Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top Twenty Blog Entries for 2011

As we approach the end of 2011, I look back on the blog entries that I have wrote throughout the year.  It was so hard to narrow the list to a "Top 10" that I had to expand it to a "Top 20" list.  Looking at factors such as most page views, comments posted on the entries, as well as what I thought was best-written, did not make the endeavor any easier.  Since I was unable to devise a rating system, the entries are rated based on the chronology that they were written.  Enjoy!  May you have a Happy 2012!

1) I used to find myself in numerous arguments with Christians, whether they be friends or acquaintances, where they were asserting that Jesus was the Messiah. Looking at the text from a Jewish perspective, I knew that Jesus was anything but the Messiah. The existence of two perspectives does not mean they are both valid. In order to break the argument of intellectual relativism, I wrote a concise, but nevertheless convincing and well-cited argument as to why Jesus was not the Messiah according to criteria in Hebrew Scriptures.

2) My religious criticism is not limited to Christianity. A few weeks later, I wrote a piece putting the claim of "Islam is a religion of peace" into question. After looking at multiple factors, including the nature of Koran, the history of Muhammed, the history of how Islam has been practiced, and how Islam is currently practiced, the conclusion was that if Islam has any hope of being considered a peaceful religion, it has to overcome significant hurdles, much greater than those of the Protestant Reformation.

3) Orthodox Jews look forward to a day where the Third Temple is reinstated and that sacrifices can be re-instated. Many Christians like to inaccurately analogize the sacrificial system with Jesus' crucifixion. Both tend to forget that sacrifices were a means, not an ends, to getting closer to G-d, upon which this blog entry focuses.

4) The Left has the mentality that anything and everything is a right. The self-entitlement mentality extends to health care. Looking at the health care issue from the perspective of natural rights upon this country was founded, it turns out that health care is not a right.

5) Without question, this was the blog that received the most page views. Leviticus 18:22 has been used throughout history to condemn homosexual behavior, but after a considerably profound analysis of the verse in its context, the verse leads to many interpretations, none of which that line up with what the Religious Right has to say on the issue.

6) Obama hasn't exactly catered to the Jewish population as well as American Jews were expecting, hence the decrease of Jewish support for Obama. One of the biggest gaffes that Obama made this past year was calling for a "return to the 'pre-1967' borders."

7) Those "progressives" in San Francisco were at it again! This time, it was with an attempt to ban circumcision. For the sake of the freedom to parent in accordance with one's religious views, I'm so glad the measure did not pass.

8) Global warming, now referred to as climate change because it was easier to stick with one name rather than switch back and forth between global warming and global cooling, has reached a status of being an unquestionable fact of life. Knowing that the scientific establishment has never been wrong (think of claims that the earth was flat or that the earth was the center of the universe), I gave skepticism of climate change a go this past June. Although I don't consider this entry a Top 20 entry, I nevertheless became skeptical of my skepticism later this year since I find it to be healthy for one's intellect.

9) This blog entry received the second largest amount of page views. A libertarian actually made an argument against gay marriage from a libertarian perspective, but ultimately fell short.

10) I have written blog entries about why we should get out of Afghanistan, but this entry covers the reasoning from an economic perspective.

11) I think we still live in a country in which dissent is patriotism, which is why I spent part of my Fourth of July questioning whether America is the greatest nation on earth. Let's just say that there were multiple factors to consider, and that there was no easy answer to the question.

12) As if questioning Christianity or Islam were not fun enough, I decided to do so with my own religion. I took a look at the practice of tzedakah and tried to see if there were a way to get out of the practice. After looking at all attempts to excuse myself from giving tzedakah, I found that although I could not completely eliminate the mitzvah, I could limit the extent to which I give tzedakah.

13) This had to be one of my personal favorites for 2011: Why Biblical Literalism is Folly.  The title speaks for itself.

14) So many Jews, especially those that religiously lean to the Left, equate Judaism with social action. Although there are certain values that might line up with tikkun olam, the attempt to reduce Judaism to social action led me to tell Jews to take it easy with tikkun olam.

15) Many capitalists can talk about the economic efficiencies of the free market, but rarely do we hear about the morality behind capitalism. Rather than lack morality, capitalism actually ends up being morally superior to socialism.

16) Throughout history, many individuals have used the concept of "the Chosen People" to advance their anti-Semitism. Aside from the fact that every group of people has been guilty of ethnocentrism at some point, the notion of the "chosen people" is not what you would think.

17) Rick Perry made a supposed faux pas when he said that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. I took his assertion one step further: I opined that Social Security is actually worse than a Ponzi scheme.

18) With the increased media attention of the Occupy Wall Street movement, I asked myself about income inequality and whether it is morally problematic. After giving it some thought, I am not bothered by the existence of income inequality, especially to the extent which those on the Left are.

19) Especially with the class welfare rhetoric that has existed in the news lately, it emboldens one's resolve to think that the rich have it so easy. Looking at this from a Jewish perspective, Abraham had many riches. You would think that he were living without challenges, but his richness actually created additional burden.

20) This past November, Mississippi tried to pass a bill defining personhood at the moment of conception. Too bad the pro-lifers advocating for the passage of the bill did not realize that implementing the policy would cause unintended consequences.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Wealthy and Taxation: What is "Their Fair Share?"

The Pew Research Center put out recent survey data as to what the American people think about the tax system.  When asked about "what bothers you most about the tax system," the number one answer was "the wealthy people don't pay their fair share."  Not surprisingly, there is a partisan divide on this one.  73% of Democrats agree, whereas 38% of Republicans agree.  Interestingly enough, 57% of Independents agree.  For those who feel this way, here's my question to you: what constitutes as one's "fair share?"

Before figuring out whether the rich are paying their fair share, it would behoove us to see how much everyone is paying in taxes.  Looking at the percentage that individuals pay in taxes (both federal and state/local) comparison the shares of comprehensive household market income, the top forty percent pay more in proportion (see Tables 21 and 22).  If they pay more in proportion, then the dollar amount they pay is surely higher than what the poor pay.

Let's consider the notion of redistributive justice, which allocates property and wealth in a "socially just" manner.  The poor don't have enough, and it's up to the government to redistribute wealth so that they can have a decent living.  That would be typical rhetoric from the Left.  For the Left, desired outcome would be a smaller Gini coefficient, which is a measurement of income inequality.  That could very well sound fair.  We're all equal in the sense that we receive the same amount, which would eliminate any income inequality.  But it was Winston Churchill who said that "socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.  Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery."  The notion of equality of income has never boded well for mankind.

The Pilgrims tried income distribution and nearly died because of it.  The Former Soviet Union gave it a go, and life couldn't be more miserable.  Chairman Mao Zedong redistributed food in the Great Leap Forward, which killed well over twenty million.  Over history, the United States government has implemented certain programs (e.g., Medicare, welfare, Social Security), and debt has now reached 100% of GDP.  Amazing how any attempts at equality of income minimize equality and opportunity.

This country was built on the idea that all men are created equal.  If that were the case, then everyone would pay the same percentage in taxes.  A progressive income tax does not do that.  You know what does?  A flat tax.

Two more alternative views before I conclude.  The first is that life is not fair.  There has always been income inequality, and no government programs can adequately mitigate the issue.  The second is there is nothing wrong with income inequality, something which I have discussed before.

Do I think the rich pay their fair share?  Yes, I do.  Since rich people pay more in absolute dollars and percentage-wise in tax dollars than the poor, I think they pay more than their fair share in taxes.  But good luck telling that to those who perpetuate class welfare in order to aggrandize Big Government.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Is Ten Percent of the Population Homosexual?

It's always nice to know that you can meet up with your high school friends with whom you have kept in touch all these years and still partake in political polemics as if nothing has changed.  Granted, I became libertarian since then, and thus don't agree with the Right like I used to, but it's still pleasant to have that sense of nostalgia with good friends.

I had such a rendez-vous with some Left-leaning high school friends yesterday. Although a good number of topics came up in discussion, the one that lasted the longest and was the most heated was whether a tenth of the population was homosexual.  Whether it was personal experience, intuition, or previous, brief encounter with a small handful of studies, I didn't agree with the "ten percent gospel" that has its origins in the well-renowned Kinsey study.  As I should well know by now, if you question something that someone else deems "unquestionable," the response is "attack mode."  As long as it's not personal, I don't mind the heated debate since the important thing at the end is ascertaining the truth.

I was told by one of my friends that I should look at the Kinsey study, as well as the Time Magazine article from 2004.  A lot more has been published on the subject since Kinsey, and the article from Time didn't answer the question of "what percent of the population is gay?"  Regardless, I was going to look at the data to see if my friends were right.

It's not only a matter of the fact that homosexuality is a hot-button issue in America.  Both sides have a stake in the debate, which is why I am just as skeptical of the Left's 10% claim as I am of the Right's claim of a considerably small homosexual population. 

A paramount question is how one goes about defining "homosexual."  Is a homosexual who has only one sexual encounter with someone of the same sex? Can we define a homosexual as someone who exclusively or predominantly has sexual relations with someone of the same-sex?  Are people who self-identify as homosexual an accurate measurement of the homosexual population?  As we go through the prominent studies on the matter, let's keep these questions in mind.  

A look at the Kinsey study itself: The Kinsey study was under heavy criticism for selection bias.  But let's consider that the Kinsey study isn't methodologically flawed, because no study ever is, right?  Under the Kinsey study, 37% of males and 13% of females have had at least one overt homosexual experience.  A good majority of us are not going to consider translating one homosexual interaction into being homosexual.  The colloquialisms for such an experience are "experimenting" or "being bi-curious."

Analyzing more long-lasting findings, the study shows that 10% of males and 2-6% of females were exclusively homosexual.  80% of the aforementioned males (i.e., 8% of the statistic sample) were exclusively homosexual for at least three years.  However, 4% of males and 1-3% of females were exclusively or predominantly homosexual from the onset of adolescence.  How long does someone have to have same-sex attraction to be considered homosexual?  Your answer is going to vary based on your definition.  In spite of that, the revered study hardly claims that 10% of the population is homosexual.

The Census Bureau findings are commonly used by those on the Right because the percentage is around 2-4%.  The Census Bureau has a few flaws.  First is that there is no explicit question asking about sexual orientation.  The person filling out the form has to report how the other person is related to them, which causes ambiguities in the answer.  There is still the social stigma of being homosexual, which means people are hesitant to put their sexuality on the form.  Even if that stigma didn't exist, there will still be people out there who feel that it's none of the government's business.  

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently did a study on sexual behavior. The study measured sexuality on two primary levels.  The first is the sexual act itself (Table 10).  Does having any sexual contact count?  Does it have to be a specific act?  And again, does partaking in a single homosexual act render you homosexual?  Then there's the matter of sexual identity.  How the question is framed brings about different answers.  Being framed in terms of "Are you mostly [or partly] homosexual/heterosexual, or just bisexual (Table 11)" has different results than "Do you consider yourself heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or other (Table 12)."  You can finagle over 10% from Table 11 if you lump in people who consider themselves mostly heterosexual.  You can't pull it off with the findings from Table 12.

The Williams Institute, which essentially is a think tank for issues regarding advocacy for sexual orientation, did a study about same-sex couples and individuals in the United States.  Looking at Table 2, the state with the highest estimation of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals was Washington DC at 8.1%.  Since the sample maximum is below 10%, there is no way the national mean is 10%, which means that according to this pro-gay rights study, the LGB (Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual) population is not 10%.

Even a 2010 study, which grabbed the Huffington Post's attention because it was "the largest survey on the topic published since the 1990s," does not match up to the 10%.  Looking at Table 1 (p. 258), 92.2% of men and 93.1% of women identified as heterosexual.  You would have to include bisexuals to have a median population parameter of 5.65%, which is a fancy way of saying that it doesn't make it to 10%.  Even if you decide to use sexual acts within the past year as an indicator (which is better than sexual acts over a lifetime, but still is limited in terms of meaning), none of the homosexual acts reach the 10% mark.

Postscript: There are other studies on the issue, but the major, peer-reviewed ones have been covered in this blog entry.  In order to make the "ten percent" argument, one would have to make the definition of "homosexual" so broad that it included bisexuals, individuals with very transient same-sex attraction [much like in the Kinsey study], and those who have had at least one lifetime homosexual act, all of which undermine the claim itself.  This is truly a stretch of statistical data to bolster numbers.  Looking at the data puts the percentage closer to five or six percent.

Does this mean that Americans should stop focusing on making sure that homosexuals are provided their rights?  Absolutely not!  Having a smaller percentage of homosexuals in society does not mean we abandon the endeavor of making sure that the government protects the natural rights for homosexuals, an endeavor that will most likely be the civil rights issue of our time.  However, the continued usage of the "ten percent" statistic only debilitates credibility.  Those who argue for gay rights don't need to use exaggerated numbers when they already have the advantage of a sound argument.

6-5-2016 Addendum: Last Wednesday, the Archives of Sexual Behavior published a study showing the prevalence of same-sex behavior. The number of men having sex with at least one man increased from 4.5 percent in the early 1990s to 8.2 percent in the late 2010s. For women having sexual relations with women, that increased from 3.6 to 8.7 percent within the same time period. Given the increased societal acceptance of homosexuals and homosexuality, these findings could simply mean that more people are comfortable reporting their true sexuality and sexual practices. Assuming that a) these figures are correct and b) we want to use the definition provided in the study, they are still slightly below the 10 percent mark.

5-22-2018 Addendum: Gallup estimates that 4.5 percent of the U.S. population is homosexual.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

What War on Christmas?

For years, you have heard Bill O'Reilly clamor about it.  The Christian Right in this country fears it.  Even Rick Perry brought it up in his recent gaffe of an advertisement.  Yes, it is that most wonderful time of year: to bring up the War on Christmas.

Recent cases that are supposed to prove that there is a "war on Christmas" are attempts to ban the construction of a Nativity scene on public school property or re-naming the Christmas tree a "holiday tree."

If this war honestly existed, let me tell you what it would look like.  There would be public burnings of Christmas trees.  Those dressed up like Santa Claus would be assaulted.  Churches would be vandalized.  Giving a Christmas mass or praying to Jesus in public would have you detained by the police.  If you want to see what religious persecution actually looks like, take a look at Jewish history.      

If you're still not convinced, take a look at polling.  Rasmussen shows that 70% of Americans prefer the greeting "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays."  Gallup polls are even better.  Not only do 51% of Americans consider Christmas to be 'strongly religious' for them, but more than 90% in this country celebrate Christmas.  Something tells me that Christmas will continue to be a part of American society and culture.

Why is it that those who are delusional about this "war" prioritize better?  What about worrying why Christmas has become a celebration of rampant materialism?  Or better yet, why not worry about real problems such as unemployment, increasing health care costs, or insolvent government spending?  Rather than appease the Religious Right in some fictitious war, maybe O'Reilly and his ilk should be thankful that Christians throughout America can worship their religion freely.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Parsha Miketz: A Spiritual Recession Trumps This Global Financial Recession

In this week's parsha, Joseph interprets two of Pharaoh's dreams.  The first is that of seven fat cows being eaten up by seven lean cows (Genesis 41:1-4).  The second dream was that seven fat stalks of grain were overcome by seven lean stalks (ibid 41:5-7).  When interpreting these dreams, Joseph actually told the Pharaoh that the two dreams were one in the same (ibid 41:25).  What did Joseph mean when he said that? The significance of each dream were the same exact one: seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine (ibid 41:27).

We're not living in a "global" famine like the one in the Torah, but we certainly are living in global financial crisis.  The state of the Eurozone is a tumultuous one with many unknowns.  America cannot even deal with its own debt issues properly.  Another difference between then and now is that we didn't have a Joseph to tell us that the economy was going to be in shambles.  Sure, the economy has busts and booms.  We all know that.  But were we prepared for an economic issue on a global level?  Absolutely not.

Even though we were not prepared for the magnitude, we know that this is how economic cycles work.  Life is not always going to deal us a Royal Flush.  Even when we are dealt good hands, we should not take it for granted.  What Joseph's planning teaches us is that we should not be so hedonistic or short-sighted that the only thing that we can grasp is the short-term.

What got the better of people?  Materialism.  Many Americans thought that keeping up an insanely high level of consumption would not cause a housing bubble to burst, consumer debt, or trade deficits.  The Pharaoh's dream is as telling back then as it is today because there is more to this dream than a lesson in the need of having a rainy-day fund and being fiscally savvy.

Rashi noticed that the cows were described as handsome (יפות). From the Genesis Rabbah 89:4, Rashi points out that "handsome" means that in days of plenty, no one envied each other.  The Midrash Tanhuma Miketz elaborates a bit further.  In this instance, the focus is on the reed grass (באחו .(באחו is similar to the phrase "in brotherhood" (באחווה).

These "good times" are not just economic; they are also societal and moralistic.  When times are "good," we view people as brothers, and without envy.  The moment we view others as strangers not worth helping, that's when the "bad" times come.  That is why when the lean cows consumed the fat cows, they did not get any fatter.  They were not satisfied with what they had spiritually.  The lean cows were only concerned with their own hides.

We've been in a spiritual recession much longer than we have in a financial one.  Technology has made it easier to live more individualistic lives, and thus cut ourselves off from social contact from one another.  Being bombarded with advertisements makes wanting to fulfill an insatiable desire for material goods all the more alluring.  That level of self-indulgence makes it easier and easier to ignore others and reduce those who are close to the status of stranger.

Although the economic prospects aren't as inspiring as one would like, I'm sure that we'll pull out of the financial crisis before we pull out of this spiritual one.  If I were to put policy making into spiritual parlance, the first policy I would recommend is getting in touch with people.  This could entail rekindling friendships, attending a house of worship (or some other way to build a sense of community), or being closer to family.  It could also encompass people you don't know, whether it's finding a social club or some form of volunteerism.  Whatever the decision is, the sure-fire way out this spiritual recession is not to use people, but rather to treat people like human beings, show them some dignity, and develop relationships with people.  And it's amazing how an individual can inspire another individual to act in the same way.  Hopefully, this "spiritual policy recommendation" can become contagious and we can pull ourselves out of this spiritual bankruptcy.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Secular Republican Changes His Mind on Same-Sex Marriage for the Better

I have a much greater propensity to read articles and studies from think tanks than I do when it comes to reading [political] blogs.  Analysis and expectations, even when not libertarian, are much higher in the think tank world.  However, there are a few blogs that I decide to read.  One such blog is Heathen Republican.  Although I am neither a Republican nor a secularist, I nevertheless have a great of respect for the blogger because of his adherence to sound, reasoned argumentation.

That is why I was surprised by his initial blog entry as to why he was against same-sex marriage.  When push came to shove, opponents of same-sex marriage never had a rational argument for such opposition, which explains my bewilderment.  As of today, he has since redacted such argumentation and has taken a pro-gay marriage stance.  I find this to be an important step, especially since support for gay marriage and conservatism are not mutually exclusive.  

I want to dissect his initial opposition, as well as add to why he ultimately made the right decision in supporting same-sex marriage.

On the plus side, he immediately eliminated the "because the Bible tells me so" argument.  However, he went into arguing about equal rights are still assured because no one, gay or straight, has the right to marry someone of the same sex.  As a libertarian, my primary argument has been embodied within contract rights, which you'd think a conservative would share similar, if not identical, sentiments.  Upon addressing the equality issue, the Heathen Republican framed the equal rights issue in terms of disparate impact.  My approach to it is different, but disparate impact is an equally valid argument.  He uses the example of a hypothetical ban of entering Catholic churches.  Although the ban technically applies to everyone, it is most detrimental to Catholics, since they are the ones practicing Catholicism.  Same goes for same-sex marriage.  Although technically everyone is banned from a same-sex marriage in most states, it does the most damage to homosexuals since they are the ones that would derive benefit from such an arrangement.

He then brings up that "marrying for love" is an insufficient argument because if love were the qualifier for a legal marriage, then polygamy and pedophilia would have to be legalized, as well.  I've already addressed the non-analogous nature of this slippery slope argument.  The Heathen Republican makes a very similar argument to my own, and concludes with the following comment: "If society is allowed to define marriage, why can't we choose to say that marriage requires an exclusive commitment between two, unrelated consenting adults?  Sure, it doesn't have the simplicity and elegance of 'between one man and one woman,' but it does remove an inappropriate restriction that unfairly harms homosexuals."  Very eloquently said!

The Heathen Republican also stated that he hesitated to change his views because of a conservative bias towards "tradition over change," and that this sentiment was the sole obstacle.  I am glad that he re-visited the argument and realized that everything else considered, an argumentum ad antiquitatem cannot stand on its own as a well-reasoned argument.  It takes an individual of strong character to admit that they were wrong and change their views accordingly, which is a character trait I admire.  Kudos to the Heathen Republican!

I hope for a future in which a good majority of Republicans and conservatives can come to similar, cogent reasons for supporting same-sex marriage.

12-9-2014 Addendum: Slate published an overall convincing argument about conservatism and same-sex marriage.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rebellion for Freedom of Religion and the Chanukah Story

The balance between obeisance and defiance in Judaism is captivating.  The story of Chanukah gives another example to better find that balance.

As the story goes, Antiochus IV Epiphanes expanded into the land of Judea, which resulted in a divide between the Jews.  On the one hand, you had the assimilated Hellenistic Jews, and on the other, you have what would become the zealously religious Maccabeans.  Cultural oppression ensued.  Jewish practices such as Torah study and circumcision were outlawed.  Antiochus even went as far as sacrificing a pig on the altar in the Temple!  Given the political climate, Judaism was at stake.  Rather than be obedient to the authorities, the Maccabees decided to revolt against the Greek establishment.  After much fighting, the Greeks were overthrown and sovereignty was returned to the Israelites. 

I find it ironic that a celebration of the victory of the Religious Right is the most favorite holiday of secular Jews that mostly lean to the Left, but I'll leave that one least for now.  The point I want to bring up is that the individual was meant to practice their religion, and practice it freely.  The ability to pursue under one's own conscience while not harming others is essential to freedom and finding meaning in life.    

Under normal circumstances, Jewish law dictates דינא דמלכותא דינא, or that "the law of the land is the law." However, Judaism takes exception to that when Jewish practice is at stake, much like with the Maccabees.  Just to elucidate a bit further, something being legal does not make it morally right.  Events such as the Holocaust and the Civil Rights movement remind us that there is certainly a distinction between the two.  

I'm not all too worried about this happening in America.  Historically speaking, freedom of religion in America has been pretty solid.  Thank you, First Amendment of the Constitution!  From a Jewish perspective, we have never enjoyed such freedom in the Diaspora.  The ultimate failure of San Francisco's recent attempt to ban circumcision exemplifies how much we don't have to worry about an attack on religious freedom (e.g., practicing Judaism) in America, especially to a point where we would need to rebel against our government.  

That is certainly a blessing I take into consideration this Chanukah: to live in a country in which I can freely observe my Judaism.  Even though we are not in any danger of losing such freedom anytime soon, Jews should nevertheless be ever vigilant to make sure that what the Maccabees endured is not a reality in our time, but merely a distant memory.  

חג שמח!         

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

You Can Be a Good Jewish Guy Without a Beard

Between the controversy over Matisyahu shaving his beard and the fact I recently read a Chabad article that said one of the reasons that Jews, and more specifically, Chasids, don't shave their beards is because shaving is a form of cross-dressing (true was a halachic ruling by the third Chabad rebbe), I figured I'd write a brief blog entry about shaving beards in Jewish law.

When people typically think of a Jewish man, there will most likely be an image of a bearded man.  This association is not incidental.  The Torah states that "you shall not round the corners of your head, and do not destroy the corners of your beard (Leviticus 19:27)."  The verse is a bit ambiguous.  Fortunately, the Talmudic rabbis clear it up for us.  Essentially, they find (Makkot 20a) the verse to mean that it is not permissible to shave the beard with a razor.  Maimonides (Moreh 3:37) says that because it was the practice of idolatrous priests, we shouldn't shave our beards.

If this is all true, then does that mean there is an automatic correlation between beards and piety?  Absolutely not!

First and foremost, not all Jewish men historically wore beards.  Pious Jews in places such as Italy, France and Germany were clean-shaven.  They managed to remove their beards with scissors.  Even Joseph (Genesis 41:14) shaved his beard without any admonishment from G-d.  Whether a Jew wore a beard seems to be more based on the surrounding culture, as opposed to a strict adherence to Jewish law.  As a side note, even the Talmud (Shabbat 152a) notes that non-Jews in the ancient world had beards.

The Chatam Sofer, who was infamous for having said, in response to the Enlightenment period, "all innovations are prohibited," even said that there is no evidence of a prohibition of shaving (Responsa, Chatam Sofer, Orach Chayim 159) with methods that don't use a razor or razor-like objects.

This brings me to my next point.  As previously mentioned, certain pious Jews would remove their beards with scissors.  Fortunately, we have a much better method than a pair of scissors and functionally works like a pair of scissors: the electric razor.  Since the electric razor works like a pair of scissors (i.e., two or more edges coming into edge with the skin, as opposed to the primitive, single-blade razor), it is permissible to shave one's beard with a razor.

Just because it's worth mentioning, there are certain times, such as Chol HaMoed, the period between the beginning of Sefirat HaOmer and Lag B'Omer, and during the first thirty days of the mourning process, where you absolutely do not shave, regardless of method. The fact that these caveats exist should tell us that beards are not obligatory because wouldn't it be redundant to say you can't shave during these times if you can't shave during the rest of the year?

Keeping up the debate on these issues is always good.  And if you don't shave because that is your custom or you feel more Jewish because you have a beard, then go for it!  However, not having a beard does not make you any less of a good Jew.  Having a beard doesn't have an impact on if you keep Shabbat or kosher, or if you lead an ethical life.  Beards are only skin deep.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Thoughts on Herman Cain and Adultery

This previous Saturday, presidential candidate Herman Cain withdrew from the GOP primary race, most probably because of his alleged extramarital affair.  It doesn't matter what I think of Cain coming up with the 9-9-9 plan or his catering to social conservatives to get primary votes.  It was hardly fair for Ginger White to cry "affair" without any substantiation.  At least with Newt Gingrich, you can confirm it.  Anyone can accuse someone of adultery as a dirty political tactic to knock down a candidate.  What's worse is that it works, especially on Republican candidates who campaign on family values.

Regardless of political party or veracity of the allegation, it makes us wonder whether adultery is so terrible that it should disqualify an individual to run for office.  On the one hand, adultery entails deception, self-indulgence, and an inability to keep one's commitments.  If an individual cannot keep an ethically sound household, how do we expect him to do so elsewhere?

[Just to clarify, if the marriage were in the context of an open marriage (i.e., polyamorous marriage), we wouldn't be having this conversation.  This is specifically for those who promise to monogamously be with each other "for richer or poor, in sickness and in health, and until death do us part."]

On the other hand, home and work are two different spheres.  It can be possible to be a lousy husband or father while being successful in the workplace.  Bill Clinton was a fine example of that.  His personal life was something to be abhorred.  On the other hand, Clinton had a presidency with a minimal amount of warfare (if you count Kosovo), not to mention economic growth, which included the Internet Boom, a budget surplus, and cutting back on spending in welfare programs.

I'm more inclined to believe in the latter.  I understand that individuals are flawed.  It's part of being human.  I doubt that that I would want to be friends with someone who is deceptive enough to lie to their spouse.  However, that is on a personal level.  The question that voters should be asking is whether a candidate accused of adultery would still be the best candidate for office, even in spite of their flaws.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How Government Regulations Are Undermining the Job Market

Those on the Left are arguing that government regulations have a negligible effect on layoffs.  The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), for instance, argues that because a small number of businesses attribute government intervention as the cause for the layoffs (see Bureau of Labor Statistics data), we shouldn't have to worry.  I don't even want to get into the argument that the regulations do their damage subtly enough that most businessmen would not be able to accurately attribute government regulations to layoffs.  What I would like to point out is that it is the same Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that recently announced that the level of layoffs are at pre-recession levels.

I'm sure my friends or colleagues on the Left will tell me that we need to have the government intervene in order to help bring up aggregate demand to pre-recession levels (i.e., Keynesian policy of government stimulus spending).  If the issue were consumption, then our levels of consumption would be at lows not seen for quite some time.  However, looking at Bureau of Economic Analysis consumption data (take particular note of the personal consumption expenditure data, especially this one), consumption has exceeded pre-recession levels.      

If job layoffs are at a low not seen for quite one time, and consumption is "back to normal," then there must be some other explanation as to what is plaguing the job market.  The issue facing the job market is that of job creation, as BLS data indicates.  Let's not even consider that a recent Gallup poll of small business owners shows that government regulations are at the top of their list of problems.  Last year, the Small Business Administration (SBA) published a study outlining how government regulations costs small business roughly ten thousand dollars per annum.

I don't know about you, but if I were a small business owner, I would be hard-pressed to hire new employees.  Between the implications of Obamacare for small businesses, the ephemeral nature of the tax cuts, and the increasing amount of regulations that have been implemented since the beginning of the Obama Administration, there is a lot of uncertainty taking place.  Small businesses need some reassurance that economic times are going to get better, and it cannot be done with hollow rhetoric.  If you truly want to help small businesses feel more confident that they can afford to hire new employees without going out of business, de-regulation would go a long way.

Why Wake Up with Modeh Ani

The ability to wake up "on the right side of the bed" is important because doing so properly affects the rhythm and mood for the rest of the day.  There are certain ways of going about this secularly.  I would like to approach this from a Jewish standpoint.

Upon waking up, a Jew is supposed to say the following:

 מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקים שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה, רבה אמונתך.

I offer thanks before You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.

Why start off the morning by saying the Modeh Ani?  How does this help Jews "wake up on the right side of the bed?"

The more obvious answer is that you start off your day with a sense of gratitude.  Jewish tradition (Talmud, Menachot 43b) teaches us to say a hundred blessings a day.  The reason for this important practice is so that all we can see in our lives is blessing.  

I would like to take this step further.  In the Modeh Ani, we thank G-d for giving us another day.  Life itself is a gift.  This blessing makes us aware of that fact.  However, it begs a question: what is life?  

Human beings are different from other animals.  Our needs transcend the provision of basic physical needs.  We have free will, and we are to act upon that free will in order to bring goodness to the world.  

That becomes the raison d'être: opportunities in which we can perform good deeds.  This short, but powerful blessing reminds us that we should show appreciativeness to have another chance to make this world a better place.  

Give it a try.  I dare you.  It takes about five seconds to say, and you have nowhere else to be as you're waking up.  By saying the Modeh Ani, you get to spiritually wake up on the right side of the bed by reminding yourself who you are and what your purpose in life is.

10-23-2014 Addendum: I just came across this in-depth analysis of the Modeh Ani blessing, and it was too awesome not to share.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Will Italy's Economy Make It Beyond This Week?

Many news outlets have been reporting on the "euro crisis."  Within the past few weeks, attention has been diverted from Greece to Italy, primarily because Italy's economy, which is the eighth largest economy in the world, has a debt that well exceeds 100% of its GDP ($1.9 trillion in debt, which is six times the amount of Greece's).  Saying that the eurozone only has days might seem bleak or alarmist, but by observing what is going on in that region in the world, it could very well be in the realm of feasibility.

Looking at Italy's sorry excuse for a bond auction, Italy has seen Euro-era high interest rates on its bonds, which does not bode well for its recuperation because it's a measurement of confidence in Italy's economy.

Does the European Central Bank (i.e., Germany) underwrite Italy's debt?  I know Germany has the healthiest economy within the eurozone, but I'd guess that Germany is sick of being expected to bail out the PIGS.  And even if Germany decides to help, it's a safe bet that many strings will be attached.  An extreme to not helping might be kicking Italy out of the eurozone and having it implode on its own.

Maybe the International Monetary Fund (IMF) can help out.  This would be a high-risk investment.  Even if risks were ignored, Italy has issues with its political institutions.

If Mario Monti can garner enough legitimacy to pressure the central bank to lower its interest rates, maybe it can solve the problem.  Or even the Fed can alter interest rates to prevent a meltdown.

Maybe banks have gotten too big and too dependent on government.  Global bank reform might be needed.

There are a lot of "maybes" in this blog entry, mainly because there is a whole lot of speculation as to what will happen to Italy, which has to do with the unpredictable nature of the financial sector.  Whether Italy is going to make it beyond this week requires as much clairvoyance as predicting in which direction and how much the stock market will swing today.  I'm not even going to begin to make a prediction on what will happen in Italy.  All I can tell is that it does not look good, and the only way to avert disaster is to do something drastic.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Being Thankful for Comparative Advantage

When asked what people are grateful for, common answers during Thanksgiving are family, friends, financial security, good health, or a nice, wonderful Thanksgiving meal.  These are good answers, and I certainly don't eliminate them as things for which I need to be thankful.  However, I would like to add something a bit more idiosyncratic to the list.  This year, I would like to focus on why I am thankful for comparative advantage.

It might seem peculiar to be thankful for an theoretical concept in economics.  However, when we see how that theory is applied to practice, the reason for the gratitude becomes visible.  The law of comparative advantage, also known as the Ricardian Law of Association, states that an entity, whether it be an individual, firm, or country, has the ability to produce a good or service at a lower opportunity cost than the other.  Although it might not seem logical for a country with absolute advantage in multiple goods or services to trade with a country with absolute disadvantage, the reason for exchanging goods and services makes sense when one considers relative efficiencies.  For example, Michael Jordan might be better both at playing basketball and mowing his lawn than his landscaper (i.e., absolute advantage), but because of comparative advantage, Michael Jordan decides to play basketball while letting the landscaper cut his lawn because his comparative advantage in the former is much greater than the latter.  By using specialization and division of labor, we come across a few things.

On the international level, this translates to free trade.  Free trade leads to competition in the international market, which leads to a greater incentive to create a better product.  Since nation-states are participating in free trade, that also means that they have to cooperate.  Think of Britain and France, two nations that had fought wars with each other for centuries.  When they started to trade with one another, they stopped fighting.  Why?  Because the benefit of improving the quality of one's lifestyle exceeds the costs of warfare.  It's also one of the reasons why China is not attacking Japan right now (although American military backing of Japan and the balance of power issues also attribute to China's military inaction).

To conclude in layman's terms, the free trade induced by the principle of comparative advantage is a stabilizer amongst people.  It better allocates resources.  It brings the competition needed to produce better goods and services.  Overall economic welfare is increased, which means we can all enjoy much better living standards than if we didn't have it, and that is something for which we should all be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

EU Stupidity: Water Doesn't Prevent Dehydration

The European Food and Safety Authority, a bureaucratic entity of the European Union, put out a scientific publication that states that water does not prevent dehydration.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Water doesn't prevent dehydration, even though the very definition of "dehydrate" entails a net loss of water.  Anyone who has drank water, which is everybody since it is necessary for survival, knows that water prevents hydration.  This is about ridiculous as saying that food does not prevent hunger.

Why is it that when the European Union is on the verge of collapse, why are you publishing idiocies that defy common sense?  I don't live in the European Union, and I find this to be yet another waste of taxpayer dollars.  Under British law, if an advertiser makes a claim contrary to EU law is subject to being jailed for two years.  Since this is an edict from the EU, you can get punished for advertising that water prevents dehydration.  Punishing individuals for common sense is well beyond stupid.  This study is nothing more than another reason to beg the question of how the European Union has existed as long as it has.    

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is Taxation Theft?

"Taxation is theft" is one of those catchy one-liners used by anarcho-capitalists and certain non-anarchic libertarians.  The argument is based on the axiom of nonaggression, which deontological libertarians tend to take to the extreme.  The argument goes something like this:

"Theft is the coercive taking of one's property without one's consent.  Taxation is the government taking your property [in the form of taxes] without one's consent.  Therefore, taxation is theft."

A lot of Americans are angry at the rate at which citizens are taxed.  The form of the tax also helps with the feeling of theft.  A tax, like the income tax, directly affects what you make.  Especially in our current progressive taxation set-up, it essentially punishes people for working better jobs.  An indirect tax (e.g., sales tax, value-added tax) would do a much better job.  After all, no one is forcing you to consume.

Even if you like to still say "taxation is theft," your argument misses one key element: legitimacy.  Locke stated that a government is not legitimate unless it has the consent of the governed.  That consent was established during the founding of this nation, and still exists.  We have to remember that the revolutionaries in this countries threw tea into Boston Harbor because of "taxation without representation," not straight-up taxation.  If you need more about the concept of social contract, read some John Locke, and you'll get the idea.

In Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater said that government should be able to do what it needs to do, not what it can do.  I believe that many Americans have a similar sentiment.  Government should enforce natural rights, not guarantee them.  Government should have enough power to enforce contract rights for all.  If you are to argue that national defense is a public good, then you should collect revenue for the military.  Ditto for a police force!

Think of taxation as an enforced contract fee rather than as an act identical to theft.  If not, I'm sure things would be much more enjoyable for you in Mogadishu.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Mississippi's Personhood Amendment: Talking About Unintended Consequences!

Citizens of Mississippi will vote on a constitutional amendment tomorrow that will re-define personhood.  According to the ballot initiative, a person will "include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof."  You can imagine that there are those for and against the initiative, and that it is quite contentious, although these days, everything in politics is a "hot-button issue."

I would like to state that I consider myself pro-life.  The fetus is not just a clump of cells equivalent to a tumor or "part of the mother's body."  Although birth marks a time in which the child separates from the mother, its worth and individuality are established long beforehand.  Looking at fetal development, the fetus has all vital organs around the seventh week of gestation.  From a biological standpoint, an unborn child is still genetically a human being.

How do we approach this legally?  This one is trickier.  I don't want to live in a society where abortion is viewed as another form of birth control or where abortion is commonplace.  However, if society were to grant personhood as this amendment proposes, it brings up a few questions:

  1. Is birth control going to be outlawed?  And if so, will women in Mississippi have to cross state borders just to use birth control if so desired?
  2. If a rape victim uses the morning after pill to prevent pregnancy, is she charged with manslaughter?
  3. Will birth control have the same societal stigma as an "assault weapon?"
  4. Can an unborn child be a beneficiary in a will?  I bet that will make inheritance laws interesting!
  5. If a mother has an abortion when her life is threatened, will doctors be charged for second-degree murder?  Would the mother be charged with accessory to murder or just get off with self-defense?  
  6. Can you imagine the number of malpractice suits that would take place?  Think what this would do to a state that already ranks 50th in the nation for healthcare.  
  7. If a woman drinks a glass of wine during pregnancy, will the courts charge her with child neglect or child abuse?
  8. Can a fetus be claimed as a dependent when filing taxes so a deduction can be acquired?  
  9. Can the fetus also be used as a claim to receive government assistance?
  10. 10% to 20% of pregnancies sadly result in miscarriages.  Are Mississippi police going to have to investigate each miscarriage as a possible homicide?  Is there enough manpower to do all that investigating?
  11. Do fetuses and zygotes count in the Census?  If so, does every single woman in Mississippi have to be subjected to a pregnancy test to assure an accurate count?  Also, will this affect voter districting?
  12. Do we need to provide fetuses with Social Security numbers?
This amendment is a train wreck waiting to happen.  Think of how much Mississippi's debt and tax rate will increase in order to enforce this.  Think of how much Big Brother will intervene in the lives of Mississippians.  If this amendment made it to the Supreme Court to attempt to challenge Roe v. Wade, think of how much it would backfire and embolden the "pro-choice" movement.  I really, really hope that this amendment doesn't pass!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Parsha Lech-Lecha: The Burden of Being Rich

The media frenzy that is directed towards the Occupy Wall Street movement has brought income inequality to the forefront of the American political discussion.  Those who are in poverty do not have it easy.  As a matter of fact, the Talmud (Baba Batra 116a) says that if you have fifty plagues on one side and poverty on the other, poverty is worse!  This hyperbolic statement shows us how just debilitating poverty can be.

How about the rich?  With the 99%/1% divide in this country, you would think that the rich have it so easy, that they don't have to deal with any issues.  If you think that it's clear sailing for the rich, you're wrong, and nothing shows that like this week's Torah portion.  As Abram was leaving Egypt, Torah said that Abram was very rich, in cattle, in silver, and in gold (Genesis 13:2).

וְאַבְרָם, כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב.

What is interesting is that כָּבֵד does not simply mean "rich."  As Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz points out, כָּבֵד can also mean "heavy" or "burdensome."  Being rich beyond your wildest dreams means you can afford whatever you want.  How is it that being rich is burdensome?!

I have two possible answers for this question.

The first is that when one has a lot of money, it is all too tempting to succumb to avarice.  Money becomes the ends rather than the means, and maintaining a moral compass is all the more difficult, and as a result, the rich man's pursuit for acquiring more money for the sake of acquiring more money can result in ruining people's lives.

The second answer is that money is actually a great responsibility.  Everyone in life has their tests.  What is the test for the rich man?  Generosity.  There is the story that the Chofetz Chaim had a nightmare.  What was that nightmare?  Being rich.  Why was that a nightmare?  Because he realized that he would have to distribute a huge amount of tzedakah.  Doing so requires a lot of time and effort.  He wouldn't have had any time left to study Torah, which for him being a rabbi, was a nightmare. Testing one's generosity amidst a load of wealth is never an easy task.  It takes strong moral fiber to successfully pull it off.  Even though the obligation of most citizens will never reach the level of the rich, it should nevertheless make our awareness to the responsibility to help the poor all the more heightened.

Is Income Inequality That Big of a Deal?

Ever since the CBO report came out on income distribution, the Left has once again bemoaned about income inequality.  Paul Krugman even came out with a piece very recently entitled "Oligarchy, American Style."  I'm going to forget that the report is misleading in the sense that it collected data up until 2007.  The reason for my accusation is because if the CBO bothered to look at the IRS data for 2008 and 2009, they would have found that the income for the 1% fell to 1997 levels (see Tax Foundation study for further info on tax burdens).

This led me to an important question: should we be worried about income inequality?  Just a few thoughts on the matter......
  • Looking at income as an economic indicator for one's economic well-being is inaccurate as it is arbitrary.  Why?  Income is a relative measurement.  When the dollar is devalued or inflation increases, income doesn't mean as much.  Would you be more impressed with someone who makes $500K now or fifty years ago?  On the other end, when technology improves what we consume, we are able to consume more quantitatively and qualitatively, thereby increasing our purchase power.  As such, when having this discussion, we should look at consumption, not at income.  And when we do, it's amazing because consumption-based poverty is much lower than income-based poverty.
  • Division of labor comes into mind during this discussion.  We all have different skills, levels of intelligence, motivations, and job preferences.  Some of us choose jobs that we like, but don't pay as much (e.g., social worker).  Other jobs earn a lot of money, and people are in that profession for that reason.  Do we think that a janitor should be paid as much as a doctor?  I certainly hope not!  Doctors are skilled workers that are in high demand.  If we hypothetically made everyone's wage equal, regardless of profession, doctors would hardly see the incentive to pay all those years of medical school just to get paid the same amount as a janitor.
  • Income inequality is not an inherently bad thing.  You have cases such as Bernie Madoff and Enron.  They ruined the lives of many with their avarice.  And while these cases are unfortunate, they are by far much more infrequent than cases of people climbing to the top with innovation.  Take Steve Jobs as an example.  He spent 60-80 hours a week in the office to bring us wonderful Mac products.  Do we hate him for that?  A huge majority of us would answer in the negative.  He worked hard to bring many people Mac products, which have changed the lives of many.  Since he worked hard, he earned the money he made.  It's not so much where there is inequality, but how it is brought about.  
  • This is why income inequality is not so much of a moral issue as is the topic of economic sufficiency, which is a point that philosopher Harry Frankfurt brings up.  "Do we have enough?" That should be the question, not "why does the millionaire have so much, and I have nothing [in comparison]?"  I'm not trying to belittle those who have genuinely suffered through this recession, or say that the unemployed need to "toughen up" or "grin and bear it."  What I can say is that many in America have lost perspective.  Rather than look at what we have and be grateful, we look at what we don't have in hopes to "keep up with the Joneses."
  • We live in a materialistic society that over-emphasizes the individual to the point where many feel that the continual acquisition of more material goods will satiate their happiness.  I have bad news for you: money doesn't buy happiness.  Money is a means to an end.  I would be worried more about what makes me happy than if I have more money than my neighbor, especially if he is part of the 1%.      
  • And if you need to put yourself into perspective, even the poorest American still has more money than three-quarters of the rest of the world.
  • During the period of the CBO study, 57.5% in the lowest quintile jumped at least one quintile, and of those in the 1% during 1999, only 44.6% were still there in 2007.  So let's be thankful that there is economic mobility in America.
Postscript: This is not to say that those in Occupy Wall Street protests have a reason to be angry.  They do.  There is a political system that has failed them while it commits idiocies such as bailing out the banking industry.  If a bank such as Citibank is failing, it should be allowed to fail.  It shouldn't be bailed out because Big Government came to the rescue.  As Ronald Reagan once said, "Government is not the solution to our problem.  Government is our problem."  You want to create more economic prosperity so we can get our economy back on track?  Remove the red tape that inhibits small business from hiring.  Stop pouring money into energy plants like Beacon Power that file bankruptcy.  Enough with the bailouts already!  If you lift the restraints that constrain the markets, there won't be a need to occupy Wall Street anymore.  

8-9-2017 Addendum: A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that while income inequality has risen over the past few decades, consumption inequality has stayed relatively stagnant. 

    Monday, October 31, 2011

    Seven Billion and Counting

    The United Nations announced today that the world population has reached seven billion.  In a neo-Malthusian fashion, the UN proclaimed worries about enough food and resources to provide a decent lifestyle for all, especially when their projections predict that global population will eventually reach ten billion.  Are we to be scared about overpopulation?

    In the short-term, I'm more preoccupied not with a lack of resources, but that a primary issue with developing countries developing is the lack of infrastructure that is to insure that people require that which they need.  

    For more developed areas such as Europe, their issue is not overpopulation, but underpopulation.  Nations such as France and Italy are well below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1.  If Europe does not implement policy to encourage increasing birth rates, it will mimic Japan's demographic demise.  And the United States is slightly below the replacement rate, so even American policymakers might want to start considering slight encouragement in the direction of birth encouragement, or at least make its immigration policy a bit more lax.

    Western nations have fertility rate issues now because lowered infant mortality and increased reproductive rights (e.g., increased access to contraceptives), which is why their demographic issues are more urgent than that of the rest of the world.  Developing nations such as China and India have a little more time before they come upon this trend.

    Although the sense of urgency varies from nation to nation, one thing for sure is that the real, long-term scare is in the declining fertility rate, not in overpopulation.    

    Thursday, October 27, 2011

    Let's Say Global Warming Is Real....

    I'm going to take my typical skepticism one step further. I am going to be skeptical of my skepticism, and do so specifically with regard to global warming. What I am going to do in this blog entry is throw out any skepticism about global warming I might have and accept the postulation that man-made global warming is a real, legitimate threat.  

    A short synopsis of the issue is as such: humans have emitted an unprecedented amount of carbon and is being expelled into the atmosphere. The issue is that the atmosphere is unable to dispel of it as quickly as a gas such as methane. As a result, it gets trapped in the atmosphere for a considerable amount of time, thereby causing the earth to get warmer. If global warming is not addressed, we will have cataclysmic climate changes that will cause the sea levels to rise and all sorts of natural disasters that will wipe out thousands upon thousands of people.

    Clearly, Mother Nature going ballistic is not desirable. So how do we avoid this climate catastrophe?   Reduce carbon emissions by 80% before 2050.

    One obvious solution to this would to cut back on consumption. Currently, there are three main providers of energy, and all of these produce greenhouse gases. Petroleum is at 36%, natural gas is at 24%, and coal is at about 20%, which cumulatively provide about 83% of America's energy. Even if you cut back on some of the production of fossil fuels and implement cap-and-trade en masse to discourage carbon consumption, which is a bad idea to begin with, it will be insufficient. Also, consider the fact that world consumption of energy is projected to only go up.

    Are you really going to tell Americans to drastically consumption up to the point where it's more than half? Good luck with that! Even though America produces about 20% of the carbon, it'll be a hard time to make the "less consumption" pitch to other nations without running into the free rider problem, especially when developing nations such as China, India, and Brazil are only looking to further increase their economic wealth, which means increased consumption.   

    Although consumption cutbacks might have to be in order, this problem will not truly be solved until we tap into an alternative energy source. Usage of renewable energy sources is not that plentiful, only totaling up to 8%.  Wind and solar power currently make up less than 1%, and will not be making a huge contribution to aggregate energy demands because of inefficiencies. Biofuels make up 23% of the renewable energy because of our heavy corn subsidies to Big Agriculture. Even hydroelectric power has its natural limitations, being that you only have a limited amount of bodies of water where building a dam would be conducive.

    I'm sure we will be seeing these alternative energy options increase in terms of contribution percentage as time passes. To say that they will be able to sustain long-term energy consumption for America, as well as the rest of the world, is highly improbable. There is only one remaining alternative to this problem, which is going to have to merit a future blog entry from me, and that is nuclear power.

    Wednesday, October 26, 2011

    Why the Sino-American Trade Deficit Is a Red Herring

    When the balance of trade is such that net imports exceed net exports, it is considered a trade deficit.  Using the trade deficit as an economic indicator, politicians look at it and automatically assume that the country is incurring a net loss.  This phenomenon has recently garnered attention amongst American politicians regarding China.  Members of Congress see a trade deficitand they want to blame China. The most recent form of such animosity is the Emergency China Trade Act, which essentially is a punitive piece of legislation for China’s inability to appreciate its currency quickly enough.  In spite of there being legitimate criticism regarding “currency manipulation,” the real reason for Congress passing the bill is to give into the populist gripe of “our jobs were sent overseas!”  With no economic recovery in sight, it is understandable from a political standpoint why Congress would want to blame China.  Objurgating China takes the pressure off of the United States Congress for a lack of job creation and economic recovery.                
    Much of Congress’ decisions are made based on their misunderstanding of trade deficits.  More than a century ago, Frédéric Bastiat already showed how a “trade deficit” can turn profit.  Milton Friedman also points out that American dollars come back to the United States, typically in the form of foreign control of assets.  This assertion is confirmed by government statistics.  In 2010, other nations spent $59 billion a month on U.S. Treasury Bonds.  Furthermore, foreign direct investment in America averaged to $19 billion a month.  These investments de facto offset any trade imbalances one sees, as was reported back in 2010.  Rather than trade deficits causing economic disfunction, they are a sign of positive economic health.  Looking at BEA records that date back to 1980, each time that trade deficits were agglomerated, GDP growth was higher when trade deficits were increasing than when the deficits were contracting (3.6% and 1.0% respectively).
    In addition to the fact that deficits are not as harmful as one would think, America has been running trade deficits long since before the Great Recession.  U.S. Census data shows that trade deficits have been accrued nonstop since 1976and trade deficits have been a part of American economic history since before China’s economic reform in the late 1970s.  Every year for which the U.S. Census Bureau can account, there has been a trade deficit with ChinaTrade deficit with China is historically nothing new.  However, using trade deficits as a scapegoat is a very politically expedient move.  

    Furthermore, America is a nation obsessed with consumption.  Microcosmically, American citizens have a poor propensity to save.  From 1982 until the Great Recession, the personal savings rate was only two percent of personal disposable income (DPI).  Even with the recession, the personal savings rate only reached 5.9%.  Consumer credit is currently at $2,444.9 billionwhich would average to $11,064.94 per citizen.  The macrocosm of the United States federal government is not any less flattering. With gross GDP considered, public debt is 92.3% of the GDP.

    Recent congressional dealings with the debt ceiling were a reminder about debts in general.  Running up a deficit is not inherently a bad idea.  If one is able to pay their debts, running up deficits are advantageous in the short-run.  However, if there is no solid plan to pay those debts, the result is much like the current economic malaise.  
    In summation, putting the spotlight on the trade deficit with China is unwarranted.  Trade deficits are nothing to fear when foreign direct investment is taken into consideration; trade deficits actually signal good economic health.  Congress’ misperception of trade deficits is resulting in poor economic policy.  Rather than displaying malevolence towards one of their largest trading partners that is a rising power, perhaps the United States should focus on its domestic policy to mitigate the truly problematic deficits.

    Sunday, October 23, 2011

    Parsha Bereshit: Resolving the Dichotomy Between Science and Religion

    July 21, 1925.  William Jennings Bryant and Clarence Darrow finish duking it out in court.  John T. Raulston ruled that John Scopes had violated Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited school teachers to deny the Biblical account of creation.  Although Scopes ultimately got off on a technicality, this case became the genesis for the dichotomy of science and religion in American politics.  
    It’s not just a matter of the increased number of Supreme Court cases regarding religion and politics that came subsequently.  It's a matter of divisive polemics.  On the one end, you have scientists who think religious people are ignoramuses obsessed with denialism and cognitive dissonance.  The other end consists of the Religious Right, who would have you believe that anyone who professes evolution as fact is a hell-bound heathen.  
    What ever happened to the middle?  Is there a middle?  And if so, can one still be a "good Jew" while adhering to scientific data and standards?   
    The short answer is that the line of questioning is faulty.  It presents a false dilemma in which either one has to choose between science and religion.  This is an assumption that many Americans make because that is what the cultural landscape of America has been for almost a century.  
    There are so many Jewish Nobel Prize winners, 27 for chemistry, 46 for physics, 53 for medicine, you would hardly think Judaism has an aversion to the sciences, and that would be correct.  What’s more is that this is not a modern Jewish phenomenon.  For centuries, Jewish thought has viewed science and religion as two opposite poles, but rather as a duality.  
    First, I would like to point out some general points regarding Judaism and science:
    1. Science explains the “how,” religion the “why.”  Each field has its function in life.  The Torah does not explain phenomena such as mitosis or gravity, just as science does not explain purpose, meaning, or how we should conduct our lives like the Torah does.
    2. In the introduction of his philosophical magnum opus, Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides states that one needs to understand the natural sciences and mathematics to understand the Torah.   He goes even as far to say that an individual that has studied these fields is to be even more revered than a man steeped in Talmud.   
    3. Judaism has a blessing for when you meet a Torah scholar, as well as when you meet a secular scholar of comparable knowledge in his respective field (e.g., a scientist).
    4. Later in the Guide for the Perplexed (II, xxv), Maimonides says that when a verse’s plain meaning is impossible (such as that of the corporeality of G-d or that the world was created in six literal days), we must read the verse figuratively.
    How can we apply these general concepts to the Creation account in the Torah?
    1. Again, Maimonides tells us that if something cannot be accepted with its plain meaning, we must read the verse or passage allegorically.  That means that we can read the passage of “the world was created in six days” not in six literal days.  After all, the sun was not created until Day Four.  Who knows how long the first three days really were?    
    2. The first point can be countered by the fact that a vast majority of classical rabbis believed that the six days were literally six 24-hour periods.  How do we get around that?  In his book “The Science of G-d,” Gerald Schroeder uses the theory of relativity to explain how six days of creation are equivalent to the fifteen billion years of scientific evolution. 
    3. Science and religion tell us the same story.  They are just giving two different narratives.  Narrative #1: The universe was in a very hot, dense state, and eventually expanded rapidly.  The expansion caused the universe to cool, and it still is in a presently expanding state.  Narrative #2: After having created the universe in Genesis 1:1, G-d said "let there be light, and there was."  Both explanations entail a sudden burst of light, and both explanations conclude that the universe indeed had a beginning.  Both narratives are in concert with reality.  (In a sense, it should be easier to accept the Torah’s account because we now know that there was a beginning to the universe.  Up until the Big Bang Theory, it was widely accepted in the scientific community that the universe is “eternally old.”)  
    4. Torah does not provide with the scientific details as to how creation happened. To paraphrase R. Samson Hirsch, it would not matter if evolution were accepted as valid scientific truth because it does not negate the Creation account.  All understanding how we came into being would merely give us a reason to be even more reverent towards Hashem because we better understand His works.  
    Torah does not negate science, and science does not negate Torah.  Science explains how the universe functions.  Torah gives use meaning and purpose in a monotheistic context.  Rather than have the two at odds with one another, what should be done is use both Jewish texts and scientific texts to better ascertain the truth.