Honoring swagger and bluster

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Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force; too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of others. Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of inciting riots have by their own conduct invited them.

Some looks for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear; violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.

Robert F. Kennedy

“to extend federal power to virtually all human activity”

What is absolutely clear, affirmed by the text of the 1789 Constitution, by the Tenth Amendment ratified in 1791, and by innumerable cases of ours in the 220 years since, is that there are structural limits upon federal power—upon what it can prescribe with respect to private conduct, and upon what it can impose upon the sovereign States. Whatever may be the conceptual limits upon the Commerce Clause and upon the power to tax and spend, they cannot be such as will enable the Federal Government to regulate all private conduct and to compel the States to function as administrators of federal programs.

SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, and ALITO, JJ., dissenting

California in Ruins

My brother sent me this intriguing look at modern California. It points to something that I think is happening all over the place: the country has turned into wealthy enclaves with pristine communities and large swaths of crumbling and dilapidated homes and infrastructure (Flint and Detroit Michigan come to mind). I don’t think the answer to this is purely fiscal, I think it is largely character-based as well. Picking up after yourself, cleaning up your lawn and so forth are values that are not universal. The fiscal problems are also real. Because our entitlement and defense spending is so enormous, spending on roads and bridges cannot compete with the massive amounts of money we spend on other things. I think if any of us drove 20 or 30 minutes outside of our locale, we could find the broken down areas next to us that we choose not to see. Here is an excerpt of the article:

Here are some general observations about what I saw (other than that the rural roads of California are fast turning into rubble, poorly maintained and reverting to what I remember seeing long ago in the rural South). First, remember that these areas are the ground zero, so to speak, of 20 years of illegal immigration. There has been a general depression in farming — to such an extent that the 20- to-100-acre tree and vine farmer, the erstwhile backbone of the old rural California, for all practical purposes has ceased to exist.

On the western side of the Central Valley, the effects of arbitrary cutoffs in federal irrigation water have idled tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural land, leaving thousands unemployed. Manufacturing plants in the towns in these areas — which used to make harvesters, hydraulic lifts, trailers, food-processing equipment — have largely shut down; their production has been shipped off overseas or south of the border. Agriculture itself — from almonds to raisins — has increasingly become corporatized and mechanized, cutting by half the number of farm workers needed. So unemployment runs somewhere between 15 and 20 percent.

Many of the rural trailer-house compounds I saw appear to the naked eye no different from what I have seen in the Third World. There is a Caribbean look to the junked cars, electric wires crisscrossing between various outbuildings, plastic tarps substituting for replacement shingles, lean-tos cobbled together as auxiliary housing, pit bulls unleashed, and geese, goats, and chickens roaming around the yards. The public hears about all sorts of tough California regulations that stymie business — rigid zoning laws, strict building codes, constant inspections — but apparently none of that applies out here.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the late Empire in Rome, when taxes could not be collected and outlying provinces fell into ruins. More confirmation that we are entering a new dark age in the West. The paradox is that we also have sections of the country with more information and more wealth than almost ever before.

Virginia is Rich

The latest data from the Census Bureau shows that Virginia has the three most wealthy counties in the nation. Maryland has another couple in the top tier. All of these counties are in the suburban DC area. Why is this? Because the seat of the Federal government is here. We suck up tax money from the rest of the nation and distribute it in the souk that is the DC area. And Federal workers make what seems like outrageous amounts of money because housing in close to DC costs a fortune. So those salaries aren’t what they seem, and the ever-rising federal wages contribute to the outrageous cost of living in the area – a vicious circle. Here is an example of single family homes from Falls Church plucked at random from the Washington Post.

My suggestion? Distribute all of the Federal agencies throughout the backwater cities of America like Topeka, Omaha, etc. and break the power of the Federal center.

Wikileaks and Espionage

The Wikileaks story dominates our news today. Some people have wondered how an enlisted soldier was able to simply burn all of this information onto discs and then pass it along? Well, it doesn’t surprise me much and I expect much worse ahead.

Back in the mid 90’s I was in Intelligence and was stationed at the headquarters of a certain large agency. I carried a backpack every day and this agency had a spot-check policy for backpacks and purses. I was never once spot-checked. Theoretically, I could have carried documents and such out of the building every day if I wanted to risk being caught.

Jump ahead to today. In the old days, spies had to sneak photocopies of microfilm or something like that out to their handlers. Now, you could use memory sticks or a cell phone. I can’t imagine the damage that an iPhone could do – video, pictures, etc. My guess is that it will only be a matter of time until we hear of huge losses of sensitive data to somebody who just took pictures on his phone all day at work. How can the government stop this? Can they ban all phones at work? Can they enforce such a ban? I think not.

Perhaps the security in critical places like nuclear labs and top-level analysis centers is better and it would be harder to take information out of them, but I have no confidence in that. Perhaps the larger question is how the nation-state can lock down information in the  digital age. I don’t have much faith in the ability of a big, lumbering organization like the modern State to keep information secret. All it takes is one person with hostile intentions to wreak havoc with national secrets.

Charles Finney the Scary Heretic

My last post on wine in church reminded me that the source of all this frustration is the stupid Prohibition movement which still leaves its mark on American churches in the form of grape juice. Many of these movements stemmed from the crusading fervor of heretics such as Charles Finney. I call him scary both for his beliefs and his personal appearance [see below].

Finney’s heresies are ably outlined by Michael Horton here. Essentially, he taught a form of Christian perfectionism that meant not only that you *can* be free from sin prior to death [not possible] , but that you *must* be like this in order to be saved! Horton quotes him:

… full present obedience is a condition of justification. But again, to the question, can man be justified while sin remains in him? Surely he cannot, either upon legal or gospel principles, unless the law be repealed … But can he be pardoned and accepted, and justified, in the gospel sense, while sin, any degree of sin, remains in him? Certainly not.

You cannot be justified while any degree of sin remains in you! Christ cleaned the slate and now it’s up to you to get it done! I grew up in a church that held this man up as a hero and it plagued many years of my life with thinking that I didn’t measure up because I kept sinning. It is a theology that warps and destroys souls. If you want to see the extreme, cultish version of where it leads [including free love], read The Kingdom of Matthias. Finney -> Matthias -> Sojurner Truth, the 1800’s creep me out.

But out of all this perfectionist fervor came Prohibition, amongst other weird things like Quaker Oats and Graham Crackers. Graham was another perfectionist with bizarre dietary theories that are probably right at home with our modern practitioners of magnets and needles. Susan Cayleff writes in Wash and Be Healed, “Graham admonished his listeners against culinary gluttony, believe that the stomach was the center of the system, and advocated the use of only whole grain bread, unbolted. This belief eventually produced the “graham cracker,” which was a dietary mainstay in hygenic households.”

The Wikipedia entry on Graham says, “Graham was also inspired by the temperance movement and preached that a vegetarian diet was a cure for alcoholism, and, more importantly,sexual urges. The main thrust of his teachings was to curb lust. While alcohol had useful medicinal qualities, it should never be abused by social drinking. For Graham, an unhealthy diet stimulated excessive sexual desire which irritated the body and caused disease. While Graham developed a significant following known as Grahamites, he was also ridiculed by the media and the public for his unwavering zealotry. According to newspaper records, many women fainted at his lectures when he aired opinions both on sexual relations and the wearing of corsets…In 1850 he helped found the American Vegetarian Society modeled on a similar organization established in Great Britain.”

Vegetarianism, socialism, sinless perfectionism, prohibition, it’s all there. These folks figured that your diet produced sinful lust in you, so it must be regulated. Alcohol was evil, so it must be eliminated. They placed the source of sin in the object outside of you, rather than your own failure of self-control. Due to these fine folks, most churches today disobey Jesus and use grape juice in Communion.

 

Our Future

It is hard to imagine what the future of the USA will look like, and forecasts are useless anyway, because none of us actually KNOWS the future. That said, we face such tidal waves of debt in this nation and globally that a reckoning day will come. [I will make my own useless forecast] Since we are unlikely to cut spending much or raise taxes much, my guess is that the reckoning will be in the form of hyperinflation. Inflation makes debts small at the cost of destroying the currency and punishing savers. What all this means for me and my children is worrisome.

I am post-millennial, which means that I think the future is ultimately bright for Christ and His Church. I think things have gotten better since the Resurrection. You only think things are the worst now if you don’t know history very well. While I expect a form of “collapse” for the USA I don’t think it will be “end of the world” collapse, just something like the collapse of the British Empire. We won’t be able to police the world, tell everyone what to do, and so on. Rod Dreher talks about where to live and whether or not to move on his blog. Will there be social unrest? I would think so. I don’t think living in cities will be pleasant at times. On the other hand, living in extremely rural areas doesn’t seem great either due to driving distances, lack of supplies, and so on. If oil prices go up, driving distances may become untenable and low income / fixed income folk aren’t going to be able to commute. All of this seems to point to suburbs and smaller cities becoming more livable, walkable and pleasant, so that is an upside.

I would imagine that our standard of living will stagnate, but on the other hand it seems possible that there will continue to be an uber-class of vastly wealthy elites and an underclass of the proletariat who cannot protect their savings with gold, overseas banks and the like. Stress will come on the institutions of governance and perhaps they will fall apart. And yet technology affords the government with unprecedented means of spying, control and punishment.

Perhaps a public burned by experiences with debt and disabused of the notion that the Messianic State can take care of everything will mature in wisdom. Perhaps fragments of our society can begin to return to taking care of local things instead of always worrying about national issues that we can do nothing about. Or perhaps we are in for several centuries of darkness, where fragility and uncertainty reign and the political landscape shifts all the time. Either way, there are great opportunities for the Church in the coming century, due to technology, upheaval and the failure of institutions that are given over to evil.

Housing in Virginia 2010

It is now May of 2010 and there is no sign that housing is recovering here in Virginia. I live out in the exurbs, so in close to the city core things are probably a bit different. Out here, most of the homes that sat empty last summer still sit empty today. Most of them don’t have any signs on them at all and grass is now waist deep. I am no expert, but I imagine that a home sitting empty for a summer or two warps, cracks and falls into disrepair. Mold sets in. Bugs get in. Who wouldn’t want that? The few homes that do sell are at fire sale prices, 150K or more under where they were in 05-06.

Will these homes eventually need to be demolished? Will this neighborhood and those like it turn into exurban ghettos? After all, we are only another oil shock or inflation shock away from it being totally unthinkable to do the 1-3 hour commutes (each way) that we do here.

All things considered, housing isn’t picking up steam here. There are years of pain ahead.

Subsidies for the World’s Most Expensive Healthcare

Writing a market analysis for Citigroup’s weekly Portfolio Strategist newsletter, Steven Wieting outlines a dire future for America’s government debt. Note that this is far from a partisan magazine, it is a real-world analysis of possible scenarios for investors. An extensive excerpt follows:

§ Markets may still be overestimating the short-term vulnerability of the U.S. economy amid a strengthening and self-sustaining cyclical recovery. At the same time, the risks to U.S. economic performance in the long term have actually never seemed more dire.

§ Far from hoarding labor (unlike others), the U.S. has just endured the deepest two year decline in employment of the post war period. Signs abound that production, employment and investment declines have been unnecessarily severe, an overshoot. Friday’s data surprised with three consecutive months of private employment gains, with some confirmation in the separate survey of households.

§ But few had ever contemplated entering a well-advertised period of demographic weakening and higher dependency levels with a U.S. budget deficit so large as a starting condition.

§ The structural budget deficit looks potentially unmanageable even five years from now, when employment is assumed to be “full” and the financial supports of the recent crisis are paid back as fully as they ever will be.

§ Higher taxes have always seemed necessary to cover elder-care entitlements in the period ahead. But as a start, taxes are being raised instead to cover expanding entitlements further and can’t be used again for initial deficit reduction or offsets to future large increases in spending programs in place.

§ With the presumed passage of expanded subsidized healthcare coverage for nearly all in need, U.S. consumers, taxpayers and employers will have to buy more of the same healthcare goods and services sourced at the highest observable cost per unit in the world.

Unusual Digression in Short and Long View

On visits to clients across different parts of the world in recent weeks, we have continued to sense at least a worrying complacency with the long-term outlook for the U.S., against residual fears that the economy is incapable of cyclical recovery. In essence, many investors seem to overestimate cyclical vulnerability, while underestimating structural economic risks for the U.S. over the long run, in our view.

Far from hoarding labor (unlike others), the U.S. has just endured the deepest two year decline in employment of the post war period. Signs abound that production, employment and investment declines have been unnecessarily severe, an overshoot.

[…]

At the same time, the risks to U.S. economic performance in the long-term have actually never seemed more dire.

A demographic bulge in the dependency ratio has always loomed beginning in the early- to mid 2010s. That “bulge” worsens gradually for the following 25 years.

Few had ever contemplated entering this period with a U.S. budget deficit so large as a starting condition. This structural budget deficit looks potentially unmanageable even five years from now, when employment is assumed to be “full” and the financial supports of the recent crisis are paid back as fully as they ever will be.

Higher taxes have always seemed necessary to cover elder-care entitlements in the period ahead. But as a start, taxes are now being raised instead to cover expanding entitlements further and can’t be used again for initial deficit reduction or offsets to future large increases in spending programs already in place.

Following the recent political debate, many Americans might have come away with the notion that health insurance companies “charge too much” for healthcare. Perhaps the insurers need to hire their own cheaper doctors and build their own cheaper hospitals to compete with the existing supply of them. Assuming otherwise, they will still need to pay the same amounts for hospital stays, procedures and medicines as before, at the highest observable cost per unit in the world. But now, with the presumed passage of expanded subsidized coverage for nearly all in need, U.S. consumers, taxpayers and employers will have to buy more of those same goods and services, sourced from the same supply base.

Aside from small experimental steps to develop competitive exchanges for individual insurance coverage, never before have we seen a U.S. policy solution seem so detached from the underlying problem it purports to address. Americans want more healthcare, and will need more as the population ages. But the existing system fails in almost every way to match economic benefits with costs, obscuring them instead.

And while the latest reform effort purports deficit reduction over ten years, it does so on roughly six years of expenditures and 10 years of tax increases. More importantly, medical entitlements have never been “overpriced” into budget outlooks allowing for positive cost surprises (see Figure 11). The healthcare overhaul achieves the bulk of its purported spending cuts through limiting Medicare payments to doctors, hospitals and nursing homes, cuts that Congress has failed to pass through repeatedly since 2003, instead opting for more spending. Private insurers, meanwhile, would see some ostensible limits to their pricing, but generally would need to expand coverage, and purchases of healthcare services and goods.

In two places in the developing and developed world, laypeople mentioned to us that healthcare in the U.S. would now properly come for “free” for those unable to pay for it. If only that was true. Instead, future tax payers will have to come to grips with the costs of a system that for now is neither disciplined by competitive market forces nor rationed like other public welfare programs.

But if not in healthcare, rationing will take place in other places. Public education outlays for the future taxpayers have reportedly been a target of near-term budget constraints. While never free from waste, these are human resource investments that contribute to the future economic output. There are investments in the individuals who will carry the larger future tax burdens of the dependency bulge of coming decades.

We have been concerned for some time that a greater, unsustainable share of future entitlement outlays will end up deficit financed, with costs simply put off further into the future. At least that may be attempted. But among other concerns, lenders to the U.S. may feel less than certain about that stream of future income and output if incentives are so skewed against those who will need to provide it.

What to do after the Healthcare Defeat?

Many Christians are asking what is to be done in light of our latest defeat and the expansion of the Messianic State. Conservatives have lost every single battle of my adult lifetime and are forever retreating, even when in power. Back in the 1980‘s in an essay called “Rebellion, Tyranny, and Dominion in the Book of Genesis” from the book “Tactics of Christian Resistance”, James Jordan exegetes Genesis and its implications for Christian politics. His bottom-line is that right now we are in a situation where we must wait with patient faith, mature, and achieve power only in the distant future. Note that you should probably read the whole essay and understand his exegesis to understand his conclusions. An extended quote follows; Jordan writes:

 Is the “New Right” really “ready to lead”? I doubt it. The New Right has not yet figured out the message of the book of Genesis. It continues to think that reformation will come through the acquisition of political power. By looking to the state, New Rightists (and old conservatives as well) make themselves statist. […]

Many conservative Roman Catholics thought that John Kennedy would help turn things around. They were disappointed; Mr. Kennedy apparently spent too much time doing other things to ask what he could do for his country. Mainline conservatives then trusted Richard Nixon, a man knowledgeable in international affairs, to turn things around. They were disappointed; Mr. Nixon’s conscience was not sufficiently seared to permit him to act like a Democratic Party politician, guilt-free. Bible believing Christians had high hopes for Jimmy Carter. Need we add that they were disappointed by the decisions made by Mr. Carter’s mother, sister, and wife? And then the whole New Right got behind Ronald Reagan, who by his appointments betrayed them before he even took office, and has now signed a bill, updating social security, which directly taxes the churches.

[We could add the two George Bushes, New Gingrich and Sarah Palin to this list, we never learn. – Joel]

[…]

Frankly, I believe that in all of this God has, as always, been gracious to us. Are Christians in this country ready to take charge? Heaven forbid! Virtually none of them knows the first thing about the law of God, by which they are called to govern. Most of them do not even acknowledge the sovereignty of God. Few have any experience in governing, since their churches have no courts, being at best mere preaching points (where they have not degenerated into spas and literal circuses). The most powerful New Christian Right people are personality-cult oriented, one-man shows (and by shows I mean shows: radio shows, television shows, and the putting on of shows).

[…]

This is not to despise the New Christian Right, or to argue that we should not exercise our (remaining) liberties as Americans to pressure the larger governments toward more Godly actions. We need to remember, however, that there is only so much time and energy alloted to each of us, and essentially that time is far better spent acquiring dominion through service than in power politics.

We may contrast three different approaches, which are not mutually exclusive, but which are of varying value at present. First, there is the effort to change laws by getting people elected to office. That has not been very successful so far, and the reason is that the vast majority of Americans essentially like things the way they are. That’s why things are the way they are – it is what the people want, and it is what they deserve, and so it is what God gives them…

Second, there is the effort to go about our business as quietly as possible. We submit to the “powers that be,” not to any law that such powers may happen to enact. We do not recognize their right to make laws, for to do so would be to grant them absolute power; but we recognize that God has given them power, and we are not to contest that power as such. We practice deception where morally necessary, and that includes preserving our capital, protecting our households, and rearing our children, as Genesis makes clear. If we are taken to court, we fight in that arena for the right to conduct Christian lives, as Paul did in the book of Acts.

Third, there is the effort to develop a Christian subculture, building up the churches as true courts and sanctuaries, developing Christian arbitration and reconciliation commissions, Christian schools, Christian medical facilities, and the like. These latter two methods are the primary ones for our times. […]

When we are ready, God will give the robe to us. That He has not done so proves that we are not ready. Asserting our readiness will not fool Him. Let us pray that He does not crush us by giving us such authority before we are ready for it. Let us plan for our great-grandchildren to be ready for it. Let us go about our business, acquiring wisdom in family, church, state, and business, and avoiding confrontations with the powers that be. Let us learn to be skillful in deceiving them and in preserving our assets for our great-grand-children. For as sure as Christ is risen from the grave and is ascended to regal glory on high, so sure it is that his saints will inherit the kingdom and rule in His name, when the time is right.