Friday, March 26, 2010

Re: What's Next

Whether or not it should be first on the progressive agenda, it looks like what is next on the Democratic agenda is Wall Street reform:

Health care's done. Members of Congress are home, or will be soon, and will spend the next two weeks talking to their constituents about the monumental law they just passed. But when Democrats return to Washington they'll have to balance their health care sales job with a completely different, and long-brewing initiative: financial regulatory reform...

Getting upset when other people get help

The chattering classes in Washington seem to indicate that the Obama administration will be implementing a new foreclosure prevention program that actually seeks to reduce the outstanding principal on mortgages that are currently upside down (owe more than they are worth).

We all know that the country is in a housing crisis. Every time a house is foreclosed upon, not only is one family displaced, but it reduces the value of every other home in the neighborhood, increases the likelihood for crime, and reduces the tax base for the city in which they formerly lived. Even so, I was not surprised to see the following reaction:

A few months ago, the principal on my mortgage was comfortably more than the place was worth, and my low income was in decline. So I did the responsible thing, cut my expenses back to the bone, and raised and moved whatever money I could to cover it, and to try to pay it down. I wanted to deal with the fact that I was upside down on the mortgage and dangerously exposed to future rate increases; most of all, I wanted simply to reduce my monthly payments.

Why did I bother?

If I had not been so responsible, Obama’s plan (I still cannot quite believe it) would have given me (via my bank) YOUR money, humble tax-payer, as a gift to reduce my mortgage, and I would have gained to the tune of many thousands of dollars.

However, because I did the responsible thing, MY tax money will be going to help those who were in exactly the same situation as I, but weren’t responsible enough to live within their means and meet their obligations, perhaps because they bought a bigger car than they needed, were paying interest on credit cards they shouldn’t have been using, or whatever…

How dare the government do this? How dare they? This isn’t capitalism. It isn’t even communism. It is some upside down, messed-up mediocracy.
At one level, I'm quite sympathetic to this blogger. She (he?) does appear to have tried to act responsibly and as such may not receive the direct benefit of those who have not been able to take the same actions as her. While she assumes that all had the ability to make these same decisions (I'm not sure how an unemployed person could have raised their mortgage payment), lets run with her assumption for the moment. What if irresponsibility is being rewarded here?

From an economic standpoint, this may well be problematic. The administration is at some level providing a disincentive for responsible decision-making. However, I think an economic case can be made for proceeding anyway due to the harm it causes to those who live around the potentially foreclosed home.

However, it is from a theological perspective where this really gets murky. There is no doubt that much of the Bible operates from an action-reward ethic. The prophets, whose texts I do love dearly, clearly indicate that God is punishing Israel (or one of the nations) because of the actions they have taken. Thus, any punishment they receive is God's just reward.

However, Jesus presents a different perspective- one many of us might call Kingdom Economics:

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’
By any contemporary measure, the landowner is not treating his workers fairly. Those who worked all day certainly would seem to have a reason to gripe. But Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God works differently. Indeed, it is an economy based on grace and not worth. Thus, God freely gives to those who may not "deserve it."

So why continue to honor God? Why seek to follow God's ways if there isn't a reward in it for us? It is because we recognize that we are made in God's image. We know that there is no one else that we would choose to follow. We honor and obey God not because of the reward, but because we trust that in so doing we might be just this much closer to bringing about the kingdom of God here and now.

I don't claim that the government should make all economic decisions based on my theology. But I do claim that we as Christians should celebrate, rather than be resentful, when we see God's grace lived out in the world. It may not be fair. It may not even seem logical at times. But I'm content to trust that the God who created all knew what s/he was doing. Thank God it's not up to me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

What's next?

Ok, I want to start with the necessary caveat that nothing is over till it is over and that health care reform still needs attention. Furthermore, this certainly isn't the last step to a perfect system and it will have to be tweaked in the future.

That being said, I had an interesting conversation online today regarding what progressives should focus on next. He thought immigration reform; my sense was climate change. But I can admit that it wasn't too well thought out. So, my progressive sisters and brothers, what is next?

Let's set some ground rules-
1. It has to be something that can legitimately be accomplished before November. Thus, I'm not sure something like eliminate the death penalty counts.
2. It must be politically pragmatic to do. This is kind of like the last, but let's be honest, as we get close to an election politicians are far less likely to take major risks.
3. As always, our need to tackle it has got to come out of our faith somewhere.

So, what do you think it should be?

Controlling Costs

Now that we have come to the point where the bulk of healthcare reform has been passed, we enter into a phrase where our working theories, both on the left and the right, get put to the test. If this bill collapses the health care system and bankrupts the country, the right will be validated and will be able to use the popular disgust to repeal the bill and implement their own system.
However, I firmly believe that is not what will happen. While health care will need to continually be tweaked (as with any major program), I believe this bill has made the first major steps toward stopping the runaway freight train that has been health care costs all while guaranteeing near universal coverage. If I and progressives are right, here are five ways in which it will be accomplished:

(1) Create a competitive insurance market:
(2) Implement reforms through the Medicare Commission:
(3) Encourage cost control through a tax on "Cadillac plans"
(4) Change incentives through Medicare "bundling" programs
(5) Changing the politics of reform

Read Klein's article in full for the details, but suffice to say this is how the policy will be judged. The time for speculation has ended. When these reforms are fully implemented, we'll be able to see whose philosophy was right.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Gay-Friendly Church

Sometimes its hard to think about just how far we have to go:

On Abortion and Health Care Reform

I recognize that one of the stickiest issues in the intersection between faith and politics is that of abortion. Though I disagree with some positions taken by self-described "pro-life" people, I do believe I understand their position and can appreciate where they are coming from.
There has recently been considerable publicity and energy over whether or not the current reforms before Congress would actually encourage more abortion. I am aware of 0 people on either side of this debate who actually would advocate for more abortions. Thus, this is a considerable charge.

However, I believe that much of the rhetoric around abortion and health care reform has failed to live up to reality. Thus, I encourage all to read this article explaining just what the Senate Health Care Bill (the only one that is on the path to approval) does and doesn't do.

Charge:   Health care reform will allow federal funding for abortions through community clinics:

Fact:   "None of the 1,250 Federally Qualified Health Centers, or FQHCs, that would receive the billions in money through the reform bill offer abortion services."

Charge:    Health care reform will force American's to subsidize abortions.

Fact: " The Senate bill with the Nelson language says an insurance plan in the exchange can offer abortion coverage, but a woman who wants it must pay for that element of the coverage by a separate check that goes into a separate account."
Charge: All American's will be required to pay a special fee to cover abortion:

Fact: "The reality is only those who elect to choose a policy that includes abortion would have to pay the separate fee, and that is designed to keep federal dollars from potentially paying for abortions."
Charge: Abortion will be forced on states where voters have chosen to make obtaining an abortion difficult.

Fact: "The Senate bill also explicitly allows states to bar any policies in the federally created insurance exchanges from providing abortion coverage."

Furthermore, there are a number of provisions in the bill that are likely to reduce the number of abortions. The bill
"includes key elements of the Pregnant Women's Support Act that have long been sought by abortion foes: One is to appropriate $250 million over 10 years to create a federal Pregnancy Assistance Fund, which will provide assistance to pregnant and parenting teenagers and college students, as well as pregnant victims of domestic violence; another Senate provision not in the House bill would increase federal financing for adoption by $1.2 billion over the next two years."
Additionally, there is some evidence showing that people with insurance coverage are far less likely to receive an abortion than those who are uninsured.

Thus, fair minded people may oppose health care reform for a variety of reasons. Abortion, or the fear of increased abortions, ought not be one.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Christian Unity

Look Ma, I'm starring in a cartoon:

Faith and Wealth

This is an interesting chart to ponder.  It did challenge my expectation that Evangelicals would be wealthier then the average Christian.  That's a shame-  I always blame them for the prosperity Gospel.  Perhaps I need to look a bit closer to home.

h/t:  Andrew Sullivan

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Our Government Inaction

H/T:  Ezra Klein

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Conservative Voice Against Torture

I'm often accused of approaching political issues with a left-leaning bias. I plead guilty! Despite this, I do not believe I hold most of my positions out of fealty to a particular political party, but out of core principals that I draw from studying politics and policy in light of my faith.

As such, I often think the positions I hold on moral issues are those that do not cut strictly down the liberal-conservative moral divide. While I may espouse liberalism in the laws passed by the government, this does not mean I believe in an anything-goes world.

I say this because I’m about to tread into an issue where I have been accused of being a softhearted liberal. I am continually amazed by the cavalier way in which many American Christians accept the use of torture in a variety of circumstances. I just don’t see how this squares with our desire to be re-formed (re-born) in the image of Christ. I was thus pleased to see that a Christian writer at the arch-conservative website National Review Online agrees:
I think torture is a great evil, and that the resort to it in the past decade is a black spot on America’s record.

It’s not just a black spot on America. It is a black spot on American Christianity. I encourage you to read this conservative’s wrestling on the issue. He is honest about its complexity- perhaps more honest then I could manage. I applaud him for exploring the issue, and hope many more Christians of all ideologies can follow his example.

If, like me, you think your church is crying out for a frank discussion on this issue, this article published in the United Methodist Faith in Action newsletter will give you a place to start.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Re: Our paralyzed Government

A friend responds:

"I don't see how sending more money, nor having the gov't spend more money, is necessarily advocating for the poor given the abysmal efficiency and track record of gov't poverty measures. And, of course, there's that teach a man to fish/give a man a fish thing. The worst thing that happened to the poor (and the church, for that matter) was the gov't takeover of charity."
I wanted to respond on the blog because it taps into something I've been meaning to write about. I often hear people say that the government took away what the church should be doing. How exactly did it do that? There is certainly no law prohibiting denominations from setting up new hospitals, new food pantries, private schools etc. There is absolutely nothing that prevents a rich church in the suburbs from diverting their $500,000+ budget away from internal expenses and toward outreach ministry to the communities around them.

Furthermore, for the individual, there is absolutely nothing preventing them from donating money to faith-based institutions to do this charity work. Want to pay less taxes? Donate more of your money! Every dollar you donate to a non-profit is one less dollar that is taxed by the government.
My conservative and libertarian brothers and sisters- the opportunity to stop sending money to the government by giving it to charities is hanging out there. Nobody can stop you. You just have to be willing to give it away.