Monday, December 29, 2008

soon, he'll have a lot more time for Bible study

It's a shame that it didn't come before his presidency-- for the man and his country (in terms of a coherent Christian philosophy of government).

Here's Joel Belz in World in an essay titled "Profession of Mush".

If you didn't wince a bit while President Bush attempted last week—on national television, no less—to give an account of his Christian faith, well then maybe you too ought to go back and take a refresher course in Christianity 101....

Bush, based on what he told the folks on ABC's Nightline, wouldn't have passed a basic membership interview in most churches I know....

This is painful to hear—even when the soon-to-be former president, in his wonderfully affable manner, discounts it all with a smile...

Bush is right, of course, that the Christian faith encompasses all sorts of mysteries. But there's a difference between mystery and mush. When you read Bush's actual words in the rest of the interview, including his doubts concerning the literal truth of the Bible and his skepticism that Jesus is the only way to God, you are forced to ask in all candor: Has this man ever subjected himself to any serious, consistent preaching of Christian truth? Has he ever participated not just in devotional reading, but some disciplined or organized study of the Bible?...

McCain the (non) maverick-- revisited

From Paul Bedard in U.S. News & World Report...

So how did McCain lose? Well, as kids say, stuff happened. Topping [Pollster Bill] McInturff's list: Obama was the first black presidential nominee...The GOP convention was almost rained out by a hurricane over New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina's anniversary. And as the economy collapsed, McCain had to endorse a bailout he never would have backed had he not been running for president. Reason: Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson begged him to.

The first was probably a small net plus-- but especially in combination with the biggest factor: the unpopularity of Bush and the implosion of the GOP name brand.

In any case, the saddest thing here is that McCain gave in to Paulson's begging. He eliminated whatever opportunity he had to win-- in addition to failing to provide leadership, and thus, leading us further into the bailout blackhole.

Thanks Bush (for little) and Mac (for nothing)...

50 Ways to Improve your Life: Learn to Play Bridge

In its end/beginning-of-the-year issue, U.S. News and World Report suggests "50 Ways to Improve your Life".

Among those? Mike Salmon suggests Learn to play bridge!

Never mind the obvious benefit of taking your brain out for a vigorous stroll. The real beauty of bridge is the other players.

When I mention my passion for the world's best card game to the uninitiated, the subject of little old ladies always arises. Certainly, that contingent is represented. Crafty little old ladies. Cunning. But the truth is, the bridge subculture is diverse...Learning to play bridge will allow you to match wits and witticisms with an array of folks whose only other commonality is that they tend to be pretty clever.

You don't need to be a genius to become good at the game, though. Judgment and the ability to focus are greater assets than sheer mental muscle, and both develop with experience. The basics of bridge can be learned in an afternoon. It's a trick-taking game, like spades and hearts, but with a few extra layers that make it much more interesting....

With about 3,200 bridge clubs in North America, the ACBL can help find one near you. Clubs typically charge a small fee (generally about $5) for three hours of play, and that often includes snacks. Clubs are eager for new members and will usually help you find a partner. There are thousands more clubs worldwide. You'll no doubt find a warm welcome at every one.

If it helps, I have a guide to learning bridge (with basic and beginning bid sheets) on my website.

I learned to play in my Calculus class as a senior in high school. (I didn't learn much math!) And I've played off and on over the years, including a number of years with my Memaw and two of her octogenarian friends.

I've never played at a bridge club; maybe when the kids are older. For now, I still play at Yahoo Games on occasion. And we used to have a Bridge group-- before we broadened it to a Games Night (emphasizing so-called "German" board games).

"The only thing different here is that I don't swear or hit anybody."

That's Adam Sandler's assessment of his new movie Bedtime Values-- which is apparently quite a bit cleaner than his usual fare.

In World, Megan Basham gives the movie a tepid review and does a separate analysis of the prospective impact if fatherhood on Sandler's choice.

...while much of Sandler's previous work is marked by sexual innuendo and bloodless violence, his core style requires surprisingly little change to translate to the under-11 set. There has always been something remarkably childlike, or perhaps more accurately, childish, about his comedic persona...."

It happens to a lot of leading men....eventually something comes along that changes them. That something? Fatherhood. Once their offspring enter the world, many actors long to do work their children will cheer them for....

And then this, on the benefits of limits (within comedy):

Some of his co-stars even found that the constrictions of the family genre brought their comedy game to a new level...."Sometimes parameters create better work," Russell Brand admits. "You often have go-to places that you fall back on as a comedian, and doing material for kids forces you to go different, more creative places."

Despereaux and mercy over justice

From World, a interview (with Rebecca Cusey) of sorts with Gary Ross--director of The Tale of Despereaux (as well as Seabiscuit, Pleasantville, Dave and Big)-- following her review of Ross latest movie...

This sounds like a good movie too! Has anyone seen it and care to comment?

The characters in Despereaux wound each other in serious ways, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, but are all transformed by forgiveness. "These people had wounded or hurt other people or had transgressed in a way that was holding them back in their own lives," said Ross, "and only through being forgiven and forgiving could they free themselves from that."...

Light is a powerful symbol in the film, causing yearning in some characters and terror in others. "Light is knowledge, wisdom, full understanding, not keeping yourself in the darkness...There's almost a kind of nakedness when one stands out in the light that one is revealed fully at the same time you're able to take the world in," Ross said.

Cusey closes by noting that "Ross sees these themes in secular terms, and he said he was proud to make a family movie that would be thought-provoking to people of faith and also touch a wider audience."

Marley's looking better

From Megan Basham in World...

The first few reviews I'd seen of the newest dog movie indicated it was a bit of a dog. World has a different worldview, which may explain their excitement about the film...

If you've seen it, please comment!

Few major Hollywood offerings focus on life in the suburbs, and when they do, the picture they paint is hardly pretty....

When the screenplay for the best-selling memoir Marley and Me landed in director Dave Frankel's lap, he, along with stars Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson, saw a chance to change that....Aniston adds that the film offers husbands and wives something they rarely see—a romantic comedy about married people....

While not quite on par with It's a Wonderful Life, Marley and Me reflects a similar its core, Marley and Me is about human choices and the sacrifices and payoffs that come as a result of those choices....while the film manages to avoid painting suburban life as awash with misery, it doesn't avoid the tough stuff.

GPS Jesus

From World...

Fed up with holiday thieves, a number of churches, synagogues, and governments resorted to high-tech methods this year to protect their nativity scenes and Christmas décor: They installed hidden cameras and mounted GPS tracking systems inside the figurines....

Reminds me of the hilarious scene in Diner where a drunken Kevin Bacon punches the wise men.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Craig on apologetics

From William Lane Craig in Christianity Today:

His intro:

You might think from the recent spate of atheist best-sellers that belief in God has become intellectually indefensible for thinking people today. But a look at these books...quickly reveals that the so-called New Atheism lacks intellectual muscle. It is blissfully ignorant of the revolution that has taken place in Anglo-American philosophy. It reflects the scientism of a bygone generation rather than the contemporary intellectual scene.

That generation's cultural high point came on April 8, 1966, when Time magazine carried a lead story for which the cover was completely black except for three words emblazoned in bright red letters: "Is God Dead?"...

But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the news of God's demise was premature. For at the same time theologians were writing God's obituary, a new generation of young philosophers was rediscovering his vitality.

Back in the 1940s and '50s, many philosophers believed that talk about God, since it is not verifiable by the five senses, is meaningless—actual nonsense. This verificationism finally collapsed, in part because philosophers realized that verificationism itself could not be verified! The collapse of verificationism was the most important philosophical event of the 20th century....

The turning point probably came in 1967, with the publication of Alvin Plantinga's God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God. In Plantinga's train has followed a host of Christian philosophers, writing in scholarly journals and participating in professional conferences and publishing with the finest academic presses. The face of Anglo-American philosophy has been transformed as a result. Atheism, though perhaps still the dominant viewpoint at the American university, is a philosophy in retreat....

The renaissance of Christian philosophy has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in natural theology, that branch of theology that seeks to prove God's existence apart from divine revelation. The goal of natural theology is to justify a broadly theistic worldview...

From there, Craig runs through the primary/prominent arguments (in their "condensed form") within natural theology: cosmological, kalam cosmological, teleological argument, moral, and ontological.

And then, Craig turns to the question, "Why Bother?"

...some might think that the resurgence of natural theology in our time is merely so much labor lost. For don't we live in a postmodern culture in which appeals to such apologetic arguments are no longer effective? Rational arguments for the truth of theism are no longer supposed to work. Some Christians therefore advise that we should simply share our narrative and invite people to participate in it.

This sort of thinking is guilty of a disastrous misdiagnosis of contemporary culture. The idea that we live in a postmodern culture is a myth. In fact, a postmodern culture is an impossibility; it would be utterly unlivable. People are not relativistic when it comes to matters of science, engineering, and technology; rather, they are relativistic and pluralistic in matters of religion and ethics. But, of course, that's not postmodernism; that's modernism! That's just old-line verificationism, which held that anything you can't prove with your five senses is a matter of personal taste. We live in a culture that remains deeply modernist....

From there, Craig continues his case for a robust investment in philosophy and natural theology.

Christ-less Christmas

From a church sign I saw yesterday:

A Christ-less Christmas is like a counterfeit dollar

Friday, December 26, 2008

Surprised by Genre

A review of sorts of N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope-- from Marvin Olasky in World.

Wright's title invokes Lewis' testimony in Surprised by Joy. And in Olasky's view, Wright builds on Lewis' work.

Lewis is famous...for one apologetic in particular: Jesus was liar, lunatic, or Lord; that it made no sense, based on the Gospel accounts, to consider Him liar or lunatic; ergo, Jesus must be Lord.

The skeptical response, of course, is that Lewis is assuming the Gospel accounts are honest reporting—but couldn't they have been written decades later by distorting propagandists who churned out fiction and called it fact?

Responses to that include...

Wright's new book adds another dimension. He lucidly explains how the Gospel writers, if they were holy fakers, would have had to invent not only a new genre but also a theology completely removed from any Jewish or pagan understandings of their time. First-century believers in various Jewish and pagan doctrines may have expected to see shining or ghostly figures, but no one anticipated meeting someone who would eat a piece of fish....

the historicity of Christ and the Holocaust

A short excerpt from Gary Anderson's review in First Things of Richard Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

I will acquire Bauckham's book soon-- either via Christmas or ordering it soon afterward. His book on Revelation was awesome. And Darian Lockett, one of my former colleagues at The King's College, was profoundly influenced by him.

What struck me most about the book, however, was its last chapter. Here he compares the eyewitness nature of the gospels to recent attempts to document what the eyewitnesses of the Holocaust claim to have remembered. There are four reasons such a comparison is apt. First, both sets of eyewitnesses believed they participated in a unique event. Second, this uniqueness created a challenge for transmission: Who would believe it? Third, precisely because of the uniqueness of the event and the doubt that follows from it, the witnesses felt a strong responsibility to communicate their story. And, fourth, the exceptional nature of the event means that only the eyewitnesses could do it justice.

In short, it is the uniqueness of the event that drives the testimony about it....For believers, this surely seems right: The vividness of the gospel narratives takes its bearing from the startling and completely unexpected fact that Jesus truly rose from the dead. Hearing the New Testament narratives with the same sense of strong, firsthand experience that one brings to Elie Wiesel’s Night, for example, will change the way we hear the gospel....

Maher points the way to faith

From Richard John Neuhaus in First Things, something that again connects to the extraordinary views of Christians. This takes us back to two threads: first, the conversion of Chesterton and second, the Mythical/Magical/Mysterious nature and elements of Christian orthodoxy.

Chesterton was converted based on becoming convinced that Christianity explained the odd things in life. He noted that many theories could explain obvious things. But Christianity made odd claims that turned out to explain the world.

The comedian Bill Maher recently delivered himself of some rather decided views on religion in general and Catholicism in particular. On a late-night talk show he said:

“You can’t be a rational person six days of the week and put on a suit and make rational decisions and go to work and, on one day of the week, go to a building and think you’re drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god. That doesn’t make you a person of faith. That makes you schizophrenic.”

...[we] might ask whether the Mahers, at least at times, do not, however inadvertently, render a service in pointing to the astonishing nature of Christian truth claims. Astonishing if they are not true, and more astonishing if they are. We are not schizophrenic, but we are keenly aware of the tension and, at times, the conflict between the gospel and culturally conventional understandings of reality....

Which Way to the Damascus Road?

The title of Christine Rosen's piece in the WSJ, excerpted below.

I did not have a Damascus Road conversion-- although I "came to faith" at an age (16-17) where such an experience is somewhat likely. That said, it's often interesting to hear people's "testimonies"-- in this context, the part of that testimony that relates to the details of their "conversion".

Some are more experiential. Others more intellectual-- those who, like Tolstoy, Chesterton, and Lewis investigated other hypotheses for such things and found them wanting next to Christianity. The flip side of that coin is they were attracted to related but different aspects of the Gospel.

Rosen starts with Antony Flew before moving on through Denise Jackson, Fay Weldon, C.S. Lewis, Charles Colson, and Francis Collins-- and concludes that "the road" is "paved with theology not therapy".

Given the recent attention garnered by the "new atheism" and its spokesmen, it was only a matter of time before a defector emerged from within the ranks. Enter Antony Flew. A lifelong outspoken atheist and Oxford philosophy professor, Mr. Flew recently published a book, There Is a God.

He would seem to be the ideal combatant to challenge the new atheists in the battle over belief. But is he really? A few reporters and bloggers have raised questions about the octogenarian's mental competence as well as the motivations of his co-author...Mr. Flew is not quite the crusading convert his book title suggests: He did not embrace Christianity, but Deism....

So who are the other writers manning the ramparts against atheism while espousing their new devotion to Christ? They are typically sappy types armed mostly with therapeutic bromides.

For several weeks this fall on the New York Times best-seller list, Christopher Hitchens's "God Is Not Great" lagged behind "It's All About Him: Finding the Love of My Life," by Denise Jackson, wife of the country-music star Alan Jackson. The "Him" in Ms. Jackson's title is not her husband, but God. The book tells the story of how a marital crisis prompted a spiritual awakening in Ms. Jackson....

After seven decades as an atheist, British novelist Fay Weldon recently converted. She, too, was inspired by her new faith to write a self-help tome, "What Makes Women Happy," which describes a near-death experience...

To be sure, the Jackson and Weldon books have inspired many readers. But the most enduring conversion stories in modern times don't offer tales of perky piety triumphing over personal malaise. They are far more ambiguous and attentive to the challenges of living a spiritual life in a secular world.

C.S. Lewis, one of the most well-known Christian apologists of the 20th century, called himself a "reluctant convert," and in his autobiography, "Surprised by Joy," he described the process as akin to being caught or overtaken by an irresistible force....

Yet Mr. Lewis's unusual conversion narrative has inspired thousands of believers. In the 1970s, just before he began serving a prison sentence for his Watergate crimes, former Nixon aide Charles Colson read Mr. Lewis's "Mere Christianity," and he says that it persuaded him to come to Christ. More recently, scientist Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, has discussed how, when he was a young doctor and an atheist, Mr. Lewis's writings led to his own embrace of faith....

The most persuasive conversion narratives recount not merely emotional surrenders to faith but also intellectual grapplings with it. Although devout atheists would vehemently disagree, the conversions of men like Mr. Lewis, Dr. Collins and even, perhaps, Mr. Flew reveal that intelligent people -- trained in rigorous fields such as philosophy and the hard sciences -- can embrace faith and tell persuasive stories without extremes of emotional flagellation. The Road to Damascus is paved with theology not therapy.

will we/they ever learn?

Two Kentuckian bloggers hit on two of my favorite topics-- recently ("economic stimulus" spending) and for the last 20 years (educational choice)...

First, here's Kentucky Progress on federal "economic stimulus", the proposed growth of government spending and taxation in Kentucky, and the sure road to reduced standards of living overall.

And here's Bluegrass Policy Blog on some hilarious hysteria in the NYT about the impact of reducing bloated educated spending.

The article itself is interesting since it describes how (limited) choice within the public schools works in NYC among middle-schoolers-- a relatively rare thing. (Locally, only JCPS has something similar.) Of course, some choice within the government monopoly power in schools is akin to our freedom to use any number of USPS branches-- instead of only being allowed to use the one closest to our house. (And that said, it doesn't amount to true choice, since some schools are more popular than others, the government must use various criteria to judge who will get in. For example, for JCPS, race continues a deciding factor.)

church discipline and politics OR what does it take to be/remain a member of a group?

From Richard John Neuhaus in First Things...

The question is what is to be done about public figures, usually politicians, who have publicly, flagrantly, and persistently violated their communion with the Church by supporting the unlimited abortion license. The question continues to agitate Catholics and attract the attention of the media. It could hardly be otherwise. The Church holds that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life, and receiving the body of Christ is the deepest expression of communio with the body of Christ, the Church. When a public figure rejects and opposes clear teaching on faith and morals and then receives Communion, as though such rejection and opposition is no big deal, the result is public scandal and confusion about whether the Church really means what she teaches. In this unhappy state of affairs, many bishops are complicit....

The difference is not between hard-line and soft-line bishops, with the former depicted as legalistic and punitive and the latter as pastoral and compassionate. The difference, rather, is between those who do and those who do not evidence a bold devotion to the teaching and pastoral practice of the faith....

When and how to practice "church discipline"-- as prescribed in the Scriptures? A difficult question whose answer typically errs on the permissive side for a variety of unfortunate practical reasons.

This also speaks to a broader issue: to what extent can one disagree with the premises of group X while still remaining a (faithful) member? Here, can one be a pro-choice Catholic? Can one be a Christian and dispense with doctrinal issues A, B or C-- or practices D, E, or F-- or endorse behaviors G, H, and I? Can one be a anti-union Democrat, a pro-gun control Libertarian, or a anti-business Republican?

evangelicals and politics: responses to the Evangelical Manifesto

From the editorialists at Christianity Today...

In May, a steering committee of nine prominent evangelical leaders and about 80 charter signatories issued an Evangelical Manifesto. In an era when most Americans think of evangelicals mainly as a voting bloc, these leaders tried to refocus the meaning of evangelical identity.

This manifesto had three aims:

  • To tell the world and remind evangelical insiders that our identity is centered not in political activism (however positive that activism may be) but in our faith in Jesus and in his radical call to discipleship.
  • To tell ourselves that we in many ways fail to live up to our calling in Christ, and that we need to reform our lives and our churches. Without such reform, we can hardly be surprised at the negative stereotypes that abound about North American evangelicals.
  • To rethink our place in the public square and to stop exacerbating the political and cultural polarization of U.S. society. When public perceptions of evangelicalism are created by the harshest and most strident voices, it is important to create an evangelical culture of civility.

The document stirred a lot of discussion and criticism. Much of the discussion missed the document's main thrust....

The reason (in the view of the CT'ers): a politicized worldview.

And that is indeed part of the problem. The public perception of the word evangelical has taken on a decidedly political cast. But it is biblical, heartfelt, cross-centered faith that drives (or should drive) evangelicals, whether they are active in public policy, education, evangelism, Christian nurture, or relief and development....

The text of the document makes it clear: It advocates no particular political agenda while it affirms evangelicals' well-known commitment to protecting human life at every age, to strengthening the family as God designed it, as well as to working on the wide variety of social issues that threatens the common good. The document advocates engagement in the public sphere while urging that we avoid captivity to political ideology....

Fortunately, some critics engaged it in a constructive spirit, most notably Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and Southern Seminary's Albert Mohler....[They] the manifesto too weak and ambiguously worded. They challenged the drafters to be bolder in their claims for evangelical truth—a caution that proved prescient when New Age guru Deepak Chopra publicly praised the document. They also suggested that the document's call for civility in the political process needed a strong dose of realism. Nevertheless, they engaged the document on its own terms—not in terms of some imagined power play—and thus were faithful and charitable critics....

on idolatry toward politics

Here's Denny Burk in Touchstone...

This quote is in the midst of a long but interesting symposium of six prominent evangelicals, "assessing their movement".

First, a piece of the general problem (see: my earlier posts on Nichols and Goetz's book, Death by Suburb):

Evangelicals often fail to see the extent to which they are shaped by their culture. In many cases, Evangelicalism appears to be a subculture, imbibing the spirit of the age and existing quite comfortably alongside it.

Then, to the particular application to "conservatives" within evangelical circles and politics:

Many Evangelicals could tell you more about the Republican party platform than they could about the Trinity or Christ’s atonement.


if the locals don't want to pay for it...

then why should people from elsewhere in the country be forced to pay for it?

Here's a great example of anti-federalism-- taking care of local things at the state and federal government levels-- from Harold Adams in the C-J...

Citing a loss of federal funding, the Floyd County Health Department announced yesterday it will stop offering family planning services at the end of next month.

About 600 people who receive birth control, gynecological exams or screenings for sexually transmitted disease won't be able to get those services at the department's Maternal and Child Health Center at 1917 Bono Road in New Albany after Jan. 31, coordinator Stacie Rost said.

Rost said the Indiana Family Health Council, a nonprofit agency that distributes federal family planning funds, decided to stop giving money to the center because the council also funds those services through a Planned Parenthood clinic on Paoli Pike.

What a mess: locals have their money taken by the feds-- who gives it to the state-- who gives it to a local agency. Uhh, wouldn't it be easier to cut out the two middlemen?

fantasy and faith

That's the title of homeschooling mom, Sally Thomas' piece in First Things on Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time-- written after L'Engle's death last year and given the impact of that book on Thomas.

For me, this extends a topic I've posted on lately-- and allows me to bring attention to a good book I read (and mutually enjoyed) with my older two boys a few months ago....

The winter I was ten, my teacher read A Wrinkle in Time aloud to our class, a chapter a day. It was, in my view, the sole reason for getting up and going to school. I loved the novel’s Meg Murry, a girl neither beautiful nor graceful nor socially gifted—yet entrusted with a dangerous and salvific mission. She was an icon of unlikely heroic potential for bespectacled girls everywhere, and I was no exception....

The novels of Madeleine L’Engle that I read in those awkward transitional years of late elementary school and junior high—chiefly A Wrinkle in Time, over and over, and its first sequel, A Wind in the Door—answered some deep longing in me for there to be more to the universe than meets the eye. The idea of cherubim and other supernatural “Servants,” the idea that there might really be angels and that they wouldn’t be fat babies with wings, but something as unimaginable and terrifying as they were good, was compelling and new to me. I devoured those novels even as I devoured the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, not because they satisfied my inchoate yearning for something beyond the world I knew, but because they stoked it....

L’Engle bridled at being labeled a “children’s author” and insisted that she would not “write down” to her audience....She was willing, as most children’s authors are not, to engage ideas both challenging and strange in the world of children’s books. The tesseract, for instance—the conceit around which A Wrinkle in Time revolves—derives from geometry and describes a four-dimensional construction consisting of three conjoined cubes. Other novels deal with kything, a form of intuitive and extra-verbal communication that can transport the practitioner, in his mind, into other times, places, and bodies....

Not insignificantly, L’Engle also bridled at being labeled a Christian writer, preferring instead to be known as “a writer who is struggling to be a Christian.” Any artist’s resistance to religious pigeonholing is understandable, especially when the pigeonhole is already full of substandard efforts raised to a dubious level of art by virtue of being “religious.”...

L’Engle’s protagonists are called from their nets to follow; they do so with fear and grumbling and little vision in the beginning for what is at stake or the grace they will need in the end....

Michael O’Brien categorizes L’Engle’s work as “good on the surface, but fundamentally disordered,” operating from a theological base that is gnostic and neopagan instead of Christian. L’Engle, a lifelong communicant in the Episcopal Church, often made declarations of belief that tend toward a theological fuzziness...

But we are talking about children’s literature....The question remains, I suppose, of whether the deeper theological problems that are arguably in L’Engle’s work render it dangerous to the spiritual formation of children.

My intuitive answer is no, though I base that intuition on the simple, anecdotal, and utterly unreliable basis of my own reading of them....What these novels provided me with was something I cannot remember having possessed before I encountered them: a religious imagination. Perhaps I should have been reading them through the lens of the Bible; instead, as a teenager, I turned anew to the Bible with these stories alive in my mind....

The novels themselves were not the gospel, and I don’t think I ever mistook them as such. But they awakened my mind to the idea of a universe in which, even in distant galaxies, God is praised in the familiar words of the Psalms...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas-- if the govt takes gifts from others to give to you

Some great points made about the auto bailout-- in letters to the editor of the WSJ...

We've heard people making comparisons of the bailout of the Big Three to tax breaks received by other auto makers. But the comparison does not hold water for a variety of reasons, four of which are outlined here...

In his letter of Dec. 16, Stephen Collins tries to paint a picture that the foreign car companies receive huge financial assistance in the form of lowered taxes and other benefits that U.S. auto makers do not. A quick Internet search shows this not to be the case.

Two months ago, Ford received tax breaks from Kentucky of up to $180 million to help fund the retooling of its two Louisville plants. In July, the Ohio Tax Credit Authority approved $82.1 million for GM for its Lordstown complex near Youngstown. In addition, at the same time it gave Ford $1.7 million to start a third shift at the Lima engine plant. In August, Flint, Mich., authorized a $56 million package of tax credits and grants to keep a SUV factory open. GM also received additional tax incentives adding up to at least $96 million to build the Volt and Cruze models in Flint.

Let's face it -- states and local governments try to attract or retain large businesses in their jurisdictions, whether these companies are foreign or domestic.

Eric Matthews
Maineville, Ohio

Mr. Collins's letter on behalf of the Big Three is a valiant attempt at obfuscation. The fact that he can equate tax reductions to encourage investment by foreign companies with outright government grants of taxpayer money is revealing. Here's a little education: Reducing the government confiscation of profits is not at all similar to a free handout....

Jonathan Rothenberg
New York

While I oppose state and city subsidies here, I don't mind if taxpayers in Texas or Alabama use their 10th Amendment rights to reduce the cost of my Toyota.

I haven't read state constitutions, but bailouts certainly are not among the enumerated federal powers in the U.S. Constitution.

Carson Taylor
Portland, Ore.

For what it's worth, the only reason that the Big Three are not being offered tax incentives is because they have accumulated enormous losses and will carry those losses forward to offset future profits, and therefore will pay little or no tax to the federal government for years.

Brinton W. Frith
Princeton, N.J.

Merry Christmas-- not!


News from Peter Wallsten in today's L.A. Times (hat tip: C-J) that President Bush revoked the pardon of a real estate developer-- one day after awarding the pardon!

Good for Bush in reversing himself, but of course, he can be criticized for the initial decision.

President George W. Bush took the extraordinary step Wednesday of revoking a pardon he issued 24 hours earlier for [Isaac Robert Toussie] a politically connected Brooklyn real estate developer convicted of defrauding hundreds of low-income home buyers after it was revealed that the request did not come through the usual route and that a relative had contributed to the Republican Party.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said she knew of no other time a presidential pardon had been reversed....

Articles in the New York Daily News and Newsday said that Toussie’s father, Robert, had donated $28,500 to the national Republican Party in April. It was his first political donation and was made months before Toussie’s pardon petition, which did not go through the usual review in the Justice Department and...did not meet Justice Department guidelines for a pardon....Further, Toussie had taken his case directly to the Oval Office and had hired Bradford Berenson, a former top lawyer in the White House counsel’s office, to handle the case.

In announcing the revocation, Perino said the reversal was "based on information that has subsequently come to light...and [that it] might create an appearance of impropriety."

Kurt Warner is a (really) good dude (too)

First, Dwyane Wade. Now, excerpts from a long story by Wayne Drehs about Kurt Warner...

Drehs talks at length about Warner's family (which is too long to excerpt)-- and he starts this with news of Warner's selection to this year's Pro Bowl:

...the career renaissance complete. Eight years since Warner came out of an Iowa supermarket to lead the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title, he is once again one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Despite his struggles the past two weeks, Warner's on-the-field success has shined an even stronger spotlight on his off-the-field deeds, which, depending on your perspective, are either saintly or too good to be true.

It's the reason his wife, Brenda, refers to him as "Pollyanna," and his teammates' wives kiddingly call him "Jesus." But as the Warners will tell you, for every blessing there is a burden. Because for every person in the NFL who loves Kurt Warner, who puts him on a pedestal and believes we need more faith-driven athletes who spend their time and money helping others, there are those -- current and former teammates included -- who roll their eyes, keep their distance or simply feel uncomfortable around the quarterback.

On this day, at least Kurt Warner is lost. At least in the middle of all this selflessness, humility and utter lack of ego, the man is texting while driving, paying little attention to the road and can't remember if the path home follows I-10 East or I-10 West. Because otherwise, ugggh. Otherwise, this story might need to come with its very own barf bag. And Warner knows it....

There, atop a massive black safe in which the home's previous owners used to store valuables, the Pete Rozelle Super Bowl MVP trophy sits tarnished, dusty and covered in fingerprints. A replica of the Vince Lombardi Trophy looks much the same. A bunch of other trophies, commemorating everything from playing in the Pro Bowl to winning NFL Player of the Year honors, are tossed into the glorified box, with the door left open, less on display than just out of the way.

Warner's Super Bowl ring is there, too. For now. It's an ongoing joke in the Warner family -- all the unique places the ring has popped up over the years. Like under the couch, in the pool.

Don't be mistaken. The man likes to win. Perhaps no one has been more irritated by the Cardinals' disappointing losses to Minnesota and New England in the past two weeks than Warner, who appeared visibly frustrated on the sideline during both games. Yet, his eyes are set on a bigger picture.

"People think that whatever happens on the football field should define me way one or the other," Warner says. "A lot of people say I can't believe you don't think more highly of yourself, two-time MVP, Super Bowl MVP, but it's like whatever … It just happens to be what I do. I want to be defined by what I believe in, by who I am."...

Warner has one hand on the steering wheel and the other buried in a carton of french fries when the conversation turns to how he's perceived. He knows what some people think -- that he's a do-no-wrong perfectionist who doesn't curse, doesn't drink and lives this straight-laced, holier-than-thou life....

And in a way, he understands. That's what happens when you talk about Jesus, mention God or explain your selfless ways by professing your faith. That's what happens when you pass out football cards that in bold, red letters proclaim: "Read The Bible -- Attend Church -- Pray to God -- Tell Others About Jesus." And that's what happens when, after winning the Super Bowl MVP award, you stand on the biggest stage of your life and begin a postgame interview by saying, "First things first, I've got to thank my Lord and Savior above."

June 20, 1996. That's the day the football cards that Warner hands out say he was "born again." Warner grew up in a religious family, but not until he met Brenda in college at the University of Northern Iowa, not until a couple of his Iowa Barnstormers teammates and she started pressing Warner on his beliefs, did he truly dig into the Bible searching for answers. What he discovered was a whole new life....

"I don't think anyone has a bad perception of me," Warner said. "Just a limited one. Everyone thinks I pretty much sit around and talk about Jesus all the time. But I'm normal. I'm just a guy. Yeah, I love Jesus and do things a bit different, but I have the same conversations and the share the same thoughts as anyone else."

Former Arizona teammate Josh McCown, now a quarterback with the Carolina Panthers, believes NFL players are split almost down the middle when it comes to Warner. There are players like McCown and Cardinals receiver and close friend Larry Fitzgerald who look up to Warner and are amazed by his faith-driven selfless ways. And there are others who simply aren't comfortable around the quarterback....

...for Warner, this fairy-tale story of grocery boy to Arena League quarterback to NFL star has always been about so much more -- whether you've ever realized it or not.

"It's so hard for people to grasp and understand that it's not about going to the Pro Bowl or winning an MVP," Warner said. "It's about trying to do something that impacts the people around you. And that's what I try to do every single day is have an impact on everyone around me.

"So if and when I'm done and you ask someone about Kurt Warner and the first thing they mention is the kind of person I was, that's when I'll be happy."

Dwyane Wade seems like a (really) good dude

A cool story from the AP through (hat tip: C-J) that reminds me of one of his commercials: Wade equips an inner city (community or high school?) basketball team with stuff from the back of his SUV...and then the punchline: he gives the keys to the SUV to the coach. Here's the recent, real-life, extended version of that commerical...

When Dwyane Wade heard the plight of a South Florida woman whose nephew accidentally burned down her home -- and ruined all the family's possessions -- the Miami Heat star knew he had to do something.

So he helped the family move into a new home, just in time for Christmas.

Wade presented Dawn Smith with the ultimate Christmas gift on Wednesday -- the keys to a her new house, along with some furnishings, clothing and gifts to make sure her family has a joyous holiday, something that didn't seem likely just a few weeks ago.

His Wade's World foundation will make some payments on the home, while Smith and her family get back on their feet....

Wade's other holiday events this year included a party for 350 children on Monday, and hosting 100 kids at Tuesday night's Heat game...He also donated $10,000 to each of three children's organizations, but said he was particularly touched by being able to assist the Smith family....

the Jesus of all three (income) classes

In last night's Christmas Eve service, it struck me that Jesus Christ was a member of all three income classes.

He left (and returned to) the Wealth of Heaven in order to minister to us through His life, death, resurrection, and the Gift of the Holy Spirit.

He was born into a poor family-- to two teens with only two coins to rub together for an offering (Lk 2:24; Lev 12:8).

He was almost surely a middle-class artisan as he matured in his career as a carpenter.

the economic lessons of Bethlehem

Seven years after it was written, Rockwell's classic...

At the heart of the Christmas story rests some important lessons concerning free enterprise, government, and the role of wealth in society.

Let’s begin with one of the most famous phrases: "There’s no room at the inn." This phrase is often invoked as if it were a cruel and heartless dismissal of the tired travelers Joseph and Mary. Many renditions of the story conjure up images of the couple going from inn to inn only to have the owner barking at them to go away and slamming the door.

In fact, the inns were full to overflowing in the entire Holy Land because of the Roman emperor’s decree that everyone be counted and taxed. Inns are private businesses, and customers are their lifeblood. There would have been no reason to turn away this man of aristocratic lineage and his beautiful, expecting bride.

In any case, the second chapter of St. Luke doesn’t say that they were continually rejected at place after place. It tells of the charity of a single inn owner, perhaps the first person they encountered, who, after all, was a businessman. His inn was full, but he offered them what he had: the stable. There is no mention that the innkeeper charged the couple even one copper coin, though given his rights as a property owner, he certainly could have.

It’s remarkable, then, to think that when the Word was made flesh with the birth of Jesus, it was through the intercessory work of a private businessman. Without his assistance, the story would have been very different indeed. People complain about the "commercialization" of Christmas, but clearly commerce was there from the beginning, playing an essential and laudable role.

And yet we don’t even know the innkeeper’s name. In two thousand years of celebrating Christmas, tributes today to the owner of the inn are absent. Such is the fate of the merchant throughout all history: doing well, doing good, and forgotten for his service to humanity.

Clearly, if there was a room shortage, it was an unusual event and brought about through some sort of market distortion. After all, if there had been frequent shortages of rooms in Bethlehem, entrepreneurs would have noticed that there were profits to be made by addressing this systematic problem, and built more inns.

It was because of a government decree that Mary and Joseph, and so many others like them, were traveling in the first place. They had to be uprooted for fear of the emperor’s census workers and tax collectors. And consider the costs of slogging all the way "from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David," not to speak of the opportunity costs Joseph endured having to leave his own business. Thus we have another lesson: government’s use of coercive dictates distorts the market.

Moving on in the story, we come to Three Kings, also called Wise Men. Talk about a historical anomaly for both to go together! Most Kings behaved like the Roman Emperor's local enforcer, Herod. Not only did he order people to leave their homes and foot the bill for travel so that they could be taxed. Herod was also a liar: he told the Wise Men that he wanted to find Jesus so that he could "come and adore Him." In fact, Herod wanted to kill Him. Hence, another lesson: you can’t trust a political hack to tell the truth.

Once having found the Holy Family, what gifts did the Wise Men bring? Not soup and sandwiches, but "gold, frankincense, and myrrh." These were the most rare items obtainable in that world in those times, and they must have commanded a very high market price.

Far from rejecting them as extravagant, the Holy Family accepted them as gifts worthy of the Divine Messiah. Neither is there a record that suggests that the Holy Family paid any capital gains tax on them, though such gifts vastly increased their net wealth. Hence, another lesson: there is nothing immoral about wealth; wealth is something to be valued, owned privately, given and exchanged.

When the Wise Men and the Holy Family got word of Herod’s plans to kill the newborn Son of God, did they submit? Not at all. The Wise Men, being wise, snubbed Herod and "went back another way" – taking their lives in their hands (Herod conducted a furious search for them later). As for Mary and Joseph, an angel advised Joseph to "take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt." In short, they resisted. Lesson number four: the angels are on the side of those who resist government.

In the Gospel narratives, the role of private enterprise, and the evil of government power, only begin there. Jesus used commercial examples in his parables (e.g., laborers in the vineyard, the parable of the talents) and made it clear that he had come to save even such reviled sinners as tax collectors.

And just as His birth was facilitated by the owner of an "inn," the same Greek word "kataluma" is employed to describe the location of the Last Supper before Jesus was crucified by the government. Thus, private enterprise was there from birth, through life, and to death, providing a refuge of safety and productivity, just as it has in ours.

Merry Christmas Everyone

I feel inspired by Doug Masson's post this morning. So in honor of his effort, I'll borrow his post title and paste in his post:

Merry Christmas everyone. Like I’ve said probably too many times, I’m not a religious guy. But, it’s tough to argue with the message — peace to everyone, love your family. Love each other. Sounds easy enough. Looking at the world, apparently it’s harder than it sounds. Still, this is a nice reminder each year.

I'm not particularly religious either, but in a different sense than Doug means (I think). Of course, even assuming that we're talking about Christianity, sometimes it's "religion" that gets in the way of the message-- both believing it and living it out. This was probably the most important aspect of Christ's earthly ministry-- to mess with the Pharisees who had distorted the message.

The other difficulty is that we're selective with the message:

We like baby Jesus, but not so much the bearded Man from Galilee.

Or we like some aspects of the bearded Man's message, but not others. And so, we practice a cafeteria Christianity that's somewhere between an attenuated Gospel and heresy in doctrine-- and in practice, somewhere between lukewarm love and destructive behavior.

Or to borrow from and paraphrase a good sermon I heard in a United Church of Christ service two weekends ago, we're cool with the cradle, ok with the cross, and not so hot with the throne.

The cradle seemingly makes no demands. It's somewhere between cute and quaint, warm and fuzzy, myth and Myth. The calls from the cradle are implied and easily trumped by the trappings of the holiday celebration.

The cross, in practice, is a mixed bag. It inspires awe when we focus on what Christ offered to do for us. His Sacrifice, which begins when He goes from Heaven to Cradle, is staggering-- in particular, to die for the stupid things that we did, do, and will do. In a word, Christ died for bozos like you and me. As Paul writes in Romans: "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

But often, we stop just there, focusing on the Gift of God's Grace, and not the resulting call: to extend grace as Grace as been extended to us, to love as we have been Loved-- not just those who love us, but beyond what is relatively easy.

The throne is left out altogether-- that Jesus Christ would not only be Savior, but Lord of one's life. The results are predictable: relationship becomes religion and ritual, the Church is tainted, God's Kingdom is diminished. We are then incapable of loving as we were created to do, unable to be who we were created to be.

May Christmas Day be a reminder that we should strive to make every day Christmas-- from the cradle to the cross to the throne.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

trying to limit wait times in British govt hospitals

From Ronald Bailey in Reason...

Facing lengthening waits at hospitals, the British government has set a targeted turnaround time of four hours from arrival in an emergency room to treatment by a medical professional. Apparently this standard has proven too stringent...

The Guardian reports that U.K. emergency rooms are meeting the four-hour goal through a simple, quintessentially British expedient: queuing. Thousands of seriously ill patients have been forced to wait outside of emergency departments in ambulances before they can be admitted, thus delaying the start of the four-hour timer...stuck in ambulances for as long as five hours...

In U.S. emergency rooms, the average length of time it takes a patient to see a doctor has increased from 22 minutes to 30 minutes during the last decade. In non-urban hospitals, the wait averages just 15 minutes. And there’s no extra waiting in the ambulances outside.

From Radley Balko in Reason, a heads-up on

Many police departments have set up Internet registries for sex offenders and drug offenders, and police also have begun posting the pictures and names of suspected johns online. Still, police groups took umbrage when a site called appeared in March.

Site founder Gino Sesto wrote to police departments across the country and obtained lists of the names and badge numbers of their officers. He then posted the names online in a format broken down by state and city, encouraging users to rate their experiences with individual officers.

All of the information Sesto posted was already open to the public, and he didn’t reveal the identities of any undercover officers. But police groups were outraged, making the dubious argument that posting publicly available names and badge numbers on the Internet somehow jeopardized officers’ safety....

Then in March, hosting service GoDaddy mysteriously terminated Sesto’s account and pulled offline. GoDaddy has offered several explanations to Wired, none of which has made much sense....At press time the site was back online, but its future is uncertain.

the number and salaries of JCPS admins

Antoinette Kunz has an outstanding article in the C-J this morning-- detailing the number and salaries of JCPS admins (above the level of principal). The issue has arisen given the budget difficulties of the state-- and therefore, the local govts and schools. JCPS is looking at a 4.4% cut in overall budget ($35 million of $800 million, according to the article); it would seem that JCPS admins ought to cut compensation by at least 4%. But at this point, they're wrestling with a 1% cut in the 2/3rds of salary expense unrelated to grants. By focusing on that subset of compensation, they're probably looking at an overall reduction of .5% in compensation.

The biggest value-added for me was the table of names, jobs, and contract salaries of the district's 175 administrators. (According to the article, JCPS lists full-time 13,800 employees-- aside from the "admins" listed here.) One funny thing about newspapers vs. internet: the hard copy of the newspaper devoted half a page to it; on the web, you must click a tiny link on the upper-right hand portion of the article's webpage.

I'm quite familiar with the theories that speak to bureaucracy and compensation. And I'm familiar with some of the literature on bureaucracy and wages. That said, I was still surprised at the number of admins and their salaries (both higher than I expected).

My first thought was to check out the following myself, but I've emailed Antoinette to see if she might be interested:

-It'd be interesting to have info on their benefits and any deferred compensation. Often, these are higher than average/comparable.

-It'd be very interesting to compare the concentration and compensation of bureaucracies between JCPS, CAL and the Catholic schools in Louisville. I know of some older (and staggering) numbers comparing the proportion of admin between public and Catholic schools, esp. in NYC.

-This might be tougher, but since other states, localities and school districts are in similar budget predicaments, there may be a burgeoning national database on such questions as answered by reporters.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

Jefferson County Public Schools could save $200,000 in the coming school year if it cut administrative salaries by 1 percent as some school board members have urged.

Roughly $19.4 million in administrative salaries are being paid from the district's general fund...An additional $10 million in administrative salaries are paid from various federal and private grants, officials say, and cutting those salaries would not help balance the budget.

Superintendent Sheldon Berman has opposed cutting administrative salaries unless they are part of a district-wide pay cut. Instead, he has proposed $35 million of spending reductions for the 2009-10 school year....

Berman said the district expects a $45 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1...He plans on using the district's reserve funds to cover the remaining $10 million.

Board members have questioned some of Berman's proposed cuts, saying they hurt important programs....

Of those [175] administrators, 124 make more than $100,000...[Of the full-timers, all except 8 earn at least $85K; all except 3 earn $76K.]

The administration positions range from assistant superintendents and school liaisons to human-resource staffers and public-relations specialists. The positions do not include principals and guidance counselors....

Berman said cutting the district's salaries 1 percent would save about $5.3 million. But he said it would not help much, since the state is mandating a 1 percent pay raise next year....

C-J trying to keep Bush off their side

The C-J editorialists have some bizarre statements in "Bush's Lifeline" this morning...

President Bush doubtless would have rather been almost anywhere else doing almost anything else -- even ducking shoes in Iraq -- than to be in Washington last week coughing up $17.4 billion in federal loans to keep General Motors and Chrysler afloat long enough to become the next president's problem.

Nonetheless, Mr. Bush was right to set aside his strong ideological resistance to such aid and provide enough help to prevent an imminent collapse of the two carmakers.

Huh? Strong ideological resistance? What?! That's rip-a-gut hilarious! Bush has rarely shied away from government spending-- and never on this sort of thing. Since the C-J'ers want this one, I can understand why they would want to try to distance themselves from Bush.

Whatever they decide, however, they should reject congressional Republicans' determination to misuse the auto industry's problems as a tool for union-busting.

Uhh, you can keep your labor market cartel (since it's not seen, somehow, as a violation of anti-trust law). You just need to reduce your compensation and pensions-- instead of foisting those on taxpayers.

...the companies are failing....That is not the union's doing; it's a reflection of bad decisions, weak leadership and missed opportunities on the part of management.

Nope, the labor unions have nothing to do with it at all. If union members are not getting artificially high compensation-- and thus, driving up costs-- why have the union at all?

the body-- natural, unnatural, and the blur between them

A wonderful and provocative letter in Harpers from Steve Salerno (hat tip: Ghostrunner on First) on a variety of topics related to the body-- and how we treat it and revere it....

As a lifelong baseball addict, I admired Lewis H. Lapham's satirical morality play, "Mudville", wherein he used the steroids mess as a broadaxe with which to hack away at American mores; in particular, I was pleased to see Lapham take on the arbitrariness of cultural distinctions between natural and not. What makes Lapham's argument about the hypocrisies of the crusade against steroids even more persuasive than he may realize is that a number of the reductio ad absurdum scenarios he presents are no longer merely hypothetical. Consider that the medical science supporting player performance and longevity has evolved to the point where distinctions between treatment and enhancement, maintenance and modification, blur to meaninglessness.

Right now, in the same sports sections where writers damn steroids and hail the sanctity of baseball's records, one will also find upbeat features on pitchers who have extended their careers via ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, more familiar to fans as "Tommy John surgery," whereby a player's body parts are rearranged and sewn back together in what might be described as an entirely "artificial" manner. After the operation, the player spends a year rehabilitating and then presto! - an extra decade of useful elbow life. It bears noting that the man behind the eponym, Tommy John, recorded 164 of his 288 career wins after his revolutionary 1974 procedure....

Salerno also references Mariano Rivera who might not have even had a career without the surgery, before turning his gaze to eyesight:

Similarly, Lasik and other vision enhancements afford almost any contemporary athlete the visual acuity that helped make Ted Williams a nonpareil hitter and judge of the strike zone. This is not a case of athletes with subpar vision trying to achieve normal vision; it's a case of athletes with normal vision trying to achieve exceptional vision....

Now let's add molecular-level improvements in Sports nutrition, workout technology, and miscellaneous gear, and we'll find that today's ballplayers, with their guards, braces, and other aids affixed to various limbs, don't just look like cyborgs as they stride to the plate but have actually become them.

irony: no shortage of vital organs in Iran

From Kerry Howley in Reason...

“What can Iran teach us about good governance?” is not a question often posed in Washington. But according to Benjamin Hippen, a transplant nephrologist in North Carolina, the Iranians have managed to do something American policy makers have long thought impossible: They’ve found kidneys for every single citizen in need.

As Hippen explains in a March report for the Cato Institute, the Iranian government has been paying kidney donors since 1988. To avoid potential conflicts of interest, donors and recipients work through an independent organization known as the Dialysis and Transplant Patient Association. Donors approach the association on their own; they cannot be recruited by physicians or referred by brokers with financial incentives. They receive $1,200 and limited health coverage from the government, in addition to direct remuneration from the recipient—or, if the recipient is impoverished, from one of several charitable organizations....

Critics of organ markets often claim that where payments are permitted, altruistic donation will drop off. Hippen found this is not the case in Iran. The country’s deceased donor program, started in 2000, has grown steadily alongside paid donation [by tenfold]. (Posthumous donations are not remunerated.)

...American critics continue to lament that Iran failed to adopt the U.S. policy of banning payment for organs in the mid-1980s. “Carrying this reasoning to its conclusion,” writes Hippen, “would entail admitting that in so doing, Iran would have also incurred our current shortage of organs, our waiting list mortality, and our consequent moral complicity in generating a state of affairs that sustains an international market in illegal organ trafficking.” No other country has managed to eliminate its kidney waiting list; the U.S. has a list 73,000 patients long. Who should be advising whom?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

(some of) the ethical dilemmas in allowing or prohibiting trade in vital organs

I've been fascinated by this issue for some time-- as you can tell by my blog record.

It's particularly interesting to economists, because the shortage is caused by the government "price ceiling" of zero. In other words, one cannot sell an organ, even in death. Since there is no financial incentive, the overall incentive to give is reduced-- and absent sufficient altruism, the result is a policy that kills thousands of people each year.

Thus, whatever ethical reservations one might have about the selling of organs-- must be tempered and sobered by the ethical consequences of killing people through policy.

My friends at Touchstone are more taken by arguments on the sanctity of the body. But even there, the logic is terse and insufficient. After all, our Savior gave His body in sacrifice to crucifixion-- in fulfilling John 15:13's "no greater love has man than this"...

In any case, here's a thoughtful letter to the editor from Denver's James M. Small in First Things on the topic...

The article by Gilbert Meilaender (“The Giving and Taking of Organs,” March) discusses the shortage of organs for transplantation and the ethical implications of donating, opting out of, or buying and selling organs. He concludes that a system that depends on altruistic donation is the best. What he does not cover in this short article is the fact that criminals and governments around the world are already taking or buying human organs in large numbers. The very system he recommends causes crime and governmental misbehavior, which calls into question the validity of his ethical argument.

It is clear that the current voluntary system does not supply enough human organs to meet the transplantation demand. According to UNOS—the United Network for Organ Sharing—there are 98,000 patients on the waiting list, and only 28,000 patients received organs in 2007. A good friend of mine, a pastor, received a liver earlier this year, about ten days short of his predicted death; this is not merely a theoretical question for me.

Why people do not donate is an open question. Some fear getting substandard care if it gets out that they are organ donors....Some just don’t get around to it....In any event, despite public relations campaigns, voluntary donations have just not taken off.

What is the inevitable consequence of a shortage of organs? Supply-and-demand economics, because, in our efforts to be ethical, we have made regulated economics impossible. And so some of our fellows have turned to illegal and immoral activities: black markets, assaults, and exploitation of the poor and powerless.

We were shaken by the India kidney-transplant racket earlier in the year, when people were assaulted and organs forcibly removed. In some European countries, hospitals were rewarded for organ donations and so fell to the temptation of ignoring patients’ wishes. In China there are persistent rumors of prisoners being executed at such a time when their organs can be sold for transplantation—with government assent. In Thailand and in the United States, there are cases of doctors arrested for hurrying the deaths of patients to get organs.

All over the world, poor people sell their organs to get enough money to feed their families. It is said that in some parts of India a kidney is worth about $900 to the donor and up to $200,000 to the procurer. That sort of profit margin reminds one of the illegal drug trade.

Meilaender argues that moving to an opt-out or (heaven forbid) market-driven system cheapens our nature. I agree with him. But the question is not that simple. Which cheapens us more—a well-regulated, well-run opt-out system with informed consent, or a thriving black market? Which cheapens us more—an open market with disclosure, or gangs of thugs assaulting the poor and innocent of the Third World for massive profits? It seems clear that an unanticipated and inevitable consequence of organ transplantation is that we will be cheapened.

Donating is clearly the morally superior way to get human organs for transplantation. It engenders a spirit of charity in the donor and family and can provide a sense of meaning at the end of life. Similarly, for the recipient, knowing that the life-saving organ came from a volunteer can lead to humility and gratitude.

Would-be recipients far outnumber donors, however. A larger ethical analysis is needed that takes the darker side of our nature into account. It may turn out that an opt-out system with careful controls, or even a market-driven system, has fewer toxic side effects than the current volunteer/black-market system.