Thursday, December 24, 2009
Friday, December 18, 2009
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
(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
Thursday, December 3, 2009
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
Friday, October 23, 2009
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
1 ) The
2 ) One thing the
3 ) Having some type of “universal access” health care system is not a sufficient condition for having bad cancer survival rates.
4 ) What does stand out in the world of universal access is the poor performance of
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
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
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
Monday, October 12, 2009
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
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:
Monday, September 28, 2009
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
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
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
“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
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
"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
Sunday, August 23, 2009
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
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
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
Because Doug and I continue to work in the areas of Christianity, economics, and issues of social justice (see especially his recent post on
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 , Micah ), but often in broad judgments and not law-code-style specifics (see Isaiah , 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
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
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
In many ways,
***Unfortunately, I do not have the data on the migration patterns into and away from
This information is an important part of our conversation about decentralized justice
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.’”
 The late Dr. Robert Gordis.
Friday, July 24, 2009
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
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.