Archive for October, 2006

Separation of church and state (updated below ~4:30pm)

I’ve never understood why the separation of church and state is still debated in this country. I have an even harder time understanding why people would try to undermine the separation of church and state, but as this article in the New York Times shows, they do.

Keeping religion out of politics and politics out of religion has a long history in this country. Our first amendment has a clause which states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This clearly states that congress may not create a national religion. But, may congress write laws with respect to a religion? Can congress financially support or encourage a religion? Supporters of the separation of church and state say, “no,” while many religious advocates say “yes.”

The only way to really answer the question is to look at the debate surrounding the first amendment and its prohibition of laws repecting an establishment of religion. This clause in the first amendment was strongly supported by Thomas Jefferson, who considered it a flaw that the consititution did not include such a statement. He had strongly argued for such language in the constitution of Virginia (where it was adopted) and in the US consititution (where it was not initially). Inaddition to coining the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state,” his subsequent actions tell us that he was clearly against the support of religion by the government.

Jefferson, as president, refused to declare national days of prayer or thanksgiving regarding them as unconsititutional under the Bill of Rights. Moreover, he argued against the use of public funds to pay for divinity professors at state supported schools. He was strongly supportive of the right to the freedom of conscious and regarded monetary payments to one religion as a quasi-endorsement by the government which penalized other religions.

Beyond the founder’s intent, we can also look at the pragmatic benefits of keeping the church and the state apart. de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that he was amazed by the religious vitality in the US – far greater than what he observed in Europe in the 19th century. In conversations with a number of religious leaders, de Tocqueville was repeatedly told that the success of religion in the US was due to the separation of religion and government.

In Europe, most countries had established, national religions. As governments rose and fell, the established religions would change. Churches began to equate the survival of the state with their own survival and participated in attrocities that were not in accordance with their goal of caring for men’s souls. This resulted in the people becoming disillusioned with religious leaders and then disillusioned with religion itself. Such disillusionment resulted in the largely secular Europe we have today.

In contrast, the US pursued a model of keeping religion out of politics. In fact, de Tocqueville points out that many of the original 13 states had consitutions which barred religious leaders from holding public office. Separating the rights of concious from the laws of man inspired the people to maintain faith in their religions allowing religion to thrive.

Finally, de Tocqueville cautioned that as governments became more stable, religious leaders would forget the benefits of maintaining a distance from political power and would seek to establish special privileges for their churches. The New York Times article linked above shows exactly that trend. Where are the limits if we have laws and regulations that govern enterprise, but have exemptions carved out for religions engaged in such enterprises? We have obviously established some limits – after all, churches have to pay social security taxes for their employees. But why is the line drawn there? Why should a church have more benefits under the law than any other non-profit?

Could I establish the “Church of Christ the Consumer?” We could declare Walmarts and Targets to be holy sites for our communion and thereby earn tax exempt status for these businesses. That sounds far fetched, but given the role of churches in creating day cares, and other businesses, it is not entirely implausible.

Update: turns out I was somewhat wrong.  Churches don’t pay social security taxes for pastors (not certain about other employees), they are considered self-employed and have to pay the full amount themselves.  However, as this article discusses, pastors may opt out of social security entirely.  The problem being that when they retire in poverty, someone has to provide a social safety net for them and their former churches often seem to decline.

One last point brought up in today’s NY Times article is that any legal exemption for a church or other religious organization requires that the state make a determination of what is a valid religion (see my question about the Church of Christ  the Consumer).  Making this determination is an establishment of religion by the very fact that it has to identify criteria for recognizing an organization as a religion.

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Free hugs!

and if you haven’t seen this, you should – it’s very good.

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a letter from Iraq

Time Magazine publishes a letter from a Marine officer in Iraq – read it.

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daily dose of the surreal…

When your day is lacking surrealism, visit the Nietzsche Family Circus

nietzche-family-circus-2.jpg     nietzche-family-circus.jpg

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Identity vs. Equality of Opportunity

Brad DeLong discussing why we like diversity and identitity notes that in addition to prefering to discuss diversity because it is easier than tackling the hard problem of a lack of equality in opportunity, we like identity and diversity because they are inherently a good thing:

Now normally–in my usual mind–I am an enthusiastic supporter of what I take to be Walter Benn Michaels’s central point: that we have collectively gotten ourselves off balance because we are responding to the fact that celebrating diversity is easy and doing something about upward mobility and the intergenerational reproduction of economic and social inequality is hard.

When I am in my usual mind I grumble that the $400,000 a year that we at Berkeley are about to start spending on an Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity would be better spent hiring ten full-time outreach coordinators and on-campus tutors to make the idea of equality of opportunity less of a joke, and to make the population that does attend Berkeley a little bit more like the population that could benefit from attending Berkeley–if only things had broken right for them before they reached college age.

But I must be outside my usual mind. Because my reaction right now is that we love identity not just because we don’t like to think about economic and social class, but because loving identity is a genuinely good thing in a diverse world, especially for America and Americans if we are to become who we are.

I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I think that it’s also important to note that we like diversity and identity because we’ve evolved as a tribal species. Before we developed civilization, we lived in family bands. We then developed from families to tribes to cities to states to nations. In a modern society, we have to work with people from a variety of nations, backgrounds, cultures, etc. However, not too deep down, just under the veneer of civilization, we are still very tribal. We still prefer to interact with people that are “like us.” I suspect that this is why we like to discuss identity and diversity.

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Gumbo Recipe

For HeatherS…

First you make a roux [1]:

  • ~1/2 cup oil
  • ~1/2 cup flour

Mix the flour and oil into a large pot and turn the heat on low to medium, depending on how often you want to stir. Stir while on heat until a dark brown.

While the roux is browning, finely chop:

  • one onion
  • a couple of stalks of celery
  • 1/2 bell pepper

You can use a cuisinart, but don’t puree the trinity (inside Louisiana joke). Once the roux is dark brown, add the vegetable mixture and stir for about a minute. Then add:

  • ~6 cups of stock (vegetable, chicken, turkey, beef, etc.)

While bringing stock and vegetables to a boil, slice (1/4 inch width):

  • 1-2 cups of okra (to taste)

Add okra to stock and prepare meat (or meat substitute 🙂 ). Cut into bite size chunks, 3 or 4 cups of:

  • Chicken; or
  • Quorn; or
  • Turkey; *and*
  • Suasage; or
  • Boca Suasage

You can also add shrimp or crawfish or crab or pretty much whatever you want (nutria anyone?). If necessary, mix the meat in flour to prevent sticking. Brown the meat in a separate skillet and season – we tend to use SeasonAll, but anything else will work.

Add the browned meat to the stock. Add a little worcheshire sauce and if you have it some browning sauce. Simmer for a couple of hours and serve over rice.

[1] I read a cookbook once that advised using a half a cup of peanut butter instead of making a roux. This is evil and wrong. If you ever see this, please leave a note for the next person warning him/her not to trust the cookbook.

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Vegetarian gumbo

My father once told me about a military training exercise that took place for a month in Egypt. The only available food was early generation MREs. Everyone lost weight except for the cajuns – who all put on 10-15 pounds. Their secret was combining their MREs into a communal pot, add the seasonings they brought from home and produce something that you wanted to eat. Since MREs have 4000-6000 calories, eating the whole thing could easily make you gain weight.

I’m always reminded of this story when I make gumbo which I learned from my mother-in-law, one of the best gumbo cooks I’ve known. My family was transplanted to Louisiana and so we don’t have a traditional gumbo recipe, but my mother-in-laws works pretty well. Unfortunately, when K and I first started leaning vegetarian, gumbo got harder to make. At first, we would still eat chicken and turkey, so a chicken and turkey-sausage gumbo was okay. Unfortunately, turkey sausage is pretty bland. When we stopped eating chicken, it looked like our gumbo days were over (K doesn’t like seafood gumbo).

Two (relatively) new meatless products saved the gumbo. “Quorn” is a very passable chicken substitute made from mycoprotein (fungus) and Boca now has a meatless Italian sausage that works very well. With those two meat substitutes we made a very nice vegetarian gumbo tonight, that may have been close to healthy.

If folks want the recipe (meatless or with meat), just let me know.

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workplace culture

Caveat lector – this is not a fully formed thought, I’m just trying to get some ideas down.

I worked with a guy (not a friend) who was obsessed by workplace culture. As near as I could tell, he came from an environment with an entirely different culture and didn’t care for the one we had. At one point, he and another person (a friend) gave a talk on culture. They described different aspects of culture, including appearance and behavior.

Workplace culture is important. Studies have shown that companies with a “positive” culture are more productive. What I don’t have a good sense of is whether the culture causes productivity, productivity causes positive culture or if the two are correlated but not causally determined.

I tend to think that workplace culture is an evolved group response to circumstances. Changing the external manifestations of culture, without changing the circumstances that the culture evolved in response to, is pointless. Cultures (workplace and other) seem to be “evolutionarily stable strategies” (ESS). In evolutionary biology, an ESS is a strategy that *if* adopted by all members of the population can not be beaten by adopting another strategy. Essentially, deviations from the norm are penalized, driving the population back to the norm.

I suspect that what makes cultures so difficult to change is that they are ESSs. Trying to change culture by changing specific behaviors or by bringing in a new employee exhibiting the desire behavior, is destined to fail, because success within the culture depends on behaving with the cultural norms. I think that the only way to change cultures is to identify the underlying issues that caused the culture to evolve and to address those issues.

For example, I know of people that would like to see their work environment be more innovative – like (they perceive) Apple’s or Google’s. To get there, they try to encourage people to be more creative in their jobs or they propose that we all dress in a cool, hip way, like the Apple “geniuses” (seriously, I’m not making this up). The problem is that if you perceive that the culture is not creative, it is likely the case that the work place does not reward creativity. For example, as I understand it, Google allows employees to spend up to one day a week working on a personally chosen, pie-in-the-sky project. But to do that, they’ve had to overstaff. If they didn’t overstaff, then people spending time on random projects would cause other things to break.

So, if you want your culture to be more like Google’s, then you may have to consider overstaffing in order to get there. You can’t just expect that encouraging people to change their behavior and to be innovative will work

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for the record, Kip Hawley is an idiot

I missed this when it came out last week, but apparently, a gentleman named Ryan Bird was detained at the airport last week for writing “Kip Hawley is an idiot” on his plastic baggie filled with toiletries. Apparently, the security trolls highly educated and diligent TSA employees took the statement to be a threat or at least behavior that they didn’t approve of and detained Mr. Bird – while telling him that he didn’t have 1st Amendment Rights at the TSA checkpoint.

Kip Hawley is the current director of the TSA and, yes, he is an idiot. This is the guy whose organization seems to watch more bad action movies than they read real risk assessments.  If you recall, a month or so ago we had a complete ban on liquids in planes due to the fear of binary explosives the ban was later lightened to allow small amounts of toiletries on the plane *if* they were put into clear baggies so that they could be viewed. The problem with this is that it was not based on any science or chemical engineering knowledge. The feared binary explosives are notoriously difficult to produce, would require hours of work and produce noxious smells which would (one hopes) be noticed.

Unfortunately, this is characteristic of the way we are handling transportation security these days. Rather than assessing the risks and taking reasonable actions based on the assessments, we are running around trying to look like we’re doing something. This goes for removing shoes to limiting liquids to arming pilots – none if it makes sense in a security context.

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