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Fixing Half the Problem

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s easy to fix half a problem if you don’t mind making the other half worse.

Like two groups of sailors --- each trying to save half the boat by shifting the water to the other side --- our leaders seem  focused on solving half the problem even if they make the other half worse.And I think this is what we see with President Obama’s plan to help home owners refinance at a lower interest rate.

At first glance, it seems like a good idea, because home owners will save money thanks to lower mortgage payments. But that’s only half the story.

The other half is that people who have invested in real estate will earn less.

For example, on each $100,000 of mortgage loans, an interest-rate drop from 6% to 4% saves a home owner almost $1,500 per year. If, let’s say, one million people shave two percentage points off an average of $250,000 in mortgages, then one million people will save on average upwards of $36,000 each over the next ten years.

But by exactly the same token, investors in real estate — banks, but also pension funds and the like — will collectively lose more than $36 billion over the text ten years.

Just by way of example, one adverse reaction will be to the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System, which has some $1.34 billion invested in real estate. If the return on that $1.34 billion drops from from 6% to 4%, the fund will earn $27 million a year less, for a total loss of $270 million over ten years.

In short, there’s no free lunch here. When some people save money, other people earn less from their investments.

Like a ship taking on water, America is sinking from debt. And like two groups of sailors — each trying to save half the boat by shifting the water to the other side — our leaders seem focused on solving half the problem even if they make the other half worse.

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Categories: current events

On the Price-Tag Attacks in Israel

October 12, 2011 Leave a comment

A series of attacks on Muslim and Christian sites, marked by the slogan “price tag” and apparently committed by Jews, demands a response, simple though it may be: I condemn the attacks and find those who committed them reprehensible.

In the past I have chastised religious leaders and other prominent people for not speaking out against terrorism committed by their alleged coreligionists. So I want to be clear that I do not support what these Jews (if they are Jews) in Israel are doing. I’d like to think that no one could even make such a mistake as mixing up my respect and tolerance with their hatred and bigotry, but I know that as tensions rise, so does mistrust. That’s why I’m publicly denouncing these acts as clearly as possible.

Equally, I hope I’ll set a model for others to speak out, even when they might not think it’s necessary. The next time we read of religious violence or intolerance, I hope we’ll also read of masses of religious leaders speaking out against it.

Categories: current events

“The Bible Says So” and Other Stupid Arguments

January 31, 2011 62 comments

“The Bible Says So”

Between the on-going debate about gay marriage and the recently-noted anniversary of the hugely divisive Roe v. Rade decision legalizing abortion, more people have been shouting: “The Bible says so. That’s how I know!”

Even though I respect the Bible, and even though it forms the foundation of my personal and professional life, I think the argument is stupid.

Here’s why: Everyone filters the Bible through their own personal preferences, choosing the parts they like.

Two examples will help demonstrate what I mean.

The first comes from the many people who use Leviticus 18:22 — about a “man who lies with man as with a woman” — to defend anti-homosexual positions. (For some reason, this stance seems particularly popular among mega-church leaders, who really ought to know better: Rick Warren, for example, or Joel Osteen, who recently told CNN that the Bible says that homosexuality is a sin.)

The second comes from the many people who use “thou shalt not kill” from the Ten Commandments to defend anti-abortion or anti-death-penalty positions.

Homosexuality

It’s true that Leviticus 18:22 seems to discourage homosexuality, and though it stops short of specifically calling it a sin (which is why I think Pastor Osteen is wrong — more here), I’m not convinced by those who try to interpret the text as being about anything other than homosexuality.

But the very same section of the Bible also prohibits making clothes by combining different materials (Leviticus 19:19), technically known as sha’atnez.

So unless Pastor Warren, Pastor Osteen, and those of their ilk are willing to take a public and vehement position against wool-and-cotton clothing, I have no patience for their argument that they are locked into their anti-homosexual position by the Bible. They are not. They are choosing the verses they like, and, apparently, they like to hate homosexuality.

Similarly, Leviticus 20:13 condemns homosexuals to death, but the same punishment is mandated for people who curse their parents (Leviticus 20:9). Are those in the “it says so in the Bible” camp willing to pass laws that put children to death for speaking out against their parents?

And for that matter, Leviticus 20:10 demands the death penalty for both the man and woman involved in an adulterous relationship. Is that a law that the anti-homosexuality crowd advocates?

I believe in religious freedom, and if religious leaders want to speak out against homosexuals, I suppose it’s their right. But they are not locked into that position by the Bible. It’s their personal religious choice.

(Similarly themed passages in the New Testament, like Romans 1:26-27, are more complicated, but the same basic principal applies. Romans 1:26-27, for example, takes a negative view of both male and female homosexuality — though not actually calling either a “sin” — but in a much longer passage, starting at Romans 14:1, the same book demands tolerance and acceptance, even of sinners: “Welcome those who are weak of faith,” “[Do not] pass judgment on one another,” etc.)

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Perhaps even more than homosexuality, abortion is one of the most vexing issues of our day. Although people disagree about the details, almost everyone shares the opinion that at some point a fetus deserves the protection afforded to a human — the question just seems to be when. And the death penalty is just as divisive, with the sides remaining even further apart.

But the Ten Commandments don’t help in either case.

First of all, the original commandment doesn’t refer to “killing” but only to “illegal killing,” as in “murder” and “manslaughter.” The message in the Ten Commandments is that killing is a matter of morality. (I have more here.) So the Ten Commandments highlight the importance of getting abortion and death-penalty laws right, but they don’t provide any particular guidance regarding the details.

More to the point, though, the Ten Commandments also prohibit taking God’s name in vain, but we don’t hear religious leaders suggesting laws against that.

So again, I think religious leaders have the right to decide which of the Ten Commandments they think are important, but I also think they have an obligation to be honest with their followers. The leaders are not simply conveying Scripture. They are interpreting it as they see fit.

Hiding Behind Scripture

So when Pastor Osteen says that, “the Scripture shows that [homosexuality] is a sin,” he is being deceptive. What he means is, “my interpretation is that homosexuality is a sin.” When Pastor Warren spends his money to oppose homosexuality (and not, say, to advertise Romans 14:13: “so let us no longer pass judgment on one another”), he is not a neutral interpreter of Scripture. He is, rather, exercising his right as a religious leader to speak about what he personally feels is important.

More generally, I’d like to see religious leaders abandon the cowardice of hiding behind Scripture and admit that they are picking and choosing from the Bible, opting only for what’s important to them.