Science and Faith: An Encounter with A Brief History of Time


BriefHistoryTime  I have just finished rereading A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. What a marvelous book! Hawking explains ideas beautifully, almost convincing me that I understand what he is saying.

Actually, there is a lot in this little book that I don’t really understand.  For example, I don’t get quantum mechanics at all, but since Feynman said “nobody understands quantum mechanics”, I don’t feel too bad about it.  Though I can follow along with Hawking’s clearly written presentation, I know that behind the curtain is a whole bunch of mysterious math, which I am grateful that he left that out. He could say pretty much anything, I would accept it. And he says some pretty outlandish stuff:

There are a number of different varieties of quarks: there are thought to be at least six “flavors”, which we call up, down, strange, charmed, bottom, and top. Each flavor comes in the three “colors”, red, green, and blue. [pg. 65]

Real [as opposed to virtual] gravitons make up what classical physicists would call gravitational waves, which are very weak — and so difficult to detect that they have never yet been observed. [pg. 70]

The fact that confinement prevents one from observing an isolated quark or gluon might seem to make the whole notion of quarks and gluons as particles somewhat metaphysical. [pg. 73]

The suggestion is that the other dimensions are curved up into a space of very small size, something like a million million million million millionth of an inch. [pg. 163]

This is science? I can imagine a Monty Python skit giving a better explanation of some of this than I could. To those of us who have not made the observations for ourselves and do not understand the underlying mathematics, this stuff is pretty close to revealed Truth. We accept it on faith, faith in the high priests of the scientific establishment, faith that if there are flaws in any of this, the experts will find them and come up with something closer to the truth.

Adam01   I read Hawking’s book in part as an antidote to the Answers in Genesis website, where I had been spending far too much time since I had started this blog. For the most part, I understand what these young earth creationists are saying all too well, usually well enough to refute it. Needless to say, I am not prepared to challenge much of anything Hawking says.

My point is this: A Brief History of Time, I believe, even though I don’t really comprehend it, while Answers in Genesis, I fully understand but reject out of hand. I think the young earth creationists are ridiculous. But, is my own position not equally so? Accepting Hawking as I do, can I not understand how someone could accept Ken Ham and his reading of the Bible in the same way?

To the layman, or to the young student, science is handed down from on high. Yes, I did experiments in science lab, sometimes even getting them to work. However, if the experiment didn’t work out as it was supposed to, I assumed that I did something wrong and accepted the bad grade. Scientific theory remained intact, unaffected by my actual results.

Especially when it comes to scientific work on the fundamental properties of the universe, there is much that we who are not experts accept on trust. Fundamentalist Christians put their trust in the Bible. They have devised Young Earth Creationism in an attempt to hold fast to the religion of their forefathers and reconcile a particular reading of the Bible with the observations of modern science. Despite its sometimes tortured logic, this pseudo science is easier for some people to buy into than the abstruse concepts that Hawking describes, no matter how clear his prose.  To the fundamentalist, Young Earth Creationism simply has more truthiness.

Orion Nebula, from Hubble

Orion Nebula, from Hubble

Part of what has made Hawking’s book so popular is that he deals explicitly with the theological implications of his work. Although he mentions that the Catholic Church has declared the Big Bang compatible with the Bible, he is acutely aware of that he leaves little room for the creator God of traditional Christianity.

One possible answer is to say that God chose the initial configuration of the universe for reasons that we cannot hope to understand. This would certainly have been within the power of an omnipotent being, but if he had started it off in such an incomprehensible way, why did he choose to let it evolve according to laws that we could understand? The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired. … There ought to be some principle that picks out one initial state, and hence one model, to represent our universe.
[pg. 122-123]

There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time ….. The universe would be self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE. [pg. 136]

Though Hawking carefully avoids ever denying the existence of a Creator, any explanation of the world that relies on the existence of such a God seems, for him, to be a failure of human understanding. It is here that I begin to be able to challenge what he says. Take, especially the final paragraph:

However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God. [pg. 175]

This is a beautiful sentiment and a powerful conclusion to this marvelous little book, but it is pure hubris. I believe the scientific method to be a powerful tool. With this tool, we are perhaps even capable of discovering a complete theory of the physics underlying our universe. As marvelous as that triumph would be, I do not think it will help us much with the day to day problems of life. Human reason has it’s limits, limits that fall well short of knowing whatever it is that we refer to as the Mind of God. For mere mortals like ourselves, that will remain a mystery.

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” – Albert Einstein


The Nunez Memo

Nunez press conference

Devin Nunez at Press Conference (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

So, after much ballyhoo, the memo was finally released to the public.  Here are my thoughts.

  1. The memo is essentially correct in its main implication: there are those in the FBI that are opposed to Trump.  After all, they are searching for the truth: they come to conclusions based on actual facts.  In the world of alternative facts espoused by Trump and his followers, this is opposition research, by definition.  Trump has made clear that he wants loyalty to him, not a dogged pursuit of the truth.
  2. The memo does not reveal anything that should have been classified in the first place.  While I am willing to concede that anti-espionage requires some secrecy, I can’t imagine that anything in this memo wasn’t already known to the professionals engaged with the topic.  I read it without gaining any new insights into “sources and methods.”
  3. The memo castigates the FBI for using a dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, who was working on a research project partially paid for by the Clinton campaign.  According to a source quoted in the memo, “Steele was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”  Given what Mr. Steele had learned in his research, I fully understand and sympathize with his point of view.   He acted to make the information that he had gathered known to the public and was therefore terminated as a source for the FBI.
  4. The memo labels the dossier “salacious and un-verified” (when the investigation began), and condemns Steele for “anti-Trump financial and ideological motivations.”  Thus, it is basically an ad hominem attack on Steele.  It does not convince me that anything in the dossier is untrue.  Buzzfeed, which published the dossier in full, noted that it does contain some errors, but these appear to be minor details.
  5. Those who criticize the memo for cherry picking facts to give an erroneous picture of what took place are almost certainly correct.  If I trusted the authors, I might be concerned about the issues that it raises.  However, these are clearly politicians with an ax to grind.

I conclude that the FBI is doing its job, and that Trump and his Republican allies are not happy about it.  I knew this before the memo came out.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court does its work in secrecy and, as John F. Kennedy said, “The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society”.  This court needs supervision.  However, I find it hard to imagine our current congress providing any useful oversight.

Continuous Improvement in Policing


In society, nothing remains stagnant: either you work to get better or things deteriorate.  And so it is with the Collaborative Agreement among the police and various civic organizations in Cincinnati that emerged in response to the riots in 2001.  It had been voluntarily extended for over a decade, and people were beginning to suspect decay.  Consequently, the city has embarked on a refresh.  As a part of this effort, they held three Community Forums, “designed to solicit invaluable feedback from Cincinnati residents, Cincinnati police officers, and various community stakeholders on the state of local community-police relations.”  The last of these forums took place on Thursday, 1/11.

3rd Forum CrowdUnlike the first such forum last September, this one was lightly attended: I think police and other officials attending outnumbered the civilians, and there were many empty tables.

3rd Forum QuestionerDuring the question period, one person attacked the panel for not getting the word out, in essence blaming the organizers for the poor attendance, especially from the population that is most impacted by the consequences of biased policing.  City Manager Black defended the organizers, citing a number of steps that they had taken, ending with “We can’t make them come.”

Though I had noticed the size of the crowd as soon as I entered the room, after a moment’s reflection, I was not surprised. It is much more exciting to rise up in anger over the shooting of Sam Debose than to sit and talk about procedures, accountability, data, problem solving, and recommendations to “develop metrics to evaluate mutual accountability…”.  It is all too abstract. Kim Neal, director of the Citizen Complaint Authority, told me that they even have trouble getting people who have registered complaints to return their calls.  If people are reluctant to engage in issues where their stake is personal, it is not surprising that they won’t bother with some city wide forum like this.

1st forum crowd 2To me, the first forum seemed to feature lots of like-minded people of various backgrounds getting together for Kumbaya, but there was no grit.  I had trouble imagining this forum having significant impact, no matter how “invaluable” they called the feedback they received.  Regardless, it is important to give ordinary citizens the opportunity to participate.

Saul Green

Saul Green

Saul Green, who was appointed by the court to monitor the collaborative agreement when it was put in place back in 2002, is overseeing the refresh.  He is critically examining current procedures, and my impression is that he is not going to put up with pointless activities that have no real impact.  The team is making recommendations for change. City Manager Black is accepting them all, and forming concrete plans to implement them.

The specifics of these recommendations and the implementation plans would have been too numerous for presentation in this meeting, and are in any case not finalized.  Some in attendance were clearly dissatisfied, but what they were asking for was a level of detail that I, for one, had neither the time nor the expertise to evaluate.   I left this part of the presentation with confidence in the qualifications and engagement of the leadership, and I am willing to trust them to bring about constructive changes.

Dan Hils

Dan Hils, FOP President

In my opinion, there is one major obstacle to a successful refresh: the reluctance of a certain segment of the police community to participate.  Initially, there were reports that the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) voted “to stop taking part in the process of reviewing and renewing the Collaborative Agreement”.   Apparently, the FOP later backed off of this stance, but Hils, the FOP president, still points out “a big difference between looking at things and signing off on things.”  The rank and file police officers can undermine the agreement, no matter how carefully crafted the procedures are.   Perhaps a citizen forum is not the place for these police to air their point of view, and, to be honest, I might not be very receptive to what they have to say.  However, somewhere in this process, their concerns need to be heard and acknowledged.

At the end of the forum, they talked about PIVOT, “Place based Investigations of Violent Offender Territories”.  This is an awful acronym, but an effective program.  It won the 2017 Herman Goldstein Award for Excellence in Problem-Oriented Policing.  For me, this presentation had the kind of detail that meant something.  Instead of just talking about problem solving in the abstract, they presented the actual data, described the problems that it identified, and articulated specific steps taken to address the problems.  PIVOT E WestwoodThe highlight of the evening was the video documenting the problem and the community response in East Westwood and Westwood. These adjoining neighborhoods had narrowly defined locations where many crimes were being committed.  The response to the problem involved not only significant policing, but also collaboration, though the Neighborhood Enhancement Program, with other city departments and various community groups.  Unlike in some “broken windows policing” scenarios where citizens feel harassed and disrespected, here then citizens felt involved and empowered.  The result was that crime in the area was significantly reduced and life in the community improved.

In many parts of our country, policing mixes comfortably with the legacy of racial discrimination, harking back to a time keeping order meant, in part, keeping the coloreds in their place.  Far too often, the police will deny that racial bias is a problem in their department.  In the aftermath of the riots in 2001, Cincinnati confronted reality head on and found a constructive path forward, embodied in  the Collaborative Agreement. At the forum, I talked with a lieutenant with 25 years of experience who spoke with pride in the transformation that had occurred in the department since she first joined it.  However, pride in past accomplishments is never sufficient.  In Cincinnati, civic and religious organizations are working together with the police department and the city government to continue to improve.  The refresh of the Collaborative Agreement, with its focus on metrics and procedures, is only part of what is going on.  People are also developing innovative strategies like PIVOT and the Neighborhood Enhancement Program to confront the problems of a city in the 21st Century.  These strategies recognize that policing, no matter how innovative and well meaning, cannot provide the whole solution.  It is the whole community, working together, that can solve the problems we face.

Ohio Issue 2: the Drug Price Standards Initiative

The war over prescription drug prices has come to Ohio in the form of the Drug Price Standards Initiative, which will be on the ballot as Issue 2.  Depending on who you believe, it will be either “saving Ohio taxpayers millions of dollars … while improving healthcare”  or  “a prescription for disaster”.   In any case, it promises to be the most expensive Ohio initiative ever, not because of its substance, which is not all that consequential, but because of its symbolic significance in the national political fight.

The pharmaceutical industry’s take on this is summed up in the warning included in the SEC 10-K report file by Depomed Pharmaceuticals, under ITEM 1A.  RISK FACTORS:

Although [California] Proposition 61 was rejected, these and other cost containment or price control measures, if adopted at the federal or state level, could significantly decrease the price that we receive for our products and any product that we may develop or acquire, which would harm our business, financial condition and results of operations.

Thus, to the industry, this is not just about what happens in Ohio.  Passing this initiative would signal to the country that the people are finally ready to act to stem the rising cost of prescription drugs.  The industry is not about to let that happen anywhere.

Michael Weinstein 1

Michael Weinstein

The organization behind this initiative is the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), led by longtime AIDS activist Michael Weinstein. This foundation, based in Los Angeles but which has facilities in Columbus and Cleveland, financed the gathering of signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot. Employees of this foundation are identified in the initiative as people with standing to defend it against any legal challenges.

This initiative is almost identical to the 2016 California Proposition 61. After a campaign in which $19 million was spent in support and $109 million in opposition to the measure, it failed, 53% to 47%.  Why AHF thinks they will fare any better in Ohio is beyond me.  However, perhaps that is not the point.

Health care financing in America is a mess.  The system is absurdly complex, beyond the comprehension of a layman like myself.  With all the secret deals, it is almost impossible to find out what is really going on.  Those in power like it that way. Each convolution creates another opportunity for someone to extract more money from the public, and the pharmaceutical industry seems to be at the head of pack.

Perhaps the most egregious example is Turing Pharmaceuticals, under the leadership of former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli.  They obtained the license for a life saving drug, Daraprim, and promptly raised the price of from $13.50 to $750 per pill.  This is angered everyone.  However, it was entirely legal.  Sckreli realized that although prescription drug prices are rising faster than any other part of health care, the drug industry is actually showing restraint.  He simply acted to maximize his company’s profits.  Most drug industry leaders realize that if they were to fully flex their muscles like this that America would rise up and take away their power.

There is one point that everyone seems to agree on.  Even Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue leads their ad with “Ohioans need access to affordable medications.”  The question is what to do about it.

Weinstein’s answer, with the Drug Price Standards Initiative, is to disrupt the status quo.  Thus, Our Revolution, “the next step for Bernie Sander’s movement”, fully supports it.  Against it are PhRMA, any establishment politicians dependent on donations from PhRMA, and most establishment medical associations.

Meet Michael Weinstein

Meet Michael Weinstein

The ads, both for and against, feature the kind of personal attacks that clutter the political landscape these days.  In the mail, I received a flyer supporting Issue 2.   It displayed a large picture Craig Landau, head of Purdue Pharma, “the nation’s #1 opioid drug pusher”; since he is opposing issue 2, we must be for it.   On the other side, those opposed to Issue 2 have an website Meet Micheal Weinstein devoted to exposing the man behind the initiative.  As far as I can tell, they stick to the truth.  However, the worst they can do is label him a “California Healthcare CEO” of an organization which makes “nearly 80% of [its] revenue selling prescription drugs” and “has a documented history of frequently engaging in litigation to advance its interests.”  Evidently, thoughtful, nuanced discussion does not make effective advertising.

You might have noticed that i haven’t yet mentioned what the initiative actually does. It has two main provisions:

  • “Require the State of Ohio … to not pay more for prescription drugs than the price paid by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.”  This mandate would only apply where the state of Ohio was the ultimate payer.  Private insurance plans would not be directly affected.
  • Give the petitioners standing to defend the law against any court challenges, and require the state to cover “reasonable legal expenses”.  If the court rules Issue 2 unenforceable, the petitioners would have to pay the state $10,000.

This second provision assures that the issue would be vigorously defended in court even if the state Attorney General chose not to do so.  Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue claims this is “an unprecedented provision granting [the promoters] the right to intervene at taxpayer expense in any legal challenges that may be filed against the measure.”  Ballotpedia analyzed the claim and concluded, “That is correct.

In a teleconference on Oct. 5, Dennis Willard, head of the Ohio Taxpayers for Lower Drug Prices, said that this provision was moot because Attorney General Mike Dewine has promised to defend the issue if it passes.  I have not been able to confirm that Dewine has actually said this.  In any case, this is a sidelight, a diversion from the main point.

The main question is whether this initiative would lead to a substantial savings.

The Veterans Administration (VA) pays 20% to 24% less than other agencies for prescription drugs.  If the state of Ohio would pay that same price, it would save around $400 million each year.  This is simple math.

However, the American health care finance system is anything but simple.   In particular, drug prices are negotiated, and these agreements often prohibit public disclosure.  Although the VA publishes a 17,000 line spreadsheet of pharmaceutical prices, the prices that the VA actually pays are not generally available to the public.  Thus, the central mandate of Issue 2 might not be strictly enforceable.  Nevertheless, the savings would still be substantial even if Ohio was only to achieve the published price.

Ohioans Against the Deceptive Rx Ballot Issue make the following assertions:

Issue 2 won’t fix the problem. In fact, it’ll make things worse. It could lead to: •

    • logoHigher Drug Costs

    • Reduced Access to Medicines
    • More Red Tape & Bureaucracy
    • Negative Impact on Veterans

Michael Weinstein has discounted these possibilities, saying that “such dire scenarios will only come to pass if pharma chooses to hurt the public rather than accepting lower profit margins for drugs on some insurance plans”.

How likely is it that the drug companies, after spending over $100 million to defeat the measure in California and some similarly gargantuan amount in Ohio, would placidly accept lower profit margins?  Investors evaluate the performance of executives based on their ability to increase profits; those executives who accept lower profits will be replaced. If Ohio attempts to derail their gravy train, big PhRMA will make damned sure that nobody else wants to follow its example.

Issue 2, by itself, does not change the power relationship that Martin Shkreli so callously exploited.  These prices still have to be negotiated, and big Pharma, on the other side of the table, has no interest in making this initiative a success.  Since the VA price would become the price for the state as well, some drug companies might choose to raise VA prices.  This would have a “negative impact on veterans.” Alternatively, drug companies could refuse to sell to the state at the low VA price, making some drugs unavailable through those agencies.  This would “reduce access to medicines.” Another threat is that the drug companies could simply make up the lost revenue by raising prices for private payers in Ohio, leading to “higher drug costs.”

Thus, each of the “could lead to” assertions by the Issue 2 opponents could turn out to be true. Of course, these result not directly from Issue 2 but from the actions of the drug companies, actions that the drug companies can take whether or not Issue 2 passes.

The California Legislative Analyst provided an analysis of Proposition 61 concluding:

If adopted, the measure could generate annual state savings.  However, the amount of any savings is highly uncertain as it would depend on (1) how the measure’s implementation challenges are addressed and (2) the uncertain market responses of drug manufacturers to the measure.  As a result, the fiscal impact of this measure on the state is unknown.

I have not found a similar state analysis of Ohio Issue 2, but it would come to the same conclusion.

Health care financing in America is a mess.  After November, it will still be a mess, whether or not Issue 2 passes.  Whether Issue 2 passes or not, another similar initiative will appear in the near future in a different state.  It is a national problem.  It cannot be solved at the state level.

I will vote in support of Issue 2 even though I do not expect passing it to result in substantial savings.  I support the long term goal of fixing health care financing in this country.  Defeating big PhRMA would be a giant leap toward that goal, not because of the content of this initiative, but because it would change the political landscape.  Even if it fails, having Issue 2 on the ballot raises awareness of the problem:  something must be done about the rising cost of prescription drug prices.

And, or course,  it’s possible we could win.





Russ Hurley for Congress in 2018 (Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District)


The voters of Cincinnati have been carefully divided up into two congressional districts, both of which are reliably Republican.  The gerrymandering is particularly obvious in the 2nd district, which reaches to Pike County, roughly 100 miles away from the carefully carved appendage slicing through Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Currently, this district is represented by Brad Wenstrup, a tea partier who beat the incumbent Republican in the 2012 primary.  Unlike many tea party types, Wenstrup is no lightweight.  A former pediatrician, he is intelligent and articulate.  He runs a very professional congressional office.  His campaign already has a half a million dollars on hand. Given all of the advantages of incumbency and the demographics of the district, whoever runs as his opponent is sure to be a long shot.

In order to win in this district, the Democrats need to step outside their usual box and give the voters something to be excited about in an off-year election.   In my opinion, there is one issue that can generate that excitement: the legalization of marijuana.

Teapot RussMany Years ago, when I was smoking pot regularly, I assumed that when my generation came to power, marijuana would become legal.  Belatedly, this is starting to happen.  It has been legalized in a few states, and many more, including Ohio, have approved if for medical use.  However, the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule I drug, putting it along side heroine and other highly addictive drugs.  It is time end this prohibition at its source, through national legislation.  A Quinnipiac poll says that most Americans (60% to 34%) agree “that the use of marijuana should be made legal in the U.S.”  This is a winning issue.

In the 2016 Democratic primary, there was one candidate for congress who put the marijuana issue front and center: Russ Hurley.  This is why I endorsed him then. Now, he has started an on-ine campaign for the 2018 primary and asked me to endorse him again.

King Court 2Since that primary, I have had the opportunity to meet Russ at his place of business: the King’s Court Master Barber & Shoe Shine Service.  I have not seen him address a crowd, but he strikes me as a down to earth guy who might appeal to the stereotypical Trump voter in a way that Wenstrup, with all his polished professionalism, might not.

I like candidates who let you know where they stand.  Hurley has done this, publishing his “top 10” issues.  Since this blog is about my point of view,  here is what I think of each or Hurley’s points:

  1.  Legalize industrial hemp and marijuana adding trillions of industrial $$$ into our economy. Saving 100s of billions on law enforcement. Eliminating the need for many prison cells across the nation. Close private for profit prisons and re-purpose them for indoor agricultural use making them more profitable for owners and providing even better jobs to the communities in which they reside.

One might question the wisdom of putting the marijuana issue first: we clearly have other important issues facing our nation.  However, the legalization of marijuana is what distinguished Hurley from the rest of the field in the previous primary, and it makes good sense to put this first.

Closing private, for profit prisons is a separate issue.  Even if we succeed in legalizing marijuana, the current Attorney General seems bent on incarcerating our way through the current opioid crisis, which will generate plenty of new prisoners.  America already jails a larger percentage of its population than any other developed nation.  This is horribly misguided.  Furthermore, we have a history of using prisoners for profit, and it is ugly.  We need to stop this now.

However, once we close the private prisons, we do not need to be directing the owners in how those facilities will be used.  Free market entrepreneurs excel at producing wealth from existing assets; they should not need our guidance.

2. Create a living wage increase commensurate  with CEO to minimum wage pay scale from the 1960s and double military base pay.

The increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth in our nation threatens the very foundation of our society.

I support increasing the minimum wage as one step in addressing this problem.  Seattle has set it at $15.00 an hour, which seems reasonable target to me.

As for military base pay, I do not know what is reasonable.  Currently, a Private (E1) with less than 2 years of experience earns $19,198.80, which is what someone earning $9.60 an hour would make working 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year.  Clearly, the base pay should be increased if we are increasing the minimum wage.  Doubling it seems over the top.

The growth in CEO wages in the last few decades has been obscene; we cannot simply replicate this obscenity throughout our society.  “Commensurate with CEO to minimum wage pay scale from the 1960s” might sound fair, but as near as I can tell, this would put the minimum wage somewhere in the neighborhood of $80 an hour.  This is ridiculous.  Hurley, using different sources, thinks it would be about $28 an hour.  Still ridiculous.

3.  Equal rights at work (equal pay) or home (marriage) and at the doctors  for all people (ALL MEANS ALL) in the USA.

In the bathroom too, although I think it’s fine that he didn’t mention that.

4. Create high speed rail and help update and improve inner city public transportation.  

We need major improvements in our transportation infrastructure.  However, it seems strange to emphasize high speed rail and inner city problems given the district that Hurley seeks to represent.

5. Return retirement age back to 65.

I oppose this.  We are living longer, healthier lives.  I think it reasonable to move the “official” retirement age up, as is happening now.   However, since I myself retired early, you may call me a hypocrite.

A more important improvement to Social Security concerns the earnings cap on the tax used to support it: this should be raised.

6.  Fix immigration with a true path to citizenship. provide better border security by creating more military bases across our border to keep terrorists out.

I support a quick path to legal status for people who are here.  This is much more urgent than the long term path to full citizenship.

Border security is problematic.  While it is plausible that some minuscule fraction of the people entering this country illegally are terrorists, this threat is magnified beyond all reasonable sense of proportion by our politicians.  Trump’s giant wall will not help much; nor will Hurley’s army bases.  This should not be on the high priority list.  We already waste more than enough money on security theater.

7. Strengthen and expand the A.C.A. until single pay comes for a vote.

Here, I think Hurley has exactly the right approach.

8. Eliminate corn subsidies for ethanol replacing corn with hemp, leading towards 100% renewable, cleaner, cheaper and closer to home energy sources.

I know Russ thinks hemp is more efficient than corn as a source for ethanol.  This might be true.  However, there are lots of ways to produce ethanol, and corn is clearly not the most efficient choice.  Thus, I agree that we should move away from corn subsidies.

I think the government has a role to play in subsidizing the production of ethanol from renewable sources.  I would prefer to support multiple options, rather than have the politicians choose their favorite.

9. Fund adult and child education building new schools.

We need to spend more on education.   However, I don’t think providing buildings is the best way to involve the federal government in this.  So here, I agree with the goal, but perhaps not the specifics of the proposal.

10. Expand wind and solar power, updating our power grid to eliminate the 30% lost energy every day.

Improving our electric grid is a major priority.  Efficiency and flexibility are needed to make use of these newer, less predictable, power sources.

We also need to protect it from cyber attack.  I think there are vulnerabilities here that the government could help address.

Thus, my judgment on Russ’s top 10 issues is mixed: I am enthusiastic about some of them, other I find  are too strident.   In my opinion, there are also a few things missing from this list:

  • Paying for it all.  Politicians talk only of benefits, never of costs.  Several of the objectives that Russ lays out cannot be reached without allocating the necessary financial resources.  This money has to come from some place.  There are several options available: borrowing the money, reducing the amount spent on defense, or taxing people who have money.  If Hurley is going to be specific on these priorities, he needs to be prepared to talk about how they are going to be funded.
  • Simplifying the tax system.  As long as our system is so complex and littered with so many loopholes, arriving at a fair method of taxation is impossible.
  • Providing good government, compromising when necessary to move us closer to our long term goals.  In normal times, this would not even be worth mentioning.  However, today there are politicians who take pride in their obstinance. As a result, our politics has become toxic and dysfunctional.  Our constitution was founded on compromise.  We need representatives in congress committed to making our democracy work.


So often, campaigns are based on platitudes so broad and bland that it is impossible to have anything constructive to say about them.  Russ Hurley has stated positions that are clear and specific enough that I can have an opinion.  I appreciate this.  That my opinion differs from his in several points does not upset me; since I think for myself, it is inevitable.  I can endorse a candidate who is ready to lead us in what I perceive as the right direction, and is able to analyze problems, and evaluate proposed solutions. What I am concerned with is that he is pointing in the right direction and is able to think things through.

This brings me back to issue number 2, concerning the minimum wage.  What Hurley proposes might sound fair, but I don’t think he has thought this through at all.  Hurley’s position is so far over the top, so impractical, that I question whether  he can be taken seriously as a candidate.  I cannot endorse such lame thinking.

In 2016, I moved from one part of Cincinnati to another, crossing that carefully gerrymandered line.  So I longer vote in the 2nd congressional district.  However, if I had the opportunity, I would seriously consider voting for Hurley, despite my misgivings.

Did I mention that he supports the legalization of marijuana?



Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2017 Session: A Personal View

Jones Meetinghouse

T. Canby Jones Meetinghouse

Many years ago, I was bit of a purist.  That rather stifling position was shaken out of me in 1991 as I was confronted by Friends of vastly different perspectives at the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) gathering in Honduras.  There, I was opened up, particularly by my encounters with Evangelical Friends whose lives had been transformed by welcoming Jesus into their hearts.  I remained fixed in my essentially universalist point of view, but my understanding was both broadened and deepened by new perspectives that I had not taken seriously before.  Now, Quakers purists, whether liberal or conservative, might read me out of the meeting because of my participation in a Magadi, a Tswana tradition that is absolutely out of step with Friends testimony of equality.

It is one thing to encounter differences in the context of a multi-cultural  FWCC event, where people come ready to recognize and respect foreign ideas.  Welcoming such differences into your yearly meeting, your home, is something else.  How do you even define who you are if you embrace such differences?  Those who yearn for uniformity and purity cannot make a comfortable home is such a setting.

The yearly meeting epistle beautifully articulates the controversies expressed in the yearly meeting session:

We disagree about the nature of the authority of Scripture. We disagree about how to balance the witness of Scripture with the witness of the inward experience of God. We disagree about the authority of the Yearly Meeting over Monthly Meetings. We disagree about the continuing nature of revelation.

However, what this does not capture is the broader cultural context in which we live.  In this context, both sides in the yearly meeting controversy are profoundly conservative:

  • We care about the institutions in our society.  We want to preserve them, strengthen them, and make them meaningful to the present and the future. Otherwise, we would not even bother with Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
  • We want to pass on to the next generations the ethical and moral codes that guided our forefathers.  Moreover, we want to transmit to our children the spiritual inspiration that underlies these codes, so that they become not a mere collection of rules, but the foundation for a full and vibrant life.
  • We read and study the Bible with an intensity that we accord no other book.
  • We look to the writings of early Friends for inspiration and understanding.
  • In particular, we care about marriage.  We think that human sexuality is best expressed within a covenant relationship, which, with Divine assistance, will last a lifetime.  Our meetings take seriously the opportunity to celebrate the beginning of such a relationship  and the responsibility of bringing it under our care.

Yes, there is a cultural divide in this country, and it is evident within Wilmington Yearly Meeting.  However, this reality is not just a problem to be solved: it is an opportunity.  Can we build on the love and respect for each other that we have gained over the years? Can we build on all that we have in common to bridge this divide?  What is the significance of the Peace Testimony if we cannot even deal with our first world problems with love and respect?

Clearly, some within the yearly meeting want their old meeting back.  However, even if they were to prevail, it would not be the same.  Those few Conservative Friends who adhere to plain speech and plain dress in the this century are very different from those in the 18th century whose tradition they are preserving.  The cultural context matters.  We cannot avoid it; we can only choose how we address it.

My own vision for the yearly meeting is that it continue intact, that we continue to engage each other with compassion and respect, and that we hold our disagreements in our hearts, fully acknowledging them, but refusing to disengage, knowing that God will be with us.  It’s a tall order.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2017 Session: The Context


The parking lot during annual session of Wilmington Yearly Meeting, some time ago.

F/or  those unfamiliar with the loose structure of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), let me begin with an orientation.  Local Quaker meetings gather for worship every Sunday and for business roughly every month; they are called monthly meetings.  These are organized into yearly meetings. regional groups which assemble every year for worship, fellowship and business.  Yearly meetings are generally dividedinto smaller groups that meet four times a year, called quarterly meetings.  Thus, Friends organized themselves using time and geography.  There are national and international organizations as well, but to the extent that there is any authority outside the local meeting, it resides in the the yearly meeting.  Most yearly meetings have their own statements of faith and practice, sometimes called the discipline, which describe both spiritual testimonies and practical procedures.  Most Friends do not have a creed.

As the Religious Society of Friends in the United States began to fracture in the late 1820s, things became more confusing.  There are now four main branches of Quakers and a number of independent yearly meetings as well.  When the schisms began, the outside world would have had difficulty telling the branches apart.  Over the years, different branches absorbed different outside influences, and now you might have trouble seeing what they have in common.

The meeting that I belong to, Eastern Hills, is a bridge meeting, affiliated with both Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting and with Wilmington Yearly Meeting.  Ohio Valley traces its roots to the Hicksite side of the schism that reached Indiana Yearly Meeting in about 1830.   Its local meetings meet in open, waiting worship, usually with long periods of silence broken with a few short messages, spoken from the heart by anyone present.  Wilmington Yearly Meeting lies on the Orthodox side of that schism.  Most of its meetings for worship have a pastor, who brings a prepared message every week.  Most have at least a period of open worship.  When the meeting now known as Eastern Hills decided to formally organize, it looked at the Faith and Practices of the two yearly meetings and decided that it was feasible to affiliate with both.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting consists of 28 local meetings scattered among two quarterly meetings in southwest Ohio, a quarterly meeting in east Tennessee, and nothing in Kentucky.  When the underground railroad was active, the association between the meetings in the Tennessee foothills and the free state of Ohio made good sense.  In the current day, it seems awkward.

However, the geography is not the main problem.  This yearly meeting barely functions.  One of the Ohio quarters does not meet, and quite a few meetings do not participate in yearly meeting activities, apparently having no need for the yearly meeting.  Like other volunteer organizations, most of the work is done by committees, and in this yearly meeting, most of the committees do not work.  One exception is the Quaker Knoll Camp, which is owned by the yearly meeting; this facility is being well cared for.   Elsewhere, there is a serious question as to whether there is enough energy in the yearly meeting to make anything happen.

When Community Friends Meeting, another bridge meeting, took the marriage of two women under its care in the late 90’s, there was plenty of energy.  Suddenly, the session was overflowing with angry Friends, many demanding that Community be disciplined.  The clerk and some Friends tried to bring the session into right order, and referred to the yearly meeting’s discipline.  One pastor angrily threw the book of discipline across the room, saying that what he cared about was the Bible.

Later, the Permanent Board, essentially a representatives meeting, came to a resolution: they adopted a “working document” that states “We, as monthly meetings within Wilmington Yearly Meeting will not bless same gender unions.”

This gets into the subtleties of Quaker process.  Friends strive to conduct business in accord with God’s purpose. The goal is to reach unity, something beyond a secular consensus.  When a group of Friends adopts a minute, that statement represents everyone in the group, not just the majority.  Since we hold that the divine speaks through individuals, one person’s voice is taken seriously.  If someone in the meeting feels strongly that an action is in error, then the action is not taken.   By tradition, Friends can, it they wish, “stand aside”: in this case,  they are not convinced the action is right, but allow to the meeting to move forward.

Even with a number of Friends standing aside, the Permanent Board was unable to come to unity on the above statement.  Community Friends would not stand aside for a statement that said, in essence, that they had erred in marrying two members of their meeting.  The board ended up coming up with the term “working document”, so that they would be able to do something.  Nobody knows exactly what a working document is, but the term implies that it is a work in progress, subject to further revision.  However, having gotten to something vaguely resembling a resolution, they put a lid on it and did not bring it up again.

Several years later, Community Friends found that none of its members wanted to actively participate in Wilmington Yearly Meeting.  They quietly withdrew their affiliation with Wilmington.

Meanwhile, the cultural shift continued.  Gays and lesbians became more visible, even in relatively rural areas.  As one pastor said, “God started sending gay people!”  Meetings that had not been in unity on the issue of same gender unions came to clarity, and others shifted their position.

Inevitably, a meeting violated the 1997 working document.  Cincinnati Friends had an opportunity to bring two people together into a covenant relationship under its care.  This was God’s work.  There was no question of putting the yearly meeting’s working document first.

Fairview Friends responded to the controversy with a minute concluding:

Fairview supports the ability of each Monthly Meeting to chart its own course on sensitive and complex issues.

Fairview Monthly Meeting advises that the Yearly Meeting not discipline any Monthly Meeting for their stand on such issues.

Thus, there are two issues: marriage equality, and local autonomy.  Logically, this allows for four groups:

  1. Meetings that endorse marriage equality and insist that meetings in their faith community adhere to the same standard.  There are many Quaker meetings that would hold this position, but none  in Wilmington Yearly Meeting.
  2. Meetings that define marriage as between one man and one woman, that teach that homosexual activity is sinful, and that insist the meetings in their faith community do the same.   This is the position of the 1997 working document, and a plurality of monthly meetings support it.
  3. Meetings that have endorsed minutes supporting marriage equality, but wish to remain in fellowship with the yearly meeting despite the disagreement on this issue.  There are a handful of meetings in this group.
  4. Meetings that think marriage should be limited to one man and one woman, but do not want to break the yearly meeting apart over this issue.  This is the position of Fairview Friends, though its minute does not explicitly address its position on marriage equality.

Before the session, David Goff, clerk of the yearly meeting, asked the monthly meetings to come prepared to state their position vis a vis the Fairview minute.  Almost half of the monthly meetings support the Fairview minute to some extent.  Clearly, unity is not going to be achieved around any proposal to discipline Cincinnati Friends for violating the 1997 working document.

A substantial proportion of the yearly meeting is ready to split over this issue, following the example of North Carolina and Indiana.  However, my own prognostication (a silly word) is that the yearly meeting will stumble along for several years, though not quite as it has done in the past.

The lid has been blown off.  It might indeed lead to a schism, but it does not have to.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting 2017 Session: Introduction


We face a cultural divide in this country: urban vs. rural, conservative vs. progressive.  This  divide, exacerbated by provocateurs who gain notoriety through ridicule and open hostility to those on the other side, is not just political.  It reaches into the heart of our religious institutions, where it is brought to a head by the issue of same sex marriage.  Here, differences in dogma become concrete, affecting how we treat people.  Do we welcome homosexuals into our fold as healthy, whole people, offering them the same covenant relationship that heterosexuals have for fulfilling their sexual desires, or do we work to help them overcome their sinful urges, trying to mold them into something that better fits our understanding of God’s plan.

The Religious Society of Friends has been confronting this for a long time.  Currently, it is leading some parts of the society to break apart, following a tradition of schism that reaches back almost two centuries.  The issues separating Friends are many, but the knife’s edge is what one side calls marriage equality, the other, an abomination before the Lord.

Wilmington Yearly Meeting was almost blown apart in 1997 when a local meeting took the marriage of a same sex couple under its care.  Since that time, the yearly meeting had put a lid on it, avoiding the discussion to the extent possible.  This allowed time to pass, but dissipated the vitality.  Recently, I worked to pry the lid open, succeeding so far as to bring Mary Heathman to the 2015 sessions for a extended workshop on human sexuality.  That same year, the Supreme Court upheld the right of same-sex couples to marry.  Last September, another local meeting took under its care a marriage between two women.  Avoiding the issue further became impossible.

Fairview Friends Meeting, a rural meeting generally thought of as conservative, adopted a minute urging the yearly meeting to accept local autonomy in dealing with such issues, in essence, embracing diverse points of view within the yearly meeting.  The yearly meeting clerk decided to make this minute the focus of this year’s session.

Predictably, there was no resolution.  We did not even agree to disagree.  Strong emotions were expressed.  Nobody backed down, or changed their tune, but nobody played provocateur.   People treated one another with respect, with love.

At the close of meeting, we expressed this love by rising in unity to honor and give thanks for the service of Ruth Brindle, who had just been laid off from Wilmington College as curator for the Quaker Heritage Center, and then for Doug Haag, who is ending his service to the yearly meeting as Executive Secretary.  Afterwards, we shared a meal together, not clustering into our little subgroups, but sitting and catching up with one another, without animosity.

Beforehand, I had no illusion that we would magically heal the divide.  I hoped that people would say what was on their hearts, and would listen to each other with the respect, the dignity that Friends of differing views should accord each other.  Friends did that.

Whether this loose organization can continue to exist in its present form is questionable, but continuing to meet year after year without addressing the pivotal challenges of our time seems pointless, indeed, lifeless.  This year, the dissonance remains unresolved, but at least it resonated! I believe this to be a positive step.

This is the first post of a series.  I hope to be able to fairly present the issue as seen by each side. Moreover, I hope to articulate the value of remaining in fellowship with one another, despite our strong disagreements.  Perhaps in this one sleepy corner of the Quaker world, we can plant the seeds of peace.