Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Before a commercial airliner takes off, the flight attendant conducts brief safety training for the passengers. Invariably, the flight attendant will instruct passengers, in the event of a loss of cabin pressure and deployment of the oxygen masks, to secure the passenger’s own mask properly before aiding another passenger, even a small child. The airlines follow this protocol because without proper self-care, the passenger may find it impossible to assist anyone else, even a child.

The Golden Rule (love others as you love yourself) is a common ethical thread in all of the world’s great religions. Anything more than cursory analysis reveals that a person’s love for others is no greater than the person’s self-love. Evolutionary biologists emphasize that genes drive a human, like any other animal, to care for itself. Religion does not require us to act against our genes; instead, healthy religion encourages us to love others as we love ourselves. Many scientists even posit a genetic basis for reciprocal altruism, that is, humans are hard-wired to love others.

One important implication of the Golden Rule is that a person must accept help from others. The American emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility can make this difficult. Giving assistance is easier than accepting assistance, whether the aid is financial or a gift of time.

This Lent, you may want to consider:

·        Do you exercise proper and sufficient self-care? In what ways might you more fully care for yourself? When should you prioritize self-care over care for others?

·        Conversely, do you prioritize self over others in unhealthy, selfish ways?

·        When is it appropriate and healthy to accept help from others? Do you accept that help? Does your pride diminish your ability to live a fulfilling, abundant life?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Willpower and temptation

Willpower – the will as a distinct human faculty is a largely discredited concept within philosophical circles – recently made headlines in Science News: Fighting willpower's catch-22 (Bruce Bower, January 30, 2012). Research conducted in Germany showed that self-control “saps a person’s mental energy and makes the next desire that inevitably comes along feel more compelling and harder to resist.” Unfortunately, the research did not suggest how people can increase self-control, ideas that might have been helpful in Lent (and at other times!) to a great many.

Augusto Blasi (“Moral Character: A Psychological Approach”, Character Psychology and Character Education, ed. David K. Lapsley and F. Clark Power (West Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), pp. 73-78) describes will as “a set of interlocking skills, mainly cognitive in nature. Among these are:

·         goal setting; the ability to break down goals into hierarchical plans;

·         future time perspective; the ability to keep one’s attention focused, but also to mentally manipulate the objection of attention;

·         the ability to distance oneself from the concrete present and to keep distant goals in mind;

·         and monitoring one’s action and its outcomes.”

Blasi reports broad agreement exists about that summary from various disciplines.

Sadly, much of Christianity appears psychologically ignorant. Furthermore, the subject of temptation receives scant attention in many Christian churches today. Yet temptation is an important, recurrent theme in the Christian tradition, e.g., the traditional version of the Lord's Prayer in English, Lenten emphases on discipline and resisting temptation, and Jesus refusing to succumb to the temptation to avoid the cross. When clergy do address temptation, they often exhort their hearers not to succumb to the temptation. In Nancy Reagan’s words, “Just say, No!” Saying No! becomes a purported panacea for a wide variety of evils that includes drugs, excessive alcohol consumption, and sex outside of marriage.

Alternatively, other religious responses to temptation involve trying to manipulate people with guilt. Yet, spiritual directors and psychologists generally agree that guilt is not a powerful, positive motivator, i.e., guilt feelings may keep a person from succumbing to temptation in the short-run but guilt loses its motivational power to change behavior in constructive directions over time. If guilt were more effective in helping people to resist temptation, fewer people would consistently engage in behaviors that leave them feeling guilty. Guilt also can consistently motivate negative behaviors.

More effective approaches to dealing with temptation incorporate insights from psychology, developing a strategy that bears a closer resemblance to popular self-help literature than many religious leaders might like. Of course, a critical difference is that the religious person seeks God's help in resisting temptation. God's assistance might help a person recover mental energy after successfully resisting a temptation, better equipping the person to resist the next temptation. Focusing on God can also help to set positive goals and to focus on those goals as achievable. God’s assistance most often occurs in community; a person resisting temptation draws strength from God through interacting with other people, a premise intrinsic to 12-step groups and healthy religious congregations.

Understanding the nature of the temptation one faces is also helpful. For example, William De Witt Hyde, a nineteenth century president of Bowdoin College, in his slim volume that he intended for his students, Practical Ethics (available as a free e-book from Amazon for Kindle), identified two types of temptation:

Temptations fall into two classes. Either we are tempted to neglect an object, and so to give it too little influence over us; or else we are tempted to be carried away by an object, and to give it an excessive and disproportionate place in our life. Hence the resulting vices fall into two classes. Vices resulting from the former sort of temptation are vices of defect. Vices resulting from the latter form of temptation are vices of excess.

Persons familiar with Aristotle will recognize that Hyde has simply adopted Aristotle’s approach to virtue and vice: virtue is the mean between two extremes (vices).

Different strategies may work best with different types of temptation, e.g., one tactic best aids moving from an excess of rashness toward courage is easier whereas another tactic works better in moving from an excess of cowardice toward courage. The coward might find successfully attempting small steps toward boldness efficacious, an approach that might do nothing to satisfy the thrill-seeker’s need for the excessive risk taking associated with rashness. The latter might benefit from analysis to understand why he/she craves excessive risk or from finding safer, less destructive ways to enjoy the thrill of risk taking (or apparent risk taking), e.g., riding a roller coaster instead of driving 80 mph in a 35 mph speed zone.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Preferring age over youth

I recently read about an Indonesian Muslim televangelist, Abdullah Gymnastiar, who conducts three-day management seminars for $200-300 per person:

The program emphasizes three keys to success – honesty (to gain people’s trust), professionalism, and innovation – and promotes the basic belief. … Sounding like a business guru, he preaches the Seven Tips for Success (“Be calm, plan well, be skillful, be orderly, be diligent, be strong and be humble”) and Five Tips for a Good Product (“It should be cheap, high quality, easy to use, up-to-date and useful for both the world and hereafter”). (John L. Esposito, The Future of Islam, p. 136)

Gymnastiar’s advice bears a striking resemblance to that proffered by some Christian televangelists and secular management gurus. Sometimes, paying someone to tell us what we already know, or suspect to be true, reinforces the message, prompting commitment instead of lip service.

Some new research proves that some forms of mental functioning improve with age. For example, older people (i.e., over 40) tend to improve their “crystallized intelligence,” which includes judgment and knowledge of vocabulary. This conclusion is the result of a longitudinal study that has followed over 7000 American adults for more than 20 years. A key finding is that humans do not seem pre-programmed for senescence. “Experience can outrun biology.” (Patricia Cohen, “A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond,” New York Times, January 19, 2012)

These conclusions represent a startling contrast to both what many physicians thought only a century ago and to our youth idolizing and idealizing culture. Age, not youth, may be a person’s golden years. Of course, the body’s appearance and musculature generally decline with the passing of years. Yet, truth be told, most of us are never that good looking or physically capable. But even the most intelligent can benefit from improved judgment.

Most of the essential steps are not surprising: eat properly, drink moderately, exercise regularly, stay mentally active, remain socially engaged, and get enough rest. I’m not charging for this blog. But perhaps the research reported above will be an effective catalyst for evaluating which of those habits you might want to incorporate into your lifestyle.

When discouraged by getting older, I consistently find comfort in remembering that the alternative to old age is death. I also cherish the wonderful memories I have from past years, experiences that I find priceless and would not exchange for an opportunity to live again, fearful that I would find the experience disappointing.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Charity or justice?

Bishop George Packard, in a posting at the Daily Episcopalian (Church on the path to irrelevance) argues that the Church tends to focus on the small questions rather than the big questions. With respect to the Occupy Wall Street, Bishop Packard suggests that Christians and the Church prefer charity to justice.

Most people and organizations prefer small questions to large ones. For reasons I will not pretend to have identified, my observation for decades has been that people and organizations generally prefer small questions to large ones. In fact, I long ago discovered that if I included a few small issues about which I cared little alongside the large issues that was important to me, I usually could get people to take satisfactory action on the large issue, allowing them to expend their time and energy on the relatively minor details. That also gave people more a sense of ownership than dealing with the large issue. I have no reason to expect that the Church, whether Trinity Wall Street parish or the national denomination, will behave differently.

Therefore, a key leadership task is vision. Good leaders learn to abandon the little picture and focus on the big one. Sadly, the Church (and many nations, for that matter) suffers from a deficit of good, visionary leadership. Similarly, once great business enterprises lose their dominant positions when they replace a visionary leader with one who lacks strategic vision (or the right strategic vision).

Both charity and justice are essential. Bishop Packard is right: charity is more popular. We’d rather feed a person today than tackle the big question of how to fix the economic system so that the person is gainfully and satisfactorily employed tomorrow, able to feed her/himself.

Good data provides a clear picture of the problem. The Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) has helpfully called our attention to the disparity between rich and poor. OWS has been far less helpful in understanding the actual nature of the problem. Tax laws are unfair and high earners overpaid. However, the plight of the poor is even worse:

The real income problem in this country is not a question of who is rich, but rather of who is poor. Among the bottom fifth of income earners, many people, especially men, stay there their whole lives. Low education and unwed motherhood only exacerbate poverty, which is particularly acute among racial minorities. Brookings Institution economist Scott Winship has argued that two-thirds of black children in America experience a level of poverty that only 6 percent of white children will ever see, calling it a “national tragedy.” (James Q. Wilson, “Angry About Inequality? Don’t Blame the Rich,” Washington Post, January 26, 2012)

Ending poverty requires:

·         Putting fewer people in prison, e.g., through better policing and decriminalizing narcotics and marijuana (cf. Ethical Musings Musing about prison)

·         Fixing the schools so that children learn, i.e., not imposing frequent standardized tests that create administrative burdens and pedagogical distractions but focusing on teaching civic values and basic skills, keeping all children in school until age 18 or graduation from high school (cf. Ethical Musings Improving Schools and Teaching and accountability)

·         Creating incentives to keep families intact (put aside the shibboleth that a family requires a mother and father and accept the reality that families come in lots of patterns and sizes but all deserve help)

·         Ensuring that every child has the basics (healthcare, food, shelter, education, a loving parent who has ample time to spend with the child)

·         Other steps that you may suggest

One interesting idea has recently gained traction: chartering corporations so that their purpose is explicitly earning profits and creating positive social benefits (Angus Loten, “With New Law, Profits Take a Back Seat,” Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2012).

Business ethicists and others have lacked a consensus, even among themselves, on whether corporations can legitimately divert funds from profits and profit making to activities that benefit the community. In a corporation, the executives and board of directors have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize shareholders’ value. Milton Friedman is one of the best-known advocates of the idea that corporations benefit their community the most when they maximize profits. Conversely, most corporations justify supporting some charitable activities through donations of monies or other resources by arguing that this improves the firm’s image in the community, enhances goodwill, etc. The new law goes even further, actually authorizing corporations to engage in activities that will benefit the community and may not benefit the firm.

Creating the option of chartering such corporations is justice in action. However, chartering such a corporation and then actualizing its potential for community good and profit making represents “charity” in action. In other words, a healthy society needs both charity and action, people who think strategically and people who think tactically, people who grapple with the big questions and those who focus on the small questions.

Instead of prioritizing one over the other, any organization – the Church, a business, the schools, etc. – needs to find people with the right focus for the right level of leadership. Sadly, that requirement is met less often than one might hope.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Apologies wanted

Randy Pausch regularly instructed his students that they should be ready to apologize (The Last Lecture, with Jeffrey Zaslow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), p. 160). Nobody is perfect. More often than most of us like to imagine, we wrongly offend another person and owe them an apology.

Apologies can sound more like an attempt to blame the other person for our fault or an attempt to bargain with the person. Author Sandy Tolan remarks that apologies have three elements: acknowledgment, apology, and amends (The Lemon Tree (New York: Bloomsbury, 2006).

Acknowledgement necessitates telling the person we offended that we accept responsibility (the blame) for our actions. The apology itself is the expression of regret, genuine contrition for the offense caused or given. Atonement is an effort to set the situation right, e.g., by making restitution when appropriate.

I find apologies by people for historical events for which the people offering the apology had no direct responsibility bemusing. An essential element of a genuine apology is acknowledging blame, i.e., taking responsibility for one’s actions.

I deplore the slavery that figures so prominently in American history. Slavery is unambiguously and completely morally wrong. Some of my North Carolina forebears fought for the Confederacy. My Maine forebears fought in the Union Army to end slavery. I did neither. In all fairness, I can accept neither blame nor credit for what my forebears did. My forebears had no way to consult me, and, if I’m any indication of who they might have been, they seem unlikely to have even attempted such a consultation. Instead of apologizing for past events, people in the present need to accept full responsibility for the events of the present, e.g., the continuing problem of racial discrimination.

National apologies for past events, events that transpired before anyone alive today was even born (e.g., U.S. Army massacres of Native Americans) make even less sense. Again, the issue is not what happened in the past but moving forward in the present.

Too often, historical apologies become an easy out: apologize for what happened and move on rather than facing up to the ugly truths of the present, e.g., continuing racism. Atonement, not an apology, is what is required, i.e., setting things right.

Similarly, God cannot set right what humans have put wrong by God's Son dying on the cross (cf. Ethical Musings Rethinking the crucifixion and Why "Good Friday?"). Jesus’ death on the cross declares God's love for us, welcomes sinners into God's loving embrace, and embodies God's forgiveness. But Jesus’ death does not repair broken relationships with our neighbors (only human action can do this) or repair broken relationships with God (God is perfect; the problem is with us). Atonement theology, in its traditional forms, moves the responsibility from humans onto God, making God into a masochist or child abuser. God does not require our perfection but only seeks our openness so that God can embrace us with love, filling us with life abundant.

During this Lent, spend time identifying those people to whom you owe an apology and take appropriate action. Identify those to whom you can rightly make restitution, even if you are not responsible for the original injustice. And identify those parts of your life from which you have sought to exclude God, and then welcome God into them, apologizing to God for having tried to keep God out.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Read the Bible? Maybe not

For years, I, like most clergy, frequently and indiscriminately exhorted Christians to pick up a Bible and read it. No more. I have realized that this advice, although well intentioned, is usually counterproductive, causing more disaffection from Christianity and guilt than spiritual growth.

The Bible, written over a period of more than one thousand years, contains multiple diverse worldviews, all of them foreign to twenty-first century life in the United States. The person who genuinely wants to understand the biblical text benefits by beginning with good introductions to both the Old Testament and New Testament. These provide overviews of important historical, linguistic, textual, and literary issues. Commentaries and Bible dictionaries offer more specific assistance related to particular passages.

In other words, to read the Bible with even a moderate level of informed comprehension, a reader needs to invest substantial time and effort in acquiring the knowledge and skills that seminarians generally learn in their first year or two of biblical studies. In contrast to the pseudo-scholars with their interlinear versions, developing the linguistic knowledge to appreciate and ponder the text in Hebrew or Greek requires even more years of work.

Beginning when I was in seminary over three decades ago, I have frequently heard seminarians lament the alienation and disaffection that they experienced as they began their biblical studies. Devotional reading of the Bible had nurtured their faith and often played an instrumental role in the spiritual journey that led them to seminary en route to seeking ordination. Now their academic studies challenged, if not actually contradicted, what they believed was the Word of God they had previously heard in their devotional reading of beloved texts.

Devotional reading of the Bible naively presumes that a person, by reading the text, will hear God speak. Meaning depends upon the reader’s modern worldview, the plain sense of the English text, and the reader’s existing theological biases.

Devotional reading was the pervasive approach among Bible reading Protestants – whether mainline Church members, evangelicals, or fundamentalists – to whom I ministered in the Navy. These good people considered themselves Christians in spite of both their theological ignorance and (being kind) eccentricities. They invariably and insistently assured me that the Holy Spirit guided their reading of Scripture, leading them into the truth and the correct understanding of Scripture. They almost universally believed that consulting scholarly resources such as commentaries and Bible dictionaries disadvantageously increased the distance between the believer and God.

Yet the sad truth is that a straightforward, uneducated reading of the text, even with a supposed assist from the Holy Spirit, presents most readers with an unfortunate choice.

On the one hand, the reader may uncritically accept the text as authoritative and adopt an unscientific (creation in seven days; people walking on water), unhistorical (hundreds of thousands of slaves exiting Egypt; the slaughter of innocents), and theologically bogus (God ordering mass slaughter; women subservient to men) reading.

Thoughtful readers find this choice uncomfortable, even unacceptable. It jars with the rest of what they have learned. But their faith is important to them. So they divorce their faith from other aspects of life, naively privileging Scripture as true. These readers may believe that God moved differently in Bible times than God does today. Alternatively, they may accept the dissonance between their faith and the rest of life, adopting one worldview in Church and another outside of Church, without reconciling the two. These readers tend to focus on the parts of the Bible that appear most readily understood and most congruent with the world (e.g., people generally read and study the gospels and Pauline epistles more than the prophets or Leviticus).

On the other hand, the reader may set the text aside as incomprehensible. Some who choose this option will abandon religion as anachronistic in the modern era, implicitly characterizing the chasm that separates them from the biblical text and worldviews as impassable. Other readers will cling to their faith in spite of the Bible, rarely read it, and feel guilty about both not reading the Bible and not finding it more inspiring when they do read it.

Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church is complicit in giving people this unfortunate choice. In sermons, confirmation classes, and other venues – most recently, a campaign to get people to read the Bible through in a year – we regularly encourage people to pick up the Bible and read it. Bible studies typically consist of the blind leading the blind: well-meaning, devout believers telling one another what God is saying to them through a particular text. Lectio divina is similar: listen to the text and hear the Holy Spirit speak to you.

We have largely failed to offer the substantive religious education programs that would empower people to read the Bible informed by the benefits of modern scholarship. (The three-year Education for Ministry program from the University of the South is a notable exception to this generalization.)

If we really believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God and contain all things necessary to salvation (Book of Common Prayer, 513, 526, 538), then the Church needs to get serious about Bible study. Classes for youths and adults could offer the substantive introduction to the Old and the New Testaments similar to those in seminaries but appropriately geared to level of academic achievement.

Ironically, encouraging devotional reading of the Bible, with its implicit promise of relatively effortless access to God, devalues Scripture and insultingly presumes that people lack the intellectual ability and spiritual commitment to engage in serious Bible study. As a constructive alternative, the Church could develop and promote a resource that presents the text alongside outstanding scholarship. William Barclay in his popular, although flawed, Daily Study Bible attempted such a project. Better yet, groups of Christians, after completing introductory studies, might gather for Bible study with commentaries, Bible dictionaries, historical references, and other resources.

Reading the Bible with understanding is hard work; perceiving God's light is even more difficult. Dumbing down the process demeans God's people, alienates many, and forms a dead church in the image of biblical literalism rather than the living God.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Prison is not the answer

Crime frays the social fabric. People feel unsafe, become less trustful of others, and increase their isolation. Contrary to popular rhetoric and beliefs, putting more people in prison is not the answer. However, good policing is one answer.

Between 1990 and 2011, the homicide rate in New York City dropped 80%. Other major crimes (robbery, burglary, auto theft) decreased even more. New York’s crime rate has fallen more rapidly and longer than the crime rate in other major U.S. cities. Concurrently, New York’s jail and prison population decreased by 28% as the rest of the nation’s jail and prison population increased by 65%.

What happened?

New York obtained substantially better results by adopting policies that went against the conventional wisdom, i.e., putting people in prison will diminish crime rates. Instead of putting more people in prison, New York hired more police and changed its policing strategy. Changes included assigning more police to high crime areas, night duty, and shutting down open-air drug markets. (Franklin Zimring, “How to Stop Urban Crime without Jail Time,” Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2012)

Prisons are an ineffective means of crime control (Ethical Musings Musing about prison).

Furthermore, paying police not only costs less than incarceration but also creates good jobs, reduces crime, and causes criminals to engage in activities that are more socially productive and beneficial than crime.

Municipalities will do well to emulate New York’s example and improve policing rather than imprison more people.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Humor and hope

Randy Pausch, knowing that he is dying of cancer, writes, “It’s not helpful to spend every day dreading tomorrow” (The Last Lecture, with Jeffrey Zaslow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), p. 99). He also emphasizes the importance of having fun in life (pp. 179-182) and of taking time off for vacations ((p. 110).

Every charismatic person I’ve met, who is able to attract crowds, had a good sense of humor and enjoyed life. Jesus, I’m convinced, must have had a good sense of humor and found fun in living. Otherwise, people would not have flocked to hear his message nor abandoned family, friends, and occupation to follow him. An extensive editing process lies behind each of the four gospels (the New Testament’s biographies of Jesus). Christians read the gospels through religious eyes that expect seriousness and not humor (we wrongly associate the sacred with the non-humorous).

Living a fully human life means living a life that has its share of humor and joy, taking time to enjoy the people and the world in which God has placed us.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years ago a famous Russian rabbi was celebrated for his quick wit in always having a pertinent story no matter what subject came up. "Rabbi, tell us," one of his students asked, "How to you manage to do it?"

The rabbi smiled. "I'll explain it with a story. Once, an infamous anti-Semitic Russian general was riding at the head of his troops through a small Jewish shtetl when he came to a long fence painted with more than twenty targets, colored circles.

"Marvelous to relate, in the bull's-eye of every one was a bullet hole. They never varied from dead center by so much as a fraction of an inch. The general was amazed. He had never seen such marksmanship and ordered his lieutenant to bring him the marksman.

"The local shoemaker's son, a pale and trembling youth, was shoved forward. 'Did you do that shooting?' the general asked. 'Yes, Excellency.'

"'It's astonishing! How many months have you been practicing?'

"'Never, Excellency. I never practiced. I did it the first time I ever held a gun.'

"'Then how did you hit the bull's-eye with every shot?'

"'That isn't the way I did it. I merely shot at the fence and then painted targets around every bullet hole.'"

The rabbi chuckled, "It's the same system I use. I'm never at a loss for a story to fit a subject. First, I carefully introduce a subject for which I already have the perfect story ready." (A. Stanley Kramer, World’s Best Jewish Humor (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1994), pp. 30-31)

Is your humor ready?

Monday, February 13, 2012

A reader, whose comments had prompted my post on Unanswered Prayer, emailed me these comments (which I’ve lightly edited) in response to it:

Thanks for putting together this thoughtful article. My original concern was directed at the position you took in your previous blog (Ethical Musings; What is prayer?), namely that petitionary prayer is generally meaningless.

I take it from your comments below that you hold this to be true in regards to those things that can be provided through social means. I think this introduces an unnatural wedge between what God does and the means God uses. If we ask God to give us our daily bread, it's quite possible that God will do so through human instrument.

As to the question about Christians who starve or become martyrs for their faith, I think it should be noted that Jesus' statement that "you have not because you ask not" is likely a general statement with regard to the efficacy of petitionary prayer. His statement need not mean either that God never permits those who ask for their daily portion to lack necessities or some lack those necessities because they have not asked. It may be that God occasionally permits some of God's children to lack necessities because God's bigger purpose trumps our petitions.

I've found C.S. Lewis thoughts on the matter from his short essay "Work and Prayer" from "God in the Dock" helpful (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Work and Prayer).

I think you are right about the tendency of Christians to conceptualize God as a heavenly vending machine. I think Jesus' words, "you have not because you ask not," were intended to advocate a posture of dependence on the Creator and not to make us think that God will grant every desire simply if we pray hard enough for it.

My intent is not to drive “an unnatural wedge between what God does and the means that God uses.” Because I reject the idea that God is omnipotent, God simply cannot do some things, e.g., supernaturally provide food to the hungry. The only means that God has to feed the hungry is to motivate humans to act.

Lewis’ essay is interesting. He defends the traditional view of God's omnipotence while affirming that sometimes God works directly and other times God works through human agency. I agree. My disagreement with Lewis is that he fails to recognize the limits that God's creative act inherently imposed on God.

Christians, rightly adhering to our tradition and Jesus’ teachings, pray the Lord's Prayer, for the sick, and other petitionary prayers. However, these prayers (the “lower” form of prayer, according to Lewis) are effectual for the same reason as prayer that seeks communion with God (the “higher” form of prayer, according to Lewis). That is, prayer opens people to the moving of the Spirit and potentially connects us to others. When I pray for bread, God may move me to share from my abundance with those who have no bread. When the hungry pray for bread, God may use their prayer, a form of spiritual energy, to ignite within those who have abundance, to share with people who have none.

Obviously, God may move in ways that no human understands. But my analysis of petitionary prayer is an attempt to understand the mystery, to describe the moving of the holy infinite in finite terms. Unanswered prayer remains a huge obstacle for many modern people accepting the idea of God. Their objection appears cogent: why would a loving, all-powerful God allow so much suffering in the world? Why would a just God allow the innocent (people who are hungry because of war or famine, e.g.) to suffer because of the selfishness of the scandalously affluent? Large-scale suffering – such as we observe in genocide, the Holocaust, famines, etc. – makes those questions even more poignant.

Prayer is central to the spiritual life. But’s let be honest and recognize that God is not a heavenly vending machine but the light that brings life abundant, empowering God’s children to live, to love, to be merciful, and to bring justice and good news to others.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Saying no to healthcare discrimination

Religious conservatives are decrying the Obama administration’s decision to require health plans to offer contraception for women as an infringement of religious freedom.

I disagree.

What may appear to be a deceptively simple moral choice is really a moral dilemma. On the one hand, I strongly support religious freedom. Requiring the religious organization (mostly Roman Catholic, because they are the predominant objector to contraception) to provide contraception for women beneficiaries may infringe upon the organization’s freedom.

On the other hand, none of the beneficiaries of the health plans whose owners object to offering contraception must seek or accept contraception. Most of the beneficiaries are employees, of family members of employees, of non-profits. These employees do not serve in a religious capacity, e.g., they are not nuns, priests, religious teachers, etc. These institutions hire these employees based on the employees’ secular qualifications, e.g., the employee is a physician, pharmacist, nurse, or other healthcare worker. In other words, healthcare coverage is a benefit provided to secular workers by a religious organization. Healthcare coverage that does not provide for contraception fails to include a basic benefit that most Americans, regardless of religious affiliation, want and utilize.

Obviously, these employees could quit their jobs. For most people, getting a new job is not easy; obtaining a new job may entail geographic location (hard on families, partners, etc.). Furthermore, people with pre-existing conditions or who are mid-way through a course of therapy may find changing healthcare coverage adversely affects their treatment.

In sum, there is no perfect solution. However, nobody forced the religious organization to expand into non-religious charitable endeavors. Religious organizations must provide other basic benefit for secular employees, e.g., Social Security coverage. Healthcare coverage is a similar basic benefit. I don’t have to agree with all forms of treatment; I have a moral obligation to ensure that my employees can make their own choices.

These non-profits could not base hiring decisions on blatant religious discrimination, e.g., hiring only Roman Catholics. Permitting these non-profits to discriminate based on religion in more subtle yet equally egregious ways is similarly wrong.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Musings about capitalism and Christian ethics

Occupy Wall Street has sought to focus public attention on the disparity between the 1% who are wealthy and the 99% who are not (for more on OWS, read Ethical Musings Occupy Wall Street and Trinity Church, Why Occupy Wall Street resonates with people, and More musings about Occupy Wall Street).

If one learns only one thing from OWS, that one insight should be that our economic system has produced relatively few winners and many losers. So, what is a Christian to do? As citizens of a democracy, we cannot simply ignore the problem, consigning it to our elected political office holders. Nor, as Christians, do we have either the resources or responsibility to solve the problem on our own. Establishing soup kitchens, shelters, and other charitable programs does not fix a dysfunctional economic system.

John Patrick Diggins in Why Niebuhr Now? wrote that Christian social ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, who died in 1971,

would hardly be surprised to see how profits are equated with piety and religion is used to rationalize material acquisitiveness. He agreed with Nietzsche's view that "altruistic actions are only a species of egoistic actions" and that in self-justification individuals deny the motives for their own behavior

Niebuhr was acutely aware of our human proclivity to sin, something most moderns conveniently prefer to forget. Humans, according to Jesus, do not live by bread alone. Yet bread appropriately became a popular mid-twentieth century American metaphor for money, the measure of worth and meaning in the eyes of too many people. Even some Christians measure the abundance of their lives by counting their money, hearkening avidly to the prosperity gospel promoted by preachers like the suitably named Creflo Dollar, pastor of World Changers Church International, located in an Atlanta suburb.

Christians that are more orthodox will point to the fall described in Genesis 3, in which God tells man that he will live by the sweat of his brow. Eager for the good things and the easy path (Jesus noted that people would prefer the broad path to perdition over the narrow path that leads to God), people long ago recognized that accumulating wealth made life easier and more enjoyable, offered a measure of security through increased resources, and provided a path to power. In short, most of us prefer selfishly prefer personal financial wealth to the communal values of the reciprocal altruism that Jesus lived and taught.

What are the implications of this tendency for free market capitalism?

First, we should expect that individuals and enterprises of all types consistently seek competitive advantage through government regulation intended to benefit them and not their competitors. Christians and the Church can prophetically identify this proclivity whenever it manifests itself. Government regulation that (1) creates informed consumers, (2) ensures multiple buyers and sellers compete in open markets, (3) values common capital goods appropriately and (4) maintains level playing fields are all essential. Regulations that have any other effect are wrong because they distort market functioning, introducing inefficiencies and ineffectiveness. For example, research now shows that the Bush era tax cuts have helped the rich get richer rather than helping all Americans. The tax cuts primarily benefitted people whose income is in the form of dividends and capital gains rather than earnings. (“Bush tax cuts helped the rich get richer, Washington Post, January 16, 2012)

Second, government programs rightly help individuals and firms during transitions, because change is inevitable and adversely effects people (e.g., a person whose job becomes redundant through technological advances or shifts in consumer preferences). This help may usefully include unemployment benefits, job-training programs, marketing assistance of the type offered by the Small Business Administration, etc. Policies and programs should face routine reviews to identify effectiveness, functional improvements, and alternatives. The goal is to preserve human dignity and guarantee a minimal standard of living for people, who through no fault of their own, find their lives severely affected by economic transitions. This is not a welfare state. Instead, these policies and programs remove barriers to innovation, economic efficiency, and the competitive free market.

Globalization means we should anticipate greater transitions than ever experienced in the near future. Nativism is not the answer. The trend toward globalization is irreversible. Instead, the need for transitional assistance will be greater than ever.

Third, each generation deserves the privilege of proving itself in the marketplace. Passing wealth and privilege from one generation to the next is natural, but out of place in a community where all are God's children. An absolutely level field is an impossible ideal. But, great wealth passed from one generation to the next will lead to ever-greater disparities between the rich and poor.

Fourth, this generation needs to articulate more fully the cost of using commonly owner capital goods such as air, earth, and water. As the earth’s population increases and the demands for goods and services continues to outpace the earth’s self-capacity for renewal (consider the growing pollution problems in China and India), we need new and better mechanisms for pricing and marketing those commonly owned capital goods.

Fifth, this generation will similarly benefit by identifying the goods and services in each local that the community can produce more effectively (and often more efficiently) than can private enterprise. My previous post emphasized healthcare, and mentioned water and sewer utilities. Schools, libraries, roads, and criminal justice have been three other services widely regarded as communal responsibilities rather than contracted to private providers. In the last two decades, that perception has eroded.

My strong suspicion is that the experiment with privatization is not working well. I’ve seen governments save money in the short-term and pay more in the long-term through misguided privatization. More critically, private providers do not have the same set of values and goals as communal groups. Privatization may save money but be less effective once the community has fully articulated all of its goals. Public schools, for example, are not only to educate children. Public schools also create a sense of community by placing students among students who are not necessarily like them; public schools give everyone approximately the same education (unlike Eton or Harrow in the U.K. compared to the village school); public schools relegate foolishness (e.g., intelligent creationism that rejects evolution) to private time out of school. Privatization leads people to disinvest themselves from public endeavors. Communal programs tend to have the opposite effect.

Sixth, justice represents the single best antidote to selfishness and sin. Christian prophets will engage their communities in asking, What is fair? Free market capitalism affords people freedom, matches buyers and sellers without creating bureaucracy, and can maximize wealth and social utility. Achieving those results requires government creating and maintaining a level playing field, easing transitions, ensuring multiple buyers and sellers compete openly and fairly, that users of communally owned capital goods pay a fair price for using those goods, etc.

John Rawls gives us some help for identifying what is just. Rawls says that a person should imagine that he/she might be any participant in the process. Are you equally satisfied, no matter which person you are? Are other people, participating in the same thought experiment, also equally satisfied?

Try applying this standard of justice as fairness to mortgage defaults and bank bailouts, the size of Wall Street bonuses, pay discrepancies between senior management and manual workers, and income tax rates in the U.S. for the wealthy and poor. I’m confident that I’m right when I conclude that Jesus would say our economic system is broken and unfair. The answer is not to scrap capitalism. The answer is to create a free market capitalist system that works for everyone who wishes to participate. These posts offer suggestions with which to start.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The value of time

German theologian and ethicist Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented that time is our most precious resource (Prisoner for God, tr. Reginald H. Fuller (New York: Macmillan, 1954), p. 13).

Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture, with Jeffrey Zaslow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), pp. 108-109) recommends managing time as we manage our money, i.e., set goals, budget, and then keep track of how we actually spend our time. Of course, this approach only works for people, who like Pausch, are good money managers! But Pausch’s underlying presumption about time is valuable: we can only spend our time once. And unlike money, once spent, what we did with our time cannot be refunded or exchanged.

When Pausch learned of his terminal liver cancer, the doctor told him that he had two to four months of good health remaining. Pausch’s awareness of his imminent death helped him to appreciate time’s value even more than he had in the past.

Do you value your time? Have you struck a balance between self, family, friends, and work that maximizes your joy and love for God, self, and others? Which day(s) of your life would you live differently, if you could? What can you learn from those days about how to use your time today?

"One of the illusions of life is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour. Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Musings about capitalism - Cost of capital

This post on the cost of capital is the third in a four part series on free market capitalism. The first post explored the nature of free markets and the second discussed the role of government regulation.

Capitalism’s basic premise is that capital – all of the resources other than labor required to produce goods and services – has a cost. Capital includes money, land, buildings, equipment, etc.

Some indigenous North American tribes treated land as a common resource. No one person owned land individually. Communal ownership can advantageously promote economic equality. Some assets are inherently communal, e.g., the air.

Nevertheless, communal ownership of most capital assets generally creates few incentives for individuals to exercise much, let alone maximum, creativity, initiative, and effort. The collapse of communism, whose national economies combined communal ownership with central planning, underscored the fallacy of communal ownership and ineffectiveness of central planning.

Karl Marx argued that only labor has value. Capital, he argued, does not have a cost. Owners exploit workers, according to Marx, by charging rent for the capital that they own. A critical flaw in Marx’ thinking is that capital, like labor, is a scarce resource. By not recognizing that capital has a cost, Marx had no effective means of allocating capital. This led to the disastrous adoption of central planning as a substitute for market mechanisms.

In a socialist economic system or structure, a group of people – defined by individual choice, geography, or government assignment – owns the enterprise’s capital assets. Socialism, with its communal ownership of capital, is not always ideal. Israel has found that people prefer individual farms and families to the socialist kibbutz promoted in Israel’s early years.

However, most nations that nominally have free market capitalist economies beneficially incorporate some socialist enterprises. Healthcare in most developed nations is a socialist enterprise, the government collectively owning the nation’s healthcare system on behalf of the citizens. Most sick and injured people simply want treatment. The sicker or more serious the injury, the more urgent is a person’s demand for care. Understandably, few ill or injured people have the time, interest, or education to become informed consumers who then knowledgably shop by price and service for required care. Free market capitalism functions poorly without such consumers. This explains why U.S. residents pay more for healthcare, with worse results, than do the citizens of other developed nations (cf. Ethical Musings Overseas healthcare and Supporting healthcare reform). Water and sewer utilities are other enterprises that people often find preferable to structure as socialist enterprises.

Yet apart from a few exceptions, most economic endeavors benefit from free markets in which individuals and firms compete for access to capital. Land, buildings, and equipment all have markets. The person who wishes to sell a house may attempt to sell it him/herself or hire a realtor as an agent. The owner, often with a realtor’s assistance, compares the property to similar properties on the market and that have sold in the local area recently to establish a price, i.e., the estimated maximum amount for which the property is likely to sell within what the owner’s preferred timeframe. Incidentally, state regulation and licensing of realtors enables owners to presume that any realtor with whom they list the property will be familiar with local real estate law and will represent the owner’s interests and not those of potential buyers. Competition among realtors depends on their marketing abilities, commitment to selling the property, and ability to set the right price.

Some capital assets may have multiple pricing options. For example, enterprises may rent or purchase vehicles. The lease payment is the capital cost of a leased vehicle. Purchasing a vehicle costs money. The cost of the money (that is, the capital) used for the purchase may be interest paid on a loan or the opportunity cost of alternative uses of the funds. Possible opportunity costs include depositing the money in an interest bearing bank account, investing the money in stocks or bonds, employing the funds to expand the enterprise in another way.

Too often, people and enterprises ignore opportunity costs. They consequently either mistakenly assume that capital is free or incorrectly value their capital. In either case, the market functions ineffectively, no longer maximizing the social utility that the capital theoretically can produce.

Islam forbids charging interest on the loan of money. A straightforward reading of the Jewish Torah forbids Jews from charging interest on loans to Jews. The early Christians adopted a similar ban. Thus, Christians would borrow money from Jews. Jews found moneylending portable (good in times of persecution) and a profitable alternative to investing in real estate (which medieval laws often forbid them from owning). One downside of Jews loaning money to Christians was that Christian borrowers sometimes found persecuting Jews preferable to repaying loans. Since few people like moneylenders, this reinforced existing prejudices and became another source of negative Jewish stereotypes, e.g., Shakespeare’s use of shylock in the “Merchant of Venice.”

The interest charged on a loan is the cost of the borrowed capital. Government regulations, known as usury laws, beneficially limit maximum interest rates. Experience repeatedly shows that some people are unable to defer future gratification and will borrow all they can, regardless of cost, to enjoy the present moment. Current examples of businesses that sometimes attempt to circumvent usury laws are payday loan companies and some credit card issuers.

Muslims, widely recognizing that capital does have an associated cost, have developed alternative approaches to structuring business deals that substitute ownership for loans. For example, a house buyer and the bank may jointly own the property, with each payment changing the relative proportion of ownership for each. In lieu of interest, the purchaser may pay a larger price for the house.

Only in the mid-twentieth century did people start to become aware that all communally owned capital goods also have costs attached. For millennia, the earth appeared to have an ability to maintain a rough equilibrium. But as the human population grew and the ability of humans to effect the environment expanded, human civilization surpassed the earth’s capacity for self-renewal. (For a fuller exposition of this, cf. James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia.)

Before the government required scrubbers, coal-fired electrical generating plants produced enormous quantities of pollutants, contaminating air in the immediate vicinity and causing acid rain that killed plant life hundreds of miles away. Although I grew up in Maine, I lived next to one of the ten most polluted rivers in the nation, a river made toxic from huge amounts of highly polluted water created as a by-product of paper manufacturing. Generations of people thought nothing of dumping raw sewage into watersheds, rivers, lakes, and the oceans. Wind and water erode enormous quantities of fertile topsoil, degrading agricultural capacity and causing algae blooms in lakes and ponds.

Debates rage about what level of which pollutants is harmful, who should pay for remediation of existing pollution, the best ways to avoid future pollution, and so forth. But western nations and their citizens almost universally agree that pollution is harmful, i.e., pollution is a cost of not regulating the use of capital goods owned in common that were once thought inexhaustible or limitlessly renewable (air, water, soil, etc.).

The final post will consider Christian ethics and free market capitalism.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Wisdom with which to lead

Leadership, according to Dwight D. Eisenhower, is the art of getting others to do your will. That simple statement presumes that one has a goal, seeks to inspire others to commit to achieving that goal, and that leadership is, at least in part, an art rather than a skill.

A friend who knew the author of this story, originally published in Reader’s Digest, sent it to me:


By B. T. Collins

I met Capt. Samuel R. Bird on a dusty road near An Khe, South Vietnam, one hot July day in 1966. I was an artillery forward observer with Bravo Company, 2nd/12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, and I looked it. I was filthy, sweaty, and jaded by war, and I thought "Oh, brother, get a load of this". Dressed in crisply starched fatigues, Captain Bird was what we called "squared away" - ramrod straight, eyes on the horizon. Hell, you could still see the shine on his boot tips beneath the road dust.

After graduation from Officer Candidate School, I had sought adventure by volunteering for Vietnam. But by that hot and dangerous July, I was overdosed on "adventure," keenly interested in survival and very fond of large rocks and deep holes. Bird was my fourth company commander, and my expectations were somewhat cynical when he called all his officers and sergeants together.

"I understand this company has been in Vietnam almost a year and has never had a party," he said.

Now we officers and sergeants had our little clubs to which we repaired. So we stole bewildered looks at one another, cleared our throats and wondered what this wiry newcomer was talking about.

"The men are going to have a party," he announced, "and they're not going to pay for it. Do I make myself clear?"

A party for the "grunts" was the first order of business! Sam Bird had indeed made himself clear. We all chipped in to get food and beer for about 160 men. The troops were surprised almost to the point of suspicion - who, after all, had ever done anything for them? But that little beer and bull session was exactly what those war-weary men needed. Its effect on morale was profound. I began to watch our new captain more closely.

Bird and I were the same age, 26, but eons apart in everything else. He was from the sunny heartland of Kansas, I from the suburbs of New York City. He prayed every day and was close to his God. My faith had evaporated somewhere this side of altar boy. I was a college dropout who had wandered into the Army with the words "discipline problem" close on my heels. He had graduated from The Citadel, South Carolina's proud old military school.

If ever a man looked like a leader, it was Sam Bird. He was tall and lean, with penetrating blue eyes. But the tedium and terror of a combat zone take far sterner qualities than mere appearance.

Our outfit was helicoptered to a mountain outpost one day for the thankless task of preparing a position for others to occupy. We dug trenches, filled sandbags, strung wire under a blistering sun. It was hard work, and Sam was everywhere, pitching in with the men. A colonel who was supposed to oversee the operation remained at a shelter, doing paper work. Sam looked at what his troops had accomplished, then, red-faced, strode over to the colonel's sanctuary. We couldn't hear what he was saying to his superior, but we had the unmistakable sense that Sam was uncoiling a bit. The colonel suddenly found time to inspect the fortifications and thank the men for a job well done.

Another day, this time on the front lines after weeks of awful show, we were given something called "coffee cake" that had the look and texture of asphalt paving. Furious, Sam got on the radio phone to headquarters. He reached the colonel and said, "Sir, you and the supply officer need to come out here and taste the food, because this rifle company is not taking one step further." "Not a good way to move up in the Army," I thought. But the colonel came out, and the food improved from that moment. Such incidents were not lost on the men of Bravo Company.

During the monsoon season we had to occupy a landing zone. The torrential, wind-driven rains had been falling for weeks. Like everyone else I sat under my poncho in a stupor, wondering how much of the wetness was rainwater and how much was sweat. Nobody cared that the position was becoming flooded. We had all just crawled inside ourselves. Suddenly I saw Sam, Mr. Spit and Polish, with nothing on but his olive-drab undershorts and his boots. He was digging a drainage ditch down the center of the camp. He didn't say anything, just dug away, mud spattering his chest, steam rising from his back and shoulders. Slowly and sheepishly we emerged from under our ponchos, and shovels in hand, we began helping "the old man" get the ditch dug. We got the camp tolerably dried out and with that one simple act transformed our morale.

Sam deeply loved the U.S. Army and traditions. Few of the men knew it, but he had been in charge of a special honors unit of the Old Guard, which serves as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and participates in the Army's most solemn ceremonies. He was the kind of guy whose eyes would mist during the singing of the National Anthem.

Sam figured patriotism was just a natural part of being an American. But he knew that morale was a function not so much of inspiration as of good boots, dry socks, extra ammo and hot meals.

Sam's philosophy was to put his troops first. On that foundation he built respect a brick at a time. His men ate first; he ate last. Instead of merely learning their names, he made it a point to know the men. A lot of the soldiers were high-school dropouts and would-be tough guys just a few years younger than himself. Some were scared, and a few were still in partial shock at being in a shooting war. Sam patiently worked on their pride and self-confidence. Yet there was never any doubt who was in charge. I had been around enough to know what a delicate accomplishment that was.

Half in wonder, an officer once told me, "Sam can dress a man down till his ears burn, and the next minute that same guy is eager to follow him into hell." But he never chewed out a man in front of his subordinates.

Sam wouldn't ask his men to do anything he wasn't willing to do himself. He dug his own foxholes. He never gave lectures on appearance, but even at God-forsaken outposts in the Central Highlands, he would set aside a few ounces of water from his canteen to shave. His uniform, even if it was jungle fatigues, would be as clean and neat as he could make it. Soon all of Bravo Company had a reputation for looking sharp.

One sultry and miserable day on a dirt road at the base camp, Sam gathered the men together and began talking about how tough the infantryman's job is, how proud he was of them, how they should always look out for each other. He took out a bunch of Combat Infantryman's Badges, signifying that a soldier has paid his dues under fire, and he presented one to each of the men. There wasn't a soldier there who would have traded that moment on the road for some parade-ground ceremony.

That was the way Sam Bird taught me leadership. He packed a lot of lessons into the six months we were together. But the troops first knew that morale often depends on small things. Respect every person's dignity. Always be ready to fight for your people. Lead by example. Reward performance. But Sam had another lesson to teach, one that would take long and painful years, a lesson in courage.

I left Bravo Company in December 1966 to return to the States for a month before joining a Special Forces unit. Being a big, tough paratrooper, I didn't tell Sam what his example had meant to me. But I made a point of visiting his parents and sister in Wichita, Kan., just before Christmas to tell them how much he'd affected my life, and how his troops would walk off a cliff for him. His family was relieved when I told them that his tour of combat was almost over and he'd be moving to a safe job in the rear.

Two months later, in a thatched hut in the Mekong Delta, I got a letter from Sam's sister, saying that he had conned his commanding officer into letting him stay an extra month with his beloved Bravo Company. On his last day, January 27, 1967 - his 27th birthday - the men had secretly planned a party, even arranging to have a cake flown in. They were going to "pay back the old man." But orders came down for Bravo to lead an airborne assault on a North Vietnamese regimental headquarters.

Sam's helicopter was about to touch down at the attack point when it was ripped by enemy fire. Slugs shattered his left ankle and right leg. Another struck the left side of his head, carrying off almost a quarter of his skull. His executive officer, Lt. Dean Parker, scooped Sam's brains back into the gaping wound.

Reading the letter, I felt as if I'd been kicked in the stomach. I began querying every hospital in Vietnam to find out if Sam was still alive. But in June, before I could discover his fate, I was in a fire fight in an enemy-controlled zone. I had thrown four grenades. The fifth one exploded in my hand. I lost an arm and a leg.

Nearly a year later, in March 1968, I finally caught up with Sam. I was just getting the hang of walking with an artificial leg when I visited him at the VA Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn. Seeing him, I had to fight back the tears. The wiry, smiling soldier's soldier was blind in the left eye and partially so in the right. Surgeons had removed metal shards and damaged tissue from deep within his brain, and he had been left with a marked depression on the left side of his head. The circles under his eyes told of sleepless hours and great pain.

The old clear voice of command was slower now, labored and with an odd, high pitch. I saw his brow knit as he looked through his one good eye, trying to remember. He recognized me, but believed I had served with him in Korea, his first tour of duty.

Slowly, Sam rebuilt his ability to converse. But while he could recall things from long ago, he couldn't remember what he had eaten for breakfast. Headaches came on him like terrible firestorms. There was pain, too, in his legs. He had only partial use of one arm, with which he'd raise himself in front of the mirror to brush his teen and shave.

He had the support of a wonderful family, and once he was home in Wichita, his sister brought his old school sweetheart, Annette Blazier, to see him. A courtship began, and in 1972 they were married.

They built a house like Sam had dreamed of - red brick, with a flag-pole out front. He had developed the habit of addressing God as "Sir" and spoke to him often. He never asked to be healed. At every table grace, he thanked God for sending him Annette and for "making it possible for me to live at home in a free country."

In 1976, Sam and Annette traveled to The Citadel for his 15th class reunion. World War II hero Gen. Mark Clark, the school's president emeritus, asked about his wounds and said, "On behalf of your country, I want to thank you for all you did."

With pride, Sam answered "Sir, it was the least I could do."

Later Annette chided him gently for understating the case. After all, he had sacrificed his health and career in Vietnam. Sam gave her an incredulous look. "I had friends who didn't come back," he said. "I'm enjoying the freedoms they died for."

I visited Sam in Wichita and phoned him regularly. You would not have guessed that he lived with pain every day. Once, speaking of me to his sister, he said, "I should never complain about the pain in my leg, because B.T. doesn't have a leg." I'd seen a lot of men with lesser wounds reduced to anger and self-pity. Never a hint of that passed Sam's lips, though I knew that, every waking moment, he was fighting to live.

On October 18, 1984, after 17 years, Sam's body couldn't take any more. When we received the news of his death, a number of us from Bravo Company flew to Wichita, where Sam was to be buried with his forebears.

The day before the burial, his old exec, Dean Parker, and I went to the funeral home to make sure everything was in order. As Dean straightened the brass on Sam's uniform, I held my captain's hand and looked into his face, a face no longer filled with pain. I thought about how unashamed Sam always was to express his love for his country, how sunny and unaffected he was in his devotion to his men. I ached that I had never told him what a fine soldier and man he was. But in my deep sadness I felt a glow of pride for having served with him, and for having learned the lessons of leadership that would serve me all my life. That is why I am telling you about Samuel R. Bird and these things that happened so long ago.

Chances are, you have seen Sam Bird. He was the tall officer in charge of the casket detail at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. Historian William Manchester described him as "a lean, sinewy Kansan, the kind of American youth whom Congressmen dutifully praise each Fourth of July and whose existence many, grown jaded by years on the Hill, secretly doubt. "There can be no doubt about Sam, about who he was, how he lived and how he led. We buried him that fall afternoon, as they say, "with honors." But as I walked from that grave, I knew I was the honored one, for having known him.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Musings about capitalism - Government regulation

This, the second post in my series on free market capitalism, explores the role of government regulation, building on the discussion of free markets in the first post.

Pure free market capitalism is devoid of government regulation. I know of no nation that has a pure free market capitalist economy. Most people are grateful for at least some government regulation.

Some government regulation protects consumers from unethical business practices. Ironically, the Republican Party advocated many of the first rules that the United States imposed on businesses following the scandals, shenanigans, and shoddy service that characterized many rapidly growing U.S. firms in the second half of the nineteenth century.

For example, consumers reasonably expect that food products they purchase are safe to consume and accurately labeled. Truth in packaging laws, rules about product purity, and so forth are all ways that government regulates capitalism. As a society, we recognize that few individual consumers have the desire, expertise, or resources to perform these important functions for themselves.

In an unregulated economy, only market forces would prevent a supplier from diluting milk with water. Few consumers would know if a producer diluted milk with 1 or 2 percent of water. At some level (10% or 20%? I don’t know; I’ve never had diluted milk, thanks to the Federal Food and Drug Administration and similar agencies in other countries), consumers would begin to suspect something is amiss. If the dominant producers gradually increase the amount of water added to their milk, they may be able to sell the milk to an unsuspecting public, thereby increasing the volume sold at minimal additional cost.

Consumers in the United States unknowingly bought horsemeat sold as beef and meet packaged in unsanitary conditions before early twentieth century outrage led to government regulation of the meat industry.

More recently, consumers have worried about insecticides in orange juice (the media reports suggest this contamination was unintentional) and baby formula imported from china diluted with plastics (this appears intentional in an effort to cut costs and increase profits).

Some government regulation attempts to ensure fair competition. For example, a firm cannot legally sell goods and services at a loss to force a competitor out of business.

Similarly, government regulation attempts to ensure fair competition between capital and labor. In unregulated capitalism, workers have just one right, i.e., to quit. On occasion, employers have even sought legislation to prevent workers from quitting while preserving the employer’s right to layoff or otherwise terminate a worker’s job (e.g., the coal mining industry in the first half of the twentieth century). Unions, at their best, counterbalance the power of employers with the power of workers. However, maintaining that balance is comparable to walking a tightrope. Many employers want to restrict the ability of workers to form unions (a right rooted in the right to free association guaranteed in the U.S. Bill of Rights) and unions incessantly struggle to limit employers’ powers, e.g., stipulating extensive legal requirements that an employer must meet before laying off employees.

Another set of government regulations attempt to ensure fair competition between enterprises in one’s own nation and those in other nations. Tariffs, which have fallen out of favor, were intended to keep the cost of imports disadvantageously high. Free trade legislation has the opposite purpose: removing barriers to trade to allow competition to drive down the price of goods and services. Outsourcing abroad and the move of many manufacturing jobs overseas are the latest results of competition (the survival of the fittest) as domestic firms increasingly have to compete with a growing number of foreign firms.

Yet other government regulations (the tax code, e.g.) are efforts by various special interests to give certain products, services, or producers a competitive edge. In the never ending struggle for the survival of the fittest, government regulations can give producers significant advantages (e.g., the military has to buy domestic goods and the federal military academies for many years had to serve real butter, not margarine, to their cadets and midshipmen).

Government actions that prefer one set of goods/services/producers over another (and there are literally hundreds of thousands of this type of government action in the U.S.) give those receiving the preference an unfair competitive advantage. Those receiving preferential treatment argue vociferously in favor of their treatment, usually citing multiple reasons. But all such regulation necessarily disadvantages others. Otherwise, those who receive the preferential treatment would not invest scarce, costly resources in advocating for the regulations.

Some government regulations add little value to the competition. Illustrative of excessive regulation are mandated lengthy product warnings, worded in almost incomprehensible language and printed in fonts so small that they discourage reading. No matter how well intentioned the regulation mandating such warnings, these rules have little or no practical value, adding cost without benefitting consumers.

Other government regulations provide an incentive for innovation (patents, trademarks, and copyrights – the basis of intellectual property rights) but also can diminish competition, even creating unintended monopolies. This allows excessive profits and distorts market efficiency. Without intellectual property, commercial firms would have no incentive to conduct drug research, for example. Discovery of a new drug and obtaining government approval for it as effective and safe is a lengthy, expensive process (perhaps too much so!). However, once approved a new drug that treats a previously untreatable condition can provide a company with a significant revenue stream and outsize profits. The challenge is to balance an incentive for developing new drugs with society’s need to keep healthcare affordable.

In general, regulations are good that enhance competition (1) by enabling consumers to have reasonable trust in the goods and services purchased and (2) help to provide a level field for competition. Regulations are bad that (1) give some competitors an unfair competitive advantage or (2) do not add value to society or free market competition.

Sadly, political discourse in the United States (and most other Western nations) is so impoverished and polarized that informed discussion of a topic as complex as beneficial government regulation of free market capitalism, striking appropriate balances between competing goods, almost never occurs. Demagogues shout for more regulation; other demagogues shout for less government regulation.

What the economy, consumers, and businesses badly need is the right regulation. The mortgage bubble underscores this problem. Mortgage sellers had warped the playing field so they had no long-term investment in the ability of buyers to pay a mortgage; buyers had allowed greed to overwhelm common sense. Politicians, regulators, and academics who articulate basic principles for determining what and how to regulate will help us restore free market capitalism to an even keel.

Properly regulated free market capitalism is the most efficient (least waste) and effective (most productive) economic system. Such a system best enables human flourishing. My next post on this subject will explore the cost of capital; the third post will examine free markets and the fourth post consider Christian ethics and free market capitalism.

The third post in this series on capitalism will examine the cost of capital and the fourth post will present a Christian ethical perspective on free market capitalism.