Thursday, December 24, 2009

Some Good News for the New Year in Gadsden County

I bought a copy of the Havana Herald this week to read some more of the details of the new biomass electric generation plant announced for Gretna. In addition to the many construction jobs, there apparently will be at least a few dozen permanent employees in one of Florida's most economically hard-pressed counties. What struck me was that political leaders from Gretna, Gadsden County, and local representatives in the state legislature were present with the corporation's executives at the announcement. So, at least so far, this facility has not faced the NIMBY (Not in My BackYard) opposition that the failed Tallahassee biomass plant suffered. If that remains true through to completion of the facility, that will be the basis for a nice case study.

Friday, December 18, 2009

In the mean time

The last post "Social Justice and the Family" sought to shine some light on how the broken situations in life that beckon for justice are often a result of broken or uninvolved families. After Christmas we will explain the evidence more carefully than a simple overview, but, in the meantime check out this interesting pro-social campaign called True Dad and there are more clips on Director John Papola's website if you're interested.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Social Justice and Family

We are about to embark on an adventure that hasn't happened in quite some time ---this is a co-written post by Mark and Doug.

(This is Doug) Next semester I'll be teaching the Social Justice Living and Learning Community my Economics of Compassion class. Fundamentally we'll be talking about what justice is and how it should be achieved; but, one of my primary goals is to convince students that no matter discipline they're passionate about they can bring about justice. Think of it this way:

If there is a song that is beautiful and someone asks me to sing that song I would reply, "I can't do justice to that song". This statement implies that there is a perfection in the song that I can't quite reach. If I could sing the song really well then I could do the song justice. Likewise, justice in the world deals with correction and restoration towards a more perfect ideal. For Christians this is God's Kingdom and God's glory. Like St. Ireanaus said, "The glory of God is man fully alive." Whatever we can contribute to that goal is a contribution towards justice.

Specifically, what I have noticed in teaching the class are the tremendous number of times I traipse down the path of economic programs and political discourse only to uncover that a large factor in the brokeness of poverty (lack of education, low wages, etc.) have root in a fractured, uninvolved, or non-existent family. Then, I consider that whether my students choose to become economics majors (and some have to my delight) they will be able to make a significant impact in achieving justice or bringing God's Kingdom to earth. They can do so through music therapy, counseling, family and child sciences, pastoring, or a number of other avenues. They have a tangible impact. And, the justice they bring forth is quite relational. For some reason economists are not expected to bring much in the way of relational justice, but rather top-down redistributive justice.

(This is Mark) But it has been over 40 years since one of those present at the creation of the Great Society, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, worried about the effects of governmental dependency on the structure of the family. Not to be outdone by the Great Society( and at almost exactly the same time), the American Middle Class openly embraced a massive social transformation in the acceptance of routine (no-fault) divorce. Somewhere in the ballpark of 35 - 40 percent of American children are now born out of wedlock, and divorce is distressingly common. Now, across our desks comes a new report from the (Great Society rooted) Brookings Institution, which says that there are three straightforward policy areas that should be at the top of our list for creating economic opportunity:

1 ) improving education,
2 ) improving the earned Income Tax Credit, and
3) reintroducing and strengthening the forgotten cultural sequence of (first) education, then marriage, and then (and only then) children.

Education and tax reform are the standard fare of economists and other policy wonks. Doug and I don't have any problem understanding how a school district can seek to hire and retain good teachers or how Congress can change to tax code, but exactly how are we supposed to undo 45 years of transformed cultural norms on marriage and the family?

The Brookings study isn't revolutionary. It reflects a strong consensus. (Doug here) Recently I listened to a Podcast on American Enterprise Institute on Social and Cultural Studies. The speaker was World Magazine Editor Marvin Olasky and he talked about relational justice. The timing of speech melded perfectly with the increased realization that top-down approaches to helping those in need neglected this family component. He cites President Obama's speech from 2008 on Father's Day, some of which is included below and stresses the importance of family. Statistics used by Obama? Children growing up without a father are 5 times more likely to end up in poverty and commit crime, 9 times more likely to drop out of school, and 20 times more likely to end up in prison.

This will generate several other posts. This is a significant problem and one that I hope can be rectified by a culture that seeks to be more aware of social justice issues. For my students, I hope they understand the immense purpose involved in pursuing justice through their development of expertise in other areas. For economists, I hope we can begin to realize that top-down approaches are not the solution to these deep cultural issues with family.

Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation. They are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models. They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it. But if we are honest with ourselves, we'll admit that what too many fathers also are is missing - missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it. -President Obama

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Video Will Make Him a Rock Star

Doug and I both present our students with the portfolio of ideas about economic development represented by economists Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Collier, and William Easterly. Easterly is the author of two books, including The White Man's Burden (an intentionally sarcastic title), about the massive failure of traditional Western aid program to benefit the typical poor person in Africa. Indeed, Easterly is squarely in the camp that Western aid has probably been counter-productive.

Doug recently showed me this You Tube video, the coming attraction for a documentary on Easterly and The White Man's Burden. Interestingly, the movie is produced by Damascus Films, whose trademark is "From Saul to Paul in 24 frames per second." Given that so much Christian discussion on helping Africa starts and stops with "giving aid", this has the potential to be transformative.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cooperation is Natural

Earlier this week the NY Times published an article "We May Be Born With an Urge to Help". The article is based on Michael Tomesello's book Why We Cooperate which argues that children display helpful behavior prior to any parental training to prime such behavior. Moreover, Tomesello finds that this desire to help is not enhanced by rewards. This would seem to be a signpost towards nature of man. Is man inherently good, evil, or both? This presents an interesting theological question (which they do not come close to answering I think).

I had to give some thought to it before I felt like I really understood what was at play in the cooperation and helpfulness: TRUST.

What we believe about other people is enormously important. Children will trust another adult, even if that adult is not their parent, but, a stranger. Children have faith in other people. Because they have not experienced a deterioration in trust or faith in others they do not act strategically in how they help others. Instead, they just recognize a need and act in a helpful way.

I think this provides some insight into the verse, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven" -Matthew 18:3

What holds us back from helping? Lack of trust? Judging Attitudes? Fear of being rejected?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Yes, In Virginia There is a (Bad?) Santa Claus

One of the topics in our Economics of Compassion course is domestic poverty, and one of the issues that we've always noted were the unintended consequences of assistance to low income families. One of the big problems is that as the parent(s) work more, they lose some of their existing assistance, so that the "effective marginal tax rate" is high, even though poor people pay almost none of the U.S. personal income tax. Doug wanted to discuss this issue more in the course this year, and then (thanks to Instapundit) I stumbled onto an actual estimate of these effects, in a blog by Thies. *

What this study estimates, is that for a family of 3 in Virginia, total income (earnings less taxes plus assistance programs) for a totally destitute family appears to be just above $30,000. A small amount of earned income raises that to about $40,000 per year. However, as the family increases its earnings, total income actually falls due to the loss of various government entitlement programs. The family doesn't get out of this government dependency trap (that is, they don't recover their lost income) until employment earnings surpass something around $50,000 per year.

Doug and I were staring at these numbers in amazement. The economic implications of this are staggering, but so are the ethical and moral implications. Look for us to ponder this and expand our thoughts in future posts.

*Disclosure: I always like to see and refer to original sources. The Thies page provides the technical details of the graphs. I found this original source by working backwards from Instapundit through blogs by TaxProf, Mankiew, and Kling.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Lies, Darn Lies, and Statistics

I attended a timely and constructive town-hall meeting on health insurance reform on Tuesday night, featuring several of my colleagues from the Department of Economics. I appreciate the time and effort that each of them put into their presentations. I found it interesting that many times, and across many of the various speakers, issues that I have blogged about here --- adverse selection, moral hazard, the historical accident of our employer-based health plans --- were discussed in the presentations.

As in any good debate, of course, and especially among economists, there were a lot of dueling statistics. I realized that I had long had on my “to do” list to go and look up some original source data on topics that I have read about through a lot of secondary discussion. So, I did that, and here are some facts and patterns I found interesting. These questions all address an obvious larger question : “What do we get in the U.S. for our higher per-capita spending on health care?"

1 ) The U.S. adult mortality rates are not impressive covering the entire adult life span. But, there is also a clear pattern that our performance improves with age. Conditional on a male reaching age 50, the U.S. is kind of in the middle of the pack. We still trail countries like Sweden, Spain, the U.K. France, and Canada, but our life expectancy surpasses several other European countries, including Germany, Austria, and Denmark. By age 65 American males surpass their counterparts in the U.K. and Canada, and if you are a 75 year old American male, you have about the longest life expectancy on earth. The position of the U.S. among women in lower, but the pattern is the same. [Source: “International Comparative Study of Mortality Tables for Pension Fund Retirees,” Cass Business School, U.K., data through 2001]. This corresponds to similar arguments from other data sources I have heard in the health care debate.

2 ) One thing the U.S. does relatively well is help people survive cancer. The U.S. is number 1 or 2 in survival rates for a variety of cancers. The other prominent leading country is Japan. [Source for this and the cancer statistics below: Coleman, et al. Lancet Oncology, 2008.]

3 ) Having some type of “universal access” health care system is not a sufficient condition for having bad cancer survival rates. France has an identical survival rate for women from colon cancer. Canada is not far behind on breast cancer. In addition to Japan, Australia ranks well. Jim Cobbe presented an alternative, aggregate cancer statistic that showed the U.S. slightly behind Australia in overall cancer mortality rates.

4 ) What does stand out in the world of universal access is the poor performance of Britain in cancer survival. In all four of the Lancet Oncology categories, the U.K. survival rates were markedly lower (often 15 percentage points lower, or a 15- 20 percent lower survival rate) than those of the U.S..

So what does this tell us about our current system? (By the way, the panelists uniformly agreed that our tying of health care to employment is a bizarre and inefficient historical artifact). One is that one cannot argue that any arbitrary universal access health care system will necessarily make our health outcomes worse than they are now, using mortality figures as a benchmark. Secondly, what we seem to do relatively well in terms of mortality is address health issues of middle and later age. This suggests that what we do less well is address health issues of young adults. Given that young adults are reported to be relatively less covered by health insurance in the U.S., it suggests that our system works best for the approximately 80 - 85 percent of our population (again, dueling statistics) that are insured, and this is consistent with the reports that the majority of Americans are satisfied with their current coverage, but are concerned for those who are uninsured.

Here are some unanswered questions that I still have.

1 ) The U.S. clearly has non-insurance issues that impact young adults. We do have much higher traffic fatality rates, for example, than most of Western Europe. One of my colleagues said that he didn’t think that was enough to explain the data. I wonder if there are any careful statistical controls for things such as traffic accidents and homicides.

2 ) Mortality is mortality, not quality of life. A lot of the discussion at the town hall meeting was over quality of life issues. One of my colleagues reports being able to obtain quasi-emergency glaucoma surgery in the U.K. only because he had U.S. insurance. He reported that he was told that if he had been a U.K. citizen on NHS, he would have been on a waiting list that would have accelerated his blindness by many years. That is a compelling story, but do we have any way of quantifying quality-of-life measures (beyond mortality statistics). The argument of my colleagues supporting more government involvement suggested that the mortality statistics told most of the story (U.S. higher spending = waste). The arguments of my colleagues who were relatively more opposed to government plans suggested that mortality and quality of life would tell different stories.

3 ) Can we explain the wide variety of differences (at least in mortality) of other countries that have some type of universal coverage? I was really surprised at the wide variation among countries like Japan, Australia, France, the U.K. and Denmark. What can we learn about the specific type of universal coverage and its effects?

Monday, October 12, 2009

So, How Was Your Weekend, Mark OR Other Than That, How Did You Enjoy the Play Mrs. Lincoln?

On Saturday night, just about the time that lightning forced a delay in the FSU-Georgia Tech game, the last remaining electrical circuit inside of my heart fried and failed. I was in a condition known as complete heart block. This is the story of my next couple of days.

As you probably remember from junior high anatomy, the heart consists of four chambers: two atria and two ventricles. Inside of the atria is the electric power plant to run the heart’s beats. A “long distance” power lines runs to a station box at the top of the ventricles, followed by a local transmission line down the boundary of the ventricles, followed by wires out to the two houses on the block. One of those wires, to the right ventricle, had been broken for years without symptoms. In fact, it may be a side effect of keeping in shape through running. The right ventricle becomes a bad citizen and steals some electricity from the left ventricle. But sometime last week, something started to go very wrong. Like the single broken breaker that starts a blackout, first the left ventricle local wire failed, and by the time I went to urgent care on Saturday (when walking up just a few steps was making me dizzy), the transmission line down the ventricles was starting to fail. And, by the time Sue took me to the emergency room about 10 hours later, my heart was like one of the famous Northeast blackouts: Ontario Hydro (the atria) had completely decoupled from New York City (the ventricles).

The only reason I am around to tell you that the lights are back on is that the ventricles have a couple of old-fashioned, fire-em up emergency generators for just such situations. Just like those post-hurricane generators can run your fridge but maybe not much else, the ventricles can plod along on their emergency power….in my case at about 34 beats per minute. The fridge was running, but the AC, the pool pump and the outdoor lighting were shed load. My cardiologist said that if I were a religious person, I could marvel at God’s design in providing such an emergency back-up. No kidding. The backup power lasted long enough that the lights are back on; specifically, I am now the proud owner of a “St. Jude Medical” Hal 9000 (just kidding) computerized pacemaker. As Toby asked me, does this mean I can sell the iPod?

Many of you know that I am scared of flying. I often have nightmares about it. I am almost never in an actual plane crash in my dreams; instead I’m just stuck on a plane that is damaged and in distress, circling endlessly waiting to see whether we will ever land safely. I guess this is when I lived that dream, except that it was my own body I was stuck in, and I now know the elapsed time: almost exactly fifteen hours from hearing the diagnosis until I felt Dr. Cox throw the switch of the pacemaker, and I felt my heart spring back to life.

I have never experienced anything as humbling and scary as feeling my chest jerk from a malformed heartbeat, and then waiting two seconds to see if God was going to give me another one. You can go through several lines of the Lord’s Prayer in two seconds. The good news in this regards came from Dr. Cox at about 1:30 a.m. when she assured me that I was pretty stable because just about everything that could go wrong had already gone wrong.

The fact that I am here writing this is a miracle from God, working directly through his power and though his miracle providers….all of my friends and family who prayed for me, and that decentralized network of medical professionals from the factory in California to Capital Health, TMH, and Southern Medical Cardiology here in Tallahassee. Most amazing of them all is Sue, who never let me give up hope that the next heart beat would come. And then there are Addi and Toby, who each in their own way let me know how much they loved me. I will never forget that Addi brought me home made chocolate chip cookies at the hospital or that Doug sat with me twice during the long weekend. The members of Havana Presbyterian Church wrapped me in a prayer list that stretched across state lines. May God bless you all.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Last Shall Be Made Even Laster

I always talk in my economics classes about the dangers of confusing correlation with causality. The problem is that with economic data, separating the two can take some time. For example, economic theory predicts that government programs that artificially hold up wages will exacerbate unemployment. But from what I can tell, it's really only after 70 some years that something approaching an empirical consensus has developed that yes, indeed, the Hoover and FDR programs to prop up wages were causal in the persistence of dismal employment numbers in the Great Depression, even after production had recovered in about 1935.

Fast forward to today. In the midst of the worst recession since the 1980s, the President and Congress enacted a 70 cent increase in the minimum wage effective in July. According to this morning's Wall Street Journal, before the fact economist David Neumark estimated the job loss from this increase would be about 300,00 jobs, and in fact 330,000 jobs held by teenagers have indeed disappeared since then. (I know that I made a mental note to track the jobs figures after the minimum wage kicked in.) Most startling in the Journal story is the report that over the same period the unemployment rate for black male teenagers skyrocketed from 39.2 percent to 50.4 percent, which is consistent with the estimations of economist David MacPherson, who pointed out to the class Doug and I taught that the relative winners from increases in the minimum wage tend to be more highly skilled, middle class, suburban part time workers.

The reason I want to focus on the minimum wage issue is because there is probably no economic issue which is more unanimously and uncritically supported by the leadership of the Mainline Protestant denominations than increasing the minimum wage (and yes I am including single-payer health care). Are the economic effects I described above causal or just correlative? It may take decades to reach a consensus. But, given the predictions of economic theory and given that we are finally seeing some consensus from similar policies in the 1930s, let's consider, just for the moment, that all of the warnings about increasing the minimum wage and job losses among poor and minority workers might just have had some empirical traction. What is, therefore, the moral standing of the leaders of the mainline Protestant denominations in supporting economic policies that disproportionately hurt poor and minority workers?

It can't be from a lack of warning. Dissidents in the mainline denominations have criticized their leaders' captivation with leftish economic policies for years. I can only come up with three ideas, and in talking with Doug, he added a fourth:

1 ) Cognitive Dissonance. Perhaps denominational leaders so much want to believe that what they are doing "does justice" that they have moved beyond any consideration with contrary information as to the way the world actually works.

2 ) Ignorance of Rent Seeking in and by Organizations. It could be that denominational leaders so completely identify justice with the views of the leaders of special interests groups (such as labor unions) with whom they associate that they can't see what economists have seen for years: organized special interest groups do not necessarily represent the best interest of their own members. The possibility that labor union leaders would support minimum wage increases even if it cost low skilled workers their jobs has been known for years.

3 ) Utilitarianism. There are workers who benefit from the increase in the minimum wage. Those workers who keep their jobs and get a higher wage are better off because of the minimum wage increase. Perhaps the denominational leaders calculate that, on average, the wage gains outweigh the wage losses. I don't want to argue the broad philosophical merits of utilitarianism as a moral code here. But I think there are three problems with this idea as it relates to Christian views of justice. First, denominational leaders do not couch their arguments in favor of the minimum wage in utilitarian terms. Secondly, utilitarianism is often specifically rejected by the same leaders in other contexts. And, finally, Jesus' call to help the least among us is not a very utilitarian outlook.

4 ) [Doug's idea]. Modified Utilitarianism. The losers from the increase in the minimum wage are most likely to thereby fall into other parts of the government social safety net, which, if you are already predisposed to identifying government economic and social intervention as justice, may not be seen as such a bad thing.

Maybe many years from now we will find out that this correlation between the minimum wage increase and the dismal job figures is spurious. But, in the meantime, as an economist, I'd like to be able to have a dialog with Christian leaders who admit at least the possibility that there may be unintended consequences from their support of increases in the minimum wage (and other economic issues).

Monday, September 28, 2009

Writer's Block?

It's not because I haven't been thinking about the blog that nothing has appeared recently from me. Indeed, I have two topics that I have been trying for days to form into a post. One of those is the conundrum of the role of community in Christian life. There is no doubt that we are called to live in community. Many people much more able than I (such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together) have written about Christians and community. In addition, it seems that the Christian response to losses in the advantages of community is a popular topic right now.

But, the problem is that Jesus rules out some of the most popular vehicles for forming community, such as social identity (the parable of the Good Samaritan) and private advantages to community building (see Mark 9:33-25). I have been stuck on what to write, and yesterday my Pastor, Bill Bess, preached a sermon on Mark 9 in which he discussed this same problem in the concept of a community without boundaries. So, I still haven't figured out this riddle, but I hope to return to it.

The second topic I've wanted to write about is the powerful and humbling passage from the lectionary two Sundays ago. Finally I've decided that there's no commentary that I can write that adds anything to the text itself, so I've just decided to repost it here (this is copied from the PCUSA lectionary service):

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

4:1Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.

Monday, September 21, 2009

More on "Cash for Clunkers"

Over at "The Economists' Voice", two economists estimate that the net benefits to society of the cash for clunkers program is significantly negative, even after accounting for the reductions in carbon emissions. The details are here (warning: may require guest registration).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The "Man Who Fed the World" Has Passed Away

Anyone who wants to be "Wise as Serpents" in fighting starvation and poverty must surely honor the work of Norman Borlaug, "The Man Who Fed The World." Thanks to Powerline Blog for the tip on the link.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thursday Thoughts

I. Doug and I have just had a short analysis article published in the Presbyterian Outlook. The topic is the review that the Presbyterian Church (USA) is undertaking regarding its Washington lobbying office.

II. I was very interested that President Obama switched away from using the Post Office as his analogy for a government health insurance program to using thepublic/private mix in higher education. Recall that I wrote about that analogy here is Wise As Serpents in "The Post Office Always Rings Twice" back in August. It is an important example (and I think one of the few examples) in which we see a significant, stable mixture of government and non-government providers (it's actually an interesting mix among governments, non-profits, and even some for-profit providers). I raised the analogy to see if we could consider why higher education was so different than first class mail (the Postal Service is protected as a monopoly), Amtrak, and Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac. I came up with three hypotheses, none of which applies, as far as I can tell, to the President's plan for health insurance (even reading texts from his specch I still don't really know what his plan is). As a quick review, the three attributes that I hypothesized were important were:

1 ) The government universities are forced to compete with one another. This certainly wouldn't be the case with a national government health insurance system, and the Administration's proposals to weaken Medicare Advantage means that they are probably going in the opposite direction. It's not clear whether any of the ideas of regional public health exchanges would include government/government competition.

2 ) State governments make only minimal attempts to control the operation of private universities. This is clearly at odds with the various Democratic proposals.

3 ) We have a social norm that accepts heterogenous outcomes in higher education. I question whether we would have that same social norm with regards to health insurance. Attempts to mandate this or that in private plans, again, go in the opposite direction.

So what would a "public option" look like that resembled higher education? Perhaps:

a) regional exchanges that could compete across state line, particularly for the purpose of addressing the adverse selection problems of high-risk individuals;

b ) freeing private providers from government imposed mandates as to what constitutes an acceptable policy, and allowing consumers more choice between limited and complete plans;

c ) accepting a social norm of hetergenous outcomes beyond some core of "major medical" insurance.

In thinking about this post, I drifted towards the following thought experiment. Would we ever arrive at a system that, once it was in place, we as a society would accept that individuals had enough options that it would not be the federal government's responsibility to step in if someone, after the fact, regretted that they didn't choose some particular features in their health care plan? For example, suppose I chose a plan that excluded payment for organ transplants after I reached the age of 80. What would happen if, when I am 84, a doctor told me that I could extend my life by an expected X years by having a liver transplant? Would I be able to "recontract" by claiming, through the legal or political process, that it was unjust for my insurance company to refuse to pay?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

More Purpose

This past Sunday our pastor preached a sermon filled with purpose --the timing of which could not have been more appropriate given my last post on meaning and purpose. Specifically, he talked about "work" and the idea of a "calling" to work.

Before the Fall Adam worked in the garden. Thus, work happened even amidst perfection. After the Fall however we are told that work becomes painful and toil isn't always a delight. God had always intended for us to work though, to grow things and be fruitful.

Linked to the action of work is the concept of vocation. We talked about the word vocation (that comes from the Latin word "vocari" when means "calling") and how many of us believe that we do not have a calling --regular people just have jobs. What a misconception! First, we are not regular people, we are a New Creation. Secondly, while it is true that there may be a few people who have vocations others would recognize as going down in the history books as a calling that is not equal to saying, "your position does not matter to the world," or, "Because you're going to fill one of special positions God does not want to fill your life with a calling."

Fundamentally, there is a distorted view of God at the heart of such a line of thinking. Possibly we view God as having scarce resources and only being able to have impact on the world through people who we view as important. For example, we had a really great development economist fly in earlier this year to talk about the condition of Africa. But, as he was about to leave and get on the plane he was somewhat scared to fly, a woman here at FSU told him "[Do not worry], You're not going anywhere. The universe isn't through with you." There was a notion that he was called to do great things. But, I wonder, if she saw herself the same way.

The goodness of God is such that I'm not sure we can even fathom the extent of His calling on our lives.

Finally, whatever we do, we do it to the best of our ability. One of the very best portions of the sermon was the idea that my work (and your work) could be a form of worship. I spend much of my day at work and if I learned to worship God in my work and the way I conduct myself and motivate my life what more purpose, joy, and love could be found!?! There is so much possibility.

Monday, September 7, 2009

What Just Happened?

“And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him ‘Then who can be saved?’”

I am fascinated by this line from the story of the rich young ruler. It comes just after Jesus has just made his “camel through the eye of a needle” analogy. Most of the commentary I have read about this goes in one of two directions: 1 ) The disciples’ eyes were opened about salvation through faith; or 2 ) the disciples were culturally conditioned to believe that the pious wealthy and elite were most likely to enter the Kingdom, and thus astonished by Jesus’ remarks. I think the second explanation just doesn’t make sense, and the first is on track, but doesn’t go far enough.

Starting with the second idea, I mean I know the Gospels present the disciples as somewhat dim bulbs, but the idea that they could hang around Galilee and with Jesus for most of his ministry and still assume that the wealthy had an inside track to salvation strikes me as dubious. James (2: 6) probably depicts the gut reaction of the common people of the time (the “poor”) when he says “Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?” And the story of the young ruler occurs late in the Gospels, so the disciples would have had to have been in a coma for a couple of years not to have heard Jesus’ constant message (through explicit statements, parables, choice of disciples and repeated confrontations with the elite) that the least were going to be first in line for the Kingdom.

The argument about salvation through faith is more credible, especially when the story begins with the ruler asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Undoubtedly, part of Jesus message is that we can’t achieve our salvation by what we “do.” However, I believe that there’s more to the disciples reaction than this.

Imagine that the disciples indeed had soaked in Jesus' message about the last being first, and had heard his attacks upon money-changers and the religious elite. Now ask yourself, “What just happened?” Jesus and the disciples are not in Galilee (they are crossing between Judea and Trans-Jordan). So here is Jesus, an unorthodox, itinerant rabbi, somewhat akin to a rural Alabama preacher walking the streets of the Hamptons, whose message is one of woe to the powerful and comfort to the poor and afflicted, when suddenly a rich young man runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks him for spiritual advice. In the day of Jesus, this by itself is astonishing. And furthermore, when Jesus answers him “You know the commandments ….” The young man does not argue with or attempt to engage Jesus in tricked conversation. He accepts Jesus statement. I think that what astonished the disciples is that they were thinking “This is the jackpot. Jesus is finally getting his message through to the most important people in society. They finally get it. If we can walk into Jerusalem with this man as the new face of Jesus’ ministry, there is no stopping us.”

As usual, Jesus did what confounded his disciples. Rather than signing the young man on as his “outreach minister to the Hamptons”, he adds to the demands for salvation, sends him away, and then seemingly dismisses his chances of salvation, saying that they were worse than a camel passing through the eye of a needle.** For me, this then explains what the disciples said: ““And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him ‘Then who can be saved?’” To me, they were saying to Jesus: “We don’t understand. This is what your entire ministry has been about: the humbling of the wealthy and self-righteous into a life of faithful observance of the Law. If you are not satisfied with this, what will you be satisfied with?” And Jesus answers them “All things are possible with God.” (And then, completely in character, Peter gets his nose out of joint and begins a rant of self-justification: “WE have left everything and followed you.”)

So, yes I think that the story is one about salvation not being through works, but I also think we have to be careful that we don’t fall into what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the trap of “cheap grace.” To me, the whole meaning of this interchange is not that salvation through faith requires less of us, but rather that it requires more. There is nothing we can do as followers of Jesus that will gain our salvation by a finite amount of our efforts. But this means that at every point, Jesus will say to us, “But I require more.” Of course we will fall short, and it is then that we must realize that, solely through God’s grace and not through our own merit, Jesus has died for our sinfulness. As a consequence, we should not be satisfied, but instead we must want to offer more.

** One of my pastors was of Middle-Eastern ancestry, and he suggested that the phrase had a double meaning. The “eye of the needle” was a city gate intended to allow entry only to people on foot, and the absurd picture of a rich man riding a camel loaded with possessions trying the enter through the eye of the needle would have been instantly recognized in that time.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Early to Bed, Early to Rise.....

Doug and I have some research underway which we’ll probably have a chance to review here in the future, but in the meantime it’s made me think about the role of wealth and worldly position in the Gospels. It seems undeniable to me that Jesus considered that the distractions of the world are a hindrance to participation in the Kingdom. Just as a couple of examples: the story of the rich young ruler (“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.” [Mark’s version]), and the opening scenario to the Parable of the Great Banquet in which Jesus was dining at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, and noted how the other guests were interested in being seated in places of honor [Luke 14:7].

But there is a paradox. Contrary to the picture that many people like to paint, Jesus and his disciples were not a rag-tag bunch of destitute homeless people. There is a difference between being homeless because you are an itinerant preacher and being homeless because you are destitute. Jesus clearly had several bases for operation for his ministry: Peter’s family home, the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, and obviously some unnamed contacts in Jerusalem (the owner of the upper room for example). There was a mission fund large enough to be noted in the story of Judas [John 12:6], and Jesus’ ministry was apparently financed by many people, including a woman inside of Herod’s court [Luke 8:3]. People who came “to the Great Banquet” included many people of power, wealth, or status, including at least three Roman centurions, Matthew, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Saul of Taursus, and possibly the author of the Gospel of John. Some people (Peter, Matthew, and in a sense, Saul) seem to have abandoned their livelihood to follow Jesus as disciples but, for example, there’s no evidence that the Centurions left their post nor that Joseph of Arimathea took a vow of poverty. (And there’s no evidence that Jesus asked them to do so --- Nicodemus was still wealthy enough at the time of the crucifixion to purchase an impressive amount of funeral spices [John 19:39]).** In other words, there’s no neatly tied-up, unambiguous playbook on what we are to do about our own wealth or wordly authority.

Yet, we cannot escape Jesus’ constant picture that possessions, power, and prestige are stumbling blocks to the Kingdom. I think the answer to this seeming paradox lies in Jesus’ message that he comes not to hang out with the healthy, but to comfort and heal the sick. A wealthy, powerful, or prestigious person is several steps down the road to being someone is need of salvation (healing). In other words, Jesus came to heal the lame and the blind and to comfort the orphans; but he also came to heal the rich and the powerful of their stumbling blocks from wordly diversion. Sometimes the wealthy and wordly are broken because of the diversionary demands of their life: many academics know how it is easy to obsess over the latest ridiculous referee report. Similarly, the powerful, prestigious and wealthy suffer in spite of their position. Neither poverty nor wealth are vaccines against loneliness, isolation, or rejection. I remember being shocked by how many otherwise reasonable people seemed surprised, even appalled, that Kurt Cobain could suffer, given that he was wealthy and famous. To take such a point of view is to argue that wealth and fame ought to bring happiness, a position that Jesus completely rejects. Kurt Cobain needed salvation as much as the lame and the blind.

Thus, it should be no surprise, after all, that even in his own ministry Jesus touched both the fishermen and the Pharisee, the tax collector and the prostitute and the wealthy in Jerusalem. We always think of the ending of the story of the rich young ruler as being sad. But we don’t really know what that rich young man did after he went away. Jesus said that with God anything is possible. Who are we to judge whether or not the Holy Spirit called the young man? Would we be shocked if the rich young man turned out to be the owner of the Upper Room? In my next post, I want to take a closer look at one of the verses in the story of the rich young ruler.

** As a side note on a special case of the elite, John The Baptist, Jesus, the witness of the Gospel of Mark (John Mark?), Peter and Paul --- all of them encounter Roman soldiers or Centurions, yet there is no record of any of them chastising the soldiers or centurions for their profession, or making any general command for them to lay down their arms. In fact, there is considerable recording that this did not occur, and that soldiers were participants in the Great Banquet [Luke 2:14, Matthew 8:5-13; Mark 15:39, Luke 7:1-10, Acts 10, Acts 27, Acts 28:16, II Timothy:2]. I believe that this substantially argues for the case that Jesus did not intend for his teachings to prohibit lawful, organized, forceful resistance to evil: the police and armed forces.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Life has Purpose

Recently I read a book titled "Economic Gangsters". Within the book there is a line that simply reads, "There is more to life than GDP." Let me say, I couldn't agree more. There is more to life than the desire to accumulate possessions and a greater value of assets. Recently I had some moments of reflection when I thought so many things in life were meaningless, take economics as an example, meaningless. Relationships, what did they mean? What was the point? When Soloman wrote Ecclesiastes the word meaningless popped up an astonishing number of times. Searching on Bible Gateway for "meaningless" you would find there are 36 references to the word throughout the whole Bible. 33 of those references occur in Ecclesiastes. For example,

"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!" (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

But, then there is an Ah-Ha! moment.

"Now all has been heard; Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. God will bring everything into judgment, including every hidden thing whether it is good or evil." (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

So, everything would be meaningless except that God exists. Why are we here on this planet? The chief end of man is to enjoy and glorify God. This colored my foray into meaninglessness with neon-glow-in-the-dark paint, not really, but, life is far more exciting. There is so much to hope for, so much to expect in a life that wraps itself around God.

This is key. What you think about God is the most important thing. This is because it paints everything. Knowing we are absolutely loved gives us courage. Also, the more we are loved, the greater the capacity we have to love others.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

All Kidding Aside II --- More on Health Care Rationing

Lawrence Lindsey of the American Enterprise Institute has a realistic and even-handed discussion of health care rationing in the United States and under the NHS in the United Kingdom in the U.K. Times. One of his most interesting points is that "inequality" of health care access (defined as the gap between the care received by the wealthy as compared to the care received by the typical citizen) might be greater in either the U.S. or the U.K., depending on how we might want to measure it.

The article is in no way a ringing endorsement of the current U.S. system. Lindsey notes that the U.S. does spend much more per person on health than the U.K.. Lindsey gives a full discussion of how the current U.S. system already has large government components. Nor is it a one-sided indictment of the NHS. Lindsey points out that the history of health care was different in the U.K. than in the U.S., and notes that all of the major political parties in Britain agree that the NHS has succeeded in the job it was given following World War II. But, he provides some of the answer to the question of what we get in America for this difference in systems and expenditures. One thing we get is much higher cancer survival rates. Any male reading this post should draw a circle around the fact that, according to Lindsey (and I have seen these numbers cited elsewhere, but I do not have the original sources), "a man with prostate cancer is six times as likely to die within five years in Britain as in America." As an economist who will be lecturing this afternoon on "don't confuse correlation with causality" I'm wondering what other factors besides the health care system could explain such a large gap.

One problem we have in this type of discussion is disentangling many different societal and economic changes that happened at about the same time. What it is that doctors could actually do for major illnesses changed dramatically both after the introduction of the NHS in Britain and the introduction of Medicaid and Medicare in the United States. Is the higher survival rate from prostate cancer in the U.S. due to or in spite of or irrelevant to government programs such as Medicare (federal) and Medicaid (shared between the federal and state governments). I don't know the answer to that question.

I think that these kind of discussions highlight why Christians must be "wise as serpents" in considering the facts and debating important public policy issues such as health insurance reform. The world simply does not fall into a Proverb, Prophecy, or teaching of Jesus that "Woe be to those who oppose single-payer health insurance" --- nor does it script for us "Blessed are those who rely solely on profit-maximizing insurance companies."

Sunday, August 23, 2009

All Kidding Aside---Health Care Rationing and the Eldery

The issue of health care rationing has become a hot topic in the current debate over health care reform, with President Obama suddenly on the defensive from concerns that the disabled and elderly will face politically coerced restrictions on access to health care. (I think using the buzz-phrase “death panels” to describe what’s in the House bill is a stretch, but then I felt the same way about the phrase “torture memos,” so I guess people really do reap what they sow).

So let’s go back to the first installment of “Trouble Indemnity” to analyze this.

Because we can not draft complete contracts in health insurance, any health insurance system will have some aspects of what can be called rationing. The only question is how that happens, and what types of procedures are more likely to be rationed.

To restate: I can sign an almost completely defined contract on my car. I can sign a contract such that, if a limb falls on my car and destroys it, I will be reimbursed for original purchase price, current fair marker value, or replacement cost. The associated premiums will vary accordingly. The second concept, “current fair market value,” leaves the most room for post-event negotiation, but even the most generous contract, full replacement value, has a pretty-well defined bound (adjusted for inflation or not, which can be a part of the contract). The existence of deductibles will give me more of an incentive not to park under slash-pines during a tropical storm.

The problem is that no insurance system, private, non-profit, or government, can sign a contract that says “we will cure you of cancer [lupus, MS, ALS, etc.]”.

In an indemnity system, I agree to a multi-part rationing system that typically starts with the requirement that my proposed treatment has to be approved by a physician, and then includes something like a lifetime maximum benefit. Because this creates a third-party payer problem in terms of my incentives and my physician’s incentives, indemnity systems also ration with deductibles and co-pays. A second phase of rationing occurs when the system has to deal with the adverse selection problem (again, see the previous installment of “Trouble Indemnity”).

At the other extreme are single payer government plans, in which rationing is carried out through the political process. For example in Britain, this is called NICE (for a good explanation and defense of single-payer health care rationing ---although not of NICE-­­­­-- see this link in the Times).

HMOs are a hybrid in which customers, typically in return for lower deductibles and higher lifetime maximums, agree to a rationing system that over-arches the patient-physician relationship.

However, a key difference is whether the rationing system is disciplined by competition, as it is in the largely private automobile insurance market. There is usually the least customer choice in government single payer systems (although in Britain private care is an option, and Canadians have the safety valve of the USA private system just a few minutes drive away).

Is there a difference in the pattern of rationing of the kind that is the subject of the current debate over “throwing Grandma under the bus?” In my reading, there is no doubt that the NICE system in Britain adopts a rationing scheme that tends to favor younger and otherwise healthier patients at the expense of the less healthy and the elderly.

By way of full disclosure, my Mother was diagnosed with lung cancer at about age 72. She refused the offer of lung cancer surgery, and settled on palliative measures only. She lived about 3 ½ years, probably not as long as had the surgery gone well, probably longer than if she had suffered complications from the surgery. A few years earlier, she had almost died from a nose-bleed because of what must have been an inherited blood-clotting condition. She didn’t want to go through something like that again. I not only supported her decision, I used my power as her health-care power of attorney to insure that, in the last few weeks of her life, she wasn’t put into an ambulance for transport to an imaging facility. Instead, we just increased her pain medication. The point is that this was all her decision. If she had been 52, and had not had real fears of the side effects of surgery, I might have tried to argue her out of it. In any case, it was not the decision of NICE or anything like it.

Currently, in the United States, we have a hybrid system that favors the very poor (Medicaid), the elderly (Medicare), those who have a job with a company that offers a group policy (the majority of us), and everyone else who is healthy enough to obtain reasonably-priced private coverage. The least advantaged U.S. citizens are probably working people who have just too much income and too many assets to qualify for Medicaid, who lose or do not have employer-based health insurance, and who find individual health insurance policies prohibitively expensive, perhaps because they have existing illnesses, perhaps because they have the misfortune to live in states where government regulations drive up the costs of basic personal policies. (I’m setting aside the more difficult question of health care for people who are in the country illegally.)

The point is, because we are dealing with sickness and inherent contracting problems, any system is going to have rationing of something that is beneficial. If I were writing a health care plan, I would try to rely more on lower cost, readily available health care plans. If I were really in a “what-the-heck” mood, I would talk about Christian denominations re-establishing the charity hospitals that they ran for decades before they joined the current health care establishment. These approaches are no less oriented to the “least of” our society than the single-payer government plans being so fervently promoted by the leaders of the mainline Protestant denominations.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Christians and Health Insurance 3: The Post Office Always Rings Twice

Thanks to President Obama, I get to parody the two greatest James M. Cain titles in the same blog series (see “Trouble Indemnity”). I’m referring to President Obama’s claim that a socialized medical system could co-exist with continuation of private health insurance. He gave as his example FedEx, UPS, and the Postal Service. There are a couple of problems with this example. First of all, FedEx and UPS do not compete with the Postal Service in the USPS’ most visible line of business. The Post Office is a government-protected monopoly in first-class mail. Second of all, comparing government –run Obamacare with the Post Office might not be the best P.R. move that the President could make.

Nevertheless, the President asks an important question. When can private and government services of charity or compassion coexist? This deserves an empirical and not an ideological answer.

The critics of Obamacare might reference the well-documented process through which the federal government “crowded out” private religious expenditures on charity and compassion starting during the Great Depression. Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac (remember them) used their portfolios of implicit government guarantees and regulatory advantages to gain huge market dominance in the mortgage industry. (Technically, Fannie and Freddie were “Frankenfirms”: some weird hybrid of being investor-owned yet quasi- government corporation). Amtrak (pretty much by design) displaced virtually all private rail travel in the United States. Again, Fannie Mae and Amtrak may not be the most effective advertisements for government-run health programs.

However, I can think, from close personal experience, one industry in which government and private (essentially non-profit) organizations seem to coexist: research-based higher education. Our list of exclusive research universities certainly includes many private institutions, but think about the rankings of programs at Georgia Tech, The University of Virginia, many of the UC schools, the University of Texas (sorry, Dad) and the University of Michigan. On the other hand, we have a tremendously healthy system of private universities even though in most, but not all, cases the state tuition subsidies are not transferable to private universities. Granted, many of the public schools receive beaucoup federal dollars, but they are still remarkably independent. Here are some hypotheses (not yet proven theorems) about this situation. It would be a good exercise to ask what this model would mean for health insurance reform, so I’ll try at the end.

1 ) Whether we like to think about it or not, the public schools are essentially vouchered and thus are forced into intense competition with one another. We take for granted that K-12 schools are organized by “districts” or “attendance areas”: proposals for school choice are all about breaking up those geographical monopolies. But those of us who teach at state universities are all too aware that no such in-state monopoly protection exists for us. We at Florida State must compete for the best and the brightest students from Miami to Pensacola. I conjecture that the quality of public universities would be much lower if Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia and so forth drew attendance boundaries for their universities, taking away the dramatic disciplining power of competition.

2 ) On the other hand, the operators of the subsidized public university systems, the states, exercise very little regulatory control over their rivals: private universities. Except for such basic items as fire safety in the buildings and so forth, the State of Texas has essentially zero control of the day to day curriculum, hiring, and other academic policies at Rice, Baylor, SMU, TCU, and so forth.

3 ) In part because of # 2 ) above, and also in part because of strong cultural norms, we as a society accept that different people will want, be able to afford, and ultimately receive very different experiences in higher education. I personally think that the massive extra dollars spent by parents who think that their offspring have to go any private university rather than any public university are, in many cases, a joke…if you are talking about the actual quality of undergraduate classroom instruction. However, there are other factors. At one point in time, an undergraduate student at Georgetown entered into a unique religious environment. And, many parents (rightly or wrongly) may believe that they are paying for more lifetime networking at Leland Stanford Jr., University compared to, for example, the University of Arizona. The point is: we as a society accept the heterogeneity of outcomes as legitimate.

If my model is correct, then compare this to the ideas of a federal public option floating around in the current House bill. First, the federal government will compete with no other public entity. Secondly, the bill pretty clearly expands, not reduces, federal control over the operational choices of its rivals, private health insurance. Finally, I conjecture that there will be a tendency to discredit, rather than honor, heterogeneous outcomes. Whether there is another approach in which public/private coexistence is possible is a question for further consideration.

But I want to make one final observation about the university example. Unfortunately, over the past decades many, many private universities founded by religious communities have forfeited their religious heritage in order to "compete" in the educational marketplace. That’s an issue for discussion in a future blog, but it’s a serious concern to me regarding the future of Christian health missions if forced to compete with a “public option.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

Teach the Bible? Of course.

There was an interesting article by William R. Mattox Jr. that appeared in USA Today called "Teach the Bible? Of course." which called for "wine and bread summit" between the Obama administration and those people that guide public school curriculum. My first thought when seeing the headline was, "evolution versus creationism debate." However, the article had a greater scope. Literary scholars lamented their student's inability to understand giants such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Poe because they were not biblically literate. Likewise, public school history teachers are limited in their attempts to educate students about important historical events and implications due to a restriction to discuss religion. But, discussion of religious movements and motivations can definitely help. In fact, if there is not a firm understanding of the Bible and its impacts it could serve as a major disadvantage. Other fields in which biblical literacy is important include art and music.

Mark and I ran into a similar question when beginning the Economics and Compassion course. Early on in America churches were the primary vehicle for social welfare expenditures. In order to accurately depict our history and understand future possibilities we found it necessary to discuss this history and some current organizations that are doing good work. I believe we walked that fine line between offering a historical background that included Christianity without indoctrination, which is certainly the concern amongst the non-religious or other religions that wonder how well this can be done.

That also leads me to another point since we have stopped at that line. Mark and I would like to go further with the class than we are currently able. So, we have entered discussion about a possible "Wise as Serpents Forum" which is similar in many ways to the Economics and Compassion class, but, which allows us to more freely incorporate our faith. Keep on the look out for the time and place of those forums.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Judge Debby (and Ehud, and Samson, ...)

Because Doug and I continue to work in the areas of Christianity, economics, and issues of social justice (see especially his recent post on Havana, Florida) I decided to re-read the book of Judges. Here’s the reason. It seems to me that as we attempt to interpret the Biblical mandate for justice for today’s times, we typically have four touchstones: the Mosaic Law, the response of the prophets to the corruption of the divided kingdoms, Jesus' teachings and parables, and the lives of the Apostles.

In this light, I am interested in the economic regulations of the books of Moses and the Prophets critique of the divided kingdoms. The Law Codes are probably the one place in the Bible where we see economic policy discussed in some specifics. Some of the examples are requirements for leaving crops for the poor to glean, regulations against usury and loan-sharking abuse, requirements for prompt wage payments, prohibitions against unfair scales, fair land title rules, and an elaborate system of what we would today call bankruptcy rules.

We see in reading the prophets that the Law was known, but the extent to which its economics rules and regulations were followed is unclear. The prophets' charges against the kingdoms clearly covered economic abuse of the poor (Ezekial 18:13, Micah 6:11), but often in broad judgments and not law-code-style specifics (see Isaiah 1:17, Amos 2:7, Malachi 3:5). Also, the kingdoms had other specific sins. So, for example, Jeremiah and Hosea are filled with condemnations of worship of pagan gods and goddess and cultic sexual misconduct.

In addition, many of the economic charges against the kingdoms emphasize what economists might call “public choice” or “rent-seeking” issues. That is, the sins are not the sins of private individuals but ways in which the rich and powerful abuse the poor precisely because the rich and powerful pervert the government. (See Jeremiah 5:28, Amos 5:12, Habakkuk 1:4)

But there is a historical bridge between the two periods: the period of the Judges. Separate from the issue at hand, I find the book of Judges to be one of the most overlooked and fascinating books of the Bible. It ought to be at the top of the list for an HBO or Showtime summer series: Ehud uses his left-handedness to skewer a Jabba-the-Hutt look-alike in Moab; Jael seduces a bad guy only so she can drive a tent peg through his skull; Abimelech becomes "warlord" by killing seventy of his brothers, but is killed by an irritated housewife who throws a kitchen-tool at him; and, of course, there were the always famous Samson and Delilah. One story could be an episode from Dexter.

Behind all of this is a condemnation of Israel parallel to those of the prophets. Repeated throughout the book is the phrase “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” But, there is a twist. Instead of being a kingdom, Israel was more of a tribal society. In some situations Israelite society looks almost libertarian; in other cases the descriptions match more of what we would call today a war-lord society. The final verse of the book is “In those days Israel had no king, everyone did as he saw fit.”

I was hoping that in re-reading this historical narrative of a more decentralized society, I might find out more about the economic sins of the everyday people, and not merely of the rent-seeking sins of the courts of the King. In fact, I was surprised. There is almost no mention of the social justice sins of the Israelites and almost an exclusive emphasis on the worship of idols, Baal, fertility goddesses and all upon kinds of violence and sexual sins (I said HBO and Showtime, not the USA Network). The root sin of the Israelites was that they did not, as the Lord demanded, drive out the various Canaanite tribes from the conquered land. The Lord promised the Israelites that because they did not drive out the pagans, “They will be a thorn in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.”

Indeed they were. I cannot believe that in this society snared by false gods that these people, doing evil in the Lord’s eyes, faithfully carried out the social justice requirements of the Mosaic law. But, unlike in the books of the prophets, this is almost never raised in Judges. Why is there such a difference? I have an idea, but I want to do more reading and will report in Part 2. If any reader has an insight, please feel free to comment.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


There are a couple of good economics lessons out of the "cash for clunkers" fiasco of the last several weeks.

1 ) People respond to incentives. If the government decides to borrow (or print) money to pay people to trade in old cars, people will change their behavior and start trading in old cars.

2 ) This is Hayek's critique of central planning writ large. The federal government thought that it was choosing a price that would take months to burn through. They were completely wrong. The price they chose was so far above the actual market value of many of these cars that the original billion dollars or so lasted just a few days. The government guessed, and they guessed wrong. So, when the central planners tell you they know something about the "costs" to you of something five years down the road, be very, very careful

Monday, August 3, 2009

Confidentiality and Justice in Havana

Havana, Florida was once a thriving agricultural area that caught its namesake from the thriving cigar trade in Havana, Cuba. This little area in Gadsden County maintained particular expertise in quality shade grown tobacco which was used for the cigar wrappers (which is where most of the flavor in a cigar comes from). Some of the old barns used in the shade grown process still stand, but, that industry has passed Havana by. Also, Havana has recently shut down a mushroom farm that only a short time ago employed around 300 people. In addition, the many antique businesses that were once frequented by folks coming from Tallahassee on the weekends now receive less business in an uncertain economy. People buy less luxury items when they have fallen on hard times.

In many ways, Havana, FL is not unlike a rural area in a developing country. Positioned in Gadsden Country (one of the poorest counties in Florida), they are a sizable drive away from the nearest population center: Tallahassee and very much in need of jobs that will provide stable income for their family. In developing countries what has tended to happen is that people migrate away from rural areas to seek employment in the high population areas where there is enough of a market to support a business.

***Unfortunately, I do not have the data on the migration patterns into and away from Havana. Additionally, my time in the field has been limited, but, I will say that when I made this suggestion at a presentation in Havana, many people were nodding their heads in agreement that there were not many jobs to be had in this rural area.***

This information is an important part of our conversation about decentralized justice. The context of the people we are trying to help should give us a clue about what types of activities we should pursue, but, we still need more information. What are the needs of people? Food assistance? Transportation? Learn more marketable skills? Childcare? In order to improve the quality of the lives of the poor and meet their needs, we must know what their needs are first. How will we find out? And, that may be different too for different population groups. A good friend of mine who also has a blog The Thin Veil posted recently about Social Justice projects he hopes to get underway in Orlando. They will be using the internet to coordinate activity. Unfortunately, many in Havana do not have the internet so we will need some other way to coordinate activity and match needs with ability.

In order to match those needs with abilities and resources means that at some point someone must share private information with someone else so that the resources can flow to the person in need. But, so many needs are very private and people feel ashamed to talk about them –in fact, we prefer they are kept confidential. But, as the Pastor at First Presbyterian Havana, Bill Bess, pointed out, “Jesus did not seem too concerned with confidentiality. In fact, he searched out the woman who touched his cloak and didn’t let her get off the hook.” We are not called to be a confidential people but we are called to share each other’s burdens. We are called to confess to each other so that others may pray for us, healing may happen, and perhaps material resources given.

Most astonishing from this exchange was the uneconomic conclusions gleaned from it. We don’t share our burdens with others because we fear we will be gossiped about. We do not share our burdens with others because we fear they will judge us. We fear they will judge us because they are not humble people with wisdom. And so on. It seemed that so much of the justice that could happen is stifled by our lack of belief in each other. If I can go out on a limb, it may even be true that by not putting on the clothing of God we are indeed stumbling blocks to the more wonderful outcomes that could happen if we possessed more humility, wisdom, and love.

I’m still learning a lot more about the community and this is only one facet of the conversation, but, I will post more on this conversation at First Presbyterian Havana in the future. Also, if you have any thoughts please comment.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Outsourcing Social Justice

For some time now Mark and I have been talking about many denominations and their Washington lobbying offices, several of which are located in the "Methodist Building". While we are still working through a more academically rigorous draft of a paper concerning how people in the pews interact with these offices we have just received notice that a smaller version will be recorded in a middle of the road publication: Presbyterian Outlook. This news came only two days after a presentation of this paper to some First Presbyterian Havana Church members and others in the community.

There were two verses that God pointed out to me Romans 12:2 and Isaiah 54:6. The presentation was fantastic and this will be the first part in talking about it.

Romans 12:2
The pattern of this world has been to outsource social justice from the church to the government.
Some regular readers of the blog may have heard me talk about the Gruber and Hungerman article on Faith Based Charities and crowd out. Crowd out means that when public expenditures on an activity increase that private expenditures towards that same activity decrease. For example, in their paper they found that when New Deal expenditures on social welfare programs increased, the church began to spend less on similar programs. While the introduction of New Deal spending caused an almost immediate drop, it caused an even greater downward trend in church social justice activities. That transfer of responsibility reminds me of a snowball rolling down a hillside picking up size.

The church recognized this transfer of authority to the government and moved to Washington to lobby. This action made complete sense at the time. Many other major organizations were organizing in similar fashions due to the high costs of long distance communication and high transporation costs. Among other organizational advantages it made sense for the church to move to Washington. This has had a part in solidifying the notion of pursuing justice through lobbying activity.

Moreover, this call to justice through the government inevitably leads our special clergy to support specific policies -policies which people in the congregation (even experts within the congregation) might disagree with. That has been the cause of some tension which leads the the congregation to withhold funds for financing these activities. The Washington office then responds by saying that the church is not capable of solving larger social problems. We elaborate more on these interactions in the paper.

One of the micro reasons I think we have also adopted this style of social justice is that it requires less from us. Maybe we prefer "justice with distance" because we know God desires us to pursue justice but trying to orchestrate just outcomes through government intervention seems easier than the alternatives that require more individual work than casting a vote.

Isaiah 54:6
Maybe the reason that God guided me to this verse was to express His desire for a more organic form of justice. He will call us back as though we were a wife deserted and distressed. The church rather than being a radical force that impacts the world through decentralized acts of love has become a divided house in many ways. I do not believe that anybody would object to any individual church doing more to minister the message of God's love for the world to those in need within the community.

We then talked about what could be done in Havana, FL which is more interesting even than this brief summary I've given here. More to come soon . . .

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cry Uncle

I can’t believe that I am writing two posts in one day. I came to work this morning intent on writing this post, but I got interested in the idea of The Environment below. But, this post was the one running around the most in my head.

I tell my Principles of Economics students that even though they are new to Economics, I hope they have learned enough by Thanksgiving break to hold their own with their uncle who will proceed to lecture them over turkey and dressing about what’s wrong with the economy. It is humbling to realize that when I write about something as purely religious as this post that there are pastors and professors of religion for whom I am that uncle. Once I heard a guest pastor give a sermon on Psalm 29. I was fascinated by that, and did a lot of reading of the Psalms in which I came to the conclusion that Psalm 29 looked liked the ending of a sequence of early Psalms that mirrored the salvation history of the entire Bible. My inner academic thrilled at this little insight, which lasted a couple of weeks until I read exactly the same point in a footnote of my study Bible. Scoop Isaac had struck again. So I hope that it is with this expanded sense of humility that I present the following discussion that I have been thinking about a lot recently.

Consider the central passage (this from Mark 8, ESV) “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” A common popular interpretation of this verse leads to the idea that “this is my cross to bear.” Jesus spoke on many levels, and I don’t rule out this standard interpretation. Anyone who has had to work 9 – 5 while dealing with a disabled parent or a friend on drugs can be comforted that this trial is just a small part of God’s bigger plan for our walk with Him. Many people in these situations are denying themselves comforts and pleasures in order to be loyal and patient friends and family members. But I’ve begun to doubt this standard interpretation, and the reason is the idea of the cross. This has been particularly weighing on me as I have been reading about the Reformation reconsiderations of the Lord’s supper. The idea that we are following Jesus to the cross with our own cross of someone else’s burden bothers me because we are not Jesus. Jesus carried the sins of the world to the cross, and that has been done once and for all. There’s nothing we can add to that.

Another idea I had was that the cross represented the condemnation of the world. Only the Romans could order crucifixion. When I looked at it this way, the verse says to me: “If the world says that you are too ugly, or too nerdy, or too lonely, or not a good enough brother, then take up that condemnation and follow me. But this wasn’t satisfying, not because I don’t believe that Jesus is the friend of the too ugly and too lonely (I do), but rather precisely because of this I think he would want us to throw away those condemnations of the world, not drag them along.

So what I’ve come up with is a third interpretation. Here, the cross represents our own true sins. We are judged guilty because God is a just God, and the “wages of sin is death.” The justice of God demands our death, and so we already have our cross, like a criminal on the way to the hill. But God is also a God of mercy, and he has turned his sinless son over to the cross as a substitution for the atonement of our sins, and has resurrected Him to proclaim the permanent victory of eternal life over sin. I believe that this third interpretation of this verse is that Jesus is saying to us “I know you are sinful. But pick up the cross that you deserve for that sin and follow me to your salvation when I take your place on the cross.” This emphasizes to us that Jesus calls us exactly at the place of our sinfulness. This is not about carrying the burden of the sins of our friends or relatives, nor the sins of the world against us, but of our own sin. And this immediately precedes the “whoever will save his life/soul/self will lose it….” passage, which implies that what will die as we approach the cross with Jesus is our own sinful self.

Burn Me At The Stake

I really like the recent South Park where Stan’s father Randy went off the deep end, proclaiming that the current recession was caused because “The Economy” is actually a powerful god whom we have offended. I thought this was great on several levels. First, the episode was a humorous counterpoint to the idea that the economy is a machine which can be “fixed” (albeit by a different type of high priest). And secondly, it reminds us of how great a temptation we have to worship material success and economic prosperity. Reading the recent comment on Doug’s post on the deep economy, I have returned to a question that I suppose our modern culture takes for granted, namely that because we are Christians there is a distinct something, an entity, called “The Environment” that we are called to “protect”. Now, I’ve worked on environmental problems for more than 30 years…everything from smog control in Los Angeles to cap and trade regulations on acid rain. But I have to confess that I really have no better idea what it means to protect "The Environment" than Randy Marsh knows about how to placate “The Economy.” I know that in 2009 this seems about as heretical an idea as disavowing the Trinity may have seemed in the 1500s, but I want to push it to see where it goes.

I asked Doug about what he thought about all of this, and he referred me to a paper he was assigned in a religion course. I’ve written some notes on the paper that I might write up for a future post, but in summary the paper has some excellent discussions on Judeo-Christian imperatives towards three broad areas. First, God demands mercy towards animals because they are his, not our creation. We are not God. We are not the “Masters of the Universe.” Second, we harm other people when we injure not only their person but also their tools of living or survival. At some points, the discussion parallels an economic discussion of the common property problem, in which the incentives for self-interested behavior and the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Steal” are especially likely to collide. Thirdly, there is a discussion of the imperatives for concern for the poor.

But, all of the above reinforces my original concern. What transforms this collection of specifics (animals, the commons, and the poor) into an all-encompassing, transcendent entity called “The Environment”? I don’t have to be “Green” to refrain from cutting down my neighbor’s orchard or to care for the poor. But I alter The Environment when I kill mosquitos to protect the poor and the orphans, when I move rocks and cut down trees to build a temple, and when I eat or drink or build or cultivate…. anything. If someone asked me whether they were being “Greener Christians” in their vacation by driving in an RV to a local arts and produce festival in north Georgia or by taking a commercial airplane to an island in Thailand, I would have no idea how to answer their question. The author of the paper Doug gave me[1] ends up in the following place, which seems representative to me of many people who try to construct a “theology of the environment”: mankind “has no inherent right to abuse or exploit the living creatures or the natural resources to be found in a world not of his making, nor intended for his exclusive use.” If this means that mankind has no right to harness animals for work nor transform (exploit?) non-renewable natural resources such as iron, copper, silicon, petroleum and so forth into screws, scalpels, and computer chips, then I strongly disagree. But if it means that we are simply prohibited from “abusing” or “exploiting” these or other natural resources, then the statement has no meaning for me because there is no definition of the terms “abuse” and “exploit.”

I think it is important to remember that we are in a unique position to worry about “environmental problems” simply because a ) we know so much more about how the world works than at any time in the history of mankind [we didn’t understand that “smog” in Los Angeles wasn’t really SMoke + fOG until not all that long ago] and b) we in the United States have a standard of living that allows us the luxury of considering environmental protection that previous generations could never have even imagined. We can care that we don’t like the looks of oil derricks or wind farms without fear of starvation as an opportunity cost. We forget that even 75 years ago building dams to prevent floods and generate hydroelectric power was a hallmark of the resources conservation movement. We don’t understand what it is like to live in a world in which catching a boat-sinking load of fish without a department of fisheries permit was not considered an exploitation of the environment, nor was holding an outdoor dinner for 5000 people without a health inspection or the required number of porta-potties. Today, we take those limitations for granted. Consider the following thought experiment: who was the first person in the list of Jesus, the disciples, the apostles, the church fathers, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, or Wesley for whom in their times the modern billboards “Please don’t be a litterbug” or “Poop is not pretty, please pick up after your donkey/camel/horse” would have any meaning? And, indeed, horse poop is not pretty, nor healthy. As Doug and Randy Holcombe have argued to me, from the point of view of cities before 1900, The Environment may be more pleased by the automobile than by any other invention of the past 5000 years.

I don’t like the idea of the “Green Bible” any more than I like the idea of a “Free Market Bible.” We run the risk of making our Christianity derivative to our environmentalism or economics rather than the other way around (see Alan Jacobs’ excellent article in First Things, who points out: “Even Jesus curses and blights a fig tree, and, while he may have done so to make a point about human beings, it was the fig tree that paid the price.”) It seems to me that we have a good core of direction about how we are to live our lives: “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’”

[1] The late Dr. Robert Gordis.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Deep Economy 1

When talking about economics the word “market” often connotes a box like structure, not a bazaar with lively dealings. This may be attributed to the rigid constructs of supply and demand and the always assumed willingness to pay less for a good or service holding all things constant -however much I think it is true I cannot deny that this seems formulaic. In truth, however, the economic assumption of ceteris paribus or “all else constant” is rarely the case. Economics is far from formulaic and that boxy word “market” actually is quite fluid.

Late economist Frederick Von Hayek noted that within any market the price of a good contains all kinds of information such as the cost of transportation, the cost of labor, the cost of input prices, and last but not least consumer demands. That's right, the market reflects the preferences of the people operating within the market. Moreover, not just their preferences for corn chips versus potato chips but their moral and ethical outlooks. In many ways this is similar to my previous post on Truth in Love. This post is about a book that I've read recently called "Deep Economy" by Bill McKibben. The premise of the book follows,

“For most of human history, the two birds “More” and “Better” roosted on the same branch. You could toss one stone and hope to hit them both . . . Better has flown a few trees over to make her nest. That changes everything. Now if you've got the stone of your own life, or your own society, gripped in your hand, you've got to choose between them.”

McKibben's main assertion is simply that we have deified and bowed down to growth in the GDP. Meanwhile, there are all kinds of questions to answer such as whether the distribution of wealth is equitable and whether the environmental impact is sustainable. Now, he claims there is a serious trade-off between growth and a better life for Americans (he does note later that growth has significant meaning for the poorest countries in the world but claims that for Americans this is no longer true). Like past decades of ecologists who coined the phrase “deep ecology” McKibben is offering up his readers a deep economy: one that places people and the environment before profit.

Fundamentally, I agree that there are other outcomes to take into account when we are considering the way we ought to behave in a market. Also, I believe that for the market to reflect preferences for locally grown food and more renewable energy sources (like McKibben says we ought to prefer) there will need to be a large scale change in preferences or some legislation that coerces people or changes the rules.

The odd thing with the environment is that I do not know how much more I should pay for good stewardship. Markets work really well when there is information present. Prices incorporate many different costs of production, but, how do you value the cost to the environment? Scientists may be able to tell you how much it would cost them to clean up a cubic meter of pollution, but, does that tell you how much it is worth? And, if I spend my money on a more environmentally friendly good how will I change my other consumption patterns?

I'm reminded of what one professor said when he raised his hand at one of our environmental luncheons, "Can somebody please just tell me what to do? I'll do it." The more I study the environment the more I think of how difficult good stewardship really is. There are very easy ways to be a good steward but then there are larger trickier questions. Most of these trickier questions are on the large scale that McKibben is writing about.