Tuesday, November 26, 2019

on voices, variance, and VET

Bob Heleringer's op-ed on Dan Seum in the CJ, on the occasion of Seum's retirement from the KY legislature...

We need more people who think independently and act as a legitimate voice-- whether we agree with them or not. That's one huge reason to appreciate people ranging from Rand Paul, Flake, and Amash to ACO, Gabbard and Yang in national politics. (Another way they're useful: when people equate Rand with Mitch, for example, you can quickly distinguish that they're a rube.)

I worked with Dan on VET. My research indicated that at least a dramatic reduction was in order-- to help the environment and the economy. But the momentum behind the grass-roots movement and Dan's leadership led to its abolition in Louisville (and the better program in So. IN.) I appreciate his work and his voice in the KY legislature.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Bushman on Mormonism

I recently read Richard Lyman Bushman's primer, Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction. It was the first time I've read literature on Mormonism in quite a while. (Mormons often prefer the label "LDS", but I'll go with Bushman's term here.)

I've studied Mormonism off and on, but moreso back in the day. I used to focus a lot on the holes and difficulties within its doctrine, archaeology, history, etc. But then, I realized the truism that a professed faith does not fit easily into a box-- and that religions and denominations are only general labels. If group X believes ABC, you still need to know what the person believes, who self-styles as a member of group X-- in order to have a useful conversation. If you look at survey data, about 25% of Mormons have conventional, conservative Evangelical views. (This is about the same as Catholics and twice as many as Episcopalians. As I've quipped before to those who are concerned about Mormonism being a cult: if they're a cult, what are the Episcopalians?!)

So, my more-recent efforts were in trying to understand and find common ground. To that end, I enjoyed two books by two pairs of theology professors (one Evangelical; one Mormon) to talk about similarities and differences: How Wide the Divide and Claiming Christ. I had a Mormon colleague who read the book with me-- and was in Bible study with me at school-- leading to an interesting and useful dialogue. And really, the bottom line starts with salvation by God's grace. So, my focus has turned to defining key terms clearly and trying to determine whether one believes they're saved by faith or works.

Bushman is a practicing Mormon, so the treatment is sympathetic but reasonably objective. (Then again, how objective can any work like this be-- or be perceived to be?) If you're looking for that sort of thing, Bushman's book seems as good as any other. But if your goals are evangelism and conversation, I'd recommend one of the other two books.

What did I find of interest (or to quibble about) in Bushman's book?

-He cites the founding miracles of Mormonism as "equivalent to" the resurrection of Jesus (2). As he notes, this will inevitably cause controversy. Uhh, yes!

-He says that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were commanded to be polygamous (3). Although one can make decent biblical arguments that concerns about polygamy are over-stated, I don't know of any support for his particular claim here.

-He is "puzzled" by the "charge" that Mormons are not Christians. But this charge is inevitable--as the flip side of the Mormon claim to greater revelation, to be the one true church, etc. Catholics and Church of Christ have the same problem: if you see yourselves as the only ones or clearly the "best" ones, then the others will obviously see you as deluded, a heretic, or at best, a misguided legalist.

-He compares Joseph Smith to Luther and Alexander Campbell (4-5). He describes the latter as a "rival", which I hadn't heard before. But there is at least some reason for this claim, given the proximity in time frame and Campbell's similar claim to restore/return to original/true Christianity.

-He sees Smith as equivalent to the original biblical prophets, in receiving revelation from God (5). But then he describes Smith's work of "translation" (19-22), which is not equivalent to how the prophets operated. Their books combined direct words from God with their own writing under the Spirit's inspiration. The closest he comes to describing the biblical understanding of its own formation is when he claims that Smith "freely edited the words written under inspiration", presumably inspired by the Spirit (25-26).

-I was a bit surprised to read that the execution of the tithe is interpreted by the member (40). I've heard a range of "enforcement" levels on this-- from looking at W-2s to simply asking a question. (Apparently, this is not a matter of "membership", but being a member with full standing and access to the Temple-- "temple recommend".) In any case, it's an interesting example of what economists call a "public good"-- where people can "free ride" off the contributions of others. Churches have trouble here, since you can go to a church without contributing anything. But Mormons work around that by saying that you're not a member if you don't tithe (with some level of enforcement).

-It was interesting to read his account of the necessity of the priest to have authority behind the required sacraments (49-51). I don't remember reading that in such stark terms before.

-Bushman covers important ground in traditional areas of interest: the three levels of Heaven along with the few people who would end up in Hell (75-77); the theological thought (albeit weakly covered here) and the practical logic behind polygamy and the eventual reversal on that doctrine (86-91); the legalistic practices with hot beverages and alcohol (104-105); and as his last topic (!), the historically awkward position on African-Americans and the priesthood (110-112).

Socialism Sucks

Economists Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell (L&P) have written Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World—a breezy book on a stale and lousy economic system. Its casual tone is rooted in their use of beer as a metaphor and a key prop to describe socialism in various countries.
Their punchline: many people advocate socialism without knowing what it is. Socialism is when government owns all of the means of production rather than individuals. But few people really want that, including most self-styled socialists. Instead, most of them imagine “socialism” as a dog’s breakfast of Leftist and Liberal policy proposals. They see it as a vague call to increase government activism, justice, fairness, and ironically, democracy.
So, if you’re worried that so many people are advocating (real) socialism today, you can rest easy. They’re not advocating the abolition of private property and political oppression. (Not many people understand capitalism either, but that’s another story.) Their policy prescriptions might be troubling, but thankfully few folks are really embracing socialism.
L&P visit eight countries to describe various types of socialism. They start with Sweden as “Not Socialism”. Contrary to popular opinion, L&P cite data from the “Freedom Index” to note that Sweden has a relatively free economy. They cites its high taxes and expansive welfare state (with the resulting problems), but that doesn’t make it a socialist economy.
Next is “Starving Socialism” in Venezuela. L&P note that American Leftists were praising this country a decade ago. But now, the country is a nightmare, with plummeting incomes and rampant inflation. While Venezuela might be a poster child for socialism, it’s also Exhibit A for why socialism is inhumane.
Cuba is labeled “Subsistence Socialism”. It’s better than Venezuela. But the food is bland with so few available spices. Government hotels are run-down; private Airbnb-style housing is much better. Havana is famous for its 1950s American cars. But it’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds, with outrageous car prices and run-down rides. And there are no storefront signs. Even poor market economies have advertising, but in Cuba, there’s little incentive to sell, since the State owns everything.
North Korea is “Dark Socialism”—named for the famous satellite photos that show how little light they have. L&P have the same experience on the ground, as they look across the river from their hotel in China—into the utter darkness of a large North Korean city at night. We’ve seen a natural economic experiment over the 60 years in North and South Korea. If socialism is the experimental treatment, one can only recommend living in the control group.
China is “Fake Socialism”—with its big increases in capitalism and income over the past few decades. Russia and Ukraine are depicted as “Hungover Socialism”—better off since the fall of the USSR, but still stuck with heavy doses of crony capitalism and statism. And Georgia is their example of the “New Capitalism”—a Soviet-bloc country that has many disadvantages, but has embraced market reforms and is growing.
Throughout the book, L&P underline the importance of the “rule of law” for economic incentives and performance. They mention the history of mass murderers in Russian and Chinese 20th century socialist history. But they also bring repeated attention to the devastating correlations between reduced economic freedom, diminished civil liberties, and social repression by government.
I was fortunate to visit Berlin with a friend before the Wall came down. East Berlin was the most impressive city in the Eastern Bloc. But compared to West Berlin, East Berlin was drab with little variety and a far-lower standard of living. We were walking around and my friend said, “This isn’t so bad.” I replied, “All you need to know is that they built a wall to keep these people in.”
While socialism could work in theory, the data indicate that people will be worse off—economically and socially—with socialism. Hopefully, L&P’s book will convince people to reject an economic system that has caused so much devastation—and forgo government solutions that look promising but usually fail.

TRM Howard: civil rights pioneer, etc.

The David and Linda Beito biography of T.R.M. Howard is academic in substance and detail, but an easy read. Still, it is a long read, unless you're really into the broader topic of the American Civil Rights movement and its heroes. But even for those who won't want to read the entire book, it's worth it to read a review to learn a bit about an important but overlooked historical person.

By profession, Howard was a doctor. More broadly, he was an entrepreneur who dabbled in all sorts of business ventures, built hospitals, and constructed community resources, including a park and a swimming pool for blacks (54, 56). His legacy is a "testament to the largely unsung role of the black middle class during the 20th century." (xvii) Even outside of politics, his contributions to economic activity and civil society make him a fascinating figure. 

But Howard was also prominent in the Civil Rights movement. He had a tremendous influence on many of its leaders. Beyond M.L. King Jr, the Beitos link Howard to influencing Rosa Parks, being the key catalyst for Jesse Jackson's emergence (Jackson officiated at his funeral), his various tussles with Thurgood Marshall, his work with Medgar Evers, his correspondence with Roy Wilkins as the head of the NAACP, and as the subject of Juan Williams' work when he was a young journalist.

The most interesting part of the book: Howard was a key player in the Emmett Till murder trial. The Beitos devote two chapters to the Till story and Howard's role in it. (This is, by far, the most detail I've seen on this brutal incident.) Chapter 6 describes the murder and the trial in great detail. Chapter 7 covers the aftermath, with Howard helping to publicize new details about the crime that emerged after the trial. In this, he criticized the FBI in their role as investigators, which led to a public spat with J. Edgar Hoover (with Marshall defending Hoover behind the scenes).

In the Beitos' telling, Howard was a top-tier civil rights player. Why has he been relegated to historical anonymity? Some of this may be the vagaries of history, timing, etc. His influence in Mississippi peaked before the expanded reach of television. He was then superseded by others who were better placed to stay in our historical memories. He spent the last half of his public life in Chicago, making it difficult to put him in a convenient historical box-- as either Southern rural or Northern urban. (Of local interest, he was the son of tobacco workers, born in Murray KY, in 1908.) He was in between the more militant and more passive wings of the civil rights movement. So perhaps his fervent but still moderate approach doesn't catch an historical eye. But the larger problem seems to his complexity as a man who can't find eager champions.

The Beitos express surprise that Howard's complexity hasn't attracted more attention for him, since there's something to appeal to everybody, whether conservative, liberal. moderate, or libertarian (257). But that's also part of the problem, since people like their heroes to come without ideological or personal warts. Howard was a big game hunter (223, 228-229) with a "safari room" in his home who opposed gun control laws on racial grounds (116). He was a prominent abortionist and had a "pattern" of rampant infidelity, fathering many children from those dalliances (23, 72-73, 225). He was avidly opposed to the New Deal and efforts to subsidize people (32)-- and an anti-communist (thus, avoiding some of the negative attention that King received from the government). Howard went back and forth politically (191-192), in a time when African-Americans were not so beholden to a single political party. He finished as a Republican-- even running for Congress, and getting trounced by a long-time incumbent and member of the party machinery in Chicago (ch. 8, esp. 191-193, 210).

The Beitos' broader discussion of abortion was intriguing. They detail the debate about the eugenics aspects of abortion, noting Dick Gregory's opposition on those grounds (238). (They also describe Jesse Jackson's avid opposition to abortion into the 1980s until he ran for President [239-240].) Howard applied eugenics arguments to the disabled, but vigorously opposed them when applied to race (34-35). He saw abortion as an important option for the poor, even defining anti-abortion laws as "unjust" (44). (Of course the science has come a long way, so it'd be interesting to see what he would think today.) That said, most of his (illegal) abortions were for whites with financial means (94). Before Roe v. Wade, its illegality was determined by state, but he often worked around the law with bribes (190). He finally ran afoul of the law (much of ch. 9), causing him tremendous trouble toward the end of his professional and political life. 

Howard is a complex man whose life deserves more renown and more study. Thankfully, the Beitos have produced a book that documents this complexity and celebrates another key figure in a key era in American history.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

on class, social structure, and "bubbles"

An excellent interview in The Atlantic on thinking about class, social structure, and "bubbles" (a la Murray). It's ironic when educated, tolerant, self-styled liberals miss this.

Tara Westover (raised in ID; lives in NYC) in response to this question: "Do you think of where you grew up as parochial?"

"I used to think of Idaho as parochial, and I used to think of cities as sophisticated. And in many ways, I was right. You can get a better education in a city; you can learn more technical skills, and more about certain types of culture. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to believe that there are many ways a person can be parochial. Now I define parochial as only knowing people who are just like you—who have the same education that you have, the same political views, the same income. And by that definition, New York City is just about the most parochial place I’ve ever lived. I have become more parochial since I came here. It’s astonishingly difficult in this city to be truly close to someone who is not in your same socioeconomic group. For me, it’s the single most striking fact about living here. Meaningful interactions are difficult to engineer. The divide is deep. And it is largely between those who sit in the front of the Uber and those who sit in the back of it."

Thursday, November 14, 2019

NBA playoff picks after 10 (and then 20) games

After ten games, relying on point differential, the 2020 NBA Playoff line-up looks like: 

--Eastern (for sure): Boston Celtics; Milwaukee Bucks; Toronto Raptors; Miami Heat; Philadelphia 76ers; Indiana Pacers

--Eastern (maybe; 2 spots left): Cleveland, Orlando, Brooklyn, Detroit

--Western: Los Angeles Lakers; Denver Nuggets; Houston Rockets; LA Clippers; Utah Jazz; Phoenix Suns; Dallas Mavericks; Oklahoma City Thunder

--Western (maybe, but probs not): Minnesota, San Antonio, Portland (most likely: MN to replace OKC)

AFTER 20 Games
--Eastern (for sure): same

--Western: drop OKC as for sure
--Eastern (maybe; 2 spots left): Orlando, Brooklyn, Detroit
--Western (maybe; 1 spot left): Minnesota, OKC, Portland

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

on Libertarians and the Bevin/Beshear election

Ouch! This press release is not how I would phrase everything on the KY governor's election. But it's understandable trash-talking, given how the major parties unjustly jack with the minor parties. (And I haven't seen any polling data. Without that, it's not clear that John pulled more from Bevin than Beshear.) That said, I don't see much to argue with-- in the substance of the press release.
A few thoughts:
-I don't know much about Alvarado-- and doubt that voters care much about Lt. Gov. candidates.
-If one *really* doesn't like outcomes where minor party candidates are "spoilers", it's *really* easy to fix-- as per the LP's call to electoral reform. The problem is that the two major parties don't want the increased competition that goes with this reform. They'd rather take their chances with their cartel and carp / make excuses when things don't go their way-- than to improve the system. If you really care, make electoral reform a priority.
-After the fact, I'm guessing that the a-biblical (or even anti-biblical) opposition to legalizing pot and esp. expanded gambling doesn't look like a good...gamble.
-Hopefully the KY GOP will be better than the Dems in the 2016 prez loss-- in terms of looking in the mirror vs. making excuses. When all of the other GOP cruise to victory and you're an incumbent in a healthy economy running against a complete tool, then you should blame the candidate or perhaps the feckless GOP legislators who left him out to dry, esp. on pension reform.