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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Trouble Indemnity Redux 1: The House Democrats' Bill

I was hoping to find a nice, point by point summary of the House Democrats’ proposed health insurance proposal, and then walk through the outlines of how the legislation addresses the problems that I posted in earlier segments of Trouble Indemnity. Unfortunately, the bill is so complex and long that that what I’ve found is that most internet-accessible sites focus on the parts of the bill that they want to highlight to make their point. Not to mention that the predictions about the effects of the bill are all over the map. For example, the estimates I’ve seen as to how many people will lose their current health insurance and be forced into the so-called “public option” vary from just a few million to well over half of currently insured Americans. (I know, President Obama says that if you like your current coverage you’ll be able to keep it. I don’t know how to put this delicately, but I haven’t read any serious analysis of the House Democrats’ bill that suggests that the President’s statement is credible with regard to that legislation).

So, while I had hoped to be able to reference a non-partisan, definitive website, I’m going to have to just go with my best analysis of what I have concluded by reading several different news sources (The Wall Street Journal, Brookings, and the Heritage Foundation among others). I will try to update if I find something is really off-base.

Trouble Indemnity 1: Incomplete Contracting and the Third-Party Payer Problem. I see only three general ways to deal with this problem (how do we address issues of “When does someone receive possible almost endless and/or possibly almost infinitely expensive medical treatments?”). One is through an indemnity system: the patient and physician are the gatekeepers, and the incomplete contracting is addressed by deductibles, co-payments, and total payment limits spelled out in the insurance contract.

The second is through a privately contracted HMO-type system where the private insurer has a rationing system, again with the basic parameters spelled out in the contract. The third is a government-rationing system where the political system decides who gets what, and the parameters can change as the political system changes.

Right now we have parts of all three. Indemnity and HMO systems exist, but too often the only choices that an individual can make are those offered by the employer. Medicare and Medicaid have attributes of the political rationing system, and many state governments get into the act with statewide regulations on private insurers.

It’s pretty clear that the House Democrats plan is a much greater reliance on political health care rationing, even for those individuals not forced into the so-called “public option.”

Trouble Indemnity 2: Moral Hazard. In principle, I would say that the House Democrats plan makes moral-hazard more of a problem, but I’m not as convinced as I know others are that moral hazard plays a huge role in health insurance. If anyone has evidence to the contrary, please let me now.

Trouble Indemnity 3: Adverse Selection. It appears that the House Democrats’ legislation would require individuals to purchase insurance (with a tax penalty for those who don’t comply). As I discussed at length, this is a one part of an option to address the adverse selection problem, the other part being that insurers are restricted as to whom they can reject for health reasons. But, another part of the adverse selection problem is how the “public option” will be priced. The House Democrats’ bill seems to mandate that the public option be priced below private insurance rates. This could, of course, provide incentives for individuals (or employers looking at their employees) who are relatively healthy and thus don’t mind the shortcomings of a public system to abandon private health plans. If this happens, then private plans will be stuck with relatively sicker customers, putting more pressure on those plans to either raise rates further or fold.

How do you mandate coverage if you believe that health insurance currently is too expensive, primarily, it is argued, for the “working poor?” That’s where the requirement for federal tax revenue comes in (a system of subsidies), and thus the associated tax increase required to pay for the House Democrats’ proposal.

Trouble Indemnity 4: The Employer Tie-In.

For whatever is left of the private insurance market, the House Democrats’ bill strengthens the historical tie between the employment relationship and health insurance.

Almost all businesses will be required to offer health care to their employees (the threshold for a “small business” exemption appears to be quite low). However, businesses can, in fact, refuse to provide health insurance or even drop existing plans if they pay an alternate penalty. The figures being quoted seem to make that a relatively attractive course of action, leading to the question of how many employers will cancel their current health coverage and switch their employers to the “public option.” This is one of the avenues through which the President’s statement that you can keep your present health insurance coverage is misleading. You can keep it if your employer doesn’t shut it down. (Or, as I read one e-mailer argue on a blog site, the President said "If you like your current plan ..." nobody guaranteed that after all of these changes that anyone will still like their current plan.)

Next on deck is the plan coming out of the Senate, where there appears to be a genuine attempt to design a bi-partisan bill. I will try to do a similar analysis of that proposal.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Are You One of The People "We" Don't Want To Have Too Many Of?

I've wanted to post on this New York Times interview for several days, but I've been struggling with what to say. It's not any secret that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a supporter of abortion rights. That was well known before she was chosen for the Supreme Court. Also, I think that any public figure can say things in an interview that, when printed, sound off-kilter. What concerns me more is what this interview, and the fact that it hasn't produced the kind of firestorm that other public figures have faced with unfortunate off-the-cuff comments, say about the undercurrents of our culture....what we take for granted as something we live with, what doesn't shock us anymore. So, I'm just going to post the whole context of the quotes without any further comment. (The italics for the reporter's questions were in the original).

"Q: If you were a lawyer again, what would you want to accomplish as a future feminist legal agenda?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don’t know why this hasn’t been said more often.

Q: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Truth in Love

Last week Mark came in with an article from Father Sirico about Pope Benedict XVI and his recent encyclical. He proclaimed, "Loved the article you wrote for the Wall Street Journal!"

Since I never read the encyclicals personally I do not have my own interpretation. But, the ideas portrayed by Father Sirico are similar to my own. Price and Cost are not the center of the economic world -humans and human behavior are the center of the economic world. I'm glad that more of our church leaders are thinking in this stream.

There is a darkness inherent in man regardless of the economic or political system. The Fall ushered sinfulness into the world -commonly called the "total depravity of man". This sinfulness is brought into all the spheres of human interaction: marketplace, politics, family, etc. But, like sin is in every crevice of our lives God is also in every crevice of our lives. Thanks be to God for the possibility of renewal! In fact, I'm reminded of a quote from John Eldridge's book Wild at Heart, "Sin is no longer the truest thing about a man who has come into union with Jesus."

The pattern of this world is selfishness and darkness, but Christians are called not to conform. We are set apart -that is a good interpretation of holiness. We are called to be set apart as God is set apart! What would happen if we carried holiness into every human interaction?

Another taste of an economists' interpretation of the encyclical is from The Economist website. This includes the Pope as well as other religious leaders

This is really neat because we the article titled "New Sins, New Virtues" is focused on "old-fashioned religious virtues". And, what I have been learning in the summer that it is really the small things, those "socially acceptable sins" that otherwise go unnoticed, that have large impacts. This summer I've learned a lot about my speech, frustration, discontent, worldliness, among other things. The sermon series at FSU Wesley has focused my attention on these things.

I've seen countless Bumper Stickers that say, "Shop Locally, Think Globally" if I were producing a Bumper Sticker mine would say, "Inwardness Locally, Impacts Globally". When we're spiritually sensitive our relationships in the marketplace, politics, family, etc. carry more of the grace of God. I believe that the grace travels farther than we know.