Archive for October, 2009

Health care debate

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

I went to hear Newt Gingrich and Howard Dean talk about health care last night. There was a good crowd — they had it set up in half of the Show Me Center, and it was packed to the point that they had to bring in a bunch of extra chairs to set up on the floor.

Gingrich is a much better speaker than Dean; Dean tends to stumble over his words, and his brain gets ahead of his mouth. Gingrich has good timing, and knows how to milk an applause line.

As far as substance, I thought Dean had a more realistic and nuanced understanding of the problem. Gingrich seems to think the whole issue can be solved via cracking down on waste, fraud, and abuse, investing more in medical research, and letting private corporations innovate.

Dean was honest about both the limited nature of what’s on the table right now — it’s at best a first step — and the fact that we have to pay for government programs. Gingrich got a lot of applause out of repeatedly talking about cutting taxes. He seems not to have learned much from the Reagan years, as he’s still claiming we can cut taxes, maintain services, and balance the budget.

Gingrich did say that the Republican party needs to be the party of alternatives rather than opposition, which is absolutely true; he acknowledged that the party is not offering any clear alternatives at the moment.

Dean made the point that health care is not like buying a car, in that when you have chest pain, you’re not going to shop around for treatment. We hear a lot about how good and cheap Lazik is because people pay for it out of pocket, but that only works for discretionary health procedures, where people actually have the time to comparison shop.

I agreed fully with Gingrich that medical research should be funded well, but I’m not sure how this figures into health care reform.  Most of the basic research in medicine in this country is funded by NIH, so we’re talking about increased spending there.  Admittedly, it’s an investment in better future health, which may save money in the long run, but you’re not going to get the private sector to fund basic research.

Their exchange on administrative costs is about what I’ve been reading in lots of other places lately.  Dean says that Medicare only has 4% admin costs, while private insurers have 20%; Gingrich says Medicare’s low admin cost comes at the price of 10% or more fraud.   Neither really addressed the problem that fraud figures are at best rough estimates.  If we knew the exact amount of fraud, we’d be stopping all of it.  Anecdotes about egregious crooks don’t actually tell you what the total cost is.

They also had the usual exchange about comparing European costs and outcomes to ours.  Dean says, correctly, that every other Western country spends less per person and has better health outcomes than we do.  Gingrich says, correctly, that we have the best care in the world and that we have better outcomes on certain conditions, especially some cancers.  The problem, of course, is that we have the best care in the world only for the handful who can pay for it, and while we have better outcomes on some conditions, our overall life expectancy puts us well behind all those European systems.

Finally, they talked a bit about some other issues.  On education, Gingrich touted charter schools and letting retirees teach about content they know.   Dean reminded him that knowing content doesn’t guarantee you can teach it well.  He also called for better education from birth to age three, when neurological development is really taking place.   He’s right on the mark there — as he says, Head Start is too late.

Response to “Letter From a Concerned Follower and a Frustrated Atheist”

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Adam Gohn, an atheist friend of mine, posted a note jointly with a  Christian friend of his on Facebook recently, and I find that I can’t resist responding a bit*.   The original is here, though I suspect you can’t get at it unless you’re friends with Adam.  The gist of it was that Adam finds it dishonest of Christians to play down difficult aspects of their faith in order to try to get along with atheists, while his friend Tye pretty much agrees, that Christians shouldn’t do this.   I’m all for being true to your beliefs, and I applaud the spirit of civil, intellectual discussion between people with serious disagreements, but I had some issues with the assumptions Adam and Tye made in their note.

Adam: “As a Christian, you must accept the truth of several basic propositions, such as; the virgin birth, unrealistic miracles and the bigotry and hatred espoused in the books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and others.”

Tye: “We should not diminish or conceal or avoid biblical positions that are difficult (like creation, God commanded genocide, virgin birth, miracles and hell).”

Adam is assuming here that a particular variety of evangelical, literalist Christianity is all of Christianity, and Tye seems to be going along with that mistaken view.   What is a Christian?  I’d say it’s someone who follows the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, though it may be possible to define it more broadly still.    What are those teachings?  We might start with what’s recorded in the New Testament.   Although there is no guarantee  that these writings are completely accurate renditions of what was said by a particular Jewish peasant 2000 years ago, they are pretty much all we’ve got**.  But let’s take a favorite of evangelicals:

John 3:16: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have
everlasting life.

This is a cornerstone passage of evangelical Christianity (though it’s not found in any of the other gospels, and is most likely not a direct quote).   It’s noteworthy what it does not say.  It doesn’t say “whosoever believeth that his mother was a virgin,” or “that the world was created in 6 days about 10,000 years ago”, or “that he could physically transform water into wine,” or any of the various difficult beliefs singled out as essential by Adam and Tye.  It’s calling for faith — that is, commitment and trust –  in the Christ, identified at the start of John as the Logos or creative principle underlying the universe.   That’s all.

There are plenty of faithful Christians out there who are fully aware that the stories in the Bible are a mixture of myth, strongly edited history, poetic musings, allegories, and theological speculation.  Most of the so-called “mainline” Protestant faiths (United Methodist, Episcopalian, ELCA Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.) agree, for instance, that the Genesis account of creation is theological, not scientific in its intent and significance, and in no way incompatible with modern biology.  The Roman Catholic church holds a similar position.

Even the miracles of Jesus and his virgin birth are not essential to the Christian faith, in many Christians’ view.  The late bishop John A.T. Robinson’s sparked controversy in 1963, when his book “Honest to God“  took this position.    It was controversial, though, only because it expressed these ideas plainly for popular consumption — they were and are still commonplace in all major “mainline” Christian seminaries.

For instance, it’s widely accepted by Protestant theologians that the virgin birth is a late addition to the Christian myth.   The earliest New Testament writings are the letters of Paul, and Paul seems never to have heard of the virgin birth.  He’d hardly have failed to mention it if he had.  The earliest gospel, Mark, starts with Jesus’ baptism — no birth account at all.  And the two gospels that do describe Jesus’ birth, Luke and Matthew, agree on practically none of the specifics, other than Mary’s virginity and the location in Bethlehem***.

As for various brutalities and bizarre legalisms of the Hebrew Bible, they are part of a priceless record of the development of a culture over time, and of a people’s efforts to understand their relationship with the world and the Ground of Being underlying it.  Liberal Christians view the Bible as meaningful on a variety of levels, but recognize that it is the product of numerous authors embedded in their cultures and times.

Finally, liberal Christianity is not an effort by Christians to appease non-believers or a cynical ploy to make their faith more attractive to converts.  It’s the product of the application of reason to tradition and scripture — i.e., theology.   Theology is the effort by faithful Christians to understand their faith in the context of their times, and has been going on since the 1st century.   As a poster I once saw in an Episcopal Sunday school says “He came to take away your sins — not your mind”.

*Full disclosure:   I was raised Episcopalian, and somewhere I have an 8-year Sunday School perfect attendance pin.  I’m now a Unitarian Universalist, and although UU is compatible with Christianity, I no longer refer to myself as Christian.  I taught Science and Religion for 17 years, and I’ve therefore done at least some minimal reading of  (Christian, mainly) theology.

**Scholars disagree on the authenticity of various reported sayings of Jesus; The Five Gospels, by the Jesus Seminar, gives one (controversial, of course) account of the reasoning and methods used to try to gauge this.

***Seriously, sit down and read Luke 2:1-40, and Matthew 1:18 – 2:1-23 and compare the stories.  They have his parents coming from different places (Nazareth, in Luke; Bethlehem, in Matthew),  him going different places after his birth (to the temple in Jerusalem in Luke; to Egypt, in Matthew),  him born in different buildings (a house in Matthew, a stable in Luke),and different events around his birth (angels telling shepherds in Luke, a star overhead, with wise men, in Matthew).   The whole story is clearly a later tradition, and the point of it is to say, against the claims of the “adoptionist” heresy, that Jesus was who he was from the start, and didn’t become the Messiah at his baptism.

Muffins (healthy)

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Grease and flour two muffin pans (24 muffins total)

Wet mixture:

1 ½ C yogurt

1 ½ C applesauce

4 eggs

1 C (8 oz wt) brown sugar

Spices (1 tsp cinnamon, ¼ tsp nutmeg, ¼ tsp cloves, ¼ tsp cardamom, ¼ tsp allspice)

Dry mixture:

1 C white flour

2 C white whole wheat flour

¾ C ground flaxseed

¾ C oat bran

¾ C rye flour

¾ C wheat germ

2 Tbsp baking powder

2 tsp baking soda

½ tsp salt

2 cups nuts

1 cup cranberries

Mix wet ingredients thoroughly.  In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients thoroughly.  Stir in wet mix with a few strokes, not blending entirely.    Scoop mix with blue disher (#16, ¼ Cup) into muffin tins.  Bake 20 minutes or until tester comes out clean, rotating tins and swapping shelves halfway through baking.   These keep well in the fridge or frozen after baking.

I recently adjusted this recipe by increasing the weird flours from 1/2 to 3/4 cup each; they were coming out too wet.  This may be because the eggs I get from Family Friendly Farm tend to be huge, so that increases the wet mix volume.   If you’re using storebought eggs, you may want to try 1/2 cup each of the weird flours and then add a bit more of any of the dry ingredients when mixing to get to the appropriate consistency.