Thursday, May 31, 2012

Let's see, it's three hours...  

And nine minutes to South Bend (best ever). Slightly over 210 miles. So is this the equivalent of commuting 42 miles each way, 5 days a week?

That may explain my new suits and blood pressure meds...
In other words, a long commute is definitely bad for your blood pressure but it's positively disastrous if it ends up eating into your physical activity time. So a longish walk or bike ride to work probably isn't that bad, but a long drive is disastrous. I really firmly believe that the existence of persistent regular traffic jams is just about the most underrated problem in American public policy, especially because it's a problem we could almost certainly solve relatively easily with a mix of congestion pricing, demand-responsive pricing of street parking, and more bus service.  [More]
I can assume I'll drop 20# and 20 points on the diastolic when I retire, right?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My next career...  

I'm going to be a leadership consultant to large farmers. Felix Salmon explains how this might work.
So what does it mean that this self-evidently ignominious blog post, two years after it was written, is still being passed around the upper echelons of the consultant-sphere, complete with its 270 comments? (“Wow this is incredible story for me . I will do my best to apply this in my everyday life.”) Part of it is that the post seems to have turned into something of an HBR evergreen, a bit like “Six-pack abs! See results in just 9 days!” over at Men’s Health. And that fact, in itself, is telling. HBR’s readers, it seems, are perennially starved for little blog posts telling them that they’re not self-centered enough, and that they should try to cut down on annoying things like paying attention to unexpected things the outside world might send their way.
If you want to be a leadership guru, pay attention. Don’t say anything which requires actual thought: just give your clients permission to do as little as possible, while remaining magnificently untroubled by self-doubt. Then you, too, might end up with lucrative consulting contracts for “Allianz, American Express, Brunswick Group, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan Chase, FEI, GE Capital, Merck, Clear Channel, Nike, UNICEF, and many others.” Yeah, I noticed how finance-heavy that list was, too. [More]

I just need a killer popup ad...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Junkbox, Episode VIXEN...  

I keep forgetting to share these.
Thanks for hanging in there.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Preparing Plan B...  

While I am seriously concerned that the Republican mindset is simply about power, the members who seem to be driving the bus having given some signals to indicate what a broad Republican victory this fall might mean.

Curiously, in a few ways, I might support their goals.

We can, I think, forget about the deficit reduction as likely. The goal for the right is to cut programs they hate and taxes. The first is a trivial amount (shutting PBS down won't dent the budget), and they have shown little regard for other supposed spending targets. 

One of which is, (ahem), the farm program.
A target price supporter discounted the idea that Tea Party House members would rebel against the notion of government set prices.
“It never comes up with them,” one said.  
Key members of the freshman class are seen as allies.
Reps. Martha Roby (R-Ala), Austin Scott (R-Ga.). Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), Steven Fincher (R-Tenn.), Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), Alan Nunnelee (R-Miss.), Steve Palazzo (R-Miss.), Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) and Robert Hurt (R-Va.) are seen as in the peanut camp.  [More]
This is just one example of unwillingness to cut anything other than stuff outside a your own district. This especially holds true for defense. Meaningful reform of major entitlements/defense look pretty low probability to me right now.
“The whole point here is to try to get some economic growth, job creation, to get out of this recession,” Kyl told POLITICO. “Why would we risk going backward with policy that even CBO says would be the wrong prescription right now?”
Arizona’s other senator, John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, dismissed Reid’s comments as “unfortunate.”
“I think it makes it pretty clear what Senator Reid doesn’t understand are the devastating effects on our nation’s security that Secretary Panetta has so graphically described,” said McCain, a Vietnam veteran and retired Navy captain.
“I wish [Panetta] would take a trip down to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and tell the president we cannot afford this from a national security standpoint,” McCain added. “That isn’t John McCain’s opinion; that is Leon Panetta’s opinion.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, an Air Force reservist, chimed in as well: “Gutting the military should be the last thing we want to do.” [More]
Keep in mind this was the deal they agreed to last summer. Which makes me pretty sure they will renege on any campaign-promised spending cuts in that huge block of the budget.

On the other hand, I don't think I can even guess how many tax targets they will aim for. And hit. Revenues will almost certainly drop to great cheers, even as corresponding cuts bog down. And a new war somewhere will suddenly become more feasible, along with some costly bullets.

Simple history tells us Republicans are bigger spenders and deficit producers, and especially unfunded spending. While they have neatly convinced many that Obama has been a big spender, he pales in comparison to Bush, and Reagan. They have, however failed to convince people who can do the math.


 Obama has indeed presided over the slowest growth in spending of any president using raw dollars, and it was the second-slowest if you adjust for inflation. The math simultaneously backs up Nutting’s calculations and demolishes Romney’s contention. The only significant shortcoming of the graphic is that it fails to note that some of the restraint in spending was fueled by demands from congressional Republicans. On balance, we rate the claim Mostly True. [More]
I was as surprised by these numbers as critics, but being a Keynesian, I support government spending increases during recessions, but not expansions. Thanks largely to the wind-down of the Iraq war and, in fairness, a less than cooperative Congress, the Obama "splurge" simply never happened.

My point is not to continue the did-too/did-not charges, but to estimate what a Republican sweep of power might mean for spending. Romney gave us a hint, I think in a recent interview with TIME.
Halperin: I want to get to a lot of those, and let’s go to spending, which is a big thing for you, one of the bases of comparison – you say you’d cut spending a lot more than the President has.  And like most governors I know, you can get down in the detail.  A lot of people don’t know that about you; you can really get your arms around a policy issue and go deep, so let’s talk about spending.  You have a plan, as you said, over a number of years, to reduce spending dramatically.  Why not in the first year, if you’re elected — why not in 2013, go all the way and propose the kind of budget with spending restraints, that you’d like to see after four years in office?  Why not do it more quickly?
Romney: Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5%.  That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression.  So I’m not going to do that, of course.  What you do is you make adjustments on a basis that show, in the first year, actions that over time get you to a balanced budget.  So I’m not saying I’m going to come up with ideas five or ten years from now that get us to a balanced budget.  Instead I’m going to take action immediately by eliminating programs like Obamacare, which become more and more expensive down the road – by eliminating them, we get to a balanced budget.  And I’d do it in a way that does not have a huge reduction in the first year, but instead has an increasing reduction as time goes on, and given the growth of the economy, you don’t have a reduction in the overall scale of the GDP.  I don’t want to have us go into a recession in order to balance the budget.  I’d like to have us have high rates of growth at the same time we bring down federal spending, on, if you will, a ramp that’s affordable, but that does not cause us to enter into a economic decline. [More][My emphasis]
Another way of putting this is expressed well by David Frum, a conservative heretic whom naturally I read. "We're all Keynesians during Republican administrations." Romney is at least smart enough not to try drastic cuts while the recovery is still struggling. The problem is while I agree with this, Congress may force just enough reductions to slow us to a halt, or alternately, after getting back to 4% growth, decide deficits don't matter again.

Where is all this leading me? Well, in discussion with my family this weekend, it dawned on me there are some things we could anticipate in a Romney win that would allow us to better cope during the ensuing administration.
  • My taxes will likely be lower than otherwise. Thanks to $6 corn, etc. I'm in the coddled sliver of 1%. We'll get ours first. And no, I won't be creating any jobs. In fact, I will be investing in technology that lowers labor needs (autonomous chainsaws, 600 hp.wheelbarrows, etc.) But given where demand will go, I won't be expecting big sales surges.
  • I think it puts a real horizon on low interest rates. I'm not too sure how fast the bond market will respond, but it could be faster than I think, raising interest rates despite Fed actions to the contrary. So my long-standing bias against piles of cash will be at least mitigated by seeking protection from interest costs. Sooner or later we'll have to inflate this debt, but the time delay for interest rates could be bigger than I imagine.
  • The economy could plunge (see also: UK), but more likely meander back into recession, in my best guess. The right has shown little finesse in fiscal policy and our delicate balancing act to encourage our fragile growth will succumb to policy lurches like SNAP cutbacks, unemployment cutoffs, and more government layoffs - especially at the state level. Meanwhile, tax cuts for the wealthy will have minimal stimulative effect on consumer spending, but could fuel asset inflation significantly. This could, in turn, keep farmland price growth strong, even as commodity prices stagnate or decline.
  • The effect of the resulting deficits will be hard to predict politically. Given the intransigence of the right on revenue increases (taxes), and the simultaneous reluctance to truly reform health care - which is THE problem - they may just be ignored as long as we remain the least ugly currency and can attract the immense hoard of free-floating cash in the world.
  • One sure thing is the end of health care reform for a while. Even so, the numbers on that problem might force even reluctant Republicans to try something. I just can't see them cutting off their largest demographic - the elderly - with any serious Medicare decreases. As for Medicaid, we too often forget it's increasingly about nursing homes, not just welfare moms/children. (Interesting note on this problem: it may not be enough to exhaust Mom's assets to qualify her nursing home costs for Medicaid coverage. Junior's assets may have to go as well.) One thing seems likely, large increases in the uninsured.
All of this speculation is worth the paper it isn't written on, of course. But the one scenario I think has the lowest possibility is a realistic long-term grappling with the deficit-causing problems, unless the economy is roaring and tax revenues growing by November, allowing some funds to actually be used to address the deficit.

But in that case, Obama is more likely to win.

As for farm prices, I think soon we'll suspect, at least, the yield curve has been altered by climate change, and assumed yield growth will be re-thought. We may realize our supply issues are real after a couple more below-trend yields.

So be lucky with rain, but avoid floods, stay in the 1%, don't have children/grandchildren to put through college or expect to have jobs for, don't lose your health or health insurance before 65, and you should be fine.

Monday, May 21, 2012

It's officially out...  

The PSA test for prostate cancer, which IMHO, has been a Full Employment Act for Urologists, as well as a sales brochure for daVinci robotic surgery machines, is no longer recommended for any man.
The task force said it conducted a review of clinical studies of PSA testing, including a large U.S. study and a European one. The U.S. study didn't find a mortality benefit. The task force said the European study suggested a small benefit of no more than 1 in 1,000 men screened.
"Many men are harmed by prostate-cancer screening" with a PSA test, said Michael LeFevre, the task force's co-chairman and a professor at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. "Very few will benefit." The task force is made up of 16 nonfederal, primary-care providers who review preventative health services and make recommendations, primarily for primary-care doctors.
Dr. LeFevre said the task force recommended doctors could still offer the PSA test if men are informed about the risks and benefits of the test. The blood test is meant to detect a substance found normally in the prostate that is also made by cancer cells. Men with higher PSA scores typically have a higher risk of developing prostate cancer. But the test isn't perfect, and in some cases follow-up biopsies find no cancer. [More]
Arguing against this test is like arguing against breast cancer screening. That too, has failed to show any true benefit. What we cannot handle intuitively is the false positive problem. Our "better safe than sorry" mentality should be replaced with "worse likely harmed than rarely sorry". Neither popular screening generates any good for the vast majority as well as much harm for way too many.

Just say no, amigos.

Before the Segway...  

The best we could do was this for personal transportation.


Looks like something for scouting cornfields to me.
Yet another reason...  

Why I drive a Chevrolet Equinox.

Jeez - it's funny when pretentious jerks fail.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I did not know that...  

In honor of a Johnny Carson special I watched in part this week, a factoid that would provide him a chance for the above well-worn line.

What are the word's busiest airline routes?

No matter what you guessed - you're wrong.

As you head out...  

To a graduation ceremony, try not to think about these troubling trends.

First, the sad job situation.
The research, done at Rutgers University, found that of the kids who've graduated from college since 2006, only 51 percent of them have full-time employment, and eleven percent of them are not working at all. That's bad enough, but when you look at just those people who have graduated since 2009, it gets even worse. Fewer than half of them found a job within a year of graduating; whereas 73 percent of those who graduated between 2006 and 2008 found jobs in the first year. Kids who graduated after 2009 are three times more likely to not have a fulltime job than the kids who finished between 2006 and 2008. Carl Van Horn, one of the study's co-authors, says,
The resilience of this year's and recent college graduates are being tested. Students who graduated during the past several years are facing historic obstacles in achieving the foundations of the American dream.
Well, the idea that they've got to go out there and dream the impossible dream really ought to motivate everyone currently busting ass to finish up school and get out into the "real world." [More][Source study]
But wait - there's more!
The study also determined that of those post-2009 grads who did end up finding full-time employment, 43% have jobs that do not require a college degree, prompting many to agree with their mothers' advice four years ago that you probably shouldn't have wasted four credits on that "Hegelian Dialectics in Buffy the Vampire Slayer" course you took sophomore year. Employed, post-2009 graduates also have an average starting salary of $27,000, $3,000 less than the average starting salary for the classes of 2006 and 2007; experts estimate that given the fragile state of the post-2009 economy, these wages are likely to stay depressed for the next ten or fifteen years. [More]
At the same time, student debt could be the next financial debacle we have to manage.
Over the weekend, the NYT had a great, in-depth look at soaring student debt figures, and the picture is not pretty: over the last decade, tuition and fees at state schools have increased 72%, and public funding per pupil has dropped 24%.
Student loans are now a generational rite of passage – 94% of students borrow to earn a bachelor’s degree, up from 43% in 1993. The total value of student loan debt has passed $1 trillion, up from $852 billion halfway through 2011. As the Federal Reserve shows, it’s not just the young who bear the burden: a third of the value of outstanding student loans is owed by those older than 40.
Congress, for its part, is currently wrangling over a bill that would prevent federally subsidized student loan rates from doubling to 6.8% beginning July 1. Looking at that debate, Will Wilkinson makes the point that interest rate subsidies are just another form of spending that could be better directed at scholarships for students of modest means. And Conor Friedersdorf takes that argument one step further, calling indebted college graduates a “privileged class” on whom spending money “in a country with impoverished immigrants and struggling high school dropouts and hard-pressed single mothers” is pandering at its worst.
While lower interest rates would help, Mark Kantrowitz and Mark Schneider point to students’ bleak income prospects: “Debt is a problem only if students don’t graduate or if graduates can’t get jobs that pay enough to allow them to repay their loans. Taking on $25,000 in student loans to earn an additional $25,000 per year is a good investment; borrowing $100,000 to earn an additional $5,000 per year is not.” Josh Barro also notes that loans are just one way to fund higher education – direct state funding of public universities is the most obvious alternative. [More]
As hard as it is to imagine, perhaps the basic impossibility of these two trends co-existing means college costs may soon have to become subject to ordinary supply-demand economics. One possible outcome would be new rankings from US News and World Report, et al, based on placement - Is our children working? - so to speak.

It is no small coincidence that young people are lined up ten deep waiting to get into farming. Notice how there are precious few articles in the ag media about getting kids back to the farm, just laments about how hard it is to get them started.

It also increases my skepticism that not allowing them to do dangerous work as an employee for another farmer is necessary to lure them back. I can't believe we sold ourselves that whopper to justify our wretched child safety record.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Since discovering there are...  

More Muslims than Methodists in IL, I guess I have been sensitized to mentions of what's happening in the Islamic world. Frankly, it's not a whole lot clearer than the confusing internecine Christian squabbles.
IT SEEMED historic. Muslim scholars, 170 in number and representing nine schools of legal thought (including four main Sunni ones and two Shia), gathered in Amman and declared that, whatever their differences, they accepted the others’ authority over their respective flocks. Implicitly, at least, they were renouncing the idea that their counterparts were heretics. Some called that meeting in Jordan in 2005 the biggest convergence since 969, when a Shia dynasty took over Egypt.
Many of the globe-trotting greybeards who met there, and at a similar gathering in Qatar in 2007, remain actively and optimistically engaged. But seen from the outside, feuds between Sunnis, who make up roughly 80% of the world’s Muslims, and the Shia minority (most of the rest), remain savage and are, in some ways, worsening. [More, along with the helpful chart below]
For most of us, the Islamic culture is just too much work to understand and too alien to be attractive, so we marshal our ignorance when the issues arise between cultures. I know I find little attractive about the theology and practices, but at the same time my lack of person-to-person contact with Muslims makes me uneasily aware of my ignorance, and hence, poor judgements.

Partly it's because of the factionalism and clear terrorist ties to some of the sects. But then you look at the largest Muslim country (any guesses?*) and think "they're not so weird".

[Click to enlarge]

Well, we may be getting some help bridging this gap. One of the biggest cultural differences with the West has been Islamic problems with capitalism. Due to Sharia usury laws, Islamic entrepreneurs have had to devise some, umm, innovative workarounds to help capital flow.
The chief loophole was murabaha. Let’s say that you, a small businessman, wish to go into business selling cars. A conventional bank would examine your credit history and, if all was acceptable, grant you a cash loan. You would incur an obligation to return the funds on a specific maturity date, paying interest each month along the way. When you signed the note and made the promise, you would use the proceeds to buy the cars—and meet your other expenses—yourself. But in a murabaha transaction, instead of just cutting you the check, the bank itself would buy the cars. You promise to buy them from the bank at a higher price on a future date—like a futures contract in the commodities market. The markup is justified by the fact that, for a period, the bank owns the property, thus assuming liability. At no point in the transaction is money treated as a commodity, as it is in a normal loan.
But here’s the catch: most Muslim scholars agree that there is no minimum time interval for the bank to own the property before selling it to you at the markup. According to Timur Kuran, the typical interval is “under a millisecond.” The bank transfers ownership of the asset to its client right away. The client still pays a fixed markup at a later date, a payment that is usually secured by some sort of collateral or by other forms of contractual coercion. Thus, in practice, murabaha is a normal loan.
Since murabaha must be asset-based, however, it can’t help a small businessman who needs a working-capital loan, for example, to provide cash on hand to meet payroll or other expenses. To get such capital from an Islamic financial institution, an entrepreneur would have to sell the bank an equity interest in his business. This is far riskier for the bank and thus much harder to obtain. [More interesting background]
Let's face it, it's no worse than say grain loans/PIK/LDP contortions at the FDA, IMHO. Anyhoo, these types of financial sidesteps are gaining ground, especially in countries just beginning to taste some economic wiggle room. After all, it doesn't take long to adopt a "It's about the economy, stupid" mentality when you are suddenly having to actually pander for votes, instead of arranging the elections.
Islamist parties are increasingly becoming "service" parties: an acknowledgment that political legitimacy and the likelihood of re-election rests on the ability to deliver jobs, economic growth, and to demonstrate transparency. This factor introduces a huge degree of pragmatism in their policies. The example of Turkey, especially its economic success, has had a major impact on Arab Islamists, many of whom would like to emulate the Turkish model. The Arab Islamists have, in other words, understood the truth of the slogan, "It is the economy, stupid!" The Turkish model, with the religiously observant provincial bourgeoisie as its kingpin, also acts as a reminder that Islam and capitalism are mutually reinforcing and compatible.
It is notable that the Islamists' economic agenda does not espouse a distinctive "Islamic" economic model. This is unsurprising, however, as an Islamic economic model does not exist. Islamists suffer from a paucity of original ideas on the economy and have not even developed a blueprint to tackle the structural socioeconomic crisis in Arab societies.
Nevertheless, what distinguishes centrist religious-based groups from their leftist and nationalist counterparts is a friendly sensibility toward business activities including wealth accumulation and free-market economics. Islamism is a bourgeois movement consisting mostly of middle-class professionals, businessmen, shopkeepers, petty merchants and traders.
If there is a slogan that best describes Islamists’ economic attitude, it would be: "Islam-is-good-for-business". Many Arab Islamists admire and wish to imitate the example of Turkey, even though they know little about the complexity of the country’s economy and lack Turkey’s strategic economic model. What impresses them is Turkey’s economic dynamism, especially the dynamism of the religiously observant provincial bourgeoisie who have turned Anatolian towns such as Kayseri, Konya and Gaziantep into industrial powerhouses driving the growth of the Turkish economy. [More]
In fact, keeping our eye on Turkey (which is becoming a more reliable US partner, as those things go) or Indonesia instead of Saudi Arabia and Iran might help us coexist a little more anxiously with the enormous Muslim world.

Nothing fosters bonding like griping about government economic policies together.

* Indonesia

Monday, May 14, 2012

The collateral losses...  

It's likely most of us just snickered when the now-infamous trading blunder by JP Morgan was revealed. But since then, a little more thought and information adds to the curious nature of what is now our financial system.

To begin with there is question of scale.  While farmers are arguing about a new farm bill that will cost (ostensibly) about $18B per year for farmers, it should be measured by this supposedly huge mistake.
The number that you have not heard is the cost of the legislation, which is $995 billion over the course of the next 10 years, for the mandatory elements of the Farm Bill. 
1.    $772 billion or 78% is for domestic nutrition assistance programs, primarily the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
2.    $223 billion, is divided among various agriculture-related programs,
    a.    Crop insurance ($90 billion, or 9%),
    b.    Farm commodity price and income supports ($63 billion or 6%),
    c.    Conservation ($65 billion, or 7%).
    d.    1% of the baseline is for international trade ($3 billion)
    e.    Horticulture programs ($1 billion).

Of course, the shallow-loss provision is an unexploded budget bomb that could balloon those numbers should prices drop drastically. 

But note that we are fighting over a few billion per year and JPM just bungled away $2b is a matter of hours.

But the big jolt is, it's peanuts for JPM.
Over at Seeking Alpha, Gene Kirsch tried to put Hedgegate into a broader context. "JPMorgan losses are reported to be actually $800 million in Q2 with the potential for legal and other losses up to $4.2 billion over a longer period of time, possibly exceeding one year," he wrote. "The banking unit of JPMorgan Chase alone made $12.4 billion last year. The holding company has over $2.26 trillion in assets and is the largest U.S. bank and 8th largest in the world. The holding company made $29.9 billion in operating income and just over $20 billion in net income for 2011. So, this initial loss of $800M represents approximately 4% of its total net profit for all of 2011, less than 2.7% of its operating income."
The firm, in other words, can manage it. Though as Brad DeLong was quick to point out, tallying the direct losses misses the episode's larger impact on the firm's value. "The revelation that JPMC did not have control over its derivatives book--even though accompanied by promises of multiple firings and deep reforms--destroyed 1/7 of JPMCs franchise value." Turns out the market doesn't much like it when what's reputed to be the safest bank on Wall Street turns out to be incompetent.
Jared Bernstein draws out the larger lesson nicely, and so I'll quote him at some length. "The fundamental truth here is the one known since Adam (Smith, that is) and amplified by the great financial economist Hy Minsky: humans underprice risk. Their proclivity to do so increases as the business cycle progresses and confidence takes over (remember, JP’s bet was unwound by the fact that the economy wasn’t as strong as they thought). The advent of a global derivatives market with notional trades in the trillions greatly amplifies the risks."
"The fact that humans like Jamie Dimon—he who presided over JP’s self-proclaimed 'fortress balance sheet'—he who inveighed against financial reform as imposing unnecessary oversight on such skilled risk managers as he and his staff—fall prey to this fundamental truth only underscores the lesson of this episode in financial hubris."
"And that is this: financial markets are inherently unstable. They will neither self-correct nor self-regulate. Their instability poses a threat to markets and economies and people across the globe. Therefore, they need to be regulated. That’s not to say that anyone knows the best way to do this yet in order to balance the necessity of oversight with the dynamics of the markets. We don’t know where to set the speed limits. It must be an iterative process. But we do know they need to be set, and JP’s loss should be taken as a warning that our tendency is to set them too low." [More]
Our world is now one where all the behemoths are not governments when it comes to economic clout.
It also indicates to me that this sector is not so much about "allocating capital efficiently"anymore. It's about finding things to bet on. Or deriving them from thin air.

The bottom line for me: the more distance I can put between me and Wall Street the stronger my future finances. Participating directly in derivative markets (options) is a sucker's game, and will be subject to lightning raids when JPM-like entities decide to swoop in for whatever reason using the latest quantitative strategy.

Marketing partnerships (contracts) with our grain merchandising industry (coops, ADM, etc.) at the least throws them under the finance bus before my farm is hit. Thinking I can play with these guys, regardless of my preparation, smarts or adviser is a bad idea. They operate on another level where I am defenseless.


Sunday, May 06, 2012

Guess who...  

Didn't make it to church today?  So instead let me share a couple of nuggets that struck me about what it means to be a Christian these days.

First, it means finding The Flock is infested with parasites.
For 39 years, the Trinity Broadcasting Network has urged viewers to give generously and reap the Lord’s bounty in return.
The prosperity gospel preached by Paul and Janice Crouch, who built a single station into the world’s largest Christian television network, has worked out well for them.
Mr. and Mrs. Crouch have his-and-her mansions one street apart in a gated community here, provided by the network using viewer donations and tax-free earnings. But Mrs. Crouch, 74, rarely sleeps in the $5.6 million house with tennis court and pool. She mostly lives in a large company house near Orlando, Fla., where she runs a side business, the Holy Land Experience theme park. Mr. Crouch, 78, has an adjacent home there too, but rarely visits. Its occupant is often a security guard who doubles as Mrs. Crouch’s chauffeur.
The twin sets of luxury homes only hint at the high living enjoyed by the Crouches, inspirational television personalities whose multitudes of stations and satellite signals reach millions of worshipers across the globe. Almost since they started in the 1970s, the couple have been criticized for secrecy about their use of donations, which totaled $93 million in 2010.
Now, after an upheaval with Shakespearean echoes, one son in this first family of televangelism has ousted the other to become the heir apparent. A granddaughter, who was in charge of TBN’s finances, has gone public with the most detailed allegations of financial improprieties yet, which TBN has denied, saying its practices were audited and legal.  [More details]
Yeah - I know, it's the "librul media", AKA the New York Times, but the stuff they mention is public record and pretty fairly presented, IMHO. I have surfed over this channel from time to time and never watched for long, but obviously the Crouches have found a rich vein in pseudo-spirituality that can keep them in considerable comfort.

Meanwhile, back at the Prairie Bankruptcy that is my home state, consider this new finding:
Muslims have become the third-largest religious group in the state after Roman Catholics and independent evangelicals. Not to mention, the fastest-growing one.
That's according to a census of American religious congregations unveiled Tuesday in Chicago.
This year, for the first time, the nationwide aggregation of religious traditions, dubbed the "Religion Census," counted nondenominational evangelical congregations, ranging from storefront sanctuaries to megachurches with multiple sites such as Willow Creek Community Church.
That calculation revealed that evangelicals affiliated with independent churches make up the second-largest religious group in Illinois. In fact, in 48 of the 50 states, independent evangelicals occupy a top-five spot. In the Chicago area, Illinois and nationwide, Roman Catholics rank as the largest religious group.
With 176 religious traditions, Illinois slipped from its top spot as the most religiously diverse state in 2000, falling to Pennsylvania with 184.
Religious leaders and sociologists welcomed the bird's-eye view of America's religious landscape as a helpful tool for determining where to evangelize and understanding where certain religious traditions thrive. But some caution that the numbers and rankings shouldn't be taken as gospel because religious groups apply different standards for counting adherents.
"We're always saying how much we contribute to the state of Illinois, but it's more anecdotal," said Ahlam Jbara, interim executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. "As somebody dealing with government officials, it's about numbers as well. Here's information, here's real data in our community which we really haven't been able to show."
The religion census is the latest in a series of reports released each decade to coincide with figures from the U.S. census. It is compiled by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies. The 2010 edition is the sixth since the U.S. Census Bureaufirst excluded religious affiliation after World War II.
Overall, the study shows a profoundly Christian nation with a lot of variety beneath the surface, including about 150 million Americans — half the population — who aren't engaged with a religious community.
Stephen Warner, a sociologist of religion at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the decennial study is the best attempt at mapping religion in America.
"What we get is a geographic distribution about where the heartlands and hinterlands of the religious bodies are. They're not evenly distributed," he said. Warner added, however, that Methodists seem to be the exception. "My God, they're everywhere." [More]
I know looking at the scoreboard during the game is a bad idea, especially in a bipolar state like Illinois. Still, more Muslims than Methodists???

Finally, I cannot recommend highly enough Jonathon Haidt's new book. I'm only partway through and already rethinking how I arrive at my own moral judgments.