October 08, 2008

Ghost in the Machine

Sobbing, shaking and knowing death was imminent, [Nancy Reagan] held her husband's hand about 1 p.m. Saturday as he inhaled deeply and opened his eyes for the first time in five days.

While most thought Alzheimer's disease had robbed former President Reagan of all his memory, the last look he gave his wife was one of deep acknowledgment, [his daughter Patty Davis] writes for People magazine.

"At the last moment when his breathing told us this was it, he opened his eyes and looked straight at my mother. Eyes that had not opened for days did, and they weren't chalky or vague," Davis recalls. "They were clear and blue and full of life. If a death can be lovely, his was."

Davis and her brother Ron were standing next to their father's bed when the astonishing interchange between their parents took place.

(Source. Other sources.)

After Ronald Reagan's death I watched a television interview where Ron Jr. recounted this story himself. He was very emotional as he spoke, and it was clear that he believed that something profound had transpired. His father had apparently burst forth through a broken body to bid farewell to his beloved wife. This kind of story is not unique in my experience, but what makes it interesting is whom it is that is telling it here and how it fits into his overall view of human nature.

Ron Reagan Jr. is a self-described atheist. Consistent with, and common to, atheism is the philosophy of materialism. Materialism is the idea that all things that exist can be explained in purely material terms, and there are no entities such as gods, angels, or human souls which exist beyond the boundaries of the physical universe. This means that the "mind" is simply an emergent property of the physical brain — without a brain, there is no mind. It also implies that a malfunctioning brain will yield a malfunctioning mind. Given a materialistic outlook, how does an atheist like Ron Reagan process his father's last moments of life?

Alzheimer's is a degenerative disease, which affects the brain cells and the connections between them. A brain at the fatal end of this illness is a devastated organ from which an identifiable "mind" should not hope to emerge. In the case of Ronald Reagan, he had not even opened his eyes in days, and had not been alert for years before this. From where, then, does a clear-eyed Reagan suddenly surface?

At the very moment when his body was so far gone as to yield to death, Ronald Reagan became animated — himself again. If a body is broken, why does it not naturally and successively proceed from almost dead to actually dead? If we flatten the tires on a car, drain its oil, and pull half it spark plugs, do we expect it to have one last burst of blazing performance before it finally sputters and dies?

Perhaps it is like the runner, who after exhausting all resources at the end of the race finds in himself one final burst of speed for the finish line. But this is not an accurate analogy, because the racer does indeed have something left to give. He is simply very low on carbohydrates and is inhibited by the pain of lactic acid buildup in his muscles, which makes him pace himself to the end. In that last burst, he is drawing on the remainder of his resources but could not hope to continue long in this. To be an accurate analogy, we would first have to sever some tendons and break some bones. No matter how brave or determined one is he cannot get far or fast on broken legs.

The other problem with this analogy is that a runner can will to briefly overcome his fatigue. But here we are speaking about the very thing from which something like a will is supposed to originate: the brain. In the materialist paradigm there could be no Ronald "in there" to triumph over his failing brain — a brain so destroyed that it could no longer even support life itself.

So what happened that night: one final power surge resulting in the shutdown of a fragile system, or a man rising from his broken body to say farewell before passing on? Ron Reagan Jr's heart is urging the latter. But how can he maintain this as an atheist? As most atheists I'm sure that he thinks of himself as an eminently rational creature. But to be consistent, I think he must either give up his materialism or give up his sentimental notion that something extraordinary happened that Saturday afternoon.

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October 03, 2008

The Financial Crisis - Who's Responsible?

I don't know much about economics, so this whole financial meltdown has not been easy to follow. It would be nice to understand the cause, but there is so much political spin surrounding the issue that it's difficult to trust either side. However, it does seem possible to make some good criticisms even if only on principle alone, and that is exactly how some are assessing blame.

Those on the Left, eager to cast blame on their opponents, have done so in two ways. First, they point out that this is a problem in lack of oversight and the Republicans are the party of deregulation. Second, they claim that Republicans have been the party in power for the last several years, so this happened on their watch. Let's take each of these ideas in turn.

Regulation

The first thing that should be noted is that "regulation" does not necessarily equal "good." Governmental agencies are monuments to regulation, but we almost universally view these things to be models of waste and inefficiency. Even so, one of the biggest financial headaches, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are regulated in a very profound way: they are underwritten by the government! If these organizations did not have such a safety net, then perhaps there would have been more caution in their policies. That certainly makes theoretical sense.

Additionally, as I understand it, there is some measure of oversight for these organizations. If we are to examine guiding principles in assessing blame, then we must determine whose principles would be most likely to lead to a relaxing of fiscally responsible standards in this governmental oversight. Since the Democratic Party is ostensibly the party of charity and compassion, would we not expect that it would seek to do everything in its power to get financial assistance to those who might otherwise not attain it? But granting loans to low-income persons exposes us to certain financial risks. Isn't a big part of the problem that we are saddled with the burden of high-risk loans that never should have been granted in the first place? Where might we be now if qualification for loans had been more difficult to come by, as those heartless Republicans would have it? But to some minds, being heartless and being responsible seem indistinguishable. It is a distinction that often needs to be made to children.

The Party in Power

It is always amusing (and frustrating) to see how blame is assessed based on who is or was in power. It seems to be a no-win situation. If your party is in power in the White House or Congress, then you can take credit for any good thing that comes to pass. But any bad thing can be blamed on the consequences of the last administration, or the fact that you don't control both the legislative and executive branches. So, all the failings of the current Democratic controlled Congress can be blamed either on the fallout of the prior years when it was controlled by the Republicans or on the president himself. But even when the issues in question can be immediately traced to the present term, there is still the option to blame the other party for blocking your efforts. That, in particular, may be the key to answering the charge that while the Republicans controlled Congress they failed to put the needed limits on Freddie and Fannie.

I was curious as to whether or not the Democrat's blame had any true warrant. One suspicion that it had not was found in the fact that most everyone who pointed an accusing finger did so on these general grounds. Usually when someone has the goods they point to specific events or quotes. I have not yet seen this, but I have been hearing some incriminating charges against many Democrats from conservative commentators (interestingly, the liberals are saying things like, "there's enough blame to go around," and "let's not start playing the blame game"). So, I decided to do a quick search of my own to see what I could come up with. Here is just a sampling of what I found.

From Sept 30, 1999: Fannie Mae Eases Credit To Aid Mortgage Lending

Fannie Mae, the nation's biggest underwriter of home mortgages, has been under increasing pressure from the Clinton Administration to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people

From Sept 11, 2003: New Agency Proposed to Oversee Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae

The Bush administration today recommended the most significant regulatory overhaul in the housing finance industry since the savings and loan crisis a decade ago.

. . .

Among the groups denouncing the proposal today were the National Association of Home Builders and Congressional Democrats who fear that tighter regulation of the companies could sharply reduce their commitment to financing low-income and affordable housing.

''These two entities -- Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- are not facing any kind of financial crisis,'' said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. ''The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing.''

Representative Melvin L. Watt, Democrat of North Carolina, agreed.

From April 2, 2004: Panel Approves Mortgage Company Bill

Legislation giving regulators the power to take over the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac if they become insolvent narrowly won approval Thursday in a partisan vote by a Senate panel. Prospects for Senate passage appeared dim, however.

. . .

The Republican-written bill was adopted by the Senate Banking Committee, 12 to 9, mostly along party lines.

. . .

But Democrats on the committee warned that creating the possibility of receivership would give excessive power to the regulators that could harm the two companies.

. . .

[T]he minority Democrats would very likely use procedural rules of the Senate to block its passage.

From April 6, 2005: Greenspan Urges Better Regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

Appearing before the Senate Banking Committee, Mr. Greenspan said the enormous portfolios of the companies - nearly a quarter of the home mortgage market - posed significant risks to the nation's financial system should either of the companies face extensive problems.

. . .

The two companies have been formidable lobbying forces and been able to block attempts made by lawmakers

. . .

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, criticized Mr. Greenspan's recommendation and called it both inconsistent with his other views on regulation and potentially damaging to the housing markets. Without identifying anyone in particular, he also suggested that some people who have advanced tougher regulation of the two housing finance companies are really pushing a broader agenda to eliminate the companies and their mission of providing affordable housing.

From: Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act of 2005

For years I [John McCain] have been concerned about the regulatory structure that governs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac--known as Government-sponsored entities or GSEs--and the sheer magnitude of these companies and the role they play in the housing market. OFHEO's report this week does nothing to ease these concerns. In fact, the report does quite the contrary. OFHEO's report solidifies my view that the GSEs need to be reformed without delay.

I join as a cosponsor of the Federal Housing Enterprise Regulatory Reform Act of 2005, S. 190, to underscore my support for quick passage of GSE regulatory reform legislation. If Congress does not act, American taxpayers will continue to be exposed to the enormous risk that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac pose to the housing market, the overall financial system, and the economy as a whole.

And this recent summary article: Blame Fannie Mae and Congress For the Credit Mess

In the wake of Freddie's 2003 accounting scandal, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan became a powerful opponent, and began to call for stricter regulation

. . .

Fannie and Freddie retained the support of many in Congress, particularly Democrats, and they were allowed to continue unrestrained.

. . .

Sen. McCain's criticisms are at least credible, since he has been pointing to systemic risks in the mortgage market and trying to do something about them for years. In contrast, Sen. Obama's conversion as a financial reformer marks a reversal from his actions in previous years, when he did nothing to disturb the status quo.

. . .

Now the Democrats are blaming the financial crisis on "deregulation." This is a canard.

. . .

If the Democrats had let the 2005 legislation come to a vote, the huge growth in the subprime and Alt-A loan portfolios of Fannie and Freddie could not have occurred, and the scale of the financial meltdown would have been substantially less. The same politicians who today decry the lack of intervention to stop excess risk taking in 2005-2006 were the ones who blocked the only legislative effort that could have stopped it.

Why the McCain campaign is not hammering the Dems over this is a mystery to me.

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