Blog author: ken.larson
Friday, October 30, 2009
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Recently I got a phone call from an engineering manager I’ve known for over ten years. He informed me that he’d been laid off last spring, but before I could offer condolences he added that he’d been hired by another company in the same industry for a consulting assignment.

That temporary work had lasted over six months but was winding down. He hadn’t been a contract “consultant” before and after some additional small talk told me, “… and I’ve discovered something I never knew.” Anticipating a revelation about a new found inner strength, I listened carefully.

“You know,” he began, “when you work as a consultant, you have to pay twice the withholding for Social Security and Medicare that you do when you work for a company.” I told him that wasn’t exactly true and we discussed briefly the labor burden — those costs the employer pays in the U.S. when they hire someone.

The big story these days is employer provided health benefits, but unfortunately that subject overshadows the longer term liability an employer or company faces when they hire employees; and is certainly one of the reasons why many firms increasingly like “contract” agreements. My friend’s take on having to pay a greater amount to Social Security and Medicare was not “exactly true” because the money “contributed” by the employer was always part of his gross wages, but was obscured by the mechanism of the deceit explicit in the government’s term “employer’s contribution.” I have some experience here. I’ve been a business owner and self employed most of my adult life.

You see, the employer by law must add to and pay the government an amount equal to what he withholds for Social Security and Medicare on a full-time employee’s behalf. If you regularly earn $400 a week, you are responsible for sending $30.60 of that amount to the federal government. (And that’s separate from what you may owe for income tax.)

The employee’s Social Security portion is 6.2% of gross wages up to $106,800 a year; and Medicare another 1.45% of gross wages but without a cut off point. For most of us, the combined 7.65% is our “contribution” to the federal retirement and healthcare systems already in place. But it’s not the total “contribution.”

As stated above, an employer or company that hires you is responsible for an equal “contribution” in your name of an additional 7.65% of your gross wage. Many who work for company’s lose sight of the fact that employers must add that cost of having them on the payroll to their cost of hiring us. Put bluntly, our employee has to account for a profit of at least $430.60 a week in order to justify being on a payroll. And because of the federal government’s demand that his and the employer’s “contributions” must be paid weekly, or monthly according to the government’s demands; the system has a tendency to put its own demands on a company’s cash flow. A company has to have enough profitable receipts to be able to “contribute” their one-half of what is demanded for their employee’s government retirement and healthcare system. And believe me, the government wants “their” money first and doesn’t care what other bills an employer has to pay.

My engineer friend was facing the reality of having to be his own employer so to speak and ante up the total 15.3% all on his own. Like most consultants he’d arranged a fee that paid him an amount from which no deductions were taken. At times like these, we’re all small business owners. It’s sobering. Imagine if there was no withholding and all taxpayers had to write a check at the end of the year. How might they choose to act? These government systems managed by Caesar are soon to be bankrupt. I heard someone report recently that Medicare is in arrears by $38 Trillion.

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Fall is typically the season during which the sermons delivered by pastors from church pulpits concern stewardship. In making the case for Christian Stewardship many pastors will visit Genesis and the story of Abel and Cain. Compare and contrast are my favorite means of offering clarity on many subjects so I like the Genesis story of obedience versus selfishness. Many use the Bible to promote the concept of the tithe and if you Google Tithe you’ll come up with a plethora of explanations, indictments and opinions. Generally the percentage of income or produce that we are persuaded God asks of us is ten — 10%.

I can tell you that the tithe is a request that staggers most Christians. Those with work earning $400 a week are not likely to volunteer $40 when the plate is passed on Sunday — yet seemingly ignore the fact that $61.20 was sent to the IRS on their behalf that week.

It’s instructive to remember that the concept of the religious tithe contains a lesson which is not of taxation. It’s argued that all is God’s and all we have comes to us through His Grace. I believe that’s true.

Yet as I sat in the pew recently listening to one of those sermons about “giving” I took a break to recall and pray for my engineer friend’s employment perdicament, I also compared my own hesitation at pledging myself toward a 10% tithe in light of the reality that I was already on the hook to give Caesar 15.3% off the top. Glancing around the sanctuary, the question arose as to whether the bureaucrats at a government office could match our congregation in our common devotion to each other, our Lord; and the missions we support in service to Him.

And it got me realizing that when you compare the two: Caesar and God — 10% is one heck of a deal.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I offered a commentary related to his recently closed environmental symposium in New Orleans. He said this:

For if all life is sacred, so is the entire web that sustains it … no one doubts that there is a connection and balance among all things animate and inanimate on this third planet from the Sun, and that there is a cost or benefit whenever we tamper with that balance.

Words pleasing to the ear, perhaps. But the Patriarch’s environmental ethic has a hollow core. Writing on the blog of the American Orthodox Institute, I have shown how for nearly 20 years Bartholomew has issued equivocations and evasions on the Orthodox Church’s clear teaching on the sanctity of life. And it goes on. This is from his 2008 book, “Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today” (p. 150):

I also encounter many and diverse issues related to the sanctity of life from birth through death. Those issues range from sensitive matters of sexuality to highly controversial questions like the death penalty. In all such social and moral issues, it is not one or another position that the Orthodox Church seeks to promote in a defensive spirit. Indeed, we would normally refrain from expounding a single rigidly defined dogma on social and moral challenges. Rather, it is the sacredness of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, that the Church at all times seeks to underline.

In stark contrast to this statement, see the Russian Orthodox Church’s clear and unambiguous position in its statement on the Orthodox Church and Society:

The Church has always considered it her duty to protect the most vulnerable and dependent human beings, namely, unborn children. Under no circumstances the Orthodox Church can bless abortion.

Of course, the hollow core of Bartholomew’s environmental ethic leaves the Green Patriarch’s ministry open to all sorts of anti-human vulnerabilities. As Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse, president of AOI, has written in response:

Perhaps the EP’s [Ecumenical Patriarch's] equivocations on abortion explains the affinity with the alarmism of progressive environmentalism. The alarmism is essentially misanthropic (mis-anthropos — hate man); it views the human person as spoiler, rather than part, of the environment. (The language of stewardship is used in progressive apologetics, but the definition of the term is reserved for those who hold to progressive cultural prescriptions.) Malcolm Muggeridge wrote about the misanthropic theme in broader philosophical terms back in 1979: The Great Liberal Death Wish.

Reducing the value of a person to private opinion means that man has no more value than an animal, and viewing man as mere animal is a descent into madness. Human rights activist Wesley J. Smith rightly discerns the barbarous end of this thinking and calls for a new ethic of “human exceptionalism” in Orthodox Advocate For “Human Exceptionalism”. Hopefully other human rights activists will take heed.

Having wrapped up his environmental program, Bartholomew is now preparing for a round of briefings in Washington with Democratic Party leaders and a meeting with President Obama that is being arranged by John Podesta of the Center for American Progress. CAP is also co-sponsoring a speech by Bartholomew with Georgetown University on Nov. 3.

Read A patriarch who, ‘generally speaking, respects human life’ on the Observer blog at AOI.

A bit of background. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
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The Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University has announced the launch of a new initiative focused on the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville.

The Tocqueville Program aims “to foster an understanding of the central importance of principles of freedom and equality for democratic government and moral responsibility, as well as for economic and cultural life.”

The program’s first event will be held next month (November 6), and is titled, “What’s Wrong with Tocqueville Studies, and What Can Be Done About It.”

IU professor Elinor Ostrom, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, co-founded the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.

NIV Stewardship Study BibleAhead of it’s “official” release date of Nov. 1, 2009, the NIV Stewardship Study Bible and Effective Stewardship DVD Curriculum can be found on the shelves of most major book retailers around the country.

Zondervan’s release of these foundational resources is the result of a strategic partnership of the Stewardship Council and the Acton Institute working to bring the Biblical message of effective stewardship to bear on the moral and economic climate of our world.

To learn more about these resources go to www.stewardship1000.com.

In my commentary this week, “America’s Uncontrolled Debt and Spending is the Real ‘Waterloo,’” I offer the well known point that debt and spending threatens our liberty and prosperity. It is becoming very evident that it will be up to citizens to demand accountability from their lawmakers, as I mentioned. What has been tried before has not worked.

In terms of liberty, Thomas Jefferson declared, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” What the Founders articulated was that democracy and liberty is not the natural order of things, and that consolidated power moves toward tyranny. The U.S. power structure has borrowed from the income of future generations in an irresponsible and immoral manner, and citizens are culpable as well. What does that mean? I thought U.S. Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) recently articulated the consequences of the crisis very passionately on CNN with journalist John King.

Arnold Kling continued last week’s conversation about the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism over at EconLog.

Kling’s analysis is worth reading, and he concludes that the divide between conservatives and libertarians has to do with respect (or lack thereof) for hierarchical authority. Kling does allow for the possibility of a “secular conservative…someone who respects the learning embodied in traditional values and beliefs, without assigning them a divine origin.”

I’m certainly inclined to agree, and I think there are plenty of historical cases of such a “secular” conservatism. The question at issue really is, though, whether there is room for a “religious libertarian.” Kling distinguishes between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives on the basis of their answer to the question of what fuels social progress: movements and leaders, liberty and markets, or religion, respectively.

But it’s not clear to me that any of these options are exclusive. Indeed, one could quite coherently argue that proximate causes of social progress are primarily liberty and markets and that these are means of a common or general sort of divine grace.

The question, then, comes down to whether you think religion and liberty are ultimately and fundamentally opposed. Many secular libertarians suppose that they are. This is a flawed and ultimately untenable position, a development of a particularly closed off and secularized form of Enlightenment rationalism and anthropological arrogance (of course I say this as a Christian believer and as a theologian).

As with so many things, it comes down to a question of first principles. If libertarianism means that any and every human commitment must be subsumed to liberty as an end in itself, then any (other) meaningful religious commitment is excluded.

On the question of respect for authority, we should not be so quick to simply lump all religious adherents, or Christians in particular, into a category that views the state as such as divine. This is a very complicated historiographical and theological question, but the Christian tradition’s ambivalence toward the state is clear. The institution of civil government is most certainly a divine ordinance. This does not amount to a gross or crass blessing of a “divine right of kings” that allows for unlimited or unrestrained use of coercive force in the pursuit of any arbitrary agenda.

Kling’s claim that “the state historically derives from gangs of thugs demanding protection money from settled farmers and herders,” even if taken as true, does not rule out a divine origin. We are talking about two completely different levels of causality, in a way analogous to my previously noted relation of divine grace to liberty and markets. One need not rule out the other. God works through means.

And as I’ve noted previously, we have to take into account a standard of justice or equity, which whether communicated through the natural law or the Ten Commandments restricts legitimate civil authority (see the claim regarding OT Israel as a constitutional monarchy).

Augustine himself writes,

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.”)

Kling’s claim regarding the historical origin of governments and Augustine’s description don’t seem that far off from each other. At least in Augustine’s case, he certainly didn’t think that such an account was any evidence against the existence of God or the legitimacy of just civil government.

graham1 Explaining the realignment of American Southern politics is often a favorite area of study among historians and scholars. A region that was once dominated by yellow dog Democrats, has for the most part continued to expand as a loyal region for the Grand Old Party. Among the earliest and most common narrative among liberal historians and writers is the belief that the realignment in the South had to do with a backlash against desegregation. Steven P. Miller in his new book Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South puts considerable emphasis on Graham’s role in desegregation, public evangelicalism, and Graham as a spiritual and political adviser to presidents. Miller argues that Graham played a formidable role in reshaping the political climate of the South.

Early on Miller describes some of the dynamics of Graham’s insistence on holding desegregated crusades in the South, and his relationship with many fellow Southern Baptist ministers who supported segregation. Miller labels Graham a “racial moderate” largely by comparing him to Dr. Martin Luther King. Graham also at various times called for Civil Rights protesters to obey federal court orders and was quick to defend the South as having better racial relations than many places north of Dixie. With quips like, “prejudice is not just a sectional problem,” and, labeling criticism of the South “one of the most popular indoor sports of some Northerners these days,” Graham became an endearing figure to many fellow Southerners. It also allowed him to take fairly progressive positions on race without losing a large part of his Southern audience. Miller notes:

By appealing to law and order but also to such seemingly nonpartisan qualities as neighborly love and spiritual piety, Graham supplied a path upon which moderates could back away from segregationism in a manner acceptable to regional mores.

Graham linked racism as a problem directly related to the absence of God that pointed to the need of regeneration for the individual. True racial reconciliation and integration would require regeneration in the life of an individual. It was a reasoning that also made political sense when Graham would make pronouncements for more gradualism when it came to integrating the Deep South. He understood there were limits to solving segregation through legislation alone. Miller also notes Graham’s forward thinking when he addressed how much segregation stained America’s image abroad in relation to Cold War dynamics.

Another large portion of the book covers Graham’s relationship with political figures and presidents. Graham, a lifelong Democrat, is well known for his close relationship to President Richard Nixon and how his regional leadership in the American South helped Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Graham also had a very good relationship with President Lyndon Johnson and even lent his endorsement to his War on Poverty programs, citing Scripture as a basis for support. While Graham supported many of Johnson’s big government initiatives and his Vietnam policies, he also had harsh criticism for other areas of 1960s liberalism, especially related to judicial activism as it related to school prayer and criminal rights.

Nixon’s political comeback made Graham a serious player within that administration. Graham was criticized by the left for being a court prophet to Nixon, and his reputation would suffer again decades later through the release of tapes where Graham was heard agreeing with Nixon as he railed against all the Jews in the media. Defenses of Nixon late into Watergate proved to be an issue as well, as Graham often called the scandal further proof of a larger national problem that called for personal and national repentance.

An overarching point of Miller’s theme is that Graham gave considerable cover for Southerners to distance themselves from their segregated past. An evangelical understanding of the sins of racism allowed many to declare themselves healed and absolved from past guilt. Graham then criticized forced busing as a desegregation tactic, he further lauded law and order policies, and continually criticized the secularizing of America through the courts. Miller also argues that his close association to Nixon and his vocal pronouncements on many conservative positions, especially social positions and the moral breakdown in society further made the region ripe for change. His public pronouncements and leadership according to Miller, would also help spawn the religious right as a force in American politics.

All of these dynamics helped further fuel the political transition of the Sun Belt South Graham so celebrated through out his life. Miller also appropriately observes a statement about Jimmy Carter by Graham:

‘I would rather have a man in office who is highly qualified to be president who didn’t make much of a religious profession than to have a man who had no qualifications but who made a religious profession.’ The statement, which probably derived in part from a suspicion that Carter’s theology was in reality more liberal than evangelical, emphasized the primary vulnerability of the candidate (inexperience) at the expense of his perceived advantage (spirituality).

The epilogue substantially deals with some of the complexity of Graham’s positions, as he distanced himself from many religious conservatives by separating himself from campaigns in the pro-life movement and by taking no stance on the Equal Rights Amendment. “Now, in the pages of Sojourners, Graham called for “Salt X,” by which he meant ‘total destruction of nuclear arms,'” says Miller. Most conservative evangelicals had already lined up behind Ronald Reagan’s administration who called for more aggressive measures against the Soviets. Graham’s involvement in antinuclear activism didn’t cloud his strong relationship with Reagan however. Reagan, who had a tremendous personal interest in Christian eschatology, often spoke to the evangelist about his views on the topic. Another area of interest in the epilogue is Graham’s close relationship with the Bush family, and President George W. Bush in particular. Graham of course played a significant role in Bush’s conversion narrative. Miller discusses Bush’s repackaging of Graham’s critique on liberalism, through policies called “compassionate conservatism”, and Graham while not openly endorsing Bush in 2000, would drop many clear hints of support for the then Texas Governor.

This book provides a lot background on Graham’s career as an evangelist and as a force in 20th Century American politics. Its academic style makes it less popular for the casual reader. But readers of Civil Rights history, those interested in Graham, and those interested in the topic of faith and politics will find value in this publication. I wish Miller would have provided some more balance by discussing the importance of upward trending incomes in the South and other economic indicators directly related to the rise of the GOP in the region. Miller appropriately concludes though by noting that “Graham’s central theme never altered; the evangelist preached Christ crucified and resurrected, with salvation available through Him available to all who would invite Him into their hearts.” Far beyond any political statements, it is what Graham is known for and will especially be known for when he is called home.

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Healthcare reform – it’s one of those causes almost everyone favors, but which almost automatically produces sharp arguments when we ask what it means and how it might be realized. You would have had to be living in a cave for the past eight months to be unaware that Americans are deeply divided on this matter, and that the division runs clean through the middle of many communities. That includes Catholic America.

Of course, there are a small number of non-negotiables for Catholics, whatever their politics, when it comes to healthcare reform. These principally concern any provisions that facilitate or encourage the intentional termination of innocent human life, or which diminish existing conscience exemptions.

Without question, these are the primary issues for Catholics who take their Church’s teaching seriously when it comes to healthcare legislation. They dwarf everything else.

No matter how good the rest of the legislation might be in, for example, widening access to affordable healthcare, it is a stable principle of Catholic faith – and natural law – that you cannot do evil in order that good may come from it. St Paul insisted upon this almost 2000 years ago (Romans 3:8), and it is constantly affirmed by Scripture, Tradition, and centuries of magisterial teaching. Try as they may, no amount of rationalization by the usual suspects can get around this point.

For this reason, much of the Catholic contribution to the healthcare debate, especially that of Catholic bishops, has focused on these issues. We’ve yet to see what impact this might have on whatever eventually arrives on the floor of Congress.

But let’s hypothesize. Imagine the healthcare legislation submitted to Congress involved a massive expansion of government involvement in healthcare. Let’s also suppose that the same legislation was stripped of any provisions that violated non-negotiables for Catholics. Would Catholics be obliged to support passage of such legislation? (more…)

In a new essay at The American, Jay Richards explains why capitalism isn’t based on greed.

In Acton’s first documentary, The Call of the Entrepreneur, Richards along Rev. Robert Sirico, Sam Gregg, Michael Novak and others touch on this matter in making the moral case for the free economy.

Blog author: sgregg
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
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My response to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson was published on National Review Online:

Unlike a certain other Nobel Prize, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel actually requires evidence of substantial achievement. Mere aspirations and lofty rhetoric count for nothing. This year’s Nobel Prize in Economics has been given to two economists, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson, who have deepened our understanding of economic governance. More specifically, Ostrom and Williamson have shown how it is possible for firms and other communities to facilitate economic efficiency from “within.” In this sense, they follow in the footsteps of another Nobel laureate, Ronald Coase, whose groundbreaking 1937 article, “The Nature of the Firm,” did so much to establish the idea that businesses reduce transaction costs.

We live in an age when many are (rightly) questioning the obsession of mainstream economics with mathematics and econometrics, and also blaming mainstream economists for aspects of the 2008 meltdown. The Nobel committee awarded two scholars whose research doesn’t fit entirely within that mainstream mold — two scholars whose focus has been on the development of rules within groups and communities (including large corporations) that allow for conflict resolution and efficiency gains in ways that are often far more sophisticated than externally imposed state regulation.

Also see David R. Henderson’s fine “A Nobel for Practical Economics” in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Based on her work, Ms. Ostrom proposed several rules for managing common-pool resources, which the Nobel committee highlights. Among them are that rules should clearly define who gets what, good conflict resolution methods should be in place, people’s duty to maintain the resource should be proportional to their benefits, monitoring and punishing is done by the users or someone accountable to the users, and users are allowed to participate in setting and modifying the rules. Notice the absence of top-down government solutions. In her work on development economics, Ms. Ostrom concludes that top-down solutions don’t help poor countries. Are you listening, World Bank?

Finally, here’s a lecture hall video of Ostrom on sustainable development and the tragedy of the commons: