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As someone who leans libertarian in a lot of areas, I’ve been asked if I was happy about the recent government shutdown and gridlock over the debt ceiling.  Just so we’re clear, I think it’s unacceptable that our government operates at a sizable deficit when it already owes around 75% of what the entire country produces in a year.  But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things, and lately the “conservative” contingent in Congress has been doing things all wrong.  Some on the right defend the Tea Party’s scorched earth tactics, citing Democrats’ unwillingness to compromise on entitlements and the fact that the Tea Party candidates’ constituents elected them to be tough on government spending and growth.  I get that, and I suppose there’s a point at which the situation is so dire that a “win at all costs” approach is our final option.  But the problem is that such an approach is almost certainly destined to fail if employed by a shrinking minority of stubborn partisans.

Those who sympathize with the Tea Party ideals of limited government and a balanced budget need to be realistic about the way they engage those who disagree.  Our goal should not be short-term victories won only by using hardball tactics and alienating everyone who either disagrees or doesn’t understand our position.  While this may slow the bleeding for a year or two, if it comes at the cost of eroding popular support, it will have been a won battle but a lost war.

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Although I agree more with Romney’s policies than Obama’s, I didn’t vote for him.  That’s partly because, thanks to our antiquated electoral college system, he shouldn’t need my vote to win Texas.  But that’s also because I haven’t seen anything to lead me to believe he actually leads with conviction, or that his policies are guided by any deep philosophical beliefs about what type of government action (or inaction) encourage the best behaviors in society.  In fact, I get the impression that Obama leads with more conviction and integrity than Romney, even though I think most of his conclusions about how to solve the nation’s problems are misguided.

And I think this is the problem with the Republican party these days.  It’s not that their policies are fundamentally inferior to the Democrats’.  I generally believe the opposite is true.  But the Republican party doesn’t know how to explain why they hold the positions they do, especially not in a way that appeals to anyone but the base.  To take a few examples…

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The Inside Job

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My wife and I just finished watching The Inside Job, a documentary about the subprime derivative industry and its cataclysmic impact on global markets beginning a few years ago and still rippling through the world’s economy today.  Although most of it I had already read about in “The Big Short” and “All the Devils are Here” (the latter of which is an especially brilliant account of the whole story), the film did a great job of distilling it down into less than 2 hours.  As with any documentary, editing and narration are used to further the thesis of the film, which sometimes feels a bit manipulative.  Still, given my prior reading on the subject, the film really did basically hit the nail on the head, and even touched on what I believe is the core of the problem: failure to disclose, recognize and respond to disincentives throughout the financial industry, including academia.

The subprime fiasco has definitely challenged my belief that free market capitalism is the best economic system man has yet found.  I still believe many of the problems came from the fact that we don’t have a truly free market economy (in which there would not have been an assumption that a bank, if big enough, would be bailed out no matter how mismanaged).  Yet it seems that regulation is warranted when it comes to keeping incentives reasonable.  After all, part of the problem was that bank executives, thanks to their cronies on their boards, got paid exorbitant paychecks for short-term profits, with no regard to where they were steering the company long-term.  In theory, a free market would punish this sort of management by a lack of investors, but unfortunately the financial world isn’t as efficient a market as theorists would like to believe.  There’s plenty of herd mentality at play, and plenty of examples where investors’ assumptions, enthusiasm, fear and hope overcome a truly honest assessment of the facts.

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Tonight at the Bible study I attend, the issue of abortion came up.  Our brief discussion inspired me to expand upon some points I made in a post a year ago, which led to a valuable exchange with some friends in the comments: read it here.

I won’t reiterate that entire post, but our conversation tonight reinforced my opinion that the pulpit really isn’t the right place to address this topic.  The moment the church starts making a religious issue out of abortion, we’ve conceded the idea that it is a judgment call that’s determined by personal beliefs.  If being pro-life garners its mandate from a religious movement, its adoption will be largely limited to that sphere.  This approach often leads to debating abortion on an emotional level with women who either wish to assert their feminine rights, or defend their decision in light of the motherly hardships they’d have to endure without the presence of a committed husband/father.  While I feel for the women in these situations, debating the issue in this way is completely beside the point and, again, implies that it is still a personal judgment call.

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My only magazine subscription is to Wired, a slick publication that appeals to society-aware geeks who are interested in science and technology and how they can make the world a better place.  It features everything from product reviews to well-researched articles on topics ranging from politics to medicine to open-source software.  The writing can be a bit sensational at times, but I think it makes it more enjoyable to read, and really conveys a sense of optimistic excitement over the potential in modern technology.  I don’t read the issues cover-to-cover, but there are frequently articles that I find very interesting.

One such article that I think well represents well the kind of varied and important subjects often featured in the magazine was in last year’s February issue.  Titled “The Truth About Autism,” it was a fascinating look at autism research and how our opinions of the condition have changed, with the aid of technology such as blogs and YouTube.

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