Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Perspective on Wages and Labor

A recent report appearing on PBS' Newshour program looked into the reasons for the gap between employers who say they can't find qualified workers, and job-seekers who say they can't find adequate employment. The charge was made that Americans have become spoiled and feel entitled to more dignified work and higher wages. I made some comments on Facebook about this report, saying that if employers want to pay a good wage then they will find all the employees they need. First, here's the Newshour story:


Clip from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/jan-june12/jobseekers_04-06.html

Wages in America and around the world are not simply the natural working of the market's “invisible hand”. There are numerous factors of consciously made decisions by governments and corporate leaders that negatively impact wages, decisions which skew labor conditions and suppress the functioning of the “free market”.

The most obvious disparity between labor and capital is the relative freedom that capital enjoys compared to labor. Capital investments may be made and withdrawn at lightening speed around the world with ease, and with no regard for the consequences. On the other hand, labor is relatively stationary. Individual workers are shackled down by prohibitive immigration regulations and costs, as well as by familial and community obligations. Capital obtains a huge benefit by playing the arbitrage between labor pools; it enjoys what is effectively a monopoly on mobility. In a free market why should money be more free than people?

Additionally, unregulated wild and rapid speculation creates financial bubbles that can destabilize the economy and disproportionately harm the working class, who ultimately are asked to pay for the mistakes of the rich:1

     As capital owners and financial markets accumulate greater girth and a dominating influence, their search for higher returns becomes increasingly purified in purpose – detached from social concerns and abstracted from practical realities of commerce. In this atmosphere, investors develop rising expectations of what their invested savings ought to earn and the rising prices in financial markets gradually diverge from the underlying economic reality. Since returns on capital are rising faster than the productive output that must pay them, the process imposes greater and greater burdens on commerce and societies – debt obligations that cannot possibly be fulfilled by the future and, sooner or later, must be liquidated, written off or forgiven. (One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism by William Grieder, p. 227, italics added)

The negative consequences of “capital flight” around the world is abundantly documented.2

Corporations can also harness restrictive immigration regulations imposed on “guest workers” to strip employees of basic rights with no legal protection, forcing them into a state of virtual slavery, like what happened in the Northern Mariana Islands in the 1990s.3 The rallying cry of freedom is often made to justify America's military adventures abroad, but what usually results is a very selective view of freedom indeed. On September 19, 2003 Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, announced its rules on the structure of the new economy. It called for:

   ...the full privatization of public enterprises, full ownership rights by foreign firms of Iraqi businesses, full repatriation of foreign profits...the opening of Iraq's banks to foreign control, national treatment for foreign companies and...the elimination of nearly all trade barriers...The labor market, on the other hand was to be strictly regulated. Strikes were effectively forbidden in key sectors and the right to unionize restricted. (A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey, p. 6)

Likewise in America, an aggressive pro-business lobby routinely pursues a legislative agenda that includes curtailing union activity and restricting voter access, in hopes of shaving a few points off poll results that are less favorable to regulations on business. To the modern corporate profiteer, free markets mean absolute freedom for businesses and financial markets but not for labor markets. This is a lopsided arrangement that overwhelmingly favors monied interests.

When Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations, in 1776, and described the “invisible hand” of the free market system, modern capitalism did not exist. Most producers in America were independent farmers or artisans, and the use of wage labor was negligible. People could sustain themselves with some land, which was abundant. Businesses were often home-based and operated by families. After the colonies won their independence most Americans were opposed to industrialization because of the squalor and degrading servitude it produced back in England among its working class. After having won their independence the last thing most Americans wished to do was to surrender their freedom to a factory employer, only to endure a grueling schedule indoors performing monotonous chores in dangerous conditions. But a great deal of effort by the captains of industry was devoted to promoting factory work in America as humane and dignified, an uplifting and moralizing enterprise to rival their counterparts in England, which would actually improve the lives of citizens and increase their freedom, not diminish it.4 Eventually our nation's leaders acquiesced to industrial expansion as it became apparent that greater production capacity would help make America self-sufficient, and therefore more secure.

But the promise of expanding freedom and dignified labor soon began to evaporate.

     Certainly enterprise played a role organizing the workplace, offering jobs, and paying wages, but it was labor that made things and in so doing fulfilled human needs. This dynamic could only suffer as industry grew and came to employ hundreds rather than dozens of workers. At the same time, when craftsmen entered the mass production factory they forfeited their individuality as well as the creativity of self-directed work; their new jobs called on their muscle and brains but less often their skill or judgement. “The image of the artisan seemed to dissolve before their eyes,” writes Alan Dawley, “and in its place they saw an image of the industrial worker taking shape.” (There is Power in a Union by P. Dray, pg. 63-64)

Many of the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization witnessed across the ocean began to creep into factories here too, as workers were made to labor excessive hours in unsanitary and dangerous conditions. The uplifting, edifying virtues that were supposed to imbue industrial labor gave way to the dreary demands of capital.

As the population increased and land became less plentiful, fewer people (by no fault of their own) were able to draw a living from it. Labor increasingly became a commodity as factory wage earners comprised a greater portion of the working population. Workers' independence diminished as their ability to obtain wages commensurate with their contribution was undercut. Wages could be determined by the market demand for employment without regard to profits or the health of the company. Ultimately this arrangement depends on the concept of property rights, where the owner of capital has discretion to pay as little as the market will allow while reaping as much profit as possible. Wages can be completely divorced from the actual value of work. Under this arrangement labor is not a partner of economic enterprise with rights, it is a commodity to be traded like any other product. This arrangement is fundamentally unfair and unethical, not least of which because it pretends that human needs can be eliminated from economics.  But people are not products; It seems self-evident to say, people are the building block of society.

Suppose that you and I are partners who own a farm. If I raise 12 chickens and you raise 12 chickens, then as a partner each of us can bargain for an equal share of the profits: fifty-fifty. Or if I raise 12 chickens and you raise 24 chickens, you can bargain for a fair share of the profits: 2/3. As a partner our respective shares depend on a relationship of respect and trust, and if necessary, an ability to make a reasoned appeal based on facts. Our shares do not depend on the arbitrary exercise of one's will. However, the owners of capital do not pay wages based on an equitable share of added value; they pay wages based on the going market rate. If the economy is bad and unemployment is high then wages will decline.

Unfortunately this situation can create a perverse incentive for business leaders to foster a bad labor market. Owners of capital routinely behave consciously and intentionally such that labor markets suffer; such a scheme cannot reasonably be characterized as the working of Adam Smith's “invisible hand.” They take deliberate risks and make willful decisions based on short-term goals that negatively impact the interests of working people. Corporations are able to behave this way because labor is not an equal bargaining partner; the labor market is not an open and free exchange as some people imagine it to be, where employee and employer willingly agree on a contract that benefits both parties fairly. For example, many of the layoffs that plagued the 90s (and continue to the present) were unnecessary and preventable.5 Government policy can also play a major role in determining economic outcomes.

Beginning with President Reagan (and continuing with every president since) the U.S. has largely failed to enforce its antitrust laws6, leading to consolidation and monopolization across multiple industries. You may remember learning about those evil railroad monopolies in your high school civics class. Well, it's happening all over again to disastrous effect.7 This development, coupled with financial deregulation, accelerated corporate mergers as firms became better positioned to leverage capital like never before to buy out competitors. The consequences for labor was not good. The mergerfest resulted in redundant production capacity that offered a perverse incentive to close factories. Shareholders cheered as entire towns virtually shut down. The rising expectations on returns, noted earlier by William Greider, continued to gain momentum. During this time the stock option also became popular; CEOs began to be paid with stock options in addition to their salaries. This created another perverse incentive that was harmful to workers. Stock options ensure that CEO interests are aligned with shareholder interests, and not aligned with those of labor. As CEOs slashed more jobs, the more shareholders celebrated rising stock prices. When Robert Allen slashed 40,000 jobs at AT&T in 1996 he instantly gained a $5 million bonus from Wall Street. Some CEOs even dared to flaunt their job-cutting prowess, wearing it like a badge of honor. This brand of calloused zero-sum profiteering became known as “In-Your-Face Capitalism”.8

In 1980 the average CEO pay in America equaled 42 times the pay of the average worker. In 2000 CEOs made 535 times the average worker. By 2010, however, that multiple had settled to 342. In 2010 the AFL-CIO examined the salaries of 299 firms and found that executive pay increased 23% compared to 2009, during a time when most people were feeling pinched. Those 299 CEOs received a combined compensation of $3.4 billion, enough to support 102,325 workers at the median wage.9 These insanely huge salaries begs the question, do CEOs really deserve so much recompense? Can one honestly contend that a CEO adds as much value to a company as 342 full-time employees? Actually, as we will soon find out, CEO pay is not based on his or her contribution to value at all.

CEO pay is usually determined by a board of directors, and the board of directors is elected by shareholders. And shareholders are largely comprised of institutional investors, not by small individual investors. Institutional investors have somewhat different aims than those of individuals.

     Over the past three decades boards of directors have become more homogenous...with more of the same people sitting on boards of different companies. Institutional investors are now the primary electors and appointers of boards of directors, and these investors are themselves wealthy. They are more likely to support high compensation packages for executives and less likely to take an interest in compensation for the average worker. But there is even more to it than just that as well.
     Executive compensation is also a form of protection against takeovers. In effect, executives are paid in part simply not to destroy the company, i.e. they are paid not to undermine the interests of the shareholders by engineering undervalued corporate takeovers and things of that nature. In addition, executives have significant control over share price by the manner in which they report information. So executives are paid highly in part in order to provide a disincentive to underreport information leading to lower stock prices, which makes takeovers easier and less costly.
     ...in the 1980s and 1990s continuing deregulation of industries as well as other factors made the environment ripe for takeovers. As a result the institutional shareholders appointed executive compensation boards who worked in their interest to highly compensate executives as a means of defense against hostile and undervalued takeovers. As institutional shareholders became more powerful, it led to an arms race, in which the threat of takeovers grew and the defense against them grew as well.
     Giving executives extremely high pay and golden parachutes (extremely rich termination packages) was seen as a form of insurance against hostile and undervalued takeovers. The decline of unions also paved the way in this regard as well, because union contracts also [serve] as a protection against hostile takeovers, but as unions declined this opened the door for more takeovers, leading to the further pumping up of executive compensation. So in this sense, executive compensation has very little to do with reward for performance. It is simply a form of insurance, the price which got even higher with deregulation and deunionization.
(from “How Reagan Sowed the Seeds of America's Demise, by R. G. Price, at http://www.rationalrevolution .net/articles/recession_cause.htm) 

In a truly equitable system where contracts were agreed upon by partners with equal bargaining power, CEO pay would never climb so high. In an equitable system the ones who create the most value for the company would be entitled to the lion's share of the pay as well. But, as R.G. Price explains, CEO incomes “are a product of capital control, not of their contribution to value creation...a product of position, not production.” In other words, heads of corporations feel entitled to pay that they have not earned themselves. Price continues:

     ...if a farmer has a family farm that produces 100 eggs, 10 gallons of milk, 20 lbs of meat, and 50 lbs of vegetable a day, then that family is producing that amount of value each day regardless of anything else. That is clearly value created by them and no one else. If everyone else in the world decided to stop working and the economy totally crashed and no one bought anything from anyone else, that family would still be producing that value and would still benefit from it. This isn't the case with investment income however. With investment income, none of the value is produced by the investor, and all of the income is dependent upon collective value creation and social systems.
     If an investor invests $1,000 in a business on a condition of a 10% annual dividend...and then all the workers decide to quit, then no value will be created. The company will fail, the investor will lose his investment and will get no income from it.

Value can only be added to a company by performing work. All this does not mean that executives do not deserve high compensation. But it does mean that the obscene salaries many CEOs draw represent an unfair transfer of wealth from the workers who create value to the executives who do not. In other words, today's CEO salaries represent an effective tax on labor.

Another rule that negatively impacts labor markets: corporations do not pay taxes on overseas profits, but may be deferred until they are repatriated, if ever. They can also deduct expenses incurred from the transfer of operations abroad. Taxing overseas profits in the year they are earned would raise the cost of shifting production overseas, reducing the incentive for doing so. Of course land and wages are cheaper overseas (!) where labor laws are weak or nonexistent, and where human rights are not a priority. All the more reason to demand human rights standards from all our foreign trading partners. Long forgotten are the arguments that industrial expansion would make America self-sufficient and secure.  Long forgotten are those old arguments that industrialization would expand freedom and prosperity, that the rising tide would lift all boats.  The data are clear, the rich have reaped most of the gains of the recent so-called recovery. Only the richest boats have risen while nearly everyone else has either sank or remained flat. The overwhelming majority of gains have come from capital investments, which (remember) involve the transfer of wealth from working people to investors. The graph below helps to explain how the transfer has occurred10 (click on image to enlarge).  In the U.S. productivity has risen consistently following the Great Depression. Yet since the 70s wages have stagnated; working people have not reaped the benefits of the richest country in the world.


Recent research (called efficiency wage theory) suggests that wages paid slightly above market rates actually pays for itself with increased production.11 Henry Ford understood this when he offered his employees $5 a day, nearly twice the going rate. He wanted his employees to also be customers. The move eliminated constant turnover, reduced training costs, increased productivity, and proved to be profitable as well.

But besides the obvious benefit of higher wages to the individual and employer alike, more equitable pay helps the greater economy too. More people with more money leads to a growing middle class with increasing buying power. And all that buying power keeps money flowing and the economy growing. Rich people cannot spend their money fast enough to keep the economy moving; most of their money remains hidden away in stocks that earn dividends and accounts that earn interest. But they are inefficient at spending all that money where it can actually help the economy grow. For instance, one billionaire can only consume so much caviar. But a thousand millionaires can consume a thousand times as much caviar. We can project our example onto the middle class too. A thousand middle class persons can dine out a thousand times as frequently as a single millionaire can. And the more money that people spend, the greater the economy benefits. Rich people tend to save their money, poor people tend to spend it. This is why the present economic recovery is so sluggish: most of the recent gains have come from the stock market which went to the richest Americans who are the least likely ones to spend it.

One last subsidy for the rich is that several U.S. military campaigns have been fought in order to protect the assets of U.S. corporations doing business abroad.12 The U.S. military protects corporate assets all over the world, yet it often recruits soldiers from the poorest segment of society who risk their lives and die defending them. I don't know of any CEO who died defending his own company on foreign land, though perhaps a handful might exist. The point is, however, that the poor must come to the aid of the rich again. Only a big government can guarantee an adequate military response to diverse threats around the world, and serve as a deterrent to potential threats. Besides the commitment soldiers make to protect assets abroad, an increasing portion of the tax burden to pay for security is falling on the working class; corporations lobby relentlessly to lower their tax burden, and many pay no federal taxes at all!13

To add insult to injury, late last year President Obama announced an agreement to deploy 2,500 Marines in 2012, along with ships and aircraft, to a base in Darwin, Australia, in order to begin a shift in focus away from Afghanistan and toward growing concerns with China. The NY Times reported, “The countries along the South China Sea have been especially eager for the United States to increase its presence in the region as a check on China’s ambitions.”14 Apparently China has claimed access to heavy metals in the region, but so do several other countries. Anyhow, the troubling part is that American citizens are losing jobs here in the U.S. because corporations are shipping them to China, while military operations are beefing up in the Pacific Rim now because China might pose a future threat. Then who are the Chinese? Are they friend or foe? The American taxpayer loses twice, the corporations win double, again.

To wrap all this up into a convenient summary this much is clear: monopolies, immigration restrictions, CEO pay, stock options, preferential tax policies, union regulation and military budgets, etc., all translate into a tax on working people to subsidize the incomes and lifestyles of the rich. Contrary to the PBS interview where workers are said to feel entitled to more dignified work, it is the corporate class who feels entitled to excessive dividends at the expense of working people. Job seekers know that the economy is rigged against them, and they are tired of enduring harder, longer hours for less money.


Notes and References:

1 The financial crisis of 2008, and the subsequent bailouts, is only the most recent example of this.  "...there is no greater killer of jobs than elite financial fraud.  Such fraud epidemics can hyper-inflate bubbles (as they did in the U.S. and several European nations) and cause severe financial crises and recessions.  The resulting Great Recession has cost over 10 million Americans their existing or future jobs in this crisis.  It has cost over another 15 million people their existing or future jobs in Europe.  The JOBS Act is so fraud friendly that it will harm capital formation and produce additional job losses."  (William K. Black, "The Only Winning Move is Not to Play -- The Insanity of the Regulatory Race to the Bottom" at https://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/04/22-4 )


2  To see how capital flight created economic disasters in Asia and Mexico see Globalization and Its Discontents by J. Stiglitz, pg 94-100; and One World Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism by W. Greider, chapters 11 & 12.

3 The Wrecking Crew by Thomas Frank, chapter 9.

4 There is Power in a Union by Philip Dray, chapters 1 & 2.

5 The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences by Louis Uchitelle.

6  The AT&T and Microsoft cases are two rare exceptions. Since the 70s antitrust cases have generally been decided based on what is good for the consumer (i.e. that which produces lower prices) which may or may not include other adverse consequences. I would argue that it does. Part of the problem with U.S. antitrust law is that it does not prohibit all monopolies which may occur, only those where a firm conspired to form a monopoly through certain unaccepted practices, like price fixing, bid rigging, or market allocation agreements, etc. But since it is clear that monopolies harm economic activity, the methods by which one is obtained matters very little from an economic standpoint... In other words, regardless of guilt the economic effect is exactly the same. The “neoliberal” free market ideology promoted by the Chicago School economists (a.k.a. the “Washington consensus”) facilitates the emergence of monopolies by legal means. But regardless of how monopolies form they still harm the economy all the same.
     The central criticism of neoliberal ideology is that it demands blind faith in the unrestrained whims of the market, it reqires acceptance of its outcomes. But there is no reason to believe that the course of nature is necessarily benevolent. While the drive for freedom is universal among humans, so is the drive to seek shelter from catastrophe, whether it is from markets or natural disasters. Past and recent events have demonstrated that unregulated markets create havoc across governments and communities; they create national and personal disasters. For a fine critique of free market fundamentalism see One Market Under God by Thomas Frank.

7  Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction by Barry Lynn.

8 Newsweek, “The Hit Men” by Allen Sloan, Feb 26, 1996.

9  CNNmoney April 20,2011 by Jennifer Liberto at http://money.cnn.com/2011/04/19/news/economy/ceo_pay/index.htm, see also http://archive.aflcio.org/corporatewatch/paywatch/

10  Image is from A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey, p. 25  For a more complete discussion on rising productivity, including how education and education costs factor in, please read "How Reagan Sowed the Seeds of America's Demise" by R.G. Price at http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/recession_cause.htm

11   The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Workers What They Want by David Sirota, Chapter 4: Compensation

12  Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq by Stephen Kinzer

13  Thirty Fortune 500 companies paid no federal taxes for three years, from 2008 to 2010.  From Citizens for Tax Justice, "Representation Without Taxation", January 2012 http://www.ctj.org/pdf/USP-RepTax-Report.pdf

14  Jackie Calmes, “Obama's Trip Emphasizes Role of Pacific Rim,” New York Times; Nov 18, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Let's Keep the Bigotry Down to a Small Roar, Please...

Bryan Fischer, head of the American Family Association, recently gave a speech at the Values Voters Summit in Washington DC, where he made the following remarks:

"It is not possible for there ever, in the United States of America, to be a separation between God and government because God is the source of every single right which government has a sacred duty to protect ... not a single one of our unalienable rights will be safe in the hands of a president who believes that we evolved from slime and we are the descendants of apes and baboons ... look at the nation states in the 20th century which rejected the creator God of the Judeo-Christian tradition – Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Communist China. The one thing all of these secular states share in common is dead bodies."

Not only are these types of remarks offensive to all unbelievers (like myself), they reflect an extremely biased and selective understanding of history, and a complete rejection of basic, verified scientific knowledge. First of all, evolution is a fact. There is no disagreement among scientists about it. The reality of evolution is an established fact; all life on earth is related by a single common ancestor. You can argue about the 'HOW' but not about the 'WHAT'. One can argue, as some do, that god set the wheels in motion for life to evolve the way it did, that he somehow directed the process of evolution. But there is no legitimate challenge to the fact of evolution because nearly every scientific discipline confirms it in thousands of ways. Evolution is difficult to accept for many people, but their personal difficulties do not change the reality one bit.

To compare Hitler, Stalin, and Mao to every atheist is no less irrational and unjustifiable than to equate all Christians today with the crusaders, or with David Koresh. In fact Hitler had a belief in God, even if it was a rather 'unorthodox' one. Some people will say, well, Hitler was not a 'real' Christian. But this appeal leads to the intractable problem of deciding who is a real Christian anyhow (please google "no true Scotsman fallacy" for one example). Stalin was an atheist, it's true. But he did not commit his crimes because he was an atheist. He committed them because he was a megalomaniac and a control freak. Stalin didn't only persecute religious folks, he persecuted scientists too because he wanted so much for their findings to support his ideas (look up 'Lysenkoism' on Wiki, for example). Stalin did not respect science, he wanted to manipulate science for his own purposes. Mao also refused to accept scientific facts based on Darwin's great theory, and it lead to conditions that resulted in millions of people starving to death from famine. Therefore the inference that a president who believes in evolution would lead to death squads is complete BUNK! Understanding evolution helps humanity to understand REALITY, which can lead to real solutions to real problems.

One finds numerous equally dark moments in the history of Christianity as well. I am reading a book called 381 A.D, by Charles Freeman. It's about the first time that a Christian theocracy was established across an entire empire, under the Roman emperor Theodosius. You wont find any semblance of the unalienable rights that Mr. Fischer so confidently declares above. Had the religious zealots of that time had access to the technologies in weapons and transportation that Hitler and Stalin had, there is little doubt that the churches would have killed just as many infidels as our modern villians did. What followed from the laws of Theodosius' time was a period where freedom of speech and freedom of religion rapidly eroded.. gone was the tradition of the Greek philosphers to investigate and ask meaningful questions. Where philosophers had before freely speculated on the nature of the universe, and everything in it, debate had devolved into wondering how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It was a dark era that was only significantly challenged beginning with Galileo, Bacon, and the Enlightenment philosophers. Bigots like Mr. Fischer conveniently overlook the countless victims of religiously inspired violence over several millenia, and particularly those atrocities committed by sincere Christian believers. What does all this mean? It can only mean that the heart of darkness in man can be found among many different types of people. Which is exactly why we must be vigilant, and be prepared to speak out and act against all injustice whatever its source.

And lastly, the 'Christian nation' myth has no congruence with reality at all. The rights we enjoy in the United States today were written specifically to counter the injustices imposed by organized religion, and find their source in the Enlightenment, not in Christianity. Many of our founding fathers were in fact deists, with little or no belief in the Bible as an inspired book. This subject is competently discussed in a two terrific articles, which are a bit long but well worth the effort to read. They discuss the separation of church and state in America, and the foundations of American law. Thanks for reading. Informed comments welcome.

http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/history_of_the_separation_of_chu.htm
http://www.rationalrevolution.net/articles/ten_commandments.htm

Monday, September 5, 2011

I'm Way Smarter Than Warren Buffett

I was listening to Warren Buffett on Charlie Rose recently, and he said that once the housing market turns around then the economy will turn around. Once excess supply sells off, the natural population growth will create demand for new housing, and things will return to normal. But it all sounds too optimistic to me. People will still not have money for down payments for years to come, they will continue to rent, and high demand for rentals will drive rents higher, exhausting discretionary incomes, keeping people marginally poor (not to mention the rising cost of energy and food). Reductions in education spending result in fewer opportunities for skilled employment, which is where the employment openings are right now. No, people will not begin buying houses until they have more cash in their pockets and the future looks safe and secure.

I work for a large publicly-traded company. When the economic crisis hit we started getting squeezed right away.. same 'ol shit really, but ratcheted up a couple more notches: Do more work in less time. It turns out that while most people had lost a bundle in their real estate investments and 401k, they began turning their attention toward stock portfolios in safer companies to help absorb the shock. Our company is one of those successful companies that has managed to weather the storm. In these last 3 years we've gotten meager raises, barely keeping with inflation, in spite of huge profits. So all that extra work hasn't translated into a better standard of living or savings rate. All that extra work merely translates into dividends paid to some lazy bastard on eTrade investing his exorbitant rental income back into my company, instead of producing something of value himself. My work is his personal ATM machine. We've not been able to save in spite of having no debt and sacrificing vacations and other luxuries. I've got a good job, and yet it will take us another 4-5 years to save for a down payment.

So all this means that people are not going to buy houses until they feel better about their prospects for the future. And they wont feel better until middle-class values begin to guide public policy again. The rich don't create jobs, the rich create wealth. And they create wealth by cutting jobs and sending them overseas in a "race to the bottom", according to the short-term goals of shareholders. Sometimes Warren Buffett don't sound too bright.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Restore Traditional Cleanliness

[A friend of mine wrote this following the vote on Prop 8 in California, and has allowed me to reproduce it here]

Bless God! The minions of hell scattered in defeat when California voters passed Proposition 8 on Nov. 4, 2008. God's power and glory are now defended by an amendment that restores traditional marriage to mean between one man and one woman. Almighty God has mobilized the civil powers through us, his obedient servants, to fulfill his unwavering will. Peace on Earth, good will toward men! His truth is marching on.

In spite of the good news this is no time for slacking off. Vigilance is needed now to confront the backlash of anger from our defeated foes. We must be prepared for immediate action, to take advantage of the popular surge of support we experienced in the final days before the elections. Therefore, we ask you to join with us to support a series of additional propositions, to be introduced into the next California election ballot, to further advance the will of God as revealed in his word, the Holy Bible. Californians have successfully restored the legal status of traditional marriage, now let us join together to restore the legal status of traditional cleanliness too!

Did you know that the Holy Bible explicitly condemns homosexuality only in 3 separate verses, yet it condemns ceremonial uncleanliness in as many as 113 verses? We already know from the Bible that God hates homosexuality, yet most people are unaware of just how much God hates uncleanliness too. But in his infinite wisdom God has shown us in the Bible. Let us restore traditional cleanliness as revealed by God to his chosen people of Israel nearly 3,000 years ago. Below is a sample from the Bible of Gods' view of traditional cleanliness:

  • Anyone with an infectious disease is unclean. He must bathe, shave off all his body hair, and a priest must kill a bird and sprinkle its blood over the infected person seven times. Then like magic he will be clean! (Leviticus 14:1-7)
  • Anyone with an infectious disease on his head must wear old clothes, he cannot comb his hair, and he must cry aloud "Unclean! Unclean!" and must live alone (Lev 13:45)
  • Nobody may eat any meat from a pig, a rabbit, or a camel. These are all unclean (Lev. 11:4,6-8)
  • Nobody may eat any insects that swarm, like bees (Deuteronomy 14:19)
  • A woman who gives birth to a boy is unclean for 7 days (Lev 12:2)
  • A woman who gives birth to a girl is unclean for 14 days (Lev 12:5)
  • All clothing with mildew must be burned (Lev 13:50-52)
  • Couples having sex are unclean and must take a bath immediately after having sex. (Lev 15:18)
  • A woman is unclean for 7 days after her period, as well as anyone who touches her (Lev 15:19)
  • Any clothing or leather with semen on it must be washed, it is unclean (Lev 15:17)
  • A male who has a "wet dream" and squirts on himself is unclean until evening (Lev 15:16)
  • A soldier at war who has a "wet dream" is unclean and must leave the camp until evening (Deut 23:9-11)
  • Anyone who touches a grave is unclean for 7 days. They must be purified or else kicked out of town forever (Numbers 19:14-20)

It is obvious, from reading the above passages, that God cares a lot more about cleanliness than he does about homosexuality. As obedient servants of God we must continue spreading his ways into all the echelons of public life and government. We praise God every day that we live in a Christian nation founded upon the values of the Bible. God's wisdom is manifest and he teaches us with his Word. Sure, some of his commandments are obtuse and confusing. But fortunately it is not our job to question God's Word, it is only our job to obey it! Let us restore traditional cleanliness as God intended! Let us transform traditional cleanliness not as merely a personal preference; let's make traditional cleanliness the law of the land, just like it was during the time of Moses. By restoring traditional cleanliness we can restore God's favor with us, and simultaneously help avert natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, and AIDS epidemics.

Too often couples having sex do not clean up after themselves. A constitutional amendment will change that. Too often clothing with mildew is not burned, it is merely thrown hastily into the trash. A constitutional amendment will change that. Too often women having a baby do not realize that giving birth to a girl makes them twice as unclean as having a boy; that's what the men who wrote the Bible say, so it must be true. Let's not argue with God about it, OK? A constitutional amendment will guarantee that every citizen of California either knows it, or suffers the consequences! Too often hungry people all over the world eat unclean animals and insects, like pigs, rabbits and bees. Sadly, our secular, liberal, and ungodly government has neglected laws regarding the eating of bees. A constitutional amendment will restore godliness to the land by teaching people not to eat bees, pigs, rabbits and camels. Too often military personnel away at war have wet dreams and cannot leave camp in time. A constitutional amendment can change that. We can build "clean haven" houses and a transit system for soldiers to recover from their sexual uncleanliness until evening. Too often men have sex with a woman during her period, failing to recognize how unpleasing to God it is. A constitutional amendment will change that. Too often people with infectious diseases try to clean themselves up a bit and comb their hair, trying to look presentable to an unsuspecting public. A constitutional amendment will change that. Too often women who are menstruating go to work, or go shopping, and touch everyone around them, making others unclean as well. It is no wonder, therefore, that God declared women unfit for preaching, working, or voting. This is not our view, it is God's view; go read the Holy Bible for yourself. What if a woman goes out to vote thinking it's been seven days already, but actually it's only been six! She could make the whole town unclean in a matter of minutes! A constitutional amendment will restore traditional cleanliness and restore traditional misogyny; it will keep women in their homes and prevent them from taking important jobs away from men. The ancient words of Bronze Age men -- who are no more intellectually sophisticated than a Talibani sitting on a pile of rocks and wiping his butt with his own hand -- cannot be wrong!

Dear friend, God has repelled the forces of Satan by helping Californians pass Proposition 8. We cannot let down our guard with the momentum in our favor. Traditional marriage is restored to the glory of God. Let us now restore traditional cleanliness! With your help we can.


"For the generations to come, if any of your descendants is ceremonially unclean . . . that person must be cut off from my presence. I am the LORD." Leviticus 22:3


P.S. I mentioned earlier that this effort is only one step in the campaign to restore God's Word in government. But many more propositions are in the works. Please take a moment to review them, and let us know which ones you would be willing to support. Thank you:

  • A proposition to ban homosexuals from saving a drowning child (mouth-to-mouth would be too gross!)
  • A proposition to ban homosexuals from breathing our precious air
  • A proposition to ban homosexuals from becoming doctors or nurses
  • A proposition to ban homosexuals from finding a cure for cancer or working in any scientific research field (we wouldn't want to owe them a debt of gratitude or recognize their indispensable contributions to society, would we?)
  • A proposition to ban homosexuals from calling the fire department or the police
  • A proposition to ban homosexuals from voting
  • A proposition to ban homosexuals from driving in the carpool lane
  • A proposition to ban homosexuals from celebrating Christmas



Sunday, August 21, 2011

Discussion on Abortion

[A couple weeks ago one of my Facebook friends posted a video about a young lady named Anne Marie Dust who wanted to attend Vanderbilt University's nursing program, but was first required to sign a form saying that she would agree to participate in performing an abortion. She refused and litagation followed. Eventually Ms. Dust won and the school reversed its policy. I posted comments on my friend's Facebook account in which I agreed with Vanderbilt University's position. I have reproduced the full discussion below because the comments became too long for Facebook. Additional comments appear below, and any future comments will be appended into the main body when I have time. Here I hope to continue the discussion with anyone who may be interested. The link to the original video about Ms. Dust's complaint is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaallbOpCNY ]

Jeff:
The Bay Area, CA, is home to numerous biotech companies. South San Francisco declares itself "the birthplace of biotechnology". Two of the world's largest biotech companies are headquartered here. Also, there's a lot of homosexuals who work at these companies, who create cures for cancers and other diseases. How would you feel if a group of homosexual biologists got together and said, we do not approve of our lifesaving inventions being used to treat Christians? Would that be ethical? I don't think anyone would stoop so low to ever make such a demand.

But sadly, many Christians feel that their beliefs entitle them to deny medical care at will to people whose lifestyles they personally disapprove of. There are many reasons why a woman may choose to have an abortion. It is not for the healthcare worker to decide, but for the individual woman to decide. If someone were to argue that life is a gift from God that begins at conception, then I would point out two major problems with that view. 1) Life does not begin at conception. Life is an unbroken chain which first began about 3.5 billion years ago, and nearly every scientific discipline confirms this fact with abundant evidence. Furthermore, a great deal of that life is sentenced to suffer the ravages of predators and the elements, etc with no assistance from above... and 2) If life is a gift from God then why does he choose to end 25 - 50% of all pregnancies with miscarriage? If abortion is sinful, then God is the biggest sinner of them all. It seems much more humane to end an unwanted pregnancy at a time before needless suffering is possible, than to give birth to a child whose parents, for whatever reason, are not prepared to raise.

Darlene:
So you think it is right for the school to require students to aid in abortions in order to be accepted in the school. If that is what u r saying I disagree. That is what this video was about. This girl lived according to her conscience and fought that requirement and won. I am in agreement with her and hopefully if I were in the same situation would have done the same thing

Sarah:
Yes, the video is about requiring someone to go against their conscience to take part in ending the life of a living human being in order to pursue their degree. The hypothetical situation mentioned above does not really apply to the premise of the video. The girl in the video wasn't trying to deny medical care to a woman; she just didn't want to be forced to participate. Besides, it is difficult to see how purposely ending a life can be considered "medical care." @Jeff: if you are trying to make a separate argument about when life begins, it seems your issue is more about why God allows (or causes) suffering and death. You say "life does not begin at conception." That is an opinion, and the evidence does not abound, as you say it does.

And one of the biggest problems with "making a 'humane' decision" about whether someone should be allowed continue to live or not, besides the fact that we are not God, is that the person whose life may be ended has no say in the matter, none at all.

Jeff:
I appreciate hearing your views, and having a reasoned discussion. Forgive me for responding at length here.

I understand your position, and I can respect someone who lives by their principles. But we have a duty beyond personal conscience, and that is to be informed to the greatest extent possible with the best information possible. This is the subject of an essay called “The Ethics of Belief” by William Clifford, which I think applies (and I encourage you to read it, especially Section I: The Duty of Inquiry). (see http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/w_k_clifford/ethics_of_belief.html )

Doctors and nurses have a duty to be informed with the best scientific knowledge available. Issues of conscience informed by ancient beliefs and practices from the Bible do not represent the best knowledge available. One's conscience must be informed by the real world to be of any practical use.

Suppose a nursing student felt that blood transfusions were sinful (as do the Jehovah's Witnesses), and refused to participate in blood work. Or suppose a student, after reading the Bible, concluded that black people are inferior to white people, and his conscience told him it was OK not to assist black people in need. Should we celebrate his freedom of conscience to discriminate? Another individual might conclude from reading the Bible that schizophrenia and epilepsy result from demon possession, but she would be wrong! Her conscience might tell her to call a priest, while the best science calls for medication. [update: You don't see many Christian Scientists applying for nursing school, for the simple reason they don't believe in modern healthcare at all. Shall nursing programs begin to admit them too, and honor their views of conscience?] A healthcare professional cannot pick and choose her patients and treatments; she must serve the needs of the patient. How would a student ever acquire adequate training, or complete an internship, by serving herself and her conscience first? The example in this video, and those noted above, depend upon an unfounded belief in the authority of the Bible.

(To learn why I say it is unfounded see http://whirledbulletin.blogspot.com/2010/06/deconversion.html )

“Baby Fae” represents an extreme example of where an individual's conscience fails to serve the needs of the patient. In 1984 an infant known as Baby Fae required a heart transplant. Dr. Leonard L. Bailey at Loma Linda University Medical Center, a Seventh-Day Adventist facility, attempted to transplant a baboon's heart into the child. Baby Fae appeared to be doing well at first, but died 21 days later. Dr. Bailey was criticized for choosing a baboon instead of another species (like a chimpanzee) that is closer to humans in the evolutionary tree. When asked by an Australian journalist why he did not choose a species that is more closely related to humans, he said, “Er, I find that difficult to answer. You see, I don't believe in evolution.” Dr. Bailey has always maintained that the transplant failure had nothing to do with the species of the organ donor. His conscience may have told him that a baboon heart was a good choice, but the best scientific knowledge suggests better choices. Oddly, in a Times magazine article (“Baby Fae Stuns the World”; Nov 12, 1984), Dr. Bailey admitted: “There is evidence that the chimpanzee, orangutan, or gorilla may be a better donor.”

Clifford would say that Dr. Bailey may not act on his conscience against the best science available. Healthcare is based on scientific knowledge, not on religious beliefs or special revelation. While it is admirable to stand by one's principles, those principles ought to be informed by real knowledge.

Sarah:
Yes, the video is about requiring someone to go against their conscience to take part in ending the life of a living human being in order to pursue their degree. The hypothetical situation mentioned above does not really apply to the premise of the video. The girl in the video wasn't trying to deny medical care to a woman; she just didn't want to be forced to participate. Besides, it is difficult to see how purposely ending a life can be considered "medical care." @Jeff: if you are trying to make a separate argument about when life begins, it seems your issue is more about why God allows (or causes) suffering and death. You say "life does not begin at conception." That is an opinion, and the evidence does not abound, as you say it does. And one of the biggest problems with "making a 'humane' decision" about whether someone should be allowed continue to live or not, besides the fact that we are not God, is that the person whose life may be ended has no say in the matter, none at all. So Dr. Bailey specifically chose a baboon to serve his conscience? I suspect he was relying on the best medical science, unrelated to evolutionary "science." Has someone since then tried another species with success?A person does not need to believe the Bible to realize that abortion is ending another human life. If I understand you correctly, you refer to abortion as "healthcare." Again, I do not see how it can possibly be termed that unless there is a rare case of a mother's life being in danger. Can principles be informed by the knowledge of a real fetus? Or are the mother's desires/choices more "real"?

Jeff:
Hi Sarah. My last reply was composed offline, and was posted before I had a chance to read your comments. So if I may, I will answer some of your concerns now.

You conveniently dismiss the scenarios I mentioned earlier. You must go back and think through them. If we allow that an aborted fetus retains all the rights of a person, then we must allow that a miscarried fetus retains the same rights too. What is a miscarried fetus, but (presumably) a God-induced abortion? Whatever ethical position you hold about abortion must be applied to a God who permits a miscarriage. If life is created and sustained by God, then certainly God is to blame for an excessive number of ended pregnancies. You keep talking about people taking a human life; if that is true then God is also taking human life but in much greater numbers. A fetus, therefore, cannot be considered fully human and endowed with all the rights of a person. Following your position to its logical conclusion leads to an absurd and impossible conundrum.

You also dismiss the possibility that ending an unwanted pregnancy might be a compassionate act, a view that can only be defended by appealing to religious doctrines. First let's hear again from the nursing student in the video. She says “If you're prohibited from providing the best possible care for that person, there's no point in being a nurse... this is not a political issue, this is not me out there being religious. No, this is really, ultimately, about addressing what is best for women...this has to do with people's lives.” So let's hear about people's lives. A coworker's wife got pregnant, and after a while it became apparent that the fetus had a severe developmental problem. There was no growth above the spinal cord – no head, no brain. The decision was made to abort rather than allow the pregnancy to run its course. There are many instances when an abortion is medically necessary. Suppose a woman's life is in danger, an abortion is medically necessary, and Ms. Dust is the only nurse on duty. Ms. Dust pretends to know what is best for women, but clearly she does not. She claims it is not about her religion, but it clearly is! It makes no difference that her personal upbringing provided an environment where anti-abortion activism was considered normal. If she wants to be a nurse, and especially a women's health nurse, she should learn the whole program.

You dismiss the fact that life began 3.5 billion years ago. Unfortunately for you, all the evidence is against you. I will offer only a few examples. Every oil company executive accepts the fact of an ancient origin of life (on the order of billions of years, rather than thousands). That is because the search for fossil fuels, for technical reasons, REQUIRES one to accept an ancient origin and evolution. An oil executive who does not accept evolution would go broke (which could help explain why W. Bush failed in the oil business). Next, acceptance of the ancient origin of life gives the scientist great predictive powers. This fact is highlighted in a short book by Neil Shubin called “Your Inner Fish” which you ought to read before you make unfounded remarks about evolution. Shubin's team discovered Tiktaalik in northern Canada in 2004. Tiktaalik is a so-called “missing link” fossil between fish and tetrapods (a four-limbed animal), the likes of which creationists had always contended could not exist! But the way in which it was discovered is also amazing. Shubin describes in detail how applying knowledge about modern geological and evolutionary theories (each based on an ancient earth and an ancient origin of life) led specifically to the very location where such a fossil may be found. It was like finding a needle in a haystack, except this haystack is the size of the whole Earth! The astounding results of such predictive powers are commonplace in modern science, but non-existent among creationism (or ID). That is because ID makes no predictions at all about where fossil types may be found. And yet another point is that even many Christian folks are coming around to the fact of evolution, and life's ancient origins. Science has proven that the story of Adam & Eve is genetically impossible, and many church folk are finally coming to grips with it.

http://www.npr.org/2011/08/09/138957812/evangelicals-question-the-existence-of-adam-and-eve

I understand this is a difficult pill to swallow. For if Adam & Eve didn't exist then there goes most of Christianity too. The genealogies of Matthew & Luke (and therefore the life of Jesus), as well as Paul's theology, all depend upon a literal reading of Adam & Eve. And once those are tossed out one is left with the chore of actually thinking for oneself. That opens the door to human, and more humane, values.

Darlene:
Jeff I am very surprised by all our present conversation. I guess I didn't know you very well in Bible School. I really thought you were a Christian.

Sarah:
Jeff , if I had the time to write as long and detailed as answers as you do, I would have addressed more of your unlikely scenarios. I was just trying to get to the heart of the matter. I will not be able to answer all of your latest post ...(I don't want to spend my life arguing :), but I will write what struck me the most. You wrote of God as causing all these "abortions" via the miscarriages that happen, but since I see a fetus as a human being, the question is not about God causing miscarriages, or as you like to call it, abortions. I do believe God creates and sustains life, but why does *anybody* ever die or suffer? If you think God murders everyone who ever dies of unknown causes or from health issues, that is interesting. But you said you are an athiest, so I guess you don't believe that. But I think you know where I stand regarding the existence of God. And God allowing a death is entirely different from a woman going to the doctor to have her baby purposely killed.

Also, I DID mention the mother's life being in danger. But I think you know that is not what Ms. Dust was being asked to do for this degree; it would have been a regular abortion, which would NOT be healthcare. To be required to help take the life of another in order to be a woman's health nurse is absurd. And as for your unlikely scenario of Ms. Dust being the only nurse on call when a woman's life is in danger, I would need to learn more about such cases to answer intelligently about that.

And, again, it is sad and difficult to accept suffering, but just as I would, and hopefully you too, would not kill an adult who could not tell me their wishes, just because they (and those around them) would have to endure terrible suffering, I would not kill a baby in the womb for the same reason.

Jeff:
Well Darlene, I've experienced a wonderful transformation since then. I've learned to think for myself rather than to depend on the Bible to tell me how, and one of the links above explains why in some detail. You are welcome to discuss those reasons on my blog if you like. And Sarah, it doesn't seem like you want to confront the real issue at hand. You are like those persons who will praise God for saving the life of one individual during a tornado, but fail to acknowledge that he killed another 100 in the process. Your definitions are inconsistent. You talk about people killing, while God merely allows death. Wasn't death God's idea in the first place? lol. You have completely overlooked the fact that a fetus does not feel pain for several weeks, which has significant impact on any ethical considerations. Well, this was interesting.

Sarah:
LIFE was God's idea in the first place.

Darlene:
The Bible never reached your heart but only your head. If you ever had an intimate relationship with Jesus you would neverhad turn your back on him. I really feel sad for you. I really hope you turn back to Him before it is too late.

Jeff:
I'd love to see the evidence that life was God's idea. Can you provide the evidence for that claim? As I pointed out earlier, life is an unbroken chain that began 3.5 billion years ago and has evolved from its simple origins into a vast, encompassing tree of life containing “endless forms most beautiful.” The scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports this view. If some god is responsible for life then he's done an exceedingly poor job of communicating it to us. There is no revelation that corresponds with the physical evidence known to us. I encourage you to read Neil Shubin's book, Your Inner Fish1 (which I noted earlier) as well as Jerry Coyne's book Why Evolution Is True.2 Unfortunately much of the discussion about evolution that one receives from the pulpit and ID websites is grossly inaccurate. Even the conservative Bush-appointed judge, John E. Jones, ruled that “ID is not science.”3

Sarah, it seems that there still remains inconsistency in your definitions. First, a baby and a fetus are not the same thing. We can make distinctions between the two; they are different. If we extend the rights of personhood to a fetus then why not extend it to the egg and sperm as well? Egg and sperm are alive too. Egg and sperm are defenseless and have no voice too. Egg and sperm are potential human beings too. And when they are spent, or expelled, or wasted, someone could make the implausible argument that we are killing people. But there is a clear distinction between an egg or sperm and a fetus, just as there is a clear distinction between a fetus and a baby. A fetus cannot feel pain (for many weeks at least), it does not live on its own, it has no intellectual ability, and unless you can offer proof to the contrary, it does not have a soul. A fetus is a potential human being but not an actual human being, and not far removed from the sperm and egg that produced it. Many Christian theologians throughout history have not believed that life begins at conception. Saint Augustine wrote, “it could not be said that there was a living soul in [a] body” if it is “not yet endowed with senses.” And Thomas Aquinas argued: “before the body has organs in any way whatever, it cannot be receptive of the soul.”4 More recent Christian thinkers have also agreed:

W.A. Criswell, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, expressed his satisfaction with the Roe v. Wade ruling. "I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person," the redoubtable fundamentalist declared, "and it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed."5
Your contention that life begins at conception, and that a fetus is a baby, is not immediately apparent to everyone. One should not expect a reasonable person to accept it now. The popular notion that life begins at conception gained traction only during the 1970s, more for political reasons than anything else. Please read Randall Balmer's book, Thy Kingdom Come, to understand more of what I am talking about.6 Balmer, a contributing editor to Christianity Today magazine, tells how the religious right originally coalesced around opposition to the IRS revoking Bob Jones University's tax-exempt status because of its racist discrimination policies. In other words, according to Balmer, the religious right was roused to political action by Green v. Connally,7 not by Roe v. Wade.

Your inability or unwillingness to recognize a distinction between a baby and a fetus is troubling. People can and do make distinctions all the time. For example, consider the Nordic Sami people, who have some 300 words for different qualities of snow and winter pasture.8 Our big brains have a unique ability to process vast information and create new categories of knowledge. Language evolves and grows as society evolves. Do you remember from Orwell's 1984 a book referred to called the Newspeak dictionary? One peculiar feature of this dictionary was that with every new edition there were fewer words to define. The Newspeak dictionary was constantly shrinking. Do you remember why? Orwell explains:

It's vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could possibly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words...reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

...the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised. Newspeak, indeed, differed from almost all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought. Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all.9
Its purpose, therefore, was “to make all other modes of thought impossible.”10 By paring down language to express only Party viewpoints it was hoped that people could be made incapable of making distinctions, or made incapable of drawing their own conclusions. The concept of “orthodoxy” or “right belief” is a constant obsession of both religious fundamentalists and totalitarian regimes. So I am a little concerned by your insistence on defining a fetus as a baby. We can make distinctions between the two. And likewise, concerning a woman's reproductive rights, we can weigh both the positive and negative consequences of moral choices.

Sarah, you still seem very equanimous of abortion when it is delivered by God, but suspicious if delivered by a person. We can weigh the social and economic consequences of an unwanted pregnancy while simultaneously considering the potential for life. We can consider both its positive and negative consequences. We are not constrained to view life through the narrow confines of orthodox belief. Who knows better than the individual woman whether or not she is prepared or fit for the duty of being a mother? If God can lovingly end a pregnancy then why can't a person? There is no reason to believe that she can't.

You may feel that people cannot be trusted to make those decisions. But morality is, and has always been, based upon human needs and desires. Belief in a god is not required to make moral choices. Consider a study involving rhesus monkeys published in 1964.11 The monkeys were first trained to pull a lever in order to receive a food pellet. Next the subject was placed opposite another unrelated monkey who was visible through a one-way mirror. When the subject pulled the lever to receive food it also delivered an electric shock to the second monkey, whose distress could be seen and heard by the subject. In one test 83% of rhesus monkeys were unwilling to deliver the shock. One subject preferred to go 12 days without eating rather than to harm its fellow. Those who had first been exposed to the shocking were more likely to starve themselves when it was their turn to feed. Clearly the monkeys in this study were able to consider the harm of their actions and were able to modify their behavior in response.

But here's the million dollar question: how can a rhesus monkey decide what is “right” without reference to god? Did they receive religious instruction from their handlers? Did they sing monkey-hymns and attend monkey-Sunday-school in the jungle? Did they hear about a monkey-savior who died on a monkey-cross in order to save them from their monkey-sins? Did a monkey-Jesus teach them to love their monkey-neighbors as they love their monkey-selves? No, no, no, and no. Rather, monkey morals have evolved. Social animals have developed “moral” behaviors which provide selective advantages for their survival. Meanwhile we humans have acquired more complex moral behaviors through the evolution of our big brains and advanced language abilities.

Evolution of large and complex human brains made possible language with syntax and the storage of vast amounts of information, indeed made possible both “humanity” and “culture” as people commonly understand them...big brains in general allow animals to adapt to environmental variability – they present their owners with an array of options in any circumstance. If a bear eating berries spots a fawn hiding in the grass, it can alter its diet instantly. If the fawn escapes and the berries run out, the bear can go down to the river and try its luck fishing. Tiny-brained insects probably can't make such choices...” (The Dominant Animal, p. 77).12
We can see how large brains allow greater variation in choices; they make an organism more adaptable and responsive to a changing environment. A humanist morality that can adapt to changing information and circumstances is therefore much more robust than a fixed morality based on doctrines without evidence. Large brains allow humans to acquire new knowledge. As knowledge becomes more complete our moral views can adapt. As we adapt our behavior to new knowledge and changing environments we increase our chances of success.

Well Darlene and Sarah, I understand that I may not be able to change your mind. But at least I hope you will see that there are no easy answers to be had. Many people like myself cannot accept an appeal to a divine lawgiver since 1) there is no evidence that one exists, and 2) even if we accept that one exists his commandments would still require interpretation and enforcement by human agents. But human agents often prove to be less than admirable, and unworthy of the task.13 But why depend on a creator or his agents to tell us what is right? If a monkey can make moral choices without reference to any god, then why can't a person do the same?14 We can, and we do.





Notes:
1) See http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/your-inner-fish-neil-shubin/1102811347

2) See http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Why-Evolution-Is-True/Jerry-A-Coyne/e/9780670020539/?mct=edd
and http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/The-Thinking-Read/Why-Evolution-Is-True/ba-p/899

3) Read the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision in its entirety at http://www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf

4) Quotations cited in Jonathan Dudley's CNN religion blog, June 21, 2011.
http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/06/21/my-take-bible-condemns-a-lot-so-why-focus-on-homosexuality/

5) Quoted in excerpt of Thy Kingdom Come, by Randall Balmer available at
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5502785

6) See http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5502785
and http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Thy-Kingdom-Come/Randall-H-Balmer/e/9781598870305

7) For reasons unknown to me, there is no Wikipedia article for the case of Green v. Connally. However there is a review
of other similar cases related to Bob Jones University at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Jones_University#Segregation

8) See “A Language With Infinite Variation” at
http://scandinavian.wisc.edu/dubois/Courses_folder/Sami_readings/Week3/LanguageToday.pdf

9) Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell; Centennial Edition, Plume USA, May 2003; pp 310, 319

10) ibid., pg. 309

11) see “Altruistic” Behavior in Rhesus Monkeys, by Masserman, Wechkin, and Terris, at
http://www.madisonmonkeys.com/masserman.pdf

12) The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment; by P.R. Ehrlich and A.H. Ehrlich; Island Press, 2009.

13) See two excellent books by Charles Freeman, for example: The Closing of the Western Mind, and A.D. 381.

14) Dogs have been shown to possess a sense of justice. Meerkats exhibit reproductive taboos, and execute judgement on
transgressors. All sorts of species exhibit cooperative behavior. All this occurs naturally without the aid of religious
indoctrination.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Christian, remove the plank from your own eye!

I hear a lot of complaints from Christians that we atheists are rude, angry, obnoxious, militant, and downright nasty at times. We are told that we ought to behave in a more civil manner, and learn to be more polite when discussing our views with people. We are marginalized and ignored as hopeless cases beyond the grasp of ordinary evangelism methods, reprobates who deserve the punishment that God has in store for those who refuse to repent.  And sometimes, if we refuse to amend our ways, we are blocked from commenting on certain websites! But these Christians should try to be a bit more understanding of our perspective; you see, it's not easy being the enemy of God and of civilization. A lot is expected from a nemesis of the Almighty, and we try really hard to live up to our elevated status. So please bear with us, we are trying as hard as we can.

But seriously, the same Christians who expect civility and friendly discourse when engaging with atheists seem completely unaware of the nasty language used in their sacred texts to demonize and discriminate against unbelievers. The pointed language we sometimes use pales in comparison to the hateful speech used to describe unbelievers (and other sinful people) found in the Bible, which serves to nurture hate against atheists everywhere. Thus, Christians engage in a hypocritical double-standard; they demand perfect civility from unbelievers, but they embrace hate-language to justify belief in their silly and implausible doctrines. So let's take a little walk through the Bible to see what I mean...

Unbelievers are maligned and insulted throughout the entire Bible, and I begin here with perhaps the most widely known example: Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God,' They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds...” We will encounter those abominable atheists throughout our study. In fact the same line above is repeated in Psalm 53:1, just in case you didn't catch it the first time. I wonder if any elected official could announce in public, “Christians are corrupt and their deeds are an abomination!”? Yet the passage in Psalms is read openly in churches to spread hate against unbelievers. It is no wonder, then, that it is nearly impossible for an atheist to be elected in America today, thanks in part to Bible-based bigotry.

The Apostle Paul goes farther and claims that atheists really do believe in God, but willfully deny him:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in righteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools... Romans 1:18-21
Therefore, according to Paul, everyone has the knowledge of God inside them, but atheists conspire to actively reject him. Ergo we are liars, we are conspiring to suppress the truth, and we are fools. Lost on Christians is the fact that so much indoctrination is required to kick-start belief in Jesus! According to Paul, belief in God is natural. Yet years of Sunday school Bible study is apparently required to keep it there. Unfortunately for believers there is no more evidence for God's existence than there is for leprechauns, or for any other magical, mythical creatures of ancient literature. Let's be honest, without evidence it is mere speculation to say whether God exists or he doesn't. Would it be alright with Christians if we derided them for what we consider to be futile notions about angels and virgin births? Can atheists openly mock Christians whose hearts are darkened with foolish speculations about God?

One of Paul's letters in the Bible, Galatians, deals with a church whose members begin to follow another gospel than the one Paul taught them. They begin to practice a strict observance of the law of Moses as a necessary path to salvation along with a belief in Jesus, rather than to seek salvation through Christ alone. Essentially the Galatians turn away from Paul's teachings and become Jews! Paul lays out his accusation against them in Galatians 1:6-9:
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!
Paul is so frustrated that he has to curse the responsible party twice. A little later he employs some name-calling (3:1): “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you...?” Paul calls them fools. And what exactly is their transgression? The Galatians dared to change their minds! Sometimes people change. Sometimes what appeared reasonable at first does not seem so reasonable later. According to Paul that makes them fools. I wonder if it would be considered too uncivil for an atheist to say, “You foolish Christians.” Or would it be too impolite to say, “Cursed is the fool who teaches you to believe in your silly resurrection myth!”? Let's continue.

In Matthew 7:6 Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (see also Matthew 15:26 and Mark 7:7). Who are the dogs and the swine in this verse supposed to represent? Are they not the people who reject Jesus' message? Are they not the unbelievers? Jesus continues to say in 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” In other words, beware of people with different opinions about Jesus, they are dangerous! I wonder if it would be alright for us atheists to go around calling Christians “dogs” and “swine” like Jesus did? May I call Christians “ravenous wolves,” or would that be considered militant? Oh, but there's more...

The apostle Paul warns in Philemon 3:2-3 “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision, for we are the true circumcision...” These are not violent criminals he's talking about; Paul is merely describing people with different beliefs. Yet Paul applies the moniker “dogs” and “evil workers” to them. May we atheists call you Christians “evil workers” too? Why not?

Moving right along, 2 Peter 2:1 says “..there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.” Peter warns that people will come denying Jesus, and their heresies are destructive. The unorthodox are dangerous people who deserve to be destroyed. That's perfectly acceptable as long as it's Christians talking about unbelievers, right? But are we permitted to say that Christian doctrines are destructive and dangerous? I guess if we did it might make us sound obnoxious and uncivil. Can we talk about Christians deserving swift destruction, and rejoice when a tornado rips another Bible-belt town apart? Why not? After all, the Lord says he's responsible for that as well! (See Amos 3:6).

Again, 2 Peter 2:21-22 says that apostates are like dogs returning to their vomit, and pigs returning to their filth. I guess he's talking about people like me, who spent almost 25 years being indoctrinated at church and Bible College before finally discarding Christianity as an ancient mythological relic. This passage implies that someone could not possibly leave Christianity for a legitimate reason. We are portrayed in the Bible as unreasoning animals. I wonder if there is a polite way to tell someone that they are wallowing in slop? I don't think so. Would any Christians be offended if I said, “Pardon me, good fellow, I don't mean to interrupt your meditations on Jesus, and please do tell me if I am being a nuisance, but I do believe that you are drinking from the vomit bowl again”? Or how about if I said, “Excuse me, dear Christian, but I dare say that you are wallowing in your own intellectual excrement!”? If this is not acceptable then why do Christians embrace and celebrate similar language used in the Bible to refer to unbelievers? As I said earlier, the language of today's atheists pales in comparison to the offensive, discriminatory language used in the Bible against nontheists. I've never heard an atheist say that Christians are rolling around in their own shit. That's over the line by most people's standards. But not for Christians -- it's codified in scripture as divine god-talk.

Let's recall now the confrontation between the prophet Elijah and 450 prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, where an alter is set up and Elijah invites Baal's prophets to pray for a miraculous sign by lighting it on fire. I Kings 18:27 says “It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Call out with a loud voice, for he [Baal] is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.” [The Contemporary English Version has Elijah say, “maybe he's daydreaming, or using the toilet.”]. But nothing happens, so when it is Elijah's turn to pray, of course the LORD makes an amazing display of power and consumes the alter with fire.
When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The LORD, He is God; the LORD, He is God.” Then Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.” (vs 39-40)
Four hundred fifty people were rounded up and killed because they believed in the wrong god. Is this book really suitable for teaching children the difference between right and wrong? You may have met some proud, obnoxious, mean atheists, but at least you survived the encounter! Be happy that you lived to tell the story. But note how Elijah engaged in loud mocking against the soon-to-be-slaughtered prophets of Baal. Is this behavior really appropriate for someone thought by Christians to be a hero? May we atheists employ loud mocking of Christians when we disagree with them? Why not? A prophet of god wasn't above loud mocking of his opponents. Jesus didn't seem to mind too much either – look he's up on a mountain having a party with Elijah and Moses (see Mark 9:4, Luke 9, Matt 17), probably laughing about the whole scene. Where is the outcry among Christians about the terrible outcome at Mount Carmel? Why isn't Elijah condemned as a militant, angry Jew? I've never heard one sermon on how disrespectful and awful Elijah's behavior was, but we never hear the end of how terrible we atheists are for persistently pointing out Bible nonsense to Christians.

Then there is the episode involving another prophet, Elisha, who was a protege of Elijah. 2 Kings 2:23-24 says, “Then [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up [or mauled, NIV] forty-two lads of their number.” So some kids were mocking a bald guy when he calls on two bears, who jump out of the forest and kill 42 kids. That teaches a great moral value, doesn't it? Recall how perfectly acceptable it is to mock Baal's prophets, but when the tables are turned then someone must die! These are the heroes of the Bible, it's very sad.1

Now it's John's turn. The epistle I John 2:18-19 says:

... just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many anitchrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us... (verse 22) Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.. (verse 26) These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you.”
Who's a liar? We who deny “the Father and the Son”. Christians think that there is no legitimate reason to reject Jesus, therefore we must be lying when we say we don't believe! Oh, and we are the antichrist too; we have joined with the very personification of evil in rebellion against god. Would it be alright with you Christians if we atheists respectfully called you the enemy of mankind and cohorts with the Devil? Would anyone consider that to be too confrontational or mean-spirited?

And here's another good one: 2 John 1:5-11 says:

“...love one another. And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning, that you should walk in it. For many deceivers have gone into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward [note the moral here: don't be good for goodness sake, no, do it for the nifty gold stars that Jesus is handing out]. Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.”
This passage was likely written against an early Christian “heresy”, probably gnosticism, which taught that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body that suffered and died. In other words, this invective was originally aimed against other Christians, but John considered them evil because they didn't believe correctly about Jesus. John's warning must also apply to atheists because we also do not acknowledge Jesus, least of all a resurrected one! Mere intellectual assent is what distinguishes the righteous from the evil doer; unbelief is equated with evil. John says to kick the false teacher out of your house, do not greet him, do not show him any hospitality. And this is just moments after John reminds his readers to love one another. The doctrine of brotherly love, so often touted by Christians as a unique legitimizing social feature,2 here takes on quite a narrow meaning: Love your neighbor as yourself has come to mean merely 'Love your Christian neighbor as yourself.' To hell with your unbelieving neighbor.

So far we've heard from several supposed men of god and we've seen that Christian temperaments can be much worse than those accusations brought against atheists today. If only the Bible characters had read Titus 3:2, which says “to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing consideration for all men.” Keeping in mind all we've learned throughout this exercise let me call attention to what 1 John 3:13 tells Christians: “Do not be surprised if the world hates you.” Seriously, with all the hate and demagoguery churning out of your own self-righteous lips and inspired scriptures, don't be surprised if some of that hate eventually gets dumped back on you. A Christian's worldview defines nearly the entire population of Earth as the enemy of God; so please don't be surprised, Christian, when you make a few enemies. An old proverb wisely teaches, “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” Put down your stones, Christians, and go read your Bible! Read the insults! Read the attacks and demonizing against unbelievers, against the Jews, against homosexuals, against anyone with another view of God. So please don't cry foul over your unpleasant encounter with an angry atheist. We have every right and reason to be angry. Enough of your shameless hypocrisy already!

Concluding remarks:

If the differences between Christians and atheists amounted only to a breakdown of civil discourse, then this might all be much ado about nothing. But it is about much more than that. Bible teachings which are thought to be inspired lead to hate and discrimination against atheists, which are endemic across America. It's not just ancient history, it's happening today. For brevity I wont recount the voluminous details of such incidents, there are plenty of resources where they may be found.3

If Christians are serious about wanting civil discourse then they should throw their Bibles in the trash! The Bible is full of uncivil, mean-spirited, angry insults against people who dare to think for themselves and hold different views.

Also, the fact that some do criticize atheist manners demonstrates that these Christians do not look to the Bible as an absolute moral guide. Their de facto moral compass is based upon their own sense of right and wrong, a common decency not found or articulated in the Bible (to any coherent degree anyway). In other words, they get their morals from the same place we atheists do, from within themselves. See, we are not so different after all!

And lastly, looking to the Bible, or any prescribed text, for guidance on how to live negates real freedom and responsibility for moral choices. Following a dogmatic code without weighing each unique circumstance fails to exercise our reasoning faculties, and also keeps us from investigating possible negative consequences of our actions. To surrender freedom and reason to a prescribed checklist makes one morally and intellectually lazy. As free and conscious beings we have the right, and the duty, to think for ourselves, as Thomas Paine so eloquently states in Age of Reason:

Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.
No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.
It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication–-after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.
Each of us has the permission and the responsibility to think for ourselves. I have shown that Christians do not accept all the morals taught in the Bible, they expect something much more noble than the examples given in scripture. Perhaps it is true that atheists can be rude at times. We face the negative consequences of Christian indoctrination every day. But Christians have no right to expect civility when discussing religion unless they are willing to renounce the offensive language in the Bible too. Nevertheless some parts of the Bible do make a lot of sense, like this passage from Matthew 7:1-5 (NKJV)

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.
Endnotes:

1. I do, however, take solace in the fact that these stories never happened; they are complete fiction.
2. The 'Golden Rule' was not a Christian invention, it was taught centuries earlier by Confucius. Jesus may have been familiar with it from the Rabbi Hillel, who taught the 'Golden Rule' around the 1st century BCE.
3. Below is a list of examples to support this claim. I will add more links in the future:

An Army Officer Resigns because of rampant discrimination against Atheists in the military
Atheist event at Fort Bragg forced to cancel because of last minute, discriminatory requirements not imposed on other groups
Hotel owners discriminate agains a gay couple
Indianapolis schools internet filtering policy discriminates against Atheists
Televangelist is openly bigoted against Atheist, tells woman she must divorce Atheist husband
Spiritual Fitness index in military reviews discriminates against Atheists
Hospital waives fair hiring clause in order to merge with religious organization
Ballpark offers discount to religious people, but not to the unchurched
Atheist girl harassed at school, and father falsely accused after principal hits him!