Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Bliss Rediscovered

I remember the very first time I heard this.

It was three decades ago, and I was watching a PBS drama: John Le Carre's Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy. I wasn't impressed with the show at all -- it was just another of those murky, confusing spy stories with plants and double agents. I struggled through it, and resolved not to bother with it in the future.

As the show ended, I got up and started to walk to the kitchen for a snack. With my back turned, I heard . . . this. And I just stood there, unable to move, because the the simple sound of it sent shivers down my spine. I turned back and watched the closing credits of the show roll over a simple English dusk, and listened to a voice that seemed to call me to heaven.

In those days, before VCRs and Tivo, the only way I got to hear that voice again was by tuning into the show. I looked in vain for some note about the music, or the singer.

Apparently, I wasn't the only person so moved. Yesterday, three decades after I last heard this, I suddenly recalled that feeling. A simple Google search found it It was not the first time that an Internet search led to the discovery that other people have shared some inner experience that I thought was uniquely mine. The Youtube comments told me who the singer was - a Saint Paul's choirboy named Paul Phoenix. He was nine years old when he sang this!

It is an English hymn called Nunc Dimittas, and the words are from the Gospel of Luke:

Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace according to your word.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared before the face of all people,
a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.

For those that like it, you can buy it here

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Empire Falls Back

For several years I worked with a group of Indians on a complex engineering project. We spoke on the phone almost every day, often for many hours. In many ways this was one of those classic globalization projects that Thomas Friedman wrote about - a complex distributed endeavor involving participants from all over the world.

I grew to know many of them quite well, not because I could see them in the flesh, but rather because I could hear their voices, and I could understand their very individual approach to solving engineering problems. We worked as peers, but our situations were very, very different. I remember one occasion when we were arranging a teleconference, when the project manager spoke about the constraints they worked under. Her staff had to come into the office, they could not phone or work from home, and many of them had one-way commutes of 2 ½ hours!

So here I am, an American born into the middle class, working together with people who, by virtue of study and exhausting commutes like that, had pulled themselves up into the Indian middle class. They were still making far less in purchasing terms than I did. While their prices for daily food and shelter were far less then mine, there was absolutely no comparison between lifestyles. And so I wondered – if we are all doing the same work, on the same project, as part of the same team – why is it that I live better than they do?

This - in a nutshell - is the nature of the American Empire. Living at the center of an empire conveys enormous, disproportionate advantages that rely on the ability to draw dollars at the center vs. rupees on the margins. And I drew those dollars not because of base engineering ability, or natural talent, but rather because of one thing only: long-term relationships with other people at the center.

Things are changing very rapidly, and I believe the current economic crisis is the tipping point that will accelerate our economic decline, and ultimately unravel our empire.

On one of my trips in India I was driving along a highway out in the country, and I saw something extraordinary. Every twenty miles or so I saw a small, relatively new, school building, and these didn’t promote themselves as general schools, but rather schools of engineering. Quite often I could see the Indian students outside in their bright school uniforms. India and China now educate far more engineers than we do.

It is easy to be dismissive of new schools like this and the quality of their graduates but there is no getting around one, simple point. The best and most talented 1% out of a population of a billion will be more talented than the best 1% out of a population 1/3 that size.

We like to tell ourselves that we somehow deserve the wealth we’ve acquired, and the extraordinary ease of our lives compared with the rest of the world. Some say we have these things because of our freedom, or the ability of our economy to adapt to new circumstances, or our ability to assimilate immigrants, or a stable political structure. Or sometimes just some unique “can-do” American spirit. I’m sure these have been factors in creating our empire, but we are, in my view, an empire built on war and industry. First it was the slow drive West as we took the continent from its original inhabitants. Then it was the growth of Malthusian industry. Then it was two world wars where we used our industry to destroy the powers of the Old World.

The industry is leaving now. While American workers are still the most productive in the world, the risks of hiring the next worker here is considerable. Hire here and you have to hire HR people to position you against lawsuits, and every employee you hire is a roll of the dice. Just one employee and their lawyer can take the productivity of a thousand other workers. That is why we now graduate far more lawyers than engineers. Why make things when you can make more money by taking things? No American business can survive without the overhead of a team of lawyers and lobbyists on retainer. We’ve returned to feudalism, where the knights are lawyers, and the Dark Ages was no innovative time.

But the wealth to be plundered is drying up. We don’t make things anymore; we buy things from the rest of the world. We don’t tax ourselves for all the costs off our social programs, we borrow it. And with the recession, the stimulus bill, the new spending bill, and what we’ll spend to “reform” health care, we’ll be borrowing a lot more.

We can’t sustain this. I know lots of pundits claim that America is the indispensable nation, that the rest of the world has no choice but to ship us phones, TVs, cars, refrigerators air conditioners – all for . . . well just bookkeeping entries. Just promises to pay more at some later time. Maybe the rest of the world will loan us money to educate more and more lawyers, school administrators, accountants, and social workers – but I doubt it. I know of no historian that doubts that the British Empire lost its hegemony over the world because they became a debtor nation, and needed us to pay their bills. I see no reason why the Chinese and the Indians – productive, still-growing economies, won’t do to us what we did to the British.

I suppose it is in the nature of empires to seem immortal, because they suffuse themselves into every aspect of the world. At their height, it just doesn’t seem as if the world could be ordered any other way. While empires can last for centuries, they do, eventually, die. Perhaps our decline won’t be driven by war, but the historical record doesn’t offer much reason for hope.

The financial crisis seems pretty bad now, but the time may come when we'll look back fondly at a time when we only needed to worry about money.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It's Morning in Obama's America

Octomom beams with pride as she takes us all on a tour of her brand new house. "I earned it," she says. Not with a job mind you - those are becoming pretty scarce nowadays, especially when you are "disabled."

So if you're struggling through this financial crisis, know that the fast track to success in modern America is to do something outrageous. Something notorious enough to attract attention from those willing to pay for a front-row seat at the train wreck.

Keep your credit card handy. At 5:20 she says she is "hoping for donations."

She says in the video that she is leasing the house, but this article claims the home was bought by her father. Her father said in his Oprah interview that he has $100 in the bank.

Thank God the Bush years are over, and we can return once again to an era of responsible home ownership.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Red Meat for the Pro-Choice Crowd

The lack of consensus on abortion shows no sign of easing. Each side points to their favorite outrages. Pro-life people point to this case, where a living infant was tossed in the garbage. Pro-choice advocates point to this story. A nine-year old child, raped by her step-father was given an abortion. The Brazil Catholic Church has excommunicated the child's mother and the doctors that performed the abortion.

I won't comment on the former case, since I am generally pro-life. I will comment on the latter, in order to correct some of the distortions and hate I see on the pro-choice side.

I agree with the Church's stance in this manner. In the Church's view, performing an abortion or assisting in the procuring of abortion warrants excommunication, because it is clearly and unequivocally the deliberate taking of an innocent human life.

I think in this case, the Church has correctly described the father's crime as heinous. The Church's position is that a later C-section would have allowed both the children and the mother to live. The left wants the mothers health to be a justification for abortion, but any anxiety or discomfort can be always be characterized as a health issue. This effectively means support for all abortions at any time. The Church's position is that killing a child is only justified if it is a true, unintended side effect of efforts to save the mother's life.

Some on the left even believe the nonsense that the child herself was excommunicated, which justifies even more hatred.

There is a paradox in the reaction to this.

By excommunication, all the Church is saying is that from the perspective of Church offices these people are to be shunned. They are not asking that they be burned at the stake. They are not saying that they should be personally be shunned by Catholics. They are not asking that they be denied love, empathy and support from other Christians. They are just saying that in the absence of repentance they should be denied the only real benifit of formal Church membership: the sacraments. Excommunication is not permanent. Excommunication can be lifted, and access to the sacraments can be achieved by repentance.

What I find paradoxical in the reactions to this is the claim that it is somehow brutal and draconian, while at the same time claiming that there is no value in the sacraments, because they are merely anachronistic religious drivel.

Most people seize on the seeming unfairness of not excommunicating the step-father. It isn't at all clear that he is even a Catholic, hence excommunication may not even be relevant. Even if he is a Catholic, excommunication is not intended as a remedy against all sinners - otherwise the Church would be empty. It should not be supposed that the Church approves of all people and their acts who are not excommunicated.

This is clearly a hard and extreme case, as this little girl's life has been a true horror. From my perspective as a Christian, evil acts like these call for Christian love as a response, not death.

This story will surely be used as another another justification for Obama's Freedom of Choice Act. Like most bills, the name itself is a lie, because it may take away the choice of health care providers to refuse to perform abortion. The story will be cast as "look how shallow and brutal the Catholic conscience is!" So if you are a nurse or a doctor in any public health facility, any claim of conscience will be seen as bigotry, and so you will have no right to refuse to perform an abortion.

My pro-life position is this. I have no desire to outlaw abortion, and to jail mothers and doctors who perform them. At the same time I will not support any politician or party who advocates using the public purse to fund or subsidize abortion, and who uses the power of the state to promote it.

The left loves to cast such positions as patriarchal, as motivated by what they characterize as the need to control woman's bodies. But it is the left that seeks control over bodies, because they want to compel people to perform abortions and to pay for them against their will. While there is some disagreement on whether the language of the law will eliminate conscience exemptions, I have no faith in the legal system's respect for conscience in this matter. No one thought that the Civil Rights laws would result in favoritism, but they did.

To me the only possible response to the Freedom of Choice Act is for Church-owned hospitals to refuse to comply, refuse to perform abortions, and to allow the inevitable siege of lawsuits to put them all out of business.

Friday, February 20, 2009

On Obama

I’ve long had mixed feelings about Obama. I’m no Democrat, but during the primary campaign I was rooting for him. I have nothing but contempt for the Clintons, and it was gratifying to see someone defeat them and all their moral squalor.

But I realize that Obama was a lawyer that never won a significant case, and a law professor that never wrote a treatise. He was a community organizer that left no enduring legacy in his community. He is an orator who seems flat and uninspiring when talking about anything other than the meaning of his own personal story.

He is the perfect president for our age. We’ve long told ourselves that we can judge the quality of a person not by what they do, but rather by examining the strands of their ethnic and political genealogy. Like Germans measuring human skulls, we examine his past – half black, half white, both a Muslim and a Christian background, child of a single mother – and we convince ourselves that such a mix must be the sign of an extraordinary person.

Is he a radical, some secret socialist? I don’t think so. I don’t think he believes in anything. He has only ever been motivated by the search for praise he can believe in. He gravitated towards Ayers and Wright because they seemed to him like important people, they could set him up in politics, and they praised his wisdom as he sat at their feet. I have no doubt that if David Duke and Timothy McVeigh held the keys to Chicago politics and told him he had a mission for America he would have embraced them as well.

Being a Chicago pol is surely no mark against his character. Harry Truman allied himself with some pretty shady characters too. But Harry sought out politics as an avenue for success after a long and ignoble string of failures. He was looking for something to be good at. Obama was never allowed to fail - at anything. I think he’s spent all of his adult life around people that would never allow him to fail, because of what he represents. Oh, how much better I would feel about him if I could look in his past and see one, just one, failure! Some experience, some confrontation between the realities of the world and a personal limitation that would have taught him something.

So we’ve lifted him aloft, this person of no failure, of no success. He didn’t climb there. I’m convinced that he entered last year’s primaries in the hope he might establish a basis for a future run. Chicago politics teaches you to wait your turn. I think he was as surprised as anyone that his smug reliance on some Iraqi invasion position statement as his sole distinguishing asset from Hillary provided traction. I think he was as surprised as anyone at the way the strands of his identity captivated the media, and how the absence of any earthly accomplishment lent his identity a mystic, uncorrupted brilliance.

Nothing in his past suggests how he will handle criticism, or failure. There is nothing that suggests flexibility or determination or the ability to make an ally of a former enemy, and these are the key markers of a skilled politician. His rise was the rise of a balloon. He’s never fought a bill through a legislature, negotiated a compromise, cleaned up after a disaster, built a team (or anything else), or even dealt with a hostile audience.

So even if he is a socialist, like some Republicans claim, nothing in his background suggests that he has the skills or ability to realize a long-term political vision. So far all he is doing is pandering to the pent-up demands of Democrats, in the vain hope he can continue to live off their praise. We have a complex polity, and there is no telling how he will react when the inevitable fissures start appearing among Democrats. He’ll have to choose, and find some Republican allies at the same time as he prevents further Democratic erosion.

There is no reason to believe he’ll have the skill to do that. In fact there is no reason to believe he has the skill to do anything at all. Obama brings nothing to the office other that a thirst for reassuring praise.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Octomom Mortgage Rescue Plan

Obama's Mortgage Rescue plan is only going to make things worse. For every Octomom family that it rescues from greedy bankers, a dozen other families will find mortgages priced out of their reach. Since it imposes additional costs and risks on mortgage providers, fewer new mortgages will be offered.

Why would a bank - any bank - take the risk of offering a mortgage? Consider that our government provides finding for ACORN, which will now use civil disobedience tactics to prevent foreclosures. It is far safer to invest in Chinese coal plants. The Chinese economy is troubled too, but at least in China there is a government that is willing to support investors.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Octomom Stimulus Bill of 2009

Congressional bills that gather public attention are often given names to personalize them, so that we can put a person’s face to the injustice addressed by the bill. Hence we have the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and the Ryan White Care Act for AIDS funding, But so far the stimulus bill has just been, well just the “Stimulus Bill” or the “Stimulus Package” in the public mind, and this may be one reason why the public is less than enthusiastic.

To me, however, it should be named the Octomom Stimulus Bill of 2009, because if there is one person in America who personalizes all the subsidies and incentives that the bill contains, it is Nadya Suleman. You see, it’s all about “helping families” and Nadya’s little family is one in desperate need of truly heroic assistance. No doubt her current food stamp allotment is insufficient for their needs, and so the bill has increases for that. The federal Medicaid system and California’s Medi-Cal system are running deep deficits, and so additional funds are being appropriated so that the Neonatal ICU costs (running into the millions of dollars) for 8 premature births can be covered. Nadya lives off the disability payments for some of her other children, and they’ll be increased. Sadly, when you have 8 premature births, it is all too likely that at least a few of them will suffer from some disability, and so Nadya can look forward to better times ahead. Nadya lives off public assistance and her parents went bankrupt from a “bad real estate investment” – no doubt they were fleeced by some greedy bankers. So we can all be thankful that there are provisions in the Octomom Stimulus Bill of 2009 to help families just like these.

We have to “invest in our future” so there are copious finds for education, like increases in Pell grants. Nadya, of course, plans on living off “student loans” in the near term, and she’ll use college daycare facilities (also increased by the plan) while she is pursuing the rigorous and exacting demands of a degree in counseling. With 14 children she’ll no doubt do very well with the increases in the Child Tax credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

In the heydays of Stalin and Breshnev, the Soviet Union was peppered with posters of heroic labor in the form of huge, broad-shouldered men working in steel plants, striving mightily to meet the production goals of the latest Five Year Plan. Obama – no novice when it comes to iconography - should fill the nation with posters of Nadya. We want jobs, and this woman is perhaps the most heroic creator of jobs in our time. Think of the nurses and doctors caring for her newborns. Think of the daycare workers that California State University will have to hire at public expense. We’ll need more special ed teachers. She’ll need to employ lawyers to help her continue to game the subsidy system. Think of the increased demand for school construction and “infrastructure” that will be needed to house and transport her little brood.

Octomom is a hero of modern American labor.

At first glance, you would think all of this is a burden on the taxpayers. It isn’t. Right now we’re still in the flush years, when we can lower taxes, increase spending and blissfully ignore the fact that foreign creditors fund our daily living. The Octomom Stimulus bill is just the latest manifestation of this madness. There is a bubble in Treasury debt as sure as there was a housing bubble, and a dotcom bubble before that. Of course the Chinesee and Arabs will continue to buy our debt. They’ll always be happy to make the sorts of “investments in the future” that we dare not ask our own taxpayers to fund.

And why wouldn’t they? Loaning us money so we can fund the likes of Octomom is such a sound investment! Sure, there might be a net drain on the economy for the next decade or so while we nurse these children, care for them while mom is at school, and then pay counselors to deal with their neglect. But once this woman gets her state-subsidized degree in counseling, I’m sure she’ll be a productivity dynamo. I’m sure patients will be lining up at her office door and she’ll be making millions of dollars a year, so she can repay, through taxes, all those subsidies. You can tell from her personal insight and level-headedess that she’ll be in great demand as a counselor.

Never mind that Nadya’s own mom has one of these “soft” degrees as well: a degree in “Child and Adolescent Development.” We can all take comfort in the belief that increased funding for child development education is the best guarantee that our children will grow up to be mature, responsible, and productive adults like Nadya.

Completely absent from the Octomom Stimulus Bill of 2009 is any recognition that we can restore the health of our economy by making things and providing services that other nations will pay for. We’ll invest much more in education, which, increasingly in modern America means not investment in providing an engineering education, but rather in training some adults to console and counsel other unhappy adults. The Octomom Stimulus Bill is built on the bubbly delusion that the rest of the world will blindly invest in the spawning, cuddling, coddling, and counseling of future Americans.

Gosh . . . I feel so, so … stimulated!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Sight of an Angel

Sometimes a seemingly insignificant encounter leaves me oddly unsettled. For days afterwards, some nugget of feeling that it provokes still echoes around inside, as if it has some sharp edges that prevent it from settling within.

The other day as my wife, my daughter, and I walked out of a building, I heard my wife say hello to someone who was approaching us. When I looked at the women I quickly realized this wasn’t anyone I knew, and as I stopped to give them time to chat I became engrossed in something unusual that was happening at the same time.

The women had a small girl with her, and as the woman and my wife started talking, the little girl approached my daughter. And continued to approach. She was small, and a lot younger than my daughter, and she kept on approaching until her face was just a few inches from my daughter’s chest.

For an instant – just an instant - I was bemused inside, remembering the Seinfeld “close talker” episode about the unspoken social boundaries we maintain. But for just an instant, because then an extraordinary series of sharp, stabbing realizations took place.

The little girl was the woman’s daughter.

As she began to look up and speak to my daughter, I could tell from the sound of her voice and the odd shape of her teeth that she was suffering from some disability.

I felt an inner wave of sympathy for her mother, the frightening “there but for the grace of God” realization that all my happiness is contingent on the well-being of my children, and how fragile that well-being is.

I realize I’m staring at the little girl, and I know I should look away. I should not stare.

But I could not take my eyes off the little girl. There was such a hunger in her close approach to my daughter, and when she looked up at my daughters face I saw such an unmixed delight in the simple experience of talking to another. And seeing another. No, I could not look away, because when she started to smile up at my daughter it was like a sunburst. She was not suffering. No one who smiles like that, no one who speaks with such joy can be said to be suffering.

Later on I asked my wife about her, and I got the details. She’s going blind and she will die, and so I had a story that I could hang my feelings on. There was a reason for the sadness and fear that I felt. But I had no story that explained the other feeling - the feeling that I had witnessed some earthly manifestation of God’s transcendent light in her little smile.

My eyes will not see forever, and I will die someday. She didn’t know my daughter, yet she took such joy in finding my daughter’s face in the fading light of the world. I know my daughter, and I’m ashamed that familiarity has dulled the wondrous sight of her in my eyes.

Someday my light too will fade. Someday my eyes too will struggle to find my daughter’s face within the growing darkness. Let there be light.