Glenn Beck and Cleon Skousen

The inimitable Aaron Wolf has a good post up about Mormonism and America. Excerpt:

And yet everything about this America-is-God’s-country ideology is Mormon to the core.  It serves as the false foundation of a religion that finds the center of human history not in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection of Christ but in “another revelation of Jesus Christ” in the terrestrial “promised land” on which we stand.  It is Manichaean, declaring our external enemies evil and ourselves good, locating wickedness not in the hearts of sinful men but in the foes of a human government that will wither as the grass.  It is the religion of America—not the real, historical America, but the America of myth and fantasy.

“If we do these things,” Beck preached, “we will heal our nation.”  The phrase is reminiscent of 2 Chronicles 7:14, so often cited at rallies on the National Day of Prayer.  If my people, which are called by my name, shall . . . return to limited government (no. 19)?  Operate according to the will of the majority (no. 20)?  Be debt-free (no. 27)?  The assumption here is that Americans, like the Israelites of old, are uniquely “my [God’s] people.”  And that it is not “I the Lord” but “We the gods” who can “heal their land.”

Starving Leviathan

I wonder:

* How many colleges and universities could survive as currently configured without Federal loans, grants and aid?

* How many foreign governments and militaries could survive without aid from the United States?

* How many hospitals or other medical practices could survive without Medicare, Medicaid and other payments from the central government?

* How many state governments could survive as currently configured without Federal money?

* How many businesses in the DC metro area would collapse if defense and other Federal spending were drastically reduced?

* How could the housing market survive in its current form without government assistance?

I could go on. The tentacles are everywhere.

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.

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.

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.

The Barbarian Conversion

Richard Fletcher [The Barbarian Conversion] notes that ancient Christendom was not monolithic:

In terms of custom and practice there were many churches in sixth- and seventh-century Europe, not One Church. Christendom was many-mansioned.

Fletcher talks about the motif of exile in the monastic expansion. Christians, following the writing of Augustine, saw themselves as exiles and pilgrims and then the monastics took this exile literally. They often left their homeland and people to found monastic missions amongst others. Fletcher says:

Pilgrimage, in the sense of ascetic renunciation of homeland and kinsfolk, is of special importance in our understanding of the phenomenon of conversion in the early Middle Ages. Pilgrimage merged insensibly into mission. The monasteries that were founded by the exiled holy men had something of the character of mission stations. It was not that they were established primarily among pagans; indeed, they could not have been, dependent as they were on wealthy patrons, necessarily Christian…for their endowments…But their monastic communities were situated on the margins of Christendom, and had what might be called “diffusive potential” among nearby laity who were Christian only in the most nominal of senses.

It seems to me that we could apply this same method to the diffusion of the faith in our day. Establishing tightly-focused communities at the margins of our society, for example in rural areas and urban areas that aren’t glamorous. Communities devoted to Biblical saturation, mission and learning which could aim to gradually convert the surrounding area.