Monday, September 26, 2005

Fisking the Left: My First Attempt

Below is my answer to a list of assumptions about Republican beliefs written by a misled author from the liberal website This was forwarded to me a while ago, as some of the content is a bit dated. In any case, I immediately tried to respond to each point, sort of like a “fisking”. Overall, it was a fun exercise in determining whether I could competently answer a variety of arguments. First, the list in question:

Things you have to believe to be a Republican today:

  1. Saddam was a good guy when Reagan armed him,

  2. a bad guy when Bush's daddy made war on him,

  3. a good guy when Cheney did business with him

  4. and a bad guy when Bush needed a "we can't find Bin Laden" diversion.

  5. Trade with Cuba is wrong because the country is communist, but trade with China and Viet Nam is vital to a spirit of international harmony.

  6. The United States should get out of the United Nations, and our highest national priority is enforcing UN resolutions against Iraq.

  7. A woman can't be trusted with decisions about her own body, but multinational corporations can make decisions affecting all mankind without regulation

  8. Jesus loves you, and shares your hatred of homosexuals and Hillary Clinton.

  9. The best way to improve military morale is to praise the troops in speeches while slashing veterans' benefits and combat pay.

  10. If condoms are kept out of schools, adolescents won't have sex.

  11. A good way to fight terrorism is to belittle our longtime allies, then demand their cooperation and money.

  12. Providing health care to all Iraqis is sound policy. Providing health care to all Americans is socialism.

  13. HMOs and insurance companies have the best interests of the public at heart.

  14. Global warming and tobacco's link to cancer are junk science, but creationism should be taught in schools.

  15. A president lying about an extramarital affair is an impeachable offense.

  16. A president lying to enlist support for a war in which thousands die is solid defense policy.

  17. Government should limit itself to the powers named in the Constitution, which include banning gay marriages and censoring the Internet.

  18. The public has a right to know about Hillary's cattle trades, but George Bush's driving record is none of our business.

  19. Being a drug addict is a moral failing and a crime, unless you're a conservative radio host. Then it's an illness, and you need our prayers for your recovery.

  20. You support states' rights, which means Attorney General John Ashcroft can tell states what local voter initiatives they have the right to adopt.

  21. What Bill Clinton did in the 1960s is of vital national interest, but what Bush did in the '80s is irrelevant.

Now, my answers:

Things you have to believe to be a Republican today:

Things you don't have to always believe to be Republican today.The Republican party is a big tent. There are conservatives and there are liberals within. Some are socially conservative and fiscally liberal. Others are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. And there are those who are both socially liberal and fiscally liberal, who are often called RINO's (Republicans In Name Only eg. Mayor Mike Bloomberg of NYC). Like any political party bent on winning elections, ideological conformity is not nearly as important as including as many different constituents as possible. Yet they agree on limited government control, enhancement of personal and economic freedom, and a strong national defense.

1) Saddam was a good guy when Reagan armed him,

Saddam was was the best of three awful choices: Islamic terrorist theocracy (Iran) Arabic Socialist Fascism (Iraq) and Soviet Communism. The circumstances at the time required the U.S.'s commited opposition to the Soviet Union and Khomenini's Iran. Besides, the amount of military assistance from the U.S. was tiny compared to assistance it received from Germany and France, as well as Russia later on. Using the same rationale, you could argue that Stalin was Roosevelt's friend to defeat the Nazis, while he was Truman's enemy for turning into our Cold War foe. In foreign policy, you deal with the cards you are dealt.

2) a bad guy when Bush's daddy made war on him,

He ran over Kuwait without warning, threatening global oil supply and general stability of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia had no defense against Saddam's built-up army. Sure we'd love to leave the Middle-east high and dry, but if the U.S. were to do it now, goodbye to your convenient lifestyle as you know it--no job, no goods, no car, nothing. Until you can prove that an alternate source of energy can take on the immense scale or the world's economy and industry, what goes on in the Middle East is the WORLD'S business.

3) a good guy when Cheney did business with him

Not true. Show conclusive proof, please. I don't know why as Secretary of Defense he would want to do business with a guy he helped to destroy. Anyway, as CEO of Halliburton, he could not trade with Iraq as they were under sanctions.

4) and a bad guy when Bush needed a "we can't find Bin Laden" diversion.

Saddam was always a bad guy, but getting rid of him was necessary after September 11th. The assertion that the War on Terror is exclusive to capturing Bin Laden is dangerously myopic. If we could get rid of bin Laden 3 years ago or 20 years into the future, it doesn't change the fact that Saddam was an emerging threat. How? His regime had the resources and intent to produce WMDs, and was not reluctant to share these weapons with terrorist groups. His covert collaboration with diverse terrorist groups is well documented. As commander in chief, it would be reckless to trust a madman for America's security.

5) Trade with Cuba is wrong because the country is communist, but trade with China and Viet Nam is vital to a spirit of international harmony.

America's embargo with Cuba dates to John F. Kennedy, everybody's favorite democrat. China and Vietnam have mostly abandoned totalitarian communism in favor of markets, and have agreed to enforce general rules of free trade. Cuba still governs itself as a totalitarian state, is more ruthless with political dissenters, and have made little effort to open its economy to rules of free trade. He has maintained his opposition to the U.S. for over five decades, as that is the source of its power. Cuba has collaborated with every effort to subvert American foreign policy, from the Cuban Missile Crisis, to Grenada, and Central American civil wars. If Castro wants to enjoy the fruits of American investment and trade it's his call. Problem is, once he makes that call his power and party are immediately undermined.

6) The United States should get out of the United Nations, and our highest national priority is enforcing UN resolutions against Iraq.

Most Republicans believe that the U.N. is irrelevant and actually a counterproductive force to American national security. Republicans mostly cringed when the president went back to the UN to enforce twelve-year old resolutions on Iraq. President had faith that the world body was intent on enforcing resolutions, but discovered that when push came to shove, most countries didn't. Bush got a lot of heat from members of his own party about this move, but they also realize that it was one of the few choices left to persuade for foreign assistance in meeting the threat. The president was trying to "save" the UN by making it a body of enforcement, rather than an inert debating society. The UN's impotence regarding the Darfur region in Sudan is evidence among many of the governing body's insignificance. The whole UN run up to the Iraq war shows that far from being a dictatorial maniac, Bush is willing to compromise and negotiate, and work through official channels of diplomacy. France, Russia, and China, who have permanent seats in the Security Council have NEVER consulted with the U.N. on any of their military exploits. The U.S. is the only country to have done so, with both Iraq wars, Afghanistan and Korea. The U.S.'s record on this isn't perfect as the Vietnam War and Kosovo went on without UN approval, conflicts led by Democratic presidents (LBJ & Clinton).

7) A woman can't be trusted with decisions about her own body, but multinational corporations can make decisions affecting all mankind without regulation.

Those two statements are totally unrelated, which is evidence that the arguments are weak. Some Republicans are concerned about life and death, because governments have the power to enforce laws regarding life and death. To say one is for choice is to avoid considering what constitutes life. Some Republicans are nonetheless pro-choice, and are welcomed as leading figures in the Republican party, eg. Schwarzenegger and Giuliani. You're free to draw your own conclusions regarding the rights of the unborn, but a majority of the population doesn't describe the act of abortion as good thing. Ever wonder why?As for multinational corporations, they are recipients to endless amounts of regulations, so much so that they find they are better off to situate themselves offshore. Besides, the arrival of a multinational corporation in a third world country is actually a boon to the local population, raising their living standards through better pay, safer work and environmental standards, and less back-breaking labor derived from agricultural work. Third World governments can rarely compete and have often destroyed the livelyhoods of their subjects. Ever wonder why anti-globalization protesters are almost always white and middle class? Where are the violated third world protesters?

8) Jesus loves you, and shares your hatred of homosexuals and Hillary Clinton.

Christians never put words in the mouth of Jesus. He had nothing to say about homosexuality, and such Biblical opinions derive from the Old Testament and St. Paul's letters. Jesus loves all, including Hillary. I think she attends church regularly.Anyway, the biggest reason why most Republicans dislike Hillary is in that she offends their deepest beliefs in economic freedom and self-made hard work. She has articulated policies of socialistic appeal, which denies an individual's right to make economic choices, and she portrays herself as an archetypal successful woman in spite of her reliance on her husband's success. She acts that she has every right to dictate policy, such as her health-care initiative, without the integrity of an elected office or even a cabinet post. Republicans have found the female ideal in Condoleeza Rice, who apart from speaking fluently several foreign languages, playing the piano on a professional level, ice skating, presiding the University of California, PHD'd Soviet politics and work for many years in government. And she's never been married!

9) The best way to improve military morale is to praise the troops in speeches while slashing veterans' benefits and combat pay.

Veteran Benefits have never been reduced under Bush. In fact, all military-related expenditures have grown considerably. In any case, everyone in the armed forces VOLUNTEERS to sacrifice their lives for the protection of their country. Some join because of the benefits, but they are stupid if they don't realize that they have agreed to put their lives on the line. Talk to any soldier, and their main desire is not some check from the government, it is to WIN. They want most the encouragement and necessary resources to win, which means they need a commander-in-chief to have confidence in them. Vietnam Vets aren't necessarily dejected because their hospitals are in bad shape. It's mostly that their commanders in chief lost faith in their mission. It is the worst thing for any soldier to bear.

10) If condoms are kept out of schools, adolescents won't have sex.

Condoms are plentiful, and sex ed is still taught as it always has been. Yet the results of decades of this has been pathetic. STD's continue to rise, teen pregnancy remains a major problem and now oral sex takes place regularly in junior high. Maybe trying another approach might yield better results. We all can agree that no sex equals none the ensuing problems mentioned above. Abstinence is based on the assumptions that you shouldn't have sex until you're older and smart enough to understand what you're doing. The only progress against AIDS in Africa has been reported in Uganda, which used an abstinence-based strategy. Funny, no? Most Republicans do not want to outlaw traditional sex-ed, they just want to supplement it with an alternative perspective.

11) A good way to fight terrorism is to belittle our longtime allies, then demand their cooperation and money.

The U.S. has never belittled its allies. One who is guilty of this is the current democratic presidential candidate, declaring the current Iraq Coalition is the one that is "Coerced and Bribed". This is similar to liberal journalists calling the coalition "a bunch of countries bought on Ebay". I'm sure the U.K., Australia, and Poland and three dozen more countries really enjoy hearing that. Another guilty party are our "allies" themselves: western Europeans who sneer at America's lack of nuance, history, culture, and sensitivity. These "allies" have been saying this stuff about America for almost all our history, and maintain a resentful attitude in spite of our bailing them out from the abyss several times in the last century. We also rebuilt Germany and Japan into the second and third largest economies in the world. With all this nastyness, we could afford to crack a few jokes about the French on Jay Leno. Most Republicans believe that, in truth, our allies have little to contribute in troops or money. We know that our allies have made a conscious decision to divert money that would have gone into building a military in favor of a generous social welfare system. Our allies did this because they were counting on American protection. The consequence of this is now clear: when matters of international security are concerned, the say of our allies has little weight because they do not have the military force to back them up. Those countries who believe they do matter in spite of their miniscule projection of force are deluded. Never in the history of mankind has power been so lopsided in favor of one nation. This is reality whether Americans like it or not. For the French to pretend this isn't the case makes them a target for mockery.

12) Providing health care to all Iraqis is sound policy. Providing health care to all Americans is socialism.

Coalition forces are contributing just enough medicine and basic medical infrastructure so as to prevent widespread disease, hunger, human tragedy brought on by decades of Saddam's neglect and consequent looting. This doesn't come close to the billions the U.S. government spends on healthcare and research. The U.S. wants to make sure that there's enough penicillin in clinics throughout Iraq. At home, our government subsidizes state of the art surgical procedures, miracle drugs, and the best hospitals in the world, all at little or no cost to the very poor (Medicaid) and the very old (Medicare). What Republicans propose is to add more choice in healthcare, less bureaucracy and paperwork, and greater freedom for doctors. Republicans believe that if the individual takes more responsibility in choosing healthcare and examining its cost, better decisions regarding health and more competitive prices for procedures will follow. And I thought liberals were always on the side of the downtrodden...but I guess they could care less about the fortunes of innocents elsewhere in the world.

13) HMOs and insurance companies have the best interests of the public at heart.

Republicans hate HMOs just like everybody else. They see it as preview to what healthcare will be like when it's fully socialized: terrible service, poorly rewarded doctors, rationed care, and an overall lack of choice. Just look north of the border to see how Canada's socialized medicine is faring. Insurance companies have never been much of an influential lobby to Republicans, since they're quote cozy with major political allies like Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) Connecticut, an extremely liberal state, depends for its very livelyhood on insurance companies headquartered there.

14) Global warming and tobacco's link to cancer are junk science, but creationism should be taught in schools.

Most Republicans believe that global warming is real but the jury's out in regard to its causes. It would not be prudent to set policies that will change dramatically our way of life and prosperity in response to a phenomena we do not truly understand. There have been many examples scientific orthodoxy promising the apocalypse and never materializing. Republicans do not doubt the link between cancer and smoking. We just believe that these lawsuits against tobacco companies excuses the responsibility of smokers, and that its the lawyers, not the plaintiffs, who ran away with most of the money. Creationism is believed by a small sector of Republicans of Pentecostal persuasion, but most discount it. That is not to say that Darwin's theory, which is plausible for most things so far, is a shut case.

15) A president lying about an extramarital affair is an impeachable offense.

President Clinton lied under oath, which is against U.S. law. The Constitution identifies the president as chief of the executive branch, which enforces the law. If the chief enforcer won't enforce the law, then it is a threat to the very integrity of the Republic. Our country is one based on the rule of law alone-not race, not language, not culture-LAW. Without the law, there is no U.S. of A. What the statement above seems to imply is that the president is above the law. That is monarchy. In the end, he was guilty of breaking the law and was disbarred as a result.

16) A president lying to enlist support for a war in which thousands die is solid defense policy.

Bush did not lie. He consulted the best available information at the time, from sources as diverse as the CIA, Foreign Intelligence Agencies, and UN inspection reports. No one before the Iraq War believed the WMDs did not exist. The endless number of inspections in Iraq were performed based on the assumptions that they did exist. The real liar in all of this was Saddam. All intelligence agencies and even the UN agreed that he was a liar. The burden of proof was on him. He failed the fifteen or more chances (resolutions) given to him. For a president to entrust his nation's security on the words of a lying madman is reckless.

17) Government should limit itself to the powers named in the Constitution, which include banning gay marriages and censoring the Internet.

The first part of that statement is true, while the latter part disregards regards the reasoning behind the positions stated. Amendments can address anything in American life, and there is a clearly defined way in proposing and ratifying them. Since one of government's main functions is to ensure an orderly society, the support of families, society's primary unit, is crucial. To be married is classified extensively in every citizen's dealings with government, whether it be taxes or property claims. For a government to further specify what a family and marriage really is perfectly within their power.Most Republicans oppose a federal amendment denying gay marriage. But they understand that the argument for why it might be necessary. If courts ignore the will of the people and start making law (instead of interpreting it) regarding the legality of gay marriage, then it is right for the legislative branch make law to counter judicial abuse of power. On the censorship issue, most Republicans are free speech's biggest defenders. Compared to campus speech code, political correctness, and diversity training, and campaign finance reform, debate and expression among Republicans is wide open. But when pornographic adds starts popping up on the family computer's screen because it came as an undetected virus, then it is a violation of my liberty not to look at that stuff. Any parent, both Republican and Democrat would agree.

18) The public has a right to know about Hillary's cattle trades, but George Bush's driving record is none of our business.

The writer here seems to have never read a newspaper, magazine, or watched television or the internet in the last four years. The media has dug up everything possible from Geore W Bush's past and put it under the magnifying glass. They've brought back the president's national guard service again and again. They've run out on things to report on his life to such an extent that one major news source (CBS) admited to desperately recreating Bush's history from forged documents. The truth is, there is no concrete evidence that Bush has shirked his responsibilities to the National Guard. The president has been very candid about his alcoholism and past indiscretions and voters are attracted to the fact that he sought redemption. Hillary's cattle venture was only reported once, and has made little impact on her reputation since.

19) Being a drug addict is a moral failing and a crime, unless you're a conservative radio host. Then it's an illness, and you need our prayers for your recovery.

Many Republicans would like to decriminalize some drugs. The argument for this are based on the belief that individuals can choose and be held responsible, and that the current War on Drugs is costly and counterproductive in lowering drug use and crime. That still doesn't change the fact that addiction is a moral failing which can engender further criminal behavior. Rush Limbaugh was addicted to a legal drug, painkillers, but never once has he demanded sympathy for his failings. He never claimed to be a moral or even a religious person, and his listeners couldn't care less. Many of his listeners know he has a pathetic private life, and is far from a paragon of virtue, but that does not change the fact that he is a talented radio personality. He rarely ever scorns drug abusers on his show anyway. Republicans pray for everyone to recover, not just their own.

20) You support states' rights, which means Attorney General John Ashcroft can tell states what local voter initiatives they have the right to adopt.

First, look up the concept of federalism. Then list in detail, with facts and numbers, what John Ashcroft has done to reduce your civil liberties. If you can't come up with any fullfilling these demands, your accusations are baseless.

21) What Bill Clinton did in the 1960s is of vital national interest, but what Bush did in the '80s is irrelevant.

Again, the writer here has never read a newspaper, magazine or internet, nor watched TV during the past four years. It's ironic that the same person who declared that Clinton's lack of service was irrelevant to his ability to perform as president in 1992 is now the Democratic nominee for President in 2004: John Kerry. The same guy whose entire campaign rests on his 4 1/2 months in Vietnam and his constant attacks against his opponent for not having any battlefield experience (though Bush did master to fly a supersonic jet and could have been called up to bomb Vietnam at any time). The truth is, Bush's past is pretty boring. He's failed at almost everything he tried before his first gubernatorial run in 1994. There's not much to his oilman past, since he lost his shirt repeatedly. The only thing he claims he is proud of during the eighties was "finding Jesus". Most journalists and some Republicans kind of laugh at that but it somehow resonates with a lot of people. Go figure.

Feel free to pass this on.

Feel free to believe this B.S.!

Friends don't let friends vote Republican.

A real friend doesn't tell you how to vote. He respects you enough to make up your own mind.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

A moral imperative to rebuilt New Orleans? Hardly

With Katrina now gone and not much of New Orleans left in her wake, we should seriously ask if we should rebuild the city at all. Oh, it’s not politically correct, and many charge that the American spirit needs to be put on display to bring healing to a nation proven to be so vulnerable.

But I wonder if this is merely the attempt of a nation to pat itself on the back instead of facing some hard realities. First, before Katrina ever hit, now infamous Gov. Blanco was to ask President Bush for billions of dollars to restore the coastland of South Louisiana, which has withered away over the years to almost nothing. Second, the city will always be under sea level and subject to similar hurricanes (including Rita) for years to come. Third, the population will likely never get back to where it was, leaving gaps in business and social services for those that do want to go back. And all of this is on top of the fact that New Orleans has been a lackluster economic city for decades, to say the least. While Atlanta, Houston and Birmingham have experienced growth, New Orleans has relied on its past, and sold-out the French Quarter to seedy tourist traps and pornography in the process.

Being from northern Louisiana and having family affected by Katrina, I don’t want to come off as uncaring, or as someone from a far-removed locale. No, Louisiana is a very dear place to me as almost all of my family lives there. And if people want to live there and rebuild, I say great. But I don’t know that federal tax dollars should subsidize it. If New Orleans is such a great place, the market will figure it out, cash in on cheap land and housing, make a profit there, and rebuild the city. But that would certainly contradict the logic of the last 40 years, a time in which the market has clearly decided New Orleans is indeed not such a great place.

I don’t know that any federal money was used to rebuild Chicago after it’s Great Fire of 1871. And the fire was great. According to, “Property valued at $192,000,000 was destroyed, 100,000 people were left homeless, and 300 people lost their lives.” Even if federal money was used to rebuild Chicago, it would have made more sense. Chicago was a city with a good chance of success given its railroads, proximity to farmland and entrepreneurial zeal. America needed Chicago. I don’t know that that’s the case with New Orleans. True, it has a few industries crucial to our economy as a whole, including oil refineries and its port, neither of which are going anywhere anytime soon. Is it possible for those to be preserved while the majority of New Orleans’ residents move on to other cities?

Ultimately, the aid should be in helping people move on before restoring neighborhoods federal money hasn’t help anytime recently. Help people move, help people reestablish and train for new jobs, help people educate their children in new places, but don’t spend $200 billion on a city whose past indicates a lackluster future. Don’t spend $200 billion on a city that physically is not in an ideal spot for a million people to live. And certainly don’t spend $200 billion on a city only to allow it to again become a cesspool of poverty, crime, and nostalgic tourism based on a time that never really was.

In a capitalistic society, federal aid should help people adapt to the creative destruction that is a result of the market, not to keep the destruction from ever happening. The moral imperative is to help those who have lost everything move on, not to snap the city like a rubber band back to where it was before Katrina.

And if anything, the Bush administration has gone from doing to little, to far too much. Brendan Miniter of the Wall Street Journal writes that the GOP has become the party of big government, in part for proposing a total rebuilding of New Orleans.
And what we're seeing is that Katrina is swamping every goal conservatives have, from limiting government to cutting taxes to reforming entitlement programs. Katrina spending has already imperiled plans to repeal the death tax, and Congress is already $60 billion into a spending binge. Handing out $2,000 debit cards was just the beginning. The conservative Congress has brought back the welfare state.

Even Paul Tagliabue, commissioner of the NFL, voiced the concerns people had about New Orleans in discussions as to where my beloved Saints would play in 2006.
"I haven't gotten beyond worrying about 2005," Tagliabue was quoted as saying in the Daily News. "Obviously the biggest issues in New Orleans now are the ones the president spoke about, which their elected leadership is beginning to discuss with their business community: How do they rebuild the city? What's the shape of the city? What kind of businesses do they want there? What kind of a population base do they want there?"
Since when is population base a non-organic concern? Is mass social engineering in the plans?

Maybe I’m a naysayer, but why is it so hard for us to admit something is broken? Before Katrina, environmentalists said South Louisiana was a swamp in danger of the polar ice caps putting it under. Now we know hurricanes can do just as well. Instead of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I wonder if the truth about post-Katrina New Orleans is, “If it can’t be unbroken, don’t fix it.” Either way, it’s time for either a bold new idea about building a city based on decidedly non-welfare state ideas, or to scrap the place and use the billions to help those now homeless to make new homes.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Inequality: A Sense of Perspective

There have been numerous claims about the growing inequality between rich and poor. There is no doubt statistically that the highest earners enjoy an income far higher than those at the bottom and has been growing more so for the past twenty five years. However fondly we remember the prosperous decade of the Nineties there is no denying that much of the wealth created found their way to the higher economic classes. Those who find this occurrence dispiriting believe in equality as a public good. Yet equality between men is not found in the natural order of things. It is an ideal created in the minds of men which is so strong as to drive us to change this regardless of our immediate needs of self-preservation (e.g. food, shelter and security).

Each person is born with distinct innate advantages: some are taller, others more coordinated, while some have better mental abilities. Some can be intellectually sophisticated while exhibiting extreme emotional or social immaturity. It's difficult enough to enforce equality among such a variety of differences, much less equality of opportunity. However, when one hears of "the richer getting richer and the poor getting poorer", what's being implied is the ideal of the equality of results. This latter goal not only discounts innate inequalities, it also ignores other psychological and cultural factors of success such as making smart choices, moral self-restraint, self-esteem, and cultural prejudices. What matters is that at the end of every person's efforts, regardless of their own bad choices or weak character, the result of their own achievements will be of limited difference from one another. This drive for equalization inherently requires large-scale intervention by forceful means to accomplish.

For the purpose of this discussion, there will be no consideration of whether equalizing results is important. I have totally accepted inequality as a default circumstance. The key is to live and thrive in a system that gives you the freedom to overcome your own faults. Not only is economic freedom important, but personal responsibility is also essential in achieving. This is especially the case in a time when human productivity is high, as each worker makes more decisions than before, and your value to a company depends on how much responsibility or risk you are willing to bear. Low-paying jobs usually are equal to low responsibility, as the decisions are made by their superiors. If low-skilled workers decide not to take on their meager responsibility of actually performing a job, they will be fired. Why shouldn't the superior be fired instead? Because the supply of other workers willing to do the job properly is far higher than the supply of managers. Managers have knowledge and experience, which testify to their trustworthiness and capability of organizing the work of those beneath them.

I have hinted a big prerequisite to a fair and prosperous capitalist society: trust. Managers trust the laborers to do the work in good faith, just as shareholders trust the executives to make decisions to the best of their ability. Without trust their is no initiative to start businesses or enter into any kind of contract. Nepotism becomes the only way to assure trust in an organization and business is conducted by mafias, since you can't trust the bank or government to provide the services these gangs can. I recommend the book "Trust" by Francis Fukuyama regarding how this virtue affects economic development in various cultures around the world.

One increasing measure of a person's worth in the work world is knowledge. It is at the basis of the 'Information Age'. The American economy has evolved from an industrial economy to a post-industrial one. As has been evident for the past 30 years, manufacturing has slowly abdicated its primacy in our economy and as jobs creator. Although the country's manufacturing sector is producing more goods than ever, there have neven been fewer employed to do it. Again, leaps in productivity through robotics and outsourcing are culpable for this change. The emergence of the service sector as the biggest employer is indicative of the country's growing affluence. People have more money to spend for more intangibles that would have never been considered a generation ago: financial planning, specialty boutiques, software applications, home entertainment, travel and leisure, etc. Many of the jobs involved require more personal contact and customer coddling. Some, though, do not require any contact with the customer and are not dependent on close coordination with different specialists. These jobs are most vulnerable to outsourcing or obsolescence, as it can be done cheaper by others or can be incorporated in a job with even more responsibilities. Computer programmers are especially vulnerable, since despite their advanced knowledge, they have been easily commodified when having to compete with workers worldwide. From my experience the more unique perspective, creativity, and human contact a job requires, the more secure it is in the long run.

Ever notice how at bookstores the computer programming guides overflow the shelves and comprise a sizeable area of the store? Most of them explain how to use a new program or teach a new programming language. It almost seems that you can become a programmer simply by reading all the manuals. There's no other high-paying job that provides such a wealth of textbook literature to anybody who is willing to read about it at a bookstore. What all this implies is that if what somebody knows can be quantified by the amount of guides in a bookstore, it's probably not too unique or inventive. It's definitely something a foreign country can do given the right resources to churn out a bunch of IT graduates.

Will my profession, architecture be at risk? It already is but it's not quite the same. For one thing, there are no books on sale that tell you all you need to know about being an architect. There are a couple of reference books you often have to special order, otherwise, it's just a bunch of pretty pictures of old masterpieces, or else pre-drawn house floorplans. Architecture firms have been outsourcing for a long time, as a way of becoming more profitable, and focusing more on the quality of its singular product, design. What we do is so custom, so particular to clients needs, to outsource such a responsibility will guarantee bad results. Nevertheless, much of what architects used to do has been lost to other industries and technological innovations. Architects are often seen as a luxury and most of the built environment has not been designed by an architect. Because the architectural service sector grows so slowly, with no room for high fees, the constant surplus of qualified architectural graduates depresses salaries and upward mobility. In many ways, the architecture profession has been been whittled away so much that it kind of serves as a preview to the future of some jobs-small in scope, tangential, and competing for a smaller niche in the market.

Back to why income disparity is so great in America. For one thing there's very little in our economy that regulates against this. Another reason is that the amount of capital floating in our economy has never been larger, especially as more Americans have become investors. Household wealth is no longer simply calculated by job income alone, but by the accumulated value of assets such as one's home and investments. Although wages have only increased incrementally over the years, capital value of savings have risen a drastically higher rate. The pressure to keep investment income high requires corporations, which are made of shareholders, to ensure that revenue grows. Therefore any CEO who has talent and a successful recommend can demand as high a salary as they want, with all sorts of perks. If there were a million people who could do the job of the CEO, then the job would pay very little.

What of the middle class? It's not necessarily the case that it's shrinking to poverty. I would argue the reverse: there has been a massive shift of people to the upper class. Not only have the numbers of millionaires and billionaires more than doubled in the past ten years, but many household who used to be middle class have left for bigger homes and cars. Working closely with the housing sector, I have not observed a jump in HUD home development. What I have witnessed is an unending surge of luxury condominiums, MacMansions, elite hotels and resorts, and many golf-clubs. Who is going fill up all these spaces? The failure to notice this demographic shift is partly due to a static perspective on social class. To believe that the poor today will stay poor five years from now, and that the middle class will remain so in the same span of time is to ignore the constant workings of upward mobility in this country. Most households experience a gradual rise in income over time, mainly due to the fact that the more experience on the job a person has, the higher the salary. Most of the poor are relatively young families, as the bread-winner has little experience and skills. This condition will not remain so long as the poor today gain job skills to become the middle class of tomorrow. The perpetually poor are definitely a concern, and some creative approach to getting them enjoy the success of their cohorts is warranted. In any case the average income and relative standard of living of the poor in the U.S. is not that bad, since it matches the level achieved by the middle classes of most industrial countries.

In conclusion, although there is a growing disparity in income, it is not true that the poorer are getting poorer. The rich are getting richer due to the nature in which capital is invested in our capitalistic system, but there are many more people who have achieved the status 'rich' than ever before. The poor have also improved their standard of living over time, and the threshold for 'poverty level' in the U.S. is artificially high compared to the international standard. The question on whether the new wealth created in the last fifteen years should be more equally distributed as it is another subject worthy of debate. Such a debate should also take into consideration how this inequality is redressed by our progressive taxation policies, since the statistics reveal a gross inequality between the contributions of the rich and poor. A further examination of this issue will come in due time.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Church maintains 2,000 year biblical norm…but who cares?

At the risk of being labeled a homophobe, it’s time to consider the use of language regarding the homosexual debate, especially as the debate rages in mainline Christian churches. It has become clear to me that as the debate over principle has become impossible, we must move to the debate over semantics. It’s really all that is left. I wish to use only one example of the way the debate has been framed to suggest that the church is hostile to homosexuals, as opposed to merely maintaining the historical norm. But first, a word of introduction for those unfamiliar to the situation, a situation possibly on the brink of outright Controversy. (And by Controversy, I mean a major historical controversy that takes decades to resolve, if it ever is.)

Mainline Protestant churches are struggling primarily with two issues concerning homosexuality. One is whether or not practicing homosexuals should be ordained clergy. Most churches, including my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, support gay clergy, but only under the auspices of chastity. Some say celibacy is required, but chastity is more precise as it describes a charisma or a gift, whereas celibacy tends to only denote abstaining from sex. Married heterosexuals, for example, may be chaste, but not celibate. At a recent churchwide convention, ordaining practicing gay clergy was not supported by the church, and gay clergy are still required to live lives of chastity.

The second issue is of course the blessing of same sex unions, which the ELCA recently voted by a slim margin essentially to look the other way should a pastor okay the practice. In other words, we didn’t vote that the practice should be vehemently defended, only that those who felt it was justified at the local level would be asked no questions from headquarters.

But even with that good news for the gay community, this headline that jumped out at me in the Chicago Free Press: “Lutheran church rejects gay clergy.” The headline easily could have been, “Lutheran church maintains 2,000 year norm concerning gays.” But it didn’t. It painted a picture of hostility, of alienation and judgment towards homosexuality. Here is where we get to the fact that the way the debate is framed is now the most important facet of the debate, even more important than the principles at stake. In other words, the vehement suggestion that gay clergy were rejected puts those who simply see current practice as the historical norm of the church on the defensive, and unable to find time or space to defend the principles.

And as I have already pointed out, the headline is an outright lie. Chaste gay clergy are welcome, but practicing gay clergy are not considered to have a strong enough biblical witness to be supported. At least, not yet. There likely will be a time, as there already has been in the American Episcopal church, where vague messages of grace, acceptance and tolerance were enough to elect a practicing gay bishop.

Of course the deeper issue here is that the debate only continues to rage on because semantics have for years allowed biblical scholarship to confuse those in the pews. While the overwhelming image of marriage and sexual normalcy in scripture is heterosexual with several clear rebuttals of the homosexual lifestyle, this is been overlooked in favor of diversity, tolerance and inclusion. It is possible to look at some of the harsh words about homosexuality in the bible through a particular context that makes them more “gay-friendly.” But these semantics in biblical scholarship, just as in newspaper headlines, only cloud what is really happening.

What is happening is that nothing in scripture has changed concerning this issue. Only culture has. If one only steps back to ask why this debate is only coming up now, it should be very clear that culture is framing the debate more than anything else. Culture, which has adopted bait-and-switch techniques to disguise the enormous historical change the pro-gay folks seek to make, that has lost all sense of history, and is allowed to get away with saying that the Church has rejected someone, when in fact, the Church has tried to (bravely, I think) defend the authority of scripture over culture. Why scripture has lost authority compared to culture is a whole other topic…

Thursday, September 15, 2005

"Starchitecture" Comes to Sin City

A contemporary phenomena occuring in many cities around the world is that of "starchictecture". This describes the commissioning of famous star architects by civic leaders to produce a landmark structure designed to raise the city's international profile. Having Renzo Piano desing your city's art museum, or Norman Foster or Zaha Hadid design your opera house are examples of starchitecture. It is the city boosters' belief that a city thrives on some level of international reputation, often something more important than improving roads or other less glamorous urban infrastructure. Bilbao, Spain is a well-known example, in which Frank Gehry designs this sculptural art museum, which causes the town to experience a spike in tourism and in turn initiates a revival of th city's international reputation. Most of the star architects are indeed among the world's most talented designers and to experience their spaces is indeed a special experience those using the facilities. But the emergence of architects designing buildings in places far from their native countries and cultural backgrounds poses new questions about role of architecture in cities. Does bringing starchitecture into the city with no existing architectural sophistication improve the cultural environment in which local architects work? Is design less about providing distinct solutions to a very local site than about having a sort of name brand attached to the city's public image?

The retail chain symolizes the importance of uniform networks and predictable efficiency in our modern economy. Starchitecture operates along similar lines. Clients hiring them have a good idea of what they'll get from the architect that it will embody sculptural and monumental qualities that their constituents will appreciate. The mere presence of the starchitect's work in that city will supposedly join the city to an elite club of cities that boast a high reputation for culture. Suburbanites understand very well how the arrival of certain kinds of chain stores bring a degree of importance and respect to their communities. High design by a star designer can only reinforce the level of civic pride.

One case of the starchitect phenomenon today is taking place in Las Vegas. Only this time, as many as ten starchitects are collaborating together, hoping to give this casino town in the middle of desert an image of sophistication and mature urbanity. The plan is to develop a multi-use urban block near the Strip, with housing, office, hotel, casino, and other amenities all in one complex. The architects' efforts have resulted in a design that references the modern office tower districts of large American cities, with a nod to the high-tech popular in London's newer developments like Canary Wharf. Although the quality of design will likely be exceptional, I fear that the character of the project will betray the distinct energy and spirit unique to Las Vegas. Denise Scott Brown, who with her husband Robert Venturi wrote the seminal book Learning from Las Vegas, laments the potential loss of Las Vegas' tackiness and sense of fantasy:

"The Las Vegas we studied in the 1960's is long, long gone...They have gone back to the industrial revolution - steel and glass."

Her studies led to the conclusion that Las Vegas had developped its own architectural vernacular based on purely twentieth century forms like the illuminated sign, the parking lots, and the exuberrant if tasteless application of ornament. This gave the city its identity and has allowed it be endeared by most of its visitors and the nation at large. The ten architects hired to design project city center intend to ignore this vernacular, confident that their talents can bring a more 'enlightened' contribution to the city. One of them, Rafael Vinoly, is quite conscious the coming change to the city and view the importation of a slick machine-like international style as a welcome improvement to the what preceded it:

"Everything else around is the un-architecture," he said. "It's a cartoon; it's a horror show. But it is something that is interesting to see. It's an education."

We will see what the results will be when the project is finished, but at this point I am far from excited at what the results will be. I am aware that starchitecture gets rather monotonous, in that these designers replicate their style to fit all locales rather then propose original solutions to specific problems. Hadid, Gehry, Steven Holl, and Calatrava are guilty of this, and the extensive output seems to diminish the importance of their earlier works and tends to disappoint their fans with high anticipation. The main criticism is that giving preference to starchitects diminishes the chance for local architects to exhibit their design talent and to help establish a local architectural tradition or style that will endow their city with a visual uniqueness. I really wonder whether Las Vegas will really be enhanced with a complex of buildings that look more like downtown Houston than Sin City itself. I'm not anticipating anything inspired from this project, and despite of its functional success, it will never capture the memories of visitors.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Why Memorials Bore Me

Despite the fact that memorials are often the most visible examples of high design to the public at large, they interest me the least as an architect. My job requires primarily solving a problem practically, combining expressive forms with a functional use of space. Most of the projects I’ve been engaged in have tremendously complex programs and the designs consist of sophisticated engineering, technical detailing, and exhaustive amounts of coordinating the flow spaces and rooms. Buildings in general are complicated machines, because they are required to perform in countless ways for all kinds of viewers and people in the surrounding environment.

I’ve been part of teams designing tall high-rises with multiple uses and amazing structural and mechanical systems. Currently I’m involved in the realization of large covered malls, open retail blocks (‘lifestyle centers’) and convention center hotels, all building types whose success is defined less by abstract sculptural beauty than by how well it meets the needs of the clients and the users or tenants, as well as how it enriches the surrounding city.

It’s for that reason the unveiling for the design of memorials does little to engage my interest. The demands of what a memorial must do are at best nebulous, ambiguous, and the reasons behind why the designer arranged the masses and spaces are based on very shaky ideas. If you are creative enough to design something interesting, you are creative enough to come up with a narrative that explains what you’ve created, often out of thin air. It’s a commonly known secret among those who work in architecture that the poetic justifications for a design is all talk, and sometimes descends to embarrassing levels of schmaltziness. If you go up and ask the designer his explanation of the design often he’ll reply that it’s a result of conforming to set program demands and making forms just ‘feeling right’ together. They can’t tell you why what they created was the one and only true design.

It is no coincidence that memorial designs have never faired well as vehicles of success for architects. The designer of the Vietnam memorial, Maya Lin, hasn’t really done much since except more little memorials. Oklahoma City’s memorial was designed by an firm from Texas that struggled to get additional work after that project’s completion. The most highly revered architects in history are never associated with memorials. We don’t study memorials much in architecture school, probably because it’s less about making buildings than it is glorified landscape architecture. The limitless ability to transform a landscape however one chooses is closer to art than architecture. They are great opportunities to enrich a space and endow with emotion and the sublime, but for me memorials are nothing more than a grand but self-important gesture.

As a result of my personal views on memorials in general, I’ve been hesitant to comment on the Flight 93 memorial scheme submitted by Paul Murdoch Architects. I usually get bored the seemingly endless stream of new memorials and my natural cynicism does me no service in taking the designers’ poetic explanations seriously. My first major criticism of the Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania is that it wallows in loss and the tragedy itself, not only of a flight crashing but of the fact that there are disagreements between people so large that they took with them many innocent people to their deaths. Mark Steyn encapsulates this tendency to passively remember the loss rather than to be inspired by sacrifice:

But surely it’s not too much to hope that in Pennsylvania the very precise, specific, individual, human scale of one great act of American heroism need not be buried under another soggy dollop of generic prettified passivity. A culture that goes to such perverse lengths to disdain its heroes cannot survive and doesn’t deserve to.

We miss the dead, but I’m sure the dead wish that you not dwell in missing them, but to learn from their sacrifice to defend the country against those that wish to destroy them. The ‘crescent of embrace’ was admitted by Mr. Rudolph himself as a symbol for healing and bonding. The design was not there to teach the facts of what actually happened that fateful morning of September 11th since Paul Murdoch argues:

“Our memorial is not about offering explanation for what happened, but to allow people to come to terms with it."

Yes, the memorial is simply a place to grieve four years after the fact. No need to learn any lessons here. That is one of my biggest problems with the proposed design: it’s too timid.

Other initial comments praise the design’s simplicity so as to facilitate refection and more grieving like the following:

"It's powerful but understated,"… "It's beautifully simple.”… "The understatement speaks to the profoundness of what occurred here,"

The above point to another irritating attribute of modern memorials: the repeated use of austere minimalism engenders a contrived affect: less is so much more. Carve the landscape with a simple element like a retaining wall, add some towering monoliths in conspicuous geometric focal points, and presto! You’ve got a “powerful” but “calming” and therefore “profound” place. It’s all too predictable.

As for the issue of the site plan of the project resembling a muslim crescent, the post at the blog No Pasaran! could not explain my position any better:

One of the failings of many of my fellow Architects is that they know that form have meaning, they just don’t understand or care much about what that meaning is.

Because of the inherent open-endedness in designing a memorial, symbolism is crucial for visitors to perceive the memorial as a truly special space. There is no requirement to conform with standard structures that have historically remembered the dead, and the contemplation of what happens to the dead and where they belong in the universe compels the use of symbols to explain these complex metaphysical questions. Yes, architects know that form has meaning, which is part of what separates them from contractors, but they have long since abandoned fixed traditional meanings to traditional forms. The role of post-structuralist philosophy has had a major effect on contemporary architecture theory. Architecture has been reduced to a system of signs that connote power relationships, and the signs can be used in different contexts with different meanings so that any person can use them to their own advantage. The post-modern embrace of nihilism since the seventies has undermined the sanctity of symbols in architecture. “Post Modern” Architecture became a style made popular during the late seventies and eighties that based itself on the superficial application of traditional architectural symbols, syntaxes, and physical ‘quotations’ from the past but then juxtaposed, distorted, and exaggerated to produce an ironic effect. The purpose of this was to inject meaning but deconstruct its integrity. Ever since that period, it has been impossible for architects to honestly apply intellectual rigor to their forms. The philosophical underpinnings of traditional forms that were handed down to us for millennia have been stripped from their meanings. Thus, a crescent is no longer a symbol of Islam, it’s just a form that expresses healing and bonding…or whatever floats your boat. In my estimation, theoretical doctrine in architecture is dead. There is no depth in significance or greater truth to be found in contemporary architecture. A lot of it is just incidental, though beautiful.

I’m confident that Paul Murdoch intended to design a beautiful space, but his inability to take into account the power of the Islamic crescent is indicative of the poverty of symbolism in contemporary design. The current (and in my opinioned justified) outrage at the proposed scheme for the Flight 93 Memorial is evidence of the disconnect between designers and the public on the power of symbols. And yet, there are many more issues where these two sides are disconnected, a subject that would comprise of an endless number of volumes.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Secrets of Success (and Failure)

As has been mentioned in a few other places, the past week's worth of posts at Asymmetrical Information have offered one good read after another. Jane Galt revisits the subject of poverty from time to time and shows an unexpected compassion and clear minded-ness when examining who make up the underclass. She concludes that the characteristics of poor people contribute to their lot in life, more so than other oft cited circumstantial factors, like racism, the injustice of capitalism, or the lack of an extensive welfare state. She is mindful that that life isn't equally easy or hard for everyone, but she does suggest that the kind of things necessary to escape poverty is simple enough for any person to remember. The difficulty lies in actually choosing to do these things. She writes:

If poor people did just four things, the poverty rate would be a fraction of what it currently is. Those four things are:

1) Finish high school
2) Get married before having children
3) Have no more than two children
4) Work full time

If you don't CHOOSE to finish high school, you limit the range of jobs you can qualify for. If you CHOOSE to get married before having children, you will ensure you and your family some financial stability by having another earner. If you CHOOSE not to have fewer than 3 children, the tremendous expenses in raising them will limit you in furthering your education or take jobs that require more of the mother's time. And if you CHOOSE only to work part-time instead of full time, not only will you obviously earn less money, but managers won't give promotions to people who choose to be partners since they are not loyal enough to work full time.

Yes, life is about choices, and many of those choices are influenced by one's family and how it brought its children up. If there is luck in life, it comes down to being born not into money, but into a family environment that encourages the right choices to be made. I sympathize a lot with the smart kids I have known in my life who have suffered from scant moral support from their parents, and the destructive influence of their peers. Jane Galt argues that many of the decisions she had made as a young women were influenced by the general social mores and ambitions of her peers of similar background. The pressure to conform to one's peer group is probably one of the most powerful determinants in an individual's personal development. The pull towards conformity is far from a detached rational pr0cess, since it deals with personal desires unaffected by logic. One conforms to achieve an emotional and psychological balance, a feeling of being accepted, even loved, of reinforcing one's ego. Because of the irrationality that is an inherent part of 'fitting in', it's not that difficult to seek acceptance with the wrong crowd and subvert your rational faculties with illusions of tangible benefits by belonging to the group. Often times we encounter people who spout off the silliest ideas simply because his or her friends believe them, too. Group loyalty is powerful, and fulfills a psychological need that often resists any contrary ideas based on reason. Unlike Jane, I rarely made decisions based on what my friends would agree with. The only peer pressure came from my older brothers, of which I have quite a few. My parents set high expectations for their children, and each brother likewise set a benchmark for their younger sibling to achieve.

Beyond the realm of the family, the influence of friends or classmates was minimal. I was socially awkward for most of the time I was a student, and was therefore hopeless in winning the approval of any of my peers. I carried on as individual with this idea in my head that if you did what your teacher demanded of you, you would reap the benefits later on. As a product of the public school systems of Louisiana and Texas, I was often surrounded by classmates who had completely different ideas of what was expected of them at school. Many of them were unserious about learning or even behaving and respecting rules, but often much of their problem stemmed from trying to please their peers. Performing pranks, passing notes, or even sleeping in class is not unusual, yet they serve for social rewards. I never did those things for the simple reason that classmates come and go, but a clean academic record and remembering most of everything you learned would pay off in a big way throughout your life. Somehow, I had never doubted this vague reward even as very young kid, and my faith in this helped me ignore the taunts, the ridicule, and visible contempt of the class clowns, the troublemakers and even those who wanted to have good grades without doing the work. I was the nerd, the teacher's pet, or the weirdo, and although such names were indeed trying to my spirits, I had an unwavering belief that I would leave my peers behind and that I would be better off in the end and that those around me would be only recipients to my pity. During this none-to-easy time, I was very unsympathetic of my unserious peers, and being obviously immature most of the time, I wished ill of them.

Now that I am an adult and long past my days in grade school, I am hopefully more mature.
I look back at that time and realize what a formative influence it was in my understanding of people in general. Had I known more about the families from whom many of these failing students were coming from, the complex social pressures and cultural influences they were subject to, I definitely would not have felt as contemptuous. I'm far more aware of certain psychological and emotional needs that affect a person's behavior that cancel any good sense kind of advice. In simpler terms, when trying to understand why so many of my classmates at school were making such terrible choices on how to make the most out of an education, it helps to remember that you can never understand it all when you were young. Things seem simpler when you’re young, and one of those things was to simply follow the rules and take the advice of your elders seriously. It wasn’t a big intellectual leap then and it isn’t now.

The biggest leap is a moral one, tied closely to culture since it codifies moral values within a group. The culture I absorbed from my family contains a relatively rich intellectual core, but its moral core underpins it more so. Follow instructions, respect the teacher, and most importantly, do your best were associated as good, while the opposites of laziness and disrespect were judged as bad. I took this black and white approach to learning for granted, but I never dared to doubt it. The tragedy that is poverty is that some cultures do doubt these basic tenets and turn them what is good and bad upside down. In these decadent cultures, good and bad are flipped, and academic success is scorned. A teacher can go only so far in inculcating positive morals and values to children, but the most significant transference of culture and the morals that come with it is through the parents. A healthy morality is the most fundamental aspect to the success of any government welfare program, as well as any benevolent state institution like the school system. If the student’s moral fiber is rotten, there is nothing that any outside institution can do unless they undertake total control of rearing them.

If one can fix moral poverty then financial poverty will be less of a problem. Now if one could somehow disregard the pervasive influence of moral relativism, the better...

Friday, September 09, 2005

Why Motivational Speakers Should Never Quote Job 3:25

I would like to welcome readers to a new regular contributor to Architecture and Morality, Relievedebtor. While I from time to time focus on the architecture, Relievedebtor likes to write about morality, or the intersection of reason and religion. As a lutheran seminarian, relievedebtor offers some interesting insight between faith and free markets. Hope you find his pieces interesting and thought-provoking!


I’m a vicar, a seminary intern, interested in positing religious thoughts that are both more transcendent and more real than either self-proclaimed spiritualists on the one hand and doomsday preachers on the other. Because my primary point of view is that Christianity is relational, I tend to notice and argue against views that simplify faith into the extremes of relativism or moralism. This particular article is the result of witnessing the tactics of the fastest-growing churches in America, which seems to be mainly to motivate people to become “better people.” This obsession with positive thinking neglects the realities of life, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Possibly in an effort to box life into understandable pieces, motivational speakers (and clergy using similar styles) frequently quote Job 3:25 as a warning against negative thinking: “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me,” says Job after experiencing a great amount of suffering. They insist the way we think about life will determine its outcome, and the reason our deepest fears or our greatest aspirations come to pass is because of the way we think. This Job text is used to “prove” this by suggesting that Job suffered because he feared suffering. I would posit that while there is a lot of truth that our thinking determines our life situation, in the long run it is all-too-convenient to use this verse to portray life, especially when our powerlessness concerning Katrina is clear.

Norman Vincent Peale and Zig Ziglar, two of the biggest names in the field of “positive thinking/living” speaking/writing, both refer to this text. Peale, in his best-known work, "The Power of Positive Thinking," uses the text as a way of warning his readers against any type of negative thinking. Ziglar, an admitted reader of Peale and this book, uses Job in the same way. The primary problem with using this text is that what happened to Job did not happen to him because of his state of mind. It happened because God allowed it to happen, actually as a result of making a wager with ha-satan, or “the accuser,” regularly translated as Satan.

Job 1:9-11 shows Satan tempting God to partake in a challenge, one in which Satan can get a man (Job) to curse God. In 1:12, God accepts the challenge saying “’Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!’ So Satan went from the presence of the Lord.” In case the reader didn’t catch the arranged bargain the first time, Satan and God make several more deals after Job loses his children, his property, and his livestock. Each time, the stakes are raised, until the Lord finally says to Satan in 2:6, “Very well, he [Job] is in your power; only spare his life." As a result of this, Job experiences even more terrible suffering, including “loathsome sores” from head to toe.

Clearly, after this reading, one cannot possibly claim that Job’s negative thinking caused his suffering. In fact, even worse, it is abundantly clear that God directly caused his suffering by making a deal with the devil. Yet, I have yet to hear any motivational speaker, much less any preacher point out the uncomfortable fact that what happened to Job wasn’t a result of Job’s bad attitude, but a result of God’s arrangement with Satan. Popular “preachers” like Joel Osteen have referred to Job 3:25 (probably following Peale’s lead), using it in the exact same manner: assuring his listeners that good things will happen if you simply maintain a positive attitude.

Besides the lazy exegesis of Scripture, the basic problem with this is that it ignores the unaccountable nature of life, which dangerously simplifies God and our very existence as a part of God’s creation. What happens then when bad things, completely beyond our control happen? Where is God then? Did God cause Katrina?

Another equally oversimplified, but more accurate depiction of the nature of human life would be “Stuff happens.” Yet, this is often ignored in favor of presenting a more controllable, and winnable picture of life. Peale says the Bible (to be more positive I guess) implies “that which I have greatly believed has come upon me,” even though this is never directly said in Job. This text is used to encourage his readers to think positively, so good things will happen. So Peale has now gone from proof-texting one line of Job to generally paraphrasing his interpretation of the scripture to prove his point.

Sure, Job feared and dreaded that his property, children, livestock and health would be taken from him before they were. Do we not all have similar fears to some extent? Doesn't Katrina show that this is possible? But again, what is the cause and effect? Peale, Ziglar, and Osteen all say Job suffered because he feared, but this blatantly ignores the facts presented. Let me be very clear about my main point: Job did not suffer because he feared suffering, but because God made a wager with Satan. It is that simple, all there in Job, chapters one and two.

Hard as he or she might try, no one can account for the unusual and unpredictable nature of our existence, not even Job as we see in the chapters 38-42, notably 42:2-3: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know”.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Recommended Reading

Jim Geraghty of the National Review, responding to an op-ed written in the New York Times by the famous writer and New Orleans native Anne Rice, nails it:

We failed you? No, oh brilliant creator of Exit to Eden, you failed. You might not think of it this way, but: Your leaders failed to upgrade the levees. You elected a bunch of weepers and blame-shifters who lost their head in a crisis.
Over the past decades, your elected officials have let a criminal element incubate and grow until they ruled the streets, instead of the forces of law and order. In pop culture, a New Orleans thief is always a charming rogue with a devilish smile. In reality, they’re a bunch of thugs.

His entire article is at his most inspired, and communicates all the feelings and thoughts that I've shared since Hurricane Katrina passed by. Read the whole thing.

And speaking of Congressman Bobby Jindal, here's an insightful article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal that details the harmful effects of bureaucratic red tape when enacting relief efforts. Jindal lost his own home from the storm but was nevertheless fully engaged in serving his constituents in any capacity.

There have already been a number of instances in which an overly inhibitive bureaucracy prevented an appropriate response to the disaster. For example, on Wednesday of last week a company called my office. With only three hours before rising waters would make the mission impossible, they were anxious to send a rescue helicopter for their stranded employees. They wanted to know who would give them a go-ahead.

We could not identify the agency with authority. We heard that FEMA was in charge, that the FAA was in charge, and that the military was in charge. I went in person to talk with a FEMA representative and still could not get a straight answer. Finally we told the company to avoid interfering with Coast Guard missions, but to proceed on its own. Sometimes, asking for forgiveness is better than asking for permission.

He goes on to note that coordinating with private companies was far easier than with government agencies, and points to the weakness in the suggestion that more government is the answer in ensuring a more effective response. Expanding the size and scope of government agencies simply leads to sclerosis and results in the needless death of thousands of victims.

Like Geraghty's artice, read the whole thing from Jindal.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Eternal Exodus

Since as early as I can remember, there was much talk among politicians as well as in family conversations about Louisiana’s ongoing problem with its own citizens leaving the state for good. Louisiana is one of the few if only state in the union that has lost population in the last ten years, with little increase due to the national economic prosperity of the late nineties. The exodus has been a constant issue in statewide elections, with last year’s gubernatorial election portraying Kathleen Blanco’s opponent, Bobby Jindal as the embodiment of this phenomenon. Born to Indian immigrants who came to Baton Rouge for a job at the University, the Baton Rouge High graduate went to an Ivy League school, then to Oxford, and then worked for the current Bush administration. As brilliant a man that he is, he was aware of how many of his talented cohorts left their state to thrive elsewhere and to never expect them to return. It was one of the cornerstones of his campaign which resonated with me personally. I consider myself part of this ongoing exodus, as my father had made the decision to move to Texas after six years of living in the Pelican State.

And it was not that easy for me to leave. At the time I was attending Jindal’s alma mater high school in Baton Rouge, a truly exceptional institution. A magnet school established to attain high academic standards while forced to implement affirmative action enrollment policies (50% White/50% Minority), Baton Rouge High School truly felt more like a college campus than just a high school, and was populated by the ‘crème de la crème’ of local students in Lousiana’s capital city. The school benefited from the children of families employed by Lousiana State University, the chemical plants and refineries that hired talented engineers and researchers, as well as the children high-ranking state government bureaucrats. The result was that almost all of the top ten students would end up in Ivy League universities, and those in the top quarter would end up at other respectable private universities and colleges around the country. LSU would desperately woo BRHS graduates however they could in order to raise their own profile.

As in any locale, Louisiana could lay claim to some of the brightest young minds in the country, but looking at its current politics, economic development (or lack thereof) the obvious question becomes: where did they go? Following his close defeat to Blanco for the job of governor, Jindal won a seat in the U.S. congress by an overwhelming majority. At the age of 34, voters may have seen him as too young for the job of running the state. He was definitely outside the state’s mainstream of political tradition. He was incorruptible, a policy wonk, possessing lots of intellectual brainpower and definitely not a ‘good ol’ boy’. Louisiana politics is notorious for its corruption, its promotion of family dynasties, and its ethnic patron-client system. It is no wonder that Louisiana has been dubbed by some political scientists as America’s “banana republic”. Its longest serving governor, Edwin Edwards, was convicted for the illegal selling of gambling licenses and the family New Orleans’ longest-serving mayor, Mark Morial, have been legally indicted. Statewide elections consistently reveal ethnic divisions that favor the reelection of corrupt Democrats. Edwards used his Cajun base and the black voters of New Orleans to win six terms, while Senator Mary Landrieu has used the same strategy to barely stay in the senate, employing arguably fraudulent tactics to maximize the number of votes from New Orleans voters. Up until the 1990s, Louisiana was an overwhelmingly Democrat-dominated state. The opposition party consisted of a small coterie of Republicans, unable to cultivate a pool of electable candidates. Extremists would in turn come out ahead, such as David Duke’s candidacy for senator and governor and Woody Jenkins for senator. The most symbolic example of the hopeless state of affairs in Louisiana politics was the election for governor between David Duke and Edwin Edwards. The slogan for that race was “vote for the crook, it’s important”.

So this young, brainy, Indian and highly conservative yet accomplished man is a definitely different breed of politician for Louisiana, and he is also key to understanding why the state’s best and brightest have continued to leave. To effect meaningful change that would expand opportunities and attract outside investment was almost impossible given the state’s stultifying political hierarchy. The shameful neglect of the state’s public schools, its infrastructure and its poor are evidence that the political class answers to powerful families from agriculture like sugar, oil and gas and special retail businesses. Entrepreneurship has been saddled with needless regulations, and the priority placed on agricultural and industrial sectors of the economy has cultivated and expanded a large blue-collar population while minimizing the clout of the professional class. When bright and dynamic youths look around them, states like Texas look awfully good. In part due to its relatively small government whose legislature meets only every other year, the Lone Star state facilitates free enterprise and embraces outsiders easily, a world away from Louisiana’s intrinsic parochialism.

I suspect that many of the Louisianans that have now been displaced by Hurricane Katrina will also notice the opportunities that surround them in Texas and other states that offer them refuge. Not only is the business climate more favorable in almost every other state, but the school systems outside of Louisiana would likely be an improvement over those that were abandoned. It's pretty clear that the kids in "Reliant City" (the complex of shelters in Houston) are getting a better education than what they were subjected to in the failing New Orleans districts. In my home town of Dallas, refugees are already transfering into the local school district, which though far from perfect, are far more functional. Although many of those who fled will return to the Crescent City out of genuine love for the place, I predict there will be a sizeable minority who will permanently stay in their adoptive states, realizing that the job market and social services work better. Although the sheer mass of people filling the shelters will overwhelm any state's capacity to give them all that they need, they at least provide an environment where they can start over in more favorable conditions. What was at first a constant trickle out of Louisiana in the form of a brain drain has now become a flood of evacuees, many of them very poor who will now have to prove to everyone that they will not be a burden to those hosting them.

I do share some concern over this migration of the underclass. As I've mentioned in a previous post, the state of the underclass in New Orleans has always been awful. Rampant crime, drugs, illegitimacy, and the generations of families purely dependent on government assistance prevent these poor people from making a productive economic contribution of any kind. Resourcefulness and gumption are traits that have long disappeared from these communities, and the belief that government will answer all your needs guides all of their decisions. What looting and calls for help was reported by national media outlets as evidence of racism was from my point of view the disastrous result of decades of Democratic policies of welfare expansion and school neglect. The underclass is such partly because they are unable to help themselves, since they have been raised to rely on the government. Once they have absolved responsibility of their own lives, they have little regard for order and discipline. Efforts of self-help are scorned, and those who choose to lift their own prospects have no choice but to leave their troubled community. I was listening one morning on NPR some woman commenting on the implied racism of the relief efforts, and how it served as a mirror to the inherent injustices of American society. My instant reaction to her argument was: No, it's not a mirror of Americans as they always have been, but the utter failure of socialist-inspired government policies enacted since the sixties that have created an entire class of pitifully helpless victims who could never muster any communal resources to ensure their own evacuation and safety. It is also a class that is quick to blame others, an impulse natural to those who have shed responsibility, as well as embracing conspiracies that explain their terrible plight. As refugees and recipients of generous amounts of aid and compassion, will the social diseases that affect the underclass be treated? Will a new start in a new city be the beginning of a moral renewal they desperately need? If not, will they drain other states' resources with no end in sight?

The following articles more specifically sight the differences between what the evacuees have left and where they are now. New Orleans is often compared to Houston, as the latter has siphoned off much of the former's businesses and industries and has grown to ten times the population.

  • Urban sociologist Joel Kotkin details New Orleans' many problems and points to opportunities to rebuild the city in a novel way.

  • Noemie Emery answers those shocked that the breakdown of law and order in New Orleans could happen in America: New Orleans is the one city in America that resembles more a Carribean dictatorship than a truly American city.

  • David Hill explains further the tradition of Texas taking in outsiders, many of whom are disaffected Louisianans.

  • And finally Alice Miles argues in the Times of London that her own city would have dealt no better to a comparable storm, and that the social stratification in London is as severe and as big a threat to order than in New Orleans.

Friday, September 02, 2005

L'Amitie Francaise

An email from a French relative of mine was written to his American cousins as follows:

Quelle catastrophe !!!
Dans une région que vous devez connaître pour y avoir vécu si mes souvenirs sont bons.
Que peut-on faire face à ce déferlement ? Rien à priori si ce n'est se sauver devant le pire. Et le pire fut KOLOSSAL !
Depuis 4 jours on ne parle plus que de cela dans les journaux tant télévisés que radiophoniques et la presse. Tous ces pauvres gens qui se retrouvent sans rien, même pas un vêtement, pas d'eau ni de nourriture, pas de médicaments non plus ni de lait pour les bébés, c'est terrible.
Mais au delà de l'événement en lui-même, c'est la mise en oeuvre de moyens que nous percevons comme dérisoires face à l'ampleur du phénomène. Comment la 1ère puissance économiqque du monde n'est-elle pas capable de venir au secours de ses populations avec des moyens dignes de ce nom ? Nous pensons que ce n'est pourtant pas ce qui doit manquer ches vous tant en hommes qu'en matériels.On aurait cru vivre un autre tsunami avec les mêmes conséquenses sauf que les U.S.A ne sont ni le Sri-Lanka ni l'Indonésie ou la Thailande.
La France (comme d'autres pays) a proposé son aide et nous en sommes bien heureux. Si cela peut aider (mais je pense que ça aidera) surtout dans une région ou la culture française doit être restée un peut présente.
Je pense que Mister Bush, au lieu d'envoyer l'armée pour tirer sur les pilleurs devrait plutôt l'utiliser pour apporter aide et réconfort à toute cette population gravement sinistrée. Et de continuer tranquillement ses vacances ça a choqué ici.
A un journaliste qui lui posait cette question :
"Alors Mr le président, vous ne croyez toujours pas au réchauffement climatique ?", il aurait répondu :
"Si nous parlions de la guerre en Irak"
L'avenir jugera peut-être.
Et chez vous, comment cela est-il perçu ?
Bisous à toutes et à tous des euro-alsaciens.

His list of remarks are mostly predictable canards echoed by the American left and any Bush dissenter worldwide. From suggestions that it was the president's fault and that the War in Iraq is responsible for the imperfect relief efforts, there is nothing shocking in all of this. However, his letter gives me an opportunity to refute each of his points.

To begin:

Mais au delà de l'événement en lui-même, c'est la mise en oeuvre de moyens que nous percevons comme dérisoires face à l'ampleur du phénomène.

"But beyond the event of the hurricane itself, what we in France find shocking is the inability of Americans to organize adequate resources fitting enough for the magnitude of the disaster."

Recalling the fifteen thousand elderly Frenchmen who died of heat a couple of years ago, they're in no credible position to even express shock. Even as their entire infrastructure was working, with no devastating natural disaster to disrupt the functioning of social and medical services, they were unable to properly hydrate people in their own homes, much less in their much vaunted hospitals. And although the French have an almost limitless nuclear power supply, they were too stingy to invest in air conditioning at their hospitals. And since we should compare what's going on in New Orleans as third world, the French have done wonders in their former colonies in maintaining order and ensuring their people are fed (I'm being sarcastic). Whether it's a simple operation to restore order in the Ivory Coast, Zaire, or Haiti, the fifth largest military force in the World can't even accomplish law and order and social relief to poverty stricken populations that a few thousand part time soldiers (national guard) can accomplish within 72 hours of being called to duty.

Comment la 1ère puissance économiqque du monde n'est-elle pas capable de venir au secours de ses populations avec des moyens dignes de ce nom ?

"How is it that the world's largest economic power is not capable of coming to rescue a population with the means to fit that description?"

Obviously, the writer has not been informed of the extent of the damage. When a powerful hurricane (something the French have never experienced) wipes out an entire major U.S. city, cutting off roads, power, and obliterating all of the basic infrastructure that makes modern civilization possible. No military force anywhere could take charge of a flooded city and ensure quick aid within a day. The chaos taking place in New Orleans was due to local institutional failure, from the mayor telling everyone to go to the superdome rather than ensuring the means to evacuate all of those who could not afford to, to the governor who waited until the levee broke a day after the storm to call up the national guard and waited to declare a mandatory evacuation only after constant requests by the president himself. Again, does the writer truly believe that French forces would have responded more quickly?

Another significant issue that ties with the "economic power" argument is the writer's complete omission of private efforts. The relief efforts have been massive, but the the amount of money Americans have already opened their wallets has been huge, amounts not even closely achievable by Europeans. In addition to cash donations, the logistical scale of helping displaced evacuees is beyond any European's imagination. From organizing shelters out of stadiums to taking in families into their own home, to offering jobs to the displaced as well as ensuring schooling for the children, the generosity of private American citizens far outstrip the capacities that any Frenchman can fathom, as they expect the government to do everything.

La France (comme d'autres pays) a proposé son aide et nous en sommes bien heureux. Si cela peut aider (mais je pense que ça aidera) surtout dans une région ou la culture française doit être restée un peut présente.

"France has proposed to help and we are happy to do so. It should help (and I think it will), especially in a region where the French culture most maintain its presence."

This is in keeping with the French tendency to lay claim to all of its former colonies, whether they lost them 200 years ago (Haiti, Louisiana) or 50 years ago (Vietnam). Having lived in Louisiana, the affinity between Cajuns and French nationals is like settin side by side West Texas cowboys with contemporary Czech citizens. I hate to break it to them, but nobody speaks French in New Orleans except for that catchy touristy slogan "Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler". Cajun French has evolved from its ancestral tongue to such a degree as being almost a completely different language. Most of the architecture in the "French Quarter" is actually Spanish, as it was Spain that controlled New Orleans after the French and Indian War and rebuilt the city at the turn of the nineteenth century. I can bet you that opinions of the French among New Orleanians are no different than the rest of the American mainstream.

And for the amount of aid, we Americans are grateful for any offer but France's contribution is just a drop in the bucket. A couple of planes and a few million dollars doesn't come close to a private fleet of leased helicopters, a cavalry of privately owned rescute boats and hundreds of buses. I have a feeling that some French are completely unaware at the massive resources at our command.

Je pense que Mister Bush, au lieu d'envoyer l'armée pour tirer sur les pilleurs devrait plutôt l'utiliser pour apporter aide et réconfort à toute cette population gravement sinistrée. Et de continuer tranquillement ses vacances ça a choqué ici.

"I think that Mister Bush should use the army to bring in aid at the devastated population instead of shooting at looters. And to continue quietly his vacations was shocking for us in France."

Am I to understand that the French perceive that the National Guard was brought in strictly to shoot at the looters and that they are not bringing aid? That it isn't the looters shooting back at the army or police but rather a case of the armed forces just targeting helpless victims just trying to survive? As I've seen it reported in every news outlet, the looters have taken up arms and have shot at innocent people taking care of the sick, or attempting daring rescues of the stranded. The police have been too gutless to ever spare a shot, and the armed forces have acted as phenomenally professional as possible given the conditions. I hope that I misunderstood the writer's assertion, but I find it scandalous and downright sickening that the notion that the president has sent in the military to prey on the innocent and to excuse the barbarous behavior of some of the looters has been spread by media outlets in France.

And the French find it shocking that Bush didn't quickly cut his vacation short to devote his time to hurricane victims. This is from the very same people who left 15,000 of their grandparents to die alone while the rest of the family were on their traditional month-long August vacation. Although it was evident that the President had coordinated relief efforts from a federal level before the storm even hit from his Texas ranch, the French would like to believe that he was just in his backyard sipping mint-julips getting a sun-tan. It's funny that they feel entitled to take an undisturbed vacation during the hottest month while jettisoning any responsibilities for the death elderly loved ones they left behind. Bush was just being a good Frenchman about his vacation, you would think the French could identify with this. Anyway, the president did cut his "vacation" short, surveying the damage from his plane two days after the storm and getting the scene of devastation two days after--quite impressive.

"Alors Mr le président, vous ne croyez toujours pas au réchauffement climatique ?", il aurait répondu : "Si nous parlions de la guerre en Irak"

"A journalists asks the president: So Mr. President, do you still not believe in global warming? He responded--I'd rather talk about the war in Iraq."

The writer added this brief exchange to make two weakly supported points: first that global warming had something to do with the hurricane and that the presidents focus on Iraq is misplaced when natural threats loom larger than military threats. From my research, there is no substantial evidence that global warming contributed to hurricane Katrina's intensity, and that the number of powerful Hurricanes in the last five years is not unusually high and no worse than what was experienced by the U.S. during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Implementing the Kyoto treaty would have had zero effect in preventing hurricane Katrina.

If the president responds to questions regarding global warming by urging to talk about the Iraq war, it's probably because that the latter is a more pressing issue that requires immediate attention and focus. Global warming is a long-term problem, whose effects are so slow so as to be mostly insignificant compared to real threats of terrorism and rogue nuclear powers, that the President was right to brush off such an silly question. If the journalist can't differentiate the importance of military action from an unobservable climate theory, than he is not worth the president's time.

Other web sites go into much greater detail in explaining my positions regarding the whole hurricane issue. But I wanted to highlight here the perceptions of a relatively well informed Frenchman, and how his country's media is dangerously myopic to the reality on the ground in the Gulf Coast. His criticisms of the president are nothing new, and have been articulated countless times by left-wing groups in the past week. This being a relative of mine, I am dissappointed that the writer has yet to write anything sincerely sympathetic, but chose to highlight the flaws of my country and its policies. And yet I am not the least bit surprised by these statements.