Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Solution to Poverty?

In the past year my view of global poverty has changed dramatically. It all began when I read the book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C.K. Prahalad of the University of Michigan. The book later became central to my online course in cultural transformation, and I added insights gained from research into the micro-credit revolution. So, what big new thing have I discovered?

My big new idea began from the first pages of the book. Dr. Prahalad begins with what should be obvious, but isn't. The poor are people too, with all the aspirations and capabilities of adult human beings. They are, in fact, as clever and in many ways, more resourceful than the rest of us. They have to be to survive. We need to begin to treat them this way.

In point of fact, we either patronize them or denigrate them. They are not helpless nor are they lazy. They will do whatever it takes to stay alive and care for their families. Because so many are so poor, they have no access to many of the things we take for granted such as a bank account, licenses, and permits. Most of them face deep prejudice and are considered outcasts or aliens. They have no choice but to operate outside the formal regulations of the law and the economy. They build their homes/shelters out of whatever materials are available, they drink whatever water they have access to, and they basically live hand to mouth.

It is also important to realize that the vast majority (2/3rd's) of the world's population lives on less than $1,500.00 per year, and as many as 3 billion people live on less than $2 per day. The people I described above, who live on one or two meals a day, and who are just surviving make up 1/2 of the world's population. Those numbers are staggering, and they make our complaints about recession and the shrinking middle class sound petty and petulant.

The good news is that something is being done about it. The bad news is that up until the last few decades not much of it was very effective. The UN, the World Bank, and countless NGO's poured billions of dollars into the economies of the developing world, only to have most of the money stolen or given to grandiose infrastructure projects that helped the political leadership but did nothing to help the poor. Even those programs that directly targeted poor communities failed because of their patronizing approach. As Dr. Prahalad explained, these programs viewed, "The poor are wards of the state." (p. xi, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid) In other words, bureaucratic solutions will never solve personal problems, and poverty is extremely personal.

The problem of third world poverty is being addressed in another way by a different group of leaders. These leaders are taking the more personal approach and the results are amazing. As one of my new heroine's, Ingrid Munro explained it, the poor can not be helped by charity. Charity keeps people poor because it communicates that they cannot help themselves and must live in dependence upon their benefactors. Ingrid Munro's solution has been to give the poor a ladder by which they may climb out of poverty by their own efforts. The ladder has several rungs. It begins with community and relationship that encourages and provides accountability. Everywhere that microcredit has succeeded it is built upon a foundation of small community based groups. The next rung is the development of the personal disciplines of saving and delayed gratification. Once a person has learned to save, they are helped to develop a business/entrepreneurial plan. Finally, the member is enabled to take out a small loan to fund their plan.

Ingrid and the members continued to support one another, to help one another, and to speak into each other's lives. In just 15 years, her organization has helped lift 130,000 former beggars and thieves out of poverty.

This, then, is my new paradigm. We must not patronize the poor. We must treat them as viable and capable adults. They need training, encouragement to eliminate wasteful and destructive habits (drinking, drugs, gambling, etc.), and personal support for the positive habits of saving and paying back the microcredit loans or for finding and keeping a job.

One of the reasons that government is so ineffective in this process is that it is inately impersonal. Microcredit, wherever it is practiced in the world, is built on the foundation of small groups with a coach or mentor that connects the group to the lending institution and provides the instruction and guidance that makes the group successful. The larger the governing body, the less capable it is of this level of community and personal involvement. Even in the U.S. this small group and community based approach to microcredit and microenterprise is showing remarkable benefit. There is an organization in Seattle that is doing amazing things in helping people receive the type of coaching, encouragement, and accountability to climb the ladder out of poverty.

I am actually reluctant to call this a "new" understanding because it so confirms by own view of personal and Christian responsibility. It is new however in that it involves real programs that have originated in the last 30 years that are making a tremendous difference in people's lives around the world. As we enter a new year, may we look for ways to help or to become involved in some of these amazing efforts to lift the poorest people of the world out of unimaginable poverty. There are any number of Christian organizations that are involved in these efforts that are worthy of our support, these organizations include World Vision, Step Ahead, and the Chalmers Group. May God show us ways to get personally involved in these kinds of life changing activities.

Have a happy and blessed New Year.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

On Steven Hawkings New Claim

I consider Steven Hawkings one of the most remarkable men of our generation. He is a medical miracle, having survived with Lou Gerig's disease for over 40 years. In spite of his condition, he is regarded as the most brilliant theoretical physicist of our time, and has been compared with Albert Einstein. He earned this reputation because of his description and explanation of black holes.

One of the reasons that we are familiar with his name and career is that he is also a popular writer. He has taken his theories and sought to explain them to the general public by writing two significant books for the mass market. In doing so, he has sought to give a non-supernatural explanation for the cosmos.

In his first book, he attempted to explain the current theory of the origin of the universe called the Singularity. The Singularity means the universe we live in is not eternal, and this has serious metaphysical and theological implications. Rober Jastrow's famous quote about science confirming theology comes to mind. In order to explain the fact that our universe is not eternal and yet could still be the result of purely natural causes, Hawkings had to resort to quantum theory. He concedes that before the Singularity (Big Bang) nothing of this universe existed. His claim is that the quantum level of negative energy was exactly equal to the quantum level of positive energy thus producing zero actual energy. This condition of "zero" matter/energy had to have existed for an eternity of past time until, as some cosmologists try to explain it, this state was disturbed by a "quantum fluctuation" that destroyed the balance and produced the Big Bang.

Without getting too deeply in over our heads, it is important that we apply some simple logic to these questions. J.P. Moreland has pointed out that "nothing" is no thing, it is not positive and negative energy states that cancel each other out. If "nothingness" ever were the condition of the universe, then we wouldn't be here. You can't get something from nothing.

Hawkings is using a high degree of theoretical speculation in his claim, for which there are some serious unanswered questions. First, "where" was this massive amount of energy located, and how did it break through to literally create our universe? Second is the problem of equillibrium. If the "stuff" of the universe has existed forever, as naturalism requires, then it long ago reached a state of equillibrium (we're dealing with eternity remember). Equillibrium means nothing happens unless something from the outside acts upon it. How this something acted and/or what caused it is the significant dilemma that naturalism faces in explaining the origin of the universe.

In his latest book, Hawkings has gone evern futher, based on string theory, he stated that the existence of gravity provides the capacity for the universe to create itself. In other words, he is assuming that gravity exists as the ordering principle for the emergence of a universe capable of sustaining life as we know it. In terms of the current theories of galaxy formation, etc. such a claim makes sense in describing our sun and even planet earth. I have to assume that he and other naturalistic thinkers feel that if they can find an explanation for the development of the chemical chart and the planets they have done their job because evolution takes over from that point.

As someone who doesn't accept the "theory" of evolution, I find that assumption more of a leap of faith than a fact of science. The existence of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen do not DNA or life make, and gravity has no capacity to change that fact. It is at this level, the crucial level of organization from non-living matter to life that I found most outrageous in his claim. To be fair to him, he is making the assumption that I described in the last paragraph. He is assuming that the development of life is "automatic" given the pre-historic conditions on earth and that evolution is a self-evident fact of nature.

The level of complexity is still, and will continue to be, the problem for these naturalistic theories. I often think of Stephen J. Gould's attempt to make the comparison between the chance development of life and winning the lottery. Such a comparison would work if there were just one chance event that had to take place to produce life as we know it, but there are billions of events (at least) for which the chance explanation completely breaks down. We can be lucky once or twice or even ten times, but not billions of times.

While Stephen Hawkings is a brilliant theoretical physicist, his explanation of the origin of the universe needs to be taken for what it is, an attempt to provide a naturalistic explanation for the universe. As such, it faces the same problems as all naturalistic explantions, the universe is too complex to be accidental. While gravity is a remarkable force, it has no capacity to take the place of our Creator.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

How Did We Get into This Mess?

With the mid-term elections soon to be over and a new set of players involved in setting the direction for our country, it is important that we figure out what the real problems are that must be solved. One of the problems with politics is that both the explanation for problems and the proposed solutions become standardized by political ideology. Thus, the democrats say it's all the fault of greedy corporations and the republicans blame big government liberals. Further, these one-size-fits-all approaches develop around specific issues whether it is the approach to education reform or health care.

Our problems are much too complex to be so simply defined and solved. One of the reasons that none of our approaches to improving education have made much of a difference in test scores and our standing in the world is that we have not understood the cultural forces that have had a greater influence on our children than anything the Department of Education is capable of doing with programs or policies. We have legislated according to political sound bites and then we wonder why our laws have so little effect on the serious long-term problems we face.

I have wanted to write an overview of our present situation from my own, Christian and biblically instructed point of view for some time. This election is about economics so I want to start there.

First of all, our employment and financial problems have not sprung up in the last 10 years as the president and his party have claimed. George W. Bush and the republicans are not the sole source of the massive budget deficit or the shipping of American jobs overseas. We have been Keynesians for a very long time, seeking to drive economic growth by fiscal stimulus and inflation. We forget that cars used to cost $5,000.00 and homes $50,000.00 just 40 years ago. Even though wages and salaries were much lower than today, it was possible, because of a much lower cost of living for nearly every family to have a single bread winner. Inflation has so driven up the cost of living in our society that now both husband and wife must work just to make ends meet.

But inflation is not just the rise in prices and wages (with inflation, people needed raises just to keep up with the cost of living), inflation affects product quality and methods of finance. Electric drills for the home handyman used to be made entirely of metal. Black & Decker revolutionized the field by only using metal where it was needed for wear and durability, everything else they made of plastic. Engineers have been working for decades at taking cost out of products while still maintaining product value. Technology has played a major role in this process both in the development of materials and in using computers and robots in the manufacturing process. But this has resulted in a reduction in the number of people required to make and assemble these products. This is as much of a factor in the loss of jobs as outsourcing. All this was required in order to remain competitive in the marketplace and to keep the price they must charge for their products as low as possible while still making a reasonable profit.

American (and global) industry have a remarkable track record when it comes to innovation. From my background in quality assurance I can tell you that they have developed products that are lighter, stronger, and more reliable than the products sold just 40 years ago. Without these advances in product development and manufacturing our cost of living would be unimaginably higher than it is today. There have been other benefits as well. The fuel efficiency of our cars have improved and the strength, weight, and durability of tools and materials have increased significantly.

But the need to control product costs produced serious problems for society. First, one of the largest expense items in manufacturing is the cost of labor, therefore engineers worked very hard for many years developing machines and methods for eliminating the number of people required to make the products we buy. What this has meant is that machine shops and factories hire far fewer people than they did just a few decades ago. In addition, outsourcing (purchasing parts and materials from overseas) has been going on for decades. Foreign made parts are much less expensive because of lower labor and materials costs. And foreign made parts mean less jobs available for American workers.

Let me try to explain outsourcing from the context of something I know about personally; snommobiles. The first snowmobiles made in the 1960's all had American made engines. As the sport advanced snowmobile manufacturers began looking outside the U.S. for lighter, more powerful engines. They turned to the Japanese motorcycle companies because they had already developed cast aluminum engines with hard plated cylinder walls for durability. No American manufacturers could compete with the price, performance, and durability of these engines, and just about every snowmobile manufacturer in the world bought their engines from Japan.

Like it or not, we live in a global marketplace and companies today are searching the entire world for the best materials and products. In order for us in the United States to see our economy grow, we must work hard to maintain our innovative edge. It's really is all about innovation. Those companies that make the best products for the lowest price where ever they are in the world will have the competitive advantage. This is why Toyota and not GM sells the most cars in the world. This is why Sony, Samsung, and Vizio sell far more television sets than RCA or Zenith (the best sellers when I was a kid).

The same principle applies on the personal level. The main reason the trade union movement has failed in the private sector is that they stifle personal initiative and advancement. The job market today requires people who already possess knowledge and skills necessary for the position. In addition, they must be people who are capable of learning and adapting to the advances that are inevitable today. The most successful will be those who are capable of developing new methods, new approaches, or even new products.

What does this mean going forward? It means we must work to increase our competetiveness in the global economy. We need to lower our corporate tax rate, we must reduce capital gains tax rates to enable investment. We must pass the important trade agreements that await our approval. Finally, we must expand oil exploration and other means of increasing our access to the energy available to us here in America to reduce our energy costs and improve the prospects for the growth of our economy.

The question will be, can our new congress do anything to make any of these changes possible? To be honest, government at whatever level is not the answer. Innovation and the remarkable dynamism of the free market have always been the engine that pulls us out of these economic doldrums. I know it is trite, but the best thing that government can do for business is to get out of the way.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"Fixing" our Economy

The crucial question for the next year is how do we achieve economic recovery. The current administration has been telling us for some time that we are already in recovery, and that if we are just patient and willing to re-elect their party, we will see the benefits of their policies. The problem is there are no real signs of recovery, with unemployment still very high and the housing market abysmally low. What concerns me most is that I don't see any "engine" of recovery.

In the past, certain key industries have pulled us out of recessions. Whether it was the auto industry, personal computers and the internet, or the housing market, the recession ended when these products and services became ultra attractive due to pricing, innovation, and low interest rates. All of those drivers are unavailable this time; they are all subject to the same lack of demand that plagues the rest of the economy. So what will pull us out of this mess?

According to the President and his progressive advisors, the drivers of recovery are green jobs and re-building infrastructure. Many to the left of the President, want him to go further and establish a new WPA of government building and employment projects. What they don't realize is that much has changed since the 1930's; the restrictions, work rules, and environmental regulations of today prevent even the government from hiring people off the street to build dams, bridges, and libraries. What used to take a few months to plan and initiate now takes years. The President admitted as much when he declared, "there are no shovel-ready projects." He is right. Even the progressive agenda is subject to the crisis of a bloated government.

So what about green jobs - wind, solar, renewable energy? If we are willing to be honest, we will have to admit that these alternatives to coal and petroleum are not yet viable. The only way that we can go to these options is through subsidies. We have been subsidizing wind generation and solar power since the late 70's with little or nothing to show for it. After decades of government subsidy, we spent six billion dollars to enable American ethanol production and to prevent sugarcane ethanol from being imported from Brazil. In other words, the idea that these "green" industries may be drivers of growth in our economy is not even a pipe dream, it is a complete fantasy.

The central question is how do we promote growth? In my opinion, government is the last group that should be attempting to answer that question. Politicians are under the influence of special interests and incapable of seeing what really needs to be done to bring the economy back to health. I would point to two examples: the cutting off of water for irrigation in California to protect the delta smelt and the takeover of GM and Chrysler. It is a political talking point, but true none-the-less; government needs to get out of the way for business to grow.

Government gets out of the way by reducing the corporate income tax, by approving the various free trade agreements that are held up by the special interests, by reducing (not increasing as planned) the capital gains tax, and adopting any number of other business-friendly policies that would release the engines of investment and entrepreneurship that enable the economy to grow. The next engine of growth is probably out there, but the government will never find it. The free market will take it forward as it did the auto industry, the internet, and the housing boom. The recent success of Apple's I-phone and I-pad show the amazing capacity for innovation in American industry. It is this kind of creative development that gives us a sense of optimism about the prospects for growth.

If we look at the difference between the economic conditions in Texas and California, we see the advantages of conservative policies over progressive policies. Texas is a low tax, business friendly, tort reform state. Over half of all the jobs created in the private sector in the last six months (which the President has alluded to as a sign of the recovery) were created in one state: Texas. While California is losing population as a consequence of its high taxes and restrictive regulations, Texas is the fastest growing state in the union. California has an unemployment rate of 12%, while Texas is at 8.4%.

With the mid-term elections in two weeks, we need to vote for those leaders who will adopt the policies that are working in Texas and reject the policies that had such a disastrous impact on California or Michigan or New York.

Even if the Republicans take control of congress, I do not see a dramatic change in our economy. We face so many difficult challenges and a divided government will make it even more difficult to get legislation written and passed. Nor do I see President Obama making the kind of shift to the center that saved Bill Clinton's presidency in 1994. (Here's irony for you. The democrats brag about the budget surplus and strong economy under Bill Clinton, but it wasn't progressive policies that produced that surplus, it was the conservative policies he adopted after '94.)

It is important that you vote on November 2. Much is at stake in this election.

Let me also say that in these uncertain times we must be Habakkuk Christians. The housing crisis is not going away, and employment will be weak for some time to come. We can expect to be facing a struggling economy for some time. Our hope rests not in our visible means of support, our job or bank account, but in the faithfulness of our God, who gave Himself for us and promised to never leave us or forsake us. Now is the time for us to live by faith and not by sight, and to reveal a hope that cannot be shaken by any of the challenges of our uncertain economy.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Who was Colbert mocking?

At the risk of making a mountain of a molehill, I am about to air my concerns about Stephen Colbert's testimony in character before the congressional hearing on immigration reform. His performance was a masterful expression of the irreverence and cynicism that plagues so much of our popular culture. Imagine it, a well know comedian is invited to testify before congress on an important public policy question, and he uses the opportunity to both enhance his own hunger for publicity and to mock the powers that be.

If I may unpack the significance of the event, Colbert is an expression of the modern view of events and institutions. He is first of all mocking formality and the idea that an institution should be respected and taken seriously. While this has been happening for a long time, I have never seen it taken to the level of dis-respecting the United States congress. It is one thing to wear blue jeans and a baseball cap to school or to church, it is another to treat a congressional hearing as a comedic opportunity. This takes the nihilism of this generation to a new level.

But there is more to mocking than dis-respect, it is an expression of denial. It is saying that what you stand for is not good nor true, it is evil and wrong. Mockery is not just opposition to a point of view, it is the attempt to demolish it. It doesn't just oppose what it mocks, it despises it.

Then the question becomes, what does Colbert despise. Well, his character is patterned after Bill O'Reilly and the conservative view point of Fox News. This is what he is really mocking and this is what he despises. The point is not to defend O'Reilly (he can take of himself pretty well) or Fox News, it is to defend the conservative values that they alone in the media support. It is also to raise concern about the rejectionist approach in our political discourse. We don't even argue anymore, we deny and denigrate. There is only one thing that can come next, repression and persecution of those who hold contrary views. (I am quite concerned about the rhetoric directed at Evangelical Christians in some circles. We are being demonized, and the stage is being set for the public approval of the repression and persecution of Christians.)

So, let's talk about what the Bible says about mockery and those who practice it. Mocking is actually the end point of a progression. Psalm 1 warns us to avoid walking "in the counsel of the wicked." In other words it tells us to avoid taking the bad advice that comes from those who reject sound moral principles. Next, we are warned to avoid standing "in the path of sinners." A path is a track worn by repeated use, and a sinner is one who habitually sins. Notice that this condition is less mobile and more entrenched than the first. The first is innocent, looking for guidance on life decisions, the second has already made a number of choices and has taken a position of identification, he is a sinner. But the final stage brings us to the place of the "scoffer" (mocker). This is the ultimate expression of rebellion against God and goodness. It is the person sitting "in the seat of the scoffer." This person is completely immobile, he cannot move and thus he cannot change. He is totally dedicated to his position, as if his life depended on it. Whatever he has given himself to now has him completely in its grip and he will defend it to the death.

Sitting in the ancient world was also seen as taking a position of authority. A scoffer speaks as if he has the final word and that only a fool would disagree with him. But it is all bravado, they are mocking the true and the good, because the evil has them completely in its grip.

The lesson of Psalm 1 for us is that we should never start down the road that begins with the false wisdom that predominates in our hedonistic, self-centered culture. Because it will take us to the place where sin is habitual and very difficult to overcome. And, if we aren't careful can lead us to the place where we will be literally addicted to sin, and couldn't let it go even if we wanted to.

How much better to follow David's advice in the second half of the Psalm, to delight in the Torah (teachings) of God and to meditate upon them day and night. Here we find wisdom for our daily choices. Here we find a path that leads to life and ultimately to Jesus for He is life. Here we find a place of true conviction and authority based upon the proven certainty of God's word and ways.

I feel truly sorry for the Stephen Colberts of the world. I certainly don't know any of the details of his life, nor can I stand as judge over him. Only God knows his heart. But his choice to mock things he doesn't fully understand or appreciate such as the core conservative moral vaues of American society do tell us where much of the popular culture that he represents stands or rather sits.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Are we facing a sea change election?

The story of the twentieth century in America has been the influence of progressive ideology on our government and society. The democratic party, at least the liberal wing of the party, calls itself "progressive." But we must make a distinction between what I am referring to as progressive ideology and modern American liberalism.

Progressive ideology has been in the driver's seat of our government and politics from at least the 1940's. Both political parties have operated from its basic assumptions for the last 70 years, and it has brought us to the current economic mess we are facing today.

Progressive ideology is a product of the Industrial Revolution and is concerned about three things; the "equitable" distribution of income within a given society (no extremes of wealth or poverty), a scientific management of society and the economy to achieve important social ends (universal access to health care, proper nutrition for all, old age security, etc.), and the continual pursuit of "moral progress" (the reduction of racial prejudice, an increased concern for the environment, the pursuit of a more humane treatment of prisoners, etc.).

These three goals were front and center in the administrations of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and saw their greatest advance under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Progressive ideology was certainly well intentioned, and has produced many of the values and institutions that we take for granted today and that bring great benefit to our lives. Both parties have endorsed and advanced the progressive agenda, and many of its fundamental institutions such as social security, federally governed public education, and medicare/medicaid are "third rail" issues that cannot be touched for fear of the political backlash.

On the other side of this equation, stands some serious unintended consequences to this attempt to create an improved society. Included in this is the massive growth in the size and reach of the federal government, with unsustainable deficits and a gigantic inventory of unfulfilled promises. We are failing at the education of our children, our entitlement regime is breaking down, we just saw a dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans below the poverty line, and we see a reduction in our economic competitiveness.

All of these things are adding up to a serious questioning of all the assumptions of the progressive ideology. When the Tea Party candidates talk about a return to the constitution and to federalism (more power returned to the individual states), this is exactly what is going on. It seems to me that we are at the beginning of a sea change in the way we view the federal government and how it operates. The question will be, do we have the political will and wisdom to restore the freedoms coupled with the sense of individual responsibility that made America so successful?

At this point, it is very important that we, the American voters, understand that this is what it is going on. We have the chance, with this election, to begin to bring America back from the brink of bankruptcy and to start down a long road of reforming many of the basic institutions of our society in order to make them a reflection of our constitutional government. A government, by the way, that has provided more abundance and freedom to all classes of people than any other government in history.

The United States is not the first to pull back from the financial brink. Great Britain under Margaret Thatcher went through a dramatic transition that privatized whole industries and reduced the power of labor unions throughout the country. Many of the European nations are taking dramatic steps to reduce government deficits and reduce entitlements. They have been forced to by economic reality, a reality that is just now beginning to become apparent to the American people. It is no accident that we presently have the second highest corporate income tax in the world (Only Japan exceeds ours and who wants to imitate Japan right now?).

Our goal in the next two elections (2010 & 2012), must be to substantially reduce the size and reach of the federal government. We must next have an intelligent conversation about reducing the long term costs of entitlements and discovering a way to make them sustainable for the long run. My other hope is that the Tea Party movement will have some influence on the debate over education in America. The best case scenario would be much greater local control and parental involvement in a meaningful way that includes vouchers and school choice.

My hope is that this truly is a watershed moment for American society, and not just a short lived conservative backlash against a struggling economy. The liberal narrative about the Tea Party is that it is just a lot of old white people afraid of losing their medicare. There are two things about the Tea Party that should give us all hope for the future, and of which the liberal media is either unaware or mis-understands. The Tea Party is focused on restoring constitutional government to the United States, and more than any movement before it, is committed to reducing the size and cost of government. If we don't appreciate what they are trying to accomplish, our children and grandchildren certainly will.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Cut Flower Society

One of the most memorable analogies used to describe modern Western culture is the description, "the cut flower society." I'm not sure who first used the metaphor, but it is a brilliantly accurate description of our civilization. The West took mankind down a path toward freedom of opportunity, racial and gender equality, and economic prosperity that is unprecedented in human history. It shouldn't be overstated, our societies were not perfect, but our core values and our record of moral and social progress was very impressive when compared to previous civilizations.

The strength and vitality of our society was connected to the values and worldview of its people and its worldview and values were shaped by the Judeo-Christian faiths. As we passed through the Enlightenment we rejected the rationale of the Judeo-Christian faith and we cut off the the strength and vitality of those core values. The result has been the fading of the glory of our civilization.

For example, we blame the high dropout rate and poor performance of students in our public education system on either inadequate funding (Liberal) or poor performing teachers protected by the teacher's unions (conservative). To be honest, the problem is way more complicated than either of those political slogans. The decay of our educational system is part of the moral and personal degeneration afflicting our popular culture, which can be directly attributed to our rejection of many of the Judeo-Christian values that shaped our civilization. Moral relativism doesn't go very far in encouraging our children to pay attention to their teachers and work hard on their studies. What we see in much of the youth culture of today is a rejection of any serious pursuit in life and thought. We are instead immersed in the world of "Jackass the Movie," Brittany Spears, and Lady Gaga. We can trace the decreasing vitality of our culture by the steady decline in SAT scores in the past 50 years.

We can trace a similar degeneration in the percentage of marriages that end in divorce or in the percentage of children born to unwed mothers. We are quite simply, as a society, moving in the wrong direction.

One of the central principles of the Enlightenment was the belief in progress. This belief was based on the marked improvement in social conditions that had taken place in the past 200 years in Europe. These improvements included the outlawing of slavery, prison reform, universal education, and the beginnings of women's sufferage. The process was appropriately described as "moral progress." What the people of the Enlightenment didn't understand is that all of those advances were the result of Christian influence and leadership. William Wilberforce and other English Evangelicals were the driving force behind the outlawing of slavery in Great Britain, as Charles Finney was a leader in the abolitionist movement in America. Prison reform in England was a direct consequence of the Wesleyan Revival, and Women's Sufferage in America was led by Evangelical women.

After the devastation of the two world wars and the rejection of Enlightenment optimism by most modern philosophers, the idea of moral progess was largely abandoned. This abandonment is part of the cut flower phenomenon, and today we see a steady decline in moral values and behavior.

Which brings me to the issue that inspired this post. The New Yorker magazine had an article some weeks ago now, on delayed adulthood. They cited studies that reveal that young adults today are having a hard time making the shift from adolescence to full adult responsibility. They have toyed with creating a new "life-stage." (Just as "adolescence" was added to our vocabulary in the late twentieth century.) This article wanted to call it "emerging adulthood," and implied it could consume much of a person's 20's.

But what is it, really, I see it as the prolonging of adolescence (which was a prolonging of childhood), both were part of the moral decline that is part of the "cut flower" phenomenon. In other words, our society has become increasingly bad at preparing our children for adult responsibility. We are prolonging childhood (Bar Mitzvah is at 13, that is when a Jewish boy was considered a man.), first from the early teens to the early 20's and now all the way out to the early 30's. This reality is most pronounced in men and it does not bode well for the future of our society.

While this makes another case for the need for a spiritual awakening in America and the West, it also calls us to "Seek the Lord while He may be found." We need to re-connect our own lives into the Vine so that He can work out His grace in our lives. Society may be a dying flower, but we can be new and fresh and blooming as we discover the life and joy that are found in living close to Jesus.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Relativism and the Law

In the past several decades we have both legislatively and through judicial decisions made many of the principles that emerged from moral relativism into enforceable laws. To be honest, this is the codification of immorality and we will pay a terrible price for this as a society. Relativism was an attempt to justify behavior that previous generations considered unacceptable. Relativism was central to what was called the sexual revolution and it has produced any number of serious social problems. The sexual revolution targeted the traditional values related to sexuality, marriage, and the family. The consequences of this revolution are that over half of all marriages end in divorce and over half of all births among some communities in our society are to unwed mothers. This must be coupled with the fact that living in a single parent household is the single greatest contributor to deliquincy, drug use, and trouble in school among children.

We are paying this terrible price because of Natural Law. Morals are not just the opinions of a culture or a society, nor are they the invention of the ruling classes to maintain their power. Morals are not the imposed restrictions of a religious majority. Morals are built into the structure of the human condition.

We are not alone in this view. The ancient Chinese expessed the principes of Natural Law through the Tao and the Egyptians called it Ma'at. Mankind has always recognized that certain behaviors are beneficial and others are dangerous, particularly in the long term. The Bible describes it with the words of the Apostle Paul,

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit, will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Gal. 6:7 NAS)

Behavior and the consequences connected to them have been apparent to human beings for centuries. Cultures, both ancient and modern, have some significant expression of Natural Law. The arrogance of our age is to think that we can re-define human nature and the moral principles of human civilization. We have already paid dearly in social and personal dysfunction for our hubris in ignoring the wisdom of the ages. And yet, we continue to assume that because these behaviors have been made politically correct we can impose them upon this and future generations by law and by judicial fiat. We will rue the day. Remember, God is not mocked.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Our Globalized Economy

With the terrible recession we are currently suffering through, the focus has been on our national economy. We must remember, however, that we are part of a global economy that has dramatically effected our own.

We speak to this issue whenever we discuss trade, jobs going "overseas," the value of the dollar, and in the case of the recent oil spill; multi-national corporations such as BP. In nearly every case, these elements of globalization are portrayed as gigantic negatives. They are believed to be the reason for the loss of manufacturing jobs, for our "shrinking" middle class, and the threat of "structural" unemployment (permanently high unemployment because many jobs are gone forever).

Our friends on the Left and those in the labor movement believe we should push back the hands of time and undo these forces of globalization. We need to "re-negotiate" our major trade agreements, which in their interpretation means they are effectively recinded, and replaced by tariffs and trade restrictions. They would also like to see laws passed that would prevent American corporations from moving jobs overseas. How they might do that in a free country they never really explain.

So, let's talk about the forces of globalization. First, this has been going on for a very long time. When I was working for a snowmobile company in the 70's we were purchasing significant parts of our snowmobiles and clothing line from Japan and Korea. We were also looking for more ways to automate our welding, painting, and plating of parts. We even started looking at robot welding, which now dominates automotive assembly. We were forced to do this in order to remain competitive within the industry. The loss of manufacturing jobs is not just due to off shoring, it is also the result of greater levels of automation.

Everyone should read Thomas Friedman's description of the forces of globalization, The World is Flat. He is certainly correct to say that no significant corporation can survive today without being plugged into the global economy. And that includes all of the amazing technological innovations of our time that enable us to network and communicate from anywhere in the world. Demanding a provincial or national economy is like trying to keep the horse and buggy as a major source of transportation in the face of automobile industry.

The cat is long gone from the proverbial bag when it comes to a global economy. We must do everything we can to increase our capacity for innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Continuing education and life-long learning will be a must, as we adapt to the technological changes in our industries and workplaces. As an example, at age 62, I have been learning how to prepare courses and teach online. It is a necessary change that fits our mandate to train and support missionaries. It has actually been a bit of an adventure, as I've learned new methods and developed new materials, as well as tackling subjects I've never taught before. The reward has been that I get to help missions professionals, many located on the field while taking the classes, gain insights and ideas that will increase the effectiveness of their ministries.

There is another aspect to this globalization thing; it has the potential to improve the lives of the poorest people of the world. As followers of Jesus, this possibility should make us big fans of viewing the world economy as an integrated whole. People like Ingrid Munro in Kenya, are helping former beggars and thieves escape crippling poverty. She is very clear, she is not giving people "charity." She is teaching them the skills and self-discipline necessary to earn an income and care for their families. Ingrid Munro is part of the global microfinance revolution that is improving countless lives.

C.K. Prahalad of the University of Michigan has done significant research into the aleviation of global poverty. His research is documented in the book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. His premise is that the 4 billion people (2/3rds of the world's population) that live in poverty (less than $1500 per year) are people with all the capacities of any other human being. They are, in fact, 4 billion potential customers and entrepreneurs. Dr. Prahalad's goal is to create a gigantic global middle class and change the economic pattern of the global economy from a pyramid to a diamond, with a small minority of the wealthy at the top and small minority of poor at the bottom. As we help the poor improve their lives, we dramatically improve the state of the global economy. But like Ingrid Munro, Dr. Prahalad makes the point that improving their lives involves improving their character by eliminating the wasteful habits in their lives (drinking, gambling, etc.) and helping them acquire the self-disciplines of a work ethic, regular saving, and care for the needs of their family. (It is a perfect fit for the Gospel, discipleship, and church planting.) In other words, this globalization thing is a pretty cool deal.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

So, how do we get out of the ditch?

It appears that we are going to hear a single slogan from the Democratic Party all through the upcoming electoral season. President Obama started it when he said, "Why should we give the keys to the car back to the people who drove us into the ditch?" That would be a good question if the financial crisis we recently experienced and the current recession were entirely the Republicans fault, but it isn't. Both parties and several branches of government had a very large hand in creating this mess, and because we aren't willing to be honest about what caused the car to go into the ditch, we may not be able to get out of this proverbial ditch for a very long time.

One of the reasons that the Democrats are in so much trouble in the 2010 elections is that they have controlled congress from 2006 and their legislation and oversight neither prevented the crisis nor reversed the terrible consequences of the recession. In terms of acutal legislation and programs congress has the steering wheel and the President is a back seat driver. Just look at the hash that was healthcare reform, the President was as much of an observer of the process as the rest of us. It seems odd that we call it "Obamacare" when it should be called "Reid and Pelosi Care" since they are the ones who actually wrote and passed the bill. To be fair, it was the President and his administration that set the agenda and drove the process. And that brings us back to talking about being in the ditch.

The President and the Democrats are fond of telling us that they "inherited" this mess, yet with 18 months of controlling both branches of government (a privilege the democrats have had for a majority of the years since the Great Depression, by the way), they have not restored significant economic growth to our ailing economy. I am inclined to believe, based on a lifetime of observing politics and the parties that they haven't fixed the economy because they simply don't know how to fix an economy. Their basic ideology keeps them from the kinds of solutions that enable trade, investment, and economic expansion. The Democrats connection to organized labor makes them protectionist, their tendency towards populism (John Edward's "Two Americas") and suspicion of corporations and business, and their loyalty to the environmental movement prevents them from enacting the policies that can get the economy growing again. Look at their agenda. They want to tax the "rich," who already bear most of the tax burden in this country and who are the investors and small business owners that have the greatest potential to create new jobs and bring us out of this recession. If the goal is deficit reduction and greater amounts of government revenue there is only one solution: broaden the tax base. You can't practice class warfare and bring the country together to defeat a challenge as great as we face today.

The Democrats, in an attempt at creating something that moves us closer to universal health care, have only increased the level of uncertainty for business. This legislation will not help our economy in the long or short term, and is contributing to the reluctance of small businesses to expand and hire. While the program will increase access to health insurance, it will not reduce health care costs without draconian cost and price controls. To prove this point, one only need to look at what is going on with price controls on health insurance in Massachusetts. The appointment of Dr. Berwick is a foreshadowing of what lies ahead for both the health insurance and health care industries.

Finally, the democrats passed much expanded financial & banking regulations. My fear is that there will be any number of unintended consequences associated with this legislation. One of the by products of this recession has been a reduction in availability of credit. I don't see how expanding banking regulations will enable credit to flow out to the engine of job growth in this country; the small businesses. Fin. Reg., it seems to me, was an attempt to demonstrate liberal populism by showing Wall Street and the banking industry who's the boss. So, while it may feel good ideologically to the Left, it not only doesn't get us out of the ditch, it may plunge us into a canyon.

The argument the President and the democrats will make is that we can't "go back" to the old policies that put us in the ditch, and that we need to give them more time bring us into a full recovery. The problem is, and will be for the democrats in November, there are few if any signs of progress that might give us hope that their plans will really work. And my point in all of this is that if we look closely at what they've actually done; from stimulus to health insurance reform to financial regulation, they haven't actually solved any of the problems that caused the recession in the first place. They are instead taking us in another direction entirely, toward the progressive Nirvana of a managed economy. My question is, why should we let them keep the keys when they are driving us, not out of the ditch but toward Greece?

Friday, June 11, 2010

The End of Metaphysics II

In the same week that I read John Derbyshire's article on genomics, I saw Peter Singer's editorial, "Should This be the Last Generation" on the New York Times website. It was the perfect juxtaposition of idea and conclusion. If we embrace the logic of Derbyshire we eventually come to agreement with Singer. This is one of the terrible, unintended consequences of the enlightenment, it takes us to the place of hopelessness. Derbyshire alludes to this as the cost of honesty, he writes, "If self-deception gets more difficult, so will happiness." In other words, religion is a form of "self-deception" that enables us to face life optimistically. And, a "realistic" view of religion forces us to face the music in regard to the end of our existence.

The enlightenment began as a grand liberation movement that was supposed to release human potential. Central to the enlightenment hope was the belief in progress; enlightened science will eliminate disease and extend life spans, enlightened philosophy will end fear, prejudice, and inhibitions, and enlightened politics will create an educated, enlightened citizenry free of the burdens and insecurities of previous generations. The problem is that the leaders of the enlightenment never looked behind the curtain labeled, "the end of religious belief," which was one of their central goals.

The famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell pulls back the curtain for us.

That man is the product of causes which had no provision of the end they were achieving that his origin, his growth, his hopes, his fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collucations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all devotions, all inspiration, all the noon-day brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of our solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins-all these things, if not beyond dispute, are, yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built." ( from A Free Man's Worship)

Peter Singer clearly describes the "unyielding despair" of modern enlightenment faith as he questions the value of human existence. He asks in the editorial if it is right for a couple to bring a child into the world based on the possibility that the child will suffer or contribute to the suffering of others. He asks at a crucial point in the article, "If there were no future generations, there would be much less to feel guilty about." His causes of guilt are such things as over population and global warming.

The irony in all of this is that guilt is an expression of the moral sense in man, it exists in that upper storey of abstractions that includes truth, beauty, goodness, and love. If human consciousness is nothing more than a biological accident, then guilt is as much of an illusion as religion, and ethics is reduced to "only to thine own self be true." It is no wonder that the primary consequence of the enlightenment has been the kind of self-absorbed hedonism we see in American popular culture.

The evolutionary scheme of things provides no explanation for guilt and the other abstractions of human consciousness. Nature only knows survival, the moral arose with the personal and the rational, both of which are unique to humanity. The aspirations to hope, faith, and love are inate, as are conscience and our sense of moral obligation. They stand as a transcendent reality in the midst of an impersonal, material universe.

The Bible declares that men are made in the image of God. It is these inner hopes, desires, and obligations that affirm that claim. How ironic that Peter Singer would invoke an aspect of his nature that he denies, yet which are fundamental to his motives and actions. He has lost all hope in the significance of life because he has lost hope in God, but his sense of obligation to prevent present and future suffering arise from that which is most deeply personal and even spiritual in his nature.

We must never give in to the nihilism of modern thought. We are not a cosmic accident. Too much about us, from consciousness to conscience, are beyond an accidental or natural explanation. We must never give up our hope in God, for goodness and God are linked. Without God there is no good, only darkness, hopelessness and despair. It is not that we embrace a fantasy to give ourselves hope, but that we see the deep need for hope in our hearts as evidence of the God who put it there.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The End of Metaphysics?

John Derbyshire has written an interesting article for National Review Online on the making of an artificial genome of a one celled creature. It is not quite artificial life, but it is close. Derbyshire's point is not journalistic, to report on a scientific advance, but philosophical, to declare the end of metaphysics and vitalism. This is a remarkable leap of logic. To say that because we can manipulate strands of DNA in the laboratory, and because we have "decoded" the genomes of several creatures, including man, that "life is essentially information" and thus we have removed any possiblity of mystery or of spirituality from nature and life. This is modern reductionism at its worst.

Mr. Derbyshire goes further, he invokes the Freudian view that religion is a delusion created to avoid the fear of death. Several generations of atheists have patted themselves on the back for being truly "courageous," completely rational, and fully accepting of the implications of modern science without ever questioning their own assumptions and the gigantic gaps in knowledge that their view of science prevents them from discovering.

At the top of this list is conscience and the sense of moral obligation. Immanuel Kant, in spite of his profound agnosticism, saw this as clear evidence of the existence of God. It is rather easy in your 20's and 30's to boast of your courage in rejecting religion, while never disclosing that your real motivation is to be free of moral restraint. Most people dislike the idea of God because they see Him as the enemy of their pleasures.

To return to the argument about the manipulation of the DNA of a single celled creature to make a new lifeform as a deathblow to metaphysics and vitalism. Just because we have acquired godlike knowledge that enables godlike power to manipulate lifeforms doesn't mean we have proven there is no God nor a non-physical, spiritual reality. We must keep in mind the fact that naturalism requires that DNA and all the creatures that inhabit this planet are the product of the random forces of nature. It is one thing for intelligent human beings, with all their equipment and technique to manipulate the chemistry to "create" a new single celled creature, it is another for the purely chance processes of nature to do the same thing. In fact, the chances of it happening accidentally is beyond any real possibility. It is unquestioningly accepted by evolutionists because they assume right from the start that there is no supernatural source thus it must have happened through natural processes. They allow themselves no other option than nature. We shouldn't be surprised, then, when they declare the end of metaphysics.

I am no fan of vitalism, but I understand the reason that many thoughtful writers, such as Gordon Ratty Taylor and Will Durant, have resorted to it. It provides a purposeful explanation for the amazing levels of organization and complexity we see in organic life. Even as great a critic of religion as Fredrich Nietzsche declared, "The development of matter into a thinking subject is impossible." He understood the utter inadequacy of pure materialism (matter is all that exists) to explain the world in which we live. There are far too many creatures, which all display levels of intricacy and design that defy any possibility of a chance explanation. Vitalism is the attempt to explain design and purpose by means of a "force," in other words without resorting to a personal creator God. The problem is that forces don't provide design or purpose. Forces are powers or tools that must be directed by intelligence which is ultimately personal. If we are going to invoke purpose and design, we are left with only one choice, a personal God.

Bio-engineering is a remarkable field. We certainly shouldn't deny its potential for curing disease, and improving life, but we must also be wary of its potential for abuse. We are not gods and we need to proceed very cautiously in assuming power over life, even the life of single celled creatures. In addition, our knowledge of nature is not as great as we think it is. We are basing many of our conclusions on unwarranted (and often unconscious) assumptions that we will surely come to regret. The Bible tells us, "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" (Psalm 14:1) Even in this era of dramatic scientific advances foolishness is alive and well.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why All the Rage?

We are currently having a debate about political anger. The tea parties, in particular, are accused of being driven by anger toward this current democratic administration. In response, conservative commentators are pointing out the heated rhetoric that has been displayed on the liberal blogs and cable networks toward Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin. Anyone paying attention to politics in the past three years will have heard many angry words directed toward political opponents. So, what are we so mad about?

Political anger is rooted in moral sentiment. People justify their anger because they believe bad, harmful, or even evil things are being done. Conservatives and liberals see their anger as righteous indignation. The difference between the two groups are their definitions of right and wrong.

While we hear a great deal about moral relativism, it is in some ways a chimera. Relativism is a philosophy of convenience, allowing people to ignore moral obligations they believe interfere with their pursuit of personal pleasure. The side of the political spectrum most supportive of relativism, liberals, are just as capable of righteous indignation as any member of the religious right. It's not that liberals are relativists and conservatives are moralists, it is that they fundamentally disagree about what is right and what is wrong.

Since at least the 1960's the left has assumed the role of moral leadership for American society. Prior to that time, the moral consensus was shaped by widely understood Protestant values, such as marital fidelity, the work ethic, self-reliance, thrift, and personal decorum and responsibility. To see an example of this consensus watch a Doris Day movie from the 50's or a Leave it to Beaver re-run. With the freedom marches and the victory over racial segregation in the 60's, we saw one of liberalism's finest hours, and its rise to the place of defining acceptable and unacceptable behavior in our society.

Today they define what should be legal or illegal (Same-sex marriage-legal, hate crimes-illegal), what is important (stopping global warming) and what is unimportant (religion). What becomes disturbing is the lack of a real opportunity to debate the merits of these beliefs, and to question the qualifications of those defining these important decisions about our values and our laws.

Sadly, apart from their absolutely correct opposition to racial segregation, the left has defined its moral causes by the distorted values of the enlightenment. Over time, the anger of the left was directed at most of the previously held values of the American middle class. Eventually, they added the issues of environmentalism, sexual orientation, and economic egalitarianism to their list of things to be mad about. So, while the left has achieved moral leadership because it has achieved political leadership, that doesn't mean that its proscriptions for our values and behavior are right or beneficial.

The values of the previous generations and of the social conservatives today were built upon the foundations of the Bible and natural law. These values have been proven in the crucible of human history. They are a significant reason that America has been as successful as it has been. We turn our back on these values to our own peril, and a great deal of the anger generated by the Tea Parties is founded on the concern that we are endangering the future of our society by the rejection of these fundamental values.

In the end, the question isn't which group has the right to be angry. The more important question is which group has the right values upon which we should build our society. The testimony of history supports the Tea Party.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

No Prayer Allowed

In a pre-emptive strike against the National Day of Prayer, first established by President Truman in 1952 and re-affirmed by President Reagan in 1988, an atheist-agnostic group in Wisconsin took the issue to court and received a favorable opinion from the judge. Judge Barbara Crabb wrote in her opinion that government must operate in regards to prayer under the bizarre constraint of serving "a significant secular purpose and is 'not a call for religious action on the part of its citizens.'" (quoted from Worldnet Daily article, "National Day of Prayer Ruled Unconstitutional," April 15, 2010) This becomes an impossible standard for how could prayer ever be for a significant secular purpose and not call for religious action on the part of citizens?

Here is another example of what Alexander Solzenitsyn described as "legalism" in his landmark speech at Harvard in the 1970's. His criticism of American society was that we use the legal system for political purposes rather than the maintenance of justice and morality. He spoke of the perversity of using the courts to justify activities that undermine the moral and social fabric of society such as traditional marriage and the family. In this instance, we see the courts used to strike another blow at the Judeo-Christian faith which forms the moral and spiritual foundation of American culture.

As I argue in my book, this use of the courts to prevent any public expression of the predominant Christian beliefs held by most Americans, implies that the government views Christian faith as a dangerous and destructive activity. Why else would it be considered illegal? It really is the courts, and thus the government of the United States, siding with the secularist view of Christianity as a great evil whose actions should be outlawed and its influence reduced or eliminated. By making public prayer, posting of the Ten Commandments, and Bible reading against the law the government can no longer claim to be neutral in regard to religious belief. It has taken a firm stand in opposition to any and all public expressions of the Christian faith.

We are only continuing to fool ourselves if we think this elimination of a national day of prayer is no big deal. It is another nail in the coffin of the influence of Judeo-Christian values on American society. We are sawing off the limbs of personal morality, unselfish concern for our fellow man, the Protestant/American work ethic, and the value of delayed gratification as we sit on them. We also rob our younger generations of faith and hope, because the two are related. We must recognize that God and goodness are entirely related. Nietzsche was the first of the modern philosophers to understand this fundamental truth. In denying God we face the unintended consequence of denying the good. I believe the descent into the relativistic darkness that characterizes so much of Western popular culture is merely the result of our embrace of a radical secularism that allows no place for God.

How ironic. Just when we need prayer the most we find it's not allowed.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Problem with Taxes

April 15 seems to be the perfect day to think about the why's and wherefore's of taxes. In case you haven't noticed, an entire movement has risen in opposition to the expansion of government programs and the taxes needed to pay for them. As a conservative, my sentiments lie with the Tea Partiers. Yet, one of my frustrations with the conservative movement in America is our inability to explain why we are the party of No to those who don't buy into our point of view.

So, let me take a shot at explaining why we are opposed to increasing taxes. First, conservatives are as compassionate and as concerned about helping those in need as anyone. Our opposition to the present condition of our government is not based on a selfish desire to keep more of our hard earned money. It has much more to do with the way our taxes are being spent, and with the ever increasing deficits and debts that will dramatically reduce our capacity for economic growth. We are concerned about the impact this deficit spending will have on the economic conditions our children and grandchildren will inherit. We cannot attack the engine of our economy, which is the profit and income from the private sector, by designating an ever increasing portion of Gross National Product to government programs and entitlements without severely weakening our capacity to provide full employment and a decent middle class income.

Secondly, we are not opposed to paying taxes. We understand the proper role of government, and it's not just providing defense and infrastructure. Public education, social security, medicare, medicaid, and many forms of public assistance are important parts of a modern civilized society. My problem is not that we are spending money on these things, but that we are spending so very much with so little real results. It's really about efficiency and effectiveness. So many of our policies and programs are driven by ideology rather than pragmatism. Only government can mindlessly continue to spend countless billions on an educational system that has failed to adequately prepare so many of our young people for the demands of today's global economy. And no part of the public sector is more ideologically driven than public education. When we face the disastrous test scores and frighteningly low graduation rates of many of our inner city schools, we have every right to question how our taxes are being spent. When more emphasis is placed upon political correctness than upon mastering the basics of reading and writing, of science and math, of history and literature, and of critical thinking, we have every right to be concerned about our approach to K-12 education in this country.

What has made it worse is that non-ideological, proven solutions exist but cannot be applied because of the political power of special interest groups. The scandal that was the elimination of the school voucher program in Washington D.C. is a perfect example of politics and ideology trumping what is best for our children and what actually works in solving the serious problems we face as a society.

In addition, taxation is involuntary. We are forced to pay them under penalty of law. Yet, when we see our taxes used for programs and policies that offend our personal beliefs and values, our only recourse is political opposition. The Tea Parties are American conservatives declaring loudly, "No mas!" One of the great dangers of modern liberalism is its capacity to justify the imposing of its values and policies on others because it is being done in the name of "justice" or "equality" or "rights." The recently enacted health care bill is full of progressive attempts to make America "fair." The problem will be, as it always is, all the unanticipated consequences and expenses that end up making the policies un-fair.

As tax payers, it is our right and even our responsibility to question how our taxes are being spent. And with the massive bailouts of the financial industry, the ineffective and politically driven stimulus plan, and now, with the passage of mandated health insurance we have reached a tipping point. I fully expect this November to be a tax revolt via the ballot box.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Shaky Times

We are living through what is being called the Great Recession. Everyone I know is feeling the effects, not the least of which is a certain level of anxiety about the future. As believers, we shouldn't be taken by surprise. God warned of times of shaking before Jesus returns. Hebrews 12:26 says, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." He is doing this to reveal the things that cannot be shaken. One of those things that are unshakable should be our confidence in Jesus.

One of the metaphors used to describe the Lord is as a "Rock." He is also described as a "fortress." Both of these picture our God as our place of refuge, protection, and security. In fact, there is no other shelter from the coming storm, because He is the only one who cannot be shaken.

If we think that by will power or self-discipline or the accumulation of wealth we can become unshakable, we are only deluding ourselves. There is no aspect of our natural capacities that can stand up to the challenges that await us, and while these are difficult times, we must see them as practice for times of testing to come.

This thing we are calling the Great Recession is, therefore, a time to press into Jesus. We need to spend more intentional time in Bible study, in prayer, in worship, in meditation upon the word and listening to the Lord. Now, more than ever, we need to deepen our sense of God's presence and grace upon our lives. He is the only unshakable One, and only in Him will we become those who cannot be shaken.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Problem of Gridlock

I have wanted to write for some time on the problem of partisanship in American politics. It stands as one of the serious drawbacks to our system of governance. It's part of what makes American democracy, as Churchill said, "the worst form of government, except for all those other forms..."

What bothers me specifically about partisanship is its capacity for exaggeration, distortion, and polarization of the issues we face. It is a wonder we get anything accomplished through this highly contentious and downright dysfunctional process. Nor should it surprise us when the results promised by our elected representatives don't materialize, a.k.a. stimulus packages that don't actually stimulate the economy, education policies that don't improve education outcomes, or trade policies that don't reduce our trade deficit.

For full disclosure, I've never knowingly voted for a democrat, yet I find republican partisanship as distasteful and counter-productive as that coming from the democrats. Both parties are infected with this virus, and it is severely reducing our capacity to solve the serious problems we face as a nation.

When we exaggerate for the sake of political ideology, we often lose sight of the best approaches to solving our deep seated problems. We often turn irrational such as claiming that a limited option for private accounts would "deprive" seniors of the their social security benefits or calling the commission established to control medicare costs a "death panel." We make common sense, pragmatic solutions almost impossible particularly if they require acknowledgement of the merits of the other party's point of view. One gets the impression that for most politicians, politics is far more about winning than about solving problems and improving our society.

In the past, our blatant partisanship was an annoyance, today it is a major impediment. We face serious economic problems, of which the Great Recession was the first symptoms of the potential decline of our presumed prosperity. In the post-world war II era, we have always been able to climb out of recessions because of our dominance in manufacturing, technology, and personal prosperity. We could count on the auto industry or silicon valley or a pent up demand for housing and real estate investment to bring us out of a down turn. This time, economists ask what will be the engine of growth? Green jobs? Not likely, we are realistically not that far ahead of where we were in the late 70's in regard to bio-fuels, solar panels, wind energy, fuel-cell technology, and nuclear. None of these things are in a position to provide the millions of jobs necessary to restore us to the unemployment levels we enjoyed two years ago.

When experts tell us that so many of the jobs lost in this recession are "never coming back," it should cause us some serious concern. Yet, I don't sense that concern from many of our politicians. For them it seems to be political business as usual. How can we be talking about a massive new health care entitlement supported by all the disingenuous rhetoric we have come to expect from partisanship? It is like planning for a week of shuffleboard tournaments while the Titanic is sinking. Actually, our problem is that we are far enough removed from the actual sinking of the ship, that we can continue to live in denial.

What we need, before we get to a crisis far worse than we face today, is a set of truly honest political leaders. The problem is, I don't know how any of them can get elected. It may be that things are getting so bad that we are finally ready for leaders who will tell us what we need to hear rather than what we want to hear. In other words, how can our leaders overcome partisanship unless we do.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Our Entitlement Problem

One of my favorite economics journalists is Robert Samuelson. Early this week he wrote about the crisis in Greece as the first of many days of reckoning for all the welfare states of the world. Samuelson included the U.S. on the list of nations facing a serious debt crisis as a result of unfunded entitlements. He sees the problem as primarily an issue of demographics; too much being promised to an aging population or to public service employees or to some other needy group than can be paid for by a shrinking body of tax payers. Our problem is that this shrinking source of revenue means we are financing these entitlements through debt, and it is the debt that will bring us to the day of reckoning. We may claim that we are only taxing the "rich" but this strategy guarantees either that we will have less "rich" to tax (either through tax havens or through reduced activity) or a reduction in GDP growth and overall prosperity as taxes pay for entitlements rather than remaining in the economy for investment and growth.

What has made the problem virtually unsolveable is the fact that the dependency created by the entitlements makes it impossible to ever reduce much less eliminate them. Once a group within society is granted an entitlement, that group becomes a powerful constituency that prevents any reduction. The senior citizen lobby is a perfect example, making social security a "third rail."

It is this constituency/dependency problem that should make us very cautious about expanding entitlements. As we watch the chaos in Greece (and coming soon to California and New York), it should cause us to think twice about moving 1/6th of our economy on the path toward becoming an entitlement. We can argue all we like about the merits of comprehensive health care coverage, but if we don't think carefully about how this will contribute to both our entitlement obligations and long term debt we are fools of the first order.

It is because of this stark reality that the American people should have paid close attention to the statements of Rep. Paul Ryan at the health care summit on Thursday. He was the voice both of economic reason and long term realism in pointing out not only how expensive the bill will actually be, but also how much it will contribute to the deficit. And the problem isn't just an additional entitlement, it is how it will exacerbate the problem with the already bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid.

The one ray of hope in the economic crisis in Greece, California, and New York is that it will force the American people to demand of their politicians the kind of difficult choices required for entitlement reform and debt reduction. I actually think we are closer than we were even a year ago to having a serious discussion about long term debt. If we do have this discussion, we can thank two groups: the Tea Partiers and the Greek rioters.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Thinking Long Term

Having just finished reading Justice Robert Bork's critque of modern culture, Slouching Toward Gomorrah, I was reminded of the long term danger we face as a nation. We are literally heading toward a moral and spiritual black hole.

While we still use the term "truth," we, for all intents and purposes, have rejected its actual existence. If "truth" is relative or culturally constructed then we can claim that all sorts of things are true when they aren't and conversely claim that historically accepted truths are actually false. In either case, declaring the false true or denying historic truths, we are left with nothing that is authentically true. We have rejected what our forefathers knew to be true to replace it with the byproducts of unproven ideologies. It really is no wonder that ours is an age of growing dysfunction or that so many young people define themselves by their maladies.

Here's the problem. Truth matters, we deny it or delude ourselves about it to our peril. It matters because there are real consequences connected to our behaviors whether permitted or forbidden. We have already proven that being raised in a single family home is the largest factor behind juvenile crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and failure in school. In other words, we reject the traditional view of marriage at great risk to children and society not to mention the adults in the relationships.

We could multiply this instance by the many other assumptions in play today about men, women, morality, religion, or economics that are based upon a rejection of tradition and the acceptance of some form of modern ideology. We will pay a very high price for this exercise in social experimentation.

My fear is localized on our college campuses. So many of the departments and courses in our colleges and universities are driven by ideology and the assumptions of postmodern thought. Twenty years from now, we will see the consequences of this anti-education that has passed for education, and bemoan our foolishness. We actually are already seeing some of the early consequences of the emphasis on feminist ideology with the reduction in male graduation rates and reduced number of males entering college. This is not just an abstract sociological statistic, it will have terrible repurcusions for a society with a large number of dysfunctional men.

It is our universities that produce our public school teachers, and thus it dramatically impacts K-12 education in America. When you couple the influence of the schools with the influence of popular culture (movies, music, video games, etc.) you have a dangerous mix moving us away from the values and traditions of our forefathers and into the uncharted territory of ideologically driven assumptions. We will not like the place this journey takes us.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Our Generational Problem

Some years ago I spent a day at a family gathering of a large Roman Catholic family. The parents appeared to be practicing their faith. Their adult children, however, were involved in practices and lifestyles that contradicted their parent's values. Two were living with a boy friend or girl friend without being married, one of the women had an abortion, and none were following their parent's faith. As I reflected on this I marveled at the fact that the values of these parents had not been transmitted to their children. Why?

All I could come up with were speculations and suppositions. After all, I only had a superficial knowledge of that family, but it was a marked contrast with my parent's generation, whose personal values (and life choices) had been profoundly shaped by their parent's values. My mother raised her children based on what she learned from her parents and grandparents. My Dad's work ethic and commitment to personal integrity were instilled by his parents and his aunts and uncles. And both of their religious beliefs had been influenced by their parents. So why was the transmission of values from parents to children missing in the present generation when it had been accomplished in the previous generation?

In trying to answer that question, I set out some possibilities based on observations of modern culture. First, parents are no longer the primary shapers of their children's character. With both parents having to work to make ends meet, children spending many more hours per week with peers than with parents, and with the powerful influence of music, television, and the internet (not to mention video games), it is no wonder that parents have less influence in their chidren's lives.

Second, since the 1960's we have engaged in the wholesale rejection of traditional values; the values of those parents. In particular, many of the elements of the youth culture go out of their way to mock and ridicule the values of their parent's generation. Movies, lyrics, television, and advertising contain large amounts of sexual inuendo, gratuitous violence, and boorish behavior. The internet has only increased this process of degeneration, with shock videos, access to pornography, and lots of anti-religion, anti-traditional values sites. For too many kids today, their parents don't stand a chance against the influence of their peers.

What can we say in the face of this discouraging picture? Are there any contrary voices speaking into our children's lives? The public schools try, but are no match for the peer pressure students face every day. Athletics certainly develop character, but only a relatively small percentage of young people are involved. Yet, while athletics teach personal discipline and teamwork, it doesn't touch many of the important issues of personal morality.

Far and away the greatest ally parents have is the church. Youth groups, summer camps, and missions trips are some of the powerful tools available to shape young lives. We need to continue to support and pray for our youth pastors and the various youth ministries in and outside of our churches. Many of these ministries not only help the children (and families) of their church, they end up touching the lives of non-believing neighbors. Many stories are told of a young person invited to a youth group who becomes a Christian and is instrumental in enabling his or her entire family finding the Lord.

In this dark age, we really are the light of the world. So let that light shine.