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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: 20,783

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Email: jneefus@gmail.com

Journal Archives

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.

Most Teabaggers and Fundamentalists are Zealots

who pursue their policies regardless of winning elections. Some may actually believe that a majority of people agree with them.

There are equivalent groups on the Democratic side, but they have very little power in the party. On the Republican side, they dominate.

A candidate with a stronger position in the GOP might have been able to take more independent positions and still keep his party's support. Romney was so universally disliked, and seems to have so few principles of his own, that he adopted as many right-wing positions as he could.

As long as the GOP wins elections or keeps them close, the social dynamic will compel them to keep moving further right until they start suffering catastrophic defeats. At that point the party will start to put winning first and become open to more moderate candidates.

If Obama blows out Romney in November, it could enable Chris Christie to win the next nomination and implement a less extreme platform. If the election is a cliffhanger, it may take another couple of elections cycles. But I suspect this is as far right as the Republican party can go without going the way of the Whigs.

Josephus writes that during the siege of Jerusalem in 70AD,

a Herodian named Saulus accompanied the Romans, cross-examining prisoners and negotiating on behalf of the Romans. Robert Eisenmann believes that this was Paul of Tarsus.

Relatives of Herod were a small group, much less those named Saulus who were cozy with the Romans. Paul's letters also appear to show increasing anger and alienation regarding the Jews, even if they contain some later emendations.

If Paul had been martyred, his martyrdom would have been memorialized like Peter, James, and many others. If Paul had been set free, that also would have been undoubtedly taken as a sign of God's providence -- it is also extremely likely that subsequent stories, letters, or sayings of Paul would exist after his release.

Paul becoming a Roman agent, however, would have been an embarrassment, and there tends to be a silence around embarrassing facts. For example, when Shabbatai Tzvi claimed to be the Jewish messiah in the 17th century and subsequently converted to Islam, his memory was all but buried.

It's unlikely that Paul's fate will ever be proven. This is the only version of events, however, that explains the silence.

The Way the Article Read,

it sounded like an attempt to drum up some kind of innocent "connection," but it looks like this news might have legs.

The big question is: at what point did Mitt or Tagg Romney know that the fund was a pyramid scheme, whether legal or illegal?

One would think that investing in a pyramid scheme is in itself incriminating, but this is not necessarily true. Early investors often make money on pyramid schemes. Some but not all are in on it beforehand. It would appear that Tagg Romney put in $10M and took out $11M (including the original principal) before the fund collapsed. This is not what one would expect from an accomplice in a scheme where $7B went missing. On the other hand, if it was a good long-term investment vehicle, why take the money out at all?

Stanford International Bank sounds like it might have worked the same as Bernie Madoff's fund, which reported high investments even though there were no actual investments -- Madoff simply wrote dividend checks off the principal. As far as I know, Madoff kept the illegality of his fund very close to the vest -- for example, there is debate about how much even his wife knew.

This particular article is not well written but there is ample room for questioning and investigation here. A lot more has to be established. Regardless of what happened, it is the kind of story that reinforces the view of Romney as a predatory capitalist.

Iceland Did it Right for Themselves,

but there is a reason that Krugman did not recommend this course for the US:

For the most part, Icelandís lesson is relevant to countries that experienced big capital inflows followed by a sudden stop ó that is, the European periphery, not the US or the UK.

What Iceland did allowed their own economy to avoid the worst of the recession, but with several caveats:

1) Unlike Greece and the other PIIGS, they had an independent currency which could be devalued. This was just as critical a part of their plan as repudiating the debt.

2) Unlike larger countries, the losses went predominantly overseas, meaning that to some extent they exported their problems. Otherwise, allowing banks to fail would have taken down business payroll accounts as well, and employees of those would have stopped receiving paychecks. That would have cause a crash worse than anything seen in the Europe or US.

3) This policy that can only be counted on once. Iceland can no longer rely on external financing.

4) They jury is still out -- almost literally -- on whether Iceland has permanently escaped the burden of its banks' foreign obligations. The EFTA has outstanding cases such as the one against Icebank that appear to reimpose some burdens on the Icelandic financial industry.

Krugman is not proposing that the entire financial industry of a country be allowed to collapse. Rather:

What it demonstrated was the usefulness of devaluation (and therefore of having your own currency), and the case for temporary capital controls in an emergency. Also the case for letting creditors of private banks gone wild eat the losses.
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