Thursday, March 31, 2005

Child malnutrition

The Guardian reports: "Acute malnutrition among Iraqi children aged under five nearly doubled last year because of chaos caused by the US-led occupation, a United Nations expert said yesterday."

Letting Go

Amy Sullivan points out that which is simultaneously obvious (to those who are rational, at least) and yet overlooked (by the media and the religious right): the outpouring of supposedly religious concern to preserve Terri Schiavo's life, such as it was, reflects a yearning to postpone and deny death, a yearning which is ultimately rooted in the fear of death. Sullivan writes, "I wonder how these religious leaders, who cling so fiercely to the idea of life, can prepare people of faith for the inevitable reality of death." Indeed, and furthermore, one wonders how such a fear of death can really coexist with the very idea of life. The fear of death is the flipside of the fear of life. These religious leaders may be failing to prepare people of faith for the reality of death, and they are also failing to prepare them for life. Death is a part of life, and life is a process of letting go.

The following passage reminds me of this dialectic: Mark C. Taylor, “Indifference,” About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture, pp. 257-9.
The most difficult lesson time teaches is the necessity of letting-go. This lesson begins before we begin, for we find ourselves always already having been let go. This letting-go is a release that gives by abandoning. Abandonment, in turn, releases indifferently. Since to be is to have been released, being is inevitably a letting. The letting that lets us be is a leasing that renders all being renting. We always live on borrowed time, yet we know not to whom the rent is due. Perhaps, though we can never be certain, we owe no one; perhaps, though we can never be certain, we own nothing.

Torn by a rent that can never be repaired or repaid, we do not own what we seem to possess. All having is a not-having, which is a having-not. To have-not is to be dispossessed of everything—even ourselves. To live the dispossession of being, having must become a not-having, which is impossible apart from letting-go.

To have-not is to let go of what we never possess. Possessed by possession(s), we struggle to deny our not-having, but the harder we cling, the less we have. When we finally discover the courage to be not, dispossession comes as a great release. This re-lease repeats and extends the release that is not ours. Having been abandoned, we now abandon by letting go of everything and everybody once held dear. This letting-go is a letting-be. There can be no letting-go without letting-be and no letting-be without letting-go.

This letting-go that is a letting-be and letting-be that is a letting-go must be done with indifference. Indifference releases while expecting nothing in return. Absolutely nothing. To let go indifferently is to give unconditionally. Since recognition perpetuates the cycle of debt, an unconditional gift can never be acknowledged as such. A giving, which is not a taking, lets go of the struggle for recognition by neither creating debt nor accepting credit.

Release becomes unconditional when we accept abandonment by letting ourselves be abandoned. We never really let go until we allow others to let go of us. If we expect anything other than the other’s indifference, we have no yet let go. Letting-go only occurs when we live (with) indifference by becoming indifferent to indifference.

. . . Loving . . .

“I love you no matter what.”
“No matter what?”
“No matter what.”
“No matter what I do?”
“No matter what.”
“No matter what I don’t do?”
“No matter what.”

We have heard the words so often that they no longer seem extraordinary. “No matter what? . . . No matter what.” How can such familiar words be made strange?

Love, it appears, is a matter of indifference. For love to be love, it must be unconditional: I love the other no matter what. What the beloved does makes no difference to the lover, for love’s only law is to be without return. This law is, of course, unlawful, for it breaks (with) every legal economy. Love is beyond the law—it is a matter of grace, amazing grace.

Grace is indifferent. It is given, if at all, freely—without regard for what has been done or left undone. As such, grace is undeniably careless. Though it seems impossible, I care most deeply when I care not. The carelessness of “No matter what” is awful—truly awful. If it doesn’t matter, who cares? If no one cares, nothing seems to matter. And, in a certain sense, nothing does matter. In the profitless economy of grace, no one can afford (to) care. Care remains bound to and by the law; not just any law but the law of laws, which is the law of return.


For those of you who are fortunate enough not to need to know about the American Association of University Professors' Policy and Documents Report, i.e., the AAUP Redbook, it is the authoritative source on sound academic practice. Recently, this passage has come to my attention:
The role of the faculty in the selection of an administrator other than a president should reflect the extent of legitimate faculty interest in the position. In the case of an academic administrator whose function is mainly advisory to a president or whose responsibilities do not include academic policy, the faculty's role in the search should be appropriate to its involvement with the office. Other academic administrators, such as the dean of a college or a person of equivalent responsibility, are by the nature of their duties more directly dependent upon faculty support. In such instances, the composition of the search committee should reflect the primacy of faculty interest, and the faculty component of the committee should be chosen by the faculty of the unit or by a representative body of the faculty. The person chosen for an administrative position should be selected from among the names submitted by the search committee. The president, after fully weighing the views of the committee, will make the final choice. Nonetheless, sound academic practice dictates that the president not choose a person over the reasoned opposition of the faculty.
I cannot say why this is noteworthy except to note that the highlighted portions could be especially important for a college conducting a job search for a dean of the college.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Cheney's Trouble

Cheney has trouble in the latest installment of the Social Security bamboozlement road show. It seems you can't even trust a handpicked crowd to ask easy questions these days.

OC Weekly

If you are looking for a critical perspective on the latest media frenzy, check out the Orange County Weekly. Here's a excerpt:
Pop quiz! In 1999, who signed into law the Texas Futile Care Act, which permits hospitals to make decisions to deny life support—over the wishes of family and guardians—to people whose illnesses they’d deemed “irreversible” (but more important, who don’t have the ability to pay)?

It’s hard, so I’ll give you a hint: he’s all up into the “culture of life” like Newt Gingrich is up in his secretaries.

Too hard? Another hint: he presided over 152 executions, including some retards and three minors. (Here’s a choice quote from Philly’s Daily News: “Two of the three [executed minors] each had suffered severe head injuries as children—one the result of alleged extreme child abuse—and were judged by experts to be mentally impaired or retarded. The third was sentenced to die by a jury because—according to his defense lawyer—‘he was a black man who killed a white woman, and he was very very gay.’”)

Oh, and Mr. Culture of Life then started a war that has killed a hundred thousand people so far.

Sh-t! I forgot we’re only supposed to refer to the 1,500 dead American troops! Okay, so Mr. Culture of Life then started a war that has killed 1,500 people so far.
Here's a bit more:
Are there times when you wouldn’t want an incapacitated woman’s husband to decide whether she lives or dies? Absolutely: say, if the husband were Newt Gingrich, who, when his wife was in a hospital bed undergoing chemo for cancer, told her he was leaving her and whipped out divorce papers for her to sign. I sure as hell wouldn’t trust Newt around a Do Not Resuscitate order.

But Michael Schiavo’s not that guy, no matter how many times former exterminator DeLay calls him a murderer and a "medical terrorist." He lived with her parents for four years, so they could all care for her together; he went to nursing school so he could better care for her; he brought her to California for experimental treatments that didn’t work because Terri’s brain has literally turned to liquid; and then, after almost a dozen years, he decided she would never come back. Her parents flipped, of course (it’s easy to say that everybody dies, but I’m in meltdown right now because my sister wants to move), and filed a suit that’s been litigated 19 times (activist judges), each time with Michael Schiavo prevailing. He’s her husband. Sanctity of marriage, you know.
For the record, I do not want any heroic measures taken to preserve my life if there is no reasonable hope to restore quality of life, and I definitely do not want Bill Frist making any judgments about my case. (As Amy Sullivan points out, Frist has been making all sorts of "medical" pronouncements during his time in the Senate which, if they had been actual diagnoses, could have provided grounds for a malpractice lawsuit. Although he is a heart surgeon by training, this has not stopped him from second-guessing the specialists of other fields. For example, he refused to deny that HIV could be transmitted through saliva or tears, and during the anthrax scare he reassured his fellow senators and their staffs that this biological agent was not powerful enough to kill (in spite of the fact that several people in Florida had already died as did postal workers in D.C.). He also claimed that "partial birth" abortion techniques are "rogue procedures" not taught in medical schools, which would be a good rhetorical point if only it were true. And now he is purporting to diagnose the brain-state of Terri Schiavo from a few minutes of home-video in spite of more than ten years of the most meticulous testing by professionals with actual training and experience which explains any movements on the video as random reflexes.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

War on Facts (Holy Week Edition)

I'm back from a hiatus, as you may have noticed. This semester is especially hectic. The only thing that I know of that's worse than lots of committee meetings is stripping lots of old wallpaper off the walls, and I've been doing both.

Meanwhile, the War on Facts continues:
When the Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a rule last week to limit mercury emissions from U.S. power plants, officials emphasized that the controls could not be more aggressive because the cost to industry already far exceeded the public health payoff.

What they did not reveal is that a Harvard University study paid for by the EPA, co-authored by an EPA scientist and peer-reviewed by two other EPA scientists had reached the opposite conclusion.

That analysis estimated health benefits 100 times as great as the EPA did, but top agency officials ordered the finding stripped from public documents, said a staff member who helped develop the rule. Acknowledging the Harvard study would have forced the agency to consider more stringent controls, said environmentalists and the study's author.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Republicans Oppose Covenant Law

I know that our modern economy cannot entirely revert to the proscriptions of Leviticus 25:35-38 or Exodus 22:25 which prohibit charging interest on loans to the poor. And it may not be possible to implement the Mosaic law which requires the cancellation of debts every seventh year, as stated in Deuteronomy 15:1-6. Thus, I do not think that Hebrew covenant law can or should be implemented literalistically, but shouldn't those who care about it at least aim to honor its spirit, especially if the spirit of the laws actually confirms some of the bedrock principles of our liberal democracy--life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

Apparently, our leaders on Capital Hill have decided, at the behest of the credit card companies, that the spirit of such laws must be thwarted because it is inimical to the spirit of capitalism. Thus, the Senate is currently in the process of passing a bill that toughens bankruptcy law. As Paul Krugman describes it, the new law will "make it much harder for families in distress to write off their debts and make a fresh start," and thus "many debtors would find themselves on an endless treadmill of payments."

Of course, Hebrew society also found it difficult to abide by these laws, and the prevalence of debt slavery--an endless treadmill of payments--became so acute that the prophet Amos correlates this iniquity with the imminent destruction of Israel by the Assyrians. Thus, Amos condemns those who "practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat" (Amos 8:5-6). That is, the wealthy have built their fortunes by practicing deceit with false balances (think Enron), buying the needy for a pair of sandals (think high interest credit cards which many depend on for their survival), and selling the sweepings of wheat (think any practice which nickel-and-dimes the poor). The book of Ruth indicates that the wealthy were to leave the last sweepings of their harvest as charity for the needy, but the plantation owners instead would typically sell every last bit, thereby maximizing profits and further relegating the working class to its endless treadmill of high interest payments.

So Amos warns the wealthy, "because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them" (Amos 5:11). The wealthy will not live in their mansions because the Assyrians will destroy them and banish the Israelites from the land, which Assyrian King Sargon II in fact does by 721 B.C.E. In sum, Amos offers his prophetic critique of Israel for its failure to live up to the ideals of covenant law, in particular for its mistreatment of the poor which is quintessentially represented in the practice of debt slavery. It is important to note that Amos does not focus primarily on issues of individual immorality; rather, he indicates that the entire economy of Israel exhibits a systemic distortion of social justice, and the only way to change such a fundamental problem is through a fundamental reform of society.

In many ways, bankruptcy law is the modern solution to this fundamental problem. It guarantees that no one can be bound to catastrophic debt without hope of recovery. The legislation currently under consideration, however, represents a regressive step back to the days of debt slavery, creating what Krugman calls a "debt peonage" society, which he names after the economic system of the post-Civil War South in which debtors were forced to work for their creditors.

One point of clarification, most of the bankruptcies which this law will effectively make impossible are not caused by free-riders attempting to scam the system by building up debt and then using Chapter 7 bankruptcy law to avoid repayment.
A vast majority of personal bankruptcies in the United States are the result of severe misfortune. One recent study found that more than half of bankruptcies are the result of medical emergencies. The rest are overwhelmingly the result either of job loss or of divorce.

To the extent that there is significant abuse of the system, it's concentrated among the wealthy - including corporate executives found guilty of misleading investors - who can exploit loopholes in the law to protect their wealth, no matter how ill-gotten.

One increasingly popular loophole is the creation of an "asset protection trust," which is worth doing only for the wealthy. Senator Charles Schumer introduced an amendment that would have limited the exemption on such trusts, but apparently it's O.K. to game the system if you're rich: 54 Republicans and 2 Democrats voted against the Schumer amendment.

Other amendments were aimed at protecting families and individuals who have clearly been forced into bankruptcy by events, or who would face extreme hardship in repaying debts. Ted Kennedy introduced an exemption for cases of medical bankruptcy. Russ Feingold introduced an amendment protecting the homes of the elderly. Dick Durbin asked for protection for armed services members and veterans. All were rejected.
So the result of this legislation: the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. What would Amos say?

What Is Really Happening in Lebanon?

Brad DeLong asks the following question regarding the current affairs in Lebanon:
What are we doing in Lebanon? Is expelling the Syrians from Lebanon best understood as promoting Lebanese democracy or as setting the stage for the accession to power of Hezbollah?
Juan Cole asks a rhetorical question which seems to indicate a response leaning towards something like the latter:
Will a Lebanon left to its own devices to negotiate a social compact between [minority] rightwing Christians and Shiite Hizbullah really be an island of stability?

War on Facts (Part CXVII)

The Washington Post reports that the Bush administration opposes needle exchange programs and defends its position by citing the scientific evidence which confirms their effectiveness as if these studies actually deny it:
The administration claims that the evidence for the effectiveness of needle exchange is shaky. An official who requested anonymity directed us to a number of researchers who have allegedly cast doubt on the pro-exchange consensus. One of them is Steffanie A. Strathdee of the University of California at San Diego; when we contacted her, she responded that her research "supports the expansion of needle exchange programs, not the opposite." Another researcher cited by the administration is Martin T. Schechter of the University of British Columbia; he wrote us that "Our research here in Vancouver has been repeatedly used to cast doubt on needle exchange programs. I believe this is a clear misinterpretation of the facts." Yet a third researcher cited by the administration is Julie Bruneau at the University of Montreal; she told us that "in the vast majority of cases needle exchange programs drive HIV incidence lower." We asked Dr. Bruneau whether she favored needle exchanges in countries such as Russia or Thailand. "Yes, sure," she responded.
One thing to note is that the Post received these blatant misrepresentations of the scientific evidence from an anonymous source within the Bush administration. Kevin Drum derives three lessons from this episode:

There are two lessons here. First, the Post should feel no obligation to keep this person's name anonymous. He lied to them. Second, even in a blatant case like this the Post was still unwilling to flatly call these statements lies. What does it take, guys?

Oh, and a third lesson too: the press should never believe a word the Bush administration says unless they confirm it themselves. Maybe that's really lesson #1.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Santorum's Trojan Horse

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) is introducing a bill today which ostensibly would raise the minimum wage by $1.10, but upon closer examination it turns out that he is not really concerned with the plight of struggling American workers after all. According to the Economic Policy Institute (warning: PDF), the bill is in fact a trojan horse that actually assaults workers' rights.

For example, the bill eliminates the minimum wage protection granted by the Fair Labor Standards Act for all businesses with revenues less than $1,000,000. That is up from those with revenues of $500,000, thereby creating a loophole group of revenue earners between $500,000 and $1,000,000. In other words, while the new amendment might increase minimum wage for approximately 1.8 million workers, another 6.8 million workers working for businesses in this loophole group would lose their protection.

Furthermore, it eliminates some forms of overtime pay by making an 80-hour two-week work period the standard, so that a worker who works 50 hours one week and 30 the next would not receive overtime pay for the ten extra hours in the first week. This will impact construction workers severely. In addition, businesses will be permitted not to pay a regular wage to tipped employees such as restaurant wait staff, taxi drivers, hotel porters and cleaning staff. Finally, it will also excuse more than 5 million businesses from their violations of worker safety regulations.

Of course, what should one expect from a party that has publicly declared its opposition to the minimum wage protection altogether, as is the case in the Texas Republican Party Platform? See here for details. Also see Nathan Newman for further discussion of this issue.

Spring Break

It turns out that the best way to spend the first three days of one's spring break may not be to stay up until 4 a.m. grading the 78 papers that were foolishly due on the last day of class before the vacation. On the other hand, I did discover the perverse value of Kid Notorious and Drawn Together on Comedy Central during those wee hours.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Brad DeLong States the Democrat's Social Security Plan

Brad DeLong disagrees with the Bull Moose that the Democrats need to come up with an alternative plan for Social Security even as they oppose the phase-out plan of the Republicans. DeLong argues that Democrats already have a clear plan:
But there is an alternative plan on Social Security that is a near-consensus position for Democrats. It has three parts:
  1. Social Security should be preserved--not phased out, as the Bush plan's "price indexation" formula does.
  2. Social Security's long-run funding hole should not be closed by benefit cuts alone, but by a mixture of steps that reduce costs and increase revenues.
  3. Private accounts to make it easier for America's non-rich to build their retirement savings are a wonderful idea if properly implemented and if proposed as an add-on to rather than a carve-out from Social Security.

And there are also two observations on the Bush administration:

  1. You can't negotiate with the Bush administration: its word is not good.
  2. You can't rely on the Bush administration: its track record tells us that even good ideas will be implemented very badly if they are left in its hands.
These last observations signal a cautionary note to all Democratic Senators (that's you, Mr. Lieberman) who may be tempted to cut a deal with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) because any negotiations will be either (1) completely overridden during conference committee, or (2) so utterly undermined by other subsequent provisions as to render them unrecognizable. The best strategy is to stick with the three-part plan and to keep in mind that these observations vitiate any real possibility of achieving #3 viz. the "properly implemented" part.

March 1st Where We Live

For some people, the beginning of March brings to mind baseball spring training, but not in Pennsylvania: