Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tiny Voices Defy Child Marriage in Yemen

From NY Times

JIBLA, Yemen — One morning last month, Arwa Abdu Muhammad Ali walked out of her husband’s house here and ran to a local hospital, where she complained that he had been beating and sexually abusing her for eight months.

That alone would be surprising in Yemen, a deeply conservative Arab society where family disputes tend to be solved privately. What made it even more unusual was that Arwa was 9 years old.

Within days, Arwa — a tiny, delicate-featured girl — had become a celebrity in Yemen, where child marriage is common but has rarely been exposed in public. She was the second child bride to come forward in less than a month; in April, a 10-year-old named Nujood Ali had gone by herself to a courthouse to demand a divorce, generating a landmark legal case.

Together, the two girls’ stories have helped spur a movement to put an end to child marriage, which is increasingly seen as a crucial part of the cycle of poverty in Yemen and other third world countries. Pulled out of school and forced to have children before their bodies are ready, many rural Yemeni women end up illiterate and with serious health problems. Their babies are often stunted, too.

The average age of marriage in Yemen’s rural areas is 12 to 13, a recent study by Sana University researchers found. The country, at the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

“This is the first shout,” said Shada Nasser, a human rights lawyer who met Nujood, the 10-year-old, after she arrived at the courthouse to demand a divorce. Ms. Nasser decided instantly to take her case. “All other early marriage cases have been dealt with by tribal sheiks, and the girl never had any choice.”


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Toronto Pride Weekend: avoid drinks by Rockstar and Bolthouse Farms

Not sure how many people this applies to, but if you're at the Pride Weekend in Toronto, (for homophobes, it's the GAY PRIDE WEEKEND) the Torontoist recommends you avoid Rockstar and Bolthouse farm products. The founders of both companies both donate to anti-LGBT and anti-immigration causes.

Homophobes and xenophobes, drink away.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Christian Zionism: Israel's Deputy Tourism Minister personally welcomes GAFCON delegates to Jerusalem

From Religious Intelligence. Sadly, it seems many of the homophobes also do not oppose the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

By: George Conger.

JERUSALEM: “Christians and Jews must unite against a common foe” the Deputy Tourism Minister of Israel, Rafi Ben-Hur told pilgrims from the Global Anglican Future Conference in Jerusalem.
Israel Minister welcomes Gafcon 'pilgrims' to Jerusalem

Speaking to over 1,200 Anglicans on the southern steps of the Temple on Mount Zion, Rafi Ben-Hur thanked Archbishop Peter Akinola for bringing the Gafcon conference to Jerusalem, and called the gathering a sign of solidarity between the Jewish state and the Anglican world.

“It is time for Jews and Christians to be blood together,” Ben-Hur told the gathering, with many African bishops shouting “Amen” and “Hallelujah” in response. “We have enemies across the world” and must stand together, he said.

While Gafcon has an exclusively Anglican focus, it is likely to have political-diplomatic consequences, as Israel has fêted the Nigerian leader and visiting Anglicans. “Go out, tell the world about Israel,” Ben-Hur said, and be “ambassadors of Israel.”

The African bishops have responded in kind, and have expressed their appreciation for Israel’s hospitality.

The Israeli charm offensive follows a diplomatic flap with Jordan that saw the Archbishop Akinola denied entry at the border crossing from Israel. Travelling on a diplomatic passport, Archbishop Akinola passed through Jordanian customs and immigration with other participants travelling to the Marriot Jordan Valley Hotel near Amman for the Gafcon pre-conference.

Bishops from Pakistan, the Sudan and pilgrims from other Muslim-majority countries unable to travel freely to Israel were scheduled to meet with the conference organizers and US Bishop Robert Duncan from June 18-21.

However, after he had had his passport stamped, a Jordanian official called the Archbishop back and asked him to step into his office. Even though his entry had been pre-approved, the immigration officer demanded to know the purpose of his trip, the Archbishop’s mother’s name, the date and place of his seminary training, and other personal questions.

When he questioned the need for these questions, the official stated he would have to confer with his superiors and left the archbishop to wait. After three hours had passed, Archbishop Akinola told the other delegates he would return to Jerusalem. The other delegates decided to return with him to Jerusalem. The Jordanian embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for an explanation for the Archbishop’s ban, but referred to an article in the English-language Jordan Times which said the Archbishop had not been banned but had freely chosen not to enter Jordan.

While the incident had been “humiliating” and “embarrassing,” Archbishop Akinola said he would not press the matter with the governments. The Jordanian decision to harass him was inexplicable as “all the things that needed to have been done were done,” by way of visas and government approvals.

Speculation amongst the Nigerian delegation as to the cause of the snub varied, but the result had been a cooling of sympathies amongst all the Africans for the Jordanians and an embrace of Israel. Fears Gafcon would wade into political waters has kept the Bishop in Jerusalem at arms length.

While Bishop Suheil Dawani shares the theological views of the majority of the conference, a combination of regional and Anglican political pressures has placed him among the critics of the gathering.

In his address to the pilgrims on the Temple Mount, Ben-Hur urged Gafcon to return to Jerusalem. “God brought Anglicans to Israel” he said, and hoped they would return soon --- a hope shared by several conference organizers who have spoken of holding another conference in the next few years. However, a conference spokesman noted that it was premature to speculate on a return engagement at this time.

Should you drink with your kids?

There was an article earlier about a couple of parents who were imprisoned for allowing alcohol to be served at their child's birthday, but taking away the keys of all who showed up.

Now, John Cloud, writing for Time Magazine, wonders if parents drinking with their kids removes the forbidden-ness from alcohol and makes them less likely to abuse it by drinking wildly when they are of age. He also says that the US is in the midst of "one of its periodic alcohol panics."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Minutemen leader laments path of anti-illegal immigration group

Jim Gilchrist is the founder of the Minutemen, an anti-illegal immigration group that patrols the US-Mexico border. Under Gilchrist, they carried binoculars and reported illegal crossings to the Border Patrol.

"Minutemen" derives from the Revolutionary War. They were select teams of Colonial militia that vowed to be ready for battle against the British at one minute's notice.

Gilchrist apparently intended that the modern Minutemen be watchers of the border. However, an Orange County Register article that quotes him finds that the Minutemen have become a major perpetrator of hate crimes.

After seeing online videos that encouraged border violence amid calls to crack down on illegal immigration, the 59-year-old Aliso Viejo resident said he feels responsible for what started out as a publicity campaign and has since fallen prey to internal divisions and to influence by people he believed had "Saddam Hussein mentalities."

I'm not condoning what Gilchrist is doing. However, if we believe his public statements, it's clear that he never intended violence, and he must be credited both for that, and for his expression of regret.

It's also clear, though, that the Minutemen have attracted hate groups. Certainly, there is prejudice against Latinos. However,, an immigration lawyers' website, contends that the anti-immigration crowd is also driven by anti-Semitism. By this reckoning, the Jews are trying to racially dilute a White Christian majority. ILW cites Stratfor, a leading source of geopolitical information. I'm unable to verify - frankly, this sounds a bit outlandish, although I'm also sure that there are indeed folks who actually believe shit like this.

Gender and leadership

Shoshana Zuboff, a retired Professor of Business Administration at Harvard, writes about Hillary Clinton, Hillary's campaign, and her (Zuboff's) own experience as one of the trailblazers for women in a very male field.

And she closes the article with this absolute gem:

A Woman Who Could Lead Like a Man

But Senator Clinton blinked. She didn't take the leap of faith that so many of us had. She chose to present herself as a woman who could lead like a man, rather than as a woman who could lead. The female vote was taken for granted; she courted the men. As the campaign faltered, the need to prove herself more than a mere woman propelled her to a grim place of bluster and swagger where she tried to outmacho the machos. Instead of forging a path to a new postgender candidacy, she succumbed to counterfeiting a warrior's résumé—dodging sniper fire and forging peace treaties—while threatening Iran, knocking back boilermakers, and posturing for those 3 a.m. phone calls. But voters in Indiana and North Carolina showed they were not impressed by her manly strut.

It was only then that she turned to her female identity and, in a last-ditch effort to rally more women, she blamed her failures on sexism. In the ultimate paradox, it was her unlikely opponent—a young man of two races, raised by a woman, father of young daughters—who took up the challenge of postgender leadership. He sustained a moral center that could not be reduced to any gender stereotype and refused to be drawn into her macho game.

So where does Clinton's candidacy leave us? No one can now doubt that our country will back a nominee for high office who is a woman. Among the ironies of unintended consequences, the disrespectful nonsense aimed at Senator Clinton might serve to rekindle our national determination to confront sexist attitudes and practices at work and in society. But perhaps most compelling about Hillary Clinton's journey is that it invites every woman to reflect on how she chooses to behave in the daily rendezvous with sexism. It is a cautionary tale that reminds us we are not condemned to ricochet between the two poles of sexist stereotypes. It suggests that many of us are eager, hungry even, for a postgender conversation. We may even be ready to ask ourselves if the choices we make reflect the human beings we wish to be.

The coalition of vicious homophobes that is trying to make the Anglican Communion fall apart is itself falling apart

Father Jake, a prominent Episcopal blogger, has the story.

Meanwhile, "an infamous Dominionist" was spotted at GAFCON, the anti-Lambeth conference run by the vicious homophobes. Howard Ahmanson is a notorious financier of ultraconservative causes in the US, such as the Institute on Religion and Democracy. A quote from Howie by Episcopal Cafe:

"I think what upsets people is that Rushdoony seemed to think - and I'm not sure about this - that a godly society would stone people for the same thing that people in ancient Israel were stoned," [Ahmanson] said. "I no longer consider that essential.

"It would still be a little hard to say that if one stumbled on a country that was doing that, that it is inherently immoral, to stone people for these things," Ahmanson said. "But I don't think it's at all a necessity."

Lastly, GAFCON was to be held in Jordan. However, Big Pete (Akinola) was banned. He is likely to be complicit in the organized murder of Muslims in Nigeria. Admittedly, this was in response to equal violence by Muslims against Christians. But the act, which I covered earlier, went way beyond self defense, and is inexcusable.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

George Carlin, RIP

In honor of George Carlin's passing, here's a clip where he rants about our tendency to accumulate "stuff".

A Green coal baron? Jim Rogers of Duke Energy

The NY Times, that exemplar the allegedly liberal American media, has a story on Jim Rogers of Duke Energy.

Jim is trying to take his company green.

The problem is, Americans consume too much energy to completely eliminate coal plants.

Some of the more hard line environmentalists want no nuclear energy and no new coal plants. However, nuclear energy does look like a necessary part of the solution to reducing emissions, and newer coal plants pollute substantially less than old ones.

So, Jim goes out and lobbies hard for a cap and trade plan.

And then, the plan doesn't exactly work how he wants it.

What especially enrages him, though, is how the government wants to spend the cash it raises from the allowances. As Lieberman-Warner worked its way through the Senate environment committee, senators attached assorted riders: $800 billion over the life of the bill for tax refunds to help consumers pay for their higher electric bills, $1 billion for deficit reduction and billions more in handouts to state governments. In industry speeches, Rogers characterized the bill as a “bastardization” of cap-and-trade economics. (He later apologized.) In conversations with me, he expressed special disdain for Barbara Boxer, the California senator who shepherded the bill through the Senate environment committee.

“Politicians have visions of sugarplums dancing in their head with all the money they can get from auctions,” Rogers told me last month. “It’s all about treating me as the tax collector and the government as the good guy. I’m the evil corporation that’s passing through the carbon tax so Senator Boxer can be the Santa Claus!” If the government was going to collect cash from carbon auctions, Rogers figured, at least it ought to invest that money in green-tech research. “A billion dollars for deficit reduction,” he vented. “A billion dollars! What is [Boxer] smoking? I thought we were solving carbon here.”

For all of Rogers’s careful effort to position himself as a forward thinker — and an advocate for the Midwestern coal states — that did not gain him any slack. Congressional insiders who watched Rogers lobby the Senate committee say that regional politics actually worked against him. The Democratic deal makers who promised to deliver the votes for the bill were “a left-center coalition” of senators, most of whom come from urban and coastal states that do not rely heavily on coal. (Boxer, for example, hails from California, which gets only a small percentage of its energy from coal.) “And a lot of people, Jim Rogers in particular, really didn’t play in the negotiations,” says a Congressional aide close to the Lieberman-Warner negotiations who did not have approval to talk to the press. “The members on the Democratic side aren’t particularly responsive to his concerns.”

It's a fascinating story of economic incentives to keep your company in operation, and economic incentives not to screw up the climate and flood half the world, including probably quite a bit of the US that is near the coast.

As Rogers went on the attack, critics countered that he sounded less like an environmental statesman and more like an old-school C.E.O. fighting for government pork, arguing baldly that what’s best for Duke is what’s best for the country — that cap-and-trade will only work if it’s set up in a way that best benefits Duke. John Rowe, the chief executive of Exelon — the country’s largest nuclear power company, which will profit handsomely by selling its allowances — argues that it’s only fair to hit Duke and others with higher costs. Customers in nuclear states have paid higher electric bills for years, because nuclear power is inherently more expensive to generate, Rowe points out. Duke could have switched to nuclear decades ago but didn’t, so now it must pay the price.

Mugabe wins elections by violence, Anglicans in Zimbabwe resist

Robert Mugabe, the vicious dictator of Zimbabwe, has run opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai out of town, and will likely declare victory as the sole candidate.

The world once believed better of Mugabe. When he took power in 1980 after defeating the white minority regime of Ian Smith's Rhodesia, Mugabe surprised many by embracing capitalism, democracy and reconciliation with his former oppressors. Still, a vicious authoritarian streak quickly became visible in the early '80s, when he sent his army's notorious Fifth Brigade into the southern strongholds of his then chief rival, Joshua Nkomo, where they killed more than 10,000 ethnic Ndebele. When economic decline turned the electorate increasingly against Zanu-PF during the late '90s, Mugabe once again cloaked himself in the mantle of revolutionary socialism, defending his people from the ravages of Western imperialism. And imbued with that messianic vision, Mugabe is not shy about his use of force; he once boasted that he had, in addition to his seven academic degrees, a "degree in violence."

Episcopal Cafe links a story that details how Anglicans in the country have resisted Mugabe's predations ... despite the collusion of such quack clergy as Nolbert Kunonga.

ANGLICAN-INFORMATION observes that Central African Provincial Bishops, Sebastian Bakare of Harare and Peter Hatendi of Manicaland remain bravely in the front line in Zimbabwe with their priests and people, replacing renegade and now excommunicated ‘Archbishop’ Nolbert Kunonga and Bishop Elson Jakazi.

The Central African Anglican Province is at a critical juncture as world opinion at last moves into condemnation of the atrocities committed by the Mugabe regime: In the United Nations Security Council even China, and Russia have shifted to condemn Mugabe and more significantly surrounding African nations including, Botswana, Angola, Senegal and even South Africa are now beginning to criticise the Zimbabwe regime.

However, a significant problem for the Central African Bishops remains in that some of their number, especially those associated with former Archbishop Bernard Malango, have been very close to the Mugabe administration and that taint is hard to shake off. Strictly speaking, under the terms of the recent excommunication Malango should also be defrocked and certainly suspended from any priestly activities which he still seems to be conducting. Instead, Malango still appears to be exercising dubious political influence and interference in the Province both personally and through his protégé acting Dean Albert Chama.

The Provincial House of Bishops cannot continue indefinitely to appear to be moving in two opposing directions by, on the one hand, resisting the Mugabe regime and denouncing its mouthpiece Kunonga, whilst, at the same time, tacitly supporting it through the continuing active legacy of Bernard Malango.

A message to the House of Bishops: ‘Get rid of Bernard Malango and his supporters, they are ruining your good work and brave resistance and seriously damaging your credibility!’

Pray for Zimbabwe, and for the church there.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Christianity falling apart - Pew survey shows majority of respondents believe no one path to salvation

A Time Magazine article shows that Christians in the US are going pluralist ... or apostate.

Americans of every religious stripe are considerably more tolerant of the beliefs of others than most of us might have assumed, according to a new poll released Monday. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year surveyed 35,000 Americans, and found that 70% of respondents agreed with the statement "Many religions can lead to eternal life." Even more remarkable was the fact that 57% of Evangelical Christians were willing to accept that theirs might not be the only path to salvation, since most Christians historically have embraced the words of Jesus, in the Gospel of John, that "no one comes to the Father except through me." Even as mainline churches had become more tolerant, the exclusivity of Christianity's path to heaven has long been one of the Evangelicals' fundamental tenets. The new poll suggests a major shift, at least in the pews.

The implication, of course, could be that the majority of Americans aren't taking their religion seriously. Or perhaps that they are muddle-headed.

While the combination of Americans' religiosity — more than half those polled said was "very important in their lives" — and their tolerance for the beliefs of others may suggest creedal confusion, this appears not to trouble good-hearted U.S. pew-sitters. Says Lindsay, "The problem is not that Americans don't believe in anything, but that they believe in everything, and the two things don't always fit together." But he adds, the views are consistent with tolerant views expressed by Evangelicals he met in various cities as he toured while promoting his book.

Christian conservatives aren't pleased.

Less so, perhaps, to Christian conservatives, for whom Rice University sociologist D. Michael Lindsay suggests the survey results have a "devastating effect on theological purity." An acceptance of the notion of other paths to salvation dilutes the impact of the doctrine that Christ died to remove sin and thus opened the pathway to eternal life for those who accept him as their personal savior. It could also reduce the impulse to evangelize, which is based on the premise that those who are not Christian are denied salvation. The problem, says Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is that "the cultural context and the reality of pluralism has pulled many away from historic Christianity."

But, does Christianity have the only way for it to be true? Even if there are many ways to salvation, can't Jesus still be the decisive revelation of God for Christians?

Altria, with declining US sales, tries to develop safer cigarette

Our friends at the Wall Street Journalreport that Altria (aka Phillip Morris) is trying to develop a safer cigarette amidst a slow decline in US sales.

To generate growth, Philip Morris has put effort into engineering reduced-risk products -- so far without much success. Marlboro Ultra Smooth was the product of a top-secret Philip Morris project internally code-named SCOR, or Smoke Constituent Reduction, and included an activated carbon filter that delivers nicotine but with potentially less exposure to the carcinogens of conventional cigarettes.

Other failures include the Accord, which uses a battery-powered holder to primarily heat, rather than burn, tobacco. Deemed too strange for U.S. smokers to embrace, it was discontinued in 2006 after nearly a decade of consumer research.

In January, Philip Morris withdrew a so-called smokeless product, Taboka Tobaccopaks. The "spit-free" product is tobacco in small pouches known as snus (rhymes with "goose") placed between cheek and gum. The company continues to test Marlboro Snus.

It has also been working on moist snuff, a category that has been growing overall. A market test of Marlboro Moist Smokeless Tobacco, begun in Atlanta in October, was recently expanded to surrounding counties. But Philip Morris has had to slash the price of the product sometimes known as "Marlboro in a can," sometimes to as little as $1 a tin, down from the hoped-for $3.

Marlboro Ultra Smooth, which had been sold in Atlanta, Tampa, Fla., and Salt Lake City for more than three years, drew little attention from consumers. Philip Morris USA, which had hoped to market the cigarette as a reduced-risk smoke, stopped making new shipments to its wholesalers April 1. Remaining stock is still on sale. Its other cigarettes with the new activated-carbon filters -- the Marlboro Ultra Lights in Phoenix and North Dakota, and Basic Ultra Lights in Washington state -- also were just discontinued, the company said.

"We basically conducted tests in these markets and generally learned that there was low consumer acceptance...presumably because they didn't think the taste and flavor was acceptable," said an Altria spokesman, Brendan McCormick.

Several other cigarette makers have struggled to develop "reduced-risk" smoking products without success. Most used obscure brand names -- Eclipse, Quest, Advance -- that haven't caught on with consumers.

These efforts have been under scrutiny by state governments. Vermont, with assistance from attorneys general in California and other states, sued Reynolds American Inc.'s R.J. Reynolds over its marketing of Eclipse, claiming the company doesn't have evidence to back up its health claims. Ads for Eclipse, which mainly heats rather than burns tobacco, say it "may present less risk of cancer" than traditional cigarettes. A Reynolds spokesman said its claims for Eclipse are "supported by credible and reliable information."

Executives expect sales to decline 2.5-3% annually in the coming years. I say, good for them!

However, the fact remains that a large number of Americans smoke. I suppose it would be a good thing for smokers to use lower-risk products. However, might that detract from the efforts needed to reduce the number of smokers?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Church of England falling apart - two gay priests marry each other

The Revds Peter Cowell and David Lord engaged in a civil partnership ... and had their relationship blessed in church afterward by the Rev. Martin Dudley, who explains his decision here.

It is not we who have whipped up the whirlwind, replacing words of love and inclusion with those of hatred and exclusion. We set out to express, experimentally, pushing at boundaries, a love of a type which is not unusual or perverse but which is perfectly ordinary and accepted outside the Church. Why, then, can it not be accepted inside the community that is based, not on law, but on the loving presence of God in Jesus Christ?

Those who cannot ever accept same-sex unions and would rather divide from those who do, branding them as blasphemous and unchristian, have inevitably turned on us, and especially on me. I am clearly not naïve, so I must have been malicious, politically-motivated, intent on pushing forward my ungodly agenda. Every aspect of my life and ministry is being raked over, the Daily Mail’s old allegations of sexual impropriety, my failure to be elected as an alderman, my writing a book on clergy discipline, even the complaint from neighbouring flats that I will not silence the church clock which chimes at midnight and again at seven as it has for centuries. First discredit your opponent, then defrock him, and, as he is Rector of Smithfield, why not the stake?

I did not seek the role, the interviews, the publicity, but more than thirty years ago I began a journey, a process of becoming, that focuses on Jesus the Christ, not as lawgiver and judge but as the one who loves us and holds us and will not let us go until we know ourselves as loved by him despite our foolishness and imperfections, and because of that, when Peter Cowell asked me, I did not hesitate, not even for a moment to answer “Yes, I will.”

The service took place in St. Bartholomew's, a prominent church. However, there are those who say that these ceremonies have happened in England before.

The shouting and screaming has already started, with their bishop calling the act reckless and self-indulgent (wow!). Bishop Chartres has started an investigation, I believe.

It's really too bad there isn't this much shouting and screaming over, say, the genocide in Darfur.

Pray for the people of Darfur. And for Peter and David.

Rescuing the faith once delivered to the saints

I encourage readers to read this very good article by a friend of Katie Sherrod's, which was presented at a parish meeting. As background, they are Episcopalians in the Diocese of Fort Worth, the bishop of which is a misogynist and homophobe who wants to leave the Episcopal Church. Sherrod's friend deconstructs the myth of the "faith once delivered to the saints," a common conservative formula.

Sherrod is also a member of the Texas Women's Hall of Fame, having come to prominence as a journalist.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Aboriginal Day

Today is Aboriginal Day in Canada.

First proclaimed by the Governor General of Canada on June 13, 1996, June 21st of every year has become a day in the Canadian calendar that presents Aboriginal peoples with a great opportunity to express great pride for their rich diverse cultures with their families, neighbours, friends and visitors.

Pray for the First Nations peoples of Canada, and pray also for First Nations people within the church in Canada.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Church of England falling apart - women bishops to be debated in Synod

The Church of England will debate whether to allow the consecration of female bishops in July.

There is already much shouting and screaming, with some predicting a mass exodus of disaffected male clergy.

The Brits are also debating what sort of provisions to make for those not in agreement with female bishops. Their Bishops are backing some sort of voluntary code of practice.

Respecting people's consciences is all well and good. However, by the same logic, couldn't a country ban discrimination against women, and still allow men to, for example, beat their wives if their consciences demanded it?

I exaggerate, of course, but it does place the church in an odd spot to consecrate women as bishops, and to make provisions for some to not accept the authority of those bishops and still be part of the church. There are limits to church unity; this sort of thing will create a schizophrenic church down the road, and perhaps it's best to make no provisions and let the misogynists leave if they choose.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cindy McCain's selective attention

From an AP news story where Cindy criticizes Myanmar's leaders:

Cindy McCain harshly criticized Myanmar's military junta Thursday while vowing to make improving human rights there a priority if she becomes America's next first lady.

Taking a cue from current first lady Laura Bush, who has also been a sharp critic of human rights abuses in Myanmar, the wife of presumed Republican presidential nominee John McCain said Myanmar leaders don't value human life.

"It's just a terrible group of people that rule the country, and the frightening part is that their own people are dying of disease and starvation and everything else and it doesn't matter," Cindy McCain said during a trip to Vietnam, where she has worked with a charity that helps children born with facial deformities. "I don't understand how human life doesn't matter to somebody. But clearly, it doesn't matter to them."

While the leaders of Myanmar certainly deserve to go to hell, human rights abuses have also occurred in the United States. The case can easily be made that George Bush doesn't value human life - certainly not the lives of the detainees at Guantanamo. If John McCain is elected, will Cindy pressure Congress to have George Bush tried for his crimes?

Separately, Cindy McCain said the stir she caused in the presidential race earlier this year when she took exception to a comment by the wife of her husband's Democratic rival, Barack Obama, was unplanned and not a political ploy.

After Michelle Obama said in February that for the first time in her adult life she was proud of the United States, Cindy McCain pointedly said: "I have, and always will be, proud of my country."

Why are people of color always questioned when they point out the United State's many abuses, and say they aren't always proud of their country?

If Cindy McCain is proud of the United States and ready to discount the US' many abuses of human rights, she is guilty of idolatry.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Million dollar babies - when do we stop trying to save preemies?

Neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) are very profitable endeavors for hospitals. They require lots of fancy equipment and very skilled caregivers. They are able to save babies earlier and earlier, and keep them in better health. They also cost a lot.

Our baptismal covenant asks us to respect the dignity of every human being. Indeed, improving medical technology that allows us to save premature children born earlier and earlier must surely improve human dignity, all else being equal.

Billie Lou Short, NICU director at Children's National, says the typical 28-week-old preemie had a 20% rate of survival in the 1980s. Now those infants "have a 90% survival rate and considerably reduced side effects." The percentage of such children with permanent disabilities has dropped to about 15% from as high as 40%, she says. Ciaran S. Phibbs, an associate professor at Stanford University's Health Research & Policy Dept., adds, "NICUs have had a dramatic positive effect."

However, all else is not equal. Treatment for premature babies costs a lot.

In the U.S., corporations handle most of the financial burden. Employers generally cover some or all of the hospital charges in their health plans, and they also must deal with lost work hours of staff who spend weeks, sometimes months, attending to their premature infants. Corporations pay out nearly 15 times as much for babies born prematurely in their first year of life as for full-term babies, at an average cost of about $41,000 per child. For the earliest of the preemies, who are born in fewer than 28 weeks and spend up to three months in the hospital, the tab is higher. Says Waitzman: "The million-dollar babies are there."

Additionally, babies that survive still have higher odds of lifetime disabilities, which is also expensive.

That said, some health economists argue that overall, investing in preterm births is a good investment.

The cost calculations are just as controversial, but most health-care economists seem to agree that spending on preemies offers a high rate of return for all but the earliest-stage infants. The reason? The money improves both the quality and length of life, which yields big economic benefits. Between 1960 and 2000, the U.S. infant mortality rate—the rate at which babies less than 1 year of age die—dropped 73%. It fell from 26.0 to 6.9 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The staff at Children's National consider this a huge triumph. Billie Lou Short, NICU director at Children's National, says the typical 28-week-old preemie had a 20% rate of survival in the 1980s. Now those infants "have a 90% survival rate and considerably reduced side effects." The percentage of such children with permanent disabilities has dropped to about 15% from as high as 40%, she says. Ciaran S. Phibbs, an associate professor at Stanford University's Health Research & Policy Dept., adds, "NICUs have had a dramatic positive effect."

The money society invests in low-birthweight infants who survive produces a high rate of return, according to Harvard professors David M. Cutler and Ellen Meara. They argue it is much more cost-effective than, say, coronary bypass surgery. Admittedly, it is hard to calculate the value of a life in terms of financial returns. Regardless, "the benefits [of preemie care] are substantially greater than the rise in costs," insists Meara, assistant professor of health-care policy at Harvard Medical School. She also notes that innovations in preemie care, such as ventilator technologies and surgical procedures, can be applied to full-term infants, greatly amplifying their social impact.

That said, the authors quoted above don't seem to give a limit. A British bioethics council proposed a 22 week limit. One pro-life group argued for 20 weeks, but experts in preterm birth seem mostly opposed. There's a point of diminishing returns with everything, and it would seem that that point is around 22 weeks for preterm infants.

Asking broader society to bear a disproportionate financial burden to save a few lives may not be compatible with increased human dignity. For sure, there is some point along the scale when society will cease being able to bear the costs. That sounds bald, but there it is.

Steven Pinker, a well-known linguist, argues here that "human dignity" is a very poorly-defined term. He has a point. Specifically, he argues that the Roman Catholic Church throws it out whenever anyone does something they don't like. He has a point there, too, although I think some of his criticisms miss the mark.

However, I think that the concept of dignity is valid, we just need to do a better job defining it.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Critics of Anheuser Busch buyout frothing at mouth, but lack leg to stand on

Anheuser Busch has received a buyout offer for $46 billion, or about $65 a share, from InBev, a Belgium-based global consortium which owns Bass, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, and a bunch of other brands. (For the record, I like Hoegaarden, my chaplain likes Stella.)

And of course, some folks are up in arms. A-B is seen as an American icon. God only knows what kind of foul rhetoric they would be spouting if the offer were from a Chinese group. Still, the governor of Missouri has asked his state's Economic Development Department to find some way to keep A-B in American hands.

Nonetheless, InBev could be in unfriendly territory. "The heartland of America doesn't take to foreign ownership easily," says Scott Goodson, founder and chief executive of StrawberryFrog, a branding firm in New York that used to handle Heineken's (HEIN.AS) worldwide marketing strategy.

Beer and nationalism have collided before in America. During World War I, the government seized the assets of George Ehret, a German immigrant who was for a time the biggest brewer in the country. Ehret had sailed for Germany for a vacation and got stuck there when the war broke out. While in Germany, he was dogged by innuendo and had to reassure customers of his loyalty when he returned. "My sympathies are entirely with the U.S. in this war," Ehret told The New York Times.

More recently, when Miller Brewing became part of South African Breweries (SAB.L), few Americans raised concerns. Ditto for Wild Turkey bourbon, which was sold in 1980 to Pernod Ricard Group (PERP.PA), a French company. Indeed, if consumers balk at the idea of buying beer owned by a foreign company, they won't have many choices, at least among the major brewers. "If your whole thing is 'Buy American,' where are you going to go?" says Paul Worthington, head of strategy for Wolff Olins, a branding consultancy in London and New York.

Normally, I would say these folks should shut up and get on with their lives. Like it or not, we all compete in a global economy. Western companies hold far greater sway over the economies of Global South nations.

If all this shouting and screaming were over a Chinese oil company wanting to mine oil shale in Colorado, I would understand, since extractive industries have a particularly egregious record of exploitation and environmental destruction. However, although InBev has a reputation for being ruthless cost cutters, they would still have to comply with US labor laws. They've pledged not to close any of A-B's breweries. A-B would remain a US operation, although management might lose a lot of perks.

And frankly, the best thing that can be said about Budweiser is that it's cheap and contains some alcohol. There are many American microbreweries that make really good beer. Michigan residents interested in microbrewed beer might wish to start with Bells Beer, which is based in Kalamazoo. Their beer is also distributed in neighboring states.

However, culture is something that is fundamental to us. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes the human right of all peoples to freely pursue their cultural development, because it is something inherent to human dignity.

Most Americans haven't realized how transnational corporations sometimes - or often - threaten the cultural development of the cultures they operate in. They haven't drawn the parallel between InBev's proposed acquisition, and the encroachment of Western media into other cultures. I wish they would.

The Businessweek article I linked above doesn't seem to think that the US Federal government, or the Missouri government, will be able to block the acquisition. A-B is a family owned business, but doesn't have a dual share class like many others, so management won't be able to block the acquisition. (A lot of publicly traded family businesses in the US, especially newspapers, have one share class that has disproportionate voting power, and is insider owned.) A-B might be able to buy Modelo, a Mexican brewer in which they have an interest, and that might make them too big for InBev to buy, but it's not certain if A-B will succeed.

Meanwhile, an iconic American brand is potentially going to a Belgian company with a reputation for cost cutting (A-B has traditionally been heavy on the perks and has union contracts). If I were an A-B shareholder, I'd vote to sell (actually, because of the political risks, I'd just sell the shares on the market right now). If I were an American who loved Budweiser as a beer and an icon, though, I admit I would feel otherwise.

In real life, I'd only start worrying if the capitalist pigs were buying breweries like Bells.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Putting meat in its place

A NY Times article offers some tips on how to eat less meat. It contends that meat should be a bit more of a side dish, rather than the main dish.

In Europe, a debate over Islam and cirginity

A fascinating NY Times article highlights the contradictions between modern democracies and respect for religious tradition, as well as modern life and tradition.

PARIS — The operation in the private clinic off the Champs-Élysées involved one semicircular cut, 10 dissolving stitches and a discounted fee of $2,900.

But for the patient, a 23-year-old French student of Moroccan descent from Montpellier, the 30-minute procedure represented the key to a new life: the illusion of virginity.

Like an increasing number of Muslim women in Europe, she had a hymenoplasty, a restoration of her hymen, the vaginal membrane that normally breaks in the first act of intercourse.

“In my culture, not to be a virgin is to be dirt,” said the student, perched on a hospital bed as she awaited surgery on Thursday. “Right now, virginity is more important to me than life.”

As Europe’s Muslim population grows, many young Muslim women are caught between the freedoms that European society affords and the deep-rooted traditions of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Gynecologists say that in the past few years, more Muslim women are seeking certificates of virginity to provide proof to others. That in turn has created a demand among cosmetic surgeons for hymen replacements, which, if done properly, they say, will not be detected and will produce tell-tale vaginal bleeding on the wedding night. The service is widely advertised on the Internet; medical tourism packages are available to countries like Tunisia where it is less expensive.

“If you’re a Muslim woman growing up in more open societies in Europe, you can easily end up having sex before marriage,” said Dr. Hicham Mouallem, who is based in London and performs the operation. “So if you’re looking to marry a Muslim and don’t want to have problems, you’ll try to recapture your virginity.”

No reliable statistics are available, because the procedure is mostly done in private clinics and in most cases not covered by tax-financed insurance plans.

But hymen repair is talked about so much that it is the subject of a film comedy that opens in Italy this week. “Women’s Hearts,” as the film’s title is translated in English, tells the story of a Moroccan-born woman living in Italy who goes to Casablanca for the operation.

One character jokes that she wants to bring her odometer count back down to “zero.”

“We realized that what we thought was a sporadic practice was actually pretty common,” said Davide Sordella, the film’s director. “These women can live in Italy, adopt our mentality and wear jeans. But in the moments that matter, they don’t always have the strength to go against their culture.”

The issue has been particularly charged in France, where a renewed and fierce debate has occurred about a prejudice that was supposed to have been buried with the country’s sexual revolution 40 years ago: the importance of a woman’s virginity.

The furor followed the revelation two weeks ago that a court in Lille, in northern France, had annulled the 2006 marriage of two French Muslims because the groom found his bride was not the virgin she had claimed to be.

The domestic drama has gripped France. The groom, an unidentified engineer in his 30s, left the nuptial bed and announced to the still partying wedding guests that his bride had lied. She was delivered that night to her parents’ doorstep.

The next day, he approached a lawyer about annulling the marriage. The bride, then a nursing student in her 20s, confessed and agreed to an annulment.

The court ruling did not mention religion. Rather, it cited breach of contract, concluding that the engineer had married her after “she was presented to him as single and chaste.” In secular, republican France, the case touches on several delicate subjects: the intrusion of religion into daily life; the grounds for dissolution of a marriage; and the equality of the sexes.

There were calls in Parliament this week for the resignation of Rachida Dati, France’s justice minister, after she initially upheld the ruling. Ms. Dati, who is a Muslim, backed down and ordered an appeal.

Some feminists, lawyers and doctors warned that the court’s acceptance of the centrality of virginity in marriage would encourage more Frenchwomen from Arab and African Muslim backgrounds to have their hymens restored. But there is much debate about whether the procedure is an act of liberation or repression.

“The judgment was a betrayal of France’s Muslim women,” said Elisabeth Badinter, the feminist writer. “It sends these women a message of despair by saying that virginity is important in the eyes of the law. More women are going to say to themselves, ‘My God, I’m not going to take that risk. I’ll recreate my virginity.’ ”

The plight of the rejected bride persuaded the Montpellier student to have the operation.

She insisted that she had never had intercourse and only discovered her hymen was torn when she tried to obtain a certificate of virginity to present to her boyfriend and his family. She says she bled after an accident on a horse when she was 10.

The trauma from realizing that she could not prove her virginity was so intense, she said, that she quietly borrowed money to pay for the procedure.

“All of a sudden, virginity is important in France,” she said. “I realized that I could be seen like that woman everyone is talking about on television.”

Those who perform the procedure say they are empowering patients by giving them a viable future and preventing them from being abused — or even killed — by their fathers or brothers.

“Who am I to judge?” asked Dr. Marc Abecassis, who restored the Montpellier student’s hymen. “I have colleagues in the United States whose patients do this as a Valentine’s present to their husbands. What I do is different. This is not for amusement. My patients don’t have a choice if they want to find serenity — and husbands.”

A specialist in what he calls “intimate” surgery, including penile enhancement, Dr. Abecassis says he performs two to four hymen restorations per week.

The French College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians opposes the procedure on moral, cultural and health grounds.

“We had a revolution in France to win equality; we had a sexual revolution in 1968 when women fought for contraception and abortion,” said Dr. Jacques Lansac, the group’s leader. “Attaching so much importance to the hymen is regression, submission to the intolerance of the past.”

But the stories of the women who have had the surgery convey the complexity and raw emotion behind their decisions.

One Muslim born in Macedonia said she opted for the operation to avoid being punished by her father after an eight-year relationship with her boyfriend.

“I was afraid that my father would take me to a doctor and see whether I was still a virgin,” said the woman, 32, who owns a small business and lives on her own in Frankfurt. “He told me, ‘I will forgive everything but not if you have thrown dirt on my honor.’ I wasn’t afraid he would kill me, but I was sure he would have beaten me.”

In other cases, the woman and her partner decide for her to have the operation. A 26-year-old French woman of Moroccan descent said she lost her virginity four years ago when she fell in love with the man she now plans to marry. But she and her fiancé decided to share the cost of her $3,400 operation in Paris.

She said his conservative extended family in Morocco was requiring that a gynecologist — and family friend — there examine her for proof of virginity before the wedding.

“It doesn’t matter for my fiancé that I am not a virgin — but it would pose a huge problem for his family,” she said. “They know that you can pour blood on the sheets on the wedding night, so I have to have better proof.”

The lives of the French couple whose marriage was annulled are on hold. The Justice Ministry has sought an appeal, arguing that the decision has “provoked a heated social debate” that “touched all citizens of our country and especially women.”

At the Islamic Center of Roubaix, the Lille suburb where the wedding took place, there is sympathy for the woman.

“The man is the biggest of all the donkeys,” said Abdelkibir Errami, the center’s vice president. “Even if the woman was no longer a virgin, he had no right to expose her honor. This is not what Islam teaches. It teaches forgiveness.”

Homosexual agenda: improving heterosexual marriage?

An excerpt from a NY Times article on studies on same-sex couples. This is not good news for the folks who are allegedly trying to destroy marriage.

One well-known study used mathematical modeling to decipher the interactions between committed gay couples. The results, published in two 2003 articles in The Journal of Homosexuality, showed that when same-sex couples argued, they tended to fight more fairly than heterosexual couples, making fewer verbal attacks and more of an effort to defuse the confrontation.

Controlling and hostile emotional tactics, like belligerence and domineering, were less common among gay couples.

Same-sex couples were also less likely to develop an elevated heartbeat and adrenaline surges during arguments. And straight couples were more likely to stay physically agitated after a conflict.

“When they got into these really negative interactions, gay and lesbian couples were able to do things like use humor and affection that enabled them to step back from the ledge and continue to talk about the problem instead of just exploding,” said Robert W. Levenson, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

The findings suggest that heterosexual couples need to work harder to seek perspective. The ability to see the other person’s point of view appears to be more automatic in same-sex couples, but research shows that heterosexuals who can relate to their partner’s concerns and who are skilled at defusing arguments also have stronger relationships.

One of the most common stereotypes in heterosexual marriages is the “demand-withdraw” interaction, in which the woman tends to be unhappy and to make demands for change, while the man reacts by withdrawing from the conflict. But some surprising new research shows that same-sex couples also exhibit the pattern, contradicting the notion that the behavior is rooted in gender, according to an abstract presented at the 2006 meeting of the Association for Psychological Science by Sarah R. Holley, a psychology researcher at Berkeley.

Dr. Levenson says this is good news for all couples.

“Like everybody else, I thought this was male behavior and female behavior, but it’s not,” he said. “That means there is a lot more hope that you can do something about it.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why you should embrace $4 gasoline

This Motley Fool article makes a case that the only way to solve the gas price crisis is ... to use less.

Additionally, with gas so expensive, companies will develop alternative energy solutions. The same happened in Brazil and Denmark, which make considerable use of sugar cane ethanol and wind power respectively.

The author concludes that markets work. They don't always. But in this case, they might.

Monday, June 09, 2008

What Hillary Won

Gail Collins writes in an opinion piece for the NY Times.

As the sun was sinking on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the nation’s wounded feminists were burning up the Internet.

They vowed to write in Hillary’s name on their ballots in November; to wear “NObama” T-shirts all summer; to “de-register” as Democrats. One much-circulated e-mail proposed turning June 3, the day Barack Obama claimed the nomination, as a permanent day of mournful remembrance “like the people in Ireland remember the Famine.”

“The passion is very intense,” said Muriel Fox, a retired public relations executive in New York who was one of the founding members of the National Organization for Women. “It’s very much a feeling that Hillary has not been respected.”

Feel free to make fun of them. The women of Fox’s generation ought to be used to it by now. The movement they started was the first fight for equality in which the opposition deployed ridicule as its most lethal weapon. They won the ban on sex discrimination in employment by letting a conservative congressman propose it as a joke. When they staged their historic march in New York in 1970, they heard themselves described as “braless bubble-heads” by a U.S. senator and were laughed at on the evening news.

They had always seen a woman in the White House as the holy grail. Now their disappointment is compounded by the feeling that Clinton’s candidacy was not even appreciated as a noble try.

“She stayed in and showed she could take it. I feel she’s taken this beating for us — the abuse and the battering and the insults,” said Fox.

I get asked all the time whether I think Hillary lost because sexism is worse than racism in this country. The answer is no. She lost because Obama ran a smarter, better-organized campaign. It’s possible that she would have won if the Democratic Party had more rational primary rules. But Obama didn’t make up the rules, and Clinton had no problem with them until she began to lose.

Here’s where the sexism does come in. If Barack had failed in his attempt to make history by becoming the first African-American presidential nominee, you can bet we’d have treated his defeat with the dignity it deserved. Even if he went over the deep end at the finale and found it hard to get around to a graceful concession.

For a long time, Obama supporters have seen party unity as something that Hillary could provide by capitulating. It also requires the Democrats to acknowledge what she’s achieved. If that makes them feel like wimps, let them take it out on John McCain.

Clinton is very much a product of the generation that accepted a certain amount of humiliation as the price of progress. She wrote in her autobiography that when she ran for president of her high-school class against several boys, one of them told her she was “really stupid” if she thought a girl could be elected president. She lost, and later, the winner asked her to head a committee “which as far as I could tell was expected to do most of the work.” She swallowed hard, accepted and, she admitted, really liked organizing all the school parades and dances and pep rallies.

This is one of the things you have to admire about Hillary Clinton. She still enjoys the work.

Over the past months, Clinton has seemed haunted by the image of the “nice girl” who gives up the fight because she’s afraid the boys will be angry if they don’t get their way. She told people she would never, ever say: “I’m the girl, I give up.” She would never let her daughter, or anybody else’s daughter, think that she quit because things got too tough.

And she never did. Nobody is ever again going to question whether it’s possible for a woman to go toe-to-toe with the toughest male candidate in a race for president of the United States. Or whether a woman could be strong enough to serve as commander in chief.

Her campaign didn’t resolve whether a woman who seems tough enough to run the military can also seem likable enough to get elected. But she helped pave the way. So many battles against prejudice are won when people get used to seeing women and minorities in roles that only white men had held before. By the end of those 54 primaries and caucuses, Hillary had made a woman running for president seem normal.

Her campaign was messy, and it made some fatal tactical errors. But nobody who sent her a donation could accuse her of not giving them their money’s worth.

For all her vaunting ambition, she was never a candidate who ran for president just because it’s the presidency. She thought about winning in terms of the things she could accomplish, and she never forgot the women’s issues she had championed all her life — repair of the social safety net, children’s rights, support for working mothers.

It’s not the same as winning the White House. But it’s a lot.

Researchers who promoted use of anti-psychotics in children fail to reveal that they received consulting fees from drug companies

Dr. Joseph Biederman, a world renowned child psychiatrist, conducted studies that helped fuel a significant increase in prescriptions for powerful anti-psychotic drugs in children to combat pediatric biploar disorder. Diagnosis rates have increased 40 times from 1994 to 2003. A total of 500,000 children or teenagers received at least one prescription for antipsychotic drugs last year.

However, it recently came to light that he failed to disclose receipt of $1.6 million in consulting fees from drug companies over several years.

Needless to say, that's a major conflict of interest.

Some have also called into question the quality of Biederman's research.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Banks v. Consumers (Guess who wins)

Businessweek has an article about arbitration for credit card disputes. Chances are, if you have a credit card, the contract says that disputes will be resolved by arbitration. You generally won't have the right to resolve them in court.

However, the game is heavily stacked in favor of the card companies. Businessweek details the fact that the National Arbitration Forum, the company responsible for most arbitration in the credit card arena, has cultivated many links with credit card companies. The business relationship is such that if NAF were a judge, their decisions might well get thrown out due to conflicts of interest.

In addition, there were several instances where the arbitrators played procedural games, such as failing to inform consumers about the arbitration. And the writers interviewed several former arbitrators who quit because of concerns over fairness.

In fact, some consumers who are knowledgeable enough to contest their decisions, and who have had the resources to hire lawyers, have got the results thrown out in court.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

In honor of Hillary - a fairy tale

This is a repost from the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton's blog. Elizabeth is an Episcopal priest, President of the Episcopal Women's Caucus, and is a board member of Integrity, a national LGBT Episcopal organization.

King Arthur and the Witch - a cautionary tale in these cautionary times.

Young King Arthur was ambushed and imprisoned by the monarch of a neighboring kingdom. The monarch could have killed him but was moved by Arthur’s youth and ideals. So, the monarch offered him his freedom, as long as he could answer a very difficult question. Arthur would have a year to figure out the answer and, if after a year, he still had no answer, he would be put to death.

The question… What do women really want? Such a question would perplex even the most knowledgeable man, and to young Arthur, it seemed an impossible query. But, since it was better than death, he accepted the monarch’s proposition to have an answer by year’s end.

He returned to his kingdom and began to poll everyone: the princess, the priests, the wise men and even the court jester. He spoke with everyone, but no one could give him a satisfactory answer.

Many people advised him to consult the old witch, for only she would have the answer.

But the price would be high; as the witch was famous throughout the kingdom for the exorbitant prices she charged.

The last day of the year arrived and Arthur had no choice but to talk to the witch. She agreed to answer the question, but he would have to agree to her price first.

The old witch wanted to marry Sir Lancelot, the most noble of the Knights of the Round Table and Arthur’s closest friend!

Young Arthur was horrified. She was hunchbacked and hideous, had only one tooth, smelled like sewage, made obscene noises, etc. He had never encountered such a repugnant creature in all his life.

He refused to force his friend to marry her and endure such a terrible burden; but Lancelot, learning of the proposal, spoke with Arthur.

He said nothing was too big of a sacrifice compared to Arthur’s life and the preservation of the Round Table.

Hence, a wedding was proclaimed, and the witch answered Arthur’s question thus:

What a woman really wants, she answered… is to be in charge of her own life.

Everyone in the kingdom instantly knew that the witch had uttered a great truth, and that Arthur’s life would be spared.

And so it was, the neighboring monarch granted Arthur his freedom, and Lancelot and the witch had a wonderful wedding.

The honeymoon hour approached and Lancelot, steeling himself for a horrific experience, entered the bedroom. But, what a sight awaited him. The most beautiful woman he had ever seen lay before him on the bed. The astounded Lancelot asked what had happened.

The beauty replied that since he had been so kind to her when she appeared as a witch, she would henceforth, be her horrible deformed self only half the time and the beautiful maiden the other half.

Which would he prefer? Beautiful during the day… or night?

Lancelot pondered the predicament. During the day, a beautiful woman to show off to his friends, but at night, in the privacy of his castle, an old witch? Or, would he prefer having a hideous witch during the day, but by night, a beautiful woman for him to enjoy wondrous intimate moments?

Noble Lancelot said that he would allow HER to make the choice herself.

Upon hearing this, she announced that she would be beautiful all the time because he had respected her enough to let her be in charge of her own life.

Now… what is the moral to this story?

The moral is… The next time you're in an airport and are tempted to purchase a "Hillary Nutcracker" - think twice. The nuts you save may be your own.

To quote Tina Fey: "Bitch is the new Black."

(Doug sent me this, but with a different moral ending. Thanks, Doug.)

John McCain flip-flops on retroactive immunity for telecoms

AT&T and several other wireless providers may have violated Federal law when they complied with warrantless wiretapping requests. The practice of spying without even a warrant at a rubber stamp kangaroo court should be unconscionable in a democracy. Indeed, McCain previously criticized the telecom companies and the Bush administration on this issue. However, he is also in support of a Senate bill that would retroactively grant those companies immunity from prosecution on this issue.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

College endowments come under pressure

Businessweek reports that there may be legislation in the offing to make US universities with large endowments spend more money on giving financial aid. I've copied part of the article below. This sort of thing could be difficult to legislate, though.

As targets go, this one is a doozy. With assets totaling $411 billion, the nation's college and university endowments are larger than the annual gross domestic product of Belgium. That's enough money to run the federal government for nearly 50 days. Harvard alone has $35 billion. They pay their managers like rock stars, and, as a group, they've been growing at a double-digit rate by making riskier investments. Their ostensible purpose, providing for the financial needs of their institutions, gets a sliver of the total each year, about 4.6% of assets. And they're tax-exempt to boot.

But maybe not for long. Congress, the IRS, and some states are all taking aim at endowments. Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman and ranking Republican, respectively, on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, have been pushing to force endowments to disperse at least 5% of their assets each year—as other tax-exempt organizations are required to do. A top IRS commissioner, in a speech last month in Washington, said the agency should be "more aggressive" about ensuring that endowments make "appropriate use" of their resources. And lawmakers in Massachusetts are considering a 2.5% tax on endowment assets exceeding $1 billion. It would cost the state's nine mega-endowments—including Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Boston College—an estimated $1.4 billion.

Pope John XXIII

"Let's get lunch." - Attributed to Pope John XXIII just after his election

Pope John XXIII was born Angela Giuseppe Roncalli, and was sometimes known as Good Pope John. He is a saint in the Roman Church, and Anglicans and Lutherans commemorate him as a reformer of the church.

First, I want to remind folks that Protestantism has developed its own dogma. Sola Scriptura, for example, is just as toxic as the worst Catholic dogmas. As humans are wont to do, Protestants too have fallen into a routine. I suppose the Romans do do dogma a bit more strictly than others, but I don't want us to think that the Romans are all inflexible, and the Protestants aren't.

Still, for many Roman Catholics, Vatican II was indeed a time of great renewal. The Mass could now be celebrated in the vernacular, and ordinary people could understand what was going on. While the Church certainly condemned Communism, and Pope John XXIII excommunicated Fidel Castro, many saw the Church coming to a certain acceptance of some teachings of liberation theology (which stressed Marxist social analyses and was basically Socialist). Vatican II was also seen as promoting increased ecumenical activity. Pope John said that although he wasn't out to change church dogmas, Vatican II would be about preaching Christ's message in light of the changing world.

And that is what Good Pope John offers us: a vision of reform grounded in our core values. Liberal Protestants have always been willing to challenge doctrines that many Christians regard as essential, and challenge is always good.

However, while we must not define ourselves in a way to condemn others, we must hold true to what defines us.

So, while some conservatives may believe in the literal truth of the Scriptures, I prefer to believe that the Scriptures contain everything necessary to salvation. That doesn't mean everything in Scripture is necessary, or that salvation is not to be found elsewhere, but it does mean that Scripture is critical.

And, The Center for Progressive Christianity, in point 1 of its 8 points of Progressive Christianity, maintains that we have found an approach to God through the life and teachings of Jesus. I prefer to believe that for Christians, Jesus is the definitive experience of God.

Christian conservatives in the UK, like Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, are going on and on about how the UK has lost its core Christian identity, and is allegedly trying to force multiculturalism down everyone's throat. For certain, the UK has become markedly less Christian. It is understandable that Christians might feel a sense of loss. But, instead of wanting a Christian state, can we Christians assert our core sense of Christianity without threatening others?

Globalization and immigration are simple facts of life that Christians must adapt to.

"Modern Gypsy hunts"; Europe offers no place for the Roma

Claudia Ciobanu, writing for Alternet, describes in some detail the present persecution of the Roma in Italy.

A Roma ghetto in Ponticelli neighborhood of Naples, Italy, was burnt down May 14 by locals angry over a reported attempt by a Roma young woman to kidnap a baby. The incident shows that, when it comes to living together with the 10 million Roma, Europeans today have no better answer than the "Gypsy hunts" of the Middle Ages. The attempted kidnap in Naples is merely the last in a string of publicized crimes committed in Italy by Roma, usually from Romania. In the most notorious case, Romanian Nicolae Mailat raped and killed Italian teacher Giovanna Reggiani Oct. 30, 2007, on the outskirts of Rome.

Italian human rights organization Opera Nomadi has calculated that of the 160,000 Roma living in Italy, roughly 60,000 come from Romania. Most of them inhabit improvised camps on the outskirts of towns or next to rivers. The Roma are a community that is believed to have migrated to Europe from India since the 14th century.

According to a survey commissioned this year by the Romanian Agency for Governmental Strategies, over 60 percent of Italians believe that criminality rates in their country have increased because of Romanians. Italians further said they considered Roma "the most difficult to tolerate."

Close to one million Romanians currently work in Italy. Romanians are said to be responsible for most of the illegalities committed by foreigners there. There is no clear indication that criminality rates for Roma from Romania are higher than for their non-Roma compatriots.

Anti-Roma and anti-Romanian feeling has been growing in Italy since last fall, reaching a boiling point with the attempted kidnap in Naples. Several shanty towns inhabited by Roma across the country have been burnt down over the past week. The Italian authorities are currently raiding Roma camps, rounding up "illegal immigrants" and issuing expulsion decrees.

While Italy's rejection of Roma is in the limelight these days, "voluntary repatriations" of Roma from France to Romania have been taking place for months without much public discussion. The French government pays for the flights back home and gives 300 euros to each person agreeing to return to Romania.

At the beginning of April, trains leaving from Bucharest to various towns in the country were full of Roma families returning from France. One of the women told IPS that the money would be spent on Easter celebrations and that her family would try to return to Western Europe. On the trains, the Roma slept in the corridors, while non-Roma inside the sitting compartments guarded the doors carefully. This reporter was not let into a compartment until those inside were confident she is not Roma.

Non-Roma Romanians are keen to be differentiated from the Roma. They claim they do honest work in the West and should not be demonized because of the criminal acts committed by Roma.

But allegations that Roma commit more crimes than non-Roma are unfounded. A 2008 study commissioned by the National Agency for Roma in Bucharest ('Come Closer. Inclusion and Exclusion of Roma in Present-Day Romanian Society) quotes chief police officer Stefan Campean from the General Police Inspectorate as saying that in spite of the public perception, Roma do not commit more crimes than non-Roma in Romania. Besides, most of the offenses by Roma are petty crime, often involving food thefts.

While Western European countries are pushing Roma eastwards, back to their places of origin, in countries like Romania and Bulgaria, where Roma have lived for seven centuries, they are usually excluded from regular residential areas, schools and jobs.

About 2.5 million Roma live in Romania, and close to another million in neighboring Bulgaria, out of a total of six million all over Central and Eastern Europe.

In Zapaden Park, a neighborhood in the Western part of Bulgarian capital Sofia, the areas inhabited by Roma begin right where the city ends along with the paved roads. To visit Roma dwellings, one has to walk a muddy path, and fields scattered with trash on both sides. The garbage collecting truck makes its way along the same route, seemingly just cruising around because at no point do the workers stop to pick up the dirt.

There are no waste collecting points anyway, so the people in the area are forced to dump their rubbish in the street. This is the classic picture of Roma urban areas in Bulgaria and Romania, spatially segregated from the non-Roma neighborhoods, and often lacking basic facilities.

In Romania, according to the 2008 study 'Come Closer', 60 percent of the Roma interviewed declared that someone in their family had gone to bed hungry in the past month. Over 50 percent of Roma children do not have a winter coat and another 50 percent live in a household that cannot afford shoes for all members.

The same study shows that only 17 percent of Roma households have access to gas and just 14 percent have water pipes in the house. Some 40 percent of the Roma interviewed do not have any documents for the land their shelters are situated on.

According to the Institute for Quality of Life Research in Bucharest, 47 percent of employable Roma in Romania had jobs in 2007, a significant improvement over previous years. However, write the authors of 'Come Closer', "Roma are generally informally employed, on a daily basis, mostly in unqualified occupations which require hard physical work, but which are stigmatized as temporary, inferior occupations."

Only 9 percent of the Roma interviewed for the 'Come Closer' study had completed high school, and another 2 percent held university degrees.

In some regions, as many as 10 percent of the Roma do not hold valid identity documents, Andreea Socaciu from the local Association for Community Partnership told IPS. This situation leads to difficulties in accessing education, jobs and social welfare.

Socaciu, who is involved in a program helping Roma get official papers, says "there are areas where we are back in the Middle Ages. Entire families live in 20 square meter spaces, in one room, with no facilities. Children are forced to drop out of school, so the labor force of the future is jeopardized."

A national strategy for documenting Roma and facilitating their access to information about health, education and jobs was put forward in 2005, says Socaciu, adding that what her organization does is merely "the starting point." Other measures taken by Romanian authorities include reserving places in higher education for Roma students and providing "health mediators" for Roma communities.

Progress is slow, however, and the authors of 'Come Closer' say that working abroad remains "the main strategy for emancipation" for Roma. Of those interviewed, 74 percent declared they plan to go abroad for work, half of them saying they will do this within a year, an indication of the seriousness of their intentions.

"Those who come to Italy for work don't do it because this is a beautiful country, they do it because of poverty at home," says Najo Adzovic, the informal leader of a Roma camp on the outskirts of Rome. "Conditions must be created for them to return to their country with dignity. They need a work place above all. Perhaps Italian businessmen, who make good money in Romania, could offer work places to Roma."

US loses $3 billion cotton subsidy dispute with Brazil at WTO

CNN Money has a report that the US has lost a dispute at the WTO, initiated by Brazil, over cotton subsidies. Brazil now may impose retaliatory tariffs.

Of course, it might be better if the US just played by the rules of free trade it claims to uphold, and eliminate or curtail domestic cotton and other crop subsidies. In the long run, retaliation does no one any good.

Brazil has warned that it is likely to target US intellectual property in retaliation. One possible avenue for retaliation could be antiretrovirals used to treat HIV. I believe that the WTO includes mechanisms for compulsory licensing of critical medicines in emergency situations, which are designed to aid countries facing epidemics.

Immigrant labor could affect fence deadline

The US is attempting to curb illegal immigration by building a fence along the US Mexico border.

It's not even certain that the fence will work, or will be cost effective. It's a long border in desolate terrain. It's likely that breaches will develop at some points.

But perhaps more ironic is this report that construction companies in Texas have come to rely on foreign labor, mainly Mexican, as the domestic pool shrinks. Many are undocumented, and slip through the cracks (e.g. by using a fake or stolen social security number). More than one in five construction workers in Texas are foreign born.

Based on information collected from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, the report also found that foreign-born workers held one in five construction jobs in 2006.

In Texas, that percentage is unquestionably much higher, said Jerry Nevuld, president and CEO of the Houston Chapter of AGC.

If foreign-born workers were taken out of the equation, Nevuld believes, it would put undue strain on an industry that is already stretched thin for skilled labor and make construction of the fence a near impossibility.

"There are a significant number of illegals working in construction," Nevuld said. "If you try to build a wall, but take a few thousand workers out of the workforce first, you could have some real problems."


Despite the additional oversight, the likelihood for illegal labor working on the border fence remains a distinct possibility, some say.
"It could happen anywhere in any industry on any given day," Morrissey said.

The agency takes immigration seriously, and companies caught using undocumented labor will face legal recourse, according to Morrissey.

The fence will get done. But it will get a lot more slowly. Very ironic.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Public goods vs private goods vs public-private partnerships

In Pennsylvania, there is a proposal to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private investor group for 75 years. The linked article is at the website of Barron's, a business magazine. The group would pay $10.5 billion upfront, will take over $2.3 billion of existing turnpike bonds, and commit to $5.5 billion in capital improvements on the turnpike, which definitely needs the work, over the life of the lease. That's the equivalent of $18.3 billion dollars.

Barron's considers the offer to be "lucrative". Goldman Sachs, the top US investment bank, bid $12.1 billion, but that excludes capital improvements; the winning bid was $12.8 billion excluding capital improvements.

If the state invests that money wisely. (They might also waste it by pandering to special interests. However, for the purposes of this discussion, let's assume they do not.) The state thinks they can generate 5-10% returns on the money, presumably by placing it in financial investments. They could use the interest to boost the state budget. They could invest some of the money in health programs or public transport, to benefit Pennsylvania residents. However, the State of New Jersey faced a similar situation, and their legislature voted not to lease the New Jersey turnpike. Barrons considers the chances of Pennsylvania voting yes on this issue to be 50-50.

The question is, are there some things that should only be publicly operated? All else equal, I'd be fine with my state leasing a turnpike to a private entity. The Pennsylvania deal caps yearly toll increases at the greater of 2.5% or the annual inflation rate.

However, there are for-profit prisons in the US. They have even more incentive to skimp on food and medical care for prisoners than state run prisons. I do not approve of privately run prisons ... but the problem could just be negligent oversight by state authorities, rather than privately operated prisons per se.

A similar question has come up for the Episcopal Dioceses of Wisconsin and Michigan. Both Dioceses own large campgrounds; Michigan's campground was donated by a former bishop of the Diocese.

People have warm and fuzzy memories of taking their kids to the camps, or going there as kids. Wisconsin's bishop apparently intends to close the camp and sell the land, and members of the Diocese are protesting vociferously. I know first hand that in the Diocese of Michigan, whenever the question of closing the camp and selling the land is brought up, there is a lot of shouting and screaming.

But the Diocese of Michigan is also losing its ability to provide financial assistance to its seminarians, and it can no longer offer them a guaranteed placement in the Diocese upon ordination. Our social programs are also suffering cuts. And the camps are expensive to operate - the buildings were built and financed when gas and electricity costs were a lot lower.

I will say that I wish people would shout and scream as loudly over the fact that people are dying of malnutrition and disease in many countries in the Global South, or that LGBT people are still victims of hate crimes and exclusion from certain key church conferences and offices.

But, the shouting and screaming does point to the same issue that the Pennsylvania turnpike lease issue does. The Diocese of Wisconsin seems to be leaning toward commercial developers, who would build condominiums. The Diocese of Michigan has preliminarily evaluated some proposals including commercial developers. The commercial option would be the most lucrative for both the Dioceses. However, given the history of the land, should we be looking to sell it to non-commercial interests instead? Some parties might be able to continue operating as campsites. Some parties might build affordable housing.

So, there's no easy answer. But, are there some goods that can only be public goods? Are there some circumstances where public-private partnerships should be off limits?