Monday, January 30, 2012

Charisma and ecclesial organization

In my sermon (follow that link to read it) on the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, I addressed the need for constant renewal in the Church of its charisma (or grace) from God in order to keep that charisma fresh and alive.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Musings about capitalism - free markets


Many Americans (and others) are staunch advocates of free market capitalism without really understanding its economic dynamics. Free market capitalism has at least three dimensions important for ethics: free markets, government regulation, and including the cost of capital as a cost of production. This post explores free markets; the next two posts will explore government regulation and the cost of capital. A fourth post will then examine free market capitalism from the perspective of Christian ethics. For the sake of brevity, these posts use capitalism and free market capitalism interchangeably.

In my conversations with people on capitalism, current economic problems, and the Occupy Wall Street movement, I find that few people have a substantive knowledge of economics. Preparing these posts has caused me to pull together material that I last presented in a formal way when I taught a college economics course thirty years ago.

The material may seem unusual fodder for a blog premised on the idea that people do not live by bread alone and that emphasizes finding the path to the abundant life. How a person uses her/his money and financial assets best reveals her/his values. Money also makes economic exchanges much easier than bartering and provides a helpful standard of measure for costs and benefits. I feel fortunate to have a degree in business, a degree in economics, and to have taught both subjects in addition to my education and experience as priest, theologian, and ethicist.

I hope that you will find the first three posts lay a helpful and important foundation for the fourth post. One significant advantage of a blog is the opportunity to present in a more organized, extended fashion ideas that do not lend themselves to casual conversation. As always, comments and questions are welcome.

A few preliminary definitions are essentials. In a free market, multiple suppliers compete to sell to multiple buyers. None of the buyers or sellers controls the market. Information about prices and products is readily available to all. Barriers to entry (the cost of setting up a factory, e.g.) are sufficiently low that new sellers can enter the market in response to increased demand.

A market that does not satisfy all of those parameters has limited competition. With limited competition, either buyers or sellers exercise some degree of market control, creating market inefficiencies and ineffective allocation of capital and labor. For example, John D. Rockefeller’s attempt to monopolize oil production through Standard Oil in the late nineteenth century enabled his firms to earn outsize profits. This took money from consumers, who no longer had those funds to invest or to spend on other goods and services. Shareholders (owners) of Standard Oil and some of Rockefeller’s employees benefitted from the monopoly. Everybody else lost.

Pure free market capitalism, in many respects, is analogous to the survival of the fittest in nature, i.e., the fittest firms survive by earning the largest profits and no rules or authorities exist to protect the vulnerable or weak from a firm’s predatory behavior.

Mitt Romney called his work at Bain Capital creative destruction. Bain bought firms, shook up the newly purchased firms to make them more profitable, and then sold the restructured/more competitive firms to new owners. Many people lost their jobs as Bain made operations leaner and more focused on profitable lines of business (actual numbers are not available). The leaner, more profitable firms sometimes then expanded, creating new jobs.

Staples (the office supply company) is Bain’s highest profile example of this. With an influx of capital and management expertise, Staples went from being a small start-up to the major player in the office supply business. In the course of that rapid growth, numerous local independent office supply businesses went out of business, unable to compete with Stapes in terms of variety, price, and service. The fittest survived, generating large profits for owners and many new jobs at considerable cost to the hundreds of its former competitors who no longer exist.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest business, has similarly affected the businesses that sixty years ago lined the main streets of most U.S. small towns and cities. People shop at Wal-Mart because they save money by doing so. Otherwise, Wal-Mart would not have become the retail juggernaut that it is, i.e., the fittest survived.

Fewer than 10% of American farms have sales over $250,000 but those large farms account for 85% of all farm production. Of the approximately 2.2 million U.S. farms, only 80,000 have 2000 or more acres; those 80,000 farms harvest 40% of the cropland. (2007 U.S. Government census data) Corporate farms are replacing family farms because they can produce more food at a lower cost, i.e., the survival of the fittest.

Competition is not the only force that drives market changes. Some change occurs because of technological advances, fluctuating consumer preferences, and demographic shifts. Firms that catered to consumers in much of the U.S. Midwest now struggle to survive or have gone out of business as people have depopulated a large swath of the Great Plains. Men (except the clergy, who now includes women) no longer wear celluloid collars on shirts. In my life, I have experienced a transition from slide rule to calculator, to mainframe computer, to PC, to handheld PDA. All of these changes have led to creative destruction, i.e., the bankruptcy of firms that failed to adapt and the success of other in the right place, with the right product, and the right technology.

The next post will discuss the role of government in regulating free markets, the third post will consider the cost of capital, and the final post will present a Christian ethical perspective on free market capitalism.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Observations on American politics



The irony of Romney is that he’s very smart and obviously able. He was a good Massachusetts governor with heavy Democratic legislature and turned the Olympics around. His gaffes don’t bother me much; this news cycle would have hurt Eisenhower, Truman, and Kennedy. Making our presidential candidates run as if they were campaigning for city council is nuts.

The system is broken – I mean both Obama and Bush were/are poor presidents. Obama has, by his own admission, two friends! And he has no managerial skills; his White House is a mess with lots of political skills but little organizational abilities. From what from people covering him tell me: he is an incredible cold fish!

The second Bush’s experience was to delegate and then trust his appointees. …

The Senate is full of rich guys who made/inherited a lot of money and their political skills are all about being elected, not legislating.

Romney’s biggest issue is that he is a moderate. He may be a flip flopper, but for political purposes. Obama was elected by doing a terrific job of invoking hope and change – something we all want. But he is a poor governor. I am not a big Romney fan, but I believe him to be a tested pragmatic leader who will provide managerial skills to the federal government. If he were to do a good job, he will be a one-term president and, if elected, I hope he does a very good job. Flip-flopping? Of course, under the new Republican Party, social issues are the biggest marker.

Abortion, same sex marriage, etc., are social issues and bread and butter to the fringes of each party. Does anyone who has analyzed abortion really think we are going to outlaw it?

But we don’t govern on these social issues – we govern on the daily boring issues: the budget, regulatory responsibilities (we have way too many regulations, allowing too many companies to game them). Look at all the warnings we are given: if you read what it says about your toaster, you wouldn’t get near it! I believe that companies want the regulations so that they know exactly how to protect themselves.

My basic problem with Obama is that he has no relationships at all with Congress. His White House runs every department except Defense, CIA (Petreaus can do anything he wants, the WH is afraid of him), Justice, and State. You need to work Congress, building relationships and trust – Obama has zero relationships and trust.

People were outraged about torture, now we kill people whenever we want. As one reporter, who now covers the WH after spending years covering Israel, said, Israel decides on the rules of engagement and then states that every attack is legal if it meets those rules. We are mimicking Israel’s approach: rules made in secret, but adhered to. There is a lawyer next to the “pilot” of the drone; he has a chart that outlines the value of the target and the collateral damage that is acceptable, so as long as the attack is within the guidelines, that’s OK. …

To me, Romney is the best of mediocre lot. Unfortunately, I would probably accept Obama before any other candidate except Romney.

Well, there’s my rant! Hope it was readable, if not enjoyable!

A couple of points are especially worth emphasizing:

·         The political process is broken: candidates spend their time fundraising rather than transacting government business. When I was in high school, that was true for representatives with their two-year terms and not for senators with their six-year terms. Now it’s true for all members of Congress – except those who have declared they will not run for reelection. There is no easy answer to this problem, e.g., terms limits will not solve this problem; candidates who max out the limit too often focus on running for another office.

·         Social issues may be critical to winning an election but are tangential to governing a nation. Christians (including evangelicals!) have substantive issues (e.g., caring for the most vulnerable) that are central to governance. Those issues, not social issues (e.g., abortion, defining marriage) should determine for whom Christians vote.

·         Governing is not synonymous with managing or campaigning. Governing requires a unique form of leadership few have. One of Obama’s weaknesses is that his relative youth gave him insufficient time to develop the leadership that would have enabled him to translate his vision into effective governance.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ten steps toward autocracy


Jonathan Turley, a public interest lawyer at George Washington University, published a column in the Washington Post (“10 reasons the U.S. is no longer the land of the free,” January 13, 2012) that enumerated ten steps the United States has taken toward becoming an autocracy (i.e., rule by one person). The president now has the legal authority to:

1.    Order the assassination of U.S. citizens;

2.    Detain foreigners and U.S. citizens indefinitely;

3.    Conduct warrantless searches;

4.    Decide whether a person is tried in a federal or military court, i.e., arbitrary justice;

5.    Rely on secret evidence in judicial proceedings;

6.    Prevent the prosecution of U.S. citizens for war crimes;

7.    Conduct secret judicial proceedings for those accused of terrorism;

8.    Give companies that assist in conducting warrantless searches immunity from judicial review;

9.    Authorize the continual monitoring of U.S. citizens;

10. Authorize extraordinary renditions;

These ten powers eviscerate the Bill of Rights’ guarantee of due process and move the United States dangerously close to tyranny.

Freedom entails vulnerability. I, for one, would rather die free than live under tyranny that allegedly protected me from terrorism, a threat from which no amount of surveillance, limits on freedom, and other authoritarian measures can assure. Such steps are always a bad bargain, offering the illusion of security in exchange for freedom and justice.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Unanswered prayer


In response to my earlier post, What is Prayer, a reader queried: “Might it be that petitionary prayer is one of the means by which God gives what we need? Jesus seems to acknowledge as much - ‘Ask, and you will receive’ and ‘You have not because you ask not’?” (Matthew 21:22; John 16:24)

Unanswered prayer poses real difficulties for believers and offers opportunities for non-believers to challenge the faithful.

For example, why do Christians ever die of famine, thirst, or easily treatable diseases? If Christians rightly understand the gospel’s record of Jesus’ teaching on prayer (we do not have because we do not ask) in a simple, straightforward manner, then hungry, thirsty, and sick Christians would never die from any of those causes; food, drink, and healthcare are all needed for life. Similarly, early Christians would not have died as martyrs (at least most of them); assuredly they prayed, as had Jesus, for it not to be their time to die.

One resolution of the apparent contradiction between the gospel’s promise of answered prayer and observing Christians dying because they lack what is needed is that God, for God's reasons, wills the death of those individuals. It is their time to die. I find this impossible to accept. God does not give life to watch humans suffer; dying from hunger, thirst, and treatable diseases are all horrible, easily avoided deaths.

Another resolution of the apparent contradiction is to recognize that God works in only certain ways in the world. Perhaps God in the act of creation surrendered some of God's omnipotence to empower God's creatures. The book of James seems open to this: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on pleasures.” (James 4:3) Perhaps God refrains from acting to preserve space for human autonomy. I find this latter option impossible to accept. Surely, a loving God who could act would do so in the face of massive human suffering.

Another possible resolution lies in living with an unanswered question, acknowledging that God's ways are not human ways and therefore unfathomable. I’m too intellectually curious and alive to find any satisfaction in this option, though I readily admit that my speculations and theological musings may not have moved in the correct direction.

Yet another possible resolution lies in contextualizing the gospel record of Jesus’ teaching that people do not have because they do not ask. Perhaps the teaching applies only to those things that people can expect God to provide and not to those things that people should provide. The reason that Christians (and others!) die of hunger, thirst, and easily treatable diseases is that God's people have failed to exercise proper care and responsibility for one another.

Encountering God in prayer is real. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to conceptualize prayer as if God were a heavenly vending machine: deposit the right number of prayers, correctly phrased, with the appropriate ardor, and God will deliver what one asks. Life repeatedly demonstrates that prayer does not function in that manner.

There are no easy answers to the problem of unanswered prayer. But ignoring the problem, or denying that the problem exists, makes religion less credible and deprives the believer of an opportunity to plumb the depths of the mystery that is God.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Iran update


A flurry of recent media articles gives the clear impression that Iran is making apparently rapid progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, other articles highlight steps that other nations are taking to prevent that. These steps include heightened economic sanctions (pushed by the U.S.), assassination of leading Iranian nuclear scientists (for which no nation has claimed responsibility but Israel seems the most likely candidate), belligerent rhetoric about the Straits of Hormuz (the U.S. and Iran), and expressions of concern (Russia).

None of these steps seems likely to be effective. The sanctions are pinching Iran economically, driving down the value of Iran’s currency against the dollar. This, in turn, is making life less affordable for many Iranians. In response, they are more fervently nationalist than before. Russia, one of Iran’s largest trading partners, has agreed to price that trade in a currency other than the dollar. This move will ease some of the economic pain that Iranians now feel.

These results illustrate why nations often perceive effective economic sanctions as an act of war that does not require direct military actions. Similarly, these results also illustrate why economic sanctions frequently fail and why ethicists question the morality of sanctions. In Saddam’s Iraq, for example, the sanctions affected the average Iranian but not the lifestyle or position of the ruling elite.

The assassination of nuclear scientists is unlikely to prove any more effective. Ethically, assassinations are at best a gray area. An assassination that ends great evil, and perhaps thereby avoids war, is arguably morally justifiable as the lesser evil. Assassinations that may slow but not derail evil are more problematic, e.g., Israeli assassinations of Hamas leaders, soon replaced by equally able and determined leaders who use the targeted killings in their propaganda.

Killing four scientists seems unlikely to bring the Iranian nuclear program to a halt, to make recruitment of new scientists impossibly difficult, or even to slow the program significantly. Instead, the killings seem certain to increase animosity and harden Iran’s resolve to develop nuclear weapons.

How can western nations constructively respond to the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons?

First, accept Iran as an important member of the global community. Iran’s threat to shut the Straits of Hormuz poses a greater danger for the west than for Iran. Making a relatively narrow channel too hazardous for commercial traffic is easier than keeping that waterway open and safe. Oil companies will probably not want to ship a quarter of the world’s oil through a channel in which even Iran sinks even a tenth of the transiting tankers. The economic disruption to world markets and economies from this move, coupled with the financial costs of a military response, surely would exceed the harm to Iran of any military attacks on that nation. The U.S. assuredly does not need to invade and conquer a third Muslim nation.

Second, give Iran as many and as strong reasons as possible to avoid war and to value international cooperation. Trade is the most important of these reasons; respect is a close second. The more prosperous and educated a people, the more that people values freedom and democracy. U.S. and western initiatives against Iran have generally backfired, promoting Iranian nationalism at the expense of democracy and isolationism at the expense of economic prosperity.

For half a century, a policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) produced a standoff between two nuclear superpowers with negative feelings (ideological opposition, fear, etc.) of at least the same magnitude as the animosity between Ian and Israel. Why should a similar policy of MAD fail between Iran and Israel?

MAD a high stakes option, far from ideal. However, MAD may be the best bet for stability in the Middle East. Preemptive strikes by Israel appear destined to fail. Iran has too many nuclear facilities that are too dispersed and too far from Israel for anything but multiple nuclear strikes to be effective. The U.S. waging war against Iran seems a prescription for another war, like Iraq and Afghanistan, in which quick victories give way to slow, agonizing no-win predicaments. Either Israel or the US acting would have huge adverse consequences for global prosperity and stability.

The Cold War ended when the USSR eventually collapsed. Iran’s theocracy seems destined for a similar collapse, unable to keep an increasingly prosperous people in shackles.

Why not allow Israel and Iran to have their own cold war? This may be the best of a set of poor choices. Thankfully, both Iran and Israel have much to lose in a nuclear war, both nations value survival, and so MAD is perhaps reasonably but unfortunately the best option for peace.

From a Christian perspective, peace is impossible unless people genuinely respect one another. Current US policies lack respect for Iranians and their legitimate national aspirations. But the ideas incorporated in tis blog do not reflect simply Christian ethics. Recent articles in Foreign Affairs provide much of the background: Hooman Majd, “Christmas is No Time for an Iranian Revolution;” Suzanne Maloney, “Obama’s Counterproductive New Iran Sanctions;” Cart Brown’s review of Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr’s Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty; and Jon Alterman’s review of Vali Nasr’s Free Markets, Free Muslims.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Leadership in Churches and other ecclesial organizations


Justin Menkes is a leading expert on leadership, especially at the CEO level. He has written significant books on the subject (Executive Intelligence and Better under Pressure). In an interview published in the Washington Post, he identified three key qualities for successful leaders in the federal civil service:

There are three attributes that I think best enable a leader to maximize the efforts of the 21st century workforce: realistic optimism, subservience to purpose and finding order in chaos. (Tom Fox, “How to Be a Successful Federal Leader,” January 10, 2012)

Those qualities are true for leadership in the Church and other ecclesial institutions.

Realistic optimism connotes a positive outlook, one able to inspire others, but not the “pie in the sky” optimism that characterizes weak leaders. No congregation will thrive in the absence of realistic optimism. Ultimately, the Church’s real source of optimism is our confidence that God will prevail in establishing God's purposes.

Subservience to purpose connotes, in secular language, focusing on the mission. The Church has no tangible rewards to offer. Ministry necessarily entails consistently prioritizing service to God ahead of everything else. God calls the Church and all of its ministries and ministers (clergy and lay!) to serve, not to be served. Articulating the purpose gives an organization its vision and specific mission. The larger the organization, the larger the vision and mission need to be; the larger the vision and mission, the greater the chaos that will be present.

Finding order in chaos connotes an ability to perceive movement and purpose in the diverse, loosely connected if not disparate, constituencies and activities that collectively define a congregation or other ecclesial institution. Leaders with a high need for control unintentionally sabotage the effectiveness of the inherently chaotic religious organization that they lead. The adoption of social media and the attendant flattening of hierarchical, authoritarian structures compounds the amount of chaos in most congregations and ecclesial institutions.

The leader of a congregation or other ecclesial organization, powered by hope and directed by purpose, will then focus on inspiring others to join the effort. This may occur in the context of leading worship, teaching, counseling, conducting meetings, casual conversations, and a host of other activities. This variety of activities does not define the effective leader; instead, the activities provide opportunities for inspiring others.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Wisdom from the elderly


New York Times’ columnist Jane E. Brody recently summarized a few of the lessons from 30 Lessons for Living, a new book by Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology. (“Advice From Life’s Graying Edge on Finishing With No Regrets,” New York Times, January 9, 2012)

These are the lessons that Brody identified as most important:

ON MARRIAGE A satisfying marriage that lasts a lifetime is more likely to result when partners are fundamentally similar and share the same basic values and goals. Although romantic love initially brings most couples together, what keeps them together is an abiding friendship, an ability to communicate, a willingness to give and take, and a commitment to the institution of marriage as well as to each other. … “Too many young people now are giving up too early, too soon.”

ON CAREERS Not one person in a thousand said that happiness accrued from working as hard as you can to make money to buy whatever you want. Rather, the near-universal view was summed up by an 83-year-old former athlete who worked for decades as an athletic coach and recruiter: “The most important thing is to be involved in a profession that you absolutely love, and that you look forward to going to work to every day.” …

ON PARENTING The demands of modern life often have a negative effect on family life, especially when economic pursuits limit the time parents spend with their children. Most important, the elders said, is to spend more time with your children, even if you must sacrifice to do so. Share in their activities, and do things with them that interest them. Time spent together enables parents to detect budding problems and instill important values. …

ON AGING “Embrace it. Don’t fight it. Growing older is both an attitude and a process,” an 80-year-old man said. The experts’ advice to the young: “Don’t waste your time worrying about getting old.” Most found that old age vastly exceeded their expectations. Even those with serious chronic illnesses enjoyed a sense of calm and contentment. A 92-year-old who can no longer do many of the things she once enjoyed said: “I think I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life. Things that were important to me are no longer important, or not as important.” …

ON REGRETS “Always be honest” was the elders’ advice to avoid late-in-life remorse. Take advantage of opportunities and embrace new challenges. And travel more when you’re young rather than wait until the children are grown or you are retired. As Dr. Pillemer summarized the elders’ view, “Travel is so rewarding that it should take precedence over other things younger people spend money on.” Create a bucket list now and start whittling it down.

ON HAPPINESS Almost to a person, the elders viewed happiness as a choice, not the result of how life treats you. A 75-year-old man said, “You are not responsible for all the things that happen to you, but you are completely in control of your attitude and your reactions to them.” An 84-year-old said, “Adopt a policy of being joyful.”

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Judgment


Prudential judgment is one of the four cardinal virtues. Human intellect has enabled our species, which is neither physically the largest nor strongest, to prevail over most species on the earth. The Enlightenment emphasized human reason and led to general adoption of the scientific method. The evolution of human culture and knowledge accelerates the pace of human development and social change. Prudential judgment, rightly exercised, enriches life.

Yet, human judgment remains notoriously unreliable. For example, recently released documents show that the 1961 Nobel Prize Committee deemed J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit, an unexceptional storyteller. The Nobel Committee similarly declined to award the literature prize to Robert Frost and E.M. Forster in that year. (Dave Itzkoff, “Tolkien Snubbed by Nobel Prize Jury, Papers Reveal,” New York Times, January 6, 2012)

Many evangelical Christians prefer the pseudo-science of Australian Ken Ham (he believes that reason should confirm rather than reinterpret the Bible) to the real science of evolutionary biologists. Many of these same evangelical Christians prefer the pseudo-history of Dave Barton (he rewrites history to make Washington and Madison into Christian evangelicals) to known facts. Evangelicals choose these false belief systems in spite of other, lesser known evangelicals, like Francis Collins (head of the National Institutes of Health) and Mark Noll (a prominent historian whose writings correctly portray Washington and Madison as deists). Pseudo-scholars apparently presume that God created humans with intellect and curiosity to impair spiritual well-being and to impede the advancement of knowledge (which they seem to think depends exclusively on revelation). Some commentators speculate that money and media draw attention to Ham, Barton, and their advocates, attracting additional supporters for reasons unrelated to sound judgment. (For more on why attempting to read the Bible literally is foolish rather than wise, read my series on the Bible – Ethical Musings: In what way is the Bible authoritative?)

Many factors effect human judgment. For example, research indicates that magnets can influence moral judgment. Volunteers received a magnetic pulse, which the individual could not detect, to their brain’s right temporo-parietal junction (RTPJ). Prior studies had shown that the RTPJ is highly active when a person is thinking about another person’s intentions. Asked to make moral judgments about a man who permitted his girlfriend to cross a bridge that he knew was unsafe, people who received the magnetic pulse were less likely to consider intentions than members of a control group. (Chris Smyth, “Moral compass influenced by magnets, researchers say,” The Times, March 30, 2010)

That research has obvious implications for jurors and other situations in which humans exercise judgment about others. Perhaps jury trials and deliberations should occur only in spaces free of magnetic pulses – unless one thinks that intent is irrelevant in determining criminal culpability!

In spite of the unreliability of human judgment, a majority of physicians prefer to trust their judgment rather than adopt an evidentiary approach to the practice of medicine. Physicians who rely on their professional judgment do so because they believe that it produces better results for the patient. Unfortunately, physicians who do this when data on treatment outcomes is available cause needless deaths and wastes healthcare resources. (Malcolm Gladwell, Blink, pp. 125-145)

Researchers seem likely to identify other factors that alter human judgment. Marketers know that sex sells, i.e., sex influences judgment about purchasing items, including brand, specific characteristics desired, and quantity bought. Clearly, pure reason is at best a rare commodity and arguably does not exist (some would contend that mathematics is an example of pure reason).

These musings about prudential judgment lead me to three conclusions:

1.    When possible, humans achieve better results by relying on data rather than judgment.

2.    In some (many?) circumstances, insufficient data and knowledge mean that humans have no choice but to exercise prudential judgment. Humans do best when they avoiding judging the worth of others (Jesus: judge not).

3.    Consequently, humans should exercise prudential judgment with great humility about their own capacity to err while making broad allowances for people to reach divergent judgments.

If widely followed, those conclusions would reintroduce much civility into politics and religion.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Conflicting folk wisdom


Sometimes, folk wisdom – the collected accumulated human wisdom – provides conflicting guidance. For example, Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture with Jeffrey Zaslow (New York: Hyperion, 2008), p. 73) writes that brick walls are to stop other people. In the Christian tradition, people frequently speak of open and closed doors as a way of knowing God's will; in this context, a closed door represents a sign from God that the person should head in a different direction. Which perspective is correct?

I’ve not found a reliable rule by which to discern which principle applies to a particular situation. On the one hand, persistence is a key to success in almost every endeavor. A plebe had been at the Naval Academy for a week when he came to see me. He began our conversation with a long story about how God had enabled him to become a Midshipman, helping him overcome one obstacle after another. But now, after less than a week of plebe summer, this young man was convinced that God wanted him to return home. I suggested God was not that fickle! This young man had given up at the first brick wall instead of mustering the interior fortitude to persevere. (The first six weeks of plebe summer at the Academy are miserable by design; plebes may disenroll on request only after completing that experience and beginning the academic year.)

On the other hand, I took piano lessons for seven long years. At the end of that time, when I told my teacher I was quitting, he informed me that I should have done so at the end of the first year, not having achieved any progress since then. I had hit a real brick wall and not been sufficiently self-aware to recognize the experience (nor had my teacher had the integrity to tell my parents they were wasting their money on my lessons!).

Those extremes are clear. Most of the time, however, we live in in-between spaces, and the wisdom of particular choices seem less obvious. When facing such a situation, I often:

·         Consider which alternative I think will bring me the most joy (joy is a much deeper level of satisfaction than passing happiness)

·         Consider which alternative appears to best suit my personality and abilities

·         Ask people who know me well and who want what is best for me what they think

·         Reflect on which alternative will produce the most love for God and others in me and in others

·         Look for an option that I have not yet identified

Monday, January 9, 2012

Good news for peacemakers


The projected reductions in Defense spending that President Obama announced last week represent good news for peacemakers. Wasteful, excessive spending on the military provides society with no real benefits beyond the political- military-industrial complex.

Unnecessary spending on armed forces deprives a nation of the opportunity to employ those resources in more constructive, productive ways while increasing the likelihood of war. At least three dynamics support the latter. First, unnecessary armaments often trigger arms races in which many peoples and nations lose, especially in an arms race between China and the United States. Second, the more weapons a nation has, and the larger its military, the greater the temptation to look for military solutions to international problems that other approaches might better address. Third, the more a nation spends on defense, the greater the implied pressure to utilize its armed forces. Otherwise, why continue to spend all of that money on the military, especially in an era of severe fiscal constraints?

The idea that the United States should be ready to fight two major ground wars at the same time dates back to WWII, when the U.S. engaged both Japan and Nazi Germany. Today, that standard is well past its “sell by” date. Indeed, a more prescient question is whether the U.S. will ever fight any major ground wars again. The 2003 conquest of Iraq may be the last major ground war; the U.S. conquered Afghanistan primarily using air and special operations forces. As both conquests have demonstrated, conquest is easy; occupation is extremely difficult against determined foes that rely on guerilla and terror strategies and tactics.

A land war with China seems highly improbable: they lack the resources to invade the U.S.; the U.S. lacks the numerical strength in its armed forces to conquer and then to occupy China. Nuclear deterrence by both the U.S. and China make such a land war unwinnable by either side. (Cf. Ethical Musings, Is China Now A Threat?)

Military capacities the U.S. needs to maintain for realistic defense requirements include

·         Nuclear deterrence (important as the number of countries with nuclear weapons continues to grow)

·         Power projection to ensure international stability, the flow of commerce, and security of allies (who should share a large burden of the cost of doing this)

·         Strong special operations capabilities with which to respond to international terrorism and other asymmetric threats.

Obama’s plan seeks to focus U.S. military spending on those goals (cf. Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense).

Lawrence Korb, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense from 1981-1985 and senior fellow at the American Center for Progress, believes that the reductions will not diminish U.S. national security because of mismanagement within the Department of Defense and procurement of unneeded weapons systems and military capabilities. (“Why Panetta’s Pentagon Cuts Are Easier Than You Think,” Foreign Affairs, January 4, 2012; Ethical Musings, Swords into Plows)

Global peace will not arrive in the twinkling of an eye, a hope that has more to do with Santa Claus than with building peace in our broken world. Building peace is hard work, accomplished one-step at a time. Actively supporting Obama’s plan, regardless of whether one endorses him for reelection, is a step that peacemakers can and should take. Refuting the inevitable clarion calls for more defense spending and arguing against procurement of expensive, unneeded weapons systems are two more steps that peacemakers can and should take.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Tim Tebow and Ayn Rand's objectivism


Tim Tebow taking a knee in prayer on the football field has occasioned much comment, some of it impassioned. One cause, according to Sally Jenkins, is that some people feel threatened by persons who emphasize the aspect of talent that a person is given rather than learns, develops, or earns (“Bill Maher and Tim Tebow: Why are so many offended by the quarterback’s faith?Washington Post, December 30, 2011).

Ayn Rand in works like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead argued for a philosophy that she called objectivism. Objectivism teaches that each individual rightly pursues self-interest and only self-interest. Doing otherwise results in diminishing the wellbeing of the individual and of society. For more about objectivism, watch this 1959 Mike Wallace with Ayn Rand:



Objectivism contradicts Christianity. Jesus, along with the other great religious leaders, taught people to love their neighbors.

Philosophically, objectivism presumes that people are equal. People have equal moral worth because people, all created by God, have equal dignity. However, moral equality is not synonymous with equal abilities. DNA determines a large part of a person’s abilities. The fetus’ environment in the womb and first few years of life determine another large part of a person’s abilities. For example, DNA determines who is born with Down’s syndrome; the mother’s alcohol or drug use determines who is born with certain birth defects; living undernourished and without love for the first two years after birth has major negative consequences that no individual chooses. Other examples would illustrate the opposite: specific combinations of genes and environment that give an individual the basis for outsize success in life.

Anglican cleric John Donne was correct: no person is an island. Interpreted usually to mean that no person lives alone, Donne’s observation also reminds us that no person can claim all or even most of the credit for being who she/he is or for what he/she accomplishes in life.

Even though I do not agree with all of his theology, Tim Tebow understands this basic truth. Persons who would take credit for all of their accomplishments in any field, and persons who feel that the 99% could become the 1% if only they worked harder and smarter, do not understand this truth.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New leadership styles needed


A number of pundits, including some who comment on politics and others who focus on religion, have recently bemoaned the lack of good leadership seen in 2011 (e.g., David Ignatius, “The year of the befuddled leader,” Washington Post, December 29, 2011).

Leadership is at least partially learned, even if leadership is as much an art as a skill. The rapid pace of technological change affects both individuals and society. I wonder if part of the apparent deficit of good leadership is that external circumstances and dynamics are changing faster than leaders can adapt and develop.

In the absence of good role models and helpful theory, trial and error becomes the primary way in which individuals acquire good leadership skills. Obama led well during the 2008 presidential campaign but has stumbled since then. Congressional leaders have done even worse, e.g., Boehner’s recent tactical reversal on extending the payroll tax reduction.

If I’m correct, then the occasional example of effective leadership is the result of a leader exercising prudential judgment or serendipitous / providential factors. In the Church, leaders have a less diverse, group of people with more of a common agenda to lead and thus an easier task than political leaders face. This explains why the Church has more, although still relatively few, effective leaders than the higher status, higher paid political arena. This also explains why one can observe the same phenomena among business leaders: employees share a common commitment to their enterprise’s success. But no business succeeds forever, e.g., Sears and K-Mart have failed to adapt to the twenty-first century marketplace in spite of having made some significant changes (ending catalogue sales).

How can a leader adapt to constant change?

First, good leaders expect change and intentionally expend time and effort on understanding the way in which current changes affect people, society, and their organization.

Second, good leaders constantly adapt and expand their repertoire of leadership skills. They dispassionately jettison ineffective techniques and styles, test new ones, and adopt what works. Feedback (listening) is integral to everything that a good leader does.

Third, good leaders are purposeful. That is, good leaders set measurable goals, plan to achieve those goals, and assertively execute the plan. Good results rarely “just happen.” Persistent and focused hard work produces good results.

Fourth, good leaders consistently practice healthy self-care. The sick leader, the leader with unhealthy or inappropriate relationships, seldom produces good results and never achieves good results over the longer term. Staying grounded – maintaining one’s balance and identity – is an essential element of self-care.

Fifth, good leaders cherish diversity, celebrate the abilities and accomplishments of others, and value people more than things or ideas. Diversity narrowly conceived involves physical differences such as gender, race, nationality, and religion. Diversity broadly conceived includes people who think in different ways, who see the world differently, and who respond with different emotions. No one person has every ability; large accomplishments are never one person’s solitary achievement. People, whom God created, are more precious than human ideas or products.

One of the twentieth century’s great leaders was Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led an ill-fated 1915 expedition to the South Pole. Although focused on being the first to reach the Pole, Shackleton planned poorly. Nevertheless, a recent New York Times article summarizing the Harvard Business School case that chronicles his misadventures recognizes identifies Shackleton’s tremendous leadership traits (Nancy Koehn, “Leadership Lessons from the Shackleton Expedition,” December 24, 2011). He paid attention to his circumstances, adapted to change, never lost sight of his mission, took care of himself insofar as was possible, and valued his people above everything else.

Almost thirty years ago, when I was the chaplain for the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidate School, I frequently told Marine officer candidates Shackleton’s story at prayer breakfasts. Symbolic of his leadership, Shackleton, need to abandon ship, powerfully demonstrated his priorities to his crew, hefting several gold coins in his hand before then flinging them away, then lovingly taking his small Bible, carefully tearing out the 23rd Psalm, tucking the Psalm into an inner pocket, and laying the Bible gently in the snow. Survival would depend on traveling light but also on faith in God and care for one another.

In time, new leaders with contemporary competencies will emerge, leaders able to inspire others to follow along paths that lead to life abundant.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Locating the middle


A friend sent me the following thoughts:

I am the chairperson of an anti-crime initiative in [my city] supported by the State. It is extremely interesting and educational. One of the funniest events was when we wanted to put surveillance cameras in a public housing development. I said that I would go out to see the development and talk to the tenants. Both the police and the Housing Authority said, “You need to go with us; a white person can’t go there alone.” We all went out there and looked at light poles to put up cameras while the young men, ranging from 13 to 17 years old gave us deadly looks. The cameras had to be 14.5 feet high so that a man standing in the roof of his car with a baseball bat couldn’t hit the camera! We put the cameras in; crime is down; the families are happier. I have been there frequently and in side conversations, I have been told by older women we are doing a great job, but not when anyone young could see us talking!

Do we do some things that aren’t quite fair; yes, but the families are happy that big guys are no longer there. What is truly scary is that the last two young men – age 19 and 23 – arrested were hidden in public housing for weeks. The 19 year old had 6 warrants and was arrested 6 minutes after he killed a 51 year old man (another bad guy) in an argument – as the Police Chief said that any murder is a tragedy, but some are not as bad as others and this wasn’t bad for the citizens as far as crime was concerned. The 23 year old is now in US prison for 15 years; another public housing terror, went to child prison at 14 after shooting his partner in a robbery!

My point is that I have changed my views on protecting people who want to help you, threatening people who you know have information that you need, etc. Cops are there day after day in the same area in order to develop relationships; what happens at a pre arrest conversation needs to have context.

I responded with some reflections about surveillance cameras:

The anti-crime initiative sounds like an interesting project. I know that some civil libertarians have concerns about surveillance cameras, but I think that your project offers a good example of where the cameras can make a positive difference. I find the nearly omnipresent cameras in the United Kingdom overly intrusive. Striking a balance between safety and privacy is important.

In general, societies seem to have difficulty locating the right balance, tending toward extremes. The same is probably true for many individuals. Maintaining a balance, like walking on a tightrope and be challenging. However, usually the consequences of erring are not as tragic as falling off a high wire. Yet we as individuals and societies tend to err not by small amounts but large swings: opposing or favoring all tax increases, opposing or favoring all spending cuts, opposing/favoring all abortions, etc.

Policy formulation – like developing ethical rules – is easier if the policy allows for no exceptions, let alone moderation. Attempting to write a policy (or ethical rule) that specifies exceptions and includes thoughtfully crafted nuances requires far more verbiage. For example, the two great commandments (love God and one’s neighbor) become the Ten Commandments, which, in turn, find amplification as the 613 commandments of the Jewish law, which, in turn, become the volumes of canon law that embody the Roman Catholic Church’s ethical teachings.

Anglicans famously adopted the via media, the middle way between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. The via media is a constructive approach to ethics: basic rules to which one adheres with prudential wisdom, flexibly incorporating exceptions and adaptations when the situation requires. There is no guarantee that the exceptions and adaptations will be good or right. But the alternative to relying on prudential judgment is reliance on rules (rigidly adhering to an overly simplistic set of rules or attempting to write a comprehensive and therefore incomprehensibly vast set of rules) or simply doing one’s own thing (a relativism that puts perceived self-interest first). Anyone who has served in the military or who is familiar with the U.S. tax code recognizes the problems inherent in trying to write rules to cover every situation. Anyone who has known a person who invariably insisted on his/her own way, treating others as merely means to an end, will have experienced the problems inherent in having no rules. In political terms, anarchists and libertarians prefer no rules; advocates of government mandates prefer extensive rule sets.

I want to live in the muddy middle, to champion individualism while also affirming the importance of community. I seek to follow a similar approach to life, balancing today’s pleasures/needs with preparing for tomorrow (e.g., in spending, obtaining an education, retirement planning, etc.).

Living in the middle tends to reject most ideologies because ideologues attract attention through their extremism. Living in the middle rejects a “zero defect” approach to life because nobody can consistently chart the middle way, let alone follow it without a misstep.

The middle way has had some high profile advocates over the millennia: Jesus, Confucius, and Buddha – to name just three of them. For example, Jesus in talking about the difficulty of following the straight and narrow way employs images evocative of the middle way that I have described. Similarly, he rejects both the asceticism of some and the self-indulgence of others, being neither a teetotaler nor drunk, but savoring life’s good things in moderation. He does exhort people to love with abandon, but they are to love God, self, and others simultaneously, requiring balance. Indeed, exuberant, total love may be the one exception to the wisdom of living a balanced life, seeking to follow the middle way.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2012 predictions


New Year’s is a traditional time for assessing the past year, making predictions about the coming year, and adopting resolutions for self-improvement. This year, I’m only doing one of the three, making some predictions about 2012. I’ve not done this before and am interested to see how accurate my predictions will be. I invite reader comments about 2011, predictions for 2012, and resolutions for self-improvement.

Predictions for 2012:

·         A dictator will emerge in Iraq, probably Nouri al-Maliki. The war in Afghanistan will wind down but the Taliban insurgency will continue. Iran will develop, or be on the verge of developing, a nuclear weapon.

·         No progress in reconciling South and North Korea will occur until after the end of 2012.

·         Obama will win reelection; the Republicans will gain control of both houses of Congress.

·         North Carolina will defeat the proposed amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage in heterosexual terms.

·         Violent and unusual weather patterns will increase in frequency and severity causing multiple major natural disasters around the globe.

·         The major stock market indices (Dow Jones, S&P 500, NASDAQ, Russell 2000) will advance 5-10%, less than typical for an election year; all will have multiple, substantial fluctuations of several percentage points in a single day.

·         The world will not end.

Reviewing that list of predictions reveals that all but the last two are negative (although some evangelical Christians, eager to be with Jesus, would argue that the final prediction was the most negative of all!).

Good things rarely generate news coverage. In 2012:

·         The sun will rise every day.

·         Most people will eat, laugh, pray, and love more than they are hungry, cry, disbelieve, and hate.

·         Nature’s beauty will continue to evoke unanticipated gasps of pleasure from those who pause to behold and to experience it.

·         People will practice random acts of kindness (remember the many “secret Santas” who paid the balance due on items that unknown strangers had put on layaway in stores such as K-Mart).

·         Children will be born, received into the arms of loving parents.

·         People will die courageously, thankful for a good life, long or short.

·         Healthcare personnel will successfully treat hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people for a wide variety of illnesses and diseases.

·         Democracy will continue to spread, though not as quickly as some had hoped during the 2011 Arab spring.

·         Most people, and rightly so, expect that 2012 will be a good year. Each of us can accomplish something worthwhile and find a moment to enjoy every day (remember the Boy Scout principle of doing a good deed every day).

Happy New Year!