Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Parsha Yitro: What "Not Taking G-d's Name in Vain" Means

In this week's Torah portion, the Ten Commandments (עשרת הדברות; better translated as the "Ten Things" or "Ten Statements"), or the Decalogue, are presented to the Jewish people. The Ten Commandments are not only important in Judaism, but they have shaped the Western World because of Christianity. I find that one of the most misunderstood of these is the Third Commandment, the one that discusses taking the L-rd's name in vain (Exodus 20:7). For Christians, this commandment speaks to the idea of capriciously using his name where it is void of meaning, such as when people say "OMG." This is not to say that Christians are wrong in this case. After all, this was Nachmanides' interpretation of the verse. Even though this interpretation is valid, what I would like to show is that the verse goes well beyond that one application.

In his commentary on the verse, Rashi interprets the verse in the context of giving vows and oaths. While citing the Talmud (Shavuot 21a), Rashi points out that the word לשוא (in vain) appears twice in the verse. The first time is in reference to something that is known to be false, which happens to be the interpretation of Sforno. The second time refers to something that is so blatantly true (e.g., wood comes from a tree) that a usage of an oath is unnecessary. Giving an oath or a vow has gravitas in Judaism, so I can see how these rabbis concluded accordingly.

Leading into the next alternative interpretation, I would like to ask the question "What's in a name?" Names are not random or accidental phonemes. Names have meaning; they convey one's nature and essence. In the context of G-d, it conveys transcendence, Infinite Oneness, greatness, and goodness. G-d's name represents is thus treated with respect. With that being said, it's hardly a stretch to understand that when we refer to an act that is good "in His eyes," we use the term קדוש השם (literally means "sanctification of the name" or alternatively "sanctifying G-d). As such, "taking His name in vain" is not just about how we treat His name. It's about our ethical conduct. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (Jewish Literacy, p. 56) makes an astute observation that לא תשא ("You shall not take") literally means "you shall not carry [G-d's name in vain]," which is another way of saying "don't use G-d to justify your selfishness." As R. Telushkin elucidates, "when a person commits an evil act, he discredits himself. But when a religious person commits an evil act in the name of G-d, he or she discredits G-d as well. And since G-d relies on religious people to bring knowledge of Him into the world, He pronounces this sin unpardonable."

When I initially read that, it felt like R. Telushkin was making too big of a leap with that interpretation. Then I looked at the Second Commandment, the one about idolatry, and juxtaposed the two. Idolatry is not just about prostrating before statues; it's about worshipping anything that isn't G-d. Idolatry takes place when money or power become our focus on life, not G-d. Anger is also considered a form of idolatry not only because it takes G-d out of the equation, but anger is based in egocentricity, or self-worship. As Rabbi Abraham ben Izra brings up in his commentary, when one invokes G-d [in an oath or vow] and doesn't keep the promise, it's as if one were denying G-d's existence. That's why I ultimately concluded that R. Telushkin's interpretation was not at all a stretch. Being Jewish means doing one's utmost to conduct oneself in accordance with G-d's will. Practitioners of other religions have similar obligations and expectations. For a Jew to act un-Jewishly is to metaphorically drag G-d's name through the mud. At least for me, when applied more broadly, it makes much more sense as to why violating this law would make it on the same list as not murdering, stealing, or bearing false witness. In summation, taking His name in vain is not solely limited to speech. It's about behaving like a mensch.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Austerity: Britain Doesn't Even Know the Meaning of the Word

I've read it more than once, whether it's from economic writers Paul Krugman, Matthew Yglesias, Lawrence Summers, or most recently, my former economics professor: austerity, particularly in Britain, has failed. It must be bad enough if the British government is being pressured to stop

What is the commonality between the four aforementioned writers? The Keynesian school of economic thought. The reason why this is worth noting is because the idea from a Keynesian standpoint is that these recessionary times are bad, and we need to boost aggregate demand, i.e., spend our way out of the recession by increasing government expenditures.

"Austerity" comes off as a nice buzzword when discussing fiscal policy, but what exactly is austerity? Austerity comes from the word austere, which has its roots in the Greek word αὐστηρὸς (austēros)meaning "harsh" or "severe." Trying to come up with an economic definition for austerity is more difficult. Some might define that as "cutting back on the rate of government expenditure growth." I find this definition to be faulty because, as Cato Senior Fellow Daniel Mitchell puts it, it's analogous to saying "your diet is successful because you only put on two pounds a week instead of five." For others, this means reduced government expenditures and overall frugality on the government's part in order to minimize the debt-to-GDP ratio. I like this definition, but I would like to maintain the etymology and add the "severity" component, meaning that any spending cuts that do place have to be drastic, in short, be austere.

Can Britain's spending patterns be considered austerity? Are they at all austere? Let's see what Britain's national statistics have to say about it. I took a look at the British government's data on government expenditures in real terms (£) [as opposed to nominal] in order to adjust for inflation, and this little graph below illustrates what I found:

Where are the drastic spending cuts? They don't exist. As a matter of fact, since the onset of the recession, Britain decided to raise government expenditures in all but one fiscal year, i.e., last fiscal year. Rather than have a [drastic] decrease in government spending, what did Britain do? They decided to increase their net annual spending in real dollars since the beginning of the recession by 8.96% (∆Spending = [£665.1-£610.4]/£610.4 = +8.96%). Even with the modest decrease in spending from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 fiscal year, Britain's government expenditures have not gone below pre-recession levels. Government expenditures as a percent of GDP has dropped slightly (from 51.1% to 49.8% in 2011), but has been lower in years past (e.g., in 2000, it was 36.8%). Nevertheless, nearly having your expenditures add up to nearly half of your economy is not by any means flattering. And all of this is without even looking at the government expenditures in nominal dollars!

Britain historically has had some egregious debt-to-GDP ratios, but the fact that it has increased drastically to an estimated eighty-plus-percent since the recession is not favorable. Furthermore, the debt-to-GDP ratio is predicted to skyrocket if spending continues at its overall present rate (BIS, Graph 4). We've already observed with Greece what happens when a government walks the path of fiscal irresponsibility. To label its modest spending cuts as "austerity" and label it is a failure ignores the issue that got them in their mess in the first place, mainly that of a capricious, expansionary fiscal policy. France's economic situation isn't particularly rosy, either because they are heading in a similar path of trying to spending itself out of oblivion. Neither France, Greece, nor Britain have partook in austerity since the recession. The British government has even admitted (Office for Budget Responsibility, p. 43) that economic growth is lethargic due to the eurozone crisis and the subsequent tightening of lending credit, not austerity.

It would be nice to get into a discussion about Britain's tax increases or what sort of structural reform it needs to implement to assure that bad doesn't turn into worse because the inability to address these issues overshadows whatever modest spending cuts that were experienced in the past fiscal year. However, I think those topics exceed the scope of this blog entry.  To get back on track, saying that Britain has made drastic spending cuts, and bemoaning about the failure of contractionary fiscal policy in Britain, is intellectually dishonest. Austerity has not failed in Britain because it has yet to be implemented. Intuitively speaking, looking at cleaning up one's fiscal mess sends a much better signal in terms of credit risk than increasing spending or taxes. Instead of playing politics or acquiescing to faulty Keynesian diatribes, maybe, just maybe Britain should follow examples like post-WWII United StatesLatvia, or Estonia and implement actual austerity.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

40 Years of Roe v. Wade: My Nuanced Pro-Life Reflections

Forty years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade that abortion is a fundamental right. I don't solely consider myself anti-abortion, but go beyond the political usage of the term "pro-life" and consider myself a "bona fide" pro-lifer. When I sit and think about the court ruling at this juncture of my life, I realize that I no longer toe the "life begins as conception" line. I've thought about what we would do if we extended full personhood all the way to the beginning of the first trimester, and from a policy standpoint, it's messy and undesirable. I believe that a fetus, especially after the seven-week point of gestation in which all of the vital organs are formed, should have some legal protections. However, it would be nowhere as simple as drawing the line at conception or birth, which would make enforcement even more complicated than the simple blanket prohibition that many social conservatives would want.

I think about how the Burger court made this ruling based on Griswold v. Connecticut, which gave the "right to privacy" to own and use contraception via the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments. The ruling was primarily a proverbial middle finger to the Tenth Amendment, which if actually taken into consideration, would have kept the issue of abortion an issue on the state level and not have been shlepped to the federal court for adjudication. Also, I have moral qualms with extending a "right to privacy" to Roe v. Wade because at least with contraception, there isn't an additional party involved. In the case of abortion, there is another life involved. The Court decision talks about "potentiality of life." If the fetus were merely a tumor or a clump of cells, I would agree with my "pro-choice" friends and call it a day. The issue is that technology has caught up and has informed us that the human life of a fetus is more than mere potentiality. Certainly from a philosophical libertarian view, I would contend that the issue cannot be reduced to "my body, my choice."

Public opinion polls aren't much help since they indicate that the issue is still a highly contentious one (see Gallup and Pew) with the battle between choice/reproductive rights and protection of life. Public polls notwithstanding, I don't see Roe v. Wade being overturned unless you a 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which wouldn't happen anytime sooner than 2017. States can pass some laws restricting abortions, but that won't stop Roe v. Wade from being the "law of the land."

I'll assume that the Left believes their "abortions should be safe, legal, and rare" one-liner, which would mean they can have the discussion of "how do we continue the declining trend of abortions?" Given the public poll trends, I don't think there is much that the government can do, which means that this would need to be mitigated in the private sector. Contraception is a great place to start, since it has been shown to dramatically decrease the abortion rate. Since teenagers are having sex anyways (thinking that they never did signals a certain naïveté), let's at least keep them informed of their decisions and make sure they can minimize unintended consequences. If this is an issue of "we've cheapened the value of life," like social conservatives opine, then abortion is, at best, a symptom of the counterculture movement that brought about the hyper-individualism (read: societal egocentrism). Although there is no simple solution to counter that, it would certainly entail a bottom-up, decentralized approach in which communities have more influence in an individual's life, and a sensible balance between the individual and community can be struck. I would also focus on various community-building efforts so that adoption can be a viable alternative to abortion, which can be complicated by familial or communal stigma. Bottom-up approaches are more difficult to conceptualize because it takes many individuals working towards a common goal. They might be riddled with obstacles, but I have hope that we can look forward to a future with a significantly lower abortion rate.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fracking Matt Damon & Why I Don't Mind Hydraulic Fracturing

A movie starring Matt Damon, which is entitled Promised Land, recently opened in movie theaters. The plot goes something like this: a corporate salesman, played by Damon, comes in with his sales partner to pay the citizens of a dying rural town in Pennsylvania to give them permission to drill on their land through a process colloquially known as "fracking." Without getting too much into the plot of the movie, it has been criticized for its virulent anti-fracking stance, not to mention that its funding is from an oil-rich, OPEC nation (no agenda there, right?). Aside from faring poorly at the box office or receiving lousy reviews, does the movie have a point? Any movie that has a blatant agenda, regardless of political leanings, should always be taken with a grain a salt. Regardless of how this movie fares, it begs the question: Is the practice of tracking terrible enough that the costs outweigh the benefits, or can we look at fracking in a more positive light?

First, it would be befitting to become familiar with the basics of fracking. Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is the process of injecting a pressurized fluid (a combination of water, sand, and chemicals; mixtures used on a well-to-well basis can be found here) underground in order to break apart the rock and release natural gas, petroleum, or other substances. The process has been lauded because not only can it extract hydrocarbons at a more efficient rate, but it taps into an energy source previously thought unimaginable. Although a good majority of this mixture consists of sand and water, the issue is that the anti-fracking critics are claiming that the remainder of the mixture has chemicals toxic enough that it is contaminating groundwater, as well as ruining the general environment.

Before going into the veracity of the claims of environmental concerns, a few things about energy policy in general. First is that we are dealing with an increased global demand of energy consumption. As nice as it would be to have renewable energy sources right now, the truth is that these sources are either too expensive and/or they cannot meet current demand for energy consumption for baseload capacity, let alone peak power capacity. I'm not saying that we shouldn't invest in R&D for renewable energy....quite the contrary! As a short-to-medium-term energy policy, we cannot rely on renewable energy as a large contributor to overall energy production. We also need to realize that fossil fuels will not last forever. There will be a point in which the conventional sources of procuring petroleum, coal, or natural gas will no longer be a solution, which brings a procedure such as hydraulic fracturing to the discussion table.

Let's return to these claims about environmental harm. We clearly would like to stay away from what a lot of environmentalists do in general, which is use the Nirvana fallacy to dismiss any alternative to petroleum and coal, whether that would be nuclear power, wind power, or in this case, hydraulic fracturing. I'm not going to be Pollyannaish about fracking because much like anything else in life, it comes with risks, which is why it would be impractical to apply something like the Precautionary Principle here, i.e., that principle that proves everything is guilty before proven innocent.

The jury is still out on the EPA study for water contamination [in Pavillion, WY], although the EPA did a study earlier this year in Dimock, PA, which could very well be the inspiration for the Promised Land, and the conclusion was that there were no issues with their water supply. In spite of New York's ban on fracking, the state's health department nevertheless found that if they decided to frack in the Marcellus Shale, it would be a reasonably safe procedure (study here). EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson even admitted that there are no proven cases that fracking causes water contamination. Rather than throw out the baby with the bathwater [via banning fracking], maybe what we should advocate for is something like focusing on technological improvements so that risks are minimized. I'm clearly not a fan of heavy-duty regulations. However, given disasters such as the BP oil spill and how unpopular an unregulated energy sector is, a small amount of regulatory enforcement would be the alternative of allowing this unpopularity halt production altogether.  

Rather than get bogged down in the downsides of fracking, let's also touch upon some of the benefits. For those interested in addressing climate change, natural gas produces half of the carbon dioxide and a third of nitrogen oxides, and a hundredth of sulfur oxides that coal production does, which means the GHG (greenhouse gas) footprint is a third of that of coal production. Although it would not be a long-term solution for climate change [since the long-term entails little to no carbon emission], it would certainly be a policy to create a bridge between the short-run and the long-run, as well as providing researchers more time to come up with cheaper ways of producing renewable energy.

There are also economic factors. Fracking created thousands of jobs and will continue doing so. This fracking boom has also caused an overall decrease in natural gas prices. If this price decrease means an extra $118B per annum to the GDP, the average household would have an extra $2,000 per annum.

It's rare to come across an environmental policy that both decreases carbon emissions and improves the economy, but fracking does the trick. Any potential environmental concerns can be largely mitigated with oversight, transparency, and technological developments. Aside from that, it will be a great way to deal with our short-to-medium-term energy issues, give a boost to the economy, and keep energy prices low.

12-21-2014 Addendum: The Congressional Budget Office recently published a study regarding the environmental costs and the economic benefits of fracking.

3-21-2016 Addendum: The Heritage Foundation points out studies in its latest article showing the science in favor of fracking, including the EPA's 2015 study, which is currently the most comprehensive one out there, saying there are no "widespread, system impacts on drinking water."

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Parsha Va'eira: How Far Do We Take Gratitude?

This week's Torah portion begins the story of the Ten Plagues that G-d inflicted upon Egypt. The first of these plagues is turning the Nile River into blood (Exodus 7:17-21), and the second is that of the plague of frogs (Exodus 8). Looking at these passages, it made me wonder: why is it that Aaron was responsible for the task of engendering the first and second plagues? Why was Moses not the one to do so?

Rashi cited a Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 9:10) that reveals that because the river had protected Moses in his infancy (Exodus 2:3), Moses' smiting of the water would not have been appropriate. This brings up another question: why should Moses have been thankful for a river? After all, a river is an inanimate object. It possesses no free will of its own. What sort of lessons regarding gratitude are we supposed to derive from this passage?

  1. It is irrelevant that a river is an inanimate object without free will. The river provided the necessary buoyancy and currents to bring Moses to safety. We should be grateful for all the good in our lives, even if they are inanimate objects without free will. Two stories, courtesy of Alan Morinis (Everday Holiness, p. 65), exemplify this concept:
    • When Rabbi Menachem Mendel, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe, was ready to replace a pair of shoes because they had been worn out, he would first neatly wrap the shoes in newspaper because his thought process was "How could I just chuck a pair of shoes that have served me so well for so long?"
    • After praying, R. Eliyahu Lopian was folding up his tallit (prayer shawl), and he had to rest it on the bench in order to fold it. He realized the bench was dusty, and he subsequently retrieved a towel so that he could dust off the bench. The student to which he was talking was going to do the task, but R. Lopian stopped him and said that he had to clean it himself because he "had to show gratitude for the bench upon which he folded his tallit. 
  2. If we are to be grateful for inanimate objects without free will, then the a fortiori inference (קל וחומר) that we can make is that we should be all the more thankful for the kindness other human beings have shown us. And to take the inference a step further, if we are thankful for the goodness that humans provides, all the more so we should be thankful for G-d and His wonders.
  3. Gratitude is strongly based on the ideas of remembrance and awareness. Keep in mind that Moses was eighty years old at this juncture (Exodus 7:7), so the action meriting the gratitude happened "a lifetime ago." We are to learn that there is no expiration date for being grateful for another's kindness. The Sefer haChinuch (Mitzvah 33) teaches us that the commandment of "honoring your father and mother" entails expressing gratitude to our parents for bringing us into the world. This is in contrast with the Egyptians, who managed to forget Joseph's contributions to Egyptian society within a generation (Exodus 1:8). We can go back even further with the chief butler who was freed with Joseph's help. What did the butler do? He didn't help free Joseph in return. Instead, he "did not remember him, and forgot him (Genesis 40:23)." Although this passage might seem like a redundancy (i.e., not remembering=forgetting), it is not the case because gratitude involves active remembrance, and without that active part [of remembering], one passively forgets the kindness previously received.
  4. Gratitude is about specificity. We can say broad statements like "I'm thankful to be alive" or "I have all that I need." But to truly appreciate the good in your life, you need to be specific. Moses did not simply realize "I have good things in my life," but went deeper and said "This river saved my life, and I thusly should respect it." If you're going to do something like a gratitude journal or some other expression of gratitude, don't just say "I have a nice family." Expound upon it. Give examples and go into depth as to why.
Moses' abstention from the first two plagues provides us with an idea as to how long we should be thankful, as well as the extent and magnitude of the gratitude we should express. By using Moses' example, we can better learn how to fill our lives with gratitude.