Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Basic info on the J&J vaccine kerfuffle

I've seen a lot of chatter to the effect that the FDA/CDC advise to pause administration of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is ignorant, counterproductive, foolish and contrary to the public interest. The same reaction followed when many countries in the EU halted administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine, accusing the authorities of succumbing to the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. Well no. There is a legitimate debate about whether this was an overreaction, I suppose, but it isn't simple.


Here's a good summary of the issues. It isn't as simple as saying there have been six cases of the adverse effect -- cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, a rare event in the first place, but associated with low platelet count in these cases which is unusual -- out of more than six million doses. So that's one in a million, far less dangerous than actually getting Covid-19, so why are we even paying attention to it?


Well, in the first place, all of the cases are in young adult women, who are at low risk from Covid-19 complications, so the cost-benefit calculus isn't quite as extreme as it might appear at first glance. And it's not just "blood clots," as most news stories have it, it's something more specific and much more rare. Also, most doctors have never seen this and won't know to recognize it or how to treat it. Also, if this can happen maybe there is some biological mechanism going on that could have other ill effects which haven't yet been recognized. The same complication seems to be associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine and they both use adenovirus vectors, so something seems to be going on there that the regulatory agencies want to understand.


They may move very quickly to make recommendations, which might be, for example, that this is not the best choice of vaccine for women younger than 50; that information be disseminated to the medical community about how to recognize this and treat it; and that research continue and very careful monitoring be instituted for this vaccine. There is little cost to the pause because there is a lot of Pfizer-Biontech and Moderna vaccine available and this one isn't really needed in the U.S., although it's a lot easier to distribute and administer under some relatively challenging circumstances. It only requires one dose and it doesn't need to be kept as cold, so it's handier. 


The fear is that this may contribute to more general distrust of vaccines. It shouldn't, logically. On the contrary, the risk is very low, no matter how you slice it, and the regulators have demonstrated extremely high vigilance. Unfortunately facts and logic aren't that influential any more. But if you're willing to take it from me, not to worry. Get vaccinated.

Wednesday Bible Study: One weird trick

Joshua 9 is a very strange story. Of course Biblical apologists find deep meaning in it, although I would say that whatever moral lesson you might try to draw is easily demolished, especially in the context. The Gibeonites trick the Israelites into a treaty which precludes the Israelites from massacring them as they are everyone else in the area. When the Israelites discover the deception, they nevertheless still consider themselves bound by the treaty, but only part way. They won't murder the Gibeonites, they'll just enslave them. 


So why is this here? I haven't been able to find that there's any historical record of it, but it is possible that at the time this was written -- 300 years or more after it supposedly happened -- the Gibeonites were a subject people of Judah. That's what the text literally says. Or at least, in general terms, the writers wanted to endorse the idea of subjugation. Note that Yahweh butts out of this -- he could have warned the people of the deception, but he is absent from this part of the story. Make of it what you will.


Now when all the kings west of the Jordan heard about these things—the kings in the hill country, in the western foothills, and along the entire coast of the Mediterranean Sea as far as Lebanon (the kings of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites)— they came together to wage war against Joshua and Israel.

However, when the people of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and Ai, they resorted to a ruse: They went as a delegation whose donkeys were loaded[a] with worn-out sacks and old wineskins, cracked and mended. They put worn and patched sandals on their feet and wore old clothes. All the bread of their food supply was dry and moldy. Then they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and the Israelites, “We have come from a distant country; make a treaty with us.”

The Israelites said to the Hivites, “But perhaps you live near us, so how can we make a treaty with you?”

“We are your servants,” they said to Joshua.

But Joshua asked, “Who are you and where do you come from?”

They answered: “Your servants have come from a very distant country because of the fame of the Lord your God. For we have heard reports of him: all that he did in Egypt, 10 and all that he did to the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan—Sihon king of Heshbon, and Og king of Bashan, who reigned in Ashtaroth. 11 And our elders and all those living in our country said to us, ‘Take provisions for your journey; go and meet them and say to them, “We are your servants; make a treaty with us.”’ 12 This bread of ours was warm when we packed it at home on the day we left to come to you. But now see how dry and moldy it is. 13 And these wineskins that we filled were new, but see how cracked they are. And our clothes and sandals are worn out by the very long journey.”

14 The Israelites sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord. 15 Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live, and the leaders of the assembly ratified it by oath.

16 Three days after they made the treaty with the Gibeonites, the Israelites heard that they were neighbors, living near them. 17 So the Israelites set out and on the third day came to their cities: Gibeon, Kephirah, Beeroth and Kiriath Jearim. 18 But the Israelites did not attack them, because the leaders of the assembly had sworn an oath to them by the Lord, the God of Israel.

The whole assembly grumbled against the leaders, 19 but all the leaders answered, “We have given them our oath by the Lord, the God of Israel, and we cannot touch them now. 20 This is what we will do to them: We will let them live, so that God’s wrath will not fall on us for breaking the oath we swore to them.” 21 They continued, “Let them live, but let them be woodcutters and water carriers in the service of the whole assembly.” So the leaders’ promise to them was kept.

22 Then Joshua summoned the Gibeonites and said, “Why did you deceive us by saying, ‘We live a long way from you,’ while actually you live near us? 23 You are now under a curse: You will never be released from service as woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God.”

24 They answered Joshua, “Your servants were clearly told how the Lord your God had commanded his servant Moses to give you the whole land and to wipe out all its inhabitants from before you. So we feared for our lives because of you, and that is why we did this. 25 We are now in your hands. Do to us whatever seems good and right to you.”

26 So Joshua saved them from the Israelites, and they did not kill them. 27 That day he made the Gibeonites woodcutters and water carriers for the assembly, to provide for the needs of the altar of the Lord at the place the Lord would choose. And that is what they are to this day.

Footnotes

  1. Joshua 9:4 Most Hebrew manuscripts; some Hebrew manuscripts, Vulgate and Syriac (see also Septuagint) They prepared provisions and loaded their donkeys

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Shorter Philip E. Agre . . .

 By David Roberts. Read the whole thread, but here are the highlights.


All the people who think there was some noble, credible US conservatism that has "fallen," or been "taken over" by Trumpism, tell me: why was it so weak? Why did it offer so little resistance? Why did it devolve so *easily* into reactionary madness? Doesn't it make you wonder?

 


Pizza's cooking, so: my theory of conservatism. Basically, in any society, there's a group/class/demographic that has power & privileges, sometimes economic, sometimes relating to race or caste. And every such group has a story about why their place at the top is justified. The US was founded on equality -- at least that's what it said on the tin -- so its ruling class (white property owning males) came up w/ a story about property rights, "free markets," "small government," & federalism. They *earned* their privileges! . . .



But in all societies, when that privileged class begins feeling threatened, outnumbered, & insecure, the politesse fades. The high-toned philosophical justifications drop out. Raw tribalism takes over. The class is always, first & foremost, for its own continued hegemony. 
And this has basically been the course of US conservatism in the 21st century: from a self-serious, high-falutin' "party of ideas" to a raw, raging army fighting for white hegemony. Once they got scared, all pretense of "free market" & "family values" went right out the window.

 

 



Monday, April 12, 2021

Like I've been telling you . . .

 Open letter from prominent economists to federal leadership:


The share of our Gross Domestic Product invested in federally funded research and development has fallen from around 2 percent in 1960 to just 0.6 percent today; this means less knowledge-creation, fewer good jobs, and a harder time boosting employment in new sectors. Research—and common sense—tell us that this disinvestment is damaging for U.S. communities and our economy as older infrastructure depreciates, and economic and social challenges go unaddressed.

This government disinvestment has also placed the United States at an extreme competitive disadvantage in relation to other countries. Among OECD countries, the United States ranks 22nd in government investment as a percentage of GDP. And female labor force participation has been largely in decline since 1999, in contrast to rising rates in other OECD countries that invest more heavily in care infrastructure.

 

Government has to make the necessary investments in public goods that private investors won't make. You can call that socialism if you want to, but that's just a word. I can call you a poopyhead. That is not an argument. Free Market™ ideology is destroying us.

State of Denial

It's just human nature, I suppose, but we have to face and defeat our instinct to turn away and pretend that predictable catastrophe isn't actually happening. Al Gore titled his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, recognizing that people won't see what they don't want to see, but 15 years later, nothing has really changed. 


So here's the deal. Much of the southwest U.S is already in extreme drought, and it's going to get much worse. The cold truth is that there will not be enough water to sustain the population and industry of a vast stretch of the country. To quote the CNN story, "While there will be wet years, the overall trend is towards drying. Scientists say this is a result of human-caused climate change, which is leading to less reliable rain and warmer temperatures — both consistent with what has been projected by climate computer models." If you thought the wildfires were bad last year, just wait. 

 

Wanna know why all those Guatemalan children are showing up on the southern border? Heres' why:  


Rising numbers of children in Guatemala are going hungry as drought linked to climate change reduces food harvests, fueling child malnutrition rates in the Central American nation, the United Nations and charities said. . . .

"There is an increase in cases of acute malnutrition that are related to climate change and the long periods of drought from June to October (last year)," said Maria Claudia Santizo, a nutrition specialist at the U.N. children's agency UNICEF. Drought is also adding to the area of Guatemala suffering problems, she said. "With climate change, the dry corridor has expanded," Santizo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Poor harvests of staple crops such as beans and maize mean rural families are forced to eat fewer meals a day, and have less food to sell, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). Families also are unable to store food to see them through the lean period before the next harvest, the U.N. agency said.

"We are seeing a high rate of child malnutrition that's rising for two reasons - high temperatures which affect the crops and resulting crop losses, and rains that are more erratic and unpredictable," said Amy English, a technical advisor at international aid agency Mercy Corps, which works in Guatemala.

 

In other words, they're fleeing north because the alternative is starving to death. This is also why Syrian society collapsed, and why millions of migrants from the Middle East and Africa are trying to get to Europe. This will only get worse, and it's happening much faster than experts predicted just a few years ago. Are you looking forward to hurricane season?  

To people who can't read: I didn't say that the Guatemalan drought is a brand new thing or that the drought alone has caused the recent increase in unaccompanied minors at the border. Actually the devastating hurricanes that hit Central America last year are part of the explanation, Also, the effects of the drought are cumulative -- people hold out for as long as they can but conditions keep getting worse and worse, including deteriorating social conditions, violence, and civil disorder. So you will tend to see more people over time. Finally, of course it's possible that people think the Biden administration will change policies to give people a better chance of getting asylum, although in fact that has not happened yet. But I personally don't think that would be a bad thing.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: More family values

I'm afraid the Book of Joshua is going to be very tedious. It's one genocide after another. You will find many religious apologists claim that religion is necessary for morality, that without religious faith there can be no way to tell right from wrong. Isn't it odd that I, who have no religious faith, can determine that the entire Book of Joshua is monstrously wrong, and that living according to Biblical morality would make you the precise moral equivalent of Adolf Hitler? Regarding the ending of the first part of the chapter, what did the king of Ai ever do to the Israelites? 


Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai. For I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land. You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king, except that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves. Set an ambush behind the city.”

So Joshua and the whole army moved out to attack Ai. He chose thirty thousand of his best fighting men and sent them out at night with these orders: “Listen carefully. You are to set an ambush behind the city. Don’t go very far from it. All of you be on the alert. I and all those with me will advance on the city, and when the men come out against us, as they did before, we will flee from them. They will pursue us until we have lured them away from the city, for they will say, ‘They are running away from us as they did before.’ So when we flee from them, you are to rise up from ambush and take the city. The Lord your God will give it into your hand. When you have taken the city, set it on fire. Do what the Lord has commanded. See to it; you have my orders.”

Then Joshua sent them off, and they went to the place of ambush and lay in wait between Bethel and Ai, to the west of Ai—but Joshua spent that night with the people.

10 Early the next morning Joshua mustered his army, and he and the leaders of Israel marched before them to Ai. 11 The entire force that was with him marched up and approached the city and arrived in front of it. They set up camp north of Ai, with the valley between them and the city. 12 Joshua had taken about five thousand men and set them in ambush between Bethel and Ai, to the west of the city. 13 So the soldiers took up their positions—with the main camp to the north of the city and the ambush to the west of it. That night Joshua went into the valley.

14 When the king of Ai saw this, he and all the men of the city hurried out early in the morning to meet Israel in battle at a certain place overlooking the Arabah. But he did not know that an ambush had been set against him behind the city. 15 Joshua and all Israel let themselves be driven back before them, and they fled toward the wilderness. 16 All the men of Ai were called to pursue them, and they pursued Joshua and were lured away from the city. 17 Not a man remained in Ai or Bethel who did not go after Israel. They left the city open and went in pursuit of Israel.

18 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Hold out toward Ai the javelin that is in your hand, for into your hand I will deliver the city.” So Joshua held out toward the city the javelin that was in his hand. 19 As soon as he did this, the men in the ambush rose quickly from their position and rushed forward. They entered the city and captured it and quickly set it on fire.

20 The men of Ai looked back and saw the smoke of the city rising up into the sky, but they had no chance to escape in any direction; the Israelites who had been fleeing toward the wilderness had turned back against their pursuers. 21 For when Joshua and all Israel saw that the ambush had taken the city and that smoke was going up from it, they turned around and attacked the men of Ai. 22 Those in the ambush also came out of the city against them, so that they were caught in the middle, with Israelites on both sides. Israel cut them down, leaving them neither survivors nor fugitives. 23 But they took the king of Ai alive and brought him to Joshua.

24 When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the wilderness where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. 25 Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Ai. 26 For Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed[a] all who lived in Ai. 27 But Israel did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the Lord had instructed Joshua.

28 So Joshua burned Ai[b] and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day. 29 He impaled the body of the king of Ai on a pole and left it there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take the body from the pole and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day.

The Covenant Renewed at Mount Ebal

30 Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, 31 as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the Israelites. He built it according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses—an altar of uncut stones, on which no iron tool had been used. On it they offered to the Lord burnt offerings and sacrificed fellowship offerings. 32 There, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua wrote on stones a copy of the law of Moses. 33 All the Israelites, with their elders, officials and judges, were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the Lord, facing the Levitical priests who carried it. Both the foreigners living among them and the native-born were there. Half of the people stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had formerly commanded when he gave instructions to bless the people of Israel.

34 Afterward, Joshua read all the words of the law—the blessings and the curses—just as it is written in the Book of the Law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the foreigners who lived among them.

Footnotes

  1. Joshua 8:26 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.
  2. Joshua 8:28 Ai means the ruin.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Hoarding: Buried Alive

The U.S. and some other wealthy countries are making progress toward vaccinating enough people to achieve herd immunity. Whether we will actually get there depends on whether disinformation promulgated mostly by conservative propagandists stops people from doing what's right for themselves, their families, their community, and their country -- which for example 40% of Marines have refused to do. But even if we can overcome this insanity, we have an even bigger problem.


So far 87% of vaccine doses have gone to high or upper middle income countries, and only 0.2% to people in low income countries. That's because the rich countries bought up all the doses. So what, you say? Those are shithole countries anyway, we're rich because we're better and smarter and whiter and we deserve to get the vaccine first. The problem, Tucker, is that as the virus continues to circulate among the billions of people in Africa, Asia and South America who will not have access to vaccines, it will continue to mutate, and then it will come back and get us and our vaccines won't work any more. Then we'll be right back where we were in November. It is imperative, as a matter of urgency, that the rich countries fund a massive effort to vaccinate the world. It is a small world after all.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

A word or two more about Gaetzgate

It was pretty funny when Mitch McConnell said that corporate CEOs should stay out of politics, since as everybody who doesn't need a glass navel to see already knows, McConnell has been the political poodle of corporate CEOs for his entire career. Because the basic mission of the Republican party is to transfer wealth from working people to plutocrats, hardly anybody would vote for them if they campaigned on their actual platform. Hence we get Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potatohead, and Family Values™. 


It isn't just the occasional sinner, however, who exposes the basic hypocrisy of the conservative "movement". The are all hypocrites. Because of the WaPo paywall, I'll give you Alexandra Petri via PZ Myers:


I keep coming back to the detail in CNN’s report that this wasn’t something Matt Gaetz did a single time, but repeatedly. Because if it happened more than once — if it happened twice, even — that is because the first time went better than it should have.

To me, this is something you do, ideally, zero times. You never experience the impulse to do it, and you lead a pleasant life. You travel. You eat lunchmeat sandwiches. Maybe you do a marathon, or climb something. You lead a blithe existence for many decades, you die in your bed in your mid-nineties surrounded by your cherished relatives, and in all that time, you never walk up to a colleague on the floor of the House of Representatives and out of nowhere present him with a nude photograph of someone you claim to have had sex with.

But if you can’t do it zero times, then ideally it happens only once. It happens only once, because the moment you do it, the person you show it to responds the way a person should respond. You produce your photograph to your colleague, and your colleague looks at you and says, “Never show that to anyone, ever again. Go home and rethink your life. I do not feel closer to you. If anything, I want to have you removed forcibly from my presence by strong gentlemen whose biceps are tattooed with ‘MOM.’ The fact that you thought this would make us closer makes me question every decision in my life that has led me to this point. Leave now and never come back.”

 

But no. Not a single one of them said one word. Nobody made a referral to the Ethics Committee, nobody even told him to stop doing it, apparently. But then we have the example of their Dear Leader. (As far as we know, and we can presume this is true, he only showed the pictures to his Republican colleagues.)

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Wednesday Bible Study: A major fuckup

Remember that the Book of Joshua is a fictitious work created with a purpose: to assert the claim of the kings of Judah, both to territory and to wealth. It seems a dubious claim from our point of view because it is based on theft and genocide, but in this case it is theft and genocide endorsed by God, so that is presumably the source of legitimacy. Chapter 7 is not about territory, but about property, specifically the priestly treasury. And once again, it also enforces the absolute requirement of obedience.


But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things[a]; Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri,[b] the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, took some of them. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.

Note that KJV translates this as "accursed things" rather than "devoted things," but as the footnote suggests, this is probably a better translation although there isn't any real equivalent in English. As it turns out, in this particular instance, it refers to a combination of something that should have been destroyed, and other objects that should have been given to the priestly treasury.

Now Joshua sent men from Jericho to Ai, which is near Beth Aven to the east of Bethel, and told them, “Go up and spy out the region.” So the men went up and spied out Ai.

When they returned to Joshua, they said, “Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there.” So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them. They chased the Israelites from the city gate as far as the stone quarries and struck them down on the slopes. At this the hearts of the people melted in fear and became like water.

Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. And Joshua said, “Alas, Sovereign Lord, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! Pardon your servant, Lord. What can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?”

10 The Lord said to Joshua, “Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? 11 Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. 12 That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.

Note the implication: the Israelites deserve no credit for martial skill or valor; not on the other hand any blame for defeat. The success or failure of their armies depends entirely on the will of Yahweh.

13 “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them.

14 “‘In the morning, present yourselves tribe by tribe. The tribe the Lord chooses shall come forward clan by clan; the clan the Lord chooses shall come forward family by family; and the family the Lord chooses shall come forward man by man. 15 Whoever is caught with the devoted things shall be destroyed by fire, along with all that belongs to him. He has violated the covenant of the Lord and has done an outrageous thing in Israel!’”

16 Early the next morning Joshua had Israel come forward by tribes, and Judah was chosen. 17 The clans of Judah came forward, and the Zerahites were chosen. He had the clan of the Zerahites come forward by families, and Zimri was chosen. 18 Joshua had his family come forward man by man, and Achan son of Karmi, the son of Zimri, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, was chosen.

19 Then Joshua said to Achan, “My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel, and honor him. Tell me what you have done; do not hide it from me.”

20 Achan replied, “It is true! I have sinned against the Lord, the God of Israel. This is what I have done: 21 When I saw in the plunder a beautiful robe from Babylonia,[c] two hundred shekels[d] of silver and a bar of gold weighing fifty shekels,[e] I coveted them and took them. They are hidden in the ground inside my tent, with the silver underneath.”

The robe should have been destroyed, the gold and silver given to the priests.

22 So Joshua sent messengers, and they ran to the tent, and there it was, hidden in his tent, with the silver underneath. 23 They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them out before the Lord.

24 Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold bar, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, to the Valley of Achor. 25 Joshua said, “Why have you brought this trouble on us? The Lord will bring trouble on you today.”

Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. 26 Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger. Therefore that place has been called the Valley of Achor[f] ever since.

The Valley of Achor cannot be identified with any specific geological feature. The name did not remain in use.

Footnotes

  1. Joshua 7:1 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them; also in verses 11, 12, 13 and 15.
  2. Joshua 7:1 See Septuagint and 1 Chron. 2:6; Hebrew Zabdi; also in verses 17 and 18.
  3. Joshua 7:21 Hebrew Shinar
  4. Joshua 7:21 That is, about 5 pounds or about 2.3 kilograms
  5. Joshua 7:21 That is, about 1 1/4 pounds or about 575 grams
  6. Joshua 7:26 Achor means trouble.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

The Days of Miracles and Wonder

Here's a good overview by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic of the history of mRNA technology. This heretofore obscure field of biomedical research burst into view with the Covid-19 vaccines, but the apparent suddenness of vaccine development was misleading. As I have noted here before, the technology was decades in development. As the technology became more mature, Pfizer partnered with one of the speculative ventures, BionTech, originally to develop flu vaccines, and then of course pivoted to Covid-19. Unlike Moderna, Pfizer actually didn't take federal funding for that final stage of development. But for most of the decades, the work depended on government and philanthropic funding -- the big publicly traded drug companies won't invest very much in areas of basic biology with only speculative prospect for commercial success.


And that's understandable. Most basic research doesn't end up having any commercial application, at least not for a very long time. I have mentioned this before in reference to physics, although after a century quantum theory does finally have some application in electronic devices and relativity is applicable to the Global Positioning System. In the case of mRNA, however, Covid-19 vaccines are likely only the beginning. There is potential for vaccines against any number of infectious and parasitic diseases; for vaccines that target the specific cells of an individual cancer; and, in a spin-off technology, for injections that can get the body to manufacture its own therapeutic proteins. The latter is problematic in a way that mRNA technology is not, to be sure. The mRNA in the Covid vaccines can't replicate, so it doesn't make any lasting change other than the presence of antibodies to the virus. The long-term safety of sustainable, sRNA technology, is not so obvious. Nevertheless the potential is astonishing.


The main point I want to make from all this is that public investment in science is essential to scientific and ultimately, technological progress. Technological development can be good or bad -- we're seeing a lot of the bad in climate change, particulate pollution, resource depletion -- but we aren't going to solve these problems the Ted Kaczynski way, by going back to the neolithic. The only way out is through -- we need to develop technologies that can support our civilization sustainably. That requires putting tax dollars to work. That's the only hope.


And please note, the whole idea is that basic research has uncertain payoff. Some ideas turn out to be dead ends; some hypotheses are disproved; some scientific findings don't have any immediate technological payoff. I'm talking about high risk/high reward investigations.  It is precisely because any economic payoff is uncertain that business corporations will tend to underinvest in this sort of research that government needs to support it. You can't predict in advance what will pay off, so some of the investment won't. That's the point, not an objection.



Sunday, April 04, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: Not very spiritual

Joshua 6 is one of the better known chapters in the Bible, probably because it is the subject of a famous and much-recorded African American slave song, usually titled "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,"  fit, of course, being dialect for fought. It is interesting that the subject matter of most slave songs with Biblical content, conventionally called spirituals, is Old Testament. That suggests that the slaveholders' religious instruction of their slaves focused heavily on OT stories, or perhaps that the  slaves found the OT more inspirational. The symbolic meaning of the song to its creators and the people who sang it would have been quite different from what the slaveholders wanted; the same must be said of other such songs such as Go Down Moses.


There is a good deal more about this chapter that is notable so it merits some exegesis. First of all, this is entirely fictitious. There was a human settlement at Jericho as long as 10,000 years ago, in other words at about the earliest time people made settlements at all. Because there are springs there, it is a desirable location in an arid land. However, the city was destroyed by an Egyptian invasion in the 15th Century BCE, and the site was unoccupied in the 13th Century, when these events purportedly occurred. A Judean city was built there later, in the 10th Century. As I have noted before, this account was written during the reign of King Josiah (d. c 609 BCE), and later revised. 

 

There is quite a bit to be said about the content of this story. The elaborate ritual the invading army is made to perform in order to bring about the miracle of the collapse of the city wall makes up a good half of the tale. God presumably could have knocked down the wall any time he wanted, but this reinforces the main content of the Torah, that is the essentiality of strict adherence to ritual, and the immense power of God to perform miracles. 

 

The morality of the Israelites undertaking a war of aggression in order to steal the land from its inhabitants is obviously not in accord with contemporary standards, although it is fully in accord with standards at the time of, say, the European invasion of the Americas. Nevertheless, the reason for this particular action is not clear, even in that context. If the idea is to occupy the land and exploit its resources, why kill all the animals and destroy the city, as well as massacre all its inhabitants? The soldiers are ordered to murder all of the children and women, as well as the men, and to plunder only the precious metals, which are to be given to "God," i.e. the priests; but the city is to be burned down and all other potentially useful objects must be destroyed. 

 

Finally there is the curious matter of Rahab and her family. They are saved because as you will recall she concealed the Israelite spies from the authorities. One must suppose that this is here as a suggestion that others among the enemies of the Israelites might benefit from betrayal. Since her house was built into the wall, that they somehow survived the collapse uninjured is presumably a miracle, though this goes unremarked. The modern Christian moralists who I just discussed will presumably have difficulty with the uncritical acceptance of Rahab's profession. If you know any, you might want to ask them about that.


Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in.

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.”

So Joshua son of Nun called the priests and said to them, “Take up the ark of the covenant of the Lord and have seven priests carry trumpets in front of it.” And he ordered the army, “Advance! March around the city, with an armed guard going ahead of the ark of the Lord.”

When Joshua had spoken to the people, the seven priests carrying the seven trumpets before the Lord went forward, blowing their trumpets, and the ark of the Lord’s covenant followed them. The armed guard marched ahead of the priests who blew the trumpets, and the rear guard followed the ark. All this time the trumpets were sounding. 10 But Joshua had commanded the army, “Do not give a war cry, do not raise your voices, do not say a word until the day I tell you to shout. Then shout!” 11 So he had the ark of the Lord carried around the city, circling it once. Then the army returned to camp and spent the night there.

12 Joshua got up early the next morning and the priests took up the ark of the Lord. 13 The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets went forward, marching before the ark of the Lord and blowing the trumpets. The armed men went ahead of them and the rear guard followed the ark of the Lord, while the trumpets kept sounding. 14 So on the second day they marched around the city once and returned to the camp. They did this for six days.

15 On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. 16 The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city! 17 The city and all that is in it are to be devoted[a] to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent. 18 But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. 19 All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury.”

20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

22 Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her.” 23 So the young men who had done the spying went in and brought out Rahab, her father and mother, her brothers and sisters and all who belonged to her. They brought out her entire family and put them in a place outside the camp of Israel.

24 Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the Lord’s house. 25 But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.

26 At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho:

“At the cost of his firstborn son
    he will lay its foundations;
at the cost of his youngest
    he will set up its gates.”

27 So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.

Footnotes

  1. Joshua 6:17 The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them; also in verses 18 and 21.



Saturday, April 03, 2021

Crime and Punishment Part Two

I noted a couple of days ago that the jails are full of people with mental illness or substance use disorders, that incarceration does not do anything to help these people, and that we would have less crime if we were to decriminalize possession or sale of small amounts of controlled substances, and divert people who commit non-violent drug-related crimes to treatment and supportive services instead of prosecution. Well, maybe I didn't spell all that out quite as explicitly as I could have, but that's what I'm arguing for.


However, that obviously does not account for everybody who is incarcerated. I need to explain something that not everyone knows. There are two main categories of state carceral institutions in the U.S., called jail and prison. It doesn't work exactly the same way in every state but the basic idea is that jails -- often run by counties rather than the state  -- house people who are awaiting trial, or who have been sentenced to one year or less. Prisons, run by the states, house people who have been convicted and sentenced to a term of more than one year. The federal system houses far fewer prisoners, although it does house some of the most notorious.


Anyway, you will read arguments that most of the people in prison have been convicted of serious felonies, including violent crimes. This is true, although it is not true of most people who are incarcerated at any given time. There are several arguments for why people who commit assault, armed robbery, rape, murder, grand larceny, and some other serious crimes, should be incarcerated. 

 

The first, and most persuasive from a purely pragmatic point of view, assuming it truly works, is deterrence. If there are people who would be inclined to commit such crimes, and after reflecting on the risk of incarceration choose not to, then  the penal system may have a large social benefit. This proposition is obviously difficult to test empirically -- we can't do the experiment of creating a law free zone -- but it's likely true in some cases. If some people who are otherwise morally unconstrained conclude from observing the experience of others that crime doesn't pay, they may refrain from crime, or at least do less of it. But I can't say how large an effect this has. Many crimes are impulsive, or committed by people who are reckless,  heedless of consequences, or driven by compulsions. 


The second reason is simply disablement. For as long as a person is  incarcerated, they aren't a threat to the larger community. Of course a limitation of this argument is that most prisoners will be released sooner or later, and imprisonment might make them more, not less likely to offend again. There are pretty good arguments for the former, at least under some circumstances, but individual cases vary. There is no doubt but that some people will say that they don't reoffend because they don't want to go back to prison. What the ratio is or the net effect is impossible to say, however. 

 

That said, there are some people who are so dangerous that the public would not tolerate them being released. There are psychopathic serial killers and rapists who won't control their behavior no matter what. I must say, however, that this not true of everybody with a very lengthy or life sentence, but it's hard to know the difference. At least we can say that serious crimes committed by people who are in their teens are not necessarily evidence that the person will not develop a conscience and impulse control when they are mature. The adolescent brain is not fully developed.


The third reason is simply an abstract concept of justice. People who are harmed by criminals, or who see harm done to others, want vengeance. The condemnation of the larger society is, to many people, an end in itself. We have to mark certain behaviors as reprehensible, and the criminal justice system is how we do it. I think there's  a lot to be said for that. (The question of exactly what behavior is reprehensible can be controversial. For example, Oscar Wilde was incarcerated for being homosexual.)

 

What this all comes down to for me is that we need to make sure that we incarcerate people for only the right reasons. Having a substance use disorder or engaging in consensual sexual conduct that is disapproved by a particular religion are not among them. Second, we have to think of most prisoners as people who will eventually be released, and we need to treat them in a way that will reduce, not increase, their risk of re-offending. The impulse that much of the public has to make the condition of prisoners as punitive as possible is totally counterproductive. People do not create themselves, we are all the product of forces we do not control, from our genes to the circumstances of our childhood, to possible psychiatric disorders, traumatic experiences, or desperate need. The question of what really ought to happen in prison is for later.



Friday, April 02, 2021

The Party of Family Values

The increasingly tawdry and grotesque story of Trump Mini-Me Matt Gaetz -- here's an update -- is just the latest in an unending, continual, predictable, depressing, ugly and yet darkly comical procession of Bible thumpers and political champions of "traditional" sexual morality who are publicly exposed as total hypocrites. 

 

I can't say whether Republican politicians are more likely than Democrats to be the subject of sex scandals in general, if you include sexual harassment -- Andrew Cuomo needs to resign, BTW -- but some kinds of scandals are only possible for so-called social conservatives. It isn't a scandal that Pete Buttigieg is gay, but it was a scandal that Sen. Larry Craig engaged in homosexual activity. It's not that big of a deal if a liberal politician has an affair or gets divorced, but it was indeed a big deal when Newt Gingrich was outed as having an extramarital affair with a woman 23 years his junior while he presided over the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

 

The idolatry of the former guy is enough to prove that they don't really mean it. When I call Gaetz Mini-Me I mean that in all respects.* I'm not an expert in the psychology of this, but Jay Michaelson had some thoughts back in 2017 --  even before the saga of Jerry Falwell Jr. and the poolboy, or one you may have missed, Ravi Zacharias, who was eulogized by Mike Pence, or Donald Foose, or many others. Michaelson notes that he had easily uncovered 17 recent preacher sex scandals just with a little googling. So here's his analysis:


[O]ur blasé attitude toward clerical sexual philandering minimizes the serious harms it causes: primarily to the victims, but also to sexual and gender minorities who are persecuted in public precisely because these conservative Christians are wrestling with their own demons in private.

And that is the point that’s usually missed when the mainstream media covers religious “hypocrites” or “perverts” or whatever. It’s also missed when anti-LGBT and anti-women religious conservatives are described as “haters” or “bigots.” They’re not haters—they’re fear-ers, and the people they’re most afraid of are themselves.

There is a direct line from the religious hysteria over trans people in bathrooms to religious people hysterical over their own wayward libidos. It’s well known that the most homophobic people are also the most aroused by homosexual stimuli—this has been established in a variety of studies, some measuring arousal with ingenious devices attached to the “straight” men’s penises. Psychologically, this is what Freud called “reaction formation”—essentially, projecting your psychological baggage onto someone else.

But conservative Christianity is institutionalized reaction formation. Socially, culturally, and theologically, it drums in the message that sex is bad, that you are bad for wanting it, and that people who say they want it are even worse than you. This is not true for liberal Christians (or Jews or Muslims); but it is true for almost all conservative Christians (or Jews or Muslims).

And that of course brings up the case of Robert Aaron Long, who murdered 8 people in Atlanta including 6 Asian women and blamed it on psychosexual torment created by his conservative Evangelical church. Of course in this case it was also bound up with a racist component, although it's not entirely unique in that respect. What is really sad is that these people are a fervent, monolithic voting bloc, and they vote for politicians who claim to champion their "values" while doing everything possible in office to harm their economic interests and life opportunities. 


There is also a conversation to be had about this in the context of the anti-abortion movement, but I'll save that for later.

 

* Don't forget about the late Roy Cohn, Donald Trump's lawyer, who was a gay man who persecuted gay men. Also J. Edgar Hoover.

 

 



Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Further follow up on crime and punishment

Comes now the question: what can be done about racial disparities in law enforcement. As I have said, there are multiple decision points and decision makers: police, prosecutors, judges and juries. However, since something like 80% of cases are plea bargained (probably effectively more if you count dismissals and diversion) judges and juries come in for only a minority of cases. Plea bargaining seems to be where most of the action is.

So maybe the answer is to eliminate plea bargaining and have every case go to trial. Seems easy, right? Well, before we get to plausibility, would that eliminate disparities? Judges will still decide whether to let cases go to trial at all, or dismiss them; and can also decide to reduce charges. But again, this is much more likely for people who can afford substantial time of good lawyers. Public defenders are far too overburdened to have much success at this stage, and you are also assuming that no judges harbor any bias. Then you have to assume that the public defenders of poor people can be just as effective at trial as the well-paid defenders of affluent people. Finally, you have to assume as well that jurors do not harbor any bias. None of these assumptions is in the least plausible.

 

But let's pretend they are. Eliminating plea bargaining would mean we need five times as many courtrooms; five times as many judges; five times as many court officers; five times as many court reporters; five times as many prosecutors; five times as many defenders; five times as many jurors; and parking spaces for all of them. It would also mean that people would spend far more time in pre-trial detention -- well, poor people specifically -- I don't know by what ratio exactly but the jail population might easily triple. And the jails are overcrowded already. I don't know that having every case go to trial would necessarily result in longer average sentences -- in fact some people would be acquitted who would otherwise have taken a plea. But that's a gamble as well.


So, would the taxpayers agree to this? According to the Urban Institute, per capita expenditures on the courts range from about $100 to more than $200 per year, depending on the state; so this would be asking taxpayers to kick in $400 to $800 per year each -- that's per capita mind you, so it includes children and retired people and people who don't work, so the actual amount paid per worker would be at least twice that. That's only after we'd constructed hundreds of new courthouses. In Connecticut we'd have to build 120 of them, so that would cost several billion dollars. We'd also have to build several new jails. I'm not even going to try to estimate the cost of that.


So this doesn't seem like a very likely proposal. What can we do instead? Most of the criminal justice population -- I've seen estimates as high as 80% -- have some sort of behavioral health problem, that is substance use disorder or mental illness. In fact, since we closed the psychiatric hospitals, jail and prison has turned out to be the alternative for a lot of people. They generally also have limited formal education and very poor prospects in the job market. But they'll almost all get out of jail after a while. 


So what we need to do instead is stop treating substance use disorders and mental illness as crimes. What most people need is not incarceration, but treatment, housing, and education. That would actually be a lot cheaper than jail, and a lot more effective at reducing crime.




Wednesday Bible Study: Ouch!

I think I speak for nearly all members of my sex in saying that Joshua 5 is my least favorite chapter of the Bible. Why the baby boys were not circumcised while the people were wandering in the wilderness is not explained, but it is what it is. 


Now when all the Amorite kings west of the Jordan and all the Canaanite kings along the coast heard how the Lord had dried up the Jordan before the Israelites until they[a] had crossed over, their hearts melted in fear and they no longer had the courage to face the Israelites.

At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth.[b]

Now this is why he did so: All those who came out of Egypt—all the men of military age—died in the wilderness on the way after leaving Egypt. All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the wilderness during the journey from Egypt had not. The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the Lord. For the Lord had sworn to them that they would not see the land he had solemnly promised their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So he raised up their sons in their place, and these were the ones Joshua circumcised. They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way. And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed.

I don't suppose Joshua circumcised all 40,000 personally, although that's literally what this says. What did they do with 40,000 foreskins?

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the place has been called Gilgal[c] to this day.

10 On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. 11 The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. 12 The manna stopped the day after[d] they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan.

13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord[e] have for his servant?”

15 The commander of the Lord’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.

Not sure what this is all about. The commander of the Lord's army makes no further appearance.

Footnotes

  1. Joshua 5:1 Another textual tradition we
  2. Joshua 5:3 Gibeath Haaraloth means the hill of foreskins.
  3. Joshua 5:9 Gilgal sounds like the Hebrew for roll.
  4. Joshua 5:12 Or the day
  5. Joshua 5:14 Or lord

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Crime and Punishment

Update: Learn how to read: I did not say that only poor people plea bargain, or anything remotely like that. I said that only people who can afford good lawyers have a decent chance of getting their case dismissed. As I said correctly, the vast majority of cases are plea bargained. And as I also said, explicitly, clearly, and truthfully, it would be impossible for every case to go to trial because the courts can't handle the workload they have now.


I do not publish idiotic comments. Please stop wasting my time with stupid crap.

 

 It is possible for a law to be explicitly racist, and of course throughout much of U.S. history a lot of it was. (Obviously, in the slave states, 100% of the law was explicitly racist but the 14th Amendment did not effectively eliminate explicitly racist laws.) Even without mentioning race, a law can have racist intent or effect by penalizing similar conduct differently, depending on irrelevant criteria that happen to be associated with race. The vastly disproportionate penalties for possession of crack as opposed to powder cocaine is one simple example.

 

What I want to talk about right now, however, is racially discriminatory enforcement of the law.  Racial disparities exist at every point in juvenile justice. While black and white youth engage in behaviors that are potentially justiciable at similar rates, Black and Latino youth are more likely to be arrested; more likely to go to trial instead of being diverted to community service or counseling; more likely to be convicted at trial; and more likely to receive sentences of confinement if convicted. 


The same goes for minor crimes by adults, be it shoplifting or selling loossies. (the penalty for which, if you happen to be Black, is summary execution.) That doesn't mean there shouldn't be laws against petty theft, or maybe even against selling loossies although that's more questionable. But it does mean the law should be enforced fairly, which it is not.


But what I really want to talk about right now is the war on [some people who use some] drugs. You may have noticed on your stroll around the neighborhood that there are establishments that sell alcohol, tobacco and nicotine delivery devices, openly and blatantly. They even have advertisements in the window. These are dangerous, addictive drugs. How do they get away with it? Well, it's perfectly legal.


Other drugs with potential for addiction however -- and by the way nicotine is the single drug which the greatest potential for addiction -- are illegal. These include opioids that have not been prescribed by a physician, amphetamines that have not been prescribed by a physician, benzodiazapines that not been prescribed by a physician . . . oh wait a minute, even when they have been prescribed by a physician these all have the potential to become addictive. Oh well, only illegal when not prescribed. Then there is cannabis, which until recently could never be prescribed, has very low potential for addiction, but was illegal everywhere.


As with juvenile delinquency and minor property crimes, enforcement of these laws has been highly racially disproportionate. White and Black people use illicit drugs at similar rates (some studies find that white people are actually more likely to use them) but Black people are far more likely to be arrested, charged, tried, convicted and incarcerated. That should not happen. But unlike laws against theft, there is a very compelling argument that these laws should not exist at all. 


We are seeing a growing consensus about that with respect to cannabis, which is now legal in many states. It is obvious that the costs of prohibition far exceed the costs of actual use of cannabis. And in fact for some people there may be benefits, although I will say that because of prohibition, the studies to determine this are lagging. I think medical marijuana may be overhyped but that's really beside the point.


That said, many people still have the impression that the personal and social costs of opioid or amphetamine misuse are so horrific that criminal penalties for use, possession, or small scale sale are necessary. Experience shows otherwise. Portugal decriminalized all small scale drug possession in 2001 and the result was that HIV infection, drug related crime (i.e. theft to support drug habits) and other social consequences declined sharply. This happened because decriminalization was accompanied by increased resources for counseling and treatment, and a change in cultural attitudes about drug use, with reduced stigma and sympathetic understanding of drug misuse. By the way, the large majority of people who ever use these drugs do not go on to become addicted or develop a problematic pattern of use.


Since then, 25 other countries, and the state of Oregon, have moved toward decriminalization. You can read all about the movement here. Since the drug laws have a powerfully racist effect, decriminalization will also eliminate a major cause of racial disparities in life chances and social status. That's important. But it's the right thing to do regardless. And no, there's nothing the fuck wrong with me, I agree with the vast majority of people who study this issue from a public health point of view. 


It seems I need to explain how the criminal justice system works. At the front end, the police have discretion about who they are going to arrest in the first place, and then they decide what to charge them with at booking. Who gets arrested in the first place depends in part on where the police concentrate their efforts -- what communities, what sorts of offenses -- as well as their personal discretion. As for charges, sometimes they are pretty unambiguous but the facts often offer options. Beyond that, what most people don't understand, is that the vast majority of cases do not go to trial. A person who can afford to pay a good lawyer may get a dismissal, because the police often don't have good enough evidence to get a conviction at trial and the judge may be convinced of that. 

 

However, most defendants can't afford a lawyer or at least not a lot of a lawyer's time, so they get very cursory defense. What happens in those cases -- the vast majority -- is a plea bargain. It's up to the discretion of prosecutors what charges they'll actually stick the person with and what the sentence will be. Innocent people often plead guilty because of the threat of a stiffer sentence if they don't. But the sentence that guilty people get is up to the prosecutor. The justice system is seriously overloaded and they couldn't possibly take every case to trial even if they wanted to. At the same time, if everybody go the maximum possible charge and sentence, there wouldn't be a fraction of enough room in jail for them all. But putting people in jail, generally speaking, does not deter or reduce crime. Instead, it turns minor offenders into more serious criminals. Diversion programs -- sending minor offenders to counseling, substance abuse treatment, restitution -- is more effective at reducing crime. But all of these choices require judgment and discretion. There isn't any glib answer.



Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sunday Sermonette: How's that again?

We have a lot of fun pointing out the innumerable contradictions in the Bible, but Joshua 4 is extra special in containing a blatant contradiction within a single chapter. This author really needs an editor! Other than that, the only apparent purpose of this chapter is to harp on the miracle of stopping the flow of the Jordan, to demonstrate God's power.


When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”

So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”

So the Israelites did as Joshua commanded them. They took twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord had told Joshua; and they carried them over with them to their camp, where they put them down. Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been[a] in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.

Err, no they aren't. See verse 20, on the same page.

10 Now the priests who carried the ark remained standing in the middle of the Jordan until everything the Lord had commanded Joshua was done by the people, just as Moses had directed Joshua. The people hurried over, 11 and as soon as all of them had crossed, the ark of the Lord and the priests came to the other side while the people watched. 12 The men of Reuben, Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh crossed over, ready for battle, in front of the Israelites, as Moses had directed them. 13 About forty thousand armed for battle crossed over before the Lord to the plains of Jericho for war.

Wow, something bad must have happened. The Census in Numbers 26 counted 601,730 "from twenty years old and upward, throughout their fathers' house, all that are able to go to war in Israel." so evidently 560,000 of them are either exempt from military service, ran away, or died. Note that very little time has passed since then, just enough for Moses to give his sermons in Deuteronomy.

14 That day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they stood in awe of him all the days of his life, just as they had stood in awe of Moses.

15 Then the Lord said to Joshua, 16 “Command the priests carrying the ark of the covenant law to come up out of the Jordan.”

17 So Joshua commanded the priests, “Come up out of the Jordan.”

18 And the priests came up out of the river carrying the ark of the covenant of the Lord. No sooner had they set their feet on the dry ground than the waters of the Jordan returned to their place and ran at flood stage as before.

19 On the tenth day of the first month the people went up from the Jordan and camped at Gilgal on the eastern border of Jericho. 20 And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan. 21 

Uhm, I thought they were at the place where the priests who carried the ark had stood, and they are there to this day. Hmm.

He said to the Israelites, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over. The Lord your God did to the Jordan what he had done to the Red Sea[b] when he dried it up before us until we had crossed over. 24 He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.”

Footnotes

  1. Joshua 4:9 Or Joshua also set up twelve stones
  2. Joshua 4:23 Or the Sea of Reeds