Wednesday, April 23, 2014

“So, How Come You Keep Bashing Religion?”

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A FEW FRIENDS, and friends-of-friends, and friends-asking-me-on-behalf-of-other-blog-readers (“it’s not for me, it’s for a friend”) have kept asking me the same question over and over for the last ten years.

The question usually goes something like this:

“How come you keep bashing religion on your blog? Especially at Easter and Christmas!”

To me, the answer’s bleeding obvious. But to these blokes (and blokesses), it’s obviously not, so here’s my effort to answer.

First answer is: because it’s absurd. And I despise absurdities.

My job as a blogger, as I see it, is to be somewhat of a provocateur; to challenge your thinking; to pull on your coat a little about the small absurdities, and to annoy the bejesus out of you on the big ones. 

And as Richard Dawkins says (and as most us probably thought to ourselves last Friday and Sunday when a mad alliance of religionists and unionists stopped us buying beer and wine if we wanted to) why should religion’s many absurdities get a free pass?

Second point is (as Voltaire would say) because those who believe absurdities have tended to commit atrocities. And while I’m passionately opposed to absurdity, I’m violently opposed to atrocity.1

Third point, a more positive one, is this: because there are better bases on which to build knowledge and morality than the idea that an imaginary friend has somehow slipped you all the answers, without any effort of thought on your part. All you have to do now, in this fantasy built entirely upon articles of faith, is believe. As Ayn Rand observed, this “alleged shortcut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short circuit destroying the human mind.”

Faith, in its three major monotheistic forms, did that job for centuries: methodically destroying both the knowledge and virtually all the fruits of reason produced in the first birth of human reason, in Classical Greece. Andrew Bernstein summarises both history and results of that destruction – the battle between reason and the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- in a superb piece in the latest Objective Standard  dramatising the 2300-year conflict between Aristotle, whose philosophy represented the first full embodiment and flowering of human reason, and the religions that presided over the various monotheistic dark ages – those dark benighted landscapes bedevilled2 by crosses, crescents, subservience and graves. He begins…

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The rest of Bernstein’s piece is the essentialised survey of the two poles that he promises.

He starts with the crucial fact from history obscured by talk of “Judaeo-Christian roots”: that it was not Hebrew desert dwellers who most fundamentally gave birth to Western civilisation, but the Greeks.

IT SOUNDS LIKE A SCENE from Monty Python. What did the Greeks ever do for us? Well …

as the eminent historian Will Durant wrote, “there is hardly anything secular in our culture that does not come from Greece. Schools, gymnasiums, arithmetic, geometry, history … physics, biology … poetry, music, tragedy, comedy, philosophy … ethics, politics, idealism, philanthropy … democracy: these are all Greek words for cultural forms … in many cases first matured … by the abounding energy of the Greeks.”

Bernstein writes of the seminal intellectual achievements of Aristotle, the foremost philosophical advocate of the secular, rational vision.

imageAristotle’s approach is almost entirely secular, making only the most attenuated references to divinity.  His extensive and profound work in moral philosophy [for example] demonstrates that this field flourishes independent of religion. Morality is a branch of philosophy [not religion] and was born in Greece, four centuries before Christianity.

This is just one example from many of the thinker who single-handedly started at least three of our sciences, and had a hand in the beginnings of many more.  But it wasn’t the Romans who killed Greek thought for centuries, murdered Greek thinkers and burned and buried their books.  It was those three “great religions.”

THE FIRST GREAT RELIGION it encountered was Judaism. “The Jewish religion,” says Bernstein, “is one of the most irrational.”

According to Jewish legend, as Durant states: “Moses had ruled bloodlessly by inventing interviews with God.” The Jews also invented other, similar fables – of a bush that spoke, of a man who lived within a whale, of a woman turned to salt, and so on.  Here lies a critical parting of the way in human cognition: The leading Greek thinkers rejected the myths of their culture – for example, that Pallas Athena sprang fully developed from her father’s head, without benefit of a mother; whereas the leading Jewish thinkers upheld theirs.

So while “many of the better-educated Jews found Greek culture profoundly attractive,” they were very much in the minority. “Aristotle’s method of logical, non-contradictory thinking about facts was hereby rejected by the first culture to exert a deeply religious influence on Western civilisation.”

WE NEXT ENCOUNTER CHRISTIANITY’S “war against the mind,” building upon Judaic irrationality and adding ingredients of their own. (At least Judaism never imagined a hell.)  The Christian rejection was complete, best symbolised by the Christian mob, “including monks led by a member of the local bishop’s staff,” burning the Great Library of Alexandria to the ground in 415AD and murdering the brilliant Greek mathematician, Hypatia.

imageThe burning of irreplaceable manuscripts continued for centuries (seen in the fate of writing and work by Sappho, Johns Scotus Erigena, Peter Abelard, and even Aristotle himself, and well portrayed in films like Agora and Name of the Rose.)

These were not isolated incidents.  They were necessarily central to the new church’s method.

The Catholic Church required its adherents to accept a specific religious doctrine.Because this doctrine was based on faith, not facts, reason was out as a method of adjudicating theological disputes. For example, the Church decreed that Jesus was God; but Arius (250-336AD), presbyter of Alexandria, argued that Jesus was a creation of God – divine, but not identical to God the Father.
    How could one side or the other prove itself right?  Given that each side started from the non-observable claim that there exist spiritual beings independent of bodily means – ghosts – there were no facts to appeal to – merely competing arbitrary faith-based claims.
    American philosopher Ayn Rand states: “When men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion [or] communication … are possible…. [M]ysticism reduces mankind [to] a state where, in case of disagreement, men have no recourse except to physical violence.”
    Inevitably, the Church condemned Arius and his supporters as heretics, and the dispute devolved into mass violence where “over three thousand Christians … died at the hands of fellow Christians.”

This was not a one-off, and the result was a virtual millennia-long suppression of knowledge and original thinking – best symbolised by the suppression and murdering of heretics.

A heretic is a member of a religion who challenges some tenet of its orthodoxy.  After Christianity came to power in the 4th century AD, the number of heretics it supressed – in many cases, murdered – is incalculable, as are the intellectual advances not reached by relatively rational heretics due to such repression and murder. 
    Men of reason, as taught by their first teacher, Aristotle, demand observable facts in support of the ideas they accept. But religion is not based on facts; it is based on faith – and it cannot withstand rational inquiry.  Therefore, when fervently religious men hold cultural and political authority, they conduct relentless war against the thinkers who challenge their dogma.

And so they did, and would still do.

As the classical scholar Charles Freeman points out, “The Greek intellectual tradition was suppressed rather than … faded away.”  Fundamentally, Christians rejected Aristotle’s method of observation-based rationality. Consequently, they rejected rational philosophy, the arts, science, mathematics, and education. 
    The Dark Ages ensued.

IT’S SOMETIMES ARGUED THAT theology is a religious employment of reason. Based on Aristotelian logic, it’s at least true that it’s the best religion can offer – and that we still have Aristotle’s logic is only because Christians failed to suppress it completely.

Theology is formal, deductive thinking about God and other faith-based beliefs. Theologians start with a faith-based definition of God or angels or demons or demons or the like, then tease out or rigorously deduce from that definition the things such beings can or cannot do. And element of non-contradictory thinking is present, but facts are utterly absent.  Theology is rigorous thinking about fantasy premises – and, as such is, at best, a tragic waste of human brainpower.

And is best reflected today in the postmodern use of logic, in which the truth of premises is irrelevant and logic is thereby bifurcated from facts. So it was too for medieval Christians: “it did not matter [for example] if one went wrong regarding the cure for leprosy – but knowledge of angels was important.”

Thus did a thousand years of leprous hell pass on earth in the Christian west, under the rule of a Christian Taleban.

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ODDLY, WHILE THE WEST had plunged itself into intellectual darkness, and reaping its fruits , the Islamic world was – briefly --embracing Aristotle and his intellectual achievements – thus, on these intellectual fruits (and, tragically, only briefly), enjoying their one and genuine Golden Age.

The Arabs learned the method of observation-based rationality and, in a true golden age, made superb contributions to medicine, astronomy, mathematics, literature, and other fields.  But it did not last.  Due to the monumental influence of Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and other reason-rejecting theologians, as well as fundamentalism firmly entrenched in Islamic culture from its outset, faith ultimately crushed freedom of thought… For eight-hundred years since, the Islamic world has wallowed in a dark age.

The west itself only recovered by the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle and other Greek thinkers (largely as a result of “recovering” Spanish Toledo from the Muslims)  – and, finally and after a long struggle, taking seriously the reality-based thinking method contained therein.

Durant refers to Aristotle as “this amazing Greek who … upset three religions.”  … Aristotle continues to upset the religions … His philosophy provides a proper understanding of the method of reason – and from that comes all that is good in modern secular culture: rational philosophy, the arts, the sciences, medicine, technology, prosperity.

Western civilisation then is underpinned not by our Judeo-Christian heritage,” which is mostly only barbarous, but by our Greek – more especially our Aristotelian.

The greatest story of history is the 2300-year death-struggle of religion and Aristotelian reason. As Bernstein concludes his fantastic article:

The death struggle of reason versus anti-reason continues.  Everyone must choose a side.

Read the story for yourself in THE OBJECTIVE STANDARD – Spring Issue. Download a copy here.

1. Yes, I’m sure you all saw what I did there.
2. And there.

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Nice

Headline this morning, from Brisbane’s Courier Mail:

SANZAR, a sporting body with too many rules in its rule book, bans national anthems on Anzac Day

I’m with Crio, writing at the Footy Almanac:

Forget the national anthem…
Anything anti-ceremonial gets a tick from me.
There are concert halls for concerts and Moomba for parades.
At footy I expect footy.
National anthems are unnecessary – especially so when the competing sides are domestic.
Ra Ra Ruggers!

And even more bizarre when the competing sides are Australian, playing in Wellington – where I’ll be on Friday night to see them at the Cake Tin.

Why not join me!

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Well, that’s a vote of confidence in Labour

For once, National’s Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has acted as the underhanded strategist he’s reputed to be, ‘poaching’ Labour’s Shane Jones for a job as fisheries bureaucrat for the Pacific just ahead of the election.

That Jones finally accepted McCully’s January overtures is both a vote of no-confidence in his party’s chances this election – with the portfolio of Economic Development he could have expected a major role in any Labour-Green win – and also of its internal culture.  Because it seems his disgust with Labour’s “identity politics” might finally have trumped his political ambition.

And he has been ambitious. Since his first appearance in what is euphemistically called “public life” he’s been a chancer, leveraging his own Maori identity early on into a plum job as chairman of the Waitangi Fisheries Commission.

He’s been feeding from the trough ever since – so, no change at all in that respect then – with increasing arrogance at every move up the greasy pole.

At least he’ll now be able to download porn on a taxpayers’ tab without journalists writing headlines about it.

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New Zealand’s Bubble Economy Is Vulnerable [updated]

Guest post by Hugh Pavletich

The recent Forbes e-edition article by Jesse Colombo assessing the New Zealand economy, “12 Reasons Why New Zealand's Economic Bubble Will End In Disaster” (about which we blogged here yesterday) seems to have created quite a stir, creating extensive media coverage in New Zealand.

One article alone, Michael Field’s major Fairfax article ‘NZ bubble 'going to burst', stimulated a remarkable 500+ comments.

It didn’t take too long for the politicians to react, with Acting Finance Minister Steven Joyce downplaying it, unhelpfully personally attacking Mr Colombo, with Labour’s David Cunliffe and David Parker largely agreeing with Mr Colombo’s assessment.

But then, they would all say that, wouldn’t they.

Mr Colombo’s initial assessment (a comprehensive report is to follow) was from a financial expert’s perspective, and rested largely on New Zealand’s level and fragility of mortage debt, and local banks’ exposure to it.

Let’s consider, looking specifically at housing affordability, whether Mr Colombo is correct from a structural perspective.

January every year the Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey is released, with the 10th Annual Edition released 20 January this year.

Normal (and therefore affordable) housing markets do note exceed annual household income (Median Multiple), requiring mortgage loads of about 2.5 times. Currently, most major New Zealand metropolitan housing markets are well north of this – Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch (even pre-earthquake) recording an income-to-house-price ratio of either over or nearly over 6.0!

A clear structural definition of an affordable housing market is …

For metropolitan areas to rate as 'affordable' and ensure that housing bubbles are not triggered, housing prices should not exceed three times gross annual household earnings. To allow this to occur, new starter housing of an acceptable quality to the purchasers, with associated commercial and industrial development, must be allowed to be provided on the urban fringes at 2.5 times the gross annual median household income of that urban market (refer Demographia Survey Schedules for guidance).
    The critically important Development Ratios for this new fringe starter housing, should be 17 - 23% serviced lot / section cost - the balance the actual housing construction.
    Ideally through a normal building cycle, the Median Multiple should move from a Floor Multiple of 2.3, through a Swing Multiple of 2.5 to a Ceiling Multiple of 2.7 - to ensure maximum stability and optimal medium and long term performance of the residential construction sector.

New Zealand is far from that.  Yet, since the creation of the US housing production industry by Bill and Alfred Levitt following World War 2, when new starter suburban housing was put in place for about $US100 per square metre all up (serviced section and house construction … 80 square metre units on 700 square metre lots for $US8,000), there has been no mystery about how to supply affordable housing (other than for politicians and bureaucrats who find truth “inconvenient”).

imageBut some US house builders at least still know the secret, when they’re allowed to apply it. Starter housing on the fringes of the most affordable North American metros, like Houston (right), currently costs all up about $US700 per square metre.

What is required to restore housing affordability in New Zealand is outlined within Section 4 of my earlier post “Christchurch: The Way Forward.” It is simply about ALLOWING affordable land to be supplied, and financing infrastructure properly.

Australian Federal Senator-Elect Bob Day (before his election, a major Australian production house-builder and former President of the Housing Industry Association of Australia) recently explained the issue most eloquently, within a video interview with Business Spectator:  Read Bob Day on affordable housing and jobs for young people ... Business Spectator .

The simple fact is, that we’re just not building enough. And it’s not just us. As explained recently within “China: Big Bubble Trouble”, even in pre-war London, new starter semi-detached housing was being supplied for slightly over 2.0 times annual household incomes. The reason: They were building way more new housing on a population basis in the United Kingdom even through the Depression years  than they are today.

Through these eras too, it was normal for households to have just one income earner, as the male was seen as a “loser” if he was unable to financially provide for his family. The social pressures were quite significant.

As eminent Hoover Institution economist Thomas Sowell said “We have spent the past few decades replacing what works with what feels good”. In a 2009 interview (video) Mr Sowell described the causes of the 2007 Global Financial Crisis. See: Thomas Sowell on the Housing Boom and Bust - YouTube .

During early 2009, your present writer explained why economists have such a poor understanding of housing bubbles with . Most wouldn’t know a house market from a horse market internationally … although thankfully … Australian and New Zealand economists are sometimes now better informed. Importantly, many have been constructive contributors to politically progressing this serious issue.

So what did this year’s Demographia Survey (data 3rd Qtr 2013) find with respect to New Zealand’s major urban markets ?

Median Auckland housing priced at 8.0 times annual median household incomes; Tauranga 6.6; Christchurch near 6.0; Wellington 5.5; Napier-Hastings 5.4; Dunedin 5.2; Hamilton 4.8 and Palmerston North 4.5.

Not pretty.

Another useful measure of housing affordability is the relationship between Total Housing Stock Value and Gross Domestic / State / Metropolitan Product, which should not exceed at tops 1.5 times … ideally no more than 1.2 times.

September last year James Gruber writing for Forbes3 Warning Signs Of A Bloodbath Ahead” , incorporated a graph (requires updating) illustrating the ratios of Total Housing Stock Value to GDP for Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States …

Australian housing assets to GDP

Australian banks residential property exposure

Not surprisingly, the result mirrors the Demographia Survey.

As a further check, Greater Houston with its population of about 6.1 million has a Gross Metropolitan Product of near $500 billion (in contrast to New Zealand with a population of 4.5 million and a GDP PPP of about a paltry $US140 billion … some $NZ210 billion ).

In relative terms, this is due to a history of poor quality public policy and a seriously degenerate public service culture at central and local level (a further recent example of gross incompetence … Error Prone Bureaucracy ). Little wonder then, that while New Zealanders had the highest GDP per capita in the world in 1920 (refer Angus Maddison Historical GDP Per Capita Tables ), but today it ranks about 46 ... between Italy and Slovenia ..

Because of its degenerate public service, not surprisingly, New Zealand also has the worst traffic congestion problems in the developed world too. (Read ‘New Zealand Has Worst Traffic: International Data’ by Wendell Cox | Newgeography.com

Rather amusingly, at current exchange rates in $US terms, New Zealand’s generally poor quality housing stock is “worth” more than the entire housing stock of Greater Houston !

New Zealand is a country that has been bureaucratically buggered. A textbook case of “institutional failure” at central and local level. The “rock-star” label is clearly nonsense.

New Zealand’s current economic activity is being “juiced up” due to a China Bubble Boom and the excessive costs of the Christchurch earthquake recovery. Bureaucratic incompetence has meant this painfully long recovery will be a $NZ40 billion exercise, when it should have been in the order of $NZ15 billion.

imageSadly it would appear, The Broken Window Fallacy is not understood by economic commentators, in that the Christchurch earthquake recovery (with some flooding problems due to Council incompetence with poorly maintained drainage infrastructure … in the main) is not building new wealth but simply the replacement (eventually, if ever) of the damaged and destroyed capital stock.

The latest figures from the Reserve Bank of New Zealand indicate the New Zealand housing stock has a “value” of some $NZ716 billion … roughly 3.4 times its GDP. It should not exceed 1.5 times ($NZ315 billion … ideally 1.2 times ($NZ252 billion). This suggests there is something in the order of $NZ401 and $NZ461 billions of bubble value in New Zealand housing. It takes about 25% of mortgages incorporated within this bubble value to fuel it … some$NZ100 billion through $NZ115 billion of at risk bubble mortgage value.

The problem is the New Zealand Banks only have a capital base of about $NZ29 billion (RBNZ figures).

Currently, the major international concern is China … and its transitioning from a panicked and manic investment frenzy following the 2007 Global Financial Crisis (triggered by the North American urban planners … no doubt the Chinese Communists are not grateful). China is slowing, as explained within a recent Financial Times article Do Chinas Qtr1 GDP Numbers Gloss Reality? .

Information from the Chinese National Statistics Bureau illustrate the extent of the massive residential overbuilding and abrupt falloff in sales and new construction so far this year …

In the first three months, the floor space under construction by the real estate development enterprises accounted for 5,470.30 million square meters, up by 14.2 percent year-on-year, decreased 2.1 percentage points over the first two months. Of which, the floor space of residential building construction area was 3,932.06 million square meters, up by 11.4 percent.
    The floor space started this year was 290.90 millions square meters, down by 25.2 percent, and the pace of decline narrowed 2.2 percentage points. Specifically, the floor space of residential buildings started in the year amounted to 212.38 million square meters, down by 27.2 percent.
    The floor space of buildings completed stood at 185.20 million square meters, went down by 4.9 percent, and the pace of decline narrowed 3.3 percentage points, of which, the floor space completed of residential buildings stood at 139.10 million square meters, went down by 7.3 percent.

Does it say 'it has bottomed out'? Is this a soft landing? -25%?

At say 60 to 80 square metres each (plus common area), in number of unit terms, how many of these apartments have been put in place in China over recent years ? What is the build rate per 1,000 population per annum for the Chinese metros ?

It would appear China could be described as Ireland by 300 … or even 500 times … with much greater “multiple stretch” in the former. And that’s without considering the commercial and infrastructure over-spend and mal-investment.

The Irish bubble collapsed at much lower Median Multiples than those currently prevailing in China, New Zealand and Australia.

Ireland is no doubt an excellent “case study” for Australian and New Zealand policy makers, as they are assessing the consequences of the bubbles collapsing in their own countries. They will be well aware that there has been no sustainable bubble in history.

Mr Colombo assessed the New Zealand economy from a financial perspective. This brief “structural check” indicates Mr Colombo is correct.

_hugh-pavletich-smlHugh Pavletich is a Christchurch entrepreneur, the owner of website Performance Urban Planning and the co-author of the Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.
This post first appeared at
Scoop.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
The only inflation concern for the Reserve Bank recently has been house price inflation, with consumer price and labour cost inflation low, but this will change over the next couple of years.  Labour cost inflation, that is central to medium-term consumer price inflation prospects, will become a problem despite the Reserve Bank's benign forecasts.  Rising labour cost inflation will play an important part in justifying sufficient OCR hikes over the next couple of years to put the housing market under significant stress.  Unfortunately, the Reserve Bank doesn't have a particularly good forecasting track record on either front (i.e. house prices or labour cost inflation)….

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

“12 Reasons Why New Zealand's Economic Bubble Will End In Disaster”

Forbes magazine columnist Jesse Colombo invites international investors enamoured with NZ’s “rockstar economy” to think again – offering 12 Reasons Why New Zealand's Economic Bubble Will End In Disaster, pointing out among other things the conjunction of historically ultra-low (unsustainably low) interest rates and a mortgage bubble grown by 165% in a little over a decade, with the fact that nearly half of all NZers mortgages have floating interest rates, with mortgages themselves accounting for nearly 60% of banks’ loan portfolios.

So sit tight waiting for the pop when interest rates head back towards reality.

On top of this he sees the industrialised world’s fourth-worst household debt-to-GDP ratio, and a place in which agriculture as a source of wealth is vastly outstripped by “the finance, insurance and business service sector,” a sector in which banks “dangerously exposed to the country’s property and credit bubble” comprise the lion’s share.

Naturally, National Party cheerleader Keeping Stock has a cogent dismissal.  “Bubble? What Bubble?” says the blindfolded blogger responsible for a constant election-year refrain of “more good news” delivered by his heroes. “Cherry-picking,” “old news” and basic ridicule are about all the criticism offered however of Colombo’s case– apart from Keeping Stock’s hero Steven Joyce, who offers little more analysis than the word “alarmist” and a suggestion of similarity between Colombo and Moon-Man Ken Ring.

I can’t help thinking that if Colombo’s argument could be as easily dismissed, then they’d actually try to address it.

And then there’s Infometrics managing director Gareth Kiernan, who concedes “If his predictions ever came to pass then the economy would be in trouble, but no one was really forecasting that to happen…”

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Economic Inequality–the Austrian Economics Perspective

“The Austrian perspective is on in which we distinguish between inequality that’s generated by consumers and consumer demand, and inequality that’s generated by what we might call government income plundering…”
- Joseph Salerno

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The Sad State of the Economics Profession

Guest post by Frank Hollenbeck

It is not an exaggeration to say the current reputation of economists is probably just below that of a used car salesman. [A reputation that is highly deserved. – Ed.]

The recent failures of economic policies to boost growth or employment have tarnished this image even more. This, however, is in sharp contrast to the past when economists were seen as the intellectual roadblock to popular misconceptions, bad ideas, or more importantly, government policies sold to the public on false assumptions. Popular slogans such as “protecting local jobs” play on nationalism, but in reality only serve special interests.

The economist of the past would never have hesitated to highlight the fallacies in such reasoning.

Most economists today, however, have sold themselves to the enemy. They work for government agencies such as the IMF, OECD, World Bank, central banks, think tanks or academic institutions where their “output” is either bought or heavily subsidised by government agencies. To succeed they have to “toe the line.” You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

Today, these economists and bought-and-paid-for journalists inform us almost daily, for example, of the dangers of “deflation” and the risks of “low-flation,” and how only the printing press can protect us from this alleged catastrophe. Yet there is neither theoretical or empirical justification for this fear. On the contrary, falling prices caused by rising production are a positive boon; and a stable money supply would allow prices to better serve the critical function of allocating resources to where they are most needed.

The fact you will never hear from today’s bought-and-paid-for economic historians is that growth resulting from stable money would normally be associated with rapidly falling prices -- as was the case during most of the nineteenth century…

[Gold-Century-web[4].jpg]
Course of prices in New Zealand and UK, 1860-1910,
from J. Muriel Prichard’s Economic History of New Zealand

…but not however in the twentieth-century’s era of unstable money.

6a00d83451eb0069e200e55074d96c8833-800wi

Economists’ willingness to drink the Kool Aid goes further than just drivel on deflation.

When President Obama first talked about raising the minimum wage, or example, Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman quickly published an article supporting such an increase. Yet even a first-year student in economics knows price controls distort the resource-allocation function of prices, thus benefiting one group or special interests at the expense of the rest of society. Although some will receive a higher minimum wage, many others will simply be thrown under the bus. A political pundit should not be masquerading as an economist.

Economists also have “physics envy” and are enamoured with empiricism and mathematical models. To work in a central bank you have to be familiar with, if not a quasi-expert on, DSGE models. The problem with these models, or any economic model, is that the parameters are not constant, most of the variables are interrelated with constantly changing interrelationships -- and omitted variables, like expectations, some of them immeasurable, are conveniently assumed away as unimportant. That is like taking a road map of shipping lanes and omitting the islands.

imageEconomics is a social science and techniques borrowed from the physical sciences are simply inappropriate. Since we do not have a laboratory to conduct economic experiments, it is difficult to distinguish between association and causation or correctly determining the direction of causation. Economic activity is based on human actions, with very little empirical regularity. It may be a sunny day, and you have skied for three days. This does not mean you will go skiing on the fourth day. Your actions simply cannot be modelled like the reactions of lab rats in a biology experiment.

Unlike the reaction to noise from the zombies in the walking dead, humans do not react necessarily to the same events in the same way. Economists at the Fed must be scratching their heads as to why businesses did not react to lower interest rates as it did after the dot-com bubble. It’s the old adage of “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

When one attains a Ph.D. in a physical science like physics or medicine, he does not spend time understanding theories from 200 years ago. The profession is always moving forward, right? Yet in economics, a social science, we wrongly take the same attitude. Macroeconomics as a profession has not advanced but has regressed. We had a better understanding of macroeconomics 80 years ago. Politicians put Keynes on a pedestal because he gave them the theoretical foundation to justify policies that had been justifiably ridiculed in the past by the classical economists.

These economists such as Smith, Say, Ricardo, Bastiat and Mill fought hard to dispel the popular misconception that the problem was overproduction and a lack of money. Today, the leading economists are telling us everything will be fine if we can “boost demand” (hence, too much production) or have more money through quantitative easing. These are the same popular misconceptions promulgated by mercantilists 250 years ago. The difference, today, is that economists are the mercantilists’s ally instead of their enemies.

The role of the economist should be to explain not only the direct effects of economic policies, but also the indirect effects . The economists should not only tell us what is seen, but what is not seen -- and more importantly what should be foreseen. Economists in unison should have informed the public that the massive government spending after the crash of 2008 would have created more growth and employment if the money had been left in private hands. To fund “cash for clunkers,” the government borrowed money and called forth resources that would normally have been used to build plants and equipment or capital goods, the real source of growth in an economy. As Murray Rothbard eloquently said, this is a transfer of “resources from the productive [private sector] to the parasitic, counterproductive public sector.”

We live on a planet with a constraint called gravity. We can adapt to the law of gravity by creating innovations such as airplanes, but we cannot defy the law of gravity by jumping off a building without a parachute. The same is true in economics and of the law of scarcity. We falsely believe that somehow if government legally counterfeits intrinsically worthless paper or spends someone else’s money we will be able to upend the law of scarcity.

J.B. Say once said that economists should be “passive spectators” who do not give advice. He could have added, “and do not sleep with the enemy.

Frank Hollenbeck teaches finance and economics at the International University of Geneva. He has previously held positions as a Senior Economist at the State Department, Chief Economist at Caterpillar Overseas, and as an Associate Director of a Swiss private bank.
This post first appeared at the Mises Daily. It has been lightly edited.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

Easter Uplift: It’s Your Revised Sermon on the Mount

Put down your symbols of torture for a moment, grab a couple of good old pagan Easter Eggs, and consider something more uplifting than the Easter story Here, courtesy of Lindsay Perigo, is his wholly revised, updated and uplifted Sermon on the Mount.

A Revised Sermon on the Mount

Blessed are the poor in spirit—when they become rich in spirit and matter, for theirs will be the kingdom of earth.

Blessed are they who mourn—when they get over it.

Blessed are the meek—when they acquire pride, for then they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after individual rights—when they rise up for their cause, for then they shall become free.

Blessed are the merciful—when they learn to discriminate, for then they shall obtain justice.

Blessed are the pure in heart, since to be pure in heart they must be using their brains.

Blessed are the peacemakers—when they learn that peace doesn't come at any price, and wipe tyrants off the map.

Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely—when those men be the High Priests of Islam, Christianity, Socialism, Postmodernism, and all other manner of unreason.

Blessed are the rational, the independent, the honest, the sincere, the productive, the just, the justly proud; the scientists and capitalists; the poets, singers and symphonists of love and thought—for theirs is the glory of man.

Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward on earth—when you have earned it, and it is not the fruit of a bailout.

Ye are the salt of the earth—but if the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? If ye become tame as sheeple, ye shall be trodden under the feet of politicians and bureaucrats and postmodern philosophers. Be ye instead the light of the world. Do not hide that light under a bushel, but let it so shine before men that they may see your vision of reason and freedom, and glorify it, and bring it to pass on earth.

Amen.  Hope you’re all having a good one yourself.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Easter Week, 4: Surely There Are Better Stories to Tell?

Today’s reflection on the celebrations of Easter Week, and their source…

In Pagan times you see, Easter was the time in the Northern calendar when the coming of spring was celebrated -- the celebration of new life, of coming fecundity.  Hence the eggs and rabbits and celebrations of fertility. Indeed, the very word "Easter" comes from Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn, and means, symbolically, the festival celebrating the rebirth of light after the darkness of winter. 

But with the coming of Christianity, the celebration was hijacked to become this veneration of torture and sacrifice I talked about yesterday.  Remember here the true nature of sacrifice:

    “ ‘Sacrifice’ [says Rand] does not mean the rejection of the worthless, but of the precious. ‘Sacrifice’ does not mean the rejection of the evil for the sake of the good, but of the good for the sake of the evil. ‘Sacrifice’ is the surrender of that which you value in favor of that which you don’t.

That’s why of itself it’s barbaric. It is, to quote Nietzsche, a revolt of everything that crawls against everything that’s high.  That’s why the barbarity of the Christian sacrifice is so stark.

If it were true.  Because unfortunately, as PZ Myers points out, Jesus isn't even saving us from anything real, and even in the made-up story he makes no change in the world with his death.

And the story itself was not even original.  In the Norse myths (to quote just one of many similar myths) the head god Odin hung himself on the World Tree Yggdrasil—not to sacrifice himself to himself, but to achieve greater understanding. As the Icelandic Edda tells the story,

I ween that I hung of the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, and offered I was,
To Othin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none may ever know
what root beneath it runs.
None made me happy with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked;
I took up the runes, shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell.
Then began I to thrive, and wisdom to get,
I grew and well I was;
Each word led me to another word,
Each deed to another deed.

As Joseph Campbell observes,

_QuoteNo one can miss the parallels here to the Gospel themes of Jesus’ three hours on the Cross (3 x 3 = 9), the spear in his side, his death and resurrection, and the boon of redemption thereby obtained. The phrase “and offered I was/To Othin, myself to myself” is interesting in the light of the Christian dogma of Christ and the Father as One.”

These are the sort of stories the Christian myth supplanted, as I mentioned in Part 1.  And in hijacking the pagan celebrations of spring,  they overtook a mostly joyful celebration of growth and fertility, of peace and new understanding, and added to it a new ingredient: the ethic of sacrifice -- the murder and torture of tall poppies -- the sacrifice of the Christian's highest possible for the sake of the meanest most rotten 'sinner,' whose redemption Christ's murder was supposed to buy.

To put it bluntly, the Easter myth that Bach dramatises so well is one of suffering and sacrifice and murder, and the collusion of a supposedly omnipotent and omniscient god in the murder of his own son – or himself, if you follow the illogic -- and if you subscribe to the whole sick fantasy then that is what you are required to believe—to believe in every rotten, blood-dripping detail. For in the name of religion we see that the good (by Christian standards) must be sacrificed to the rotten; the constant to the inconstant; the talented and inspirational to the lumpen dross -- the ideal to the worthless.

For Christians, then, Easter is a time to revere that sacrifice and to remind themselves (and us) of the centrality of sacrifice to their fantasy. Oh yes, there's a 'rebirth' of sorts in their fantasy, but not one on this earth realm, and not before a celebration of intense pain and suffering that supposedly bought redemption and virtue for those who possessed neither.  

As Robert Tracinski says so bluntly, "Easter's Mixture of the Benevolent and the Horrific Reveals Religion's Antagonism to Human Life." And so it does.

BUT MYTHOLOGY IS A strange beast. It was, in ancient times, a form of pre-philosophical, metaphorical knowledge and inquiry. Joseph Campbell argues that “in thinking of the Crucifixion only in historical terms [Christians] lose the reference of the symbol immediately to [themselves[.”

The metaphor obscured by the torture and bloodshed is still the one celebrated by all the myths of springtime, “"matching the bursting forth of flowers and the return of the sun … the plangent longing we experience at this season … very much the longing to be born anew the way nature is.”

The calculation of Easter’s date by reference to both lunar and solar calendars, to both sun and moon – the two largest beings of ancient life around which all of life was organised-- is a clue we’re talking about more than just a dead carpenter.

All these elements fit together … What we have to recognize is that these celestial bodies represented to the ancients two different modes of eternal life, one engaged in the field of time, like throwing off death, as the moon it’s shadow, to be born again; the other, disengaged and eternal…
    [Other folk symbols have similar lunar and solar resonations]. There is, to begin with, the rabbit, the Easter bunny… The rabbit is associated with the dying and resurrection of the moon.  The egg is shelled off by the chicks as the shadow of the moon is the moon reborn …

In short, the overarching pagan metaphor is a call to change, or at least renew. ‘Cos as Mr Dylan liked to say, “he not being busy being born is busy dying.”

It’s this spirit that the composer Richard Wagner tried to capture in his beautiful Good Friday Spell music, part of the culminating wonder of his final opera Parsifal

THE PAGAN METAPHOR undergirds the christian, giving it whatever real life it has.

I can’t help pointing out here there is another story standing in complete contrast to the christian story of torture and sacrifice, that is in all senses its polar opposite. Unlike the anti-heroes of Bach's Passion--who murder their hero in a vain attempt to save their desiccated souls—or Dostoyevsky’s—who torture themselves with thoughts of a “malevolent universe” in which they are “trapped”--the heroes of Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead shun sacrifice and venerate their own human powers on this earth.

The hero of that novel, Howard Roark, appears in court in a similar position dramatically in which Bach has his own hero. Thrown to the mob and fighting for his life in court, rather than acquiesce as Bach’s hero does, Roark states instead—as clearly and categorically as he knows how—his own terms.

    “I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone's right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need.
    "I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others.
    "It had to be said. The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.
    "I wished to come here and say that the integrity of a man's creative work is of greater importance than any charitable endeavor. Those of you who do not understand this are the men who're destroying the world.
    "I wished to come here and state my terms. I do not care to exist on any others.
    "I recognize no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom and to take no part in a slave society.”

Instead of embracing the sacrifice demanded by the mob, as Paul and the christian writers who followed him had their hero do, this hero rejects it. Rejects it emphatically.

The contrast to the other story is stark,wouldn’t you say?

The ethic of The Fountainhead, one for which each of the leading characters fights in their own way, is one in which genius has the right to live for its own sake.  The contrast with the demand of Christianity that The Good inheres in the act of suffering and dying for the expiation of others could not be stronger, or the question more important!  Rather than demanding and worshipping the sacrifice of the highest to the lowest -- or as Nietzsche did, retaining the ethic but reversing the beneficiary of the sacrifice by demanding the sacrifice of the lowest to the highest -- the ethic of The Fountainhead insists that The Good is not to suffer and to die, but to enjoy yourself and live -- without any sacrifice at all of anyone to anyone else.

In my book, that really is an ethic worthy of reverence.

NOW, I'M ALL TOO aware that if you believe the christian’s Easter Myth, then anything I say here is going to pass right by you.  So if you do insist on venerating sacrifice this weekend, and especially if you're intending a bit of crucifixion yourself, or even just a bit of mildly flogging or self-torture, then here are a few simple Easter Safety Tips for you from the Church, which are not unfortunately intended as satire.

And now, for all the bureaucrats who will be working tomorrow while insisting that others don’t, here's that Nick Kim cartoon again ...

Easter_Trading

Have a happy holiday!

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Quote of the Day: Your Money is Your Life

"Time is our most precious resource, and most of us invest a third or more
of it into productive work so that we can support our lives and make our
hopes and dreams a reality. Every penny we earn represents some
irreplaceable part of our life — and every penny [and every minute]
the government takes from us represents a moment stolen from our life."

- Don Watkins, “Your Money is Your Life

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

“…and the intelligence of a caravan site”

Photo: There’s nothing Kiwis like more than getting on the road and going on holiday. But public holiday fun can quickly turn to frustration. 

Today Labour committed to make things easier and safer on our roads. https://labour.org.nz/EasierDriving

Yeah, it’s a strange one, for sure.

Labour leader David Cunliffe hires alleged hotshot organiser Matt McCarten as Chief of Staff, all ready for a big election year. The decision is roundly endorsed by the commentariat. Smart, they say. Linking with the base. A big move. The start of a big campaign.

imageSo what exactly was the big idea behind what was going on yesterday?  A big interview cancelled and a big parliamentary opportunity forwent in favour of a big policy announcement that turned out be something not so big at all about trucks and caravans and something confusing about regos and the fast lane. (I can’t say I’ve got my head completely around the idea, if we can call it that, and it’s so trivial it’s hardly worth bothering.)

This satire from Imperator Fish seems as accurate as the announcement, or lack thereof, and a whole truckload funnier:

A statement from David Cunliffe
Labour’s leader talks about the issues that matter.

Mind you, Stephen Berry and others reckon it is at least great to see Labour “advocating less taxation.” So there’s that.

Pity it is on a small insignificant area that will be cancelled out tenfold by the other taxes Labour promises to introduce.

Yeah, okay. And Mark Ormandy says1

I don't get why when they propose one policy that is perfectly agreeable everyone still feels the need to give them shit for it. I wonder if actually encouraging them when they talk about eliminating red-tape might have a more beneficial result.

Which is true too.

But for crying out loud, can’t they at least make it about something goddamned important!

Bear in mind, we do need a strong opposition – not to keep the buggers honest, since the whole bunch of them are venal thieves. We need it to make the pricks in power stop feeling so bloody entitled.

Here’s R.L. Burnside:

1. And, yes, it’s true, I’ve been trawling Facebook.

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“13 Arguments for Liberal Capitalism in 13 Minutes”

I was told yesterday that the facts refute capitalism.

Which was interesting. Especially since

So here, for Paul McGreal and others are Stephen Hicks’s “13 arguments for liberal capitalism in 13 minutes.”  (That takes you to the transcript; the first vid is below.)

It makes liberal use of words like freedom, incentives, smarter, individuality, creativity, productive ability, the poor, wealth, flourish, happiness, interesting, tolerance, racism (and the discouragement thereof), sexism (also to do with the discouragement thereof), peace, and profit.

I even spot the word “awesome.”  Twice!

So if you’re bored with Easter and inequality, try awesome

Here’s a flowchart for the 13 (click for a huge one) …

liberal-capitalism-flowchart-video-version-a-640

… and here’s the first video of 13:

Enjoy!

Easter Week, 3: Mythologising Sacrifice

“My favourite definition of mythology: other people’s religion. My favourite definition of
religion: misunderstanding of mythology. The misunderstanding consist in the reading of
the mythological symbols as though they were primarily references to historical events…”
- Joseph Campbell

AND MAN MADE GODS in his own image, and that of the animals he saw around him, and he saw these stories were sometimes helpful psychologically in a a pre-philosophical age. But one of these gods was a jealous god. For this god was so angry at the world he sent one-third of himself to die to expiate the sins of those with whom he was angry, for sins that (in his omniscience) he would have always known they would commit.

imageIt’s not just history the christian story challenges, is it. It’s logic. Their god, both all-knowing and all-powerful (the two key features that make him a god) not only knows all that has happened ad will happen, he is also responsible for all that has happened and does happen - that's what being both all-knowing and all-powerful really means.

Which means that he is not just at one with our sin and suffering: he caused it all, and he knew it would all happen.

Human suffering, according to this view, is not an accident, it is god-given.

On this view, in this story, this god is not just in favour of pain and suffering, he not just actively wills it,  in “saving” the world from himself by having his own son tortured and killed he is an example to parents everywhere. (Just like, you know, Abraham.)

EVERY RELIGION HAS ITS own core myths portraying the very heart of their beliefs. The pagan Greeks told stories of their gods, those Attic super-men, consuming Ambrosia and gambolling on Olympus.  The Norse heroes told stories of their gods lustily wenching and feasting in Valhalla while waiting for Ragnarok.  And the Christians? They tell about the time when their god sent his son down to be nailed up to a piece of wood.

As a myth, you’d think it’s hardly something to celebrate.

Yet the Easter Myth is central to Christianity, and all too revealing of the ethic at Christianity's heart.

Art reveals that core. Look at that fantastic painting below, by Salvador Dali. A great, powerful, awe-inspiring, revealing piece of art.  What does it represent? It represents man-worship -- the presentation of an ideal – one of the greatest presentations of the theme in the twentieth century. (Thank you, Salvador Dali.) Note how the main figure is larger than life and seemingly immune to pain or destruction; a figure, incongruously in this context, portrayed without pain or fear or guilt.


Christus Hypercubus, Salvador Dali

The figure at left, much smaller, looks up at the blindingly bright Christ figure with a look not simply of curiosity or sadness, but of literal man-worship. If we have questions here, when looking at a man – not just a man, our ideal man – nailed up to a piece of wood, they might be along these lines:

"How can you worship the destruction of your ideal man?” 

“Why would you celebrate his torture?”

“Why is suffering so central to your mythology?”

Fair questions, especially when confronted with splatter-fests like Mel Gibson’s Passion that lovingly depict every act of torture and every drop of blood in high-definition Technicolor.

That’s what painting and film can do with the theme. How about music?  Bach’s St Matthew Passion musically and beautifully dramatises this Myth while revealing its true nature. The Passion’s thematic centre occurs when Jesus appears before Pilate and the mob.

_QuoteWhen Pilate asks the crowd who should be freed, Barabbas or Jesus. The crowd replies, "Barabbas!" and Pilate asks, "When what should I do with Jesus, who is called the Christ?" The crowd shouts, "Let him be Crucified!"
    This final shout is musically rendered in such an awful way that the hearer is almost struck dumb. One can feel the terrible doom being called down.
    Pilate then asks (in Part 56), "Why, what has this man done?" His question is answered by what is probably the loneliest Soprano ever, who says, "He has done good to us all, He gave sight to the blind, The lame he made to walk; He told us his father's word, He drove the devils forth; The wretched he has raised up; He received and sheltered sinners, Nothing else has my Jesus done."
    Following this is an even more poignant aria that begins, "Out of love my Saviour is willing to die." After that the chorus repeats the sentence, which is made worse by what we have just heard.
    "Let him be Crucified!"

Made worse, much worse, because of the good he has apparently done.

Just think, Christians revere Christ as their ideal, and in some of the most plangent music ever Bach has his chorus and soloists praise him, worship him, eulogise Him – this, above all, was their hero (Bach tells us); a man known only for good deeds; who spread the good word; the man they believe their god sent to earth as an example of the highest possible on this earth -- and then they and that god went and had him killed.

Tortured.

Crucified.

That's the story. This, says Bach in the true honesty that great art reveals, is what Christians revere: The murder of their ideal man.  The sacrifice of himself to himself.  To appease what? Why, to appease his own blodlust.

It’s an astonishing ethic to celebrate, isn’t it: the sacrifice of the ideal man just to appease and placate the mob.

THE SACRIFICE, YOU SEE, is the thing. Sacrifice is the central ethical thesis of Christianity—so important that an all-powerful god was supposed to sacrifice his own son (who is also himself) to himself just to make the important point: that sacrifice of a higher value—of the very highest—to everything that crawls on earth is central to the Christian ethics.

Central? As the apostle Paul set it up, it is his religion’s very core.

In the Easter Myth giving voice to this ethic of sacrifice, we are invited to praise the willing sacrifice of the man they hold up as their ideal to a mob of the vilest  sinners--sacrificed as a point of ethical and religious necessity in the most vile and bloodthirsty way imaginable.

It's of no avail whether in the Christ myth we hear that he was arrested for blasphemy, or for disrupting temple rituals, or for preaching without a police permit, or that he came to replace one stone-age form of witch-doctory for another. It's of no avail because none of those points are central to the Easter Myth, or of the central Christian ethic portrayed therein: they’re all just plot devices to get the story to Golgotha, and the god-son nailed up.

That is the vile story we are invited to admire and the ethic we are enjoined to emulate.

“What would Jesus do (WWJD)?”, we’re enjoined to ask by religionists Why, he would give up his very life up to the mob, and his very body to be tortured by it. Why? To save (somehow) all you miserable sinners.

The sacrifice, you see, is the thing. And just to be clear:

_Quote“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue. Thus, altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values…

That a story is celebrated in which a divine sacrifice, a human being, a son of the “all-powerful” is offered up in the most vile, most bloodthirsty way possible--to "save" a mob who, according to those same Christians, are created as vile sinners--and to "appease" a bloodthirsty and omnipotent God who intended all this to happen, and (according to the story) sent this ideal man down to earth to make sure that it did …. now if that's not a vile story, even if t'were true, then my name is Odin.

And there's certainly nothing enlightening there on which to base an ethics. And base an ethics on it the religionists certainly do. One they insist is “sublime.”

No wonder the religionists see nothing to apologise for today when priests quietly sacrifice young children to their own misbegotten lusts.

HANS HOLBEIN’S PAINTING ‘CHRIST AFTER CRUCIFIXION’ lays bare the reality of the sacrifice even more directly than Mel Gibson’s splatter movie.

Hans Holbein, 1521, ‘A Christian Confronts Reality’ (after Dostoyevsky)

It’s not a pretty painting, as this detail makes plain:

Hans Holbein, 1521, ‘A Christian Confronts Reality’ (after Dostoyevsky), detail

A good subtitle for this 1521 painting might be ‘A Christian Confronts Reality.’  That, at least, was how the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky felt when confronted with this naturalistic depiction of the battered Christian corpse in 1867: confronted with the horrific reality of crucifixion and its results, Dostoyevsky was struck by the importance of this confrontation for his faith, and inspired to dramatise in his next novel what that confrontation meant. Said his wife,

The figure of Christ taken from the cross, whose body already showed signs of decomposition, haunted him like a horrible nightmare.  In his notes to [his novel] The Idiot and in the novel itself he returns again and again to his theme.

Holbein confronts the Christian viewer with a powerful choice: One must either believe that God raised this ravaged body from the dead, and that the Christian myth, therefore, “offers hope for humanity beyond this life”; or else accept that the dead stay dead, that such an event did not and could not occur, that reality is what it is – with all that follows therefrom. As Dostoyevsky has a character in The Idiot explain it,

_QuoteHis body on the cross was therefore fully and entirely subject to the laws of nature. In the picture the face is terribly smashed with blows, swollen, covered with terrible, swollen, and bloodstained bruises, the eyes open and squinting; the large, open whites of the eyes have a sort of dead and glassy glint. . . .
   Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up–impassively and unfeelingly–a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being!

Good art need not be a thing of beauty, but it must have something to say. 

This, Holbein’s painting (and Dostoyevsky’s novel), they certainly do that.

If you believe the Creation myth and all that goes with it, the idea that all this was designed by something supernatural and omnipotent, then you must believe this torture too was designed. That it was intended.  That the god that once insisted Abraham sacrifice his own son now makes the mob insist on the sacrifice of their ideal.

Let me ask you again, Don’t you think it astonishing to celebrate this barbarity?

IT WOULD BE EVEN MORE astonishing if that were what Easter really meant.  Thankfully, it’s not.

More on that tomorrow…

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Easter Week, 2: Enter Hercules…

Apotheosis of Hercules c. 1539. Oil on canvas. Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna

Christianity didn’t start with Jesus, any more than the Easter story did. Paul, who never met Jesus, had a big hand in both.

Jesus’s death was a secular event his followers struggled to explain. He had arrived from nowhere, talking mysteriously about bringing the kingdom of god on earth – interpreted hopefully by many as the coming of a “Messiah”1 to liberate the Hebrews from Roman rule – before arriving in Jerusalem  and almost immediately being put to death.

Any followers who believed Jesus was the Messiah may well have dreamed of some form of political or military triumph in which the priestly authorities would be overthrown and Israel liberated. Instead, Jesus had been arrested, subjected to a rudimentary trial and executed as a common criminal by the most humiliating punishment of all, crucifixion.

His brutal death ended their hopes and plans, and put their leader in whom they’d placed all their hope in the pathetic and very public position of being an “unprophetic prophet.” What to do?

In short, the crucifixion may have been the result of a serious miscalculation. If so, that most haunting of cries, recorded in Matthew and Mark and in the original Aramaic, `My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me', rings out with particular resonance. It was only later, especially through the theology of Paul, that the emphasis shifted towards the crucifixion as the defining moment of Jesus' life.

The gospels supposedly describing Jesus’s life by his followers were written decades later, “by educated Greeks, themselves outsiders to Judaea, but not to Judaism, between AD 70 and AD 100. The gospels illustrate how four Christian writers envisaged Jesus and his message in the period forty to seventy years after his death.”  Even so, we see how reluctant these writers were to include what becomes the Easter story in the fact that the earliest versions of the first “canonical” gospel, Mark, for instance, do not even have  a resurrection. The story is grafted on later.

[His] is a rough, breathy telling, with a Jesus in constant motion, as if in a hurry to get his work done before the End comes. And, hugely significant to most scholars, Mark’s gospel does not end with a resurrection … And we are left, as perhaps Mark and his first readers were left, waiting, expectant, ready for the End to arrive. But the End didn’t come. Mark was wrong about that.

imageNot only did The End not come in the hopeful manner wished for by followers, in 70AD a true disaster struck the Hebrews with the total destruction of The Second Temple after another unsuccessful Hebraic revolt.

Secular success for Jewish Messiahs was just not going to happen.

So the morphing of Jesus’s autobiography began, from un-prophetic prophet leading a hoped-for secular revolt to son of a god bring heavenly blessings through his sacrifice – as if his death and resurrection had been his life’s work and only purpose all along – which “narrative” was the creation out of whole cloth by Paul, writing some twenty years after the events he was supposedly interpreting about a man he had never met.

Making Paul perhaps the first postmodern historian.

“The apostle Paul's own knowledge of Jesus' life appears to have been very limited,” observes Charles Freeman.

Paul comes across as an outspoken and violent protagonist, something of a loner (there is no evidence that he ever married and he is puritanical about sex) and probably obsessive about the mastering of texts... Even if Paul did learn something of Jesus' life it made little impact on him. There is scarcely a reference in any of the letters to any of Jesus' teachings… At some point Paul must have shifted his focus to the symbolic importance of Christ's death and resurrection. His psychological make-up may have been of crucial importance here… Like other Christians Paul had to confront the problem of a messiah who had broken with conventional expectations of messiahship by dying. By the time he writes Galatians, Paul has transformed Jesus into a form of messiah who is radically different from the one expected. Rather than triumphing on earth through his majesty he had chosen to die because humankind was sinful (see Galatians 1:4, 2:20). He had risen to his Father in heaven, his humanity transformed in the process (see later Romans 1:3-4), but his return to earth was imminent.

The resurrection itself, of which Tertullian famously pronounced it must be true since it is so absurd, was a story manufactured almost wholly by Paul/Saul of Tarsus, seeing his own chance for fame and fortune by leveraging himself to the helm of this new movement.

The first reference [to the resurrection] comes from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, written about AD 55, but even this is twenty years after the events Paul describes. By now Jesus is referred to as `the anointed one', Christos in Greek. Paul does not mention the tradition of the empty tomb at all. He has heard of four appearances or visions of Christ, none involving women and none related to any particular place, although an appearance to James, the brother of Jesus, was presumably in Jerusalem. One of these, to five hundred brethren, some of whom were no longer alive, is recorded nowhere else. Paul ends by adding his own vision of Christ, `on the road to Damascus', as a conversion experience. None of these six accounts, three in Paul's letters and three in Acts, suggests a physical, in the sense of a touchable, dimension to Jesus. In Acts he is simply a light with the power of speech, a clear contrast with Luke's earlier gospel account of a Jesus of `flesh and bones' (Luke 24:39). Paul [who had never met Jesus, let alone heard what he had to say] appears determined to give himself the same status as the other [disciples by manufacturing a meeting] that those travelling with him did not see.

His limited knowledge of his hero’s actual life was helpful, since he had little to unlearn and much raw material to work with outside of Jesus’s own scanty resume, particularly if he were to sell this new myth to pagan Greeks and Romans already overflowing with their own.

How better to do your marketing than adopting the myths and heroes of your very market place?

He didn’t have to go far. Paul’s own hometown of Tarsus re-enacted every four years the sacred drama of Heracles’ martyrdom by fire (“…he went upon Mount Oeta, having built a high pyre and mounted it. He commanded his servants to set it afire… The pyre was still burning when a thunderclap was heard, and the hero, freed of his mortal self, was taken up into the sky”).  Heracles was called Prince of Peace, Sun of Righteousness, Light of the World—his “sun” was greeted daily with the words “he is risen,” and his body ritually sacrificed at the spring equinox.

image

The Roman/Persian/Indian god Mithra also had his festival on the spring equinox (a potent time on the agricultural calendar). His religion had a eucharist or “Lord’s Supper,” at which Mithra said “He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him shall not be saved.”

As the primary competitor to Paul’s new made-up religion, his new god would at least have to compete with the the Roman/Persian Mithras on equal terms by having his own rituals and resurrection.  How much easier for a ne cult leader if he could simply borrow the stories.

Powerful though they were, these themselves were hardly unique stories however.

Those familiar with Germanic myth and folklore will recall that in the Icelandic Edda, it is told that the All—Father Odin (Wotan, Othin, Woden) hung himself on the world tree, Yggdrasil,in order to gain knowledge “by sacrifice of himself to himself”:

I ween that I hung | on the windy tree,
Hung there for nights full nine;
With the spear I was wounded, | and offered I was
To Othin, myself to myself,
On the tree that none | may ever know
What root beneath it runs.

None made me happy | with loaf or horn,
And there below I looked;
I took up the runes, | shrieking I took them,
And forthwith back I fell…

Then began I to thrive, | and wisdom to get,
I grew and well I was;
Each word led me on | to another word,
Each deed to another deed.

In fact, the theme of pagan deities breaking bread, saving souls by their sacrifice, by vanquishing darkness, by being hung on trees or nailed up and crucified, is legion. Its A to Z includes, but is not limited to:

  • Adad and Marduk of Assyria, who was considered "the Word" (Logos)
  • Adonis (right), Aesclepius, Apollo (who was resurrected at the vernal equinox as the lamb), Dionysus, Heracles (Hercules) and Zeus of Greece
  • Alcides of Thebes, divine redeemer born of a virgin around 1200 BCE-'
  • Attis of Phrygia
  • Baal or Bel of Babylon/ Phoenicia
  • Balder and Frey of Scandinavia
  • Bali of Afghanistan • Beddru of Japan
  • Buddha and Krishna of India
  • Chu Chulainn of Ireland
  • Codom and Deva Tat of Siam
  • Crite of Chaldea
  • Dahzbog of the Slavs
  • Dumuzi of Sumeria
  • Fo-hi, Lao-Kiun, Tien, and Chang-Ti of China, whose birth was attended by heavenly music, angels and shepherds-'
  • Hermes of Egypt/Greece, who was born of the Virgin Maia and called "the Logos" because he was the Messenger or Word of the Heavenly Father, Zeus.
  • Hesus of the Druids and Gauls
  • Horus, Osiris and Serapis of Egypt
  • Indra of Tibet/ India • leo of China, who was "the great prophet, lawgiver and savior" with 70 disciples3
  • Issa/Isa of Arabia, who was born of the Virgin Mary and was the "Divine Word" of the ancient Arabian Nasara/ Nazarenes around 400 BCE4
  • Jao of Nepal • Jupiter/Jove of Rome • Mithra of Persia/India
  • Odin/Wodin/Woden/Wotan of the Scandinavians, who hung himself on the World Tree to acquire knowledge, and was "wounded with a spear."
  • Prometheus of Caucasus/Greece
  • Quetzalcoatl of Mexico
  • Quirinius of Rome
  • Salivahana of southern India, who was a "divine child, born of a virgin, and was the son of a carpenter," himself also being called "the Carpenter," and whose name or title means "cross-borne" ("Salvation")
  • Tammuz of Syria, the savior god worshipped in Jerusalem
  • Thor of the Gauls
  • Universal Monarch of the Sibyls
  • Wittoba of the Bilingonese/Telingonese
  • Zalmoxis of Thrace, the savior who "promised eternal life to guests at his sacramental Last Supper. Then he went into the underworld, and rose again on the third day"
  • Zarathustra/Zoroaster of Persia
  • Zoar of the Bonze

So on this holiday of all holidays, enjoy it in the safe and certain knowledge that while it’s certainly an age-old religious holiday (in the Northern Hemisphere at least), it really has nothing at all to do with the nailing up of an itinerant and largely unimportant Jewish carpenter from Nazareth.

It was mostly the creation of a troubled megalomaniac from Tarsus, based on the myths and stories from ages past.

* * * *

NB: Contains excerpts and notes from Joseph Campbell’s Thou Art That, S Acharya’s The Christ Conspiracy, T.W. Doane’s Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions, Kersey Graves’s The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviours, Russell Shortos’s Gospel Truth: On the Trail of the Historical Jesus, Peter Cresswell’s Invention of Jesus: How the Church Rewrote the New Testament, and Charles Freeman’s, A New History of Early Christianity.

1. `Messiah' had meanings within Judaism which do not accord the figure any necessary divinity, especially being “a great military leader, who will win battles for Israel.” 
       The word … does not mean "saviour." The notion of an innocent, divine or semi-divine being who will
    sacrifice himself to save us from the consequences of our own sins is a purely Christian [Pauline] concept that has
    no basis in Jewish thought.

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