The Evolution of Intelligence

April 18, 2014

 

… is directly equivalent to the evolution of Matter, the Universe itself.

If we accept the basic simplicity of the definition of intelligence as being capable of making a decision or choice, then even the first non standard quantum event was an intelligent act.

Viewed this way, intelligence clearly does not mean what too many commentators really mean by intelligence. Which is, of course, only “human intelligence”.

The problem with the anthropocentric view (that intelligence is only something which is visible in our own species) is that it mystifies intelligence and gives grounds for such metaphysical nonsense as belief in a “soul”. After all, if intelligence is something which magically only appears at our level, then who knows what other little miracles might have happened in the same vein.

Anyone who has kept pets knows that intelligence is a continuum. The Chicken is more intelligent than the worm (just!). The Hamster is more intelligent than the chicken. The Rat more intelligent than the Hamster. Horse more than Rat. Dog slightly more than Horse and Chimpanzee much more than Dog. And then there’s us.

My conjecture is that the continuum is literally synonymous with THE continuum. Intelligence didn’t start in organic matter. It is simply the ability to make a choice. The very first quantum event was a choice. Pretty limited one, but a choice nonetheless.

And a first consequence of that:-
is that the Evolution of the Universe IS the Evolution of Intelligence.

A second consequence is that it becomes clear how intelligence is the organising force of the universe. Not – initially at any rate – in the omniscient God sense. More the dumb rules of mathematics. Structure falls out of the laws governing information.

We like to think of our intelligence as being superior to that of all else we have so far surveyed. And it is – in degree only. In principle, however, it is no different, no better and no worse than the intelligence exhibited by all objects in the universe. What is most significant about our level of intelligence is that we are the first species on our planet to have attained the level at which we are capable of designing our own successors. A species whose intelligence will be at least as advanced on our own as ours is in regard to the chimpanzee, possibly much much greater still.

Every advance in material organisation represents an advance in the intelligence of the relevant system.

For possibly the first third of the life (to date) of the Universe, that increase in structure and local density of information was an entirely inanimate process. Apart from the choices made were, with quantum exceptions, the inevitable consequences of a chain of events. Not really choices at all, the only element of choice being at the tiniest quantum level, where particles can decide to be here and now or there and then.

The average choices made at the quantum level was so highly predictable that inanimate matter makes virtually no choices at all. It is pretty dumb. Anything it does is the direct and inevitable consequence of a chain of events.

At a certain key stage, however, matter acquired the ability not merely to react to information (the 2nd level of intelligence: the 1st level being the mere ability to create information (the result of any choice must yield information)) but to process it. i.e. to convert the incoming information into new and different information.

That probably constitutes the most fundamental definition of Life.

And, as I’ve explained in detail elsewhere, the unifying feature of all Life is that all living things do something, the purpose of which is to continue living. They Pursue a goal.

When matter acquires the ability to pursue a goal, the intelligence has become animate.

Still, admittedly, at a low level, but now the intelligence is capable, at least, of locating or identifying a nutrient and ingesting it.

Organic evolution has begun. And pretty soon there are organisms who have taken the next leap in intelligence. They can identify other organisms as having pre-processed the nutrients they need and that ingesting those organisms is a more cost-effective way to pursue the common goal.

Now that is actually quite a sophisticated computation. Yet we hadn’t even evolved the chartered accountant! It was a messy system. Bit hit and miss, but essentially the design was achieved by accident. One of the original organisms was a bit odd and had this tendency to eat anything it could get its pseudopods around, including its siblings. Remarkably, it thrived and divided into many others like itself, who all thrived and so on. The result:- a slightly improved survival algorithm.

And so on. We can even identify major development stages in intelligence, all of which, initially at least, must have conferred significant survival advantages over the first members of a species to adopt them.

Possibly the next step was the first level of co-operation. Two or more single celled organisms got together and, as a result, either were able to avoid a predator or were jointly able to obtain nutrition that neither could have managed alone.

That path leads ultimately to the sponges, who remain, to this day, colonies of individuals. Not many of whom have so far aspired to moral philosophy or even chartered accountancy. Nevertheless, the sponge is a considerably more intelligent design than the humble amoeba.

After co-operation, we get Specialisation. Some cells sacrifice their autonomy in order to make themselves capable of performing only a narrow range of functions, but doing them very well. In compensation for their sacrifice, the other cells in the organism feed and nurture them.

Here come skin, teeth, eyes, ears, hands and feet etc. All of which increase the information processing abilities of the organism, so it is becoming, at each step, more and more intelligent than its predecessors.

The rest, as they say, is history. Emergence onto land, differentiation into hunters and hunted, protecting your young in eggs, then carrying them within, then protecting them even after birth. Hunting, scavenging or defending yourselves in packs. Development of social hierarchies and dominance cultures. Learning to use tools. Walking upright. Mastering Fire. Building Weapons and Homes. Creating Language. Creating Empires. Creating technology. Creating the Web.

It’s a very clear progression. It clearly has impetus and direction. The common thread is the development of ever greater levels of intelligence, to the stage where we can usefully talk of intellect – that level of intelligence which is capable of discussing itself. But make no mistake, this level does not exist in isolation from all that has gone before. They are simply simpler manifestations of the ability to make decisions. And they stretch all the way back to the beginning of time.

Matter is evidently intent on organising itself. That it can do so only by virtue of the unmitigated randomness of the Universe is the hardest lesson – at least psychologically – that many human beings will ever have to digest. But until it has been digested, too many of our species will retain the arrogant and destructive view that “we” are somehow “special” and that, as a consequence, we can do what we like to whom we like and never worry too much about the consequences.

Technically, its true of course. We are sufficiently evolved to be able to make decisions to do anything we can imagine. And our imaginations are amazing.

The question is, have we evolved enough to make intelligent decisions? Which, of course, begs the question.

What are the intelligent decisions?

Big Bang? No Big Deal! by Fr. George W. Rutler

April 9, 2014

drdenis:

A well written thought out piece

Originally posted on Facebook Apostles:

Big BangFROM THE PASTOR
March 30, 2014
by Fr. George W. Rutler

The Belgian priest and physicist, Monsignor Georges Lemaître died in 1966 after receiving news that his theory of the birth of the universe—what he called the “hypothesis of the primeval atom”—had been confirmed by the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation. Albert Einstein was slow in coming around to Lemaître’s hypothesis of an expanding universe, now popularly called the “Big Bang”—a term that was first meant in subtle mockery, but then he commended it to further research. Just weeks ago, scientists published evidence of the almost instantaneous expansion of all matter from an infinitesimal particle. The scale and volume of this stuns the human mind, but at least if the mind cannot grasp this, it can acknowledge it, along with the fact that there was no time or space before that “moment.” It fits well with the record in…

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Birth control and Anarchy

March 30, 2014

During oral arguments Tuesday about the validity of Obamacare’s mandate, Justice Elena Kagan cleverly echoed Justice Antonin Scalia’s past warning that religious-based exceptions to neutral laws could lead to “anarchy.”

“Your understanding of this law, your interpretation of it, would essentially subject the entire U.S. Code to the highest test in constitutional law, to a compelling interest standard,” she told Paul Clement, the lawyer arguing against the mandate for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. “So another employer comes in and that employer says, I have a religious objection to sex discrimination laws; and then another employer comes in, I have a religious objection to minimum wage laws; and then another, family leave; and then another, child labor laws. And all of that is subject to the exact same test which you say is this unbelievably high test, the compelling interest standard with the least restrictive alternative.”

Kagan’s remarks might sound familiar to the legally-trained ear. In a 1990 the majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith, Justice Scalia alluded to the same examples of what might happen if religious entities are permitted to claim exemptions from generally applicable laws. He warned that “[a]ny society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy.”

“The rule respondents favor would open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind,” Scalia wrote in the 6-3 opinion, “ranging from compulsory military service, to the payment of taxes, to health and safety regulation such as manslaughter and child neglect laws, compulsory vaccination laws, drug laws, and traffic laws; to social welfare legislation such as minimum wage laws, child labor laws, animal cruelty laws, environmental protection laws, and laws providing for equality of opportunity for the races.”

Indeed, Clement picked up on the reference.

“If you look at that parade of horribles — Social Security, minimum wage, discrimination laws, compelled vaccination — every item on that list was included in Justice Scalia’s opinion for the Court in Smith,” he said.

Kagan also echoed Scalia’s argument in Smith that judges are not qualified to evaluate the “centrality” of beliefs to a faith, or the “validity” of interpretations brought forth by individuals seeking exemptions from the law.

“You cannot test the centrality of a belief to a religion, you cannot test the sincerity of religion,” she said. “I think a court would be, you know — their hands would be bound when faced with all these challenges if your standard applies.”

The case in Smith brought by two men who lost their jobs for using peyote, which they said was part of a Native American ritual, and were subsequently denied unemployment benefits by Oregon.

If Scalia had the final word, the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood probably wouldn’t have had much of a case against the birth control rule. But Congress responded to Scalia’s opinion by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, which sets strict scrutiny standards for any law that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion. That’s the law that endangers the contraceptive mandate — and it’s the basis under which Scalia  appeared to lean against the government’s position during Tuesday’s oral arguments.

Do we want the United Corporations of America?

March 27, 2014

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Hobby Lobby doesn’t want to cover its employees’ birth control on company insurance plans. In fact, they’re so outraged about women having access to birth control that they’ve taken the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.

I cannot believe that we live in a world where we would even consider letting some big corporation deny the women who work for it access to the basic medical tests, treatments or prescriptions that they need based on vague moral objections.

But here’s the scary thing: With the judges we’ve got on the Supreme Court, Hobby Lobby might actually win.

The current Supreme Court has headed in a very scary direction.

Recently, three well-respected legal scholars examined almost 20,000 Supreme Court cases from the last 65 years. They found that the five conservative justices currently sitting on the Supreme Court are in the top 10 most pro-corporate justices in more than half a century.

And Justices Samuel Alito and John Roberts? They were number one and number two.

Take a look at the win rate of the national Chamber of Commerce cases before the Supreme Court. According to the Constitutional Accountability Center, the Chamber was winning 43% of the cases in participated in during the later years of the Burger Court, but that shifted to a 56% win-rate under the Rehnquist Court, and then a 70% win-rate with the Roberts Court.

Follow these pro-corporate trends to their logical conclusion, and pretty soon you’ll have a Supreme Court that is a wholly owned subsidiary of big business.

Birth control is at risk in today’s case, but we also need to worry about a lot more.

In Citizens United, the Supreme Court unleashed a wave of corporate spending to game the political system and drown the voices of middle class families.

And right now, the Supreme Court is considering McCutcheon v. FEC, a case that could mean the end of campaign contribution limits – allowing the big guys to buy even more influence in Washington.

Republicans may prefer a rigged court that gives their corporate friends and their armies of lawyers and lobbyists every advantage. But that’s not the job of judges. Judges don’t sit on the bench to hand out favors to their political friends.

On days like today, it matters who is sitting on the Supreme Court. It matters that we have a President who appoints fair and impartial judges to our courts, and it matters that we have a Senate who approves them.

We’re in this fight because we believe that we don’t run this country for corporations – we run it for people.

Why “Fox News” is the Cartoon network to me!

March 22, 2014

I don’t typically watch much television. But when I can, I watch The Daily Show. John Stewart brings humor, satire and truth telling to the news of the day — qualities also characteristic of the Hebrew prophets. When I once suggested that to Stewart, he immediately denied any similarity, saying, “No, no, no, I’m just a comedian from the Borsch Belt!” But further discussion revealed a selection of topics that evoke his moral passion and even a righteous anger at political hypocrisy.

That was on vivid display in a spotlight on what Fox News commentators were saying about food stamp recipients. It began with Fox saying how families who receive support from SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) should use their food stamps, and even what they should and should not be eating, which led to repeated condemnations of poor people.

The clips from those Daily Show commentaries are below and I suggest you take a few moments to watch them. They reveal what I am calling Fox News’ “preferential option for the rich,” which is in stark contrast to the gospel’s “preferential option for the poor” and what Pope Francis is now calling the church back to. Fox News’ repeated preference for the rich and condemnations of the poor is not just a political or economic issue, but a moral and religious failure. The faith community, in particular, should take note.

Are you still with me?

Gretchen Carlson tells stories about food-stamp recipients jetting off to Vegas. Of course, what billionaire casino owners are doing, the morality of what is happening in their casinos, or that one of the owners is literally paying for ultra-conservative candidates and campaigns, are not a problem for Fox News.

Former presidential candidate Herman Cain claims that the government allows food-stamp recipients to use their benefits at gyms. Stewart correctly points out that Cain, who is not known for keeping facts straight, is wrong. While it may be true of Medicare Advantage or some state Medicare programs, it is not for the SNAP program.

A Neil Cavuto guest laments that some want to use SNAP benefits to pay for diapers, saying — and I quote: “The swaddling cloths were good enough for baby Jesus; they are probably good enough for your baby too.” Really?

Fox even critiques the actual food people pay for with SNAP benefits. No, not because it’s unhealthy. Because it shouldn’t be on the menu for those in poverty, apparently. Seafood has becomes a theme on the Fox critiques. Stewart comments while most believe fish and seafood is a healthy diet, Fox News “spent a lot of time on how poor people in this country are gaming the system and abusing the American taxpayers to maintain their surprisingly ravenous seafood addictions.”

Fox voiceovers loom: “Food stamp abusers, eating on taxpayers.” Then another, “America’s poor are actually living the good life” — quite a despicable comment revealing the perspective of those who have NEVER lived with, worked with, or even been around poor people in America.

Steve Doocy  (Idiot extraordinaire) attacks “America’s culture of dependency,” and Eric Bolling concludes “Our liberal government is teaching our kids to be takers, instead of makers.” Gretchen Carlson attacks “moochers” while Jonathan Hoenig calls them “parasites.” Michael Regan provides a graphic image, “… sucking off, you know, the nipple of the government.” Charles Payne says the poor are “freeloading.” And Tracy Byrnes says they are “draining this society.” But Stuart Varney delivers the ultimate blow to families who receive food assistance, “99 percent of them have a refrigerator!” My goodness. Now there is the proof! Families who have refrigerators obviously have enough to eat. And I wonder what scientific survey Fox is basing this and all their other claims on.

And that is the point. This is not about good data reporting what assistance programs are working well and how others can be made to work better — making sure we have both a compassionate and effective social safety net that prevents further poverty, gives people relief for times when they need it, and then helps them to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

A vote for these people will take you back (way back) to the 14th century (which is fine by them)!

When is the last time you heard Fox rail against waste in the Pentagon, or corporate tax loopholes, or off-shore tax havens for the very wealthy? Fox commentators rail against the $3 billion of tax money has been lost to trafficking fraud and overpayments each year, but call the $4 billion wasteful federal dollars that go for subsidies to oil companies already making record profits a mere “pittance.” That is the blatant moral hypocrisy of Fox. The U.S. loses an estimated $150 billion dollars a year to tax avoidance schemes by the super-rich — something Fox actually praises.

With his typical profane language, Stewart makes his final moral judgment:

“You see, your very network has created the very balanced narrative that ties people’s poverty to their own lack of virtue, and says that programs created to serve the impoverished are in fact the reason that those are still impoverished. Sort of the idea being, if they weren’t such shitty people, they wouldn’t be poor. And those food stamps are just making them shittier. Of course, you didn’t say it so elegantly.”

Let me make the same point, more biblically, in a warning against partiality from the book of James, chapter 2, verses 1-13.

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? … You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. … For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

Losing your “voice”on the “NET

March 20, 2014
 The upshot for us

Last month, cable TV giant Comcast announced it had agreed to buy Time Warner Cable for U.S. $45 billion, merging the largest and second-largest cable companies in the U.S.

While the raging debate over the advisability of the merger focuses primarily on TV, ultimately the far larger question will be our future access to the Internet.

For cable TV users, the impact of the merger on fees and (cough) service is clearly of concern. But the more important, complex — and cloudy — discussion should be about the future of our connection to the Web. Most of us could face major changes to how we view content in the Internet — and at what cost?

In this first installment of a two-part series, I’ll provide some background on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger — and some of the more obvious ways it could impact the millions of affected broadband users.

Merging markets: The art of the deal

On the surface, Comcast’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable looks like any other billion-dollar merger of an industry’s two largest players: consolidated operations, reduced overlap, economies of scale, and larger customer base are all supposed to lower customer costs and provide better service. (Show me one case where all that has come to pass.)

But the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger is especially complex — far more so than, say, the melding of Compaq and HP. Because for the cable industry, the Holy Grail is to both own and deliver content — to essentially control the media you want to watch and the pipes that deliver it.

And Comcast has worked on that goal more diligently than most. For example, it bought NBC Universal a year ago. Watch a show on NBC, and you’re watching Comcast. Pay to see a movie from Universal, and it’s Comcast. Operating under the XFINITY brand, the company has about 22 million cable customers in 40 states. With about $65 billion a year in revenues, Comcast is widely recognized as the largest media and communications company in the world.

Time Warner Cable, on the other hand, has recently encountered some tough times. It was spun off from Time Warner proper five years ago. So it has no connection to Time Warner media outlets such as Time Magazine, CNN, HBO, Warner Bros., or Cartoon Network. Time Warner Cable claims 13 million customers in 29 states and about $22 billion in revenues. The company, led by its new CEO, Rob Marcus, is in the middle of a turnaround plan.

But Time Warner Cable was also the focus of a bidding war. Recently, the much smaller Charter Communications (7 million customers; $7 billion in revenues) tried to swallow Time Warner Cable but couldn’t compete with Comcast’s $45 billion, all-stock offer.

The merger isn’t a done deal yet; it’s still subject to congressional oversight (or undersight). If you haven’t seen Senator Al Franken’s scathing review of the takeover (“bad for consumers, cable TV, and the Internet”), it’s well worth a look on its YouTube page.

A recent Forbes op-ed piece by antitrust expert Warren Grimes also summarizes the deal well. He states, “Television distribution in the United States is broken. The system denies consumers reasonable choices at affordable prices. Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable will make a dismally performing and anticompetitive industry even worse.”

Personally, I’m not overly concerned about television. I cut the cord years ago. I’ve become adept at bobbing and weaving around the Web to get what entertainment my family and I want. What hasn’t been so clearly discussed is how the merger will impact Comcast’s and Time Warner Cable’s Internet business.

The case for Comcast and Time Warner

Comcast claims there are few antitrust concerns, primarily because Comcast and Time Warner Cable (TWC) have very little overlap in customer base; i.e., places with Comcast don’t have TWC, and vice-versa. The takeover thus wouldn’t stifle competition. Moreover, 3 million TWC pay-TV customers would be cut loose — moved to rival services — to prove the point.

If the merger proceeds under those terms, the resulting company would have less than 30 percent of the pay-TV market. That, according to the Comcastians, doesn’t constitute a move into monopoly territory.

Still, Comcast sees this as a chance to expand rapidly, pulling in a large chunk of pay-TV market share in what is a relatively slow-moving industry.

For Time Warner Cable, the merger is a chance to clean out the deadwood. The turnaround hasn’t gone as well as expected. Charter Communications has been nipping at TWC’s heels and pulling some embarrassing stunts — such as nominating a new set of directors for Time Warner Cable’s board, as reported in a New York Times story. A deal with Comcast would effectively eliminate the threat from Charter along with TWC’s other problems.

Comcast’s liberal donations of money to congressional members might also help consummate the deal. In a recent Politico report, Tony Romm described Comcast’s congressional net this way: “In fact, money from Comcast’s political action committee has flowed to all but three members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. … the cable giant has donated in some way to 32 of the 39 members of the House Judiciary Committee, which is planning a hearing of its own. And Comcast has canvassed the two congressional panels that chiefly regulate cable, broadband, and other telecom issues, donating to practically every lawmaker there. …”

At this point, if you truly think the U.S. Congress will block the takeover, I have some offshore investments I’d like to discuss with you.

The merger’s implications for broadband

In his Feb. 12 Gigaom post, “Comcast and Time Warner Cable: Forget TV, it is all about broadband,” Om Malik (one of my favorite tech writers) dissected the deal. He surmises — correctly, I believe — that what we’re witnessing isn’t so much a relatively technology-addled cable-TV play; it’s a battle for the future of broadband itself.

Malik quotes one of his analysts, Stacey Higginbotham, as saying, “So the cable industry, if it can consolidate, gets access to the most important pipe coming into people’s homes (after power and water), and the fewer cable companies there are, the more unified the rate structure might appear.”

It seems obvious that the intention of a combined Comcast/TWC, long-term, is to quickly consolidate control over fast Internet access to about a third of U.S. households. And they’ll accomplish that goal in the simplest possible way: they’ll own the digital pipes into the house.

Today, DSL is on the decline and fiber on the rise. AT&T and Verizon are the only companies that have widespread broadband pipes into consumers’ homes — and they’re both switching from DSL to fiber as quickly as they can. There’s also a handful of much smaller players — such as Google and regional carriers — filling the void.

In the TV sphere, providers such as DirecTV offer stiff competition. And for wireless, LTE (more info) gives good speeds at small volumes.

But for the increasingly important task of stuffing bits into peoples’ houses, a combined Comcast and Time Warner cable could gain a huge advantage.

Let me give you an example of why that worries me. I have a Comcast broadband line (DOCSIS; more info), and it works well — up to a point. Comcast has started rolling out data caps. If you go over 300GB per month, you get hit with a $10 surcharge for each additional 50GB. The caps started in Nashville about a year ago, moved to Atlanta in December, and are now poised to roll over much of the South. If Comcast gave me a warning about data caps when I signed up, I sure missed it. But there’s no missing the fact that the caps are in force.

(Heaven help you if you want to talk with somebody inside Comcast to ask about your data usage. By reputation and by personal experience, service is not Comcast’s strong suit.)

If you believe that ISPs have placed data caps in response to network congestion due mostly to customer overuse, a DSLReports.com article states that caps are about profits — not congestion. It notes, “Does raising rates on a product that already sees 90 percent profit margins sound like ‘fairness’ to you?”)

If Comcast absorbs Time Warner Cable, more customers might see their Internet use capped. And that might be only the beginning of new limitations.

So what can you, the consumer, do? If you agree that the merger is not in our best interests, you might want to see whether your congressional reps (both senators and representatives) oppose the merger. A quick Google search will usually unmask their proclivities. Better yet, sign up for the Free Press effort (site ) to block the merger. You can also join Consumers Union (site), the group behind Consumer Reports. And check out Senator Al Franken’s video — pass it around and give it a thumbs-up.

Finally, if you have a chance to help bring one of the alternate fiber companies to your area — Google Fiber comes immediately to mind, but there are regional providers, too — do it!

10 things

March 18, 2014

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the watchdog agency conceived of and established by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the wake of the financial crisis, had a hard time getting on its feet. The GOP tried everything it could to hobble the bureau, but to no avail. Over the past couple of years, the CFPB has issued dozens of protections shielding consumers from shady practices by mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and credit card companies. Here are ten things the CFPB, which was created in 2011, has done to protect the little guy:

1. Mortgage lenders can no longer push you into a high-priced loan: Until recently, lenders were allowed to direct borrowers toward high-interest loans, which are more profitable for lenders, even if they qualified for a lower-cost mortgage—a practice that helped lead to the financial crisis. In early 2013, the CFPB issued a rule that effectively ends this conflict of interest.

2. New homeowners are less likely to be hit by foreclosure: In the lead-up to the financial crisis, lenders also sold Americans “no doc” mortgages that didn’t require borrowers to provide proof of income, assets, or employment. Last May, the bureau clamped down on this type of irresponsible lending, forcing mortgage lenders to verify borrowers’ ability to repay.

3. If you are are delinquent on your mortgage payments, loan servicers have to try harder to help you avoid foreclosure: During the housing crisis, loan servicers—companies that collect payments from borrowers—were permitted to simultaneously offer a delinquent borrower options to avoid foreclosure while moving to complete that foreclosure. New CFPB rules force servicers to make a good faith effort to keep you out of foreclosure. That’s not all: Loan servicers will now face civil penalties if they don’t provide live customer service, maintain accurate mortgage records, and promptly inform borrowers whose loan modification applications are incomplete.

4. Millions of Americans get a low-cost home loan counselor: In Jan 2013, the CFPB required the vast majority of mortgage lenders to provide applicants with a list of free or low-cost housing counselors who can inform borrowers if they’re being ripped off.

5. Borrowers with high-cost mortgages get an outside eye: Lenders who sell mortgages with high interest rates are now required to have an outside appraiser determine the worth of the house for the borrower. If a borrower is going to be paying sky-high prices for a fixer-upper, at least she’ll know it beforehand.

6. Fly-by-night financial players will be held accountable: Part of the CFPB’s mandate is to oversee debt collectors, payday lenders, and other under-regulated financial institutions that profit off low-income Americans. The bureau is preparing new restrictions on debt collectors, and considering new regs on payday loan industry. In the meantime, the bureau is cracking down on bad actors individually.

7. Folks scammed by credit card companies get refunds: In October 2012, the CFPB ordered three American Express subsidiaries to pay 250,000 customers $85 million for illegal practices including misleading credit card offerings, age discrimination, and excessive late fees. This past September, the CFPB ordered JPMorgan Chase to refund $309 million to more than 2.1 million Americans for charging them for identity theft and fraud monitoring services they didn’t ask for.

8. Student lenders face scrutiny: The CFPB oversees private student loan servicing at big banks to ensure compliance with fair lending laws. In December, the agency announced that it will also start supervising non-bank student loan servicers, which are companies that manage borrowers’ accounts. Many of these servicers have been accused of levying unfair penalty fees and making it hard for borrowers to negotiate an affordable repayment plan.

9. Service members get extra protection: In June, the CFPB ordered US Bank and its non-bank partner Dealers’ Financial Services to refund $6.5 million to service members for failing to disclose fees associated with a military auto loan program. In November, the CFPB ordered the payday lender Cash America to pay up to $14 million for illegally overcharging members of the military.

10. Consumers get a help center: If your bank or lender does anything you think is unfair, the bureau has a division dedicated to fielding consumer complaints. The agency promises to work with companies to try to fix consumers’ problems.

Spring/Summer Releases from Baker Academic

March 12, 2014

Originally posted on Crux Sola:

Here are some Biblical Studies highlights from the Spring/Summer Baker Academic catalog .

Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters, edited by Marion Ann Taylor. 130 interpreters studied in this ~600 page handbook: Elizabeth Achtemeier, Catherine of Sienna, Julian of Norwich, Phoebe Palmer, Teresa of Avila, etc… Looks interesting!

Jonathan Pennington is publishing a textbook called Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narratival and Theological Introduction (256pp.). This reminds me a bit of Eddie Adams’ recent release on Parallel Lives of Jesus in that both of these books focus on narrative criticism. Still, I think there is probably room for both contributions. This one is coming in September.

What Christians Believe About the Bible: A Concise Guide for Students, by Don Thorsen and Keith Reeves, introduces perspectives on what various traditions believe regarding the nature of Scripture. I think that such a book has been needed for some time, and…

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Once again the G (NO) P is concerned

March 12, 2014

The face of poverty doesn’t look the same anymore. And Republicans here in Washington seem to be taking note. They even seem to be caring. What, Paul Ryan, worry about the takers and not the makers? Maybe the war-on-the-war-on-poverty message has less to do with faulty data and midterm chances than something a lot simpler: the GOP’s favorite all-purpose boogeyman – the Welfare Queen – has been replaced with a poor population that looks a lot more, well, white.

According to a recent report from the Census Bureau, one in three Americans can be expected to fall below the poverty line for at least six months, and more than 50% of all Americans between the ages of 25 and 60 have experienced at least a year of poverty. What’s different, now, is that two-thirds of those who fall below the poverty line now self-identify as white.

The GOP has responded to the ongoing pledge from Barack Obama and the Democrats to solve what the president calls “the defining challenge of our time”: income inequality. And they’ve responded primarily by way of Ryan’s controversial poverty report, which focuses much of its attention on the sort of social science reports that liberal Democrats have relied on for years. The report tiredly bemoans the government’s waste of social assistance programs, while praising some, like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which Obama’s new budget proposes to expand.

That some leading Republicans would embrace the EITC isn’t surprising; like Obamacare, this was a conservative idea that enjoys occasional Republican support, even though it’s viewed with extreme caution as excessively redistributive and prone to extreme abuse. Plus, every few years the minimum-wage debate re-emerges, and like clockwork, when Democrats say raise it, Republicans say E-I-T-C. This year, Sen Marco Rubio has proposed a version of the program nearly identical to Obama’s, changing an annual credit to one received on a month-by-month basis. The EITC is appealing to Republicans because it’s a way to increase pay for low-income workers that doesn’t burden their employers, which is more or less their argument against the minimum wage.

The faint praise in the Ryan report for the EITC – and programs like it – seems to reflect the Right’s sudden heartswell for the poor. Conveniently, a lot of those feel-good vibes come from those facing uphill re-election battles, those who need white votes, those running for the White House in 2016 or some combination thereof. Kentucky Sen Rand Paul spoke to a crowd in Detroit, asking the city to introduce “economic freedom zones” in order to promote job growth. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has pushed vouchers and school choice to combat poverty. Republican Senator Susan Collins has proposed fixing benefits and assistance programs to job training for the long-term unemployed.

All of which sounds well and good. Except for, well, the very economists Ryan cites in his poverty report are outright contesting the solutions the GOP has drawn from their research. Paul Krugman calls Paul Ryan “demonstrably wrong” on poverty. In a series of interviews conducted by the Fiscal Times’ Rob Garver, researchers and economists cited in the Ryan report express anger at how Ryan “either misunderstood or misrepresented their research”. Ryan is “setting a trap”, say the liberal economists.

None of which is really all that surprising, but some of which is: politicians have long manipulated facts to their advantage, and there hasn’t, sadly, been a lot of political advantage to be had from Republicans helping the poor. But as the middle class has eroded, the maker-taker divide that conservatives have so exploited over the past 30 years, well, it’s eroded along with it. Lower-middle class whites who once viewed themselves as middle or upper-middle class are now struggling to find work and filing for government assistance, just like those mythical Welfare Queens they were brought up to disdain. And the GOP is beginning, finally and more than a little questionably, to see an upside.

Late last week at a daylong forum hosted by the Atlantic marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, which took the title “Reinventing the War on Poverty”. I usually don’t trust these sort of think tank-style events with their grandiose self-descriptions and old white men telling you how it is, but here it was, in every direction and from both sides: a debate between the mother of all false choices – a minimum wage increase and the EITC.

Like other Republicans have done in the past, Robert Doar, the former head of social services for New York City, voiced support for Obama’s expansion of the earned income-tax credit. A number of former Bush advisers, like Greg “People Are Unperterbed by Rich Movie Stars” Mankiw, very much support it. Unlike Republicans in office, Doar and Mankiw maintain the noted advantage of being able to voice support for Obama’s plan rather than create thinly veiled copies like Rubio has done, or poorly researched ones like Ryan, or some combination therein.

But mostly, it’s for the little guy. The little white guy.

Should we change the Constitution …And when?

March 9, 2014

Serving 35 years on the Supreme Court, former Justice John Paul Stevens has had a front row seat for many of the United States’ most intense legal battles. From this position, Stevens witnessed a number of problems plaguing the country that the highest court could not — or would not — fix.

However, Stevens only had the ability to interpret the law, not create it. Still, his experience has inspired him to suggest a handful of Constitutional Amendments that he believes would put the country back on the right track, including:

 

1. Limiting Campaign Finance

 

The First Amendment should not be interpreted to stipulate that money equals speech and therefore individuals and corporate entities can spend unlimited amounts of money on American elections. States and Congress should be permitted to put sensible restrictions on campaign donations.

 

Why is it a problem?

 

This is an issue that Stevens has been gravely concerned about since the moment Citizens United passed in 2010. Writing a passionate dissent for the infamous case, Stevens warned that comparing corporate money and influence to human speech would have major consequences for the country.

Indeed, Stevens’ projections were correct: Citizens United has wreaked utter havoc on our political system. This dark money has completely changed the way elections are run and has given corporations even further control of Washington D.C.

 

2. Banning the Death Penalty

 

The 8th Amendment, which already forbids “cruel and unusual punishments,” should now include the clause “such as the death penalty.”

Why is it a problem?

 

Shortly after retiring from the bench, Stevens went on the record as being opposed to the death penalty. Though he was previously in favor of capital punishment, he came to see it as an unfair punishment in a racist system often influenced by personal politics rather than the evidence at hand.

Stevens is not alone in calling for a stop to the death penalty. Opponents of the practice have also pointed out that innocent people have been erroneously killed, the death penalty does not appear to deter crime, defendants with inadequate legal counsel representation are more likely to be sentenced to death, and the cost to execute is significantly higher than someone serving life in prison.

 

3. Forbidding Gerrymandering

Redrawn districts must be “compact and composed of contiguous territory.” States that do not adhere to these guidelines would have to prove that changes are fair and neutral based on “natural, political, or historical boundaries.” Attempts to redistrict to keep specific politicians and parties in power would be explicitly forbidden.

 

Why is it a problem?

Stevens hit the nail on the head with this one: gerrymandering is killing democracy in the United States. Politicians have successfully used this overlooked ploy to actually steal and rig elections.

Because redistricting has been used to ensure predetermined outcomes anyway, in many districts, no one even bothers to run against the presumed winner, leaving the races uncontested. The powers that be have not only eliminated a chance at fair elections, but also the illusion of fair elections altogether.

 

4. Promoting Reasonable Gun Control

 

The 2nd Amendment should stipulate that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” applies to citizens serving in a militia as the writers of the Constitution originally intended.

Why is it a problem?

 

After a rash of mass shootings, the majority of Americans are now calling for stricter gun laws. Though it seems like common sense to put some limitations on who can own a gun and how much ammunition a person needs for personal protection, the existing wording of the Constitution is interpreted to mean that any limitations are an infringement.

Stevens’ suggestion wouldn’t forbid guns altogether, just allow for some wiggle room when it comes to creating rational gun control measures.

 

 

To learn more about Justice Stevens’ proposed amendments, you can read his book “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution,” scheduled for release on April 22.

Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/4-potential-constitutional-amendments-recommended-by-former-justice-stevens.html#ixzz2vVLeFno9


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