Kevin Drum

Is God Dead? Or Merely Bored?

| Sun Apr. 25, 2010 1:31 PM EDT

"Given the durability and predictability of the arguments involved," says Ross Douthat, "it’s hard to come up with something interesting to say on the question of Christianity versus the 'new' atheists." True enough. But he says David Bentley Hart has done it, and as evidence he points us to Hart's recent essay in First Things about his weariness with the anti-God contentions of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Their arguments, he says, are just the same-old-same-old, delivered with too little reflection, too much bombast, and a way-too-healthy dose of contempt. And maybe so. Atheists can be as annoying as anyone else, after all.

Unfortunately, when it comes to annoying and stale rhetorical tropes, Hart shows that he's no slacker either. This is perhaps my least favorite of all time:

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

You can almost hear Hart sighing, "Please Lord, deliver me from cretins." But his pretensions are, if anything, even more insipid than anything coming from the New Atheists: they are, like Jesus, at least trying to reach ordinary people in language that's meaningful to them. Hart wants nothing to do with that. Here he is objecting to the New Atheists' view that God is "some very immense and powerful being" who explains nothing because he, himself, then needs to be explained:

The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.

You can decide for yourself whether this string of words actually makes anything about God more understandable. I doubt it. But it hardly matters, because even if you like Hart's formulation, this is simply not the lived experience of Christianity for most people. Hart would like us to believe that anyone who hasn't spent years meditating on Aquinas and Nietzsche isn't worth engaging with, but walk into any Christian church in America — or the world — and you'll find it full of people who understand God much the same way Hitchens and Dawkins do, not the way Hart does. That's the reality of the religious experience for the vast majority of believers. To call a foul on those who want to engage with this experience — with the world as it is, rather than with Hart's abstract graduate seminar version of the world — is to insist that nonbelievers forfeit the game without even taking the field.

So: do the New Atheists recycle old arguments? Of course they do. But that's not because they're illiterate, it's because those arguments have never been convincingly answered. All the recondite language in the world doesn't change that, either, because the paradoxes are inherent in the ideas themselves. In the end, the English language probably just isn't up to the task of answering them, no matter how hard you try to twist it. To say that God is is best understood as an absolute plenitude of actuality doesn't really advance the ball so much as it merely tries to hide it.

Later in the essay, perhaps recognizing that he's exhausted the semantic possibilities here, Hart redirects his focus to the cultural impact of Christianity, suggesting that the New Atheists haven't truly grappled with what a world without religion would be like. And perhaps they haven't. But interior passions and social mores work both ways. Did Isaac Newton feel a deeper aesthetic connection with the infinite when he was inventing calculus or when he was absorbed in Christian mysticism? Who can say? Not me, surely, and not Hart either. Likewise, the question of whether Christianity has, on balance, been a force for moral good is only slightly more tractable. Does keeping the servants from stealing the silver really outweigh the depredations of the Crusades and the Inquisition?

But no matter how beguiling those questions are, surely the metaphysical one always comes first. To say merely that Christianity is comforting or practical — assuming you believe that — is hardly enough. You need to show that it's true. And if you want to assert that something is true, the onus is on you to demonstrate it, not on the New Atheists to demonstrate conclusively that it isn't. After all, in the end the only difference between Hart and Dawkins is that Hart believes in 1% of the world's religions and Dawkins believes in 0% of them. It's Dawkins' job only to question that remaining 1%. It's Hart's job to answer him.

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Mortgages and Consumer Protection

| Sat Apr. 24, 2010 5:57 PM EDT

Speaking of conservatives and financial reform, Arnold Kling is one who does write seriously about the subject on a fairly regular basis. A couple of days ago he listed three problems with Chris Dodd's financial reform bill, all of which seem reasonable to me (though I think Dodd is planning to take up reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in a separate bill). But then he took this shot at the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency:

I know that it's axiomatic that poor people are helpless victims. But in the case of these mortgages [i.e., bubble-era ARM/no-doc/exotic mortgages], that is a really hard sell. The banks did not take from poor people. They gave to poor people....I'm sorry, but if you borrowed up to 100 percent of the value of the house or more, then all you really lost were your moving expenses.

What about predatory lending? As I understand it, the idea of predatory lending is to saddle the borrower with an expensive mortgage so that you can foreclose on the property and sell it at a profit. How many times did that happen? Have you read of a single instance in the past three years where the bank made a profit on a foreclosure?

Put aside the question of whether or not poor people really have suffered thanks to exotic mortgages, a problem that I think Kling dismisses much too easily. From a systemic point of view, the real issue is that predatory lending on a large scale helped to massively inflate the housing/credit bubble of the aughts. If the home loan market had been regulated stringently enough to keep mortgage lending relatively sober, the bubble most likely would have been half the size it ended up at, the credit derivative tidal wave never would have picked up a lot of steam, the bursting of the bubble would have kicked off a normal-sized recession instead of a near-depression, and the banking system would have survived without massive government intervention.

Of course, the proposed CFPA would do a lot more than just regulate mortgage lending, and we can argue about whether that regulation would be a good thing. But the Fed obviously did a lousy job of reining in mortgage brokers during the past decade, and since property is by far our biggest (and most dangerous) asset class, doing a better job of that is a key part of preventing a repeat of 2008. Giving that responsibility to someone who takes it more seriously seems like a pretty good idea to me.

Quote of the Day: The Southern Strategy

| Sat Apr. 24, 2010 2:19 PM EDT

From Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, on the GOP's electoral strategy since the 60s:

For the last 40-plus years we had a "Southern Strategy" that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South. Well, guess what happened in 1992, folks, "Bubba" went back home to the Democratic Party and voted for Bill Clinton.

I'm glad we've settled that once and for all.

Where's the Right Wing Reform?

| Sat Apr. 24, 2010 2:02 PM EDT

Via Twitter, National Review editor Rich Lowry suggests that conservatives are a lot more interested in financial reform than I (or Jonathan Chait) give them credit for. To demonstrate, he points to a post that has links to nine pieces recently run on the NR website or in the magazine.

I'll get to those in a minute. First, though, I should clarify: I wasn't targeting any particular magazine when I suggested that conservatives haven't shown a lot of serious interest in financial reform. My observation was much broader than that. When I think of the blogs that have become go-to sites on the financial crisis — Mike Konczal, Felix Salmon, Barry Ritholtz, Simon Johnson & James Kwak, Yves Smith, Steve Randy Waldman, and others — they're mostly run by folks with a leftish tilt of one kind or another. Ditto for books. Ditto for magazine pieces. There are a few conservatives who blog and write about financial regulation too, but just not very many, and almost none that do it with the depth and passion — or the kind of concrete proposals — of the lefties. That's why lefty sites mostly end up arguing with other lefties.

But what about National Review in particular? Well, aside from nonsense about the CRA there's one thing for sure that we know conservatives are exercised about: the supposed "bailout fund" contained in Chris Dodd's reform bill. So I'll give 'em that. And sure enough, of the nine piece linked in this post, five of them (1, 2, 3, 4, and 8) are primarily about that. Of the others, #6 and #7 are just reporting and nonspecific commentary, and #9 is some kind of weird analogy with oily rags and fire insurance that I couldn't even make sense of. Bottom line: NR has some commentary on reform, but there's not much, and what there is is almost entirely dedicated to griping about resolution authority and the "bailout fund." It's essentially pretty trivial stuff. On a broader note, The Corner probably puts up a couple hundred posts a week on every topic under the sun, but most weeks you can count the number dedicated to serious commentary on financial reform on the fingers of one hand.

But maybe you noticed that I skipped a step up there. What about item #5? It's by Duncan Currie, and after a bit of throat clearing about the bailout fund and the dreaded CFPA, he offers three reform suggestions Republicans should take up. Here's the condensed version:

(1) A one-page mortgage form....The form would clearly and concisely show prospective borrowers how their mortgage payments relate to their income, and would be accompanied by a two-page glossary defining various technical terms. It has received praise from none other than Elizabeth Warren, chair of the TARP Congressional Oversight Panel.

(2) Revamping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac....Dodd’s legislation does not address their future status. Republicans should continue highlighting this omission and challenge Democrats to support robust GSE-reform language.

(3) Implementing new capital requirements....In the latest issue of National Affairs, economists Oliver Hart of Harvard and Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago describe an innovative approach. Briefly, Hart and Zingales would force big financial firms to safeguard their systemically important obligations by carrying two layers of capital, the second of which “would allow for a market-based trigger to signal that a firm’s equity cushion is thinning, that its long-term debt is potentially in danger, and therefore that the financial institution is taking on too much risk.”

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about. It's obviously not what I'd propose, and it doesn't really address the deepest regulatory issues that probably cause the most heartburn for conservative ideology. Still, it shows a serious interest in the subject and tosses out some real proposals. Mortgage loans should be simpler. Fannie and Freddie do need to be dealt with. And capital requirements are a key part of any reform effort. It's a good piece.

But it's just one piece. Beyond that, I guess my question is, Where are the Mike Konczals and Simon Johnsons of the right? That is, conservatives who acknowledge the serious market failures that brought on the crash (instead of obsessing solely over CRA or Fannie Mae) and who go beyond just sniping at Democratic proposals. Conservatives who write regularly for a lay audience and really take seriously an obligation to explain what they think happened and what we ought to do to fix it. Maybe they're out there and I'm just not reading them. But if someone gives me half a dozen names, I'll take a look.

Goldman's Big Short

| Sat Apr. 24, 2010 12:10 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that Goldman Sachs is a big fat liar:

In late 2007 as the mortgage crisis gained momentum and many banks were suffering losses, Goldman Sachs executives traded e-mail messages saying that they were making “some serious money” betting against the housing markets.

The e-mails, released Saturday morning by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, appear to contradict some of Goldman’s previous statements that left the impression that the firm lost money on mortgage-related investments.

Hmmm. Really? What statements were those?

Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and head of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said that the e-mail messages contrast with Goldman’s public statements about its trading results. “The 2009 Goldman Sachs annual report stated that the firm ‘did not generate enormous net revenues by betting against residential related products,’ ” Mr. Levin said in a statement Saturday when his office released the documents. “These e-mails show that, in fact, Goldman made a lot of money by betting against the mortgage market.”

You know, I'm as willing as the next guy to rubbish Goldman Sachs. But 2007 is not 2009, and Goldman's mortgage-related results might very well have been different during those two years. What's more, making lots of money shorting the housing market is entirely consistent with Goldman's statement that it "did not generate enormous net revenues by betting against residential related products." The obvious conclusion from this is that they lost a truckoad of money on mortgage products and made a truckload of money shorting mortgage products. Apparently the second truckload was bigger than the first during certain periods, but that's all.

As far as I can tell, this has been Goldman's story all along. They were long housing up through 2006, got nervous, and then started to short the market. As a result, they came out of the financial meltdown in decent shape. Not great shape, as their conversion to a bank holding company and $1.3 billion "missing month" in late 2008 demonstrate, but not bad.

There are plenty of things to hate about Goldman Sachs, but this one is a real stretch. Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't really see any kind of serious deception here.

Friday Cat Blogging - 23 April 2010

| Fri Apr. 23, 2010 3:21 PM EDT

Happy Shakespeare's birthday! Maybe. April 23rd is as good a guess as any, and if you're not convinced just pretend you're celebrating St. George's Day instead. Inkblot and Domino are celebrating by hunting critters in the deep, dark jungle in our backyard. I don't really know what Inkblot is looking at, I just know that something caught his eye and he took off like a shot for the bushes to track it down. As usual, he failed. Domino then followed him out and caught sight of some birds. She even made that funny cat hunting sound, which I've never heard her attempt before.

And there's good news to go with all this: Wednesday was vet day, and everyone is healthy. Hooray! What's more, according to the official weigh-in, Inkblot has lost about five pounds since his peak and Domino has lost two-and-a-half. Not exactly supermodel svelte, but that's good enough for now. Have a nice weekend, everyone.

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Republicans and Wall Street

| Fri Apr. 23, 2010 3:02 PM EDT

Rich Lowry takes a whack at the cozy relationship between Wall Street and the Democratic Party:

When President Barack Obama’s vast new regulatory state is completed, Wall Street firms ought to have a competition over the naming rights. Will it be the CitiDeal? Or the Goldman Society? Or the UBS/J.P. Morgan Joint Initiative for the Establishment of a Social Democracy?

....Back in 2006, Democrats began a hard sell on Wall Street led by New York senator Chuck Schumer and then-representative Rahm Emanuel, now White House chief of staff. The basic pitch was that Democrats were taking Congress, and the financial world should get on board — surely delivered with all the bare-knuckled subtlety for which those two are justly renowned.

Lowry's tone aside, I'd say he's got a point. (My collection of shots at both parties is here.) The fact is that we'd have a lot easier time reining in Wall Street if it weren't for the fact that Democrats long ago gave up their populist roots and decided to follow Willy Sutton's advice. The only difference is that they don't have to rob banks, they just have to ask them nicely for their money over coffee and scones.

But look: this particular critique would be a lot more meaningful if it were accompanied by some actual ideas about what went wrong with our financial system and what we ought to do to fix it. But Lowry doesn't even try. He makes a couple of tired references to "unfettered capitalism" and "the unforgiving discipline of the market" toward the end of the column, and that's about it. But there's no there there. At some point we need some good ideas too. Unfortunately, conservatives just can't seem to work up any interest in this subject. Funny that.

Obama and His Discontents

| Fri Apr. 23, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

David Brooks writes today that all the old left-right wars are back in full swing even though we were all promised differently back in 2008:

The country had just elected a man who vowed to move past the old polarities, who valued discussion and who clearly had some sympathy with both the Burkean and Hamiltonian impulses. He staffed his administration with brilliant pragmatists whose views overlapped with mine, who differed only in that they have more faith in technocratic planning.

Yet things have not worked out for those of us in the broad middle. Politics is more polarized than ever. The two parties have drifted further to the extremes. The center is drained and depressed. What happened?

History happened. The administration came into power at a time of economic crisis. This led it, in the first bloom of self-confidence, to attempt many big projects all at once. Each of these projects may have been defensible in isolation, but in combination they created the impression of a federal onslaught.

Given Brooks' temperament and policy preferences, I'm not surprised that he's discouraged. Still, I really don't understand his basic complaint here. It's true that Barack Obama has a cautious, pragmatic character, but he was also pretty clear during the campaign about what he wanted to do. Let's roll the tape: Healthcare reform. Climate change. A drawdown in Iraq. A stimulus bill. A surge in Afghanistan. More drone attacks in the AfPak region. Ending DADT.

And what has he devoted most of his time to? Healthcare reform. Climate change. A drawdown in Iraq. A stimulus bill. A surge in Afghanistan. More drone attacks in the AfPak region. Ending DADT.

He's also added financial reform to that list, which didn't get a lot attention in 2008 for the obvious reason that we were right in the middle of a financial meltdown and it was too early to figure out what needed to be done on that score. But under the circumstances, surely Brooks doesn't begrudge a focus on this? And surely he doesn't think that it could have been put off much longer than it already has?

Not really. His real complaint, apparently, is this: "Each of these projects may have been defensible in isolation, but in combination they created the impression of a federal onslaught." But I don't think that's true. Remember: Rick Santelli's famous tea party rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange was broadcast 30 days after Obama's inauguration and the movement was in full swing a couple of months later. There was no "federal onslaught" at that point, there were just a bunch of smallish things working their way through Congress plus two big ticket items that Obama was pushing hard for: the stimulus bill and healthcare reform.1 The first — compromised in size and including plenty of tax cuts — was, surely, something that no responsible president could have avoided and that any responsible opposition should have accepted. The second was the cornerstone of Obama's campaign, and it was — by a good margin — the most moderate healthcare overhaul that any Democratic president had ever proposed.

So yes: the impression of a federal onslaught was "created." But beware the passive voice. It was created very deliberately by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the Republican opposition. Which is fine. That's their role. But they created it not over an "onslaught," but practically before Obama had even done anything. The only way for Obama to have avoided this fight, then, would have been to almost literally give up his entire domestic agenda. And even that probably wouldn't have done it.

The nature of the opposition to a liberal domestic agenda was always clear, and there was never much Obama could do about it. If you don't like that agenda, that's fine. But it's wrong to pretend that the hysterical opposition it's produced is somehow uniquely Obama's fault. It was inevitable from the day he was elected, and its source has always been perfectly clear.

1The Waxman-Markey climate bill passed the House in June, but then stalled and went nowhere for the next year. It never got the kind of attention that healthcare or the stimulus did.

The Non-Nuclear Nuke

| Fri Apr. 23, 2010 12:12 PM EDT

For years the Pentagon has been wrestling with a problem: when you get intel telling you that a high-value terrorist has been located somewhere, how do you take him out? They aren't likely to stick around at the target location for long, so you need something that can (a) get there quickly and (b) cause a lot of damage once it does. Bombers and cruise missiles take hours. Local forces, even if they're in place, aren't always lethal enough. What to do?

One answer is to use ICBMs. Not nuclear-tipped ICBMs, but missiles with a big conventional payload. The Obama administration is apparently planning to revive this idea, and Noah Shachtman explains why it's crazy:

Over and over again, the Bush administration tried to push the idea of these conventional ICBMs. Over and over again, Congress refused to provide the funds for it. The reason was pretty simple: those anti-terror missiles look and fly exactly like the nuclear missiles we’d launch at Russia or China, in the event of Armageddon. “For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations,” a congressional study notes. That could have world-changing consequences. “The launch of such a missile,” then-Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a state of the nation address after the announcement of the Bush-era plan, “could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.”

I guess I can imagine possible ways to fix this. I just can't imagine any good ways. Even if the Russians and Chinese and Indians and Pakistanis are provided with some reliable way of identifying non-nuclear ICBM launches, they could never be sure that the United States hadn't figured out some way to fool them. So they'd always be on a short fuse. And do we really want to make that particular fuse even shorter than it already is?

Sometimes bad ideas are just bad ideas. This really seems like one of them.

Climate Bill Gets a Boost

| Fri Apr. 23, 2010 11:50 AM EDT

The KGL team — that's senators Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman for those of you not up to speed with current Beltway lingo — anounced yesterday that they've gotten key business support for their climate bill:

The Edison Electric Institute — whose members generate the bulk of the nation's electricity — and two of its influential CEOs, Exelon's John Rowe and Duke Energy's Jim Rogers, will declare their support Monday, sources said. While Kerry did not name the three oil companies, a source familiar with the negotiations said Shell, BP and ConocoPhillips would back the climate measure.

And why did these folks decide to support the bill? Here's the big payoff:

The bill will preempt both the states' and EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, as long as emitters comply with the standards outlined in the measure. The EPA will monitor and enforce compliance with the law.

That's pretty much been the plan all along: use the threat of EPA action to gain support from Republicans and the business community. It seems to be working on the business community, so the only question left is whether it will work on Republicans. Normally I'd say no, but the threat of EPA action is quite real and might prompt the GOP's business wing to put some serious pressure on them to get this bill passed. That will mean standing up to the "carbon taxes are tyranny" crowd in the tea party movement, but in the past the business wing of the party has usually won these kinds of showdowns. It's still not clear if there's enough time on the congressional calendar to pass a climate bill this year, but at least the odds are now a little better. Kate Sheppard has more details here.