Monday, December 28, 2009

The Absurdity of the Better Christian Gambit

The man’s words bothered me on several levels as he explained how he went from being a committed Christian to being a secular humanist. He was much happier in his chosen belief system, he said, than he had been as a Christian. He went on to describe the many ways he now reaches out to help others.

Then this man said something that really stuck in my craw. “I’m a much better Christian now than when I was a Christian.” It took me a while to understand what it was about this statement that bothered me. Eventually I perceived two issues I had with it.

Firstly, the man essentially implied that it was the fault of Christianity itself that he was, by his own admission, a slacker when it came to loving and serving his fellowmen when he was a Christian. Why had he chosen that course of action back then and what was it about his conversion to secular humanism that changed this?

It can hardly be argued that the former belief system was inferior to the latter in encouragement to treat fellow beings selflessly. There is nothing in the Christian faith that caused this man to be a poor practitioner of Christian behavior during his tenure as a Christian. Thus, the man’s statement is an indictment against himself rather than against Christianity.

But far more important is the stunning implication that this man has apparently never understood the most basic and central tenet of Christianity. Through years of church attendance, of participating in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and of praising Christ in song and prayer, it seems that this man never grasped what Christianity is all about. It was also apparent from his statement about now being a better Christian that he still failed to understand what it means to be a Christian.

Although various Christian denominations state it in different ways, they all essentially teach that being a Christian means accepting the idea that no person can ever be considered good on his or her own merits. There is too much bad in even the best of us for that to be the case. The only way any of us can ever hope to become truly good is through the merits and grace of the perfect Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, God offers us the free gift of compensation for all of our problems, inadequacies, imperfections, and poor choices. We simply agree to accept this free gift. That is what being a Christian is all about. It is preposterous to claim that having rejected this gift, one is now a better Christian than before rejecting it.

But what of the Christian behavior that my secular humanist friend touted? It cannot be denied that Christ calls His followers to a high standard of behavior. Indeed, loving God and loving one’s fellow beings top the list of Christ’s commandments. How is it possible that one that professes to be a Christian could apparently do worse at fulfilling those Christian commandments than many non-Christians?

The answer to this is two-pronged, but based in a single principle. True Christianity concerns itself primarily with matters of the soul. Physical and temporal matters are important too, but mainly with respect to how they affect the soul. Secular humanism, by definition, is chiefly concerned with observable temporal effects. This helps explain why measures of either system by adherents of the other tend to fall short of satisfying advocates of the system being critiqued.

Back to the two prongs of Christians failing to be Christ-like. First, there are those that claim to accept Christ but do not actually receive His teachings. These people deceive themselves. They are not actually Christians in the most secret chambers of their hearts; where it really matters. They may succeed in hoodwinking others into thinking they are Christian, but Christianity teaches that all accounts will eventually be settled appropriately in the eternal realms so that the effects of all deceptions will be addressed.

Second, the purpose of ‘Christian behavior’ is ideally as an outgrowth of what is already going on in the soul. That is, one follows God’s commandments out of a love of God and His children. Christians also sometimes engage in such behavior to motivate the soul, so that it can work both ways. Or perhaps, more correctly, it can work cyclically in an upward spiral.

My little daughter is fond of writing love notes to me and my wife. These notes are simple and sometimes spelled eclectically. But they are infinitely precious. My youngest son goes through stages where he is very conscientious about performing simple acts of service for my wife and me. My daughter’s notes and my son’s service would not amount to much if measured on the scale of what is expected of an adult. But taken in context, they are an extremely important demonstration of love.

Similarly, our acts of obedience to God are often grossly inadequate when measured against divine perfection. But when proper motivation is present, such acts are precious expressions of our love for God and for our fellow beings. The idea is that we do our level best, and then no matter how pathetic our attempts may be, Christ will apply His Atonement to make up for the rest.

I would not expect this sentiment to be meaningful at all to a secular humanist. After all, that system of belief sees no need for a spiritual Savior whatsoever. And that’s fine for them. The main point here is that it is ridiculous for a secular humanist that does not accept or apply the Atonement of Christ to claim to be “a better Christian” than anyone, including one’s former self.

Given that Christians measure service to others on an entirely different scale than secular humanists; it is also as silly for a secular humanist to claim to be better than a Christian at Christian behavior as it would be for a Christian to claim to be better at secular humanist behavior than a devoted secular humanist. The equation simply does not compute.

My ex-Christian friend probably made his ‘better Christian’ comment in a bid to justify his shift in belief systems. While his claim may have satisfied himself on some level, it was actually a farcical statement that failed to bolster his position. No doubt my friend left his Christian faith behind because he found belief in secular humanism more compelling. But it would be better to simply say that than to make assertions based in absurdity.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Too Much Justice

My youngest son is the informant in our family. He has a keen overdeveloped sense of justice. If any other family member does anything that our informant believes to be even slightly out of kilter, he goes into full tattle mode. (And he’ll remember any infraction FOREVER.)

This morning while the informant was in the shower, his older brother was practicing on the piano. The informant burst upon the scene during a break in the piano practice while the practicing son was looking for a piece of sheet music he wanted to try out.

I asked the informant to resort to my Roland keyboard to practice his piano lessons before playing. He reluctantly complied. The other son soon found the sought for music and practiced it for a while. He then left the piano to do something else.

The informant promptly popped up from the keyboard and started to put his music away. He had only put in about a third of the required practice, so I called him on it. His immediate response was to accuse his older brother of practicing too briefly. (He never tires of the accusation distraction.) When I explained that his brother had already completed most of his practice during the informant’s shower time, he sheepishly returned to the keyboard and finished his practice.

I dearly love my youngest son. I identify with him on a visceral level. You see, I played the ‘justice’ role in my family growing up. There’s a lot that goes with that job, including rigid inflexibility, especially in matters of process. The final outcome pales in importance to the process. Variations in the process cause more upset than variations in the results.

I drove my family members up the wall with my insistence on doing family traditions exactly the same way as we did the last time around. Never mind the fact that conditions were different the next time around.

Another thing my ‘justice’ boy has in common with me is that he is a world class pouter. As a kid, I was a pro at pouting. (My Mom has photos to prove it.) I could keep it up for hours on end when my oversensitive sense of justice was offended.

Like me as a kid, my justice boy sometimes drives other family members crazy. I correct him, but inside I cut him slack, because I look at him and see me as a child. I hope my boy eventually tempers his sense of justice as he grows up. Some people never outgrow this. That’s how we end up with some of the rules and regulations we live with, or with some of the nasty implementations of such.

Friday, December 18, 2009

How I Set Up PHPMyAdmin: A Tale of Unnecessary Difficulty

I did it. I won my battle with PHPMyAdmin. And I learned a few things in the process. I finally decided to bite the bullet and rebuild a Microsoft Access database application I had built for the school to track volunteers and volunteer time using PHP and MySQL.

MS Access is a dandy if you want to run a small standalone application. You can build a MS Access application on any computer that has MS Access installed. Copying the entire application to another computer is a snap. But the target computer also has to have MS Access installed if you want to use your application there. If the other computer doesn’t have MS Access and its owners don’t want to spring for it, you can tweak the app to work with OpenOffice Base, which is available for free.

But MS Access really isn’t adequate for a multi-user environment. (This also goes for OpenOffice Base.) It’s not designed to handle the kind of locking and security needed for such an environment. Yes, I know that there are many instances where MS Access applications are run from a server, but it’s not a good way to go.

The freely available MySQL, on the other hand, is designed function well in multi-user environments. But you need more than just a database. You need a front-end application to allow users to work with the database. That’s where PHP comes in. And, of course, you need an application server application that hosts any PHP/MySQL application you build. Proper installation on a central server allows access via a web browser.

My idea was to rebuild the standalone MS Access database application using PHP/MySQL, and then install the new application on the school’s server so that any computer inside of the school’s firewall could work with the database. But first, I wanted to build and run everything on my home network to work out all of the bugs.

I started by downloading the WAMP package that includes PHP, MySQL, PHPMyAdmin, and the Apache HTTP server from WAMPServer. This is for a Windows environment. Other packages are available for other environments. Initial installation was quick and easy. All of the services started.

The root password
My problems started when I opened PHPMyAdmin and saw a message telling me that I should remedy the fact that MySQL had no password for the root user account. Unfortunately, there was no information about how to do that. I began searching through the documentation that installed with PHPMyAdmin and MySQL, only to become quickly frustrated.

A Google search revealed a broad variety of information. It took me a while to realize that most of it was obsolete. Reading through forums that turned up in the Google search was a tedious and mostly fruitless exercise. It was like digging through mounds of manure in hopes of finding a tiny gem.

I finally discovered that MySQL passwords can be set by running MySQL from the command line and using an arcane chain of commands, or by going to the Privileges tab in PHPMyAdmin, clicking on the Edit Privileges icon to the right of the root account, and then entering (and re-typing) the password in the resulting screen. Unfortunately, this immediately breaks PHPMyAdmin. I started getting “Error #1045 - Access denied for user 'root'@'localhost'….”

I searched around and found that I needed to go to my wamp\apps\phpmyadmin directory and edit the file. There is an entry there that reads “$cfg['Servers'][$i]['password'] = '';” All I needed to do was to enter the password I had selected for root between the single quotes on that entry. (This is fine for a limited environment, but you will want to use the cookie method in a broader environment. That’s outside the scope of this post.)

This fixed everything, right? Nope. The # 1045 error persisted. Nothing I did changed that. After much frustration, I completely uninstalled and re-installed WAMP. The process began over again. Again I ended up at the persistent # 1045 error.

Clear the session files
After much perusal of the Internet, I read an entry that mentioned permissions on the tmp directory. I found the wamp\tmp directory and noticed a couple of files that began with “sess” followed by a series of hexadecimal numbers. Suddenly I had the odd idea that I should delete these files. I did so, and then PHPMyAdmin started up just fine.

Apparently PHPMyAdmin always starts by going to the most recent session file in the tmp directory. If the session ended with an error, the new session will start with the same error, even if you fixed the cause of the error.

Just a couple of notes to the PHPMyAdmin developers: 1) Why can’t the file be automatically updated with the root user password when it is changed via the PHPMyAdmin application? 2) You really ought to do something about fixing the problem with PHPMyAdmin retaining an error upon starting when the cause of the error has already been corrected.

Setting up link table capabilities
Now everything was hunky-dory, right? Wrong. PHPMyAdmin displayed a message in a red box stating that the mechanism for linking tables was not properly set up. Clicking on the link for more info led to the documentation. Although there was a lot of technical stuff in there, there was no information on how to remedy this problem.

I once again resorted to Google and found myself sifting through tons of worthless information in search of something useful. I found an entry that explained that the following entries were needed in the file:
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['controluser'] = 'pma';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['controlpass'] = 'password for pma user';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['AllowNoPassword'] = true;
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['pmadb'] = 'phpmyadmin';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['table_info'] = 'pma_table_info';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['pdf_pages'] = 'pma_pdf_pages';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['history'] = 'pma_history';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['column_info'] = 'pma_column_info';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['table_coords'] = 'pma_table_coords';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['designer_coords'] = 'pma_designer_coords';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['relation'] = 'pma_relation';
$cfg['Servers'][$i]['bookmarktable'] = 'pma_bookmark';
But this simply caused me more questions. What was the pma user? It seemed that these entries implied a database named phpmyadmin with at least eight tables in it. (I’m a data guy. I recognize database structures.) Where was that supposed to come from?

Fortunately, I found another link that provided the answer to this conundrum. You can create the pma user account in the Privileges tab of PHPMyAdmin and assign a password. Then the pma user needs rights to the mysql database. In the SQL tab of the mysql database, I ran the following commands:
GRANT SELECT (Host, User, Select_priv, Insert_priv, Update_priv, Delete_priv, Create_priv, Drop_priv, Reload_priv, Shutdown_priv, Process_priv, File_priv, Grant_priv, References_priv, Index_priv, Alter_priv, Show_db_priv, Super_priv, Create_tmp_table_priv, Lock_tables_priv, Execute_priv, Repl_slave_priv, Repl_client_priv) ON mysql.user TO 'pma'@'localhost';
GRANT SELECT ON mysql.db TO 'pma'@'localhost';
GRANT SELECT ON TO 'pma'@'localhost';
GRANT SELECT (Host, Db, User, Table_name, Table_priv, Column_priv) ON mysql.tables_priv TO 'pma'@'localhost';
In the wamp\apps\phpmyadmin\scripts folder is a create_tables.sql file that can be used to create the phpmyadmin database with the eight tables referenced above and to grant rights to the pma user. Even after doing all that, the PHPMyAdmin error didn’t go away until I closed PHPMyAdmin, deleted the session files from the wamp\tmp directory, and restarted PHPMyAdmin.

Finally ready to start developing
Now everything works great. I re-created my tables in MySQL using PHPMyAdmin. I exported my MS Access data to comma delimited files and imported it into the MySQL tables. Voila!, I am now finally ready to start building the application interface using PHP.

I have to seriously question the PHPMyAdmin developers as to why they haven’t streamlined the link table setup. I mean, the clugey hack job you have to go through to set this up and get rid of the error message is simply bizarre, not to mention very poorly documented.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When It Comes to Politics, All Is Vanity

The writer of Ecclesiastes (about whose identity there has been much scholarly dispute) lamented that “there is no new thing under the sun” (ch 1, v 9). He has searched out wisdom and has carefully observed “all things that are done under heaven.” From this he declares concerning all worldly pursuits, “behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit” (ch 1, v 14). (Scholars tell us that the terms “under the sun” and “under heaven” should be understood to mean “worldly” as opposed to spiritual matters.)

In recent weeks I have done more thinking about why I write a blog. I write about various topics — whatever interests me at the moment. But for the nearly five years that I have been blogging I have tended to write more or less about political matters.

Sometimes I write because I think I have something to say. But I find that most of the time, I write to explore what it is I really think. It has been an evolutionary process. Occasionally I will read an old post and realize that my understanding has changed since that time. Other times I will read a past post and think that it states the matter better than I think I could write it today.

There is no question that I write mainly for my own benefit. I’m not doing this as a public service. I do it because it pleases me to do so.

My posts usually draw few if any comments, and that’s fine with me. If you want to reap lots of comments on your own blog you generally have to sow seeds by copiously commenting on other blogs. That works best when you can regularly devote concerted time and effort to keep the comment stream fresh. I can only sporadically put time into blogging. Sometimes I can put in a few minutes for many days in a row. Other times I can go days without having time to blog.

The blogosphere consists of many online communities that gel through comments. I am sometimes amazed at the amount of time some seem to have to comment as broadly as they do. Occasionally I envy those that earn a prominent place in one or more blogging communities. But then I realize that I deliberately choose to devote my efforts elsewhere and that I have little desire to do what would be necessary to play a larger role in any online community.

I appreciate thoughtful and substantive comments on anyone’s blog. Too many comments across the blogosphere come from cyber bullies with abusive tactics, snipers that shoot from the hip without seriously considering the content of the post, and those that appear to simply be involved in debating contests where the game is more important than the content.

I find myself mystified by those that habitually visit blogs to repeatedly state their opposing viewpoints, apparently unaffected by arguments made in the post. They write reasoned responses that are always based on the same handful of points that ignore or disregard concerns that the original blogger deems to be of central importance. Some do this to the point that it comes across like someone incessantly pounding one or two keys on a piano while ignoring all the other keys. Perhaps these people view this as a form of evangelism.

Lately I have noticed a number of instances that I have begun to fashion a post in my head only to drop the idea. As I have pondered this phenomenon, I have realized that several factors have been at play. I think that I sometimes realize that I have nothing new to say about the matter. Or to state it more accurately, I find myself developing no new understanding from the effort.

Sometimes anticipation of the type of comments a given post is certain to invite turns the whole process into a joyless exercise. If it brings me no joy and/or seems meaningless, I see no reason to do it.

At the moment, I find myself somewhat burned out on politics. The more I recognize that politics is itself a business that delivers services for gain, the more jaded I become. Every bit of political news or commentary I encounter lately causes me to lament with the author of Ecclesiastes that “there is no new thing under the sun” and that “all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”

We’ll see what this means as far as political blogging. I might get fired up and write a political post tomorrow. Or I might take a break from such activities for a while.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

When the Gambling Bug Bites

“Why do they send stuff like this to us?” my wife asked, referring to a brochure we had received in the mail about Mesquite, Nevada. I suppose it’s because we happen to be in the right demographic categories. After all, you can see plenty of Utah license plates on cars parked at any of the gambling establishments near the Utah’s borders. (Pretty much all forms of gambling are illegal in Utah.)

We choose not to gamble for personal and religious reasons. My first career was in accounting. I have difficulty putting money in a vending machine where there is a reasonably high expectation of ‘winning’ the desired product. I can’t imagine putting money into a slot machine where the chance of breaking even is much lower. The same holds true for other games of chance. After all, those casinos weren’t built using customers’ winnings.

Many look at gambling as a form of entertainment that has a price attached, just like other forms of entertainment. For example, you willingly pay to receive psychological pleasure from going to a movie. It is argued that gambling works the same way.

However, like a number of other pursuits, gambling is known to be highly addictive. As explained in this Wikipedia article, addiction “is a chronic neurobiologic disorder that has genetic, psychosocial, and environmental dimensions….” It is characterized by one or more of the following:
  • Continuation of demonstrably detrimental behavior.
  • Compulsion to engage in the harmful behavior.
  • Preoccupation with the negative behavior.
Addiction is often accompanied by deviant behavior such as lying and stealing.

When it comes to gambling, researchers know that habitual gamblers place a much higher psychological value on a dollar won than on a dollar lost. That’s one reason that gamblers often regale others with tales about their winnings while rarely mentioning their losses. In their minds, $20 won beats $100 lost. The short-term pleasure of getting their ‘hit’ — actual chemical changes in the brain from engaging in risk — is worth the sacrifices necessary to get that hit. It works the same way with pornography, addictive drugs, and other addictive behaviors.

I once worked with a woman whose entire persona — dress, grooming, speech, mannerisms, etc — came across like a traditional farmwife out of place in an office environment. She once looked wistful as she referred to her husband and said, “I believe that gambling is his most favorite activity in the entire world.” She described how frequently they made weekend trips to Wendover, Nevada to gamble. I remember thinking that these people had a problem.

This WSJ article tells the woeful tale of the former owner of The Oriental Trading Company, who blew $127 million gambling over a two-year period and now faces criminal charges for his gambling debts. Terry Watanabe had proven himself an adept businessman when he grew the “modest toy business [inherited from his father] into a catalog empire that raked in $300 million in revenue by the time of its sale in 2000.”

It seems clear from the article that Watanabe was addicted to work — to running the business. After selling the company at age 43, he apparently sought other channels for his compulsive character. He eventually found his way into a casino. Before long he found himself feted by casinos that gave him all kinds of expensive perks and fed his alcohol addiction while he gambled away as much as $5 million in a single session.

The casinos deny any wrongdoing. One spokesperson quoted in the WSJ article notes that the casino business she represents was an “early advocate and funder of organizations that help gambling addicts.” Frankly, that’s like excusing a heroin pusher that donates to a drug rehab program.

Capable adults are accountable for their own behavior. Given his business savvy, it’s difficult to argue that Mr. Watanabe was so callow as to be innocently taken in by the casinos that fleeced him. But the casinos were certainly complicit in feeding — and taking advantage of — his addictions. They probably did nothing illegal. Whether some of their actions were wrong is another matter.

It is always wise to be wary of businesses whose main trade model is based on generating gain from promoting addictive products or services. The demand for these things exists, of course. But the perversity of the incentives in such commerce means that these businesses are happy to profit from your self destruction.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Bright Future of Journalism

There has been significant handwringing about declining newspaper readership and the demise of journalism ever since the advent of television. The rise of the Internet has evoked increased fear of these horrors to the point that some are seriously calling for a government takeover — lite version, of course — of newspapers and journalism. After all, kinder, gentler tyranny would never morph into heavy-handed tyranny, would it?

News tycoon Rupert Murdoch says that this is exactly the wrong way to go in this WSJ op-ed. (Please note that the Wall Street Journal is owned by Murdoch’s company.) Murdoch says, “Government assistance is a greater threat to the press than any new technology.” He writes:
“From the beginning, newspapers have prospered for one reason: the trust that comes from representing their readers' interests and giving them the news that's important to them. That means covering the communities where they live, exposing government or business corruption, and standing up to the rich and powerful.

“Technology now allows us to do this on a much greater scale. That means we have the means to reach billions of people who until now have had no honest or independent sources of the information they need to rise in society, hold their governments accountable, and pursue their needs and dreams.”
Murdoch notes that some players in the news market will inevitably fail to step up to the challenges of a new and continuously changing paradigm. Those that don’t, he says, should fail. But he is optimistic in the prospects for the news industry, saying, “The future of journalism belongs to the bold, and the companies that prosper will be those that find new and better ways to meet the needs of their viewers, listeners, and readers.”

Murdoch offers the following three rules for success in the new era of news delivery:
  • “[G]ive people the news they want.”
  • Charge a “fair but modest price” for news content.
  • Update government regulations to address the way news works in the 21st Century.
On point one, Murdoch complains that some are writing more for themselves and their colleagues in the journalism profession than for news customers. Thus, they earn lots of journalism awards but have declining circulation. The news business is, first and foremost, a business. No business that fails to satisfy customer desires should expect to survive.

Companies that provide desirable quality content, says Murdoch on point two, will have no problem finding customers willing to pay for that content. “The old business model based mainly on advertising” writes Murdoch, “is dead. … The reason is that the old model was founded on quasimonopolies such as classified advertising, which has been decimated by new and cheaper competitors such as Craigslist,, and so on.”

In a clear jab, Murdoch includes news aggregators such as Google in the customers that will be willing to pay for quality content. Google CEO Eric Schmidt had his own preemptory shot in this direction with his own WSJ op-ed last week. Schmidt essentially said that Google is willing to work with content creators to help them charge for their content. But he also suggested that aggregators provide value to news creators by channeling traffic to their websites that they otherwise wouldn’t see.

On his final point, Murdoch wants government to restructure regulations so as to promote increased competition. It should, he says, scrap anti-competitive rules designed for the ancient past. Above all, government should not get involved in news via direct or indirect subsidization. He writes:
“The most damning problem with government "help" is what we saw with the bailout of the U.S. auto industry: Help props up those who are producing things that customers do not want.

“The prospect of the U.S. government becoming directly involved in commercial journalism ought to be chilling for anyone who cares about freedom of speech. The Founding Fathers knew that the key to independence was to allow enterprises to prosper and serve as a counterweight to government power. It is precisely because newspapers make profits and do not depend on the government for their livelihood that they have the resources and wherewithal to hold the government accountable.

“When the representatives of 13 former British colonies established a new order for the ages, they built it on a sturdy foundation: a free and informed citizenry. They understood that an informed citizenry requires news that is independent from government. That is one reason they put the First Amendment first.”
As a society, we have a very poor track record of predicting new technologies and a worse track record of forecasting how they will be adopted and will impact society. Moreover, we have a deep history of fear of new technologies. One of the earliest cassette tapes I owned was a rock ballad about humankind being conquered by amoral computers that had become sentient. This sentiment stretches into the distant past where blacksmiths were regarded with deep suspicion as workers of black arts and were made to live separately.

Our regulatory structures work similarly to protect established technologies and practices while being slow to adapt to newer paradigms. In doing this, we unwittingly stifle innovation. Fortunately the indomitable human spirit seems to eventually break through barriers to innovate anyway, even in the face of legal disapproval.

I once regarded the future of journalism with the kind of gloom that pervades newsrooms today. I now believe that those grim faced newsies will eventually go the way of the dinosaur as they stand in place and are superseded by more agile and optimistic news entrepreneurs.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Musical Bed

When a new parent first cradles their newborn babe,
An innocent bundle from above,
An instinct previously latent blooms
Imperceptibly mingled with love.

For unrealized in that moment sublime
Are the seeds of deep impulse unseen
That cause each child to intuitively treat
Each bed like a trampoline.

And within each new parent freshly kindles
An urge equally intense and strong
To put a stop all childish bed bouncing
From that moment ever on.
As you know, all children love to jump on beds. And all parents are continually on watch for any such errant behavior. It’s as if parents have a sixth sense that allows them to detect when a child jumps on a bed. Or maybe that’s just how children see it.

Which brings me to the topic of the bed I had when I was a child. It was one of the oddest contraptions you’ve ever seen. It was obviously created for the lower end of the mass market. And that’s probably why we had it — because it was affordable.

The thing that made this bed somewhat unique was that it was made entirely of metal, except for the mattress. You’d be surprised how much the bed’s all-metal construction enhanced its noisemaking capacities.

The headboard and footboard were of a similar make, except that the headboard was taller. They were painted to look like wood. They were shiny, so that they had the rich appearance of fake wood. I think it probably looked better than the phony wood paneling they used to put on the sides of cars back in those days.

These endboards each had a frame made of sheet metal formed into square-ish tubes so as to look like wood beams. The central space within each frame was filled by a panel of sheet metal. Now, I don’t know if this was the result of the manufacturing process, the shipping process, or if regular wear and tear that caused this; but these panels were slightly bowed.

If you applied the right amount of pressure in the center, the panel would suddenly bow the other way, providing a satisfying and resounding thump in the process. The larger headboard had kind of a bass drum sound, while the footboard had more of a mid-range tympani tone to it. Releasing the pressure caused the panel to thump back to its previous position. As you can imagine, this provided for endless hours of entertainment.

These sheet metal panels weren’t the end of the percussive possibilities. Almost any child is innovative enough that they can make noise by finding something with which to beat on any hollow tubular object. And so it was with the tubes of my bed’s endboard frames. These frames could produce multiple tones, depending on where they were struck. This added numerous sounds to the percussion section.

The endboards of the bed were attached to a completely exposed box of springs. The box springs of most beds are built on a wood frame, and the springs and frame are encased in heavy fabric. Not so with my bed. My box springs were built on a metal frame and had no covering at all. Not only did each spring produce its own unique noise, but parts of the frame were flexible so that they added to the cacophony.

I guess you could say that the box springs were sort of like the string section. But they could only be played with blunt force so that they couldn’t be made to sound like the string section of the New York Philharmonic — unless the orchestra was playing an evening of heavy metal hits, or something of that nature.

The bedrails were incorporated into the box springs so that the box springs attached directly to the headboard and footboard, providing four metal-on-metal joints. Each of these joints could be counted on to produce a distinctive squeak when the bed was played quietly, or a loud jarring screech when played at higher volumes. Sometimes these joints sounded like novices on flutes or piccolos. Other times they sounded like the wild bleat of a trumpet or trombone, followed by the sound of the horn being thrown to the floor.

This whole amazing musical contrivance rode atop four metal wheels. Two were attached to the headboard and two were attached to the footboard. The slightest movement of the bed caused these metal castors to rotate a bit. A vigorous jumping session could move the bed two feet or more. The rotating wheels produced many varied squeals that I sometimes thought sounded like operatic sopranos warming up on a cold morning, perhaps while being strangled.

While my bed was a remarkable multifaceted musical instrument all on its own, my bedroom was an important part of the ensemble. When I was young, the room had hardwood floors. We had little other furniture in the room. There were scarcely any soft things that could absorb sound besides the curtains, the mattress, and the bed linens. The whole room acted as a type of amplifier.

No matter how carefully done, any movement by someone on that bed would reliably produce a variety of squeaks, groans, and squeals. Not only did all of this noise reverberate off the floor, walls, and ceiling of the room, but the direct contact of the bed’s wheels on the floor transferred all vibrations directly into the hardwood floor.

Back in that day, the basement of the house was uncompleted. Sounds that transferred into the floor echoed off the concrete walls and floor of the basement, went into the ventilation system, and were quite effectively broadcast into even the most remote regions of the house. It was as if some mad musical genius had designed a whole building that was its own kind of strange musical instrument, with my bed as the console upon which the musician played.

As a child, I was fully aware of the melodious tones that emanated from my bed. But there were holes in my logic capacities. I understood the cause and effect of applying pressure to the bed to make noise. But for some reason, it didn’t dawn on me during my early years that my mother could hear this noise too. In fact, she couldn’t escape it without leaving the house. Every time I tried to jump on my bed, I could only get in two or three bounces before Mom showed up in the doorway with a stern look on her face.

Kids are like that. They’ll tiptoe and whisper when they’re trying to get away with something. But then they’ll turn around and make other noise that is sure to get them caught. That continues until the child’s brain development gets to the point where this concept can be grasped. Then they get away with a lot more mischief. Judging from what I read in the newspaper about some criminals, there are adults that never develop that far.

When my brother and I eventually got new beds, I thought I was being rewarded. It didn’t dawn on me until much later that the new beds were actually a gift for my parents. Bill Cosby likes to quip that the thing parents with young children prize most highly is quiet.

I was still pretty young when we got carpet in the main areas of the home. It took longer before carpet was laid in the bedrooms. By and by, we got more furniture and wall hangings, and the basement was finished. All of that significantly reduced the echo chambers of the home, devastating its previous musical grandeur.

I don’t know what happened to the old metal bed. Maybe it went to the dump. Perhaps it was donated to charity so that some less fortunate family could discover the joys of that terrible noise. Maybe some five-year-old somewhere is right now jumping on that old creaky thing. If so, his mother is no doubt stomping her way to his bedroom with a scowl on her face.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

What the Constitution Really Means Today

This post on the Politics & Prosperity blog presents some thought provoking ideas about what comprises real constitutional law. The author, who lists only the name of Thomas, quotes GMU law professor Randy Barnett quite extensively. Barnett is noted for 2003 book, Restoring the Lost Constitution: the Presumption of Liberty.

As I understand it, the basic idea presented by Thomas is that the Constitution is what it says it is: the “supreme Law of the Land” (Article VI), and is to be taken seriously per its original intent. That is, all legislation and court rulings relative to the Constitution are inferior to the Constitution itself as originally interpreted.

As one writer put it, the Supreme Court offers opinions. It is not a Supreme Council of Ayatollahs whose writings we must regard as sacred or even on par with the language of the original document (as amended). As Barnett puts it in this post,
“Assuming that Supreme Court precedents constitute "the Constitution" empowers long dead judges to rule us from the grave. Sorry, that is hyperbole. It allows the opinions of justices to trump the meaning of the written Constitution.”
Our Illegitimate Government?
Thomas makes the case that most of our nation’s laws are essentially unconstitutional. This, he asserts, renders the governments that create, sustain, and enforce these laws illegitimate, since they are enemies of the Constitution. He writes:
“It is entirely reasonable to think of America’s present governments — federal, State, and local — as occupying powers. We might just as well have been invaded by a foreign power that chose to abide by our electoral rules, then substituted its own laws for what, until then, had been America’s more-or-less constitutional ones.”
In his book, Barnett takes a somewhat different tack in Part 1. He asserts, as far as I can grasp it, that no legitimate basis exists for the Constitution to be binding on those that were not a party to its adoption. In this view, no one alive today could be legitimately bound by the Constitution.

This is not necessarily a new line of thinking. The 19th Century classical liberal philosopher Herbert Spencer argued in his 1851 treatise The Right to Ignore the State that without a truly legitimate method of opting out of the state, it cannot be presumed that the governed have consented to the state’s governance.

The great claim of democratic government is that government derives its legitimacy from the consent of the governed (not from some farcical aquatic ceremony). But if the government has provided no other methods for truly effective and legitimate dissent than to leave the jurisdiction or to become a criminal, the citizenry cannot be considered to have consented. It does not matter that most choose to comply with the whims of government rather than be branded criminals. Tacit compliance does not imply actual consent.

Democracies, Republics, and Votes
Democratic forms of government, moreover, lend tremendous validity to the whims of the majority. In §4 of his treatise, Spencer argues that this is simply an attempt to interpret literally the phrase “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” It transfers “to the one the sacredness attached to the other” and implies that there can be no appeal to the will of the majority.

The great virtue of republican forms of government is supposed to be the balancing of the desires of the majority and the minority, ostensibly through voting for representatives of various branches at various levels. In §5, Spencer questions the legitimacy of the vote as a substitute for consent.
“Perhaps it will be said that . . . the citizen is understood to have assented to everything his representative may do, when he voted for him. But suppose he did not vote for him; and on the contrary did all in his power to get elected someone holding opposite views — what then? The reply will probably be that, by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority. And how if he did not vote at all? Why then he cannot justly complain of any tax, seeing that he made no protest against its imposition. So, curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted — whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine this. Here stands an unfortunate citizen who is asked if he will pay money for a certain proffered advantage; and whether he employs the only means of expressing his refusal or does not employ it, we are told that he practically agrees; if only the number of others who agree is greater than the number of those who dissent. And thus we are introduced to the novel principle that A’s consent to a thing is not determined by what A says, but by what B may happen to say!”
Besides, it is obvious that the amount of control you exert over government through your vote (or even through all of your political activities — unless you’re one of the elite few) is wholly disproportionate to the level of control government exerts over you. That’s what happens when government isn’t strictly limited and kept in check.

Though the technical origins of the concept may vary, it would seem that Thomas, Barnett, and Spencer all drive to the inescapable conclusion that our current governments at almost all levels in the U.S. rule over us illegitimately. Thomas calls for widespread “legitimate acts of civil disobedience” against these illegitimate governments. Trivial acts such as breaking the speed limit accomplish nothing, he claims. But as for substantive acts, he leaves that up to the reader’s imagination.

What Makes Government Legitimate?
This brings up the question of what constitutes a legitimate government. I read through a broad variety of different types of works to address this question. There were many varied takes on the matter from various policy standpoints. But most of them ultimately came more or less down to the same concept: That government is legitimized by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the people in a particular geographic area recognize a particular government as legitimate.

Acceptance is a much lower standard than the consent standard discussed above. In effect, a government is considered legitimate as long as most people go along with its edicts without significantly rebelling. There is no presumption of a legal foundation or absence of tyranny; no requirement for a legitimate and effective dissent mechanism.

In a twist on the phrase “the voice of the people is the voice of God,” this definition is more like, “the voice of the elite ruling class is the voice of God, as far as they can push the envelope without the people rebelling.” In essence, the absence of rebellion denotes legitimacy. That’s a pretty low bar.

The Shocking Reality
While many would recoil at such a definition, I think that it is representative of current reality. Think about it. While almost everyone is unhappy about the government in one way or another, and some are very dissatisfied with certain features, few seriously think of the government as broadly illegitimate.

Per this statist definition, the Constitution was merely an agreement by which the U.S. Government became recognized as the legitimate national government. Once that was accomplished, the document had served its purpose. Thus, the government is now free to ‘interpret’ the Constitution any way it wishes to meet “modern needs.” There is no need to amend the document when the government can simply do whatever it wants as long as the people don’t rebel on a significant scale.

As appalling as I find this low-bar definition, I conclude that it represents the way things really are. Few would give any thought at all to Thomas’ call to substantive and meaningful civil disobedience because they accept the government as legitimate. To most, any tyranny we live under is either survivable or is nothing that can’t be fixed without a little tweaking. They sense no systemic failure.

I have studied the Constitution and have seen its wisdom and follies. Overall, I consider it a remarkable legal charter for our nation. But when it comes to the way things are really done today and what is generally considered legitimate, the Constitution is essentially meaningless. I do not think that it has to stay that way. But that is another post.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Fed: A Study In Political-Financial Mischief

In October 2008, this WSJ op-ed by celebrated economist John Steele Gordon was published extolling the virtues of a strong central bank. As the economy was reacting to the bursting of the housing bubble, Gordon opined that, thanks to our nation’s central bank, “the present crisis will at least provide another opportunity to give this country, finally, a unified banking system of large, diversified, well-capitalized banking institutions that are under the control of a unified and coherent regulatory system free of undue political influence.”

Economist Thomas DiLorenzo took Gordon’s view to task in this article, calling Gordon’s WSJ article “truly ridiculous.” DiLorenzo challenges Gordon’s historical narratives regarding Hamilton and Jefferson. In essence, DiLorenzo dismisses Gordon’s pro central banking ‘history’ as nothing more than statist propaganda.

Since Gordon’s article was published, the U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve, has acted in unprecedented ways to, depending on your view, either A) save our economy from a horrible fate or B) expand its political and economic power while enriching the elite at the expense of the rest and creating a slew of future problems.

Economist Robert Higgs votes for B in this article. Higgs takes the opportunity to fisk Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s preemptory article aimed at stanching congressional criticism during his upcoming confirmation hearing for a second term.

Higgs’ article is worth reading. Not to be missed is the link to this Huffington Post investigative article exposing the Fed’s shady practices of hiring those that are supposed to be acting as the Fed’s gatekeepers. It’s a classic example of the foxes guarding the henhouse.

Lest Higgs be misunderstood, he makes clear in a comment what he believes should come of the Fed and of central banking in general. “I favor the Fed’s abolition and, moreover, the complete separation of government and money. (And that’s just to get off to a good start.)”

Economist Friedrich Hayek strongly favored abolishing the government monopoly over money. He wrote extensively about the deep history of mischief of governments’ involvement in money. For example, in his book The Fatal Conceit, he writes (pp. 103-104)
“The history of government management of money has, except for a few short happy periods, been one of incessant fraud and deception. In this respect, governments have proved far more immoral than any private agency supplying distinct kinds of money in competition possibly could have been.”
Governments have been very successful in guarding their monopoly over money. The concept that government should not be involved in the money supply except as even-handed rule maker and referee would be an extremely alien thought to most people. If they thought of it at all, most would react with fear and revulsion. Never mind the fact that markets handle with relative efficiency much of what is commonly substituted for actual money.

The libertarian Republican Congressman Ron Paul is an outlier in Congress. (The political mainstream regards him much like the crazy aunt in the attic.) Only people in certain fringe categories take his book End the Fed seriously. But after years of trying, he has finally succeeded in getting serious consideration for his bill that would require the Fed to be audited. The Fed and its allies are pulling out all the stops to stymie the bill or at least strip it of any effectiveness.

Despite the pro-Fed narratives, central banking has not served our nation well. Ending the government monopoly on money would be a good step. (Statists will put up all kinds of reasons why this would cause the end of the world.) But it seems that no matter how badly our central bank behaves in this regard, we’re going to insist on it continuing in this role.

Since the Fed has shown itself to be a heavily politicized organization, the very least we can do is to bring it under the control of Congress, audit it, and let some sunlight into its currently obscured operations. No, that won’t solve the problems with our government’s involvement in the money supply. But perhaps it will at least give people a better idea of how the Fed impacts their daily lives.