Feb 19, 2009
The Telegraph of London reports that Western European banks have five times the exposure to bad assets as America and East Asia. Additionally, European banks (especially Austrian, German, and Swedish) have invested massively into Eastern Europe. That was a bad idea. Many of those nations aren't on the Euro, which means that if their loans were made in different currencies and that currency drops against the Euro, they either owe more (if the loans were made in the native currency for a stated amount of value in Euros) or the bank makes less (if the loans were made in the native currency and is now worth far less in real terms). Either way, the banks loose tons of money. Even more, because of mass demand dropoffs, especially in commoditites, Eastern European industries, which heretofore have been chugging along at mega-growth rates (sometimes in the teens), are suddenly contracting. Their loans cost more to them, are worth less to the bank, and are harder to pay off because of the losses in revenue. It's a complete mess. Add to it that Russia isn't busy buying debt or helping out non-Russian industries because it has spent the last few months using up 36% of its massive foreign currency reserves to keep the rouble from completely and utterly collapsing (it has lost 35% of its value thus far; the Russian stock market has dropped 70% in the past year).
All told, Europe's economy is in the crap-heap even more so than ours.
Germany, the industrial center of Europe, had 8.4% GDP decrease in the Fourth Quarter of 2008. We had 3.8%.
Methinks this is going to last for a long, long time.
Feb 14, 2009
Courtesy of Geoffrey Chaucer's Parlement of Foules (the first connection between
Valentine's Day and romance):
Whan I was come ayen unto the place
That I of spak, that was so swote and grene,
Forth welk I tho, my-selven to solace.
Tho was I war wher that ther sat a quene
That, as of light the somer-sonne shene
Passeth the sterre, right so over mesure
She fairer was than any creature.
And in a launde, upon an hille of floures,
Was set this noble goddesse Nature;
Of braunches were hir halles and hir boures,
Y-wrought after hir craft and hir mesure;
Ne ther nas foul that cometh of engendrure,
That they ne were prest in hir presence,
To take hir doom and yeve hir audience.
For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
Feb 13, 2009
Greg Mankiw, economics professor, from Harvard, has quite a comeback. Basically, what he says is that when times become more uncertain, people's average propensity to consume (APC) decreases (i.e. people consume less and save more). Gross erroneously assumes that the decrease in the APC also decreases a person's marginal propensity to consume (MPC), that is, the change (increase or decrease) in consumption for each additional dollar of cash-at-hand. That, in fact, is completely wrong, because it is the opposite of the law of diminishing returns (let's call it "the law when returns are diminished"). When someone has less certainty about income (and less income with which to consume), that person will spend more for each extra dollar in his pocket. That means when the APC is lowered, the MPC increases. Giving people more money in the form of a tax cut (preferably a payroll cut, as opposed to a onetime credit, since people respond to a permanent increase in income more than a single payment) will make each dollar they receive worth more to the economy as a whole, since it is more likely to be spent on consumption. Will it be as much as in regular times? Probably not. Will it be more than if the government chooses to spend the money instead? Almost certainly so, since government injections will be short-term and will not affect consumption (70% of the economy, and the part that's hurting the most right now) at all.
It also needs to be pointed out that the President is being totally dishonest in this entire debate. He promised that all bills would have a five day waiting period between passage and his signature (think that's going to happen? We'll probably have a $1,000,000,000,000 law tonight, after the Senate passes it in the next few hours and it goes to the White House). He promised transparency, though the bill isn't even transparent to the members of Congress (who only received the 1,100 page monstrosity at 10pm last night; it became available to the public a few hours later--in the middle of the night). Finally, he has said numerous times that there is no disagreement about a government stimulus package. Hundreds of economists disagree, and the Congressional Budget Office (non-partisan, thank you) says that the bill will cause the GDP to DECREASE by 0.1 to 0.3 percent. The bill will deepen the recession. Is that a stimulus?
I'm not saying that tax cuts are the only answer, but I'm certainly saying that they are more of an answer than what is before us now. What's for certain, at least, is that Newsweek should have the brains to hire an actual economist who doesn't get smacked down so easily by people who know what they're talking about.
UPDATE: I was right. Obama broke his five-day promise, though not by as much as I expected. He gave it four days. However, that opens up another question: if the bill was not important enough to be signed immediately by the president, why could it not have spent the 48 hours before the public that the House unanimously voted on? Couldn't lawmakers have taken those extra few days to, you know, read the bill that they voted for (or against)?
Feb 12, 2009
Today marks the 200th birthday of the legendary Abraham Lincoln. In many ways it seems surreal; Lincoln has been sainted into the American pantheon, so like George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and all their kin, he has become more of an idea and a model than a mere mortal.
The real Abraham Lincoln is worth learning about. It's easy to find a book and really any part of his life. Some are simply a work in hagiography; some are honest dives into his many and frequent contradictions. The best place to start, I would say, is where his fame began--the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Many people forget that (i) the debates were simply between two Senate candidates from the small frontier state of Illinois, and (ii) Lincoln lost that election (not by popular vote; Democrats won in the state legislature and voted to send Douglas to the Senate, since it was before the passage of the 17th amendment), though two years later, he managed to win the presidency in an electoral landslide against the same Stephen Douglas that he had lost to before.
From the outset, Lincoln's presidency was a constant crisis, only beginning to settle a week before he was killed. Upon his election, a number of Southern states rejected the outcome, choosing to secede from the Union rather than be under a country run by an 'abolitionist' (though, at the time, Lincoln would not have put himself in that camp). When he took the oath of office on March 4, 1861, he reached out to Southerners, reminding them that
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend it.'
Aggress they did, and for four bloody years, over 600,000 Americans perished. Lincoln was known for the pain he suffered at the losses and for the happiness he took in sparing some from it; in one story, a woman came to the White House, begging him to grant her son, a deserter from the Union Army, clemency, which he immediately did, saying "I think this boy can do us more good above ground than under it." He educated himself quickly on the matters of war and strategy, constantly struggling with his generals. From the pompous and ineffective George McClellan (who would unsuccessfully challenge him in 1864 for the presidency) to the inept John Pope (whose famous statement, "my headquarters are in the saddle," was met with Lincoln's retort that "The problem with General Pope is that his headquarters are where his hindquarters ought to be"), Lincoln struggled to find a military leader capable of achieving his aims: full Union, and, only later, emancipation. He found his man in later 1863, with the rise of General Ulysses S. Grant.
Ultimately, the Civil War was won, and Lincoln was vindicated. A week after General Lee's surrender to General Grant at Appomattox, Lincoln, having visited the conquered Confrederate capital of Richmond a few days before, took an evening to see the play, Our American Cousin, at Ford's Theater in Washington. Halfway through the second act, the famous stage actor, John Wilkes Booth, burst forth into Lincoln's private box, shot the president, and lunged to the stage, snagging his stirrup on the drapes of the balcony and breaking his leg. He shouted "Sic Semper Tyrannis!", the motto of Virginia (meaning "thus always to tyrants!") and ran off the stage. Lincoln never regained consciousness. The next morning, at 7:22am, he passed away in the bed of the Peterson house, across the street from the theatre, with his large legs hanging over the edge of the all-too-short bed. The Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, looked at the clock, which was opened and stopped, and said somberly "Now he belongs to the ages."
Lincoln's effect on the United States was greater than any president, before or since, with the possible exception of George Washington. The country in which he grew up was uncentralized, State-run, half slave and half free, backwoods, and brand new. The country he left spewed forth power from Washington, had dramatically settled a major Constitutional quandry, been made fully free, and was on the course to become, in less than 50 years, one of the most powerful players in the world. He helped establish the modern laws of war. He sought to be sure that the North was a victor but not a conqueror. He desired reconciliation. Most importantly, he was led by the ideas that had founded the nation and which still lead us today. The Founders, he believed,
intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal — equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ... They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, every where.
Abraham Lincoln was deeply flawed, as are all people, but managed to be the perfect man in our nation's most desperate hour. It's good that we remember his birthday and celebrate his achievements. The man has become myth, but I think, like the myths of Washington and Franklin, of Roosevelt and Kennedy, it is important for us to hold onto. The American psyche looks for leaders who were strong and selfless, who were introspective and extroverted. We celebrate those who met scorn in office but were vindicated after. We mourn the loss of those who weren't able to complete the work that they had "thus far so nobly advanced". He was a remarkable man, and today I wish him the happiest of birthdays.
Feb 10, 2009
I place 'religious' in quotations, of course, because, legally, the term is so ill-defined, as noted by the author. In the (in)famous School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, a dichotomy was created: schools could teach about the effects and the merits of religion and religious texts, but they could not promulgate the doctrines within those texts. That seems simple enough, until one considers the fact that it still doesn't give any clue as to what is meant by 'religious' and what is meant by 'secular'. All teaching will extol different virtues and abhor certain vices. Do we choose to fund education that says the Crusades were a noble and faithful attempt to save the Holy Land from infidels or one that says it was a barbarian and self-glorifying slaughter of thousands? Does the government then have the right to begin interpreting which beliefs it finds sufficiently 'religious' and which aren't? This is the first point that he considers.
The second point is, in many ways, more interesting to consider and more damning against the status quo. For any true understanding of history, science, philosophy, and the arts--in fact, for any true and well-rounded liberal arts education--one must have a deep understanding of religion. One cannot understand John Locke's Second Treatise on Government, which is the backbone of our Declaration of Independence without first understanding his First Treatise on Government. The issue? The Second Treatise's theories rest upon the First Treatise's claim that man is made equal through Adam and his progeny--a fundamentally religious belief. The argument, of course, stems off a bit, but for its full understanding, the Creation account must be considered.
And it is not simply Locke. We must understand religion (and by now, I hope it is obvious that by 'religion' I'm almost exclusively referring to Christianity) to understand the great Western thinkers: Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Hobbes, Rousseau, Nietzsche. The list goes on and on. Some are hostile to Christian beliefs, while some are apologists. Some simply display their (and their fellows') understanding of doctrines in a given era.
What it all means is that a full-bodied liberal education must include a full-bodied education into and understanding of religious thought, and an understanding of Western thought presupposes an understanding of Christianity.
DeGirolami argues that constitutional law on religion in schools is fundamentally flawed because it is mostly piecemeal--opinions decided layer upon layer, never considering how each fits into a cohesive hole. Religion and government aims cannot be so simply separated. Government desires a populace that is civic minded, selfless, sacrificial, and 'morally responsible'. He says:
[T]he citizen must be able to think about the relevant public issue from a perspective different from his or her own and to reason about the desirability of the proposed government action from within a different world view. Teaching about religion promotes these abilities by broadening students' fund of knowledge.
Yet these perspectives, including the Supreme Court's, fail to recognize that religious learning, as part of the study of history and social studies, contributes to the conversation at the heart of civic and moral learning. (internal quotations and citations omitted)
Religious learning, then, can be beneficial to the polity as whole, leading to both an educated (and therefore more productive) citizenry and a civic-conscious people.
Now, this does not mean, he notes, that religious learning is without its difficulties. One of the ultimate problems with religious belief is that oftentimes, one of its fundamental precepts is that it should be evangelized (or, if you prefer, proselytized) to the largest possible audience. A teacher in command of teaching notions of faith may either proselytize the students for a certain belief or against a certain belief, neither of which is acceptable in a system that prizes freedom from coercion. Additionally, parents must play a role in the development of their children's beliefs, and the law must consider whether the school has any right over the beliefs of a child that a parent does not expressly condone
In the end, he concludes that
The Supreme Court has perennially reaffirmed...the core obligation of public schools is 'to teach that our strength comes from people of different races, creeds, and cultures, uniting in commitment to the freedom of all." That theme has been a cornerstone of the Supreme Court's jurisprudence of public education, and it has intimated that teaching about religion can promote that theme constitutionally, Yet in order to reconcile its sweeping and lofty statements about the virtures of civic and moral education with its Establishment Clause jurisprudence, the Surpeme Court must confront the problem of religious learning--the problem that religious learning must be, but cannot be, separated from public education--more rigorously and sensitively than is possible within its current dichotomous methodology. That binary approach--promotion or non-promotion; the "secular" or the "sectarian"--is conceptually inadequate to account for the broad and often subtle effect that religious learning has on the cultivation of civic and moral ideals....[R]eligious learning is a sphere of understandings and meanings whose particular expressions offer insights of widely divergent value for an enriched conversational engagement. To access these insights is to participate in the external and internal discursive mode of learning about and contemplating the religious voices that have come before. Liberal learning, in public schools no less than anywhere else, occurs in the perpetual achievement of tentative, temporary, and perhaps agnostic beliefs. (citations omitted)
The article is long, but it is certainly worth the read.
First, Kagan is extremely liberal, which will mean a significant shift in government positions, both in the cases it chooses to appeal and in the amicus briefs it chooses to file. I, of course, as a more 'conservative' (read: textualist) interpreter of law, don't so much like that. Some others will. I have some other issues with her, not the least of which is that she has never argued a case before any appeals court (including the big 'c' Court). Given that the entire job of the solicitor general is to argue cases on behalf of the government before the Court, it doesn't seem to be the best of ideas to give her the big guns. I in no way doubt her intelligence, though. She is certainly capable, having clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall and been dean of the Harvard Law School. In some ways, though, especially in the rough-and-tumble world that is Supreme Court oral argument, it is probably best to have a least a little experience before advancing to the Big Leagues. Maybe she'll turn out to be excellent in oral argument; I'll certainly be paying attention.
The second, and possibly more important, reason that this is important is that she has been mentioned as being on the short list for a possible Supreme Court vacancy. Given Ruth Bader Ginsburg's recent pancreatic cancer diagnosis (though caught early, the disease still has only a 5% survival rate within five years), this is especially pertinent. If Ginsburg were to go, Obama would almost certainly appoint another woman (sorry, Cass Sunstein; you'll have to wait until Stevens dies or Souter resigns). Kagan may be the one. Again, however (though this may be putting the cart before the horse), I have a pretty major issue with someone who has never been a judge being appointed to the Supreme Court. Remember Harriet Miers? The woman was certainly a fine attorney (you don't become White House Counsel without knowing something). However, she bombed, and I mean bombed, her pre-confirmation meetings with senators. She had never been a judge or argued before the Supremes so was caught unaware with her nomination. Every member on the current court had been a judge before becoming a justice. There is a reason for expecting the ultimate arbiters of the constitutionality of law to be experienced, and we'd be fools not to demand that.
I have little doubt that Kagan will be confirmed as SG. I have graver doubts about whether she could win appointment to the Court, if a vacancy should arise before she can establish herself much within the Justice Department. I don't know how close of a rein Eric Holder will hold 'er to (ha, puns), but it will be interesting to see where the SG goes from here.
Feb 9, 2009
Feb 7, 2009
The Space Shuttle is being retired in 2010. Between then and 2015 (possibly 2014), we will depend on Russian spacecrafts to ferry American crews to the International Space Station.
In 2015, Project Constellation, the next generation of American spacecraft is expected to be launched (double entendre intended). This will consist of the Orion crew module, the Ares I and Ares V rocket boosters, and the new Altair lunar module.
The Orion crew module will be able to hold four to six crew members. There will be three different variants of the module--the first for lunar missions, and the second and third for deep space missions.
The Ares boosters perform two separate functions. The Ares I is weaker, taking the module into low-Earth orbit (1240 mi above Earth's surface). It is then jettisoned, and the Ares V takes over. It propels the Earth Departure Stage (EDS) until it, too is jettisoned. The EDS performs in a similar way to the Saturn V rocket's S-IVB (ess-four-bee), which propelled the Apollo lunar modules to the Moon, though the EDS will carry the Altair module.
Now, this is the cool part. Unlike the Apollo missions, in which the lunar and crew modules were launched together, as part of the same stack, the EDS/Altair and the Orion module will be launched separately. Ares V will launch on the first day with the EDS/Altair module. The next day, from an adjacent launchpad, the Ares I rocket will take the Orion module. Each will jettison their boosters and connect in space. From there, depending on the mission, the combined module will head to the Moon or to deep space.
Constellation's goal is to return to the Moon by 2020 and to seek Mars (with some future modification of the Orion module) by 2037.
The story of mankind is the story of exploration. Ever since we stepped out of the cave and opened our eyes, scaled the first hill and discovered tools, we've never stopped in our need to discover what's next. It's what sent us over mountains and across oceans. It's what sought out and conquered the frontier. It's what inspired us to seek the sky and, when we had accomplished that, to seek the stars. There are many critics of NASA and the cost of the space program. Those people don't see the bigger picture. We don't go to space to beat the Russians or to show off the might of America, nor should we. We don't go to test the newest scientific advancements. We go, simply, because it's there. We go because it's untamed and undiscovered and untouched. We go because the heavens call to us, because it's next. I'm excited about Constellation and what it might accomplish. I hope it can spark our national interest again in those bigger things that so enraptured us for a quarter-century--a quarter-century nearly a quarter-century ago.
That's my soapbox. Do mankind a favor and remind yourself why we explore in the first place.
Feb 5, 2009
President Obama recently said that without immediate action, the nation would suffer 'catastrophe' and that 'we may never recover.' Nancy Pelosi is going out there saying that America is losing 500 million jobs per month. Left-leaning columnists (especially those who know nothing about economics) are saying that something must be done NOW. No one, however, seems to be heeding their warnings.
Overstatements have long been a staple of American politics. When you are in the party out of power, now is the worst time in history. When you are in power, now is the best we've ever had it. When campaigning, candidates throw out heavy rhetorical bombs to elicit a response. When governing, they try to make motives and works as pure as Aquafina. One caveat, however, has always been that you must be careful with your overstating. This, I think, is where the Democrats are bumbling.
Whenever George Bush would engage in 'fear tactics' to win a political debate, he would put the argument in simple terms: vote with me, keep us safe, but vote with them, open us to attack. For gay marriage, it was: vote with me, keep your family intact, but vote with them, destroy the family. Right or wrong, these dichotomies set up a simple choice with a clear answer (of course I want to be safe! Of course I want to protect families!). When it came to the banking bailout, President Bush was able to piggyback off of the failure of Lehman Bros. and say "if we don't do this now, the financial sector will collapse!" (now, that was true, but it was still 'the politics of fear'). The new President and Congress have failed to set up adequate dichotomies for the situation. Though the economy stinks, people don't see massive firms shutting down and their 401K's falling apart; they see layoffs. In response, President Obama says "it will be a catastrophe if we don't reseed the National Mall and rebuild old bridges!" The American people go "uh....what?" He's also disparaging something which still resonates with the American people: tax cuts. Democrats will get nowhere as long as they keep talking about tax cuts as if they themselves are a bad thing. People don't buy it. Nancy Pelosi, for her part, defends every billion-dollar item included into the monstrosity of a stimulus (including family planning and condom distribution). Then she goes forth and says "support this, or jobs will be lost!" People don't buy it. The emergency isn't before their eyes.
The politics of fear is often pertinent, especially in times of crisis. However, it must be used wisely, based on facts, and it must set up an easily understandable choice. Until the President and Congress figure that out, they will see support for the stimulus (even if it is passed) slowly erode under their feet.
Feb 3, 2009
Interestingly enough, I just found that there was a TV special in 1981 called "The Illusion of Life" (emceed by Hayley Mills, no less!). It's a great, and very dated, special about the process of animating at the Disney Studios. Perhaps best of all, it is full of interviews of the remaining "Nine Old Men"--and they are able to explain how animation changed from its earliest days in the 1920's to the (then) present. Below are all five parts.
Feb 2, 2009
I've been windsurfing once on the Hudson. I also have relatives who live right off of Cape Cod. They are older and have never been water-sporting types. That area, however, has a remarkable pull to me. I don't know if there's just something in me that likes the preppy, aristocratic, I-don't-have-to-do-anything-since-I'm-rich-so-I'm-just-going-to-learn-how-to-sail-with-my-overly-abundant-free-time lifestyle (read: Kennedyesque) or if I would actually enjoy the ocean.
Two nights ago, instead of watching the Super Bowl (I don't have a TV...), I read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. It is a quick read (only about 120 pages). I haven't had much time to think about its significance or to interpret the old man's resemblances to Christ as He's crucified. Something that stands out to me, though, is Hemingway's excellent ability to describe the world of fishing and of life on the sea. From his descriptions of the barrel of shark oil that the man drinks out of every day to the lavender and silver stripes on the marlin that he catches, in many ways, even for a drylander like me, it makes me feel like I'm there. The smells and taste and texture of the fishes' meat make you want to throw up, just as the man wants to. It's worth the read.
I'm afraid that another reason that I am interested in sailing is because of boat shoes, particularly the Sperry topsider. Pathetically, I already own four pairs of these shoes (plus an old pair from the 80's that my dad gave me). I wear them instead of sandals, since feet gross me out. Topsiders are not only cool looking, but they are practical (apparently on boats, because of the grooves; that was their original purpose) and machine washable. You can get the shoes wet and disgusting, but then wash them! They're made for it!
This year, there are two new ones that look awesome. Both are plaid (what can I say?), which should match your handy, preppy plaid shorts.
So, from the mouth (keyboard) of this midwestern boy: go out, buy boat shoes, learn to sail, and enjoy the sea! Of course, you have to wait for that bane, winter, to be dispatched first.
Feb 1, 2009
First off, very little (in fact, almost none) of the book is about politics. There are a few moments where he mentions his anger at American capitalists or the exploitation of workers throughout the villages he meets. Those, however, are limited asides. The story is a travel adventure. I imagine that it would be difficult for anyone to read it and not want to travel throughout South America with a friend (his was Alberto Granado), given his rich descriptions of the people and sights of Chile and Peru. Add in the romance of being penniless and surviving on the kindness of strangers, and you have a worthwhile story. Sometimes they are cold, sometimes they are wet, sometimes they are hungry. Sometimes they find friends, and sometimes they are pariahs. All told, however, they make it from Buenos Aires to Santiago to Lima to Caracas, meeting many interesting locals along the way.
The most disappointing aspect of the book is actually a lack of development in the character of Che himself. Those who say that it is a story of political development or friendship are just plain wrong. Che merely describes what he sees and does. His interpretations of events, his motivations, and his political shift aren't recorded. Perhaps he wasn't particularly reflective, or (more likely, I think), he simply didn't write how he felt in his diary at the time. It's a travel read, nothing more and nothing less. It certainly helps one to understand what Che saw and to speculate how that affected his future beliefs. However, speculation is all that the text itself allows.
So, again--all in all, well worth the read. I would like to see what the movie has to say. I'm still not going out to buy one of those cliche shirts, though, because, though throughout the book, Che remains a remarkably likeable guy, one can never read him without remembering the butcher that he, unfortunately, became.
However, there is something interesting about Pocahontas. In the final product, she has two animal friends--Meeko the raccoon and Flit the ruby-throated hummingbird. Originally, she was actually supposed to have a different sidekick--a turkey named "Redfeather" who was going to be played by John Candy. His death in 1994, however, forced the studio to scrap the character, since the voicework hadn't yet been completed. They couldn't simply find a voice, either, since Disney characters are so meticulously planned, with most of them bearing some resemblance to the actor performing their voice. Below is a video that I found in which the English dog Percy bumps into Redfeather.