15 trillion to a handful of mining companies.
  6. The video proclaimed (in 1996) that the federal budget had been in deficit every year since Nixon ended Bretton Woods. Of course, just like it seems you have to wash your car to enjoy a rainfall, no sooner was this video released than our country enjoyed a string of impressive budget surpluses from 1996 to 2001. Of course, the Republican Congress and President put an end to that with a huge tax cut and out-of-control military spending in the years 2001 and following, but that's a different story.
  7. The video proposes that investors will lend their gold to banks for (negotiated) fixed periods of time at a fixed interest rate, and the banks will in turn will lend to creditworthy borrowers. Congratulations, Mises Institute, you have just invented the Certificate of Deposit (CD).
  8. The video proposes that banks will charge fees to depositors for holding their savings and demand deposits, instead of earning profits by lending a portion of the deposit money. In other words, the Mises Institute proposes to kill fractional reserve banking. Of course, this would decrease the availability of capital dramatically, which would starve our economy of the resources needed to pursue new investment opportunities. In other words, the Mises Institute's proposal would provoke a downturn so colossal that we would rename the 1930s as the "Mild Disappointment."
  9. It is true that deposit insurance and the Fed's discount window serve as a "lender of last resort," which can encourage private lenders to take some imprudent risks. However, the alternative is not some nirvana where all investors and lenders are perfectly rational. Rather it's a system where you and I will be afraid to put our savings in a bank for fear that some crazy loan officer will lend it to his visionary cousin Marvin's real estate company, and we'll lose the capital we painfully gathered for decades as we raised our families. And if you and I are afraid of putting our money in savings accounts, it will be the 1930s all over again.

EDIT: I have corrected the inadvertant misspelling of the name of Mises Institute. Thanks, Thom!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Analyzing the Republican Pro-Life Case

As readers of the comments on my previous blog are aware, it is impossible to support a Democrat for pro-life reasons without stirring up controversy. A lot of controversy. In addition to the published comments, I have received many emails and even letters from passionate Christians and family members who implore me to consider further arguments.

I do appreciate the sentiment and thoughts. I have very carefully considered these arguments, and at one point seriously contemplated the possibility of voting for Bob Barr. (Sorry, Senator McCain--I could never vote for anyone who labels a Palestinian peace activist as a "neo-Nazi.") The arguments are as follows:

  1. Abortion restrictions such as parental consent/notification laws actually do reduce abortions, according to a 2006 analysis by Prof. Michael New.
  2. Obama plans to sign the Freedom of Choice Act (if it is passed), which would eliminate any restriction of any type on abortion. Doctors, nurses, and hospitals could no longer refuse to provide abortion. Partial-birth abortions could no longer be restricted. State parental notification and informed consent laws would be nullified.

As I examined the data as carefully as possible, though, I think my original public policy analysis was sound. A vote for Obama is vote to improve the economic and societal situation of expectant mothers, and thus is a vote to reduce abortion. Let's see why:

1. New's analysis is faulty because it fails to control for the correct variables. Prof. New only controlled for income growth and racial demographics in his analysis of the effects of abortion restriction policies. The Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) analysis, however, controls for 16 economic and welfare policy factors, in addition to the abortion restriction policies. Once these additional factors are considered, the effect of abortion restriction policies becomes immaterial. As Wright and Bailey report in the CACG paper:

Using the nationwide data, we also analyzed the effect of state-level laws that are designed to prevent abortions. In the Appendix, we show that laws concerning parental and informed consent had no significant effect on the number of abortions in the United States. We tested for the effect of both passing and enforcing parental and informed consent laws, and find that the net effect on the abortion rate of both passing and enforcing these laws was very close to zero. While we did find that partial-birth abortion laws are associated with decreases in the abortion rate, this result was not statistically different from zero and was not consistent across different specifications. These results stand in contrast to earlier research, but that research did not control for important socioeconomic factors such as government assistance and employment rates by gender.
Thus the primary policy factors to reduce abortions are economic assistance programs that can help expectant mothers, although the elimination of Medicaid funding for abortions also helps.

2. The Freedom of Choice Act appears to be little more than lip service to the pro-choice movement. I urge my readers to go read the actual Act, rather than rely on what I or anyone else says. You will see that it basically enacts as a matter of federal legislation the policies already propounded by Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton.

  • It does not prevent medical professionals from exercising their conscience--a right which does not rely on state abortion restriction legislation.

  • It does not prevent states from restricting partial-birth abortions; in fact, the effect of the Act does not extend beyond the 22d week of pregnancy, since it states
    A government may not...deny or interfere with a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy after viability where termination is necessary to protect the life or health of the woman
    This balancing of the unborn child's right to life with the woman's life or health is no different from today's law.
  • And I do not believe that the law will affect state's choices not to fund abortions with Medicaid dollars. The Act is spectacularly vague on the question of Medicaid funding, and even if it could be interpreted to override state funding choices, it would never survive a state challenge based on the 10th Amendment ("the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.")

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Pro-Life Evangelical Votes for Democrat Obama

Starting in 1984, I have never voted for a Democrat for President, primarily because the Republican candidate expressed a pro-life stance, and had the backing of a party with a pro-life platform. 2008 is different. Here's why:

1. Valuing the dignity of human life goes far beyond opposing abortion. I've decided that being pro-life means:
  • You care about the world that you are leaving to future generations.
  • You care about the dignity of the most vulnerable--the poor, the oppressed, the elderly, the unborn.
  • You care about the eradication of injustice and inequality.
  • You recognize that Americans have no special dispensation from God to act as they please, since all human beings are created equal, whether they are Iraqi, Zimbabwean, French, Chinese, or American. This doctrine leads to a real humility with regard to choosing to invade other countries militarily. I salute the men and women who serve courageously in our armed forces, but I cannot abide the Bush Doctrine and those who uphold it (most notably McCain and Palin).
So my previous view of pro-life policy was far too narrow, because it focused on just one (albeit important) aspect of life. And here I might add that influential Christian thinkers, both Catholic and Protestant, have been preaching this broad view for some time. In fact, the seven principles of Catholic social teaching, as declared in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum ("Of New Things"), are:

* Life and Dignity of the Human Person
* Call to Family, Community, and Participation
* Rights and Responsibilities
* Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
* The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
* Solidarity
* Care for God's Creation

As I look over this list, I see a lot of areas where Democrats, in my view, hold the upper hand. They do much better in the "option for the poor and vulnerable," especially as this pertains to tax policy. They support the rights of workers to organize and earn a living wage far more strongly than Republicans. They have more consistently expressed a concern for stewardship of God's creation. They have earned my vote.

2. The Democratic emphasis on pragmatic policies to reduce abortions holds greater promise than the Republican emphasis on the ideal of making abortion illegal.

First, the Republican approach of restrictive legislation is preordained to fail due to the legal doctrine of stare decisis (adherence to precedent). Short of a constitutional amendment, Roe v. Wade and other decisions that allow a woman to give preference to her health as determined by her and her physician rather than her unborn child will remain the law of the land. In other words, our next President and his judicial appointments, whether they be pro-life or pro-choice, will have very little influence on the legality of abortion, because the issue has already been decided on constitutional grounds.

Second, access restriction legislation is far less effective at reducing abortion than liberal welfare policies. The "Reducing Abortion in America" public policy study released by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good concludes that abortion restriction policies such as parental consent laws have had a negligible impact on abortion rates. On the other hand, "social and economic supports such as benefits for pregnant women and mothers and economic assistance to low-income families have contributed significantly to reducing the number of abortions in the United States over the past twenty years." Here I will let the report speak for itself:

"[A] two standard deviation difference among states in the reported level of economic assistance to low income families is correlated with a 20% lower abortion rate. Across the entire United States, this translates into 200,000 fewer abortions. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 allowed states to impose a cap on the number of children eligible to receive economic assistance in low-income families. Removing this family cap would decrease abortions by about 15% or 150,000 nationwide. The findings also suggest that, in the 1990s, states with more generous grants to women, infants and children under the age of five as provided by the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program had a 37% lower abortion rate. Finally, higher male employment in the 1990s was associated with a 29% lower abortion rate."

In other words, if you truly desire to reduce abortions in the US,
  • Remove family caps to welfare assistance (which have been enacted primarily in Republican strongholds like Mississippi and South Carolina [my home state]).
  • Increase welfare assistance to the poor, especially in the WIC program. Follow the Democratic California and NY assistance model, not the Republican Mississippi and SC model.
  • Help poor men gain employment skills, and employment.
So which of the major parties, and which of the Presidential candidates, will be more supportive of liberal welfare assistance policies? If you care about reducing abortions, this is the question you should be asking. If you want my vote, stop talking about welfare and tax policy in terms of supposedly promoting socialism and income redistribution, and start talking in terms of compassion and bringing children into the world. This is how the Democratic Party is choosing to frame its policies, and it is quite clear to me that the Democratic policies are dramatically more conducive to reducing abortions.

The great irony of the abortion debate is that some of the most vociferous voices against abortion have, through their conservative welfare policies, contributed to hundreds of thousands more abortions each year. I will grant that this promotion of abortions has been unwitting. Now that you and I know the truth of the matter on what really helps to reduce abortions, though, we need to vote November 4 on the basis of what really happens as a result of policy decisions--not on the basis of a political party's rhetoric. Deeds, not words, are what count.

3. The Democratic Party's new language about the importance of reducing abortions and its embrace of pro-life Democrats such as Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey appear to be genuine. For the first time that I can remember, the Democratic Party has this year recruited dozens of pro-life advocates to run for Congress and has actively supported them with millions of dollars in campaign funds. Pro-choice elements of the party may not be happy with this shift, but they have not prevailed.

Will the Democrats go the distance with this new-found approach to reducing abortions and supporting pro-life candidates, or will it turn out to be a cynical ploy designed to garner votes in 2008? It's impossible to predict the future, but I'm willing to give the Democrats a chance to demonstrate their sincerity. Part of the reason I'm willing to give them this chance is that I have not been particularly impressed with Republican leadership on the issue over the past 24 years; the gulf between Republican talk and Republican action has been quite acute. Even this year, McCain's attempt to select Tom Ridge or Joe Lieberman, staunchly pro-choice friends, as his vice presidential running mate do not make me think that a McCain administration would really care about the issue. For that matter, Sarah Palin never took any notable action on pro-life concerns during her tenure as governor of Alaska. She has behaved in an exemplary fashion in choosing to lovingly raise a Down's Syndrome baby, but this personal virtue has not had any corresponding public policy action.

My decision is made. Because I have concluded that an Obama presidency will be more pro-life (as properly defined) in action, he has earned my vote on November 4.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Making Sense of Worship

[This post is courtesy of my beautiful wife, Linda]

A few nights ago I awakened at 3:30am and found that Chris was not next to me. I groaned and pulled myself out of bed to rescue my husband from the Taskmaster, again. He had said he would only work until one, and here it was more than two hours later. As I trudged down the hall, my resentment grew. Clearly, I’d have to cover his take-Melody-to-school shift early in the morning, even though he’s supposed to drop off and I’m supposed to pick up. Sitting in that line twice in one day was definitely too much.

After assurances from Chris that he was “just about done,” and his insistence that the deadline couldn’t wait, I crawled back to bed. Of course I couldn’t really sleep until he came in at about four, which gave me ample opportunity to stew…and develop some major crabbiness.

As expected, the morning found me waiting in the parent line with time to think. And repent. I had been focusing on my frustration, and hadn’t even really thought about the pressure that Chris must be under at work. By the time I got back, I had decided to fix him a really nice breakfast and to apologize. Fresh fruit, made-from-scratch bran muffins, eggs, and coffee—everything turned out perfectly. Chris basically never gets a hot breakfast because of the mad rush to get out the door, but this morning he chose to go in a bit late (after all, he’d worked nearly all night!), and we ended up having a very nice time together. Despite having had poor sleep the night before, I was in a pretty good mood all day.

Maybe you’re wondering what my story has to do with worship. You see, I’m at the place in my life where I’ve had to simplify my idea of what worship is really all about. I’ve been in a pretty fair number of situations, and I’ve seen many kinds of worship. When I was in the Catholic church I thought the essence of worship was piety, the strength of tradition, and the beauty of a solemn and meaningful liturgy. Then my Catholic mother became interested in the charismatic movement, and I saw worship full of ecstatic experiences in the Holy Spirit—very joyful and emotional. When Chris and I lived for a while in a Muslim country, we saw worship that took the form of zeal in a creed and way of life that was literally shouted from the rooftops of mosques five times a day. After that we joined Vineyard Christian Fellowship, where worship was all about intimacy, surrender and commissioning to do the works of the Father, such as healing and deliverance. I was even Presbyterian for a short while, where worship was tied with in-depth study and reverence for the Word of God. All of these expressions taught me many valuable things, but I also experienced the pain of witnessing some that fell prey to the danger of prideful legalism, overemphasis on the power of spiritual gifts or self-focused emotionalism. Many were confused or hurt by division between denominations. There had to be a simpler way to understand worship, some common ground, and a way to make sense of it all.

I’ve come to realize that underneath it all there is only one thing that really matters. Worship is simply this: drawing near to touch the heart of my God with the beauty only I can give. It is turning from my selfishness to bring something precious to my beloved – like a warm muffin and gourmet coffee for my husband after a long night of toil and struggle. Like a song of thanksgiving that brings comfort and pleasure to a God who continually suffers grief over many lost souls.

The day that I sat in the parent line twice for Chris bloomed with gorgeous springtime weather. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and as I took my usual afternoon walk it seemed as that the wildflowers had sprung up overnight. It nearly took my breath away. All of this beauty—like a lover’s gift of a dozen red roses—for me, for us. God’s mercy is amazing: His compassion that brings redemption, the power of the Holy Spirit that crowns us with the beauty of loving-kindness and gives us a holy passion as majestic as the eagle. He clothes us with the shining splendor of His righteousness. He invites us into His glorious presence, and there fills us to overflowing with His joy and peace.

Romans 12:1, paraphrased, says this: “I beg you, brothers and sisters, to open your eyes to God’s unfathomable mercy. Let it inspire you to present yourselves as a sacrifice on God’s altar. Live your lives in such a way as to make sure that your sacrifice is holy and acceptable to God. This is true worship and a fitting response to His great kindness to you.”

It just makes sense.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

So the Bible begins, and for good reason. The Genesis account establishes several critical themes in the relationship of man with God, and man with man:

1. God has given each human being tremendous value. According to Genesis 1:27, "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." You are created in His image, so you bear the imprint of divinity. You are important. And so are all the men and women around you--of every ethnicity, every cultural background, every gender.

Apply this teaching to the people around you: if you want to live according to the Bible, you cannot allow even the tiniest hint of racism, or xenophobia, or discrimination, to dwell in your heart. Too often the church has justified these practices, rather than casting them back into the pit of hell, whence they came.

Apply this teaching to yourself: in spite of all your failings, you have great worth in God's eyes. He created you in His image, so you bear the mark of nobility and greatness, whether you are a janitor or a CEO. Even if you are on Death Row for a horrendous crime, you can receive God's gracious gift of salvation and life renewed. If you feel useless because you have spent the past year unemployed, remember that your greatness does not depend on your economic output. God has already established your worth, by creating you with His imprint.

2. We are accountable to God for the conduct of our lives. According to Genesis 2:16-17, "the LORD God commanded the man, 'You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.'" Contrary to the message we get from advertising, we are not created to maximize the pleasures of the moment. Our Creator has set limits for us, and if we do not respect them, we will--in the end--fall tragically short of our calling.

It has become popular of late among anthropologists to try to anchor an ethic in our conjectured evolutionary background. Chimps groom each other, show loyalty in the family group, and have at least a rudimentary sense of fairness, so we humans (their nearest living relatives) manifest similar behaviors. This theory is supposed to be not only explanatory, but prescriptive; we are supposed to be fair to one another, for example, because that sense of fairness must have provided some value in the competition for survival of the fittest. However, this theory ultimately is quite unscientific, as it emphasizes certain favored traits like fairness--traits that are highly valued in the Biblical heritage of our culture, I hasten to add--over other equally observable traits, like treachery and warfare. The behavior of Saddam Hussein, Josef Stalin, and Adolf Hitler strongly resemble the behavior of chimps engaged in a deadly fratricidal brawl. So basing an ethic on evolution ultimately results in not being able to divide between good and bad, right and wrong. Love and lust, generosity and genocide, helpfulness and hatred: all must have their roots in our evolutionary past, if the evolutionary past is to be given its full meaning.

It is not necessary to claim that the earth was created in 6 literal, 24-hour days 6000 years ago and that evolution never occurred in order to accept our accountability to God. Godly scholars like Augustine of Hippo believed that the Genesis account of creation was not to be taken in the most literal fashion. The key point is that somewhere in the recent past, God stepped in and stamped His image indelibly on homo sapiens. Because of this, we can readily distinguish between Mother Theresa and Saddam Hussein; the one obeyed her Creator with all her being, while the other chose instead to engage in unspeakable cruelty.

3. God has charged us with the stewardship of His creation. According to Genesis 2:15, "The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it." We have a responsibility to take care of the environment as best we can. Too often, Christians have thought that if we preach the gospel, we can ignore the environment. I respectfully disagree. In today's American economy, of course, I have little choice about owning a vehicle. However, I can choose which vehicle to drive based on God's command to take care of the environment. I have been driving my little Mitsubishi Mirage for 8 years now because I want to minimize the amount of greenhouse gases I am spewing into the air. If you see a champagne-colored subcompact with a "What Would Jesus Drive?" sticker on the back bumper in the vicinity of Columbia, SC, beep and wave hello!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

If Truong Values the USCF Members' Interests Above His Own, He Should Resign

Just 2 months after Paul Truong was elected to the US Chess Federation Board, a USCF system administrator, Brian Mottershead, released a report that stated that Truong had posted a variety of ugly, inflammatory USENET comments while posing as Sam Sloan or other figures in US chess. Mottershead documents that over a period of several months, the IP address of the inflammatory USENET posts was identical to the IP address of the computer from which Truong was simultaneously logged in to the USCF forums. In the wake of this report, Sam Sloan filed a civil suit against the USCF, Truong, and other individuals associated with the USCF, essentially charging them with a vast conspiracy to thwart his 2007 re-election campaign for the USCF Board.

Mottershead's report rests on a sound technical basis, according to two leading authorities in Internet security who have examined it closely. Supporters of Truong have advanced some rebuttals that have yet to persuade me:

1. Argument: The IP address of the USENET posts could have been spoofed.

True, it is not hard to spoof an IP address. However, how would the culprit have known what IP address to spoof?

2. Argument: A hacker could have taken control of Truong's PC, observed his behavior, and posted to the USENET from Truong's PC at the appropriate moments over a period of several months.

This supposed behavior is completely uncharacteristic of hackers, who generally use compromised computers to host bots (automated programs) that generate spam or participate in "Denial of Service" attacks. In addition, a compromised PC does not explain the USENET posts/logins to from a mobile device in Mexico, at just the time that Truong was traveling in Mexico for the world championship.

3. Argument: Mottershead violated his Non-Disclosure Agreement with the USCF when he released his report.

The fact that someone else may have misbehaved is completely irrelevant to the issue of whether Truong misbehaved.

I do think that Mottershead should have given the USCF ethics committee time to perform their work before going outside the normal channels as a whistle-blower. Again, this does not have any bearing on the veracity of Mottershead's report.

This controversy in and of itself does not justify a request for Truong's resignation, though. However unlikely it may seem at the moment, it is possible that Truong will be able to persuade us of an excellent alibi, as he claims he will do, and I am willing to wait for that time to make my final judgment. Rather, the reason Truong should resign is that his interests and the USCF's interests have suddenly diverged in a sharp manner. Here's why: It is in the USCF's best interests to resolve the issue as quickly as possible, and this means releasing all facts pertaining to the issue as expeditiously as possible. There is no other way for the USCF to get past this issue. At the same time, Truong has declined, on the advice of his attorney, to release any information to the public about his connections to the internet during the period in question.

It is Paul's right to conduct his defense as he and his legal team see fit, and I do not question that right. However, it is the right of the USCF to have Board members who will uncompromisingly attend to the interests of the organization first and foremost. Since Truong feels he cannot release any exculpatory data, he is not able to put the interests of the USCF ahead of his own. Thus his one and only honorable course is to resign immediately as a member of the USCF board. In my view, this action would not be an admission of guilt; rather, it would enhance his credibility as someone who cares about the promotion and good governance of chess in our country.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I Think, Therefore I Am a Quantum Fluctuation

The dominant theory among astrophysicists assumes that every property of the observable universe is, at root, the result of a random, quantum fluctuation. According to this view, the ultimate quantum fluctuation (from our perspective, anyway) has been the Big Bang, which gave birth to the universe as we know it.

Recently scientists have been pushing this theory to its logical limits. The results, according to an article in this week's New York Times science page, are quite startling:

1. An infinite number of universes can (and will) be created. This is referred to as the "megaverse" theory. These universes may not have the same physical laws as ours, though. In fact, we cannot know what laws they obey, since we cannot observe them from inside our universe.

This leads to the obvious question: how would you prove this megaverse theory to be correct? Scientists are supposed to be all about experimental proof, but you cannot even begin to design an experiment that would prove or disprove the existence of an infinite number of unobservable universes.

2. In a megaverse where an infinite number of quantum fluctuations can occur, the odds are infinitely great that eventually another version of Chris Falter will appear, complete with a corny sense of humor and chess aspirations that outstrip his ability. And another version of you, dear reader, will also appear. Astrophysicists have thus been trading emails, journal letters, and articles that discuss whether this should be considered reincarnation.

3. It is easier for a random fluctuation to produce a smaller, simpler object than a larger, more complex object, much as shaking a box of Scrabble letters is more likely to produce a word than a complete sentence. As a result, in a megaverse of infinitely many quantum fluctuations, it is infinitely more probable that a disembodied brain with your memories, thinking ability, and observations will appear, rather than a brain connected to a body. The disembodied brain (referred to as a "Boltzmann brain" for reasons too arcane to discuss here) may possess the illusion of being connected to a body (and a society and a planet, and so forth), but it is nevertheless disembodied. Given that the disembodied brain is infinitely more probable to exist than an embodied brain, you who are reading this blog post (and I who am writing it) are, to a near mathematical certainty, just disembodied brains experiencing the illusion of conventional life on a planet called Earth.

So physicists are having quite a fun discussion here: starting with a theory of origins that cannot possibly be proven empirically, they end up talking about reincarnation and life as a chimera.

Now let us suppose that someone with an alternate view enters the discussion. She or he states that the odds of random events creating DNA-based life in our universe are infinitesimally small. Therefore, this universe, the only one we can explore empirically, shows evidence of design. And maybe we should think about the origin of that design, as in maybe we are created with a purpose to fulfill.

The discussion stops. The physicists band together, and in unanimous voice, they banish the stupid non-scientist. "You can't talk about intelligent design in science! You are trying to turn this into a religious discussion, and there is no room in science to discuss religion!"

And then the Boltzmann brains return to their discussion of unobservable universes and reincarnation.

Does anyone else find this ironic?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Modern-Day Marcionites?

In our 3-year Bible study plan, we spend the first year studying the Old Testament, the second studying the Gospels, and the third studying the Epistles. In week one, we started with the question: why study the Old Testament?

Let's take a look at what Jesus said:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
- Matthew 5:17-19

Jesus states that he stands squarely upon the foundation of the Law (the Pentateuch) and the Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the so-called "Minor Prophets"). His purpose is to fulfill them. How can you understand his ministry unless you really grasp the Law and the Prophets?

Paul also weighs in on the question:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
- 2 Timothy 3:14-17

Christians often use this verse to encourage each other to read the Bible, which in practice often means reading a Psalm and a passage from the New Testament. But Paul is not talking about the four Gospels or any of his letters; his admonition is about what we call the Old Testament. The "holy Scriptures" that Timothy had known from infancy could only refer to the Jewish Bible! Paul states that the Jewish Bible makes us "wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus"; it teaches us what we need to know about ourselves and our world so that we know how much we need Christ. For now, I won't elaborate on what it is we need to learn from the Jewish Bible, since I'll be blogging on that for the next year or so. Paul also points out that God uses the Jewish Bible to reshape our attitudes, to correct our behavior, and to make our righteousness grow. We neglect the Old Testament at our peril.

And so many of us Christians are living in peril. I know from my own experience that an evangelical Christian can attend church for years without hearing a sermon based primarily on an Old Testament passage. And even what we do hear presents an incomplete picture; many are the sections of the Old Testament that we neglect. When was the last time you heard a sermon about Habakkuk? When was the last time that you read a chapter from Habakkuk? Can you even find Habakkuk in your Bible?

We are too much like Marcion, the second century heretic who taught that the Old Testament--full of works, law, and wrath--stood in contrast to the Gospel--full of grace, faith, and mercy. This is similar to the way many Christians think; based on Paul's jeremiad against law and works, we often associate Judaism and the Old Testament with a harsh legalism. Marcion accepted only the gospel of Luke and 10 Pauline epistles in his canon, and condemned the reading of the Old Testament. In contrast, we tolerant moderns (who regard the Old Testament as Scripture) just ignore it. You have to give Marcion some credit, though; at least his view of the canonicity of the Old Testament and his behavior toward it were consistent.

When we fail to study the Old Testament, we cannot realize that it is as full of grace and mercy as the New. Paul's warning against legalism was not a warning against the Old Testament, per se, but rather a warning against pharisaical pride. Paul's view of the Jewish roots of grace, hope, and mercy are worthy of an entire post. In fact, scholars far more capable than I have written tomes on the subject. For the moment, then, I will simply repeat the observation that Paul heartily commended the study of what we now call the Old Testament.

When we fail to study the Old Testament, we can miss its strong concern for social justice. In America, abolitionists and civil rights leaders have drawn their inspiration from prophets like Hosea and Isaiah, and have quoted from them liberally. For decades, though, many evangelicals have acted as if Jesus were the first anti-tax Republican. If we don't pay attention to the prophets, we cannot hear his echo of the prophets' call for social justice.

When we fail to study the Old Testament, we may undervalue the role of ritual. True, there is such a thing as empty ritual. But there is also such a thing as empty praise and empty rhetoric. The Old Testament reminds us that God authored a set of rituals for His people. So maybe we evangelicals shouldn't be so suspicious of liturgy.

Finally, when we fail to study the Old Testament, we ignore the history of hope. Hope is everywhere in the Jewish Bible. Ezekiel has a vision of scattered, dry bones taking on new life; Isaiah speaks of a day when the lion will lie down with the lamb, the swords will be beaten into pruning hooks, and the crooked roads will be made straight; Jeremiah looks forward to the day when the Lord will establish a new covenant with His people, a covenant in which God renews their hearts. If we do not ponder these passages, the message of the gospel can seem like a glib formula, when it is in fact God's loving plan finally unleashed in a dark and despairing world.

I am looking forward to this next year. I hope you will come back often to share this journey with me.

Blogging Through the Bible in Three Short Years

Our church (New Life Community Church in Irmo, SC) has just started a 3-year "Walk Through the Bible" course, and I'm happy that we are engaging in an organized study plan for the entire Bible. Well, almost; the plan does not really require that everyone read the entire text of the Bible. The week that we study Job, for example, we will just hit a few highlights, rather than read over thirty chapters of Job and his friends' wrestling back-and-forth with the problem of theodicy. Of course, a lot of Christians never even crack open the book of Job, so I am not inclined to criticize the study plan. And frankly, my Bible study intellectual muscles have atrophied a bit of late, so I welcome the training regimen.

In order to maximize the spiritual benefit of our group study, everyone is supposed to keep a journal of their thoughts; since I love to blog, I'll be keeping mine on-line. Roughly once a week I'll be posting my thoughts about the latest stage of our 3-year journey through the Bible. I know that I will find this encounter with the Bible to be both encouraging and challenging; the Scriptures have always moved me. My prayer is that at least a few readers will also be moved by these forthcoming meditations.