January 24, 2013 § 9 Comments
The Bible talks about one single man who disobeyed God on one single occasion. And then God took it out on his entire nation.
Joshua led the Hebrews around Jericho over and over until God caused its walls to crumble. While the city was being conquered, a man named Achan plundered some valuables and hid them, a direct violation of God’s explicit instruction before the encounter. So, when the Hebrews later went to battle against a tiny town called Ai, God caused them to lose badly.
Achan disobeyed God, but God punished everyone.
Christians, including this one, struggle to articulate the role of the state in our predominantly Christian nation. It is tempting to dismiss this question as merely academic. But the conclusions we reach have real consequences. They affect not just our nation, but Christianity itself. Further, the incomplete, sloppy reasoning that I find so prevalent on this issue makes the majority of our nation vulnerable to manipulation by people who quite capably quote scriptures, but who have an interest neither in the heart of God nor the nation as a whole, but only their disguised narrow interest.
Should we be teaching creationism in public schools? Should states give vouchers for religious education? Should “In God We Trust” be printed on our currency? Should homosexual marriage be banned? Should homosexual activity be banned? And is Mike Huckabee correct in attributing the shooting in Sandy Hook to an absence of God in public schools?
As I will explain below, understanding the role of the nation-state is mostly a matter of understanding God’s covenant with his people: Achan lived under one covenant; we live under another.
In Achan’s day, God’s covenant was exclusively with the collective Hebrew ethnic group — the people who had just been freed from five-hundred years of captivity in Egypt. Today, God’s covenant is with more than just Hebrews, but, important in our discussion of government, the covenant is with individuals. Observe one of many like pronouncements by Moses to the Israelites before he delivered the law to them:
So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul — then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you. — Deuteronomy 11
As stated above, the covenant was structured such that the actions of one (Achan) would bring consequences (defeat in battle, loss of rain, etc) to everyone.
And this is what happened when just one person broke the law. When the rulers of God’s people — let alone everyone — disobeyed the law, the result typically was invasion and utter destruction. Not long after the kingdom that was united by David was split after his son Solomon’s reign, (due to Solomon’s breaking the law by worshipping foreign gods in exchange for several hundred wives — always a poor idea) the Northern kingdom, Israel, would be conquered in the most barbaric way by Assyria. And later, Judah would be conquered by Babylon.
I find this same paradigm — that God blesses and curses nations based on their righteousness — front and center in the political thought of much of today’s “religious right”. And it’s not completely new. The promised land language was borrowed by America’s founders and even used to justify rebellion against England.
America to many is the modern day Jerusalem.
But the idea of the theocratic nation-state that we associate with the Old Testament actually ended nearly five-hundred years before Jesus would institute the modern covenant. When Babylon conquered Judah, the world would not see another Jewish nation-state until the end of World War II* (and today’s is only nominally Jewish). But much more important than the loss of the Jewish territorial sovereignty was the end of the old covenant.
Notice the difference in the collective nature of the old covenant with today’s covenant:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call. — Acts 2
Today’s covenant is actually many covenants — it is a separate covenant with every individual person. So if I break the covenant, the consequences are mine, not yours. That is not to say other people aren’t affected by my choices — they most certainly are. But my violation of the new covenant doesn’t affect whether other individuals receive forgiveness of sins. That is the difference in our era and Achan’s era.
You will also notice that, compared with today, the former covenant was distinctively temporal. The subject matter of the former covenant was limited to physical and temporary things: grain, wine, safety, prosperity, etc. Today’s covenant concerns things that are eternal: Heaven and Hell.
So what does this have to do with America?
Because in Moses’s time, the covenant impacted the Hebrews collectively, the government had only one logical role: to enforce the law of Moses — the source from which prosperity and calamity befell the entire nation. But such a government is of little help with the covenant of today. (1) We aren’t saved by following a law; (2) we aren’t sent to Hell by the actions of others; (3) we have the Holy Spirit — God himself in our physical bodies; (4) the subject matter of the new covenant is spiritual, not physical. Based on that alone, it would seem implicit then that government would have a different role today, given the nature of the present covenant between God and his people. But God’s role for government is not a conclusion we have to reason our way to. It’s written in the Bible plainly:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2
Peace and quiet.
Not to teach creationism in public schools (or the ten commandments). Not to keep people from purchasing alcohol on Sundays. Not to protect our country from Islam.
Peace and quiet.
This is a bit of a nebulous phrase, (and I’ll talk about it more below) but it’s also a limited one and God is very intentional about this. Read Romans 13. God instituted governments. Paul describes the one who gives their full time to governing as “God’s servant for your good”. This probably sounds like a nice statement, but it is a HUGE statement. To understand its gravity, let’s talk about Emperor Nero, who was in power when Paul wrote all this stuff. Nero, “God’s servant”, was hardly the moral leader of the Roman Empire. Nero had an incestuous relationship with his mother; he killed his mother (after failing to kill her on several occasions); he had sex with young boys; he killed his pregnant wife by kicking her; he killed his step-son by drowning him; it’s debated whether he burned Rome to the ground, but, whether he did or not, he blamed the Christians for it and would wrap Christians in the skins of dead wild animals to be eaten by living wild animals. He also hung Christians on crosses and lit them on fire.
God’s servant for your good.
You cannot read Paul’s statement in its context and conclude that God had any interest in using the machinery of government to indoctrinate the masses. The important thing was that the world had stability (peace and quiet), because, in addition to a stable world obviously being a better world in which to live, it turns out that stability is much more conducive to the spread of Christianity than a world of chaos. I believe it is no coincidence that the most stable government the world had ever seen at the time (Rome) coincided with the beginning of the church. The spreading of the gospel is greatly helped by infrastructure and literacy — things not maintained well in chaos. There was little from the Dark Ages of Europe to harmonize with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What exactly does Paul mean by “peaceful and quiet”? This is really the question for the politician, not necessarily the Christian. So the Bible doesn’t just come out and answer it. But while the Bible doesn’t answer it, history overwhelmingly does.
Stability increases when people are basically free and autonomous; when national security is provided for; when contracts are enforced; when currency values are fairly stable and predictable; when people are literate and educated; when property is protected; when crime is punished (Paul would say “by the sword”—so much for libertarians); when those accused of crimes can defend themselves; when inequality, which will never be eliminated, is nevertheless kept at tolerable levels; when expression is unconstrained; when public health is maintained; when infrastructure is build to support commerce; when regulations are implemented to further the free market by preventing monopoly, natural-resource eradication, unfair trade practices — things that cause the free market to destroy itself; when the public treasury is kept solvent and public credit trustworthy; when people are allowed to disagree and yell at each other.
When people can register a blog on the internet and write long articles late at night that no one with any happy life will ever read.
Notwithstanding the unceasing noise from the people who love to hate government, modern governments overall are spectacular at furthering these things. What they are not good at is getting people into Heaven. Again, people don’t get to Heaven by following a checklist of rules. We get to Heaven because we are forgiven from the many times we don’t follow “the rules”. We get to Heaven, despite the inseparable connection between sin and death, because Jesus conquered death by dying himself for our sins. We are expected then, and the Holy Spirit (God) empowers us, to transform our lives in gratitude for that grace (Romans 2:4), but it is not the transformation itself that saves us. It is accepting God’s grace.
And no government can make us do that.
If one could, I think the only logical conclusion would be to oppose the First Amendment. Freedom of religion could only be viewed as patently Satanic. But, being that government is terrible at getting people to Heaven, and given that government has proven wonderful at corrupting and distorting Christianity all the way from Constantine to the present day, governments should stay out of the Christian-industrial complex. This was the opinion of Roger Williams, my greatest theological hero. Williams was the founder of what is today Rhode Island. He was an advocate for Native American rights as well as one of the first abolitionists. He knew many languages and was educated in the law.
Williams was the first to use the phrase “wall of separation” between church and state. People usually attribute this to Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson was quoting Williams. And there was no ambiguity in what Williams meant by those words. Williams once wrote: “Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.” The marriage of church and state creates a weak religion, yet one obsessed with power. Today, we call this paranoia and it is on full display when “Christians” advocate for laws protecting the country from Muslims, homosexuals, scientists or anyone else who might grow to more than 2% of the country. We see it every December when Fox News fights the imaginary “War on Christmas.” Rather than following Jesus’s example of grace and vulnerability to others, we become defensive. This is the corruption Williams warned about. It is incompatible with the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. It is utterly weak and feckless.
I boil the sum of my thought on church and state to one maxim and I hope for it to catch on: Governments should enact no law that lacks justification outside of religious authority.
This doesn’t mean for a second that laws must be against religion; they are merely not grounded in religion. For example, while I believe there is no secular justification for denying gay couples the right to marry and thus I support the legalization of gay marriage, I think there is plenty of secular justification to protect the life of an unborn child and I believe abortion is the single-most pressing civil rights issue of our time. My belief that the government should protect the unborn is not based on Biblical dogma of any kind. It is based on the secular reasoning that, while a woman indeed has a right to direct her own body, that right yields to the right of the unborn child to its life.
Christian principles and secular laws do not necessarily have to clash.
During the first century of the church, when infanticide was prevalent (and not illegal) the Christians would take and adopt those unwanted children. The Holy Spirit was working through these Christians. I caution others who oppose abortion that if we once again empower our state governments to criminalize the abortion of children when the life of the mother is not in danger, we are going to have a huge number of unwanted children on our hands. This will mean Christians will have to step up. It will also mean gay couples will have to adopt. And it will mean government subsidies will almost certainly have to increase to make it possible for more people to adopt. All three of these I’m sure are making my Christian readers uncomfortable.
But remember, America is not Jerusalem.
*Update: A reader posted a comment with a correction that I must add here. Above I stated that there was not a Jewish state from the time of the Babylonia captivity until 1948. When I wrote that, I overlooked the Maccabean Revolt in 167 B.C. which did lead to a sovereign Jewish nation in Palestine for a century.
October 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Tonight’s debate will focus on foreign policy. Let’s face it: Barrack Obama has an unbelievably strong foreign-policy record. His handling of the Libyan civil war should be heralded as the exemplary post Cold War, great power success story — the pinnacle of pragmatism, discipline, independent judgment, and execution. Obama deserves to crush this debate, but I’m not convinced he will. Obama’s opponents have owned the Libyan narrative since the headline-grabbing attack of the U.S. embassy. Because of that, we aren’t talking about how Barrack Obama, with one-hundredth the budget of the Iraq War, oversaw the transition of a former terrorist principal state into a democratic, America-friendly ally. No, we’re not talking about that.
We’re talking about whether Obama said “terror.”
The Arab Spring began with the self immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia in December of 2010. His death sparked the waves of protests that we saw spread to Syria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and others. A movement that was destined to disappoint in some ways was, nevertheless, one of the most inspiring times of my life.
Democracy protests are nothing new, but what happened in North Africa and the Middle East simply had no precedent. The scale, the mobility, the media access, the recent history — everything was new. Obama had to navigate all of this with no play book or set of rules.
In addition, foreign policy makers are always fighting two battles — the current one and the one that just ended. Obama’s conflict was not just with Gaddafi, but with two administrations’ worth of misrepresentations regarding the WMD capabilities and intentions of Saddam Hussein. The goodwill and trust built with the Islamic world after George H.W. Bush saved Kuwait and after Bill Clinton intervened in the Balkans and nearly completed an Arab-Israeli peace deal had all but completely eroded. The foreign policy of George W. Bush convinced many people, including myself, that furthering one’s national interests is extraordinarily difficult when unpopular.
Therefore, every decision was delicate. Every decision was complex. Every mistake would be exaggerated. And every decision had to be perfect.
Libya’s first anti-government protest occurred on February 15, 2011. Soon after, rebels had taken over the Eastern city of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. Almost immediately, President Obama was being pressured to engage Libya militarily. When he didn’t take the bait, the usual cast performed their “appeasement,” “apology tour,” and “Democratic weakness” bits.
Obama waited one month. In my opinion, this was the difference in the war. By waiting, he got two things that seem incredible today. First, he got a nearly-universal approval by the Arab League for a no-fly zone. Then, he strolled into the UN and got Security Council Resolution 1973 for, not only a no-fly zone, but the queen mother of them all — authorization for “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. I think it’s uncontroversial that this was an unlikely happening, but why was it so important?
General Sun Tzu stated in his timeless work, The Art of War: “A victorious army first obtains the conditions for victory, then goes to battle. The defeated army first goes to battle, then seeks the conditions for victory.” Every conflict with the United States is asymmetric — our military budget is bigger than the next ten or so countries combined, and no one of any size fights us anymore. So our undersized enemies will always fight us with asymmetric methods. And chief among them? You guessed it, popular opinion. Our enemies’ success has depended almost entirely on their ability to manipulate the image of the United States as an imperialist overlord.
Obama knew this. He knew that Gaddafi could not win the propaganda war once the Arab League and the UN had voted against him.
And he was right. Unable to win the hearts of the Libyan people, the Gaddafi regime crumbled within six months.
As evidenced by the attack on the embassy, Libya has a way to go. But the case for optimism is strong. Abdurrahim El-Keib, the newly appointed prime minister of Libya is distinctly pro-American. El-Keib also is a former professor of electrical engineering from the University of Alabama. Yes, Alabama. Are you convinced he might be pro American?
Also, after the attack, tens of thousands of Libyans around the country came out to protest … the attack! Then a pro hoc militia formed out of the same protestors stormed the compound of the terrorists who attacked the embassy.
Moderates become much more vocal and active when the extremists with whom they compete lack a legitimate scapegoat. Without a scapegoat, attention is turned to the brutality and failures of the extremists rather than imagined threats from outside powers. The United States now has a higher approval rating in Libya than in Canada.
Despite all this, by virtue of a brilliant gnat-and-camel campaign by Mitt Romney and the Republican National Committee, Americans are paying less attention to Obama’s efficient successes than to his minor missteps following the attack on the embassy.
Obama will lose the debate tomorrow if he fails to focus more listeners’ attention on the successes of 2011 than the recent sloppiness of 2012. Of course, he’ll get no help from Romney, whose only foreign policy stance with more support than opposition is the embassy attack. And the attack is much more recent than the war.
But most significantly, Obama’s version of the Libyan narrative requires more explanation than Romney’s. And, we aren’t remarkable at paying attention to long narratives.
Like the one I just typed.
Pay attention to this issue tonight. In my opinion, this is the only issue of the debate that will matter.
October 8, 2012 § 1 Comment
As I see it, there are many more reasons than otherwise to believe both that a god created the universe and that the man, Jesus, was that god. One of my very first writings on this website was a short discussion of a few of them. I wrote that post with no shortage of conviction. Yet, in just a few months after writing with such earnestness, a thought would enter my head. This was no ordinary thought. By the beginning of this most recent summer, I had decided that I no longer believed.
I really didn’t.
Today, I believe. I really, really believe. I believe to an extent that would never have been possible before. The thought that occurred to me was the gap between the way I understood parts of the Bible and what I knew could be true — a gap too wide to put any reliance on my understanding when times of true sacrifice consistent with those beliefs had to be made.
So, I hope in this writing to take you along the journey I traveled. I want you to understand where I began, my doubt. I suspect many of you also are unsatisfied with the standard answers to the questions I had. I want you to know the conclusion I have reached and how I reached it. Let’s begin.
You have no control over your birth. Where you’re born, when you’re born, and to whom you’re born are chosen before you choose anything. Even though you and I certainly have complete control over nothing, our birth is the only thing over which we have complete un-control. This is an important point that I’ll come back to later.
In the New Testament of the Bible, a doctor named Luke recorded the missionary journeys of Paul. This was a special time. Since the time of Moses, 1,500 years before Paul’s time, Jehovah God had been exclusively for the Hebrew nation. But Luke wrote during a time when, for the first time, God became accessible to everyone. The Jewish law that governed humankind’s relationship with God, the Old Testament, had been replaced by the New Testament. Needless to say, Paul’s message was unpopular among the Jewish establishment who stood to lose their exclusive positions of power and their aspirations for a united and sovereign Jewish nation. Paul thus was forced him into a life of constant movement and exile.
As part of his missionary journey, Paul found himself in Athens, Greece, having been driven out of Berea by the Jews there. It is here that Paul made the statement that pretty much rocked my faith. Luke records Paul’s distress at the sight of the many idol gods worshiped by the Athenians. Reacting to the sight, Paul made a public speech in the middle of a marketplace.
[S]ince we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.
Any honest reader of this passage must ask themself: Are people who never hear about Jesus going to Hell? The New Testament reiterates over and over and over that salvation comes through belief in Jesus. If, under the new law, people who never hear about Jesus are going to Hell, and if belief in Jesus is the exclusive way to not go to Hell for eternity, I must say the old law seems a lot more fair — eternally more so.
While I am fully aware of Jesus’s teaching that many who claim to be Christian are not so, there are truths about the world that we can’t ignore: 80% of Americans identify themselves with Christianity; the number in the Middle East is 5%; the number in North Korea is effectively 0%. As I first pondered these things, I had to ask myself whether I’m a Christian merely because I was born an American to parents who are believers. In other words, are all these people born elsewhere going to Hell for the sole reason that they were born in a particular place?—the one thing in life over which you and I, as stated above, have no control?
When we talk about the unchangeable consequences of one’s birth, it’s one thing that suffering, hunger, abandonment, torture and other terrible things happen on the earth. They are no less terrible, but the notion that an eternity of perfection potentially awaits provides an undeniable solace to this terrible present reality. Earthly suffering is one thing. It’s another thing altogether when we begin to examine the never-ending consequences on one’s birth.
And this gets me to the thought that could not escape my brain for almost a year. When I was being honest with myself, I understood the Bible to indeed say that people are going to go to Hell for no other reason than the fact that they were born in circumstances unaccomodating to the cultivation of a belief in God. But more importantly, God was choosing to let those people remain ignorant. It was at this thought that I decided I could no longer believe.
No person should believe in a god who purports to exercise complete control over everything that happens on the Earth, yet allows people to go to their grave without hearing the single thing they need to avoid damnation for all eternity — damnation to a degree of isolation, pain, and suffering that our finite brains cannot comprehend. I refuse to believe in that god and so should you. To the nonbelievers who read this, you need to challenge the Christian believers you know on this point. A god who allows people to remain ignorant of salvation, yet who absolutely could make people aware of salvation, not only is a sick and sadistic god, but is utterly at odds with the god described everywhere else in the Bible, even in the Old Testament.
Christians who even bother to acknowledge this dilemma typically respond that this should drive us to evermore zealous evangelism. But whatever our shortcomings may be for not blazing across the North Korean border with a private military in order to reach the lost there, our failures do not make it any more fair for those lost North Koreans.
Let me make an important point before moving on. The issue is really not about fairness. If God had no say in the matter, no say in who hears the gospel, then he could be excused for not reaching people on his own initiative, for not making up the difference between what Christians are supposed to do and what we end up doing. The fact that it would be unfair for people to go to Hell without hearing would not cause me to lose my faith.
The issue isn’t fairness. The issue is consistency.
God is described as not wanting anyone to be lost. Even if this wasn’t explicitly stated in the Bible — which it is — it is implicit is God sending Jesus to die. But the idea of a god who will do anything to see that we not perish is inconsistent with a god who sits idly while people die without knowing how to not perish. We should not abandon faith because we don’t like what the Bible says. Truth is neither dependent on our preferences nor our judgment of fairness. But internal consistency goes straight to the matter of truth.
We must quit ignoring contradictory tenants of our theological traditions.
My Faith Today
I am unhesitant in saying that my belief in God today is completely dependent on the notion that people who never had the chance to believe in the resurrected man, Jesus, can still go to Heaven. I know this is hyper controversial, but I’ll walk you through the verses led me to this conclusion and let you make up your own mind about them.
James 3 states that not all Christians should aspire to be teachers because teachers are going to be judged more strictly. From this, I see an unmistakable principle that we will be judged according to our knowledge and abilities.
In Luke 16, Jesus tells a story about a rich man in Hell. In his story, the man apparently can view across a chasm to Abraham who is in Heaven. The rich man calls out to Abraham to warn his five brothers who are still alive so that they will not join him in torment. The following exchange is striking:
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
From this, I see that God can discern not only what we actually do, but, and in my opinion more importantly, what we would have done had our experiences been different. God, according to James, knows not only what we know, but, according to Jesus, what we would have done had we known more.
There’s more. In chapter 2 of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul states:
For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
I used to believe this passage was just talking about the law of Moses. I believed it meant that non-Jews could still be saved despite not having the law. After all, today we’re not under law but grace. This passage says “law.”
But that makes no sense. Is Paul really saying that there were gentiles in his day who were doing the things required in the Mosaic law? Gentiles who, just out of human nature, were following the priestly code? The required scarifies? The dietary abstentions?
Not on your life!
The Mosaic code is long, complicated, specific, and unintuitive. Too much so for me to believe that there were non-Jews out there complying with its requirements. To comply with the Mosaic law meant to comply perfectly. Even the Jews weren’t doing that. Instead, what Paul wrote in Romans 2 is as a logical extension of the gospel of Jesus, a law of the heart, not of a written code. Paul even explicitly connects his thought to the judgment through — not the law — but through Jesus.
The notion of gentiles or nonbelievers having a law unto themselves in accordance is also consistent with Jesus’s story about a man and his bags of gold. The man left five bags with one servant, two with another, and one with the last. When he came back, the servant with five bags invested the money and produced five more bags and the servant with two bags did the same, producing two more bags. However, the servant with only one bag did nothing and the man was irate. I believe the one-bagged servant is the gentile of Romans 2 who didn’t have the same opportunity to believe as the two- and five-bagged servants. While everyone is expected to act in accordance with what they know, the one-bagged servant is not expected to do what people with superior knowledge are expected to do.
But we still have to deal with Paul’s statement to the Athenians, that, in the past, God overlooked ignorance of him. My old way of interpreting this verse was that if you are ignorant of Jesus, you cannot go to Heaven. Today, I believe the correct way of interpreting this verse is that all people everywhere are invited to the guarantee of salvation through belief in Jesus, and that you, Athenians, who now have heard, have no excuse not to believe in Jesus.
The notion that people can avoid eternal punishment in Hell for the simple reason that they were born in a place does not mean that teaching and being an ambassador for the way of truth is less important. I’m frequently asked what motivation we have to teach unbelievers if unbelievers can still go to Heaven. The answer is simple: We’re commanded to. I don’t know specifically why, but I have ideas. The world is a much better place when people put their trust in Jesus. Jesus is the source of the fullest joy. Belief is Jesus is a guarantee of salvation. And God wants a relationship with everyone; God wants to be known. If you were the source of all life, if you knew every hair on the head of the people you created, I bet you would too.
I have a stronger faith today than I once did. Frankly, the Bible just makes so much more sense today. Be willing to confront your doubts. Be confident in Jesus’s words on the mountain: “Seek and you will find.”
October 4, 2012 § 1 Comment
Americans today are less persuaded by Reaganomics — the idea that reducing taxes actually increases tax revenue — than they’ve been in a long time. Yet Mitt Romney’s tax plan is an extreme version of Reaganomics. Because of that, I get impression the Obama team thought last night’s debate would be easy.
Instead, Romney pulled off a rhetorical miracle.
Rather than denying that he plans to reduce each income tax bracket by 20%, which he actually plans to do and which most economists calculate would reduce government revenues by 5 trillion dollars over 10 years, Romney merely said “I’m not looking for a 5 trillion dollar tax cut.” He said it firmly and he said it often. Obama, unprepared for such a dodgy statement, clearly lost that part of the debate.
What Romney did with that statement was claim the dream of Reaganomics without going into details which would essentially communicate to Americans: “I’m bringing back Reaganomics.” It was a brilliant move, but was successful only because Obama was so unprepared for it.
Here’s the line that would have knocked it out of the park for Obama: “Governor Romney, I know you don’t plan on a 5 trillion dollar tax cut — no candidate hoping to be elected would ever say that. But you do plan on a 20% income tax reduction. And we will lose 5 trillion dollars by doing that.”
The Obama team needs to radically change its debate strategy and no longer assume Mitt Romney will give them the election.
September 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
I am an unapologetic capitalist. Individuals and society are demonstrably better off when people can make choices; when they are forced to compete, adapt, and improve; even when they can fail. Growth and efficiency happen when capital freely flows from unproductive to productive sectors and companies. As a result of a proliferating capitalist movement in most of the developing world — particularly China and India — people are nourished, clothed, housed, educated, and enfranchised on a scale never seen in human history. Turning my head one way, I observe one camp — albeit a small and shrinking camp — with the look of “you imperialist Nazi”; turning the other way, I observe a sacrifice burning on an alter to Ronald Reagan. I’m obviously not comfortable with the former side, but neither am I with the latter.
This is a post about how we think about the free market — specifically the words “free market” and how they limit our economic thinking in ways that are self-defeating to the very free market that we support. I’m convinced that our country would be less divided and more powerful if in one specific way we talked about the free market with slightly more nuance.
In the “free market,” everything that impedes anything, any restraint on any activity — real or imagined — is automatically bad. There can never be a good law, a good tax, a good program, agency, regulation, or anything public in a free market. When we aim for a free market, we are always over-regulated and over-taxed. Our government might get smaller and smaller, but it will always be too big. The problem is that we really need the government to do certain things. And yet it can’t when the limit of our thinking is free versus not free.
I believe we would be better off if, instead of using the phrase “the free market,” we instead opted for a “mostly free market.” The former phrase is absolute and uncompromising. There is only one question: Will this law restrict my freedom in any way? If so, that law is bad.
However, the phrase the “mostly free economy” is clearly a generality rather than a prescription because it is vague rather than absolute. Because of its vagueness, it forces the individual to ask more important questions like “will this make people better off?” “how is a person made better off”? “might there be unintended consequences?” “if so, can we construct the policy so that they be avoided?”. In the “mostly free market” world, the goal is well-being, not freedom. Freedom is generally a means of reaching the goal, but it is not the goal itself. The mostly free economy is an economy in which people are generally free to make decisions about their lives; companies can invest in what is profitable; where government will stay out of most of most day-to-day decision making——but where government will operate in the rare occasions in which the characteristics of the free market become the very things that cause its own destruction.
History is explodingly clear that having freedom and prosperity in the long term occasionally requires that freedom be taken away in the short term.
The old rules about humankind are gone. We are quite capable of creating a world that is inhospitable to ourselves. We have to make centralized choices on a macro scale that we haven’t had to make before—choices about Earth’s scarce resources, choices about waste, choices about what to exploit and what to leave alone.
If this were not so, I would hardly be motivated to write this post.
This seems to have been the understanding of Richard Nixon, who signed into law the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act in the early 70s. These two acts — the most successful of the environmental movement in history — have lead to then-unrecognizably cleaner air and waterways, all without destroying our economy as was predicted at the time. I don’t have to say that Nixon was a capitalist, but Nixon understood that capitalism has to be protected from itself occasionally. While capitalism is the best economic model, not only is it not perfect but it’s flaws can be astronomical. These must be dealt with in the public sector.
Another example. Our investment banks of today occupy the hub of our economy in much the same way railroads did more than a century ago. Because of this unfortunate reality, banks that fail create a lot of problems for hard-working, responsible people. We were caught flat footed when Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers began their steep fall. Both companies were leaders in securitizing income from the interest of real estate loans into mortgage-backed securities, products that were disastrously insured by credit default swaps, pioneered by AIG and others. Because there was such a market for mortgage-backed securities, local loan officers (historically whose well-being was directly tied to the ability of the mortgagee to pay back the loan) began relaxing their loan requirements in order to sell more mortgages to investment banks. Enough of this created a bubble the size of which we’ve never experienced.
As the financial crisis reached the precipice, 20% unemployment was not out of the question. The Troubled Asset Relief program (conceptualized by Treasury Secretary Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, both Republicans) stopped the drop and to this day actually made a small profit for the federal government and the taxpayer—hence the use of the word “investment” to refer to this and similar government spending. Further, sensible regulations were put in place to prevent the things that created the bubble in the first place and to insulate the economy in the event that a bank fails again.
But in addition to harm-reducing measures, governments work in ways that augment the power of the free market. They make important investments in education, science, infrastructure and so on. Of course, citizens have to remain vigilant to ensure accountability in these projects, but the simple truth is we would not have the internet without the government. The project to create the internet was a wildly successful collaboration between the private and public sectors. Today, our private sector benefits from it as much as any human invention.
So let’s dispose of the phrase the “free market.” The “mostly free market” is not much harder to say, and will help us get out of our own way when thinking about economic challenges.
September 10, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Speeches these days are noisy and pitiful.
I struggle to recall a contemporaneous speech that seemed relevant for more than a day. Yet, President Clinton’s DNC speech came up over and over last week. I overheard a discussion about it in the elevator on the way to my office the next morning. Albeit predictably, snippets of it were on the 24-hour news networks every time I walked by a television in the lobby. I went out to lunch and the group at the next table over were talking about it. I went to a fundraiser for State Senator David Johnson and you better believe I heard about it there.
Not so for any other speech these last two weeks (and there was no shortage of speeches at the DNC and RNC).
So why was Clinton’s speech so good? In short, he filled a vacuum in political discourse. He dared to do what is lacking in most speeches. Here’s what I noticed.
For three reasons, speeches from members of both parties are little more than a gloss. One reason is intentional. Walking step by step with listeners through the details of an idea or a policy exposes the idea to greater scrutiny, potentially exposing the speaker to stinging criticism. Sprinkling even a little substance into your speech then takes courage.
Second, and perhaps most often, many who have stumbled upon the opportunity to project their voice to the public are insufficiently knowledgeable about the content of their message to do otherwise. They may be passionate about what they believe, but have failed to understand both the details of their idea or the arguments on the other side. So instead of getting an informative and persuasive speech, you get a lot of yelling.
Third, most people who actually are knowledgeable about a subject lack the ability to cross the bridge to those who are not. Bringing your listeners where you are by beginning where they are is an enormously difficult task. It requires understanding the understanding and assumptions of your audience, building a new foundational understanding if necessary, and then, and only then, paving the way forward to where you want your audience to be.
Few people do this well. Instead, I generally observe one of two outcomes from knowledgeable speakers. Either they lose their listeners early and forever or they punt it and educate worse than the noise makers.
Clinton is a master at educating the public on the big stage. On Wednesday, his attention to wonkish details about public policy, while still remaining interesting and understandable was a display of true oratory genius. It demonstrated that he understood (1) his subject matter and (2) his listeners.
As said, the first step is laying (and often fixing) the foundation. For many voters, this foundation consisted of Ryan’s, Rubio’s, and Romney’s speeches at the RNC. Viewers listening to their speeches received the traditional caricature of the Democratic party, a collection of trite beliefs that, while not new, have dominated the national discussion for the last three-and-a-half years. So, for the heart of Clinton’s speech to register, Clinton had to start with the traditional Republican narrative.
“In Tampa a few days ago, we heard a lot of talk,” began Clinton, “oh about how the President and the Democrats don’t believe in free enterprise and individual initiative, how we want everyone to be dependent on the government, how bad we are for the economy.”
Then, Clinton made perhaps his most memorable statement of the night. According to Clinton, in the last 52 years, 24 million private-sector jobs were created under Republican administrations while 42 million private-sector jobs were create under Democratic administrations.
This is an astounding statement, blowing the doors off the traditional notions about the Democratic Party and the economy.
We all filter every message through our assumptions and stereotypes. Therefore, if Clinton had not addressed these basic foundational issues at the outset, even though he could have said all the right words about President Obama’s very reasonable policies, many people who had just watched the RNC would basically hear Clinton talk and words would register: “PRESIDENT OBAMA AND THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY ARE COMMUNISTS.”
Clinton went further. The discrepancy in private-sector job creation is no accident, but the predictable result of the Democratic Party’s modern emphasis on the middle class. A strong middle class, according to Clinton, is a good thing for every economic class.
One more false notion about President Obama and the Democratic Party had to be changed—the notion that Obama is the cause of the political gridlock and division we see today. Clinton with little effort wasted no time placing the blame on the “faction that now controls the Republican party.”
Just in the last couple of elections, they defeated two distinguished Republican senators because they dared to cooperate with Democrats on issues important to the country, even national security. They beat a Republican congressman with almost a hundred percent voting record on every conservative score, because he said he realized he did not have to hate the president to disagree with him. Boy, that was a nonstarter, and they threw him out.
This was an effective way of driving the point home. At this point, Clinton had squarely addressed the two false assumptions that were the bedrock of the RNC and which would all but block receipt of his entire message. The listeners now had a proper foundation for an in-depth discussion of how President Obama’s policies were aligned with those goals and his spirit of cooperation.
And by the end of Clinton’s speech, they got it.
One irony of the information age is that, while information not only is available but virtually rains on us, we struggle to place information in context. We have mountains of facts but little meaning.
8.1 percent of adults who are looking for work have none. Even higher is the percentage underemployed. Jobs hard to find and are uncertain to remain. These conditions, bad for everyone but the challenger to an incumbent president, dominate the news. So Clinton in his folksy, yet incisive way, summarized the Republican position, but with a little context: “We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.“
Then a humble but crucial statement: “No president — not me, not any of my predecessors — no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.” We are used to recessions coming and going; those that have lingered, such as in the Carter years, were easily traceable to poor policies.
So it’s natural to assume the same thing here. Especially when Romney and Co. insist that they would have ended the recession earlier than Obama. What Clinton was able to do was (1) impress on the listener the scale of the problem inherited by Obama and (2) connect the would-be policies of Romney with those of his most recent Republican predecessor, those policies that caused the problems in the first place.
Obama, in all fairness, has been attempting to do this for four years. However, Clinton has a little more credibility in saying it because he’s not running for reelection. And Clinton is simply better at saying it.
I already know where some of your minds are going when I mention truthfulness and Bill Clinton together. So let’s get right down to it.
Bill Clinton lied about the Monica Lewinsky affair. It was wrong.
Let’s now move on.
Clinton gave the fact checkers their easiest night. His speech was long, dense, and full of assertions that were overwhelmingly favorable to the Democratic position. Too much of this and one is likely to get a “Pants-On-Fire” score from Politifact. Yet, Clinton’s factual assertions—even his most damning ones—overwhelmingly check out.
I’m glad to live in an age of fact checkers. Certainly a speaker can ignore them and still entertain a crowd. But you’re not going to persuade people to change their minds about anything without satisfying the fact checkers.
Every once in a blue moon, the fact checkers get it wrong. But show me a politician with a better record.
Of the four things I highlight here, three are primarily substantive. This is intentional. Speeches that lack substance, even the most well-delivered ones, will never ever be important or meaningful. Simply put, substance is more important than form.
But form is important.
Clinton can flat out work a crowd. The man had the audience laughing out of their seats within a minute of speaking. He came prepared with his teleprompter, but strayed from it and ad libbed on several occasions.
Clinton was confident and perfectly willing to attack the challenging side. But a Clinton attack is different from most. A Clinton attack is less inflamed, less rhetorical, and more of a “no duh” kind of attack — a this-is-such-simple-arithmetic kind of attack. You’re aren’t necessarily mad at the other side; you just find yourself laughing at them. Tirades have their place, but only when people will actually be affected by the tirade. A discussion on tax policy will never be one of those times.
Further, if you listen to Clinton in an interview, in a candid conversation, in a speech to a local charitable association, or to the DNC, the tone basically sounds the same. In other words, when Clinton gives a speech, he doesn’t suddenly begin to sound like a political robot. He sounds like a human being, albeit a very intelligent and highly informed one. Good speeches should be clear, efficient, and polished–but not much more. Otherwise, just talk to people and enjoy the spotlight!
June 29, 2012 § 8 Comments
At over nine-hundred pages, not including mountains of administrative regulations promulgated to implement its many provisions, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a nightmare to fully comprehend. Also difficult is the Supreme Court’s decision issued yesterday. My hope in this post is provide an objective and understandable summary of the law, analysis of the decision, and commentary on the practical and political implications moving forward.
The Affordable Care Act
All healthcare policy is constrained by an “iron triangle”: (1) quality, (2) cost, and (3) access. These components often work against each other (e.g. increasing quality will often increase cost which can decrease access; decreasing costs increases access but can reduce quality). The Affordable Care Act consists of many moving parts, but as a whole they were designed to address each part of the triangle, especially access.
In order to accomplish this, one of the primary aims of the Act is to increase utilization of preventative care. Healthcare, like any industry, is subject to cost shifting. Virtually everyone, insured or not, consumes healthcare. The uninsured, who make up tens of millions, typically do so only to lack the capacity to pay for the care and consequently inflate everyone else’s premiums. Further, these same uninsured individuals consume disproportionately more expensive emergency care, which aggravates this cost-shifting tendency further. It is hardly surprising that most chapter seven bankruptcies occur because of healthcare expenses. What is surprising is that most of those people are insured.
To combat this, Section 1307 of the Act prohibits insurers from denying individuals based on preexisting conditions and section 1301 requires insurers to cover, without cost sharing, a long list of preventative care services. These include, among other things, mammograms, colonoscopies, flu shots, and tobacco cessation interventions. By more people being insured and by insurance policies being required to cover preventative care services, the goal is for less cost shifting to occur and less expensive emergency treatment to be consumed. However, these alone would quickly render insurers insolvent—healthy people would delay purchasing health insurance until they became sick, while a disproportionate volume of unhealthy people would buy insurance and file expensive claims. Simply put, many more people would be cashing out than paying in.
Enter the Individual Mandate.
Section 5000A(a) requires everyone to be insured by 2014. Broadly speaking, this can include your current personal health insurance policy, employee health benefits plan, or insurance through Medicare or your state Medicaid program. I use the word “require” loosely. It will not be a crime to be uninsured; it would merely be reflected as a penalty on your income taxes. You could choose to pay the penalty. Further, to collect on the penalty, the IRS is denied many of its enforcement powers such as criminal prosecutions and levies. The penalty is phased in through 2016: $95 in 2014, $325 in 2015, and $695 in 2016. However, even with the incentives towards preventative care, insurance is and will continue to be expensive. An individual mandate by itself would quickly render many low-income consumers insolvent.
Enter Medicaid expansion.
Section 2001 expands full Medicaid coverage to individuals up to 133 percent of the poverty line ($30,000 for a family of four). In addition, by a downward sliding scale, individuals earning up to 400 percent of the poverty line ($92,000 for a family of four) will have their private insurance plan subsidized. Thus, for low- and middle-income individuals, a significant percentage of their required healthcare premiums would be paid by the government. This has the dual effect of making it affordable to comply with the law and eliminating any incentive to simply elect to pay the tax penalty.
- insurers must completely cover a long list of preventative care services
- insurers may not deny people for preexisting conditions beginning 2014
- individuals are required to be insured by 2014
- Medicaid will cover or subsidize more individuals by 2014
The policies work together to increase access, while curbing cost increases.
But these are just a few provisions of the Affordable Care Act. I cover these because these were addressed by the Supreme Court’s landmark decision yesterday in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. In addition to these provisions the Affordable Care Act includes the creation of an online exchange in which every health benefits plan offered in the state would be available to compare and purchase, a ban on lifetime coverage caps, enhancements to Medicaid anti-fraud enforcement, an insured Bill of Rights, grants for states to implement electronic health record systems, and much much more.
P.L. 111-148, the culmination of decades of work to reform our national healthcare apparatus, was not, however, without opponents.
Immediately upon signing into law, opponents of the Act filed suit, alleging the individual mandate and the Medicaid expansion to be unconstitutional. What follows is an explanation of the lawsuit and the majority opinion.
The first and most important thing to understand is that, unlike state governments, which have unlimited power unless taken away by the constitution, the Federal government has no power unless granted by the constitution. The opponents of the individual mandate claimed that no part of the constitution granted the Federal government the power to require people to purchase insurance, while the government responded that the individual mandate was authorized by the Interstate Commerce Clause and the Taxation Clause.
The Commerce Clause reads as follows: “[The Congress shall have Power t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States.” Since it’s birth in 1787, the Commerce Clause has grown with age, with a growth spurt from the late 1930s until the 1990s.
In Gibbons v. Ogden in 1824, Chief Justice Marshall held that the Commerce Clause validated Federal regulation of waterways. In Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which aimed in part to prevent discrimination against African Americans, could be applied to a motel because that motel served customers who travel across state lines. By far the most controversial application of the Commerce Clause occurred in 1942 in Wickard v. Filburn. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 established wheat production limits in order to increase wheat prices for farmers during the Great Depression. Roscoe Filburn grew wheat which, without exception, he never sold but instead used for personal consumption. Filburn argued that, because his wheat was kept entirely in state, the production limit could not constitutionally be applied to him. The Court reasoned that Filburn’s production reduced the amount of wheat he would buy on the open market, and because wheat was traded nationally, Filburn’s production was affecting interstate commerce.
Yeah. So, if you find that reasoning a bit suspect, so do I.
However, after two-centuries of interpretation, Courts have found that the Commerce Clause allows Congress to regulate (1) the channels of commerce, (2) instrumentalities or things that pass in interstate commerce, and (3) activities that have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. It is not surprising that the third one would be especially controversial.
After Wickard, it would not be until United States v. Lopez in 1995 that the Supreme Court invalidated a law that was advocated to be within the Commerce Clause. The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 essentially made it a crime to in a school zone possess a firearm that had passed through interstate commerce. The law, certainly with Heart of Atlanta in mind, was limited to firearms in interstate commerce. Of course, practically speaking, that includes all firearms. The Court, however, struck this down, announcing a new requirement that the regulated activity itself be commercial in nature. The Court held that carrying a firearm within a school zone is too attenuated from commercial activity to be regulated by the Commerce Clause.
Fast forward to the current year. The government, in its response to the petition to strike down the Individual Mandate as unconstitutional, argued to the Supreme Court that the power to require individuals to carry insurance is a valid exercise of the interstate commerce power. They argued that failure to purchase insurance substantially effects interstate commerce by creating the cost-shifting problem. Healthcare and insurance are indisputably commercial activities.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion. Joined by the reliably conservative bloc of Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito, as well as the conservative—though less reliably conservative—Justice Kennedy, Roberts rejected the argument that the Individual Mandate comes in under the Commerce Clause. The opinion never disputed that failure to purchase health insurance affects interstate commerce. However, Roberts stressed that in every expansion of the Commerce Clause, what was regulated was activity. Here, was is regulated is inactivity. If the federal government can regulate all inactivity that negatively effects interstate commerce, the Affordable Care Act could be amended to force you to do just about anything, including … yes … eat broccoli. Roberts concluded that was just too far removed from what the Framers had in mind when they drafted the Commerce Clause.
And with that came one of the most important decisions on the Commerce Clause—one that will be analyzed and Socraticized in law schools until we get taken over by China.
The government alternatively asserted that the Individual Mandate was constitutional as an application of the Taxation Power. Article one, section eight reads: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defen[s]e and general Welfare of the United States.” They pointed out that the penalty for not enrolling in a qualified health plan looks like a tax: It is paid as part of Federal income taxes, is paid into the Treasury Department, is found in the Internal Revenue Code, and is enforced by the IRS.”
The counter to this argument is that the Act describes the payment as a “penalty” rather than a tax and that the elected officials in support of the Act’s passage declared that they would not have to raise any taxes to fund its provisions.
However, Roberts, this time with the liberal bloc, made the decisive and highly anticipated decision— the Individual Mandate is a “tax” within Article One of the Constitution.
One might ask, as did a particular person of David Leonhardt of the New York Times: “How can the individual mandate violate the commerce clause but be constitutional under taxing power?” His answer explained it well:
Think of it this way: Imagine that the government passed a law mandating that all Americans have children and also said that the penalty for not having children would be higher taxes. Then imagine that the Supreme Court ruled the so-called child mandate was unconstitutional but also said that Congress could pass a law requiring people without children to pay higher taxes.
Now leave the hypothetical world behind. Congress has in fact passed a law saying that people without children pay higher taxes. It is called the child tax credit, which reduces the taxes of people with children.
The court’s ruling on health care today is not precisely the same as this hypothetical situation, but it is not so different. Congress’s constitutional power to tax is broader than its constitutional power to regulate commerce. So, the court ruled, Congress can require people who do or do not engage in certain behavior to pay higher taxes.
Addressed next was the constitutionality of the Medicaid expansion. Medicaid is a partnership between the Federal and state governments. The government offers money to the states and, in exchange, the government requires that the states use the money to certain low-income and disabled persons. Medicaid can be thought of as a contract. These type of arrangements between the Federal and state governments are upheld as being within the Spending Clause—the second part of the Taxation Clause. Like in the formation of any contract, the offeror can limit acceptance to the fulfillment of conditions.
As stated, the expansion provisions in the Act required that states increase their coverage to include those up to 133 percent of the poverty line and subsidies up to 400 percent of the poverty line. If a state refused to administer this expansion, the law required that the state lose ALL of its Medicaid funds. The opponents of this provision, argued that this was unconstitutionally coercive, that the government cannot insist of new requirements to receive benefits that were already being given. This is analogous to an old case in contract law, Alaska Packers’ Association v. Domenico, in which a group of fishermen, once at sea, refused to perform their duties unless the captain modified their contracts to increase their pay. The court in that case held that a contract modification is not enforceable when the modification is merely to perform a “pre-existing duty.”
Roberts essentially applied the Spending Clause version of the pre-existing duty rule. He held that the Federal government could condition additional funding on the performance of the additional duties. However, conditioning pre-existing funding on the performance of additional duties is impermissibly coercive under the Spending Clause. Under this reasoning, the statutory rule was changed to reflect the constitutional rule.
In sum, the Individual Mandate was upheld under the Taxation Clause and the Medicaid Expansion was modified under the Spending Clause.
Many of us who had been following this case and who regularly read Supreme Court opinions did not expect the Chief Justice to side with the liberal bloc on either the Commerce Clause or Tax and Spend Clause argument. If anyone was to be the swing vote on that side, it was to be Justice Kennedy, who, in Gonzales v. Raich in 2005, sided with the majority which held that the Commerce Clause permits federal laws outlawing marijuana.
The short sighted among us are going to demonize the chief justice for going liberal. I’ve heard more than a few times in the past day that Roberts has “gone Souter,” a reference to Justice Souter who became a liberal after being appointed by President George H.W. Bush. This is unfair. History is going to look back at this decision as one of the most important moments in conservative jurisprudence. Similar to how, in Marbury v. Madision, Chief Justice Marshall augmented the power of the Court in the long run by denying itself power in the short run, Chief Justice Roberts denied the Federal government an immense amount of power in the long run by granting it power in the short run.
First, the law was upheld narrowly. Second, his tone toward the prudence of the Affordable Care Act is unmistakably negative throughout the opinion. You get the sense that he wrote the opinion while plugging his nose. Third, he instituted a limitation on the Commerce Clause at least as important as the one in Lopez. One might ask whether Heart of Atlanta would be safe under the Roberts opinion. Finally, as I explain below, the integrity of the Affordable Care Act is in jeopardy because of the Medicaid holding.
Few people are going to understand the holding in regard to the Individual Mandate. Even fewer are going to understand the holding in regard to the Medicaid Expansion, or even know that the Medicaid Expansion was even at issue. But in political terms, that holding gave Republicans a tremendous grip on the future of the Act. If you recall earlier, for many, the requirement to acquire health insurance is a tremendous burden without public assistance. This burden is much more tolerable when more people are being covered or subsidized by Medicaid.
Now that states have much more of a choice as to whether they will expand their Medicaid coverage, I can tell you right now that many red states (likely even my own) will decline the expansion. In the long run, states were going to lose money over the expansion anyway. Expanding was economical only as a means of avoiding losing ALL Medicaid funding. Failure to expand Medicaid coverage is going to make Obamacare increasingly unpopular as people become increasingly penalized for not enrolling in insurance. This is the stealth power in Roberts’s opinion that seems by and large lost on most of Tea Land.
Additionally, in what might be seen as the irony of the year, the ruling upholding the Individual Mandate, has the potential to hurt President Obama’s 2012 reelection bid.
Politics is a constant game of manipulation, played by both sides. For many reasons having nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act, there is a high likelihood that United States will struggle to reduce its unemployment figures this year. This is especially true if the European Union continues its problems with its peripheral states’ finances. However, opponents of the Affordable Care Act are going to have a wide open target. Why are struggling to add jobs? Obamacare. I can cite intelligent people on both sides of that argument and I have nothing to add to it here. The point is, regardless of its accuracy, the argument is going to be made. Often. It already is.
Macro economics and high finance are games of expectations. A fund manager is certainly concerned with whether Obamacare itself will hurt the economy. But the fund manager is equally concerned with whether people expect Obamacare will hurt the economy. The power of expectations to rapidly create bulls and bears has been understand since, at the latest, John Maynard Keynes. Whether the Republican leadership is correct or not, they are going to influence many people into believing the Affordable Care Act is bad for the economy. And by that alone, it might hurt the economy.
*Again, I’m withholding judgment on the merits of their arguments, I’m just pointing out the reality of the effect of their claim.*
Lastly, to my mind, Obama is going to struggle to articulate to average voters the difference between an Article One tax (a broad term including the Mandate’s penalty for noncompliance) and an across-the-board kind of income tax—the kind he promised would not need to be raised to pay for the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The Republicans are going to emphasize that, because the Mandate was upheld pursuant to the Taxation clause, Obama lied to voters in saying that their taxes would not need to be raised to pay for the Act. Whether this is fair is debatable, but it certainly is shrewd.
Yesterday was profoundly important, culminating much, but as I hope you can see, leaving much unresolved. The Republican Party is no doubt sulking at yesterday’s decision. I sense they are going to be thankful come November.