Friday, October 30, 2009

The Public Option is Probably Dead

The only way to get a public option in healthcare reform is now reconciliation. Joe Lieberman opposes the public option, and I bet Evan Bayh and Mary Landrieu ultimately will as well. Even if only Lieberman votes to sustain a filibuster, then the Democrats can’t get to the magic number of 60 votes to invoke cloture.

I posted here earlier about reconciliation, and what I think of it as a tactic, so I won’t repeat.

I would say that the Democrats shouldn’t make the public option an all-or-nothing proposition. They should be able to get a package which provides generous subsidies to the uninsured, and ends deplorable insurance industry practices like denying care for preexisting conditions. That is a victory.

And they can get the public option eventually. The current reforms will cover people, but they will also be really expensive. A few years from now, people will want to keep the universality of the healthcare system, but cut down on the costs. And the most effective way to do that is to have a robust public option. Alternatively, if the new subsidies end up not being as expensive as I fear, perhaps there will be no need for the public option, which I would be fine with.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lieberman Logic

Joe Lieberman (I-Connecticut) won’t support a public option under any circumstances. He said “It's going to cost the taxpayers and people that have health insurance now, and if it doesn't, it's going to add terribly to our national debt.”

But presumably, Lieberman supports expanding coverage. I fail to see how expanding coverage simply by providing subsidies to purchase private insurance will help our serious deficit situation. If Lieberman is really serious about making sure that the millions of uninsured and underinsured purchase adequate insurance, then that will cost plenty of money.

In fact, it might cost more. With the public option, the government can make an effort to keep costs under control. Private insurers will have no incentive to do so. They’ll get money from the government no matter what. If Lieberman wants to end discrimination for preexisting conditions and enact other reforms to protect consumers, then private insurance will cost more. Who will be paying those premiums? The government and the taxpayer.

If anything is going to expand the deficit that will. Granted, Medicare has problems that must be addressed. But instead of using those problems to preclude the possibility of more government involvement in healthcare, why not try and reform it? Some of you readers think that will be more difficult than I’m claiming. But if Lieberman can reform the private insurance market, why can he not reform a government program?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Brewing Republican Civil War

In an upstate New York congressional district, the GOP is in civil war. Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, two potential 2012 Presidential candidates, have endorsed the conservative party nominee, instead of the Republican nominee. They cited concerns over Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava’s insufficiently conservative views.

From the point of view of a Republican strategist, I’d think the move is a mistake. What’s likely to happen now is a splintered vote. The Conservatives and Republicans will split the conservative vote in the district. That will leave the Democrat in the race only to unify his base and win some moderates to carry the day.

Moreover, the Republican Party is purging itself of exactly the kind of moderates they need to become competitive again in parts of the country like New England, or the West coast. The median voter in these parts simply does not agree with Sarah Palin’s hard conservative line on many issues. The message sent to moderates is loud and clear: don’t think about running for office as a Republican, or conservatives will do everything in their power to defeat you.

I understand that Republicans might like to have ideological purity. But the Republican nominee will still be with the party on most issues. By contrast, a Democrat elected from this district will vote with President Obama on most issues. Do Republicans want to remain a permanent regional rump?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How About Decriminalizing Drugs?

Last week, I devoted time to the debate over legalizing drugs. Some of you are probably wondering if I am not presenting a binary between sending drug users to jail, and completely legalizing drugs. So why not pursue a middle course of “decriminalization” of drug possession? In other words, don’t punish drug users for doing drugs, but continue to punish sellers. Here are a couple of questions to ask:

1. Is this fair?

In order to believe that drugs should remain illegal to sell, you have to believe something is wrong with doing drugs, or that they hurt society. But if there aren’t buyers of drugs, then there can’t be sellers. Is it really fair to punish a poor, desperate crack dealer, but not the person who comes to him repeatedly for the drug? An analogy might be made to prostitution. Would it be fair to punish prostitutes, but not the men who seek their services?

2. Does decriminalization deter drug use?

I think not. You could argue that locking people up does deter drug use. But with no penalties attached, it seems drug use would not be deterred in the slightest. Think about underage drinking. Even with fines and mandatory education as penalties, laws against underage drinking don’t deter. If you need proof of that, just visit your local college campus.

3. Can drug decriminalization claim the benefits of drug legalization?

No. If it’s still illegal to sell drugs, then the only people doing so will be gangs and terrorists. That means they’ll get all the money from the drug trade, and use it to finance their activities. Even worse, because potential drug users have no deterrent, there will probably be more demand for drugs. This will lead to increased prices, and more drug sales, which means ever higher profits for gangs. Moreover, there will be no way for government to regulate the drugs to make them safer. Also, government won’t be able to tax drugs, so it has to forfeit all the potential revenue. On the other hand, decriminalization does mean we can spend less money on prisons and law enforcement, so money can be saved.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Why Are Democrats Losing in Virginia?

Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds is (probably) set to lose his race for Governor of Virginia come November. So now is a good time to ask if he could have done anything different.

Already, some national Democrats are blaming Deeds. They say that he made mistakes in strategy, such as not using Obama enough, and failing to reach the constituencies that put Obama over the top in the state last year, i.e., young voters and blacks.

It’s understandable why Deeds felt a need to distance himself from Obama. At the very least, Obama is divisive in the state. His stimulus package and healthcare reform proposals are not popular in certain parts. In order to reach some wavering moderates who decide Virginia elections, being perceived as the President’s poodle might not have been the best thing.

As for turning out the Democratic base, I can’t personally attest to whether Deeds is doing a good or a bad job. Those of you Gadson Review readers living in Virginia, what do you think?

Moreover, I think that any Democratic nominee would have had a difficult time in this election. Surely, people are getting restless after eight years of Democratic rule in Richmond’s Governor’s mansion, and want to make a change. Once there is a widespread longing for change, it’s tough to be a candidate from the incumbent party. Ask John McCain.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Should Drugs Be Legalized?

Having laid out all the arguments in this debate, the Gadson Review will now evaluate them.

1. Will more people use drugs?

Verdict: This one goes to drug legalization opponents, at least in the short term. Drugs will be cheaper and possibly advertised. Plus, all those people who wanted to try drugs, but didn’t because there were stiff penalties in place, might now try them. On the other hand, in the long term, perhaps people will react rationally to drugs as they have to alcohol.

2. Which side best rehabilitates addicts?

Verdict: This one goes to drug legalization supporters. As I wrote earlier, I think that more people will use drugs, at least after they’re first legalized. But these people can get help. More importantly, all the people who want help, but don’t seek it for fear of getting turned into the authorities can come out of the shadows and be rehabilitated. Contrast that with what the current drug war does. It sends people to prison who are then exposed to dangerous criminal elements. They come out into society after 5 or 10 years with a chip on their shoulder, no ability to vote or receive financial aid for college, or get a job.

3. Will drug legalization cost more society money?

Verdict: This one is tough to evaluate. The Office of National Drug Control Policy found that drug use costs $110 billion a year in healthcare costs, lost earnings, and other impacts. That’s a lot. But that’s with drugs being illegal. We currently spend around $44 billion a year on the drug wars. And that doesn’t count potential tax revenue. That means that increased drug use would have to cost society around $50 billion more a year for it to be worthwhile to continue the drug wars. What do you think?

4. Can government paternalism be justified here?

Verdict: Yes, but that depends greatly on your view of government. If you think that the government should play a very limited role in private lives, then paternalism probably isn’t justified. But you need to believe that society shouldn’t also be able to make us wear seat belts, or impose similar restrictions to be logically consistent.

On the other hand if you believe government should play a more robust role in protecting people from themselves, and promoting the general health of society, you could support paternalism here. But that is to endorse a much bigger role for government than many who support drug prohibition likely want. On abortion for example, the slogan, “my body, my rights” is heard over and over again. But to put people in jail for snorting crack, one has to believe that government can stop people from doing whatever they want with their bodies. But that logic easily leads us to prohibiting abortions or strip clubs. While you may be ok with those examples, there is surely something that you do that someone might find objectionable; nonetheless, you wouldn’t want government to put you in jail for doing it.

5. Is there a moral case to be made for prohibiting drugs?

Verdict: That depends as well. You can make the argument that we should protect people from having their lives ruined by doing drugs. We also want to prohibit young people from being corrupted. But then you’d also be inconsistent if you didn’t also ban Big Macs, French fries, cigarettes, motorcycle riding, and alcohol, all of which can be harmful to a person’s health. Also, how are you helping people by locking them down in jail cells 23 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 5 years?

If you think there’s something wrong from deontological perspective, then the burden is on you to show why we should allow your personal preferences to put other people in jail. There’s plenty of behavior including abortion, cohabitation, looking at porn, drinking alcohol, and even driving SUVs that someone finds immoral. Yet none of those are illegal. And I’m guessing that many of you readers don’t want people going to jail for these actions.

To justify putting people in jail then, you must find a utilitarian justification. IE, drug use causes violence, and hurts society. So does alcohol. And besides, then the question to be asked, is whether society should continue spending money to prevent those costs. In other words, you’re left doing a cost-benefit analysis.

So here’s the score card:

One for drug legalization supporters, one for opponents, and 3 that are up in the air. So take my poll. Do you think drugs should remain illegal?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Case Against Legalizing Drugs

Yesterday, I began by providing arguments invoked in favor of legalizing drugs. Today I will do the same for drug legalization opponents. Here are arguments they typically make:

1. Drugs harm individuals

This is particularly true of so called “hard drugs” like heroine and PCP. Allowing these people to use these drugs will ruin their lives. Government has an obligation to protect such people from themselves

2. Drug use harms society

Drugs diminish a person’s capacity for judgment and self restraint. That means drug use will cause higher crime, more spousal abuse, and less economic productivity. How productive will employees be when they’re coked up half the time?

When drugs are legalized, drug use will go up. This is because drugs will be cheaper, more available, and possibly advertised. The government will have to spend more money rehabilitating all these new addicts.

3. Society has the right to declare certain behaviors illegal

If society wants to stop bestiality, porn, underage drinking, then it can. We accept that certain rights are derivative of a society’s morality. Drug legalization opponents argue that the right to do drugs is a derivative one.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Case for Legalizing Drugs

In the next two days, I want to deal with the issue of drugs, and the so called “drug wars.” Today, I’ll begin with the case for legalizing drugs.

Here are the arguments advanced by those who want to legalize drugs:

1. Personal freedom

In the US, we place a high value on freedom and liberty. Our Declaration of Independence invokes the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This means we allow people to make certain choices, even when they’re harmful to themselves or society. For example, we let people eat Big Macs and French fries even though they’ll cause heart disease and obesity. We let people smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, and ride motorcycles. We believe so strongly in personal freedom, that we let women have abortions, and terminate a potential life. Against this backdrop, legalization advocates might ask, why do we let a woman get an abortion, but not get high afterwards? Why do we let someone sell porn, liquor, and cigarettes, but not crack?

2. This would save money

Each year, the US spends $44.1 billion on the “drug wars.” This money goes towards paying law enforcement, court costs, and incarceration costs. If we stopped prohibiting drugs, we could save this money, and spend it on schools and hospitals. Moreover, we could also place some sort of tax on the drugs, and make even more revenue that way.

3. This takes money from gangs

A lot of gangs make money from the sale of drugs. If people could buy their crack at the local pharmacy instead, presumably drug revenue for gangs would go down. This means less money available to purchase weapons, and maybe less power for the gang.

4. This allows us to focus more on rehabilitation of dealers and sellers

So long as drug use is illegal, and a criminal justice problem, society is likely to put drug users in prison. The problem is that prison isn’t terribly rehabilitative. People will go in and be exposed to dangerous criminal elements and live in bad conditions. They will come out without education or skills, and with a grudge against society for putting them in prison. They can’t get scholarships to go to college, or get jobs half the time.

Moreover, prohibition prevents people from coming forward to get rehabilitated. If they do, they risk being turned into authorities. If we legalize drugs, then all the people battling addiction who refuse to get help for fear of the authorities can come forward.

5. This reduces crime

This is partly because legalizing drugs takes money from gangs. But it is also because people don’t have to resort to crime anymore to get their fix. Under status quo, they have to steal, or deal with illicit elements to get their crack. But now they can go to CVS.

6. This leads go safer drugs

With drugs legalized, now we can use the FDA to regulate drug quality. Also, instead of having a drug dealer who has no medical expertise making crack, drug makers like Pfizer and Merck can make it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mandatory Minimums

Congress recently acted on the disparity between crack and powder cocaine in mandatory minimum sentencing. But that still leaves the fundamental issue of whether we should have mandatory minimums.

There are usually two arguments advanced for mandatory minimums. First, they are thought to deter crime. A drug kingpin who knows he’ll get a lengthy prison term will think long and hard about selling that crack.

Second, mandatory minimums guarantee some equity in the justice system. If Judges are given discretion, there could be widespread bias. For example, an attractive white female who tears up in front of the judge might get community service while a poor black guy (with a worse lawyer) gets the death penalty. This is an extreme example of course, but it shows the point.

There are several problems with both arguments. Let me deal with the one about equity first. Judges still have discretion over sentences. They can issue more than the minimum. So maybe the white girl now gets five years in prison while the black guy gets 10 years because the judge uses his discretion.

As for the deterrence argument, it’s not clear that harsh sentences have deterred many people. Drug use remains high, and drugs are still reasonably available. Ironically, the drug wars have raised the cost of drugs, which some economists think means higher profits for drug kingpins. Higher profits of course could incentivize people to become drug traffickers. Moreover, punishing exclusively for deterrence undermines our ability to fulfill other functions of the justice system: retribution, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.

Mandating five years in prison for a crime might not be necessary to be rehabilitated. Maybe the person only needs community service and probation to be rehabilitated. In fact, putting him in prison might even be counter-productive. He won’t be able to get a job, or college financial aid. And he’ll spend five years being exposed to dangerous criminal elements.

It follows that if he needs community service, but gets 5 years in jail, that the interests of incapacitation aren’t being served. He doesn’t need to be incapacitated that long. And if prison overcrowding results from putting too many people in jail for mandatory minimums who shouldn’t be there, officials might be forced to release truly dangerous criminals like rapists or murderers.

Retribution is based on the principle of proportionality. Yet a mandatory minimum sentence ignores the context of a person’s actions, his intent, and his moral blameworthiness. True retribution isn’t solved by having a one-size fits-all standard.

Moreover, I think mandatory minimums could create several perverse incentives. This is especially true if the sentences are harsh. A neighbor knowing that a kid he reports for dealing drugs will automatically get a harsh sentence could be less likely to call the police. A police officer could be less likely to arrest, the prosecutor less likely to prosecute, and the Judge less likely to agree to charge the defendant with a crime that would land him in prison for so long.

This all means that fewer criminals would end up getting caught, and more would think they could get away with their crimes. That could mean less deterrence instead of more.

Then there are the tremendous costs of imposing mandatory minimums. Society has to spend billions of dollars building new prisons and expanding existing ones to make room for all the new convicts.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Will Pot Be Legalized?

The first in a week long series on illegal drugs.

To cope with its financial woes, many in California are now openly discussing the possibility of legalizing marijuana. This May, Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said it was time to debate legalizing and taxing marijuana for medical use. To that end, State assemblyman Tom Ammian has sponsored a bill in the state assembly.

Legalized pot would bring in around $1 billion in tax revenues annually for the state. It should be noted that that would not close the budget shortfall in California, which stood at a whopping $26.3 billion before lawmakers reached a deal. But then legalizing marijuana could also free up money spent on prohibition. This means less money spent on incarcerating pot users, and less police time spent tracking down users.

Still a big deficit would be left. But there are other reasons one might support legalizing pot. Libertarians who have a large commitment to personal freedom often support legalization. We allow people to drink alcohol, eat big Macs, and get abortions, because we think people have rights over their own bodies, even if their behaviors will harm them, libertarians reason.

Indeed, it seems odd that our belief in personal freedom encompasses a woman’s right to terminate a life (depending on your view) through an abortion, but not let her get high afterward. On the other hand, we have plenty of paternalistic laws as well, such as making people wear seat belts, or requiring people to be 21 to drink.

Legalization though raises plenty of questions. Will we require pot-smokers to be at least 21? If so, then we’ll have at least some enforcement costs. Who will sell pot? Would you be able to get it by going to Wal Mart? At what rate would it be taxed? If it’s taxed really highly, a black market could develop to some degree. Since marijuana is the so-called “gateway drug” will increased marijuana use also result in increased crack and heroine use?

What do you think? Should we legalize pot? Sound off in the comments section.

Friday, October 16, 2009

What Happens if Iran Gets the Bomb?

Iran may be close to acquiring a nuclear weapon. Can we live with that?

You could argue that rational deterrence means we can. If the Iranians ever used the bomb, the US or Israel would wipe them out. So logically, the Iranians would never use it. As obnoxious as Ahmadinejad is, he’s probably a rational actor, in the sense that he can understand what a risk using a nuclear weapon is to his own country.

Will Iran building up a nuclear arsenal cause nuclear proliferation in the region? I doubt it. If Israel’s nuclear arsenal hasn’t caused Muslim states to go nuclear, I don’t see why and Iranian bomb would.

What I do worry about is the bomb falling into the hands of rogue elements or states. My gut tells me Iran isn’t especially stable right now, and the next revolution could be around the corner. A state in the throes of revolution might not take the best security measures to protect its nuclear arsenal.

That’s the real reason to be concerned in my book.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Are Atheists or Believers Better People?

An interesting question that has caused much debate over the centuries.

On one hand, perhaps religious people have a greater incentive to do good. They believe that some God will one day judge them on their works. If they believe they’ll go to hell for sinning, then they’ll do their best not to sin. By contrast, if they believe they’ll get into heaven for doing good, they’ll do their best to do good.

There is no such incentive for the atheist. They don’t think they’ll ever be judged for what they do on earth. That doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be bad. Everybody (or at least most people) have some type of conscience. But peoples’ conscience is regularly insufficient to keep them from committing crimes, or doing things which hurt others.

So when someone is confronted with a situation where something they do—such as spreading a rumor, or sabotaging someone else at work would advance them, what will they do? The atheist might get more utility from doing the sabotage and reaping the personal benefits. But for the religious person, utility might be on the side of doing good—if we are willing to include the afterlife as part of a utility calculation.

But that raises the question of why religious people are doing good. If they’re just doing good to avoid hell and get into heaven, couldn’t that be described as selfish? The atheist on the other hand who does good might be doing it completely out of altruism (or of course to impress friends or family, or have community service for a college application). That notwithstanding, perhaps if an atheist and a religious believer do an equal amount of good, the atheist is the better person because he expects no cosmic reward.

But then, perhaps peoples’ faith inspires them to really try and help others. Men like Martin Luther King and Deitrich Boenhoffer gave selflessly of themselves to try and create a better, more just society. I doubt they did so just to try and avoid hell; their faith clearly motivated them to help. Who are the atheist equivalents of Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King? That is to say, are there people who did so much good because they were inspired by their atheism?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Abortion and the Parties

There are pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans. But they are the exception, not the rule. Why?

You can make the case that Republicans should be pro-choice. They have traditionally been the party most skeptical of government power. On economics, they think things are best left to the market, not government bureaucrats. They are often strong supporters of states rights as well. And yet, official Republican policy is to have the federal government step in and make a very personal decision for individual women.

You could also make the case that Democrats should be pro-life. They believe that the government has an important role to play in expanding rights and protecting the vulnerable. Nothing is more vulnerable than a fetus. And yet when it comes to abortion, Democratic politicians sound like libertarians. They say things like “a woman and her doctor should make the decision, not a government bureaucrat in Washington DC.”

The reason either party is usually identified with one side of the abortion debate is history. Christian conservatives became part of the Republican base in the 1950s-1970s in large part because of a fierce desire to fight “Godless communism.” Christian conservatives supported more traditional gender roles as well. The founders of the conservative movement made a conscious effort to include religious conservatives as part of their base. That meant feminists who supported abortion rights would have been out of sorts in the Republican Party, and so had to be Democrats.

Still, I think it’s regrettable that much of the time, a candidate has to take a position on either side of the abortion debate because he agrees with a party on most other issues. There’s nothing contradictory about someone supporting universal healthcare, more funding for public schools, gay rights, and increases in the minimum wage, and being pro-life. Likewise, there’s nothing inconsistent about opposing government intervention in private affairs and being pro-choice.

At the end of the day, abortion should transcend party lines. I think the abortion debate would be better off if people could vote their authentic preferences, instead of the party line on this fundamental issue.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why Does God Allow Evil in the World?

This is something that has puzzled me for some time. Why do we have wars, crime, and other forms of evil? So let’s consider some possible explanations.

Explanation #1: Evil is the result since God allows free will

God gives us the ability to think and do what we want. If we want to lie or steal, then God won’t supernaturally stop us. This brings up an interesting debate of whether we think humans are intrinsically good or bad. If we think humans are intrinsically sinful like Christianity teaches, then the result of free will would indeed be evil. But other religions do not share the original sin teaching. So God allowing free will wouldn’t lead to evil.

Explanation #2: Evil allows God to test us to see if we’re good

By this explanation, God allows evil so he can see whether individual humans are bad or good so he can judge them. Humans have to make a choice to be good or evil. But this explanation makes it seem like God is a mean High School teacher who relishes giving his students hard tests to see what grades they earn.

Explanation #3 God is punishing us for being sinful

Since humans sin, God sends evil like war and disease to punish them. But how does that jibe with the idea of a loving, merciful God?

So at the end of the day I’m still confused. Why do you think God allows evil in the world?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Should You Go to Law Scool?

It’s getting harder and harder to find an entry-level job in finance, as many college graduates will tell you. So there’s a stampede of college students applying to law school. Is it a good idea?

If you really want to into law, then yes. But then again, if you wanted to go to law, wouldn’t you be applying in the first place?

For people who didn’t want to go in the first place, I don’t think it makes sense. The economy’s doing poorly, so law school is a safe option that would provide for a good future, the logic goes. But remember, that corporate law jobs are disappearing in the recession as well. While the economy might recover in three years, and some of those jobs would then come back, who knows. Also, if the economy’s improving in three years, then regular jobs would be a possibility too.

If corporate law jobs aren’t around, then you’d have likely taken out $200,000 in loans, and wasted three years of your life for something you weren’t gung ho about. Talk about a terrible choice.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Does Israel Hate Obama?

One of President Obama’s biggest goals as President is to broker a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That task became more complicated as a recent poll revealed that just 4% of Israelis found him to be “pro-Israel.”

This means that it will be tougher for Obama to get concessions out of Israel on settlements, or other issues that are stumbling blocks in the peace process. If he can’t show any substantive concessions from Israel, then Obama will lose any goodwill he has with Muslim nations and the Palestinians.

Ironically enough, it might be thought in much of the Arab world that he is pro-Israel because he’s failed to produce any concessions from Israel. So neither side will think he’s an honest broker.

So Obama has a tough task. He has to convince Israel that he’s an ally to be trusted without alienating the Arabs. One way might be to deal with Iran soon. Iran is a shia Muslim state, while most Palestinians and Arabs are Sunni Muslims. Presumably, many Arab rulers are wary of growing Iranian power. Dealing with Iran would show Israel that Obama is serious about protecting it.

Of course if Obama is seen to be unfairly picking on Iran, he will incur the ire of the Muslim world, whatever its divisions. That should give you a sense of the tight-rope Obama has to walk.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Critiquing the Logic of Christianity

Christianity has logic to it, with a big caveat. For the purpose of this post, we’ll assume that there is a God who judges us for our sins, and a heaven and a hell.

To get into heaven, one has to meet God’s standards, which are really high. Here are the Ten Commandments:

1. You shall not worship any other god but YHWH.
2. You shall not make a graven image.
3. You shall not take the name of YHWH in vain.
4. You shall not break the Sabbath.
5. You shall not dishonor your parents.
6. You shall not murder.
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal.
9. You shall not commit perjury.
10. You shall not covet.

These become even tougher to follow when you read Christ’s teaching in the New Testament. He said “whosoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). In other words, thinking about sleeping with someone we’re not married to constituted adultery in God’s eyes. That probably includes the huge number of people who look at porn. So very possibly, an overwhelming majority of the world population are adulterers in God’s eyes.

When you apply this same standard to the other commandments, it becomes clear that almost everyone MUST have broken the Ten Commandments at one time or another. If you’re honest, you’ve probably broken one of the commandments listed above in action at some point in your life. And I’d bet everything I own that you’ve thought about breaking one of them at some point. That’s probably true even of someone like Mother Theresa.

To hang out with God in heaven, you need to meet his standards for admission. But in light of the discussion above, there’s very little hope for the overwhelming majority, if not all of us. If God judges you on your works, no matter how good you think you are, if you have ever sinned, you fail to measure up.

I’d make an imperfect analogy to basketball. Let’s say Kobe Bryant happens to turn up to your gym with a bunch of his NBA friends. When he’s picking teams, you have to meet his standards to get picked. In other words, it’s not enough that you’re a good player, or that you practice hard. You have to be one of the best players in the world to play with Kobe. In the same way, to make it into heaven, you have to meet God’s standard, which is perfection.

Enter Jesus. The only way you could go to heaven is to be perfect and never have sinned. Or someone could agree to take the punishment you deserve for your sins instead so you can go. According to Christian teaching, Christ did that by allowing himself to be nailed to a cross, and suffering for hours on end.

Now, there is plenty of room for dispute outside the narrow parameters of this post. Maybe you think there is no such thing as a God, or an afterlife. Or maybe you don’t believe there is such a thing as hell. Or maybe you don’t think Jesus existed, much less that he was the son of God, or that he was crucified.

Another interesting wrinkle comes in the standards. Why does the Christian God make the bar to entry so high? Why not just admit everyone into heaven whose good outweighs his bad even if he isn’t perfect?

But if you make the leap of faith to believe in God and an afterlife, then Christianity is not a leap of logic.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Obama's Just Launched a War on Trade...Or Not

Add the phrase “war on trade” to the war on drugs, and the war on terror. The latest war, according to conservatives, was of course created Barack Obama. This year, a 35% tariff has been levied on Chinese tire exports.

Perhaps in an ideal world, there would be no tariffs or taxes, and complete free trade. But politically that’s impossible. In order to have some semblance of free trade, the working and middle class have to buy in. Many of these are disproportionately in manufacturing industries which are hurting right now in the economic crisis. They need to feel some sense of protection and concern on the part of the government if they’re going to support any free trade.

I think a tariff on this one good accomplishes that, and allows us to have duty-free trade on most other items, which does give us free trade to a large extent. Now I understand the concern that the Chinese government will retaliate, which will cause still more tariffs. But I’m sure the Chinese will make take a hard look before they do that. And when they do so, they’ll see that they have a good trade relationship with the US, and that they shouldn’t jeopardize it.

Remember, the Chinese economy is extremely dependent on exports. An over-the-top retaliation could cause a huge drop in American demand for Chinese products. That would cause a recession in China, but more importantly, social unrest which the Communist Party can ill afford right now. So I don’t see the Chinese launching a trade war any time soon.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Obama and the Olympics

Despite the fact that President Obama flew all the way to Copenhagen to make an in-person pitch to the IOC, he was rebuffed. The 2016 games will be held in Rio de Janeiro, not Chicago.

In retrospect, Obama shouldn’t have gone. Now, the fact that Chicago didn’t get the games is being pinned on him as a personal failure. It shows supposedly, that the world may like Obama, but that it doesn’t respect him. Moreover, Obama should have spent his time focusing on the economy and Afghanistan; instead he took a vacation while Rome burned.

Of course, if Obama had managed to bring the Olympics home, the trip would have been considered a success. He would have demonstrated how much the world now respected America post-Bush, and generated some economic growth for Chicago.

In the long term, I don’t expect the failure to gain the games to harm him politically much. Next year’s midterm elections and his reelection campaign will be a referendum on the economy. If the economy is doing substantially better, he’ll win, if not, he’ll lose. So I just don’t see this being an issue next year. If the economy’s bad, sure, Republicans will run ads claiming that Obama was chilling overseas instead of helping people get jobs. But the damage will be done anyway, as people would already vote against Obama because of the economy. Likewise, if the economy’s better, people will credit Obama’s leadership; attacks about the Olympics will seem petty.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Roman Polanski Belongs in Jail

After more than 30 years, Roman Polanski was finally arrested, and now faces justice. Despite his crime—he gave a 13 year old champagne—and then had sex with her, celebrities in Hollywood are coming to his defense.

I don’t understand. The only reason Polanski didn’t go to jail in the first place was because he had the means to flee to another country. And the only reason anyone defends him is because he has stature and prestige. If Polanski were a poor gangbanger from Compton, these same celebrities would be silent, I assure you.

At the end of the day, justice should be served. Polanski belongs in jail.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Obama Surging in Afghanistan?

President Obama has a big decision to make on Afghanistan in the coming days and weeks. Does he send the thousands more soldiers the top General there has said are necessary to prevent the country from sliding into chaos?

The American people are quickly wearying of the Afghan war, with 50% of respondents to a recent Gallup poll opposing additional forces. It will be particularly fascinating to see how Democrats act. On one hand, Obama is their President, so they would want to support him. On the other hand, many Democrats initially supported Obama because he was perceived as the strongest opponent of the Iraq war. They are perhaps the most likely to oppose a continuing American presence on philosophical grounds? Will Obama be able to keep Democrats united behind a war effort?

Republicans tended to be more likely to support the Iraq war, and in general prefer a muscular foreign policy. So they should be the first on board for a surge in troops. But certain elements of the Republican Party are determined to oppose Obama at every turn, to undermine him politically. So how supportive will Republicans be?

None of this answers the question about whether surging is the best policy. What do you think?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Healthcare As a Possible Constitutional Right

John Conyers is thinking of offering a constitutional amendment declaring basic healthcare to be a right.

This is an interesting development. As I wrote here, I think that healthcare should be considered a right that the government has an obligation to facilitate.

But there are thorny issues. How do we define “basic care?” A reasonable standard might be a procedure that if left unperformed, would cause death. So a bypass surgery for a person with clogged arteries would probably be required, as would chemotherapy for someone with cancer.

Plastic surgery would be out at it doesn’t save a person’s life. What about things like abortion and contraception? You could plausibly make the argument that the ability to control when you get pregnant is an important health issue with major implications for your life. The same would be true of contraceptives like condoms or the pill. Sexually transmitted disease is a serious health problem. Yet I can see the division funding those things would cause.

How much healthcare is a person entitled to? Should government be required to pay for unlimited care? That might bankrupt us. If so, would we have to set a limit for how much a human life is worth? But then at some point, we might be denying a person care which is medically necessary based on cost.

What if government spending were too low to ensure whatever standard of care is deemed necessary? Would the Supreme Court step in and make Congress and the President rearrange the budget by raising taxes or lowering spending on other programs?