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Saturday, March 16, 2019

Dictatorship or Democracy: Is Either Hospitable to the Kingdom of God?

Religion and political power can be dangerous if combined and aimed at people deemed to be apostate or heretical. In calling for the Crusades, our Roman Catholic popes put their political power behind the theocratic and political goal of taking back Jerusalem and Constantinople/Istanbul “for Christ.” Those popes and the kings and soldiers who went to war with the Muslims there wittingly or unwittingly violated Jesus’s preachment to love rather than fight enemies. Christianity and political power have not mixed well, historically. The U.S. Constitution forbids the federal government and, presumably, the states, to establish or sponsor a religion or even favor one. Theocracies, such as those in the Calvinist colonies in New England (except for Rhode Island, which allowed freedom of religion), would be excluded as a political form for the Union as well as its member-states. Rather than meaning “sub-unit” or “province” as in Normandy in the E.U. state of France, the American Continental Congress has applied “state” in the generic sense of a polity with a yet-to-be-determined political system. Hence while the Articles of Confederation were in force, before the U.S. Constitution, the states could legally form theocracies. The film, The President (2014), is fictional, but this doesn’t stop its portrayal of a toppled president in hiding from looking realistic, given the cases of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The character arc of the president while he is in hiding, or “on the run,” captures a generally unknown way in which Jesus’ preaching on how to enter the unknown Kingdom of God can apply to political power in a good way. This is not to advocate theocracy, however. Rather, individuals who wield power, whether in government or business, can come to see the very nature of power differently and gain new insight into the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus.

The full essay is at "The President."

Friday, March 15, 2019

It’s Only Fair

Astonishingly, organizations can violate their own mission statement without any manager or non-supervisory employee being aware of the violation. This can happen even when the people in an organization really do take their mission seriously. At Goodwill, the mission is to end poverty, a laudable goal. It follows explicitly (i.e., according to a sign in the stores) that “every customer has an equal opportunity to purchase any item for sale.” Although the sign bases this point on the fact that the goods “come from public donation,” I submit that ending poverty by giving the poor access to relatively low-priced merchandise is hampered if some customers are permitted to fill their carts with on-sale (i.e., color of week) items when the doors open. Certainly allowing those resale-minded customers to deprive other customers of a selection of items on sale (especially clothing, which even homeless people need) is not fair.

The full essay is at "Unfairness at Goodwill."

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Holding the U.S. Debt-Ceiling Hostage: A Case of Political Expediency over Statesmanship

In April of 2011, S & P lowered expectations on U.S. Government debt from “stable” to “negative.”  Astonishing, the $14.2 trillion U.S. debt was still rated as AAA. The shift in expectations did not trigger higher borrowing costs because the market presumed that a political deal lowering the deficit would be facilitated by the warning-call. At the same time, Congress and the U.S. president were grappling with the need to extend the federal debt ceiling. The federal government was projected at the time to reach its borrowing limit by May 16, 2011, though the Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, said he could use accounting options to push the date back to July 8. He assured the public that Republicans in Congress had told President Obama that they would go along with a higher limit. “I want to make it perfectly clear that Congress will raise the debt ceiling,” the Geithner said.  He also said the Republican leaders had assured the president that they “couldn’t play around with the government’s credit rating. They recognize it, and they told the president that.”[1] Such a recognition and statement by the Republican leadership, if true, would evince statesmanship over political expediency, for Republican lawmakers could have leveraged their votes on raising the ceiling to get more in negotiations on the budget. This would be particularly notable considering that appropriations to keep the U.S. Government's non-essential operations going were pawns in a Congressional-presidential power-struggle during the Trump administration. 
1, “Geithner Confident Congress Will Raise Borrowing Limit,” USA Today, April 18, 2011, p. 6A.

A Lack of Good Will at Goodwill

Redefining words to suit a business’s financial interest is misleading, even if the herd animals who serve as customers look the other way, or, even worse, do not notice the fact that the words have been redefined! At a Goodwill store in Phoenix, Arizona,  I bought a black suit for singing in a choir. Before I paid, I asked a manager whether I could return the suit as long as I do so within a week. “Yes, you can get a refund,” he replied. Three days later, I returned to the store to return the suit. I approached an available cashier, but she told me that I had to go to the other cashier if I had a return. That cashier was not even at his register, and even when he returned I had to wait at least five minutes for one customer. Only the head cashier can process refunds, whereas any cashier can accept money—an interesting, meaning convenient, asymmetry. Money comes in easier than it goes out.

The full essay is at "False Pretenses as Good Will."

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

On the Economic Justification of American Society and Federalism: The Oxymoron of Congress Mapping the Human Brain

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama cited brain research as an example of how the government could and in fact should literally “invest in the best ideas.”[1] He cited the $140 return to the economy from every dollar that had been invested to map the human genome, and added that funding the Brain Activity Map would be a job-creating investment in science and innovation. In terms of comparative economic advantage, he said, enlarging the “knowledge economy” would be a good strategy for maintaining a formidable standard of living. As laudatory as more knowledge of the human brain is, Obama's perspective suffers from economic reductionism and a lack of political basis.
A Congressional rendering of how the human brain might be mapped.  Source; nytimes.

1. John Markoff, “Obama Seeking to Boost Study of Human Brain,” The New York Times, February 17, 2013.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Beyond Collectivism and Individualism: Freedom from Fear

In his speech on April 13, 2011 on reducing the U.S. Government deficits, President Obama identified two strains that had run through the country’s political history and thus informed the American political culture. “More than citizens of any other country” he said, “we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government. But there has always been another thread running throughout our history – a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation.  We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.”[1]  These two strains can be identified as individualism and collectivism, respectively. I contend that collectivism enables both individual and collective security. Individual security is oriented to a person’s survival and collective security is exemplified by national defense. In his speech, the president explicitly placed individual security within the collectivist strain. “Part of this American belief that we are all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security.  We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us.  ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities.”  That is, limits to rugged individualism exist, whether in the state of nature or in an interdependent economy, and collectivized programs can bridge the gap on an individualized basis such that individuals can continue to enjoy liberty. The individualist/collectivist dichotomy is thus not so clearly dichotomist.

The full essay is at "Beyond Collectivism and Individualism."

1. Barak Obama, “Text of Obama Speech on Deficit,” The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2011.