Sunday, September 28, 2008


An Amateur's Comments about Theology

I read something about the life and work of Martin Luther recently in the New Yorker magazine. Brother Martin (he was a Dominican monk, later defrocked) asserted that faith was essential for salvation. Good Works aren't enough. I don't know what present-day Lutherans believe, but some "born-again" Christians seem to believe that faith is the necessary and sufficient condition for salvation.

I mused, where did such an idea come from? What is the practical use of a religion if it does not teach that good works are necessary and that criminal acts will result in divine punishment, if not in this world then in the next? Perhaps it is a consequence of thinking about the assertion of another religious leader, Calvin. Calvin was a Swiss. He asserted that God is all-knowing and all-powerful. God knows the future as well as the past. Hence, He knows everything that we have done in our lives and everything that we are going to do. He knows if I am going to rob a bank or assault a helpless old woman next week. These things are all pre-determined.

One can use Calvin's idea about an omnipotent and omniscient God to conclude that we poor humans don't have free will. Our Good Works and our Sins are not a result of any conscious decisions we make but they are preordained. When God created the universe, he created the future behavior of all of us.

Now, loss of free will poses a dilemma for religious teachers and pastors. It appears that our salvation or damnation was already determined at the moment the universe was created. Why should we try to be good? Why try to be saved? Why become a supporter of a religious organization?

A way out of the dilemma that reestablishes free will is faith or belief. Those of us who have faith and believe in God and his messages and trust his representatives (i.e., priests and pastors) will be saved. God has predetermined our actions but he has left us free to believe in Him or not. If we believe, we will be rewarded. If not, we will be punished or perhaps just exterminated.

This dilemma does not exist for me. I believe that God created the universe that we can all observe, including Quantum Mechanics. To a physicist, Quantum Mechanics guarantees a certain randomness or uncertainty to the universe. The future can not be foretold precisely. Even God does not override Quantum Theory, because it is one of the most beautiful things in the universe that He created. Hence, He can not know exactly what I am going to do. Predestination is nonsense. The efficacy of good works in earning bonus points toward salvation is restored.

I have rushed into an ancient theological argument that more learned people fear to enter. Obviously I am no angel. Be merciful in your condemnation.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008


A Humble Opinion

Some liberal bloggers have commented that the conservative bloggers and pundits have refrained from criticizing the federal government's bail-out of several large financial institutions (Freddie Mac, Fanny Mae, Bear-Stearns, AIG, others). If similar action were taken when a Democratic President occupied the White House there would have been screams of socialism, nationalizing the banks, etc. This reticence has led me to wonder whether there is another way that could have been used to keep the credit industry from collapsing.

Let's consider what the government has done and is doing. Credit institutions were loaded with bad debts. These debts were incurred at a time when most people thought the housing boom would continue indefinitely. Mortgages were written for close to the market price of homes. These mortgages were sold to credit institutions like Freddie Mac who in turn bundled them with other obligations and wrote new bonds based on them. Credit rating institutions gave these new bonds good ratings so that Freddie Mac and others could sell them to other banks. Then the housing bubble burst and many of the mortgages suddenly became worth a lot less. A $500,000 mortgage on a foreclosed house that can be sold for only $400,000 isn't worth as much as it was before the housing bubble burst. Financial institutions were suddenly realizing that their A-rated bonds weren't worth very much and they would have to take a loss. Some big banks would have to declare bankruptcy. Businesses would no longer be able to obtain credit for conducting or expanding their operations. A recession or a depression was about to occur. The government then proceeded to buy the bad debts from the banks that were about to fail. In return, the government obtained controlling interests in the banks. That is, a conservative administration nationalized several large banks and a large insurance company.

Here's my alternative: Since the problem was that the large banks couldn't advance credit any more, why shouldn't the government set up its own credit institution and lend money directly to the businesses and smaller banks that needed the credit? Let the big banks go bankrupt. Let them eat their losses. The cost to the government would be a lot less and the risk very small. Of course, that would have been socialism with a capital S (or $). What Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke have proposed is socialism with a small s, and one that is temporary.

Conservative ideologues such as Grover Norquist must be having bad cases of indigestion at seeing the utter abandonment and collapse of their small-government beliefs.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008


Budget Late? It's the Democrats' Fault

After 82 days, the California State Legislature has agreed on a budget for the year ending nine months and ten days from now. As usual there is the chorus of blaming someone for the long delay in enacting the budget. The Republican Governor blames the entire legislature. He would like to impose a more serious penalty for having a late budget than simply withholding the legislators' salaries until the budget is approved. The Democrats blame the minority Republicans for refusing to compromise on the issue of providing additional revenue to make up the chronic shortfall between the State's income and expenses. The Republican leader of the State Assembly has it right. The LOS ANGELES TIMES reports that "He said the delay could have been averted if Democrats had accepted earlier on that GOP members would not support any tax increases."

Well, lah dee dah dah! Tax increases should be subjects of negotiation along with reductions in payments for services. If the State is providing more services than the tax revenue will support, it makes sense to consider increasing taxes along with cutting back on services. The Republican minority in the legislature wanted to discuss only the cuts: how much less should the State pay for emergency health care; how much less should the State pay for police and fire protection; how many fewer miles of highways should be repaired; etc., etc., etc.

I can remember a time, not too many years ago, when there were reasonable Republicans. There still are some, but not in the California Legislature. In comparison with his "allies" in the State Legislature, Republican Governor Schwarzenegger seems pretty reasonable. I can think of several other "reasonable" Republicans. Unfortunately, none of them are holding office at present. I suddenly realize that, in comparison with the Republicans in our State Legislature, even George W. Bush seems reasonable. I need a stiff drink!

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008


California finally has a Budget

The minority in the State Legislature have won. They have forced the majority to give up, for the present year, any attempts to fix the structural deficit in the State's funding. Tax rates will remain the same, although some taxes will be collected sooner than in past years. Money will be borrowed from future money taken in by the lottery. Etc., etc., etc.

Democrats hope that next year the current recession will have recovered and more revenue will come in. Republicans are satisfied that they have taken a step toward achieving their goal of small government - government that isn't concerned with health care and education of the people of California. In their view of what ought to be, government shouldn't be involved in such things.

Budgeting in California has become expensive and inefficient. In order to get the minority to budge, the majority has to offer expensive concessions. In nearly all other States, a majority vote is sufficient to pass a budget and the process goes more smoothly, efficiently, and less expensively. The situation in California was brought on many years ago during the "Tax Revolt." The State constitution was amended to require 2/3 votes in the legislature for budgets and taxes. In addition, cities and counties could raise taxes only by obtaining approval of 2/3 of the voters at an election.

Opposition to tax increases is not new. There has always been a segment of the voting population which would vote against any tax increase whatever. My father used to refer to this segment as the "skin-flint vote," on the ground that people who voted that way didn't want to give up any of the services of government but simply didn't want to pay for them. The tax opponents or "skin-flints" took advantage of a crisis several years ago when the rapid increase in real estate was bringing about large annual increases in the property tax that residents had to pay on their homes. There was real fear of mass dispossession of home owners and tax sales on their homes. Leaders of the tax crusade or skin-flints took advantage of this fear to persuade the public to vote for their plan for super-majorities (i.e., 2/3 votes) for enacting budgets and taxes.

One attitude that I often adopt is that the People of California are getting what they deserve. They enacted this 2/3 voting requirement and are now experiencing the consequences of it. Another attitude is that this is a situation that must be changed. The people voted to require 2/3 votes for taxes and budgets. The people can vote to rescind the requirement and allow the Legislature to adopt budgets and taxes by a simple majority vote. This change will have to be done by initiative. A 2/3 vote is also required for the Legislature to place a referendum on the ballot to amend the constitution.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008


Comfortable Candidates

There must be something wrong with me. Or, perhaps I am an elite snob. You judge.

I am concerned about veterans (males, mostly) who have said they will vote for McCain because he is also a veteran. "He is one of us," they say. I am concerned because if they paid any attention to his voting record on veterans' rights and benefits they would find a different veteran to vote for or even vote for his opponents.

Originally I had decided to vote for Obama because he is a Democrat and will almost certainly change many of the policies of the Bush administration. He will not have a religious fundamentalist constituency to please with appointments of ultra conservative justices to the federal courts. He will change Bush's tax system that gives preference to another constituency that enjoys high incomes.

Then I had a contrary thought. Perhaps I will vote for Obama because I feel comfortable with him. He is like me. He is not a veteran. He has attended good universities and has a university education, as do I. Among my fellow university graduates I can say, "he is one of us." Does this make me an elitist snob?

In fact, I was thinking the other day about other presidential candidates. Some would say that Obama resembles John Kennedy. The resemblance that came to my mind was Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson also ran for president against a veteran. Unfortunately for my day-dream, he lost. Is Obama, also a product of Illinois, destined to follow Stevenson's example and lose?

I hope not. To that end, I must think of ways in whicy Obama is not like Stevenson. Stevenson had the wit of a stand-up comedian. He made jokes about Eisenhower. I thought he was great and clever. The problem was, the American people were not in a mood for clever wit. They were in the mood for ending the Korean War. While Stevenson was making fun of Eisenhower and his gaffes, Eisenhower was talking about going to Korea, if necessary, and extricating our troops from MacArthur's and Truman's War.

Obama should learn the lesson of Stevenson's defeat. End the war in Iraq. Make it clear that it is McCain's war. McCain wants to win it. The war is not ours to win.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Mortgage Bailout

Regarding the Treasury's bailout of the home mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, I have nothing new to offer in the way of factual details of the operation. I accept Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's statement that failure of these two institutions would have had unacceptable consequences, not only to the US economy but to the world as a whole. Foreign national banks were starting to sell the mortgage securities, as it was getting too risky to keep them. The whole thing was about to escalate into a meltdown of the world-wide business of lending money, not only to persons buying homes but to businesses generally, eslpecially small businesses.

So, the US government acted in a way to prevent a collapse of lenders everywhere. This action undoubtedly will have a major effect on the world economy. To me, this is a time when I have to admit that I was wrong in some of my previous posts. I asserted that there was very little if anything that our government could do to control the economy and in particular to ward off a recession. In my defense, I was thinking specifically about tax policy. I still believe that the rate of taxation has very little to do with the health of the economy. Cutting taxes does not appreciably spur the economy. However, using tax money to prevent the collapse of the home mortgage industry certainly does ward off a big, big recession.

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Friday, September 05, 2008


Defending The Ukrain

Dear me! The Bush Administration hasn’t learned the first thing about American power in the world. That is, our power is limited. We thought we could change the regime in Iraq with a small army and our hand-picked replacement. Six weeks and Saddam Hussein would be history and our man (Ahmed Chalabi) would be in charge. Capturing Osama bin Laden might take a bit longer, but our powerful and invincible Army would make short work of him. Then we could go on to greater glory.

Now Vice President Cheney is in Kiev, promising to protect the Ukrainians from those awful Russians. Last week President Bush was promising to protect the Georgians from those same Russians. It’s as though we have at our disposal a large, well-armed Army with nothing to do, as though our army is not bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both Bush administrations were big on promising help, but not following through. The first President Bush encouraged the Shia to revolt and overthrow Saddam Hussein with the promise of American military aid. They revolted and Saddam crushed them and the Bush administration could do nothing.

A more successful Republican President once said that his policy was to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” That was Theodore Roosevelt. The Bush policy is “speak loudly and carry a toy gun.” If the enemy thinks the gun is real, we will succeed. That sort of thinking has led to an enthusiasm for the ballistic missile shield, a system of small missiles that would shoot down the incoming missiles before they hit their targets. The system has been shown to work as well as a toy gun. However, Donald Rumsfeld famously advised that the Russians (or North Koreans? Iranians?) won’t know that the system won’t work if we don’t let them know.

Thursday, September 04, 2008


Character, Integrity, Judgment

Last February I wrote a post entitled "Is John McCain a Womanizer?" It was about an article in the New York Times describing a relation he had with a woman. I concluded that I couldn't tell if the relation was an intimate one. He had denied intimacy and I believed the denial. I went on to report that I had my own reasons for not voting for McCain and that I was not concerned about any alleged (or real) extramarital liaisons.

Finally, today, I received the following response from "Al" who posted the following comment:

Oh geez, not you too? When are we Americans going to understand that this whole issue goes to integrity and character? If you make a covenant with your wife and then regularly break for personal gain or pleasure, what's going to stop you from making a covenant with your country and then regularly breaking it for personal gain or pleasure? If a guy's own wife can't trust him to be honest and faithfu, why should the rest of us?

I disagree with "Al." I would never advocate voting for a candidate merely because he is honest, truthful, and faithful to his wife. I will support a candidate whose judgment I trust and who has opinions and intentions that I agree with. Let us take the example of John McCain. Many allege that he has good judgment. I can't endorse that allegation. I question his judgment. Many allege that he is truthful and has itegrity. I don't doubt that allegation. I believe that, except when he is making a campaign speech, he is truthful. He has some opinions about women's reproductive rights that I disagree with. He has promised to appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will overturn Roe v. Wade. I think that appointing any more ultra-conservative justices to the Supreme Court would be a bad mistake, one that future Presidents would take years to correct. I think I pointed out these reasons in my post. "Al" ignored my reasons and chided me for being tolerant of peccadillos committed by our Presidents.

Basically, I oppose Mr. McCain because I believe he is "honest and faithful." He has promised to appoint more justices like Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas to the Supreme Court. I sincerely believe he will keep that promise if he is elected. The issue of Supreme Court packing is so strong with me that I will vote for any crooked rascal who will not make such appointments.

An Old Post, recycled

In this post, dated September 4, 2004, all you have to do is to change the name "John Kerry" to "Barack Obama" and "George Bush" to "John McCain." You can do that for yourselves. I'm just repeating an old idea, that the public praises the government when the economy is good and damns it when it is bad. The government really has very little power to do anything about the economy.

False Beliefs and Fond Hopes

Along with deep skepticism, the voting public has a naïve trust in the ability of government and political leaders to accomplish several goals. Two of these are:
Improving the state of the economy
Providing sure protection and defense against terrorist attacks, like the attacks of September 11, 2001The public is justifiably concerned about future terrorist attacks. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry try to persuade the voters that the great responsibility of the next President will be to prevent any such attacks. Mr. Bush claims that he has the resolve and determination to lead and direct the war against terror and that it is the successful prosecution of that war as well as his determination that will protect us from any more such attacks. Mr. Kerry claims that he also has the needed resolve, determination, and character. Furthermore, he has a better plan that Mr. Bush on how to proceed with the “war on terror.” While Mr. Bush seems to rely solely on the military might of the United States and the resolve of Americans, Mr. Kerry proposes to enlist the support of allies to share the burden of continuing the attack. Many members of the public are also concerned about their economic futures. They want an economy that creates more good jobs for them, jobs as good as the ones they have lost. They feel that, even though there are jobs available, they do not pay well and do not have the benefits that jobs used to have. They resent illegal immigrants for depressing the wages of low-paying jobs. They resent the outsourcing of jobs to firms in India and elsewhere. Above all, they believe that government is powerful enough to do something effective about the situation. These are fond hopes. Government can not prevent another terrorist attack, any more than the local police department can prevent a criminal from murdering me. Government can not control the world-wide business cycle. A government may be able to control the economy within its own borders, but the cost is economic isolation from the rest of the world and, as experience has shown, permanent recession made worse by growing corruption. What government can and should do is to alleviate the effects of economic depression and international terror. Franklin Roosevelt showed us the way to relieve the effects of a depressed economy: use government to create public works programs to put people back to work, improve the infrastructure, and so on. Mr. Bush himself showed us, in the first few days after 9/11/01, that a President can express compassion for the loss and can energize not only the nation but the entire civilized world to embark on an effort to bring the criminals to justice and to deal with some of the causes of terror. Unfortunately, he then proceeded to lose the sympathy of the rest of the world by snubbing the United Nations and engaging in an unrelated attack on Iraq. He is now trying to recover the sympathy and the good will toward the United States that his actions have cost. I doubt that he can succeed. If John Kerry is elected to replace him, I hope that Mr. Kerry will succeed in this endeavor.

California Budget Crisis

It's a crisis, all right. Health care organizations that depend on the State for funding are in danger of going bankrupt and having to cease operations. For those of us who, like me, are retired, on Medicare, have supplemental health insurance provided by my former employer, and enjoy a fairly good income, the budget crisis doesn't affect us at all. I suspect it doesn't affect the legislators, either, except that they are not getting paid for the duration of the stand-off.

California has a requirement that a 2/3 majority vote is required in each house of the legislature to pass a budget or to create or raise a tax. The minority party in the legislature has vowed not to vote for any tax increase. The proposed budget submitted by the Governor required an increase in taxes to make up for years of eking out the available revenue with borrowed money. This year the gap between revenue and expenses is too great for any more borrowing or accounting tricks.

Today the minority party (Republican) in the legislature has announced that it will submit its own budget next week. It will be interesting to see which services they plan to cut or eliminate. Actually, the Republicans are doing a good service to the citizens of California. Californians generally don't pay attention to the problems of governing the State. They keep voting into law various proposals that seem good at the time. At one time it seemed that property taxes were increasing at such a rate (proportional to the run-up in property values) that many people of modest means were in danger of losing their homes. Accordingly, the People of California joined the Tax Revolt of Howard Jarvis and enacted the property tax limit (Proposition 13). The same proposition made it almost impossible for local governments to increase any taxes and almost impossible for the State legislature to increase taxes. In each case, a 2/3 vote was required. In the case of local governments, the 2/3 applied to the voters at an election. In the case of the State, the 2/3 applied to the legislature. At the same time, a 2/3 vote was mandated for enacting the State Budget.

Since that time, it has been nearly impossible for the legislature to agree on a budget on time. The State's fiscal year starts on July 1 and the budget should be in place by June 30. Each year the process has dragged out while the minority (1/3 + 1) holds out for some special goodies or for some draconian limits on future State spending. This requirement is one of several that the good people of this State have enacted that make it almost impossible to govern the State. This year, at last, some of the political leaders are proposing an initiative constitutional amendment that would do away with the 2/3 vote requirement in the legislature. If such a proposal gets to the ballot, it will have to be by way of gathering signatures. The legislature can not put a constitutional amendment on the ballot except by a 2/3 vote.

The People of California are getting what they deserve for enacting such a crippling provision. The Republican hold-outs in the legislature are doing the people a service by illustrating the result of such crippling.


Monday, September 01, 2008



I've just learned what "blight" means when talking about neighborhoods. If the buildings in a neighborhood can be torn down, after purchasing them from their owners, and new buildings put up, and the new buildings and the lots under them sold at a handsome profit to the developer, then the neighborhood is "blighted."

I learned this in listening to a news item about San Francisco. Fifty or more years ago the city acquired and tore down (bulldozed) buildings in a part of the city occupied principally by Negroes and Japanese. The city expected that developers would snap up the leveled lots and build some pricey apartments and condos on them. The city would profit from the increased real estate tax revenue and the developers would profit from the wealthy buyers and renters of the new housing units.

It didn't happen that way. The lots stood vacant for years. The displaced residents were given certificates to entitle them to first chances on new housing built by the city, but most of them were not able to exercise the certificates. Now, fifty years later, the city plans to remedy the harm to the residents. New housing is to be built and the former residents with certificates will be able to use them. Of course, some of them have died and others have left the city.

At any rate, if any of you are wondering what constitutes a blighted neighborhood, now you know. It's a neighborhood in which a developer can make a lot of money by destroying existing housing and building new - and selling the new units to prosperous customers.

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