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Archive for February 2012



Hilarious statement of the week

According to the New York Times, many states are delaying creating the health insurance exchanges mandated by Obamacare, waiting for the outcome of the constitutional challenge to the law.  In the meantime, we get such delusional claims about the act as the following:

Proponents, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, say the exchanges will simplify the purchase of insurance and cut costs by increasing competition.

Has there ever been a federal government initiative that has “simplified” anything?  Has Cuomo never seen a Medicare form?  Indeed, in the next breath, the Times goes on to note:

The complexity of the computer systems needed to verify eligibility, enroll consumers, calculate subsidies and connect the exchange to state Medicaid agencies has slowed work in some states.


As for increasing competition, why not just allow the purchase of insurance across state lines?  And drive down costs by removing the tax benefits for employer-purchased insurance. 

I actually support in theory the mandate to purchase insurance, since I am fed up with paying for emergency treatment for people too irresponsible to insure themselves, and I see little difference between mandated car insurance and mandated health insurance—in most places, having a car is virtually a necessity of life.   But however defensible the idea of mandated insurance, the bureaucratic quagmire that it will unavoidably spawn renders the concept a nightmare and something that no realist about government can possibly support.

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New York governor Andrew Cuomo is giving $26 million in tax breaks to PepsiCo and a German dairy company in reward for their promise to open a joint yogurt factory in the western part of New York. 

The utter injustice of such tax concessions to companies large enough to extort them is of course patent.  While the big guys get the breaks—and for not that much in return: it is estimated that the new yogurt plant will bring in a mere 186 jobs—small businesses, who can least afford it, have to continue to pay exorbitant tax rates.  Pepsi probably shells out several million a year on diversity training and diversity PR alone. 

But what is equally galling about corporate welfare is that the Democratic politicians who dole it out (no less enthusiastically than Republicans) never recognize the obvious principle behind their actions: that high taxes hurt growth.  If lowered taxes are a boon to PepsiCo and its German yogurt partner Theo Müller (or to “green” energy companies in the Obama-Jerry Brown portfolio of uncompetitive energy enterprises), why wouldn’t they be a boon to every other company in New York state?  Yet flush after signing a deal to exempt a favored company or industry from punishing taxes, these same politicians almost invariably turn around and keep taxes high or raise them on everyone else, on the ground that tax rates don’t matter.

Republicans have their own variety of hypocrisy.  While rightly objecting to tax breaks for green energy, they fight strenuously to preserve them for conventional energy companies (or even for the ethanol boondoggle), on the specious ground that getting rid of a selective tax exemption constitutes a “tax increase” in violation of the Grover Norquist no new taxes pledge.  The Republicans’ opposition to get rid of existing corporate welfare simply plays into the Democratic playbook that Republicans are shills for the rich and powerful. 


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Respecting the law of the land

The story about a Pennsylvania atheist activist who dressed up like a “Muhammad Zombie” has been covered mostly by atheist activists and conservative publications. What seems to have happened is that the victim was dressed up as “Muhammad Zombie” during a Halloween parade, and seems to have been assaulted by an enraged Muslim. The video of the incident went viral:

The main issue people have been focusing on is that the judge seems to have had more sympathy for the attacker than the victim, going so far as to lecture the victim on his insensitivity and the consequences which might have ensued in a Muslim country. But for me this is the most important point: “According to ABC 27, Elbayomy thought it was a crime to depict Muhammad and had joined Perce in calling police.” How is it that we allow immigrants into this country who don’t even understand the importance of free speech in American society? Secondarily, how is it that, even if the judge did not have enough evidence to support the allegations of assault, did not lecture the alleged attacker that in his adopted nation free speech is close to inviolable?



Against Agape (Restaurants) and All That

Writing in the Spectator, A.N. Wilson, a former atheist, responds to de Botton:

De Botton has little chance of success — either in starting a chain of Agape restaurants, or in persuading bigots on either side of this argument. Meanwhile, very many people who already attend church, synagogue or temple will do so, as has presumably always been the case, in many varied states of mind, which have included that of total unbelief.

It is a sad story, because, between the end of the Victorian age and the 1960s, it really looked as if there was a chance for Christianity, at least, to absorb, and accept, the fact that many people who had discarded the old ways of believing, yet saw the point of a liturgical year, punctuated by ritual observances; they also saw the point of old ceremonies accompanying birth, marriage and death. De Botton, in his attractive comments about Yom Kippur, regrets the fact that secularists do not have a time of year when they can all acknowledge the faults of the past year and try to patch up quarrels — but surely they do: it is the post-Dickensian observance of Christmas. Many who realise the extreme historical unlikelihood of Jesus having been to Bethlehem, let alone having been born there to the accompaniment of angel choirs, see the point of Scrooge’s conversion.


It must always have been the case, in all religions, that there was an enormous difference of belief among the adherents. In pre-Christian times, as you went through the Roman year as chronicled in Ovid’s Fasti, there would have been Epicurean atheists and Platonist worshippers of the Good and those who did not think about such matters, all offering incense at the same altars. The same was probably true of churches and synagogues and temples throughout the world.

Over a century ago, within the Church of England, figures such as Dean Stanley were propounding a position very similar to the one recommended in this book. The Catholic Modernists went further in their rejection of the old mythology. But Pope Pius X ruthlessly stamped them out and the sad fact is that, in all attempts since to explore this kind of territory, churches have reacted in a paranoid and intolerant manner…

Don Cupitt, the former Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge ‘came out’ as an actual atheist decades ago, and there was the Death of God school of theology in America, but they did not do much to win a following in those churches which preferred to hunker down behind orthodox stockades. Quite why this is so is for sociologists and psychiatrists to explore. The ‘modern’ phenomenon is not, actually, the apparently radical idea expressed by de Botton. Historically speaking, the modern idea is that religious rites should only be permitted to those prepared to jump through certain intellectual hoops as an entrance requirement.

As soon as the churches began to introduce that Visa control, they guaranteed that they would lose millions of adherents. As de Botton shows in chapter after chapter, it is natural for human beings to follow ritual observances. The intolerance and stupidity of the churches were as much to blame for such people being cut adrift as were the dogmatic atheists, with their fifth-form debating club ‘arguments’ about whether God ‘exists’.





Agape at Agape

Writing in the weekend’s Wall Street Journal, cuddly atheist Alain de Botton offers up a vision of hell with his proposal for a series of atheist “Agape” restaurants (God help us) at which secular folk could come to share in all the fun of Mass, Seder or the like:

The large number of people who patronize restaurants suggests that they are refuges from anonymity and coldness, but in fact they have no systematic mechanism for introducing patrons to one another, to dispel their mutual suspicions, to break up the clans into which they segregate themselves or to get them to open up their hearts and share their vulnerabilities with others. At a modern restaurant, the focus is on the food and the décor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections.

Has the man never been on a date?

But I interrupt:

Patrons tend to leave restaurants much as they entered them, the experience having merely reaffirmed existing tribal divisions. Like so many institutions in the modern city (libraries, nightclubs, coffee shops), restaurants know full well how to bring people into the same space, but they lack any means of encouraging them to make meaningful contact with one another once they are there.

With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

Though there wouldn’t be religious imagery on the walls, some kind of art that displayed examples of human vulnerability, whether in relation to physical suffering, poverty, anxiety or romantic discord, would bring more of who we actually are into the public realm, lending to our connections with others a new and candid tenor.

This may just be me, but I suspect that images of “physical suffering, poverty, anxiety or romantic discord” are generally incompatible with a hearty meal for all but psychopaths and sadists, categories of people with whom I never like to dine more than is strictly necessary.

But back to de Botton:

Religions are aware that the moments around the ingestion of food are propitious to moral education. It is as if the imminent prospect of something to eat seduces our normally resistant selves into showing some of the same generosity to others as the table has shown to us. Religions also know enough about our sensory, nonintellectual dimensions to be aware that we cannot be kept on a virtuous track simply through the medium of words. They know that their captive audience is likely to accept a trade-off between ideas and nourishment—and so they turn meals into disguised ethical lessons…

…Taking their seats at an Agape Restaurant, guests would find in front of them guidebooks reminiscent of the Haggadah (the text followed at a Passover Seder) or the Missal, laying out the rules for how to behave at the meal. No one would be left alone to find their way to an interesting conversation with another, any more than it would be expected of participants at a Passover meal or in the Eucharist that they might manage independently to alight on the salient aspects of the history of the tribes of Israel or achieve a sense of communion with God.

The Book of Agape would direct diners to speak to one another for prescribed lengths of time on predefined topics. Like the famous questions that the youngest child at the table is assigned by the Haggadah to ask during the Passover ceremony (“Why is this night different from all other nights?” “Why do we eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs?” and so on), these talking points would be carefully crafted for a specific purpose, to coax guests away from customary expressions of pride (“What do you do?” “Where do your children go to school?”) and toward a more sincere revelation of themselves (“What do you regret?” “Whom can you not forgive?” “What do you fear?”).

The liturgy would inspire charity in the deepest sense, a capacity to respond with complexity and compassion to the existence of our fellow creatures. One would be privy to accounts of fear, guilt, rage, melancholy, unrequited love and infidelity that would generate an impression of our collective insanity and endearing fragility.

As I said, a vision of Hell.




Affirmative action thought control

Black students and some professors at Duke University are up in arms over a study that shows that black students drop out of science majors disproportionally, behavior that is wholly explained by their status as the beneficiary of racial preferences, as I write about here.   That switch in majors is the reason that black and white GPA’s converge somewhat over students’ time at Duke, rather than because black students are narrowing the achievement gap with whites. 


The study belongs to a growing body of empirical work called “mismatch theory,” which argues that preferences hurt their recipients by placing them in classes for which they are underprepared, causing them to learn less than they would among their academic peers–a proposition that may seem obvious to anyone outside the mind control of a university.   I certainly wouldn’t last a minute at Cal Tech and wouldn’t regard it as a favor to be placed there. 

The incident at Duke further limns the distortions of discourse that flow from affirmative action.  As has been apparent for years, first we must pretend that it doesn’t exist.   Virtually all high school students know their classmates’ SAT’s; they can see the large discrepancies between those of so-called “underrepresented minorities” and those of whites and Asians who are admitted to comparable schools.  At Duke, the SAT and grade gap is more than one standard deviation.  Black students know the score as well, and have been reported as announcing on occasion that they don’t have to work as hard because their race will get them into schools.   And yet in college, everyone is required to act as if all students have been admitted on equal grounds, and any reference to the preference regime will be judged as racist and hurtful. 

But now it turns out that you also can’t refer to the consequences of the preference regime–its effect on students’  learning and academic performance–without also being labelled a racist.  Such a result is of course not surprising, since the offense necessarily includes the prior infraction of acknowledging that affirmative action exists at all.   Still, it rounds out the picture of just how all-encompassing  the unreality bubble on campus really is and how impossible it will be to eliminate it.

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Via CBS:

[Santorum] lambasted the president’s health care law requiring insurance policies to include free prenatal testing, “because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and therefore less care that has to be done because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society.”

On the other hand Santorum probably does approve of the prenatal testing discussed by David Frum here:

…It is the Obama administration that is winning the communications war. Republicans blame the media. OK, maybe. But then Republicans do things like this in the state of Virginia:

HB 462 Abortion; informed consent, shall undergo ultrasound imaging.

“Abortion; informed consent. Requires that, as a component of informed consent to an abortion, to determine gestation age, every pregnant female shall undergo ultrasound imaging and be given an opportunity to view the ultrasound image of her fetus prior to the abortion. The medical professional performing the ultrasound must obtain written certification from the woman that the opportunity was offered and whether the woman availed herself of the opportunity to see the ultrasound image or hear the fetal heartbeat. A copy of the ultrasound and the written certification shall be maintained in the woman’s medical records at the facility where the abortion is to be performed. This bill incorporates HB 261.”

The ABC news report on the Virginia bill explains:

“The ultrasound legislation would constitute an unprecedented government mandate to insert vaginal ultrasonic probes into women as part of a state-ordered effort to dissuade them from terminating pregnancies, legislative opponents noted.”

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Say what you will about Santorum, it’s difficult to argue that he is a man who succumbs to the vapid ecumenicism that dominates so much of the discourse we hear these days from the, uh, “faith community”.

Here he is speaking to Ave Maria University in 2008:

We all know that this country was founded on a Judeo-Christian ethic but the Judeo-Christian ethic was a Protestant Judeo-Christian ethic, sure the Catholics had some influence, but this was a Protestant country and the Protestant ethic, mainstream, mainline Protestantism, and of course we look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country and it is in shambles, it is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it. […]




The “Bioethics” Fraud


“It’s always in bioethicists’ professional interest to suggest that a new technology raises troubling moral issues that require deep (funded) thought and extensive (lucrative) conferences.”




Helping Obama

The polling data relied upon for this Washington Post article is from a Democratic polling firm, but the results should come as no great surprise:

The firm’s poll finds that one of the most important factors powering Obama’s gains against likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney has been the President’s improving numbers among unmarried women, a key pillar of the present and future Democratic coalition.

Among this group, Obama now leads Romney by 65-30 — and there’s been a net 18-point swing towards the President among them:…After unmarried women dropped off for Dems in 2010 and were slow to return to the Dem fold in 2011, Obama is now approaching the 70 percent he won among them in 2008.

Unmarried women will be important to Obama’s success at rebuilding his 2008 coalition in time for reelection, something that already seems to be underway, as Ronald Brownstein has demonstrated. The crack Post polling team tells me that the key to understanding this constituency is that it’s complex and diverse; it includes young women who have never married, divorced women, and widows, and it cuts across class, racial, income, and geographic lines.

Various factors — the improving economy; the drawn-out Republican nomination process; the GOP’s sinking approval ratings — already seem to be driving unmarried women back towards Obama. And the pitched battle over birth control could continue to galvanize and unite this group behind him, particularly if Romney is forced to embrace the conservative position. The Greenberg poll also tested the two sides’ position on this issue, and found that 61 percent of unmarried women side with the Democratic one.

Concludes the memo: “We may yet look back on this debate and wonder whether this was a Terri Schiavo moment.”

The chances that this will indeed be the case will increase substantially if Santorum is the nominee. To use a hackneyed term, elections are all about the “narrative” and the narrative says that Santorum wants to ban contraception. He can deny that all he wants (and that’s just what he’s doing), but he’s said enough in the past to ensure that there are a lot of people who will never believe him. That will tell at the polls should Santorum become the nominee.

And not in a good way.

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