Michael Fox’s strange symptoms.

October 31, 2006

I saw the Michael Fox on Youtube and it seems hard for me to believe that he wasn’t messing with his symptoms. For somebody who has acted with Parkinsons it seems impossible to have symptoms this severe when on medication.
For comparison here is his 2005 Emmys speech. The symptoms aren’t there nearly as much. It seems unlikely to be acted because the headbobbing seemed to be at random which is unlikely to be the result of acting. The real problem with these ads are that they ignore the arguments against it. It is effective television, but not to such an extent because few people change their opinion based on seeing a sick man. Furthermore Michael Fox has absolutely no credibility in his endorsements. He admits that he hasn’t actually read the amendment and doesn’t really know what it says, although he’s sure he’d support it. He appears in ads for Ben Cardin who’s against stem-cell research funding.

Just because somebody has suffered doesn’t make them more credible and it probably makes them less credible in terms of balancing costs. A person with AIDs would allocate more resources to it because he feels it is worth more to him. The ads are effective I’m sure, but it is far worse than any negative ad because it supports an idea which is dangerous in the extreme.

A response to a post in anger.

October 28, 2006

I mentioned a blog by a Reconstructionist rabbi and his endorsement of fair trade coffee. He comes out and actually responds to me in this post. He attempts a rebuttal of the point which I gladly will take apart.

Though perhaps I did the cause of Fair Trade a disservice by raising and discussing it in a very short post, I have no interest in getting into an economic shoving match with a libertarian on this subject. I will only say it is difficult for me to understand how anyone can claim poor coffee growers could possibly be “overpaid” or that Fair Trade “rips them off.” I encourage readers to learn more about Fair Trade, what it stands for, and it is such a critically important global movement.

My response about being overpaid was directed at those who sell the coffee not those who make it. They are probably paid the minimum price possible to qualify for the standard of Fair Trade. As to the ripoff part I would strongly guess that the profit margin of this coffee is far higher than the ordinary brands.

1. We are obligated to be responsible consumers.
As Maimonidies taught in the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Theft 5:1): One may not buy from a thief the goods he has stolen and to do so is a great transgression because it strengthens the hands of those who violate the law and causes the thief to continue to steal for if the thief would find no buyer he would not steal, as it is written, “He who shares with a thief is his own enemy.

While purchasing coffee is not literally the same as buying stolen goods, we can and should make the case that consumers have an obligation to educate themselves about the source of the goods they purchase. It is thus reasonable to infer that consumers should not purchase any goods that the seller has obtained unethically or unfairly.

True enough, but this is clearly not something obtained unethically or unfairly. These people are not being paid little because they are being cheated. They are being paid little because they have little productivity value. The coffee growers are fine with letting them quit. There are many people who would take their place what’s more without this “unfair exploitation” these countries would be far worse off. In fact the worst thing to do to these workers would be to demand that all companies take on these standards. If you want to assuage your guilty conscience of being far richer than them fine, but don’t claim that by doing this you are making the only moral decision about coffee.

2. We are obligated to insure that workers are treated justly.

In Deuteronomy 24:14-15, we learn,

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends upon it.

We should underline here the line “urgently depends upon it.” Poor workers depend upon a reasonable wage for their very livelihood. If coffee farmers work hard to produce a product that we want and need, we have an obligation to insure they receive a fair wage that will allow them to live a sustainable life.

First of all the verse is banning fraud against workers by delaying payment. The Torah nowhere says that we must enforce a minimum wage and nowhere implies this in fact the Torah puts little restrictions on how to hire people. The obligation you mention is found nowhere in the Torah. There is an obligation to help the poor through charity but, nowhere is it said that the poor have a right to charity. In the Talmud we have frequent confirmations of this point.
Secondly the standards of poverty at that time are far below what the Torah is talking about. Even if you accept your position on the interpretation of “urgently depends upon it”, which I don’t, The amount of money is referring to levels close to a dollar a day in present purchasing power. These “oppressed” coffee workers are making far above this.

3. We are obligated to help the poor.

In Midrash Exodus Rabbah 31:12 we read:

There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty – the most terrible of sufferings. Our teachers have said: if all the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.

And how do Jews help tzedakah. Maimonidies famously taught that the highest level of tzedakah is by entering into business partnerships that help the poor become self-sufficient. When we buy Fair Trade coffee, we are doing just that.

Poverty is terrible and nobody denies that. But buying fair trade coffee is a terrible way of alleviating it.
1. Fair Trade Coffee gives charity to those who need it the least: Farmers who are employed by these farms are almost certainly superior farmers compared to those who are rejected. Remember because of the high wages these farms can afford to be highly selective. In fact encouraging these coffee farms keeps more of the intelligent workers, who are probably slightly better farmers, on the farms instead of going on to bigger and better things. Therefore a solid argument can be made that Fair Trade Coffee actually harms the farmers.
2. Fair Trade Coffee gives you little charity for your dollar: So you paid a lot extra for your coffee and gave it to a company which is in it for the money. You have basically assured that you give about 20 cents on the dollar in actual charity.
3. Fair Trade Coffee supports a movement which leads to increased poverty in the Third World: Fair Trade Coffee bans the use of GMOs in its fields. Why exactly does it do this? Does it not realize that genetically modified organisms are a major solution to the Third World’s problems?
4. Microloans are better: You quote Maimonides and then ignore him. Microloans are the best form of charity and they are a form of charity which helps encourage higher return investments.
As to his point about not having any authority it is even more revealing. First of all the rabbi is hostage to his congregation’s whims because his job depends on how much they agree with him. Also he denies that there are any undebatable axioms in Judaism. In fact Reconstructionism has no argument against a murderer. He is merely placing his whim above the value of another’s human life. There is no Reconstrucionist disproof of his valuance of human life. By that standard he can’t be condemned because he doesn’t feel that he’s doing wrong. Utilitarian arguments can be made, but without a basic unassailable value system a religion becomes a meaningless exercise in excusing hedonism of different varieties. In fact since G-d’s existence is unprovable to have any reasonable definition of religion some axioms must be accepted. What I meant by authority was what source’s authority you base your conclusions on. If the answer is human logic then you have something nice, but you don’t have religion.

New Jersey’s Gay “not marriage”.

October 25, 2006

    I heard of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage and it just confuses me. First of all if you say that denying homosexuals civil unions is discrimination then surely denying them marriage is discriminatory. In other words the difference between marriage and a civil union as per the Constitution of New Jersey is semantic not legal. The legislature of course can make these semantic differences, but if you claim to be interpreting the law then you can’t make these distinctions in good conscience. Then you get to the slippery slope which isn’t necessarily bad even if taken to the extreme. Polygamy although frequently criticized has no real moral problem with it (considering it was banned in Judaism only in 1000 AD and allowed in many religions.) The real problem of course is that somewhere it was decided that the state should deal with marriages in general. If the state didn’t do marriages then the problem would be solved. Whatever you could get some priest or rabbi to condone would be considered marriage for everyone who accepted that person’s authority. In addition there should be a procedure for giving somebody all the legal rights of a spouse independent of any condition of marriage between the parties.

The electoral significance of this decision remains to be seen, but this likely will help the Republicans just like Massechusetts helped them in 2004. How much this will affect the election is unknown but I would guess it is worth a seat or two for the Republicans.

As to moral issues this might help to diminish Obama’s status as the moderate savior. Supporting abortion is considered fine for a moderate, but not coming out strongly against infanticide is far worse. The link isn’t working so I’ll summarize. Obama twice voted against a bill to ban abortion after birth even after a failed abortion.

Gas Tax

October 24, 2006

Mankiw suggested in a Friday editorial that the gas tax should be raised by 1 dollar. He makes several good points as to why it should be done but I think that an income tax is still better. The income tax is far more visible and is therefore far harder to raise and far easier to lower.  The enviromental benefit is a long-term one and is probably damaged by the economic damge that results from this gas tax, furthermore a tax on carbon would be a far better way of solving this. As to his point about road congestion its a long term effect which would be taking effect at around the time the law was reversed or something. His points on regulation and economic growth are good, but they assume that Congress would lower taxes  with this money. Also the regulations would probably go further than the tax and would avoid relaxing regulations because of this. As to the foreign policy I can’t see it making any difference to our policy. In fact even with lowered demand a 10 cent increase in gas prices would have a bigger political shock. I think a gas tax would just lead to bigger government and end up solving nothing.

Deep Theological Questions Volume 1

October 19, 2006

In my school we have a teacher at night who teaches us Medrash. With a lot of bored students theological tangents are just a way of filling up the time. Hopefully every Thursday (unless this bombs) I’ll put up a couple of questions for general discussion (its like a timewaster but you can never win)

1. The backround for this is a speech about how learning Torah is wonderful. A story quoted was a question to R’ Shach z’l about a Yeshiva doing an outreach program during the summer break. He said that if they would be learning during the break then they shouldn’t do it because the people learning are what really makes the outreach work.
I took issue with this because it seems to infringe upon free will that my decision on the margin is changed because somebody who doesn’t know me learns an extra page of Talmud. In addition, we have a principle that everything is controlled by G-d except for how well we follow his commands. This to seems to be violated by G-d controlling, based on the amount of learning done, how easy it is to follow his command.
The answer I was given is based on R’ Dessler’s idea that free will is not total it has an upper and lower bound which are based on our character. For example the average person has no free choice to rape somebody because it is so out of character, but also doesn’t have the free will to, say, let himself be killed rather than eat pork in public. I would say that this idea makes sense although I don’t think it is such an a sharp cut-off I would consider more of a continuum with reward and punishment based on the average behavior of those in your exact situation which is only known to G-d since every situation is unique.
So the answer was that those learning don’t take away free choice, they merely shift the parameters. I think that an external force changing your free-choice field without you having a role in it is a removal of free will.

2. The second question has to do with the nature of knowledge. One principle hammered into us frequently is that the Sages were not less knowledgable than us and that due to their knowledge of Torah they had significant knowledge of medicine for example. The question is two fold and the answer is unsatisfactory.
In the Talmud a book of medicine of Solomon is mentioned which was hidden away (the only book which could conceivably be called Natural Cures They Don’t Want you to Know About) given the nature of Talmudic cures I have a feeling that any effect these medicines had was very similar to placebo level and most modern medicines couldn’t have been manufactured then. In addition, if they had this medicine book and it was effective then how could they have condemned the millions to die from the various diseases.
The answer to this disturbed me a great deal because it seemed to have a ruthlessness far from Judaism. The answer was that people should rely on G-d instead of medicine and if the cost of that is a few million deaths that was an acceptable loss. The secondary answer was that knowledge of medicine wouldn’t change anything since G-d obviously wanted those who died to die at that time and that if you get the best medical care available then G-d treats you the same regardless of whether the medicine is effective or not. This point seems to be statistically disprovable since only recently did people staying at a hospital get increased life expectancy.

A bonus question: Are the prophets directly G-d as he spoke to them in their speeches to the people or are they putting G-d’s ideas in their own words?

Comments are as always welcome.


Much ado about nothing.

October 18, 2006

This is a rather old story, but the coveage is deeply disturbing. Some Muslim cab driers don’t want to drive passengers ith alchohol. Alright then they losee the money, possibly their jobs, but they get to keep to their moral principles. Cab drivers are private and should have the right to decide who to take. Why is it fair to force somebody to take somebody as a fare, but unfair to force someone to take a certain cab for example, making a Muslim agree to ride a cab with a pork eating Arab driving. It seems simple to me that they have the right to decide against taking a fare. If you listen to talk radio however, this is the beginning of Shaaria law in America. This is the ultimate example of the First Amendment. There is no law forcing somebody to do something against his eligion. Cab drivers aren’t serving a pulic safety and they have no monopoly. This is the dark side of the internet. The most minor things can be revealed and endlessl discussed. This isn’t the end of the world or the end of civilization, this is a few cabbies who made an hones decision about how they balance mon

An interesting new blog

October 17, 2006

I happenned to stumble on a blog through wordpress’s list of the fastest growing blogs. It seems interesting and well-written although it comes from a left-wing Reconstruction (redundancy?) viewpoint and four posts in it shows. Take the second post abput some over-priced Fair Trade coffee (that seems to be the popular phrase to use by the rich when they either rip the poor off or decide to massage their conscience by overpaying them)
Why is a rabbi going on about Fair Trade Coffee? Because I believe it’s a mitzvah to drink it. After all, Judaism teaches us over and over again to be socially responsible consumers, to act justly toward workers and to alleviate poverty in our world. So what could be more Jewish than drinking Fair Trade Coffee?

He essentially fingers the problem facing the Reconstruction and Reform movement, namely what authority does the Rabbi have and in fact what’s the reason to listen to him. So they turn to left-wing activism and such causes and then claim that the Torah makes it a mitzvah to do such a thing. Of course no claim would be made about what a person who drinks free-trade coffee (a product for us invisible handers) is doing. However the website is very interesting and readable.