Sunday, April 27, 2008

Amos (cont'd): they/we should know better...

This morning, we talked through the second week of our six week series on Amos (2:6-3:15). For highlights of week 1, click here.)

After ripping Israel's neighbors (six pagan countries and Judah, the southern Kingdom), at this point, Amos turns his sights and his prophesy toward the northern Kingdom-- with its idolatry, oppression, injustice, wealth improperly gained and used, etc.

Some "highlights"...

-In 2:6, Amos says they sell the needy for a pair of sandals. It's one thing to do injustice for big money, but to do it for a pair of old shoes indicates the extent of the depravity.

-In 2:8, Amos points to violations of the Law, abuse of those at the margin, and the appalling connection of such things to the worship of God.

Why does God care so much about how we treat the vulnerable-- in OT categories, the orphan, widow, poor, and alien/stranger? Like Israel, who had once been abused and vulnerable, all of us are in that position-- at least before God. And if we accept God's grace and forgiveness-- as beggars-- why wouldn't we extend the same to the spiritual and material beggars we encounter every day?

Beyond sins of omission, there are sins of commission (the heart of Amos' message)-- as people oppress and otherwise abuse the most vulnerable. One reason this is especially troubling: if we'll mistreat those we can, it indicates we'd like to abuse others-- if we could. (This is similar to Jesus' condemnation of anger and lust in the Sermon on the Mount. If you could kill or commit adultery, you would-- and that's almost equivalent to the actual acts.)

In any case, if God protects the vulnerable-- and if Jesus ministered so much to them in His time on earth-- why is smart to mistreat the same people?

As earlier, it's worth noting that Israel is held to a higher standard-- because they should know better, from historical revelation, personal experience, and the gift of the Law. Of course, the same is true of believers today.

And then there's this from Philip Yancey in the most recent issue of Christianity Today (hat tip: Ruth Tucker, for saving me some typing)...

Paul's confessional description of self-righteousness reminded me of a quirky attempt by M. Scott Peck to identify a new psychiatric disorder called evil. In his book People of the Lie, Peck surveyed the types of evil and concluded, with Paul, that the most dangerous type is the most subtle...Peck came up with these surprising characteristics of evil: scapegoating behavior, intolerance to criticism, pronounced concern with a public image and self image of respectability, and intellectual deviousness."

Too often, believers and non-believers sell themselves short with respect to their propensity for engaging in evil. We reduce sin to much more modest categories-- in which we rarely engage. The result is a sparse understanding of sin and God's wrath toward it-- and thus, a limited or absent understanding of God's grace.

C.S. Lewis quote of the week

"There is a difference between doing some particular just or temperate action and being a just or temperate man...a man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of a virtue."

--Mere Christianity, Book 3, chapter 2

Friday, April 25, 2008

the real profiteers on oil and gas

The state and federal government make the oil companies look like pikers.

According to the Tax Foundation, from 1977 - 2004, the government received more than twice as much tax revenue as oil companies have earned in profits: $1,343 vs. $643 billion (in 2004 dollars).

Let's enact a windfall profit tax on those revenue-mongers!

non-practicing atheists?

From Dave Coverley in SpeedBump...

Of couse, non- or lightly-practicing "cultural" Christians and (those from other religions) are another matter altogether.

are you ready for some football (metaphors)?

Dick Morris on the contest for the Democratic nomination...

Sports metaphors are trite and too male-oriented, but sometimes they are so apt they are unavoidable.

The Clinton-Obama contest is like a 15-round heavyweight title bout in boxing.

Hillary went for an early knockout. All previous Democratic races since 1960 have been decided that way, with one candidate winning decisive primaries, forcing his opponents to withdraw. But Obama beat her to the punch in Iowa, survived a loss in New Hampshire, and countered her sweep of New York, New Jersey and California on Super Tuesday by winning a large number of smaller states, largely by out-organizing Hillary in caucus states. While most traditional candidates are forced out if they lose key states because their money dries up, Obama's ingenious use of Internet funding provided him with an ample financial base even as he fell behind Hillary in the delegate count.

But Hillary, in spending all her resources on an early Super Tuesday knockout, was too depleted to do well in the middle rounds — the February caucus and primary states. Her focus on an early knockout led her to neglect organizing in these states, and her insistence on spending every dime she had in pursuit of an early win left her financially incapable of competing in these February contests. Obama won round after round on points, sweeping 11 states in a row and establishing a solid lead in elected delegates. Obama piled up such a lead in points in the middle rounds that Hillary has been forced to go for a knockout in the final rounds.

Knowing that Obama has more delegates, she has to win decisively in the late primaries to have a chance at persuading the super-delegates to flip and abandon the voters' choice. But, so far, the proportional representation rules and Obama's daunting financial advantage have denied her the elusive knockout. Obama can't knock her out, but he doesn't need to. Remember, he's ahead on points. Hillary won in Pennsylvania for two key reasons:

1. Pennsylvania only permits Democrats to vote in its primary. Hillary has always won among Democrats. It is among independents, the swing voters in November, that Obama has manifested his greatest strength.

2. Pennsylvania is the second oldest state in the nation after Florida. But while the elderly moved to Florida, Pennsylvania acquired its status by having its young people move out. The result is a demographically atypical electorate.

Both Indiana and North Carolina, the next two states, allow independents to vote in Democratic primaries, and North Carolina has a decidedly young population. Obama should win both of these states, North Carolina by a lot, Indiana by a little, and their combined effect should wipe out most of the gains Hillary got from her Pennsylvania win.

By the time the voting ends on June 3, Obama will still lead Hillary among elected delegates by 100 to 150 delegates.

At that point, the Gang of Four — Gore, Edwards, Pelosi and Dean — will probably call on the superdelegates to make commitments in the next 10 days so that the race can draw to a close and the party can have its nominee. Shortly thereafter, Obama will be able to claim that he is above 2,025, the threshold for victory. And the ref will be raising his arm...

Choices for Women

Tonia and I were honored to attend a fund-raiser last night for Choices for Women. They are a pro-life group that educates women about their pregnancy choices (including ultra-sound services) and share the Gospel with them as well. They're located in New Albany (and have a new branch in Madison).

The event was at Providence Retirement Home's event center (graciously provided for free). The primary speaker was my friend and pastor-to-be, Rusty Russell. And it looked like they raised a big chunk of money for a great cause.

I think it was Rose Condra, the executive director, who said: "waiting for the world to change is not an option". I share her vision and enthusiasm for politics in general and abortion in particular.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

believing in free will and engaging in honesty

A fascinating piece by Chuck Colson on research into the connections between beliefs and actions in general-- and beliefs about conscience and free will (vs. determinism) in particular-- and with applications to Darwinism and materialism (hat tip: Linda Christiansen)...

Nearly every major story involving an ethical or moral lapse is soon followed by an explanation of why such failures are inevitable. These "explanations" do not involve Original Sin or flawed institutions created by fallen people. Instead, they usually invoke materialistic causes rooted in natural selection: People do what they do because such behavior enabled their ancestors to pass on their genes.

This denial of free will is known as determinism. Determinists insist that their explanations neither justify wrongdoing nor weaken people's resolve to do the right thing.

A recent study shows just how wrong they are.

Researchers recently published the results of experiments testing the link between the belief in free will—that is the ability to choose right and wrong—and honesty. Kathleen Vohls of the University of Minnesota and Jonathan Schooler of the University of British Columbia gave college students a math exam in which students would be paid for each correct answer.

They told the students that "a computer glitch would cause the answers to appear on the screen" and that they should press a key to keep from seeing the answers. Students were told that failure to press the key was cheating, although no one would know who had cheated.

Prior to taking the exam, some of the students were asked to read a piece that said that "most educated people do not believe in free will." Another group read a piece affirming free will, and a third read about sugar. Really.

You can probably guess what happened: The "no free will" group was "more likely to let the answer appear—that is, to cheat.

This pattern held up in another test involving self-grading: Students in the "no free will" group were, again, significantly more likely to cheat.

Vohls told Mercatornet Magazine that these findings tie "in with evidence that cheating is on the increase" among college students. While there "are many possible reasons for this," the erosion in our belief in free will and conscience is almost certainly one of them.

Thus, according to Vohls, it is important to understand the "dangers" posed by the "links between determinism and unethical behavior."

She is right, and what is more troubling is that one piece was all it took to alter student's behavior. Imagine what a lifetime of this kind of indoctrination can do.

It is difficult to imagine a better example of why worldview matters....What our kids—and we—are being taught about who we are and why we are here shapes our worldview. It determines the kind of people we will become.

The belief that we are the product of random and impersonal forces makes it absurd to see ourselves as moral agents. So it is not hard to see why so many people take a "why bother" attitude toward moral issues.

Of course, Christians are not determinists. We know that things like compassion and valor and honesty are more than electrical impulses in the brain. Thus, not only can we explain why people do evil, but also we can explain why it is reasonable to expect them to do good as well.

an unlikely messenger

The title of Chuck Colson's essay on Nicholas Sarkozy and his approach to religion in the public square vs. secularism and the demand for a "naked" public square (hat tip: Linda Christiansen)...

French President Nicholas Sarkozy is an unlikely scourge of European secularism: He is on his third marriage and has been called the "playboy president" by his critics.

But it is what Sarkozy has just said about the role of religion in French life that has really got his critics up-in-arms.

For more than a century, what the French call laïcité has been the defining characteristic of French politics and public life. The word, which has no English equivalent, goes beyond the separation of church and state. It is a kind of secularism that tends to see "any strong religious views as a direct threat to [France's] freedom and way of life . . ."

Thus, discretion about one's religious views, especially among leaders, is regarded as "a necessary part of being French."

Sarkozy disagrees. In a book he wrote before becoming president, Sarkozy declared, "I am of Catholic culture, Catholic tradition, Catholic belief, even if my religious practice is episodic."

He continued this theme after becoming president. He has criticized removing references to "Europe's Christian roots" from the European constitution. In a speech in Rome last December, he emphasized France's Christian roots. He invoked France's ancient title of the "Eldest Daughter of the Church."

He proposed a new version of laïcité, one that "does not consider religions a danger, but an asset." That is because, according to Sarkozy, when it comes to teaching right and wrong, "the schoolteacher will never be able to replace the priest or the pastor." Well said.

Sarkozy has also stood up for France's often-beleaguered Jewish community. He recently announced that, starting next fall, French fifth-graders will have to learn the story of at least one of the 11,000 French children killed in the Holocaust.

He defended his plan by blaming the wars of the twentieth century on the "absence of God." He further shocked French sensibilities by adding that Nazi racism was "radically incompatible with Judeo-Christian monotheism."

This latter point is not hypothetical for the French president, whose maternal grandfather was Jewish.

Critics are appalled by Sarkozy's invocations of religion. As one socialist leader put it, "a speech citing God not only on every page, but on every line, creates a fundamental problem for the republic." Others chide him for disregarding the separation of church and state.

And, of course, they do not hesitate to point out the gap between his rhetoric and his lifestyle.
I wish that Sarkozy's "religious practice" was less "episodic." Nevertheless, I am gratified that he is taking on what has been called a "major taboo" in French public life. This may be the first time since the French revolution that a French leader has spoken seriously to the people about God.

A French-born writer, Hilaire Belloc, put it this way, "the faith is Europe." Without Christianity, Europe would not exist. European secularism and the denial of its Christian roots have cut it off from its own heritage, leaving it vulnerable to the challenge of Islam.

After all, you can not fight something with nothing, which is what a "post-Christian" Europe is left with. That is why I welcome Sarkozy's message—however unlikely the messenger.

frozen in Grand Central Station

Weird and "wild" video...

(hat tip: Jay White via Annette Wyandotte)

for me but not for thee-- and thus, some hypocrisy (and injustice)

A nice chart on educational choice within Congress from the Heritage Foundation (revisited)...


Pastor Chuck Baldwin blowing up Bush and McCain-- along with an insider's critique of many of their supporters...

The last thing we need is another liberal neocon in the White House. If the Presidency of George W. Bush proved anything, it proved the hazard of electing phony Republican conservatives. At least one is able to clearly see a liberal for what he or she is when they have a"D" behind their name. But put an "R" behind the name and suddenly their liberal, Big-Government, anti-freedom agenda is barely recognized, which makes a liberal Republican much more dangerous thana liberal Democrat.

Let me say it straight out: a John McCain Presidency would be far worse than a Barack Obama Presidency. With a Democrat in the WhiteHouse, conservatives and Christians suddenly find their principles and are able to offer resistance. Put a Republican in the Oval Office, however, and those same people become blind, deaf, and dumb to most any principle they profess....

the relevance of economics (or not)

An interesting article by David Leonhardt in the New York Times on what he perceives as a recent increase in the relevance of economics (hat tip: Jeff Heisler)...

Of course, this claim only relates to Micro-economics, since everyone is always interested in the Macro-economy and its connection to the stock market and business conditions.

It was only a decade ago that economics seemed to be an old and tired discipline. The field no longer had intellectual giants like John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman who were shaping public policy by the sheer force of their ideas. Instead, it was devolving into a technical discipline that was even less comprehensible than it was relevant.

Some Wall Street firms had become hesitant to hire Ph.D. economists, and the number of undergraduates majoring in the subject was plummeting. “A good deal of modern economic theory,” John Cassidy wrote in an article titled “The Decline of Economics” that appeared in The New Yorker in 1996, “simply doesn’t matter much.”

Over the last decade, however, economics has begun to get its groove back. Armed with newly powerful tools for analyzing data, economists have dug into real-world matters and tried to understand human behavior. Economists have again become storytellers, and, again, they matter.

Economics can be one of the most interesting topics to study-- or quite boring. Likewise (and related), econ can be quite mathematical or more story-focused. The heart of economics is in story-- with the math and modeling as a crucial complement. Too often, econ is reduced to applied math (especially in grad schools and often in larger state schools where math-oriented research dominates the professors' agenda). This has been going on, increasingly, over the last 50-60 years.

One irony of this is that many professional economists are not very good economists in this broader sense of the term/vocation. They're good math jockeys and are good in their (narrow) areas. But they're not as much good as you would expect with general analysis.

They have explained why Americans don’t save enough money — and come up with clever ideas to increase savings. They have discovered that modest increases in the minimum wage don't actually destroy many jobs — and thus made possible the recent state-by-state push to raise minimum wages. Since the mid-1990s, the number of undergraduates majoring in economics has risen sharply.

Careful with that minimum wage observation! The key word is modest-- and if few jobs are being destroyed, then most jobs were already paying that wage and so the benefits are also quite modest. (It's a longer story, but there are much better ways to help the working poor than the poorly-targeted minimum wage-- for example, reducing or eliminating payroll taxes on the working poor.)

But there are more than a few economists who believe that the renaissance has come with a big downside. They argue that the new research often consists of cute findings — which inevitably get covered in the press — about trivial subjects, like game shows, violent movies or sports gambling. Economics may be popular again, but there still is no one like a modern-day Milton Friedman or John Maynard Keynes.

So when I recently set out to conduct my second annual survey of economists, I decided to try to uncover the next best thing. In its first incarnation, the survey simply asked for the names of the next generation of stars specializing in the economics of everyday life. This year, though, I went the other way — toward the big picture — and asked which economists were managing to do influential work on the crucial questions facing modern society.

Who, in other words, was using economics to make the world a better place?

I received dozens of diverse responses, but there was still a runaway winner. The small group of economists who work at the Jameel Poverty Action Lab at M.I.T., led by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, were mentioned far more often than anyone else.

Ms. Duflo, Mr. Banerjee and their colleagues have a simple, if radical, goal. They want to overhaul development aid so that more of it is spent on programs that actually make a difference. And they are trying to do so in a way that skirts the long-running ideological debate between aid groups and their critics.

“Surely the most important societal question economics can help answer is why so many people are crushingly poor and what can be done about it,” David Romer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said. The macro issues (like how to build a democracy) remain maddeningly complex, Mr. Romer noted. But thanks in part to the poverty lab, we now know much more about how to improve daily life in the world’s poorest countries.

The basic idea behind the lab is to rely on randomized trials — similar to the ones used in medical research — to study antipoverty programs. This helps avoid the classic problem with the evaluation of aid programs: it’s often impossible to separate cause and effect. If aid workers start supplying textbooks to schools in one town and the students there start doing better, it could be because of the textbooks. Or it could be that the town also happened to hire a new school administrator.

In a randomized trial, researchers would choose a set of schools and then separate into them two groups. The groups would be similar in every respect except for the fact that one would receive new textbooks and one wouldn’t. With a test like this, as Vinod Thomas, the head of independent evaluation at the World Bank, says, “You can be much more accurate and much more clear about the effect of a program.”

The approach can sound cruel, because researchers knowingly deny help to some of the people they’re studying. But what, really, is the alternative? It’s not as if someone has offered to buy new textbooks for every child in the world. With a randomized study, you at least learn whether your aid money is well spent....

Mr. Banerjee estimates, very conservatively, that $11 billion a year — out of roughly $100 billion in annual development aid worldwide — could be spent on programs that have been proved to work. Unfortunately, nowhere near $11 billion is being spent on such programs. “Right now, we don’t have a lot of things that have been taken up by the policy world,” he said. “But the policy lag is usually substantial. Now that we have a lot more results, I expect that in the next 10 years we will have a lot more impact.”

Mr. Banerjee and Ms. Duflo may not be a modern-day Keynes or Friedman. But they have still managed to do something rather profound. They have brought together the best of the new economics and the best of the old.

As has been the trend over the last decade, they have plunged into the world around them, refusing to accept the idea that economics is merely an extension of math. Yet no one can accuse them of working on some little problem that doesn’t matter.

socialism in the classroom?

A letter to the editor of the WSJ from someone who understands economics (hat tip: Linda Christiansen)!

Perhaps I should put this on my syllabi-- or at least, it'd be a good illustration of the practical/efficiency problems with socialism and high marginal tax rates on income.

I teach eighth-graders about Karl Marx's "take from each according to their means and give to each according to their needs."

The teacher takes away 20 points on a test from those who got 95 and gives those points to those who had 55. Therefore everybody now has 75. OK class, will the 55 students study for the next test? No! Why bother studying (working) if it will be given to you. And what will the 95 students do? The same thing. Why bother working (studying) when it will be taken away. What will happen to the class average (the standard of living) on future tests? The average will go down. Eighth-graders understand this.

George Cull Peninsula, Ohio

state tax policy, migration and some interesting data from U-Haul

From the editorialists of the WSJ, some wrestling with state tax policies and migration between states (hat tip: Linda Christiansen)...

This is made slightly more interesting in light of Indiana's recent change in tax policy-- increasing the sales tax by 16.7% while lowering property taxes.

In general, economists have found relatively mild evidence for such changes. This isn't all that surprising, since people make decisions to live in a certain place based on a wide variety of economic and non-economic factors-- and the changes in policy are generally small in comparison to the status quo and neighboring states. That said, making things less pleasant economically can't be a good thing!

An old adage says high taxes don't redistribute income, they redistribute people. For new evidence look no further than migration patterns within the United States, as documented in a new survey by the moving company United Van Lines.

A record eight million Americans -- some 20,000 people every day -- relocated to another state last year. So where are these families headed and why? The general picture is this: Americans are continuing to flee the Northeast and Midwest, while the leading destinations continue to be Southern and Western states.

The United Van Lines study finds that the biggest population loser last year was Michigan, where two families moved out of the state for every new family that moved in. Americans are also fleeing New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois. Without interviewing the departed, it's impossible to know the reasons for this outward migration. No doubt overall economic prospects, climate, quality of life and housing prices play a role.

But one reason to conclude that taxes are also a motivator is because the eight states without an income tax are stealing talent from other states. They are Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wyoming, and each one gained in net domestic migrants. Each one except Florida -- which has sky-high property taxes on new homesteaders -- also ranked in the top 12 of destination states. The nearby table ranks the top five destination and departure states.

Politicians who think taxes don't matter might want to explain the Dakotas. North Dakota ranked second worst in out-migration last year, while South Dakota ranked in the top 10 as a destination. The two are similar in most regards, with one large difference: North Dakota has an income tax and South Dakota doesn't.

Here's another example. The only Pacific Coast state to lose migrant population in 2007 was California, which has the highest state income tax in the nation. This is the continuation of a dismal 10-year performance with nearly one and a half million Golden Staters leaving what was once the premier destination state in America.

Meanwhile, next door, Nevada was second among the states in new families -- and a big percentage of the new arrivals are Californians. Nevada has no income tax. High income Californians can buy a house in Las Vegas for the amount of money they save in three or four years by not paying California income taxes.

One of the few Northeastern states that gained interstate migrants in 2007 was New Hampshire, the only state in New England without an income tax. For the exception that proves the tax rule, we should also mention Vermont, a high-tax state with a big net influx last year. Maybe these folks like the Ben & Jerry's lifestyle, and we also hope they like the government they're paying for.

We invite readers to visit the U-Haul Moving Company Web site, where you can type in a pair of U.S. cities to learn what it costs to move from point A to B. If you want to move, say, from Austin, Texas to Southern California, the moving van will cost you $407 to rent. But if you want to move out of California to Austin, the same van costs $1,831. A move from Dallas to Philadelphia costs $663, versus $2,433 to swap homes in the other direction. The biggest discrepancy we could find was $557 from Nashville, Tennessee to Los Angeles, but the trip costs nearly eight times more, or $4,285, to move to Nashville from L.A.

Very interesting!!

Our friends on the left say Americans are willing to pay more taxes to get better government services, but their migration patterns reveal the opposite. Governors would be wise to heed these interstate migration trends as they try to cope with what may be one of the worst years in recent memory for state finances. The people who tend to be the most mobile in American society are the educated and motivated -- in other words, the taxpaying class. Tax them too much, and you'll soon find they aren't there to tax at all.

pain in the womb

From Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times (hat tip: Linda Christiansen)...

Twenty-five years ago, when Kanwaljeet Anand was a medical resident in a neonatal intensive care unit, his tiny patients, many of them preterm infants, were often wheeled out of the ward and into an operating room. He soon learned what to expect on their return. The babies came back in terrible shape: their skin was gray, their breathing shallow, their pulses weak. Anand spent hours stabilizing their vital signs, increasing their oxygen supply and administering insulin to balance their blood sugar.

“What’s going on in there to make these babies so stressed?” Anand wondered. Breaking with hospital practice, he wrangled permission to follow his patients into the O.R. “That’s when I discovered that the babies were not getting anesthesia,” he recalled recently. Infants undergoing major surgery were receiving only a paralytic to keep them still. Anand’s encounter with this practice occurred at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England, but it was common almost everywhere. Doctors were convinced that newborns’ nervous systems were too immature to sense pain, and that the dangers of anesthesia exceeded any potential benefits.

Anand resolved to find out if this was true. In a series of clinical trials, he demonstrated that operations performed under minimal or no anesthesia produced a “massive stress response” in newborn babies, releasing a flood of fight-or-flight hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Potent anesthesia, he found, could significantly reduce this reaction. Babies who were put under during an operation had lower stress-hormone levels, more stable breathing and blood-sugar readings and fewer postoperative complications. Anesthesia even made them more likely to survive.

Anand showed that when pain relief was provided during and after heart operations on newborns, the mortality rate dropped from around 25 percent to less than 10 percent. These were extraordinary results, and they helped change the way medicine is practiced. Today, adequate pain relief for even the youngest infants is the standard of care, and the treatment that so concerned Anand two decades ago would now be considered a violation of medical ethics.

But Anand was not through with making observations. As NICU technology improved, the preterm infants he cared for grew younger and younger — with gestational ages of 24 weeks, 23, 22 — and he noticed that even the most premature babies grimaced when pricked by a needle....Whether the fetus feels pain is a question that matters to the doctor wielding the scalpel.

And it matters, of course, for the practice of abortion. Over the past four years, anti-abortion groups have turned fetal pain into a new front in their battle to restrict or ban abortion. Anti-abortion politicians have drafted laws requiring doctors to tell patients seeking abortions that a fetus can feel pain and to offer the fetus anesthesia; such legislation has already passed in five states. Anand says he does not oppose abortion in all circumstances but says decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. Nonetheless, much of the activists’ and lawmakers’ most powerful rhetoric on fetal pain is borrowed from Anand himself....

...New evidence, however, has persuaded him that fetuses can feel pain by 20 weeks gestation (that is, halfway through a full-term pregnancy) and possibly earlier. As Anand raised awareness about pain in infants, he is now bringing attention to what he calls “signals from the beginnings of pain.”

But these signals are more ambiguous than those he spotted in newborn babies and far more controversial in their implications. Even as some research suggests that fetuses can feel pain as preterm babies do, other evidence indicates that they are anatomically, biochemically and psychologically distinct from babies in ways that make the experience of pain unlikely. The truth about fetal pain can seem as murky as an image on an ultrasound screen, a glimpse of a creature at once recognizably human and uncomfortably strange....

IF THE NOTION that newborns are incapable of feeling pain was once widespread among doctors, a comparable assumption about fetuses was even more entrenched. Nicholas Fisk is a fetal-medicine specialist and director of the University of Queensland Center for Clinical Research in Australia. For years, he says, “I would be doing a procedure to a fetus, and the mother would ask me, ‘Does my baby feel pain?’ The traditional, knee-jerk reaction was, ‘No, of course not.’ ” But research in Fisk’s laboratory (then at Imperial College in London) was making him uneasy about that answer. It showed that fetuses as young as 18 weeks react to an invasive procedure with a spike in stress hormones and a shunting of blood flow toward the brain — a strategy, also seen in infants and adults, to protect a vital organ from threat....

Fisk says he believes that his findings provide suggestive evidence of fetal pain — perhaps the best evidence we’ll get. Pain, he notes, is a subjective phenomenon; in adults and older children, doctors measure it by asking patients to describe what they feel. (“On a scale of 0 to 10, how would you rate your current level of pain?”) To be certain that his fetal patients feel pain, Fisk says, “I would need one of them to come up to me at the age of 6 or 7 and say, ‘Excuse me, Doctor, that bloody hurt, what you did to me!’ ” In the absence of such first-person testimony, he concludes, it’s “better to err on the safe side” and assume that the fetus can feel pain starting around 20 to 24 weeks....

Recent research provides a potentially urgent reason to ask this question. It shows that pain may leave a lasting, even lifelong, imprint on the developing nervous system. For adults, pain is usually a passing sensation, to be waited out or medicated away. Infants, and perhaps fetuses, may do something different with pain: some research suggests they take it into their bodies, making it part of their fast-branching neural networks, part of their flesh and blood.
Anna Taddio, a pain specialist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, noticed more than a decade ago that the male infants she treated seemed more sensitive to pain than their female counterparts. This discrepancy, she reasoned, could be due to sex hormones, to anatomical differences — or to a painful event experienced by many boys: circumcision. In a study of 87 baby boys, Taddio found that those who had been circumcised soon after birth reacted more strongly and cried for longer than uncircumcised boys when they received a vaccination shot four to six months later. Among the circumcised boys, those who had received an analgesic cream at the time of the surgery cried less while getting the immunization than those circumcised without pain relief.

Taddio concluded that a single painful event could produce effects lasting for months, and perhaps much longer....

On April 4, 2004, Sunny Anand took the stand in a courtroom in Lincoln, Neb., to testify as an expert witness in the case of Carhart v. Ashcroft. This was one of three federal trials held to determine the constitutionality of the ban on a procedure called intact dilation and extraction by doctors and partial-birth abortion by anti-abortion groups. Anand was asked whether a fetus would feel pain during such a procedure. “If the fetus is beyond 20 weeks of gestation, I would assume that there will be pain caused to the fetus,” he said. “And I believe it will be severe and excruciating pain.”

After listening to Anand’s testimony and that of doctors opposing the law, Judge Richard G. Kopf declared in his opinion that it was impossible for him to decide whether a “fetus suffers pain as humans suffer pain.” He ruled the law unconstitutional on other grounds. But the ban was ultimately upheld by the U.S, Supreme Court, and Anand’s statements, which he repeated at the two other trials, helped clear the way for legislation aimed specifically at fetal pain. The following month, Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, presented to the Senate the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, requiring doctors to tell women seeking abortions at 20 weeks or later that their fetuses can feel pain and to offer anesthesia “administered directly to the pain-capable unborn child.” The bill did not pass, but Brownback continues to introduce it each year. Anand’s testimony also inspired efforts at the state level. Over the past two years, similar bills have been introduced in 25 states, and in 5 — Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota and Oklahoma — they have become law. In addition, state-issued abortion-counseling materials in Alaska, South Dakota and Texas now make mention of fetal pain.

In the push to pass fetal-pain legislation, Anand’s name has been invoked at every turn; he has become a favorite expert of the anti-abortion movement precisely because of his credentials. “This Oxford- and Harvard-trained neonatal pediatrician had some jarring testimony about the subject of fetal pain,” announced the Republican congressman Mike Pence to the House of Representatives in 2004, “and it is truly made more astonishing when one considers the fact that Dr. Anand is not a stereotypical Bible-thumping pro-lifer.”...

In their use of pain to make the fetus seem more fully human, anti-abortion forces draw on a deep tradition. Pain has long played a special role in how society determines who is like us or not like us (“us” being those with the power to make and enforce such distinctions). The capacity to feel pain has often been put forth as proof of a common humanity. Think of Shylock’s monologue in “The Merchant of Venice”: Are not Jews “hurt with the same weapons” as Christians, he demands. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Likewise, a presumed insensitivity to pain has been used to exclude some from humanity’s privileges and protections. Many 19th-century doctors believed blacks were indifferent to pain and performed surgery on them without even that era’s rudimentary anesthesia.

Over time, the charmed circle of those considered alive to pain, and therefore fully human, has widened to include members of other religions and races, the poor, the criminal, the mentally ill — and, thanks to the work of Sunny Anand and others, the very young. Should the circle enlarge once more, to admit those not yet born? Should fetuses be added to what Martin Pernick, a historian of the use of anesthesia, has called “the great chain of feeling”? Anand maintains that they should. For others, it’s a harder call....

essays on (American) marriage-- past and future

Going back into my files: from Albert Mohler on January 22 (hat tip: Chip Crush), a compendium of recent essays on the state of marriage in the U.S. with some commentary interspersed...

I don't have much to add-- other than to note that Christians believe that God's design (or instructions or laws or commands) for our lives are benevolent all of the time. (God doesn't want the best for us 94.3% of the time-- and then enjoys jerking our collective chains, playing the Cosmic Killjoy, the other 5.7%.) And since God has prescribed marriage as the norm in this arena (although exceptions are allowed), then it is in our best interests (as individuals and for society) to pursue that norm.

How do we communicate that? By living out marriage well in the public arena-- and making the relevant practical and ethical arguments. For better and especially for worse, we have much room improvement in all of the above.

The folks over at the libertarian-leaning CATO Institute have produced a debate over marriage that demands attention. The lead essay by Stephanie Coontz sets the stage for the debate, and three substantial responses to her essay add further substance to the discussion. Given the fact that so much controversy over the marriage issues involves so little intellectual substance, we should welcome and give attention to this debate.

Stephanie Coontz is herself no stranger to this controversy. Her 1992 book The Way We Never Were represents a now-classic attempt to relativize the family and marriage debate, as Coontz argued that most of the concern about marriage in recent decades has been rooted in nostalgia, not reality. In her view, there is no fixed definition for marriage or family, and efforts to make any arrangement normative are doomed to failure.

In her CATO Unbound essay, "The Future of Marriage," Coontz traces her argument that, over the past two centuries, marriage has been transformed from an institution of social regulation to a personal relationship. In her words:

Today, when a marriage works, it delivers more benefits to its members -- adults and children -- than ever before. A good marriage is fairer and more fulfilling for both men and women than couples of the past could ever have imagined. Domestic violence and sexual coercion have fallen sharply. More couples share decision-making and housework than ever before. Parents devote unprecedented time and resources to their children. And men in stable marriages are far less likely to cheat on their wives than in the past.

But the same things that have made so many modern marriages more intimate, fair, and protective have simultaneously made marriage itself more optional and more contingent on successful negotiation. They have also made marriage seem less bearable when it doesn't live up to its potential. The forces that have strengthened marriage as a personal relationship between freely-consenting adults have weakened marriage as a regulatory social institution.

Coontz sees this as both inevitable, given shifts in the larger culture, and positive. Furthermore, she sees this revolution as both irreversible and expanding:

Still, there is no chance that we can restore marriage to its former supremacy in coordinating social and interpersonal relationships. Even as the divorce rate has dropped, the incidence of cohabitation, delayed marriage and non-marriage has risen steadily. With half of all Americans aged 25-29 unmarried, marriage no longer organizes the transition into regular sexual activity or long-term partnerships the way it used to. Although teen births are lower than a decade ago, births to unwed mothers aged 25 and older continue to climb. Almost 40 percent of America's children are born to unmarried parents. And gay and lesbian families are permanently out of the closet.

Coontz's theory of a permanent revolution is a nightmare for those who believe that marriage is needed as an institution of social regulation. She is a veteran of these debates and understands this clearly. As she argues, a host of social changes now represents "a recipe for a world where the social weight of marriage has been fundamentally and irreversibly reduced."

She goes on to argue that efforts by social conservatives to recover an objective understanding of marriage are doomed to failure. In particular, she argues against any call to recover traditional gender roles and the limitation of sex to marriage.

Her conclusion is telling:

The right research and policy question today is not "what kind of family do we wish people lived in?" Instead, we must ask "what do we know about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and raise children more successfully?" Much recent hysteria to the contrary, we know a lot about how to do that. We should devote more of our energies to getting that research out and less to fantasizing about a return to a mythical Golden Age of marriage of the past.

Her call to help "every family" is offered without any definition of what a family is, and her warning against "fantasizing about a return to a mythical Golden Age of marriage of the past," summarizes her view.

Responding to Coontz, Kay S. Hymowitz asserts that Coontz's analysis of marriage misses one huge point -- that marriage is an established and stable institution of social regulation among those who are economically advantaged. Among those with low incomes, marriage is in a free fall. Hymowitz describes this as "a yawning class divide" on marriage.

As she explains in "The Marriage Gap:"

The large majority of individuals who are divorced or who are never-married parents are low-income and lacking a college, and in many cases a high school, degree. The large majority of middle-class men and women, on the other hand, marry before having children and stay married while raising them. When she assures us that marriage is not on the verge of extinction, she's right – if you're white and went to college.

As Hymowitz understands, the issue of central concern to society with regard to marriage has often been children -- even more than the adults:

Yes, marriage has had other social purposes. Depending on the culture, it provided companionship, it organized kinship groups, it regulated inheritance of property; as reproduction-is-basic-to-marriage skeptics often observe, many cultures have allowed older women, generally widows, to marry if they had enough wealth to attract a suitor. (Less liberal cultures declared them useless and had them burn themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres.) Yet there were many other conceivable ways to regulate property or provide companionship; it was the inevitability of children in a sexual union that made marriage the universal human institution that it became.

In "Against Family Fatalism," Norval D. Glenn of the University of Texas puts the issue back to Coontz -- but with a twist:

The fatalistic position concerning family change that Coontz apparently still embraces is a curious one for liberals to take, because they do not take it in regard to most other kinds of change that can be attributed ultimately to such master trends as industrialization, urbanization, and economic development. Take the case of climate change and environmental degradation -- changes attributable ultimately to the same major influences that led to recent family changes. Some commentators do say that those changes are part and parcel of economic development and should be adapted to rather than resisted, but I know of no liberals who take that position. While acknowledging that there is no pre-industrial environmental Golden Age to which we can return, liberals generally believe that some of the negative environmental trends ensuing from economic growth can be and should be slowed, stopped, or reversed. A reasonable question is why liberals don't consistently take a similar stance in regard to family change.

Finally, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers reduce the issue to an economic reading. Thus they conclude their essay, "Marriage and the Market," with these words:

Trends in marital behavior reflect a common-sense response to the economic and social circumstances surrounding us. Just as we have deregulated the economy so that firms and businesses can deal with changing conditions, the long-run trend in U.S. family policy has been to deregulate the marriage market, and the book of rules governing who can get married or divorced where and when has become much thinner. Yet much of the current political debate is precisely about re-regulating marriage. Our concern is that this re-regulation may actually be a force undermining the dynamic institution that is the modern U.S. family.

In other words, the economists side with Stephanie Coontz in arguing against a normative definition of marriage or the family and suggest a "deregulation" of "the marriage market."
Their essay demonstrates the cost of reducing issues of this importance to a merely economic analysis, even as the essays taken together demonstrate the inevitable collision between conservative and libertarian worldviews.

Rarely are such substantial essays found in such an accessible form. This controversy will not disappear -- the stakes are just too high. These essays represent a debate worth watching.

you are-- or at least your kid is-- what you eat?

From the AP's Lindsey Tanner (hat tip: C-J), news about research into correlations (and perhaps causation) between a mother's pre-pregnancy diet and the child's gender...

Snips and snails and puppydog tails ... and cereal and bananas? That could be what little boys are made of, according to surprising new research suggesting that what a woman eats before pregnancy influences the gender of her baby.

Having a hearty appetite, eating potassium-rich foods including bananas, and not skipping breakfast all seemed to raise the odds of having a boy.

The British research is billed as the first in humans to show a link between a woman's diet and whether she has a boy or girl.

It is not proof, but it fits with evidence from test tube fertilization that male embryos thrive best with longer exposure to nutrient-rich lab cultures, said Dr. Tarun Jain. He is a fertility specialist at University of Illinois at Chicago who wasn't involved in the study.

It just might be that it takes more nutrients to build boys than girls, he said.

University of Exeter researcher Fiona Mathews, the study's lead author, said the findings also fit with fertility research showing that male embryos aren't likely to survive in lab cultures with low sugar levels. Skipping meals can result in low blood sugar levels.

Jain said he was skeptical when he first heard about the research. But he said the study was well-done and merits follow-up study to see if the theory proves true.

It's not necessarily as far-fetched as it sounds. While men's sperm determine a baby's gender, it could be that certain nutrients or eating patterns make women's bodies more hospitable to sperm carrying the male chromosome, Jain said.

"It's an interesting question. I'm not aware of anyone else looking at it in this manner," he said.
The study was published Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a British medical journal.

The research involved about 700 first-time pregnant women in the United Kingdom who didn't know the sex of their fetuses. They were asked about their eating habits in the year before getting pregnant.

Among women with the highest calorie intake before pregnancy (but still within a normal, healthy range), 56 percent had boys, versus 45 percent of the women with the lowest calorie intake.

Women who ate at least one bowl of breakfast cereal daily were 87 percent more likely to have boys than those who ate no more than one bowlful per week. Cereal is a typical breakfast in Britain and in the study, eating very little cereal was considered a possible sign of skipping breakfast, Mathews said.

Tonia likes cereal-- for breakfast and beyond-- so maybe that's connected for us!

Compared with the women who had girls, those who had boys ate an additional 300 milligrams of potassium daily on average, "which links quite nicely with the old wives' tale that if you eat bananas you'll have a boy," Mathews said.

She's light on the bananas though...

Women who had boys also ate about 400 calories more daily than those who had girls, on average, she said...

No comment (of course), although I'd be surprised if she's above-average in this one respect!

And Dr. Michael Lu, an associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and public health at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the results "are certainly plausible from an evolutionary biology perspective." In other words, since boys tend to be bigger, it would make sense that it would take more calories to create them, Lu said.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

survey of Arabs about Iraq

From the Brookings Institute's Shibley Talhami (hat tip: Bluegrass Roots) the latest polling on opinions about Iraq in the Arab world. Talhami surveyed 4,000 people in six Middle Eastern countries.

What do you believe would happen if the United States quickly withdrew its forces?
Civil war will expand rapidly: 15%
The situation will not change: 14%
Iraqis will find a way to bridge their differences: 61%
(vs. 24, 23 and 44 in 2006)

This parallels my contention that we are unlikely to improve Iraq's probability of success by staying there for two, five, ten, or 100 years...

Would you say your attitudes toward the US are based more on American values or American policy in the Middle East?
Based on American policy: 80
Based on American values: 12

This relates to my essay on Guiliani vs. Paul and the two views of why the terrorists come after us-- and Robert Pape's findings about the causes of suicide terrorism...

pray for John Bottorff's family

Tragic news that the four-year-old daughter of fellow candidate John Bottorff was run over by a car Tuesday afternoon in a parking lot. (An elderly driver lost control of his car.)

John is running in the Democratic primary against Baron Hill on May 6th.

I've only met John one time-- at the March 19th demonstration against our ongoing efforts in Iraq. (John and Gretchen Clearwater are the two vocal anti-war candidates opposing Baron in May.) Even though I hardly know him, I felt closer to him than one might expect-- perhaps because we have a similar approach to all of this and he seems like a great guy.

Our four kids are one year older than theirs. I cannot even begin to imagine the grief and other emotions that will impact his family.

Please join me in praying that he and his family would sense God's presence in this ordeal.

bringing home the Davis-Bacon

Trying to clean out my files, here's something from Jim Waters at BIPPS on Davis-Bacon or "prevailing wage" laws...

Prevailing wage laws bring home the bacon for unions on public works projects-- by implicitly restricting their competition, preventing non-union firms from competing on the basis of labor costs. In addition to restricting competition, they drive up costs for taxpayers, meaning higher taxes &/or fewer projects completed.

Here, Waters uses a nice point of logic: if it's so good, why don't we extend it? In extending it, one sees how painful it is, even as a smaller policy.

I have an idea that would allow the commonwealth to rise from the pits in just about every economic category that matters to a No. 1 ranking.

Why not make Kentucky the first state where government requires all construction contractors to pay prevailing-wage rates? Currently, Kentucky’s prevailing-wage law, which mimics the federal Davis-Bacon Act (Bacon as in “pork) – a relic of the Great Depression, requires the state to pay prevailing wages only to workers on public projects.

To be consistent, lawmakers who continue to insist on paying prevailing-wage rates, which reflect high union scales rather than rates determined by the marketplace, should also force contractors on all construction projects – public and private – pay prevailing wages.

Of course, politicians know that supporting such a law would equate to political suicide. A basic understanding of economics – which escapes most politicians – shows that this would devastate the state’s construction industry and create a bureaucracy large enough to be the eighth wonder of the world. Such a practice would evaporate what little economic vitality remains.

OK, a better idea: dump the prevailing-wage law altogether.

“Whoa!” to that idea, shout the labor-union bosses driving the gravy train. They insist on the necessity of a prevailing-wage law – one that forces taxpayers to offer higher wages to workers on public roads, jails, schools and bunkers for bureaucrats.

They also say it ensures quality work. But that claim triggers my logic alarm and raises many questions:

• If quality is better on prevailing-wage projects, why don’t politicians force all contractors to pay such wages? Should the state accept poorly built apartment buildings, hospitals or grocery stores?

• If Frankfort’s “laborcrats” won’t require such a policy for the private sector, then why do they think it’s economically sound policy for public projects paid for by overtaxed Kentuckians?

• Are Kentucky’s labor leaders prepared to acknowledge that the 18 states without prevailing-wage laws – including nearby Virginia – don’t provide safe roads and schools? Nobody would believe them if they did.

Meanwhile, Kentucky taxpayers won’t believe how much prevailing-wage coercion costs them.

Take, for example, the new Joseph Warren Middle and High School in Warren County, which drew a $61-million bid last week.

The job calls for a prevailing wage of $41.35 for plumbers and pipe fitters. And it doesn’t matter if a plumber hikes up his pants for the first time or the 30th year on the job, he still gets paid $41.35 an hour.

I checked with an experienced contractor in the region, who said these workers would receive a rate of about $18 an hour on a similar job in the private sector.

On Page 4 of the state Labor Cabinet’s prevailing-wage categories for Warren County, it states that “water boys” get $18.07 an hour and $8.79 in benefits. So “water boys” working on the Warren schools get paid more than the usual rate earned by experienced, professional plumbers working on homes, office buildings and churches.

Even Kentucky Department of Education officials, which aren’t exactly known for endorsing fiscally sound policies, recognize – and despise – the state’s prevailing-wage policy. The department claims prevailing-wage requirements adds 11 percent to the cost of building schools – $6.7 million on the Warren County schools project alone.

Neither university presidents nor local school administrators like it.

The Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce, loath to criticize government interference in the marketplace, made elimination of prevailing-wage policy on school construction part of its 2008 public-policy positions. “Mandatory prevailing wage adds 15 percent to 25 percent to . . . construction budgets of educational institutions,” stated the chamber’s glossy release.

Yet while we all hold our breath waiting for lawmakers to come up with a defense for this bogus policy, they seem frozen with fear of incurring the wrath of labor bosses presiding over a shrinking union membership.

A better response would be to eliminate Kentucky’s prevailing-wage law during the 2008 General Assembly and allow the great American tradition of competition to thrive in the construction marketplace.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

co-pay conundrum

From Gina Kolata with the New York Times (hat tip: Chris Lang)...

Health insurance companies are rapidly adopting a new pricing system for very expensive drugs, asking patients to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars for prescriptions for medications that may save their lives or slow the progress of serious diseases.

With the new pricing system, insurers abandoned the traditional arrangement that has patients pay a fixed amount, like $10, $20 or $30 for a prescription, no matter what the drug’s actual cost. Instead, they are charging patients a percentage of the cost of certain high-priced drugs, usually 20 to 33 percent, which can amount to thousands of dollars a month.

The system means that the burden of expensive health care can now affect insured people, too.

A number of things to say so far:

-I hadn't thought about it before, but it's a bit surprising that the consumer's cost of drugs would ever have been fixed instead of a (fixed) percentage.

-Part of this may be the extent to which health insurance is a competitive market or not.

-That said, there is an inherent problem in health insurance-- as coverage for an on-going illness. Key point: Insurance typically covers one-time events. Insurance for on-going but connected events is prone to potential abuse by market participants (consumers trying to get coverage after growing ill) and insurance companies (changing the rules after the fact).

-The writer is incorrect in that the cost of health care has always burdened those who are insured. The cost of providing insurance is closely connected to the cost of purchasing insurance.

No one knows how many patients are affected, but hundreds of drugs are priced this new way. They are used to treat diseases that may be fairly common, including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, hemophilia, hepatitis C and some cancers. There are no cheaper equivalents for these drugs, so patients are forced to pay the price or do without.

This gets to the inherent tension in allowing for patents-- a far greater incentive to invent such things, but an artificial monopoly until the patent expires or the market can create a close substitute.

Insurers say the new system keeps everyone’s premiums down at a time when some of the most innovative and promising new treatments for conditions like cancer and rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis can cost $100,000 and more a year....

True (at least in a competitive market)-- and great for the group, but a tough trade-off for the individual.

But the new system sticks seriously ill people with huge bills, said James Robinson, a health economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “It is very unfortunate social policy,” Dr. Robinson said. “The more the sick person pays, the less the healthy person pays.”

Traditionally, the idea of insurance was to spread the costs of paying for the sick.

“This is an erosion of the traditional concept of insurance,” Mr. Mendelson said. “Those beneficiaries who bear the burden of illness are also bearing the burden of cost.”

Not exactly. We don't think of fire or auto insurance as "spreading the costs". It has that effect but that is not its purpose.

And an interesting quote: as long as the rules don't change in the middle of the game (see above), then we would want riskier people to pay more than less risky people, right? But to Dr. Robinson's point, this is a mixed bag in terms of social policy-- better overall, but tough on individuals.

And often, patients say, they had no idea that they would be faced with such a situation.

Now, that's a/the problem...

dolphins evolve opposable thumbs...

Some humor/satire from the Onion on a favorite and relevant topic...

HONOLULU–In an announcement with grave implications for the primacy of the species of man, marine biologists at the Hawaii Oceanographic Institute reported Monday that dolphins, or family Delphinidae, have evolved opposable thumbs on their pectoral fins.

Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs

One of the evolved dolphins, whose opposable thumbs have struck fear in the hearts of humankind.

"I believe I speak for the entire human race when I say, 'Holy #$^&,'" said Oceanographic Institute director Dr. James Aoki, noting that the dolphin has a cranial capacity 40 percent greater than that of humans. "That's it for us monkeys."

Aoki strongly urged humans, especially those living near the sea, to learn to communicate using a system of clicks and whistles in a frequency range of 4 to 150 kHz. He also encouraged humans to "start practicing their echo-location as soon as possible."

Delphinologists have reported more than 7,000 cases of spontaneous opposable-digit manifestation in the past two weeks alone, with "thumbs" observed on the bottle-nosed dolphin, the Atlantic humpback dolphin, and even the rare Ganges River dolphin.

"It appears to be species-wide," said dolphin specialist Clifford Brees of the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory, speaking from the shark cage he welded shut around himself late Monday. "And it may be even worse: We haven't exactly been eager to check for thumbs on other marine mammals belonging to the order of cetaceans, such as the killer whale....we're really in the soup now."

Thus far, all the opposable digits encountered appear to be fully functional, making it possible for dolphins–believed to be capable of faster and more complex cogitation than man–to manipulate objects, fashion tools, and construct rudimentary pulley and lever systems.

"They really seem to be making up for lost time with this thumb thing," said Dr. Jim Kuczaj, a University of California–San Diego biologist who has studied the seasonal behavior of dolphins for more than 30 years. "Last Friday, a crude seaweed-and-shell abacus washed up on the beach near Hilo, Hawaii. The next day, a far more sophisticated abacus, fashioned from some unknown material and capable of calculating equations involving numbers of up to 16 digits, washed up on the same beach. The day after that, the beach was littered with thousands of what turned out to be coral-silicate and kelp-based biomicrocircuitry....What are they doing down there?"

Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs jump

A primitive axe crafted out of driftwood and shell that is believed to be the handiwork of dolphins.

It is unknown what precipitated the dolphins' sudden development of opposable thumbs. Some dolphin behaviorists believe that the gentle marine mammal, pushed to the brink by humanity's reckless pollution and exploitation of the sea, tapped into some previously unmined mental powers to spontaneously generate a thumb-like appendage. However, given that 95 percent of the world's dolphin experts have committed suicide since learning of the development, the full story may never be known.

"You must believe, sleek ocean masters, that many of us homo sapiens weep with shame and disgust over the degradation to which our species has subjected our All-Mother, the Great World-Sea," read the suicide note of Dr. Richard Morse, a Brisbane, Australia, delphinologist and regular contributor to Marine Mammal Science. "If you are reading this, I estimate that it is the day we know as August 31, 2000. Please be decent and kind masters to our poor ape-race....I'm so sorry about the tracking collars."

"Scientists once wondered whether dolphins, with their remarkably advanced social and language structures, are actually smarter than we are," said Aoki, ushering reporters out of the laboratory he claimed "will either be a smoking hole or a zoo exhibit in the coming Dolphin Age." "Well, we're not wondering anymore."

D'Souza on Stein (on Dawkins)

From Dinesh D'Souza at on Ben Stein's coverage of Richard Dawkins in his new movie, Expelled...

In Ben Stein's new film "Expelled," there is a great scene where Richard Dawkins is going on about how evolution explains everything. This is part of Dawkins' grand claim, which echoes through several of his books, that evolution by itself has refuted the argument from design. The argument from design hold that the design of the universe and of life are most likely the product of an intelligent designer. Dawkins thinks that Darwin has disproven this argument.

So Stein puts to Dawkins a simple question, "How did life begin?" One would think that this is a question that could be easily answered. Dawkins, however, frankly admits that he has no idea. One might expect Dawkins to invoke evolution as the all-purpose explanation. Evolution, however, only explains transitions from one life form to another. Evolution has no explanation for how life got started in the first place. Darwin was very clear about this.

In order for evolution to take place, there had to be a living cell. The difficulty for atheists is that even this original cell is a work of labyrinthine complexity. Franklin Harold writes in The Way of the Cell that even the simplest cells are more ingeniously complicated than man's most elaborate inventions: the factory system or the computer. Moreover, Harold writes that the various components of the cell do not function like random widgets; rather, they work purposefully together, as if cooperating in a planned organized venture. Dawkins himself has described the cell as the kind of supercomputer, noting that it functions through an information system that resembles the software code.

Is it possible that living cells somehow assembled themselves from nonliving things by chance? The probabilities here are so infinitesimal that they approach zero....

And the absurdity was recognized more than a decade ago by Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA double helix. Yet Crick is a committed atheist. Unwilling to consider the possibility of divine or supernatural creation, Crick suggested that maybe aliens brought life to earth from another planet. And this is precisely the suggestion that Richard Dawkins makes in his response to Ben Stein. Perhaps, he notes, life was delivered to our planet by highly-evolved aliens....

Stein brilliantly responds that he had no idea Richard Dawkins believes in intelligent design! And indeed Dawkins does seem to be saying that alien intelligence is responsible for life arriving on earth. What are we to make of this? Basically Dawkins is surrendering on the claim that evolution can account for the origins of life. It can't. The issue now is simply whether a natural intelligence (ET) or a supernatural intelligence (God) created life....

Brooks on Obama

From David Brooks on Obama's rough few weeks, a longer battle with Hillary than anticipated-- and the long-term implications...

Back in Iowa, Barack Obama promised to be something new — an unconventional leader who would confront unpleasant truths, embrace novel policies and unify the country. If he had knocked Hillary Clinton out in New Hampshire and entered general-election mode early, this enormously thoughtful man would have become that.

But he did not knock her out, and the aura around Obama has changed. Furiously courting Democratic primary voters and apparently exhausted, Obama has emerged as a more conventional politician and a more orthodox liberal.

He sprinkled his debate performance Wednesday night with the sorts of fibs, evasions and hypocrisies that are the stuff of conventional politics. He claimed falsely that his handwriting wasn’t on a questionnaire about gun control. He claimed that he had never attacked Clinton for her exaggerations about the Tuzla airport, though his campaign was all over it. Obama piously condemned the practice of lifting other candidates’ words out of context, but he has been doing exactly the same thing to John McCain, especially over his 100 years in Iraq comment.

Obama also made a pair of grand and cynical promises that are the sign of someone who is thinking more about campaigning than governing....He made a sweeping read-my-lips pledge never to raise taxes on anybody making less than $200,000 to $250,000 a year....Then he made an iron vow to get American troops out of Iraq within 16 months....

When Obama began this ride, he seemed like a transcendent figure who could understand a wide variety of life experiences. But over the past months, things have happened that make him seem more like my old neighbors in Hyde Park in Chicago.

Some of us love Hyde Park for its diversity and quirkiness, as there are those who love Cambridge and Berkeley. But it is among the more academic and liberal places around. When Obama goes to a church infused with James Cone-style liberation theology, when he makes ill-informed comments about working-class voters, when he bowls a 37 for crying out loud, voters are going to wonder if he’s one of them. Obama has to address those doubts, and he has done so poorly up to now.

It was inevitable that the period of “Yes We Can!” deification would come to an end. It was not inevitable that Obama would now look so vulnerable....

A few months ago, Obama was riding his talents. Clinton has ground him down, and we are now facing an interesting phenomenon. Republicans have long assumed they would lose because of the economy and the sad state of their party. Now, Democrats are deeply worried their nominee will lose in November.

Welcome to 2008. Everybody’s miserable.

Noonan on Clinton and Obama

From Peggy Noonan in the WSJ...

First, about Clinton...

On Tuesday Hillary Clinton made the best speech of her campaign. She told the American Society of Newspaper Editors how she conceives "the power and promise of the presidency." She asserted that President Bush had been "unready" for the office, did not understand its "constitutional character," exhibited in his decisions an "ideological disdain." She said she hopes to "restore balance and purpose" to the presidency, and detailed specific actions she would take immediately on entering the White House.

It was an important speech, and someone, probably many someones, worked hard on it. It was highly partisan, even polar, but it was a more thoughtful critique of the administration, more densely woven and less bromidic, than she has offered in the past, and she used a higher vocabulary. So eager was she to be heard she actually noted at one point that what she'd just said was not "a soundbite."

And here's the thing. It didn't matter. Nobody noticed. A room full of journalists didn't notice this was something new and interesting. And they didn't notice because nobody is listening anymore.

Mrs. Clinton is transmitting, but people aren't receiving. She has been branded, tagged. She's been absorbed, understood and categorized. People have decided what they think, and it's not good.

It took George W. Bush five years to get to that point. It took her five intense months. Political historians will say her campaign sank with the mad Bosnia lie, but Bosnia broke through only because it expressed, crystallized, what people had already begun to think: too much mendacity there, too much manipulation.

Timing is everything. "Too late to get serious," I wrote in my notes. For before this, Mrs. Clinton's campaign was all dreary recitation of talking points, rote applause lines followed by rote applause....

And then, about Obama...

I just think that whatever happens in Pennsylvania, the decision has been made, the die cast. Barack Obama's supporters will not be denied. He broke through, gained purchase, held his ground, the one thing Mrs. Clinton could not afford. When I speak to superdelegates, the vibration is there: It is the moment of Obama.

And now his problem emerges. It is two-headed. It is not that he is African-American, or half so, and it is not that he is liberal. Liberalism too, one senses, is having a moment.

It is his youth, his relative untriedness, the fact that he has not suffered, been seasoned, been beat about the head by life and left struggling back, as happens to most adults by a certain time. This is what I hear from older people, who vote in great numbers. They are not hostile to his race, they are skeptical of his inexperience.

The other is elitism, a charge that clearly grates on him and unnerves his wife, who has a great deal that would be attractive in a first lady (intelligence, accomplishment, beauty) but lacks placidity, which is, actually, necessary. All first ladies, first spouses, should be like Denis Thatcher, slightly dazed, mildly inscrutable, utterly supportive. It is the only job in the world where "seems slightly drugged" is a positive job qualification....

Sen. Obama seems honestly surprised by the furor his the-poor-cling-to-God-and-guns remarks elicited, and if one considers his background—intense marginalization followed by the establishment's embrace—this is understandable. He was only caught speaking the secret language of America's elite, and what he said was not meant as a putdown....You could say this at any high-class dinner party in America and not cause a ruffle. But America is not a high-class dinner party....

Can Mr. Obama survive this? Yes. But it made a bad impression, the kind it's hard to eradicate. Good news for him: the trope that blacks aren't snobs, they're patronized by snobs. Also, he doesn't seem haughty. He seems like a nice man. Also the person exploiting his gaffe is Mrs. Clinton....