Friday, December 31, 2010

2009-2010: Has President Obama Really Been That Bad?

Another year has passed, and if we are to believe some media outlets, the US economy is going to hell in a hand basket and President Obama is the root of most of our problems. The data, however, don't support such a conclusion. Take, for instance, the chart below, which maps the DJIA (i.e., the Dow Jones Industrial Average) since President Obama has taken office:

I don't think it takes a statistician to see that the trend is decidedly upward. In point of fact, since January of 2009, the DJIA has climbed 39.8%, and since January of 2010, it has climbed 11.02% (If you're wondering, the NASDAQ Composite Index was up 17% and the Standard and Poors 500 Index was up 13%). Moreover, in inflation-adjusted terms, the U.S economy is now back to where it stood at its peak prior to the 2008-2009 recession (see the following article, "Real GDP now at pre-recession levels"), and far fewer people are applying for unemployment benefits as the year ends (see the following article: "Unemployment benefit applications drop sharply") and more firms are saying they plan to hire full-time, permanent workers in 2011 (see the following article, "More firms say they’ll hire in 2011"), raising hopes for a healthier job market in 2011.

To be sure, this is not to suggest that everything is hunky-dorrie (technical term that we sociologists use). Unemployment is still at extremely high levels (approximately 9.7%), and if we take into account those folks who have simply stopped looking for jobs, it is even higher.  That said, let's not even pretend that things are worse than they were two years ago -- they aren't.  That doesn't necessarily mean that President Obama should receive credit for the economy's improvement (as I pointed out in an earlier post, the economy is the one area over which Presidents exercise the least influence), but he certainly shouldn't be blamed for its current state. The data simply don't support such a view.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The 12 Days of Christmas

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the 12 Days of Christmas are not the 12 days before Christmas but rather the 12 days after Christmas. The twelve day period is also known as Christmastide and runs from December 25th until January 5th (although in some traditions it runs from December 26 and conclude January 6th), culminating with the Feast of Epiphany, which commemorates the time when the Wise Men present gifts to the young Jesus, who may have been as old as two years old at the time. For some, gifts are given on all of the 12 days (e.g., as in our household), but this is more the exception than the rule.  When most people hear "The 12 Days of Christmas," however, they probably think of the song, which goes as follows:

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "A Partridge in a Pear Tree."

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... "Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree."

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Four Colly Birds (some versions using "mockingbirds" or "calling birds"), Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree . . . (and so on until the 12th verse):

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me... Twelve Drummers Drumming, Eleven Pipers Piping, Ten Lords-a-Leaping, Nine Ladies Dancing, Eight Maids-a-Milking, Seven Swans-a-Swimming, Six Geese-a-Laying, Five Gold Rings, Four Colly Birds, Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

The song's origin is unclear, but one story that has little historical support but is still a lot of fun to consider is that the song its origins as a Roman Catholic "Catechism Song" in England during a time when Roman Catholicism was "discouraged" (1558-1829). According to this tradition
  • The "true love" in the song refers to God, while the "me" refers to those who receive the gifts mentioned in the song from God
  • The "partridge in a pear tree" refers to Jesus Christ whose death on a tree (i.e., the cross) was a gift from God
  • The "two turtle doves" refer to the Old and New Testaments - another gift from God
  • The "three French hens" refer to "faith," "hope" and "love" three gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 13). 
  • The "four calling birds" refer to the four Gospels, which sing "the song of salvation through Jesus Christ." 
  • The "five golden rings" refer to the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah. 
  • The "six geese a-laying" refer to the six days of creation. 
  • The "seven swans a swimming" refer to the "seven gifts of the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:8-11) 
  • The "eight maids a milking" refer to the eight beatitudes. 
  • The "nine ladies dancing" refer to the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) 
  • The "ten lords a-leaping" refer to the Ten Commandments. 
  • The "eleven pipers piping" refer to the eleven faithful disciples. 
  • The "twelve drummers drumming" refer to the twelve points of the Apostles' Creed.
For a more scholarly (but less entertaining) take on the song's origins see the Wikipedia article.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why Following the Golden Rule Isn't Always a Good Idea

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed we could derive a supreme principle of morality solely through the use of human reason. He offered several versions of this principle, which he called the categorical imperative, all of which he believed amounted to the same thing. One version argued that we should only act "according to the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law."

Now you might have noticed that Kant's maxim sounds a whole lot like what is generally referred to as the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"), variations of which show up in a number of different religious traditions:

"Hurt not others that you yourself would find hurtful" (The Tibetan Dhammapada).
"So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Jesus, Matthew 7:12).
"Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself" (Confucius, Analects)
"One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires" (Brihaspati, Mahabharata).
"Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you" (Muhammad, The Farewell Sermon).
"That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
Despite the similarities of the golden rule with Kant's categorical imperative, there is a slight (and very important) difference between the two.  Kant (correctly) recognized that the golden rule doesn't take into account our personal preferences. Because of this, as Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein point out in their book, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes (p. 84), there are some problems with the rule.

This problem is illustrated by English playwright  George Benard Shaw rewriting of the rule: "Do not do unto others as you would have others do unto you; they may have different tastes." Or as Cathcart and Klein like to say, "A sadist is a masochist who follows the golden rule."
In inflicting pain on others the masochist is only doing what the golden rule requires: doing what he would like done unto him, preferably with a whip. But Kant would say that there's no way that a masochist could honestly claim that the moral imperative, "inflict pain on others,"could be a universal law for a livable world. Even a masochist would find that unreasonable.
Put differently, Kant's universalizing test is a way of checking to see if the action we are about to undertake puts our interests ahead of everyone else's.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fans or Fanatics?

Our neighbor across the street is from L.A., and as best as I can tell, he is a die hard Dodgers and Lakers fan (he may still be a Rams fan even though they high-tailed it to St. Louis a few years back).  No doubt, like me, he feels exhilarated when one of his teams wins a game or a championship (as the Lakers did last season) and a bit depressed when one of them falls flat on their face, so to speak (as the Dodgers did this past Fall).

We occasionally kid each other about the loyalty we feel for our respective teams.  He "threatened" to hang a Lakers banner after they beat the Celtics in the NBA Championship, and I joked that if he did, I'd shoot it down (he doesn't know that I got him one for Christmas). When his new baby girl was born, I told him I planned to get her a Giants hat, and when I hung a Giants World Series Champion banner outside our front door, he shook his head in disgust. He also thanked me when we took it down to make room for our Christmas decorations.

This is what I think of when I consider what it means to be a sports fan. Happy when our teams win, sad when they lose, and a willingness to engage in friendly banter with those who support other teams. But then I hear about what happened before the recent USC-UCLA football game: Dozens of fans brawled, two men stabbed, three men arrested and two police officers hurt, and I recall that that the word "fan" is a shortened version of the word "fanatic."
fan. 1889, Amer. Eng., originally of baseball enthusiasts, probably a shortening of fanatic, but may be influenced by the Fancy (1807), a collective term for followers of a certain hobby or sport (especially boxing). There is an isolated use from 1682, but the modern word is likely a new formation (Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved December 05, 2010, from website:
Sporting events, whether at the professional or recreational level, should bring us together, not tear us apart. And they often do (bring us together, that is). The degree of racial integration at NFL games on Sunday afternoons is higher than you'll find in most churches on Sunday mornings (I think it was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who remarked that Sunday morning is the most racially segregated hour in Christian America), and I would like to believe that no game is so important that people would feel the need to bring a knife to it, but clearly I'm wrong. 

How sad. How very sad.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Isaiah, MLK and the Dream of a Better World

In a previous post ("Advent and the Rapture") I argued that Christians should approach the season of Advent as calling us to live in the present as if God's future has already arrived. Today's lectionary passage from Isaiah (35:1-10) presents us with a vision of a world worth striving for (from the New International Version):

1 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.

3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and those the LORD has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Will we always be able to live up to this vision? Of course not, but that doesn't mean that collectively we shouldn't try because every once in a while we catch a glimpse of God's Kingdom. Indeed, Coretta Scott King, when asked to reflect on the "March on Washington," which culminated with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream Speech," reportedly remarked: "It was as if the Kingdom of God had arrived, if just for a moment."


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tax Cuts or Targeted Spending?

The debate over whether the Bush-era tax cuts should be extended (see e.g., "Tax Deal Suggests New Path for Obama") has highlighted two ways that Federal and State governments can spend or infuse money into the economy.  One approach is to fund government programs (e.g., unemployment benefits, Social Security, Medicare, etc.) that target specific groups of individuals (e.g., the unemployed, the retired, the elderly).  The other is by cutting taxes, which puts more money into the hands of individuals who then can spend these extra dollars as they see fit.  I am well aware that cutting taxes is not technically a form of government spending, but in the aggregate, it matters little whether the government spends $800 million through government programs or collects $800 million less in revenues because of tax cuts. In both cases the government has $800 million less in is coffers (and its debt has increased by $800 million), while the market has $800 million more.

Needless to say, economic conservatives (e.g., libertarians), who tend to trust the efficiency of the market over the collective wisdom of the government, generally prefer cutting taxes, while economic liberals (e.g., Rawlsian egalitarians), who often concede that the market is highly efficient but are doubtful about its fairness, typically prefer targeted spending through government programs.

Since the market is almost always more efficient when it comes to allocating dollars to where they are needed most, I believe that tax cuts are generally the way to go if we are looking for ways to stimulate the economy.  However, while the market is very efficient, it can be brutally so, often leaving in its wake a trail of destruction and broken lives.  Thus, while tax cuts should probably be the primary method by which the government stimulates the economy, there will always need to be some government funding of programs that addresses the needs of those that the market, at least in the short term, leaves behind or in the lurch (e.g., those of us who are currently unemployed, those of us who, because of circumstances beyond our control, have no choice but to work in low-paying jobs, and so on). The trick, of course, is finding the right balance.

Nothing so far in this discussion has addressed the morality of whether the Bush-era tax cuts should be extended to the 2% of Americans earning over $200,000 (individuals) or $250,000 (couples), or whether President Obama's initial plan to extend the tax cuts to the other 98% of Americans was sufficient.  In a time when so many Americans are out of work and the Federal deficit is running so high, I don't see why the upper 2% of Americans can't sacrifice a bit of their wealth for the benefit of those who haven't been as blessed, at least in monetary terms, as they have been. It 'tis the season, after all. Evidently, I'm in the minority on this one, though.

(As an aside, I don't see how at this point President Obama has much of choice but to compromise with Republicans on the tax cuts.  If the Democrats who are currently criticizing the President for caving in to Republican demands really cared as much as their current posturing suggests, then they should have been a bit more proactive and done something about it prior to the mid-term elections.  To criticize the President at this point and time strikes me as little more than self-serving. To be sure, some Democrats in the House and Senate did try to do something about this prior to the elections, but collectively they didn't try too hard.)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Happiness, Deviance and Athletic Success

A recent study by sociologist Eric M. Carter of Georgetown University has found that athletic success doesn't automatically translate into happiness.  Based on interviews with over 100 current and former NFL players, Carter found that elite athletes report high levels of unhappiness and deviant behavior (e.g., drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence).  He did find, however, that what does have a positive effect (if, like me, you consider happiness and lower levels of deviant behavior good things) is faith in God and access to a religious support system.

For a brief but excellent review of the book/study, see David Briggs's "Ahead of the Trend: In God NFL players Can Trust: Teams, Public Pave Path to Deviance."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Love is Not All We Need

Love is in the air. From the Beatles to Albus Dumbledore, Thomas Aquinas to Karl Barth, evangelical Christians to mainline Christians, the consensus seems to be that love is all we need. Indeed, a recent study by Paul Froese and Chris Bader, America's Four Gods, found that 85% of Americans believe that the term "loving" describes God well (p. 15).

The trouble is, I don't think we all mean the same thing when we use the term.  Lay theologian C.S. Lewis (and the Greeks before him) once identified four different uses of the term love: affection (i.e., fondness), friendship (i.e., strong bond), eros (i.e., being in love), and charity (i.e., the love that calls on us to care for others regardless of the circumstances).  To this list, I would be tempted to add a couple more. For example, my sense is that when a lot of people hear the word, they think of Dr. Phil, Oprah, Psychology Today and "warm fuzzes." However, while I'm certain that Jesus offered comfort to the afflicted, if Jesus had only made people feel good, he never would have been nailed to a cross by the Romans for sedition. Then, of course, some of us see God's love in terms of parental love, but even here, how we view God is split between those of us who see him as a firm parent and those of us who see him (or her) as an indulgent one. As Froese and Bader note,
Some parents stress self-discipline, responsibility, and self-reliance in order to help their children become independent and happy individuals... They believe that the goodness of a child is enhanced by tenaciously reprimanding any behavior that strays from the right path. Other parents stress fairness and equality and seek to guide children without reprimands but rather through enticements. For these parents, punishment instills the wrong message and, in fact, tends to squelch the freedom and independence of a child (p. 16).
To illustrate this latter divide, consider the debate over the place of gay and lesbians in the Church. Both conservative and liberal Christians agree that the Church should love gays and lesbians. However, while for the former this generally means tough love, for the latter it tends to mean being nonjudgmental. That is, theological conservatives are more likely to believe that the proper response of the Church is to love the sinner but not the sin and promote the Gospel's power to help gays and lesbians to either transcend or transform their sexual desires (i.e., either not act on their impulses or become straight). By contrast, theological liberals are more likely to accept gays and lesbians as they are (i.e., not requiring them to repent of their sinfulness because they don't consider them to be sinful), and to welcome them as full and faithful members of the Church.

Jesus and Love in the Gospels

This emphasis on the centrality of love among mainline Christians is puzzling since it is likely that Jesus hardly ever used the term. The word love seldom appears on Jesus' lips except in the Gospel of John, which (unless one takes a noncritical approach to the Bible) tells us little about the historical Jesus. As New Testament scholar John Meier notes in the fourth volume of his examination of the historical Jesus,
Most believers take for granted that what lies at the heart of Jesus' message and what is repeated incessantly throughout his preaching is love, both love of neighbor and love of enemies. This is the received "gospel" generations who have grown up believing that all you need is love. However, if we restrict ourselves for the moment to the Synoptic Gospels, one would not get such an impression from the saying of Jesus. "Love" as a verb or noun occurs relatively rarely on the lips of Jesus. When it does occur, Jesus is often citing a text from the Jewish Scriptures or commenting on it (A Marginal Jew: Law and Love, pp. 480-481).
In fact, Meier only traces two sayings back to the historical Jesus: (1) the double command to love God and one's neighbors and (2) the command to love one's enemies. He concludes his analysis by claiming that we cannot understand Jesus' use of the word love apart from his understanding of Torah, and that we shouldn't place "love" at the center of Jesus' theology:
Once we move on to claiming that Jesus made love the hermeneutical key for interpreting the whole Law or the supreme principle from which all other commandments can be deduced or by which they can be judged, we have shifted from the historical Jesus to the Matthean Jesus--the original sin of most Christian exegetes expounding on the historical Jesus and the Law... All you need is love? Hardly. For Jesus, you need the Torah as a whole. Nothing could be more foreign to this Palestinian Jew than a facile antithesis between Law and love. But love, as commanded by the Law, comes first--and second" (p. 576). 
Love and Christian Theology

What then does this imply for contemporary theological reflection and proclamation? Well, it certainly doesn't mean that Christians have to abandon notions of love. However, when we do use it (unless we are going to assume that our congregants are familiar with both the Oral and Written Torah), we need to embed it within the story of Jesus' life, death, teachings and Resurrection. We need to place it within a distinctly Christian context because what love meant for Jesus and what it means for Christians differs from what it means in more secular settings. That doesn't mean there isn't some overlap between these different "worlds," but they aren't identical, and given the variety of ways in which the word is used and interpreted, Christians need to be careful how they use it.

That said, we also need to avoid the temptation of treating love as the central Christian theological concept. As we've already seen, to do so isn't supported by the textual evidence. Moreover, there are other concepts that are central to the Christian faith (e.g., hope, forgiveness, redemption, sin) that stand on their own, so to speak, and should not be seen as being derived from love. 

Thus, with all due respect to John Lennon, while it is true that we do need love, love is not all we need.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Is Christian Civility Possible in an Uncivil World?

Evangelical Richard Mouw, the President of Fuller Seminary, the largest theological school in the world, recently released a new edition of his book, Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. I haven't picked up a copy, but a recent interview of Mouw by Krista Tippett on her show, "On Being" (it used to be called "Speaking of Faith"), highlighted some of the issues he touches on in his book.

One notion that Mouw picks up on is the historian Martin Marty's idea of "convicted civility." Marty once argued that there seems to be a lot of folks with plenty of conviction but with little or no civility, and a lot of folks with plenty of civility but with little or no conviction, but what we don't have (and really need) are people who have plenty of conviction and plenty of civility. In other words, we need people who are serious about what they believe in but are able to live "civilly" with those with whom they disagree on fundamental issues (it is relatively easy to be civil to those with whom we don't have fundamental differences).  As Tippett notes in her journal about her conversation with Mouw:
"Richard Mouw lays out the imperative to all kinds of Christians for gentleness, reverence, humanity, and "honor" of the different other at the heart of the Bible and the life of Jesus. But this is not a feel-good plea for harmony. Even as he calls for civility and gentleness, Mouw reasserts his public and private opposition to gay marriage and civil unions. The civility he calls for would not minimize difference, at least at the outset, but would create a different space for discussing and navigating it — indeed for bringing differences into public life with virtue and vitality of expression. Picking up on a phrase coined by Christian historian Martin Marty, Richard Mouw builds upon this idea of 'convicted civility.'"
Convicted civility is, of course, easier to talk about than do, but Mouw believes that the way we treat people is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions we take.  One thing he stresses is the importance of honoring the other rather than merely tolerating them, which is why he has problems with those who stress the need for tolerance.

On this matter Mouw is on to something.  Barring the second coming of Jesus, if we are going to live in a civilized world, all (or at least most) of us will need to learn how to live with difference, to welcome the "stranger" in our midst, to deal civilly with people with whom we have fundamental disagreements (e.g., on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, war, etc.).  We won't be able to bring everyone around to our way of thinking (which, of course, is always the right way to think about such issues). Instead, we will need to honor them for who they are: children of God.  Perhaps, to pick up on a theme I touched on in a post from earlier this week, "Advent and the Rapture," this is an opportunity for us to live in the present as if God's future has already arrived.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Should US Airports Use Racial and Religious Profiling?

Another fascinating debate is available for viewing and/or listening at Intelligence Squared US (it is also available through iTunes), which is affiliated with Intelligence Squared, a UK based organisation that stages debates around the world.  As I've noted in previous posts, the debates are held in the traditional Oxford Style, with as many as 2,500 people attending some events. Typically, those attending vote prior to and after a debate, and the winning debate team is decided by which way the vote swings. So, for instance, if prior to the debate the audience favors the propositions by 55% but after only 51% favor it, then the opposing team is considered to have won the debate.

The most recent debate debated the motion: US Airports Should Use Racial and Religious Profiling.  Those arguing on behalf of the motion are Robert Baer,  Deroy Murdock and Asra Normani. Those arguing against it are Hassan Abbas, Debra Burlingame and Michael Chertoff.  Their biographies (from the Intelligence Squared US website) are printed below:

Those Arguing For the Motion:

Robert Baer was a CIA case officer in the Directorate of Operations from 1976 to 1997, where he served in Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq and Lebanon. He is the author of two New York Times bestsellers: Sleeping with the Devil, about the Saudi royal family and its relationship with the United States; and See No Evil. He served as the inspiration for the George Clooney character in the movie Syriana.

Deroy Murdock is a libertarian and a syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. His column, “This Opinion Just In…” reaches approximately 400 newspapers across America each week.

Asra Q. Nomani, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal for 15 years, is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women's rights at her mosque in W.V. is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She recently published a monograph, Milestones for a Spiritual Jihad: Toward an Islam of Grace.

Those Arguing Against the Motion:

Hassan Abbas is Quaid-i-Azam Professor at SIPA, Columbia University. He is also a senior advisor at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and Bernard Schwartz Fellow at Asia Society in New York. Abbas has also been a visiting fellow at the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard Law School and a visiting scholar at the Harvard Law School's Program on Negotiation. Prior to his academic career, Abbas served as a government official in the administrations of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf. While in the Police Service of Pakistan in the late 1990s, he served in the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pukhtunkhwa).

Debra Burlingame is the sister of Charles F. "Chic" Burlingame, III, pilot of American Airlines flight 77 which was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. She is the co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America and a co-founder, along with Liz Cheney and William Kristol, of Keep America Safe. She has testified before Congress on aviation security, and has written for the Wall Street Journal and other national publications on national security issues. She is a board member on the National September 11 Memorial and Museum Foundation.

Michael Chertoff served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2005 to 2009 for the Bush Administration. Before heading up the Department of Homeland Security, he served as a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and as a federal prosecutor for more than a decade.

Just to recap, this debate is available at Intelligence Squared US and through iTunes.  A transcript of the debate is also available at the website,