Friday, December 24, 2010

Santa Claus: Fact or fiction?

Santa Claus visits the author's home.

As Christmas approaches, I once again don my tinfoil hat to delve into the world of conspiracy theories.  In this edition, I examine what is reputed to be one of the world’s oldest and largest conspiracies.  If true, this conspiracy would dwarf the Kennedy assassination, the Roswell incident, and the cover-ups of the September 11 attacks.  This conspiracy would involve millions of people around the world over hundreds of years and reach all the way to the US military’s North American Air Defense Command (NORAD).  It permeates the film and publishing industries as well as retail stores throughout the Western world.  I speak, of course, of the Great Santa Claus Conspiracy.

For years, it has been alleged that Santa Claus is a myth.  Conspiracists point to the outlandish claims regarding the Red-Suited Elf:  That he purportedly operates an aerial sleigh pulled by eight flying reindeer (nine if Rudolph is included), that this sleigh is of sufficient cargo capacity to carry enough toys to satisfy the world’s population of children and, as Dave Barry might put it, “enough candy to meet the nation’s zit needs well into the next century.” 

The conspiracist’s claims have shown up in numerous popular culture references over past decades.  A Norman Rockwell painting called “The Discovery” shows a shocked boy finding a Santa suit in his parent’s dresser.  A popular Christmas song, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” also alleges that Santa is really the child’s father in disguise.  Numerous television shows, movies, and comic strips make similar accusations.

One of the most significant objections is why elves toiling in the toy shops of the North Pole produce toys that are so similar to toys produced by conventional corporations that they can be readily exchanged at local retailers.  Don’t Santa’s elves respect copyrights and patents?  (Granted, this doesn’t seem to stop the Chinese either.)  Similarly, the financial burden of giving free toys to the children of the world would be staggering.  Charity is not cheap.

The conspiracists, however, ignore inconvenient facts that do not support their claims.  For example, the reality is that Santa Claus is a historical figure.  Originally known as St. Nicholas, Santa was a bishop of the Christian church in Myra, Turkey in the fourth century AD.  St. Nicholas was persecuted and imprisoned for his faith by the Roman Emperor Diocletian.  St. Nicholas took Jesus’ instruction to the rich, young ruler to “sell all your possessions and give to the poor.”  He was known for his generosity and for being a protector of children.

Many stories and legends grew up around Nicholas.  In one, a poor man could not afford the dowries that were customarily required to entice men to marry his three daughters.  Since they could not find husbands, they were destined to be sold into slavery.  On three separate occasions, Nicholas supposedly tossed bags of gold into the window of their house to provide a dowry for the girls.  The bags reportedly landed in stockings or shoes by the fire, giving rise to the custom of children hanging up stockings to await Nicholas’ gifts.

1863 depiction of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast
St. Nicholas died on December 6, AD 343 and therefore cannot be the modern Santa.  Instead the example that St. Nicholas set for Christian charity and loving compassion for children inspired many other copycat Santas throughout the centuries.  The name “Santa Claus” may be a corruption of the Dutch (“Sinter Klaas”) and German (“Sankt Nicklaus”) names for St. Nicholas that appeared in New York City after the American Revolution.  The combination of Old World terms is appropriately American.

When Santa’s origins are taken account, the objections of the conspiricists can be explained.  For example, since Christmas is celebrated only by Christians, Santa is not required to visit all the children in the world.  Christians make up only about one third of the world’s population, which shortens Santa’s itinerary markedly.  Not even all Christian children celebrate Christmas with Santa.  A growing number of Christian parents do not teach their children about Santa.  In these cases, the parents clearly give the Christmas gifts.  Santa doesn’t go where he isn’t invited and his workload is further reduced.

Similarly, the fewer gifts required would also ease Santa’s financial burden.  Further, growing up in northeast Georgia, the author’s parents explained that although Santa provided and delivered the toys to good boys and girls, he did require a contribution from the parents.  Subsequent fact-checking with my classmates confirmed that the story was consistent.  My friend’s had heard the same thing.  This explains the reason that Santa’s gifts reflect socioeconomic level.  If the parents must help Santa defray the cost of gifts, not all parents can afford dirt bikes, ponies, solid-gold iPods, etc. 

A reasonable for explanation for the apparent copyright infringement by North Pole toy workers is that Santa likely works out licensing agreements with the major toy companies.  Licensing is a common practice in many industries in which the product’s developer gives other companies the legal right to produce their own version.  In Santa’s case, the licensed products are indistinguishable from toys made in conventional factories. 

With respect to the conspiracy claims of the various media, there are also numerous other conspiracy claims on various subjects.  There are a myriad of unproven theories about every subject under the sun, some plausible, most not.  In just the past few years, we have been subjected to claims of a “vast right wing conspiracy” against President Clinton, claims that President Bush was complicit in the 9/11 attacks, and claims that President Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim.  Just because it’s in print, it doesn’t mean it’s true.

The conspiracy against Santa Claus has been going on for over one hundred years.  In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun asking for the truth about Santa.  The paper’s editorial response makes many excellent points about the Santa conspiracy.  First noting that the Santa skeptics are the product of a skeptical age who lack the ability to believe in anything that they cannot see.  It also points out the maxim of scientists that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. 

Like many things in life, reality is not limited by what we can see.  We can’t see the wind, but we know it is there.  We can’t see an atom, but we take it on faith that its subatomic bonds will not allow a chair to fade into nothingness as we sit down.  We can’t see God, but we know He is there because He makes His presence known in the world through His creation (Romans 1:20).  

Similarly, we may not see Santa Claus flying through the sky on Christmas Eve, but we can see the effects of his annual journey.  We see Santa in the Christmas Spirit of hope through Christ, generosity to our fellow man, and childlike faith.  The colors of Santa’s suit (and Christmas in general) reflect the Christian origins of the holiday.  Red represents the blood of Christ that was shed on the cross to pay for humanity’s sins.  White represents the purity and holiness of Jesus.  The green of the holly and Christmas trees stands for the hope of eternal life.  Silver and gold are associated with the Christmas star as well as the treasures brought by the Magi.

Whether there is one Santa or a hundred thousand Santas around the world, there is ample of evidence of the Santa’s mark on the world.  The compassion and generosity of Santa Claus helps us to see the love and hope that Christ offers the world.  If Santa were nothing but the product of a vast, Christmas conspiracy, the world would be a colder and darker place indeed.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

What is net neutrality?


Georgians by now realize that the fancy, technical names given by politicians to laws and policies are often misleading. The Democrats seem especially guilty of this tactic since so many of their ideas would be unpopular if the people knew their details. After all, if the people of Georgia and America knew that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would actually drive up prices and lead to shortages of health insurance, it would have been even more unpopular than it already was.

Such is the case with net neutrality. If Georgians knew that it was going to result in more government regulation of the internet and higher costs to access the web, while at the same time discouraging investment and stifling innovation, they would have strongly opposed the policy. Instead, almost nobody noticed the bland-sounding policy.

The term “net neutrality” evokes images of protecting the internet from undue political or corporate influence, yet in reality the opposite is true. Net neutrality was a call from leftists groups for increased government regulation and oversight of the internet.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, John Fund describes the backers of net neutrality. The concept began as a media reform campaign by Robert McChesney’s Free Press organization. McChesney wrote that “the battle over network neutrality is not to completely eliminate the telephone and cable companies… but the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.”

Fund goes on to describe how a confederation that included most of the same groups that created the “Astroturf” movement demanding campaign finance reform has pushed net neutrality. Campaign finance reform resulted in the McCain-Feingold law, which was ultimately ruled to be an unconstitutional limit on free speech. These leftist groups, including Free Press and the Pew Charitable Trusts, sponsored studies backing net neutrality. These studies were prominently cited in the FCC’s “National Broadband Plan.”

The FCC originally tried to impose net neutrality in a ruling against Comcast in August 2008. However, in April 2010, a federal appeals court in Washington, DC decided that Congress had not given the FCC legal authority to regulate the internet.

The following month, a bipartisan group of congressmen sent letters to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stating in no uncertain terms that his plans for net neutrality were a bad idea. A letter by seventy-four Democrats stated that it would “jeopardize jobs" and "should not be done without additional direction from Congress.” Thirty-seven Republicans wrote that Genachowski’s planned rules were “heavy-handed 19th century regulations" that are "inconceivable" and illegal.

In response, the FCC unilaterally decided to reinterpret its jurisdiction over telephones to include the authority to regulate the internet. This week’s vote to impose net neutrality rules in a party line vote among the FCC’s five-member board. Chairman Genachowski and two Democratic members of the board voted for net neutrality, while the two Republican members opposed it. The FCC essentially extended government control over the internet after being told by both Congress and the courts that it did not have that authority. President Obama appointed Chairman Genachowski and the FCC answers to the President.

What does net neutrality mean for you?

The new net neutrality regulations will prohibit internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking access to legal websites and allow the FCC to determine if ISPs are “unreasonable” in prioritizing internet traffic on its network.

However, there has been no history of companies blocking access to websites. This was a manufactured crisis (a la Rahm Emanuel) in order to justify increased regulation. In reality, ISPs have voluntarily refrained from blocking web access. In contrast, the federal government has been shutting down websites without due process.

The use of the word “unreasonable” is ambiguous. As Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said, it is “perhaps the most litigated word in American history.” The wording leaves the enforcement of the regulations open to arbitrary interpretation. This means that, not only will there be legal challenges, but internet companies will be forced to lobby FCC and other government officials to gain approval for their business plans. As Woodrow Wilson said, “If the government is to tell big business men how to run their business, then don't you see that big business men have to get closer to the government even than they are now? Don't you see that they must capture the government, in order not to be restrained too much by it?”

Additionally, the new rules say that ISPs can charge more to customers who use more bandwidth. This means that, where most internet users now pay roughly the same, if you watch a lot of online videos or movies or play memory-intensive games, you might have to pay more for your internet access in the near future.

Finally, the new rules will likely inhibit investment and innovation. New regulations will likely make it harder for new companies to enter the web marketplace. In the past few years, new internet companies have risen from inception to multi-billion dollar firms in a few short years. Google and Facebook are both ubiquitous but less than fifteen years old. New hardware, software and websites are being introduced constantly. Government interference can only slow and hamper this process.

In summary, everyone is unhappy with the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Leftists who fear corporations and embrace government control want harsher rules. Conservatives and libertarians who believe in limited government feel that the FCC should stay out of the internet, especially since Congress has not extended the agency authority to regulate it. There will almost certainly be legal challenges due the vague and arbitrary nature of the law. Equally certain is that the Republicans will seek to rein in President Obama and his rogue agency when they take control of the House of Representatives next year.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Does START limit missile defense?

As the Senate moves forward on a ratification vote for President Obama’s START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) Treaty, Georgia’s senators seem split on whether to vote for the treaty.  Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, both Republicans, have differing opinions on whether the treaty should be ratified.

The treaty limits the number of offensive nuclear weapons that the US and Russia can field.  Each country will be limited to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and 700 intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles (ICBMs).  You can view the entire (unclassified portion of the) treaty on the State Department’s website.

One of the controversial parts of the treaty is the mention of anti-missile systems in its preamble.  The preamble mentions a “the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms….”  This leads many to question whether the treaty places limits on the United States’ right to field anti-missile systems to defend itself against attack.  President Obama says that the preamble is not part of the binding agreement, and that the US will continue to develop missile defense systems.

It appears likely that Obama is correct, because several paragraphs later, at the end of the preamble, the treaty reads that the “United States of America and the Russian Federation…  Have agreed as follows….”  In other words, the preamble does not appear to be part of the treaty agreement.

The matter is made more complicated by the fact that the Russians imply that they believe that anti-missile systems are included in the treaty.  The Russians have stated that “they reserve the right to withdraw from the New START treaty, if Washington's missile defense plans pose what they consider to be a threat to Russia's strategic nuclear deterrent force.”  In other words, the entire treaty might be for naught if the US continues to develop missile defense systems, even though the binding treaty does not specifically address them, except to say that neither country may convert ICBM or SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile) launchers into defensive systems (Article V, Section 3). 

Ironically, the US is not seeking to build a defensive capability that would negate a Russian strike.  The US missile defense is focused on rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, which might launch small-scale nuclear attacks.  A system that could defend against a full-scale Russian attack is years away.

At this point, Senator Johnny Isakson has indicated that he plans to vote in favor of the treaty.  Isakson believes that US missile defense will not be inhibited and that some “verification is better than no verification at all….”  Since the old treaty expired in 2009, the US has not been able to verify the Russian nuclear arsenal.

President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev in 2009.
Senator Saxby Chambliss, however, still has reservations.  In a speech linked from his website, Senator Chambliss says that he “wants to support” the treaty, but has concerns in five areas.  First, he wants to be sure that it will not affect US missile defense.  Second, he wants to ensure that the Congress will fund modernization of US nuclear weapons.  Third, Senator Chambliss wants to make sure that the treaty’s verification process is adequate.  His fourth objection deals with the classified portions of the treaty, and, finally, he would like for the treaty to address short-range tactical nuclear weapons as well as long-range strategic ones.  Russia has a large numerical advantage over the US in small, “suitcase” weapons.

The START Treaty requires 67 votes to be ratified and more Republicans are lining up to support it.  A test vote to close debate on the treaty passed today 67-28.  A vote could be taken to ratify the treaty as early as tomorrow.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Will terrorists attack this Christmas?

Photo by Salvatore Vuono 
As Christmas approaches, the one-year anniversary of the attempted Christmas bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on December 25, 2009.  The attack by Abdul Farouk Umar Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian Muslim, failed when a bomb sewn into his underwear failed to detonate properly.

Terror attacks are often planned for symbolic dates or for times when the terrorists can obtain maximum publicity.  For example, an attack on Los Angeles International Airport set for New Year’s Eve, 1999 was foiled by alert Customs agents.  More recently, the FBI foiled a car bomb attack in Portland, Oregon scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend, 2010. 

The date of September 11 was significant in Muslim history as the date of a battle in 1683 in which the army of the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the Battle of Vienna, Austria by the Holy League, an alliance of European countries.  The battle marked the high water mark of the Ottoman Empire and the end of Muslim hopes for control of Europe.

The FAA recently issued a notice stating that, while there is no specific threat, pilots – and Americans in general – should be vigilant and report suspicious activity.  Given the increasing number of terrorists uncovered in the US and terror attacks by American Muslims, this advice should not apply only during the holiday season.

The fact that Atlanta-Hartsfield International Airport is a major international hub makes it an attractive target for terrorists.  Many attempted terror attacks, including the Underwear Bomber’s, now originate from other countries due to increased security at US airports.  Atlanta’s large numbers of flights to and from other countries make it a statistically likely target. 

Whether terrorists try to strike us this holiday season or not, they will continue to attack Americans.  By exercising vigilance, we can hopefully prevent attacks and save lives.  

Photo credit:

Pivotal week on Capitol Hill

The past week produced several political events of great political significance in Washington.  The Republicans were able to exercise influence far out of proportion to the size of their still outnumbered caucus to shape fiscal and tax policy for the next few years.  They can thank the Tea Party for this.

The first major news of the week came from Virginia though, where US District Judge Henry Hudson ruled that the individual mandate to purchase health insurance was unconstitutional.  If this ruling is upheld when it ultimately is likely heard by the Supreme Court, it will render Obamacare unworkable. 

The individual mandate was needed to keep the insurance companies from being run out of business when the law changes to require that they cover pre-existing conditions.  Without the mandate to force healthy people to buy insurance, there will not be enough premium revenues to pay the medical bills of unhealthy people who wait until they are sick to buy insurance.  Companies, and governments, cannot continue to exist if they pay out more money than they take in.

Harry Reid lost on the spending bill, but passed DADT.
The second major story of the week was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s inability to sway Republicans into supporting the omnibus spending bill.  Initially, several Republicans (although none from Georgia) had planned to support the pork-filled bill.  However, as revelations of the bill’s earmarks and pork-barrel spending became public knowledge, Republican support evaporated.  The echoes of last month’s landslide election, as well as the primary election loss of Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT), one of the Republicans who planned to vote for the bill, were obviously a factor in the revolt against Reid’s bill.

Coming on the heels of the spending bill’s defeat, President Obama signed the tax compromise to extend the Bush-era tax rates and prevent a January 1 tax increase for all Americans.  Many Democrats tacitly admitted that the Keynesian demand-side policies of President Obama have not worked as well as they had hoped (or at all).  Larry Summers, director of the White House Economic Council even noted that “failure to pass this bill in the next couple weeks would materially increase the risk that the economy would stall out and we would have a double-dip,” which is exactly what Republicans have been saying for years.

Similarly, much of the Democratic opposition was on the grounds that the deal would increase the deficit.  The deal is slated to add $857 billion to the deficit over ten years, which is very misleading since it is only in effect for two years.  This estimate does not take into account the fact that the economy would likely shrink if taxes were increased, but will probably continue its slow growth under the deal.  It also doesn’t take into account the fact that the wealthy would move their money to tax shelters if tax rates were increased.  Republicans should remind Democrats of their newfound zeal for deficit reduction when the next spending and appropriations bills are debated. 

The final earth-shattering moment this week was the repeal of the “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell” (DADT) law.  This was a Clinton-era compromise that allowed military personnel who were homosexual to remain in the armed forces provided they remained silent about their sexual orientation.  The policy does not change immediately, but the new law sets in motion a gradual elimination of DADT.

Military DADT publication
The repeal of DADT was an issue in which some left-leaning and social libertarian Republicans broke ranks with the majority of their party.  Eight Republican senators and five Republican congressmen voted to repeal.  None of Georgia’s Republican delegation voted to repeal DADT.

The new law may have important (and negative) implications for national security.  In the midst of a two-front war and with other hot spots such as North Korea and Iran simmering, almost twenty-five percent of American military personnel indicate that they would not or might not re-enlist if DADT were repealed.  Ten percent of those polled indicated that they definitely would not re-enlist.  A loss of one in ten US military personnel would be greater than the loss of the entire US Marine Corps.

A big part of the problem is that many soldiers view homosexuality as immoral.  This is based on the teachings of most of the world’s major religions.  Military chaplains have long been concerned about freedom of speech and religion if DADT were repealed.  Their primary calling is to preach the Gospel to soldiers and a zero-tolerance policy for dissenting against homosexuality would put their roles into conflict. 

The conflict between freedom of religion and gay rights in the military is a harbinger for the coming societal battle.  As gay marriage becomes more prevalent in spite of societal opposition, it will become increasingly more controversial to speak out against it.  Chai Feldblum, President Obama’s nominee to the EEOC, has already stated that she believes that sexuality liberty should trump the constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and religion.  Americans are already finding themselves being punished for opposing the homosexual agenda.

December 2010 will be a pivotal month in our nation’s history, and the past week will likely be the most important week of the month.  The impact of the decisions made this week, good and bad, will be felt for years to come.