Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Arguments Not to Use

Yesterday I was looking at a Christian channel on the hotel’s cable selection. I cannot recall the name of the show but two men were talking about evangelizing the lost and drawing into the church those who do not believe in God with sound and compelling arguments. Both men were engaged in some disconcerting Christian apologetics.

The first line of reasoning runs this way…there is a God because the Bible tells us there is a God. The rationale is that in Scriptures God self validates His very existence. Furthermore, as the Bible is God’s Word, we can trust it, and because we can trust it and it tells us of God’s existence, God therefore exists. They claimed that all argument is over as A validates B and B validates A. While very common within the church, it is nothing less than circular reasoning….”A” exists because “B” tells us so, and “B” is reliable and true because “A” exists. In a court of law, one criminal of a crime can claim to be somewhere else and have the alibi validated by a second criminal when that second criminal is using the first to validate his alibi. What the two men fail to realize is that to the outsider this logical is shallow and makes little sense for if B is not reliable than A is not proved, and if A does not exist than regardless of what B says, it is not a reliable testimony.

Another argument that they encouraged their viewers to use when they encounter agnostics or atheists was the “play it safe argument”. Not only is this a laughable argument it is one that Scriptures invalidates. The argument is to encourage those being evangelized to live and believe as Christians just in case they are wrong. In other words, just in case, con God and others into thinking you are truly a Christian. While there are other flaws, the two primary ones are the nature of belief and the basis of divine judgment as per Scripture. Belief is a deeply held conviction that is evidenced in how one lives, not in a collection of behaviors. This approach positions faith as a collection of behaviors, not a heartfelt firm belief. Lastly is troublingly flaw found within Scriptures, God judges the heart, not the actions. In other words, one can go through the right motions and behaviors and be judged harshly, unworthy and cast out. God by moving beyond the superficial to examine the motives, the heart if you will, cannot be conned. Furthermore, living the life without the correct heart orientation not only has little value but may expose one to a harsher judgment. Yet these two evangelists, these ministers of the Gospel were encouraging people to come to church as a means to con God…a means to fill the church with people thinking that they have an eternal “just in case” insurance that at the end turns out to be worthless. Ah but in the meantime there will be more people in the pews and adding to the church coffers which is nothing less than a modern version of the middle ages indulgence system that led to the Reformation.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Nuclear Energy

Following Three Mile Island in 1979 no new nuclear power station has started anywhere in North America. Chernobyl 1986 killed public interest in much of Europe for more than a decade. New plants have come on line and are being built in many European countries. In the last decade there has been a growing move to building more nuclear plants in the United States and in Canada, but the nuclear crisis in Japan is adding more doubts. The German ordered all nuclear plants closed, a typical overreaction that will result the in the plants being quietly restarted over the coming months after a “review”.

We need a diverse array of energy production plants ranging from hydro to coal to wind to solar to thermal. Nuclear also needs to be in the mix too, but it must be done smartly with lessons taken from the failures of the first generation plants. No form of power generation is free of issues. Solar and wind supplement but due to their nature, they are not reliable to provide 24/7 power. Coal, while abundant, adds pollutants to the air and water system. Oil and natural gas while cleaner than coal are sources that are running out and for which we must drill in more risky and sensitive environments. Transportation is also an issue with oil, and somewhat with natural gas too. As for hydro, there are few rivers left where dams can be built and even then the result is the flooding an horrendous swaths of land for form the necessary reservoir lakes behind the dams. Thermal, we just do not have enough sites to construct sufficient plants.

Nuclear has its significant issues too, but it must be in the mix. Our vehicles, trains, aircrafts, buildings, roads, bridges, etc. are far superior and safer than they were four to seven decades ago. As with any mechanism, we learn from past failures and correct them.

Any new plants built today would be third generation plants. Safety of a plant is directly related to its capacity to cool the rods under any circumstances, and for having redundant systems in case the first, second or even the third system fails. The third generation plants, with a greater array of redundant back-up cooling systems, are far safer than the first generation plants. These new generation plants have also designed into them more natural cooling systems and features not available 30 and 40 years ago when the first plants were designed.

No doubt the lessons learned from Japan will be incorporated into the fourth generation plants that are currently on the drawing boards. These new systems must be prepared to handle not one major event, but to make events at the same time.

Also, consideration should be given to having smaller reactors, reactors that are more readily cooled via the natural environment rather than larger units with their large bundles that require constant flow of water to cool them adequately.

We must not just look to the third and fourth generation systems, but existing systems must also be upgraded. There are other redundant systems that can be added, and must be added as quickly as is possible, and if not, close down the outdated plants.

No matter how we may feel about one energy form or the other, our society requires huge volumes of energy that can only be met by a diverse cadre of systems, including nuclear.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

NRA Distorts History

In the United States, 4 out of 5 support background checks to be conducted in order to purchase a gun. The same number support limiting the sale of assault weapons. About 4 out of 5 Americans agree that gun registration is a reasonable law…and more surprisingly 3 out of 5 NRA members also agree. Amazingly, 7 out of 10 gun owners who are also NRA members agree with a) background checks should be required, and b) there should be at least a two day wait period between purchase and receiving the gun. Yet, politicians are not only slow to support such laws, but most are against such laws.

Watch this video Wayne LaPierre, the Executive Vice-Present of the NRA to understand one of the root causes why the United States lacks sensible gun control laws ranging from background checks to wait periods, from the size of clips to the type of guns, from secure storage to carrying guns.

Mr. LaPierre’s claim that he who has the gun has the power is a fundamental principle that existed from the beginning of the country is blatantly false. Over the last year, I have been reading works by the founding fathers and the Continental Congress that brought forth the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Revolutionary War was not what the founding fathers sought. Their letters to each other speak passionately against king, taxation and English abuses, but they sought a positive non-violent founding. Even after the war started they were looking for a non-violent separation. The war became inevitable. They were willing to fight for the freedom and progressively increased the size of the Continental Army only because the King kept increasing the size of his military.

If he who has the gun has the power was such driving concept, they why was it not included in the original constitution and found as a significant thread in the writings of the founding fathers. It is lacking as the founding fathers did not believe that he who has the gun should have control of either national, state or local governments. Their reluctance to maintain an army of any size was that exact fear, that he who will have the gun will have the control.

Instead the founders had the confidence the power of ideas, not the gun. They modeled and wrote at length about civil discourse. They worked for and wrote at length about the value of listening and compromising for the corporate good. Recognizing that the frontier and an agrarian society expanding into wilderness were fraught with various dangers, the second amendment was added. The amendment affirms the formation of local militias to protect their communities and counties, and affirms that militia (today’s National Guard) could keep their own guns at home. The militia was the means by which the country could maintain a limited sized military.

As long as men like LaPierre in their well practiced righteous anger misrepresent the nation’s history, distort gun control proposals and violent crime statistics, civil discourse with the NRA will be an uphill battle. In modern American politics, control does not rest with he who has the gun but with he who has the deepest pockets and is willing to directly and indirectly contribute to friendly politicians and use attack ads (including funding front groups) to insensately malign unfriendly politicians. The gun lobby and its NRA face are powerful because they have deep pockets and while sounding righteous, are happy to distort history and facts to misinform and defeat efforts at any controls, even laws that help prevent violence and keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

The Crisis in Japan

It has been a week since the Japanese were hit by a triple disaster, a powerful earthquake, an earthquake triggered tsunami that destroyed large swaths of the northeastern coast and a tsunami triggered nuclear crisis.

There is some frustration and anger, but the level of social and civil disintegration that we saw with Katrina, particularly in New Orleans, is lacking. I understand that both at home and at school the importance of putting the community and one’s neighbor above self is instilled. As a result in these disasters the underlying national character of the Japanese is clearly evident, enduring the unimaginable with grace and dignity, quietly working together to assist both friends and strangers, and in moments of crisis being mindful to follow instructions in an orderly manner.

We can learn from their example.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Failure of Maryland's Same-sex Marriage Legislation

For the three weeks a same-sex marriage bill moved the Maryland legislative process. When it passed the more conservative Maryland Senate many observers expected it to pass by at least eight votes in the House of Delegates. A week ago the bill faltered and last Friday it was functionally killed when it was deferred back to a House of Delegate committee where it will die in a matter of weeks when the current session expires. It was a significant defeat for advocates who hoped Maryland would become the sixth state plus the District of Columbia to approve of same-sex marriage.

Generational replacement, the passing away of the older generation and being replaced by the younger, has brought about a shift in support of same-sex marriage. In the late 90s years ago over 62% of Americans were opposed to same-sex marriage, but with the passing away of the WWII and post WWII generation being replaced by the Gen Ys a shift is occurring. Only a small minority of Gen Ys are opposed to same-sex marriage and even fewer are against laws that protect sexual orientation as a discrimination class. Even baby-boomers have shifted their views in the last fifteen years, going from 70% against to 55% against. Hence, today, a slight majority of adult Americans, and an even greater majority of citizens of Maryland, support same-sex marriage legislation. Generation replacement will rapidly broaden that gap over the next two presidential election cycles.

The failure of the same-sex legislation is a sign that a highly visible and powerful unconvinced minority retain the upper hand in Maryland. Evidence indicates that claims by evangelical Christians that Christians have little political power is a false claim. Though the number of those who regularly attend church services is in the minority, it is easily argued that the church wields far greater political power today than ever. And most of that political power rests in the hands of the overwhelmingly fundamentalist and evangelic church who were joined in this fight by the overwhelmingly African American Church and the Catholic Church, all of whom hold that any marriage not between a man and woman is an anathema.

This well organized religious coalition targeted a dozen or so Delegates saying that if they voted for this legislation, that regardless of their record on other issues, their churches would work to defeat their reelection bids. The coalition was so persuasive that one of the sponsors of the legislation who has long argued that same-sex marriage is about civil rights, and that gay couples do not devalue hers or any other heterosexual marriage announced that she would be voting against her own bill.

We should not fool ourselves in thinking that legislators are highly principled people who take noble stands on issues, stick to them, even if it puts their reelection at risk. Before we fault them for being willing to posture themselves for the next election, it has always been and will remain thus in a democracy because that is what we ask the electorate expect.

Partly due to generation replacement and partly due to the younger baby-boomers rethinking their views and becoming increasingly turned off by the evangelical church, the trend is for a growing number of voters supporting same-sex marriage. While the majority of the electorate will support such legislation, the power of the church as evidenced in these last weeks in Maryland will make it problematic for such legislation to be successful in other states.

While such power may provide comfort for evangelicals, it may be a false comfort in the longer term. Religious surveys by the Pew Research Center and Faith Matters indicate that demographic change, changes in religious activity as well as generational disenfranchisement from the church and the reason why they are disenfranchised, indicate that the evangelical church is on the verge of a significant decline.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Dearth of Modest Housing Stock

This evening as Evie and I returned from Tyson’s Corner we drove through an older neighborhood with modest homes (pre-1980 era). Here and there were large tracts with more recently built homes (built in the last 15 or so years). These more recent homes are either large homes equal to or larger than the Beverly Hillbilly mansion, or are luxury townhomes. It struck me that few, if any, modest 2,200 to 3,300 square foot homes are being built in our area, and that is a shame.

It is a shame as the modest and starter home housing stock is limited. These are the homes that should make up the core of the housing stock. These are the homes young families use to establish themselves. These should be the affordable homes for the blue-collar workers, the retail clerks, the secretaries, the bus drivers, etc. Unfortunately, due to a short supply even these modest homes are not moderately priced. Hence, those with moderate household incomes either have to buy homes further out on the city’s edge, and thereby increase commute volume and as such increase stress upon road infrastructure, or pay for higher prices and thereby put their household finances at risk, or remain renters.

Affordable housing is an issue. The lack of modest housing stock lays the foundation for the supper heated housing market many of our major markets experienced between 1998 and 2008, and which was a significant contributing factor behind the bank failures. A growing stock of modest housing stock throughout the area will allow those with modest incomes to live closer to their place of employment which in turn would help decrease the volume stress we experience during the morning and afternoon commutes.

While I could blame the developers, I cannot unduly fault them and shoulder them with most of the blame. Developers are like other business owners; They are out to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. There is greater profit in high end housing. I fault the local, state and even federal politicians for not designing in tax incentives and enticements to encourage developers to build modest homes. One is to have larger lot expectations and possibly a higher sales taxes on new homes greater than so many square feet and/or a certain percent above the median value in the area. On the other end, lower sales and lot taxes on modest homes could provide incentives to build such homes. In other words, design in elements to increase the profit margin for building modest homes while decreasing the drive to build the larger homes.

We need far more new modest homes that have basic fictures, lack the high end bells and whistles and have unfinished basements that owners can finish later. Such homes should be on lots that allows from the owner to expand the footprint some but not large enough of a lot that would allow the home to evolve to double its initial footprint. Modest housing stock forms the bedrock of a community’s stability and as attested by the Northern Virginia area, when the building of such housing in sufficient volume is neglected the stress upon the overall infrastructure only grows…and that is a shame.

What say you about your area?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Religion and Racism

In 1973 when the Supreme Court outlawed laws against interracial marriages, the General Social Survey of white Americans showed that 26% of Catholics and 26% of “nones” (those who had no religious affiliation) supported such laws. According to the Survey 39% of Mainline Protestants supported laws against interracial marriages whereas 48% of Evangelicals took such a position. In other words, in 1973 the religious tradition in which I was raised and educated, to my shame, had a strong racist edge to it. Given the underlying values and what was taught within Evangelical churches, that religious stream should have been the least racist instead of having the highest level.

Fortunately since 1973 there has been a change and a convergence. In 2004, only 5% Evangelical Protestants hold such laws are appropriate which is similar to the views of Mainline Protestants (3%), Catholics (2%) and “nones” (2%). No longer does the nature and level of one’s religiosity seem to impact the level of racism.

Though this is a positive change, tinges of more subtle racism occurs. In 1973 only 34% of whites reported favoring outlawing discrimination in home sales (i.e. whites refusing to sell to non-whites or home associations prohibiting to allow non-whites to buy a home in their association). In 2008 while that had risen to 69%, it means that 31% of whites feel that it is legitimate to prohibit non-whites into their neighborhood.

In 1977, 25% of white Americans stated that the reason African Americans had worse jobs, lower income and poorer homes what because they have “less in-born ability to learn.” Today that 25% has dwindled to 9%...which means that nearly 1 out of 10 American whites believe African Americans are inferior.

While racism is diminishing, unfortunately it is not a thing of the past. It remains but with a more subtle face.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Is A Tipping Point At Hand?

In these past weeks the State of Maryland has been moving closer to passing a bill to permit gay marriage. While some Democrats are opposed, the majority of the opposition is coming from Republicans and the right wing of the Christian church. The Republicans are stanchly set against gay marriage with three out of four Republicans against gay marriage and gay rights in general. This is not surprising given that the heart of their base is made up of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. Hence, the party has pushed for the establishment of and passed the “Defense of Marriage Act.” Only a token few Republicans on Capitol Hill supported the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Being against gay marriage was also a "winning issue" for Republicans. In 1996 27% of American voters were supportive of same-sex marriage and it seemed that gay marriage would not occur for more than fifty years. But any observer looking at demographics trending could readily foresee that gay marriage would be supported by the majority of Americans sometime around 2019-2023. Back then over 85% of those over 60 years of age opposed gay marriage whereas 75% of those under of 25 years of age were supportive of same-sex marriage. Those who were in their 40s and 50s were against it, but only by about ten points. What was evident was that as the oldest cohort of voters passed way and were replaced by a younger cohort, a rapid shift was only be a matter of time and those who supported it would occur sometime around 2020.
By 2009 support had grown to 37%. This 10% increase was primarily due to passing of older cohorts who are against it and being replaced by a younger generation. The results two years still pointed that the 50-50 point would be reached around the end of this decade.

A week ago the Pew Research Center released survey results that indicate that the opinions are undergoing a more rapid change and that the 50-50 point could happen by 2014. The latest survey indicates that 46% of voters are supportive of gay marriage. Going from 37 to 46% is a dramatic shift over a two year period. It indicates that the debates in the public square are causing those in their mid 40s to early 60s to re-evaluate their opinions. More and more middle aged Americans are coming to the conclusion that they do not agree with the rationale put forth from those who are most vigorous in their opposition to gay marriage. An increasing number of people are concluding that gay marriage will not and does not diminish hetero-sexual marriage any more than interracial marriages (same arguments on interracial marriages were used in the 50s and 60s to defend interracial marriage prohibitions).

With the tipping point rapidly approaching it will be only a matter of four to five years after that that states legislatures will come under growing pressure to change their laws. Once the tipping point is reached it will quickly rise to the 60% marck. No longer will anti-gay marriage support be a "winning issue" for Republicans. The rapid approach of the tipping point also indicates that any other group that relies upon the public’s good will for its strength and who is strongly opposed to gay marriage will find themselves part of diminishing minority and with fewer supporters to their party or cause.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

American Civil War and States Rights

This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the commencement of the American Civil War (April 11), a war that on numerous levels transformed the United States. These transformations ranged from hundreds of technological advances to military strategy to the elimination of slavery to how the nation would think of itself both internally and internationally.

Why did the Southern States secede? One of the most commonly reason given is that the South seceded over a fight for state’s rights against an overbearing central National government. Over 55 to 70% of respondents today give this as the primary cause with slavery representing about 20 to 25% and the election of Lincoln receiving a slither of responses, 2 to 5%. Some surveys have 10 to 20% of respondents stating the cause was tariffs and taxes.

Was state’s rights the primary issue? Shortly following the Civil War, a growing number of the surviving Confederate civic, corporate and military leaders articulated states rights was the root cause. As the number of leaders articulating that states rights as the reason, it was not long before the general population of the southern states to state the same, and then by the middle of the 20th century a growing number in the northern and western states listing states rights as the dominant cause.

Do the South’s pre-Civil War newspaper reports, letters from leadership and the secession documents speak of state’s right? If this was the primary cause, not slavery, then we would find state’s rights repeatedly articulated in the South’s documents and newspaper reports before and during the Civil War. There is not a hint of state’s rights in South Carolina’s “Ordnance of Secession” or in the passionate rhetoric filling the Palmetto State’s newspapers. Instead they speak of the right to own and trade African Americans. Mimicking the Revolutionary call “give me liberty or give me death,” the cry of the South Carolinian leaders was “Give us slavery or give us death.”

South Carolina’s complaint was that their northern neighbors have “deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof” and to “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” What SC were referring to was northern states banning slavery from their soil, allowing slaves to marry and in some cases granting them citizenship and the right to vote in local elections. If anything, with northern states exercising rights to ban slavery, South Carolina was against their northern neighbors exercising states rights and their anger that the national government was not repressing the actions of the north, including prohibiting the formation and meeting of anti-slavery associations.

Mississippi’s and Georgia's Secession documents and newspapers speak of slavery, not state’s right. State after state in the Confederacy echo South Carolina’s documents, letters and newspapers. States right is not found as a triggering cause. Slavery was the primary cause and the election of Lincoln, a man who openly and strongly argued against slavery, was the last straw and the end of a process that started in the 1830s with South Carolina’s nullification crisis that President Jackson put down.

What has occurred is that after the Civil War those who know that they seceded over slavery restating their rationale with a falsehood, and the general population of succeeding generations has accepted a falsehood as truth.