Friday, October 31, 2008

Emails to a Skeptic #2: Thinking About Creation

My skeptical interlocutor wrote:

I guess one of the biggest things for me is the philosophical concept of God as he is portrayed in the Bible.  I don't want to seem like I'm a blasphemer here, but it strikes me as absurd that a being that is infinite in all ways and is outside the dimension of Time would have any reason to create us in the first place; and then to create us and screw it up so badly, when he's apparently omniscient, is really strange.  Here's a being that knows all: past, present and future.  He creates a universe, which is actually pretty hard to wrap your head around the sheer size of, well, billions of galaxies, with billions of solar systems, etc.; and then to only populate one Planet in the whole thing!  And then within a very short time, days maybe weeks, put Original Sin on the whole human race forever, because Eve was tricked by a talking snake (presumably the devil) into taking the forbidden fruit. And this is before they have the knowledge of good and evil?  How are they supposed to understand these concepts at that point?!  And yet God basically proceeds to curse the entire human race from thence forward for the very first mistake made by his very recent creation?  It seems very arrogant to me that you would create a race with free will and then require them to worship you or else suffer mass executions…. Or that you would care at all after having been around an eternity, outside the bounds of time. 

I don't know that I've got great answers for all your questions, though I can tell you how I approach thinking about them.  I don't have time or room to talk about everything you mention, but I'll try to talk about the ones that have bothered me as well, so I can at least be talking from experience.

With regard to how and/or why God created us . . . yeah, it's kind of mind-blowing, and sometimes it seems so incredible to me as to be unbelievable.  It does rather beggar belief that an all-powerful being would in any way be interested in anything less than Himself.  (And indeed, a certain trend of philosophy with a pedigree going back to Aristotle has assumed that God doesn't particularly care about the world, since He's too worthy to think about anything unworthy, i.e., anything less than Himself, i.e., us.) 

There are two ways I tend to think about this when it starts bothering me:

  1. I agree that it's hard to imagine God either existing or creating us – but I can't figure out any other way that we could get here.  As Martin Heidegger put it, "Why is there something rather than nothing?"  In other words, isn't it astonishing that there's anything at all, however big or small it might be?  I'm aware that physicists have speculated about what might have "preceded" the Big Bang (if the word "preceded" has any meaning in that context), but from what I've read, it pretty much all comes down to, "We have no frigging idea how it all started or why or why then."  And even if a theory about what preceded the Big Bang ever does gain general acceptance, it still begs the question, "Where did that come from?"  The idea of God – a being who, if He exists at all, exists necessarily – seems more plausible to me than any theory about why an obviously contingent universe must have come into existence.  (Though, like I said, the Big Bang seems like a perfectly valid description about what happened once it all got kicked off.)
  2. I also agree that it's incredible God would take any interest in us.  This is one of the reasons why I'm specifically a Christian and not, say, a Deist or a Muslim.  The Christian theory is that God is nothing if not humble.  In other words, most other theories about God (whether philosophical or religious) describe a God who insists upon getting his due, and there's of course a sense in which this would necessarily be correct (if God exists at all).  But Christians believe in a God who, alongside everything else, is pretty damn humble, willing to, say, arrive in this world in a mess of blood and mucous, take His shits on the shore of the sea of Galilee, and leave this world impaled on a spike.  It may be difficult to believe that any being who could call Himself God would be willing to engage in that sort of behavior – but it's certainly the God that Christianity describes.  And if God is anything like humble enough to die for us, I don't think it's a priori unlikely that He would create us in the first place.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Emails to a Skeptic #1: The Infidels are Partly Right

One of my parents' friends recently asked me to strike up a correspondence with their son, a man in his 30's, who grew up in a Christian family, but has been questioning both religion generally, and the Bible and Christianity in particular. As he put it:

I had always just believed in God and all the bible stories, it wasn't until I decided to actually read the Bible that I immediately started having issues with it.

The two of us struck up the conversation in question, and so far it's been both interesting and productive. I thought I'd post some edited versions of the emails back and forth. What follows is from my introductory email to him.

Just a bit of background on who I am . . . I grew up in an Assemblies of God church, and the summer before my senior year in high school, I felt like God might be calling me to the ministry.  As a result, I have a BA and an MA in Theology, but I eventually figured out that I had way too bad of an attitude to be a pastor, and as a result, I ended up going a different direction with my career.  I got into computers, and over the years worked my way up.  About nine years ago, along with my brother and a few friends, I helped to start an Internet advertising company named Zango, where I was CTO until last June.  I'm now looking into going back to school, to get my Ph.D. in theology.  I still have a bad attitude, but luckily, God doesn't seem to mind too much.

I should note that after I graduated from seminary in '92, I was so angry with God and Christianity and especially Christians (it's a long story) that I didn't darken the door of a church for nearly five years.  It wasn't until I got divorced in '98, and was lonely beyond belief, that I returned to church, and even when I did, it was only after I made a rather unorthodox deal with God.  I pretty much told Him outright, "Look, I don't want to be here, I'm not going to read my Bible, and you can kiss my ass if you think I'm going to do daily devotions.  But I'll show up, and hopefully that's sufficient."  And it turns out, it pretty much was.  I could put it in more devotional language – I could say, "God is faithful, even when we're not", and that would be true – but the reality of it was that I told God He could kiss my ass, and He was humble enough to take me in even on those terms.  And somehow, over the years, my bad attitude has tempered, I found a wife I loved and from whom I could learn about love, I'm teaching two different Sunday School classes, and I've even been reading my Bible a bit more (though nothing like I used to).

One of the things that I sympathize with in your emails is your critique of the fundamentalist use of Scripture.  I grew up with folks all around me who used Scripture in precisely the way that critiques so effectively.  And I have to say, I fully agree with their criticisms of that particular way to use Scripture.  Fundamentalists read Scripture as if it were a 20th century historical document, following all the rules of 20th century literature.  And of course, it's not.  It's variously a mish-mash of bronze age folk tales, iron age chronicles, half-pagan poetry, short stories, good stories, bad characters, profound theology, more-or-less accurate history, half-cocked letters, and hallucinations the likes of which Timothy Leary was never so unlucky to experience.  To the extent that the Infidels point out that this is the case, there's absolutely nothing (in my opinion) to disagree with them about.

In other words, I fully agree with everything you have to say about young earth theory.  I think "scientific creationism" is worse than wrong: it's silly.  It's also pretty clear that the New Testament writers, umm, appropriated prophecies in ways that the original authors never intended.  The various verses you mention in Matthew are some of the more blatant examples, though Paul's allegorical interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar is pretty good competition.  If you want to get fancy, compare Numbers 2:32 and 3:42, and do the math.  Or check the Greek of the book of Revelation: it's written like George Bush talks.  Were there two demoniacs that showed up after Jesus calmed the storm (as it says in Matthew), or was it just one (like it says in Luke and Mark)?  And was it in Gadara (like it says in most of the Matthew manuscripts), or was it in Gerasa (like it says in most of the Mark and Luke manuscripts)?  Is it all right to eat meat offered to idols, like Paul says (1 Cor. 8), or is it a Really Bad Thing, like Revelation says (Revelation 2)?  Does God actually want us to bash babies' brains out against the rocks (Ps. 137)?  Or would He prefer that we forgive our enemies instead (Matt. 5)?  Did God create humans after animals and plants (Genesis 1), or before (Genesis 2)?  And I could go on – but it gets boring after a while.  If you've been reading, you know these examples better than I do.

I guess my point is that if you accept that the fundamentalist way of reading Scripture is the only valid way, and is the only way that you can continue believing in God (and Jesus), then I think you're quite right to reject the Bible and God along with it.  My question to you is whether you think there's any room for a different way of reading Scripture. 

You can probably tell what I think the answer is – but you should be clear that I'm not talking about namby-pamby, watered-down liberalism, or any way of understanding Christianity that makes Christ anything other than what He claimed to be.  I believe that our God is nothing less than a consuming fire, in Whose presence we would do well to tremble.  And more than that, I believe the Church has generally managed to express truths about God faithfully and accurately.  I'm a catholic, orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical Christian.  But it took me a long time to get there: it took Jesus a great deal more fuss and bother to exorcise the fundamentalist out of me than it took Him to get Legion out of the Gerasene demoniac(s).

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Caedmon and the Pumpkin Patch

This afternoon, we took Caedmon to a local pumpkin patch. The lighting was just perfect. Caedmon hadn't had an afternoon nap (he screamed from his crib for an hour, until we finally took pity), so he was pretty tired, but he still had a great time walking around, looking at the pumpkins, playing in the dirt.
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
From Autumn 2008
For reference, this was Caedmon last year at this time:
From Caedmon and the Pumpkin
From Caedmon and the Pumpkin

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Missed Opportunities

The Washington Post has a very interesting story today on the failure of our government agencies to regulate the derivatives market, and the consequences that has had for our financial system. A very few people in the Clinton administration wanted additional regulation on the derivatives market, but substantial majorities, both in the executive and the legislative branches, and in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, shot down the various attempts that were made to introduce additional legislation. As a result, the government had no insight into the full size of the derivatives market, nor to how badly individual firms were leveraged.

I think the Washington Post's story is an important one, but we should also remember that there are lots and lots of people and factors to blame for this: it can't all be laid at Greenspan's feet. The Republicans were responsible for pushing so hard against common-sense regulations; the Democrats were responsible for pushing Fannie and Freddy to underwrite stupid mortgages; the folks on Wall Street were responsible for stupidly believing, umm, "flawed" computer models; and you and I were responsible for buying up houses at inflated prices and mortgaging ourselves up to our necks to buy shitloads of stupid consumer goods that we don't need.

One of many, many interesting and slightly scary things about this crisis is that less than a year ago, I purchased and read with great interest Nicholas Taleb's flawed but fascinating book The Black Swan. In that book, he spent several hundred more pages than he really needed explaining why our current financial system was so badly at risk. His indictment of the risk models used by Wall Street made perfect sense to me. And even so, I didn't get it: I didn't understand at the time what is so clear now, that our financial system was a house of cards, waiting to come tumbling down.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Three Visions of the Good Life

Today, in a very strange conjunction of circumstances, I was exposed to three radically different visions of the good life. It was too strange, and too moving, not to share.

It started with my class at the UW, on Aristotle's Ethics. The topic for the last couple of classes has been the nature of the good life, specifically, Aristotle's claim that the appropriate human end is happiness. Aristotle takes this in two roughly common-sense directions. On the one hand, he says, happiness typically requires certain external goods, such as wealth, family, and friends:

[Happiness] needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. In many actions we use friends and riches and political power as instruments; and there are some things the lack of which takes the luster from happiness – good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill-born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy, and perhaps a man would be still less likely if he had thoroughly bad children or friends or had lost good children or friends by death.

But on the other hand, Aristotle is quite clear that happiness does not consist of external goods. On the contrary, he defines happiness in quite a different direction, as "an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue". We are only truly happy, in other words, when we are doing something worth doing. Wealth and other external goods can help us to accomplish those worthwhile things, but they have a purely instrumental value. The life of virtue, performing acts of moral and intellectual excellence, is the appropriate goal of human existence, and is what makes for a truly happy person.

I think you could do a great deal worse than this, and independent of God's revelation in Christ, I don't know that you can get much better. But of course, Paul is clear that human beings generally choose to remain willfully ignorant of the nature of the world, and I don't think you could find a much more clear example of this than the second vision of the good life to cross my path.

Last night, I was reading Joel Stein's column in the latest Time about his evening with Flo Rida's "posse". I'd never heard of Flo Rida before, but apparently he's a flash-in-the-pan rapper who made some money last summer off a typically misogynistic hip-hop song called Low. I thought the column was entertaining enough to read it to my wife, who said, "You know, I think our ten-year-old niece was doing a dance to that song last summer." That got me interested enough to look up the lyrics. Apparently the song is about a stripper that Flo Rida (with some expectation of success) would like to, umm, sleep with. A selection of the poetic gifts in question:

So sexual She was flexible,  Professional,  Drinking X&O Hold up wait a minute, do I see what I think I whoa Did I think I seen shawty get low Ain't the same when it's up that close Make it rain, I'm making it snow Work the pole I gotta bank role I'ma say that I prefer her no clothes I'm in to that I love women exposed She threw it back at me I gave her mo' Cash ain't a problem I know where it go

That's when I threw her legs on my shoulders I knew it was over That Heny and Cola got me like a soldier She ready for Rover, I couldn't control her So lucky, oh me, I was just like clover Shawty was hot like a toaster Sorry but I had to fold her Like a pornography poster

Of course, apart from the fact that my 10-year-old niece was doing a dance to this song, there's nothing here to shock us anymore, nothing that we haven't learned to expect from our culture generally, and hip-hop more specifically.

Still, it was thrown into dramatic light by an email I received a little later in the day. The last time I was in Israel, I had the opportunity to visit Dr. Hanna Massad, the once and future pastor of Gaza Baptist Church. As I mentioned in my blog posting, he and his family were at the time living in the West Bank, having fled Gaza for their safety. Just a few months before, Rami Ayyad, a friend and employee, had been kidnapped by Islamic extremists for being a Christian. He was tortured and eventually killed, and his assailants dumped his body in a field.

Today was the one-year anniversary of Rami's death, and Dr. Massad sent me a link to a website which had been established in his memory. Especially moving was this message, written by Rami's mother:

I write about my son while my heart weeps. I will weep all my life. My pain grew deeper when four months after his death, his daughter Sama was born. What wrong has this baby committed not to be able to feel the warmth of her father? What crime have his wife and two boys done to live without a dad? What crime has Rami done? His only crime is that he had faith in Christ Jesus. We trust the Lord that he will not leave his wife and children because the blood of the martyr is not given in vain. Rami defended the word of God. He has made us all proud, all the Ayyad family. We are proud of his martyrdom because he died while defending his faith and refused to deny Christ.

As plausible, reasonable, and perhaps even as persuasive as Aristotle's account of the good life is, an event like this throws it into some relief against the New Testament. It's true, as Aristotle says, that no one can be happy on the rack: no one could say that Rami ended his life "happy", by any definition. But the question is whether Rami's life was a good life. "I am crucified with Christ," Paul said, and it's clear that this moves substantially beyond metaphor. "No man can be blessed [μακαριος] if he meet with fortunes like those of Priam," Aristotle says; and yet Jesus very specifically contradicts him: "Blessed [μακαριοι] are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."

Of course, there's a great deal of overlap between Aristotle's ethics, and the moral vision of the New Testament: Aristotle also knew that courage, and perhaps even death in battle, could be a part of the good life. But where Aristotle looks to the edge of the world and sees a final horizon, Christians look to an empty tomb; and in the darkness of this tomb they see beyond the horizons of this world.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Thoughts on the Presidential Race

One of my wife's friends is a US citizen who has been living in the UK since she married a theology professor at the University of Edinburgh. She asked me recently for a stateside perspective on the presidential race. What follows is a lightly edited version of what I wrote to her.

Up until very recently, I was pretty solidly planning to vote for McCain. He's always been willing to answer tough questions, has never been tied up in party politics, and has had a reputation for integrity.  More than any other politician in modern history, he's been willing to critique himself and to admit to mistakes that he's made over the years.  He was also unique amongst politicians for his commitment to answer the question the reporter asked instead of the question that he wished the reporter had asked.  That sort of honesty and risk-taking impresses me in a politician like nothing else.  I was for McCain back in 2000 (he would have made a far, far better president than Bush), and I've remained a fan ever since.

I should also note that this would be a first: I registered as a Democrat back in college (mostly because the dude running the registration booth really wanted me to register Republican), and I have yet to vote for a Republican presidential candidate. Despite that, I've always been more of an independent than a Democrat, but I've also found myself tilting in a more conservative direction recently. Specifically, I find myself more of a social conservative as the years go by, or at least, I attribute more value to those issues.  I'm not a pro-life fanatic, but I think abortion-on-demand is abhorrent, and I strongly believe that, with a few exceptions, there's no question that it should be against the law.  The Supreme Court decision legalizing it was horribly reasoned: in my opinion, it stands right next to the Dred Scott decision as an indelible stain on the Supreme Court's legacy.  (I bring this up not to convince anyone, but to let you know my reasoning.)  McCain himself is only a mild social conservative, but he's also a strict constructionist, and there's no question that he'd be far more likely to appoint judges that could overturn Roe v. Wade than Obama (who is ardently pro-choice) would be.  And so with other, similar social issues that I tend to think are important.

At the same time, I also think that Obama would make a fairly good president.  I don't like his stand on moral/social issues, full-stop, but he's clearly got a good head on his shoulders, and the way he's handled his campaign shows that he's got great political instincts.  He's the most charismatic candidate we've had since Ronald Reagan, and he's a great deal more intelligent and thoughtful than Reagan ever was.  Obama is more like Bill Clinton than anything else, but I think he's more charismatic even than Bill, and from what I can tell, he has a great deal more integrity.

Between the two, McCain may yet get my vote, but I have to say, I've begun to waver, for two primary reasons.

  1. McCain has completely abandoned his "straight talk express".  Some of this is sad, but just what you have to do when you're running a national campaign: he's thrown the press off the bus, he sticks to his talking points, he's started speaking in sound bites.  But some of it is a real mark against his integrity.  I'm a McCain fan, but even I think he's been stretching the truth in his attacks against Obama, and lots of other folks think that he's been lying outright.  That was working for a while, and it helped to get his polling numbers up a little bit, but it turned me off.  (Of course, Obama has made his share of exaggerations and stupid claims, but McCain's, in my opinion, are more egregious.)
  2. I'm beginning to think that it was a mistake for McCain to pick Sarah Palin.  There was a period of time when it looked like that decision might have been sheer genius.  Palin has energized the religious right like nothing I've seen.  No conservative Christian that I know was enthusiastic about McCain (though they were pretty much all planning to vote for him).  But when he announced Palin as his choice, these same conservatives were nearly ecstatic.  Dobson, for one, changed his tune on McCain completely, and began singing his praises in radio show after radio show.  My mother teared up during Palin's RNC acceptance speech – and I have to admit, Palin turned in a phenomenal performance that day.  But it was a very short honeymoon.  Palin has stumbled badly since then, in a number of areas, but most notably in her interviews with Katie Couric.  Granted, I might not have been able to answer all those questions in a very intelligent manner, either – like Palin, off the top of my head, I can't think of any Supreme Court decisions besides Roe v. Wade that I disagree with.  But I expect the occupant of the chair next to the President to be a great deal more intelligent and experienced than I am; and on the whole, in her interviews, Palin has seemed to be a great deal less.  As Galena pointed out yesterday, Palin has substantially less foreign policy experience than we do.  And while Palin didn't embarrass herself in her debate with Biden, it was clear that Biden was not only more experienced (of course), but also, in my opinion, much more intelligent.

So all that said, I'm not sure where I'll end up.  I don't think either of them would make a bad president, and I think there's a reasonable chance that either one might make a great president.  But I'm disappointed in McCain's performance lately, and it's made me less excited to see him in the Oval Office.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

An Explanation of the Crisis

Dan Edelen just posted an excellent explanation of the economic crisis.  It was written by an economist friend of his, and it explains more about why the meltdown on Wall Street, and the subsequent tightening of credit, could have a huge impact on Main Street than anything else I've read.
Our economy uses credit so systematically and it is so much at the core of our economic effectiveness, that to constrain it just the littlest bit sends shock waves throughout the whole system. The businesses that are right on the edge—the ones that need to borrow money even for a day or two to cover the cost of inventory and make payments to manufacturers before inventory is sold—are in a very precarious position. If they can’t get credit they’ll get caught between paying for inventory and paying for payroll, for example. That’s a tough spot…if you don’t pay for the inventory on time you get no more and you’re out of business. If you don’t pay the employees, they all quit and/or the news gets out and your suppliers dry up. Any way, you’re out of business.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Veep Debate

Galena and I don't have TV, so we didn't get to watch the Veep debate live. But we just watched it off the Internet tonight, and I want to record my initial impressions. (We're actually still watching it – Galena's annoyed that I'm typing on the same computer we're using to watch the debate.)

  1. I thought Palin gave a phenomenal nomination speech at the RNC nomination. It was amazing.
  2. Palin embarrassed herself pretty badly in the Katie Couric interviews. Ouch.
  3. Palin didn't embarrass herself in the debates. She was far better than Admiral Stockdale, who very helpfully set the modern standard for embarrassment at the national level.
  4. Palin didn't impress me. Whenever Palin didn't know what to say to a question, she didn't try to answer it, or give it any thought; she transparently changed the topic. And of course, she was generally parroting canned answers, which I don't mind so much as I mind noticing it.
  5. Biden generally impressed me. In nearly every instance, gave a clear, concise, impressive answer. Of course he spun every answer, but that's just what you expect. Like Palin, he sometimes changed the topic when he didn't like it, but he generally did it after answering the question, rather than instead of answering the question.  (The big exception was when he was asked which of his ticket's promises would have to be postponed due to the financial crisis.  The answer he gave -- and which Palin also gave immediately afterwards -- was a complete weasel answer, and it almost made me turn the debate off.)
  6. I hated the format. The 90 second timeline forced each candidate to give sound-bite answers rather than anything remotely resembling a thoughtful response.

I'm rather depressed about McCain's strategy lately. I liked McCain initially because I really bought into the "maverick" rhetoric. I was impressed by the thoughtful answers he gave to tough questions, and by his unique ability to critique himself. But all of that has changed. I know why it's changed, of course: it wasn't working anymore. The press pretty much anointed Obama, and McCain simply couldn't get any airtime. During Obama's overseas trip in July, McCain could have stripped naked in Times Square and run around screaming "I hate America," and he wouldn't have made it past page 3. So I understand why he's changed strategy. But I like the old McCain more.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Deregulation as the Cause of the Liquidity Crisis?

I keep reading, in well over a dozen different articles now, that deregulation was one of the primary causes of the current credit crisis. It's a de rigeur part of any Democratic attempt to explain this crisis (with a finger pointed implicitly or explicitly at the Republicans in general, and John McCain in particular). I have no partisan axe to grind here – I'm a Democrat, if not always a very good one – but what I haven't heard is any more detailed explanation: just a naked and unsubstantiated claim.

Indeed, my mother, a bank COO, tells me that from her perspective, there's a great deal more regulation now than 10 years ago. In a recent email, she said:

We bankers have been advocating deregulation for years, but I haven't seen any lessening of regulations; in fact, I'm sure we have way more regulations now than ever before. We've spent the last four months getting ready for the newest hot button - "Identity Theft Prevention Program" requirements, creating a 70-page document that hopefully covers all that we need to do. Actually, most of the regulations are good, but sometimes they become so cumbersome and we are required to give so many disclosures, that customers don't read any of them. Case in point: A year or so ago, our Chief Lending Officer had to appear in court to testify against a customer who had defaulted on their loan. She presented their signed Loan Agreement (which, due to numerous regulations, was many pages long); the judge took one look at it, and tossed it aside, saying, "You don't really expect people to understand all of that, do you?"

Now, she's a commercial banker, not an investment banker, and there's a pretty significant world of difference between them. But I've read and heard all sorts of details about the debt instruments at the heart of this crisis: mortgage backed securities, collateral debt obligations, credit default swaps, and all the other terms that way too many folks on Main Street now know way too much about. But I haven't heard a single detail, or even a reasonable attempt at high-level explanation, as to what deregulation occurred, why it occurred, and how this specific removal of regulations (or lack of enforcement of existing regulations) contributed to the crisis.

I'm not saying it didn't happen – I'm just saying that I haven't heard any explanation or details. Does anyone know anything about this, or can anyone point me in the right direction to understand better what's being claimed here?

Real Estate Roller Coaster

For a simple, visceral explanation of the insane increase in home values which has driven this latest crisis, see this video, produced in 2007, as home values were peaking, but well before there was anything like general recognition that we were facing a crisis.

It will give you a pretty good sense for the height of the fall we might be looking at.

Frighteningly Prescient New York Times Article

My mother, the COO at a small bank in Longview, forwarded me this article from the New York Times, written in 1999. The article describes steps by Fannie Mae to lower their lending standards, in order to increase minority and lower-income home ownership. Two of the paragraphs are eerily prescient:

In moving, even tentatively, into this new area of lending, Fannie Mae is taking on significantly more risk, which may not pose any difficulties during flush economic times. But the government-subsidized corporation may run into trouble in an economic downturn, prompting a government rescue similar to that of the savings and loan industry in the 1980's.

''From the perspective of many people, including me, this is another thrift industry growing up around us,'' said Peter Wallison a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. ''If they fail, the government will have to step up and bail them out the way it stepped up and bailed out the thrift industry.''

I heard an economist on KUOW this morning refer to the difference between "home ownership" and "home borrowership". We've gotten the two confused, he said. Nobody who takes out a negative amortization mortgage, or who buys a home with no money down, really owns the home. Any future US policy in regard to home ownership should absolutely take note of that distinction.