Sunday, September 28, 2008

Usury

To be old-fashioned about it, lending at interest is usury, which has been condemned by the Catholic Church. Essentially, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, usury can be equated to theft, because it is the sale of something that doesn't exist. Money exists for its consumption: we use money as a medium of exchange. Like I consume wine when I make use of it (sometimes too much!), to properly use money is to use it up. Were I to sell that wine to another, but not use of the wine, which I would sell in a separate transaction, I would, in effect, sell that wine twice. This is much the same as usury: by lending at interest, I am "selling" the money, for which I charge a fee, e.g., interest. But I also demand the money back, in the form of repayment. So I have sold the money, but not its use. Were I to lend freely, I could freely ask for the money back.

The essential idea is that money, which has only a contingent value, is not real in any sense. We agree that George Washington has a value, but that value is not real, because it is based on common consent. A produced good is real in itself. A pot has value (and perhaps the other kind of pot as well), a dish has value, a tool has value, based on its utility. Food has a value. Land has a real value, apart from any "real estate bubble", in that the soil can be tilled, trees can be chopped down, water can be drawn. Land can produce real goods.

Wall Street is based on the principle of usury. By investing, we give use of our money, and we expect it back. But what happens if that company fails, or uses the money you "lent" them, in the form of buying shares, poorly? You then are stuck with paper, not money, and no one believes that your paper has any value. No one wants that piece of paper, and its value plummets. Now the question is where does real value lie? In tough times only commodities
are considered safe investments: real goods with real value. Corn, oil, agricultural products. Now, when a lot of people want to buy something that is in a limited amount, the price goes up. And when the price for corn goes up, the price for a lot of other things go up. Same for oil. If you remember the spike in oil prices in the early part of this year, a lot of people started to scream about corn-based ethanol. Everyone rushed to buy corn. And the price of corn skyrocketed. And poorer countries starved. This boom and bust cycle goes directly to usury. As does the present crisis.

Banks lend money that has been deposited, and pays a modest stipend to the owners of that money for its use. By depositing your money into the bank, you are making a loan to the bank, and can expect that money to be repaid. But what happens when the lender to whom the bank lent your money doesn't pay off the loan? The bank owes you money and can't pay. Banks start to panic, and begin to call in all the loans it made, to pay back its depositors, who are now wondering what will happen to their cash. This is what led to the Great Depression.

Wow. Maybe the Church knew what it was talking about, all those years ago.

If we go with the idea that value can only be found in that which produces something real, or supplies some need, then we must look to actual goods (as opposed to money, which is a symbol intended as a common medium of exchange). Land has value, as mentioned above. In the Medieval Age, peasants owned their land, and had more rights to it than I do. A peasant was never taxed on his land, only on its production. A peasant could never be thrown off his land by the local baron, and could be censured by the Church were a baron to make the attempt. There is a story of a baron who spent Christmas Eve on his knees, in the snow, outside the doors of the Bishop's home, begging forgiveness (Imagine a Pope exercising such influence – George Bush doing public penance? Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy in hair shirts, scourging themselves? The mind boggles).

Distributism can be understood as a humane system of economics. If everyone were to own land sufficient for their needs, they would have real property, and thus real wealth. If I can't farm, I can rent my land to a neighbor in exchange for a percentage of his yield, and I can provide services to others in exchange for other items. Yes, it bears the mark of barter economy, and it does rely on a smaller political scale. We would have to return to the village, where we would be forced to know and communicate with our neighbors. Horrors.

Imagine the scene, though. A village with a centrally placed church, guided spiritually by their pastor, all the citizens of the village spending their days working in trades or agriculture, greeting each other, communing in times of plenty, providing solace in times of woe, surrounded by small freeholding farms. Each family produces what it needs, shares what is extra. Christian charity would certainly bloom richly in such soil.

But I am too much of a cynic to allow myself this vision. This would assume that all people are motivated by charity, and not by greed, that we see ourselves realistically, in the light of humility, not obscured by the shadow of pride. To make this work men would have to stop being politicians and start being human beings, and there is bloody little chance that will ever happen.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What Happens if You Pop the Clutch on a Particle Accelerator?

On September 10, the Hadron Supercollider came online, and nothing happened. Not quite nothing, scientist managed to successfully test the equipment, and everything worked. I am certain a sigh of relief passed through CERN when they were sure of that. Nothing like a failed $3.8 Billion, with a "B" experiment. Now they can cheerfully set about smashing protons into component parts in order to RECREATE THE SUN!!! WHISKY TANGO FOXTROT, ARE THOSE CHEESE EATING SURRENDER MONKEYS AND CHOCOLATE DRENCHED CLOCKMAKING BANKERS INSANE?

Actually, they are not attempting to create the sun. That would just be a side effect, they want to recreate the first moments of the Big Bang, in order to read the results and track down the Higgs bosun, a "god particle", the one that gives mass, and therefore gives the matter that makes up the universe its existence.

Some concern has been voiced over this thing, some wondering if it won't inadvertently cause a mini black hole, which will destroy the earth. If that happens, I want enough notice to really run up my credit card bills. But I am sure that nothing bad will happen. They're scientists, and scientists know what they are doing, right?

My one question here is what do they think they are looking for? If the object of their search is the origin of "Life, the Universe and Everything", how do they plan to do that by looking at things that result from that origin? It is as if they are trying to describe the exterior of Grand Central Station in New York, while standing on one of the train platforms. An origin rises from a point "A", and that which flows from it is then ontologically subordinate. Scientists are attempting to define a concept by using the concept itself. It is a tautology, as if they were trying to assert the superiority of the Bible by pointing to a verse in the Bible that states the Bible is superior. To get a handle on what happened at the origin, we have to step outside of the flow of creation.

In line with that, what the folks at CERN are doing is cosmography, not cosmology. They are mapping the universe, not achieving any particular understanding of it. George Washington surveyed Virginia. He developed some pretty impressive maps. Did he understand the land better than the Native American cultures that lived there? To argue that "Science" will now be able to better explain the origin of the Universe based on these experiments is akin to developing a list of parts on a Harley-Davidson, even so far as to explain their function, and using that to discern the contact information for the engineer who developed the bike.

All of this is another grand example of the modernist, scientistic outlook on knowledge: the more data we get, the more we will know. Wisdom now is an accumulation of facts. Older, more traditional societies had a clearer understanding of the world around them than we do now, but we deride them because they are, or were, "primitive". I can't tell the time without a watch, I can't blend into my environment seamlessly, but somehow I am superior because I have a cell phone?

Traditional cultures live in a Universe that is alive, populated by beings with whom we can interact on a daily basis. A "primitive" person moved through his world with respect and a sense of manners, treating everything with common courtesy. Need to cross a stream? Ask the stream for permission. Need to secure food for your family? Thank the creature that died so your family could live. How are we better than them? Is our outlook any more "realistic" than theirs, just because we see the world around us as dead material to be exploited?

Physicists are just about wetting themselves in glee over the prospect of all the data they will garner in coming months, which will open up new horizons in human understanding. I argue that the understanding has always been there, but our modernist desire for "more" has made us blind to it. Novelty is its own god now. The data coming out of Hadron won't be any better, just more. I'll leave them their protons. Let them leave me my dragons.

Although it would be really funny if, after all the hype, they found nothing.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Obama's "300"




Homoerotic jokes aside about 300 (check out "300 in 15 minutes", Obama is reported to have 300 foreign policy advisors, a "mini state department", according to the New York Times. Far be it for me to tell a presidential candidate what to do, but 300 Barack? Exactly what sort of nuanced advice do you plan to get from guy number 300? And what if they disagree amongst themselves? Is there a hierarchy to determine who is smarter? And if you have to go through 300 people to get all the input you "need", how long does that take? "I'm sorry General, we can't decide on the nuclear question right now, advisor 177 isn't answering his pager."

And that number may be his failing. As Giuliani put it in his speech

"When Russia rolled over Georgia, John McCain immediately established a very strong, informed position that let the world know how he'll respond as president at exactly the right time. Remember his words? Remember what John McCain said? "We are all Georgians."

Obama's -- talk about judgment. Let's look at what Obama did. Obama's first instinct was to create a moral equivalency, suggesting that both sides were equally responsible, the same moral equivalency that he's displayed in discussing the Palestinian Authority and the state of Israel.

Later -- later, after discussing this with his 300 foreign policy advisers, he changed his position, and he suggested the United Nations Security Council could find a solution.

Apparently, none of his 300 foreign policy security advisers told him that Russia has a veto power in the United Nations Security Council.

By the way, this was about three days later. So -- so he changed his position again, and he put out a statement exactly like the statement of John McCain's three days earlier.

I have some advice for Senator Obama: Next time, call John McCain.


This is a telling point -- which one of the 300 advisors failed Obama? And why didn't he, a Harvard graduate (like George Bush!)know that the Russians have, and have always had, a veto on the Security council -- so action before the UN would be even more useless than usual. Obama chose his advisors, he lined up the people whose opinions he could trust, and he was left looking utterly rediculous. Add that to the "if Pakistan can't do it, we will" comment that threatened to destabilize the Musharref government, and we are left with the image of a man who is either too overwhelmed by the rigors of the job to do it well, or one who has hopelessly bogged himself in detail to the point that he is paralyzed when confronted with an actual crisis, much like another "outsider", bringing "change": Jimmy Carter. Carter was of course famous for his strategy for dealing with an energy crisis: lower your thermostats and wear sweaters. Sounds a bit like "inflate your tires and get an oil change", doesn't it? By failing to confron the threat of radical Islam, it can be argued that Carter helped to foster the climate that produced such people as Osama Bin Laden.

My father-in-law gave me a bit of advice one time: you should be ablet to number the people you trust on one hand. I think that works for politicians too. True, cultural understanding and background on particular countries is useful, but the greatest asset a president can have is a strategic outlook -- what is in the best interests of the country, and how do we accomplish it? By operating from a set of principles, almost any variety of circumstances can present themselves. Obama's tripping back and forth on the question of Georgia is a dangerous indicator that he is not guided by principle, but by his advisors. If that is the case, Obama is an empty suit, and will be the means by which a cabal will seize the Oval Office, and drive our country God knows where.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Barack Obama, No Dan Quayle

"Senator, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

Lloyd Bentsen, late of the failed Dukakis-Bentsen campaign of 1988, laid that bit of snark down on Dan Quayle during a VP debate. The effort during this election, and indeed during the Bush Administration, was to paint Dan Quayle as hopelessly out of his depth. It more or less succeeded, and Dan Quayle has been saddled with an unjust stereotype of his performance ever since.

In reality, Dan Quayle had as serviceable a record in Congress as many other politicians of the day. Elected at age 29 to the House of Representatives in 1976, he moved on to the Senate at age 33 in 1980. There he voted solidly conservative, although he did work across the aisle with Ted "Surf Chappaquiddick" Kennedy on a Job Training Act. A survey of his biography shows that Quayle, although not one of those Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan standouts, he was a solid politician, working for the best interests of his nation. He has a record he can stand by, and a resume to be proud of.

One of the criticisms, uttered without a trace of irony, is that Sarah Palin is "inexperienced". John Kerry focused on the fact that she has "zero, zero experience in foreign policy" (AP, August 31, 2008). It seems that for the Democrats, having such a dearth of experience "a heartbeat away" from the presidency is much worse than having a dearth of experience "an election away." Kerry ignores the fact that his guy has a similar lack of experience (short of his undergrad degree), and is running for the top job (As a side note, his thesis for his BA was on "Soviet Nuclear Disarmament". Very current. Maybe he can offer some opinions on the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand).

Looking at Obama's resume, we see that, like Palin, he has served 8 years as politician. In the Illinois state Senate, he logged an impressive record, voting "present" 130 times. This is on such unimportant issues as prosecution of juveniles as adults, sex crime legislation, and abortion. Present is a means of preserving political cover, by avoiding either a "yes" or a "no". It is an act of supreme political gutlessness. In the Senate, he has sponsored successful legislation, such as an amendment to H.R.1585, regarding adminstrative separation for members of the military for personality disorders, an amendment to HR 2764 requiring a comprehensive nuclear threat and reduction plan (no plan of his own, offered, of course), and of course SR 268 the declaration of July 12, 2007 as National Summer Learning Day. To be fair, his resume lists many other bits of successful legislation, and others that have been proposed, but none of them reflect any deep interest in, or understanding of, foreign policy. Most of them are the same old, same old expected of Washington politicians.

If we look at some of his other comments, we can see a similar lack of judgment. When he wanted to show he understood "big issues", such as foreign policy, he argued that we should go after Osama Bin Ladin, where ever he may be, even if he were in Pakistan.

I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.

What he didn't seem to realize is that his words would have a backlash. Many Pakistanis took umbrage at his comments. Apparently, they didn't believe that when Obama said we will act if Musharraf doesn't, he meant that we would send a nasty note, and not invite the Pakistani ambassador to the good parties. The pressure on the Musharraf government was increased within Pakistan, threatening to destabilize the region, leading to possibly another extremist Islamic government.

Add that to his comments that we should negotiate with Iran and North Korea without pre-conditions, and we start to see telling evidence of his naivete (at best, at worst, it could be called incompetence) in foreign policy.

In the same speech concerning Pakistan, Obama pointed out that "there is no military solution" in Iraq. If he means that there will be no classic WWII climactic battle, he's right. If he means that the military will serve no actual function in achieving a peaceful, stable, popularly elected government in Iraq, he is wrong. The so-called "surge" has worked. Violence is down. The Marines are handing over Anbar Province to Iraqi security forces. And yet, Obama refuses to say that he was wrong. How often have Democrats criticized Bush for not having the humility to accept when he was wrong, and apologize?

True, Obama reads a speech prettier than Dan Quayle ever did. But what crippled Quayle was his off-the-cuff remarks (potatoe comes to mind). That isn't so much due to the glib, melifluous Sen. Obama, but to a sympathetic media. Do you know how many states there are in the union? My fourth grade daughter does. Barak wants to be President of these 57 states of the United States of America. I'm pretty sure that Quayle knew how many states there are.

Looking at his record, Obama is unimpressive. Since the big issue in 2000 was the lack of experience of Bush as opposed to the experience of Gore, McCain should win. The argument could be made that Biden will serve as a support for Obama, because of his foreign policy experience. Just like the arguments made for Bush-Cheney. What difference is there, aside from political party (Oh, and of course the substantial record Bush amassed as an executive of a large state government reaching out to a Democrat held legislature)? Nothing.

If lack of experience is the criteria, I would rather have someone with executive experience serving as VP, following a "foreign policy" President, rather than an unexperienced Senator walking into the White House with a copy of "Foreign Policy for Dummies" under his arm.