If we must target wages for poverty reduction, wage subsidies > minimum wages

If we agree that poverty and welfare reduction are valuable goals that government should enact and that we want to supplement wages as a result, then this quick four minute video provides a simple explanation as to why wage subsidies are drastically superior to minimum wage policies. I would add that much of the muddle that we make of poverty reduction – whether it be food purchasing programs or healthcare financing, and all of those programs’ attendant bureaucracy, could be made much more efficient and effective through a wage subsidy. Plus, we could actually target poverty directly while supporting jobs and in turn reducing the rest of the inefficient welfare state.

Of course, those in government always prefer the minimum wage – it gives voters the impression that they did something to reduce poverty while shoving the consequences off of the government liabilities and accounting books, the problem being that it is less effective, drives down employment, and/or increases prices to consumers. In general, Marginal Revolution’s economics videos are always brief but insightful.

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Support for Decentralized and Limited Government from the 18th Century Scottish Enlightenment

In the wake of my second-highest viewed post of all time, which covered the topic of decentralization of government (please don’t ask for actual viewing values; allow a man writing an obscure blog his small relative victories), I was pleased to get philosophical support from one of the greatest writers on the topic of government and political science of all time – David Hume. Most people who have enjoyed, or endured, depending on one’s perspective, an Economics 101 course are well familiar with one lion of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith. Smith gave credence in his Wealth of Nations to a philosophy of full-throated support of the individual liberties of merchants practicing their crafts and generating profits unencumbered by the meddling state that was a novel philosophy and code of ethics for the times. Smith forcefully advocated that betterments in society occurred in imperceptible and novel ways through people seeking profits, guided by the “invisible hand” of the pricing mechanism, which effectively coordinated their ideas and actions in ways that no government planner could match. Never mind that both modern day proponents and detractors of Smith both seem to believe that Adam Smith was some form of Machiavellian profit maximizer and utilitarian, thereby completely missing his comprehensive views of bourgeois ethics that he espoused in his perhaps even more compelling and powerful book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which Smith speaks of the “impartial spectator” within us which guides and regulates our behavior such that it is socially acceptable and in most cases benevolent. The impartial spectator of Smith is driven by a mysterious combination of divine nature and the nurture that occurs as people (or the vast majority of people comprising society) interact with each other and seek approbation and praise of others. Scorn is something most of us do our best to avoid. In other words, while profit-seeking is a virtue of prudence, the vast majority of people operate in their daily lives with other self-regulating and self-controlling virtues that balance the prudence of profit-seeking. All of this social self-regulation is performed through emergent order without the need of heavy-handed law and government.

I digress, so back to the topic of David Hume. Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment contemporary and great friend of Adam Smith, and it is through his remarkable Selected Essays as compiled by Oxford World Classics that I find support for decentralized government under a different and additional rubric than I articulated in my original musings on the subject. Specifically, in his essay on Of The Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences, in which Hume generally makes the case that people living in free governments are much more likely to contribute to the progress of arts and sciences than those living in autocracy, Hume makes compelling arguments for divided and decentralized government. The first point Hume articulates is this:

A large government is accustomed by degrees to tyranny, because each act of violence is at first performed upon a part, which being distant from a majority, is not taken notice of, nor excites any violent ferment. Besides, a large government, though the whole be discontented, may, by a little art, be kept in obedience; while each part, ignorant of the resolutions of the rest, is afraid to begin any commotion or insurrection: not to mention that there is a superstitious reverence for princes, which mankind naturally contracts when they do not often see the sovereign, and when many of them become not acquainted with him so as to perceive his weaknesses. And as large states can afford a great expense in order to support the pomp of majesty, this is a kind of fascination on men, and naturally contributes to the enslaving of them.
In a small government any act of oppression is immediately known throughout the whole; the murmurs and discontents proceeding from it are easily communicated; and the indignation arises the higher, because the subjects are not to apprehend, in such states, that the distance is very wide between them on their sovereign. ‘No man,’ said the prince of Conde, ‘is a hero to his Valet de Chambre.
In other words, a large central government presiding over a wide swath of people and with large amounts of power can more readily get away with persecuting minorities, be they ethnic minorities or minorities in dissenting thoughts and views. Additionally, the further removed from proximity to a ruler or ruling elite, the more prone people are to superstitious reverence and obsequious behavior towards them. I loved the quote related to no man being a prince to his valet, since such close proximity as to that of a valet makes us all aware of any human’s noxious flaws and weaknesses. I would gently point out that Americans are no strangers to this superstitious reverence for powerful leaders – witness the rise of the bumptious Trump riding a wave of American voters seeking brash authority. Witness also the esteem, admiration, and honor we typically reserve for presidencies such as the two Roosevelts, who consistently abused executive power and authority. Contrast that to practitioners of great executive power restraint, such as Calvin Coolidge and William Howard Taft, who receive no such comparative historical encomiums.
Hume proceeds in the essay with the following observations:
But the divisions into small states are favorable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power…To balance a large state or society, whether monarchical or republican, on general laws, is a work of so great difficulty, that no human genius, however comprehensive, is able by the mere dint of reason and reflection, to effect it. The judgments of many must unite this work: experience must guide their labour: time must bring it to perfection: and the feeling of inconveniences must correct the mistakes, which they inevitably fall into, in their first trials and experiments. Hence appears the impossibility that the undertaking should be begun and carried on in an monarchy; since such a form of government, ere civilized, knows no other secret or policy, than that of entrusting unlimited powers to every governor or magistrate, and subdividing the people into so many classes and orders of slavery. From such a situation, no improvement can ever be expected in the sciences, in the liberal arts, in laws, and scarcely in the manual arts and manufactures. The same barbarism and ignorance, with which the government commences, is propagated to all posterity, and can never come to a period by the efforts or ingenuity of such unhappy slaves.

In other words, a centralized government taking on too much power is reduced to trying by sheer exertion of a “Tyranny of Experts” to borrow the William Easterly phrase, of trying to plan for and rule a great diversity of people. As Hume implies, it is an impossible task that starves us of all natural freedoms and the ingenuity that we would have exhibited without the heavy hand of a meddling government, and it makes us “unhappy slaves.” Or as Hume’s good friend Adam Smith might say, it also torches our invisible hand and extinguishes the impartial spectator within. Lest anyone think that I am speaking of some distant and ancient European monarchy, I am looking at you America and your Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, your Health and Human Services, your Obamacare, and your Dodd-Frank.

 

“Slaughter & Rees Report: ‘Mr. President, You Are Mistaken, Sir'”

In a similar vein to my recent post on the Trump/Carrier “deal”, but with far more professional credibility from the authors – spanning the gamut of journalism, economics, private sector, and government experience, including one author’s (Matthew Slaughter) service on the Council of Economic Advisors for President George W. Bush and current service as the Dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth – this article, delivered as a letter to President-elect Trump, represents additional logic behind free trade. While my post largely focuses on the philosophy of individual freedom and dangers of government picking winners and losers, the Slaughter and Rees Report lines up several empirical reasons of why protectionism is actually economically harmful and counterproductive. It is worth the read.

Exhibit A: Industrial policy that protects the few at the expense of the many – Carrier keeps jobs in Indiana but on the backs of taxpayers and consumers

Image result for Carrier JObs

I just received an article from the Wall Street Journal that indicated that Carrier has agreed to keep roughly 1,000 jobs in a manufacturing plant rather than shift the employment to Mexico. Rather than celebrate this as a great example of private and public partnership and the deal-making style of Trump that successfully and benevolently puts Americans first, I am going to put a different, and perhaps unpopular, spin on this and call it what I believe it to truly be – arbitrary manipulation and industrial policy developed by government for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many.

Of course, the “saving” of 1,000 jobs is a positive thing on the surface, and it will no doubt lead to declarations of success and subsequently votes for the protectionist politicians who promoted it well into the future. Less visible will be the unintended consequences and foregone opportunities of non-government intervention. I will start with the obvious and work my way to the more philosophical, but just as important, reasons to decry, rather than to celebrate, such government interventions:

  • The 1,000 jobs were kept and promoted at a hefty price tag per worker. At a $7,000,000 tax incentive agreement, this works out to $7,000 per job “saved.” This means the rest of Indiana taxpayers are subsidizing this arbitrary policy. No doubt, you will find many lower-paid workers subsidizing their higher-paid brethren. I am sure the Indiana taxpayer could think of a million different things they could do with that $7,000 to help their own careers and families. This is the unintended consequences that are diffused and don’t get highlighted in the media that happens with industrial policy. This is also what happens when rent-seeking corporations get the ear of government officials who control too many of the levers of economic policy. They get to decide how to use our tax dollars and declare it a successful investment with little accountability or visibility to what ends those dollars could have gone to had they left them in our pockets.
  • The inability to shift labor to take advantage of wage rate/productivity imbalances leaves costs higher for American consumers in the long-run. Once again, this is government meddling in support of one small class of citizens at the expense of the many.
  • Preventing Mexico from taking advantage of their comparative advantages in their specific mixture of labor force participation, wages, and productivity will continue to put pressure on their citizens but not allowing them to grow economically, which further puts pressure on its citizens to immigrate. Being able to take advantage of cross-border trade is mutually beneficial and is not the zero-sum game that protectionists such as Trump believe it to be. The great irony is that plugging one “problem” of imbalanced trade only exacerbates another one of immigration- or at least in the sense that self-described American Economic Nationalists believe trade and immigration to be problems.
  • Sustaining or creating new abusive and arbitrary government power to take tax dollars from citizens in support of the few establishes/continues a dangerous precedence. What well-connected company or connected political body will take their turn next in using their connections to politicians to extract resources from the rest of us under the auspices of “America first?” Do we really trust the government to pick and choose these winners wisely and with all of our freedom, liberty, and economic interests in mind? I hope to someday make this a rhetorical question.
  • I keep coming back to this point from previous posts – but what right does the government have to tell me as a consumer where I can and can’t buy goods? By implication – browbeating, cajoling, and incenting them to stay (using my money) in America through taxpayer funds is ultimately an act to usurp my rights to buy goods from the provider who can make the highest quality good at the lowest cost and in the end is little more than theft of my resources to support their own arbitrary decisions.

Finally, freedom and liberty requires a tradeoff of uncertainty in outcomes that don’t always redound to every individual, but is the only way with which we can grow economically (and in turn emotionally and spiritually) in the long run. The fundamental question then becomes do we want to bequeath to our future generations and children an open and dynamic society where people are free to create the exciting and enriching occupations of the future, or do we want to confine them to the known quantities of the past and present?  We shouldn’t demand equality in outcomes, but rather demand the equality of opportunity combined with blind justice – good arbitration when conflicts arise over contracts between free people. Otherwise, we should keep government at a safe arm’s length that is akin to a good and impartial referee who knows a foul when it sees it and has a consistent redress for those fouls irrespective of the player that committed them. Instead, what we have these days is a referee who changes the rules in the middle of a game to the advantage of his favorite and most well-connected players. On this note of equality of opportunity and why it is extremely important, I land with a powerful excerpt from Deirdre McCloskey’s remarkable book, Bourgeois Equality, of which I have written more at length about in a separate post, but for today’s topic pull out this specific section:

The ideas of equality [in the English and Scottish Enlightenment period] led to other social and political movements not uniformly adorable. Hannah Arendt remarked in 1951 that ‘equality of condition…is among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind.’ Alexis de Tocqueville had said much the same a century earlier. And Scottish equality has a harsh, even tragic side. It entails equal reward for equal merit in a marketplace in which others, by freedom of contract, can also compete. As John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty, ‘Society admits no right, either legal or moral, in the disappointed competitors to immunity from this kind of suffering; and feels called on to interfere only when means of success have been employed which it is contrary to the general interest to permit – namely, fraud or treachery, or force.’ Yet in the real world, unhappily, if the poor are to be raised up, there is no magic alternative to such competition. An ill-advised and undercapitalized pet store, into which the owner pours his soul, goes under. In the same neighborhood a little independent office for immediate health care opens half a block from a branch of the largest hospital chain in Chicago, and seems doomed to fail the test of voluntary trade. Although the testing of business ideas in voluntary trade is obviously necessary for betterment of the economy (as it is too by non-monetary tests for betterment in art and sport and science and scholarship), such failures are deeply sad if you have the slightest sympathy for human projects, or for humans. But at least the pet store, the clinic, the Edsel, Woolworth’s, Polaroid, and Pan American Airlines face the same democratic test by trade: Do customers keep coming forward voluntarily? Does real income rise?

We could all by state compulsion backed by the monopoly of violence remain in the same jobs as our ancestors, perpetually “protected,” though at $3 a day. Or, with taxes taken by additional state compulsion, we could subsidize new activities without regard to a test by voluntary trade, “creating jobs” as the anti-economic rhetoric has it. Aside even from their immediate effect of making national income lower than it could have been, perpetually, such ever-popular plans – never mind the objectionable character of the violent compulsion they require – seldom work in the long run for the welfare of the poor, or the rest of us. In view of the way a government of imperfect people actually behaves in practice, job “protection” and job “creation” often fail to achieve their gentle, generous purposes. The protections and the creations get diverted to favorites. Laws requiring minority or female businesses to be hired, for example, tend to yield phony businesses run in fact by male whites. In a society run by male whites or inherited lords or clan members or Communist Party officials, or even by voters not restricted by inconvenient voting times and picture IDs, the unequal and involuntary rewards generated by sidestepping the test of trade are seized by the privileged. The privileged are good at that.

 

 

“The GOP’s Mexico Derangement”

Mexico

Bret Stephens has a biting critique of the GOP in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. Stephens, as ever, is able to criticize the party that he aligns with most often with eloquence and forcefulness that I admire. The GOP’s myopia and fixation, to say nothing of the lack of economic soundness and adherence to liberty, small government, and plain moral decency – was a primary source of frustration of mine with the party long before the rise of Trump. The combination of stances on immigration, free trade, and Trump are the main reasons I will be casting a Presidential Libertarian ballot this election season.

Some of the piquant highlights of the article, in which Stephens addresses common canards leveled against Mexico and Mexican immigration are as follows:

Mexico is a failed state. Mexico’s struggles with drug cartels—whose existence is almost entirely a function of America’s appetite for dope—are serious and well known. So are its deep-seated institutional weaknesses, especially the police forces that collude with the cartels and terrorize rural areas.

Then again, Mexico’s 2014 homicide rate of about 16 murders per 100,000 means that it is about as dangerous as Philadelphia (15.9) and considerably safer than Miami (19.2) or Atlanta (20.5). Are these “failed cities” that you don’t dare visit and that should be walled off from the rest of America?

Mexico steals U.S. jobs. Donald Trump recently resurrected this chestnut by inveighing against Nabisco and Ford for shifting production to Mexico from high-cost Illinois and Michigan. Never mind that one reason Ford made the move was to take advantage of Mexico’s free-trade agreements with the European Union and other countries, meaning that opposition to free trade is the very thing that drives business abroad. Then again, Mexico is the second-largest purchaser of U.S. products; the Wilson Center’s Christopher Wilson has estimated that “six million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Mexico.” That is especially true for border states. ‘Mexico is the top export destination for five states: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and New Hampshire, and is the second most important market for another 17 states across the country.’

Illegal immigrants are a drain on the system. This whopper should be sold at Burger King, since illegal immigrants pay billions in state and local taxes, along with about $15 billion a year to Social Security—the benefits of which they are unlikely ever to get back. Entire U.S. industries, agriculture above all, depend on illegal migrants, without whom fruits and vegetables would simply rot in the field.

If there is a drain, it’s Mexicans going home—roughly one million returnees between 2009 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, outpacing the number of Mexicans moving north by about 140,000. That owes something to growth and stability in the Mexican economy, which is largely a function of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This makes Mr. Trump’s opposition to Nafta all the more misjudged. Without it, Mexico could easily have become Venezuela, run by an Hugo Chávez-like strongman, that would have posed a real threat to U.S. security, as opposed to the one in Mr. Trump’s imagination.

 

Presidential Politics and the Tendency Towards Mediocrity, Savagery, and Ultimately to Tyranny

A recent Wall Street Journal oped by Joseph Epstein asked the question on the minds of most Americans viewing this tragicomic circus going on that we call the Presidential race: “These five are the best that we can do?”

Readers of this blog and my close friends recognize that over the last few years I have turned Greek and Roman history and philosophy and finding the modern equivalents into an interest and hobby. In this vein, Epstein quotes the ancient Roman general and politician Sulla when he opens with, ““There are some systems which naturally take control out of the hands of good men. There are even some which necessarily put it in the hands of bad ones.”  So it seems with the American two-party system of primary selection  and election process of the leader of the free world. What was historically an expectation of leadership, experience, character, substance, and virtue holding preeminent roles in the winning of votes has devolved into a vulgar race to the bottom based on celebrity and style for the job. Anyone who cynically doubts my previous point about winning the office based on substance needs to go back and read George Washington’s musings and writings on the office of the Presidency as well as the Lincoln Douglas debates and compare and contrast these grand idealistic visions to Trump talking about the size of his genitals to recognize the depth of the abyss we have sunken into.

Epstein takes aim at our media culture as a primary culprit of this devolution. The main thesis of his oped is as follows:

The media and Internet are the major instruments of contemporary political degradation. The media were once more restrained, operating under a largely self-imposed control. During the Kennedy administration, journalists agreed not to photograph the president smoking or playing golf; as for his high jinks above stairs in the White House, that was never up for public discussion. In earlier years, no reporters brought up the lady friends of Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower, and focusing on FDR’s physical incapacity during wartime was unthinkable.

Things changed under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. His position on the Vietnam War went contrary to that of most members of the media, who decided that opening the president to attack was not only feasible but honorable. The media’s adversarial role intensified under Richard Nixon. After Watergate, “investigative journalism” became one of the heroic professions. What investigative journalists chiefly investigated was malfeasance and above all scandal.

The advent of the Internet made this all the worse. The Internet is without an ethical standard. On it anyone can say anything—and usually does. Donald Trump has added to the demeaning quality of the proceedings by using the Internet—those endless insulting tweets—and attracting press and television with his steady stream of attacks on the personal lives of his opponents.

While I tend to agree that the media is a perfectly culpable standard bearer and complicit in vulgarity and sophomoric coverage and analysis, I believe that they are a mere reflection of the overall culture that we have become, which is a culture at large that is fueling the demand for “bread and circuses” to fill our appetites, as the Roman satirist Juvenal would quip. The media is simply following reader and viewer demand, rather than a media conspiracy to dumb down our preferences. We can’t let ourselves off of the hook and blame the media for our own vulgarity and mediocrity.

Furthermore, I don’t believe the American appetite for savagery is unique in the historic perspective. We can look to ancient Greece for the same lessons. In Plato’s Republic, much of the effort of his philosophical writing is towards defining the ideal city that is led by people of great virtue and character. When asked why such people of character so rarely choose to enter politics, Plato, using Socrates as the speaker,  offers up the poignant observation that, “Now, the members of this small group (people of great character and virtue – philosophers in a word) have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and at the same time they’ve also seen the madness of the majority and realized, in a word, that hardly anyone acts sanely in public affairs and that there is no ally with whom they might go to the aid of justice and survive, that instead they’d perish before they could profit either their city or their friends and be useless both to themselves and to others, just like a man who has fallen among wild animals and is neither willing to join them in doing injustice nor sufficiently strong to oppose the general savagery alone.”  The implication is clear that for time immemorial, people of great character stay away from political leadership out of fear of being torn to pieces by the wolves involved in it or perhaps worse, becoming a wolf themselves. Epstein uses Mitch Daniels as an example of a man of great character who stayed away from politics for the reason that Plato outlines above.

More chillingly, Plato uses his writings in Republic  to give voice to Socrates’ opinion that of all forms of government,  democracies are most prone to giving way to tyrants, as that form of government is most likely to succumb to the majority elevating a tyrant. The tyrant in turn promotes members of this class to bodyguards and sycophants who allow them to create and hold on to more powers that are subsequently used to confiscate and redistribute wealth back to the majority, further entrenching this majority party in power. In Socrates’ estimation, the careful balance of a democracy that gives way to tyranny is when those that would protect freedom cease to have virtue and give themselves over to excessive vice and hedonism. A class of people (Socrates derisively calls them idlers) gains power due to their forcefulness and loudness (seeing the parallels here to current politics?) who unite behind a leader willing to advocate their views. Socrates likens such a leader to a wolf who is willing to spill kindred blood and justify it as necessary to get power in order to address wrongs done historically. Thus, acts of evil and vulgarity have their excuses. The tyrant eventually suppresses dissent and any form opposition is not tolerated. Eventually the wolf likely even turns on those he purported to be helping originally on the path to power. Once the blood spills, it can’t be stopped.

While I am not jumping to a dramatic conclusion that current Presidential candidates are the personification of the tyrant wolf so described in the discourse above, I do think Plato’s Republic has some tremendously useful and relevant warnings for American society and the path to devolving into such tyrannies. I don’t believe that America has some preternatural destiny to keep our grand experiment in self-governance going perpetually absent the will and the requisite virtues of the people to keep it going. While our institutions are more durable than countries in Eastern Europe or Latin America, I don’t believe they are absolutely unassailable, especially if the majority of the population are not inclined to defend them. I do believe that if we continue to elevate political leaders that are of weak virtue and character that under the right conditions we could devolve into the dystopian tyranny that Plato describes. As Plato writes, the tyrant comes to power because in every society there are a subset of people that perpetuate evil and wish to do evil to others and wish to extract wealth and natural power from others through the force of government. In well-governed societies, these evil and mindless people become petty people of little repute, perhaps even criminals. They may become successful money-makers, but Plato is careful to point out that making money is not to be confused with virtue. In a place where there is no regard for virtue and poorly governed societies, tyrants are elevated to the leadership by force of will of the majority.

Astonishingly and with incredible prescience and similarity to today’s politics, in describing the nature of a would-be tyrant, Socrates explains that they are,  “those whose nature is filled with fears and erotic love of all kinds… isn’t this harvest of evils a measure of the difference between a tyrannical man who is badly governed on the inside – whom you judged to be most wretched just now, and one who doesn’t love a private life but is compelled by some chance to be a tyrant, who tries to rule others when he can’t even control himself. He’s just like an exhausted body without any self-control, which instead of living privately, is compelled to compete and fight with other bodies all its life…In truth, and whatever some people may think, a real tyrant is really a slave, compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery, and pandering to the worst kind of people. He’s far from satisfying his desires in any way that is clear – if one happens to know that one must study his whole soul – that he’s in the greatest need of most things and truly poor. And if indeed his state is like that of the city he rules, then he’s full of fear, convulsions, and pains throughout his life… And we’ll also attribute to the man what we mentioned before, namely, that he is inevitably envious, untrustworthy, unjust, friendless impious, host and nurse to every kind of vice, and that his ruling makes him even more so. And because of all of these, he is extremely unfortunate and goes on to make those near him like himself.”

These are powerful words of warning to the citizens of democracy and predict our turning to savagery and mediocrity in our political leaders and why we lack in the truly gifted of great moral character.

Unholy Alliances – Christian Pastors Who Endorse Trump

Jeffress

The bizarre spectacle of First Baptist Church of Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress endorsing and speaking on behalf of Donald Trump and the enduring support of Evangelical Christians in general of Trump will prove to be one of the starkest examples in American history of a group of people trading their professed values and voting against their own interests for some ill-defined and hopeless expedient gains. It defies all logic, reason, and anything that could be described as remotely pertaining to the things of God, and the only conclusion I can draw from it is that such leaders are complete charlatans who do not actually possess the faith that they profess or that they are falling prey to a Faustian bargain in the hope of some temporal and secular gains and in the process are in great danger of drawing their followers in a wayward direction. Or even worse, they no doubt heap scorn upon Christianity amongst those that are not converts. Thinking about the situation in which evangelicals turn off their minds and close their eyes and ears to what is so blatantly obvious to those that have eyes to see and ears to hear, I am reminded of a quip from C.S. Lewis that, “Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”

Since Donald Trump takes to bashing opponents in churlish fashion on Twitter and other media outlets, I must have missed where the Apostle James said, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Except of course in cases when an opponent in a political race needs to be bashed and destroyed with juvenile taunts. Then it is justified.” (The first section is real and from James 1:26. The second italicized portion is obviously contrived). Donald Trump once wrote in his book, “The Art of the Comeback” that, “If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller.” I must have missed all of the verses in the Bible about it being completely acceptable to have a complete lack of regard for fidelity to marriage and to openly brag about it and display a total lack of repentance. Jesus summed up his entire ministry when he stated that, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22: 34-40). On the whole loving your neighbor part, I wonder why Jesus missed the memo on providing a caveat that, “except in cases in which they are foreign immigrants from Mexico, then by all means, heap scorn on them, oppress them, and deport them so that they can’t take your jobs and welfare.” I am certain he must have meant to include that. If I was a playwright, I think a perfect plot for a parody of the situation would be a script in which the disciples tire of the love, kindness, and suffering of Jesus and decide to throw in their lot with wicked King Herod, who only has one definable political platform: a promise that he will throw all the Samaritan bums out of Jerusalem and build a wall blocking them off with a promise that this will increase their fisherman’s wages.   

“Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.” – C.S. Lewis

Churches and church leaders often decry moral relativeness and a culture that continues to descend into coarseness, lack of decency, and lack of human kindness. The endorsing of a candidate who is the embodiment of all of those things reeks of abject hypocrisy, which begs the question of if a church pastor is not going to stand against such a candidate’s rise and be a voice crying out in the wilderness for Christian faith and true Christian values, then what really is the point of that church? Leaders so aligned with dark forces critically undermine and wound their church’s entire reason for existence and ring the death knell of their organizations. After all, there are only relatively few avenues for seeking out true Christian faith and doctrinal and worship experiences within a common body of believers. The competition for a collection of the angry and hateful spewing vitriol and concerned with temporal interests and “winning” against one’s rivals is rather abundant, so what is the point of mixing those short-sighted and secular goals with seeking the will of an everlasting deity?

I can only imagine that in some small measure, this mob mentality and co-opting of the Christian church by a demagogue must have been how Diettrich Bonhoeffer felt when so many Lutheran pastors and laymen were co-opted by Hitler with his promises to rid Germany of the shame of the Treaty of Versailles and the ineptitude of the Weimar Republic. Bonhoeffer no doubt had this in mind when he wrote in his great book, The Cost of Discipleship, that, “Now what is it that so easily triggers the opposition of Christians against the authorities? It is the fact that is the they take offense at the mistakes and the injustice perpetrated by the authorities. But with considerations like these, Christians are already in grave danger of paying attention to something other than the will of God, which alone they are called to fulfill. They themselves ought to strive for the good in all things, and to practice it in the way God commands them….not because the way this world is ordered is so good, but because its good or bad qualities are irrelevant compared to the one thing that is truly important, namely, that the the church-community submit and live according to God’s will.” In other words, getting wrapped up and invested too heavily in political affairs was not at all Jesus’s concern for the church or the believer. Bonhoeffer wrote this as an exegesis of Paul’s writings that Christians should not be concerned with political authority as much as their mission on earth. This line of attack from the author of the vast majority of the New Testament makes it all the more inexplicable when a church pastor wraps himself in the cloak of such a vile person seeking political rule as Donald Trump.

Quote of the Week – cherishing causes but hating the consequences

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“God laughs at men who complain of the consequences while cherishing the causes.” – Jacques-Benigne Bossuet

With the ongoing American Presidential election drama proceeding apace, I can’t help but connect to the quote uttered by a 17th Century French theologian to those that support Donald Trump. Their mistaken views that this self-declared outsider (that really is just the ultimate insider masquerading as an outsider, as Kim Strassel puts so well in a recent WSJ op-ed) will buck the establishment will end in a certain epic let-down.

Trump supporters naively support this outsider campaign as some form of, “sticking it to the man.” This is their cause celebre, their “cherishing of the causes.” There is no doubt a certain amount of glee in watching the party “establishment” watch helplessly as Trump continues to go from victory to victory. Meanwhile, their support is of someone who has no scruples in the way that he conducts his life, business, language, treatment of others, or marital affairs, nor does he have any specific guiding philosophy other than doing whatever it takes to serve his own interests. Thus, there are millions of well-meaning people being duped out of some mistaken sense that somebody needs to go in there and clean house in the henhouse. What they fail to see is that they are not sending in a fox to do the job, they are sending in a strutting rooster that will do nothing more than add more fights, feces, and more chickens into the coop. They are enjoying the ride and the vicarious voicing of their fears through the adult version of a bully while thinking very little of the ultimate consequences. If Trump happens to make it all the way to the White House, it seems to me to be an easy prediction that his followers will fall into one of two future camps. Either they finally see Trump for what he is: a grubby and self-serving cult of personality-inducing fraud that has absolutely zero concern for their needs, or they will continue to bury their heads into blind support of someone who clearly does whatever serves his own ego and ambitions and nothing more. What is certain is the consequences of their support will not be vindication and support of their own causes. What is certain is that the consequences will be the certain loss of any civic probity or decency in our affairs of state.

What the Ancient Greeks can teach us about democracy and freedom

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The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the 400s BC, has lasted the test of time due to the remarkable clarity in which he reported the historical facts as well as the philosophy that is woven into the account of the internecine war between Sparta and Athens. This philosophy is most gripping when it comes in the form of a recorded speech from one of the statesmen involved in the war. I wrote about one such account from the Spartan  King Archidamus II  in a previous blog post. Today, I turn my attention to a speech from a leading man of Athens, the General Pericles.

The setting for the speech of Pericles is a funeral oration at the conclusion of the end of the first battles of the war. It was a ritual in Athens for a leading citizen to deliver an encomium in honor of the dead. What I am struck by when reading this particular speech is the relatability to today when Pericles praises the Athenian way of government, individual life, and draws the connection that it is all worth fighting for. The society of Athens outline by Pericles has important parallels for the modern Western society member to consider. Aside from that, the speech is full of tremendous quotes. One of my favorites is when Pericles indicates that it is impossible for the audience to truly venerate the dead appropriately given that, “Praise of other people is tolerable up to a certain point, the point where one still believes that one could do oneself some of the things one is hearing about. Once you get beyond this point, you will find people becoming jealous and incredulous.”

Pericles description of the Athenian government and society should be strikingly familiar to Americans, or at least, it should be what we strive for but seem to fail to achieve these days:

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”

I think there is much that we have lost in America that I wish we could get back – merit based public service, laws that demand respect because they are wisely crafted by wise people and were thus respected in turn by citizens, the ability to live our own lives as we see fit without interference by the long arm of the government, etc.

Pericles lauds the openness of Athenian society as well with the statement that:

“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger.”

Pericles describes an open society that benefitted from eager foreigners that wanted to come in and contribute to Athenian society and a state willingness to let them do so, even if sometimes it caused Athens harm. On the whole, Athenian life benefited from immigrants and the whole of Athens would not cower in fear over the relative few that harmed society. I think the current fear-mongering environment in American politics could learn from this ancient approach.

Pericles is careful to carve out the importance of individual responsibilities and individual ethics, balance, and well-roundedness as critical in preserving such a democratic and open society:

“Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft. We regard wealth as something to be properly used, rather than as something to boast about. As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.”

Wealth is properly an instrument for good, not a tool for hedonism or boasting. Poverty is not something to be ashamed of or judged, but also not to be something that one hopelessly stays mired in.

A free society is undergirded by courageous people willing to preserve it. The courage of man is not defined by rashness, but careful considerations of the consequences and still choosing to act:

“The worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated…. But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”

As a corollary to this, Pericles indicates throughout the speech that only those who have stake in society should make its most important decisions, even admonishing citizens to have more children since, “it is impossible for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not, like everyone else, children whose lives may be at stake.” . This gets at the heart of the Pericles speech and the importance of individual responsibilities in upholding a democratic society. I personally view some of these quotes as a bit of a classical liberal/libertarian manifesto:

“Each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility… Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous.”

And finally, Pericles includes an honor to the fallen that theirs was a sacrifice not entirely in vain, for one’s honor is preserved for time immemorial:

“One’s sense of honor is the only thing that does not grow old, and the last pleasure, when one is worn out with age, is not, as the poet said, making money, but having the respect of one’s fellow men.”

 

Out of the mouths of babies can come great wisdom

Bernie Sanders
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a rally at the Greensboro Coliseum Special Events Center in Greensboro, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Rob Brown)

With a degree of comic disappointment weighing on my mind, I took a break from my attention to the New Hampshire primary last night to put my three year old and youngest daughter to bed and to read her a bedtime story. Moments later, my eight year old daughter delicately tiptoed into the room and interrupted our lamplight reading peace to inform me that someone foolish was on the television talking about taking and having things and that perhaps it was inappropriate and needed to be turned off. I paused from my reading to see if I could hear what exactly she was referring to. No less than the bombastic and avuncular tirades of Bernie Sanders came into my ears.

I wrapped up my own powerful oratory to my youngest daughter about ladybugs being blown one by one by the wind off of leaves and migrated downstairs to catch what was left of the speech. Since Sander’s speech clocked in at minutes that must have tallied up to roughly his age, he was still going. Indeed, Sanders was on a roll racking up his familiar story of class enemies that he would pillage from in order to redistribute income. The non-economist can be mistaken for lapping up his litany of unicorns and rainbows that will be “free” but simple math indicates that it all can’t be paid for purely on the backs of taxes on “Wall Street speculation.” Really, that would not even make a drop in the bucket of a push to fund single payer health, college tuition for all, and subsidizing the many people that will be thrown into unemployment when they lack the skills to justify a $15 an hour minimum wage. Perhaps math is not important at this point for Sanders followers, perhaps it is more of the principle and the anger that he has deftly channeled. Consider it the right time at the right place in this age of populism. Still, one wonders how many people, particularly those with something to lose, are adding up the math and recognizing that taxes on the mundane middle class would have to rise precipitously to fund this political revolution. One wonders if all of the supporters lose any sleep at night over the amount of government power and agency apparatus that would necessarily have to be created in order to confiscate and shift this amount of wealth, and just how exactly is it justice that a government official gets to decide who is deserving of the wealth that they created and just who is worthy of receiving that in an arbitrary confiscation and transfer of wealth. Recognizing that many of the Sander’s crowd are ruddy faced college kids, I am reminded of the Athenian leader Pericles in the 400s B.C. telling a crowd at a war funeral oration that, “For it is impossible for a man to put forward fair and honest views about our affairs if he has not, like everyone else, children whose lives may be at stake.” The thoughts of leaving a legacy for my children makes me far more cautious before willingly turning over precious liberty and freedom to arbitrary government rule that will no doubt be abused. Even if Sanders is sincere and honest, what happens when this new government entrenched power is handed to someone with lesser scruples? Such is the importance of leaving a legacy of individual liberties and individual responsibility to our children. Let their creative and innovative minds not be circumscribed and hindered by a heavy and confiscatory hand of government.

The innocent wisdom of my daughter was to be unnerved by the shrillness of the old man on the TV rampaging on about what he was going to take. Something fundamentally within her told her this wasn’t justice. It is here that I must inform the reader, as much as one might not believe it, that leaving the primary coverage on is something I regard as a lapse in my modus operandi. I have shielded my children from the political race as I have felt they are too young to get involved and burdened with the mess of politics until they have their own firm foundations and respect for knowledge, seeking of truth, and America’s Civic foundations. Thus, her observations were completely her own and from the wisdom and honesty of a child’s perspective. It is something I am still marveling at. And yes, I will admit to a beaming moment of pride in my daughter’s natural skepticism. She is a child that I continue to see as remarkably similar to her father.  Luckily, I had her in bed too by the time Trump gave his victory speech, which I can only really compare to a revised form of the Jerry Springer show, complete with meatheads on stage and meatheads fist pumping and crying out, “build the wall, build the wall!”

I went to bed hoping to wake up having enjoyed the greatest of Mel Brooks parodies. Pinching myself, I went about my day pondering the realities of our populist age and hoping we somehow find enough veneration for our ideals of democracy and individual liberties to make them last.