Mike Kueber's Blog

January 31, 2012

The agnostic and the Baptist

Filed under: Religion — Mike Kueber @ 1:54 pm
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A friend of mine is a thoughtful agnostic.  She was raised in a religious tradition, but after much reflection, she has come to question whether there is a God.  Recently, she started dating a Baptist who reads the Bible daily.  That raises two questions – (1) what does daily Bible reading say about a person, and (2) can the couple flourish? 

Because I was raised as a Roman Catholic, I was not taught like many Protestants to refer continually to the Bible for guidance and inspiration.  Instead, I was taught to listen to the clergy.  Thus, the concept of reading the Bible daily is a bit foreign to me. 

My initial reaction was that reading the Bible over and over would be similar to saying the rosary over and over – i.e., what some Protestants call mindless chanting.  But upon further reflection, I can see how a thoughtful reading of the Bible would be no different that thoughtful prayer.  Doing this daily would help an individual avoid becoming a Sunday-morning Christian.

So what does daily Bible reading say about a person?  It says the person takes his religion seriously.  But can a thoughtful agnostic and a serious Baptist flourish as a couple? 

An agnostic believes that the existence of God is unknowable.  A serious Baptist believes with all his heart that God exists, but more importantly that non-believers are doomed to an eternity in hell.  A few months ago, I blogged about this concept while reviewing Red McCombs’ autobiography: 

  • Another example of his family’s religiosity – his mother Gladys was raised in the Church of Christ, but started attending a Baptist church with her husband.  Gladys’ mother was a die-hard proponent of the Church of Christ – “Gladys, are you still going to that Baptist church?”  Upon being told that Gladys was attending it, and loving it, her mother calmly added, “You’re going to hell, Gladys.  I’m sorry but you’re going to hell.”  That’s taking your religion seriously.

Red’s example involved a different denomination thinking Baptists were doomed to hell, but I think it works in the other direction, too.

Fortunately for nonbelievers, there is some new thinking regarding hell that is percolating through the evangelical community.  Last year, a cover story in Time magazine described this thinking and profiled its leading proponent, evangelical minister Rob Bell, whose new book is titled Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  In my blog, I noted the following:

  • The article goes on to explain that Bell believes in Jesus, but “he is just unclear on whether the redemption promised in Christian tradition is limited to those who meet the tests of the church.  It is a case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.”  This position, of course, raises a concern to traditionalists that “to take away hell is to leave the church without its most powerful sanction.  If heaven, however defined, is everyone’s ultimate destination in any event, then what’s the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life?”  Or as I have often suggested, many believers seem to begrudge the lifestyle of nonbelievers, and it makes them feel better to think the nonbelievers will get what they deserve (hell) in the afterlife. 

Thus, it seems that the agnostic and a Bell-like Baptist can certainly co-exist, but I question whether they can flourish.  How can someone who takes his religion seriously have as a soulmate someone who disagrees on something so fundamental to his life?

Another biking epiphany

Filed under: Culture,Fitness — Mike Kueber @ 2:08 am
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When I go on a morning bike ride in the summer, I often think about future entries to my blog. When I go on an afternoon bike ride in the winter, I often reflect on the entry to my blog that I wrote that morning.  Today on my afternoon ride, I think I had an epiphany on my previous blog entry regarding discipline.

My first thought during the ride was that I was not displaying any discipline or willpower on my bike ride because, although the weather was cold and drizzly, the ride was thoroughly enjoyable.  You would have had to pay me to keep me from riding. 

But then my mind went back to my previous blog entry, and I remembered that the definition of “discipline” generally began with “training.”  And I remembered the suggestions from the child psychologist for instilling discipline in a child – i.e., rules, consequences, routines, responsibilities, and expectations.   

My epiphany is that discipline and willpower are two fundamentally different things.  Discipline is something that you learn or develop over a period of time until it becomes automatic or second-nature; whereas, willpower is something that you actively struggle with day-to-day. 

Therefore, I conclude that Governor Christie does not have enough discipline to control his eating and that he does not have the willpower to change.  But the absence of discipline to control his eating does not mean that Governor Christie is an undisciplined person.  He may be supremely disciplined with respect to all sorts of qualities important to being a governor or president.

January 30, 2012

Talented and disciplined

Filed under: Culture,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 2:19 pm
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A couple of years ago I blogged about Malcolm Gladwell’s classic book, Outliers.  In this book on exceptional people, Gladwell wrote about the 10,000-hour rule:

  • The striking thing… couldn’t find any ‘naturals’… who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did.  Nor could they find ‘grinds’ who worked harder than everybody else, yet just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks.  Their research suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works.  That’s it.”  Ten thousand hours of effort/practice is what it takes.  However, in addition to 10,000 hours of practice, Outliers often receive unusual opportunities to perform exceptionally beneficial practice.  Furthermore, they may have been born in an opportune time.  E.g., fourteen of the wealthiest persons in history were born in the U.S. between 1831 and 1840, which was perfect timing for perhaps the greatest economic transformation in history.  Being born in the mid-1950s was perfect timing for the computer transformation – Gates (1955), Paul Allen (1953), Steve Ballmer (1956), Jobs (1955), Schmidt (1955), and Jobs (1954).

I thought of this concept recently in the context of some of my successes and failures.  A friend of mine reported that she had attended a couple of country & western two-stepping classes and already had picked up enough to go dancing.  I told her that I have attended at least four eight-class programs and still can’t develop any ability.  And I have experienced a similar, singular lack of success in learning conversational Spanish at adult-education classes.  By contrast, lots of good things have happened in my life because I could do well in academic classes and sports.  My conclusion is that natural ability matters, and a close reading of Gladwell reveals that he agrees – i.e., “once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school….” 

The second part of Gladwell’s equation is discipline, the 10,000 hours of practice.  I thought of that recently when I saw NJ governor Chris Christie rebut the charge that, because he is obese, he apparently lacks the discipline to be president.  According to Christie, he has immense discipline with many aspects of his life, but unfortunately not over his eating habits.

Discipline is generally defined as training to follow a code of conduct, and similes are willpower or self-control.  But I sometimes wonder if a person’s willpower is overrated.  A friend of mine is able to lose weight easily because he doesn’t enjoy eating very much.  “He eats to live; others live to eat.”  I am able to get in good physical shape because I enjoy spending an hour at the gym or on my bike.  Although both of us achieve success, neither of us is applying a lot of willpower.

My conclusion is that Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice may be a sine qua non for becoming an Outlier, but that success does not necessarily reflect an inner quality of discipline, willpower, or self-control.  It doesn’t take discipline to do something that you enjoy doing, like Larry Bird shooting baskets or Chris Christie doing politics.

Nevertheless, these qualities are real, and any parent should hope to instill them in their children.  Child psychologist Kenneth Condrell has suggested the following to instill discipline in children:

  • Rules.  Rules are to children what laws are to adults.
  • Consequences. There must be consequences to your rules. Otherwise, your parenting will be ineffective.
  • Routines. For example, children should have morning and bedtime routines.
  • Responsibilities. Children need to learn to take care of themselves.
  • Expectations. This refers to the standards parents set – for example, no swearing.

January 27, 2012

The last Florida debate

Filed under: People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 12:47 pm
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Not only was last night’s debate the last one in Florida, I just heard on the Imus show that it was the last presidential debate for another month.  Oh well, I guess it’s a good time for the candidates to get refreshed, like they do with the bye week in the NFL. 

The most enjoyable moment of the debate for us Mitt Romney fans occurred when Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich tried to gang up on moderator Wolf Blitzer for asking questions that they preferred not answering.  Specifically, Blitzer was asked whether he was satisfied with Romney’s release of his tax information, and Gingrich responded that the four candidates should agree among themselves to only address important issues during the debates.  But Blitzer was prepared for the smack down, and he replied that Gingrich had criticized Romney’s tax returns because of its Swiss/Cayman Islands accounts and millions made without working, and therefore the question was appropriate.  Gingrich rebutted by saying that talking about an issue on local news doesn’t mean that it should be a question on a nationally televised debate.  (Incidentally, he gave a similar answer to a question last week about his serial infidelity.) 

At that point, Gingrich might have won the exchange with Blitzer except Mitt Romney came to Wolf’s rescue.  Mitt said that it was not OK for a candidate to be going around making loose accusations on local media if he is not willing to defend them on national TV.  Touché. 

The other Romney highlight occurred when he castigated Gingrich for running TV ads that called Romney “anti-immigrant.”  Romney noted that his father and his wife’s father were immigrants, and he called the charge a repulsive epithet and asked for an apology.  Instead of apologizing, Gingrich meekly responded that he was the only candidate who was going out on a limb to protect the illegal-immigrant grandmothers who have been here for at least 25 years.  This is another example of Gingrich resorting to a weak Democratic argument – i.e., being against illegal immigrants renders a candidate anti-immigrant.  Gingrich did the same thing with his “right-wing social engineering” comment about Paul Ryan’s fix of Medicaid and Medicare.     

Candidates Rick Santorum and Ron Paul also had several good moments in the debate, but I can’t recall what they were, other than Paul rebutting the argument that a 76-year-old president may be too old to serve.  He said he would release his medical records, although they might amount to no more than one page.  He further said that he would challenge all of his competitors to a 25-mile bike ride in the Texas heat. 

Don’t mess with Ron Paul.

January 26, 2012

Sunday Book Review #60 – Ameritopia by Mark Levin

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 6:39 pm
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Mark Levin is one of the most popular personalities on conservative-talk radio.  Nicknamed “The Great One” by Sean Hannity, he has a brash, confrontational personality.  Educated to be a lawyer, he first worked in the Reagan administration before becoming an advocate for conservatism and finally seguing into radio broadcasting through the support of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.

Ameritopia seems to be Levin’s attempt to burnish his credentials as a historian, to be more than a mere blowhard.  Like Gingrich claiming to be a historian for Freddie Mac, or like Bill O’Reilly writing about Lincoln or Glen Beck writing about Washington, the bona fides of a true conservative must include an intense interest in early American history.

Levin’s objective with Ameritopia is to show how America is deviating dangerously toward the failed politics of Utopia.  The first part of the book strips the bark off the term “Utopia” and reveals it for what it is – tyranny and the destruction of the human soul – and then describes several famous variations – Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, and Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.  According to Levin, the idea of Utopia had nothing to do with the founding of America   

In the second part of the book, Levin discusses the two men who actually were the philosophical influences on the founding of America – John Locke for recognizing the ultimate importance and sovereignty of the individual (liberty and the social contract), and Charles de Montesquieu for the decentralization and check-and-balances (separation of powers) that keep government from destroying the individual.

In the third part of the book, Levin shows how far America has deviated from its founding principles, with most of his focus on Presidents Wilson, FDR, and Obama.  Documenting how the tentacles of Washington have spread throughout the American economy did not require much research. 

Although I have a degree in political science and am fascinated by the subject, I found Ameritopia too dry and abstract.  I agree with Levin’s thesis, but have no interest in being able to distinguish between Hobbes and Locke.

January 25, 2012

Newt Gingrich as Nixon-esque

Filed under: People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 9:20 pm
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While listening to Savage Nation on the radio yesterday, I heard Savage’s guest host provide a cursory summary of good things about three Republican presidential candidates – Rick Santorum (social conservative), Ron Paul (constitutionally sound), and Mitt Romney (knows how to fix the economy).  But when he turned to Newt Gingrich, he provided a long list of significant flaws, the most damning being that he was unelectable and the least conservative of the bunch.

Concerning Gingrich’s unelectability, the evidence is clear that a majority of the voters have an unfavorable opinion of him.  According to a recent article in the Washington Examiner, Gingrich badly trails Mitt Romney and President Obama in favorability ratings:      

  • Not every poll releases their full results, so here are the most recent favorability results I could find for Obama, Romney, and Newt.

Fox News, 1/12-1/14:

Obama, fav/unfav, 51%/46%, +5

Romney, fav/unfav, 45%/38%, +7

Gingrich, fav/unfav, 27%/56%, -29

 CBS/NYT, 1/12-1/17:

 Obama, fav/unfav, 38%/45%, -7

 Romney, fav/unfav, 21%/35%, -14

 Gingrich, fav/unfav, 17%/49%, -32

 PPP, 1/13-1/17:

 Obama, app/dis, 47%/50%, -3

 Romney, fav/unfav, 35%/53%, -18

 Gingrich, fav/unfav, 26%/60%, -34

Concerning the Savage host’s “least conservative” insight, that struck me as odd because Gingrich has strenuously argued that he was one of the original Reagan conservatives while attacking Romney as a Massachusetts moderate.  But upon further reflection, it occurred to me Gingrich’s politics are more reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s than Ronald Reagan’s.  Gingrich’s dalliances with cap-and-trade and health-insurance mandates reveal a pragmatic politician like Nixon, who formed the EPA and endorsed affirmative action and the ERA.  Like Nixon, Gingrich talks conservative to his base, but then governs pragmatically. 

Since few ideas are original, I wondered if anyone else had written about the Gingrich-Nixon similarity.  Sure enough, just a couple of days ago, Jon Meacham had written, “Why Newt is like Nixon.”  Meacham’s article focuses on their similarities in personality and psychology, while I’m thinking that their politics are similar.  Their objective of their politics is not conservative vs. liberal, but rather doing whatever is necessary to gain and retain power. 

During the first Florida debate, Mitt Romney accused Gingrich of resigning in disgrace as House speaker.  That sounds eerily similar to words often used in connection with Richard Nixon – i.e., the only president who resigned in disgrace.  I have always been a big fan of Richard Nixon, and so I don’t think Gingrich’s similarities to Nixon’s politics is a bad thing.  But the fatal flaw with Gingrich’s candidacy is his unpopularity.  Nixon may have been depicted by the media as unpopular, but he had the support of the “silent majority,” and shortly before the Watergate mess occurred, he was reelected in 1972 by one of the greatest landslides in American history.

Newt Gingrich is no Richard Nixon.

Double taxation

Filed under: Business,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 4:44 am
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I confess that because I was preoccupied with a Happy Hour, I missed President Obama’s State of the Union address.  But prior to the address, I heard that a major part of the address was the so-called Buffett rule, which focuses on the fact that some secretaries paid taxes at a higher rate than their bosses.  I agree with this criticism of the American tax code.

Mitt Romney recently disclosed that his tax obligation was less than 14% even though he made about $20 million a year.  Based on news reports, President Obama was prepared to highlight that many secretaries not only paid taxes at a higher rate than 14%, but also had to pay social-security taxes of more than 7%, which the multimillionaires were not required to pay on the bulk of their income.

I agree that rich people should not be allowed to pay reduced income-tax rates simply because their income comes from capital gains.  The argument that such a tax amounts to double taxation doesn’t make sense.  Just because someone pays taxes on earned income doesn’t mean that additional income earned on that income shouldn’t be taxed.  America’s tax system is based on levying a tax on each transaction (e.g., sales tax is assessed every time your car is sold), and that is completely consistent with taxing a person on earned income and then taxing them again when those assets are used to generate capital gains.  The tax rate on capital gains should be at least at much, if not more, than the tax rate on earned income.  This concept would also work with estate taxes, where there is a tax on income earned and then another tax on the assets when they are tranferred to a beneficiary.  

To suggest that people will be reluctant to invest their capital because capital gains will be fully taxed is ludicrous.  That’s like saying you will decide to stop earning income above $250k just because the marginal rate on income over $250k is increased to 40%.

January 24, 2012

Circumventing the Electoral College

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 2:53 pm
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Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane recently wrote a column that was headlined, “Deciding the president by popular vote is a flawed idea.”     But if you actually read the column, you will probably conclude that he provides no convincing support for his position.

Lane’s principal defense of the current system is also his weakest – i.e., an electoral-vote winner who loses the popular vote is the stronger candidate (Bush v. Gore) because he prevailed according to the rules.  Lane suggests that if the rules had been different, the electoral-vote winner (Bush) would have shifted his strategy to get more popular votes.  This suggestion, however, is not persuasive because the popular-vote winner (Gore) would have done the same thing.

Lane is more convincing when he matter-of-factly describes the weaknesses of the Electoral College:

  • Still, it’s easy to see why the electoral college is so unloved. It is inconsistent with the idea of one-person, one-vote; every 677,000 Californians get one electoral vote, while the 563,000 inhabitants of Wyoming get three. And it gives presidential nominees an incentive to cater to the interests of ‘swing’ states while treating the rest as flyover country.”

There is a movement to correct the Electoral College, not by amending the constitution, but by getting states with a majority of the electoral votes to agree by an interstate compact to vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote – the National Popular Vote plan.  Lane admits that the idea is ingenious, but expresses concern because of two potential unintended negative consequences – (1) it leaves 51 uncoordinated elections instead of having a national election board, and (2) it weakens the two-party system by amplifying the effect of 3rd-party candidates. 

Neither of the concerns has merit.  With the first concern, Lane is making the perfect the enemy of the good.  We currently have 51 uncoordinated elections, and the National Popular Vote plan can’t be expected to solve all problems.  With respect to weakening the two-party system, I think Americans are becoming less enamored of the current system and would be willing to experiment with some tinkering.   

The National Popular Vote plan seems like a good idea, even if it is being pushed mostly by Blue States.  I wish it success.

Citizens United and Justices Scalia and Breyer

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:22 am
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On New Year’s Eve, I blogged about the untoward effect of the Citizens United decision (and the super-PACs) on the Iowa primary.     In my blog, I concluded that the U.S. Constitution gives rich people the right to buy more speech than the rest of us. 

A recent Associate d Press article reported that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has taken a similar position.  According to the article, Scalia suggested during a public discussion in South Carolina that “a simple solution for people who don’t like all the political advertisements unleashed by the court’s decision two years ago that ended limits on corporate contributions in political campaigns — change the channel or turn off the TV.”

  • I don’t care who is doing the speech — the more the merrier,” Scalia said. “People are not stupid. If they don’t like it, they’ll shut it off.”

Scalia contends that the Supreme Court should not be blamed for interpreting the Constitution as it was written.  “Instead, he said the ones who have to change things are the politicians who created the system and the voters who often reward the candidates who spend the most money.”

Justice Stephen Breyer was involved in the same public discussion, and his opinion is a bit different – “There are real problems when people want to spend lots of money on a candidate … they’ll drown out the people who don’t have a lot of money.” 

The article reports that super-PAC money flooded South Carolina.  TV advertising alone in South Carolina was estimated at $12 million, or nearly $27 per voter when calculated using the 2008 Republican primary turnout numbers.

Although Scalia’s position seems academic and ivory-towered, while Breyer’s is more worldly and pragmatic, Scalia at least provides an unlikely solution while Breyer merely grumbles.  As I noted in my blog entry, this is a problem without a solution.

January 23, 2012

Texas’s draconian DUI law

Filed under: Culture,Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 2:13 am
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An article in Saturday’s San Antonio Express-News reported that a 59-year-old woman was sentenced to 45 years in prison because of her intoxication manslaughter of a public servant – i.e., a policeman.   Because the jury found that the lady’s car was a deadly weapon, she will be required to serve at least one-half of the sentence before being eligible for parole.

I think the sentence is outrageously severe.  The lady had no previous convictions and her BAC was .14, yet she will be at least 81-years old before she gets out of prison. 

Furthermore, I don’t understand why the manslaughter of a normal person has a maximum sentence of 20 years while the manslaughter of a public servant has a maximum of 99 years.  This distinction was apparently enacted in 2005, but the press release from the major proponent of the bill, Representative Bill Callegari, fails to explain why the life of a public servant deserves more protection than the life of anyone else. 

The Mothers Against Drunk Driving has pushed for more severe penalties against those who are drunk (.15%) as opposed to those who are impaired (.08%).  That makes sense.  It doesn’t make sense to assess a stricter sentence against an impaired person who happens to kill a policemen. 


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