Thursday, December 29, 2016

Lighting for Chanukah: Olive Oil Versus Wax Candles

Plenty of us are familiar with the part of the Chanukah story of how a ragtag team of Maccabees overcame the Greeks and were able to liberate and rededicate the Temple. Part of this rededication was the famous oil that was supposed to only last one night, but lasted eight nights (Talmud, Shabbat 21b). Fewer people know that the oil was olive oil, and that the usage of olive oil during that miracle still has bearing on the Jewish laws behind Chanukah. While it is permissible to use wax candles or other types of oil, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 673states that it is best to use olive oil. The simplest answer to why olive oil is used is because the Chanukah miracle involved olive oil (Mishnah Berurah 673:4). While it is an acceptable explanation to pay deference to the initial miracle, I would like to see if there is deeper meaning behind using olive oil, and then get into the significance of using wax candles.

Why Olive Oil?
  • Retaining one's unique identity. This article from Aish entitled "Assimilation and the Chanukah Oil" was illuminating. The article points out that oil is "probably the most politically incorrect of all liquids" because it refuses to compromise its uniqueness. Part of the Chanukah story is for the Jews to retain their distinct identity in the midst of a world that encourages one to assimilate. Especially in today's society, my main issue with this article is that it presents a false dilemma between separation and assimilation, when in fact one can integrate. Yes, Jews can maintain their distinct identity with distinct practices, but Jews can also interact with greater society without losing that distinctiveness. It's not easy, but it can be done. Going back to the article, because it's not easy, for those of us who take the integration route need to be even more mindful of making sure we don't assimilate. After all, living in a world of gray (i.e., that of nuances and complexity) is more difficult to manage than that of black and white. 
  • Reliving the Days of the Temple: The Maharal takes the argument of "that was the oil of the original miracle" argument a step further. It is not simply about reliving the miracle, but of recreating the spiritual mood of the Temple because olive oil was used during the Temple days (e.g., Exodus 37:20). Under normative traditional Judaism, the Temple represents the epitome of spiritual connection with G-d. We should emulate that mood while lighting the menorah. 
  • Going for the best and purest: Going off the explanation of the Temple, the Talmud (Menachot 85b) teaches that it wasn't enough to procure just any oil: it had to be from Tekoa because it was the highest-quality, purest olive oil in existence. Much like they used the purest olive oil in the days of the Temple, we should also make sure we have the best and finest when we perform any mitzvah, which in this case, would be the usage of pure olive oil. 
  • Symbolism of Wisdom: According to the Talmud (Menachot 85b), the other reason why Tekoa was the best place to get olive oil was "because the people there use a lot of oil, they possess much wisdom." The Talmud (Bava Batra 25a) also associates wisdom with the menorah. We should use olive oil to exemplify the wisdom that Torah provides us. As King Solomon (Proverbs 20:27) said, "the spirit of man is the lamp of G-d." Much like oil permeates within the olive, G-d's Likeness (צלם אלוהים) permeates in each human being.  
  • Symbol of Steadfastness. Part of why olive oil has particular symbolism is because it represents the steadfastness within the holiday. When discussing the use of olive oil for the Temple, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 31:10) uses a parable to parallel a legion faithful to its king to the olive branch that the dove in the Noah story brought to Noah. Rabbi David ben Yehudah Luria, also known as the Radal, took this to meant that because the olive branch withstood the corruption that took place during the Flood, the olive was chosen as the symbol of rebirth and renewal after the Flood narrative. The olive tree itself is also one that has strong roots, holds on to light and non-rich soil, and can withstand droughts, disease, and fire. Brining the symbolism of the olive back to the Chanukah story, maintaining that steadfastness under external pressures is what makes olive oil so special. We are meant to endure and maintain our Jewishness. 

I would like to touch upon another bit of legal history that turns all this symbolism about olive oil on its head. Even with all the lauding about olive oil, it is perfectly permissible acceptable to use wax candles. The reason for this? In pre-modern times, it was difficult for Ashkenazi Jews, i.e., Jews primarily of Central and Eastern European descent, to acquire olive oil. Because of the economic burden it would have caused, R. Moshe Isserles (the Rema) ruled that although olive oil was preferable, it was nevertheless acceptable to use wax candles.

The argument of using different oils was hardly a new one, even for the Rema. We already see this play out in the Talmud (Mishnah Shabbat 2:2) where it was acceptable for Jews to light for Shabbat with other oils, e.g., sesame oil, nut oil. While discussing lighting Chanukah candles, the Talmud does not even bring up that olive oil was used during the miracle. The discussion in the Talmud is about which oil works best. In the Talmud (Shabbat 23a), Rabbah bar Nachmani suggested using sesame oil because it lasted longer, but he acquiesced to R. Yehoshua ben Levi's opinion about olive oil because olive oil shined brighter. The Meiri (Shabbat 21) confirms this viewpoint of preferring olive oil for practical reasons. We also have to remember something else, which is that the mitzvah is first and foremost about kindling, and not about whether we use olive oil.

I find this tension to be a metaphor about how we deal with struggle and tension within the Jewish tradition. On the one hand, we are supposed to aim for our best and purest, which is what the olive oil is supposed to represent. On the other hand, I find that allowing for wax candles represents an acknowledgment of our humanity in the sense that we have limitations, whether they be economic or otherwise. Not everyone has the best or the purest, but we are still able to fulfill the mitzvah just as adequately with wax candles, or in a more spiritual metaphor, we can still bring just as much light with what we are able to provide. In Pirkei Avot 5:27, Ben Hei Hei said "according to the effort is the reward." This is not to say that intent is everything (because it's not) or to say that "anything goes in Judaism" (e.g., most believe that an electronic menorah does not fulfill the mitzvah of kindling Chanukah candles, although some rule otherwise), but that within the confines of Jewish law and Jewish values, there is more than one way to be Jewish, which is why there are multiple branches on the menorah.

We might not all be at the point where we can literally afford olive oil or metaphorically be on a spiritual level that olive oil is supposed to represent. However, G-d has given us other ways to still fulfill the mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights. What's even better is that Chanukah brings the message that we can spiritually grow, even with whatever shortcomings we might have. There is that classical debate in the Talmud (Shabbat 21a) between R. Shammai and R. Hillel about how to light the candles. R. Hillel ultimately won, and standard practice is to light one candle the first night, two the second night, etc. This is to teach us the importance of spiritual importance of gradualism. We start off with just one light (plus the shamash candle), and by the end, we reach maximum capacity. This is how we should view our spiritual ascent: with gradualism. Metaphorically speaking, most of us cannot make the automatic leap to olive oil. We have to ease ourselves into a level to reach our maximum potential. That is what I think the wax candles represent: the dichotomy for reaching higher while still being able to accomplish a great deal (in this case, the mitzvah of kindling Chanukah candles) without reaching the high point. The debate between olive oil and wax candles should remind us that our ultimate goal is to serve G-d to the best of our ability and to remember what is ultimately important: to bring spiritual light into this world.

Whether you use olive oil or wax candles, I hope you have a meaningful Chanukah that leads to spiritual growth in your life. 

Monday, December 26, 2016

Should Toys Be Gender-Typed or Gender-Neutral?

Christmas is the most wonderful time of year, which holds especially true for toy manufacturers. In 2015, Christmas week alone accounted for 8 percent of all toy sales. Timing surely plays a role in marketing for the toy manufacturing industry, but it is hardly the only factor. In recent years, we have seen trends towards toys becoming more gender-neutral. The trend towards gender-neutral toys makes sense considering that we have seen the line between genders blurred. A woman's role in society is not based on societal constructs like it was in pre-modern times: women can vote, wear the pants in the family, and bring home the bacon. Fathers can stay home and take care of the children, or both parents can work. Same-sex marriage has also contributed in blurring the line between male and female, as have transgendered individuals. Society does not perceive the differences between male and female in bifurcated, "black and white" terms like we used to, and the toys that are sold in stores are no exception. Last year, Target, which is one of America's largest retailers, removed gender labels from the toy aisle in its store. The reason why this becomes a debate in the first place is because there are some who think that pushing for gender-neutral toys harms the psyche of our children because they find it to ignore the biological reality of what it means to be a boy or to be a girl.

Much of the debate gets into whether gender is strictly biological or whether we use societal constructs to attach certain attributes to what it means to be male or female, which is something I wondered about when examining the hypermasculinity in America a while back. On the one hand, there are some profound differences between men and women (e.g., del Giudice et al., 2012). The cliché of "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" exists for a reason. Men tend to be more virile, whereas women tend to be sentimental and sensitive. On the other hand, there are people who do not neatly fit within these norms. Also, there is reason to believe that boys and girls are more alike than they are different. According to the American Psychological Association, a 2005 study of 46 meta-analyses found that when it came to personality, cognitive ability, and leadership, there was no real difference between men and women. Historically speaking, toys were categorized and organized by type, not how they would use them. One can argue that in the early 1990s, gender-specific marketing reached an unprecedented high to get parents with children of both sexes to buy twice as many toys to make greater profit.

While 28 percent of Americans believe that toys should be gender-neutral, 40 percent of millennials favor gender-neutral toys. We'll probably see the trend towards gender-neutral toys. But let me ask the question differently: if a boy wants arts and crafts supplies and a girl wants a science kit, so what? There are a number of children that will fall under gender norms. After all, there is a reason that they are called norms. Nevertheless, there are enough children out there who don't fall under these norms. The government should neither ban the production of gender-specific toys nor ban gender-neutral toys, and parents should not limit themselves to purchasing one type of toy simply because of societal pressures. Limiting a toy because it does or does not fall within a certain gender category limits the potential of what children can grow up to be (e.g., Weisgram et al., 2014). Some research suggests that toys that do not have blatant gender typing are better for cognitive development.

What is great about free markets, or even liberalized markets, is that it recognizes that people, even children, are individuals with their own unique tastes and consumer preferences. You can have millions of boys play with toy cars and have millions of girls play with dolls while at the same time marketing to children who do not fit these norms. You can have the niche market in addition to the main market, thereby covering consumer preferences both for children who fall under gender norms and those who do not. Gender-neutral marketing is not an attempt to make males and females the same, but rather to account for different consumer preferences.

Since parents are responsible for their children, they have the greatest influence of what types of toys children play with. Parents or other children using pejorative terms like sissy or tomboy isn't going to do anyone any favors, least of all the children who defy gender norms. Parents should create a nurturing environment in which they can explore their identity and what they want in life, regardless of whether that entails playing with a gender-specific or gender-neutral toy. At the end of the day, toy choice should primarily be based on the child's interests, and not the child's gender. Since toys can have a major impact on childhood development, I hope that parents fully utilize the advantages of a free market and allow for their children to fully explore the world and develop to their fullest potential.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Parsha Vayeshev: Why Male Masturbation Is Such a Touchy Topic in Jewish Law

It's ironic that those on the Religious Right, particularly Christian fundamentalists, take such a stark stand against sex and violence, yet the Bible, for better or worse, is replete with both. This week's Torah portion seems to be no exception. What is the genesis for such a statement?

ויאמר יהודה לאונן, בא אשת אחיך ויבם אתה. והקם זרע לאחיך. וידע אונן, כי לא לו יהיה הזרע והיה אם בא אל אשת אחיו, ושחת ארצה, לבלתי נתן זרע אחיו. וירע בעיני הי אשר עשה. וימת גם אתו. 

Judah said to Onan, "Go in unto your brother's wife, and perform the rite of a levirate, and raise up progeny for your brother." Now Onan knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when we came to consort with his brother's wife, he wasted his seed in order to not give seed to his brother. What he [Onan] did was evil in G-d's eyes, and G-d put Onan to death. -Genesis 38:8-10

Under normal circumstances, it is forbidden for a man to have sex with his brother's wife (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). However, an exception is made when the married brother dies without a male heir. If this happens, the man is obligated to marry the brother's wife in what is known as levirate marriage, or yibbum [ייבום] (Deuteronomy 25:5). In the Deuteronomic passage, there is a ceremony called chalitzah [חליצה] that allows for the two to get out of levirate marriage if they so desire (Deuteronomy 25:7-9). The above passage in Genesis is not simply the first documented levirate marriage in Judaism, but it is also the passage traditionally used to justify Judaism's traditionalist stance against male masturbation.

The topic of male masturbation is one I would like to cover today, particularly given the passage in this week's Torah passage. As a caveat, I will cover male masturbation only because a) the vast majority of Jewish law discusses male masturbation, and b) only men are obligated under Jewish law to procreate, the discourse here will focus on male masturbation. I will start with covering the biblical basis for this prohibition, followed by the rabbinic to see how much of the texts withstand scrutiny.

Biblical Text
The only biblical text that has been traditionally used to justify a prohibition on male masturbation is the passage cited earlier in Genesis 38. The first glaring issue with this passage is that there is no indication of masturbation whatsoever, let alone an explicit prohibition of masturbation. What happened in the passage is that they entered in levirate marriage in Verse 8 (ויבם אתה). Jumping to Verse 9, whenever Onan joined with his brother's wife (והיה אם בא אל אשת אחיו), he made sure to spill his seed outside of Tamar, or as the literal Hebrew says, "he let it spoil on the ground" (ושחת ארצה). Verse 9 ends by saying that upon doing that, he did it in order to "not provide offspring for his brother" (לבלתי נתן זרע אחיו). In Verse 10, G-d was displeased and took Onan's life. 

Aside from not mentioning masturbation in the passage, what the passage does describe is a case of coitus interruptus, which is what the verse meant by "he let it spoil on the ground." Onan pulled his penis out of Tamar's vagina prior to ejaculation and subsequently ejaculated away from her to avoid impregnating Tamar. Coitus interruptus is the action the biblical verse describing, not masturbation (Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 55:5-6; Rashi's commentary on Genesis 38:9). 

Now that we know what Onan did, we can get into why he performed coitus interruptus. What was his motivation for such an action in the first place? The verse itself provides two pieces of the puzzle. The first piece is that Verse 9 states that he knew that the progeny would not be his (וידע אונן, כי לא לו יהיה הזרע). There was no requirement to name the son of such a union after the dead brother (see Genesis 38:29-30 and Ruth 4:5, 10, 17). Nevertheless, the living brother became the surrogate for the child. The deceased husband posthumously gained a child through social acknowledgment as a result of this practice, which is why Onan realized that the son would not be considered his. The second piece is later in the Verse, where it states that he performed coitus interruptus so that he did "not provide offspring for his brother." The verse does not tell us why Onan would not want to provide offspring his brother, which is why rabbinic commentary has to fill in the blanks here:

  • Committing incest: Onan evaded his responsibility of impregnating Tamar that was part of the levirate marriage. By avoiding that responsibility, he was effectively committing the major legal violation of incest, which would explain why G-d punished Onan the way He did (JPS Commentary). 
  • Greed and Avarice: Money talks, and I don't think this situation was an exception. Upon the death of Onan's brother, Er, Onan would inherit one-half of his father's estate. This inheritance would be diminished if he provided an heir for his brother because the child would receive part of the inheritance (Onkelos; JPS Commentary). Given the socio-legal nature of inheritance law at the time (e.g., Talmud Yevamot 40a), this explanation falls within the realm of plausibility. 
  • Other Forms of Selfishness: Selfishness potentially plays a role here. One rabbinic explanation is that Onan did not want to raise children (Josef ben Yitzchak Bechor Shor, Genesis 38:9). Another is that because the offspring would not legally be considered Onan's, he is being selfish because he wants credit for the progeny. By not wanting to give credit to Er (Genesis 38:9), Onan dishonored the memory of his deceased brother by showing a lack of familial duty by not going through with the levirate marriage (R. Michael Samuel).
  • Sexual Exploitation: The fact that Onan wanted all the privileges and none of the responsibilities translates into sexual exploitation. How so? While it treated women as part of an economic transaction, levirate marriage was an institution that also helped by providing women economic support and a livelihood in a time where it was nigh impossible for a woman to be economically independent. Even in an arrangement that offers the woman certain guarantees and protections, it still allows for men to take advantage. In the Talmud (Yevamot 34b), it states that both Er and Onan committed the same sin. Onan wanted to have sex with Tamar without taking on the responsibilities of levitate marriage. According to Rashi, Er performed coitus interruptus because he didn't want the process of pregnancy to mess with Tamar's physical beauty. Not only were both men avoiding the mitzvah of procreation, but they were also treating women as sexual objects within the letter of the law. Let's not forget that the Ramban believes that you can still be a scoundrel within the letter of the law (Commentary on Leviticus 19:2). Sexual exploitation is a major motif in the Torah. Whether it is the story of Dinah (Genesis 34), David and Baatsheva (II Samuel 11), or Sodom (Genesis 18; Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a), the Bible shows how sex can be used as a power play for exploitation and domination, which can be part of the problem with Onan's indiscretion.
  • Mysticism: Ramban had a more mystical explanation as to why Onan did what he did. For Ramban (Commentary on Genesis 38:9), there was a transmigration of souls, i.e., the child born as a result of the levirate marriage would have the soul of the deceased father. Once Onan realized that the child would be a reincarnation of Er, Onan put a stop to it (Artscroll). 
We do not have an explicit explanation of why Onan's actions incurred divine wrath. Based on the surrounding verses and rabbinic commentary, what we can surmise is that the narrative favors an explanation in favor of Onan being selfish and not in accordance with Torah values. With these interpretations, what we cannot say is that the prohibition of male masturbation has any biblical basis. Even Maimonides ended up conceding that point (Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7:4). While using the passage of Onan, even erroneously, is the underpinning of later Jewish texts, we still have to remember that mainstream Judaism goes beyond the Torah, hence why it is referred to as rabbinic Judaism.

Rabbinic Explanations
In one respect, it is easier to understand the later rabbinic texts because they are more explicit and emphatic about their stance on male masturbation. The Talmud (Niddah 13a) compares those who masturbate with their hands should have their hands cut off because the wasted seed the man caused makes his hands "full of blood." Going off this commentary, Rashi thought that masturbation was bad enough to have caused the Flood in the Book of Genesis. The Zohar opines that masturbation is the gravest sin in the Torah (even in spite of it not being mentioned in the Torah) because it defiles the soul in this world and in the next (Zohar 1:56b-57a, 188a, 219b), even though this mystic explanation does not provide any substantiation as to how masturbation causes these dire consequences in the cosmic realm. R. Moses de León, who is accredited with being the lead composer of the Zohar, says that anyone who ejaculates "in vain" will fail to see the Face of G-d. Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Issur Biah, 21:18) says that anyone who releases sperm with their hands and wastes it has not only committed a great transgression, but should also be excommunicated. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (151:2) says that it's a severe transgression to sleep on your back or stomach because it can lead to the wasteful emission of seed. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch even goes as far as saying (151:4) that you should not eat foods at supper that would heat up your body and cause you to have an involuntary ejaculation. In short, traditional, post-biblical Jewish texts view masturbation not simply as wrong, but as a major transgression.

What I would like to do here is challenge the traditional concept here, particularly in the concept of waste. But first, in spite of the language of cutting off hands, and defiling your soul and excommunication, this language is not meant to be taken literally, and is instead meant to act as a literary device to not masturbate. As the leading authority on the Shulchan Aruch's Even Ha'Ezer, the Beis Shmuel, states, this is meant to be used as a scare tactic to help men avert sin (S.A., Even Ha'Ezer 23:1).

But let's get back to the idea of wasting seed. The premise behind the traditional prohibition reminds me of the Monty Python sketch "Every Sperm Is Sacred." Any waste of semen is bad, but all the more so if the waste is prevalent. The major point to contend with is that insemination is as messy as it is inefficient. Depending on the ejaculation, you can be releasing anywhere from 30 million to 750 million sperm! You only need one sperm to fertilize an egg, but you release an average of one hundred million. Out of the 100,000,000 sperm ejaculated, only one sperm is successful. The process wastes 99.999999% of all sperm, and that assumes that insemination takes place on the first try. If G-d did not want men to waste seed, why did He create a process that is so inherently inefficient and imprecise? If G-d is truly this concerned with the waste of semen, He has a funny way of showing it. Not only are we not even considering that insemination succeeds the first time or that we're assuming the man isn't shooting blanks, this does not even account for nocturnal emissions, which are involuntary. The average frequency of nocturnal emissions ranges from 3 weeks for 15-year-olds to 5.5 weeks for 40-year-olds. Why would G-d create a no-win situation?

Now that we have established that ejaculation and insemination are messy and inefficient processes, let's segue into some other facts, which are that sperm regenerate and that men can remain fertile even through old age. If you're looking to conceive, maybe it's not the best idea to constantly masturbate since it does take a few weeks for the sperm to regenerate. But saying "it's either procreation or masturbation" is presenting a false dilemma, e.g., Tosafot (Sanhedrin 59b) conflating the prohibition on masturbation with the mitzvah of procreation. You can fulfill the mitzvah of procreation while still have enough sperm for masturbatory purposes.

Even if you want to put the emphasis on procreation, another point to be made is that Judaism does not have the view that sex is strictly procreative in nature. Providing pleasurable sex is also part of Jewish law. As a matter of fact, it is a mitzvah for a man to pleasure his wife (עונה), even if they already have children. More specifically, coitus interruptus is not entirely forbidden under Jewish law. Women can hinder reproduction with inserting a moch [spongy substance] (Yevamot 12b, 100b; Ketubot 39a; Niddah 45a). The Tosafists (Commentary to Yevamot 12b) say that if a relationship requires a form of contraception that results in coitus interruptus, e.g., medical reasons, it is preferable to have coitus interruptus over abstinence, provided it does not have a malicious intent that is similar to that of Onan.

Maimonides has an alternative explanation as to why masturbation is bad: excessive ejaculation is bad for your health (Mishneh Torah, De'ot 4:19). Historically speaking, masturbation has been viewed as a perversion or as a sign of poor health, either mentally or physically. However, it is largely considered a natural and harmless activity, and some experts go as far as saying it actually improves sexual health and relationships.

Just so we can recap, there are a number of explanations as to why Onan's behavior was problematic, none of which had to do with masturbation. Even the rabbinic arguments don't do a particularly job of withstanding scrutiny when one considers the realities of ejaculation and insemination. In short, the arguments don't stick. Conversely, if there is one motif I can derive from the traditional explanations that I think still hold weight is that of sexual excessiveness. According to rabbinic tradition, Er didn't want to mar Tamar's beauty with pregnancy. One of the interpretations of Onan's sin is that he wanted the sex without the obligations. Masturbation could be a symbolism of excess focus on sex, which if we take a broader definition of idolatry being "taking G-d out of the equation" or "making it about us," then this can be construed as idolatry. The lesson here could be to not be so hedonistic as to have your life revolved around or obsessed with sex. This lesson is amplified considering that acting as a scoundrel within the letter of the law was done in G-d's name, which could arguably be a violation of the Third Commandment of "don't take G-d's name in vain."

Maimonides believed in the Golden Mean (שביל הזהב, דרך האמצע). While it was primarily applies to balance of spiritual characteristics, it also applies to the physical realm (Mishneh Torah, De'ot 5:1). If we applied the idea of avoiding gluttony to the topic of masturbation, it would mean that one the one hand, we don't sweep it under the rug. When we make sexual expression a taboo topic, it leads to sexual suppression, which doesn't do Jewish boys and men any favors, or any men, for that matter. On the other hand, our lives shouldn't become obsessed with sex or masturbation. It detracts us from G-d, Torah, Judaism, and more generally, life. How do we adhere to Jewish values while still making sure Jews are sexually healthy human beings? The question does not have an easy answer, but if we are to come up with an answer that reflects the human condition and basic facts about science, then discussion is a key element. Without it, we just continue getting the shaft.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Is There a Link Between Fracking and Contaminated Groundwater?

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has been a process to extract a considerable amount of natural gas from underground shale formations. It has been quite a lucrative endeavor. A recent National Economic Bureau Research study (Gilje et al., 2016) shows that since 2012, fracking has increased aggregate U.S. equity market capitalization by $3.5 trillion, which says nothing of social costs or benefits. As the Brookings Institution points out, while there are economic gains to be made, there are still environmental concerns to be considered.

One such consideration is that of groundwater. Fracking produces the fractures in the rocks by injecting high-pressure amounts of fluids (usually water, sand, and chemical additives). After the injection, the internal pressure causes fluid to return to the surface through the wellbore. This flowback is stored on site in tanks or pits before treating, disposing, or recycling it. In many cases, the flowback is injected underground. The potential for the flowback to seep into groundwater is what has many concerned, but how valid is the concern?

The controversy behind fracking and groundwater dates back at least to 2011. In December 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a preliminary report hinting at there being an issue with fracking and groundwater contamination in Pavilion, Wyoming, even though the then-EPA Administrator said that there is no definitive determination to be made. In 2013, the EPA handed it over to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The evidence from the DEQ, released in November 2016, found that hydraulic fracturing fluids did not sink into water-supply wells, although a Stanford University study attempted to refute these findings a few months earlier.

Last week, the EPA released its own final report from its original investigation earlier this decade, the report that found no evidence of "widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water sources in the United States." This latest report redacts the portion that says there is no evidence of widespread groundwater contamination. However, the report concludes with hypotheticals in which fracking could be bad, such as injecting hydraulic fracking fluids directly into groundwater (Executive Summary, p. 42). One would think it would be obvious that injecting the fluids directly in the water would contaminate, but that is not inherent within the process. Nor does the disposal of inadequately treated wastewater into surface water (ibid.).

These are not the only studies that point to a lack of a threat to groundwater caused by fracking. A Duke University study (Jackson et at., 2013) saying the issue was faulty steel casings and improper sealing of the wells, and not fracking itself. The United Kingdom's Department of Energy and Climate Change came to a similar conclusion in their 2014 report on fracking that the issue is poorly crafted wells, not fracking per se (p. 3). Another study, this one from the National Science Foundation, found that the introduction of fracking in Colorado did not increase the likelihood of water contamination (Sherwood et al., 2016). There are also a 2011 United States Geological Survey study and a Yale University study (Drollette et al., 2015) showing that fracking does not have these particular systemic effects on groundwater. I don't mind taking measures to avoid preventable, accidental leakages and assessing the costs against the benefits of fracking. However, environmentalist fear-mongering on the hydraulic fracturing process that has brought the American people cheaper energy with less carbon emissions is folly.

6-20-2017 Addendum: The University of Texas' Academy of Medicine, Engineering, and Science of Texas just released a study on the environmental effects of fracking. What it ended up finding is that fracking does not contaminate groundwater, nor does it cause an earthquake hazard.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Parsha Vayishlach: Kissing and Making Up

When people wrong us, we have a number of ways we can react: ignore it, be passive-aggressive about it, berate others that have nothing to do with the wronging, or even take revenge on the one who wronged us. One can see how in Torah, Jacob was worried about his brother, Esau, taking revenge. These two biblical figures have fought since they were in the womb. In past Torah portions, we see that not only did Jacob trick Esau in giving up his birthright for some food (Genesis 25:29-34), but Jacob also tricked Isaac in giving Jacob the blessing that was meant for Esau (Genesis 27:34-40). Esau was angry and wanted to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41), and it was bad enough where Jacob fled and worked for Laban for 14 years. Fast-forward to this week's Torah portion. Esau is in pursuit of Jacob, and has 400 men accompanying him. Jacob is understandably in fear for his life (Genesis 32:8). When Jacob and Esau finally meet after all those years, how do they react? You would think that Esau would have Jacob slain, but no:

וירץ עשב לקראתו ויחבקהו, ויפל על צוארו וישקהו ויבכו.
Esau ran to meet him and embraced him. Esau fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. -Genesis 33:4

What in the world happened? Here I thought that Esau was out for blood. In the Masoteric text [in the Torah scroll], there are dots over the phrase "and they kissed" (וישקהו), and some rabbinic commentary tries to figure out what those dots mean. Some do not want to attribute Esau with any positive motives: the Midrash says that Esau tried to bite Jacob's neck, but Jacob's neck turned into marble shortly beforehand (Genesis Rabbah 78:9). However, given what transpires, I am willing to give Esau at least some of the benefit of a doubt, even if Esau has done some less-than-reputable actions. Right before Esau gives Jacob a kiss, Jacob prostrates in front of Esau seven times. Rashi thinks that the prostration took Esau so aback that he felt the need to embrace him. By prostrating seven times, Jacob performed the exact reverse blessing that Isaac gave Jacob, the one that said "Be master over your brothers, and let your mother's sons bow to you (Genesis 27:29)." Esau could have taken that as a repudiation of the blessing Isaac gave Jacob all those years ago. 

Right after Esau gives Jacob the kiss, they weep. Given how men traditionally remain emotionally guarded, the fact that Esau let his guard down and wept says a lot in terms of how the men were genuinely moved (R. Hirsch, Genesis 33:4). After crying, Jacob gave his tribute. By giving the immense tribute, Jacob was showing the superiority of Esau (Ramban, Genesis 33:8). When Esau said to Jacob "Let what you have remain yours," he was acquiescing Jacob's right to Isaac's blessing (Rashi, Commentary on Genesis 33:9). Jacob then says (Genesis 33:10) that seeing Esau's face is like seeing the face of G-d because of the favor Esau bestowed. We don't see Esau asking for compensation. He doesn't even ask for an apology. The kiss is the signal of the resolution of another kiss, the deceitful kiss that started this whole feud (JPS Commentary on Genesis 33:4).

Was this scene in Genesis 33 truly a resolution? It's hard to say. On the one hand, it could have been a political ploy. On the other hand, Esau was holding all the cards, so it's difficult to say that Jacob had anything to use as leverage. Perhaps this scene was a reminder that Esau is still a descendant of Isaac and Jacob. After all, Jacob and Esau at least able to come together to bury their father later (Genesis 35:28-29). But wait, what about the fact that the Edomites have military conflict with the Israelites later? It might be a new conflict regarding power and resources, but it could also be a continued strain dating all the way back to Jacob and Esau. If that's the case, it says a lot about the importance of forgiveness. The brothers' embrace is a parallel of Jacob's encounter with the angel, which represents both the love and ability to grapple with the struggle of the situation (Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg). 

How we react when someone wrongs us is a sign of one's character, and that is seen in this week's Torah portion. But we also see the importance of addressing wrongdoings. In the Talmud, R. Eliezer (Shabbat 153a) says that we should repent one day before we die. Since we do not know when we die, R. Eliezer concludes that it is all the more reason that we should repent today. Jacob and Esau waited way too long to bury the hatchet in any meaningful sense, and even whatever that were able to set aside didn't completely remove the tension. We find ourselves with a biblical verse showing us what not to do. We shouldn't let problems or wrongdoings fester. We should be proactive enough to make sure we can have as clean of a slate as possible. I know that each strained relationship has its own unique circumstances, but it's better to have some resolution than to carry it inside. We can take at least one lesson from Jacob and Esau: it's better to "kiss and make up" sooner rather than later, but at the same time, better late than never. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Are For-Profit Colleges Fraudulent Crocks or Simply Misunderstood?

I need a reprieve from thinking about the upcoming Trump presidency and blog on something less controversial instead, or at least relatively so: for-profit colleges. Intuitively speaking, I would think that a for-profit school would work better than a non-profit school or a public school. The reason for that thought is the idea of profit motive, or that firms operate in a certain way in order to maximize profit. People start up businesses for other reasons, but one of the primary reasons, if not the primary reason, is to earn a profit, and this is because self-interest has strong predictive power. The idea of profit motive is not libertarians being selfish (by the way, libertarians are not more selfish than others) or so-called "evil capitalism": it's standard microeconomic theory. Part of that profit motive is being able to deliver the best good or service at the lowest rate possible relative to the quality of the good or service. At least that is how it works in theory.

However, there are some, like John Oliver (see above), who contest that theory. For naysayers of for-profit schools, they are not simply ineffective. They are also downright immoral. How bad are for-profit schools? If they really are that bad, how should we deal with them? There are certain metrics to compare for-profit schools with public schools or non-profit private schools. Let's take a look at some of them:

Post-Graduation Earnings: A May 2016 paper from the National Bureau of Education (Cellini and Turner, 2016) shows that there is an average decline in earnings after attendance. However, the average is skewed by the number of people who drop out of a for-profit college, not to mention that the study is not particularly longitudinal in nature.

Last month, the Department of Education released graduate earnings data for those who completed certificate programs in public schools versus for-profit schools. The Department found that graduates of public undergraduate certification programs earned $9,000 more annually than for for-profit. The DoE method is slightly flawed in that according to its Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) Longitudinal Study, 70 percent of for-profit schools graduate from these programs, while only 45 percent of public school attendees graduates.

On the whole, those who graduate from a for-profit college earn, on average, 4 percent more per year attended than high school graduates who never went to college, according to a Brookings Institution 2015 study. Assuming one graduates from a for-profit college, there is long-term payoff, much like graduating from college in general. This does assume that one graduates, which brings me to my next point.....

Completion Rates: As previously stated, for-profits have a higher completion rate for undergraduate certification programs. For two-year and four-year programs, not so much. The Brookings Institution points out that 60 percent complete for two-year programs and a low 35 percent for four-year programs. For two-year programs, for-profit colleges fare better than two-year public colleges, whereas they do not for four-year institutions. However, given that 81.5 percent of for-profit students are enrolled in four-year schools, the disparity in completion rates for four-year schools is more pronounced. On the whole, completion rates for for-profit enrollees are lower.

Indebtedness. The Brookings Institution released a report in Fall 2015 about indebtedness. In 2011, students from for-profit schools borrowed 25 percent of loans while only representing 9 percent of enrolled students. In 2014, 25 percent of borrowers were from for-profit schools while representing 16.7 percent of the student loan debt (p. 25-26). The findings about indebtedness are paradoxical. For-profit college students are more likely to take out loans. On the other hand, the amount of debt owed is on average smaller. Although there is smaller debt, those who attend for-profit colleges have less access to non-loan aid, which increases their reliance on student loans and makes it more difficult to pay off the debt. This is shown through the default rate. While making up for a quarter of borrowers, those who attended for-profit colleges account for 35 percent of defaults in 2013, which is thankfully lower than the 44 percent in 2011.

Tuition: The College Board puts out statistics on tuition (see below). There's no nice way to put it: for-profit colleges have a higher tuition rate than public colleges. While the tuition and fees are higher, there is argument that the higher tuition is worthwhile. Cato Institute scholar Neal McCluskey postulates that in spite of the higher tuition, for-profit college provides more flexible scheduling, better student services, and more focused training.

Postscript: Comparing charter schools to public K-12 schools was much more straightforward. On average, charter schools outperform public K-12 schools. However, it is more difficult to render a verdict on for-profit schools. Part of the reason can be attributed to poor-performing schools, like we saw during the Corinthian College scandal. Just because an institution or business is for-profit does not mean it is going to succeed. Figuring out what success looks like becomes murkier when government regulation muddies it all up. What do I mean by that?

It starts with the federal government subsidies. I have brought this up before, but when the demand for a good or service is artificially boosted, price also increases. This goes beyond basic microeconomic theory. In July 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released a report saying that for every dollar that is spent on a subsidy for a student, the tuition goes up by 60 cents. This effect is more pronounced for those in private institutions, e.g., for-profit schools. The National Bureau of Research also put out research in February 2016 concluding that government subsidies accounted for 78 percent of the tuition increases from 1987 to 2010 (Gordon and Hedlund, 2016).

But wait, it gets weirder because the government does not treat for-profit schools the same way it does for-profit schools. If anything, there is greater regulatory scrutiny. The effects of government subsidies gets further distorted with what is called the 90-10 rule, which states that a for-profit college receive no more than 90 percent of their funding from the federal government. Both public schools and for-profit schools depend on federal government subsidies. Public schools can at least rely less heavily on federal government subsidies and lean more on state funds. For-profit colleges don't have that luxury, and thus have to recruit more students, which would explain why this U.S. Senate report found that for-profit colleges spend 22 percent of its revenue on advertising. This 90-10 rule creates perverse incentives, e.g., high levels of advertising, because more students means more money from the federal government.

The effects of the 90-10 rule are even further distorted by the "gainful employment" rule, which was implemented by the Obama administration in 2015. This rule was created to stop for-profit colleges from abusing the 90-10 rule by requiring that "for-profit schools that receive federal funding ensure their graduates have high earnings relative to the debt that they have accumulated." This is a perverse incentive because it encourages for-profit colleges to help the students with the highest potential to graduate, which would have even more adverse effects on completion rates.

Can I say that for-profit colleges are preferable to public colleges? Given the distortionary effects of federal government subsidies and other regulations, it is hard to ascertain without broad, systemic data that provides apples-to-apples comparisons. The evidence is skewed based much more on the perverse incentives than it is the supposed evils of profit-making. We don't live in a world in which the government has little to no influence on for-profit colleges. The federal government has a huge sway over for-profit college operations. For-profit college enrollment growth shows that demand has not slowed down. We even see the growth of for-profit colleges in such countries as Sweden, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Given that the President-Elect owns Trump University, I wouldn't be surprised if government policy ends up being friendlier towards for-profit colleges than the Obama administration has been.

What I do know is that neither public college nor for-profit colleges have statistics that are worth bragging about, and given the current statistics, it looks like for-profit colleges overall underperform in comparison. What would be more interesting to see is how for-profit colleges performed if these regulations were removed and if they had more limited access to federal government subsidies. It would be nice to see what would happen if private lenders had a greater role because they would have a greater incentive to weed out shady for-profit colleges. That would be a fun social experiment to watch unfold, but until reforms are made, let's just say that I'm glad the days of attending college are behind me.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Are Medicaid Block Grants a Stumbling Block to Quality Healthcare?

Given how President-Elect Trump campaigned about the Affordable Care Act, more colloquially known as Obamacare, the odds of Obamacare surviving a Trump presidency are next to nil. Obamacare is not the only healthcare initiative to expect reform under a Trump presidency. One that Republicans have been eyeing for a while is how to fund Medicaid, specifically in the form of block grants.

In its report on block grants, the Congressional Research Service defines block grants as "a form of grant-in-aid that the federal government uses to provide state and local governments a specified amount of funding to assist them in addressing broad purposes." Using block grants to fund Medicaid is hardly a new policy proposal: it goes back to the Reagan administration.

The Left-leaning healthcare think-tank Commonwealth Fund criticizes block grants for departing from the normal structure of providing flexible spending. The issue for Commonwealth Fund is that because block grants are based on a preset formula that does little to nothing to account for population growth or number of beneficiaries since the federal contribution would remain roughly the same. Another Left-leaning think-tank, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) finds that based on previous Republican proposals, we would see 14 million less Medicaid enrollees, costs shift over to states, and that block-grant funding would decrease Medicaid funding by 33 percent over the next decade. One comment I do have to make about the fear-mongering around losing 14 million enrollees is that just a decade ago, there were only 42.5 million enrollees. As of date, that number is at 73.1 million enrollees! A little over a third of that growth is thanks to Obamacare's Medicaid expansion of bringing in 11 million Americans under Medicaid. Interesting what happens when you put enrollment rates into a more historical context. Plus, let's not forget the irony of block grant critics, which is that because the federal government pays a majority of Medicaid expenditures, the status quo allows states to shift costs to other states.

This next point has more validity than those made by the CBPP. The Left-leaning Urban Institute also released research on Medicaid block grants back in September. The Urban Institute found that there would be major disparities from state to state (see below), which would not only value a patient more highly simply because they live in a different state, but would also burden taxpayers to pay more if the state expanded eligibility. This would ultimately reduce state flexibility and threaten current coverage levels.

If the next Congress decides to go the route of block grants, there are a number of questions that would need to be answered: What is the amount of the initial federal allotment? How much flexibility will be given for population growth, healthcare industry price growth, or economic downturn? Does this mean that states would still need to spend money on Medicaid? These are important questions, but they obfuscate an even more question: how well does Medicaid work?

[As a caveat to Medicaid block grant criticism, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) also recognizes that Medicaid's financing and the degree of flexibility are two separate issues. If the spending cap. e.g., block grant, was coupled with state flexibility over such facets as "administrative requirements, ways to deliver health care, cost-sharing levels, and covered eligibility categories," it could make it easier for states to adjust their Medicaid spending.]

There is much detail that can be delved into regarding Medicaid because it is so complex, but here is a high-level view. In 2015, the United States spent $532 billion for Medicaid. $29.1 billion of that money spent, or about 5 percent, was spent in improper payments. This is just one reason why the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has Medicaid rated at "High Risk." 33 percent of physicians don't even accept Medicaid beneficiaries. Projected growth in annual Medicaid expenditures over the next decade is projected at 6.1 percent, which is slightly higher than the overall healthcare growth of 5.8 percent. Medicaid enrollees only have a slightly better chance of surviving cancer than the uninsured. About a decade ago, Jonathan Gruber, who is referred to as "the architect of Obamacare," found that public-sector healthcare (e.g., Medicaid) crowds out private-sector healthcare to the point where the government covers four patients at the price of ten (Gruber and Simon, 2007).

Simply throwing money into an already-failing system neither addressed fiscal insolvency nor structural incentives to improve upon enrollees' healthcare, which is why there are those who advocate for block grants. The advocates argue that because they are of the view that block grants would cut back on waste while giving states more flexibility to experiment with potentially more cost-effective options. This 2012 report from Right-leaning Manhattan Institute outlines how block grants can better target Medicaid funds, improve healthcare quality, and cut back on costs. The Texas Public Policy Foundation published a 2015 report on what block grants could look like for the state of Texas, which is the largest state that did not accept the Medicaid expansion funds under Obamacare. The libertarian Mercatus Center also has a report showing how welfare block grants can act as a model for Medicaid reform (Sutter, 2013).We need to try something that will better incentivize more responsible spending while ensuring as much healthcare as possible. Since Trump has not released details on how exactly he would go about block grants, although the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) has estimated 10-year savings based on certain scenarios. Block grants are not a silver bullet, but implemented adequately, they can be a first step in the right direction to make sure all Americans can access high-quality healthcare.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Why Another Glass-Steagall Would Be Ineffective Banking Reform

Deregulation. It's that word that many on the Left are fond of using to scare you in thinking that a world without heavy-handed government intervention would be a scary, unguided one. This is especially true when we're talking about something like the financial sector, or more specifically with banking. During the presidential election, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders called for breaking up the big banks, which would not have been a smart move. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren tried passing a 21st-century version of Glass-Steagall, which was a bill passed back in 1933 that required commercial banking and the investment market (i.e., securities trading) to be separate. What is more peculiar is that Trump has called for a bill similar to that of Senator Warren. What is it about Glass-Steagall that causes such controversy? What sort of role has it played in shaping the banking sector, and do we need legislation similar to that of Glass-Steagall?

The Glass-Steagall Act, also referred to as the Banking Act of 1933, was a Depression-era bill that prohibited commercial bankers from engaging in investment banking. The primary idea behind the bill was to make sure that commercial bankers were not exacerbating the financial situation by gambling with depositors' funds in the stock market. This seventy-plus-year old piece of legislation still plays a role in the public policy realm because the narrative that is common on the progressive Left is "watering down Glass-Steagall and deregulation of the financial sector caused the Great Recession, and only further regulations, such as an updated Glass-Steagall, will save us." While this wonderful, recently-released paper from Cato Institute scholar Oonagh McDonald covers the more historical aspects of Glass-Steagall, as well as these reports from Congressional Research Service and Heritage Foundation, let's briefly take a look at the history to see why I take issue with this narrative.

  • A Rugters University study (White, 1986) found that banks from 1930 to 1933 (a time period where banks were massively failing during the Great Depression) that dealt both with commercial and investment banking were more than twice as less likely to fail, not to mention that none of the 5,000 bank failures in the 1920s involved securities dealings affiliates. In short, there was no evidence that banks with securities affiliates, which is what Glass-Steaggal was targeting, were more susceptible to failure. 
  • The Clinton Administration signed off on the Gramm-Leach-Biley Act (GLBA) in 1999. The GLBA was a partial repeal of Glass-Steagall, specifically that of Sections 20 and 32 of the Glass-Steagall Act. Section 20 stated that a bank could not have a majority or controlling share in a securities firm. Section 32 prohibited banks from having interlocking directorships primarily engaged in the underwriting, dealing in, or distribution of securities. What the GLBA allowed for was affiliations between commercial banks and firms involved in securities underwriting, as well as interlocking management (McDonald, 2016, p. 12).
  • The GLBA did not cover Sections 16 and 21. Section 16 limits commercial banks to purchasing and selling securities for customers, as well as prohibiting them from dealing in or underwriting securities on their own accounts. Section 21 prevents securities firms from taking deposits. Both of these Sections are still in effect to this day. What this means is that while commercial banks can be affiliated with investment banks, they are still considered two separate institutions. 
  • The interesting part is the effects of the GLBA, which were negligible. Politifact determined that altering Glass-Steagall in 1999 did not cause the Great Recession, at least in part because it was so whittled down, but mostly because there is not an economist out there arguing that Glass-Steagall was the sole lynchpin holding together the financial market. Even NPR said that, at best, Glass-Steagall was one of many other underlying causes. 
  • Even when Glass-Steagall was gradually being eroded over the past few decades, American banks in Europe operated the same way as the banks in the local jurisdictions, and guess what? There were not any severe or adverse consequences as a result of not having Glass-Steagall (McDonald, p. 9). 
  • Given the institutions that started the domino effect of the Great Recession, it's difficult to see how Glass-Steagall would have prevented it. Bears Sterns, Lehman Brothers, and Goldman Sachs were stand-alone investment banks that did not take deposits. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were not even banks. Wachovia and Washington Mutual got into trouble during the Great Recession because of their mortgage portfolios. Another way of saying this: Glass-Steagall would have done nothing to prevent the Great Recession.
  • Between 1997 and 2008, the number of financial regulatory restrictions actually grew from 40,286 to 47,494 regulations. From 2000 to 2008, the Federal Register added 7,100 pages of financial regulations. Looking at the regulatory measures leading up to the Great Recession show that deregulation did not cause the Great Recession.
  • Even better, one of the most basic rules you learn in Finance 101 is that diversification reduces risk. The banks that were in the most trouble in 2008 were the ones that lacked portfolio diversification. This lack of diversification was also a major issue with the small unit banks during the Great Depression (McDonald, p. 8).
  • Two things that Glass-Steagall was never designed to do: regulate the size of banks and prevent banks from buying and selling securities for their own investment purposes. 

Understanding the history of public policy, especially with something as complicated as Glass-Steagall is important because it helps us understand policy today. We can focus on a more noble goal of helping prevent losses to the depositors, but at the same time, prohibiting affiliations between commercial banks and investment banks does not help with that noble goal. We already have evidence that Glass-Steagall did not help with the Great Depression, or that a partial repeal of Glass-Steagall caused the Great Recession. While you can argue that "just because it didn't help in the past, it can help in the future," the burden is on the advocate for Glass-Steagall, especially in light of its past inefficiencies. After all, it's not just libertarian or conservative think-tanks that think Glass-Steagall was and is bad policy. It is also coming from the centrist Brookings Institution.

If we are to forget for a second that Glass-Steagall has not worked, what would a revival of Glass-Stegall look like? A major part of what resulted in the whittling down of Glass-Steagall was technological. By the 1970s and 1980s, technological development allowed for greater access to financial data, which made it cheaper and easier for businesses to decide what financial investments to make. Also, the line between commercial and investment banking has been since blurred, making Glass-Steagall all the more irrelevant. By the mid-1980s, securities firms were getting a huge advantage, and if it were not for the GLBA, commercial banks would have been forced out of financing for all but the smallest of businesses. If we revive Glass-Stegall, it would make it more difficult to support subsidiary banks, which would make bank failures and taxpayer bailouts more likely in the future. There is no sense in weakening banking institutions further. Even the centrist Brookings Institution concludes the following:

"Combined groups benefit from the diversification effect of having both businesses together. Usually, one side does better than the other in troubled times, reducing the risk of failure. Since the Crisis demonstrated that investment banking failures can be nearly as devastating to the economy as commercial banking failures, there is clear value in diversification to protect both sides. This is a major reason the big failures were in firms with purer focuses."

Let's talk about whether Trump's idea to dismantle Dodd-Frank is a good idea. Let's talk about how we can prevent the government from propping up another housing bubble, we can create sound monetary policy to mitigate financial pressures, or why breaking up big banks is a bad idea (see here and here). But let's stay away from an antiquated, irrelevant piece of legislation that did nothing to help with past financial crises and does not show any promise of helping prevent future ones.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Trump's Flag-Burning Comments: One Way to Set the Constitution Ablaze

President-Elect Trump has turned heads in more ways than one. During the election, he used Twitter as a social media platform to develop a connection with his supporters, and even now, he uses Twitter to convey his thoughts and opinions. His latest communiqué on Twitter (see below) has those both on the Left and Right worried about whether Trump will respect the Constitution.

Let's start off with a primer on the Constitution. For one, Trump can't revoke an American's citizenship simply because they burn an American flag. There's this not-so-new thing called the Fourteenth Amendment, which starts off by saying that "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are Citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside." It's similar to the right of a speedy trial or a jury of one's peers: it can't be revoked because you're offended. The Constitution doesn't contain a right to not being offended, which was the whole point of the Supreme Court's ruling Texas v. Johnson (1989). The Supreme Court found that burning the flag is protected speech under the First Amendment. Even after Congress' attempt to make it illegal, the Supreme Court ruled yet again in United States v. Eichman (1990) that flag-burning is protected under the First Amendment, and that symbolic expression has been a part of the First Amendment. And let me point out that in both of these cases, conservative Justice Anton Scalia voted in favor of the constitutionality of flag burning, even in spite of his personal aversion towards flag burning.

Even if we go back to the tenuous idea of banning something simply because someone is offended, the burning of the flag itself is not offensive because you want to know what the Veterans of Foreign Wars consider the proper way to dispose of a flag? Burning it. So it can't be the action of setting the flag on fire that sets people off. What certain individuals find offensive about the burning of the American flag is the symbolism of burning the American flag in protest. In short, the flag is important because of the meaning ascribed to it. It is about national unity and pride, and thus represents the spirit of the nation.

Is burning the American flag the way I would go about protesting and criticizing America's policies? Personally, no. I have a blog to exercise my free speech and express my discontent with public policy because I find it to be a better form of expression. I also happen to find it to be a more profound form of patriotism than blind, unconditional patriotism. But some people feel they need to express their discontent in different ways, and it would hardly be a free society if we began silencing dissent. Republican Senator Mitch McConnell opines that burning the American flag is free speech, and that the United States has a "long tradition of protecting unpleasant speech." For those who are offended by flag burning because of symbolism, let's remember that what is by far more important than protecting a piece of fabric, even one imbued with cultural reverence, is protecting the values that the flag is supposed to represent: freedom, democracy, and the American way. Not only is it virtually impossible to erode national security by burning the American flag, but it does not violate anyone's rights because burning the flag does not violate others' safety, health, property, or involve intruding upon the private space of another individual.

Let's bring it back to one of the motifs behind American ideals: if you're not hurting anyone, you have the right to do what you want with your property and live your life the way you want, even if others find it offensive. If we value what the flag stands for, then flag burning has to remain legal, in spite of adverse reactions to the flag being burned. After all, it is the freedom for which American soldiers fought over the years. Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of protest, pornography, obscenity. These freedoms have offended Americans over time, and yet they are protected precisely because that protection not only prevents tyranny of the majority over the minority, but also represents the values we hold dear. A society would hardly be free if people are not allowed to challenge values, even if that challenge goes against societal norms. The right to burn the flag remains a litmus test of freedom of speech, and making it illegal could very well be the beginning of the Constitution going up in flames.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Social Security Helps Reduce Poverty, and Your Point Is.....?

Social Security is one of those policies that can be politically difficult to criticize without being hit with some argument of "you don't care about the elderly." Not only do many Americans receive these benefits, but many on the Left laud it as the American government's most successfully anti-poverty program (see here, here, here). Most recent is the Left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities' study that breaks down state-by-state the levels of poverty reduction. Essentially, the CBPP researchers calculated the number of households that would have been below the poverty line without it, and compare it to the number that are below it with Social Security. By using Census data in that fashion, they found that Social Security saves 22 million Americans from poverty. This is not to say the finding is wrong per se, but it could use a little more contextualizing, instead of being used as a non-starter for Social Security reform:

  1. Even with Social Security, 10 percent of the elderly are still in poverty, which is unsurprising given how low Social Security benefits are in the first place. 
  2. Many elderly depend on this as a sole source of income. This is going to be all the more pronounced when the Social Security Trust Fund runs out of money and the current protocol of reducing benefits by 21 percent sets in. This is worrisome for the elderly because for 33 percent of elderly beneficiaries, nearly 90 percent of cash income comes from Social Security. 61 percent of elderly beneficiaries depend on it for most of their cash income. 
  3. This problem framing assumes a false dilemma between Social Security and elderly people dying on the streets because they have no money in their savings. It makes the all-too common erroneous assumption that a lack of government intervention means that the only alternative is inaction. If Social Security were to go by the wayside, the question is whether individuals are able to procure alternative sources of income when they retire. This is coupled by the fact that removing Social Security would also remove a significant portion of the payroll tax, which would mean higher wages for employees. Given the substitution effects, the poverty reduction effect of Social Security is overstated. 
  4. This false dilemma assumes there is not a better option for those saving for retirement. Considering that Social Security functions both as a retirement plan and and an anti-poverty measure, the primary metric of Social Security is rate of return. As I pointed out a while back, there are better ways to invest for a better rate of return, such as stocks or AAA-corporate bonds. Even voluntarily investing in government bonds yields a higher rate of return. Being able to invest your payroll tax into capital assets is all the more important, especially when Social Security's annuitized benefits are not inheritable. 

According the Social Security Administration, the Trust Fund is expected to run out in 2034. I'm sure that Americans are more interested in the here and now, especially with President-Elect Trump. However, if we want to help the poor out and make sure their retirement savings are solid enough where poverty is a minimal-to-non-existent issue, then we need to think differently about the issue. Because of the superior rates of return on private investments, I am for keeping retirement benefit accounts in the private sector. I know there are some out there who think that "privatization" is the "p-word," which is why next-best alternatives include President Bush's idea of putting part of one's payroll tax in a personal retirement account (PRA) or New Zealand's approach of having the Social Security Administration pay a flat dollar benefit with the intent of helping lift seniors out of poverty, the latter of which would help Social Security return to its anti-poverty roots. We need better ideas than raising payroll taxes, raising payroll tax caps, lowering benefits, or increasing the retirement age. It might be easy to kick the can down the road because the Trust Fund expiration date is so easy, but if we don't find innovative and effective ways to deal with Social Security, we could very well see social unrest on our hands because at that point, the poverty reduction effects of Social Security will be ever diminished.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Parsha Chayei Sarah: The True Meaning of Thanksgiving

Former athlete Carl Lewis said that life is about timing, and I think that is applicable considering this week's Torah portion of Chayei Sarah (literally meaning "the life of Sarah"), which covers the Book of Genesis, chapters 23 to 25. Timing plays an even bigger factor when death rears its ugly head. The beginning of this week's Torah portion with the death of Sarah. Aside from saying how old Sarah was and where she died, the Torah does not mention Sarah further (23:1-2). Abraham weeps (23:2), and then proceeds to buy a burial plot for Sarah (23:3-20). American writer Mary Catherine Bateson said that "the timing of death, like the ending of a story, gives a changed meaning to it." This insight can help us solve another quandary in the Torah. After the burial takes place, the Torah says the following at the beginning of chapter 24:

ואברבם זקן, בא בימים. והשם ברך את אברהם בכל.
Abraham was old, well stricken in age; and G-d blessed Abraham in all things. -Genesis 24:1

It's not just the timing of Sarah's death that makes me wonder, but also the timing of this verse. Abraham just lost the love of his life, and the Torah says that "Abraham was blessed in everything?!" Without further context, it seems like the Torah is being insensitive to Abraham's loss, or that Sarah did not mean anything to Abraham, G-d forbid. Fortunately, the sages over the ages can provide some insight as to this conspicuously timed verse:
  • One idea is based on commentary from Chasidic leader Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, which is that a righteous person wants nothing for himself, and is focused on helping others. Being blessed in all things (בכל) is that everyone around Avraham became blessed.  
  • Per R. Yaakov Yitzchak of Lublin (Seer of Lublin), the idea of being blessed in all things (בכל) is that you are able to serve G-d "with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5)."
  • The Hebrew word זקן does not only mean old, but wise. Having experienced the death of his wife and the burial process, Avraham gained a new sense of wisdom that allowed him to be a master of time instead of being a slave to it, i.e., בא בימים or to "come into days" (Avraham Aryeh Trugman). 
  • Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon opined that Abraham was blessed in all, in both good times and bad. From Spurgeon's point of view, the blessing was G-d giving Abraham to have the resilience to get through the rough times, whether it was when G-d commanded Abraham to slay his son or the loss of his wife.
  •  Being blessed "in all things" meant that Abraham never lacked anything (Ohr La-Yesharim). This idea of satisfaction is encapsulated in the Pirke Avot (4:1) that says "Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with their own lot."
  • R. Zelig Pliskin comes with an alluring interpretation. To "come with his days" means to come with all of his days. We are not meant to waste a single moment of our lives. Going off this interpretation, I would say that is why commentators such as Ramban and Radak view that Abraham was blessed in all things, except for Isaac having a wife. Even with wealth, honor, progeny, and a strong sense of purpose, Abraham still had more to do with his life. 
Let us be thankful for the blessings that we once had, the ones we do have, and the ones we, along with G-d, may create in the future!