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How to Keep Religion in the Public Square

How to Keep Religion in the Public Square

Every so often there’s another outburst of complaints about how religion is being suppressed in this country, and how it no longer has its place in the public square. And there are the occasional really silly incidents that actually support such a claim. I note, for example, that our local public library here in Pensacola, Florida refuses to permit religious groups to conduct meetings, which is simply a lawsuit waiting to happen.

On the other hand, many, and I suspect most, of the complaints arise more from inconvenience, and the legitimate requirements that people use some kind of etiquette in the way in which they use the public square. The complaint of suppression is frequently actually a complaint that one is not getting the proper strokes, or that the government is not funding one’s favorite religious cause.

WorldNetDaily has an article complaining that a clause forbidding the use of stimulus money to build buildings whose main use is religious. For example, you can’t build a seminary with the money. (HT: Dispatches.) They do this with the ridiculous headline, Stimulus to ban religious worship. Yeah, right. Either from the church or the state side, I very much do not want the government constructing buildings for religious purposes.

But if we Christians do not have what we think is our proper place in the public square, why is that? Is it because of suppression? Christianity is, after all, the majority religion. I do note, however, that when this is limited to True ChristiansTM, no matter who gets to make the definition, the number drops substantially.

But it seems to me that we’re so busy complaining about the opportunities we don’t have (and I’m not prejudicing the issue of what privileges we should have) that we aren’t really taking advantage of the privileges and opportunities we do have.

If you are a parent who complains that children can’t pray at school, let me ask a couple of questions. Did you take the time to pray with your children before you sent them out to the bus stop? Will you pray with them when they get home? Will you take time out of your schedule today to pray for your children during their time at school? And even more, have you investigated just where and when at school your children can pray? Have you taught them how to pray for themselves?

If you are complaining that our young people aren’t getting enough Biblical education, again let me ask you a few questions. Have you read your Bible today? Have you chosen a passage and really studied it, so that if someone referenced it in literature you’d “get” it? Have you or will you take time with your children to study the Bible or something about your faith? Do you encourage your children to read the Bible? Do you see to it that they know something about their church community?

And more importantly, have you let that life of prayer and Bible study impact the way you act in the public square? When you ask “what would Jesus do?” does it come out to something other than your own inclinations? Do people who meet you know you’re a Christian? If they find out you’re a Christian will their opinion of Christians improve?

If you don’t relate to many of the things I’m suggesting, I think you should reconsider complaints about being restricted in your religious activities. You aren’t taking advantage of the many opportunities that are available.

If you or your children aren’t praying enough or studying the Bible enough, is it the fault of the much maligned ACLU? Or is it a result of your desire to have somebody else take care of your children’s religious education because you don’t actually care enough to take the time to do it yourself?

What I Want in a Stimulus Package

What I Want in a Stimulus Package

It is interesting to see what is regarded as spending for stimulus, and how this is debated. I’m afraid I don’t give the Democrats too many points for putting it together, and the Republicans really haven’t done all that much about tearing it apart. Since I’ve complained about it a bit, I thought I’d give some thoughts on what I think would work, so that people could complain about what I propose. And of course, I must provide apologies for writing so far out of my own field of study again.

While I know that when the word “billion” is involved, it’s a great deal of money, minor increments in the total spending packages, such as were negotiated for the Senate version, are not going to make that large of a difference. On the other hand, tax cuts aren’t all that helpful a suggestion as part of a stimulus package either, though they might well have their place in another policy.

When you’re working entirely in deficit range, even tax cuts work very much like spending, only somewhat worse. The government decides where to distribute the tax cuts, just as it decides where to spend the money, and it often doesn’t do nearly as good a job with the cuts as it does with the spending.

OK, am I a raving lunatic? Perhaps, but I don’t think this is evidence of that. The problem is that the tax cuts are not essentially returning money to people who earned it. Because of the shape of the tax code, they are redistributive, and thus they are similar to targeted spending, only spending targeted at people who will not necessarily be all that good at creating new wealth. It’s the folks who created wealth that we took the money from in the first place.

There will be an improvement in production based on tax reductions, but that isn’t infinite, else a 0% tax would produce the most revenue. In practical terms a 0% tax won’t even produce the greatest economic activity, because we do need infrastructure and regulation. Tax cuts targeted at businesses, at least if those businesses are potentially productive, are an improvement on this, of course.

The first thing both opponents are proponents of the bill need to decide is whether spending money we don’t have is a good way to stimulate the economy, and whether we can handle the potential inflationary pressure after we do it. If we start a half a trillion dollar deficit, and add another trillion to it (and this is ignoring the financial system bailout), something is going to happen. If we bring the economy out of recession a few months quicker, and add a few years of inflation and assorted associated problems, we may not consider it an overall win.

There are a number of voices in the media who are claiming that there is no question that we must spend to stop the recession. Rachel Maddow called it Economics 101. But it is not that well established, and bluntly looking at the last few decades I’m not all that inclined to trust the collective wisdom of economists. But there are quite a number of would disagree at this point. The loud claims that stimulus is “obvious” and “Economics 101” ignore a pretty strong body of contrary evidence.

It’s on this point where I would respect those Republicans who take a straightforward, “this isn’t the right idea at all” approach. Of course, there’s no negotiation there. The gulf between stimulate and don’t stimulate is a bit big to bridge! But at least it’s a position with integrity.

I’m personally inclined, nonetheless, to support the idea of spending to stimulate the economy. But contrary to what seems to be popular opinion, I think it very much does matter what we spend the money on. In terms of stimulus, the a business does not provide a very good analogy to the national economy. I cannot, after all, borrow large amounts of money, pass it around, and expect it to stimulate my single business. That is a course of action open to government, but not to me.

But I can borrow money for a business, and as any businessman knows, it’s very important what I do with it. If I’m borrowing to make payroll, I better be very concerned and have good reason to expect the situation to change for the better, and soon! If I’m borrowing to add a new plant and increase productivity, that’s likely a good bet, presuming there’s demand.

So if I were going through this bill and looking at what I think is a good idea and what is not, I would actually largely ditch those tax cuts. In a considering the entire bill lives inside the deficit, I think they’re going to have less effect than is hoped. On the remaining spending, I’d ask for one of two things: 1) Is this an improvement in our nation’s infrastructure that is going to produce new economic activity, or 2) Is this something that will have such a substantial effect on the nation’s mood that it will tend to stimulate individual activity. Under the first category, one should ask whether government is either the only agency, or the best agency, to carry out that particular activity.

As it is, much of the spending in the bill looks good to me, though some of the government spending seems to me to fail the test of whether government can do it best. In the second category, I think some support for unemployment insurance is a beneficial psychological stimulus.

As examples of the first category, I think that both improvements in the energy efficiency of government buildings and investment in basic scientific research are good things.

In the first case, I think the government obviously must invest in its buildings, and given an economic downturn, investing in them now is a good idea. This is borrowing that will produce savings in the future as well as build future jobs in the technologies and techniques involved. The buildings appear to me to be winners all around. Ironically, or perhaps as one would expect, such spending was cut. It strikes me that some Republicans regard any spending that involves the ecology to be some kind of green pipe dream and knee-jerk oppose it. To be fair, I must admit that for some Democrats, if the word “green” is in there, their support is assured.

While I believe basic scientific research is a good thing, I am not convinced that government consistently spends such money well. I would prefer that the government take on tasks that it needs to see performed, such as improvements in government buildings, or in transportation, or in information technology, spend money in those areas, and in turn expect that spending to stimulate private investment in developing those technologies.

If tax cuts were so structured as to stimulate this same type of activity that would improve our productivity in the future, then those might also be valuable. As a general way of getting money back into the economy, I don’t think they will be very productive at this point.

The problem down the road, of course, is to get government to back off of deficit spending once the corner has been turned, always assuming that we do turn the corner using these methods. In the past, that has always proven a problem.

Bipartisan Dialog is Messy

Bipartisan Dialog is Messy

As readers of this blog already know I have mixed feelings about the current stimulus bill, but I think most of the discussion on the progress of the bill is measured against a wrong standard.

Despite complaints to the contrary, President Obama has taken a bipartisan approach to formulating this bill. There are Republican ideas in the resulting bill–some of which are things I don’t like. Whether or not he has gotten Republican support does not determine whether he has listened to Republican voices.

The problem is that people are expecting a smooth path to passage such as might be produced by a well-oiled political machine. But a process of dialog is never that tidy.

I don’t know how the White House is measuring this. But I don’t think they should be embarrassed by a messy process. If they continue to listen, they may find that eventually there are places where, contrary to the public rhetoric, barriers have been broken. I believe a little annoyance is a small price to pay in the long run.

What Stimulus Proponents Could Learn from a Book Title

What Stimulus Proponents Could Learn from a Book Title

Readers of this blog know that I preferred our current president over his opponent in the election. After the bailout fiasco, I would have dearly loved to have had a candidate who actually opposed the whole idea. McCain bleated about socialism, but I honestly don’t believe he could have identified a capitalist or a socialist with a detailed checklist.

All that has now passed us by. Given the candidates we nominated, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we would have some kind of stimulus package and that the ideas behind it would be a bit murky, no matter who was elected. And I’m not 100% opposed to stimulus as a basic concept. I just don’t think the arguments for or against are being done all that well.

Now I’m not an economist by training or inclination, though I did study just a bit of political science. I’m not likely to be mistaken for one either. At the same time, as I listen to actual economists talk on TV, and sometimes even when I read their longer, and presumably better thought out pieces in print, I begin to wonder why any of them are mistaken for actual economists either.

Let’s take just one little incident–the $1.2 million renovation of a certain executive’s office. Now there’s reason to be outraged here, but it’s not any of the reasons I’m hearing. Money spent on luxuries may be wasted from the point of view of a company’s or family’s budget, but in terms of the economy it’s not wasted. We really do underestimate the difficulty of keeping a good stack of cash down–when people get to make choices on how to spend it. Even $1400 wastebaskets provide employment and keep the money moving–a much better result than holding that money as a cash reserve. Of course, $1.2 million is a tiny fraction of a percent of the problem here.

Then there are all those bonuses. People talk as though the bonuses went out with the garbage, never to be seen again. Actually, those bonuses probably did more to stimulate the economy than most of the other money provided as part of the bailout, simply because the money got out of the companies in the first place. I doubt it did very much, however.

The problem, I think, is that we’re generally forgetting that an economy is more about people than it is about money. Ex-Senator Phil Gramm was pilloried during the campaign for saying that the recession was a psychological recession, but in fact recessions generally have a huge psychological element. In fact, the entire economy has a huge psychological element. If President Obama’s approval ratings remain high, he could have more stimulus effect by giving speeches than the actual spending of money has. I say that not to emphasize the power of speech, but rather the weakness of simple pouring out of money, especially pretend money, i.e. money we pretend we have.

What we are forgetting all around, and what keeps the economists stirred up and largely wrong, is that we forget that the economy is about people. And herewith the book title: Human Action, by Ludwig von Mises. Now herewith a warning. Human Action is not a short book or an easy book. Ludwig von Mises dislikes most of the terms we commonly use, even labels of fields of study. He defines them and then figures he can use them throughout the book. My edition, the 3rd Revised Edition printed by Henry Regnery Company in 1966, runs to 907 pages including the index.

I have read all 907 of them. My political science professor at the time advised against it. He said it was hard, and that my time could be better spent. I absolutely and profoundly disagree. It was one of the best decisions of my college life.

But I believe the most important lesson for economists comes in the title of only two words: Human Action. Von Mises went so far as to name a new science, praxeology, the study of human action. I was asked by another one of my professors why one would name a book about economics “Human Action.” Once I had read the book I was able to answer: Because economics is about human action.

And that brings me back to my personal outrage over the $1.2 million office renovation, or the billions spent on bonuses by the industry. It’s not that the money was spent. It’s not that the money was spent on luxuries. It is that the money was presented to people as a reward for failure. Companies whose performance was dismal were being paid huge bonuses. A man whose company was about to fail was allowed the choice of renovating his office. That was a choice he should have gotten only as a result of being successful.

This was the problem with the bailout of the financial institutions and the bailout of the auto industry. The government decided to bailout whole industries as though industries thrive or fail. That’s not the case. People thrive or fail. Gather enough failures into an industry, and sure enough that industry will also fail. But if you push money into the industry it goes to those people, and it rewards them for failure.

Many people are shocked that we could spend $350 billion on the financial industry and see it still in a tailspin. But if you find someone who is unwise in using money, and he loses $350 billion or so, and then you give him another $350 billion, what do you expect? I still think things would go badly, but at least a sensible lender would require a change in leadership. That’s one of the advantages of bankruptcy. The business gets “bailed out” (sort of), but a judge gets to put limits on the choices of the folks who failed.

Similarly, we heard in the auto bailout that we couldn’t let the industry fail. But Ford still had cash reserves, even though its president was going to the trough with his fellow executives. Expecting them to reduce their own salaries and bonuses was a minimum sort of precaution, but did anyone ask why we should trust the same people with more money?

The basic action here is human, and if we forget that, we are unlikely to be able to solve any of the problems. Companies that are rewarded for performing poorly will continue to perform poorly. We’ll get to throw good money after bad.

The stimulus package that is going through congress right now is also being debated in the wrong terms. “How much of it is in tax cuts, and how much in spending?” we’re asked. But the problem is that we have none of the money, so the point in either case is how much money are we going to pretend to have, and where we’re going to inject our play money into the economy. Now pretending to have money is not necessarily doomed to failure, provided that you have some way of getting the actual money, or more importantly the goods and services that it represents.

So I’d ask the question of all the stimulus projects: Will this improve the economy, i.e. help improve production enough to pay for itself over the next 10 years? 20 years? 30 years? While psychology has something to do with it, optimism only goes so far before it must be fed by something that actually works. The government could stimulate the economy by building infrastructure, provided it’s good infrastructure, is needed, and is the sort of thing that government has to do.

I sincerely hope we start examining what we’re doing with a different test, looking at what will actually be accomplished. I’m afraid the Republicans in congress, while right to be skeptical, are not being skeptical of the right things, and are not proposing anything that would be substantially better.

Dr. Reich Stirs up some Hornets

Dr. Reich Stirs up some Hornets

I’ve been following Dr. Reich’s blog ever since I discovered it during the primary season. He was Labor Secretary during the Clinton administration, and I recall not always agreeing with him at the time, though I don’t recall the details. In any case, from the time when TARP was passed through the auto industry bailout, and now in specific testimony and writing regarding the stimulus package, I have to say that I have found him extremely thoughtful and constructive.

Thus it’s interesting to note that no less (or greater!) a trio than Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh have misconstrued some of his testimony to congress, and of course have begun yelling about it. (Media Matters reports on it, HT to Robert Reich.)

Of course, there is a group of people, fortunately small I think, who believe that every attempt to be inclusive is automatically an attack on white men. As a white man myself, I repudiate such notions. I believe that each of us is made better as society becomes more inclusive and that the expansion of the economy in size, in creativity, in competition, and in diversity is well worth any temporary displacement.

Dr. Reich is merely asking that we make sure that the jobs created by the stimulus go to a broad range of people–an admirable goal. In any case, his suggestions are serious enough to merit careful and substantial debate, not a mauling by shallow political entertainers.

I know, what fantasy land to I [want to] live in?