Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Economics and America

Economics has been called the "dismal science" since it is associated with so many tragedies - when an economy declines, people really get hurt. The theories of economics try to explain why these tragedies, and also the economic success stories, happen. During the past 50 years, as the availability of useful data has improved dramatically, the science of economics has become far more accurate and useful for decision-making.

Few would dispute the basic theories of economic science. When the price of an item rises, fewer people can afford to buy the item. When a useful item becomes less available, the price of the item will go up. When competition is limited, prices will tend to be higher than they would be under unlimited competition. When people develop skills that are in demand, the value of their labor increases and their wages rise. These and other basic theories are about as provable as the the theory of gravity, and most people understand them even if they never spent a single day in an economics classroom.

What makes economics so controversial is that it explains how people become winners and losers in the economy. When individuals are winners, they tend to appreciate how economics works to their benefit. When people are losers, they tend to wish the rules were different and they often work to change the rules to their benefit. The discussion then centers on whether or not the rules are "fair" - and "fair" is a very subjective, emotional term.

The current discussions about outsourcing boil down to a debate about what is fair. When a Chinese company starts manufacturing widgets and sells them for $1.00, the American widget manufacturer may find it cannot even manufacture a widget for $1.00 in cost. Soon all the business will move to China and the American manufacturer will close or shift to another product. However, many Chinese workers will move from a subsistence farming environment to work in the new widget plant, and their standard of living will improve. Other Americans who buy widgets will pay less for them and thereby have money to spend on other things. But the Americans who previously made widgets will have to find a new job. The circumstances that seem unfair to the American widget worker seem eminently fair to the Chinese widget worker. "Free Trade", which just occurred in this example, created many individual winners and losers.

Those who are smart enough to evaluate economic data and derive general principles from it believe that free trade results in the most "good" for the most people, although some people are definitely hurt by it. When the standard of living goes up in China, many millions of people can now afford more expensive purchases. The big question then becomes "where will the items bought by the Chinese come from?" We would like to see a lot of U.S. content in those items, but we will have to earn the right to be a supplier to these Chinese people. To do that, we need to produce goods that the Chinese cannot produce, or cannot produce competitively. These are going to be high tech industrial products or products with significant intellectual content. We will either provide them or we will become the losers in the competition of free trade.

That's the challenge that we face in America. Compete or slowly fade. We know from the example of Japan that simply having low wage rates does not ensure long term competitiveness: Japan did not maintain its competitiveness after its wages reached parity with ours, and Japan is now facing serious economic issues. China will some day reach the same decision points, although it presently is benefiting significantly from its relatively low wage rates. (As are American consumers who purchase well-made Chinese goods at low prices.) China will not be the low-cost producer forever, because their overall standard of living will rise.

How do we compete? Be better educated, more inventive, and more productive (working smarter) than our competitors. Eliminate the waste in our economy - people talent and resource utilization that provides outputs of little value. And put our social programs on a firm footing, whatever it takes - taxes, benefit adjustments, or new kinds of social organizations. We can compete very well in the world economy if we understand the challenges we face and do what is necessary to keep our society the envy of the world.

There are plenty of nay-sayers, people who have lost faith in America's competitiveness and want to turn inward. They forget that we have great advantages to leverage. Our land is huge and fertile, with great water resources - a wonderful agricultural machine. Our infrastructures for transportation and communication are well-developed. Our great colleges and universities can provide whatever learning experiences our new economy demands, but we first need to internalize the idea that when workers at all levels in all organizations are more educated, they will be more productive and flexible. And lastly, we have a free society with a long history of meeting great challenges. With leadership, our citizens will rally to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The laws of physics tell us that when an asteroid is on a trajectory to impact earth, we had better do something about it. It's not possible to change the physical laws of gravity and inertia that will bring that asteroid right to the projected target. The theories of economics, and our own knowledge of history, tell us that nations that get lazy and complacent, overspend, and underestimate their competitors are ultimately overtaken by those who are eager to succeed, use their resources wisely, and aggressively pursue their objectives. America has no place to hide, no doors to close, no way to "go it alone". We just need to get busy. Will we?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lou Dobbs - Panderer Pro Excellance

I usually reserve my rants for the right wing, but today will be an exception. Lou Dobbs, CNN's dinner hour host, also seems to be going down the wrong road at full speed with his "War on the Middle Class" emphasis.

In Dobbs' mind, Corporate America's outsourcing and our government's lax enforcement of immigration laws are destroying the middle class. While I'd agree that the middle class is shrinking, Dobbs' populist explanation of the causes and his suggested remedies are both misguided.

Outsourcing to low-cost sources of goods is a good idea for American corporations and citizens. If they did not outsource, our corporations would evaporate due to competition from other companies that employed low-cost sources. If corporations did not outsource, Americans would pay much more for products they now obtain at low prices. Yet outsourcing does eliminate many low-skill American jobs and even some higher paying positions.

In the 1800's, American agriculture opened up the vast plains where producing crops and livestock was much cheaper than it was in New England and the Southeast. Food stores moved much of their sourcing to the Mid-West, which resulted in Americans getting more plentiful products at lower prices. This internal outsourcing decimated the small farms of the East because they could not compete. Was this "unfair"? No, it's just the way the world works.

Dobbs appears unwilling to tell the American people the truth, which is that the citizens of the United States need to make major changes to their society if they intend for our country to prosper in the 21st century. What are the changes that will bring back the middle class?

1) Education: We need to raise our expectations for student performance, across the board. There are no more $70,000 jobs for high school dropouts. America must compete in the areas of innovation and high tech manufacturing where high value products generate high salaries. Barriers to the entry of new teachers, which are union-driven, must be curtailed. Teaching should become a profession, not a modern "assembly line" job. Students, and their parents, should become far more accountable for the success of their educations. We have much to learn from our international competitors in this area.

2) Efficiency: We need to wring out the major inefficiencies in our economy. We use far more energy than we should, and we get it from inefficient sources that need to be eliminated in favor of renewable sources. We spend far more on health care than we should, primarily because we provide excessive services to those nearing the end of their lives and to those who choose unhealthy life styles (smoking, obesity, drug use, etc.). Individuals need to bear more of the costs associated with their own behavior. Lastly, we need to privatize many more government functions and eliminate the innumerable costly redundancies in government services. Why do states issue driver's licenses when state borders are virtually meaningless?

3) Entitlement Reform: We cannot continue to offload the cost of current benefits on future generations. Government must allocate the real cost of benefits to the time period when the benefits are earned. This will go a long way toward rationalizing our decisions about what benefits really make sense. And "disability" benefits make much less sense when our economy depends less and less on manual labor; "disability" is an occupation for many Americans, and we need to manage it much better than we do now.

Dobbs is jousting at the wrong targets. The real culprit for the slow deterioration of the American economy is our failure to adjust to change. If Dobbs and our elected leaders continue to blame outside influences for our internal failures, we will continue the downward slide toward a bankrupt and non-competitive economy. It's time for truth and change rather than pandering to people who wish there's a painless route to general prosperity in the United States.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Back to School!

For several years I've been receiving literature from The Teaching Company. It sells packaged college courses on DVD, CD, or audiotape - courses taught by, purportedly, some of the best teaching professors in the country. Although some courses seemed interesting, I never gave them my credit card until last week. "The Foundations of Western Civilization", 48 30-minute lectures by Thomas F.X. Noble of Notre Dame University, arrived three days later.

My wife and I are viewing the lectures on DVD several nights each week, after dinner. Professor Noble is an interesting speaker who talks rapidly, which is great because he's covering giant swaths of history every 30 minutes. Can you imagine doing ancient Mesopotamia including Sargon, Hammurabi, Gilgamesh, the decimal system, and much more in 30 minutes? And ancient Egypt in 30 more? This is clearly a survey course in the first degree.

Yet there seems to be a lot of value in compressing history down to its bare fundamentals. Noble is interested in what, from each of these times and cultures, actually was "foundational" to western civilization. So, at this point in the course we understand that the formation of cities was necessary for civilization to begin, and that Sumer (Mesopotamia) contributed quite a lot more to our modern world than did Egypt. Next time we learn about the Hebrews.

Needless to say, this is not my first foray into "Western Civ". A few feet away, on my bookshelf, is "The Story of Civilization" by Will (and Ariel) Durant, "The Study of History" by Arnold Toynbee, and (my favorite) "Ideas and Men - The Story of Western Thought" by Crane Brinton. But it's possible to get lost in the trees and forget the forest. Noble is concerned about the forest. Maybe I'll go back and look at some of the more interesting trees after finishing Noble's quick tour through the forest.

Several great courses are on sale at all times, just to hook us curious people, I suppose. This course was only $109, for example. With the DVD's came a new catalog with many more tantalizing potential forays into knowledge of many sorts. It will be hard to resist going on to something new...maybe "My Favorite Universe", by Professor Tyson of Princeton University -twelve 30-minute lectures for $40.

Seem interesting? Try out this url: Bet you see something that tickles your fancy!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

"Lenten" Questions

The Christian church, like most other religions, breaks up the calendar year into chunks that relate to specific themes. This system has a lot of positive effects: it communicates the primary teachings, it maintains interest by giving variety, it provides structure and pattern for those who need them, and it facilitates "holidays" that typically cap each season. The two primary Christian seasons are Advent, which precedes Christmas, and Lent, which precedes Easter.

Although I'm a Christian, I've always been sceptical about religious seasons and holidays. We have evidence that they were concocted by religious leaders rather than directed by God. In the case of Christianity, for example, you can't find anything in the New Testament that specifically lays out religous seasons: rather, it focuses on individual responsibility to live by faith every day. So, do these seasons have value? I may be changing my mind about this.

Wikipedia's article about the origins of Lent tends to confirm my suspicions that it's a "manufactured" season. It dates not to the early church, but to about 400 a.d. It now relates to the period of about 40 days prior to Easter, the day when Christians believe Jesus was resurrected. It is a time for heightened self-evaluation and penitence. The focus is on the example of Jesus, who agonized for 40 days in a bleak wilderness before deciding to begin the ministry that ultimately resulted in his death.

Artificial as they may be, seasons are perhaps useful. All of us can get into personal ruts, trudging down the same worn out paths and making them deeper, and failing to recognize that we are not going to any new places. The seasons have potential to divert our attention, awaken us to our true situation, and help us remember the basic truths of our faith. Advent and Christmas remind us of God's love for the world, and Lent and Easter remind us to respond to that love in a serious way, and hopefully in a more mature way as we grow older.

For the past several months my life has been consumed by duties, often duties that appear on their face to be other-centered and self-giving. But in truth I've been in a rut, doing these things by rote and patting myself on the back for the accomplishments. There has been little joy in the activities and little sense that they've been performed in response to a higher calling. I realized this last night as I attended an Ash Wednesday service commemorating the beginning of Lent. Maybe I need forty days of reflection and a few new activities that will take me off the beaten path and lead me toward some good new places.

So, religious seasons may be artificial and concocted, even materialistic in some of their origins. But the fact that they have existed and prospered in all religions indicates that they must address basic human needs for structure. I guess it's helpful to have a special time to focus on the gift of life and the Giver; a time to focus on the wonder, beauty, and bounty of creation; and, in Lent, a time to focus on whether or not my inner thoughts are worthy of my outward professions and whether or not my feet are following the right paths. Maybe it takes forty days to get though those Lenten questions - forty days out of every year.

Friday, February 16, 2007

GOP in Death Spiral

This has been a bad week for the GOP. Scooter Libby and the White House were trapped in their web of falsehoods about Plame-gate, and the bald-faced lies we heard months ago from press secretary Ari Fleisher were exposed. We are told that ten billion taxpayer dollars were thrown down the drain by the "Coalition" Provisional Authority during the last few weeks of their disastrous tenure in Iraq. The House of Representatives passed a no-confidence vote regarding Bush's escalation in Iraq, but Bush continued to bullshit America about a victory strategy that nobody can believe. For them, the weekend can't come too soon.

Remember when President Bush said he would fire anyone who leaked the name of a covert operative? Carl Rove is still working, but we know he leaked. And all this goes back to a scenario where the Bush administration was caught trying to sell the world a lie about Niger uranium. So they lied to cover up an "outing" that was designed to cast doubt on a previous lie that they told... This whole sordid scenario needs to be laid out crisply to the American people, so they understand just what kind of people were, and are, running our country.

It appears the CPA thought they could buy peace in Iraq by putting money in every hand that reached out for some. Cash money! Greenbacks! Planeloads of it! Of course there was no accountability, and most of the "work" that was done was useless. My question is: how much of this cash ended up in the hands of the insurgency? I would like to see a list of every person or company who got money handed to them, with a sidebar showing where each of them is now and what they are doing. This story is going to have long legs.

This "non-binding resolution" about the surge is purely political, but politics do count. In 21 months there will be another election, and the surge will be history. Will those GOP congressmen and senators want their quotes in support of the surge played over and over again by democrat opponents? Not likely. Frankly, I believe letting Bush play out his hand is the right strategy for democrats. More American soldiers and Iraqis will die, but the failure of this policy will be a major driver in the democratic party's takeover of the presidency and their achievement of much larger majorities in both houses. (It's not that I think the dems are so great - it's just that the GOP is dangerous in too many ways to count.)

What really irks me is the constant republican refrain about "supporting the troops". They want people to believe that the troops are just stuck there and we can't do anything but help them stay alive. Well, the troops are not just stuck there - they are there simply because George Bush says "Stay!". The debate must always be about the "Decider" and his decisions. Give him the funds to do his thing for awhile, and soon the pressure of his ongoing failures will bring a conclusion to this unfortunate episode of neo-colonialism.

So, the week is over and the GOP will be pouring the scotch a little heavy tonight. It was a tough week, and next week don't look so good either!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Muscle Memory

Tonight the temperature in Rochester, New York, will drop to about zero fahrenheit, and sometime late tomorrow afternoon we will get 12-18 inches of snow - our first big snow of the year (although our friends 150 miles away in Oswego got 6 feet last week alone!). But for the past three weeks I've been spending an hour and a half every other day in the YMCA fitness center. No, working out was not a New Year's resolution. It is an annual pre-Spring ritual.

In less than three months I'll be on the Appalachian Trail again, this time trekking from northern New Jersey, through New York, then Connecticut, then to the northern border of Massachusetts. That will be 245 miles with a pack on my back, and it will take me about 16 days of hard walking before I exit the woods just down the road from Williams College. The physical challenge of conquering the hills and valleys keeps me going back to them. I will have 9-11 hours of walking to accomplish on most days.

Few people understand the difficulty of the Appalachian Trail, because relatively few people attempt it. But I love it because it is tough. I go into it in good shape, and I leave it 16 days later with my entire body almost hard as a brick. My face will be thin, and my ribs will show. My quads and calves will have strange curves where muscles have tried to burst the skin. I'll be ten pounds lighter. I will feel like I can walk through walls.

I'll turn 63 two months after this year's hike, and I hope to make that last hike up the steep ridge of Mount Katadin (in Maine) before I turn 65. There are a few others my age out there, and some of them can really move! But I hold my own pretty well, even against the kids, and I love to talk with other hikers in the evening at a shelters or tent site. I've met some fascinating people out there, people from every background who have interesting stories to share with a stranger.

So tonight I'm feeling a lot stronger, and my muscles are helping me remember what it's like to put your body to a big test. Go away, snow! It's almost time for another hike.

Sunday, February 11, 2007


Life is not simple. There are no easy answers to so many of the big questions. We are often torn between what seems right and what seems right. And one of the most difficult questions regards how we should respond to those who do evil.

There are many categories of people who do the most flagrant kinds of purposeful evil: child molesters, torturers, serial killers, murderous dictatators, and terrorists, to name a few. These people have one common characteristic - they do terrible harm to large numbers of innocents, and they put fear into uncounted others. What should a moral person do when confronted with this kind of purposeful evil? My last two posts discussed opposite poles of action regarding the radical Islamic terrorist threat.

In the first post, I criticized two Christian friends who support wholesale suppression of Muslims because "peace-loving Muslims" are not doing enough to control the radical terrorists who do evil in the name of religion. I felt that it was unfair (wrong) to assume guilt by cultural association, and I said 1)that violence is counter-productive and 2) that love is the ultimate solution to the problems of the world. Rather than stigmatizing peace-loving people of the Muslim faith, we should be doing everything possible to support them.

In the second post, I opined that terrorism would be the scourge of the 21st century. Terrorists deal in the currency of fear. They believe that by indiscriminately and horrifically killing innocent non-combatant citizens of a target country they will force a government to accede to the their demands. My suggestions for dealing with terrorists were 1) to minimize their ability to "hide" within civilian populations by offering those populations both carrots and sticks, and 2) to mercilessly attack them whenever they are found. I went so far out on the latter suggestion that I condoned collateral damage. Comments ensued...

One comment stated that it seemed I would support a continuing U.S. presence in Iraq to assist the "peace-loving Muslims" in that country. I don't support our continuing presence in Iraq, for two reasons. First, we can't beat the terrorists in Iraq because they have all the tactical advantages. Second, there must be a political settlement there, and some kind of effective government, before the U.S. will be able to offer and provide aid to moderates. Sadly, it will be bloody in Iraq whether we stay or leave. But it will surely continue to be bloody as long as we stay, so we must give the Iraqis a chance to sort this out for themselves. (Of course, every sane person knows we never should have invaded Iraq in the first place, or kept large forces in the Middle East which provoked radicalism.)

Another comment stated that it was inappropriate for me to advocate telling Muslim populations that terrible consequences could befall them if terrorists associated with their society pull off some horrendous operation in the West. He felt that large masses of these people already lived in such precarious circumstances, and under such great threats, that further threats from us would have no impact on them. Maybe so. But just theoretically, let's think about how the U.S. would respond if individuals associated with Hamas detonated a suitcase nuclear bomb in Chicago or somehow breached the Hoover Dam. It seems to me that every Palestinian would be in grave danger even if the U.S. said we were only after Hamas. So, maybe predicting terrible consequences is merely stating the obvious.

Lastly, a commentor felt that I was wrong about not being too concerned about collateral damage when we attack terrorists. He felt collateral damage tends to incite radicalism on the part of those who mourn the innocent victims, and even encourages terrorists to stay closer to innocent populations. Maybe so. But it seems that terrorists already make sure there are plenty of civilians around them at all times - our current rules of engagement make this strategy their best insurance policy. In my view, if we let terrorists escape out of fear for collateral damage, we may be saving the lives of a few in favor of losing the lives of many who will later be killed by those same terrorists. If we choose in favor of the messy attack on terrorists, we must make it clear that we chose the action we felt was least harmful from an overall perspective. Lastly, if civilians like Palestinian women purposely place themselves as shelters for fighters who they support, I don't consider their deaths collateral damage.

So, I'm conflicted. I pray for peace and peacemakers every day, and I practice peace whenever I, or others around me, face a personal conflict. I sincerely believe that virtually all disputes can be successfully negotiated by opposing parties that show good faith. Yet I also know that pure evil intent exists - intent that is immune to negotiation and will stop at nothing to achieve its purpose. It is that evil that I believe must be resisted with whatever force is necessary. If it is the lives of my family and myself that must be lost to prevent a greater tragedy, so be it. I am willing to be "collateral damage" when the cost of saving my own life is too great.

I'm not sure that Jesus would agree with this post, and I claim to be his follower. Perhaps I will someday fully come to grips with the concept of turning the other cheek. On the other hand, maybe there was a good reason why Jesus is never quoted as criticizing a good soldier...maybe he felt there were good reasons why us humans need someone to keep order when things get totally out of control. I'm conflicted!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Terrorism - 21st Century Scourge

Terrorism is going to be the scourge of the 21st century. Almost everyone recognizes that World War II marked the end of the superpower wars - modern weapons make armed conflict between superpowers Mutually Assurred Destruction, even with reduced stocks of nuclear warheads. Even major "brushfire wars" like Korea are now pretty much out of the question for the same reason. Consequently, conflict in the 21st century will likely be limited to 1) ultra- low-probability suicidal wars initiated by rogue states like North Korea or Iran or 2) terrorist strikes by non-state religious or political groups who believe such strikes will win accomodations or exact retribution for some perceived insult.

While states like North Korea or Iran could certainly wreak havoc in a war, they would pay the ultimate price for going head-to-head with any major power. At a minimum, the ruling faction of these countries would be obliterated in short order, and their military might would be decimated. As a result, neither of these countries or others like Pakistan would seem to have much interest in an all-out war. If such a war did occur, there's a high likelihood that other potential rogue states would be dealt with pre-emptively under the "once-burned" rule (unless they pre-emptively disposed of major offensive weapons).

Terrorists face far fewer obstacles than states to initiating attacks on major countries. Although terrrorist organizations may be covertly supported by states, they are neither geographic entities nor highly centralized political entities. In order to succeed on the battlefield, they must lure an adversary into a disorganized war on territory that provides them plenty of cover (e.g., the U.S. in Iraq).

But terrorists fare best when they employ small well-disciplined forces to strike high-value targets in countries they wish to intimidate. Their tactics are the moral equivalent of carpet bombing civilian populations - their purpose is not to defeat military power directly, but to defeat a targeted society by eliminating its will to resist. Suicide bombings of highly concentrated populations are a low-tech tactic, while much more sophisticated attacks against energy infrastructure, water supplies, or transportation bottlenecks might be the preferred tactics of top terrorist groups. All these potential attacks are very dangerous, as much for their psychological impact as their "military" impact. Terrorists deal in the currency of fear.

What makes terrorist organizations so difficult to eradicate? Primarily because they hide inside non-combatant populations, populations that either tolerate or support their activities. (The toleration may be active, indifferent or coerced.) Timothy McVey was successful because he lived within an American subculture that shared his radical views and sheltered him until he emerged to bomb the Oklahoma City federal building. Radical Muslims are likely hiding inside Muslim enclaves within the major Western countries or lurking in border states where sympathetic groups exist. Fortunately, terrorist organizations have great difficulty planning and executing strikes when they lack good cover and their freedom of movement is limited.

What does this mean for the Western countries who are potential targets of terrorists? First, it means that they must do everything in their power to limit the number of places where terrorists might find cover. For example, Western countries need to support Muslims who are not aligned with terrorists - support them with foreign aid, with accurate propaganda, and with clear information about the implications for them if terrorists related to them are successful. Our campaign must be based on the idea that everyone will act in their own best interest, based on information they believe. But waving a sharp stick without also offering a nice big carrot would be counterproductive. We need to make real friends out of potential adversaries.

So we must not only avoid egregious actions that generate hostility among the rank and file, but we must also identify and pursue positive actions which are both in our national interest and their personal interest. Providing humanitarian services is a good example. This is critically important, since the terrorist front organizations are working equally hard to keep these people as allies. We need to be perceived as both powerful and friendly, always attempting to show that we are part of a future that is better for them than the one offered by terrorists.

Second, it means that we must search out and destroy terrorists wherever we find them. We need to tell our enemies, up front, that this is a war and "collateral damage" is not a major concern. That is, if you are "around them", you may be killed even if you are not a formal combatant. In other words, "knowing proximity" is enough. This is necessary not only to dispose of the bad guys, but to discourage those who might be more passive supporters. We should never make apologies for collateral damage that occurred around a legitimate target.

In summary, terrorism will be the dominant form of warfare in the 21st century simply because it is the only form of warfare that aggrieved people can pursue. Terrorism is the moral equivalent of carpet bombing civilian populations - its purpose is not to defeat military power directly, but to defeat a targeted society by eliminating its will to resist. To combat terrorism, our first goal should be to minimize the number of people who might embrace or tolerate it - by showing them both a better alternative and a potentially terrible consequence. Our second goal must be to locate and mercilessly destroy active terrorists wherever they are found. When people (terrorists) reach the conclusion that they must kill innocents without remorse, there is no room for negotiation. In the end, we must hope that a combination of effective surveillance and effective communication will end the scourge of terrorism that we face in the coming century.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Forgetful Christians

One of my favorite ambulance experiences occurred on the Yom Kippur holiday several years ago. I was called to a Jewish home where the aged grandfather had passed out and fallen from his chair just as the large family was finishing the fast-ending dinner. Per protocol, a paramedic from another agency also responded. With family surrounding us, my Muslim paramedic friend and my Presbyterian self gently examined the man and determined that his condition was likely not life-threatening. He had, in observance of the fast, not taken his medications that day; moreover, the large meal after the fast had likely shocked his system. The family thanked us effusively as we prepared to transport the now-conscious patient to the hospital where his system would be re-balanced.

Although three distinct religions were represented at that emergency, the influence of religion was positive rather than negative. Everyone in that home acted in the best spirit of their beliefs: we respected their Hebrew tradition and valued the strong family bonds that it helped maintain; the family respected our commitment to providing the best possible care for any person who needed it. We all recognized our religious differences, but our religious commonalities were far more obvious as we worked together to sort out and resolve the old man's problem. All three religions emphasize "helping the stranger".

I remember this call because, during the past week, I've received Muslim-hating communications from two people who have been good friends for many years. These two people have held significant executive positions in large corporations, and they are excellent family-men and regular church-goers. These men, by listening to right wing radio and TV, have become full of fear and hate for Muslims in general. They have become scary people.

One forwarded email stated "Peace-loving Muslims have been made irrelevant by their silence. Peace-loving Muslims will become our enemy if they don't speak up, because like my friend from Germany, they will awake one day and find that the fanatics own them, and the end of their world will have begun." Even though the letter focused primarily on the danger presented by Muslim extremists, it obviously encouraged readers to see all Muslims as potential terrorists. Their inaction in confronting the extremists was considered complicity, and therefore worthy of punishment.

The second item, a personal email to me, stated "we are in a worldwide religious culture war" and "the radical Muslims want us eradicated and have 1.2 billion Muslim people agreeing to it by not openly disagreeing....If we aren't very very careful, our wives will be wearing veils and black robes and we'll be riding camels and "filling up" at the stone water trough while AK-47's watch over our activities." "Live and let live is pure folly!" The letter attempted to convince me that Muslims are a big threat and "we must not let them populate the USA".

My friends have an answer for the Muslim terrorists - be just like them! Appropriate God as our own and nobody else's; lump all people of a certain kind together, and name them as a monolithic threat; accept force as the only way for us to survive. I find this almost impossible to comprehend, that educated people in America - Christians - can get to this place.

Whatever happened to "love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you". Apparently when the going gets tough, many Christians have a short memory of what their own faith teaches. They need to be reminded that Christians believe all people are children of God, that violence is counter-productive, and that love is the solution to the problems of the world. So I have a job to do: to find a way to get through to my friends in a way that will be helpful. I'm thinking hard about this very difficult task, but I'm also invigorated. My religion would be empty if it didn't force me to live up to it from time to time, with challenges more difficult than lifting a sick old man off the floor.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Biden Was Right!

Just like you, I heard the Biden quote about Obama, over and over again. Tsk, tsk! All he did was tell the truth.

He said that Obama was the "first" - meaning the first "legitimate" African-American candidate to run for president from the Democratic Party. Jesse Jackson? Shirley Chisholm? Al Sharpton? And Whoosit's? You got to be kidding! Zero support from the mainstream.

Obama has a chance for the exact reasons that Biden laid out. He has qualities that resonate with the masses of Americans. None of these others did. He is not likely to be the presidential candidate in '08, but he's going to make a solid run and influence the election.

Biden got trashed by the wacko left of the Democratic Party. If the intelligent center of the party doesn't defend him, the independents will be right to step back and see how much more craziness the Democrats will tolerate in this campaign.