Sunday, September 30, 2007


Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkoth Blogging

This week's Torah portion contains what are called by many "the cultic 10 commandments" and also contains the "covanent of mercy". For discussion -- why does the covenent of mercy include a promise that God, while merciful, does not remit punishment? Does this relate to the saying "those who are merciful to the cruel are cruel to the merciful"?

Some, of course, following the Rabbinic tradition of wondering if the Torah originally had more than 5 Books, would ascribe the cultic 10 commandments to another "lost" book of Torah, while others consider these 10 commandments to be the E version of the 10 commandments, which is interesting given the prohibition about Ashera worship (I've already told y'all my theories about that). So what was the history of the transition from Canaan to Israel/Judea? Can we take Joshua at face value? Judges? Was it a peasant revolt? And what does it say about this history knowing that the cultic 10 commandments, which form the heart of monotheistic religious practice as it existed in those days, comes not from the relatively true-to-monotheism South, but from the North?

And speaking of "from the North", anybody out there wanna touch upon the Haftarah in the comments? Some would say Israel's victory in 1967 was a sign straight from this reading, but where is there a city called "Multitudes"?

Sunday, September 23, 2007


Economics Policy

I've been thinking on and off about the comments of Alan Greenspan and others regarding the economic impacts of health-care, and it has occured to me that part of the problem in our public discourse on the subject (and on many economic subjects) is that people always ask (and correctly) "can we afford it?", perhaps specifying what "it" is (e.g. universal access to health care) without really specifying who this "we" is as well as without specifying what is meant (which varies depending on who "we" is) by "afford".

It seems to me, there are about four levels of "we", which need to be distinguished. And a little bit of the question raised by Deutero-Isaiah of "why spend money on that which does not satisfy" needs to be raised.

(1) Can individuals afford it? E.g. do individuals have to make a choice "do I have health insurance or do I eat?" In the case of health care, the problem is, in fact, that many individuals (and not just those our "Great Society" takes care of because they are impoverished) have to make this choice -- many individuals simply cannot afford health care/health insurance!

(2) Can the government afford it? E.g. is it within local/state and/or federal budgets to pay for it? At present, in the case of health care, because we're spending so much money (justified or not) on other things and because of our tax structure (and can we really afford to pay more in taxes?), this particular "we" cannot, as Greenspan pointed out on Fresh Air recently.

(3) Can society afford it? E.g. if somehow enough money was reserved so that everyone who needs health care could buy it, or if someone or some entity paid for enough medical professional man hours (and enough of society's labor capacity were devoted to health care), would that mean fields would be untended, infrastructure neglected, etc., so we as a society have to choose between providing health care or providing food? Unless our vaunted productivity is much lower than they tell us, our economy as a whole certainly can manage to both feed our population and provide it with health care. Conservatives keep telling us there is no lump of labor -- we are far from a zero-sum economy ... ergo, we can afford to divert economic resources to providing more health care ... without some of us starving.

(4) Can future generations afford it? And I don't mean in terms of debt. Certainly if X borrows money from Y, the cost of X buying something in the present on borrowed money may be that X may not be able to afford things in the future. But for a society as a whole, it doesn't work this way -- I cannot borrow food from the future ... I can only borrow from the present. For any debtor, there is a creditor ... if we are in debt, someone is in credit.

No, what I mean here is whether our economy is (e.g. environmentally) sustainable? Of course, in general, the answer here is no. But since when are reactionaries so concerned about this? True conservatives would be concerned, but such people have either (like my late great-grandparents) passed on or have bolted from the GOP.

Anyway, what disturbs me about the economic discourse is the conflation between the "we" of #2 and the "we" of #3. Certainly, there is the question of how, if we as a society can afford to provide universal health care, that translates into actual provision of health care: a liberal or progressive might say that if "we" as a society can afford it, then with suitable juggling of government budgets and tax codes, our government can and perhaps should just pay for it, while a conservative might say that if we as a society can pay for it yet some individuals cannot, those with extra resources should provide charity to those who lack (and government should encourage general morality so that people who can be charitable will be charitable). But in either case, there is a distinction between government (or private charity) paying for something like health care and society's ability to pay for it.

Meanwhile, you hear people like Greenspan acting as if "government can't pay for it" is the last word. Since when is government = society? I guess Greenspan, Randroid as he is, doesn't believe in a society that has the capacity to pay for things. Still, to me, this conflation of governmental and societal resources smacks of fascism.

The liberal position does not conflate these two sets of resources but merely asks that the extra-resources possessed by society as a whole be redistributed by government to those who need them. Some would call this redistribution "stealing" (although it is part and parcel of the Levitical code the right claims is the basis for morality even as they ignore all parts of this code not dealing with teh hawt sex ... c.f. the Yom Kippur afternoon readings -- so count this as my weekly Parshas blogging! ;) ), but even if it be stealing, there is still no conflation between the identities of the thiever and thievee. Yet, those who, while complaining about liberal boondogging, act as if government isn't merely redistributing the resources of society but rather is society, are de facto fascists even as they protest government "coersion".

Of course, as a friend of mine, who is a former defense attorney points out, these people have an odd idea of what is coercive governence: what could be more coercive of government than to deny you your freedom and lock you up in jail? Such actions are often quite justified (and perhaps less controversially so than wealth-redistribution), but how can you deny that removing someone's liberty, no matter how justified and how appropriate was the due process by which it was removed, is more coercive than taking someone's, no matter how much "they earned it", surpluss wealth?

Sunday, September 09, 2007


Weekly Parsha Blogging: (*)

(* Possible Subtitles:

Synecdoche's not just a City in New York Edition
Social Science in the Torah Edition

so, which one do y'all like best?)

The commentary in the Etz Chaim Chumash on Deuteronomy 29:18 all but sets up this passage as being an early example of a Prisoners' Dilemma, in which cooperation, which is in our best interest, is assured via the Social Contract that is the Covenant. Similarly, many of the curses to which this parsha refers deal with "tragedy of the commons" issues. The social contract idea is highlighted by the nature of the revelation at Sinai -- even if we Jews were not all literally there and even if the laws and interpretations coming from the Deuteronomist, the Rabbis, etc. post-date this revelation, like in a social contract, our being born into Judaism or adopting Judaism as a moral citizenship places obligations on us that we, even if we have not chosen them directly, must think of as having accepted in an official contract.

Of course, government/society is deemed responsible for upholding morality. But of what morality do we speak? There is a reference to Sodom and the other cities of the Plain. So some might wonder if government should regulate our sexual morality. But, according to Jewish tradition (see, e.g., Pirke Avoth, Ch. 5, saying 13) the sin of Sodom was not sexual immorality but a certain lack of Tsedakah -- i.e. not only righteousness but specifically the idea of a commonwheal. Sodom didn't (just) lack sexual morality, it lacked a sense of social justice ... and that was their great sin.

Interestingly, both in the first Haftarah of Consolation, last Shabbos' last Haftarah of Consolation and in the Yom Kippur Haftarah (all from Isaiah), the image of the highway is present. Not only is Halacha "the Way" but the highway is a synecdoche for government funded infrastructure.

While some would say the Levitical and Deuteronomaic formulae are formulae of social conservatism, they really are formulae of economic liberalism. The religious right misses the point in general, as they do specifically with those lines from this last week's parsha about "choosing life": it's a Mitzva to have an abortion if your life is at stake from a pregnancy.

Synecdoches indeed!

Friday, September 07, 2007


In America ...

... people blogwhore in comments. In slightly, yet consistently blue state capitals in former Confederacy, people commentwhore in blogs.

(you'll need to scroll down for the second one -- Young Ezra's site doesn't seem to allow you to link to your own comment).

Monday, September 03, 2007


I Write Letters


As interviewed by Scott Simon on Weekend Edition (1 Sept. 2007), Stuart Taylor, coauthor with K.C. Johnson of Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case, may be wont to blame “political correctness” run amok for the excesses of the Duke Lacrosse rape case. However, this misses the forest for the trees: what really distinguished the Duke lacrosse rape case was not the railroading of the accused nor the sensationalism surrounding the case, but that this railroading happened to light hued sons of privilege. Yet, those who condemn “politically correct” professors for eagerly rushing to judgment in this case themselves all too often have ignored the larger issues of how our legal system treats those accused of crimes, even though they may be innocent.

And, as to the media's role in this: how is it any different than the ever present sensationalism and constant fear mongering regarding urban crime? Or for that matter, how was the media's failure to verify the outrageous claims of D.A. Nifong, which no doubt will be used as “evidence” of the treachery of a “liberally biased” media, different than the media's failure to verify the claims of the Bush administration in the lead up to the war in Iraq? At least in the Duke lacrosse rape case, fortunately nobody even ended up getting wrongly convicted whereas in the case of the Iraq war, media sensationalism gave the Bush administration political cover to start a war that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of young men and women.

Were some professors, acutely aware of the injustices dealt to those born without privilege, all too happy to see the tables turned on children of privilege, and in being so, hypocritically engaging in the prejudicial rush to railroad those accused of crimes, which they so condemn in others? Absolutely. Did the media sensationalize this case and mistake stenography of official statements for reporting? Absolutely. But to frame what went wrong in the Duke lacrosse rape case as a specific injustice perpetrated due to political correctness run amok is to miss the larger flaws in both our criminal justice system and in media reportage on both crime and on the actions of our government.

To implicitly frame the issue as a problem of “liberal academics” and a media enthralled to that ideology moreover misses far greater abuses in government (including prosecutorial) power and the media coverage of such that usually occur under the guise of being “tough on crime” and being “tough on national security” -- causes usually identified with a conservative agenda rather than a liberal one.

One wonders then what is the agenda of those who so easily spot the injustices of the Duke lacrosse rape case but who then blame the problem on political correctness rather than seeing the bigger picture. And one wonders why Scott Simon, as an interviewer, rather than a stenographer continuing in the tradition of overly credulous reporting that brought us such miscarriages as the Duke lacrosse rape case coverage and the coverage of non-existent WMDs in Iraq, failed to question Mr. Taylor on his focus. Is NPR that keen to shed its liberal image that it fails to confront any counter-liberal agenda or anti-liberal bias in its coverage?


Meanwhile, today some (former) NPR China correspondent was on the Diane Rehm show (I think he's hocking a book?) and made a stupid statement to the effect of "Japan, unlike China, quickly flung open its doors to the West in the 1850s". Is this guy so dense as not to be aware of the fact that Japan was in contact with the West (and trading with the Dutch) since sometime, IIRC, in the 17th century?

The guy was trying to make some Friedman-esque type point about the need to be open to Western imperialism, er, trade and civilization. But the facts of the matter are the opposite of what he presented them to be: Japan, by accident or by design, was careful not to open itself up to full, "free" trade until it could do so as an equal -- it built itself up, e.g. behind protectionist walls, just as successful Western countries had done. OTOH, China didn't resist opening itself up on a protectionist lark -- the Western powers tried to pry it open (hasn't anyone heard of the Opium Wars anymore?) and it naturally resisted, not being ready to trade as an equal.

Perhaps China made a strategic mistake, perhaps not. But to compare China's situation with Japan ... and then get Japan's history vis-a-vis the West wrong, is exactly the sort of bizarre, lack of fact based, reporting, that aids and abets our administrations adventures that have, e.g., cost so many lives in Iraq ... as well as aids and abets our imposition of the neo-liberal economic consensus which is, pretty much, "why they hate us"(TM).

When will these dopes learn? And people think this is liberalism? No wonder Democrats don't do so well electorally!


Weekly Parshas Blogging: the latter paragraphs apply to the recent missing weeks of weekly parshas blogging as well

Wow -- I know this time of year the Haftarah and Torah portions are not necessarily linked by content, but this week, reading conditional curses from Deuteronomy on the one hand and then the message of "tritero"-Isaiah on the other hand ... talk about a contrast!

Or maybe not: the latter parts of Isaiah were written during a time of return from a period of exile (if only our modern Zionists would pay more attention to the eschatology of Isaiah in their current desire to return from exile) while Deuteronomy is ostensibly about preparing the Hebrews to settle in Israel. OTOH, modern scholarship (well, not so modern anymore) tells us that Deuteronomy was written when, if you'll pardon the Biblical pun, the writing was on the wall for the Kingdom of Judah. So while Deuteronmy talks of preparing the Hebrews to enter Israel, it's real message is to explicate what went wrong (modern supporters of Israel thus should pay close attention to the curses in this book: we must heed, for example, environmental concerns -- consider how much of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict really resolves around water even though people don't always want to admit it for some reason ... admit folks! you're livin' in a frickin' desert!) as well as to develop something novel, an identity based not on nationhood but on following a Divinely granted law -- i.e. Judaism.

So in a sense, the latter parts of Isaiah, which describe the "fulfillment" of Judaism and Deuteronomy are bookends: not only of the Babylonian exile, but also the path set forth in Deuteronomy (which will later urge us to choose life, a choice about which many people are horribly confused, see my previous post) is a path out of the exile which all of us experience at one time and a path to God. And when this path is well enough traveled, perhaps the Messianic expectations of the Isaiahs, realized for the first Isaiah by Hezekiah, will be realized for us all in the Messianic Age.


The Liberal Agenda

The right is always railing about some well organized liberal agenda (their rhetoric seems not to have changed since when they railed against communist conspiracies or even not since they railed against Cosmopolitans -- against which I guess they still rail as part of their railing against the "gay agenda" ;) -- and Zionists). But it seems the right doth project too much.

A friend of mine is an attorney who somewhat recently was involved in a right to life sort of case along the lines of the Schiavo case. The family of the person in a vegetative state disagreed with his wife and didn't want him to be disconnected from life support. Somehow they hooked up with some right to life group that was able to hire a reasonably fancy attorney, find a sympathetic judge and deluge my friend with so much paperwork: pleadings, etc., that he really couldn't manage to make a case.

So where is this liberal agenda about which we keep hearing? Where is a "right to death" group that would allow people in the position of this guy's poor wife to have an attorney filing the same quantity of paperwork, etc.?

Meanwhile, these "right to life" groups make me sick. Who is going to pay for keeping a vegetable alive? The government! These people spend so much time and money to try and keep people in vegetative states alive and to create new wards of the state by preventing abortions, yet they don't pay for the expenses incurred? It's one thing when a liberal like me says the government should pay for certain things, especially for those who can't afford it. It's another thing when organizations with deep pockets use those pockets to get the government to pay for things that they, if they really put their money where their mouths are, would pay for. Which would leave the government with more money to pay for things that really do help maintain a culture of life: e.g., health care for the poor, medical research, etc.

And yes, this does hit close to home. We get told there is no money for us scientists. And yet there seems to be money to fight wars that decrease our national security rather than increase it? There is money to keep vegetables alive? Something is wrong about our priorities. Under pressure from people who have adopted a famous line from Deuteronomy as a mere slogan to be bandied about, we have done the opposite -- our society has chosen death -- those practically dead being in vegetative states and war over poor, living souls and peaceful coexistence -- and alas will reap the consequences.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?