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.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Reclamation Project

When we act on charity out of our own pockets we call it compassion. When we act in charity using the government as an instrument of aid we call it social justice. Richard Ely and co-founders of the American Economics Association understood that the greatest jewels in the entire world are people. We should use our economics to benefit others, not only to write about poverty, but also to imagine solutions to cut back suffering.

In the fall of 1999 Bateman and Kapstein published, in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a paper titled “Retrospectives: Between God and the Market: The Religious Roots of the American Economic Association”. The founders had a practical reason to study economics, believing that they could help people and act out the gospels. (As an aside, you won’t be able to find language about God on their website now)

So, when they lobbied to enact policy to help the poor they called it the “Social Gospel” and the term “Social Justice” became more widespread and often used in conjunction with that movement. I have no qualms about their desire to help the poor; we need to be more concerned about poverty. What rubs me the wrong way is that the term has been annexed by people of one mindset that aren’t open to the submission of fresh ideas.

Apparently it has rubbed some other people the wrong way too. Ian Duncan Smith of the Centre for Social Justice in the United Kingdom (Why do the British have strange spellings or words with more letters than necessary?) feels the same way. The work that interests many others and me is a new world where charity is further integrated into our system, not through the incentive of tax credits but because it’s encouraged by our institutional constructs.

If you’re telling me I can’t have the term social justice then I’ll just call it “Effective Social Justice”.

With a look to the future: The Fluidity of Consumption Ethics, Fair Tax, The Art and Grind of Developing a Country, and the Void of Income for Families with Incarcerated Members.

Friday, August 17, 2007

They're Alive!

Like thousands of other faculty, I will open my Principles of Economics class this Fall with a review of some of the basic ideas that form the economist mindset. How timely that two of these are so much in the news. I wanted to point them out here.

First are the ideas of tradeoffs and opportunity costs. I hope you noticed that the World Health Organization finally joined the calls to reintroduce DDT in the fight against malaria. I wouldn't want to drink DDT, and I'm sure that in the 1960s and 1970s there were environmental problems with the way that DDT was being used. But there was a tradeoff, an opportunity cost, to the virtual elimination of DDT from our arsenal in fighting malaria --- namely, malaria lived on and people died. For more background the the W.H.O. story go to Africa Fighting Malaria.

Secondly, I don't pretend to be an expert in financial economics. But I have been really surprised how many times the popular press has included in their coverage of solutions to the subprime mortgage credit problem an explicit discussion of what economists refer to as "moral hazard." Moral hazard is one of those unintended consequences concepts in economics, and it is simple: if "X" makes a mistake, and "X" gets bailed out by someone else, then "X" (or other "Xs") are likely to be even less cautious in the future. In this case, we're talking about the people who run or invest in complicated financial securities that have been hit hard. It interesting that it is so clearly recognized that some approaches to solving this problem create moral hazard, that is, make it more likely that we will have to bail someone else out in the future. Moral hazard is not a disqualifying condition, it simply needs to be taken into account. And, it's not just Wall Street high fliers that are a problem. It's a problem for issues of "Jubilee" style debt forgiveness for developing countries. It can even be present in individual acts of compassion. To repeat, the existence of moral hazard doesn't say don't do these things, but the person giving the aid needs to go in with full knowledge of the possible consequences.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Brazil and that Hint of Fall In The Air

Doug has been posting on Shane Claiborne and the concept of a simple life. I would like to expand on the idea that the complexities in our lives are defined by our possessions and point out our lack of simplicity also has to do with our processes. Os Guinness has repeatedly remarked that one of the most unsimple things we do in our life is keeping close track of time, whether by a watch, a cell phone, a computer icon, or a DVR readout. Guinness points out that it was a non-Westerner who first made this comment to him. We are too close to it to have noticed.

Likewise, I remember a friend whose rule in life was “Never work for a company large enough to have a personnel department.” The movie Brazil featured a man whose life was driven off course by a simple bug (literally an insect) getting in the works of an office machine at the wrong time. People who know me well know that a weak point in my witness to the Christian life is my minimal tolerance for similar "Brazil-isms" in bureaucracies and related paperwork.

Doug and I were talking about the beginning of the new school year that is coming upon us. Last week I updated my syllabi; I organized my files of lecture notes. Doug and I began preparation on some lectures he will be giving in my class. College football starts in a couple of weeks and the band practice field is already occupied. I recalled just for a moment that simple joy of myself as a young boy looking at his new lunch box. I know it irritates my wife when these things happen when it's 97 degrees and I proclaim that "there is a hint of Fall in the air". In all of this, at the beginning of a new cycle, I realize that I have a gift from God at still being joyful in what I do.

Doug was talking to me about Ecclesiastes this morning, and I guess in the category of possessions and processes I would like conclude with the following:

“Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him, --- for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work --- this is a Gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.” (Eccl 5: 18-20)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Brick, The Sequel

So I've finished the book on Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. As I said, it was a much tougher and more technical read than I was expecting, but the work is amazing. The bottom line is that Bauckham challenges the last 200 hundred years of liberal Protestant scholarship which says, roughly speaking, that the Gospels are a collection of multigenerational folklore. Bauckham, instead, documents the plausibility that two and maybe three of the gospels are based upon the testimony of eyewitnesses. Mark is something like a dictation of events as recalled by Peter, and John is, in some sense the direct written testimony of John the Elder. Luke may be ascribed to an author attempting to compile a set of testimonies from eyewitnesses. My question is, in terms that Rob Bell would use, is this a "brick" or a "spring". Does it matter, and it what sense does it matter, to our Faith that, for example, as I am reading the final meeting on the shores where Jesus says to Peter "Feed my sheep" that I'm reading the testimony of an eyewitness, not a three generation removal folklore where another local tale about guys and fish got melded into the Jesus story by mistake.

I'd like to address this through a dialogue with my co-blogger Doug.

Mark: I can't fully explain in words why this matters to me, but it does. Part of my problem in explaining this logically is that the two endpoints (either believing the Gospels to be the equivalent of video tape versus believing there is virtually none of the historical Jesus in who we proclaim to worship in church) are discomforting to me. How do we stake out a middle position? That said, I guess that the closer to the reality of the human Jesus who taught and healed and was tortured and crucified and resurrected, the more passion I have for my Faith.

Doug: We want to believe all of those things about Jesus because we want to believe all of those things about God. Jesus gives us a picture of God's love for his people. In the Psalms David sketches pictures of God as a wise man, lover, caretaker, protector, deliverer, and so many more attributes and characters. In Jesus we see God moving on earth among his people for the first time since he walked with Adam in the garden. In his teaching about life that's what God wants us to know. In his healing ministry that's what God wants for us. In his tortured death on the cross that's how much he shows he loves us. That kind of stuff is what The Bible is made of, it's good news (That's what the word "gospel" means), not mediocre news. It's easy to get passionate about good news.

Mark: Can the good news exist without the Good Shepherd? That's what much of modern theology would have us believe. To put it crudely, it says "If Jesus didn't really exist, would we have had to invent him?"

Doug: So what you're saying is that some people want to separate the philosophy from the complete story because the action beyond the philosophy of love isn't real?

Mark: That's right.

Doug: The fulcrum of the argument is the resurrection. The resurrection is a supernatural action not just a philosophy. Also, I would argue that it's not simply (a) brick but (the) brick. If you don't believe in the resurrection story what are you really believing? I don't think you're believing Christianity at that point. As a church we can make a lot of dents into "true Christianity" because we're always trying to find out what "true Christianity" looks like but the one area that would be beyond repair is if we denounced the resurrection. If the resurrection isn't true Jesus didn't literally conquer death.

Mark: I agree completely. I think it is still possible to imagine (like Rob Bell) that there are some things that we should not make "bricks." To choose an extreme example, suppose it was discovered that there were four "wise men." But when I ponder Jesus, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection, then I believe that I am at the core of what it means to be shaped by Christ.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Attack of the Killer Organic Tomatoes

DOG DAYS MUSINGS: Some of you may have seen a version of the following question bouncing around the internet recently:

If I want to go from Tallahassee to Tulsa, do I create more carbon pollution by flying or by driving by myself in an SUV?

It turns out that reasonable people were getting answers either way. Specifically, it is possible to argue that driving alone in an SUV is more "green friendly" than flying. The reason I didn't post to these at the time is because it was obvious that the answer depended critically upon a bunch of sensitive assumptions: kind of airplane and engine, speed of flight, number of stopovers (more take offs and landings), model of SUV, driving speed, and so forth. Nevertheless the fact the the answer is close enough to be credible, I suspect, surprises some people.

Now comes another internet story which is probably pretty much along the same line, but I just couldn't pass this one up. It turns out that at least one author argues that organic foods contribute to global warming. (Thanks to Instapundit for the tip).

Either one of these cases would be a good topic for a Mythbusters-style dispassionate test. I suspect the first debate may have been motivated by all the stories about the private jets ferrying "green" celebrities here and there. My point is that all of these supposed paradoxes are excellent examples of the economic reality of unintended effects, specifically general equilibrium systems that are often very complicated. When our political discourse degrades this debate into "sticky note" analysis of "this is green --- good" versus "this is not green --- bad", we run the risk of making bad decisions. (I suspect there are people who are willing to accept this because they perceive that the benefits of having our political consciousness raised outweigh the unintended mistakes.) When we take this same simplistic "Live Green" mindset and marry it to our theology, things become even worse. It's like that other sticky-note theology. You remember the one I'm talking about: "Healing people on the Sabbath --- Bad." We know what Jesus thought of that.

To me, much better theology and much better economics would look a lot more like a carbon tax. With a carbon tax, we wouldn't have to trivialize our Faith by getting into arguments about whether flying or driving is more Christian (or even worse, "How Would Jesus Travel?"). If these legends I've reported above are true, then costs of airline flights and organic foods will, at the end of the day, be affected more than those of SUV travel and non-organic foods. If they are false, they won't. Better still, consumers won't have to carry some lame "Christian Guide to Being Green" around with them. As the relative price of relatively carbon intensive products rises, we maximizing consumers will automatically find that we purchase fewer of those goods.

The Irresistible Revolution Part 2

Shane Claiborne found love in Calcutta amidst poverty and leper colonies. No, this isn't a Bollywood script but one man's earnest search to discover whether Jesus really meant what he said. After three years in Philadelphia at Eastern College, some run ins with an agitated Archdiocese and a budding church community in the poorest of the poor Philly neighborhoods, he joined the Missionaries of Charity. It was known, Mother Teresa was practically a saint, she operated on some different level. However, he found there were many Mother Teresa's without much acclaim. He found a different way of life, a different sort of love.

Where I'm at in the book he has taken that love back with him to the states. He finished up his last year of college at Wheaton and as an intern at 150 acre suburban Chicago mega church Willow Creek. He's living back in Philadelphia in a communal living environment, a
501c3 antiprofit known as The Simple Way

You should check out the website. As I mentioned in the last post about the Irresistible Revolution I probably wouldn't agree with everything he had to say, such as his writing about fair trade coffee beans (See my previous post titled Non Profits Part 2 in June). However, the alternative economy that he talks about where there is a dislike for conspicuous consumption and a love for community and determination as an advocate against poverty is right up my alley. The coolest part is that so much of what he writes about he's discovered through personal experience. He does have a fire in his belly and I pray that I stay inspired to want to fight for this cause.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Something Dignan is Supposed to Read

Just when I had made about 50 pages more progress into Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, along comes a book which I know that I have to order (I have done so) and read. The book is The Political Teachings of Jesus by Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institution. The first amazing thing about this book is that if I see a book with "Jesus" and "politics" in the title, my initial instinct is to

Run Away. Run Away.

Such a book is, in my mind, likely to be one of two things: either something in the Social Gospel/Liberation Theology mold of Jesus as Marxist (and if not a Marxist, at least a New Dealer) or something dealing with warm and cuddly individual pietism. Fortunately, this book had the most awesome one paragraph recommendation that I can remember from John Podhoretz on National Review Online, and the recommenders include people from across the political spectrum: E.J. Dionne and Michael Novak for example.

Amazingly, one long section of the book dealing with the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount is available online. I knew when I read this section that I had to read more.

Perhaps the real stunner is that this book is written, if not from the very heart, then at least from inside the tent, of the academic world of politics and economics. Yes, I know that there has been tension between the Hoover Institution and the various academic departments at Stanford, but it is, regardless, a home [or home away from home] to some of the very best economists and political scientists in the country.

OK, so this means that I owe our readers two book follow-ups: one on Jesus and the Eyewitnesses and one on this book. Classes start in less than three weeks. This ought to be interesting. Oh well, when you're on the run from Johnny Law...ain't no trip to Cleveland.

Monday, August 6, 2007


Rob Bell (in Velvet Elvis) uses the metaphor of the misuse of beliefs as a stack of bricks. If we use specific beliefs as part of a wall or tower that holds up our faith, how many bricks can be removed before our faith comes tumbling down. Bell prefers for Christians to see beliefs as springs on a trampoline: they help us in our faith leap, but our faith does not stand upon them in the traditional sense. I guess, as much as I like Rob Bell, I must confess that this is a story of a brick.

I am reading a book by Richard Bauckham entitled Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. It’s a fascinating book, but much more technical (in the sense of being written for history scholars) than I was expecting. Yet I am making my way through it. OK, it’s time for a show of hands. How many you out there have read, or heard, or participated in the following discussion as a “defense” of the Gospels:

Yes, the Gospel accounts were handed down orally across the generations, but people in that day and in that region of the world were expert at preserving oral tradition. So, while we today may not have a great accurate oral tradition of the life of, say, Woodrow Wilson, the people of 35 – 130 A.D. would have, out of experience and necessity, had much greater success in preserving the essential stories of Jesus, particularly as they were guided by the Holy Spirit.

I thought so; I know I’ve gone down this path. The problem is, that’s not what Christians believed for 1700 years. It’s not what the Bible or the Church Fathers said. The gospel of Luke opens with the following:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilius, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Likewise, the gospel of John closes with

This is the disciple [the disciple whom Jesus loved] who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

Finally, several second century church authors attribute the Gospel of Mark in some way to remembrances of Peter, presumably dictated to a “Mark”, perhaps John Mark.

That is, until the revisionism of the Enlightenment and the radically modernist theologians of the 19th and 20th century, Christians largely accepted that at least two and probably three of the Gospels were not the result of decades and decades of oral tradition that was finally written down. Rather, these gospels were written by people who had confidence that their reports were based upon eyewitness testimony.

What’s going on with Bauckham, and to a similar extent N.T. Wright in his book about the Resurrection, is that a new generation of scholars is using the latest historical tools to challenge the stale orthodoxy of skepticism. Bauckham makes the case for the Gospels as eyewitness accounts. (Wright, by the way, endorses Bauckham's book.)

The question I wrestle with is: “Is this a brick or a spring?” Does it matter to our faith whether there really was a disciple named John, whom Jesus loved, and who testified, seriously and deliberately, that the events in the book of John are true? I am going to ponder this question as I finish reading Bauckham’s book, and I will return with Brick, the Sequel.

In the meantime, another book that may interest some is Three Gospels, by Reynolds Price. Price provides modern translations of both Mark and John, with the same view: that they were essentially eyewitness accounts.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Good Saturday Morning Reading

This is to some extent an extension of a thread Doug started several weeks ago when he closed with a Tony Campolo quote about churches choosing between stained glass windows and helping kids in Haiti. This morning’s Tallahassee Democrat profiled Rev. B. B. Holmes, who is a candidate for President of the National Baptist Convention, USA, which the paper reports is “the largest black religious organization in the country.” Rev. Holmes’ Bethel Missionary Baptist Church is a fixture in the Tallahassee landscape, but until you see an article like this, it may not hit you exactly how much this church does for the community. What also should hit you is to ask why so few traditionally white congregations of any stripe (mainline Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, emerging/emergent) seem to be able or willing to say, “We can do that.”

Bethel programs, in addition to the traditional list of church ministries, include:

Christian academy
Retirement home
Family life center
Affordable housing units for first time homebuyers
Family counseling center
Mental health clinic
Family restaurant

Just driving around Tallahassee and seeing the name “Bethel” everywhere, I’m sure I’ve missed something. I have no idea, not being a member, if Bethel has ever had to “choose” between something like stained glass windows or a pipe organ and their programs. But it’s hard to argue with the visible fruits of their faith.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

For the rest of my life, I'll have to get up at 5 in the morning to catch the 6:15 train to get to my office at 8.*

Doug has brought to my attention the February 2007 issue of Sojourners Magazine, and a short article about “affordable housing”in high income cities such as Pasadena. It was not surprising that from an author, Jill Suzanne Shock, described as a coordinator of the “Pasadena Affordable Housing Alliance,” that part of the discussion would focus on government attempts to regulate the pricing mechanism by mandating that developers provide “affordable housing” with new housing developments. In addition to the moral and Constitutional challenges that such programs will (or should) always face, mandated affordable housing is a perfect example of what I used to hear called “transitional gains traps.”

A “transitional gains trap” occurs because it is relatively easy for the government to forcibly transfer something of value from a currently rich person to a currently poor person, but it is relatively difficult to continue that benefit to the next generation of the poor. The classic example of this is rent control. Rent control succeeds mostly in helping one part of one generation of poor people (those people in the first generation who are lucky enough to get rent-controlled apartments). However, when that generation, let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. Smith, grows old, becomes middle class, and retires to Florida, their right to their rent-controlled apartment remains. The Smiths are not going to give up that highly valuable property right to a below-market-rate apartment, and governments are essentially powerless to transfer those benefits to the newly poor. As a result, in rent-controlled communities you see the disguised sublets, the “key charges” and so forth that are typical of a transitional gains trap. You don’t want to be a poor person in a community in which rent control was enacted 30 years earlier.

The 600-pound elephant problem with the forced affordable housing programs is what to do when the original “poor” purchaser is no longer poor and/or decides to move. Either you’ve got a classic transitional gains trap where that affordable housing is no longer affordable, or you have to create a government bureaucracy to manage not only the original housing developers but also the original and subsequent purchasers of the “affordable” houses. The problems are similar to those programs in which (mostly Northeast and California) universities attempt to provide affordable housing for new faculty. However, a university typically has more flexibility in creating contracts and better monitoring.

However, one other suggestion by Ms. Shook really struck me as innovative. Having lived in Pasadena, and having seen older neighborhoods in both Tucson and Tallahassee, it’s obvious that there was a time in which a typical middle class house would have had a small “mother-in-law” cottage in the back yard or a flat above the garage. These facilities disappeared, across time, often due to the zoning powers of government. Ms. Shook’s organization has also lobbied for changes in zoning that would allow new construction of these apartments. Getting the government out of the business of saying who can and who cannot rent space in a backyard cottage seems to me to be a winning proposition all the way around. I would hope that Ms. Shook would look at all the government zoning regulations that drive up the cost of housing.

One final note. Ms. Shook correctly discusses the large, implicit tax code subsidy to home ownership. I would make two additional comments on her argument. First, removing a part of a person’s income from the tax base is neither economically nor morally equivalent to mandating that a private property owner has to provide housing geared to the political preferences of the local government, unless you believe that the government has prior claim on all of our income and all of our property. Secondly, part, but not all, of the tax subsidies to home ownership are scaled back when a taxpayer’s income becomes large enough to be subject to the alternative minimum tax. So the tax treatment of home expenses is truly a middle-class program. It’s my guess that the opposition to eliminating these middle class tax programs has been one of the biggest obstacles to enacting a no-deductions flat tax.

*The title is a famous quote from the movie "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House." Apparently, long commutes were a problem even for executives in the 1940s. (Thanks to IMDB.)