Saturday, December 1, 2007

Whatsamatta U

Two bible verses to preface today's post.

First, Jeremiah 9: 23-24:

23 This is what the LORD says:
"Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom
or the strong man boast of his strength
or the rich man boast of his riches,

24 but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he understands and knows me,
that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,"
declares the LORD.*

And Doug brought to my attention Proverbs 19:2:

2 It is not good to have zeal without knowledge,
nor to be hasty and miss the way.*

Not surprisingly, the Bible gives us a both/and lesson. It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, but it is also improper to boast about knowldge. One can easily imagine what Jesus would say about people who were either boring intellectual snobs or who showed a dangerous lack of knowledge or wisdom.

The inspiration for today's post is a recent Wall Street Journal article on the 50 or so top highschools ranked by who places the most students at the so-called "elite" schools. I find a perhaps unBiblical fascination about reading about people for whom attending a "non-elite" private school or a public university (or, shudder, waving-off of college to become a comedy writer or an auto mechanic) is some kind a personal tragedy. And the article itself was full of many unanswered questions:

What does anyone get, at the margin, out of attending an so-called elite university?

What does it mean that so many of these schools are either: 1) expensive Northeastern private schools; 2) high stakes admission parochial or public magnet schools; 3) public schools in high income areas?

What is the purpose of lists such as these? What good does it do to tell someone in a grindingly poor rural school district that if only they lived in the Washington D.C. suburbs their chances of going to Princeton would be higher?

Do we next see a list of the top 250 middle schools to get into the to 50 high schools to get into the top elite colleges? Where does it end---admission to college prep kindergardens to get into the top 1000 elementary schools to get into the top 250 middle schools to get into the top 50 high schools to get into the top colleges? (Oh wait, that's already happening.)

And, as with so many of these exercises, this may confuse correlation with causality. Just because you play football in the NFL doesn't mean that your last name changes to Manning. Many of these schools undoubtedly have great "success" precisely because of who they have as students.

There's almost an endless discussion about education reform that could follow on this topic, but I'd like to turn back to the opening bible verses. Sometimes the economist's skill at defining institutions must yield to the Christian's imperative to change people. For students and parents involved in the college admission process, I think it is imperative to ask "Where is God in all of this?" If you believe that your calling is as an actor and going to Yale for drama is the logical and best path, so be it. But the Christian life should not be about credential elitism, snobbery, career anxiety, or making meritocracy one's personal God.

I also think there's something to be said to people such as myself in America's universities. It is not clear whether we are captives or instigators (I believe largely captives), but universities are now and have been for some years caught in a destructive obsession with the rankings sytems that drive student admissions. We all know that this stuff is phony and nonsense, but we are caught in a prisoner's dilemma where no one university can afford to say, like Eric Cartman, "**** you guys, I'm going home."

The quote from Jeremiah suggests that an end to boasting about knowledge would mean not only more justice but also more kindness. I don't know if that's a correct match for the verse to this problem, but it seems to me that we have a system that is neither just, nor righteous, nor kind.

* NIV from Bible Gateway.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Morality and Markets

Doug and I just returned from the annual meetings of the Southern Economic Association. Doug presented our preliminary results on the "reverse crowding out" (see below) and we checked out several paper presentations relating to this blog. I'd like to elaborate on one idea here.

You've probably heard the story of individuals loading up their own single pick-up trucks with plywood and driving to areas affected by a hurricane. Such folks essentially open up shop on their tailgates, charging prices well above what they paid in their (inland) hometowns. I am confident that many Christian clergy find this practice un-Christian and support emergency measures to prevent "price gouging." As an economist and a Christian, I am happy to take the opposite opinion. As an economist, I can explain the objective consequences of price controls (fewer supplies will flow in; more rationing will be by line-standing and illegal markets) as well as the welfare and distributional consequences. As a Christian I have no problem finding these laws wanting (at the end of the day, they just as plausibly hurt as help the poor). [In a longer discussion, I would probably look at some of the moral attributes of different types of pricing or negotiating]. I believe that many if not most economists would agree with my analysis.

But let's expand the example a little. Suppose you have a Christian (even an economist) who loads up his or her pickup-truck and heads to the hurricane zone, but with the express purpose of driving to poorer neighborhoods and either giving away the plywood or selling it for the "inland" pre-hurricane price. From an economist's point of view, has this person been unwise or even unhelpful? I came away from one session believing that there are more economists than I realized who would answer "Yes" to that question, and I have problems with that. Their argument evaluates the specific outcomes themselves.... my hypothetical agent of grace distributed the plywood at other than the market clearing price. I can simultaneously oppose price controls and believe that it is not only acceptable but even praiseworthy to engage in the charitable actions I describe, because to me the essence of the free market is the realization of human freedom, including the freedom of an individual to give away plywood to poor people. But this is only a shadow of a full debate...there is a longer post here and I hope to get back to this in the near future.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Economists Hungerman and Gruber have a new article forthcoming estimating how much the New Deal “crowded out” similar spending on compassionate activities by American churches. This is consistent with an overall interest by economists and political scientists on why there was such an unprecedented ramp-up in the size of the federal government between World War I and World War II. The wars and the Great Depression are obvious proximate causes, but are we forgetting the role of Christians?

The period between The Civil War and World War I was that of what is sometimes called the “Third Great Awakening”. One of the economic manifestations of this great revival was the so-called “Social Gospel” which had enormous influence on the government-activist populist, progressive, and socialist political movements of the time. (The American Economic Association was a product of the Social Gospel movement). These movements had some direct influences during the so-called progressive era, but more importantly, when the New Deal required intellectual support for federal attempts to end the Great Depression, the Social Gospel – inspired movements had numerous big-government ideas already on the shelf (Social Security, being one example).

Now, Mark Noll of Notre Dame, in a new article in First Things , moves the action back several generations to the Second Great Awakening of the first part of the 19th century. Paradoxically, the effect of this great religious revival was the decentralization and democratization of the institutions of American Christianity. However, the paramount social issue of the Second Great Awakening, abolition, led to the Civil War and the reconstruction Constitutional amendments -- all of which solidified and made unambiguous the notion of a strong, centralized federal government. Noll calls this the Second Founding Era. It is no surprise then that the next generation of Christians in the Social Gospel movement were so much more likely to turn to governments, including the federal government, for solutions.

Doug and I are working on a research project which asks the question: is reverse crowding out possible? Is the transition of compassionate activities to the government a reversible process, or is it simply the nature of the situation that government becomes “locked in” as the solution?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Bagel With Your Laute ?

Doug and I were talking yesterday about gluttony, and whether a Christian lifestyle indicated something beyond just stuffing oneself. As I was running this morning, I was thinking about this and a bell went off in my head: Thomas Aquinas had something to say about this, didn’t he? Well, I checked Wikipedia under “gluttony” and found that indeed Thomas had made his opinions known on this topic. According to Wikipedia, Thomas identified five types of sinful gluttony:

  • Praepropere - eating too soon
  • Laute - eating too expensively
  • Nimis - eating too much
  • Ardenter - eating too eagerly
  • Studiose - eating too daintily

You don’t have to be a scholastic philosopher to agree that this makes sense. I feel almost queasy when I got to an expensive restaurant and find that I’m paying enormous amounts of money for less food than is in a $4.99 frozen dinner, just so the meat and veggies can be arranged in a design matching, for example, a map of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. That doesn’t fit the narrow definition of eating too much, but I would agree with Thomas that there something just not right there.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Oscar Elias Biscet

Jeff Jacoby writes in today’s Boston Globe about the horrific fate of Cuban Christian dissident Oscar Elias Biscet. President Bush will honor Dr. Biscet with the Presidential Medal of Freedom tomorrow. Unfortunately, given that Dr. Biscet is a prisoner in one of Castro’s squalid prisons for “disrespecting patriotic symbols” and speaking out against the regime, he will be unable to receive the prize in person. I had heard about Dr. Biscet, but I had not realized that his initial confrontation with the Castro regime was over the Cuban government’s abortion policy.

Is there anything that we can do? We should keep these brave, faithful believers in our prayers, and continue to make their plight part of our public conversation. Also, please read the Jacoby article [warning, it is explicit about the violence], and share a copy with anyone you know who wears a trendy “Che” t-shirt.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Mean Streets

Both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times had articles on the same topic last week: the state of the Los Angeles effort to bring down violent crime among the homeless in the Skid Row area. Not surprisingly, the articles, although both quite factual, took different tones on the topic. The proximate reason for the post was that LA agreed not to appeal an lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties union which, as I understand it, undercut a key part of a year long campaign to reduce violent crime in Skid Row. (I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which article was written more from the point of view of the ACLU position, and which was written more from the point of view of LA cops on the street.)

These kinds of issues are perpetual paradoxes for Christians concerned about compassion for the poor. The LA program drew on other successful “broken window” programs in which the city prosecutes even low level crimes in a concerted effort to clean up an area. This makes sense from the economic point of view in that social systems can have undesirable equilibria that can not be knocked loose by small changes. In this case, the policy at issue was apparently the crime of pitching tents in the public rights of way on the sidewalk. If a program such as this seems heavy-handed but results in a decrease in crime (and here I mean specifically violent crime inflicted upon the homeless), is it compassionate or not? If, from a Biblical perspective, one could make arguments for or against, is it appropriate for Christians to support using the court system to intervene against the political process?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

God Unlimited

I love movies, but I've tried very hard not to have my posts here turn into a lot of "What Would Jesus Watch" type comments. However, I'm going to break that rule and suggest that Christians might want to catch Wes Anderson's new flick, The Darjeeling Limited. This is not at all a "Christian movie". (There is adult content and language if that is an issue for you). But the constant thought I had while watching this movie was to ponder what it means to be a Christian in a world in which, through all the struggles, it is possible for all of humanity to view the transcendence and universality of God, but in which the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus remains a singular event.

As for the movie itself, I give it about 4 out of 5 stars, and I believe that (together with Rushmore) it will eventually be my favorite Wes Anderson movie after Bottle Rocket. In fact, I strongly suggest anyone who has not done so watch Bottle Rocket before watching Darjeeling Limited. Maybe no one else sees them this way, but I think of them as the first and second parts of what I hope will become a trilogy. In Bottle Rocket, an astonishingly young Owen Wilson leads two of his friends (including real brother Luke Wilson) on an amazing journey. In Darjeeling Limited a suddenly almost middle-age Owen Wilson (appearing almost like a middle-age Dignan) leads his two cinematic brothers on an equally amazing journey. To close out the circle of threes, our brothers will interact with another trio of friends/brothers in a way that will change their lives.

And now for the fun part for Wes Anderson fans --- yes, a lot of it is there [Wes Anderson spoilers follow]: Tiny metal toys, Mr. Kumar, cutaway sets, Eric Anderson drawings, slow motion, sunglasses, memorable music, lists of things, and the fitting completion of the yellow jump suits/red warm-up suits trilogy. Most importantly, however, we need to remember that when Bottle Rocket and Rushmore were released, a lot of "comedy" in TV and the movies was dominated by cynicism, irony, and generally laughing at making people look like jerks. There was none of that in Wes Anderson. His characters fall in and out of love and back in again (Anthony and Inez; both Max and Herman with Rosemary, who's still in love with her late husband). They live on their dreams (Dignan and Max). When Dignan says to his friends, who are struggling to act normal watching him in prison, "We did it though, didn't we!", criminal that he is, he became one of my favorite characters in all of the movies.

Remember that Jesus was tried as a criminal and crucified, and that not any of his disciples standing around the cross could have understood, at that time, what he meant by "It is finished." The Gospel is the opposite of cynicism. That's why I like Wes Anderson movies.

Friday, October 26, 2007


It is well know that there is pretty good data showing that American Protestant Christians do not come close, on average, to tithing. (Furthermore, there is a general result that denominations whose members have higher incomes actually do worse). Doug and I have wondered if there was a measure of the unrealized potential for social compassion from this gap in giving. Anthony Bradley, at Resurgence, claims to have such a number: $143 billion dollars for all American Christians. Unfortunately, Mr. Bradley doesn't give a source, but the figure looks to me to be just over one percent of GDP. (His assertion that one percent of GDP is 25 billion appears to me to be just wrong ---I wonder if he means one percent of the federal budget).

Has anybody seen specific sources for a number like this? $143 billion seems entirely plausible to me.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Helping Africa

It is frustrating when a really good article doesn't have a free online link. On Monday, the Wall Street Journal described a bipartisan, conservative/liberal coalition working to change U.S. agricultural policy towards cotton. The article has the economic details, but let me just summarize a couple of them. The U.S. spends $3.3 billion per year in cotton subsidies. There is little doubt that domestically this represents a transfer from the middle class to the wealthy. Internationally, the program hurts African cotton farmers. Let's hope that this cross partisan effort in which the U.S. government actually has a chance to do something constructive to promote economic development among the world's poorest citizens succeeds.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Thoughts on the Equality of Sin

Nearly two weeks ago my world was rocked. One hellfire and brimstone preacher set up in the free speech zone next to the student union and blasted students and passerby’s for their inequities. Crowds gathered around. Well meaning believers didn’t step foot in the ring for fear of becoming an accessory to the sentiments on display. Those not in the Christian camp had a much larger voice. One student masked as a devil screamed obscenities at the preacher for as long as I was there (the second time) and another person gave a sales pitch for medicinal marijuana. The third time I was there a big bang theorist stepped up to the plate renouncing the existence of God. It was a circus. Like I said, it killed me to watch that as the representation of Christianity.

Now that I have painted the picture; I will confess that I slipped on my words as I witnessed to the people left over in the union. Once the preacher was told to leave the free speech area for another one on Landis Green I started to talk with the big bang guy. More people joined in. Everything was going well, like leading a small bible study and then I slipped. Someone asked me to explain sin. “Easy enough,” I thought. Sin literally means “to miss the mark”. It is to fall short of the life we are called to by God by dishonoring Him or dishonoring each other. Failing to guard each other’s dignity and revere God. Whichever phrase you like. Then he asked me about his sin relative to other sin. The idea I’ve always heard is that sin is the same.

Then, I said something someone had said to me once without thinking about it. A while ago, this person told me that if God is above us and our sin looks like a histogram it’s hard to tell the difference. Our inequities are like micro-machines. I was quickly corrected by someone that said God is all around us. True, I should think before I speak. The curtain is torn and now God is alive in us. Luckily someone else asked a question and bailed me out of having to go deep with the relativity of sin. Then a week later I was waiting for new tires to be put on my car and the relativity of sin hit me. This is what I scribbled down:

Humans assign a relative value to sin, it’s in our nature. The operation of our justice system relies on these relative values. We’re up in arms (as a society) when someone gets out early on parole after committing rape versus stealing a purse. We fear our world has become less safe and we believe we are in danger. I wonder if the reason that God doesn’t seem to assign those relative values is not just because of His wisdom and character but because of the infinite nature of the game God is playing. I don’t mean to say that God is rolling the dice with our life . . .

Mark talked a bit about game theory and life, so I suppose it’s my turn now. Sometimes game theory is just not a good predictor of real life. This infinite game that I referred to in my scribblings is a good example. Economists posit that behavior changes in an infinite game. They cooperate more because they know it’s in their best interest for the future (which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re altruistic). The games however can’t be infinite because the players of the game have a finite number of years on Earth. Then some argue that people could continue to play the game in their afterlife. Mark and I both agree this is a bunch of junk. When I die I don’t think economics is going to play much of a role in my heavenly existence. I won’t be a gamer.

God as a player in the infinite game however seems much more appropriate because He has been, is, and always will be. The reason this would matter is because God ultimately sees things in the long run view and works for the benefit of His creation. To see this we need only look as far as the servant hood of Jesus. Something Jesus also did very well is challenge people. One line in particular sticks out to me:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. -Luke 12:4-5

We're to play like it's an infinite game even though it's finite.

I could get into the justice system and the relative values that we place on some crimes (sin) over others and how we view this as correct because of the finite life we are living but I have to do my homework. Last thing, yesterday, Mark told me something awesome about the relativity. We can't assign the values because the consequences of our own selfishness, for instance, aren't as obvious as the consequences of theft or murder.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Beautiful Mind of Raymond Chandler

Forgive me for coherence problems with this post. It’s basically an unstructured response to one of my guilty TV pleasures, NUMB3RS. It’s a love/hate relationship for me when the brilliant mathematician Charlie Eppes tries to explain some branch of economics. In addition to being an economist, I received my doctorate from Caltech (CalSci in the show). While at Caltech, I first developed an appreciation for the two of the twin subthemes of this episode: game theory and the noir Los Angeles novels of Raymond Chandler.

In my experimental economics class (something else that is a legacy to me from Caltech, specifically from Charles Plott) I have fun demonstrating some cases where game theory does a pretty good job of predicting human behavior. Specifically, game theory predictions are pretty awesome in things like auctions. On the other hand, a lot of research of the past couples of decades has demonstrated areas of human interaction where game theory doesn’t do a great job, usually areas outside of markets. I remember fighting over who did the dishes when I was an undergraduate with three other roommates, but if all of us always acted like gamers, everything would have fallen apart. That seems to be an overarching conclusion of this research. We behave enough like game theory to make a perfect world unobtainable, but enough differently that we’re not in the world of the war of all against all.

I thought a lot about that in tonight’s episode. Charlie was working on a mathematical model of friendship. But when he was explaining the role of game theory, he used examples of lions and jackels in a survival battle. I have no doubt that part of our brain remains capable of those types of animalistic instincts. But isn’t being human in a world after the fall supposed to be about rising above that?

I realize that there is a certain fun in mapping game theoretic principles into certain Biblical, usually Old Testament stories (check out the work of Steven Brams). But, unless you adopt modeling conventions that cause game theory to explain everything, as opposed to nothing, how do you explain: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” ? Or how about “No greater love has a man but that he lays down his life for his friends” ? Or how about when laying down your life is not just a statement but an actual sacrifice by a sinless man? Or how about the early Christians who risked everything to follow the new Way? As you readers could tell from our previous posts, Doug and I are working on a project regarding the Kingdom of Heaven. I think part of our challenge is: how do we distinguish when standard economic tools such as game theory are useful and when do we say that they are complete junk (this is a family friendly blog). And the boundary between the two may be very important,.

And now for some more personal, less religious, thoughts. In the end of the episode, Charlie Eppes claims to have gone beyond his formal models to find transcendence in friendship. We see that he is reading Romeo and Juliet….and about love. At what point did economists drive love out of the world?

And this is where the second theme of this episode --- the references to Raymond Chandler ---- comes into my post. The script tagged Chandler as the novelist of murderers and blackmailers --- the jackels Charlie Eppes is modeling using game theory. There certainly are countless writers who can explain love better than Raymond Chandler. Usually, Philip Marlowe is all about duty, honor and courage, almost never about love. And there is indeed a lot of murder and blackmail. But in one glorious book, one of the greatest American novels, The Long Goodbye, Chandler creates a drama built around friendship. In this novel Marlowe finds, experiences, and then loses the friendship of Terry Lennox, who seems to be one of the few friends that we see in his life. Chandler novels were never made into “buddy cop” movies for Hot Fuzz to parody.

If Charlie Eppes ever wanted to see the transcendence of friendship, he only needs to abandon his formal models to read The Long Goodbye by the very same Raymond Chandler that his father associated with blackmail and murder.

[Beyond Here Be Spoilers]

If you’ve ever not had a friend, or have lost a friend, I dare you to read the last paragraphs of The Long Goodbye and not have it rip your insides out:

He turned and walked across the floor and out. I watched the door close. I listened to his steps going away down the imitation marble corridor. After a while they got faint, and then they got silent. I kept on listening anyway. What for? Did I want him to stop and come back and talk me out of the way I felt? Well, he didn’t. That was the last I saw of him.

There is no game theory for this.

*Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, (New York: Ballantine Books, Seventh Printing 1978, originally published 1953).

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

You Are Too Intelligent to Believe in God

I hope I got your attention. For those who don't recognize it, my title today is purportedly the infamous quote from Ayn Rand to a young William F. Buckley, Jr.. The purpose is that the Wall Street Journal today ran an article entitled "Capitalist Heroes" by David Kelley (no free link available) which contains a proposition a) with which I agree completely, and b) made my heart heavy all the way in to work. The proposition is that many people read Atlas Shrugged as simply a rip-roaring condemnation of socialism, when in fact the heart and soul (pardon the pun) of Rand's work is her philosophical system of selfishness, her idealization of living for one's self, and, although Kelley didn't use the term, I presume her atheism.

I am one of the people that Kelley must think of as a lost cause. I appreciated reading Rand's works about her childhood and her theories of education. I loved the depiction of the collectivist toadies in The Fountainhead. I am probably one of the few people who actually likes the "so awful its good" movie version in which Gary Cooper, of all people, explains on screen why he destroyed the housing complex because the decor was changed without his permission. But the clarity with which Kelley identified this fun stuff with Rand's moral system just got to me. Ayn Rand is the antithesis of what Doug and I are trying to do with this blog, which is to "combine biblical scholarship and deft economics to enable the faithful to be 'as wise as serpents'". If you have to be Peter Keating to be a Christian, or if you have to be John Galt to study markets, I want off this train.

I was turning over in my head bringing this up with Doug while I was walking into the building. But I didn't get the chance immediately because as soon as I arrived Doug asked "Did you see the e-mail I sent you last night?" I asked Doug if he minded me reprinting it, and here's what he sent me late the night before:

"The Kingdom of God is like …a market economy? How does a country grow? The Kingdom of God expands like a country would but God's economy doesn't trust in the dollar but the currency of spiritual fruits. What are the spiritual fruits? Love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, and self control.

Okay, so here goes.

The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Luke 10:2

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 2 Peter 1:3-7

There is a purpose to the sequencing of these attributes. They move from monastic believers to distributors of these spiritual fruits. God calls us ultimately to love finally. Love is the greatest of all spiritual fruits and demands selflessness.

We are to be distributors of these gifts. Would anyone trade an item identical to the one they will get in return? No. Likewise we must live out our faith so we have the unique and uncompromised message of Christ. Nothing else will grow God's Kingdom better. We must give them something they will value: the fruits. Like the man that sold everything to buy the precious pearls. We need workers in the field. We need distributors. We need Christianity to be lived out.

Our House is built on nothing less than Jesus' love and righteousness."

I have never studied The Master enough to know what she thought about coincidences, but my guess is she was a complete materialist. I've long since left this behind. Are you too intelligent to think that God can intervene in small scale human interactions such as we call coincidences? If so, I think it is your God that is to small. Are you too intelligent to believe in God? I know that Doug is wise far beyond anything I ever saw in the Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Very Bad Things

I think I've been avoiding making a new post because this was the topic I set out and it's so depressing.

In a world in which we hear of so many problem situations in Africa (Darfur, the kidnapping of the Invisible Children, AIDs, etc.) the situation in Zimbawe almost gets overlooked. A recent report by Tren, Ncube, Urbach, and Bate from Africa Fighting Malaria is stunning. (BTW, Ncube is the Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The following are their opening sentences:

Zimbabwe's healthcare system has collapsed. Life expectancy is the lowest in the world. Dead bodies accumulate in hospital mortuaries or are buried hastily and surreptitiously in rural areas by poverty stricken families. The most recent estimates suggest that between 3,000 and 3,500 die every week from HIV-related diseases, although some believe the numbers are significantly higher.

I could quote more, but I don't know where to begin: are you more shocked that real per-capita GDP was lower in 2004 than it was in 1980, or that unemployment may be something like 80 percent, or that in a politically motivated campaign targeting the houses of the urban poor and even orphanages, bulldozing has left an estimated 700,000 people homeless? This article makes only passing reference to the well known violent land redistribution policies that tanked Zimbabwe's food productivity.

The point is we know what is causing all of this. It is a wretched government that has shredded the concept of private property and government support for stable markets. In my principles of economics class I read from a well known "conservative" economist and a well known "liberal" economist on the keys to economic development. I point out that the lists are relatively the same, we just see different levels of emphasis. Either list would see that the situation in Zimbabwe is a field experiment in how to destroy a nation's economy.

The question is, beyond prayer for the people of Zimbabwe, what can we do? The authors suggest ratcheting up international sanctions against the leadership. They also believe that the key to change in Zimbabwe lies in in South Africa, whose leadership on this issue has been disappointing to say the least. The authors suggest that South Africa be pressured to engage the problem of Mugabe, going so far as to suggest that the World Cup be removed from South Africa in 2010 if they don't. I think that using sports events to pressure for political change can be carried too far, but I agree that millions of Christians around the world worked for and celebrated the regime changes in South Africa. It's time for the current South African leaders to show similar courage and leadership for their own neighbors.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Take the Sword, Leave the Cannoli

This post is a request for knowledge and wisdom from the readers. I had the unusual experience of reading a passage in Luke that I don't remember ever reading before. I don't think that I've ever heard a sermon on this passage. In fact, this passage seems contradictory to another story that Christians are fond of quoting. The verses in question are Luke 22: 35-38. The following is from the English Standard Version:

And he said to them, "When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?" They said "Nothing." He said to them, "But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'. For what was written about me has its fulfillment". And they said, "Look, Lord, here are two swords." And he said to them, "It is enough."

I believe that Jesus had perfect knowledge about the events leading to the destruction of Jerusalem. I believe that he knew that his disciples would travel much beyond the safe bubble of their local communities, and do so with Jesus "numbered with the transgressors." After all, I have always heard that Thomas traveled to India and perhaps even farther. It seems logical that times would be tougher for the disciples under these circumstances.

However, if you follow this argument to one conclusion, it suggests that the "take no money, take no knapsack" part of the Gospel that IS so popular for Christians to quote is restricted by its confinement to the relatively safe time and place of Jesus rural ministry. But, if outside this box Jesus tells you Take the Money, Take the Knapsack, Take the Sword, then does this imply that other parts of the "Kingdom" preaching are also so limited? Does this imply a distinctly different Christian behavior within a Christian community as compared to interacting with a more dangerous world?

Your thoughts are definitely welcome.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Deja Vu All Over Again

This is a day in which it’s hard to pick which topic to post. There is a Congressional government-driven health plan for "the poor" that is so bizarre that it manages to classify as “the poor” families that are so wealthy that they also have to pay the Alternative Minimum Income Tax designed for “the rich.” Only in America.

There is also news from the American Enterprise Institute detailing the devastating collapse of health care in Zimbabwe. I hope to write more about this later.

Instead, I’d like to discuss an interesting Wall Street Journal article on a split in the evangelical Christian community over environmentalism. A few years ago, the leadership of the National Association of Evangelicals gained attention by claiming global-warming environmentalism as a new face of American evangelical Christianity. Now, many evangelicals are becoming more and more uncomfortable with the NAE’s stance. Both sides in this article are fairly treated. Both sides have sincere, strong Biblical foundations for their positions. But what struck me is how un-Christian it seems to have fear playing such a role, on both sides, at least in the quotes chosen by the author. The article quotes the late Jerry Falwell as saying just before his death that global-warming environmentalism is “Satan’s attempt to redirect the church’s primary focus.” On the other hand, some evangelicals joined in an anti-coal power plant campaign that referred to a multiple coal plant project as “a ring of fire”. Yes, coal fired power plants, as well as those fired by natural gas, have burners which can be considered fire. But this “ring of fire” accusation for me connects with the popular song and with the term for the earthquake-likelihood zone in the Pacific. Both have unnecessarily evil connotations. It seems to me that both sides are saying that the devil is on the other guy’s side. This is not good for Christians.

Finally, maybe some readers can comment on this in terms of the science that I don’t understand. Two people involved mentioned asthma among children as part of their air pollution activism. But do carbon-dioxide emissions have anything to do with asthma? And, if it’s not carbon dioxide, we’ve reduced air pollution from sulfates, nitrates, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and cigarette smoking massively over my lifetime. Why is it that childhood asthma is going up? If there is any connection with air pollution it ought to be dropping like a rock. I follow this topic modestly, and I’ve read of blame being laid at the foot of everything from diesel exhaust to increasing childhood obesity to homes that are more energy efficient (allergens tend to build-up in the house) to a reduction in bothersome mild childhood respiratory infections to changes in diagnostic criteria. None of this seems to have very much to do with global warming, and a lot of it has to do with individual lifestyles, not with emotional religious crusades.

But let’s say for a moment that the increase in asthma might have something to do with the increase in coal fired plants over the past generation. Why did these coal fired plants get built? It’s partly because way too many Christians so eagerly bought into the fears of the anti-nuclear power generation movement that they also bought into a “coal power generation will be OK” scenario. I lived through the arguments that we were just a stone’s throw away from improvements that would make coal fired power plants benign ---- eventually the only thing coming out of coal plant smokestacks would be harmless carbon dioxide. Ooops. Apparently I’m not the only one to make this connection. The authors of the book Freakonomics wrote a blog entry called “The Jane Fonda Effect.” Most to the point in their article is where actor Michael Douglas said of the conjunction of his movie China Syndrome with the accident at Three Mile Island: “It was a religious awakening…I felt it was God’s hand.” That’s why I entitled this post déjà vu all over again.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Can't Buy the Kingdom

It isn't a zero sum game. I must remind myself of those words anytime I talk about politics and new policy. Partisan rancor can quickly consume a person, especially someone who has the unflattering characteristic that he needs to be right all the time. I've written about this before but I think it bears repeating: People are the pearls of God. He values his creation so much that he would send his only son to die so that we may never have to buy into the lie that we're not good enough to achieve pure, blameless, and special deeds. He is alive and he lives in you!

I'm very against universal health care and mostly against the government doing just about
anything involving the social welfare of its people. I believe that people should be helping people and that we shouldn't allow the government to crowd out the private charity that we should all be practicing. This is part of the reason I get so worked up, whenever a new policy is proposed. Not only do I think, "There goes more of my income," it's also, "There's now a greater distance between interpersonal acts of generosity."

The first line of this post I mentioned that it isn't a zero sum game. It is a reminder because no matter whether it is someone with the same mindset as me or someone who wants the government to assume more responsibility people will get helped. I'm coming around to understand that is what is best. I want to make it clear again to myself and anyone reading this blog that all of what we're working on isn't about me keeping more of my income but it's about helping the greatest number of people. There is a song by Jason Upton that helps renew my perspective when I get too caught up in the details of stuff, it's called "Poverty",

Where will be turn when our world falls apart,
And all of the treasures we've stored in our barns
Can't buy the Kingdom of God?
Who will we praise when we've praised all our lives,
Men who build kingdoms and men who build fame
But heaven does not know their names?
What will we fear when all that remains,
Is God on the throne with a child in his arms
And love in his eyes,
And the sound of his heart cries?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It's a Wisdom Thing

I was reading a long segment of Ecclesiastes 5, which is all about preferences, which were the topic of Doug’s August 30th post. In fact Doug closed that post with the words: “It’s a wisdom thing.” What I found interesting while reading this passage recently is how multi-faceted it is. Some things that seem to be clear cut also seem to be contradicted by verses just a short ways away. This suggests that there is a wisdom (pardon the pun) to encountering the whole, to letting the parts bounce off of one another. (The text below is from the English Standard Version as appearing on Bible Gateway).

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

“There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

“Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.”

Saturday, September 22, 2007

I Was Born.

I was born in a home for unwed mothers.

Lest you think that I’m angling for either a) an appearance on “The View” or b) an award as a great Dickens parody writer, let me explain.

My parents, not surprisingly for the Greatest Generation in the 1950s, bought their first house in what was then the new northwest suburbs of Oklahoma City. When Mom was pregnant with me, her doctor (a g.p. by the way, not an obstetrician) wanted her to deliver with the best available close-by medical attention. At that time, the best obstetrics facilities in that area were located at the Home of Redeeming Love, a home for unwed mothers which was co-located with Deaconess Hospital, both of which were missions of the Free Methodist Church. I was told that my Dad was the only father at the hospital the night I was born. I’ve heard this story all my life, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it until the past few days.

If you may recall, Doug posted on September 7th on policies to promote adoption. Doug and I have been kicking around ideas along the way, and yesterday I decided to check out if there was anything on the web about the Home for Redeeming Love. There is. Deaconess Hospital in Oklahoma City has a wonderful tribute to their history. I hope you will take time to read the article, and meditate on and pray about the history of these dedicated men and women (mostly women) who for decades made this their ministry to the lonely and fatherless (what could be more Biblical?). Note a couple of things about the history. The first line really caught my attention:

“Decades before the advent of welfare, Medicaid, food stamps and other government programs, a few dedicated Free Methodist women evangelists responded with Christian concern to the plight of unwed pregnant women and girls who had been betrayed and abandoned by society.”

The women farmed their property to support the home. No one was turned away.

There are undoubtedly institutions similar to this with similar goals. But it is another symptom of the secularization of our society that Christian institutions just like this have become less visible. However, having read many “Christian” hospital webpages recently as background for this blog, I find that Deaconess Hospital is probably the best at maintaining a Christian identity and mission.

I read this and marvel at the faith and dedication of these women. This is what Christianity is all about.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Autumn Appraisal: More Conspicuous Consumption

Judgment is a difficult word to understand for many Christians because it operates on so many different levels. There’s the capital J-Judgment that we profess as Christians in the Apostle’s Creed, “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” Then there’s the little j-judgment that Jesus talks about in Matthew 7.
One of my personal favorites, Graham Cooke, has a story he tells about a conversation between a Catholic priest and a church member. While the church member talked, the priest faced him, bent over at the waist and bobbed side to side. The church member was baffled but in fact the priest was “dodging the plank”. A strange interaction, but it got the message home. Don’t judge. That’s why it’s so difficult to say someone is consuming conspicuously. Let me back that statement out.
Mark posted over a week ago about The Man of Steel, not Clark Kent but Andrew Carnegie. He had a 64 room house and threw lavish parties, but he was perhaps the greatest purveyor of knowledge in the world (He set up libraries all over the world with his donations).

In economics most people would say that Carnegie’s colossal donations were very generous and that what he did was a great service to the world. We measure someone’s generosity by how much they give but that is not the measure that Jesus uses to commend someone’s generosity and sacrifice.

Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “This poor widow has put in more than all the others.” (Luke 21:1-3)

So, there is a different standard as a Christian. This seems to be the case more often than not. Admittedly to the point that I’ve thought it might just be easier to be Jewish. It’s not the amount you give but what you have left, and only if you give in love (for more on that see my earlier post Summer Lovin’).

All that being said the question becomes whether I consider Carnegie’s gift to be generous. I believe he did a great service to the world. It looks generous to me even if his house was huge. There are two things I can write here beyond a doubt. Carnegie’s actions fell short of perfection. I also know something else Jesus mentions before he gives the parable of the plank, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” That’s with a capital J.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Blessed Are The Monopolists? II

The following are some conclusions drawn by Prof. Emek Basker in his new Journal of Economic Perspectives article "The Causes and Consequences of Wal-Mart's Growth".

Wal-Mart's productivity advantage is due to "its large and early investment in information technology."

"Wal-Mart's biggest and most obvious effect is that it provides lower prices to consumers. The competitive effect of Wal-Mart has lowered prices that consumers pay even when they do not shop at Wal-Mart; but this pressure also reduces the profitability of other stores and in some cases causes stores, especially small ones, to shut down....Wal-Mart's effect on jobs is likely to be modest and is likely to be positive, but its effect on wages requires further investigation."

There are a couple of other points worth noting in Prof. Basker's article. One area of economic dislocation has been in the area of small, domestic suppliers who can not meet Wal-Mart's requirements for information technology. And, quite interestingly, he quotes another study by Prof. Panle Jia as stating the the economic effects of Wal-Mart are very similar to those of K-Mart. So why does Wal-Mart generate such negative reaction from our cultural elites compared to other discount retailers? Of course, Wal-Mart's roots are in Arkansas compared to Minnesota (Target), California and Washington State (Costco), and Michigan and Illinois (K-Mart and and the former Sears). In a map provided by Prof. Basker, it appears that as recently as 1989 Wal-Mart was completely unrepresented in the DC-Boston and San-Diego to Seattle corridors. And, according to Prof. Basker, Wal-Mart shoppers have obviously lower average incomes than the customers of the two rivals he reports (Target and Costco). Hmm. I wonder. WWJHO? (Where would Jesus hang out?) We report. You decide.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Entrepreneurs of Grace and Love

I have made several favorable comments about Tod Lindberg’s book on the political teachings of Jesus. On the other hand one of the few disappointments to me is the section on the spread of the Kingdom. It’s one of the few shortcomings I found in the book, and it’s probably because I was reading that section like an economist. It turns out that at the boundary of economics and political science lies a very similar problem: can societies break out of “prisoner’s dilemmas”…those situations in which individual incentives point to behavior (often called “free riding”) that makes everyone worse off than if everyone cooperated (or were given incentives to cooperate). Solving the free rider problem is not inconsistent with market economies; in fact markets couldn’t exist if everyone cheated everyone else at every turn. The success of economic markets is actually one of the triumphs of trust and cooperation.

Thinking as an economist and a Christian, this problem is very important. Maybe we as Christians don’t think often enough about how amazing it is that Christianity survived through its first couple of generations. Cooperative behavior is subject to exploitation by resolutely selfish outsiders. And Jesus demanded that what we are to do goes beyond such typical economic concepts of cooperation as self-satisfaction (“warm glow” behavior) or reciprocity. Warm glow cooperation looks remarkably the behavior that Jesus criticized in the Pharisees, and Jesus specifically rejects the idea that his followers should stop at the concept of reciprocity:

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matthew 5: 45 NIV)

I believe that the economic concept most relevant to this part of Jesus’ teaching surprisingly lies elsewhere --- in the economics of innovation. Joseph Schumpeter is famous for numerous contributions to economics, most notably to his concept of the entrepreneur. The study of entrepreneurship has become very popular over the past several years, and there are almost of many definitions of “entrepreneur” as there are writers on the topic. To me, an entrepreneur is a risk taker who realizes that the positive returns from his gamble will occur only if his very success fundamentally changes the way that the world is organized. I think that what Jesus wants us to do is to become entrepreneurs of grace and love, to sow grace and love knowing that it is foolish if the world stays as it is. This leads me to a second question I have about Lindberg’s book: I find a considerable ambivalence as to whether he believes Jesus’ teachings are meaningful as political models outside of a community that accepts Jesus as the Redeemer and the Son of Man. Or, do they require the kind of personal transformation that is a larger part of the Gospel? This will be the topic of my next post on the subject.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Man of Steel

This is the second of my posts on topics from the recent World Magazine “Effective Compassion” issue. One the many towns I grew up in had a “Carnegie Library”. When I first moved to that town, I thought that this designated a type of library, kind of like a “convertible Mustang.” I later learned that this meant that it was one of the approximately 2500 public libraries built by money donated by Andrew Carnegie. According to one of the articles in World (“the Carnegie Way” by Marvin Olasky), it is estimated that Carnegie gave away at least a majority of his fortune... gifts estimated at about $5 billion in today’s dollars. In addition to the libraries, modern institutions which can trace their beginnings back to the Carnegie gifts include Carnegie Hall and Carnegie-Mellon University. What the article doesn’t include is that Carnegie funds or foundations also were driving forces behind the Carnegie Institution of Washington (the scientific research parent of, among other things, the Carnegie Observatories) and the founding of TIAA-CREF (a non-profit retirement fund for teachers and college professors that is one of the largest financial institutions and forces for financial security in the U.S. today).

Yet, as Prof. Olasky’s article describes, Carnegie’s lifestyle was not and is not immune to criticism: Carnegie’s Manhattan home

“had 64 rooms. Its sub-basement had rail tracks for cars filled with coal to feed a row of furnaces. Carnegie burned up a ton of coal on winter days to keep his house warm. His wine cellar had over 1,500 expensive bottles, and he ordered 50-gallon casks of Dewars when he threw a party.”

How, and who are we, to judge the sum of such a life. It’s kind of easy to say that this is one of those “planks in your own eye” moments. But does that mean it would be OK for a Christian to criticize Carnegie's lifestyle if he had given away “only” $200,000? Or would he be immune from criticism if he had given away $8 billion and his home was “only” 16 rooms? By the way, much of what I see on the web suggests that Carnegie, despite his Presbyterian upbringing, was an agnostic ( see for example this web entry). I think that this brings us full circle back to Doug’s post on Fluid Paradigms (August 30th, below). Also, keep in mind what Doug has been saying about proposals for a "consumption" tax.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Virtual Conspicuous Consumption

It says a lot about our culture that conspicuous consumption has invaded even our computer fantasy lives. In an article in the New York Times by Shira Boss, author Julian Dibbell says of the game Second Life, "“Second Life is about getting the better clothes and the bigger build and the reputation as a better builder." The article is full of specific examples involving virtual cars, virtual perfume, and so forth. I've never participated in these on-line virtual lives. Does anybody know if religion plays any role in the life of the virtual participants? (Thanks to Instapundit for the tip on this article.)

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Business of Saving Lives

10:30 Friday night: Ultimate Frisbee Commences on Landis Green
10:35 Friday night: Doug realizes how out of shape he truly is . . .
11:45 Friday night: Doug quits and decides to head to the office for a quick post.

Wow, this semester has shifted quite vigorously from the feel good, "Here's what we hope to accomplish in this course" speeches to the nitty gritty grind, so ultimate frisbee was a good refresher tonight. Though post ideas have been flowing like . . . I don't know something that flows? Not trite like flows like a river, something cool. I haven't had time to write them down.

Some of the stuff that has come up in conversation about political candidates: Social issues like abortion and how much power any candidate might realistically wield in such concerns. Possibly a president could refrain from pursuing pro-choice policies and oppose people who are advocates of pro-choice but I am ignorant to the full scope of what they can really do about it.

Then it dawned on me, what if we improved our US adoption program? Might a better adoption program induce more decisions in favor of life for some mothers? I would think something like this would have a profound effect. I'm not talking about the government throwing more money into family subsidies for foster care but removing some of the obstacles that exist in the system today.

I don't know about what is ethical in the case of rape or incest or a mother deciding whether she or the baby lives but I like to think that as an economist I'm in the business of saving lives and I see this as not only a way to induce more choices in favor of life but giving any children who would enter the system a better chance at a stable and hopefully loving environment. I will write more on this topic but it's getting close to bed time. Good Night.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Blessed Are the Monopolists?

I have decided to switch gears and write about, of all things, WalMart. I have been thinking about a couple of weeks’ old newspaper column about WalMart pulling out of negotiations with the City of Tallahassee to provide a grocery store in an area the city is interested in redeveloping. (Now, why we all shouldn’t run for the exits when we hear that a City government is getting involved in choosing grocery stores is an issue for a different post entirely). What caught my eye, and I don’t have the original paper in front of me, was one community activist who sniffed something along lines of “We know we need a grocery store, but I think we can do better [than WalMart]”. Really? On what criteria?

This got me thinking about the incredible disdain with which elite urban American culture views WalMart. I’ve always wondered about the reasons for this. Is it something about the Waltons’ religious background? Well, the Waltons were faithful members of and significant donors to the Presbyterian Church, USA, one of the pillars of liberal Protestantism. Is it because some categories of their employees don’t have full insurance benefits? Perhaps, but, as I’ve said over and over, this reality is a product of our ridiculous history of wage and price controls and is nothing the Waltons invented. Moreover, not only do most U.S. firms, particularly including many “Mom and Pop” stores, make a similar distinction, but I would advise also looking at the heart of American elite opinion, academia. I suspect that many, if not most, U.S. universities practice the “part time/no benefits shuffle”.

I think the answer lies in cultural snobbishness. That’s important, because it’s pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t really fond of urban (i.e. Jerusalem) elite snobbishness. We know Jesus and his disciples attracted attention because of their rural accent, and future disciple Nathaniel asked “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Let me recall an incident from my childhood. My parents moved around a lot when I was young. In one stretch we lived in typically suburban Dallas, and were there long enough to see the opening of the first suburban shopping malls. Then we moved to a town I’ll call Smallville, population 22,000. What a shock. There were two historic banks in town, neither of which particularly wanted your business. There was a small Montgomery Wards, a Sears catalog store, and a single, locally owned, department store. And, on the edge of town, a store I will call the Brand X Discount Store. Brand X had a potential market because their “discount” status made them somewhat cheaper than the main street stores. However, I remember the Brand X store very well (I could ride to just about anywhere in Smallville on my bike). It was dirty, cluttered and unattractive. The products sold there were not of high quality, employees were not friendly or well informed, and returns were not easy.

It was in towns of approximately Smallville’s size that the Waltons made their fortune. The WalMarts offered customers truly lower prices, clean, well lit stores, and a reputation for friendliness and a generous return policy. Simply put, WalMart believed that people who lived in towns of about, say, 22,000 deserved the same things that customers in larger cities took for granted. To put this in religious terms, WalMart was practicing hospitality to a segment of people that many identified as “the least” in society. But what this practically meant is that WalMart became significantly attached to the prejudices against this particular cultural slice of America.

Indeed, in fact of course, this meant that some locally owned stores in towns such as Smallville faced price pressure, and maybe went out of business. That’s what losing your monopoly status means. I remember traveling with some people from a small town in Wisconsin, and they mentioned that a WalMart had recently opened there. I thought: "Oh, here comes the hymn to small town downtown America". In fact, what these people told me was essentially: “It’s about time. Those guys downtown have been living off the high prices from their monopolies long enough.” I will ponder for a future post why it seems that so many Christians have adopted “poor people pay higher prices at home-town monopolies” as some type of Christian value. I don’t see this anywhere in the Gospels, and I’m curious as to where it comes from. I suspect, as a fan of Os Guinness, that this is where a cultural value masquerades as a religious value.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Off the Deep End?

In my last post on Tod Lindberg’s book The Political Teachings of Jesus I mentioned the curious fact that the three examples that Jesus uses in his “don’t resist evil” discourse are all largely matters of pride and humiliation: the slap on the left cheek, the lawsuit over an undergarment, and the command to “go the extra mile” (familiar to the audience as the ability of Roman soldiers to require local residents to carry their packs for a mile). Here’s where I go so far beyond what Mr. Lindberg wrote that I may go off the deep end as an amateur Bible scholar. My apologies, Mr. Lindberg. I also find it hard to believe that my ideas are original, and I’d appreciate hearing from anybody who has run across them before.

Consider the three acts of humiliation. Now, imagine these acts magnified into acts of true brutality. The slap on the cheek becomes a vicious beating. The lawsuit over an undergarment becomes the public humiliation of having your clothes stripped from you. And having a Roman soldier demand that you carry his pack becomes a Roman soldier demanding that you carry your own cross. You now have not three unrelated humiliations….you have the Passion of Jesus.

Jesus is asking that we “turn the other cheek” to the daily damages to our pride and ego that spoil so much of our lives and our relationships with friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc.. He, moreover, did not resist the greater brutality version of this narrative because his death on the cross was his greatest gift of love for us.

Years ago when my wife and I taught middle school Sunday School, we did a unit in the midst of the “What Would Jesus Do?” phenomenon. Before it degenerated into bumper-sticker theology, some of the original writings were quite insightful. “What Would Jesus Do?” was meant as a discussion starter about Christian behavior, but it never meant that we should always do what Jesus did or would do. Jesus did what He did because he was the Son of Man. We are not Jesus. We are not the Messiah. We are not to violently overturn the tables in the temple square. We are to take up our cross, but not the literal cross of crucifixion. That was for Jesus only, at one time and in one place. But I think that the message here is the following; we can walk away from escalating the slaps and petty humiliations in our lives because we know that Jesus has done the same, at a much more difficult level, for us.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Moving the Tee

There is more than a hint of Fall in the air this weekend as college football has returned. For those of you who didn't watch a game yesterday, there is a new rule which moves the kickoff tee back 5 yards. The rule is purportedly to expand the field of active play during kickoff returns. I was thinking about this as I realized I had promised to return with some thoughts on Tod Lindberg's Political Teachings of Jesus. This is the first of several posts I hope to report.

I really liked the book, and I strongly recommend it. It is a part of what might be called the "Kingdom of God" revival now going on... authors such as N. T. Wright, Rob Bell, and Dallas Willard whose common message is that Jesus' mission was not primarily ticket-punching souls into the afterlife, but bringing the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven into "Earth as it Is in Heaven".

The following is not specifically Lindberg's message, and I apologize to him if I distort his thoughts, but it's what I thought about throughout his book. First century Israel already had a guide as to what God wanted from his people.... the Law and the Prophets. It was nothing if not comprehensive. It told you what you could eat, what you could wear, who owed what if an ox fell into a ditch, and so forth. Then comes Jesus whose teachings are nothing if not paradoxical. He ratifies specific parts of the Law (divorce), and seems to challenge others (healing on the Sabbath), while all the time insisting that He had come not to do away with the law, but to fulfill it. Lindberg discusses two parts of Jesus' teachings that seem to show to me a pattern that I had not seen before.

First, when Jesus is in his "You have heard it said...but I tell you" addresses, the examples he gives for not resisting evildoers are curious. The insulting slap, the lawsuit over the undergarment, and (implicitly) the Roman soldier impressing you to service are humiliating situations which wound your pride, but they are not life or limb cases, nor are they the tough situations that we usually jump to when discussing these passages: self defense, the bombing of Dresden, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer's conspiracy to murder another person (Adolf Hitler). Likewise, Lindberg made me question what I had heard all my life...that Jesus' command to forgive seventy times seven is 1st century shorthand for infinity. No, it's not. It's still a finite number. I believe that Jesus was anything but a sloppy thinker. If he had wanted to use self defense against brutal force as an example, he would have. If he had wanted to say "forgive forever and ever, world without end", he would have.

Rather, I think Jesus message is moving the tee by expanding the space of love in human interactions: don't ramp up a disagreement over pride; don't count to seven in forgiveness, count to seventy times seven. I think that these examples are chosen specifically because they are so mundane. How many times have I felt physically threatened? Maybe once or twice. How many times has my pride been harmed? More than I can confess. Ultimately, however, because Jesus comes to fulfill the Law, the endgames of the Law must eventually apply. If someone is about to kill your oldest son, you do not necessarily have to hand over your second son to be butchered. If your are shown documentation of the murder of millions of Jews, you must decide whether to join in a plot to kill Hitler. Some people are so thoroughly evil that our limits to forgiveness must be reached. Compared to needing to forgive a co-worker more than seven times or having our feelings hurt, these are rare and extreme situations. What Lindberg points out is that is Jesus, by moving the tee, has created a new part of the playing field where He neither commands, nor forbids, nor gives permission for specific acts. He has instructed us to love the Father and our neighbor, to remember the Law and to love, and we are to carry these into this uncharted territory.

Friday, August 31, 2007

A Movable Feast

The newest edition of World magazine is a feast of information and ideas for Doug and me for this blog: profiles of effective non-government anti-poverty programs; an interview with Paul Collier, author of the book The Bottom Billion; a profile of Andrew Carnegie's distribution of his massive wealth; and a final essay matching up new books about Christian hospitality and giving with the ideas of popular economists. You can expect to read a lot about these topics in future posts.

What I want to mention here was the first line of Marvin Olasky's interview with Collier. His opening sentence is "A university course on helping the poorest of the poor abroad could now have a book reading list much more interesting than was possible five years ago." I thought I'd just take a little space to advertise that such a course is not just a hypothetical concept. For those of you in the Florida State University community, next (i.e. Spring) semester Doug and I are going to be presenting, for the first time, a course on the Economics of Compassion. The economics of Jeffrey Sachs, William Easterly, and Paul Collier are definitely going to be part of the conversation. If you are interested in how to be effective in making the world a better place, I hope you will check us out.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Poverty, Prosperity, and Fluid Paradigms, Oh My!

Former NFL coach Bill Parcels was famous for making comments like, “They are what they are” or “it is what it is” which usually made for good newspaper fodder and sports talk banter. Economists have been saying for years, “Preferences are preferences,” i.e. “they are what they are.” Somehow it isn’t as glamorous and doesn’t challenge anyone’s masculinity when we say it.

Also, that statement as an economist may be fine for the classroom but that may be the point at which economics and Christianity depart. The author of James makes the following claim about the religion of Christianity, stating, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” A view of such a religion shapes our beliefs in a couple of ways by shaping our concept of God and how we interact with both God and people. What follows will be the continuation of an earlier post, “Good Boots and a Good Bed” and should serve as a further analysis of conspicuous consumption.

We’ve got the poverty gospel, the prosperity gospel and some variations in between. Most people don’t believe that God wants them to be destitute and according to a TIME Magazine article written by David Van Beama and Jeff Chu titled, “Does God Want You To Be Rich?”many would agree.

In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%--a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America--agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.

It seems so many of these movements come from a population's concept of God. We see God as a promise keeper so we celebrate and shout declarations about our inheritance. The sad thing is that there would be a lot of people that would join Christianity if being Christian meant you could drive a Rolls. Then there are others that see Jesus Christ the suffering servant and head for the hills, deny themselves of everything in the material world and never speak to anyone (ala Monty Python's The Life of Brian). Also, let me throw this out at you,

I was thinking in class today, "I want to be a missionary some day." If my salary is $100,000 a year and I give away $50,000 dollars each year and I'm a missionary for 3 years of my life some form of charity has just lost 50Ka year. Similarly if I decide to take less hours at my job because I enjoy playing tennis on Saturdays does the money I could have earned and didn't earn count as conspicuous consumption? These are radical comparisons but I'll bring it to the point soon.

We're called to go out by Jesus, it's the Great Commission. If someone elses mission consists of moving to the hills never to speak to anyone again and worship the heart of God then they should do that. God has called other people to stranger missions . . . see Eziekel. But if many decided they were going to live a hermetic lifestyle would that be good for those in need? If everyone who had money said this is an obvious blessing of God let me buy giant houses and fast cars would that help the poor?

Preferences aren't just preferences. There are good preferences and there are right preferences and I will say that there is not a uniform hard line on what that looks like but I would suggest that there should be deep peace on major purchases. I don't mean to make it sound formulaic but consumption is a big part of our lives we do it everyday. It's a wisdom thing.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Isaiah 1:17

The pattern on many of my posts is pretty familiar. I mention an article or post I’ve read, try to provide a link, and then discuss the particulars of it in Christian and/or economic terms. I read a news article last week that broke me of this pattern. It was about a particular reform movement in many states’ foster care system. Let me emphasize that nothing in this article portrayed the various actors in the foster care system as anything other than loving and dedicated people. But the sum total of our system itself was heartbreaking. It was like I was punched in the stomach. I can’t just dispassionately convey to you the tragic series of events in that article. In fact, it has gnawed on me for so long that I’ve actually lost the article itself.

My family had a glancing but exceedingly unhappy interaction with the foster care system when I was a boy. My parents also informed me at a fairly young age that, should anything happen to them together, that they had written arrangements for me to be raised in one of the Presbyterian orphanages in the Texas/Oklahoma area.

According to Bible Gateway, there are at least 46 references to “orphans” or “the fatherless” in the Bible, always identified as a primary focus of justice. Is this just another area where social gospel Christianity has morphed into “Jesus wants the government to do this for us?” In fact, there are many remaining Christian children’s homes in several denominations, faithfully carrying out the Biblical mandate. One known to me is the Goodland Academy in Oklahoma. You should check it out, or others like it, before you go past the next newspaper article on how we treat the orphans and fatherless of our society.

Monday, August 27, 2007

What is the Objective of Our Tax?

The Republican caucuses are in bloom and a Huckabee is bearing his heart for the fair tax. Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas Governor, is launching his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination based on the fair tax. From his website he writes,

"The FairTax will replace the Internal Revenue Code with a consumption tax, like the taxes on retail sales forty-five states and the District of Columbia have now. All of us will get a monthly rebate that will reimburse us for taxes on purchases up to the poverty line, so that we're not taxed on necessities. That means people below the poverty line won't be taxed at all. We'll be taxed on what we decide to buy, not what we happen to earn. We won't be taxed on what we choose to save or the interest those savings earn. The tax will apply only to new goods, so we can reduce our taxes further by buying a used car or computer . . . "

The fair tax or consumption tax has a lot of benefits in that it lowers administrative costs and allows the market to operate more efficiently (lowers deadweight loss). Also, it lowers the cost of the consumer doing their own taxes. Those are the direct benefits, down the line there are many other advantages for the United States in areas of savings and trade.

One issue with the fair tax is that it would put an awful lot of people in the area of accounting out of a job, but that is only a short run view. Folks with marketable skills will still be able to find a job in industries that become larger because of the money saved.

Hearing so many Christians concerned about capitalism and how it hurts the poor and has caused the separation of the rich and poor really led me to write this post because the heart of the matter struck me about the fair tax and conspicuous consumption. It seems like some people think that capitalism is evil. But, I liken it to money. Money like capitalism is not evil in and of itself; the love of money or conspicuous consumption is a moral issue. We have to ask ourselves:

Is it the fact that they are rich that bothers us? – Or – Is it the way they spend their riches?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

St. Elsewhere

I was throwing out an old Wall Street Journal from July 20 this morning when I saw an article that I had missed and that I wanted to post about. The title is "Nonprofit Hospitals Scrutinized on Care to Needy" by Theo Francis. The article speaks to Doug's posts about models of non-profit compassion and to my frequent references to the corrosive effects of Christian ministries diving head first into secularized culture.

First, I need to make a distinction. Whether an organization is non-profit (or, as it is sometimes called, not-for-profit) is a distinct statement from saying that it is tax exempt. Non-profit means that there are no equity owners to make a claim on the organization's net earnings. It does NOT mean that the organization is constrained to have revenues exactly equal to costs. Non-profit firms can and do make positive net earnings that are, in a real sense, "profits" from an economic modelling point of view. "Tax exempt status" is a benefit bestowed upon certain operations of certain non-profits based upon the social or community benefit of the organization's purpose. The tax exemptions can be from any level of government and cover a wide variety of taxes (corporate income taxes, property taxes, and so forth). Some non-profits have tax exempt status for some of their operations and not others. To give a specific example, I am the Treasurer of the Economic Science Association. We had to proceed in two steps: first, incorporating as a non-profit, and then applying for (and receiving) our tax exempt status.

The point of this article is that some United States Senators are questioning some $12 billion in federal tax breaks to non-profit hospitals. The rationales for these tax breaks are based upon the supposition that they provide more charity health care to the destitute than do for-profit hospitals. Apparently the senators are looking at numbers that suggest that such a distinction does not exist, or at least does not exist to a large degree, in practice.

What I would really like to know is not the comparison between all non-profit hospitals and for profit hospitals, but more specifically the comparison between nominally Christian non-profit hospitals and everyone else. In a span of 100+ years which has seen nominally Christian universities scramble to look like every other "Research I" university, I hope that I am wrong when I say that I fear that what are perceived as nominally Christian hospitals --- those numerous hospitals with names like "Baptist," or "Methodist," or "Presbyterian," or "St. Elsewhere" --- are virtually indistinguishable from any others in their scope and quantity of compassionate medical care. I don't want to single out any one hospital, but it's instructive to visit the web pages of some of these hospitals. I am sure they are doing wonderful work, and that as a well- insured middle-class American my medical needs would be spectacularly well taken care of. But, I look at these web sites, which are essentially indistinguishable from those of secular non-profit, government-owned, and for-profit hospitals, and I ask "Where does Jesus, whose Gospel is filled with compassionate healing ministries, fit into all of this?"

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Good Boots and a Good Bed: Thoughts on Consumption

The idea of conspicuous consumption has been at a persistent down pour the last couple of weeks. It started with my roommate asking me what I thought about the fair tax, another roommate telling me about books by Peter Singer she read last summer and all coinciding with my reading of The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne. Just so you know how serious some people take the idea of conspicuous consumption, there were many Presbyterians that thought that conspicuous consumption was a sign that you had lost your election (meaning that you were no longer one of God’s chosen ones).

Conspicuous (as defined by Merriam Webster online) - 1. obvious to the eye 2. attracting attention 3. marked by noticeable violation of good taste.

Now for a little background: Peter Singer is a Bioethics professor at Princeton University that teaches applied philosophy. The work that my roommate told me about, that interests me, is his formation of a definition of conspicuous consumption. He poses a situation where someone has saved a lot of money for their “dream car” and parks it next to the railroad tracks (without insurance) to go for a run. Upon returning a train is rumbling toward their ride. They could switch the track but there is a little boy playing on that alternate track and worse yet, he gets his pants caught. His conclusion is that this is exactly like our consumption. We hopefully wouldn’t switch the tracks and kill the child but according to Singer that’s exactly what we do whenever we spend money on anything.

There is truth in a statement about the opportunity cost (That every time we spend money on something over what we needed to survive that same money could be used to save lives that would have otherwise been lost) though I wonder about this as a consumption ethic. Maybe it’s just me but I would feel very burdened and legalistic about such an ethic. Would this seem to violate Paul’s ideas about not giving out of compulsion? Even the people who live “On a dollar a day” spend 20 cents of that dollar on entertainment, or non survival purposes. The non survival stuff makes us feel like humans.

I was walking through the mall the other day with my girlfriend to buy a gift for our friend’s wedding when we walked by a nice set of cookware. It was expensive and because we’ve talked about the future and living well below our income level she said something that was kind of like, “We can’t buy that nice cookware.” Simultaneously that weekend on the other side of town Mark’s wife had purchased a frying pan from Publix that became warped after only a couple of uses. Then the wheels continued to turn in my head.

I remembered my Mom telling me stories about her grandparents when she was a little girl. They were farmers up in northern West Virginia and had this advice to offer on consumption, “Spend your money on two things: good boots and a good bed. You’ll need both when you get older, good rest and you’ll work harder during the day, good shoes and you won’t be as sore the next day.” Generally if you want good quality you pay more upfront but then you don’t have to replace the items as quickly. Is that horrible? Because I pay more for Red Wing Boots and don’t buy a generic brand from a big box store does that say that I don’t care about all the people that died in the world today? Please comment. I’ll conclude the post early next week.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My Dogma Can Catch Your Karma

Doug and I have have extended discussions about the concept of conspicuous consumption over the past couple of weeks.

For the most part, standard economic theory does not provide for ethical evaluation of preferences. This does not mean that no economists have raised such questions: Thorsten Veblen and Robert Frank are two good examples of economists who study preferences. But, as a first approximation, economists say that preferences are what they are.

Of course, it is impossible to read either the Old or the New Testament and believe that the way we care about things is irrelevant to God. When I read about things like Princess Di's wedding ring, all I can think is that "this just does not compute." But the really tough choices for most of us don't come from unbelievably expensive royal jewelry, but rather from the mundane choices we make every day. I would like to toss out three concepts that I believe constitute markers for conspicuous consumption from a Christian perspective.

1 ) If a purchase is made to make a statement like "I am _____ than you" (richer, as powerful, a better judge of wine, trendier, etc. etc.) this is a marker of conspicuous consumption.

2 ) If your consumption violates the Decalogue prohibition against "having other Gods"... if you worship your car, your wine, your sports cards ... whatever, then this is a marker of conspicuous consumption. If you just have to have more of anything, this is conspicuous consumption.

3 ) If your consumption in any other way interferes with your life in the Kingdom of God, then this is a marker of conspicuous consumption. For example, if you can't go to sleep at night worrying about whether your house is safe from robbers, check out Jesus' words.

There are a couple of things to notice about what I've attempted here. I've tried not to be legalistic, nor produce lists of "good" and "bad" purchases. Under this approach, a super-deluxe kitchen mixer might be conspicuous consumption for one person but not another.

Oh, and one final thing, standard economic models make clear that one of the goods we consume is leisure. It is just as possible to conspicuously consume leisure as it is furs or jewelry. There's a reason why concepts such as "the idle rich" have a religious background.