Category Archives: India

From housing to plumbing

(originally written Mar 4, 2012.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

Readers (regular and irregular both) may know that about six years ago, I was quoted in MacLean’s saying Canadian housing was in a bubble.  So after six long years of looking very wrong, I was delighted to see the right-wing rag run a cover story proclaiming that Canadian housing is in a bubble!  So I’ll dedicate this email to all the stopped clocks out there — twice a day, your time will come!  :)

Like anyone else challenged by a cognitive dissonance between ego and evidence, I naturally prefer the delusion that I wasn’t wrong, just early.  ;)  Having figured prices would fall by 2008 at the latest, I like to think I was only off by an Olympiad, or eight “Friedman units“.  On the more forgiving fossil-record timescale, I nailed it!

MacLean’s take

MacLean’s cites low interest rates and lax lending standards as a (sub?)prime reason for the real estate boom-turned-bubble.  This can kind of be expected, because most people aren’t great with money.  It’s a financial variant of Sturgeon’s Law, which says that “ninety percent of everything is crap”.  Take housing market predictions, for example…  ;)

Given the opportunity to make very bad decisions by enabling financial institutions, most people will do so.  Indeed, the mutual fund industry owes its existence to people’s predilection for sub-par performance!  Of course, most guys who throw their own darts probably do even worse, so the best way to look at mutual funds is probably to see them as a less-damaging “cowpox” to the “smallpox” of DIY investing.  :)

My take

As you’d expect from a left-leaning atheist on an issue like this, I’m with… Jesus, and blame the bankers.  ;)  If people are trying to borrow beyond their means, competent financial institutions are supposed to not make loans.  Of course, fewer loans means lower profits and much lower stock-option-based executive compensation.  (As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.)  By loosening lending standards, bank executives can enjoy kingly compensation; and by the time the crisis hits, they’ve moved on to other pillage-able pastures.  Which explains why cartoons like this make the rounds:

Banks lending / too much damn money / to people, is a haiku microcosm of how Greece came to be in its quandary: it borrowed more than any sane lender could’ve reasonably expected it to repay.  Which is why European governments are trying to work out “bailouts” by which they launder money through Greece to recapitalize their countries’ banks.  The “choose your own adventure” blog entry here does a pretty good job of showing the stalemate.

Compounding the problem, austerity packages are being pitched, which will only make the crisis worse; in cutting public services, austerity measures reduce a country’s GDP (because public-sector activities count towards GDP) meaning debt has to be repaid from an even smaller national account.

The endgame seems to be that Greece defaults and reverts to its own currency, while everyone else does the duck-and-cover.  After mistiming the Canadian housing market — and fuel cell vehicle commercialization for that matter — I’ll decline to guess when that happens.  ;)  A cheaper currency would cement Greece as a cheap vacationing spot (tourism is one of their biggest industries) and allow them to attract some manufacturing jobs with which to rebuild their economy.

There’re many precedents for thinking that default and devaluation would work.  Iceland defaulted a few years back; its GDP is now higher than pre-crisis levels, and its government debt is now back at “investment grade”!  Argentina also did pretty well after its default in the early 2000’s… and a forgiving of debts (effectively a society-wide default) preceded the rise of democracy in classical Athens.

The march of progress.  And plumbing!

Pessimists might note that we’re not always that good at learning the lessons of history — even as Iceland resurges, Latvia is in a “Shock Doctrine” death spiral.  But here on Team Glass-half-full, I like to think that we do in fact make slow progress.  :)   Consider universal indoor plumbing, which none of us would want to live without.  First invented around 2000BC by some proto-Tommy Douglas of the Harappan Civilization in the Indus Valley, this was such a breakthrough that within thirty-eight centuries London, England — capital of the globe-straddling British Empire — had decided to build its own!  Progress — there’s no stopping it!  ;)

Doubting “doubting” Thomas

(written March 17; uploaded Aug 9)

Dang, I missed being able to send this out on 3:16 — wouldn’t that’ve been topical! Oh well, St. Patrick’s Day it is, then…

I should also note that I’ll be using the conventions of modern scholarship.*

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I’ll be picking up a physical copy of the latest National Geographic, as its cover story “The Journey of the Apostles” has a great bit on “doubting” Thomas, whom tradition has it (and scholarship largely accepts, based on the balance of evidence) travelled to Jewish colonies in India, to proselytize there.

Sadly, when Portugese imperialists got to India around 1600 and discovered a heretical Christian sect with their own holy texts, they kinda had all the bad books burned. Which means that we may never know the literature the relatively-isolated Thomas Christians passed down from generation to generation. (Happily for them, Thomas Christians are still around in India, which hit on the idea of freedom of religion about two thousand years before America’s Founding Fathers made a big deal of it.) A hint of what might have been, comes from the “Jesus Sutras“, a set of Chinese-language Christian scriptures discovered recently in China, dating to roughly 1000 years ago.

Wildly heretical by most Christian standards, they poetically convey the transformative experience the faith has brought so many, over the years. If nothing else, they show the challenges of transposing subtle theological ideas across languages and cultures — something to keep in mind, when we consider that Christianity in Western Europe was a Gentile religion shaped by Latin-language liturgy based on manuscripts translated from Greek, about a Jewish founding community which spoke Aramaic! Suddenly the idea of the Buddha, a skinny Indian, being represented as a portly Chinese fellow, doesn’t seem so farfetched now, hmm? ;)

Now, I have sympathy for Thomas — so much so that Thomas was one of the few “normal” names I pitched for our son, early on — in part because I think he got a bad break with the whole “doubting” Thomas thing.

In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) the Big Three apostles are Peter, James and John. (And Mary, but that’s a different note, maybe for International Women’s Day or something.) While Jesus gives extra attention to the Big Three/Four, and Judas gets his big moment near the end, Thomas and the rest largely put in cameo appearances.

The Gospel of John is very different, coming from a different Christian community in a different area, with different priorities. And one of those priorities was sticking it to Thomas at every turn (hence the doubting-Thomas episode, among others). The Biblically curious only had one side of the story to go on, until a copy of The Gospel of Thomas was unearthed in Egypt about sixty years ago. Thought to’ve been written in a community near John’s community. And taking a few jabs at John’s beliefs about the Christ. Turn the other cheek, indeed…!  (This is the primary source for the preceding paragraph.)

So we now have the religious literature of two feuding, neighbouring faith communities, one of which came to overwhelmingly overshadow the other. To use a TV cartoon analogy, John is to Springfield as Thomas is to Shelbyville.

For many scholars, the Thomas Gospel is fascinating because parts of it may predate the Gospels. Among other things, it points to James the Just as the arbitrer of disagreements; he died in the early 60’s AD, while non-fundamentalist scholars tend to date the canonical Gospels to the period of roughly 70 to 100 AD. A healthy-but-not-overwhelming majority of scholars argue that Thomas came later, because other portions hint at the worldview of later-developing Gnostic Christianity. In a sense, it’s a case of whether scholars feel the glass is more half-full (parts of it seem early!) or half-empty (other parts seem late!).

As someone without a horse in the race, but with a chronic fondness for the underdog, I’m partial to the idea that there was an early Christian community espousing at least some of the ideas in the Gospel of Thomas, who didn’t get along with the community where the Gospel of John was written. Which would explain why both sides’ literature contains subtle digs against the other. It wouldn’t be the only case of this happening.

The unflattering depiction of Peter in the Gospel of Mark leads some scholars to think the author of Mark wasn’t a fan. Nor was John, who describes the “Beloved Disciple” in more flattering terms. (Tradition has it that the “Beloved Discipline” is John himself; convenient, eh? :) ) And nor was Thomas. But the fact that all three are uncharitable towards Peter, more or less proves he was an important figure in the early Christian communities. After all, if he was unimportant, why bother? In the same way, the Gospel of John’s criticism of the apostle Thomas suggests that there already existed a community identifying itself with that apostle, which had the “wrong” ideas about Jesus. Since Thomas doesn’t feature much in the other canonical Gospels, that community may have been pretty marginal. Perhaps because it didn’t yet exist…?  ;)

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It should be emphasized that none of these human foibles diminish in any way the life-changing experience of faith these early Christians were trying to convey in the words and deeds and miracles they recorded. While we live in a scientific era with a strict binary division between fiction and non-fiction, this was not the case when so much of the world’s profoundest religious literature was written. So it’s unfortunate that we moderns tend to get tied down in questions of factual accuracy, when the point of such scriptures is to point to timeless truths, not event-specific ones. A good modern analogy might be the US Declaration of Independence, which says that “all men are created equal”. This is technically untrue — we’re all different in our DNA, socioeconomic background, and so forth — and also overlooks half of humanity, but we accept it based on the deeper truth it points to. So it was for our forebears, and their guiding documents, in an earlier age.

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* funnily enough, one of the conventions is to refer to the authors of the various Gospels as Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, despite the fact that these almost certainly weren’t the authors’ names. And though Matthew gets pole position in the New Testament, Mark was written first (then used as a quasi-template by both Matthew and Luke) hence the order I’m using here…