Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Road to Fascism - Libertarians vs. Republicans

Arnold Kling and Jonah Goldberg tussle it out:
Jonah argues that we have become belated converts to the Liberal Fascism thesis.

And Arnold Kling who said my book was in fact written by three people -- "Goldberg the revisionist historian, Goldberg the outraged conservative child, and Goldberg the troll" [I can't get a direct link but it's findable over at TCS] -- is now, as noted below, flirting with the idea that fascism lurks in what we're seeing.

My review is here, and I stand by it. The review says,

Goldberg has written an important book, although there are a number of ways I would have liked to see it written differently.

I think the key issue in the contest between Progressive Corporatism and The Resistance might be summarized as this:

If you believe that politicians are about solving problems and need more power in order to do so, then you are going to side with Progressive Corporatism.

If you believe that politicians are about power and need problems as an excuse to get it, then you are going to side with The Resistance.

My skeptical view of political motives can be seen in another old essay of mine, Government and the Fear Factor. Jonah's book certainly is on the side of The Resistance. I am pleased by the book's success. His revisionist history fits the Resistance narrative, and that continues to appeal to me, but I also continue to have quibbles about style, tone, and--occasionally--substance.

Sometimes, we confuse an intellectual victory with a historical event. For example, people will say that the fall of the Soviet Union settled the socialist calculation debate. On closer examination, I do not think that is true. The Soviet Union did not rot because the leaders could not figure out the right shadow price of steel. It rotted because Communism replaces the incentive to produce with an incentive to free ride and an incentive to join the Party and get your share of the loot.

Similarly, Goldberg seems to want to say that the aggressively statist agenda of the Obama Administration vindicates his book. However, in my view, we started on this road under President Bush, and especially under Treasury Secretary Paulson. Recall that the Republican Presidential nominee suspended his campaign in order to come to Washington in support of the $700 billion down payment on progressive corporatism.

Yes, as of now there are more Republicans and conservatives claiming to be ready to stand with us in the barricades. But when we really needed them last September, they instead helped to pass the TARP. That makes me reluctant to stamp "vindicated" on my copy of LF.

+1 Kling.


Yeah, you may have buried that Obama story during the election, lest the truth should hurt, but thank you NYT for this:

The TARP, in Pictures The TARP, in Pictures DealBook From DealBook: The TARP, in pictures.


Book Reviews and Griffin Bell

I admit, I don't know enough about the late Griffin Bell to state an opinion as to his politics or legal career, but I have all the evidence I need to confirm his good judgment with respect to the President of The University of Georgia:

Whitt, the book's author, died in January of a heart attack. He had been urged to write the book by former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell, a prominent Atlanta attorney and Adams critic. In the book, Bell, who has since died, said Adams used the athletics vs. academics angle to thwart any pressure from the Board of Regents and saved his job.

All the information in the book is probably old news, but I wonder how many other university presidents have inspired Pulitzer prize winners to document theirs scandals with a book?

Monday, March 30, 2009


That was my score. How Progressive Are You? Apparently, that puts me just below Donald Rumsfield on the scale of progressives.

I don't understand the score, because as much as I disagreed with the big-government side of just about every statement, I thought my humble foreign policy, separation of church and state, and strong civil liberty positions would balance me out somewhat.

I am glad, however, that the term "progressive" is being used with more frequency to describe the basket of pro-government policies. It leaves open the possibility that "liberal" can be re-claimed by those, like myself, who identify with classical liberalism. I hesitate to link to the Wikipedia article, as I don't like the term laissez-faire, but it's close enough for jazz.

As a follow-up to my previous comment on advocating the decriminalization of drugs, Glenn Greenwald will soon be presenting a report at CATO showing Portugal's success since decriminalizing drugs in 2001.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

On Vacation

I had hoped to do more blogging on vacation, but the compulsion to relax and do nothing has proven far too strong. While the last few days have not exactly been beach weather, Mrs. Hommes and I are not exactly beach people, so we have been just fine with spending our days sleeping in late, reading, watching movies, playing Rummikub, eating seafood and making fruity drinks, all from the comforts of a generous friend's seaside condo. The worst of the weather appears to be over, but here is the current view from the porch:

While the PCB area is not much known for its food, there are a few places that the wife and I insist on eating at least once every trip down, and they include Hunt's Oyster Bar for the raw/steamed oysters, Buddy's Seafood for take-out steamed shrimp (no website, but here's a blog which provided inspiration on how to use some of the extra shrimp), and Mike's Diner for breakfast or lunch.

Before the rain came, we spent a day driving and walking around Rosemary Beach, Seaside, and several of the small communities in between. While we didn't make it to Grayton Beach and The Red Bar, it was neat to once again revisit many of the places we first traveled in the days after our engagement.

So this may be my only post this week. I logged on intending to type out a few passages of Winston Churchill's A Far Country that I am reading as part of a book club, but the fact is that I am feeling incredibly lazy, and another movie has just started. It is vacation after all...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sin Taxes

An article on ethicsdaily.com addressing so-called sin taxes came to the following conclusion:

There's just one thing wrong with sin taxes -- they aren't big enough.

I disagree, so I found the author's blog, and left the following comment:

Hi Tony,

I found your blog after reading this article on ethicsdaily.com. I would have to join Gene in disagreeing with the idea that sin taxes are good.

I am a Christian, a Baptist, and aware of the dangers of alcohol. But taxes tend to make government dependent on those sins. Many states use tobacco taxes to pay for health care programs, so the last thing they want is for people to actually quit smoking. A sin tax allows the government to "profit" from people's poor choices.

I reconcile my no sin tax position with Christian faith by seeing the trajectory of the Bible as one going from law to spirit. Jesus spoke about intent matching behavior. The right laws may help, and I would of course prefer people not to destroy their lives with alcohol, drugs, or sex, but people have to freely come to understand WHY they should change their spirit and live a more disciplined life.

And going back to my point about government benefiting from people's sin - I would not consider it proper for me (as a Christian) to open a business that profits from man's vices, and therefore do not support a government policy that does the same.

I am fairly new to leaving comments on other people's blog, so I hope I did not come across as trollish, but he gave his opinion and invited comments, so I obliged.

I think the war on drugs is stupid, but I am not among those that say "legalize, regulate, and tax the hell out of it." The last thing government needs is to become dependant on any new revenue, much less those based on vice. And, unfortunately, many in society equate legality with morality, so legalizing drugs would send the wrong message.

I prefer the idea of simply de-felonizing drugs (like prostitution in most states), so that our prisons are not full of non-violent drug offenders. States should be allowed to decide whether to allow the growth, trade and prescription of medical marijuana, and perhaps other "natural" drugs. I think these measures would make the drug trade safer, and perhaps untie it from the gangs and ghettos that enslave so many black and Hispanic youth, without implicitly approving the use of drugs.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Outrage & AIG

David Harsanyi of the Denver Post gets it right:

Here's an idea: If you stop nationalizing banks, there will be no need to engage in phony-baloney indignation over bonus payments anymore.

This cockamamie populism in Washington really hit its stride when Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley suggested that AIG execs who earned bonuses should "follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say, I'm sorry, and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide."

C'mon. If suicide were a proper penalty for piddling away taxpayer dollars, the National Mall would look just like Jonestown after refreshments.

These same senators who voted to nationalize banks with nary a pre-condition are also, apparently, stupendously talented actors. After all, most of these senators voted for a bill that contained a provision that specifically protected bonuses that were agreed upon before Feb 11. in the bank bailout legislation.

How is it that all those who cast votes on this provision — because, we imagine, no trustworthy lawmaker would vote for legislation they hadn't vigorously examined — are now threatening a "special" tax to snag AIG bonuses? Not only is it dishonest, it also means they, in a breathtaking abuse of power, believe using punitive taxation to appropriate someone's salary is a legitimate function of government.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has asked Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner "to use that leverage and pursue every single legal avenue to block these bonuses and make the American taxpayers whole," claiming it was all about "fundamental values."

You know what's a super useful value? A guarantee that contracts entered into by individuals or parties are respected. Or is the state ready to throw that fundamental value out and bend to the will of the angry mob?

I don't understand why Obama is literally crying over the bonuses when he and the administration have known about them for months. Are the bonuses, 1/12 of 1% of total AIG bailout money, the only problem with this entire situation? What about the other 99.9175%?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Gay and Marriage

Go together like a horse and carria... Oh, whatever. I have had a long day so I might as well do something truly stupid and attempt to write down my opinion on gay marriage, which likely satisfies no one on any side of the issue.

First, science. It's hard to talk about gay marriage without addressing homosexuality in general. More specifically, addressing whether it is a product of nature of nurture. My answer is both. Like most attributes, say athleticism, melanin content, or hereditary predisposition to diabetes or alcoholism, there exist people along the entire spectrum from pretty much 0 to 100%. At the same time, each of these attributes is more or less able to be manipulated by environment and behavior. I see no reason why this does not hold true for homosexuality. There is no reason to reject the stories of those on the "more gay" side of the spectrum that have always known they were gay and could not imagine an alternative, and there is also no reason to reject the stories of those "less gay" who feel that failed relationships or external influences led them to identify as homosexual. There are even stories of those that have "become straight" after a changed environment, and that may well be possible for those close to the middle of the spectrum. Each of these experiences can reasonably be believed accepted by those that share them.

Second, religion. Far too many use the Bible to hide behind their homophobia. There are indeed difficult passages to consider, but those passages are certainly open to interpretation, as people including Tony Campolo have addressed. Still, all those passages are secondary to the instruction given to love our neighbor as ourselves without exception. Even IF you compare homosexuality to diabetes or alcoholism, we do not keep alcoholics and people who eat poorly out of the church, and neither should we restrict our love or church communities from homosexuals. At best, God has created everyone to express love in their own way, and at worst, the fallen nature of man provides challenges, temptations, and limitations for every life, but the cross and Christ's love is for everyone.

Third, politics. I say the whole gay and gay marriage issue is mostly a product of a flawed government approach to marriage. Marriage was historically a family-based social contract. Christian tradition also holds it as a religious sacrament. In an ideal secular government with full separation of church and state, the government should have no role in either of these practices, except for as a record keeper.

Alas, in an age of big government, with taxes and benefits tied to marriage law, the question becomes equality under the law. And in this respect, government should make no moral claims that would deny one group of people benefits while denying it to another. My first preference then becomes to remove all government laws dealing with marriage altogether, specifically tax incentives and government benefits, and let private legal contracts, private institutions, and private employers deal with people's social contracts as they each desire. Since that is in no way possible given the political trajectory of ever more intrusive government, my second preference would be for government's power in recognizing unions be limited to the term "civil union," both for homosexual and heterosexual couples. Then, if a church or other social institution wants to perform a "marriage," they can do so according to their beliefs. Finally, if that is not possible, gay marriage should be legalized, and those that object can find another term to add on or use.

I am posting this as is, but have links and quotes that I hope to add when I get some time. Also, I am purposely not addressing specifics to focus on key concepts - "Love thy neighbor" for Christians, and "Equality under the law" for Americans. Neither perfect love nor equality occur naturally, but they are key ideals when it comes to God and justice.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Future of Church

In the last few days, a survey revealing the diminished numbers of Christians has prompted a lot of discussion and speculation about the future of Christianity, and how churches should change and/or have changed to face the coming years and decades. Just a few of the facts, and my immediate reaction:

- The percentage of Americans claiming no religion jumped from 8.2% in 1990 to 15% in 2008.
- People claiming 'None' religion are the only group to have grown in every state of the Union.
- 76% of people identify themselves as Christians in America, down from 86.2% in the 1990s.

I see the direction of these numbers as positive, but still largely inflated by cultural Christian-ism, to borrow Andrew Sullivan's term from his article in Time a few years ago. In my humble opinion, Cultural Christianism has been co-opted by many a political and religious wolf in sheep's clothing, so the faster that cultural and non-practicing affiliation with the Christianity shrinks, the better off everyone is. Or to put it another way, I see no way that these numbers reflect spiritual reality.

If these trends continue, however, there is no doubt that society, culture, and the nature of churches will change dramatically. The Christian Science Monitor provides predictions on a possible evangelical collapse:

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the "Protestant" 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I'm convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

Back to the ARIS survey:

Most of the growth in the Christian population occurred among those who would identify only as "Christian," "Evangelical/Born Again," or "non-denominational Christian." The last of these, associated with the growth of megachurches, has increased from less than 200,000 in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2001 to over 8 million today. These groups grew from 5 percent of the population in 1990 to 8.5 percent in 2001 to 11.8 percent in 2008. Significantly, 38.6 percent of mainline Protestants now also identify themselves as evangelical or born again.

My experience with non-denominational churches is that they are often intellectually shallow, emotionally driven, and unchallenging in terms of accountability or commitment. If my anecdotal evidence is consistence with truth, then is the following prediction a good thing?

Expect evangelicalism to look more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth oriented megachurches that have defined success. Emphasis will shift from doctrine to relevance, motivation, and personal success – resulting in churches further compromised and weakened in their ability to pass on the faith.

It seems that all churches are searching for an identity, and turning to labels I don't fully understand. The "emerging" church seems to be trying to recapture the vitality found in small communities of believers actively living their faith with humility and grace. The "missional" church is placing a priority on the social work required of those who seek to follow Christ's example. "Orthodoxy" connects believers to the centuries of followers before them through spiritual discipline, theological study, rituals and traditions. And evangelicals work to spread the saving message of a new life in Christ.

I say that the only correct path is e) all of the above. Without the modern labels, the issues are humility, grace, social work, spiritual discipline, rituals, tradition, intellectual search for truth, and salvation. These are all great old ideas straight from the scripture. But my understanding is that these were not and are not meant to compete against each other, with some being printed on banners while others are ignored. So while I have no idea what Christianity or the Church will look like in the future, I hope that it may reflect a more whole image of Jesus Christ to a world sorely in need of his love.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

What's for Lunch

From the absurd to the mundane, it was destined that I would eventually blog about something silly like lunch. Thanks to a post in The Paupered Chef, I was overcome with cravings for Korean short ribs this morning, and the only cure was action. I wanted to make them for dinner tonight, but a 5-hour marinade shot that down.

Then the rationalization process began. I'm thinking about how frugal I've been lately, eating lunch in the office most days and spending next to nothing on food. Plus, the last couple of days have been pretty productive and I am on track with my weekly goals. Why not pat myself on the back and have a full hour lunch excursion to hunt down Korean BBQ short ribs? OK, sure thing. So, using Google and cool name factor alone, I decide on So Dong Kong.

So Dong Kong, indeed!

They don't have a website, or I would link to it, but I give it two thumbs up and a bloated belly belch. It was definitely worth the trip. Now if I could just convince Mrs. Hommes to visit with me, I am sure she would love it. The restaurant itself, for being tucked away in a nondescript little strip mall, was very clean and nicely decorated inside, and the staff was very friendly, offering me a table and something to drink even though I was ordering take out. And the food was great. The kimchi was spicy and pungent, the broccoli and carrot salad was flavorful, and the rice was perfectly sticky in the Korean tradition. The one dish that I tried but wish I hadn't was the Myul-Chi Bo-kum, or dried, deep-fried and sauced anchovies. Honestly, the taste was not bad if you can handle intense fishiness combined with the heavy salt from drying and a sweet sauce, but the smell and visual aspects are the main challenges:

The short ribs? They, uhh, kicked serious, uhh, donkey.

(picture borrowed from Ray & Ashley, who I don't know, but look like an all-around interesting and fun couple!)

I will make the dish myself soon using the recipe provided by Paupered Chef, maybe this weekend, and will report back on if the home version can match the restaurant version. If so, I may entitle it So Long, Dong o Kong Ribs.

Art: Racist or True?

Here is the story, you decide:

Atlanta City Hall's choice of artwork is creating an uproar. Especially the piece with the secret message that says, "Politically it's OK to hate the white man."

Here is a picture of said piece:

And another with the message more clearly visible:

According to another blog:

The "artwork", titled "Formula For Hatred", which was concocted by a hispanic man, Alvaro Allivar, consists of a group of 32 American flags with what appears to be jumbled letters imposed across the flags. The letters actually read, "Politically it's OK to hate the White man". Another hidden message in the piece asks, "Is it OK for me to hate if I've been a victim?"

"It's made to make you think about politically, is it okay to hate the white man -- whatever your skin color is," said the racist latino "artist".

I think the artist raises fair points. And the two (white) cops who are demanding the removal of the art work? Well, I hesitate to say this, but they seem to betray the average lack of intelligence found in their profession. Remember, you can be too smart to be a cop.

The key term is "politically," and in this context, I believe the artist is asking the viewer to consider, whether good or bad, if some people have made a political career by hating the white "man."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Republicans and Democrats

A good friend was in town recently, and I had him and his family over for dinner. While the majority of our conversation was spent trading news of shared acquaintances and discussing his life as a new father, the conversation did steer to politics once or twice. I had seen and voted for a campaign video he took part in as part of a contest hosted by CNN iReport, so it wasn't exactly a secret who he voted for:

What can I say? Friendship is stronger than politics. Anyways, in our conversation, he defended his vote accordingly - "Even worse than tax and spend Democrats are spend and spend Republicans." And I agree with him. He, perhaps more realistically than me, realized that both parties are more than willing to grow the size of government, but at least Democrats look somewhere, albeit taxes, as a source for funding their expansion of power.

If Republicans do in fact, want to gain credibility as a party committed to fiscal discipline, they would do well to stop working so hard to spend federal money on pork projects. According to Fox News, 3 of the top 5 and 6 of the top 10 earmarking Senators in the $410 Billion spending bill are Republicans:

1) Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. -- $122,804,900
2) Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. -- $114,484,250
3) Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo. -- $85,691,491
4) Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. -- $76,899,425
5) Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. -- $75,908,475
6) Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska -- $74,000,750
7) Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa -- $66,860,000
8) Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. -- $53,133,500
9) Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. -- $51,186,000
10) Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii -- $46,380,205

Theoretically, I would prefer to have parents that don't take out credit cards in my name and run up huge debts, even if they are trying to help. Now, I can't change my parents, and fortunately they haven't done any such foolishness so I wouldn't want to, but in politics, this is as good a metaphor as any. I am simply not willing to yield to the centralization and spending impulses of the Democrats and Republicans in charge, so I will continue to argue, hope, and vote for new authority.

Speaking of Smaller Government:

Today as been declared Tenth Amendment Day:

Thomas Jefferson described the Tenth Amendment as “the foundation of the Constitution” and added, “to take a single step beyond the boundaries thus specially drawn … is to take possession of a boundless field of power, no longer susceptible of any definition.”

The text of the Tenth Amendment, is:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

I am not a Constitutional scholar, and I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, so I have to settle for Wikipedia's article. It appears that for about 150 years, this amendment was taken more or less literally, but with United States v. Sprague in 1931 (wasn't something going on with the economy at that time?), it became acceptable to treat the Tenth Amendment as a truism that added little to no value to the Constitution. I somehow think that the federalists who fought for the Tenth Amendment to ensure the federal government did not usurp the principles of subsidiarity with respect to state and local governments would be surprised to hear that the amendment was pretty much worthless.

Since the precedent set in the 30's, the Supreme Court has only declared a handful of laws unconstitutional for violating the Tenth Amendment, often getting around the Tenth Amendment by resting on the Commerce Clause Powers of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution:

The Congress shall have power . . . To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes;

Which apparently, includes a woman growing weed in her own house for her personal medical problems, in a state where such activity was legal. According to Wikipedia:

Most recently, the Commerce Clause was cited in the 2005 decision Gonzales v. Raich. In this case, a California woman sued the Drug Enforcement Administration after her medical marijuana crop was seized and destroyed by Federal agents. Medical marijuana was explicitly made legal under California state law by Proposition 215; however, marijuana is prohibited at the federal level by the Controlled Substances Act. Even though the woman grew the marijuana strictly for her own consumption and never sold any, the Supreme Court stated that growing one's own marijuana affects the interstate market of marijuana, citing the Wickard v. Filburn decision. The theory was that the marijuana could enter the stream of interstate commerce, even if it clearly wasn't grown for that purpose and it was unlikely ever to happen. It therefore ruled that this practice may be regulated by the federal government under the authority of the Commerce Clause.

The Supreme Court, in its decision, stated:

The Commerce Clause emerged as the Framers' response to the central problem giving rise to the Constitution itself: the absence of any federal commerce power under the Articles of Confederation. For the first century of our history, the primary use of the Clause was to preclude the kind of discriminatory state legislation that had once been permissible. Then, in response to rapid industrial development and an increasingly interdependent national economy, Congress “ushered in a new era of federal regulation under the commerce power,” beginning with the enactment of the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890.

I put great importance in the Tenth Amendment, and if the quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson is true, I agree with him on this matter. I am interested to know what my attorney friends might think.

(Hat tip to The Humble Libertarian.)

Change = Stepping on the Gas

Much has been made about Obama's call back to a NYT journalist concerning a question about being labeled "socialist" to which he responded:

"I did think it might be useful to point out that it wasn’t under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. It wasn’t on my watch. And it wasn’t on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement -– the prescription drug plan -- without a source of funding."

He did say during the campaign that "when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." But, that withstanding, the Cato blog concedes that he has a point:

Not to defend Obama’s unprecedented increase on government spending or plans to involve the government in almost every area of our lives…but he does have a point. As I pointed out in Leviathan on the Right, the Bush administration’s brand of big-government conservatism was, at the very least, the greatest expansion of government from Lyndon Johnson to, well, Barack Obama.

This was well noted by conservative Phil Klien back in 2007:

In a sense, President Bush has already paved the road for a figure with Obama's skills to reassert liberalism. Under Bush, the size of government has increased at a faster rate than during any administration since Lyndon Johnson's, and it has given us the monstrosities of the Medicare prescription drug benefit and No Child Left Behind. Rhetorically, Bush gave away the store by touting "compassionate conservatism "and notoriously uttering, "When somebody hurts, government has got to move." Considering that this all came from somebody identified as a conservative president, Republicans are left with little leverage to argue against Obama's "slight change in priorities."

Which is why I voted on principles of smaller, more local government, or threw my vote away, depending on how you look at it.

Obama continued his quote above by stating that his administration has "actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles..."

Very interesting.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Quote of the Day

They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent…Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger. The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences …We cannot avoid this period, we are in it now…

- Winston Churchill November 12, 1936

Friday, March 6, 2009

Christians and Murder: Bonhoeffer

The comments section of another post veered off topic, so I am starting a separate thread as it deserves some attention. The question is how the Bible defines the Christian's role in government, and the potential limits for action.

I admit I am conflicted. I have a large Anabaptist streak in me that says we should be in the world doing the work of God, but not a part of the world's system at all. Yet, another large part of me feels strongly that we are called to be Christ in every part of this world, including government, and must affect change wherever possible.

In my mind the Bible does not lay out a clear answer. The New Testament was written at a time when Christians had no voice, so I see the scriptures advice to obey existing authority as first and foremost an act of preservation. Because the Bible is timeless and speaks also to us, we forget that the NT letters sought to address the timely and specific concerns of the early churches. There are also numerous examples, From Moses to Daniel to Paul, of men acting in resistance to authority.

The varied interpretations give us everything from Mennonites to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who worked as a double-agent in Nazi Germany and tried to murder Hitler. As quoted in this article, Bonhoeffer's book Ethics provides a summary for his argument:

Responsible action is how Christians act in accordance with the will of God.

The demand for responsible action - that is, acting in accordance with God's will - is one that no Christian can ignore.

Christians are, therefore, faced with a dilemma: when assaulted by evil, they must oppose it through direct action. They have no other option. Any failure to act is simply to condone evil.

My fundamental belief is that God would have Christians put their hope for a changed world in Christ, not in any man or government of men. I also believe that we are all given freedom, but by freely submitting to Christ, God can empower the actions of his followers when they do His will. To me, that leaves room for both Mennonites and Bonhoeffers.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Music and Politics

Who says they don't mix?

Thank you AVM.

Crazy Day

Headache, traffic, police, work, it's been one of those days that everyone loves to complain about, but no one wants to hear about. As time goes by, the probability of me actually doing linkapalooza 2 on Austrian Economics grows slimmer by the day, but I found this article in Canada's Financial Post which is a good primer on Austrian economics, and the lens through which Austrian economists view the current financial situation. Nuggets include:

While there isn’t perfect unanimity on this, it is widely acknowledged that a significant part, if not the root, of our difficulties originated with the low-interest-rate policy implemented by the Alan Greenspan-led Fed in 2001-2005. This generated a housing boom, which was further stoked by the financial engineering of Wall Street in securitizing mortgages, by obliging bond rating agencies in evaluating these securities and by portfolio managers eagerly willing to buy them, hungry for extra returns in a low interest rate environment.

For a video illustration on the above, please see:

The Crisis of Credit Visualized from Jonathan Jarvis on Vimeo.

Back to the FP article:

Austrian economists hold that downturns are the inevitable aftermath of loose monetary policy, thus opposing explanations typically heard prior to the current crisis that attributed recessions to price shocks, underconsumption or central bank tightening of monetary policy.

As the Austrian tradition points out, the dilemma with easy money is that the central bank sets rates below that which the market would naturally set. The natural rate reflects people’s willingness to trade present for future satisfactions. When the actual rate is established under this, entrepreneurs and firms are issued a false signal that people are willing to defer more consumption into the future than they really are. As a result, excess investments in capital goods industries, such as housing, are made on the expectation that these will pay off in the long-run. The boom ends when monetary conditions are tightened back to natural levels or the passage of time makes clear that the demand was never really there to sustain the investments made. At this point, a crisis takes place in which capital investments get liquidated and resources are shifted such that the economy’s productive capacity more appropriately reflects people’s time preferences.

A negative savings rate, a private debt the size of GDP, and mounting foreclosures and bankruptcies certainly were part of the wake up call that long-term consumer demand was not sustainable.

Still, the Austrians argue that the liquidation process must be allowed to proceed, since any government intervention to mitigate the necessary adjustments will end up sustaining the very pattern of production that caused the crisis in the first place. This was the error that Greenspan committed in dramatically lowering interest rates in 2001, which allowed excess investment in future goods to persist, as resources merely shifted from one capital goods industry to another, from the technology and Internet sectors to housing. No such switch is in the offing now, so any further government intervention is apt to prolong the economic slowdown.

This is the unpopular aspect of Austrian economics, especially among the government must act and government can solve everything folk, like Paul Krugman.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cool Catholic Word: Subsidiarity

If I were to adopt a political label, it would not be a political party, but a concept called subsidiarity. The roots of subsidiarity reach back to the early Christian church, but are equally applicable in secular societies (Side note: As a Protestant, I have been growing a deeper appreciation for historical Catholic thought, as for 1500 years it was the Church). Thanks to the blog Insight Scoop, I found the following excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical, Deus Caritas Est:

The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support. In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live “by bread alone” (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human. (par 28)

This address my comment in response to the post about Godless countries - It's not as much whether God exists, but whether God is relevant. Who needs God when government can provide? My rhetorical answer, of course, is everyone.

Back to subsidiarity, The Inside Scoop provides the following excerpts from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church that explains the moral framework:

The necessity of defending and promoting the original expressions of social life is emphasized by the Church in the Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, in which the principle of subsidiarity is indicated as a most important principle of “social philosophy”. “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them”.

On the basis of this principle, all societies of a superior order must adopt attitudes of help (“subsidium”) — therefore of support, promotion, development — with respect to lower-order societies. In this way, intermediate social entities can properly perform the functions that fall to them without being required to hand them over unjustly to other social entities of a higher level, by which they would end up being absorbed and substituted, in the end seeing themselves denied their dignity and essential place.

Subsidiarity, understood in the positive sense as economic, institutional or juridical assistance offered to lesser social entities, entails a corresponding series of negative implications that require the State to refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of the smaller essential cells of society. Their initiative, freedom and responsibility must not be supplanted. (par 186)


The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to certain forms of centralization, bureaucratization, and welfare assistance and to the unjustified and excessive presence of the State in public mechanisms. “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending”. An absent or insufficient recognition of private initiative — in economic matters also — and the failure to recognize its public function, contribute to the undermining of the principle of subsidiarity, as monopolies do as well. (par 187)

This resonates deeply with me, especially during these times. Wilhelm Röpke, another Protestant, incorporated much Catholic thought into his writings, and subsidiarity is one of the principles he so loved about Switzerland's history and encouraged the world to adopt post-WWII.

Another article linked in The Inside Scoop is "More Government, Less God: What the Obama Revolution Means for Religion in America," written by W. Bradford Wilcox for the Public Discourse site. It not only discusses the possible implications of a hard left social agenda, it does so in the context of the same countries, Sweden and Denmark, covered in the "Godlessness is Great" article. A very interesting read.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pulse on Obama

Much is being written about the big-name moderates, Brooks and Buckley, reversing their previous support of Obama just a month or so into his presidency. The conservative media is already seeing the hope of change in 2010, and even the mainstream media is binging to wonder about Obama's support from moderates. To be honest, I really don't don't know what makes these guys, or most people, moderate. Best I can tell, moderate means willing to try a little of everything to see what works. This sounds appealing, but a little poison can cause a lot of problems.

I'll stick to the policy, and leave the politics to others. I am more interested by the reaction to Obama's plan to reduce the tax benefits to charitable deductions. According to the Robert Frank of the Wall Street Journal, Government is the new charity, albeit coerced:

In the past decade, more and more government functions have been privatized, leaving the private sector and rich individuals to solve broader social ills. Whether this worked well or not is hard to measure.

But as the rich got richer, and Bill Gates and Warren Buffett paved the way for more giving, wealthy philanthropists took on more of what used to be government functions, from health care and education to medical research.

Democrats want to tilt the balance back to government. As Robert Reich told the Chronicle of Philanthropy: “Is the good that will be done through health-care reform greater than the good that would have been done with the charitable projects of the wealthy people [who might decrease their gifts]?” he asked, implying that the answer is yes.

Hmm, I would bet on no, myself, but time will tell, I suppose. Regardless, I stand along Mr. Frank as holding the outdated notion that philanthropy is (and should be) voluntary.

The Washington Times story on the same subject raises a few more questions in my mind:

Mr. Obama is counting on that provision to raise $179.8 billion over 10 years.


Roberton Williams, senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center, said it's impossible to calculate the exact effects of all the tax changes, but said the overall result is clear - less philanthropic giving.

"This will lead people to give less to charities if they behave the way they've behaved in the past," he said. "We've already seen a drop in giving as a result of the economic collapse. On top of that, this will just reduce the amount of giving."

Asked about that, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag said Mr. Obama took care of that by giving charities government money to make up part of the difference.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, describes "the good, the bad and the ugly" of President Obama's 2010 budget plan Thursday on Capitol Hill. (Astrid Riecken/The Washington Times)

"Contained in the recovery act, there's $100 million to support nonprofits and charities as we get through this period of economic difficulty," he said.

The government raises $180 billion from the measure, but sets aside $100 million to make up for the difference. Oh, of course, it gets to decide which organizations win in the giveaway. Hmm...

Having posted all the quotes above, I am actually not a fan of tax incentives. If I were President, I may be tempted to get rid of both the charity and mortgage interest deductions. There are a lot of junk charities out there, just as there are a lot of junk mortgages. What would worry me, however, is removing tax incentives while simultaneously raising taxes, and in a down economy no less. Enter The Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Michael W. Peregrine, a lawyer in Chicago who advises nonprofit groups, says charities are now facing a “triple play” that could cut into their donations — the bad economy, the proposed charitable-deduction limits, and proposals by President Obama to end tax cuts for wealthy people that were introduced by President Bush.

People can not give their money to charity, regardless of the tax benefits, if they owe it to government.

Monday, March 2, 2009

How Rare are Gold and Platinum?

The size of the world supply of Gold came up in a Saturday breakfast discussion with friends, and I came across a How Stuff Works article by way of The Filter that attempts to estimated the amount of Gold and Platinum ever mined by man:

...if you could somehow gather every scrap of gold that man has ever mined into one place, you could only build about one-third of the Washington Monument...

and Platinum?

...all of the platinum in the entire world would easily fit in the average home.

Economists differ widely in their view of government's proper role in determining the supply, demand, and intrinsic value of money. Many libertarians hold the gold standard and abolition of fractional reserve banking practices as ideals. Ideals they may be, but fanciful ones that have no real hope of coming to pass. Still, discussion on currency and government intervention is critically important, as it has played a part in the decline or collapse of many societies, including Rome, Germany's Weimar Republic, and Zimbabwe. History seems to suggest that one of the greatest threats to a state's survival is an unchecked central power with the ability to devalue its currency. If true, the recent actions of the Federal Reserve and policies enacted under both the Bush and Obama administrations should be of deep concern.

Brown Paper and White Chalk: GK Chesterton

Months ago I made a list of authors that I wanted to commit to reading. On that list was GK Chesterton, who is seen by many as a sort of Catholic C.S. Lewis. Like Lewis, he wrote in numerous genres and on many subjects. Perhaps his most famous work is The Man Who Was Thursday, a crime drama heavy in Christian allegory. Among his more famous quotes is the following on political parties:

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

So, while I have yet to read The Man Who Was Thursday, I was delighted to find an excerpt from his essay A Piece of Chalk in my inbox this morning. I highly recommend reading the Pakistan Daily Times excerpt, which in six short paragraphs shows Chesterton using art, imagery, and wit to arrive at the following summary statement:

Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell. Mercy does not mean not being cruel, or sparing people revenge or punishment; it means a plain and positive thing like the sun, which one has either seen or not seen.

Practical Wisdom

I started off my morning listening to the video below while clearing out my e-mail from the hundreds of junk e-mails that pile up every weekend. It is Barry Schwartz presenting at the recent TED2009 conference on virtue and practical wisdom:

Opening with an example of hospital janitors, Schwartz does a great job bringing to life Aristotle's definition that practical wisdom equals moral will with moral skill. He states that without wisdom, brilliance is not enough, and that brilliance without wisdom leads to more problems. He discuss the limits and failures of our current mindset that rules and/or incentives can improve society, and how they actually serve as catalysts for a continued downward spiral. While covering business, health care, and government, Schwartz gives special attention to education. I found the video well worth the time.