Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Quote of the Day

A Physicist on Human Beings

The dolphin discussion below inadvertently reminded me of a commencement address given at Ashland a few years ago by Dr. Julian Earls of NASA. Having attended quite a few commencements, I think it was the best address I have heard. Brilliant, eloquent, and understanding. At one point he addressed the subject of human beings:

It's not often that physicists get asked to address non-technical topics. But the reason we don't falls squarely on our shoulders because so often we forget the real reason we're here on this earth. That was made crystal clear to me a few years ago when our oldest son was in high school. He asked me for the definition of a human being, but he wanted it in engineering terms.

The definition I gave him was: A human being is a completely self-contained totally enclosed power plant, available in a variety of sizes and colors, and reproducible in quantity. Humans are relatively long-lived, have major components in duplicate, and science is rapidly making progress towards solving the spare parts problem. Humans are waterproof, amphibious, operate on a wide variety of fuels, enjoy thermostatically-controlled temperatures, circulating fluid heat, evaporative cooling, have sealed and lubricated barriers, auto and optional directional range finders, sound and sight recording, audio and visual communications, and are equipped with the sophisticated control center called 'The Brain.'

And when I was through with that description, it became significant to me for what has been omitted. What goes beyond the mere fact of this robot's existence and turns it into a human being? What makes it different from such mechanical marvels as the Viking Lander, the Pathfinder Lander, or the Spirit and Opportunity Rovers on Mars? Ladies and gentlemen, the meaning of being human is the most significant of all subjects. Science will never be able to reduce the value of human commitment to a formula. It will never be able to reduce the value of respect one for another, love one for another, support one for another, to arithmetic. The challenge of accomplishment in living, the depth of insight, the inter-beauty and truth-- these things shall always surpass the scientific mastery of Nature.

Or, as I tell my colleagues, you can have all the technical knowledge in the world at your fingertips, but if you aren't a caring human being, you're the most dangerous creature on Earth, and the most unfulfilled.

Good stuff.
Categories > Quote of the Day


Medium Steps

So about Paul Ryan's speech.  It introduces the concept of moving from an employer-based health insurance system that comes ever closer to comprehensive third party prepayment, and toward a system of catastrophic health care coverage supplemented by Medical Savings Accounts.  Ryan has some arguments on his side.  Ballooning health insurance premiums are eating into people's disposable incomes and companies' ability to hire.  Ryan's wants to get rid of the tax exemption for employer-provided health insurance and replace it with a tax credit for catastrophic and portable health care coverage. 

There is a huge political problem with Ryan's approach.  Ryan's tax proposal would unwind the system of employer-provided health insurance suddenly.  This is scary.  Employer-provided coverage is real to people.  It means that an illness won't lead to complete financial disaster and that more-than-emergency care will be provided.  Folks are rightly afraid to trade in what they have (for all of its problems) for a promise of something better.  To the average voter, it would seem more clear that they would lose something than that they would gain anything in particular.  This means that going from a system of employer-provided, almost comprehensive health care prepayment to a consumer-oriented system where patients go to the providers that offer the best value and drive down prices will be tricky. 

Ryan is doing the first thing that needs doing.  He is doing what he can to familiarize the public with the problems of the current health care system and the (potential) benefits of a consumer-driven system.  He is also providing a narrative for why premiums are rising.  If conservatives don't get on this, liberals will convince persuadable voters that premium increases are the fault of mean insurance companies.  In fact, the New York Times story linked above has the headline "Health Insurers Push Premiums Sharply Higher."  Darn insurers.  Maybe we should get our comprehensive health care prepayment from the government (single-payer.)  The nice IPAB people won't say no will they?

The problem is that Ryan is just one guy.  He needs a megaphone.  How many people have heard about Ryan's proposal in any detail vs. the number of people who have heard about the Romney-Perry dust up over in-state tuition for illegal immigrant?.  Come to think of it, the main health care issue we've heard about during the debates has been the Perry HPV executive order.  No sane person should expect the currently announced Republican presidential candidates to become braver, more responsible, and more eloquent on health care policy.  So the message will have to get out some other way.  A conservative foundation or right-leaning fundraising group could do a lot worse than spend its money educating the public about the benefits of consumer-driven health care policy (preferably between elections.) 

But it isn't enough to be for Ryan's preferred policy.  For one thing, Ryan's policy proposal is too radical to be a prudent Republican health care policy for 2012.  That means that the center-right should move along several tracks for reforming the health care system.  Ryan (and every advertizing dollar that can be raised) should be selling the benefits of his pretty maximalist plan.  That's good.  That shapes the debate  Republicans presidential and congressional candidates should argue in favor of Ryan's general approach but present more gradualist policies,  I would suggest two policies to substitute for Ryan's tax credit proposal:

1.  Adopt Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru's plan to convert the employer health insurance tax deduction into a flat tax credit (like Ryan's plan) but limit individuals who can use the tax credit to those who don't currently have access to employer-provided health insurance.  All others have to use their tax credit through an employer-provided plan.  As Levin  and Ponnuru write

It would not do as much to shift control over insurance to workers. They would have to stay in their jobs to keep their existing plans. But it would cut costs and help people the tax code now pushes out of insurance markets. And it would do so, critically, without threatening the insurance arrangements of the satisfied majority. Over time, this reform could help the individual market grow and become more attractive to more Americans. Voters might then become receptive to relaxed restrictions on using the tax credit to exit the employer market.

2.  Change the law so that states and municipalities can offer Indiana-style HSA/catastrophic coverage programs for public employees.  Such a program saved Indiana's government money while increasing the take home pay and maintaining their health care security of the workers.  This is a political win-win and it gives all those Republican governors elected in 2010 something useful to do when it comes to health care policy.  As the experience of Indiana is repeated (well, if it is repeated) by blocks of public employees all over the country, people who don't have access to such plans will wonder why they can't have more pocket money for just as much health care security.

To maximize its chances for success, any strategy for moving to a more consumer-driven health care system will have to be as consensual as possible in the early stages.  Risk averse members of the public should not be given the impression that they are going to be thrown into a brand new system in 2013 or 2014.  As more measured policies gradually increase the number of people on consumer-driven policies, the constituency for greater reform will tend to grow organically (though there should be persistent and energetic activism from the center-right.) 

Note:  It goes without saying that there would have to be all kinds of other policies ranging from state-based high risk pools to pricing and quality transparency regulations, to reforms allowing for entry into the market by higher productivity specialty medical providers in order to really make this work.  
Categories > Politics


Dolphin Talk

In Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it is stated that humans are actually the third most intelligent species in the world. The first are mice, who are actually testing us while we think we are testing them, and the second are dolphins. "On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reason."  Aware of the impending destruction of the Earth in the novel, the dolphins leave the planet and try to relay a final message that ends up being "misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the Star Spangled Banner, but in fact the message was this: So long, and thanks for all the fish."

The sea-dwelling mammals have long been of fascination to human beings for their often playful and curious nature, and their relative intelligence compared to most other creatures with whom we share the world. Of the sea creatures, they have proven to be among the most useful and easy to interact with for humans, in a way that horses and mules and dogs and cats are useful. There has been some excitement in the blogosphere lately due to this study that plans to create the first two-way communication between dolphins and humans through the use of some sophisticated technology and long-studied habits of the creatures. Some of the excitement is a bit overdone, though, as one of the scientists involved pointed out.

This is not an advancement towards "conversation" with dolphins. One cannot have true conversation with one's dog, for example, but we can relate certain commands to a dog that it can learn to be familiar with (as an aside, I tend to sometimes think my dogs can understand me or at least get what I'm feeling, but I understand there's no reasonable basis for that, just a feeling or a hope, I suppose!). It will be similar to the dolphins; just as we have worked out way of communicating certain things with our dogs (and are sometimes able to get an idea of something the dog is trying to communicate too depending on its actions and mood), these scientists are expecting to do the same with the dolphins. Perhaps it will help us learn more about how these creatures act, but it likely isn't going to be bringing any sort of tremendous revelation or use to us outside of the realm of these studies. At the end of the day they are still irrational and guided by instinct, incapable of understanding concepts like justice, liberty, and morality. Good luck, though, to these researches in working to further understand the fun creatures and building some sort of communications with them!
Categories > Technology


A Comment on Palin

Former Governor Sarah Palin said on Fox recently that she may not want to run for president because she would be shackled by the presidency and unable to wield the type of authority she has now. Jon Stewart has an appropriate take-down of this silly stuff. The spectacle of Sarah Palin is distracting from getting to the real substance of things, and much more of a disservice than the hype surrounding Governor Christie, who at least has something serious to say in a serious way and seems to be less-egocentric and far more genuine than Sarah Palin in the dancing around this issue (though I do share some of the concerns mentioned by Julie below about Christie). She needs to just accept the role she really wants, that of a well-paid and somewhat influential pundit, and stop with the presidential back-and-forth.
Categories > Elections


Ryan Health Care Plan Semi-Open Thread

So I'm about a quart low on energy right now, but I'm trying to think through Ryan's speech on health care policy earlier this week.  I think it is bold, thoughtful and eloquently presented.  I also think it has some large political problems.  But I want to know what the NLT readers think.  Have at it.  Or not - it's a free country.
Categories > Politics



Well, if you have not read it or seen it by now, here is a link to both the transcript and the video of the Chris Christie speech at the Reagan Library two nights ago. 

Most of the commentary about it can be characterized as one of two things:  speculation or begging.  Although I am not inclined to think there is a lot of need for the former, I cannot avoid it if I am to say anything intelligible about the substance of Christie's fine and effective remarks.  I absolutely will not engage in the latter.  But more about that later.

Here's what I think:  It is entirely possible that Chris Christie misread his moment.  I think he was sincere when he said that he did not mean to run for President and I think his reason for not running--at least, initially--had partly to do with his own personal concern with being "ready," but it had mainly to do with a suspicion that no Republican was likely to beat Obama in 2012.  He thought he could and should wait.  He was wrong on both counts. 

Consider his long (and, yes, very good) reflections on Obama's 2004 Democrat Convention speech.  Everybody who knew anything about politics in 2004 knew that watching Obama warming up for Kerry brought on feelings reminiscent of those you get when the previews at the movies look better than the movie you came to see.  That was as close as Obama ever got to a Reagan moment.  And Christie was at the Reagan Library, so he can be forgiven if visions of "A Time for Choosing" were dancing in his head.  I think Christie meant to do something like that at the Reagan Library or, perhaps, to give us a taste of what he must mean to do at our coming convention whether or not he is the candidate.  I think that explains why this 2004 speech of Obama's was so close to the forefront of Christie's mind; that, and it is a good hook for explaining to people, who once trusted in Obama, the ways in which their original opinion is wrong. Without question, Christie did that well. 

But this brings me to the second part of my thoughts about Christie's speech.  If he's not running, why is he waxing eloquent on Presidential politics in this way?  Well, it must fry him to watch these debates, right?  He's sitting there watching these guys do it in ways that seem, to him, wrong.  It's killing him.  Maybe he thought he could at least offer a tutorial to the GOP candidates.  "Watch me.  This is how it's done."  And his substance was good.  What he said about compromise (contra Rush and others who, though they mean well, seem to be suffering post traumatic stress disorder whenever they hear that word) was good.  

But the thing about this speech is that, as with most pros who step in to demonstrate skills to talent that is already playing at the top of its game, Christie is only succeeding in showing the rest of them up.  It's not going to do anyone any good for him to continue in this mode.

"Maybe showing them up is all part of his plan?" suggest some prognosticators who, like me, don't see much point in all of this talk if the man doesn't mean to run.  So, therefore, he must mean to do it.  Well, if that is the case, here's what the rest of me is saying:  I have loved Chris Christie for a long time.  And I long, just as much as the next citizen, to hear someone come and speak simple truths to power with good effect and without cringing.  But if he is planning like that, to hell with him.  No, really.  This is becoming unseemly.  He may be the best guy (though I don't think that is, by any means, a settled matter) but he ain't the only guy.  Please.

And here's something else.  What is this with the begging of this guy to run?  This suggestion that he must do it?   I don't like it.  I thought his answer to the (sincere, but sad) woman who was begging him to run was good, respectful and, even, sweet.  But it bothers me to see Americans so desperate for one man to run for the Presidency.  There is something weak and pathetic about it, I am sorry to say.  Have some pride.  Americans don't beg anyone to be their boss.  It reminds me, in a way, of the scheming that went on to get George Washington to declare himself emperor . . . maybe without the Washington.  

Perhaps it is unfortunate that Chris Christie's moment has passed and that he seems to have made the wrong call.  But if he is a man of integrity, and I think he is, he can use this opportunity to remind Americans that this is their country.  No one man is so essential, so wise, or so wonderful that he must be deign to be their king as if he were part of some Platonic dialogue writ large.  Of course his consent in the thing matters.  This is a regime built on the principle!  Enough, already.  There is serious work to do and Chris Christie will best contribute to that effort when he makes it clear that he means to support someone else for the Presidency this go around.   If, on the other hand, he means to jump in, he had better do it quick.  And, if he does that, there's no getting around the fact that he is going to have a lot of explaining to do and he should not be surprised if a lot of voters, instead of thinking that he has finally lived up to his duty, consider that he's not really as much a man of his word as they once thought he was.   
Categories > Elections

Health Care

AMA, Doctors Split on Obamacare

The American Medical Association, for a century and a half the primary lobbying group of our medical professionals, has seen quite a decline in membership since its endorsement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act last year. Today, only 17% of doctors are now members of the AMA, with 47% of those departing over the past year citing the association's continued support for Obamacare as their primary reason for leaving. I also draw your attention to the news this week that both the Obama Administration and 26 states against the healthcare law have finally brought the case to the Supreme Court for review, ensuring that this will be a largely-covered issue in the upcoming campaign.
Categories > Health Care


Required Reading

Tired of the Mitt Romney-Rick Perry food fight?  Me too.  But there are serious Republicans who are talking about our biggest economic problems in a serious way.  Too bad none of them are running for President.

Chris Christie gives one heck of a great speech and describes a tough-minded and realistic conservative reformism that is willing to make reasonable good faith compromises.   

Paul Ryan eloquently lays out the case  for a broad right-leaning health care reform.  As usual, I think Ryan's proposal's move a little too far a little too fast to be the Republican policy agenda of the moment.  But I don't think that Ryan's major speeches are best understood as attempts to get some exact proposal passed either now or ever.  They are attempts to get people thinking about new approaches to solving problems.  Those approaches can then be refined in ways that take into account public opinion and reasonable policy criticism.  If I were the head of American Crossroads or some other right-leaning group with deep pockets, I would put Ryan into two minute commercials explaining some aspect of health care policy.  Such a two minute commercial would do more to change people's minds that ten times as many 30 second ads that don't have a chance to say anything.
Categories > Politics


Congressional Realignment

While most of the punditry is focused on President Obama's recent campaigning and the quest for the Republican Party presidential nomination, the bigger story seems to be that of the United States Congress. Every four years, congressional elections are usually seen as second fiddle to the race for the White House; 2012 may prove to be very different, and thus very much important. The political stress and economic turmoil engulfing the country right now have coincided with perfect timing for the Republican Party in the congressional elections, and placed the Democrats at a disadvantage.

In the 2010 elections, Republicans came to regain control of the United States House of Representatives, gaining 63 seats in the largest turnover of that chamber since 1948. Six seats in the United States Senate drifted into Republican hands, allowing the still-minority party to maintain the power of the filibuster over the majority Democrats. More importantly, though, a stunning 680 seats in the various state legislatures shifted into Republican hands, the largest turnover in our history, granting Republicans control of 25 of this country's legislatures (compared to the 15 controlled by Democrats, and the remaining being split). After 2010, Republicans took charge of 29 governors' mansions. Timing here will be key to future Republican victories, as the newfound widespread GOP influence came at a time when we took our regular census and are set to draw new congressional districts. Through the process of gerrymandering (which, just to be clear, is something I personally dislike), Republicans are protecting their incumbents and weakening Democratic positions from North Carolina to Ohio to Pennsylvania and more, giving them an advantage in at least the next two election cycles.

With the gerrymandering throughout the country mostly favoring Republicans, not only will they retain their control of the House of Representatives, they are likely to pick up at least a dozen more seats. It should be noted, though, that the approval rating of Republicans in Congress is just as low as the approval rating of Democrats, and anti-incumbency is a huge problem for everyone right now, but from what it looks like this will still favor Republicans instead of Democrats. With President Obama now focused on repealing tax cuts and raising taxes, and if the economy fails to see any type of improvement over the next year, another wave could hit the House. A long way off to know for sure, of course, and much can change in a year, but it is entirely safe to wager that the Republicans will at least maintain the House and likely increase their numbers a bit.

Now comes the much more interesting and much more important matter of the Senate. In this election, as has been pointed out by many before, the Democrats are already playing defense--24 of the seats that caucus with the Democrats are up for reelection, while only ten Republican seats are. Republicans need to only gain four seats and they become a majority in the Senate, and this task looks likely to happen. Michigan, Missouri, Montana, and Virginia all seem to be pretty safe bets to go to the GOP, and Florida and Wisconsin may very well end up in Republican hands as well. Ohio and New Mexico are both leaning the way of the Democrats, but Republicans have a serious shot in those races. Scott Brown will probably end up on the losing end in Massachusetts, which will be a Democratic gain there-- though these traditionally liberal areas have been very surprising of late. Olympia Snowe may also face a bit of a tough race, but given the flip in the Maine legislature last election, I think she's pretty safe. At minimum, the Republicans will probably grab a 52-seat majority in the Senate, with a chance at having as many as 56 of the seats. But wait--there's more!

Thinking long-term, the 2014 U.S. Senate elections will present a further disadvantage for Democrats. True, the opinion of whoever is president at the time may drastically change things and circumstances are volatile, but the seats up for grabs already put the Republicans at an advantage. Democrats will be defending 20 seats, while Republicans will be defending 13. Except for perhaps Susan Collins (like Snowe, depending on how much Maine has shifted or not at the time), most all of the GOP seats will be safe or leaning GOP. Some of the Democratic seats, however, could very well be in toss-up territory--Arkansas, Iowa, North Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia. 2014 (which will coincidentally mark 100 years of the direct election of Senators) will present the Republican Party with the opportunity to do something it hasn't done in the past century--grab a filibuster-proof majority in the United States Senate.

All-in-all, I would venture to say the congressional elections are what to pay very close attention to this year, and the Senate in particular. How much Republicans shore up their majority in the Senate will set them up for most of the next decade. After a century of progressive dominance in Congress, if the Republicans are successful in this (and bear in mind that they are not only able to but often prone to shooting themselves in the foot), it could signal the start of a long-term realignment much more than the fight over the Oval Office. Regardless of the fight for the White House, it just looks like the next five years are going to be bad for Democrats in Congress, and Republicans ought to realize how rare such an opportunity is and start working now if they want to do something with it. Interesting stuff to watch.
Categories > Elections


Issue Report

Sorry I've been away.  Getting away from the horse race stuff, what does the Republican presidential debate look like on the key issues of Medicare, Social Security, and health care policy generally?  Here are my impressions after watching the first six Republican debates and the Freedom Forum thing in South Carolina:

Medicare - Almost nothing after the first debate.  Rick Santorum mentioned the benefits of a premium support model for Medicare in the first debate and I think several candidates mentioned that they supported the Ryan Medicare reform proposal.  That is about all I've heard.  Gingrich mentioned his snake oil about cutting fraud in one debate too.  Reforming Medicare is an enormous fiscal issue and will probably be THE key battleground over whether we move to a higher tax, more statist, more centralized direction or a (comparatively) lower tax, more market-oriented direction.  The early Republican debates have done nothing to advance public understanding this issue or any particular Medicare reform proposal.  I haven't heard Perry say anything about this issue. 

As usual, Romney is the antimatter of political courage.  His Medicare proposal in his economic plan is short and to no point.  Romney writes "the plan put forward by Congressman Paul Ryan makes important strides in the right direction by keeping the system solvent and introducing market-based dynamics. As president, Romney's own plan will differ, but it will share those objectives."  Or as Reason magazine described Romney's plan "Does Romney support Ryan's plan, or its basic framework? Not...exactly. "As president, Romney's own plan"--wasn't this supposed to be Romney's plan?--"will differ, but it will share those objectives." The same. But different."  What a waste.

The best that we can hope for are that Perry and Romney are hoping to get elected and then throw America a Medicare reform surprise party.  Worst case, we are headed for the rocks.

Social Security - So far it has been mostly attitudinizing from the two frontrunners.  Perry and Romney aren't actually that apart on substance - in the sense that neither has much just yet.  They both want Social Security to remain unchanged for current recipients.  They both want the system to be reformed so that it will be there for younger workers.  And neither has committed to any actual reform proposals.  So that leaves posturing.  Perry has done a lot of big talking and writing that Social  Security is an unconstitutional Ponzi scheme monstrous lie that maybe should be run by the states.  Running on such a platform would probably be political suicide so Perry isn't advocating moving Social Security into a state-run program.  But he can neither fully embrace nor fully reject his previous statements.  So he ends up defending his past statements while denying that they will form the basis for forward-looking policy.  And when that fails, he just starts talking about Romneycare regardless of whether it makes sense in the context of the discussion. 

Meanwhile, Romney is busy pretending that Perry would try to destroy Social Security.  Reality check:  If we repealed the 22nd Amendment and Rick Perry served three terms as President, Perry would leave office with Social Security being a federal-level program of intergenerational transfer and/or forced savings.

The only candidate who has had anything real to say on Social Security has been Herman Cain with his proposal of moving to Chilean-style private accounts.  The problem is that Social Security is suffering a medium-term funding shortfall.  The amount coming in from payroll taxes isn't going to keep up with benefits.  Diverting the payroll tax contributions of younger workers into private investment accounts only makes that shortfall worse over the next several decades.  That means the shortfall has to be made up with either greater government borrowing, higher taxes, lower benefits for retirees or some combination of the above.  What am I missing?  This isn't even getting into the political problem of selling private accounts after the stock market gyrations of the last eleven years.

Health care policy - All the Republican presidential candidates hate Obamacare.  I heard some stuff from Perry about tort reform.  Romney mentioned something about interstate purchase of health insurance.  If you were just the average voter, you had little idea what either of them were talking about or how you might benefit by the weird-sounding policies they passingly mentioned.  Not one of them can produce a coherent and concise critique of Romneycare  Romney is (amazingly) getting away with hiding the policy similarities between Romneycare and Obamacare.  Perry's explanation of Texas' high rate of uninsured residents is that the dog Washington ate his Medicaid waiver.  Not one of the candidates has mentioned (for instance) how moving more of the working age population to system of HSAs/catastrophic coverage might maintain health care security while increasing worker take home pay,  At the presidential debate level, the quality of the Republican message hasn't improved even a little bit over 2008.  All we have done is seen "stop socialized medicine" replaced with "repeal Obamacare."  This issue (along with Medicare) is where Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan are missed the most.     
Categories > Politics


Ford Wimps Out

Ford has pulled its anti-bailout commercial.  Fortunately, the web is forever, and it is available here.
Categories > Progressivism


The Clutch

Fall and October beckon and, with them, come the conclusion of baseball season and the beginning of another long season of hopeful anticipation of the spring.  I have often thought that if a man cannot study philosophy and will not reflect upon his religion, there may yet be some hope for a meaningful life if he will, at least, study baseball.

Elizabeth Scalia waxes poetic on some of the reasons for this over at the First Things blog, On the Square.  At the heart of her musings is her recollection of the dread and then heartbreak she witnessed in a fan of one of her rival teams as her team rode the wind to glory.  The capacity of baseball to "break your heart," she reflects, is what makes baseball great.  And the reason baseball can do this is because of the way it can put you "in the clutch"--that is, in a state of suspension between certainty and uncertainty; the place where you have offered up your best, but can only hope for an agreeable outcome.  As the potential for tragedy spins on this roulette wheel of fate, love prevents us from calling in our chips.  We double down and are drawn in, yet again, for another spin.  We are caught in the clutch and the love that drives us compels us to surrender to it.  The pitcher may have perfected balance and form and strength and speed but, at some point, he must release the ball. 

It is a grand read.  Enjoy.
Categories > Leisure


Faith Barriers

Pope Benedict XVI spoke in Germany the other day, and apparently both Catholics and Protestants are disappointed that he did not work to break down faith barriers and bring the churches closer together. Apparently there are many in Germany asking why old divisions between the faiths still exist. Though not quite the theologian myself, I find the answer quite simply expressed in much of the philosophy of classical liberalism, as a chief reason why we seek to separate the political realm from that of the religious: you cannot compromise on religion. One cannot negotiate or haggle over how to save one's soul. There cannot be a deal struck over how to interpret what is God's law and what is not. Locke handles the issue very well in his Letter Concerning Toleration and Essay Concerning Human Understanding, as to why we must separate the sword and the cross in order to have political peace--politics requires principle, yes, but also compromise, and give-and-take, which cannot exist within religious discourse. There is no room for compromise in true faith. Government must account for this, which then-candidate Obama actually discussed rather well in a speech a few years ago. 

Religions must lay down the sword and be tolerant of each other's existence in human society, but they have no need to break down barriers between each other or negotiate their beliefs with each other. And while religions can have dialogues with each other, can seek where they agree on matters of theology and living, can try find where they can work together towards common goals, they are under no obligation to rectify their beliefs with each other. This "tolerance" does not mean, either, that one faith cannot call another out for its shortcomings or say that only through their own church can one's soul be saved. It just means that it must respect and act within the laws of man. Good for the Pope for not giving into this silly and relativistic idea that one needs to work to break down the barriers between faiths. 
Categories > Religion

Foreign Affairs

Tsar Putin Returns

After months of speculation about whether or not current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would go to battle over reelection, the question has now been settled: Medvedev will bow to his master and not seek reelection, instead swapping spots with the Russian strongman who has run the country for the last decade. It is likely that Medvedev was considering running, but the fact that most of his chief ministers were likely to back Putin probably changed his mind (as well as Putin critics sometimes seeming to turn up radioactive on their deathbed). Indeed, the former KGB's tactics of ruling are as ruthless as many of the other thugs to govern throughout history, but just a bit more targeted. He does not engage in wanton cruelty over his subjects or complete oppression; he has figured out how to control his country through the public affairs while seeming to leave the private ones alone. Yes, it means that a journalist or a former spy or an activist lawyer need to die sometimes, or that an occasional billionaire oligarch or political rival need to be tossed in jail for a while, but the violence is not wanton enough to cause the Western world or the Russian people to really do more than sometimes express some displeasure with it all. Between the West just watching Russian tanks roll into Georgia without lifting a finger and the United States quickly capitulating on the new START treaty with Russia and Europe's newfound subordination to Russia due to energy resources, Putin has little to fear as he continues to mold his fiefdom in whatever image he may.

And an image it is, alone. Putin is feeding Russian dreams and ambitions and aspirations for greatness. He represents a strongman, a hero, someone bringing them the glory of their old empire. He is willing to stand up to and challenge the United States. Beneath the image, though, right through the surface, there are cracks. Russia has real problems, both economic and political, and its military advancement may not be able to keep up with any future arms race between the United States and China. Additionally, now that it seems we will have to deal directly with Putin again for the next decade or so, there is the question of what happens after the Tsar is dead. This is not to say that Russia will no longer be relevant on the world stage; on the contrary, the sheer fact that it maintains an arsenal powerful enough to wipe out most human life makes it relevant, regardless of all its other importance to world politics. But the Russian people, I think, will find life a little less enjoyable under Putin 2.0 than they did in the first season, and I hope that they eventually decide to do something about it.
Categories > Foreign Affairs


Breaking the Laws of Physics

In school, students are taught the laws of science--the rules of how things work, if you will. Within this there is a perhaps minor issue that at times needs clarification: there are, even technically speaking, no pure laws in science. This is because scientific theory is not based on truth and cannot discern truth; just probability, based on experimentation. Science exists to prove things wrong, and to give us the most probable truths about life that it can give--but never any absolute truth. There is no way in science to prove something is absolutely true. Yes, if I toss my pen up into the air, I will bet a lot of money that it comes back down, and the law of gravity tells me it will. The theory of gravity explains why this is to me. However, it is only highly probable that it will come back down with that theory's understanding; not absolutely true. This theory seems to be the most true right now, and until it is proven wrong, is the theory that we most like to work with. This does not mean that someday, somehow, the theory cannot be overturned. No where else is this oft-forgotten part of scientific pursuit being revealed this week than at CERN, the large laboratory in Europe whose experiments of late were cosmic enough to cause people to seek shutting them down for fear that they would create a black hole with their Large Hadron Collider.

For a century, the scientific world has lived mostly under Einstein's theories of physics and relativity. Much of this theory is anchored in the idea that nothing is faster than the speed of light; that is the north pole for the compass of the theory currently accepted as law. It looks like CERN, however, seemed to consistently make some particles go 60 billionths of a second faster than the speed of light. Naturally, this is now causing the entire scientific community to scratch its head. The physicists at CERN quickly published the results of their experiment so that other scientists around the world could critique it and do their own studies. I am sure right now there are many-a-physicist crossing their fingers and hoping that someone finds a flaw in their experiment, rather than upending a century's worth of scientific theory. Apparently this kid, Jacob Barnett, who I referenced some months ago really was onto something when he said that parts of Einstein's theory of relativity don't compute. I'd be happy to see what he makes of the data!

Good luck to them in their pursuit of knowledge. If the current theory regarding time and space is proven wrong, all-the-better for us and our continued efforts to figure out how things work. Science should be ever-changing and ever-learning to try and understand the physical things of life. But perhaps this can serve as a lesson to people to remember that science presents only theories and probabilities--useful, yes, but theories nonetheless. If you want truth, go read some Aristotle.
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