Posts tagged with: government

There’s a good read from a state politician familiar with Kwame Kilpatrick, the former Detroit mayor accused of all manner of illicit activity, in the Sep. 12 newsletter (PDF) from Michigan state senator Mickey Switalski (D-Roseville). Switalski’s newsletter is one of the best and is atypical among state politicians, because he writes the content himself.

Before his current run as a state senator, Switalski was a state representative during Kilpatrick’s tenure as Democratic Floor Leader, the #2 position in the Democratic caucus. In his piece on Kilpatrick, Switalski offers what you might expect to be a sympathetic perspective, given their time spent as colleagues and their shared party affiliation (I spent a semester as a legislative intern for then-Representative Switalski in the spring of 2000). Yet Switalski offers what I think is a fair and balanced assessment, based on his judgment that Kilpatrick “is a complex person with many strengths and some tragic weaknesses.”

“The Rise and Fall of Kwame Kilpatrick” is a narrative embodying the wisdom of Lord Acton’s dictum that “power tends to corrupt.” Switalski gives us an inside look at state politics, describing the legislature as “an insane asylum,” given the turbulent dynamics at the time. But Kilpatrick was a voice of reason and stability during the ravages of partisan bickering.

Ultimately Switalski judges that Kilpatrick “had too much power too early. He indulged his prodigious appetites and lacked the maturity and judgment to control his desires and became corrupt.”

Switalski wonders, “Were these faults always there?”

“I suppose they were,” he answers.

But how could a man who saw public service with such clarity in 2000 become so blind and ethically lost just a few years later? It is a sad tale, both for him and for the City. Unlike many people I know, who seemed to relish in his failure, I took no joy in watching him self-destruct. It was an awful waste of talent and opportunity. It was a tragedy for the City and the Region.

I pray his successors will not let power lead them into temptation, and so avoid a similar fate.

Switalski is correct to point to the tragedy of the demise of Kwame Kilpatrick, and that we should always realize the danger that power presents and the responsibility that it entails.

Even those who recognize, as Kwame did, that politicians have a duty to their constituents and “doing good policy for the people we serve” can be corrupted by the illusions of power and the delusions of privilege.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, August 25, 2008
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The eighth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The eighth and penultimate leg of the journey took the bikers from Grand Rapids to St. Catharines, Ontario, a total distance of 410 miles. By the end of this leg the entire tour will have covered 3,451 miles.

The CRC is a bi-national church, and while the denominational headquarters are located in Grand Rapids, a significant portion of the church’s membership is Canadian. This is something that I’ve always appreciated and is somewhat rare among Protestant denominations that tend to break down along national lines. Even though there is a great deal of cultural affinity between these North American countries, I think the bi-nationality of the CRC adds an element of internationalism that can help offset the natural tendency to identify the church’s interest with a particular national or domestic setting. The gospel is not confined to the US or to North America.

Unfortunately, the day 52 devotion in the “Shifting Gears” devotional falls flat in offering an “internationalist” perspective. It asks, rhetorically I presume, “Why are billions budgeted for defense and border protection, when we can’t come up with the money to supply mosquito nets for Africa? Why do some governments use their national borders as a wall to hide the injustice and persecution occurring within? Why is it so easy for the powerful to cross borders, but not the poor?” There’s no denying there is great injustice on the international scene related to the strictures of immigration and barriers to trade.

But the first question in this series illustrates a presumption that it is the government’s duty to provide mosquito nets for Africa at the expense of national defense. This, quite simply, is a confusion that is endemic to the perspective of progressive Christianity…that the government, and not the church or other institutions of civil society, is primarily responsible for addressing the problem of poverty.

In the words of Jim Wallis, “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.” Wallis is fond of talking about the perceived limits of private and church action. But what are the limits of government action? And why can’t the church do much more beyond mere political advocacy? Ron Sider thinks it can, and I agree. It says a lot about you if you are more willing to put your trust in a secular government than in the church of Christ.

Awhile back I considered the amount of money churches spend on building projects in North America. I discussed a a modest proposal: churches should consider tithing the amount they spend on “themselves” and give a portion of the building fund away to other Christian causes.

These kinds of efforts are catching on. Just this weekend I read a piece about a local church which committed 10% of its $1.1 million building fund to other charity work. I wrote more about this in a 2006 commentary, “The North American Church and Global Stewardship.”

One of the entries in the devotional for this week does the best job I’ve seen so far linking and properly coordinating the physical and spiritual concerns of the gospel. Taking its point of departure in the imagery of physical and spiritual imprisonment, the day 51 devotion concludes, “Enjoy the physical freedom of cycling today, and pray for a deeper, richer understanding of God’s mercy–mercy he shows to all who acknowledge their imprisonment in disobedience and who seek freedom in Christ alone.”

Earlier this week the Detroit News reported (HT: Pew Forum) that supporters of Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and Republican candidate for this election’s presidential nomination, would be meeting with representatives of John McCain in the key swing state of Michigan. Among the “battleground” states, Obama holds his largest lead in the polls here in Michigan (RCP average of +3.2).

The purpose of yesterday’s meetings was ostensibly to urge McCain to pass over Mitt Romney as a possible running mate, in the interests of courting social conservatives. Debra Matney, a Huckabee supporter from Fairgrove who helped organize the meetings, said of McCain, “Who he chooses will speak volumes to us.”

It’s unclear, however, what effect meetings of this kind might have, as an interview with McCain published yesterday in the Weekly Standard has McCain saying that he would not rule out a pro-choice running mate like Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge.

That fact alone ought to speak volumes to social conservatives.

Meanwhile, since his withdrawal from the presidential race, Mike Huckabee has done his best to remain in the national conversation. In a recent interview with Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Huckabee had this to say about the tension in the GOP between social and fiscal conservatism:

Wallis: You’ve talked about public responsibility alongside personal responsibility to overcome poverty. What’s a proper role for government?

Huckabee: One of the things I’m frustrated about is that Republicans have been infiltrated by hardcore libertarians. Traditional Republicans don’t hate all forms of government. They just want it to be efficient and effective. They recognize that it has a place and a role.

Growing numbers of people in the Republican Party are just short of anarchists in the sense that they basically say, “Just cut government and cut taxes.” They don’t understand that if you do that, there are certain consequences that do not help problems. It exacerbates them.

Every law and every government program we have is a direct indictment and reflection that somewhere we’ve failed at the personal level to self-govern. The ideal world is where everybody self-governs and lives by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” If we all abided by that, we would need no other law. No one would hurt anybody. Nobody would get drunk. Nobody would abuse the speed limits. Nobody would drop out of school. It would be a great world. Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite like that.

I go to a church that feeds a whole lot of people. Some kids still slip through the cracks that my church or somebody else’s isn’t getting to. I could be an ideological purist and say, “That’s not government’s responsibility.” But I’m also a realist, and when all of the other social structures fail—whether family, neighborhood, community, or charity organizations—then we have by default created a demand for government to step in.

I get beat up for this terribly by the libertarians in the party. I call them libertarians and not conservatives, because I think I’m a conservative but I’m not a nut! They ask me if I want government to engage in all these social programs. No, it’s not my preference. But if my choice is that government has a program or a kid goes hungry, then give me the government program. I prefer that over a hungry child. I prefer that over a child that’s wheezing through untreated asthma.

If people out of generosity can do this beyond the scope of government, praise the Lord! But when they don’t, then it’s no different than all the nice conservatives in the gated neighborhoods who really don’t want any government until their home is broken into and they call 911. That’s a call to government. And then they want that person in prison for a long time. If we want smaller government and lower taxes, the best way to get there is to create a more civil social structure in which people play by the rules and self-govern.

There’s a lot of wisdom in what Huckabee says here. And that interview is worth reading in its entirety, not only because it’s a pretty candid look at Huckabee’s positions, but also because it shows what many of Jim Wallis’ assumptions are concerning the role of church and government.

I’ve written before about the incompatibility of anarcho-capitalism and the Christian faith, and I think Huckabee is on to something here. The problem, as I see it, has a good deal to do with the adoption of libertarianism as a comprehensive world-and-life view, and not just a political philosophy applicable to limited spheres of human existence. When your political philosophy becomes the be-all and end-all of your worldview, you run into real problems, and that’s what I think Huckabee means by “hardcore libertarians.” Under such ideological illusions you can’t, for instance, deal adequately with the reality of positive social responsibilities that exist between persons. Political liberty becomes an end in itself, and not something, as Lord Acton would have it, that must be oriented towards a higher moral, social, and spiritual good.

That isn’t to say that varieties of libertarianism or classical liberalism that don’t assume the government to be something to be done away with, or that limit themselves to asking questions about the efficiency of political economy, don’t have a good deal to teach us. But Huckabee’s position is worth engaging, I think, if only because it resembles that of Abraham Kuyper, who in the same address could say both that “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior,” and, “It is perfectly true that if no help is forthcoming from elsewhere the state must help. We may let no one starve from hunger as long as bread lies molding in so many cupboards. And when the state intervenes, it must do so quickly and sufficiently.”

I’ve noted this quote on the blog before, but Ray’s post on professionalism sparked recall of another kind of professional, the professional bureaucratic manager:

Government insists more and more that its civil servants themselves have the kind of education that will qualify them as experts. It more and more recruits those who claim to be experts into its civil service. And it characteristically recruits too the heirs of the nineteenth-century reformers. Government itself becomes a hierarchy of bureaucratic managers, and the major justification advanced for the intervention of government in society is the contention that government has resources of competence which most citizens do not possess. –Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2d ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 85.

Call them what you will; planners, bureaucratic managers, government professionals, it all amounts to the same thing in the end, I think. And Lord Acton’s observation about bureaucracy is relevant here as well: “Bureaucracy is undoubtedly the weapon and sign of a despotic government, inasmuch as it gives whatever government it serves, despotic power.”

The Wall Street Journal offers a welcomed reminder of the value of tax revolts titled, “The Spirit of 13.” Proposition 13 is a notable property tax revolt which was led by the late California citizen Howard Jarvis in 1978. There are several books about the famed revolt and many attribute the event to helping fuel the “Reagan Revolution.”

Proposition 13 passed with 65 percent voter support, and ever since has been part of the California Constitution. As a result, property taxes were slashed by 30 percent and annual increases were capped at no more than a 2 percent increase. Retirees with limited income benefited greatly from Proposition 13. Perhaps most important, taxpayers know exactly how much to budget for their property tax. The law continues to hold very popular support among Californian voters, a state where citizens are taxed heavily already.

Still there are tax and spenders who constantly decry the lack of tax revenue, and Proposition 13 always finds its way back in their crosshairs.

Next Monday will be the sixtieth anniversary of Luigi Einaudi’s inauguration as Italian President. Einaudi (1874-1961) was a distinguished economist and defender of classical liberalism. In the immediate period following World War II, he was governor of the Bank of Italy and finance minister. Many credit his policy of low taxes and dismantling tariffs with having laid the foundation for Italy’s “miracolo economico” of the 1950s and 1960s.

However, while his role as president between 1948-55 is still remembered, his legacy of economic freedom as a key to Italian post-war development has largely been forgotten. In a recent article, the Milanese financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore lamented that currently there is no political force in the country which feels inspired by Einaudi’s actions and insights.

The center-right led by Silvio Berlusconi which won the recent general elections in April cannot be considered a catalyst for market reforms. Its new economy minister Giulio Tremonti has expressed hostility to free trade and blames most of the world’s economic problems on an ideology he calls “marketism”. At the same time, the Northern League, Berlusconi’s junior coalition partner, is impossible to categorize in terms of its economic policy. It demands decentralization and reducing the role of the Italian state but also advocates protectionism.

Neither can Einaudi’s heirs be found on the Italian center-left. The recently founded Democratic Party (PD) has its origins in communism. One can appreciate its transformation towards more moderate positions and a certain openness to economic liberalization. However, the transition is not complete and cannot be compared to the process initiated by Tony Blair in the UK Labour Party in the 1990s.

It is regrettable that nobody wishes to emulate Einaudi’s achievements. These go beyond the technical mastery and application of market economics. Einaudi’s understanding of freedom also led him to insights of more wide-ranging importance for Italian society. He believed that an excess of state power tends to make citizens more lazy in the way they live their lives and think of their responsibility towards others. This attitude leads them to tolerate the social ills around them. They view the poor state of public services as inevitable and accept corruption and rent-seeking as unchangeable phenomena.

Now, that so many people in Italy worry about the economic situation of the country and feel alienated from the political institutions and their lack of accountability, one might think that the time is ripe to return to Einaudi’s lessons.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
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A statement of the reformer Heinrich Bullinger, an influential second-generation leader in Zurich, on his preferred form of government:

God had established through Moses in His law the most excellent, the most admirable and convenient form of republic, depending on the wisest, most powerful and most merciful king of all, God, on the best and fairest senators and not at all on extravagant and arrogant ones, and finally on the people; to which He added the judge, whenever it was necessary. They would have maintained it at any cost had they been wise; but rarely is the multitude wise. In general it is changeable and always fickle, ungrateful and eager for new things (trans. J. Wayne Baker, Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant [Ohio UP, 1980], p. 69).

See also: “Our Counter-Majoritarian Constitution.”

This sounds like a book with a compelling narrative: McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld.

I’ve often thought about the connection between organized crime and legitimate governmental structures. In the NPR interview linked above, “Journalist Misha Glenny points out that while globalization may have given the world new opportunities for trade and investments, it also gave rise to global black markets and made it easier for criminal networks to do business.” There’s a lot of cogent analysis of trade issues and how government policy not only combats but also contributes to the existence of globalized “black markets.”

It has occurred to me more than once, in watching shows like HBO’s “The Sopranos,” that a good deal of the socio-political aspects of organized crime is explicable in terms of alternative (and often obsolete) forms of governance. That is, often when extorting money from business owners, superficially legitimate services are offered, like “protection,” i.e. protection that the official authorities like the police are unwilling or unable to provide.

Can Tony Soprano claim to be the “king,” or at least “kingpin” of a more feudal or monarchical socio-political structure? Perhaps, just perhaps, there is the hypothetical exceptional situation in which the “outlaws” represent a more legitimate form of governance than official but tyrannical structures (think of Robin Hood, for instance).

But there is at least clear precedent for understanding the reverse to be true; legitimate authorities can certainly degenerate into outright banditry even if bandits may not be able to rise to the level of authentic sovereignty. As Augustine has reflected on the nature of legitimate sovereignty,

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies.”)

And so the appeal to political legitimacy can only be made in recognition of the rule of law, the higher law or the “law beyond law,” that governs all human endeavors.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, April 11, 2008
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Late last month I argued that recipients of the federal government’s stimulus package “should use this rebate money as they see fit, since they are the ones most familiar with their own situations and their own needs. Consider giving part of the money to charity or saving, paying off debt or investing.” Now other voices are giving similar advice, recommending saving rather than spending.

Rick Haglund, a Michigan business columnist for the Grand Rapids Press, notes that “Some saving measures can go a little too far, though. I recently heard a personal financial consultant say people can save by no longer buying that cup of coffee and newspaper on the way to work.”

“Give up the coffee, but please, please keep buying the paper. The newspaper business is in a terrible financial state,” he writes. Haglund thinks that newspapers are more important to the country than coffee…a debatable proposition. Coffee, not oil, might well be the lifeblood of American enterprise.

But the economic status of newspaper publishing is in a strange place. I’ve been getting the weekend paper for a year or so, and when I renewed I received a call from the paper just to tell me that I’d be getting the rest of the week for free (a good thing too, or I would have missed Haglund’s column).

It reminded me of getting a postcard in the mail from the government telling me to expect a rebate…no notice necessary, just send the free stuff and the money. I don’t think it cost the Grand Rapids Press millions of dollars to make the phone calls, though (it cost the feds $42 million to mail out those inane little rebate notices).

In any case, it makes more sense for many newspapers to give their issues away to get a boost in circulation numbers than it does to count on the income from subscriptions. I also recently saw one of the narrowest daily newspapers I had ever seen last weekend, part of the trend to cut printing costs. (I can’t complain too much, though, since the Port Huron Times Herald has published more than one of my commentaries. Keep up the good work!)

Of course, some folks, like Betty J. Mazur, are going to do just what the government wants them to do with the money. “I’m going to buy new clothing with my check,” she said. (The piece linked above is in part about how it is necessary to file federal taxes for 2007 in order to get the 2008 rebate. Marketplace discusses that, and also debunks some myths about the rebate, here.)

Oh, and don’t forget to blame conservative theology for the credit crisis. After all, it seems as if adherents to so-called “conservative” theology don’t save as much as they ought.

How any decent sociologist could have this reaction is beyond me: “Keister was surprised that when demographic factors — such as education, age and race — were held as constant, religion still proved to be an influential factor in wealth accumulation” (emphasis added).

Amazing, just amazing. Can you dare admit that religious beliefs really do influence behavior?

Keister says a typical “conservative Protestant” might be a member of the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, Nazarene and Pentecostal churches. I guess they’ve forgotten what John Wesley said.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, April 3, 2008
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Rod Dreher links to a piece by Cato’s Brink Lindsey, “Culture of Success.” The conclusion of Lindsey’s piece is that familial culture is more important to child success in school and economic achievement than external assistance, in the form of tuition grants or otherwise:

If more money isn’t the answer, what does have an impact? In a word: culture. Everything we know about high performance in all fields of endeavor tells us that, while natural talent is a plus, there is no substitute for long hours of preparation and hard work…. Apply these lessons to doing well in school, and it becomes clear that the class divide in academic achievement is fundamentally a cultural divide. To put it in a nutshell, the upper-middle-class kid grows up in an environment that constantly pushes him to develop the cognitive and motivational skills needed to be a good student; the low-income kid’s environment, on the other hand, pushes in the opposite direction.

Lindsey, to his credit, recognizes the fact that these sorts of trans-generational, cultural and familial concerns typically lie outside the competence of his own libertarian ideological camp:

We insist on the central importance of individual responsibility for the healthy functioning of a free society. Yet, by the time people become legally responsible adults, circumstances not of their own choosing — namely, how they were raised and whom they grew up with — may have prevented them from ever developing the capacities they need to thrive and flourish.

I’m disappointed to find that Lindsey then makes the move to say that on that basis there exists “the possibility that government intervention to improve those circumstances could actually expand the scope of individual autonomy.” I’m not disappointed because the statement is false (it is in fact true), but because the government isn’t the first place we should look to find solutions to cultural problems. What about other institutions, most especially the church?

Dreher’s post is lengthy and worth a read in full, in part because it takes Lindsey’s piece as a point of departure to bring in a number of other insights and sources. Dreher writes of the government’s relation to culture among the poor,

…I don’t believe all the government programs we could possibly imagine will fundamentally change their condition, because their condition is not fundamentally a matter of material deprivation.

Culture is more important than politics, as Moynihan said. But he also said that politics can save a culture from itself. What kind of politics could save inner-city black culture from itself? Ideas? Because we certainly need them in society at large, not just the black inner city.

Dreher also echoes my question: “Here’s what I don’t understand: where are the churches in all this?”

Where are they? If they aren’t actively engaged in responsible urban evangelism, which many are, then they are probably doing (A) nothing or (B) lobbying the government to do something. A is bad and B might be worse.

Dolly Parton was featured on American Idol this week. One of the songs a contestant performed from her body of work was the song, based on her real-life experiences, “Coat of Many Colors,” and it teaches a lesson directly relevant to this topic.


Here’s the last verse, after the children make fun of her for her coat:

But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me