Monday, March 3, 2014

Service Plan

As Christians, our most deeply held religious belief is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinful people, and that in imitation of that, we are called to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies to the point of death. So I think we can handle making pastries for gay people. ... I fear that we've lost not only the culture wars, but also our Christian identity, when the right to refuse service has become a more sincerely-held and widely-known Christian belief than the impulse to give it.

-- Rachel Held Evans
back in 2012, I recommended Evans' book Evolving in Monkey Town

This week's featured post: "Religious Liberty and Marriage Equality"

This week everybody was talking about Arizona's S.B. 1062

Jan Brewer's veto message is here. Lots of religious-right types didn't like her veto one bit.

Two pieces by Christian writers are worth looking at. The first is the source of this week's quote: "Walking the Second Mile: Jesus, Discrimination, and Religious Freedom" on Rachel Held Evans' blog.

The second is "How to Determine If Your Religious Liberty Is Being Threatened in Just 10 Quick Questions" by United Church of Christ minister Emily C. Heath. None of the ten questions fits this situation exactly, but it's not hard to follow the template and make one up: "My religious liberty is threatened because A) the law allows people like me to be singled out and treated worse than the general public; B) the law doesn't allow people like me to single out others and treat them worse than the general public."

Rev. Heath explains:
If you answered "A" to any question, then perhaps your religious liberty is indeed at stake. You and your faith group have every right to now advocate for equal protection under the law. But just remember this one little, constitutional, concept: this means you can fight for your equality -- not your superiority.

If you answered "B" to any question, then not only is your religious liberty not at stake, but there is a strong chance that you are oppressing the religious liberties of others. This is the point where I would invite you to refer back to the tenets of your faith, especially the ones about your neighbors.

and Ukraine

I'll stick mainly to background; I don't think I can compete with CNN covering breaking news. Short version: After the leader Russia supported had to flee Kiev, Russian troops occupied Crimea, an ethnically Russian (and highly defensible) part of Ukraine. President Obama and the leaders of the EU are upset, but since nobody really wants to send troops, it's not clear what they can do.

The underlying situation is a lot like the Georgian crisis of 2008, which I explained in "Unstacking the Matroyshkas". Ancient empires have a fractal quality: There’s some group on top, which the empire’s various other groups feel oppressed by and want to be independent of. But if one of them succeeds in becoming independent, their territory will have its own minorities, who will see the group dominating the newly independent country as oppressors and want independence from them. And so on.

So now that Ukraine is free from the Russian-dominated Soviet Union, the southeastern part of Ukraine has a sizable Russian minority. That's where Yanukovych's support came from when he was elected in 2010. The recent protests that toppled him were largely in northern, ethnically Ukrainian cities like Kiev. The NYT's "Ukraine in Maps" shows this really well.

Crimea is the Florida of the old Soviet Union, and is known for its Black Sea resorts. It's 58% Russian and only 24% Ukrainian with a 12% Tatar minority. (So a Russian-backed takeover is not necessarily unpopular.) The Ukrainian Constitution makes Crimea an "autonomous republic", but also says it is "an inseparable constituent part of Ukraine". Crimean history is largely independent of the rest of Ukraine, going back to the Crimean Khanate established by the Mongol invasions.

The fascinating backstory of Crimea concerns those Tatars. They're a Turko-Mongol group that joined up with Genghis Khan. (In the West they became known as Tartars, probably by association with the mythic Tartarus -- if you were on the other side, they seemed like warriors from Hell.) They dominated Crimea during the Khanate, and usually sided with the Ottomans against the Russians. The Khanate fell in the 1700s and Russians started moving in. Stalin exiled the Tatars to Uzbekistan in 1944, but they've been drifting back ever since. They're not too happy about the Russians coming back to power.

You know more Crimean history than you think. The Charge of the Light Brigade. Florence Nightingale. The Yalta Conference.

and a shrinking the Army

One result of the sequester was that the Pentagon shared in the across-the-board cuts. (That was supposed to make the sequester unacceptable to Republicans and bring them to the negotiating table. It failed.) So Secretary Hagel has put forward a plan to shrink the Army from 522,000 to less than 450,000.

However, by any reasonable assessment, the United States is not neglecting defense.

and the bankruptcy of an institution you've never heard of before

I've had a hard time figuring out what to make of the failure of the world's largest bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, because I had never figured out what to make of bitcoin to begin with. Quartz explains how it works here, but the more important issue is Brad DeLong's question: "Placing a floor on the value of bitcoins is… what, exactly?"

Bitcoin enthusiasts will tell you that every currency has that problem, and they're right. After all, what if you took your dollars to the mall and discovered that all the merchants felt they had enough dollars and didn't want any more of them? How exactly would you convince them that your engraved portraits of Alexander Hamilton are actually worth more than the pair of jeans you want? But DeLong explains how other currencies address the issue:
Underpinning the value of gold is that if all else fails you can use it to make pretty things. Underpinning the value of the dollar is a combination of (a) the fact that you can use them to pay your taxes to the U.S. government, and (b) that the Federal Reserve is a potential dollar sink and has promised to buy them back and extinguish them if their real value starts to sink at (much) more than 2%/year

In jails, POW camps, and (apparently) China cigarettes can become a currency. Even if you don't smoke, somebody will want to smoke them, and that puts a floor on their value. (For moral reasons, luxury commodities make the best currencies, because they're more hoardable. You might be willing to hoard your cigarettes in the face of smokers in nicotine withdrawal, but hoarding your water while people are dying of thirst is more problematic.)

The advantage bitcoin has over gold or cigarettes or government currencies is that (if all the associated technology works, which seems to have been an issue in Mt. Gox' bankruptcy; The Verge claims "more than 1 out of every 20 bitcoins in the world vanished without a trace") bitcoins are easy to transfer across borders, hard to steal, and your ownership of them is easy to hide. So it's a convenient currency for transactions you want to keep secret: drug deals, money laundering, tax evasion, etc. (You can do any kind of transaction you want in bitcoin, including boring legal ones, but covert transactions are where it has unique value.)

Again, compare to the dollar. What you're betting on when you hold dollars is that (if all else fails) there's a floor of value under the dollar because somebody is going to want dollars so that they can pay taxes to the U. S. government. Similarly, what you're ultimately betting on when you hold bitcoins is that somebody is going to want bitcoins to buy drugs, launder money, and avoid taxes.

The difference is that the dollar has a monopoly on the American-taxes market, while bitcoin is merely one possible private digital currency. If something like the Mt. Gox bankruptcy causes the shadow economy to favor some competitor, then the floor under bitcoin vanishes.

and you may have heard that the Republicans have a tax plan

Or at least one Republican does. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have already rejected their own party's plan. As with health care, Republicans would rather campaign on vague feel-good notions than make a serious attempt to govern the country.

Reasonable people would not have a hard time working out a tax compromise: Make a list of the most outrageous tax breaks (carried interest would be at the top of my list), then spend half the new revenue to on infrastructure and use the other half to cut tax rates.

and you also might be interested in ...

Back on January 13 when everybody was talking about the polar vortex and the airwaves were full of deniers explaining why the cold weather disproved global warming, I wrote this:
Even when 2014 was just a few days old and wind chills were below zero for most of the country, there was a bet you could make that was almost a sure thing. No matter how it started, by its end 2014 will be yet another warm year. And by warm I mean: The global average temperature will wind up well above the 50-year average and the 20-year average.

Well, I didn't have to wait for the end of the year. According to the National Climatic Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
The combined global land and ocean average temperature during January 2014 was 0.65°C (1.17°F) above the 20th century average. This was the warmest January since 2007 and the fourth highest since records began in 1880. This marks the ninth consecutive month (since May 2013) with a global monthly temperature among the 10 highest for its respective month.
Slate's Eric Holthaus elaborates: January was the 347th month in a row -- every month since February, 1985 -- that the global average temperature has been above the 20th-century average.

If you're ready to give up on this planet, NASA just found 715 new ones, including a few that are more-or-less Earth-sized and might have reasonable gravity. Set a course, Mr. Sulu.

You can add Texas to the list of states whose same-sex marriage ban has been found to be unconstitutional. Judge Garcia's ruling is almost a carbon copy of all the other post-Windsor rulings: The state does have an interest in creating a favorable setting in which to raise children, but banning same-sex marriage has no rational relationship to that goal. After a long string of losses around the country, the religious right needs to either give up or find a new rationale for its position.

and let's close with something from the Daily Show

When Fox's Judge Napolitano spewed a bunch of Confederate revisionist history, Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore set him straight in a hilarious way.

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