Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

A blessed and joyous new year to all. Holiday recess until Monday.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Back to the health care bill

Congress will be returning from its Christmas recess shortly and pundits are predicting a protracted battle to reconcile the House and Senate versions of Health Care reform. I think this is unlikely. It seems much more likely to me that the real hard part is now over. Here for the record are a few predictions...

1. The final bill will (not surprisingly) more closely resemble the Senate bill than the House. This is because the Senate has no wiggle room in its vote count. With unanimous Republican opposition the Democrats can not afford to loose a single vote. The House will have to swallow hard and accept most of the Senate bill as written. Which means...

2. There will be no public option or anything resembling one or anything that could trigger one.

3. Most of the Senate's plans for financing this monstrosity will survive intact.

4. The House language on abortion (it is much more restrictive than the Senate's) is likely to win for the same reason the public option will loose. The House has a significant number of staunchly pro-life Democrats who are unlikely to vote for the Senate's fudged language. They are large enough in numbers that they could in combination with Republicans kill the bill if they don't get their way. Liberals will swallow hard and pass it anyway.

5. Some of the more controversial provisions are likely to be stripped out of the bill. I would be more than slightly surprised if Nebraska's exemption from Medicaid costs survives the conference committee.

6. This is going to happen sooner rather than later. Pundits are predicting a protracted battle. But Democrats are exhausted. They are (pardon the pun) sick of health care. They also see this (correctly) as a rallying point for the GOP's base. There is no upside and a great deal of downside to dragging this out. If the whole health care thing has dragged on much longer than expected I believe it is about to end much more rapidly than many think likely. There is a better than even chance that this will be passed and signed before the President's State of the Union speech. Democrats want to move on to more politically advantageous issues like spending insane amounts of money (that we don't have) in an effort to create jobs.

There is one other reason why Democrats are going to pass this quickly. Once it's been passed it will be all but impossible to undo. They realize that what they are about to do is create a "right" to health care for every US citizen. Politically this will not be reversible. Congress can tinker with the system (and you can bet they will) but the underlying premise will be carved in stone. This is the main reason the GOP has been fighting tooth and nail to kill the bill. They grasp that once it's passed they will never be able to return to the status quo ante. And Democrats believe that as the memory of exactly how this thing got done starts to fade; Americans will focus on the promise of (near) universal health coverage. And of course the Democrats also know that this is the camel's nose under the proverbial tent flap. More than a few of the very disappointed liberals are going to vote for this pig because they see it as the first and most difficult step towards a single payer system of national government run health insurance.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A peek at the calendar... some good news and some not

Christ is born! Merry Christmas to all.

2010 is almost here. First the good news; the month of January is looking to be a (comparatively) light month for fasting. The Nativity fast free period runs through the 4th of January. The last week in January will also be fast free. Those on the Traditional (Old) Church Calendar will have pretty much the whole month fast free (but they will pay for it later). Which brings us to the not so good news (unless you really enjoy fasting). The rest of the year has an awful lot of red on the calendar even by Orthodox standards.

Lent comes earlier this year than I can remember. It begins in early February with Pascha (Easter) falling on April 4th. Which in turn means the Apostle's Fast starts much earlier. You can just wipe out the entire month of June. Those on the Old Calendar can add two more weeks to that already longer than normal fast.

Oh well. The joys of being Orthodox and all that.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

I sincerely wish the joy of the feast to all. May you and yours have a blessed Feast of the Nativity and a very merry Christmas.

(Holiday break... No posting before Monday. As I will not be online this weekend I am putting comments on moderation until I return. Sorry about that but I have had several SPAM comments left on the blog lately.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tis the season... a brief remembrance for a Christmas long ago

My luggage has been recovered and I am slowly recovering from a nasty flue/cold that I picked up back east while home for my step-mother's funeral. Computer issues continue though I do have some hope for some sort of resolution in the not too distant future. On the upside I have been catching up on some reading.

I just finished reading David McCullough's "1776" which I found a very good chronicle of what was arguably the most fateful year in the history of our republic. It is difficult for many of us to realize just how close things were in that terrible winter. By December of 1776 the Continental Army had been soundly defeated at the battle of Brooklyn Heights (Long Island) and driven from York Island (Manhattan). At every collision between British forces and ours we were whipped so badly that it is hard to understand how we survived at all.

George Washington had only narrowly avoided encirclement and the total annihilation of his army by the thinnest of margins on no less than five occasions. As late December arrived our army had been driven across New Jersey and forced to retire to the opposite side of the Delaware River. It was outnumbered by no less than 5 to 1 by the combined forces of the British Army and the Hessian mercenaries hired by King George III. Most of the soldiers had not been paid in months. Many could not remember their last hot meal. All were poorly clothed with frightening numbers lacking even shoes. Desertions were high and moral was at rock bottom. In the days immediately before Christmas, General Lee (no relation to the later Confederate) was captured by the British.

It was clear that the army was at the end of its rope and Philadelphia was likely to be occupied at any time. Faced with the real possibility of a final crushing defeat Washington resolved upon a do or die attack. His crossing of the Delaware to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton (then a relatively small town) on Christmas night in the teeth of a ferocious blizzard was a desperate gamble. When he arrived on the other side he could not have known that half his troops sent to cross farther down the river had been blocked by ice flows. Adding a final blow to his plan he was informed that a large contingent of what was left of his forces had wet gunpowder and their muskets would not fire.

Washington stood silent for a moment and then ordered his troops to attack with the bayonet.

And the rest as they say is history.

There are times when I am truly humbled by those who have gone before us.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Memory Eternal

Archbishop Job of Chicago and the Midwest has died unexpectedly. A figure of great importance in the OCA who helped bring an end to the period of scandal he will be sorely missed. May his memory be eternal!

My version of a popular Christams song

OK only the first 5 lines... I will have to work on the rest.

Five airports
Four jet planes
Three brutal layovers
Two different airlines
And ONE lost suitcase (last seen in Chicago)!

The twelve will be the number of hours I was in transit (actually it was more than that but this is close enough).

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Progress on rules governing autocephaly and autonomy

Orrologian has posted a recent communique of the Russian Orthodox Church on progress towards establishing rules for the declaration of autocephaly and autonomy on the part of local Orthodox churches. These rules could have a significant impact on the status of the OCA. You may read the details at his blog. Please leave comments there.

Catholics see progress on "the Eastern Front"

The highly respected and well connected Vatican observer Robert Moynihan has a new piece out on Zenit. It is good enough that I am going to post his essay in its entirety.

Rome-Moscow Relations Begin New Era

By Robert Moynihan

WASHINGTON, D.C., DEC. 14, 2009 ( Things are moving on the Eastern front. And more movement may be coming soon, as an old winter chill in Rome-Moscow relations seems to be thawing, with profound consequences for Europe and the entire world.

Vatican observers have been following these developments with great attention. "For Rome and Moscow, It's Spring Again," the respected Italian Vatican observer Sandro Magister noted in a Dec. 11 column.

This improvement in relations is due in part to many quiet steps taken by the Vatican under the direction of Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's chief ecumenist, who led the Vatican delegation to a week-long theological dialogue in Cyprus, and by Archbishop Antonio Mennini, the Pope's very able nuncio to Moscow.

Magister, however, was commenting on two key recent events: (1) the upgrading of relations between the Holy See and Russia, and (2) the publication in Russia, for the first time ever, of a collection of Benedict XVI's homilies.

And this "springtime" has a goal, Magister argues: "the defense of the Christian tradition" in Europe and around the world.

So what we have, essentially, is the announcement of a new alliance on the world stage between two powers that have long distrusted each other: Rome and Russia.

Incredible as it may seem -- given that just 20 years ago Russia was the atheist, Church-persecuting Soviet Union -- this is what seems to be occurring right before our eyes.

On Dec. 9, following a meeting in the Vatican between the Pope and the president of Russia, Dimitri Medvedev, Russia and the Vatican announced "the establishment of diplomatic relations between them, at the level of apostolic nunciature on the part of the Holy See, and of embassy on the part of the Russian Federation."

The week before, Benedict XVI had received Medvedev in audience at the Vatican and gave him a copy, in Russian, of the encyclical "Caritas in Veritate."

On Dec. 2, the day before Medvedev met with the Pope, a book published by the Patriarchate of Moscow containing the main speeches about Europe made over the past 10 years by Joseph Ratzinger, as cardinal and Pope, was presented in Rome.

The entire volume is in two languages, Italian and Russian -- again, a sign of the ever-closer relations between Russia and Rome.

Kindred spirit

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Volokolamsk, the head of the patriarchate's department for external Church relations, wrote the introduction for the book. The archbishop is an increasingly important figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, and in the Orthodox world. (The previous occupant of this post, Kirill, was elected patriarch of Moscow earlier this year, which suggests the possible future importance of Archbishop Hilarion himself.)

In his introduction, Archbishop Hilarion, 43, sets forth his vision for Europe, and the new "alliance" needed to realize that vision. It is a remarkable text, which we can only touch upon here.

Magister was so impressed by this introduction that he wrote: "Those who expect an Orthodox Church removed from time, made up only of remote traditions and archaic liturgies, will come away shaken from reading the introduction to this book. [...]

"The image that emerges from it is that of a Russian Orthodox Church that refuses to let itself be locked up in a ghetto, but on the contrary hurls itself against the secularist onslaught with all the peaceful weapons at its disposal, not excluding civil disobedience against laws 'that oblige the commission of a sin in the eyes of God.'"

Those in the West, both in Europe and in the United States, who feel that unjust laws have been passed that cannot be countenanced by Christians, will find a kindred spirit in Archbishop Hilarion.

The title of the Orthodox archbishop's text is, "The Help That the Russian Orthodox Church Can Give to Europe."

It begins with a very candid, and deeply felt, lamentation by an Orthodox leader for the closing of Catholic and Protestant churches in Western Europe.

"When traveling in Europe, especially in the traditionally Protestant countries, I am always astonished at seeing not a few churches abandoned by their congregations, especially the ones turned into pubs, clubs, shops, or places of profane activities of yet another kind," Archbishop Hilarion writes. "There is something profoundly deplorable in this sad spectacle.

"I come from a country in which for many decades the churches were used for nonreligious purposes. Many places of worship were completely destroyed. […] Why has the space for religion in Western society been reduced in such a significant way in recent decades?"

Help for the West

Then Archbishop Hilarion makes his main point: Russia can help. Russia can come to the rescue of the West.

"The Russian Orthodox Church, with its unique experience of surviving the harshest persecutions, struggling against militant atheism, reemerging from the ghetto when the political situation changed, recovering its place in society and redefining its social responsibilities, can therefore be of help to Europe," he writes.

Then he draws a line in the sand.

"The totalitarian dictatorship of the past cannot be replaced with a new dictatorship of pan-European government mechanisms. […] The countries of Orthodox tradition, for example, do not accept laws that legalize euthanasia, homosexual marriage, drug trafficking, the maintenance of brothels, pornography, and so on."

In short, the archbishop is saying that the Orthodox, including the Russian Orthodox Church which he represents, are ready to fight for Christian values in the West, alongside Catholics and Protestants.

And Archbishop Hilarion does not exclude disobedience against unjust laws.

"Obviously, disobedience of civil law is an extreme measure that a particular Church might adopt in exceptional circumstances," he writes. "It is nonetheless a possibility that must not be excluded a priori, in case a system of secularized values should become the only one operating in Europe."

Was this a random, unrepresentative text, out of the mainstream?

Well, one indication that it is not merely a stray opinion, but rather part of a growing consensus, is that the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano saw fit to publish Archbishop Hilarion's text almost in its entirety on Dec. 2.

John Thavis, the distinguished Vaticanist for Catholic News Service -- of the U.S. bishops' conference -- wrote Dec. 11: "The Russian Orthodox Church has come forward to propose a strategic alliance with the Catholic Church aimed, in effect, at saving Europe's soul from 'Western post-Christian humanism.' The offer came in an introduction written by Russian Orthodox Archbishop Hilarion to a book of speeches by Benedict XVI on Europe's spiritual crisis, published in Russian by the Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate. In an unusual move, the Vatican newspaper published almost the entire introduction in its Dec. 2 edition."

Thavis notes that Archbishop Hilarion's proposal comes precisely as 140 Christian leaders in the United States met in New York and issued the "Manhattan Declaration" pledging renewed zeal in defending the unborn, defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and protecting religious freedom.

And, Thavis summed up, "Vatican officials made no formal response to the archbishop's text, but read it with great interest."

St. Gregory of Nazianzus

This introduction by Archbishop Hilarion should not come as a surprise. During the last four years, the archbishop has spoken publicly a number of times of such an alliance. In fact, in May 2006 the Vatican and the Moscow Patriarchate held a weeklong conference in Vienna, which I attended, outlining the framework for such cooperation.

Last month, I traveled to Russia and met with Archbishop Hilarion and his close associates.

One of them is Leonid Sevastianov, 31, the executive director of the Russian Orthodox St. Gregory of Nazianzus Charitable Foundation, established a few weeks ago with the blessing of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill to help carry out Archbishop Hilarion's vision of working with Western Christians on behalf of Christian values.

"We want your help, the help of Catholics, and of Western Europeans and Americans," Sevastianov told me. "Patriarch Kirill has called for the moral renewal of Russia, through a return to the deep values of the Christian faith. This is our vision." (Forbes magazine in November named Patriarch Kirill as one of the most powerful leaders in Russia today.)

St. Gregory of Nazianzus was a theologian in the 300s, well before the division of the Church into East and West, and so is venerated both by the Catholics and by the Orthodox. He is a Father of the Church for all Christians.

The co-founders of this new foundation are Archbishop Hilarion and Vadim Yakunin, one of the wealthiest businessmen in Russia.

Other wealthy Russians are also prepared to support this foundation. But participation by Americans and Western Europeans would also be very much appreciated, Archbishop Hilarion and Sevastianov told me.

"We want to try to attract the attention of religious believers, in Russia and abroad, who believe in traditional Christian values, and who want to contribute to making society more just and more moral," Sevastianov said.

"We want to promote the idea of the unity between the West and Russia on the basis of common Christian roots."

The role of Communion: Denominations wrestle with who should receive bread and wine

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Marialice Searcy, 83, of Kansas City, Mo., has attended Mass all her life and couldn't imagine not receiving Holy Communion.

"I can go to Mass and pray, but the Eucharist (Communion) is the focal point of my spiritual life," she said. "Without the Eucharist, I feel I would be missing an important nourishment for my soul."

But some Catholics are sometimes asked to forgo this expression of faith.

Most recently, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy said his Rhode Island bishop asked him to abstain from receiving Holy Communion.

Other bishops have made similar requests to other Catholic politicians such as Vice President Joseph Biden and then-Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and a few have said they would deny Communion to Catholic politicians whose positions, especially on abortion, go against church teachings.

How serious is such a stance for Catholics? And how do other churches view Communion?

"Of all the symbols of our faith, none invites more intimacy with God and identification with other baptized Catholics than the act of receiving consecrated bread and wine," said Edward Foley, professor of liturgy and music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

"Conversely, preventing someone from receiving Communion is a very serious act, for it announces a rupture in their communion with the church, which is also thought of as Christ's body," he said. "Furthermore, it withholds what the church believes to be a most intimate and gracious encounter with the God of Jesus Christ."

In the final meal with his disciples, Jesus invited them to eat of his body and drink of his blood. Therefore, Roman Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is actually present in the bread and wine, and the practice is to receive Communion at each Mass.

"The Orthodox and Catholic churches understand Communion as a means of grace, a way by which God's grace comes to us," said James Brandt, associate professor of historical theology at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City.

"That is also the view of the Anglican tradition and the Lutheran tradition. The Baptist and Disciples traditions would tend to see Holy Communion more as the expression of the faith of the people than as a means of grace. Typically for them, they do Communion because Jesus said to, and it is more of a memorial."

The Methodists, Presbyterians and United Church of Christ are more in the middle, he said.

"They tend to be sacramental but not as much as the Lutherans, Catholics and Orthodox. For example, John Calvin, founder of the Presbyterian tradition, said Communion is a means of grace and a testimony of our faith, so he combined the two."

Brandt said that from the Middle Ages to the 1960s, Communion was seen as a somber penitential rite because it was a way of asking forgiveness for sins.

"With the liturgical renewal movement from the 1970s, Communion for a lot of people came to be seen as a celebration of Christ's resurrection and took on a tone of celebration and joy," he said. "A lot of time, the language is that it is a foretaste of the feast to come in heaven."

The Rev. Nicholas Papedo of St. Dionysios Greek Orthodox Church in Overland Park said he applauds the Catholic bishops who are saying, "If you are not going to support the teachings of the church, you should not take Communion."

The Eastern Orthodox tradition views the wine and bread as mystically changed into the body and blood of Christ, he said.

"Orthodox Christians are coming forward asking for the forgiveness of God and the mercy of God," he said. "They are standing before the altar of God asking for their sins to be cleansed.

"If they separate themselves, there is not mercy at this time, so there needs to be repentance so they can be in communion with God. If they are not repentant, instead of receiving the mercy of God, they are receiving God's judgment. Therefore, asking them not to receive Communion is for their own protection."

As with Roman Catholics, Holy Communion is closed, only for members of that denomination. And it is received at every divine liturgy and the major observances of saints.
Read the rest here.

Where have the young people gone?

“Nationwide polls and denominational reports are showing that the next generation is calling it quits on the traditional church. And it’s not just happening on the nominal fringe; it’s happening at the core of the faith.”

That’s the opening paragraph in a press release promoting a new book, “Already Gone,” by Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, with Todd Hillard.

Nick Garland, pastor of First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, considers the findings so on target, the church recently hosted an “Answers in Genesis” conference led by Ham.

During the conference, Garland asked those in attendance to have a small group prayer that young adults at First Baptist would not be among the two-thirds who are “already gone” from the church.

Two-thirds of young adults who have grown up in evangelical churches are leaving, according to Ham and Beemer.

Information in the book is based on data collected from 20,000 phone calls and detailed surveys of 1,000 20-to-29-year-olds who used to attend evangelical churches on a regular basis but have since left them behind.

Garland compared what is happening in 21st century evangelical churches to Martin Luther’s Reformation in 1517 that created protestant churches and the creation of the Puritans who separated themselves from the Church of England.

“This is a literal re-shaping of the church the way it has been for the past 400 or 500 years,” Garland said.

“They (young people) have written church off as a moralistic bad guy that wants to keep them from enjoying their life. You don’t have to have a passport to find them; they are on every street in the city,” he said. And they’re not just young adults. Separation is beginning as early as middle school.

Young people no longer believe in Genesis, which is the basis for Christianity, Garland said. They question everything from creation to the divinity of Christ, and for that he credits laws that require the evolution theory be taught in public school classrooms and ban instruction on Biblical creation.

Nancy Mabry, youth director at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, agrees that evangelical churches are losing twenty-somethings, but she credits a reluctance to make any sort of commitment as the underlying cause.

If young people can’t commit to a skating party on Sunday evening until Sunday morning, they’re going to have difficulty making long-term commitments to anything else, Mabry said.

When she was in her 20s, she said “If you didn’t have a fever, you went to church. Some people say they don’t come to church because Sunday is the only day they have to spend with family. Why don’t they spend it with their family in church? Now, church is an option,” Mabry said.

There is an exception, however, according to Mabry. Traditional churches that are liturgical churches and smaller evangelical churches seem to be retaining their twenty-something members in greater numbers than larger and mega-churches.

The Rev. John Wilke, senior pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, has read the book and said he found it to be a fascinating study.

He cited one of Luther’s writings as something for church leaders to consider: “A faith that costs nothing and demands nothing is worth nothing.”

“I think that is where the church is today. I get too many things in the mail from churches that say, ‘Come just the way you are, you don’t have to change,’” Wilke said.

“While God loves you where you are, he expects you to change. We don’t put the fear of God in our churches, we don’t have that respect. We’ve made Jesus our homeboy. He’s not our homeboy, he’s our Saviour.”

Wilke said the only church he knows of that is experiencing growth in the 20-to-29-year old age group is the Greek Orthodox Church.

“The Greek Orthodox Church is a liturgical church. Kids want to return to something different from what they get from the world. If we want to reach these kids again, we are going to have to return to what the early church was doing. We need to raise the bar,” he said.
Read the rest here.

60 Minutes to broadcast segment on the Orthodox Church

The CBS news program "60 Minutes" will air a segment on the Orthodox Church this Sunday Dec 20th (check local schedules for broadcast times). His All Holiness Bartholomew Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and New Rome is interviewed in the segment.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cardinal Husar of the Ukrainian Catholic (Eastern Rite) Church calls for unity in the Ukraine

Kiev. December 15. Interfax - The leader of the Uniates Lubomir Husar called for the unification of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the self-proclaimed "Kiev Patriarchate and Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox Church, as well as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in one local Church of the country.

"We have a desire to see these four branches back to the primitive unity. But this unity will not be the same as in the times (prince), Vladimir (Grand - IF)," - said the head of Church in Tuesday's press conference Kiev.

According to L. Husar, the establishment of a united church of Kiev should occur in the form of participations - need to combine faith and traditions of each of the branches to leave. "We are all equal ... We are the same can be only in the holy faith. And those already operating time, tradition, way - this is secondary. We must learn to be tolerant to each other, take it, do not insist that we must all become like one or another branch ", - the head of the Uniates.

In the view of L. Husar, Patriarch, who will head one local church, could belong to any of the four branches, and the spiritual center of the united Church will be Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kiev.

Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church came under the Brest union in 1596 to unite the Orthodox and Catholic churches in the territory of the Commonwealth with the recognition of the primacy of the Pope and a number of Roman Catholic canon, while maintaining the Eastern rite.

After the Lviv Cathedral Church in 1946 has been eliminated, although continued to operate illegally in the western regions of Ukraine and abroad. In 1989, the Church in fact was re-legalized as a result of diplomatic agreements between Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II.


Hat tip to Mike L. at the Byzantine Forum

Note: The above translation is from Mike L.

Keith Olbermann slams the Senate Health Care reform bill

It is not often I agree with Mr. Olbermann. That said I agree with more than a few of his complaints. Passing a mandate that people buy insurance from the Health Insurance Cartel with virtually no meaningful restrictions on what they can charge is outrageous. This bill is fast moving to the point where as bad as this would be, I think it is better to accept defeat, blame those responsible and move on. I am no fan of national socialized medicine. I favor a system similar to what the Swiss do. But just passing a law that requires everyone to buy insurance without any kind of regulation of the insurance industry is a bridge too far for me.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Bp. Williamson (SSPX) questions the validity of post Vatican II Catholic sacraments

OK. He did not exactly declare them all to be invalid (though he said some are). But he clearly put a question mark after the sacraments of the Catholic Church post Vatican II. Fr. Z says he sounds like a Donatist. I think he sounds like a sede-vacantist coming out of the closet. Of course after one announces that one of the most horrific and thoroughly documented crimes in history was a hoax it's pretty hard to get seen as anything other than a complete loon.

Read Williamson's statement with Fr. Z's commentary here.

Congress considers reinstating Glass Steagall Act

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Financial giants such as Goldman Sachs Group could be broken up under two bills introduced in the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, one with the backing of former Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

Both would reinstate the 1930s-era Glass-Steagall laws that barred large banks from affiliating with securities firms and being active in the insurance business. Those limits were largely repealed in 1999, a high-water mark for deregulation.

"It is time to put a stop to the taxpayer financed excesses of Wall Street ... This country would be better served if we limit the activities of these financial institutions," McCain said in a statement with Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell.

Passage of the Cantwell-McCain bill would force firms at the center of last year's financial crisis -- such as Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo -- to spin off investment and insurance operations, said Demos, a progressive think tank in New York.

A similar measure was offered on Wednesday by seven Democrats in the House of Representatives, including Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers and Maurice Hinchey.

The bills come as Congress debates a sweeping overhaul of financial regulation more than a year since a severe banking and capital markets crisis that rocked economies worldwide.

Read the rest here.

This is a rare case where I think government regulation is warranted. The repeal of Glass Steagall under Bill Clinton's administration allowed banks to grow into massive conglomerates with their fingers in every sector of the economy that have since been termed "too big to fail." That is something that must not be allowed to continue. We can't afford to have the entire country's economy put at risk again by Wall Street bankers playing fast and loose with other people's money.

Ben Bernanke is Time's "Person of the Year"

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a student of the Great Depression who has fought to avert another one, is Time magazine's "person of the year.''

It was Bernanke and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson who were said to have sucked the oxygen from a room filled with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill when they met last year to explain the gravity of the credit crisis that was unfolding.

Bernanke has since won another term as Federal Reserve chairman, reappointed by President Obama. And now he's won a Time cover.

Time chose Bernanke over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gen. Stanley McChyrstal, "the Chinese worker'' and many more.
Read the rest here.

I have a different honor in mind for the Federal Reserve Chairman. If we keep printing money as fast as they can load the paper and ink into the machines his face could adorn the $1 million dollar bill, which should cover the cost of a McDonalds double-cheeseburger and fries.

Howard Dean: Time to kill the bill (health care) and start over

WASHINGTON — Former Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean argued Wednesday that the health care overhaul bill taking shape in the Senate further empowers private insurers at the expense of consumer choice.

"You will be forced to buy insurance. If you don't, you'll pay a fine," said Dean, a physician. "It's an insurance company bailout." Interviewed on ABC's "Good Morning America," he said the bill has some good provisions, "but there has to be a line beyond which you think the bill is bad for the country."

"This is an insurance company's dream," the former Democratic presidential candidate said. "This is the Washington scramble, and it's a shame."
Read the rest here.

The political risks of success for health care reform

...If this legislation passes, Democrats will be held accountable for any failures or problems in the system. So if Americans' insurance premiums rise, they will blame the Democrats. If patients have to wait in line at emergency rooms, it will be seen as the Democrats' fault. If health-care costs don't drop, the Democrats will face the wrath of the electorate.

Many Democrats, including people in the administration, blame poor marketing for their difficulties in passing health reform. They say they haven't gotten the message out. But advocates of reform have spent millions on advertising and lobbying this year. And Obama, who many say is the best orator ever to occupy the White House, has pushed for this legislation constantly over the past six months. In that time, support for Obama's handling of health-care reform has dropped by more than a net of 30 points.

Yet before Republicans cheer that they may defeat this effort, they should beware what they wish for. A vast majority of Americans still believes that we need fundamental health-care reform. If the legislation fails, Democrats can blame Republicans by saying reform was in sight and the GOP blocked it without offering a real alternative to decrease costs and increase access.

The dominant issues today are the economy and jobs, and the public doesn't see either party making these a real priority. Further, polls show trust in government handling of domestic issues remains at historic lows. What most voters hear from Washington these days is squabbling over health reform involving a government role they don't trust and don't want.
Read the rest here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hear My Voice Oh God

The Republican Party is becoming "irrelevant" in California

Further evidence that the GOP is rapidly becoming the party of Wall Street bankers, the medical insurance cartel and Protestant Evangelicals. The party seems determined to repeat the mistakes of the Democrats in the 70's and 80's when they allowed their left wing to run the show condemning them to two decades in the political wilderness as their party became a minority in every region of the country outside of the left coast and the liberal North-East.
CLAREMONT, CALIF. -- A few facts reveal just how far the Republican Party has fallen in California.

A Republican hasn't carried the state in a presidential contest since 1988. The last time a California GOP candidate won a U.S. Senate election was in the same decade. Nowadays, Republicans' share of the state's registered voters has shrunk to 31 percent, a historic low.

"There are large parts of the state where the party is irrelevant," said Allan Hoffenblum, a well-known California political analyst who has been a campaign manager for Republicans in the state. "It's not even a statewide party, really."

But few stories better reflect the divisions and disarray among state Republicans than the saga of an obscure Southern California assemblyman.

He was unknown even by political junkies in the region until early this year. Then, with one vote, conservative Assembly member Anthony Adams became a symbol of California Republicans' chaos and destructive divisions. The story of the man who was once regarded as a loyal foot soldier exposed the toxic infighting that has come to define the party.

Now he became the latest straw dog in a fight much larger than anything about himself, an unlikely proxy in a broadening war for the heart of the Republican Party's, one engulfing Republicans nationwide. In New York, conservatives and more moderate party members fiercely contested a congressional seat that had drawn Sarah Palin into the fray on behalf of the party's right. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a darling of conservatives, found himself in a political death match against fellow Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, who had begun a primary challenge against him. The Adams skirmish was part of a pitched battle led by conservatives furious at those who, they thought, had not demonstrated loyalty to their principles.

When he cast an aye vote for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2009-2010 state budget, which included about $12.5 billion in tax increases, Adams instantly became a pariah in conservative GOP circles -- targeted for political extinction.
Read the rest here.

Iran to try American hikers

LONDON — As tensions build between Washington and Tehran, the Iranian foreign minister said Monday that three Americans arrested in July after crossing the border from northern Iraq would be tried but did not specify the charges, according to news reports.

The minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, told a news conference in Tehran that the three had “entered Iran with suspicious aims. The judiciary will try them.”

Reuters quoted him as saying “relevant sentences” would be handed down.
Read the rest here.

Sentences are being contemplated before the trial? If the name were not in the story, that line would have narrowed the list of potential countries quite a bit. On a side note; while I feel badly for the families of these people I am compelled to ask why Americans keep behaving like morons by hiking or sailing near the territory of unfriendly countries? This sort of thing happens far too frequently and the US Government is then put on the spot and expected to clean up the mess somehow.

Prisons of Our Own Making

The below article from the NY Times is sufficiently impressive that I am going to quote it in its entirety.
If you’re a governor with presidential aspirations, you should never, under any circumstances, pardon a convict or reduce a sentence. That’s the lesson everyone seems to have drawn from the dreadful case of Maurice Clemmons, an Arkansas native who murdered four Lakewood, Wash., police officers over Thanksgiving weekend — nine years after Mike Huckabee, then governor, commuted his sentence and the Arkansas parole board set him free.

Even before Clemmons was shot dead the following Tuesday by Seattle police officers, a chorus of pundits had declared Huckabee’s presidential ambitions all but finished. His prospective 2012 rivals — Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin — hastened to suggest that they never considered issuing a pardon while governor. And even observers sympathetic to Huckabee’s decision (Clemmons’s original 108-year sentence was handed down when he was only 16, and for burglary and robbery, not murder) tended to emphasize its folly. Joe Carter, who handled rapid-response for Huckabee’s 2008 campaign, acknowledged that the “prudent tactic would have been to simply refuse to grant any leniency — ever.”

This calculus has recent American history as well as crude political logic on its side. Without conservative lawmakers willing to “err on the side of punishing” (as Palin put it after the Clemmons shooting), America might still be swamped by the crime wave that engulfed the country in the 1960s and ’70s.

The surge in crime rates, which lasted until the early 1990s, was driven by a variety of factors — the demographic bulge created by the baby boom, the crisis of authority in the late ’60s, and the heroin and crack epidemics that followed. But it was abetted by a softheaded liberalism that emphasized rehabilitation to the exclusion of retribution and deterrence. (Across the Great Society era, as crime rates started to take off, America’s prison population actually went down.)

The case of Willie Horton remains the exemplary instance of rehabilitative folly. In 1986, a furlough program in Michael Dukakis’s Massachusetts enabled Horton to commit rape and battery midway through what was supposed to be a life sentence for murder. Liberals remember the Horton story, which Republicans used to derail Dukakis’s presidential bid, as an example of right-wing race-bating. But they rarely recall the damning details — from Dukakis’s veto of a bill exempting first-degree murderers from furloughs (it would “cut the heart out of efforts at inmate rehabilitation,” he claimed), to the self-parodic way his administration responded to the tragedy. (“Don’t forget that Mr. Horton had nine previous successful furloughs,” Dukakis’s secretary of human services told the press.)

There are superficial resemblances, much cited in the last two weeks, between the Horton case and the tragic parole of Maurice Clemmons. But the political context is completely different. The age of furloughs is long gone. For a generation now, conservatives, not Dukakis-style liberals, have been making policy on crime. They’ve built more prisons, imposed harsher sentences and locked up as many lawbreakers as possible.

Their approach has worked. The violent crime rate has been cut by nearly 40 percent since its early-1990s peak. The murder rate is at its lowest point since Lyndon Johnson was president.

Yet the costs of this success have been significant: 2.3 million Americans are behind bars. Our prison system tolerates gross abuses, including rape on a disgraceful scale. Poor communities are warped by the absence of so many fathers and brothers. And every American community is burdened by the expense of building and staffing enough prisons to keep up with our swelling convict population.

Mass incarceration was a successful public-policy tourniquet. But now that we’ve stopped the bleeding, it can’t be a permanent solution.

This doesn’t require a return to the liberal excuse-making of the ’60s and ’70s. Nor does it require every governor to issue frequent pardons. (A capricious mercy doesn’t further the cause of justice.)

Instead, it requires a more sophisticated crime-fighting approach — an emphasis, for instance, on making sentences swifter and more certain, even as we make them shorter; a system of performance metrics for prisons and their administrators; a more stringent approach to probation and parole. (“When Brute Force Fails,” by the U.C.L.A. law professor Mark Kleiman, is the best handbook for would-be reformers.)

Above all, it requires conservatives to take ownership of prison reform, and correct the system they helped build. The Democrats still lack credibility on crime policy. Any successful reform requires the support of the law-and-order party.

To their credit, some Republican lawmakers (many of them religious conservatives) are already hard at work on this issue.

But the case of Maurice Clemmons may cast a long shadow over conservative politics, frightening politicians away from even the most sensible reforms — lest they wake up to a tragedy, and find themselves assigned the blame.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Turkey's HQ for European Union membership drive is a confiscated Orthodox school

‘Little Caliph’ Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist AK Party government want Turkey to join the EU, but clearly still intend to play by their Islamic supremacist rules:

Unbelievable but true: the headquarters of the Secretariat for the entry of Turkey into the European Union is a building confiscated from the Orthodox Christian community in the 90s. The building is located in Istanbul, in the well-known area of Ortakoy, under the first bridge over the Bosphorus.

Before the seizure, the building was used as a primary school for children of the minority Orthodox in Ortakoy. Here, once lived a thriving Orthodox community, now non-existent because of past purges against minorities, executed by the “secular” Turkish
Read the rest here.
Hat tip to Damian Thompson

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Memory Eternal

My step-mother Nadeen reposed in the Lord late this afternoon. Those who have been following this blog will recall that she suffered a severe stroke in March from which she never recovered. Although I was not able to arrive in time I take comfort in the knowledge that she was surrounded by family and loved ones at the time of her death. I want to thank the many people who have emailed or posted prayers for her and my family over the months since her illness struck. Your kindness and spiritual support has been a source of inexpressible comfort. As my family deals with all of those things which must be done in the next few days I humbly ask for your continued intercession in this difficult time.

Yours with deepest gratitude,

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Prayer Request

My step-mother Nadeen who had a major stroke in March has taken a turn for the worse. She has been in the hospital since Wednesday with various issues and developed a staff infection since then. Late last night she was moved to the Critical Care Unit. Your prayers are coveted and deeply appreciated.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Some quick economic thoughts and an update

First my computer problem continues. It appears that I am going to have to take it to the computer doctor ($$$) and attempt an emergency reboot. Worse case scenario would mean that I am going to have to go through a major effort at file recovery. uggg

On a somewhat happier note the economic picture (nationally) is looking up, even if only a bit. Unemployment appears to be levelling off. The news was initially greeted with fireworks on Wall Street this morning (DOW up 150 at one point) but the US Dollar Index rallied on the news as well, as investors began questioning if this could lead to an earlier than expected tightening by the FED. This sent a chill down the Street as nervous investors fearing that the easy money rally could be coming to an end fled equities. At the end of the day the dollar was up well over 1% and most of the major equities indices were flat having given up all or most of the earlier gains. Commodities were down sharply with gold getting hammered.

My take on all this?

This was a huge overreaction to a (for the moment) imaginary threat. Ben Bernanke has made it abundantly clear that the only thing which is going to make him start tightening monetary policy is a significant spike in inflation. And while the reports on CPI (a little over 3%) from earlier this week are not good they are not enough to ground helicopter Ben. Nor is the current employment report which lowered the official unemployment rate to 10% from 10.2.%. He is well aware that the true unemployment rate remains north of 17%. Barring a really sharp spike in the CPI; I see almost no chance of a meaningful hike in FED interest rates before the end of the 2nd quarter of 2010 and it could easily be much longer than that.

Mr. Bernanke is a student of the Great Depression (the first one) and is a firm believer in the Keynesian theory that the principal reason for the severity of that depression was the failure of the government to throw sufficient amounts of money at the problem and or a precipitous move to withdraw monetary and fiscal stimulus (1936 and 1937). I would and of course do disagree. But this is the main reason why I remain highly skeptical of the almost hysterical fears that a major tightening of monetary policy is closer than expected on the heels of today's employment figures. It is not.

So where do we go from here?

I continue to believe that the carry trade is a good move for the near to intermediate term. Gold got hammered today on the dollar's rally. But gold has been moving in a near straight line for almost three months. Frankly markets don't move in a straight line (when they do it's time to get out). This is an overdue correction that I have been predicting for a while. It may last for a few more days before levelling off. At some point though the dollar will resume its death by a thousand cuts. I think gold is a buy during the current correction, though I would scale in as it is very possible that there could still be some significant short term downside.

Could I be wrong? Of course. A stop loss (or preserve profits) price should be built in. If the correction dips below $1085 I would exit stage right until things firm up a bit.

Beyond gold I like any diverse selection of foreign and domestic value oriented equities (for fund investors take a look at AMANX). I also like the Permanent Portfolio Fund (PRPFX). (Disclosure a substantial part of my IRA is in there). I would underweight exposure to long term US Dollar denominate fixed income securities, especially Treasuries which are high risk and low return right now. Even a modest reflation will produce a negative yield on them. For those interested in some speculative investments foreign bonds and emerging markets are potential sources for significant gains. I like TGBAX and VEIEX.

There is an enormous amount of subjects I would like to be posting on but time constraints (I am still stuck on public access computers at the library) make blogging difficult right now. I do however have some hopes that things will be back up in the coming week. I am not sure I will be on tomorrow. If not have a great weekend. I will definitley try to get online no later than Monday.