Chronicling the follies of religion and superstition, the virtues of skepticism, and the wonders of the real (natural) universe as revealed by science. Plus other interesting and educational stuff.
"Tell people there’s an invisible man in the sky who created the universe, and the vast majority believe you. Tell them the paint is wet, and they have to touch it to be sure."
“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.
“Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”
The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species. It may be a long farewell, but it has begun and, like all farewells, should not be protracted.
Why everyone is being so polite? Religious expression is not an absolute right, and should be limited if it affects the rights of others
Here we are again, in the middle of another terribly polite discussion about the niqab. For anyone who hasn’t followed the debate, that’s the face-covering veil worn in this country by a minority of Muslim women. Should women be able to conceal their faces when they’re giving evidence in court? What about women who work in schools or the health service?
A judge has issued a confused ruling that a defendant should be able to keep her niqab on in court, but must take it off while giving evidence. The Government has ordered a review of whether NHS staff should be able to conceal their faces from patients, with the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt acknowledging he would prefer to see the face of the person who’s treating him. But he says it’s ultimately a matter for professional guidelines, not politicians.
Why so mealy-mouthed? The niqab is a ridiculous garment, adopted by a small (but growing) number of women and rejected by many mainstream Muslims. When I see someone wearing it, I’m torn between laughing at the absurdity and irritation with the ideology it represents. In secular countries, the notion that women have to cover their faces whenever they leave the house is rightly seen as weird, and runs counter to the principle of gender equality. Many brave women in the Middle East and Asia have died for the much more important right not to cover their faces, and I have little patience with women in this country who make a mockery of that struggle by trying to pretend they’re the ones suffering oppression.
The question judges and politicians are struggling with is what to do about it. I’m not in favour of the French approach, which is an outright ban on the niqab and the burqa; I’m not keen on banning things and it risks creating martyrs. It makes more sense to treat the face-veil as a political statement and insist on our right to make one in return. Covering the face doesn’t make anyone a better human being and the “modesty” argument doesn’t wash; if you wear outlandish clothes, whether it’s a face-veil or fancy dress, of course people will stare. Nor does the niqab discourage violence; evidence from Egypt suggests that veiled women are slightly more likely to suffer sexual harassment, probably because men regard them as easier targets than women in Western clothes. Does anyone seriously believe that women are safer in Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran, where most women wear the veil (many of them against their will) in one form or another? Wearing the niqab or the burqa is self-defeating, exposing women and girls to more oppression rather than less.
Where I think the state is entitled to intervene is when a woman’s decision to cover has negative consequences on others, including her daughters; face-covering should never be a component of school uniform, let alone compulsory. Then there’s the example of a courtroom: when someone is giving evidence, she should be subject to exactly the same rules as the rest of us. Vulnerable witnesses need to have their identities protected but as a general rule the judge, jury, defence and prosecution should be able to see witnesses’ faces. I wouldn’t expect to be allowed to appear in court in a balaclava, and the public good of open justice takes precedence over demands for special treatment on religious grounds.
As for the NHS, I’m aghast at the prospect of being treated by a health professional in a niqab. Patients often have to discuss intimate matters with GPs and nurse-practitioners, from sexual health to domestic violence. If someone doesn’t trust me enough to let me see her face, I’m hardly going to feel comfortable about her carrying out an intimate procedure such as a cervical smear. Nor is it easy to imagine a man discussing the symptoms of prostate cancer with a health professional whose idea of “modesty” doesn’t allow her to expose her nose.
At one level, it’s hard to believe we’re having this debate. The UK is a secular society in all but name. Human rights law is clear about the right to manifest religion but it isn’t an absolute right, and can be limited when it conflicts with the rights of others. The demand by a small number of Muslim women to cover their faces in all circumstances clearly impacts on the rights of others, and requires a robust response. If a woman wants to wear the niqab in Tesco or on the 94 bus, I think we should let her get on with it. But when she wants to work with members of the public or becomes involved in the criminal justice system, that’s a completely different matter.
Wall Street is its own worst enemy. It should have welcomed new financial regulation as a means of restoring public trust. Instead, it’s busily shredding new regulations and making the public more distrustful than ever.
The Street’s biggest lobbying groups have just filed a lawsuit against the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, seeking to overturn its new rule limiting speculative trading.
For years Wall Street has speculated like mad in futures markets – food, oil, other commodities – causing prices to fluctuate wildly. The Street makes bundles from these gyrations, but they have raised costs for consumers.
In other words, a small portion of what you and I pay for food and energy has been going into the pockets of Wall Street. It’s just another hidden redistribution from the middle class and poor to the rich.
The new Dodd-Frank law authorizes the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to limit such speculative trading. The commission considered 15,000 comments, largely from the Street. It did numerous economic and policy analyses, carefully weighing the benefits to the public of the new regulation against its costs to the Street. It even agreed to delay enforcement of the new rule for at least a year.
But this wasn’t enough for the Street. The new regulation would still put a crimp in Wall Street’s profits.
So the Street is going to court. What’s its argument? The commission’s cost-benefit analysis wasn’t adequate.
At first blush it’s a clever ploy. There’s no clear legal standard for an “adequate” weighing of costs and benefits of financial regulations, since both are so difficult to measure. And putting the question into the laps of federal judges gives the Street a huge tactical advantage because the Street has almost an infinite amount of money to hire so-called “experts” (some academics are not exactly prostitutes but they have their price) who will use elaborate methodologies to show benefits have been exaggerated and costs underestimated.
It’s not the first time the Street has used this ploy. Last year, when the Securities and Exchange Commission tried to implement a Dodd-Frank policy making it easier for shareholders to nominate company directors, Wall Street sued the SEC. It alleged the commission’s cost-benefit analysis for the new rule was inadequate.
Last July, a federal appeals court – inundated by Wall Street lawyers and hired-gun “experts” – agreed with the Street. So much for shareholders nominating company directors.
Obviously, government should weigh the costs against the benefits of anything it does. But when it comes to the regulation of Wall Street, one overriding cost doesn’t make it into any individual weighing: The public’s mounting distrust of the entire economic system, generated by the Street’s repeated abuse of the public’s trust.
Wall Street’s shenanigans have convinced a large portion of America that the economic game is rigged.
Yet capitalism depends on trust. Without trust, people avoid even sensible economic risks. They also begin trading in gray markets and black markets. They think that if the big guys cheat in big ways, they might as well begin cheating in small ways. And when they think the game is rigged, they’re easy prey for political demagogues with fast tongues and dumb ideas.
Tally up these costs and it’s a whopper.
Wall Street has blanketed America in a miasma of cynicism. Most Americans assume the reason the Street got its taxpayer-funded bailout without strings in the first place was because of its political clout. That must be why the banks didn’t have to renegotiate the mortgages of Americans – many of whom, because of the economic collapse brought on by the Street’s excesses, are still under water. Some are drowning.
That must be why taxpayers didn’t get equity stakes in the banks we bailed out – as Warren Buffet got when he bailed out Goldman Sachs. That means when the banks became profitable gain we didn’t get any of the upside gains; we just padded the Street’s downside risks.
The Street’s political clout must be why most top Wall Street executives who were bailed out by taxpayers still have their jobs, have still avoided prosecution, are still making vast fortunes – while tens of millions of average Americans continue to lose their jobs, their wages, their medical coverage, or their homes.
And why the Dodd-Frank bill was filled with loopholes big enough for Wall Street executives and traders to drive their ferrari’s through.
The cost of such cynicism has leeched deep into America, causing so much suspicion and anger that our politics has become a cauldron of rage. It’s found expression in Tea Partiers and Occupiers, and millions of others who think the people at the top have sold us out.
Every week, it seems, we learn something new about how Wall Street has screwed us. Last week we heard from Bloomberg News (that had to go to court for the information) that in 2009 the Street’s six largest banks borrowed almost half a trillion dollars from the Fed at nearly zero cost – but never disclosed it.
In early 2009, after Citigroup tapped the Fed for almost $100 billion, the bank’s CEO, Vikram Pandit, had the temerity to call Citi’s first quarter the “best since 2007.” Is there another word for fraud?
Finally, everyone knows the biggest banks are too big to fail — and yet, despite this, Congress won’t put a cap on the size of the banks. The assets of the four biggest – J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo – now equal 62 percent of total commercial bank assets. That’s up from 54 percent five years ago. Throw in Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, and these six leviathans preside over the American economy like Roman emperors.
Speaking of Rome, if Italy or Greece defaults and Europe’s major banks can’t make payments on their debts to Wall Street, another bailout will surely be required. And the politics won’t be pretty.
There you have it. A federal court will now weigh costs and benefits of a modest rule designed to limit speculative trading in food and energy.
But in coming months and years, the American public will weigh the social costs and social benefits of Wall Street itself. And it wouldn’t surprise me if they decide the costs of the Street as it is far outweigh the benefits.
The result will be caps on the size of banks. Some will be broken up. Glass-Steagall will be resurrected. Some Wall Street bigwigs may even see in the insides of jails.
If so, the Street has only itself to blame.