Archive for February, 2007

Indulgences for Sale

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

Catholic theology has a well-considered and well-developed sense of sin. Sin can be parsed into serious and deliberate “mortal” sins, that remove one from the state of grace or the more pedestrian “venial” sins. And, of course, there is “original” sin which we inherited through the foolish transgressions of Adam and Eve.

Fortunately, Catholic theology has an equally well-developed concepts of forgiveness and redemption, as well as procedures for obtaining pardon. Confessing to one’s priest and performing appropriate penance can relieve the guilt of sin. The burden of guilt, especially considering the prospect of post-death punishment, becomes tolerable if there is a realistic way of absolving guilt. In order to avoid “Purgatory” or even “Hell” some sort of retribution or “temporal punishment” is required

Since retribution is often performed by acts of good, the notion arose that good works can be deposited into a spiritual bank to offset sins. Present good works might be used to offset future transgressions. Once the idea that good works are fungible gained currency, it was a short step to abuse. Churches and monasteries performed good works. People could offer “alms” in the process of requesting an “indulgence” to escape temporal punishment for sins. This quickly degenerated to the effective sale of indulgences. In effect, the affluent could buy themselves out of the effects of sin.

The process grew so pervasive, that the Reformation began in large measure in response to this and similar abuses. In protest, Martin Luther posted the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (a.k.a. the 95 Theses) on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517.

It is difficult not to see the analogy between the 16th century sale of indulgences and sale of greenhouse “offsets.” Affluent people who fancy them selves as “green,” the equivalent of holy in the religion of environmentalism, might find it difficult to do the good works necessary for ecological salvation. After all, they need to maintain their large homes and travel habits. Just as 16th century sinners could purchase the good works of monks, the modern day eco-minded affluent can purchase green offsets.

How far can we carry this analogy? In eco-theology, is flying in a private jet a mortal sin, while flying coach only a venial transgression? Does the CO2 present in the atmosphere when we are born considered original sin?

Even worse, many of these offsets do not directly reduce CO2 emissions, but may provide money to variety of organizations who engage in environmental advocacy or do research in energy alternatives. It is becoming an industry of its own, not immune from abuse,

Some environmentalists are now questioning the greenness of these offsets. Adam Ma’anit, co-editor of Left-wing New Internationalist Magazine, has posted his own version of the 95 Theses, complaining about the abuse of these eco-indulgences. ``For about $150 you could make a Hummer a zero-emissions vehicle just by buying offsets, Of course, the reality is you are still driving an insanely inefficient car and belching carbon like you were a finalist at the Texas annual chili eating festival every time you pop down to the local Wal-Mart for some Hot Pockets.” You have to admire Ma’anit’s formulation. He manages to snidely criticize Hummers, Texas chili, Wal-Mart and Hot Pockets in a single coherent sentence. That statement reeks of Leftist elitism.

Now far be it for any Conservative to condemn free and open markets. In may be the case, that direct CO2 markets may provide an efficient means of reducing CO2 emissions. However, we can object to the hypocrisy of the affluent living lavish lifestyles that emit disproportionate amounts of C02 pretending they are environmentally friendly.

One difficulty in reducing CO2 emissions is that the economic consequences may fall most heavily on the poor. It is a difficult trade-off that serious people must weigh. However, when the affluent buy CO2 offsets they are implicitly saying that dealing with messiness of reducing CO2 is beneath them. They have people who do that for them.

Disappearing Deficit

Sunday, February 18th, 2007

During the 2004 presidential elections, Democrats tried to persuade the American public that job creation was the worst since the Great Depression and the country was in a downward economic spiral. In order to make the case, Democrats had to employ statistics creatively. We could no longer look at the unemployment rate, the traditional measure, because it was too good. Instead, they used other Bureau of Labor statistics that notoriously lag the economic growth that was beginning even in 2003 and 2004.

There was a downturn beginning in late 2000 and early 2001 as the country entered a mild recession. This was cyclical response to the growth at the end of the 1990s and the collapse of the “Dot.Com Bubble.” Then after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the downturn grew deeper as the national mood soured and the stock market plunged. The combination of a loose money supply provided by the Federal Reserve and President Bush’s tax cuts pulled us back to prosperity. Inflation stayed low, unemployment fell, the economy roared back and since 2003 stock market values have reached new highs. In 2004, the fullness of the recovery was not yet as obvious as it is now. Democrats can no longer complain that the overall economy was not doing well. Instead, they have to try to provoke class warfare with erroneous complaints that the benefits of economic growth have not been wide spread. These statistics on income and wealth inequality cited are just as misleading that those previously used by Democrats to disguise rebounding employment.

There is at least one other economic index whose rebound has been hidden. One of the largest complaints by the Democrats now was that tax cuts increased the federal deficit. Now the size of the deficits may be large, they are not large with respect to the economy. Indeed, as a fraction of the Gross National Product (GNP) they have already been decreasing. Unfortunately, relative measures, though more meaningful, are more difficult to explain. It seems now that federal receipts are growing so rapidly that the nominal deficit may soon disappear and the one remaining Democratic economic complaint will evaporate.

The value of the nominal federal deficit over last decade is shown below. This is a plot of the twelve-month running average in the federal deficit in billions of dollars. The month-to-month numbers are noisy. Note, that the plot shown is a “following” running average. The value for the current month is the total deficit for the last 12 months. This plot would tend to be a lagging indicator.

Federal Deficit - 12-month running average
The combination of loose monetary policies, spending restraint and growth accounted for the surplus in the latter half of the 1990s, President Clinton’s second term. The year 2001 would have seen a decrease in the surplus in any case, but after September 11, the plunge was precipitous. The budget deficit reached its largest value at the end of 2003. Since then the deficit has been steadily disappearing. Steve Conover of the Skeptical Optimist has been carefully tracking the federal deficit. In his plot below, he fits a trend to the budget surplus/deficit data since January 2005. By his extrapolation, the nominal federal deficit should disappear in the middle of 2008.
Skeptical Optimist Projection
The exact point of zero deficit depends on precisely how one does the fit. If one begins the fit in January 2004 when the deficit first began to decrease, the crossover point to zero nominal deficit occurs in 2009. The longer the fit period, the more statistically significant the linear fit and projection are. However, the shrinking of the deficit has been accelerating and since the twelve-month running average is a lagging indicator perhaps Conover’s projection is most accurate. Conover concedes noisiness in the extrapolation of current trends. This collapse of the federal deficit is amazing and a testament to the power of tax cuts. The deficit is decreasing despite an expensive war in Iraq, a period of little spending restrain, and the introduction of prescription drug plan for seniors, a new entitlement. It suggests that rapid growth is perhaps the only realistic way of balancing the federal budget, whether in real or nominal terms. You can tell that the economy is doing well when Democrats stop talking about it.The Democrats’ position has been out-of-phase with reality: complaining about unemployment just as employment accelerates or complaining about the deficit just as it is about to disappear. Are they equally as out-of-phase with respect to other issues?You can tell that Iraq is not going well, or is at least perceived as not going well, when the Democrats incessantly talk about it. Unfortunately, Democrats now have a vested political interest in failure in Iraq. It is not that they really want failure, but they are in the uncomfortable position of knowing that good news for Americans in Iraq is bad news for Democratic political ambitions. If the surge of forces in Iraq works, Democrats may find themselves conspicuously wrong again — just before an election. They will then have to rely on the traditional method of concealing and ignoring success.

Open Inquiry: A Casualty of the Climate Change Debate

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

The extent to which global warming, or more generally climate change, will make life on Earth more difficult is a consequential and pressing question. However, it is already clear that the debate about climate change is damaging free scientific inquiry and contributing to popular misunderstandings about science. The contentiousness of the debate is making it more and more difficult for scientists to speak freely and has allowed politicians to cite scientific authority in an unquestioning way. Consider the following cases:

About a year ago, climate scientist Dr. James E. Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute was directed to have his lectures and papers reviewed by NASA’s Public Affairs Office. Hansen interpreted this as an obvious effort to suppress his warnings about global warming. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed when NASA’s Administrator Michael Griffin, in an e-mail to all NASA employees, explained that it is not the job of management, “to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA’s technical staff.”

Democratic Representative Henry Waxman is holding hearings on whether NOAA scientists where inhibited in making clear their scientific assessments about global climate change.

During the Clinton Administration, Dr. Indur M. Goklany, of the Interior Department was redirected to non-climate related work after he suggested that the economic costs of restricting greenhouse gases should be balanced against potential consequences of climate change.

Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist was brought up on charges of scientific dishonesty that were ultimately dropped for his critique of what he considered shrill predictions of environmental calamity. The Chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri derisively compared Lomborg to Adolf Hitler: “What is the difference between Lomborg’s view of humanity and Hitler’s. If you were to accept Lomborg’s way of thinking, then maybe what Hitler did was the right thing.”

If you believe some, all must now accept, without question, the scientific consensus on climate change. David Miliband, the British Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, declared “debate about climate change is now over.”

The debate about climate change and its political repercussions have revealed some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of science. All who take the discipline of science must seriously subscribe to certain enabling axioms that seem to have been forgotten, or at least neglected.

Free and open discussion of data, hypotheses, and theories must be maintained. Ultimately ideas are tested in open forums. Others may or may not be persuaded, but logic and data are the agreed upon pillars upon which the debate rests. The suppression of expression, whether through government edict or popular intimidation, undermines free debate and is inconsistent with any scientific enterprise.

The validity of a scientific argument is independent of the character of the person making the argument. It only depends on the argument itself. Those who worry the most about climate change argue that some eco-skeptics are not to be believed because they receive funding from fossil fuel companies. Others, more critical of climate change predictions, suggest that scientists receive more federal funding if they can nurture fear and dread about the environment. Those arguments might be politically persuasive, but are not scientifically relevant. Even if inspired by the vilest of motives, the validity of an argument relies only upon evidence and logic.

Scientific consensus does not ever end debate. Science is entirely provisional, all ideas and theories are subject to re-investigation, all data open to re-analysis. Although it is true that if someone makes an important scientific claim, that seems on its face to contradict previously agreed upon conclusions, the claim must meet high standards of scrutiny and evidence. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. However, there are no scientific theories about natural phenomena that cannot be challenged.

Living by these rules is a necessary condition to claim to be practicing science.

Al Qaeda and Iraq Link

Saturday, February 10th, 2007

Given the current concern about whether or not there was reason to believe that Al Qaeda and Iraq had a relationship, it is instructive to view this news report by ABC. Lest anyone believe that the report was a product of Bush Administration misinformation, the report came from 2000 during the Clinton Administration:
Click here.

William Arkin Ignites a Controversy

Sunday, February 4th, 2007

On January 31, William Arkin of the Washington Post chastised American troops in Iraq who complained about the news coverage back home. The troops had the brazenness to ask critics to visit Iraq and see what was going on first hand before they criticized.

It would seem that the troops have a reasonable complaint about news coverage that is relentlessly negative, with nary a mention of heroic and humane efforts by the troops. The abuse at Abu Grab makes the headlines day after day, but the soldier who crawls under gunfire to rescue a civilian is largely ignored.

Arkin has a different view. Arkin claimed that the troops had enjoyed tremendous support and the provision of “obscene amenities” (whatever they are) despite the murders of civilians and abuses at Abu Grab. Does Arkin believe such events were typical rather than aberrations? Suggesting that American troops were “mercenary,” Arkin was tired of their complaints because it “wasn’t for them to disapprove of the American people.” Rights to criticize presumably are reserved for Washington Post writers.

As anyone with a marginal perception of public sentiment could easily predict, there was a deluge of outrage expressed on the forum pages of the Washington Post, as well as countless blogs, and even from US Senators.

In response, Arkin whined indignantly about those who disagreed with him. Admittedly, some of Arkin’s reader mail could euphemistically be described as colorfully disrespectful. Arkin tried to about wrap himself in the protective cloak of victimhood, fretting that he was being censored. Arkin must learn to master the difference between censorship and the rights of others to criticize him. If he can complain about the way the troops are doing their job, certainly others enjoy a right to criticize the way Arkin performs his.

Arkin belated conceded that, “I knew when I used the word `mercenary’ in my Tuesday column that I was being highly inflammatory.” If Arkin knew he was being “inflammatory,” then why was he surprised when he ignited a reaction? When writers are deliberately provocative, it seems hypocritical for them to be upset when they succeed in provoking.

But wait, it is the readers fault for misunderstanding Arkin. Later Arkin writes: “Mercenary, of course, is an insult and pejorative, and it does not accurately describe the condition of the American soldier today. I sincerely apologize to anyone in the military who took my words literally.” So which is it? Was Arkin being purposely inflammatory, or was he using mercenary as a mild metaphor?

Arkin’s original point had some merit. One can criticize the wisdom of the war in Iraq, was without condemning the troops, indeed even while strongly supporting them. However, Arkin then goes on to trash the troops, suggesting that the American people have put up with a lot of shenanigans from the troops. Arkin inadvertently tramples upon his own thesis and adds further evidence to the notion that those who are against the war harbor not-a-little anti-military sentiment.