Thursday, September 22, 2016

Overcoming entropy in our world

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is based on the concept of entropy, a characteristic of thermodynamic systems. Increasing entropy is a tendency toward "randomness" or "chaos" in a system. It is why heat energy always flows from high temperature to low temperature, and why no heat engine can ever be 100% efficient. To counter increasing entropy, one must add heat or do work on the system.

Others have expanded the concept of entropy beyond its roots in thermodynamics to other systems or more philosophical endeavors. In big data, entropy is the enemy of analytics. In the garden, entropy is the enemy of the meticulous green thumb.

Given today's news, it seems that entropy is well at work in our world. In Syria, especially in the area around Aleppo, violence is rampant in a tragic civil war, where the only losers so far are millions of innocent Syrian civilians. Tens of thousands are dead, and some 6 million have fled the war-ravaged territory, facing xenophobic resistance to their resettlement from Western nations, including the United States. Entropy seems to be unrestrained.

And it seems we have our own growing war in the United States, with battle lines drawn over violence. A friend remarked earlier this week that worlds are colliding with the proliferation of firearms on our streets and increasingly violent confrontations between law enforcement and citizenry. In Charlotte, violence has erupted over the shooting of a black man by police, and each party has retreated to their familiar scripts. Social media reports suggest that Wednesday night's protests were peaceful until police showed up in riot gear, apparently escalating the situation.

What force can we exert, what energy can we bring to bear to halt the increase in entropy in our world? The issues are complex, the ideologies are entrenched, reversing course seems impossible. But perhaps there is a way. Maybe we could start with a simple concept that every child of every race, nationality, and religion knows in one form or another: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Those of us who claim the name of Christ might acknowledge, not with our lips, but with our own actions, that every human being is the image of the Creator.

Overcoming entropy is hard. It requires expending energy, what is called "work" in thermodynamics. Applying the most basic concept of the Divine worth of every human being is hard work. But that is the only way forward.

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Orwellian doublespeak

From the Orwell dictionary:

Right to work. A labor law philosophy that gives workers the rights to be paid low wages, work in unsafe and unfavorable working conditions, and be fired at any time with no notice and no reason.

Voter integrity. Measures intended to prevent certain groups of people from voting, ostensibly to combat the rampant in-person voter fraud. Measures include draconian photo identification requirements and restrictions on same-day voter registration and early voting.

Entitlement reform. Any number of measures intended to kill New Deal programs and their derivatives. Typically this means doing things like raising the retirement age, and privatizing Social Security and Medicare. Also known as increasing big banks' and insurance companies' market shares.

School choice. Any number of measures aimed at giving taxpayer dollars to private businesses and religious groups, so that parents can have a choice to not send their kids to school with "those people."

Protecting women's health. Imposing prohibitively expensive and unnecessary regulations on clinics that provide abortions, causing many to close, is supposed to protect women's health. Also, preventing women from free or low-cost cancer screenings, contraception, and other services is protecting women's health.

Fiscal restraint. Usually means first cutting the top marginal income tax rates, then increasing defense spending (including often going to war of some kind or another).

Tax reform. Shifting from progressive income taxes to regressive sales taxes. Frequently includes imposing new sales taxes on goods and services used by working class people (movie tickets, car and appliance repairs), but not on goods and services used by more affluent folks (greens fees, brokerage fees).

Flat tax. The ultimate tax reform, resulting in a single tax rate with no deductions. "Submit your tax return on a postcard" to some unknown entity, because a flat tax includes abolishing the IRS. The flat tax does not usually include income from investments (capital gains, interest, dividends), which punishes labor and rewards wealth.

Gun safety. Having a loaded gun, with safety off, everywhere, all the time, in order to either repel the hordes of radical Islamic terrorists or take out, with sniper precision, some "bad guy with a gun" in a dark movie theater or crowded subway car or church worship service or local bar. Also having a 30-round semi-automatic .223 lightweight rifle to resist the tyrannical government's B-2 bombers and FA-18 jets and artillery and tanks, or to make deer sausage in the field.

Immigration reform. Making sure certain business sectors (agriculture, construction, hospitality, healthcare) have a steady supply of cheap workers who can't complain about pay or working conditions for fear of being deported. In other words, maintaining the status quo.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit, Trump, and Nativism

Last night, the people of the UK voted to leave the European Union. The geopolitical and economic ramifications of this vote will be far reaching, with many no doubt unforeseen consequences as this decision takes hold.

Some news reports have already suggested that even those who voted "LEAVE" were voting more in protest, without regard to practical results like dissolution of EU trade rules with the Continent. No doubt those who chafed against open borders will chafe anew at increased difficulties in crossing the Channel for holiday in the south of France.

This vote marks a kind of official endorsement of the kind of nativist backlash that is fueling the Trump campaign in the United States. That nativism has its roots in the Jim Crow South, with its ideological forebears the segregationists like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms. The parallels between the followers of Trump and those of George Wallace a half century ago are striking.

Trump apologists dress up this anger in the finery of economic populism. They distract the disgruntled public away from the systemic wage theft resulting from a tax code that encourages accumulation of massive wealth over compensating the labor that creates that wealth. Instead, the right wing political machine has directed white working class anger at "those people" who are taking their jobs, rather than at the "job creators" who hoard cash in offshore tax havens, breaking it out only to buy out other companies.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Thoughts and Prayers

Early on Sunday Morning, June 12, 2016, a gunman opened fire with an AR-15 in a nightclub in Orlando. At least 50 people died, and another 50 or more were injured in another act of mass violence, using a weapon designed for war.

With this latest mass shooting comes the usual statements, tweets, and facebook posts from politicians and other public figures offering their "thoughts and prayers." Numerous social media memes show votive candles, various colored ribbons, and other symbols of support for the "victims and their families." Columbine, Washington Navy Yard, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Tuscon, Mother Emanuel, San Bernardino, Orlando...the list goes on and on. Beneath these headlines is the steady drumbeat of 80 gun deaths every day in America, and the endless litany of "thoughts and prayers."

Maybe, like the prophets of Baal, our prayers are not loud enough, our petitions not flamboyant enough, our tweets not perfectly worded, and our facebook posts not clever enough. Or maybe we have forgotten the command of Christ to "pray in secret to God who hears in secret." Maybe we are guilty of following the form of religion, while ignoring its power. Or maybe we are leaning on our own understanding, afraid that God's answer will show that what we know to be true is completely wrong.

I don't know any answers anymore. And I don't want to posit any ideas to attack the scourge of gun violence that threatens the very existence of freedom. All I know is that I'm afraid of the world that our two brand new grandchildren will grow up in.

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Extravagant love

Today's Gospel reading told the story of Mary, who anointed Jesus' feet with oil and washed them with her hair. This story of extravagant love has many lessons, and pastors go off in all directions in teaching on this story.

One part of the story is often overlooked. We are told in the Gospel of John that Judas,who in just a few days would hand Jesus over to the Romans, was present, and was critical that such an expensive perfume was wasted, instead of sold to support the poor. The Gospel writer goes on to say that Judas was a thief, the unofficial treasurer of the group, and was embezzling from the treasury.

In the past couple of weeks, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in Oregon. While there, the delegates wrestled with whether certain people should be welcome in fellowship, even in positions of leadership, in our denomination. Some of the bigger questions include:
- How can we welcome all people without condoning behavior we believe to be sin?
- In a fellowship of believers, where all are sinners, is there a hierarchy of sin that should result in exclusion of some?

In that very first, most intimate collection of believers, we have a known thief. Jesus, knowing all things, certainly knew of Judas' thievery, down to the very penny. We can certainly argue that Jesus, knowing the ultimate plan, had to accept Judas with all his faults. But we can also argue that Jesus accepted Judas unconditionally, with all his faults, just as he accepted the doubting Thomas and the denying Peter.

Given this example, who are we to decide whether someone should be excluded from our fellowship?

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Why I’m a Democrat

It is sometimes said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That is certainly true in a physical science meaning, and metaphorically is said to be true as well. So if our goal as a society is to have a stronger chain, the question becomes, “What do we do with the weakest link?”

            There are those who say that the weakest link should be removed from the chain in order to strengthen the chain. That philosophy is akin to the law of the wild, where the weakest of the herd are removed by predators or through natural selection or from disease. In the natural world, weakness is well-defined, and can be quickly identified and cast off. As humans, however, what happens when some humans begin to decide that other humans are weaker? How is weakness defined?

            One political ideology has evolved around defining weakness. In this view, “weakness” is any difference, no matter its origin, and no matter whether the difference results in “weakness” at all. According to this ideology, those of a different color, or who speak a different language, or worship in a different way, or have a different sexual orientation, or live on another side of town, are weak links in the chain, and must be cast aside. “Only the strong survive, and we get to decide who the strong are.” This political ideology claims the name of “Christian” to describe its philosophy.

            But what exactly does Christ have to say about the chain imagery? When a lawyer asked him to name the greatest commandment of his faith, Christ is said to have answered, “The greatest is love…., and the second is love.” Another leader of the faith, the Apostle Paul, said that we should “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Loving and bearing one another’s burdens suggest that among those who are images of the Creator, there is no weak link. We don’t live by the law of nature. We should know better, because we have been taught better.

            I’m not so na├»ve as to believe that God takes sides in these human political battles. But I believe that God calls us to love and to take care of each other, to bear one another’s burdens, to look at every human being as the image of the Creator.

            And that’s why I’m a Democrat.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

My Car's in the Shop

My 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid is in the shop today for the annual safety/emissions inspection and routine oil change and servicing.

Like many North Carolinians, I will pay a bit more for these services as the labor for the service is now subject to state and local sales taxes, thanks to the General Assembly.

Also, my tax information is at the accountant this week, hopefully to get my income tax returns filed soon. When the General Assembly added services to things subject to the sales tax, they were very selective. My mechanic's labor, or the labor for the appliance repair technician, or the chimney sweep, will now have sales tax added. But when I pay the bill to my accountant, guess what! No sales tax.

There will be no sales tax on legal fees, or accountant fees, or brokerage fees. There will be no sales tax on greens fees at the country club or membership fees at the health club. But if you get tires installed and balanced, or have a watch repaired, or have cable or satellite TV installed, you now have to pay sales tax on that labor.

You have to give the General Assembly credit for coming up with creative ways to shift the tax burden off the wealthy and onto working class North Carolinians.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sales Tax in North Carolina

The Radical Republican General Assembly enacted another round of tax reforms in the 2015 session, reducing some income tax rates, while expanding the state's 6.75% sales tax to include "repair, maintenance, and installation services." This is on top of the 2014 reforms, that added sales tax to admission fees for entertainment and lots of other taxes and fees.

While the income tax rate reductions will reduce the personal income tax for a family with $30,000 annual income by about $50, the expanded sales taxes will result in a greater tax burden for low income families in our state.

While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the "revenue enhancements":

  • Increase on the sales tax on electricity and natural gas from 3% to 7%
  • Sales tax on admissions charges to entertainment activities (more about that below)
  • Increases in DMV fees, including driver's license fees and vehicle registration fees
  • Community college tuition increases
The sales tax on admissions charges to entertainment activities is really interesting. The tax applies to admission tickets to movies, concerts, museums and cultural sites, guided tours at such sites, and sporting events. Exceptions include payments for "the right to participate in sporting activities." That includes greens fees and gym memberships. Also excluded is a "charge for lifetime seat rights, lease, or rental of a suite or box for an entertainment activity." So, working stiffs have to pay sales tax on the ticket to the Panthers game, but the corporation doesn't have to pay sales tax on renting the luxury box, or for the PSL to have the right to have a seat. (

Seems like the General Assembly is going out of its way to stick it to working class North Carolinians.