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"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up."

Arthur Koestler 

Monday
May092011

Guardedly Pessimistic

 

 

 

 I mentioned one of the biggest mutual funds, Pimco, and its continual pessimistic outlook on treasury debt, in my “I Love Lucy” blog post over the weekend. Pimco is upping its bet that treasuries will drop in value. 

 

(Reuters) - PIMCO’s Bill Gross, the manager of the world’s largest bond fund, raised his bet against U.S. government-related debt in April to 4 percent from 3 percent, according to the company’s website on Monday.

While this is a modest increase in Pimco’s negative treasury bets, the article mentions that this is the plan for Pimco, to gradually ratchet up the position. 

But even so, I am still guardedly pessimistic because of the speech that Speaker Boehner gave at the club of New York:

So let me be as clear as I can be.  Without significant spending cuts and reforms to reduce our debt, there will be no debt limit increase.  And the cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given. We should be talking about cuts of trillions, not just billions.  They should be actual cuts and program reforms, not broad deficit or debt targets that punt the tough questions to the future.  And with the exception of tax hikes — which will destroy jobs — everything is on the table.  That includes honest conversations about how best to preserve Medicare, because we all know, with millions of Baby Boomers beginning to retire, the status quo is unsustainable.  

Boehner understands the seriousness of the problem. But the math will force taxes up eventually.  He is wrong about that. When you realize that to balance the budget with cuts alone means a cut of 42%, you see the need for tax increases. I do not see Social Security being cut that much, and every time you exempt a part of the budget from cuts the result is that the cut must be more severe elsewhere. The reductions in spending increases that Ryan proposed to Medicare were not well received. 

Eric Anderson, in his blog “Universe of Lies,” drew an analogy of being in a car headed for a precipice. While all Boehner is suggesting is that we slow down as we head for the cliff, even that is progress. 

We will see over the next few months if we have politicians or statesmen. I am guardedly pessimistic. 

Sunday
May082011

Uniforms for Jesus?

 

We were in line for lunch. Suddenly I had a revelation. No, not a vision from God, but a realization that I had observed something about the two men in line ahead of us. They were Mormons. But with such a revelation I needed confirmation. So I walked around the line to look at the food to choose, looked out of the corner of my eye, and saw they had name tags as Latter Day Saints. Mormons have a period in their lives when they are missionaries, and no doubt these young men were in that period. 

I thought all day about the uniforms the boys were wearing, and the uniforms we all wear in life. I thought of two incidents in the church where I used to serve. One of my self-appointed jobs was to help a certain type of visitor we used to get. I was a member of a particular denomination, and our main “competitor denomination” met down the street. There were great differences between us—or so it seemed at the time. Each denomination was founded by man with the same last name, a father and a son who no longer spoke to each other. Sometimes there was confusion about who met where. Both congregations met in Union halls on the same street a short distance apart. But I could always tell when we had a visitor that had made that mistake by the uniform the man wore: suit, tie, and most importantly a brief case. The brief case was “the tell”—the dead give-away. Most male members of the “other” denomination carried them. I imagine that they had an element of practicality, but the main use was to give the member an aura of business-like seriousness. Yes, those in my denomination were serious about our religion too, but oh, how my friends and I made fun of their uniform! 

The second incident was when the founder of our denomination, the son, gave a message about proper attire for church. While he planned to introduce no requirements, he wanted to encourage suit and ties among the men. We in leadership were pleased because many members of our congregation did not dress as well as would have liked. Coincidently my wife and I had received a care package from my brother in law. He was a pastor for the other guys, the father’s denomination. He felt that he needed to have a fresh variety of ties, and as a result he had many ties he no longer needed. So we took the ties and gave them away free to anyone who wanted one. We were totally surprised that this was offensive to a portion of the congregation. The one the most offended was also the best dresser in the congregation. No doubt he saw an attitude condemned in James 2:

 1My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

I did not understand why the man was upset at that time. I understand better now because I realize that I too had a uniform I wore. The uniform included a suit and tie, but also meant a uniformity of thought. I would look in the mirror and see the outward uniform, and be glad. But the mirror could never reveal the interior, the man who made fun of others and their uniforms while pretending he had none.

Jesus taught about the dangers of our uniforms.

Matt 23:27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

While I am sure that Jesus wore the culturally-correct clothing for his time, including the distinctive phylacteries, He advocated a different way of looking at things. Earlier in this chapter he said this:

23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

What I had done with my uniform was to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. Our uniforms, in themselves, are not wrong. There was nothing wrong with the uniform the Mormon boys wore that identified them: the dress pants, the very white shirt, the tie, and the very very short hair. The danger is when we rely on these uniforms as crutches to support our religiosity. Instead we need this:

Rev 7:14 I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

If we are transformed within and from above, the uniform may still appear, but it will be the outward expression of an inward truth. Not a religious garb designed to deceive. We cannot make anything white by dipping it in blood, but God can. 

Friday
May062011

I Love Lucy

It is not often one can quote that great Philosopher Lucille Ball. Usually her quotes are "Oh, Ricky" or "Can I be in the show?" But in her later show, "The Lucy Show," there was an episode where the troubles of the youth of the time are addressed. Remember this is the tumultuous 60's. Her character, Lucy Carmichael, said something along these lines.

The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, and chatter before company. They eat up dainties at the table, ... and are tyrants over their teachers.

The purpose of the statement is to get the older generation watching the show to agree with it. But then Lucy gives the kicker. This was said by Socrates in Ancient Greece. Immediately, the conclusion was to be drawn that the troubled youth of the 60's were in fact normal. Every generation of elders disparaged the youth. In the show, the smugness of Mrs. Carmichael was almost unbearable.

But there are several layers of difficulties with the quote. First, as Abraham Lincoln once said, "There are lots of fake quotes on the internet." While the quote was pre-internet the quote is fake--Socrates did not say it. In fact we do not really know very much of what Socrates said. It is either an adaptation of something from Plato or from Aristophanes’ play The Clouds. Secondly, to use the quote in this way shows a huge ignorance of the history of Greece. When Socrates was alive the Greek people were in a golden age. They had defeated the Persians, the greatest empire of the time, in battle-once on land and once at sea. The plays, the philosophers, and the political philosophy of that time still influence us. But the leaders of the time, especially of Athens, decided to meddle in the affairs of other countries. The Athenian Empire was very short lived. The Empirical-leaning generation that this quote refers to destroyed the Greek culture and eventually they lost their independence, not to a powerful empire, but to the barbarians to the north led by Alexander.

In this same way the generation Ms. Ball and her writers so wanted to praise—those who were teens in the 1960s—are  destroying American culture through empire, bread, and circuses, to mix a metaphor. In the same way that ancient Rome bankrupted itself to pay for their military, the free bread to keep the urban poor from rioting, and the lavish entertainment of the games at the coliseum to distract them, so this same generation will bankrupt America. The bankruptcy will occur for much the same reasons that it did for Rome.

The two plans to stop our overspending, the Ryan and the Obama plan, are both just delaying the inevitable. The biggest mutual fund, Pimco, specializing in debt, no longer purchases American government securities. They see a crisis coming. The point is not the current debt ceiling. The point is that there is a debt ceiling that will be placed by the market on US bonds when no one wants to buy them. Neither the debt increase over the next 10 years from not having a plan (debt to 26 trillion), or the debt from the Obama plan (debt to 23 trillion), or the debt from the Ryan Plan (20 trillion) are sustainable.

How convenient that the generation that is causing these issues by over consumption is exempting itself from any cuts. Those 55 and older are free from any cuts. Normally since I am 56 I should support this. But I feel strongly that what my generation is saying to my children and grandchildren can only be described with an expletive. You pick the expletive you are comfortable with.

As a concluding note, what I am trying to do in these first blog posts is to provide a philosophical background as to why I feel that each of us needs to metaphorically leave Babylon the Great. Gradually I want to add and discuss the practical ways one can be in the world, yet not of the world. I see that some of my friends are ahead of me in this journey, and others need to catch up. In any case I feel the effort is well worth it.

 

Tuesday
May032011

Head Hunters of Borneo

Idyllwild is an artsy kind of town. There are eleven art galleries.  There are gift shoppes with an emphasis on New Age and magic. So I was not surprised when I caught snatches of conversations at the local coffee emporium. “Head Hunter of Borneo ...”; “He was raised in the Belgian Congo ..”; and “You have to understand that Shamans ...”

I was curious, so when talk turned to a seminar about living a more sustainable life I asked where it was. While the seminar was too far away to attend, it gave me an opportunity to talk. I mentioned that I was blogging on related issues from a Christian perspective. Someone earlier had mentioned fighting the “system” so I summarized my blog this way: I talk about how Christians need to leave the system which the Bible calls Babylon the Great. He asked me about this scripture:

Genesis 1:28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 

Of course he did not know the exact scripture. He asked me if Christians wanted “dominion.” This is a popular jargon word among certain Christians. My answer was that if I had dominion over my living room, I did not dump trash there. He understood. 

We both left satisfied with the conversation, we had emphasized our areas of agreement not where we disagreed. This was a good lesson for me as I usually do not do this. 

This conversation got me to thinking as my family and I walked home. Were there things I needed to “take dominion” over? Do I need to empty the trash, or trim the bushes? What do you need to do to be a good steward over what God has given you? If we want more physical things, or more importantly more spiritual things, should we not first take care of what we have? In one of Jesus parables he told us what happens if we are good stewards:

Mat 25:23  “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’”

Aren’t these the words any Christian longs to hear? 

 

Monday
May022011

Fool Me Once ...

 

The current mania about the imminent end of society reminds me of a scene from Star Trek where Scotty gets deceived.

From the Wikipedia summery of the episode 40 Friday's Child:

Meanwhile the Enterprise receives a distress call from the S.S. Deirdre. Mr. Scott takes the Enterprise out of orbit to find the ship, but when it arrives at the coordinates, he finds nothing. He notes the call strangely asked for the Enterprise by name, and no civilian ship would have direct knowledge of the Enterprise's whereabouts. Realizing he had been duped he races back to Capella IV, but receives another distress signal along the way, this time from the U.S.S. Carolina. Scotty ignores it saying "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."

Have you ever been fooled? I was in the early 70's about the end of the world. I read books like Famine 1975! America's Decision: Who Will Survive? by William and Paul Paddock,  and The Population Bomb by Paul R. Ehrlich.  These books predicted that millions would starve during the 1970's. Only America could save some. Mostly they proposed that America "write-off" countries that were doomed--countries like China and India. These very countries are now booming and this is now a big problem for the good ol’ USA.

No doubt 100 years from now there will be books that declare:  Famine 2075! China's Decision: Who will survive? Here is the first sentence from Erlich's book:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate ...

A decade later Paul Ehrlich made a bet with futurist Julian Simon. Ehrlich picked 5 metals. He "purchased" $200 of each of these metals. At the end of ten years Ehrlich discovered that the prices of the 5 metals had declined and he sent Simon a check for $576.07. The doomsters have been consistently wrong for 100 years, although few of them failed as spectacularly as Paul Ehrlich.

Oddly enough, the main reason that Simon won the bet had nothing to do with the issues he and Ehrlich disagreed on. It was more a function of Paul Volker's monetary policy. I expect that if a similar bet were placed today the outcome would be quite different, especially factoring in the inevitable inflation we will have over the next few years. Ben Bernanke is no Paul Volker.

The irony is that while Ehrlich would win that bet in 2021, he would win for the exact opposite reason that Ehrlich predicts (he still fights the "good" fight of the 60's). It will not be because of the poverty of India and China, it will be because of the millions who are entering the middle class in these countries, and they want meat (well maybe not the Hindus). They want iPods (and the Chinese make them!). It is the wealth of these countries, not their poverty, that will raise commodity prices.