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On the Road

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Name: Jack Neefus
Gender: Male
Hometown: Newark, NJ
Home country: US
Current location: Baltimore, MD
Member since: 2001
Number of posts: 20,659

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Email: jneefus@gmail.com

Journal Archives

I am Sure You Would Like to Know About it

but the government has been listening in on people's calls (as opposed to collecting phone logs) for over a century now. Few people seem to have a problem with it, largely because a warrant is required.

Information on local wiretaps is not routinely distrbuted, and few people know if they have been a subject of a warrant. Whether you have a constitutional right to information on wiretaps has not been decided by the courts:

...courts have not been clear about whether the public has a right to review warrants and related materials. Indeed, in a series of cases arising out of the same 1988 investigation, different federal appellate courts came to very different conclusions.


It doesn't sound like the FISA warrants are being any more restrictive with information than either local law enforcement or other federal investigations of criminal investigations or terrorist groups.

On the other hand, if your phone call data is captured while making an international call to a location covered by a warrant, do you really want that distributed to the general public? Is that protecting privacy?

Although I Think James Tried to be Universal,

his collection of religious experiences does seem to have been dominated by various Protestant incarnations. There is so much internal variety that I think James thought he was covering the field.

I also think James would argue that he was writing about the breadth of religious experience, and that this is primarily determined by human nature and personality rather than the religion itself. Both 'the sick soul' and the 'healthy minded' believer have representatives in every experience.

I think one thing that makes people uncomfortable nowdays is James's inclusion of nonreligious belief systems along with various faiths. For example, in the chapter on conversion, he prominently includes a conversion to atheism.

Maybe it's my psych major background, but it makes sense to me to look at how human belief systems function across faiths and non-faiths in the way that James did. It's certainly not the only way, but it helps distinguish what is human from what is part of the belief system itself. This is part of what is frustrating about the new atheists is their complete cluenessness that any traits or patterns common to adherents of a belief system apply to them despite how obvious it might be to anyone else. It is a syndrome common to everyone, but especially the young.

James's writings were groundbreaking a century ago. They are fascinating partly because they are such vivid period pieces, but they are also outdated. Belief sytems are universal. I wish there had been more development of James's basic approach by other people in the last hundred years.

Per the Article, the Claim that Marx Was Mostly Wrong

was specifically about Marx's belief that the "even though the ruling class could appease the working class by using the state to redistribute and share the fruits of economic growth it would never do so."

It is true that the upper classes have been successfully fighting since the 1980s for a larger slice of the pie at the expense of the working classes. Before that, by all accounts, distribution of wealth was greater and more equitable than it is today. Based on that history, Marx's argument that the ruling classes would never allow this appears to be permanently shown to be false.

Marx's historical analysis is still studied and valued at the academic level. What is more pertinent to this discussion, however, are Marx's ideas on how to build a government and run and economy. Those are not held in high esteem nor should they be.

It's Not Just Modern Evangelicals

Some traditional fundamentalists have had the same belief. It really goes back to the Reformation, although it might have been expressed differently.

The rationale is that the Christian gospel involves salvation by faith in Jesus alone, which is spelled out in Paul's letter. Catholicism, ooh, teaches a different gospel, one in which good works and obedience to the church are important, and amounts to little more than Christianized paganism. Reformation-oriented Protestants hold that believing in sola fides and sola scriptora (only faith and only scripture) are essential to true Christianity.

There is a whole host of associated criticisms of the Catholic church which highlight the stranger elements and those that do not seem to be in keeping with specific Bible passages. These includes having a pope and a hierarchy, praying to Mary and the saints, and placing church tradition on a par with the Bible. Some of these are surprisingly similar to anti-historical-Jesus arguments such as incorporating elements of Mithraism into the church.

There is a whole spectrum of attitudes towards Catholicism. Simply dismissing it as a non-Christian religion is kind of an extreme one, but it's prevalent. If you live in an area of the country with no Catholics, you can go years without having your views disabused.

It May be Someone Further to the Right,

but that's not necessarily all bad.

One of the reasons Boehner couldn't sell anything to his own party is because is not universally trusted by the GOP caucus and is seen by some as a RINO. However, based on the last four years, Boehner actually seems to be a pretty good negotiator.

His replacement, if there is one, is likely to attract more loyalty within the GOP but be less skilled in the arts of politics and negotiation. Which could actually mean a better outcome for the Democrats.

The initial reaction of the new leader may be to "stand strong" and let sequestration kick in, but its unpopularity will be immediate and will grow over time. At some point the GOP will have to fold and make a deal of some kind. Those are not usually a strong set of conditions to enter a negotiation. I just hope it's before the economy actually returns to recession.

Sorry to Critical of the Article You Posted, Xchrom,

because it raises a legitimate issue that is undoubtedly being discussed as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations (or at least should be discussed).

This article, however, is atrocious. Whatever the merits of the author's proposal, his conclusion is not substantiated very well:

(1) In contrast to the quantitative academic studies cited, his argument for taxing 401k contributions as normal income is, literally reduced to: Imagine there were no 401(k)s. You wouldn't stop saving for retirement, right? Right. For a middle-income family, imposing a federal tax rate of 35% and additional state and local taxes means that the same savings would be worth about 1/3 to 1/2 less when they retire. This is a big deal. How many people would heavy up their savings for increased taxes? One can only guess, but it's probably not a whole lot.

(2) The author says that 401k tax breaks are 'wasted'. This comparison made only when comparing voluntary tax-free contributions to greater forced savings. I am all for better retirement planning, but Mr. O'Brien really, really needs to get out and experience how people who make less than the median income would be affected by the reduction in paychecks that would result from additional forced withdrawals from paychecks.

(3) The article invokes Suze Orman when she has absolutely nothing to do with this proposal. Furthermore, it leads with a large unflattering picture of her. Where it lacks an argument, it relies on a rhetorical question ("you wouldn't stop saving for retirement, right?") This is what propagandists do.

(4) The author assumes a misinformed reader. If this sounds familiar, it's because that's how the payroll tax works -- except it's how you think the payroll tax works now. There's a misconception that the money the government withholds from you every month ends up in an account with your name on it that eventually becomes your Social Security benefits. It doesn't. This is especially puzzling since readers of The Atlantic probably do not share this particular belief.

(5) The graphs are extraordinarily hard to interpret and lack some basic information in order to make sense of them, such as the "top tax cutoff" rate, the years involved, the exchange rate, average financial readiness for retirement in Denmark. They appear to be included not to shed light but to give the impression that the author's thesis has been confirmed by an academic study even if the reader cannot grasp the proof.

To get the context, it is necessary to pull up the original academic study (http://obs.rc.fas.harvard.edu/chetty/crowdout.pdf). Even that is not sufficient, and a number of other factors have to be researched independently. After poring over those charts and looking up some background material for an hour or so, all I can conclude is that when Denmark began offering tax breaks for retirement savings accounts, people above the "top tax cutoff" invested more in those accounts, a trend which was strongly correlated with income. (In other words, the wealthy invested more than those just above average.) Maybe this supports the author's proposal to eliminate 401k accounts in the US, but to put it kindly, it seems like a stretch.

Maybe taxing retirement savings is a good idea. But this article makes me more wary of it rather than less.

I Know People Say That, Meti57b,

but as far as I can tell, that argument shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a bond is and should be completely disregarded.

Corporations or government entities issues bonds in order to borrow money. The money is always spent -- that's why bonds are issued. Regardless of the reason, the bond is an asset. It is generally safer than stocks or most investments. The Social Security fund has a surplus of over $2 trillion of these bonds.

Whatever Congress spends for defense, medicare, or any other purpose is irrelevant. The bonds are in the rough equivalent of a pension fund and earmarked for Social Security shortfalls that will occur as the baby boomers retire. Theoretically, the Social Security fund could trade them for corporate bonds or bonds of other government entities, but they buy Treasury bills in order to reduce risk. In hindsight, it's not too bad a trade.

Any Chief Financial Officer that invested the pension fund in company bonds and then tried to tell retirees or other bondholders "Oh, those bonds we issued? We spend that money on a factory" would be summarily laughed off the stage, fired, sued, and end up in jail. It's an utterly ludicrous argument to anyone with any knowledge of financial instruments. It appears to be designed to impart a sense of sophistication to those ingenuous enough to trust their sources, repeat that line to others, and build up a consensus for cutting Social Security.

If that happens, I really don't know what would happen to the bonds in the trust fund. They won't evaporate and can't be used for anything else. If there is an attempt to appropriate them, it would have to be voted on by Congress. In that case, the only justification i can think of would be: "But the pension fund was just sitting there!"

As far as "worthless promises to pay it back," the behavior of bondholders (primarily the very rich and pension fund managers) indicates that the "promise to pay it back" is held in higher regard than virtually any other government or corporate entity.

I Was Not Familiar With the Idea that Jesus Was Influenced by Hillel

I would think it comes from similarities between some of Hillel's writings and the Sermon on the Mount. (Unlike most people, I'm on the fence as to whether Jesus actually said the things in Matthew 4-6, since they resemble his later redactors more than the rest of the gospels and what we know of his life.)

The problem I have with seeing Hillel as an influence is social class and religious sect. As I understand it, Hillel was an upper-class liberal accomodationist with Rome. Not to criticize him -- a lot of the best Jewish thought has come out of similar backgrounds. But Jesus was on the lower level of society and the gospels contain a lot of veiled hatred of Rome delievered under the cover of criticism of the "Pharisees and Saducees." The high priest Ananus eventually had his brother James killed, so there was no love lost there at all.

At the same time, religious boundaries were sometimes permeable. Josephus, who was on the upper-class side of things and was eventually adopted by the Roman emperor Vespatian, writes about a purist teacher Banus (perhaps similar to John the Baptist) who he followed in his youth and retained a certain affection for. So perhaps it would work the other way as well. Religous tribes are strange things.


I have to admit, though, I'm a little off center in historical Jesus studies. One of my big influences is Robert Eisenman, who is not well liked by the mainstream despite his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls. He understands Jesus in terms of James and his very purist Judaism. I also happen to think the Epistle of James is absolutely genuine, that scholars have very strange reasons for judging it a forgery and no real idea who else might have written it, and that James provides a tremendous amount of insight into the early Jesus movement. ("Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you....")

The other big influence is a Jewish gnostic group in Texas which is hilariously nonacademic but IMO has a very compelling view of the development of the New Testament and its relationship to gnosticism. They date the gospels extremely late and believe that Paul created his own spiritual version of Jesus, after which (this is key) spiritual or allegorical passages came to be viewed as physical history as they turned into orthodoxy.

Sorry to Miller Your Thread, Sarah,

I don't know what I was thinking in discussing the fragment.

I agree with you about how the virgin birth and similar stories developed. However, because so much of the material on Jesus' life comes from groups who simply made things up, it is usually difficult to know what traditions to give weight to. In particular, gnostic references to Mary Magdalene may be simply attempts to incorporate a wisdom figure into Christianity:


The most interesting references are from the Gospel of Thomas. As you know, there is no consensus on whether Thomas is early and independent or 2nd-century and dependent on canonical material. If it's early and independent, that would give a lot of weight to the depiction of Mary Magdalene. If it's a late gnostic document, probably not so much.

Those strange variations of traditional gospel sayings and parables could be the original forms of those sayings. However, texual analysis suggests that when comparing two versions of a text, the stranger or more embarrasing one is usually preferred. This is based on the idea that it's more likely for a text to be made palatable to a mass audience ("So the last will be first, and the first will be last") rather than for a straightforward text to be made baffling ("For many of the first will be last, and will become a single one"). However, that principle may not hold if the provenance of Thomas was a gnostic group immersed in secrecy and symbolism -- they might have liked making things confusing to create a sense of mystery and give their own interpretation to intitiates.

Personally, I have gone both ways on this issue. While it's certainly intriguing to have a early document with a strikingly different depiction of Jesus, Thomas may turn out to not to as early as it might look. Furthermore, the existing text of Thomas might have been changed like the rest of the Bible, with some parts early and some parts late. It may not even have a consistent viewpoint.

The reference to James is especially intriguing, since James did become the leader of the movement after Jesus died:

Thomas 12. The disciples said to Jesus, "We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?"
Jesus said to them, "No matter where you are you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being."

On the other hand, James was a legal purist and the leader of what Paul called the circumcision party. If Thomas was written by a a follower of James, it's very odd that it also contains anti-circumcision sayings:

Thomas 53. His disciples said to him, "Is circumcision useful or not?"
He said to them, "If it were useful, their father would produce children already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become profitable in every respect."

So I think unfortunately that it's likely that Thomas is at least a heavily modified version of Jesus' sayings and may not represent a more original view of Jesus' words. That at least calls into question the material on Mary Magdalene.

Even if the Fragment is Genuine,

you can't really derive any useful historical information from a 3rd-century document like this.

Unlike a lot of people here, I absolutely think that Jesus existed. But the biographies in the Gospels are largely made up from existing stories. That's why people say Jesus was only a story based on Mithra, Dionysis, Appolinius, and other ancient religious figures. Even one of the eariest Church fathers, Justin Martyr, was shocked to learn of those parallels and opined that Satan must have inspired the earlier stories.

Jesus was seen mostly as a heavenly figure by Gnostics, who made up all kinds of stories about him. They were probably intended as symbolic. Even if they were intended as history, the writers would probably have had less material to work with than you and me.

The best indications that Jesus didn't have a wife are (1) that his brother James didn't and (2) that whenever the Gospels discuss Jesus and his relatives, every family member is mentioned except a wife. It is an argument from absence, but it is still striking.

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