November 9, 2012

sketches toward a balanced free-market platform

I hope we can all agree that the budget must be balanced, or our country is in trouble. We don't have to do radical austerity yet, like Europe, so let's see what we can do to right things without killing the still weak economy. And, if possible let's help the poor, scale back our foreign policy from the Bush years, and help address climate change while we're at it.

How would we do this? Here's a few of my thoughts at this time:

  • Ensure that no Americans can avoid paying taxes at a rate equal to that of an average wage earner
  • Incentivize long-term investment, penalize very short-term investment
  • Adopt most of Simpson-Bowles, also look at reforms suggested by Economist's recent issue on inequality, USA Inc presentation, and the ESA plan for "Intergenerational Justice"
  • Ideally, major tax reform including consideration of alternative models like fair tax or APT tax, but that is unlikely
  • Ideally, replacement of most social services with EITC (to incentivize work) & vouchers (for more choice & religious freedom), but also unlikely
  • Non-interventionist foreign policy leading to cost savings at DoD, but have them make the choices; don't cut indiscriminately; prioritize the needs of those who work for DoD, especially the military personnel (including increasing their salaries)
  • End subsidies for any particular industries (especially oil and corporate agriculture)
  • Carbon dioxide emissions tax - start minimal but increase as overall economy improves; would help capture externalities of pollution, and work better than cap & trade
  • Make availability of federal student loans conditional upon outcomes of schools - so students will have a clear market incentive to go to schools that will lead them to jobs
  • Support pro-life measures & immigration reform (increased population = bigger tax base)
  • Unsure about best way to address health care costs; jury is still out on mandate's effectiveness (hasn't really helped in MA, though access is way up, which is good)
  • Entitlements must be kept as a promise to American people, but we can't continue to pretend they are not currently on shaky ground. We must raise retirement age for Social Security (gradually, but more quickly than it's currently being raised), and do things to Medicare like internally restructure it to be more like the VA (which is more efficient), and perhaps means-test. Also remove the wasteful prescription drug benefit that Pres. Bush added.

November 8, 2012

election post-mortem (or, why I am no longer a Republican)

It took a lot for me to leave the Republican party, and become an Independent: 12 years of disillusionment.

I voted for Bush in 2004 (the first election in which I was old enough to vote) and McCain in 2008, primarily because of my opposition to abortion, as an evangelical Christian. But I also supported fiscal responsibility, which I thought Republicans stood before.

But I watched over the years and saw the Republican Party was not what I had thought or hoped it was.

First, under Bush, people who disagree with the war in Iraq or the invasion of civil liberties by the Patriot Act were branded "traitors" by leading Republican commentators.

Then, McCain had to walk away from his long-standing support for immigration reform to win the nomination.

Then, Mitch McConnell agreed with Rush Limbaugh that, in a time of fiscal crisis, the Party's #1 goal was to see Obama fail.

Then, the Tea Party rose up, and Randian libertarianism started to become the economic mainstream view of the Party, coupled with the power politics of Grover Norquist and his pledge.

Then, the Republicans were willing to let the US bond rating be downgraded so they could "make a point" about the deficit.

Then, the Republicans went through about 5 front-runner candidates in the primaries before they could find one who was moderate enough to possibly win the general election yet conservative enough, by the new definition, to please the base. In the process, they took a firm line in favor of waterboarding, against financial sector reform, and against any deficit reduction deal that included tax increases for any portion of the population.

Then, Romney secured the nomination, but in the process had to switch his views again, becoming the "severely conservative" Romney we now know, who brought on all Bush's old neo-conservative foreign policy advisors, urged immigrants to "self-deport", and spoke of "47%" of Americans who don't want to "take responsibility for their lives". (That last is just insulting to people like me who work in low-income neighborhoods, and see how hard people work - even if you're unemployment, getting gov't benefits is not a walk in the park.) Romney tried to tack back to the center in the debates, but it was already too late. Plus, people like me, who know his history, wouldn't trust him.

I'd like to see the GOP open itself up (I'm certainly not a Democrat), and perhaps there are still more moderate voices out there. But Scott Brown is now the supposed "GOP moderate" and he also signed the Norquist pledge. (And, I think, that was one of the reasons he ultimately lost to Warren, despite her extremely liberal views.)

To my mind, the GOP can't open itself up until it makes a categorical break with neo-conservative foreign policy and goes back to its earlier non-interventionist stance, until it comes back to defending civil liberties like the right to privacy (vs. non-court-approved wiretaps), until it recognizes that there needs to be a legal path to immigration that most people can follow in order for our laws to be just & to be obeyed, until it recognizes climate change is real and we need to do something about it, until it recognizes that *everything* (including tax increases) must be on the table for deficit reduction to happen, until it recognizes that we must invest in education, research, and infrastructure for our economic system to continue to prosper, and until it recognizes that American exceptionalism has been a false and a-historical path, which will not serve us in the 21st century.

The problem, as I see it, is that the Republican Party is being led not by principled politicians, but by lobbyists and the conservative media. Lobbyists get the politicians to support the interests of their narrow groups, and then the conservative media sells their lines to the Republican base, creating a "plausibility structure" for claims that would otherwise be absurd - like the idea that we can continue to pursue the same energy policy that we've had for the past century when we only probably have a few decades more worth of oil at most.

If people were to stop listening to the demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, et al., then perhaps we'd have a Republican Party that more of the US would support. But as it is, in our media universe, we have the angry folk of the Right vs. the shiny happy people of the Left - and thus "hope and change", even if it's not based on a firm economic philosophy, is more appealing to the masses than the politics of fear.

October 5, 2012

Should the Government Fund Public Broadcasting?

One of the big stories coming out of the debate the other night was Romney's plan to defund public broadcasting. I wasn't sure of my own views on this subject so I decided to consider it here at length. I concluded that the government should fund it, on the basis of its social benefit, given that its costs are not tremendously high to us, and that it might not exist, at least not in all areas, without government funding.

Most people, Romney included, would agree that on the whole the programs, both for children and adults, that public broadcasting has put on for the past 30+ years of its existence have been a net benefit to society. So the question is a matter of the following:

a) whether government support of media a legitimate use of tax dollars,
b) whether government support of media is cost-effective,
c) whether government support of media controls content (i.e., propaganda)
d) whether public media could survive without government funding,
e) whether cutting government support of media would realize significant budgetary savings

In regard to question a, I can see both sides to this argument. On the other hand, it could be argued that they are a public good that helps contribute to the education of citizens, like libraries (which very few people would want to defund, even though the first libraries were all privately- or university-funded). This argument rests on a view that stresses how where tax money goes is the expression of the collective will of the people, in the sense that taxes go toward what our elected representatives have decided they will fund.

On the other hand, it could be argued that people shouldn't be taxed to pay for things that they would not themselves choose to support, especially if in theory they could be self-supporting. This argument rests on a view that stresses the rights of minorities, who may dissent from most people want to support.

On the whole, I lean more toward the first view, and not just because I like public media. Rather, I am concerned that holding to the second view doesn't leave us with good criteria for what is important for the government to fund. "Whether it's important enough to borrow money from China to fund" is good rhetorically, but doesn't get us further in practice, since we'd have to have agreed-upon criteria for importance.

I think it would be great to live in a society where people agreed in theory that the government could do things for the common good, and then we could discuss the details of what things made sense in practice. My concern is that the Republicans, led by the introduction of libertarian ideals, no longer have language to talk about the common good. I've written at least two blog posts recently about this: http://donovan.covblogs.com/archives/044502.html & http://donovan.covblogs.com/archives/044502.html

In regard to question b, I don't think there's too much debate here. Public media is about as efficient as any nonprofit, and would be less efficient without government funding since it would be required to spend more of its operational budget on fundraising. By definition, public media could not be self-supporting on earned income unless it took on more advertising, which has a negative effect on children's programming: http://www.fordham.edu/campus_resources/enewsroom/inside_fordham/may_17_2010/news/researcher_shows_neg_75386.asp. At the age where kids are watching Dora, it's especially bad, apparently, because they can't yet tell the difference between commercials and programs. (Of course, watching on Netflix, DVD, etc. is OK, so as long as children's programming were still created for those markets, cutting public TV wouldn't be a total loss of ad-free programs.)

In regard to question c, NPR has a well-known, and openly acknowledged by most on right & left, bias toward more liberal (though not necessarily hard left) views. During the Bush years, it didn't become the new home for Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter & co. It's certain not the same as the Voice of America (where the State Department actually approves the content). Thus, I think we can agree NPR is good here, to "balance the force", as Hope said so well.

In regard to question d, I'm not done a ton of research yet, but I thought this was interesting: http://www.npr.org/about/aboutnpr/publicradiofinances.html. It looks like 37% of NPR's national funding comes from the government, allocated toward stations, though stations on average get only 4.6% directly from the government and 11.4% from the national org. They say that the 37% from the government is essential, especially to support stations in rural areas. But within further study, I'm not entirely sure.

Thanks to the poor design of the PBS website, I wasn't able to find a similiarly helpful pie chart for them, but the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's website suggests their funding picture is probably similar: http://www.cpb.org/funding/

In regard to question e, here's a good website for showing what part of the federal budget public radio & TV spending comes out of: http://nationalpriorities.org/budget-basics/federal-budget-101/spending/. It comes out of the 1/3rd of the discretionary spending budget that is non-military, which is only 1/3rd of the total budget (since 66% goes to entitlements like Medicare and Social Security). And, of that, it is only about $440 million: http://www.cpb.org/appropriation/. Given that the total federal budget was $3.6 trillion in FY 2011 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_budget), that is only 0.01% of the overall budget by my calculation - not a tremendous savings given the value it provides (over 21,000 jobs providing over $1 billion to the national economy, according to CPB's website - http://www.cpb.org/funding/).

As I think both Romney & Obama acknowledged, entitlement spending, due to its rise, is one of the primary drivers of our increasing debt. We should look at cost savings measures in discretionary spending, to be sure, but it's not a huge winner for deficit reducing. If we were to cut it, it would be for philosophical reasons (question a), but I don't agree with that view.

So, as I said in the beginning, I don't see a problem with the government funding public broadcasting. It supports the common good, particularly through ad-free children's programming and quality investigative journalism, is not unreasonably expensive, provides a return on investment, is more efficient (due to the need for less fundraising) that it would be without government funding, and, at least potentially, would not exist without government funding. I guess Big Bird is safe for now.

October 4, 2012

My Top 2 Post-Debate Questions for the Candidates

For Obama:

I will admit, it would be hard for me to vote for you in good conscience. Your use of the Christian faith to justify your change of stance on gay marriage is disturbing to me. I can understand that you want to be compassionate toward all, but is there not a higher order definition of marriage to which we must be faithful? Would there not be a different way to grant health benefits and visitation rights to homosexual partners, without entering into the realm of marriage? Is marriage simply a legal contract?

Furthermore, how does your opposition to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, and your continued statements in favor of abortion, comport with your professed Christian faith. I understand that mothers are placed in difficult situations, but have you ever seen the photos of a late-term abortion?

Even if you can find a justification in the Christian faith for your views on these contentious social issues, how will you protect the conscience of Christians, individually and collectively as organizations, who disagree with you? Many in your party say that Christians are attempting to legislate morality, but are you not legislating a morality as well if you ask them to do things like place children for adoption with gay couples (as happened with Catholic Charities in MA) or provide taxpayer funding for abortion, which they consider to be murder?

I acknowledge with deep shame that many of my fellow Christians speak of you, your party, and people within it, like Sandra Fluke, in a hateful, fearful, or derogatory manner that is unworthy of us. But do you agree that all conservatives are waging a "war against woman", or are there possibly other, better motives that come into play - such as those who work at crisis pregnancy centers and counsel the women who have been traumatized by abortion.

I am concerned if I were to vote for you - concerned that though I may agree with you more on healthcare, immigration, the environment, and the economy than I do with your major opponent, that you would not do anything to stop the people in your party who want to restrict religious liberty further, even to the point of eliminating religious hiring rights for faith-based organizations. In fact, I am not sure that you wouldn't encourage them.

I want there to be a viable evangelical left in this country, so I want to trust you. But your record, and what you are proud of in it, makes that very difficult for me.

For Romney:

From what I could tell, you changed positions during the debate from several of your or Ryan's previously stated positions. I am glad of it, since I supported your policies as governor for the most part. But how can I tell that you will keep to what you have said now? Given the number of times you've changed positions in the past, how can I know you are not just saying what is politically expedient?

I would like to believe you have a plan for the country better than Obama's, but I can't take it on faith? Can you trust the American people's intelligence enough to share the specifics of your plan with us, as your opponent has done, at least in some areas?

Furthermore, I will agree with you that government regulation is often dangerous & destructive, but is that always the case? How much, if at all, do you agree with your running mate Paul Ryan, and his embrace of Ayn Rand's extremely limited view of the role of government, which he has only distanced himself from recently.

And do you really believe 47% of the country is dependent on government, feels entitled, and is not willing to take personal responsibility? If not, why did you say it?

I would like to believe better of you, since you had a good economic record as governor, and enacted a healthcare law that has benefited me greatly. You also have been very charitable personally and through your church, and have a strong family (as does your opponent). But so far in this election, you have not given me reason to trust that you believe government has a role to play in helping the poor, or that you have a plan for doing it effectively.

A Tentative Defense of Single-Payer Healthcare

For those coming from elsewhere than the original Facebook thread, these are summaries of the points to which I am responding, after I made an initial comment that perhaps single-payer would do better at cost containment than either our current healthcare system, or the one that Romney/Obama-care institutes.

Against Single Payer:
1) A single-payer system would inherently be bureaucratic, since government programs inherently tend that way. Thus, it would not realize any cost savings, but would actually either increase costs, lead to rationing of care, or both.
2) Dentistry, where there's more flexibility in regulation & types of plans offered, could serve as a model for health care as a whole. People could then choose to only buy coverage for catastrophic needs, although they might end up underinsured in certain circumstances.
3) One of the most significant ways to lower healthcare costs would be tort reform, which neither candidate mentioned.

In Its Defense:

As far as #3, I totally agree. Torts are ludicrous, as they exist today. "Defensive medicine" is one of the biggest drivers of costs. One of Romney's good points during the debate was that regulation is necessary, but in some areas we have way too much.

In re: #1, the main problems with Medicare, as I see it, are:

1) It sets compensation but without looking at actual costs. This creates a disincentive for providers to offer it. This would not be true in a single-payer system.
2) It requires the practice of defensive medicine, by mandating particular series of tests, etc. I read a good article on this recently, but can't remember the name of it. This works against cost containment. It is definitely possibly that a single-payer system would have the same structure, but apparently the VA does not: http://www1.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=1994. Perhaps we should expand that model?
3) It has really onerous reporting requirements. This is probably the main problem a single-payer system would also have. And we've seen that in the UK their efforts to do nationalized IT for the NHS were not a great success.

I actually think block granting Medicare could help, if the grants were indexed properly to rising health care costs. That would give states more flexibility, as did the largely-successful welfare reform bill of 1996. That said, I worry that some states like Mississippi or Texas with very conservative legislatures and poor health care outcomes would make worse decisions about care than the feds.

The main argument for why I am even considering single-payer, given the bureaucratic potential goes like the following:

1) I know what it's like to have health insurance in name only, and believe many Americans are in the same situation.
2) I believe Romney's health care plan has really helped me, and many other people in the state, get better quality care and increased the number of people with coverage, thus broadening the risk pool. I can provide some links if requested.
3) Though the MA health care plan has helped, cost containment is still a huge problem, and, in part, I believe that this is because there are so many insurance providers to whom health care providers have to report, and none of their systems or even coding schemes for procedures are compatible.
4) Furthermore, when the MA health care plan was passed, something called the "uncompensated care pool" went away. This is what paid largely for the care of people who didn't have insurance. They're still out there, and mainly being served by certain hospitals in low-income communities, who are now hurting worse than before. For example, the Catholic hospitals in Boston had to be sold to a private equity firm.
5) In a single-payer system, there wouldn't have to be a two-tier system (or three-tier if you count private insurance, Medicare/Medicaid, uninsured). This would improve health care outcomes by making people less likely to postpone care till it really was an emergency, and it would improve the economic picture for hospitals that treat the poor since they would get reimbursement.
6) I agree with Mitt Romney that the Cleveland Clinic is a private institution, and thus can be innovative in a way that Medicare cannot. But I think that in a single-payer system, since providers would be competing for patients, rather than patients competing for care, the incentives would be flipped such that other institutions would be encouraged to adopt the best practices of such institutions.
7) If we look at the numbers, other countries have done this and have lowered their per capita healthcare spending much more than the US. I don't think the effect could be accounted for by population differences alone. See http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/04/economics_and_culture_0 for some good charts.

I admit, though, that for private practices, the introduction of single-payer might be a rocky transition, and might cause some to leave medicine. That would be a horrible unintended consequence, so I definitely need to consider the issue further. But this is what I'm thinking at the moment.

To address #2, I don't believe dentistry is analogous to general medicine since people in catastrophic situations don't really have a choice about from whom they get care, any more than people in HMOs do. I was rushed to the hospital in a situation where I didn't get to pick which hospital I went to (and if I had been able to, I would not have picked the one I went to). Furthermore, the medicine I take is essential for my quality of life, and I can't really substitute it for a cheaper good. (Of course, one could argue the FDA drug approval process needs to be less onerous so costs would go down on the consumer end, but that is a difficult balancing act, since some regulation is vital.)

Thus, people seeking health care are not price sensitive at all, or at least not price sensitive in an informed manner (i.e., knowing what is the proper costs), and so providers of care don't have an incentive to lower price. Anyway, what's important about healthcare is the quality of outcome in the end (healthier individuals, healthier nation), not the lowest cost. But quality outcomes actually converge with low cost, if we can get people to do preventative care, which they won't do as long as they feel it is prohibitively expensive. Even in dentistry, I am putting off a deep cleaning that I know would be good for me because I am averse to spending the $900. Things like Care Credit help some people, I know, but I am more averse to credit than I am to out-of-pocket spending.

If non-governmental associations (as in the example of the ADA for dentistry) could uphold professional standards and best practices in such a way as to contain costs, that would definitely be better than government control of payments, which some argue would lead to rationing of care (since if demand stayed fixed, prices were fixed artificially, and costs rose, then the only way to balance the curve, would be to cut back on supply). However, they haven't shown any great success in doing this across the board so far. There's some great points in this article about just how bad they've been to date: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/08/13/120813fa_fact_gawande.

I don't think most people would be best served for having care for catastrophic conditions only, since as I said above, they wouldn't know where best to cut back in their care. Also, I still think, we as a nation will always need to have some way for the poor to pay for medical care - unless Christians and others concerned about those who can't afford their own care were to create enough charity clinics to serve them.

The government should definitely do more to foster the growth of charity clinics though - like waiving many of the regulations and liabilities that otherwise would be applicable. Again, WORLD magazine had a good article on that recently. There's a whole Christian Community Health Fellowship that I need to check out - especially given that they are affiliated with CCDA, an association of Christians involved in community development & social work to which the nonprofit for which I work, TechMission, belongs. (CCDA is part of the broader movement to which Covenant's Chalmers Center also belongs.)

To pull back to the broader horizon of economic theory, I understand where reluctance to support government care is coming from, and not just because of the valid concern that people's consciences would be violated by paying for things like abortion. Competitive markets, without major regulation or state control, are the most efficient way to solve many economic problems. However, I see at least two classes of problem where they are not:

A) Where there are externalities in the market that are not captured in current prices.

The main example here is gas prices. Given that oil is a finite resource, and that we only have one environment, to save or destroy, I would argue gas in the US is actually priced *under* where it should be if we were to have the proper incentive structure for driving the adoption of alternative fuel sources.

The main problem with how externalities are most commonly discussed is that the supposedly open, ever-developing system of economics should really be viewed as a human-controlled sub-section of the finite system of the natural environment. Otherwise, we can pursue development right up to the point where it destroys us. Jared Diamond's book *Collapse* offers some great case studies in this: http://www.amazon.com/Collapse-Societies-Choose-Succeed-Revised/dp/0143117009. This article from the Atlantic on the environment of Dubai is a more recent case in point: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/28/business/energy-environment/28dubai.html?pagewanted=all.

B) Where the market is already distorted, and a truly competitive market is impossible. Currently I see this as the case in the following:

i) Education. The current way the loan market works doesn't provide an incentive to contain costs, because the real costs are hidden. (I'm still not sure about how to fix this, because I don't want to just eliminate student loans, even though I think they're a huge driver of costs. Just eliminating them would kill too many people's prospects for higher ed to be either moral or good for the economy long-term. My main hope here is for disruption from below, by things like Coursera.)

ii) Healthcare. Again, costs are largely invisible because people pay for insurance, not the healthcare itself, but the care itself has become too expensive for most to afford. Possibly single-payer is not a good way to go, but we need to have some way to hold providers accountable, across the entire system, for total outcomes (including preventative care). I don't see the market doing that well because people haven't been known to have sufficient knowledge to know what care they need - they just cut back across the board.

Thus, even on the economic merits, I am opposed to a plan for healthcare that is basically the status quo. As yet, I haven't seen Romney propose anything specific that is different than the status quo. In recent months, he's talking about keeping parts of Obama's plan, but that it is not what he had said in the past, and certainly has not been how his running mate, Ryan, voted.

I will acknowledge though that Obama's plan, as originally construed, was probably unconstitutional. But I agree with Justice Roberts that a mandate is legitimate under the taxing power, though not the commerce clause.

Furthermore, this is where Romney's comment about the 47% really starts to be troubling. If he were acknowledging to that audience that the government does have a responsibility to the common good, but needs to do it efficiently and without unintended consequences, and thus should focus on ways to help private charity do its work better, that is one thing. That is the "compassionate conservative" argument that WORLD magazine just made in their healthcare issue.

But that's not what Romney said, and I don't see any reason not to take him at his word. He said that 47% of the country believes that they are entitled and they will not take personal responsibility. Well, my news to Romney: I didn't *choose* to come down with a life-changing medical condition. Hardly anyone does. Most Americans *want* to take responsibility for their lives, and most do, even the ones who are unable to work. I know people who work harder to get their benefits from the government, food from food pantries, etc. than I probably work at my job.

Back when you were governor, Romney, you got it: you knew that healthcare was essential to the common good. Maybe you are recognizing that again now, as you tack back away from being "severely conservative", but I'm still not sure. Anyway, you've lost my trust, on this issue as well as many others.

So, in conclusion, I can work together with people who want to change the status quo, but just selling health insurance across state lines won't be enough, I believe, and I'm not sure if tort reform will be. I'm not instinctively a fan of single-payer, but my experience and study are leading me to consider it. I will be looking forward to continued discussion.

May 25, 2012

On Just War Theory and the Church's Relation to the Military

Someone recently raised the question, "Does the close association of conservative American evangelical Christians with the American military betray our eagerness to fight the Lord's battles with the world's resources?"

Without further explanation on his part, I'm not sure entirely what he means by that, or what his position on the justness of war in general, the relationship of church to state (i.e., two kingdoms), or the application to our American context is. But I'll do my best to give my views about all three issues below.

I'm conflicted here, in the sense that I have a lot of good friends who are Christians who are anti-war in nearly all circumstances since they are from an Anabaptist/peace church tradition. On the other hand, I also have a lot of Christian friends with military backgrounds from both Colorado Springs (where my wife is from) and Lancaster County (where I'm from).

I have a great deal of respect for the people of the military since they believe in values like honor and loyalty which most of the country has forgotten. In fact Nicolas Kristof cited an interesting study showing that liberals like him didn't really view honor and loyalty as part of morality - for them morality was almost entirely about concern for the weak, which is vital but not a total picture of morality as the Bible, and traditional culture, depict it.

On the other hand, I think that some of the wars that we've been in recently were unwise, leaving the question of Christian morality aside for the moment.


Afghanistan at the time we went in was justified to my mind, since they were harboring Bin Laden and essentially aligned with him. Now we should probably leave though, since our mission has lost legitimacy with the Afghan people, and it's becoming a repeat of the Soviet Union's involvement there, where the culture of Afghanistan eventually wore them down till then had to cut their losses and exit.

Iraq we went in based on faulty intelligence, if not outright deception, and without a good exit strategy. I may have supported it at the time though - I'm probably too ready to trust the calls that our government makes about military involvement. I certainly hope we don't feel like we have to wage war against Iran, though, since that is almost certainly unwinnable at a reasonable cost to our lives and economic resources.

The assessment above isn't really addressing the question that you hinted at though, which I assume is whether wars like these can be supported by Christians at all, since the reasoning I've offered so far is pragmatic.

To answer that, I think, would require articulating a view of how the two kingdoms of the Church and the state properly relate. I wouldn't want to draw the strict dichotomy that is the traditional Lutheran view, but I do believe that, insofar as we still live in this world, it is justified for us to support the state in its role of bearing the sword, and that includes supporting military action abroad as well as administering justice within its borders.

I would want us to evaluate our support for the wars of our nation by the standards of just war theory, however, and in that regard I believe that many fall short. I don't believe just war theory in and of itself is divinely inspired, but it did arise in a Christian context, and, I believe provides a good set of criteria for judging the morality of war. The criteria are stringent enough, though, that no war could measure up to them perfectly, so the question then becomes whether war is justifiable considering that there will always be errors and abuses in execution, even if not in intent.

Wikipedia's article on just war theory is quite good and offers the following set of criteria:

Criteria for going to war (Jus ad bellum):

  1. Just cause - The reason for going to war must be just. The nation's self-interest is not sufficient cause; innocent lives must be in imminent danger.
  2. Comparative justice - There is a presumption against the use of force, since it is an evil if not justified. Therefore the wrongs suffered by one party must significantly outweigh those suffered by the other.
  3. Competent authority - Only duly consituted public authorities may wage war.
  4. Right intention - As described by Wikipedia, this sounds identical to criterion #1.
  5. Probability of success - Arms may not be used in a futile cause or where disproportionate measures would be required to achieve success.
  6. Last resort - Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical.

Criteria for waging war (Jus in bello):

  1. Distinction - War should be waged against enemy combatants, not toward non-combatants.
  2. Proportionality An attack cannot be launched on a military objective in the knowledge that civilian injuries would be execssive in relation to anticipated military advantage.
  3. Military necessity As described by Wikipedia, this seems identical to criteria 1 & 2.
  4. Fair treatment of prisoners of war - Enemy soldiers should not be tortured or mistreated.
  5. No means malum in se Militaries may not use weapons or means of warfare that are considered evil. (I could see some room for debate on what would fall into this category, however.)

Criteria for ending war (Jus post bello):

  1. Just cause for termination - A state may end a war if has been a reasonable vindication of the rights that were violated, and the aggressor is willing to negotiate terms of surrender. Alternatively, a state may end a war if it becomes clear that the just goals of the war cannot be reached at all or cannot be reached without using excessive force.
  2. Right intention - A state must only terminate a war under the conditions agreed upon in criterion #1. Revenge is not permitted. The victor state must be willing to investigate its own possible war crimes objectively.
  3. Public declaration and authority - The terms of peace must be made by a legitimate authority and must be accepted by one. (I'm not sure about the feasibility of the latter part of this criterion.)
  4. Discrimination - The victor state is to differentiate in the terms of peace between the leaders, combatants, and civilians. Punititve measures are to be limited to those directly responsible for the conflict. Truth and reconciliation may sometimes be more important than punishing war crimes.
  5. Proportionality - Any terms of surrender must be proportional to the rights that were initially violated.

Based on these criteria, I think we could come to some interesting conclusions about the wars which the US has waged over the past 200 or so years. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, so some of these were not as obvious at the time.

  • American Revolution - violates jus ad bellum criteria #1, since the primary motivation of the war was self-interest (no taxation without representation).
  • War of 1812 - since this was a defensive action, it is more likely justifiable, but I'm not that knowledgeable about it. Having lost the colonies, I don't think Britain's attempt to regain them would meet jus ad bellum criterion #1.
  • Civil War - only meets jus ad bellum criterion #1 if it is relaxed to include where lives are being oppressed (i.e., by slavery). I think there is a legitimate argument that could be made for the South's constitutional right to secede, while still recognizing Southern slavery as grossly immoral. As for the jus in bello criteria, to my knowledge most generals adhered to them, but Sherman grossly violated them. Finally, in regard to the jus post bello criteria, historians still debate whether Reconstruction was overall handled in a just manner.
  • Indian Wars, Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War - All clear violations of jus ad bellum criterion #1, since motivated almost entirely by self-interest (manifest destiny, i.e., the desire for more territory).
  • World War I - The war was unjustified on the part of the European nations, since it was a disproportionate response to the event that triggered it, and most of the combatants were not directly affected, only bound by alliance. However, the US involvement arguably helped bring the war to a close more quickly, so that might be just on our part.
  • World War II - Stopping Hitler and his allies seems like a textbook case of a just war by the jus ad bellum criteria. However, there were some egregious violations of the jus in bello rules of war by the Allies (firebombing of Dresden, dropping of the atomic bombs). In the case of Dresden, at least there was a legitimate military target, but the number of civilians who died seems unjustifiable. The dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, however, was not even on a military target. The only defense is to say that invading Japan would've been worse, for both sides. All I can say is I'm glad I didn't have to make that call. The jus post bello criteria seem to have been well-followed here, considering the later rise of Japan and the success of the Marshall Plan in rebuilding Europe.
  • Korea - I don't know anything about this war, sadly, so I will have to recuse myself.
  • Vietnam - I don't feel like I know enough about the causes or conduct of the war (other than the containment doctrine) to evaluate it by these criteria. I would be inclined to say unjustified, but that might just be repeating others' prejudices.
  • Iraq War I - I was very young when it happened, so, again, hard for me to evaluate. Saddam Hussein's dictatorship was definitely horrible, and the people of Kuwait were in imminent danger. The question becomes whether the US should have been involved since our lives were not directly threatened. Just war criteria don't appear to address the issue of whether one nation can serve as the protector of others.
  • Bosnia & Various Humanitarian Interventions - Is it a legitimate use of the US military to intervene to prevent genocide, or to stop one from continuing, when there is a reasonable chance of success? I am not sure, and the just war criteria don't specifically address this point.
  • Afghanistan - I believe that the criteria for jus ad bellum were satisfied, if the objective of the war was viewed as simply removing the Taliban regime, which was a dictatorship harboring a terrorist that posed an imminent threat to the US. Negotiations had proven futile, if I recall correctly. For the most part, the jus in bello criteria were satisfied as well, with the exception of the drone strikes, which might be viewed as causing too many civilian casualities. I'm conflicted on those. The main problem, as I said briefly above, is the jus post bello criteria - we are still in Afghanistan now, even though we don't have any real expectation of eradicating the Taliban. What is our objective now?
  • Iraq War II - If Iraq had nuclear weapons, and was aligned with al Qaeda, I believe the jus ad bellum criteria might have been satisfied, as long as we also had a reasonable expectation of success (an "exit strategy"). But as we found out, neither were the case, nor did our leaders have a plan for how to end the war. Were they lying to us, or were they honestly deceived? That would matter in assessing the morality of the war. As for the jus in bello criteria, the abuses of private contractors (i.e., mercenaries) and Abu Ghraib show they were not satisfied.

I hope this shows how just war theory can be a helpful framework for assessing the morality of wars, and not just a means of justifying every war, as its critics assert. In fact, just war theory, by my reading of it, is idealistic enough that few wars actually meet its criteria. But it is not equivalent to pacifism, which I think is a Biblical principle for dealing with personal offenses, but not a way to handle the affairs of nations.

As private individuals, Christians are not to use force on others, even to punish actual offenses against them. However, in the defense of others, and in the role as public persons (rulers, law enforcement, or the military), they are permitted the use of force in a just cause.

In conclusion, then, I don't believe that we should "fight the Lord's battles with the world's resources", but I don't think that we are doing that. The wars which our military wages, if they are just, are to defend the lives of Americans and our allies, not some kind of Old Testament holy war. As I've said above, I don't support all the wars that we've fought, though I support the people who have fought in them (except for people like those who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib).

I don't think Christians should have a "my country, my military, right or wrong" attitude, as some evangelicals do. They definitely shouldn't view the military as a way to transform cultures, since both reason and the Bible say that doesn't work. I don't even think churches should have American flags in them or that we should sing songs about America in church on national holidays.

But Christians, when not engaged in corporate worship, can have a legitimate appreciation for the history of freedom in our country, which comes from a Christian base, even if not all the founders were Christians, and we can appreciate the military for preserving our freedom. If we are called to serve in it, we can consider that an honor. If we are called to make decisions on when to go to war, we should consider it a great responsibility, and do so according to principles stemming from Christian morality, such as the principles of just war I've outlined above.

May 12, 2012

On Homosexual Marriage and the Rights of Conscience

I would agree with those who support gay marriage that the Founding Fathers (not all of whom were Christian) intended that there be a separation of church and state, in the sense that they did not want to have an established church, as was the common practice in Europe at the time. That being said, I don't believe that the separation of church and state that they intended to institute is the same as how some secularists construe it today.

Though the Constitution and Bill of Rights are primarily based on Locke's theories of human rights and liberty, rather than Christian morality, even the Deists of the late 1700's held many of the same moral principles that Christians held. Furthermore, they were not opposed to a kind of "civic religion" in that they spoke of the deity in general terms or referred to divine Providence. Thus, I doubt they would've supported the current efforts to remove the reference to God from the Pledge of Allegiance or to forbid speakers at public school events from mentioning God, if that is part of their personal beliefs. (It could be argued that civic religion can actually be destructive of revealed religion, since it is too generic, but that is an argument for another time.) Finally, I would think that their support for rights such as freedom of assembly would mean they would stand against New York City's discriminatory ban on religious groups meeting in public schools.

But, of course, all these instances where secularists would argue the church/state wall of separation is being violated are not what prompted this discussion in the first place. The question here is whether one who opposes the government's endorsement of homosexual marriage on primarily religious grounds is violating the separation of church and state.

I would say no, as long as they can relate those religious principles to principles of morality (or logic - "natural revelation" or "natural law", as they might call it) which could be accepted, at least in theory, by people who did not share their religious faith. In other words, if they could make an argument that God forbids homosexual practice because it is contrary to human flourishing, and explain in a way that others could generally accept how it is contrary to human flourishing, then their argument couldn't be categorically ruled out simply because they personally believed it because it was part of what they saw as divine revelation. I believe that such an argument could be made, if one viewed marriage as an institution directed primarily toward the perpetuation of society through the birth of children. That would not be to say that the only reason for marriage is to produce children: there could be other intrinsic benefits of the bond of attachment, as well as benefits that the state provides through granting visitation rights, insurance benefits, etc.

This type of argument could be contrasted with a purely "divine command" theory, similar to Sharia law, where something is forbidden simply because the sacred text says that it is forbidden and any consideration of the reasoning behind the command is beside the point at best. To give an example from contemporary US politics: the Catholic Church, and some other groups, oppose paying for contraception as part of health care coverage, in part because they believe that it contributes to a view of sexual relations as being about pleasure alone and also because some contraceptives can be abortifacient, and thus destroy a fertilized egg, which they see as having the same ontological status as a human, since it will develop into one if its growth is unimpeded. These views are held largely on religious grounds, but I would argue could be theoretically embraced by someone on other grounds. This would contrast with Jehovah's Witnesses and other groups who oppose blood transfusions since they believe it is a violation of their interpretation of the Bible. Since blood transfusions are clearly necessary to the sustaining of life in some cases, whereas contraception is never essential, and the Witnesses' opposition to blood transfusions can be grounded on nothing other than divine command, whereas the Catholics' opposition to birth control can, then I would argue that the Catholics' position should be accomodated for by the state in its regulation of health insurance whereas the Witnesses' should not. In other words, people and institutions should have the right to choose whether they are paying for a policy that covers contraception; they shouldn't have the right to choose whether they are paying for a policy that covers blood transfusions.

I should say that if blood transfusions were never necessary and potentially life-saving - if they were in the same class as, say, breath mints, then the Jehovah's Witnesses would have a right to conscientiously object to supporting them as part of health insurance. People shouldn't be forced to go against conscience if no one else's rights are being significantly harmed. And, to bring it back to contraception, one has to quantify how much others' rights are being harmed, in all dimensions vs. how much people's right to freedom of conscience is being harmed. Depending on how essential one views contraception to be, and how difficult one sees access to it as being without health insurance covering it, one could say that the need of people to have it is strong enough to go against the Catholics' right to freedom of conscience. But to accept the broad argument I am making here, it is sufficient to recognize that there people do have a right to freedom of conscience and that it should be protected if others' rights are not being harmed to an extent that justifies going against the right to freedom of conscience.

So then, the question becomes, assuming that you accept the argument implicit in this analogy, is gay marriage more like contraception or blood transfusions? In other words, are there arguments besides divine command alone that could be made against the right of gays to marry, and are gays being deprived of rights that are due to all US citizens by not being allowed to marry?

As I said above, I believe that it is possible to argue against gay marriage on grounds beyond divine command. A very brief outline of this argument would be:

1) It is a biological necessity for a man and woman to be present in order for a child to be born.
2) If a society does not have produce more children then the replacement rate, then it will not survive.
3) It is desirable for society to perpetuate itself. (Some environmentalists would debate this point.)
4) A society with socialized and well-trained citizens, with access to an adequate support system, is superior to a society without these things, since it is better for people to be happy than unhappy.
5) Societies have instituted marriage in order that children might be born and raised up in a stable environment. This is necessary among humans, unlike other animals, because our sociality and intellectual capacity necessitates a long period of development before full independence. The advantage of this arrangement is that the two people who brought a child into the world have responsibility for caring for him or her until he or she can attain independence.
6) In a society where marriage is open to anyone, and sexual practice is primarily about pleasure, then people no longer have the same incentive to stay together and raise children. Either less children will be born than the replacement rate, or children will be born into arrangements where they do not have the same level of commitment between the parties.

Obviously points 2, 5, and 6 here could be and have been hotly debated, but I don't believe that one would have to make an appeal merely to divine command if one were defending them, even though most people who would embrace this argument might do so as part of a natural law theology where they see God as having been the author of particular social institutions, such that our flourishing is best promoted by being in accord with his design for them.

On the second question, that of whether gays are being deprived of civil rights by not being allowed to marry, the question is more complex. It does seem like they should be allowed to have visitation rights or to share insurance, etc. I don't see how society is benefited by denying them these things. I would question though whether these should be associated with marriage - in many ways, it is their current linkage with marriage that is the source of such conflict.

I would point out though, that just as in the case of contraception, Catholics and others are having their liberty of conscience violated if they are required to pay for contraception as part of health insurance, people opposed to homosexual marriage (or, more broadly, homosexual practice) can have their liberty of conscience violated if it is legal. Two examples of this would be: a) when Catholic Charities had to choose between placing children with gay couples, or ceasing all adoption services in Massachusetts, b) military chaplains being asked to bless same-sex unions.

In a pluralist society, where not all people agree on conceptions of the good, rights will always be in conflict. The question becomes then whose rights are more important and whose rights are being violated more? Is there a way to satisfy both parties? I am not sure.

On the one hand, I don't entirely agree with the "social interest" argument against gay marriage that I outlined above, because my view of human sexuality is possibly more complex than that argument would suggest. Therefore, I see the potential that gays' rights to visitation, etc. need to be considered more, at least in the context of our current pluralist society and secular Constitution. (I would hold open the possibility that in a society where the vast majority non-coercively adopted Christian principles, laws could be different.) But in our current context, I would argue that the institution of marriage itself should be regarded as religious in nature, and thus beyond the reach of the state. People should go to a religious institution that shares their values and belief if they wish to get religious recognition of their relationship, such as that which I believe marriage confers. If they want merely civil benefits, like insurance or visitation rights, then they should go to the state to receive those.

On the other hand, the question of adoption, which I mentioned above, complicates this. Since I believe that God ordained that children be raised within the context of complementarity of a man and a woman, since God designed the genders to be different (though what is part of His design and what is socially constructed is difficult to discern), then I don't believe that homosexuals' right to adoption can be considered in the same light as other rights like visitation which do not infringe on the rights of others. I see it as potentially infringing on the right of children to be raised in a properly constituted home. This may seem like a hateful or bigoted view to some, or at least a view motivated purely by religious views, but I do not see it as such.

I believe that an argument could be made that children derive benefits from having both a maternal and paternal figure in their lives, in such a way that two men or two women could not emulate. Now, it could be argued that this is simply because of social prejudice - that if our society was more accepting of same-sex relationships, children could see the full healthy spectrum of gender identity mirrored by people of a single biological sex, and could go on to lead a healthy sexual life (probably this would presume that if they went on to be gay themselves this would be a healthy sexual life, even though if everyone were gay, then society would cease to perpetuate itself).

I would argue though that even if society accepted same-sex relationships, we cannot escape the confines of biology altogether. Technologies like contraception and in-vitro fertilization could theoretically divorce human sex and human procreation altogether, but I see that as opening the door for great tyranny such as that of Plato's Republic or Huxley's Brave New World, since either the state or corporations would likely become in control of procreation. We can already see how brutal and discriminatory this can be in countries like China where the technology of contraception is used to regulate people's reproductive choices against their will.

It could be said, "What does this have to do with homosexuality? And this could never happen in America." I suppose it is a slippery slope argument to a certain extent, but I feel like I should mention it since it seems like the push now is to make marriage simply about expressing two people's love for each other, with some quasi-religious overtones. And that neglects that marriage traditionally was not just about two people's love for each other, but also about their love for their children. Though gay people could have love for adopted children, I think it is at least possible to argue that harm could be done to those children if they grow up having a distorted view of sexuality.

Am I making a circular argument here in saying that they could grow up with a distorted view of sexuality, since that presupposes that homosexuality is not normative? I don't believe so, because my intent in making this argument is to say that there are people in society who would believe it to be immoral to place children in adoptive situations with gay parents. They believe this since they believe that homosexuality is a distortion of proper human sexuality. As long as they have reasons to believe this (such as those I outlined in my numbered points above) which are not merely based on divine command, then I believe that their freedom of conscience should be respected in our society, even if it could potentially cause others to lose something to which they might be viewed as having a right (in this case, the proposed right of gays to adopt). Thus they are in the contraception case, and not the blood transfusion case, and organizations like Catholic Charities should have been permitted to make the choice to place children only with heterosexual couples, even though gay marriage had been made legal in Massachusetts.

To summarize, in order to talk about the right to marriage properly, I believe we must separate out three functions of marriage which are currently conflated in our social practice:

1) The unitive/sacral function of marriage: Marriage as an expression of love and commitment between two people, and recognized as such recognized either by the church or a religious body, society at large (as represented by the state), or both (as in our country's polity)
2) The procreative function of marriage: Marriage as a commitment of two people to raise up children, either their biological children whom they have had through sexual intercourse, or their adoptive children
3) The civil function of marriage: Marriage as a legal declaration conferring upon two people certain rights, privileges, and status (such as tax status, visitation rights, etc.). This is purely instrumental, and has traditionally been considered subservient to the first two functions. In other words, people were granted these benefits as an added incentive to marry beyond religious precept or social sanction.

With regard to these then, I would argue that #1 should not be a function of the state. To my mind, that violates the separation of church and state from the side of the church. This was not seen previously since we operated under the kind of broad Christian consensus about moral values prevalent in the West since Constantine. But now we live in a post-Constantinian age, so Chrisitians can't expect a state like the US, established on secular principles, to safeguard our best interests or values.

Conversely, #3 should not necessarily be tied to marriage at all, as I suggested earlier. The only reason to keep its tie with marriage would be if it served as sufficient inducement for people to get married rather than co-habitate. But the current state of heterosexual marriage would suggest that is not the case.

Finally, then #2 is the area on which I don't know if a compromise can be found. Due to Christians' (and other religious, and some secular, groups) views on #1 being only properly fulfilled by a man and a woman, they see they would see that #2 should also only be fulfilled by a man and a woman, since otherwise the mirroring of the proper sexual relationship does not take place. I would argue, as I did above, though, that they have the right not simply to privately hold this view in our pluralistic society, but actually to put it into practice, by doing things such as refusing to place children for adoption with gay couples. (The social perpetuation argument I outlined above is one potential argument that they could use which is not merely divine command.)

Therefore, I only see a compromise as possible if people who support gay marriage could agree that those who opposed it could still retain their right to not recognize gay people as having the right to adopt. I am not sure whether homosexuals who wish to marry would agree to this limitation.

April 6, 2012

On Obamacare and Judicial Deference

Defenders of the Affordable Care Act - more specifically, the individual mandate provision - have been arguing that the Supreme Court should be wary of striking it down, due to their longstanding practice of judicial deference in dealing with laws pertaining to the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. In other words, the precedent has been set that Congress can do what it wants with regulating the economy, so hands off. This is disturbing to me, though I sympathize with the intent of the ACA.

I was reading a Comment in the New Yorker this week where they were saying, "Here's all these decisions in the past (mainly from the New Deal era) where the courts deferred to Congress." And I was shocked at some of the precedents that had been set. Basically, FDR, with the price controls, restrictions on what you could farm, and labor laws, had set the country on a path to socialism. And the Supremes apparently deferred so that FDR wouldn't violate the executive branch authority even further and pack the courts.

I'm not one to use terms like socialism as simply a pejorative, mind you - I'm using it in the strict sense of the word, an economic system where the free market is heavily regulated, and to a certain extent, owned by the state. Now thankfully, after the Great Depression was over (arguably much more due to WWII production & the devastation of much of the rest of the world afterward than FDR's policies), much of the legislation was scaled back. But the precedents are still with us.

Since those precedents are with us, then the Commerce Clause can be used to justify regulation of virtually any economic activity. I would agree with the liberal commentators who say that inactivity isn't really that different from activity, since one could argue that the activity being regulated is "paying for healthcare", which everyone will do at one point or another even if they don't choose to buy health insurance. I don't think that the Framers intended the Commerce Clause to govern all economic activity though, since the conservative commentators are correct that to do so goes against the underlying Constitutional philosophy of enumerated powers.

I think that conservatives, if they want to explain why the Supremes should strike down the individual mandate, will have to go further and explain why the precedents from the New Deal era should also be reversed. It's not unprecedented for a reversal like that to happen - I think that when the DC handgun ban was rightfully overturned, it was overturned on the basis of recovering an earlier interpretation of the right to bear arms.

On the other hand, I don't think that it's outrageous that Obama said that the Supremes shouldn't overturn the law - based on the existing precedents (and not the Constitution alone), it would seem like it should be upheld. Obama wasn't threatening to do anything if it was struck down as far as I know. In our system of government what could he legitimately do? The Supremes' word is pretty final, unless they reverse their own precedents, or there is a Constitutional amendment passed (which could never happen with Congress split between the parties).

I think it's interesting that now strict Constitutionalism would end up appearing like judicial activism, since it would involve overturning much legislation and judicial precedent. I don't think that is necessarily a condemnation of it though, since it is just an illustration of how far the federal government has extended its powers from what was envisioned originally by the Framers.

I think that the most interesting part of Obama's comments though was when he said that there is a human side to this whole debate as well, and he hoped that wouldn't get lost. (See the end of this article for the quote.)

When the Affordable Care Act first was proposed, I was ambivalent about it, because I do think it is a tragedy that many Americans don't have health care, though I'm not sure if I would call access to modern health a basic human right. I don't think that a single-payer system, like that in Canada or the UK, is inherently immoral or unjust, though it is arguably un-Constitutional. I don't think it's even inherently less economically efficient, depending on the circumstances.

As to the system that actually passed, I have seen the personal benefits of having a mandate, since I live in Massachusetts, and it has broadened the risk pool, which, in theory at least, drives costs down. I've had substantial medical bills in the past, and I appreciate being part of a larger system that can more adequately bear the cost. I don't think allowing health insurance to be sold across state lines, as the Republicans proposed, would've had the same effect.

So, in conclusion, I can see where the two sides of this debate are coming from (the Left: judicial precedent + concern for the uninsurance, the Right: Constitutional merits + economic sustainability of the bill + freedom of choice). I'm not sure where I stand entirely, but I don't think there's a way to split the difference. My main wish is that people would take the time to understand the arguments of those on the opposite side.

February 21, 2012

The Conscience of a Moderate

Since I've been posting a lot on politics lately, both on my blog and Facebook, I thought it might be worthwhile to write up something to outline where I stand overall. It's been frustrating to me for the past few years to see how extreme our political debate in the US has become. So, in that light, here is my counter-manifesto: The Conscience of a Moderate.

I didn't leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left me.

I still believe in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. However, I am skeptical that our current system, if completely unregulated and the safety net removed, could produce equal opportunity. The US is now one of the least socially mobile of Western nations.

The following principles define for me the proper role of the government in society:

1. Reducing income inequality through taxation of the rich is not a legitimate function of the government. As long as they earned their money legally, to take it away out of a mere perception that they have "more than enough" is grossly unjust, and contrary to the spirit of charity.
2. The government, however, is charged by God to be a minister of the common good. Insofar as the government can benefit its citizens without creating dependency and without perpetuating secularism, it should do so. More specifically, the government should work to ensure that there are good schools, safe streets, a healthy natural environment, and a strong national infrastructure for all. The government should also work to promote science and the useful arts, but not anoint winners and losers in business, since the free market is more efficient in determining these.
3. Furthermore, the government should work to promote justice and prevent discrimination. This can include financial, business, and civil rights regulation, though regulations must be evaluated carefully to ensure that they are necessary and that the cost of the regulation is less than the cost (moral or fiscal, or both) of not regulating.
4. Finally, the government should provide for the national defense, to ensure that the nation is respected abroad, should regulate foreign trade, and protect the country's borders. That said, the government should avoid needless foreign entanglements and pursue peace insofar as it is possible, should ensure that foreign aid truly promotes our nation's aims and that it does not create dependency or corruption, should not impose burdens on free trade while ensuring that other countries are not taking advantage of the trade system, and should have an hospitable immigration policy.
5. The government should have an adequate revenue stream to support #'s 2, 3, 4. It may use taxation to collect this revenue, without becoming inherently unjust or coercive. Rather, taxation, at its best, is an expression of the same social contract by which we elect our representatives, since taxation should be for ends that serve the needs of society as a whole. In light of this, all people in the nation, except the destitute, should participate in taxation. However, it is not inherently wrong for those who have more wealth to pay taxes at a higher percentage rate, as long as this is done to meet the government's revenue needs, rather than out of a desire to redistribute wealth.
6. Over the long term, the government should not be in debt. However, in some times of national economic crisis, it may be necessary to accumulate debt until the economy can recover, since austerity spending would prolong the crisis. In such circumstances, however, the government should have a plan for how it will balance its budget again once the economy improves.

February 10, 2012

Principles Toward Discerning the Proper Role of the State

As I've said in the past, these days it is popular to say that the government is the problem, not the solution. But is that always the case? As in most areas of life, I think the reality is more complicated.

Though I've never read Locke yet, I am drawn to the idea of the social contract as a lens through which to view the formation of the state. There are certain freedoms and responsibilities which we agree to cede to the state for more efficiency in collective action and for the restraint of those who are powerful in other spheres. In a representative democracy, we have the ability collectively to determine what falls into this category.

For example, we grant the state the responsibility to build roads so that we have a consistently reliable highway system, we grant the state the power to regulate food so that we can trust that it is safe, we grant the state the power to approve medications so that we can trust that they are effective, we grant the state the power to legislate that restaurants must serve everyone to prevent racial discrimation, and so on. I do not begrudge the state its authority in these areas, since they would not be for the most part profitable endeavors, and thus do not fit within the sphere of the market.

We are in as much danger from market absolutism as we are from statist absolutism. In a healthy society, each plays its proper role.

If there is fear involved here, it is justified - fear of the "state of nature", the war of all against all.

There is definitely a point at which the state overreaches, and when its power becomes coercion, but it is an oversimplification to say that all exercises of state power are abusive. We need to be sophisticated enough to discern when the state should be involved and when it should not.

Off the cuff, it seems like some principles that could help guide us would be:

a) Is this necessary to the existence of the nation itself (having a military, trade policy)?
b) Is this an issue that calls for collective action on a large enough scale that private sector nonprofits may not be able to handle it (infrastructure, basic research, possibly some social safety net programs)?
c) Is this an issue where people's liberties must be restricted in order that more basic liberties of other people can be preserved (civil right legislation)?
d) Is this an issue where consumers have imperfect information and state regulation can help to ensure that products are of the quality that people would expect? (food safety, drug safety/effectiveness)
e) Is this an issue where the market prices do not capture externalities that will be damaging in the long term? (some environmental regulations, such as banning particularly destructive forms of mining, etc.)

February 4, 2012

Laying My Cards On the Table

...in which I give my off-the-cuff pros & cons assessment of the Presidential candidates.

CandidateProsCons
Mitt Romneyprobably would appoint more socially conservative Justices than Obamarefuses to consider tax increases on anyone; approves of waterboarding; hard-line stance on undocumented immigrants
Newt Gingrichnot suresame as Romney, plus has a history of adultery which makes him untrustworthy; hasn't he also said that he wanted to attack Iran?
Rick Santorumnot suresame as Romney, but I also disagree with his extreme rhetoric about homosexuals
Ron Paulwould defend people's constitutional right to privacy; non-interventionist foreign policy; would probably reform drug lawswould eliminate social safety net at federal level as much as he could
Barack Obamarecognizes that politics is about compromise, and thus might actually work to reform budget; foreign policy acumen/successes (handling Arab Spring, Iraq exit, Bin Laden assassination)support of abortion up to the time of birth; reduction of funding/targeting of FBOs; repealed "don't ask, don't tell"; health care bill doesn't protect religious liberty

Basically, at this point, I don't feel like I can in good conscience support any of the candidates. All of them support things which I strongly oppose, or vice versa.

In the next few weeks, I plan to start laying out more of my political philosophy & stances on issues, so you can see that I'm not merely a "no" person, but that I actually have an alternative vision, one that's not currently embodied by any of the parties.

Poverty is a System, Not Just a Moral Failing

Poverty is a complex issue, so I can't go into all the causes at the moment. But I would like to see some acknowledgement of the following realities of urban poverty by the Republican candidates. Poverty is a systemic reality, not just a temporary condition, or a moral failing, and for many the system is self-reinforcing.

1. Many of the poor (possibly most) are enmeshed in poverty for systemic reasons due to decades of societal bias and, especially, discriminatory government policies. For example, "redlining" of places where people could live by the Federal Housing Administration.

2. At the same time, the government's "well-intentioned" efforts have often made poverty worse. For example, the clustering of poor people in housing projects, after the "urban renewal" of the 50's, etc. when the old neighborhoods that they lived in were cleared for new development & roads. This was destructive of people's social capital (since they were surrounded only by other poor people), their self-respect (since they were at the mercy of the people who had determined where they could live), and their ability to get jobs (since businesses fled the areas around the projects.

3. In the decades after this, probably really picking up in the '70s, overall economic trends were working against the poor. Most manufacturing jobs were moving overseas and the US was moving to a split economy of low-paying, low skill service jobs and high-paying, high-skill knowledge worker jobs.

4. Urban school districts had always been dramatically underfunded, and only in the '60s and '70s began to be desegregated. In the following decades, these schools were effectively resegregated as jobs left the cities, and so did people in the middle & upper classes. Since schools are funded by property taxes, this means that urban schools can receive less than a third as much in funding as suburban schools, where there is more of tax base.

5. In this situation, where there are not adequate jobs or educational opportunities that enable people to get jobs, drug-dealing is often one of the most lucrative options. This is due largely to the government's "War on Drugs" which creates scarcity, thus increasing prices on the street. People who deal drugs or possess them, even in small quantities, get sent to jail for long periods and oftentimes come out with more criminal knowledge than they came in. Also, employers are typically much less likely to hire them. And so the cycle continues.

6. Of course, many people stay away from drugs, but they still experience the side effects (increased crime), which are another reason why employers are less likely to create businesses in the inner city.

7. When an economic downturn hits, the urban poor are going to be hit worst, for the following reasons:
- they already had less jobs available to them
- many received assistance from nonprofits, which receive funding from foundations, which receive money from earned interest in the market & from wealthy donors (and the wealthy decrease their giving more in a downturn than other groups, statistics show)
- many received assistance from the government, which is receiving less revenue in taxes
- they have less assets to fall back on than other economic classes, as suggested by #1

In this particular economic crisis, the following are also true:
- housing was overvalued & used as a tool of speculation; banks are foreclosing on people's homes
- state governments are suffering a budget crisis because their pension plans and other funds had been invested by hedge funds & other large financial insitutions
- local governments are getting less revenue because properties are less valuable, and thus the tax base is less

For these reasons, we should all be concerned about the poor in America, even politicians like Mitt Romney. I was going to write also about how I see that the safety net could be strengthened (and *not* just by the government), but I think I'll save that for later.

January 31, 2012

Some Issues with Libertarianism

Fundamentally, libertarianism, as a political philosophy, rests on the assumptions of classical economics. I have always felt conflicted about libertarianism, which seems so rational and yet, when you get down to specifics, doesn't seem to provide adequate solutions for the problems facing our society currently.

I've spent some time thinking about this recently, and now I have a clearer idea of why I have misgivings about it. Below are some of the assumptions that classical economics makes and why they are inadequate to describe economic and social reality.

#1. In classical economics, we assume that all human motivation can be measured by the standard of the market. This is helpful in many contexts, but misleading in others.

"If you leave a fifty-dollar check on the table at the end of a dinner party at a friend's house, you do not increase the probability you will be invited again. We live our lives in diverse social frames...sometimes [money] adds to the motivation to participate, sometimes it detracts from it." (The Wealth of Networks, by Yochai Benkler, pp. 92-93)

Benkler goes on to give the example of a blood bank and how the overall quality of blood was lower when people would get paid for donating, since it was incentivizing people to donate for their own profit, not because they wanted to help others, and thus they were not as concerned to make sure that they were free of diseases.

In summary, money is not always the proper incentive for people's behavior, and thus we can't expect that a market will produce the desired outcomes.

#2. Classical economics assumes that all actors in the market have perfect information, or at least adequate information that the market can operate efficiently. This is not always the case: see food contamination as a specific case where this doesn't hold true. More generally, the complexity of our society makes it impossible for people to know all the factors that have colluded to make something priced as it is. Thus, we make decisions based on something that has clear short-term benefit - low cost.

#3. More broadly than #2, classical economics assumes that people are rational actors. In fact, psychological research shows people to be impulsive, short-term thinkers overall. If you are living in a state of poverty this is amplified, since you are less inclined to believe that "delayed gratification" will benefit you.

#4. Following up on the last sentences of #2, classical economics assumes that prices adequately capture all externalities, such as the risk of environmental contamination. But this is not the case. As stated in #3, people are short-term thinkers and so they seek products that are priced the lowest in the short term, even if this causing a long-term unsustainable situation (such as deforestation in the Amazon).

#5. Additionally, classical economics assumes that the flow of capital is based on investors making judgments about the actual long-term viability of companies, not mere speculation. Basically, it assumes that all the people are playing the same game, whereas the housing crisis shows that many were just cashing out for their own short-term benefit.

#6. Finally, following up on #3, libertarianism (not the economic part of it per se) has a truncated definition of freedom. Freedom is not simply the freedom from coercion by the government (although that is crucial) it is also the freedom from oppression by other structural systems larger than the individual (such as corporations). We need a view of separation of powers/sphere sovereignty where the government is not simply checking itself, but also the government, corporations, and the third sector (nonprofits) are keeping each other in check, and all are working in service to God's primary institutions: the Church and the family.

All this is not to say that I am anti-capitalist, or that I view myself as a liberal on the American political spectrum. I am just saying that we need to have balance. something that traditionally, prior to Reagan, Republicans would have said as well. As I said in a comment to Todd the other day, "People say government's not the solution it's the problem. But I say government's not the problem, bad government's the problem." Sometimes that is a government that overreaches, but sometimes it is a government that fails to fill its proper role as a "minister of God to us for good" (cf. Romans 13).

On the American Economy, Government Regulation, and the Kingdom of God

I was just reading Jim Wallis' book "Rediscovering Values" in which he lays out lessons we can learn from the recent financial crisis, and he talks about the difference between legitimate investment & speculation. The book wasn't tremendously original, I thought, but it's surprising to me how many people would disagree with Wallis' point.

Many, including virtually the entire modern Republican Party, argue for a form of "trickle-down" economics where people who've earned the most through their investments have the right to keep all their earnings, since they are the drivers of our economy, through business creation and through investment. That may have been true 20 years ago, when the market moved a lot slower and most of the complex financial products of today didn't yet exist. However, we live in a brave new financial world now:

- a world of 24/7 cable financial news (where the market is more affected by people's feelings about the market than actual events)
- a world of instant electronic trading (which creates perverse incentives to cause companies to fail)
- a world of venture capital firms like Bain (which, as the New Yorker described recently, have incentives to take out capital from the companies they take over and then "flip" them quickly, leaving them saddled with debt)
- a world where hedge fund managers can make literally billions of dollars since their income is largely non-taxable (thus creating a perverse incentive for the most intelligent people in our country to become hedge fund managers)
- ...and a world where hedge fund managers can lose all the money of the people (and governments, like California) for whom they were investing without paying significant consequences themselves
- a world where people can make "bets" on the failure of other's mortgages and then hedge it by betting on the opposite
- in sum, a world of moral hazard, where people with sufficient capital can make risky investments and others will pay the price for them

This is a world calling for financial reform: not hard caps on executive salaries since that's essentially the politics of envy, rather *something* to keep investors' eye on companies' long-term profitability, not on their own capacity for short-term profits. Even Forbes magazine had a few articles on that recently. I can dig them up if you want.

Lately I have been surprised to find myself agreeing with Paul Krugman on economics at times, such as in his recent editorial Jobs, Jobs and Cars. His hardcore Keynesian approach to economics makes me nervous most of the time, but it's silly to think that jobs are created purely by lone innovators who just need the government to stand out of their way. Jobs are created by whole sectors of the economy working together.

This does not mean, however, that the federal government should be anointing companies and industries by showering them with cash. Witness the Solyndra debacle. "Green jobs" in general are more of a fantasy than a reality, considering the probable size of the sector in reality, and that the desire to employ as many people as possible would probably work against the greenness of the jobs.

I think the best ways that the federal government could foster job creation would be to invest in basic research (NIH, National Institute of Science) & infrastructure (road repairs, high-speed rail, smart grid). Of course, we'd also have to come up with a plan to pay for this. I have this crazy dream of a day when the government would propose giant projects and people could designate part of their tax dollars toward them - call it the Triumph of the Commons.

Also, in keeping with the Catholic social teaching of subsidiary, which argues that social good should be pursued by the most local group that is reasonably able to take it on, I could see a place for the federal government to give block grants to states & localities/cities for the creation of industrial innovation zones, etc. Then the people on the local level could vote on how to use the money. In places like South Korea & China they are building whole cities, like Songdo, from the ground up as planned communities - it's like 2001: A Space Odyssey or something. If we don't do *something*, our trade imbalance is going to become even greater than it already is.

I view myself as a conservative of the old school - one who argues for individual responsibility but also for the common social good. Sadly, my kind has been sidelined for the moment, and mostly run out of political office. We live in an age of easy answers, and to call people to common sacrifice & solidarity doesn't fit with that message. I think the soundbite culture of the media has a lot to do with it. Populist movements on Right (Tea Party) & Left (Occupy) play a lot better than reasoned discussion of the problems facing us all. It's always easier to rail against the status quo or your perceived enemies than to present an alternative vision of society.

But we as Christians are called to "seek the peace of the city", to strive for shalom in all its dimensions - spiritual, relational, material, and creational. We'll never fully succeed in this world, or this life, but insofar as we do succeed, we will be bearing witness to God's Kingdom, making His rule and reign more evident on the earth.

March 26, 2010

letter to MA congressmen in support of national service

Recently, Service Nation sent me an email reminding me it's been a year since the Serve America Act passed, and with broad bipartisan support (oh, those must have been the days...). My organization, TechMission, benefited greatly from the act, so I decided to join in their campaign to thank those who passed it, and urge them to continue their bipartisan support of national service legislation. Sen. Brown was not in office at the time, of course, but I'd like to think that, as a fairly moderate Republican, he would have supported it. I certainly don't view Brown in the same light as I do Michelle Bachmann, who somehow has gotten the idea that national service is socialist, even though her son did it for a year.

Anyway, here's the letter:

In a time where it's hard for Republicans and Democrats to work together, it's good to see national service is one of the few things we all value.

During the presidential election, both Barack Obama and John McCain spoke in support of AmeriCorps and other national service programs. And, months later, our representatives and senators came together across party lines to pass the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.

I am personally grateful for the passage of the bill: both because I served in AmeriCorps for several years, and because I saw the power of public-private partnerships to transform vulnerable communities.

The organization I work for, TechMission, has been supporting AmeriCorps interns in Dorchester and other parts of Boston for over 5 years now. In that time, our programs have given hundreds of youth the skills and the self-confidence they needed to complete high school and enter college. We stand together with dozens of other AmeriCorps programs - City Year, Teach for America, Citizen Schools - that are giving hope to the youth of America and vital job experience to those who serve in them.

We can all be proud of the Serve America Act. Let's honor Sen. Kennedy's memory by continuing broad-based support for national service.

March 21, 2010

letter to MA congressmen about health care

Despite the current bill's flaws (of which there are many), I believe it is our best chance for reform now. If we wait another 10-14 years, it will be too late.

Thus, here is the letter which I sent last night to Rep. Lynch, Rep. Capuano, Sen. Brown, Sen. Kerry, et al., through Sojourners' website:

We still need health-care reform. Like many Massachusetts residents, I have benefited from the MassHealth system, but if I lived in another state, I would never have been able to afford my $25,000 hospital bill from 2008.

I know there are flaws in what has happened in Massachusetts, but something is better than nothing, which is precisely what many Americans have.

As a Christian, I believe that all people are created in the image of God and have an inherent right to life. Without health-care reform, thousands will die unnecessarily. Furthermore, the current system is bankrupting both our government and our country. Even a flawed bill will help to contain costs, and ensure the long-term sustainability of Medicare and Medicaid.

Health care is not an issue to be made into a political soundbite. Let's work together to make the U.S. system something of which we can all be proud.

I voted for Scott Brown in the recent MA election, but only because Coakley was such a poor candidate, and showed gross insensitivity to Catholics and other people of faith.

Sen. Brown, if you receive this message, please remember that you voted for the MA health care bill when you were in the State House here. Don't tread the party line simply because that is the easy thing to do.

Likewise, Rep. Lynch, remember the needs of your constituents - the working-class citizens of South Boston who elected you. They know this bill will help them. It may not do as much to contain costs as you would like, but this is your only chance to improve matters.

March 13, 2010

thanks, Glenn Beck, for pushing me to launch a social justice website

Ever since last fall, I've had the thought of creating a site called LiveYourFaith.net as a kind of gathering point for resourced evangelicals, like myself, who either have recognized or are starting to recognize that the Bible's message is not only about getting to heaven, but about working for God's will to done on earth. Working at TechMission has definitely helped flesh out my view of the Gospel, as has living in Dorchester, attending CCDA, volunteering with the EGC, and participating in the Christ the King Dorchester church plant. But my initial interest in Christian community development was awakened at Covenant College, where I met people like Randy Nabors of New City Fellowship, Drs. Fikkert, Corbett, and Mask of the Chalmers Center, and all those who lived at the Alton Park House. Through their example, I learned that God's plan for the people He saves is much bigger than anything we could have imagined for ourselves.

God wants us to give ourselves to Him, not only so we can be saved from Hell, certainly not only for our financial well-being (our "personal peace and happiness", in the words of Francis Schaeffer), but for His glory. And He is most glorified in us when we are so full of joy in Him that we can freely serve others, laying down our rights so that others may have theirs. This is what Martin Luther meant by the "Freedom of the Christian" - not freedom to sin, but freedom from our need for self-justification, that we may love others for who they are in themselves.

God is so great that He cannot be served. "If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine, and all its fullness" (Ps. 50:12). Yet He desires that we would seek Him. "Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you will glorify Me" (Ps. 50:15). And when we seek, we seek to serve, knowing that God will give the greatest gift - His Spirit - to all who ask (see the progression from Matt. 6:7-11 to 6:12 - the Golden Rule follows on Jesus' command to pray with faith).

Now I see all my life coming together around one central aim - to glorify God through the "ministry of reconcilation" (2 Cor. 5:18). That is a "big C" calling that I can follow whatever my "little C" callings are - as a web developer (and perhaps someday a mental health caseworker), a volunteer at church, a neighbor, a husband-to-be. And it is a calling that is inseparable from the pursuit of social justice. For, as Bob Lupton says, we can teach the poor to fish, but in the end, we need to make it possible for them to buy the lake.

That is why Glenn Beck's recent comments about social justice being equivalent to Communism and Nazism are so irritating to me. Normally, I would just ignore Beck, treating him as the opportunistic attention-seeker that he is. But since Jim Wallis is using what Beck meant for evil to promote the good cause of Christian involvement in social reform, I thought I would add my voice, small though it may be.

Thus, I have launched LiveYourFaith.net now, without a real plan of how it will be developed, or with more than the most rudimentary site design. I hope to further the conversation among evangelicals among whether social justice is integral to the Gospel, and, if so, how we should go about promoting it.

Social justice certainly means more than individual acts of charity, important as those are, for the structures of society need to change. Yet it does not mean top-down redistributive justice, of the kind many conservatives fear. The progressive income tax is not inherently immoral (contra libertarians), but neither should the State take on the role of determining how much wealth is "enough" for individuals to possess. There is much room left in the "radical middle" to recognize the system is broken and neither right-wing ideologues, with their politics of fear, or left-wing ideologues, with their politics of envy, have the power to save us. Only if we can bring the State under the Lordship of Jesus Christ - who "did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but took on the nature of a servant" - can we bring about the justice for which everyone longs.

We will never be able to attain equality of outcomes in society, but we should not let that grim fact stop us from pursuing it. Today we would be fortunate even to attain equality of opportunity. I fear that those who listen to Beck are completely unaware of the structures of privilege that have helped them to achieve. We all should be advocates of freedom, but only when freedom is available for all, not simply for those of a privileged race or class or gender. Until that day comes when freedom is available for all alike, I will work for social justice, and in this work, I will be glorifying God.

February 12, 2010

mysteries of atheism, pt. i 1/2

(A response to a friend of mine whose comment got eaten by my blog. I will try to get this resolved soon.)

I don't necessarily think that atheists in general are negative people, just because their belief system is based on a negative proposition. But in our world, the negative atheists are the vocal ones -- probably because the other ones have more important things to do. The "One Body of Christ" group would have its problems even if all the atheists decided to leave -- and some of the atheists and agnostics are actually great contributors to group discussion. That's why I ended my post by saying "Christians can always debate other Christians" - because having a belief system of positive propositions doesn't necessarily make you a positive person. It can just mean you're negative about more minor things.

I certainly don't believe that the key thing is for people to have belief in something. I'm not a big fan of having faith in faith. The *object* of faith is more important than the subject who has faith. For example, if I were in a river, and I had faith that the rope that I had tied to the dock were secure, what would keep me safe is whether or not the rope were actually secure, not the mere fact that I had faith.

Faith, in the Biblical sense, is really better called "trust," since the word "faith" itself has been so abused. Faith is trust in the God who has revealed Himself to us - through the Scriptures, in Christ's redemptive work, and to us through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is not *blind* faith, since it is faith in a God who reveals Himself objectively, and who can be known to a greater and greater extent, though never perfectly. Yet it is not merely assent to facts, either, since even the demons believe in God and tremble, as the book of James says.

As for the exclusivity of Christian faith, I can see how it causes offense. I also definitely admit that much of the time Christians are arrogant and seek to enforce their values on others. I don't see how a Scripture calendar could be an example of that though, except as a reminder that the owner of the calendar would likely have other views, such as political views, that an atheist would find offensive.

I think atheists come in for such attack from Christians because many Christians view their religion principally as the safeguard for morality. This, however, is not an adequate view of the Christian faith. Many people can be quite moral, in the sense of civic morality, without sharing my theological convictions. Not many people who believe "God is dead" truly acts as if "everything is permitted." Of course, I believe that the reason that they do not is because the image of God remains in everyone, despite the radical corruption of sin.

Because of sin's radical corruption of our nature, we are all under God's judgment, apart from Christ and the grace that God provides through the means of redemption. So there should be no place for moral superiority among Christians.
Instead, we should seek to evangelize humbly, as people who want others to share in the insight that we have found.

Of course, that still presumes that we have received an insight that others have not - even if it is by grace alone - and thus it is still an exclusionary belief, and necessarily causes offense in a pluralistic society. But the question then becomes one of truth. If we in fact have the truth, then we would be uncharitable *not* to bring our message to others. But if we do not have the truth, then we are simply another interest group in the modern political arena. Ultimately, in postmodern thought, all truth claims are merely assertions of power, and thus *any* hope of epistemological certainty dissolves, and we really are left in the state of Hobbes' "war of all versus all."

I think John 18:28-40 is the key Biblical commentary on the issue of truth versus power. The world says power is greater than truth, and often Christians act as if it were also, when they try to enforce their understanding of the truth by force. But Christ says His Kingdom is not "of this world": it is of a higher order, and in fact casts the ultimate judgment on all earthly kingdoms. He testifies to the truth, even to the power of death on the Cross. Thus the humility of His truth is greater than political power, and calls it into question. Of course, at the end of time He will come again to "rule the nations with a rod of iron," but for now He rules spiritually as people are transformed by His Word. And so Christians should act as bearers of good news, of a message of deliverance from all our self-justification and cultural myth-making. Only when we see that in the light of God we are all wrong, can our world be made right. The exclusivity of Christ is the precondition for inclusiveness of humanity.

Hopefully, in a world where America was largely secular after the style of Europe, instead of ostensibly Christian, Christian discussion forums would be more about proclaiming the implications of the Gospel, rather than arguing for the existence of God. And, at its best, that is what groups like the "One Body of Christ" do. At least, however, it has something positive to claim as its raison d'etre - a distinction which the Atheists, Agnostics, and Non-Religious group does not possess, and which, I believe, is why that group is so trivial when it is not on the attack against theists.

January 19, 2010

thought-provoking

"This is why political attempts to resolve the problem of social injustice are bound to fail: they all operate by trying to make the poor richer, instead of trying to help the rich to recognize their poverty" (Stephen Palmquist, "Basic Guidelines for Implementing Kingdom Politics")

December 1, 2009

thoughts on the Manhattan Declaration: a response to Brian McLaren

I may be the only person in the world who follows both World Magazine and Sojourners on Twitter, but that is because I'm not satisfied with simply shifting from the traditional Christian Right agenda to a Christian Left one. I have seen the narrowness of the Christian Right agenda, and its captivity to the Republican party, but I don't think simply going over to more socially acceptable causes, such as the environment or opposing corporate greed, is really the way forward.

When I first heard about the Manhattan Declaration, it was from Brian McLaren's post on what it gets wrong. From reading that, I thought, "Well, maybe McLaren is right - maybe this is simply another attempt by the Christian Right to impose their morality on everyone else." But then I read the actual declaration, and I saw that McLaren has completely misunderstood it.

Those who signed the Declaration appear particularly concerned to ensure that Christians in today's society will continue to have the liberty to follow their conscience in the face of the prevailing social attitude that abortion is a necessary option for women and homosexual relationships are on equal footing with heterosexual marriage. The third point of religious liberty, which McLaren thinks they "[define] rather oddly in relation to the first two", is actually central to the Declaration. Liberty of conscience is not a theoretical matter - as the Declaration states, Catholic Charities has stopped providing adoption services in the state of Massachusetts because they would not place children in the homes of homosexuals in civil union. And, as World magazine reports, soon they may be forced out of Washington, D.C. entirely.

Some may call this a sign of Catholic Charities' "intolerance" - but what we really see here is a fundamental conflict of values. Christians traditionally have believed that marriage is an institution of God, in which a man and a woman unite to reflect His character and, typically, to give birth to children. Christians traditionally have also believed that God is the Lord and giver of life, from conception until the natural time of death. These are basic realities of the universe which God has made, and human autonomy, while a true moral value, cannot be privileged over them.

McLaren makes a good effort at identifying three evil cultures more basic than the "culture of death" that the Manhattan Declaration warns against - his "culture of lust", especially, is insightful. However, in his effort to see the best in everyone, he fails to see that Christians stand in antithesis to the ways of life that characterize this world. No one may be saying, "Yes, we want a culture of death," but as long as our society is characterized by the choice of self over God, then death is what we will have. The essence of sin is to say, "I have the right to choose what I want regardless of God's Law," and the wages of sin is death.

In supporting the Manhattan Declaration, am I saying that Christians can only focus on the three issues it highlights? I don't believe so. Like McLaren, I say "everything must change" in light of Christ's proclamation of the Kingdom, and I believe that the Word of God has as much to say about the environment, global conflict, international development, and economic policy as it does about the issues that the Declaration highlights. Yet, at the same time, I don't believe that you can coerce compassion, and I question whether the State can play a leading role in the revelation of the Kingdom.

For Christ to be glorified in the world, His people must take the lead in fighting the evils of our time. That requires standing in opposition of the government-imposed freedom that leads to death, and also working constructively to restore the marginalized in our society and around the world. We should work to ensure that our government provides an adequate social safety net, but we shouldn't expect that the government can transform individuals, culture, or other nations. For that work, the Church must rely on the Holy Spirit's power.

I pray that we may have an increasingly broader vision of how we - as individuals in the Body of Christ - are called to fulfill Christ's commission to "preach good news to the poor." I pray that more and more Christians might be willing to give our lives to walk with the poor He loves, to practice the "ministry of reconciliation" that no government program can accomplish. Though it may hardly be imaginable, I pray that for all the conferences on the end times that Christians now attend, there might be ten times more on Christian community development, and that for all those Christians who stand on their constitutional rights as defined by Glenn Beck, there might be a hundred times more who lay down their lives for their brothers and sisters. If the Church were categorized by such radical and personal love, there would be no need for an activist State. I hope that this vision might be the middle ground for which the Christian Right and Christian Left are searching.

October 7, 2009

political wisdom from my roommate

In a conversation with my roommate tonight about the ever contentious and ill-defined ideal of "social justice", he said something quite insightful: "I actually agree with Ronald Reagan that government is not the solution. But I don't believe that government is the problem." I would add to his statement: "People are the problem."

In my understanding of Reformed social thought, church, state, business, the family are all distinct spheres which all have their own role to play. Just as we have different branches within government, so we have the different spheres within society as a whole, so that balance may be maintained.

Advocates of unregulated capitalism, which would create an ostensible "free market", are not reckoning with the fact that human sinfulness can express itself in economic transactions just as easily as in excessive regulation.

There is no such as thing as a free market, for several reasons. One of the most obvious of these is that we live in a world of imperfect information. When I go to the grocery store, I don't know enough about the products that I purchase to ensure that I am making a healthy choice. Therefore, government regulation is necessary, to a point. This illustrates the broader principle that no one sphere should have rule over all the others.

We live in an increasingly complex society, one in which the rights of individuals & families are threatened just as much by corporate interests as by government corruption. I believe that if our society is to flourish, we must increasingly cultivate partnerships between the public & private sector, such as the health care cooperatives currently being discussed in the Senate, or the social services nonprofits like my own, TechMission, which receive government funding through AmeriCorps. Only then can we combine the innovation of the private sector with the public sector's concern to promote non-monetary forms of value.

May 1, 2009

there aren't a lot of things that really make me angry

But the widespread misrepresentation of the AmeriCorps expansion among Christians and conservatives is one of them. Here's an excellent FAQ that sets the record straight.

No, public service is not mandatory. No, it is not re-education. No, it does not mean people are being paid to "volunteer." Unpaid volunteers could never accomplish what AmeriCorps interns do - national service is a full time job. And, finally, AmeriCorps interns aren't restricted from attending church. In fact, as my organization proves, you can serve your country at a faith-based program, as long as you don't participate in sectarian activity on the government's dime.

I've gotten used to conservatives opposing government entitlement programs. I've certainly criticized welfare myself. But to go beyond that to criticize the very concept of public service - it starts to make me wonder whether they have any concern for the poor at all.

March 2, 2009

call me contrary

Strange - when Bush was in office, I found myself becoming more liberal. Now that Obama is in office, I find myself becoming more conservative. Am I a moderate, or do I just like going against the grain?

January 5, 2009

ok, so i got distracted

I missed my time to write on Monday. Oh wait - according to the timestamp on this entry, I didn't...even though I write this at 12:07 am on Tuesday. Anyway, what distracted me was reading a little bit about Ann Coulter's latest book, Guilty (she really is one for the one-word titles). Apparently, as Media Matters writes, it is "filled with falsehoods". I wonder whether anything Coulter writes can rise to the level of falsehood. I mean, it's not like there's a real argument there or anything.

What really gets me about political commentators is how self-referential they all are. Essentially, they all talk about each other and how "biased" the other side is being. Issues? Who needs them. It really is ridiculous.

I think there's plenty of reasons for serious concern about Obama's proposed policies (the trillion-dollar bailout being near the top of the list), but Coulter's book isn't going to talk about any of them. It's the political equivalent of Vogue magazine - all style, no substance.

Coulter thinks Republicans need to be nastier to survive. I think they just need to have policies that make sense. Too bad no one seems to be offering those anymore.

October 16, 2008

what did Jesus say about the city on a hill?

Not, as Sarah Palin says, that it was "shining," but that it could not be hidden.

The latter half of this Harper's article is enlightening on how her conception of American exceptionalism is really just a form of idolatry. Self-criticism is needed if we are to exemplify righteousness.

August 14, 2008

in re: the public school debate - this seems about right

From the Creative Capitalism blog (which Melinda linked a while back):

[C]ompanies should meet their responsibilities to pay taxes, obey regulations and so on, but governments' track records in solving social problems are severely tarnished, particularly in the developing world, as many contributors have pointed out. On the other hand, private charity is never going to be able to provide fair and equal access to education - voluntary provision was tried in Victorian Britain, for example, and only scratched the surface, despite a massive outpouring of public generosity.

I wish that that second sentence could be read by all the American evangelicals who think that we can abolish the public schools, and still give every child in this country an education.

Yes, the public schools are broken. But I have yet to be convinced that churches, parishes, or any other private institution could educate the nation's children on a national scale.

Christian schools' record on accomodating special needs students is particularly poor. And, aside from the Catholic schools, very few Christian schools reach the inner cities or minority students at all.

Homeschooling is a great option - for those who can afford it. The rest of the nation needs to have a strong school system in place, so that parents (single parents especially) can continue to do the work they need to do to support their families.

Insofar as Christians are obligated to work for the good of the social order, we ought to work for the betterment of the public school system, even if we choose not to educate our own children in it. This is, to my mind, the only position which recognizes the value of a Christian education while still allowing all access to education. We can work to make Christian education a possibility for as many families as possible. But we should not expect that we can eliminate the public school system entirely.

The public school system was created, in part, because no private institution could make universal education possible. The Catholic Church is the only one that even comes close. As far as Protestants go, we can't even coordinate our private charity efforts. What makes us think that we could run a school system?

August 11, 2008

reconstructionism/theonomy: a fair-minded secular account

This is something I wouldn't have expected to find: a secular account of the origins of Christian Reconstructionism and its variants which isn't glaringly inaccurate, and which shows a surprising level of comprehension of theonomic epistemology.

Admittedly, it's from a self-proclaimed progressive watchdog group, but it's actually less scathing in tone than what I would write myself. Guess it's more important for me to try to distance myself from the theonomists.

I am particularly grateful that the authors recognize that theonomists aren't lurking behind Bush's shoulders - that, in fact, most of them would find Bush's statist ideology repugnant. The political landscape is far more complex than a simple opposition between Left and Right; both authoritarianism and libertarianism can make for strange bedfellows.

Ron Paul's moral stain

From the realm of scandals I missed until they were over...

Ron Paul's newsletter was a safe haven for race-baiting and gay-bashing for decades.

Paul's campaign was great at raising the national profile of libertarianism. But Paul has never renounced his ties to men like Lew Rockwell and Gary North, people who I wouldn't trust to run a lemonade stand, much less a country.

As far as who the ghostwriters were for his newsletter, this comment sounds dead on: "The racist garbage sounds like Lew. The antigay hate sounds like Gary North. The Israeli-conspiracy stuff sounds like Paul."
[from comments on The Agitator blog]

August 10, 2008

looking for a nonpartisan analysis of the candidates' tax policies?

Check out the updated report from the Tax Policy Center/Brookings Institute (PDF).

Key quote: "The two candidates' tax plans would have sharply different distributional effects...McCain's reduced individual and corporate rates could improve economic efficiency and increase domestic investment, but the larger future deficits would reduce and might completely negate any positive effect. In contrast, Senator Obama's proposed new tax credits could encourage desirable behavior, particularly if the childless EITC and payroll tax rebate encourage additional labor supply among childless low-income individuals. However, he would also direct new subsidies at an already favored group - seniors - and an already favored activity - homeownership - which could probably be directed elsewhere."

I'm encouraged to see that this is in accord with my own earlier analysis. I'm discouraged to see that the candidates aren't proposing something better.

This is also notable: "In several important ways, the candidates' speeches and web sites differ from the plans as we've outlined them above, and, in several cases, descriptions of proposals provided by campaign advisors strike us as implausible."

No surprises there.

Bottom line: "Senator Obama's plan would add $3.4 trillion to the national debt (including additional interest costs) while Senator McCain's plan would add $5.0 trillion. This does not include the cost of expanding health insurance coverage and assumes that Senator McCain's proposals phase in and phase out on schedule."

I like the way they describe this as "mortgaging the future." And we've all seen what happens with mortgages lately.

August 4, 2008

McCainomics: a teaser for my critique

When McCain clinched the Republican nomination, there were two primary reasons I was opposed to his candidancy: 1) his overly militaristic foreign policy, and 2) his regressive and economically unsound tax proposal, which is a reversal from his previous stance.

I'll do my own critique of his tax proposal, and the rest of his plans, later. Till then, here's a liberal policy group's analysis of his plan (PDF). While I may not agree with all their conclusions, I agree with the general tenor of the report. The following line is worthy of special note:
"This analysis likely understates the true regressive nature of both the Bush and McCain tax cuts because it does not include the cost to families of the budget cuts that will ultimately be needed to pay for the tax cuts."

Here's one of the ways McCain would try to pay for his tax cuts: "heavy [funding] cuts [for] after-school programs, student aid, public broadcasting, and job training." Oh, and elimination of the low-income housing tax credit. But, according to this analysis, none of this would be nearly enough. He would have to eliminate major programs or cut entitlement spending dramatically if he wanted to even have a chance to balance the budget.

I did say in my critique of Obama's policies that I was in favor of a consumption tax of some kind, instead of an income tax. But if we were to have a consumption tax, low-income Americans would have to be exempt in order to prevent the tax burden from falling disproportionately upon them. Also, I wouldn't support elimination of taxes on wealth, such as the inheritance or capital gains tax. As far as corporate tax rates go, I'd have to study the issue further, but I doubt that McCain's plan would have the magical growth-inducing properties he claims.

For the above-mentioned reasons, I find it difficult to support McCain in good conscience. I can only hope that he goes back to his previous stance for fiscal responsibility (he opposed the Bush tax cuts when they were enacted), and abandons the attempt to curry favor with "the base" by advocating an inequitable and fiscal irresponsible tax policy. If he becomes President, and this plan is passed, it will be my generation who ends up paying for it. As the Concord Coalition says, we're already in a budget crisis now. Let's get out before it's too late.

August 3, 2008

McCain, you're making things difficult for me...

Why couldn't you have a PDF policy statement like Obama has? It would make it so much easier for me to go point-by-point. As it is, you're going to make me go to at least 10 different pages on your website to critique your positions.

Later this week, maybe...

i repent of ever having supported Obama

When I said I supported Obama several months ago, I was not aware of this: Obama's opposition to the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, which even NARAL did not oppose.

I could never support a politician who would not oppose infanticide.

His logic speaks for itself:

... I just want to suggest... that this is probably not going to survive constitutional scrutiny. Number one, whenever we define a previable fetus as a person that is protected by the equal protection clause or the other elements in the Constitution, what we're really saying is, in fact, that they are persons that are entitled to the kinds of protections that would be provided to a - child, a nine-month-old - child that was delivered to term. That determination then, essentially, if it was accepted by a court, would forbid abortions to take place.

I mean, it - it would essentially bar abortions, because the equal protection clause does not allow somebody to kill a child, and if this is a child, then this would be an antiabortion statute. For that purpose, I think it would probably be found unconstitutional. [Barack Obama - IL Senate floor on March 30, 2001]

There he is - so committed to "protecting a women's right to choose" that he sees a law intended to protect live births as the start of a dangerous slippery slope.

UPDATE: I just read Obama's Call to Renewal speech from earlier this year. While it is insightful in parts, and certainly nuanced, it doesn't say that he would actually be willing to moderate his position on abortion. It just says that he'll speak nicely about it. But when people are dying, I'm afraid that can't be enough.

assessing Obama's Blueprint for Change

After watching McCain's nasty (but effective) "celebrity" commercial today, I thought it would be only fair to Obama if I read his Blueprint for Change, which is, as far as I know, the most substantiative statement of his public policy agenda.

After reading it, I have to say Obama does have definite plans for the country, and some good ideas. Unfortunately, he has far more ideas than he has money to pay for them, nor would the government likely do a good job at many of the things he would like it to do.

In the following, I review Obama's blueprint section-by-section. If McCain has a similar document, I'd like to know. This was quite enlightening.

  • Introductory Letter: He claims to be against the Red America, Blue America divide. It didn't take long in the primary campaign for it to become clear just how liberal he was though. The question is whether that's a good thing.
  • Government Lobbying, Ethics Reform, and Accountability: no one like lobbying (except for lobbyists). He makes some good suggestions, although they would be hard to implement. I like his proposal to create a search engine to track federal grants, etc. Obama is more likely to make government information readily accessible online than McCain.
  • Universal Health Care: The health care system in the U.S. is broken. No one disputes that. But with the recent scandals at the VA and Medicare running gargantuan deficits, can anyone seriously think that the government could do a better job than the insurance companies? We don't live in Sweden, or even in Canada. Anyone who claims they can create new entitlement programs while still cutting taxes is out of touch with economic reality. Oh, and the "lowering costs" is full of every politicians' dream - unfunded mandates.
    State-level health care programs, such as MassHealth, stand a better chance of working - especially since they don't try to cover everyone. A federal program would be a bureaucratic nightmare.
  • Strengthening the Economy: Apparently Obama thinks that the government can take a leading role in bailing out the free market economy. I am skeptical. This deserves a more detailed list:
    1. Taxes: No one can get elected without promising a middle-class tax cut. Unfortunately, the middle class never asks how they'll pay for it. As a young American, the inclination of my elders to take a "pay later" philosophy to the national debt is deeply disturbing.
      Real tax reform is needed, but it would require structural change, not more special provisions for those with whom you want to curry favor.
      As far as his proposal to simplify tax filings, I would support it if I knew what it was, or I trusted the experts that he cites.
    2. Trade: His statements here are code words for Democratic opposition to free trade. Apparently, he thinks that we can put up barriers between us and the world economy without feeling negative effects. I wonder how he expects opposition to agreements like NAFTA to increase our standing in the world.
    3. Technology: He will "encourage the deployment of the most modern communications infrastructure." With whose money? Ours, apparently. Well, actually, my generation's, since he's not going to raise taxes to pay for it now, but simply let the debt accumulate.
      Seems to me the free market does a better job of deploying new technologies than the government does. Simply compare government websites with those of the Fortune 500.
    4. Labor: I will refrain from comment on his policies in regard to labor unions and workers' rights, since I don't know much about the subject, nor does he say much to enlighten me. As far as raising the minimum wage goes, I can only say he must like the prospect of more under-the-table employment.
      The Earned Income Tax Credit is a good thing, in light of the brokenness of our current tax system, but comprehensive tax reform (such as replacing the income tax with a sales tax from which low-income individuals were exempt) would be better, I think.
    5. Home Ownership: I thought middle-class homeowners already got tax credits. I'd like to know how he's defining the middle class. If it's anything like Clinton's definition, apparently those making $100,000 a year are included.
      This is the only section so far in which he's said anything about how he's paying for his proposals, and even here he only says "partially."
    6. Bankruptcy Reform: I like the idea of an exemption in bankruptcy law for those who file due to medical expenses. But, like all good ideas, it might have unintended consequences.
    7. Credit Cards: I like the idea of a rating system for credit cards, but I think that a non-government agency would do a better job. It could become a way for credit card companies to gain a competitive advantage, such that they would voluntarily apply for a rating. The Credit Card Bill of Rights' provisions seem reasonable. However, if consumers had better information about credit cards before they signed up for them, the Bill of Rights (and its associated regulatory burden) might not be necessary.
      I support the idea of a cap on payday loan interest rates.
    8. Work-Family: I must admit, having worked in an after-school program, I am biased in this area. I have lobbied for increased funding for after-school programs in the past, and will do so again. I think that government funding for after-school programs can be beneficial, since most after-school programs are small community-based or faith-based organizations, and the funding does not generally come with too many strings attached. I don't know about the specifics of the 21st Century Learning Centers program, though. It might be more bureaucratic than others.
      I wish that Obama would also promise to decrease the regulatory burden on after-school programs. Then they might not need so much funding.
      The idea of a child-care tax credit for low-income families sounds good, although it might be better simply to lower taxes. The more tax credits we add, the more complex the already-labyrinthine tax system gets.
  • Social Security & Retirement: I'm glad that Obama supports raising the cap on Social Security payroll taxes, so they apply to more than the first $97,000 of income. This took more political courage than announcing new government benefit programs did. However, if Obama were really going to be honest about the long-term solvency of Social Security, one would think he would apply the same standard to his own proposals, like universal health care.
    Full disclosure of company pension statements sounds good. Automatic workplace pension enrollment might be good. Eliminating income taxes for seniors making less than $50,000 sounds good, if he had a plan for paying for it.
    Most economists believe that the creation of the Medicare prescription drug plan was imprudent, especially since it covers seniors who had previous coverage. Obama is apparently aware of the plan's problems, but lacks the courage to say that the plan shouldn't have covered those who already had comparable or better coverage.
  • Education: Obama's "Zero to Five" plan for universal pre-school seems misguided. It would be different if he were saying he would fund the expansion of existing programs in the private sector. As a government program, however, I can't see this going well.
    I'm glad Obama wants to reform No Child Left Behind. Using students' performance on standardized tests as the primary measure of teachers' (and schools') performance has had serious unintended consequences. I like the idea of a Teacher Residency Program, but it seems redundant with Teach for America. Why not simply fund that instead?
    Funding youth intervention, after-school programs, and summer college outreach programs is perhaps the best part of his education plan, since these programs operate "closer to the ground" and thus have better accountability.
    A $4,000 college tax credit would be excellent - if we can find a way to pay for it. This is probably the best of his tax credit plans, since investing in education is critical for our country's future economic and social well-being.
    Eliminating the FAFSA and simply using the income tax information is a great idea. And it would actually save money.
  • Energy: The cap-and-trade plan was the worst, and yet the most famous, part of the Kyoto protocol. It's really just 21st-century colonialism, since it enables the wealthy to "offset" their need to curb pollution onto the poor. A carbon tax would provide real economic incentives to the polluters.
    I won't comment on the rest of his plan, other than to say I'm skeptical that all the government spending and new regulatory requirements will help "strengthen America's economy," as he promised to do earlier in the document.
  • Fiscal Discipline: Obama says he will reinstitute pay-as-you-go rules for federal spending. I can't imagine how he will be able to get his own new programs passed, then.
    I'm glad he wants to repeal the Bush tax cuts, but he should use the revenues to pay down the deficit, not institute dozens of new programs.
    More disclosure of earmarks is good. I'm glad he wants federal contracts to be competitively bid. That was another one of the Bush administration's many offenses against conservativism.
    I'm glad he would work to close off-shore tax havens, and special interest corporate tax deductions.
  • Rural Issues: He says he won't subsidize agribusiness. Good. Country of Origin labeling also sounds good, as does changing the FCC's rural phone program to provide broadband. Still nothing about how he would pay for this and other programs, though.
  • Women's Issues: He will "make safeguarding women's rights under Roe v. Wade a priority." At least he's honest.
  • Immigration Reform: He doesn't say much on this subject. I'd have to know more to comment. I'm glad that he would allow undocumented immigrants to pay a fine and then get on the path to citizenship. Mass deportations aren't really an option, as much as Dobbs, O'Reilly and their ilk may rail against illegal immigrants. The War on Illegal Immigration would be about as successful as any of the other Wars on abstract nouns have been. I wish I knew what Obama would do to "promote economic development in Mexico," especially because of his stance on trade.
  • Poverty: Most of these programs have been mentioned before in other sections. I won't repeat my earlier comments.
    I understand the Community Development Block Grant program is quite good. I'm glad that he supports it.
  • Universal Voluntary Public Service: Again, I am biased. His bold plan to expand AmeriCorps has my approval. Government funding is most effective when it is sent back out of the government to private community-based and faith-based organizations. I only hope that McCain, in response, will remember his own 2001 speech in support of AmeriCorps. Ideally, the need for national service would be one thing that the two candidates can agree upon, Obama having served as a community organization and McCain in the military.
  • Civil Rights: The DOJ is in desperate need of reform after the scandals of the Bush Administration. He promises to reverse its politicization, which is good. However, I also fear judicial overreaching by the EEOC, etc., which can have unintended consequences. I am glad he would eliminate the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder-based cocaine. Of course, I would probably go farther than he would in reducing penalties for drug possession.
  • Securing America/Restoring Standing in the World: With Iraq still at risk for civil war, I am skeptical of Obama's judgment in setting a timetable for withdrawal. While I don't believe the war was justified, we have an obligation now to ensure the security and stability of the region. I question whether he (or anyone) has the expertise to bring a resolution to the conflict through purely diplomatic means.
    We certainly should exercise our full diplomatic options with Iran, but we can't offer all carrots and no sticks, as his plan ("incentives like membership in the World Trade Organization," etc.) seems to.
    I agree that we should be willing to meet with foreign leaders, but not without conditions, as Obama seems to believe. If Bush had gone to Iran or to North Korea, would things really be better? Let's not run from one extreme (nation-building, preemptive strikes) to the other (diplomatic naiveté).
    The Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty in half by 2015 is worthy of support, but we need to be careful that our foreign aid isn't simply creating dependency and shoring up hostile regimes.
    "Obama will secure all loose nuclear materials in the world within four years." With his bare hands? I am glad though that he won't threaten to drop nuclear bombs on terrorists. Acceptance of civilian casualties in war has gone too far, ever since Hiroshima and the firebombing of Dresden.
    Obama says he will make great investments in the military, and increase the number of troops. Somehow I doubt that he will be able to do this, while also enacting all his sweeping domestic programs.
    I like his plans to increase openness and bipartisanship on foreign policy matters. Hopefully, McCain would do the same. I can't imagine either could be worse than the Bush administrator.
    I'm glad Obama and McCain are opposed to the genocide in the Sudan. However, I don't know if they will really be able to do anything about it. China's really the one with the leverage here.
  • Veterans' Issues: Ah, yes, the healthcare system already run by the government. Obama promises to reform it. Hopefully, he would do this before he tries to start a totally new government healthcare system.

kind of ironic that i'm now registered as a Democrat

When I look at the Washington Post's key votes database for the last Congress, I see that I come down on the Republican side more often than not. The main areas in which I differ from the Republicans, of course, are civil liberties and immigration policy. Guess I have successfully been converted to libertarianism after all. My brief fascination with Obama passed after I looked at his policies more closely, and I'm now closer to where I was near the beginning of the election season, when I was a Ron Paul supporter.

It's hard for me to be consistent in political views. When I look at things from the 30,000-foot view, dramatic social programs can seem attractive. But when it comes down to the actual implementation, and the unintended economic side-effects, I realize that it's generally better for the government to leave well enough alone.

That said, I don't support the tax cut policies of either Obama or McCain, as I believe that they are a poor substitute for fiscal responsibility. McCain claims that he will fund his tax cuts by eliminating government waste. However, any serious investigation of the budget would show that waste is not the main cause of government expenditure. Obama, as far as I know, doesn't even attempt to explain how he will fund his tax cuts - and program increases.

July 19, 2008

financial anxiety

So I just had to transfer another $100+ out of my savings account, which is now pretty much wiped out. And I'm not even in school yet. And I need to find either a new roommate or a new place to live in the next 6 weeks. Lord, give me strength.

What's really killing me financially, of course, is having to pay for medication out of pocket, then wait weeks for reimbursement (which I haven't received yet). Say what you will about "socialized medicine" but it certainly was better than the fictional health insurance that I'm on now.

My position on issues of government social services spending is different than most people's, I think. I'm not categorically opposed to it; in fact, I think it has an important role to play in preserving a halfway-decent quality of life for those near the bottom of the economic ladder. However, I don't think we should promise people things that we can't afford to pay for. Lowering taxes and increasing government spending: that's the real pipe dream. But it's what we've been doing for decades.

July 9, 2008

June 22, 2008

libertarian questions, pt. 2

Are Constitutional rights and Locke's "natural rights" one and the same? Are you certain that the framers of the Constitution got it right based on empirical grounds or do you simply accept that as a presupposition of your system?

Do the differences between an 18th-century agrarian economy and a 21st-century post-industrial economy have any bearing on how the political order should be run?

June 21, 2008

the only Biblical command we succeeded in obeying

Genesis 1:28.

When humans were few in number and lacking in technological skill, the language of ruling over nature was appropriate. God's calling upon us now is different. If we are to rule over nature, we are to rule as Christ rules over the Church. "The one who is greatest must be servant of all." Otherwise, we are constructing a biotechnological Tower of Babel.

a question for all libertarians

How do you plan to protect the rights of the consumer in a world of imperfect information?

June 15, 2008

is this a contradiction?

"In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee [when confirmed as Supreme Court Justice], Scalia said that he considered the most important part of the Constitution to be the system of 'checks and balances among the three branches....so that no one of them is able to "run roughshod" over the liberties of the people.'"

Scalia on 60 Minutes: "Has anyone ever referred to torture as punishment? I don't think so."

What it seems like he's suggesting is that torture is bad in itself, but not constitutionally banned, and thus may justified in certain cases - i.e., to get information necessary for national security. However, the recent scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo show that torture was not being used to get information, but rather to punish people for being suspected terrorists.

In any case, torture is still a violation of civil rights, even if it's not "cruel and unusual punishment," strictly speaking. Scalia may say at the beginning of the interview clip that it is "odious," but his later comments seem to suggest that it may be permitted in certain circumstances. Even if he is right about the definition of "cruel and unusual punishment," I would question his judgment on whether torture can be justifiably (or even practically) used to gain information. Permitting torture - even in what seem to be carefully restricted circumstances - seems to me to be a certain way to "'run roughshod' over the liberties of the people."

April 17, 2008

obama vs. small town pa?

So now I've read Obama's comments on small-town Pennsylvanians. I have to admit I understand where he's coming from. I've said much the same thing in regard to Hazleton's immigration laws - or the attitudes of some from Lancaster County, for that matter.

However, there's a difference between me criticizing the attitudes of fellow Pennsylvanians and an outsider doing it. I still support Obama, but I wish he had spoken more carefully.

April 9, 2008

forgot to mention...

Because I'm still registered Republican, unfortunately, I can't actually make a difference in the Pennsylvania primary, when it's needed.

at the risk of being a bandwagon jumper...

I now support Obama's candidacy. This little tax policy comparison chart was what sealed the deal. The other candidates don't seem as concerned about the state of the working poor. McCain definitely seems to be following the logic of Reaganomics, which isn't really logic at all.

March 1, 2008

hope for the best, prepare for the worst

I believe that America is headed for economic crisis resulting from the burden of national debt, our trade deficit, reliance upon artificial financial instruments to fund growth, and, most significantly, the coming global energy crisis. However, I am having trouble finding an article that demonstrates this without doing so in a gleeful "I told you so" manner. James Howard Kunstler is right out. However, this review at least gives a summary of his main ideas without endorsing his attitude toward the changes that may come.

I don't want to become a survivalist, but I do want to be prepared. Though I'm excited to be learning about technology and communications, I'm beginning to think I should have a backup plan in case the world is no longer in need of good web design. If the world went back to a medieval economy, I'm currently equipped to do little besides be a scholar in a monastery. And I don't think there will be many of those positions to go around.

UPDATE: Actually, on further reading, "The Post-Oil Megacity," by a Kunstler critic, promotes an alternative vision that I could get behind. My read of Kunstler is that he expects the worst to happen because he really wants us all to live a Wendell Berry-esque kind of life. But I don't think that's the only future available to us.

February 26, 2008

February 9, 2008

romney no more

Oh happy day - Romney is out of the race. I'm glad Huckabee stuck it out longer than him. Though I don't think I would vote for Huckabee myself, he is at least an authentic, rather than a disingenuous, social conservative.

Romney managed to annoy me one last time, with this parting shot: according to the AP, on Thursday he "suggested McCain would be a liability in a race in which the 71-year-old would be trying to become the oldest person ever elected president, while Clinton was trying to become the first female president and Obama, the first black."

So what does that mean exactly? Was Romney trying to present himself as the generic middle-age white male in the presidential race? What happened to his Mormon pride? Romney can't be counted on for much, but he can always be trusted to say exactly what (he thinks) his audience wants to hear.

January 7, 2008

the turn toward the concrete

When I was younger (well, not that much younger - when I was in college), I was almost the quintessential humanities major: interested in literature, philosophy, and the arts, but mostly indifferent to social science, politics, economics, and business. The past two years have changed all that.

As I was graduating, I self-consciously decided that academia was not in my future - that I should seek practice more than theory. I didn't know what exactly that would look like, but an internship in inner-city Boston sounded something like it. Of course, I got more than I bargained for, but it worked out well in the end.

Now - more so than I ever did at Covenant - I feel a sense of calling. And those things that were once boring to me, the stuff of the "9-to-5 world," now appear to be the playing field on which the great struggles of our time will be decided.

I don't hope to understand everything; just enough to give me a just cause to pursue. In this election year, I feel it is more important than ever that we exercise our Constitutional right (privilege? duty?) to vote. I'm not sure who I'll be voting for yet, but I want to know as much about the issues as I can.

December 9, 2007

mass confusion is the real parallel with the 16C.

I have no words adequate to describe this video.

Ron Paul supporters linking their cause to Guy Fawkes Day? Bizarre and ill-advised.

David Horowitz linking libertarianism to "blame-America-first" liberalism to "Islamo-fascism"? Paradigmatic neoconservative bait-and-switch.

Calling decision-makers on the Iraq War to return to "traditional values" of "finishing what we start"? Soundbites and symbols substituted for analysis.

And through it all, the same jumpcut, infographic mentality that Stephen Colbert parodies so eloquently on "The Colbert Report," except here it's for real. And on CNN.

I think the words of Marshall McLuhan describe our current political landscape all too well:

"Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer…And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence…Terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the time." (from The Gutenberg Galaxy)

The democratization of media cannot simply be regarded as a beneficent force. When McLuhan said the world was becoming a "global village," he did not necessarily see that as a positive development. For, as a Catholic, he was well aware of original sin and the tendency of any close-knit community toward hatred of the Other. The unbinding of community from geography does not necessarily mark a "Pentecostal condition of understanding and unity," as McLuhan once said that he hoped to see; it can just as well create an apocalyptic state of mimetic rivalry, in which every political faction or social group demonizes its opponents while at the same time taking on their worst characteristics.

Our culture in fact encourages such behavior. Both Left and Right clamor for "most favored victim" status; tolerance is a hollow virtue, while intolerance is our only remaining sin. Both Left and Right engage in the most blatant and vicious slanders on their opponents, then cry "persecution" when their opponents respond in kind.

And yet I am hopeful, for the Kingdom of God is among us, and comes by no earthly sign.

why is a christian publisher printing hate?

While I was reading about the copyright issue that I referenced below, I saw that radical right-wing talk show Michael Savage has found another way to get himself in the news - this time through a pathetically misguided attempt to silence criticism of his show through IP law.

While ordinarily I think it's best to ignore folks like Savage (who, along with Tom Tancredo, is probably one of the leading exploiters of the white working class), I can't overlook his pretensions to represent Christian faith (presumably, the faith of "white Americans" - see any historical parallels here?).

Anyone can say they are a Christian. I think Savage's overall message betrays where his commitments truly lie.

However, what really disturbs me is that Savage's two most recent books were published by an imprint of a Christian publishing house, Nelson Current. Though I imagine his books are less extreme than his radio show, I still can't believe that Nelson would continue to sell the books of a man who has advocated the forcible conversion of Muslims to Christianity, has asserted that Muslims are sub-human, and has most recently called for the U.S. to bomb Iran. This, I think, deserves protest.

December 6, 2007

why i'm no longer a "family values" conservative

I still believe the prevalence of abortion is a sign of God's judgment on society. But I believe it is His judgment on a society which tolerates poverty among its most vulnerable members.

Criminalizing abortion without changing the structure of our society would not stop abortion; it would only drive it underground. The pro-life movement is not wrong - but we need to value the born as much as we value the unborn.

October 28, 2007

the nyt is stealing a page from my blog

This Sunday, the NYT Mag just published a long piece about the state of evangelicals in politics. Needless to say, things are not looking good for the old-school Religious Right.

Some call it creeping theological liberalism. But I, like the author of the article, attribute the breakup of the Religious Right to a recognition that the Gospel is a holistic message, and that the Gospel is a message that can sustain itself and be compelling in a secular culture. We don't have to preserve some kind of "American civic religion" consensus in order to prepare people to hear the Gospel. Far from it. In fact, civic religion may be one of the chief stumbling blocks keeping people from hearing the Gospel as what it is - a call to die.

" Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?" (James 4:11-12)

October 13, 2007

Ann Coulter - the voice of evangelicalism in the public square :(

How Ann Coulter can live with herself is impossible for me to imagine. Not to mention how my fellow Christians can defend her.

Her witnessing strategy (assuming that she actually is a Christian, which is debatable) is to be as offensive as possible. Apparently, she believes that Christianity is "the Federal Express of Judaism," a way out of "obey[ing] laws" so that we can be "perfected." Sound unfamiliar to you? Well, "that's what the New Testament says."

Never mind that Paul said that the engrafted branches should not boast against the natural branches. Never mind that he said that the covenants and the patriarchs belonged to the Jews, and that he wished he could be accursed for the sake of his people. Justin Martyr was less triumphalistic than Coulter.

Needless to say, her interviewer was shocked. And evangelicalism is even more discredited in the eyes of the masses.

September 26, 2007

September 9, 2007

April 6, 2007

the price of consistency

After seeing the aftermath of the Iraq War (which I regrettably supported in 2001-02, because I, like much of the media, believed the WMD story), I have increasingly been leaning toward a non-interventionist foreign policy. Ann Coulter, despite my contempt for her, raises a good point in her most recent column: it is nothing but foolishness for anti-war liberals to oppose our involvement in the Middle East and yet urge us to commit more troops to Darfur, for humanitarian reasons.

Of course, I disagree with her ultimate conclusion. Like 90% of the country, I cannot close my eyes to the royal mess we have made of Mesopotamia, where all our options are bad options. Coulter needs a lesson in logic. We shouldn't involve our volunteer army - which is already stretched disastrously thin - in Darfur, because Sudanese militants pose no threat to us. But this truth does not justify our involvement in Iraq - after all, these days only hardline neo-cons argue that Saddam himself posed an imminent threat to us.

If war wasn't so horrible - if it didn't require people to die - then naturally, I would say intervene in Darfur. I too am horrified by what's going on in the region. But if I'm to be to be consistent with my principles - no "entangling alliances," no nation-building, no wars of choice - than I cannot support a mission that has the potential to be another Somalia. And I'm sorry to hear Brownback is at the forefront of the movement to commit more troops.

Humanitarian aid is one thing. We Americans need to sacrifice more, using our position of international prominence to advocate for the rights of the marginalized. But there's a vast difference between diplomacy and war. My greatest regret is that the militarism of the Bush Administration has made us less able to exercise our muscle in the former way.

February 18, 2007

the neo-cons cling tenaciously to their unreason

...even in the face of opposition from leading generals, and others who understand the reality of the war.

Has the surge been approved yet? I'm so discouraged by politics I haven't even been keeping track. I wonder what it's going to take for this madness to end.

See this clip of William Kristol losing all touch with reality. "Can't the Democrats keep quiet?" he says. The American people elected them because they were sick of the incompetence with which the current administration was conducting the war. There was a time a few months back when I thought Bush might actually listen to the Iraq Study Group report; he said he was getting new advisors on the war, etc. But this latest plan - the troop surge - shows he had no intention of changing from a losing course. If it's not the responsibility of the Congress to stop this, I don't know whose it is.

As I posted a while back, we need to revise the balance of power in our government. The executive does not have the right to run roughshod over the will of the people, as expressed by their elected officials.

I'm so embarassed that I've been voting for Republicans lately. I was locked into the party by my social conservativism, but all they've been doing on those issues really is pandering. The Schiavo case? The flag-burning amendment? This is not what I meant by social conservativism. The faith-based initiatives were a good idea, though they do raise some 1st Amendment issues; however, I don't think that they're really being implemented. Bush has appointed some good Supreme Court justices; that's about the only thing I'm thankful for. Insofar as conservativism is about fiscal responsibility and restraint in foreign affairs, the Bush administration has been one of the least conservative in recent memory.

January 6, 2007

an all-too-brief response, re: the difference between theonomists and generic evangelicals involved in politics

(In response to John, in the comments of the original post:)

Let me try to restate the point of my last paragraph in the theonomy post. I recognize that conservative Christians, as well as neo-cons, form a major part of Bush's base. But most conservative Christians are not Reconstructionists/theonomists, as they are described in the (admittedly quite long and insider-y) article I linked. This is a distinction which is difficult to grasp without some understanding of theology, and since most liberals (especially the more left-wing ones) have been taught to dismiss theological as "talk about nothing" (shades of logical positivism?) that's so much wasted effort to them.

Conservative Christians - the whole spectrum, including me - have plenty of positions which are antithetical to those of liberals. After all, I'm not in support of redefining marriage or of abortion rights. However, I don't believe that God has a special blessing for America, by contrast with other nations, nor do I believe that God's will is for us to support Israel unconditionally, as many evangelicals do, Pat Robertson being a well-known example. And I oppose these positions, which are widely held on the Christian Right, because I believe in Reformed theology. Conversely, I also oppose the theonomic loonies because I believe they represent a corruption of Reformed theology. To complicate things still further, the theonomists believe God has a special blessing for America, but they believe this for different reasons than mainstream evangelicals do (and, furthermore, the difference in their reasons for believing this affects their political action), and they strongly oppose the mainstream evangelical support of Israel.

Ideas have consequences, even theological ones.

That's why in the end, it hurts both liberals and conservatives if liberals are unable or unwilling to understand distinctions between their opponents. Libertarians are not neo-cons are not the Left Behind crowd are not theonomists. It's just as foolish to lump all them together, and to think that they all throw their weight behind the current administration (and do so on the same issues), as it is to lump together the teachers' unions, the LGBT lobby, the labor unions, and minorities.

The situation is analogous on both sides, Left and Right. Both parties are really marriages of convenience. No one with an ideology gets to see their vision implemented in anything like its full "glory." Politicians, to get elected, must please a diverse group of people some of the time, while minimizing the number of times they must offend each group in turn.

I admit I voted for Santorum because I wanted the Republicans to have a majority in the Senate. And I wanted that because I wanted to see strict constructionist judges and (possibly) justices get confirmed. And in future elections, I'm sure I'll continue to have reasons to vote for the Republicans. But I won't be happy about it.

And believe me, the theonomists certainly aren't happy about voting Republican, and they don't vote Republican. They couldn't, in good conscience, do so, because they want to demolish the welfare state, privatize everything but the army, police, and courts, and reinstitute what they call Biblical law. There are many interpretations of it, but it would basically be like a mild form of Shariah. However, they don't believe in coercion when it comes to matters of religion, so the assertions made in some liberal publications, such as "every government employee would have to attend Bible study," are simply false. Trust me, the theonomists are marginal.

D. James Kennedy and George Grant, whom I mentioned, are more dangerous, because they're willing to work within the system. But they don't exactly have Bush's ear; they don't even like the United Methodist Church, of which Bush is a part - they believe it's liberal and largely apostate.

The administration's relationship with evangelicals is largely exploitative - make a few gestures toward "faith-based" work (although the administration has sponsored some excellent work done by evangelicals overseas, as Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times), talk about abortion occasionally, advocate an amendment that was guaranteed to fail, etc. Support for the war is not something that was initially an "evangelical" thing, and it's not why they initially supported Bush. After all, pre-9/11, Bush seemed to advocate a largely isolationist foreign policy, and then afterward, most of the nation that supported the push to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Evangelicals were just along for the ride. The neo-cons may have been driving - they may have even been pushing Bush to invade Iraq pre-9/11 - but the latter part of that story doesn't seem credible to me. We really had no compelling interest there absent the suspicion of WMD.

But, in any case, this is a tangent. The main point is that the liberal talk about the conservative agenda to reclaim America for Christ as if this agenda were monolitihic is specious. It's just as specious as its counterpart on the right - the monolithic liberal agenda to purge God from everything, with its subagendas like the "gay agenda," the "feminist agenda," etc. On both sides, there are people who want to do these things, but there's not even substantial agreement among these people about how to carry the project out.

Thus, we remain in a kind of awkward equilibrium created by the balancing of extremes. Liberals remain dominant in popular culture, the news media, and academia, while conservatives have, in the past 20 years, become a significant force in politics. And both the Left and the Right have changed character in the recent decades by shifting their focus from economic issues to social issues. Hence the appellation "culture wars" for the age in which we now live.

As for me, I don't really have a dog in this fight. Christians have prospered under persecution, and have often faltered when given the reins of power. My concern is for social change, yes, but I - unlike those of my parents' generation - am deeply skeptical that significant change can be achieved by political means.

So the question remains: would you, as a non-Christian, like to live in my world? Perhaps not. But I'm not an ideologue of the Left or Right - at least I strive not to be; I don't have a vision of an ideal world which I'm trying to impose upon the real. I expect the real change will come through the work of Christians, yes, but it will come like a tree from the smallest of seeds, growing till its branches overshadow the earth.

November 8, 2006

Rumsfeld resigns...

...and the whole country rejoices.

Say what you will about Bush, he knows how to make his advisors take the heat. It happened with Ashcroft, now it's happened with Rumsfeld. It's actually kind of a brilliant strategy - if you have radical views, get someone working for you who has more radical views, and when people object to the whole deal, then that person can be the scapegoat.

At least I think that's what going on. And perhaps that was what was going on with the whole Miers thing (except in reverse, sort of), although that may be too clever by half.

And to finish up my thoughts on Santorum vs. Casey, it's not that I think Casey will be a bad senator. I think he'll actually be great, possibly better than Santorum was. I just didn't want the Dems to get a majority, or for there to be deadlock. But that's happened now, and would've happened even had the PA swung the other way. (Although that apparently wasn't likely, since the vote wasn't even as close as I thought it would be. PA voters were in a "throw the bums out" mood, just as I suspected that they were.)

November 7, 2006

OK, so my senator lost...

...and maybe he deserved it. But I don't like to see the balance of power shift. I don't like the idea of deadlock for two more years.

If people think that Congress hasn't done anything lately, just wait till they see what's coming.

I am glad to see that Lieberman defeated Lamont though. Maybe David Gergen is right and a viable 3rd party will rise up out of the ashes of the two-party system. It's about time.

Guess I'm going to go to bed before I know just how bad things are for the Republicans. More thoughts tomorrow.

And I voted for Santorum (by absentee ballot), despite wishing he would distance himself from Bush. I think Pennsylvanians were more upset by his Virginia residency though - at least in Lancaster County.

~~~

Read this post - thoughts worth pondering.

April 11, 2005

i ran across this while writing my spider eaters essay...

The Museum of Communism FAQ, with a list of Mao's crimes against humanity. This provides a good "big picture" counterpoint to the story of Rae Yang, who it seems didn't witness most of the worst of what went on during the years she lived in China.

December 3, 2004

"Liberal": the word vs. the entity

The day I posted on medical ethics, a friend of mine sent me a response that I thought raised a good question. Essentially, he asked me "Why do you avoid using the word 'liberal' to describe a position that you hold?" This was my response.

I do want to distance myself from the word "liberal" since it has become a pejorative term for the left, just as "fundamentalist" has for the right. Witness the amount of time Kerry & Edwards spent trying to convince people they weren't "liberal," or at least "too liberal." Of course the Ludwig von Mises "classical liberalism" crowd (today we call them libertarian - look 'em up at Mises.org, they're fascinatingly and intelligently wrong-headed) tries to argue that this isn't what "liberal" mean- it simply means "individual freedom, pursuit of life, liberty, and property" Declaration of Independence-type stuff, as it did originally. But they're arguing against centuries of usage. The meaning has shifted and now I would argue that the use of such terms is unhelpful, at best. Connotation has swallowed up denotation.