April 18, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Writing is a unquenchable passion — yet it’s been nearly three months since my last post. For that, I’m more sorry than you know.
I put a lot of time into public writing; every post requires several days to complete. However, between work during the day, classes during the night, and every other demand of my last semester of law school, I simply lack the time to satisfactorily present my thoughts publicly.
So if you stumble on here, see that I haven’t posted in a long time and conclude that I have lost interest, I sincerely beg your patience. I will continue again soon.
January 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
It’s probably a fair criticism of my writing in recent years that it disproportionately targets conservative viewpoints and leadership. I’m labeled by many as a liberal, a troubling label to me because, while I advocate some liberal stances, as far as my analytical framework and worldview go, the liberal-conservative dichotomy really misses the whole point. So I want to offer something different—perhaps more constructive. I want to promote two conservative thinkers who I believe to be brilliant, who have a mountain of substance to contribute to conservative thought, and whose works, without reservation, are foundational to my worldview.
The first individual is Matt Ridley. Ridley is a scientist, businessman (albeit a failed one), and an author. Most of his writings have been about genetics and environmental science. On the surface, that Ridley would possess such a juggernaut of influence over my economic world view might surprise many. First, and most obvious, Ridley is not an economist in the traditional sense, he is a biologist. But more striking—believe me, this irony surprises even me—Ridley is a pretty dogged libertarian.
A complete reading of Ridley’s The Rational Optimist ought to be a prerequisite to every living person’s next opinion. Boiled down, Ridley attempts to do three things in his book, two of which he succeeds. First, he removes whatever nostalgia we may have romantically and naively acquired. Life on Earth is better than it ever has been. Not only is life better, but, by almost every measure, it’s almost embarrassingly better.
Having thoroughly convinced that the world is better, he moves to the question of why? As convincing as his thesis that the world is at its best and is improving still, Ridley attributes the upward trajectory of mankind to one remarkable thing: trade. The Rational Optimist is certainly about economics, but at its heart, it’s a book on anthropology. From that, Ridley interweaves his third and, least convincing thesis—that government is the problem. Ridley’s suspicion of government is less convincing than his enthusiasm for trade. I, for one, do not believe government to be the enemy of the market economy. But I do believe a healthy market economy to be essential to a healthy human spirit. Ridley establishes a tight correlation between the two. You will never be more astounded at the potential of humans than from reading The Rational Optimist. You will never be more convinced at our ability to overcome challenges. And you will never be more struck by how wired the human and humans are to trade.
The second is Niall Ferguson. Ferguson is an economic historian at Harvard, a columnist for Newsweek, a prolific author, and speaker everywhere. He was named among the world 100 most influential people by Time Magazine. Probably his most famous work is The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World.
While Ridley’s work is convincing to the proposition that trade has been essential to the well-being of humans, Ferguson’s work is convincing to the proposition that our modern system of finance is essential to our unrecognizable world that Ridley aptly describes. In this respect, Ridley and Ferguson should be read together. And not surprisingly, Ridley references Ferguson’s work in his.
Listen. I never could have imagined a book about financial history being even remotely interesting.
Not only was it interesting (Ferguson is witty and superbly articulate) it was paradigm-changing. By modern finance, I mean bond markets, stock markets, credit, insurance, banking, insurance, and hedge funds. The financial banks are the new railroads. Our standard of living is completely dependent on their well-being. This is a point that libertarians critical of the bank bailout would do well to acknowledge.
And the best thing about The Ascent of Money is that you don’t even have to read it. You can watch the PBS documentary and get as much as I did from reading the book.
Ferguson makes a sport out of criticizing Paul Krugman and has endorsed Mitt Romney. In Romney, Ferguson sees someone who understands the volatility of the bond market and its potential to make or break a country. Ferguson is right about bond markets, but seems to be ignoring the successes of the 90s when our budgets were balanced, our economy was booming, but yet our taxes were just a bit higher than they are now.
In that sense, I disagree with Ridley and Ferguson regarding the precise political implications of their works. But I cannot help but be profoundly influenced by the broad perspective they have helped instill. Pick up a copy of The Rational Optimist and The Ascent of Money, I don’t care what your political or economic persuasion.
On second thought, don’t follow Niall Ferguson. Since I wrote this article more than a year ago, the man has gone out of his way to be wrong about, frankly, everything. One could confidently govern a nation by inviting Ferguson’s opinion and then doing the exact opposite.
January 11, 2012 § 16 Comments
I supported Barack Obama last election. My support for him was not because I’m some hippie socialist liberal. Admittedly, I have a few views that you could call liberal, but I have many conservative views as well. This writer is pro gun rights, pro capitalism, pro life, and pro death penalty. My support for Obama was as much an aversion to Sarah Palin as anything. To me, her nomination was a signal that the leadership of the Republican Party had become unserious about effective governing. And since Obama entered office, I have been pleased to find him far less liberal than — guess who? — the Republican machine made and has continued to make him out to be. He’s been less liberal than even I expected. As Obama’s first term nears its end, I have found my patience for the Republican party, which has explicitly placed getting Obama out of office above any bonafide attempt to construct agreeable and effective policy, all but completely deteriorate.
So it can hardly be said that I was very interested in the Republican debates this time around. I have no interest in listening to a back-and-forth about such meaningless titles as who is the “most conservative” or who would really “repeal Obamacare”—the only government takeover of healthcare in history that did not actually take over healthcare at all—or how Obama hates America, etc. etc.. However, in the midst of each increasingly feckless debate, I would hear this strangely refreshing voice coming from the far corner. That voice belonged to John Huntsman.
Having heard a fair amount now from Huntsman, I have found him to be the most impressive candidate to come out of the Republican party in years—thoughtful, articulate, even proven. I thought, this is a man who really has it: A man who believes that a strong capitalism is the most important part of an effective economy, but that government is not the enemy of capitalism; a man who acknowledges the obvious—that greenhouse gasses are proliferating at an astounding rate and that they have the potential to fundamentally disrupt our way of life, but that our economy can continue to prosper while we address climate change; a man who deeply opposes abortion, yet does not believe that the government is an effective means of spreading Christianity; a man who has incisively surmised the effects of an inevitably more powerful China and the geopolitical importance of the South China Sea in the coming years; and a man who was ready to transform our educational systems to meet the demands of the 21st century. What a candidate!
I really thought Huntsman was going do well. I guess I assumed that, while the most extreme pockets of the Republican party were currently the loudest, over the course of the debates more moderate pockets of the Republican party would hear the brilliance of this man and finally have someone to rally behind who actually supported their views. I assumed that this wave of extremism, anti-government sentiment, and non-compromise was a fad. I suddenly found myself optimistic about the Republican party.
I was wrong.
Huntsman’s support among Republicans nationally currently sits at 2%. He has been the only candidate not to surge at any time leading up to the primaries. Huntsman devoted practically his whole campaign to doing well in the New Hampshire primary, a relatively moderate state in the Republican primary. Last night, he finished 3rd with a meager 17%.
I’m afraid that Huntsman is going to be a case study for future Republican candidates. They will take from this primary how effective it is to recite over and over the same platitudes about smaller and small government; less and less taxes; Ronald Reagan; bigger military; the other candidates not being conservative enough; that I’m the most conservative candidate—how conservative?—THE MOST CONSERVATIVE!; and hyperbole about the Democrats as evil, America-haters, God-haters who want European style socialism, and who aren’t just wrecking our economy but want to! And they will be struck by how ineffective it is to appropriate anything that ever was said by the opposing party or to exhibit even the faintest tinges of balance or moderation.
Unfortunately, Huntsman has been a case study for me too. Because of Huntsman, I now know how I would fare if I ever ran as a Republican. I’m not going to be a part of that party; It represents me in no way. I only feel bad for such a brilliant man like Huntsman who had to serve as my lab rat.
December 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
For a twenty-five year old, I’ve been lucky to have an unusually broad set of experiences. I’ve worked in a factory, on a farm, on an overnight construction shift for a department store, on hot rooftops running electrical wire, in a store bagging groceries, in my car delivering pizzas all over town, in the district office of a U.S. congressman, in the legal offices of several state agencies, and in some of the most high-level policy meetings among some of the most well-connected individuals in my home state of Arkansas. But beyond just jobs, I’ve lead Bible studies in jails, in the homes of millionaires, and everywhere in between. By virtue of being the son of a father who served twenty-four years in our armed forces, I was privileged to travel and meet people from all walks of life all over the country and the world (I was born in the Philippines). By virtue of being the son of a mother who is the most natural networker in the world who knows virtually every businessperson and public figure within an hour, I’ve been blessed to benefit from the network that almost from scratch she has put in hard work to establish. I’ve played golf at private country clubs in foursomes with CEOs as well as with less-well-off people on some of the cheapest municipal tracks you could not imagine. I spent one night wining and dining with people who will make more in their life than my whole family several times over and literally spent the next night at Wendy’s with a homeless man—a Vietnam veteran who had just lost his job as a trucker. If I had the patience here, I could with little difficulty dig for even more diverse experiences and acquaintances.
Let me drive this point home though: No matter where or with whom I’ve found myself, one constant has been respect for those who through hard work and integrity find themselves successful. What exceptions I have found to this have neither been frequent nor influential.
It is on this background that I find myself at odds with and even offended by the notion that there is a class warfare taking place in America. I don’t want to speak for the whole “occupy” movement because it includes many viewpoints. And I have no intention of writing the definitive article here on the merits of returning our highest income tax bracket to what it was in the 90s (39% from today’s 36%). But I absolutely want to see blotted out of the debate the phrase, “class warfare.” By an overwhelming majority, those advocating for our top income earners to be taxed what the top income earners were taxed in the 90s (when our top income earners were without question doing quite well) are not doing so because they disdain success. Class warfare is simply not in the DNA of Americans.
It is beyond question that our middle class is thinning out. A thinning middle class is a concern for every income class—for the lower class because it is into the middle class that the poor seek to enter and for the upper class because it is the middle class who consumes their goods and services. How to solve this problem is the subject of legitimate arguments on both sides of the Republican-Democrat divide. You might believe that a tax increase would discourage job creation. It’s a fair argument. And if this is what you believe, then by all means make this argument. But do not dismiss the viewpoint of the other side as mere class warfare. All too often this has proven to be a rhetorical device that has permitted opponents of the tax increase to ignore the merits of the underlying argument.
When making criticisms, criticize arguments. Not imagined characterizations of those making them.
December 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Why can I not move mountains? After all, Jesus said that if I had the faith of a mustard seed, I could do just that. I remember after the first time I read that, being a young boy, I wanted to try it. I didn’t live near a mountain so I focused my eyes on a nearby hill. I focused intensely on the hill—jaw clenched, eyebrows in, grip tightened. (My sister will tell you that when I focus intensely, I do this weird thing with my lips.) Well, my small neighborhood mountain never moved and for years, I thought little of Jesus’s statement.
Today, I have plenty of money to get by from day to day. I’ve never known hunger; for being a Christian I’ve never been threatened to be thrown in prison or tortured. I live in a beautiful area near the Arkansas river just outside of downtown Little Rock. The crime rate in my neighborhood is superbly low. I drive a car that I’ve had since high school, which I’m certain will fall apart in the next year, but I frequently go out to eat at nice restaurants nearby with friends that I find smart and funny and I’ve plenty of clothes and nice clothes at that. Ours is a world of diversified investment portfolios, fifty-plus-page contracts, gated communities, life insurance, liability insurance, health insurance, renter’s insurance, homeowner’s insurance, investment insurance, property insurance, unemployment insurance, and blah blippity blah blah . . . insurance. In sum, we like certainty. A lot.
There’s this passage in the New Testament where Jesus tells his followers to go out into the nearby towns to tell about him. He tells them not to bring any money, no extra clothes, no food, nothing. On their journey, they were able to do all kinds of miraculous things through the holy spirit.
There’s another passage in the Old Testament about a man named Gideon. There was nothing impressive at all about Gideon, yet God chose him to lead his army (note: There’s a lot of war in the Old Testament and this really trips people up about the Bible. I’ll write about this some other time but there’s a reason for this) against the Midianites. When Gideon prepared to lead the men into battle, they had thirty-two thousand soldiers. God told Gideon that he had too many soldiers and in the end, Gideon was left with only three-hundred. I’m skipping a bunch here to keep your and my attention but God delivered the Midianites to the Hebrews in a decisive victory. If you read the Old Testament, this basic narrative happens over and over: God’s people are put in a position of absolutely having to rely on God and God comes through.
So that brings me back to my mountain. Its really no surprise that it doesn’t move—I have no purpose for it to move. I’m by no means relying on God to move the mountain. I merely would be amused if he did. Faith is more than some kind of assent to the fact that God exists. Faith is not only believing that he exists, but utterly depending on the awesomeness of his power. After all, we’re talking about the creator the universe, the creator who has put his spirit in you and promised that you would be able to do more than Jesus ever did.
Find yourself depending on God more. Make yourself vulnerable. Do this and you will find yourself closer to God and safer than you’ve ever felt in your life. I promise. God does too.
August 25, 2011 § 2 Comments
Science and Christianity have never coexisted well. From the beginning of the scientific age, Christians have been unable or unwilling to reexamine their interpretations of the Bible in light of scientific developments. In all fairness, scientists for the most part are blinded from what they cannot observe by a notion that knowledge can come only from what is observable. While I have plenty with which to criticize the scientific community, my concern here is with Christians.
Beginning with Galileo’s proclamation that the Sun, not the Earth, lies at the center of the universe (notwithstanding Joshua 10), Christians have erroneously construed threats to their interpretations of Christianity as threats to God himself. To the detriment of our faith (and the faith of many unbelievers), Christians have approached in the most uncritical manner issues such as the Big Bang, the age of the earth, evolution, and climate change. My faith happens to be threatened by none of these.
So I’m going to take this time to talk about a current of scientific thought that, though more subtle than each of these, has the potential to be a significantly more legitimate and substantial threat to the Christian faith. This current, which exists in many variations, generally comes from the behavioral sciences—generally, psychology and sociology. I’ll be honest, this scares me.
Let’s begin with Phineas Gage, the well-known railroad worker who suffered an iron rod through his head, damaging his frontal lobe. Debates exist over the exact facts of the Gage case, but it is generally agreed that post-accident Gage was not the same as before. According to Harlow:
The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.
The Gage case is one illustration among many of our dependency on our nervous system.
In many ways, we also seem quite dependent on our upbringing. For most people, the environment in which they grow up—how they were raised by their parents, their socioeconomic standing, whether they were abused, whether they were successful early—will shape them at least as much as their biology. As an example, the American black community is 6.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Take a second to soak that in. Now, before I go on, this statistic has as its cause many factors. Part of this is no doubt attributable to racial profiling. But a large part I believe is attributable to present and, especially, historical income inequality.
The black community has been fighting an uphill economic battle since they were brought to America as slaves. Even after slavery ended, Jim Crow segregation laws continued. Jim Crow created a vicious feedback loop: as resentment and disempowerment accumulated, blacks increasingly turned to crime; as many turned to crime, they were increasingly distrusted by whites; as they were increasingly distrusted, resentment and disempowerment accumulated; and on and on. Even with Jim Crowe abolished and our various civil rights acts and amendments, we are still fighting history. Currently, blacks are unemployed at twice the rate of whites. The black-white income gap is the highest it has been since the census began tracking information on this subject in 1984. For the unbelievably disproportionate percentage of blacks who will end up in prison in this country, as a group it’s hard for me to point a judgmental finger. I refuse to believe that blacks are inherently less virtuous than whites. But these problems in the black community aptly demonstrate the powerful force that is disenfranchised history and upbringing.
It is well-argued that Christianity is nothing if people lack meaningful choice in their life, that is to say: if people cannot approach a situation with options and have the capacity to make a real choice among those options, then one has to question the justness of God—really, whether there is a god at all. While we are not saved because of our deeds (really, we are saved in spite of them), the salvation of every Christian is going to depend on choices that have to be made by the individual.
However, it is clear that your “choices” are going to be shaped tremendously (if not determined) by factors that you just can’t control. So the question I have is what god would send people to Hell for things that they have no control over? Nothing I can think of could be more harsh. Harsh hardly captures it.
My point here is not to resolve this question, or even begin to. I have many reasons to believe that there is a God. My point here is to frame the conversation. Questions like this have to be addressed honestly. If God really exists, then scrutiny along this line of questions should not too big for him. Don’t get hung up on the examples I have provided. Instead, use these as evidence that people are predisposed to conduct based on circumstances that are uncontrollable. This is a trend I see in many things.
I welcome input on this issue and will continue to post on my thoughts as they come to me.
July 26, 2011 § Leave a Comment
The fight over the debt limit has been painful. I’m tempted to say this is the lowest political moment of my life, but I’m reminded of the fight over Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Part of me says, “Of course Congress will strike a deal in the next seven days. The nation’s unemployment will reach Great Depression levels otherwise.” I struggle to hear that voice as I watch the debating.
So is this the end? Are we doomed? Perhaps not.
I’ve always wondered what it was like when constitutional scholars discovered the commerce clause as a means to fight racial discrimination (and pretty much everything else). (See Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States 379 U.S. 241). We haven’t had a truly novel constitutional development for some time. This, however, might be our time.
There has been recent talk regarding an obscure provision of the constitution. Section 4 of the 14th Amendment states as follows:
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payments of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion shall not be questioned.
Granted, Section 4 was not written with debt limits in mind; it was written to guarantee that Union soldiers would receive their due compensations. But, grammatically, this sentence is much broader than war pensions. This section fundamentally says that when the United States government owes money, it better pay it.
Before I go any further, let’s be clear about the operation of the debt limit. Most people understand it to work like saying: “I have a debt limit of 1,000 dollars. Therefore, if I’ve borrowed 900 dollars, I can’t buy on credit anything valued about 100 dollars.” Unfortunately, national finances don’t work like personal finances. It’s not as if the legislature has passed 900 dollars worth of legislation and now they are just waiting to pass 100 more. Most government spending is on autopilot. The government becomes indebted based on predetermined conditions and is spread out over years, even decades. You can’t just identify that last item in the budget and say, “Okay, we’ve reached the debt limit, now we stop purchasing things.” By law, the government continues to owe money and will continue to do so.
By implication then, enforcing a debt limit by necessity requires the government to dishonor its debts.
Eric Posner and Bill Clinton suggested that Section 4 allows the president to unilaterally raise the debt limit. I think this is wrong. Section 4 requires the president to do so and to continue to do so every time the debt limit will be surpassed. In other words, a functioning debt limit is unconstitutional.
There are a few counterarguments that I anticipate. First, the language could be seen as forbidding an outright repudiation rather than a mere default. However, as Garrett Epps points out, the language of Section 4 is “extraordinary.”
[I]t does not simply say that the national debt must be paid; it says that its “validity … shall not be questioned.” Only one other section of the Constitution–the Thirteenth Amendment’s proclamation that “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”–is as unqualified and sweeping.
. . .
Suppose you lend $10,000 to your cousin. When the debt comes due, he says, “Listen, I’m good for the money, but I’m a little short right now. Trust me, I will get it to you sooner or later.” That’s not repudiation. But on the other hand, you might think the validity was now at least being “questioned.”
Second, some might say that Section 5 provides the only enforcement mechanism. Section 5 reads: “The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” In other words, the president does not have the power to enforce the payment of debts, only Congress does. Notice, however, that Section 5 does not say, “Congress shall have the power to enforce . . . “; it says “Congress shall have power.” Thus, without Section 5, Congress would have no power to enforce Section 4. Additionally, Section 1, also and indisputably within Section 5′s reach, has been enforced by lawsuit, executive order, and legislation.
Politically, Obama is making a mistake by refusing to pursue this course. By merely threatening to do so, he would gain bargaining leverage in the negotiations. Congressional opposition would have to know that if Obama were to take the plunge and ignore the debt limit, the move would be extremely popular nationally. If I were Obama, I would make the political declaration immediately and deal with the legal battle when it comes.