Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
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Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, has an excellent primer on public choice in the August 3 edition of Forbes, “The New PC.” Shlaes is also the author of the 2007 book, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression.

Shlaes, who will be featured in the upcoming issue of Religion & Liberty, writes, “Government reformers view themselves as morally superior, but that is an illusion. They are just like private-sector operators, who do things that are in their own interest, not society’s. Those things include taking advantage of an economic crisis to aggregate power for themselves and their offices.” She goes on to point out five specific instances of recent government action that fits the public choice paradigm.

I have no doubt that many enter politics with good intentions. Some even follow through on those intentions and work for their constituencies. But a precious few remain uncontaminated and uncorrupted by the temptations that political power offers.

This reality is a strong argument in favor of term limits. Even though the individual constiuencies might lose out by replacing older, more senior representatives, who have garnered the most powerful appointments and consolidated the most influence, it has the happy consequence of putting caps on political clout. Every so often the slate is rubbed clean and alliances, power partnerships, and appointments need to be rebuilt.

Anything that puts an absolute ceiling on an individual politician’s power seems like a step in the right direction. Of course, an unintended consequence is that with the sundown of their political career always in view, an individual politician will be just that much more focused on greasing the skids to a comfy private sector job after the term limits come into effect.

We’ve done a lot of thinking here at the PowerBlog on the future of journalism in a digital age. A recent piece in Forbes by Leo Gomez brings into focus (ahem) the question of digital innovation and it’s influence on photojournalism.

In his August 24 “Digital Tools” column, Gomez writes that “cameras are becoming what computers already are: cheap, ubiquitous, powerful and utterly transformational. There are now a billion digital cameras, counting the ones in mobile phones. They are chronicling everything about life on Earth, from birthday parties in Topeka to street protests in Tehran. Many more are on the way.”

With this explosion of video and still pictures, what role will professional photojournalism play? Both written and photojournalism faces the current challenge of a deluge of community and consumer-generated information (word blogs, video blogs, photo-sharing sites, et al.). As the technological developments have tracked with computers, so will the editorial and production side of photojournalism track with the developments in wordsmithing.

And as with the larger world of professional journalism, there will be a corresponding increase in the need for gatekeepers and editorial review to screen through the mass to find and polish the gems. And with regard to the influence of culture, given the increasingly non-verbal (i.e. illiterate) nature of today’s digital consumer, photojournalism might just be a fulcrum of cultural and social formation in the Internet age.

The same issue of Forbes includes a collection of seven profiles of the leaders in Internet video innovation. What’s true for photojournalism is also true for other forms of visual communication, including theatrical and documentary film productions. And so we need Story in the visual as well as the written arts.

Published today on the Web site of the American Enterprise Institute:

Some numbers are highly significant in the Bible. The Israelites, for example, wandered in the desert for 40 years. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai when he received the Law. Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights. These are periods often associated with probation, trial, or even chastisement before the Lord.

Now we have “40 Days for Health Reform,” a massive effort by the Religious Left to muster support during the congressional summer recess for the Obama administration’s nationalization of America’s healthcare system. Liberal Christians and Jews even recruited the president on August 19 for a nationwide call-in, which was said to draw 140,000 listeners. If the ministers, rabbis, and lay “community organizers” in the churches and synagogues succeed, we’ll all be wandering in the parched wilderness of socialized medicine—and for a lot longer than 40 days.

What’s remarkable about this effort is that, as Americans have started to see the details of ObamaCare, they have revolted against the plan in ever-growing numbers. They’ve shown up at town halls and given their nonplussed members of Congress a healthy dressing down. A Rasmussen Reports survey finds that most voters (54 percent) now say they would prefer that Congress simply not pass a healthcare reform package.

Yet the tone-deaf Religious Left has mobilized for the rescue of socialized medicine, one of its most dearly sought objectives. In doing so, its leaders have labeled the honest dissent of ordinary Americans as the fruit of “mob rule,” the result of manipulation by “right wing” talk radio hosts, and evidence of outright misinformation and falsehoods. Not a very Christian thing to do, if you ask me.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who worked so feverishly for Obama’s election, has been leading the charge. He recently wrote that the “storm troopers of political demagoguery, such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, have mobilized their followers to disrupt town meetings and defeat comprehensive reform by yelling louder than anybody else.” Like others, Wallis has cast the healthcare debate as a Manichaean battle between the forces of Light and Darkness, prooftexting the president’s and the Democratic congressional reform plan with handy bits of Holy Writ.

In the Washington Post, he cited Leviticus to show that the Bible lays out a “detailed public health policy in regards to contagious rashes and leprosy.” This, Wallis claimed, proves that “the laws governing the Hebrews ensured that participation in their healthcare system was not based upon economic status in the community.” I must have missed that lesson in seminary.

Amazingly, Wallis told Congressional Quarterly that opponents of socialized medicine “really want to shut down democracy and we can’t let that happen. The faith community is literally going to stand in the way of those who want to stop a conversation.” CQ also quoted John Hay Jr., an evangelical leader from Indianapolis, Indiana, who said that “40 Days for Health Reform” is “really an effort to refocus where the central moral issue is—it seems to have been derailed or taken off track by a lot of voices over the past couple of weeks.”

Along with Sojourners, some of the key collaborators on the Religious Left’s rally to the White House and congressional plan include PICO National Network, Faith in Public Life, Faithful America, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has argued that healthcare is a human right that should be available to all. “The Bishops’ Conference believes healthcare reform should be truly universal and it should be genuinely affordable,” wrote Bishop William F. Murphy, the chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, in a July 17 letter to Congress. Now, Catholics can agree or disagree with the bishops’ advocacy for universal healthcare—that’s a question of prudence not dogma. Tellingly, Bishop Murphy’s letter did not cite Scripture, the catechism, or any papal encyclical. It was argued from a basis in policy and motivated by the bishop’s honest desire for improvement in a system where one in six patients in the United States is cared for in Catholic hospitals.

But note also what the Catholic bishops did. They issued a clear and forceful call for a reformed health policy that “protects and respects the life and dignity of all people from conception until natural death.” That non-negotiable insistence on the respect for life is, by and large, missing from the Religious Left’s campaign. What we get instead are bland assurances, parroted from White House and congressional talking point memos, that “life and dignity” would be forever safe under ObamaCare. I am not persuaded.

What else is missing from the Religious Left’s campaign? Plenty.

There is no acknowledgement that expanding federal spending by $1 trillion or more to reengineer the American healthcare system, and further burdening future generations with groaning debt loads, might be a bad thing. Or would the Religious Left simply have the government declare a Jubilee and disavow these debts when they become totally unmanageable? Is this too somewhere in Leviticus or perhaps Deuteronomy?

There is little or no recognition that other key institutions—the family, the Church, local civic associations—might also have a role to play in shaping reform. Certainly, no recognition for those civic and social groups that have a healthy distrust of an invasive state. Instead, we get the constant demand from the Religious Left that Washington must act. It is a sort of idolatry—the worship of Big Government as the solution to all of our problems.

There is a near total blindness to the fact that nationalized health systems in other countries are deeply troubled, even deadly. Horror stories about these systems are plentiful in the mainstream media. What about the common good? A 2002 report by the Adam Smith Institute noted the following about Britain’s state-run healthcare monopoly:

The NHS has a severe shortage of capacity, directly costing the lives of tens of thousands of patients a year. We have fewer doctors per head of population than any European country apart from Albania. We import nurses and doctors from the world’s poorest countries, and export sick people to some of the richest. More than one million people—one in sixty of the population—are waiting for treatment.

Faith communities should recognize the Religious Left’s “40 Days” campaign for what it is: a politically driven “community organizing” effort that aims to expand a bloated state and make Americans evermore dependent on politicians and bureaucrats, not doctors, for healthcare. As people of faith, we need to speak up against this dishonest affair. After all, it’s our “prophetic” duty.

I recently finished How to Argue Like Jesus (Crossway, 2009) by Joe Carter (The Evangelical Outpost, First Thoughts) and John Coleman. I would have loved to have had this book to assign during the 13 years I taught college composition and rhetoric. So many of my fellow evangelicals think rhetoric is a dirty word, as in “That’s just a bunch of rhetoric.” But as this primer makes clear, Jesus was a master of rhetoric, a master of principled persuasion.

Happily, How to Argue Like Jesus doesn’t act as if Jesus created a completely new rhetoric during his earthly ministry. Aristotelian categories serve as the basis for the first three chapters: Pathos, Logos, and Ethos. And in two other chapters, the comp/lit teacher will encounter many of the usual suspects found in standard overviews of poetic and stylistic devices (metaphor, simile, parallelism, chiasmus, etc.).

Chapter 5 focuses on the persuasive power of what Edmund Burke referred to as “little platoons.” Chaper 6 is a helpful summary chapter. And the final chapter provides three case studies, two taken from a Hollywood movie and one from a notable political speech from the 1960s.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the book. The brief discussion of Jesus’s use of parables is generally solid, but Jesus stated explicitly that he used parables, at least in part, to block understanding in some of his listeners. I would have liked to have seen the book explore this curious feature of Jesus’s rhetorical strategy more adequately.

Also, while the book’s writing style is generally solid and engaging (as one would expect from the creator and sustainer of The Evangelical Outpost), can we declare a global evangelical ban on the adjective “impactful” and “impact” used as a transitive verb? Mercifully, the terms aren’t a common fixture of the book, but it does crop up in a few places, and it doesn’t impact me. No, it hurts me. It moves me to tears.

Thus, I urge my fellow evangelicals everywhere to stop talking about “impactful” things that “really impacted” us. And while we’re at it, let’s declare a global evangelical ban on the cancerous overuse of “just” in the sense of “simply.” I mean, when you’re praying, just reach down into your bag of prayer words and just yank it out of there. Just do it. Carter and Coleman didn’t let it infect their book. If they can do it, so can we.

But I digress. How to Argue Like Jesus serves as a highly effective primer on rhetoric. By taking readers on a lively journey through the many persuasive techniques Jesus used in his earthly ministry, the book promises to hold the attention of young evangelicals more effectively than a typical comp/rhetoric textbook. I can enthusiastically recommend it for both Christian high school English classes and as supplementary text in college composition and rhetoric classes. I know we intend to assign it to our homeschoolers in the Witt household.

The mortgage fraudsters are back, but this time they’re preying on people struggling to keep their homes out of foreclosure.  In her commentary, Kelsey VanOverloop looks at how the “Foreclosure Rescue” come-on works and what homeowners can do to avoid the serious consequences of dealing with an unethical lender.  VanOverloop describes the fraudulent schemes:

Today’s mortgage fraudster preys on the vulnerable, those who have run out of options and are desperate for help. They seek out people known to have fallen on hard times, pressuring them into making snap decisions about things they know little about. Unlike those schemes we saw during the peak of the housing market, which capitalized on the dream of owning a home, the fraud of today takes advantage of the fear of foreclosure. These practices bolster the stereotype of the predatory lender, except now the predators are the ones ostensibly offering assistance, tempting ignorant homeowners into what appears to be an easy solution to their tough problems. All this further erodes trust in the housing market which, in the long term, undermines the stability of lenders and homeowners alike.

VanOverloop asserts the mortgage fraud will only slow the recovery from the housing crisis.  Furthermore, the moral underpinnings of mortgage fraud and how it affects all of us are explained:

Mortgage fraud is taking money out of a market working to rebuild itself, and these schemes, along with the intervention it will take to end them, will only slow recovery. They also further deteriorate trust in the housing market, where this quality is critical. We need to trust our builders to build safe homes, trust our realtors to price homes fairly, and trust our lenders to have in mind the best interests of the people who comprise their market. When this trust is damaged, it is more difficult to stem falling home values and housing recessions. Unethical mortgage operations, like all selfish and shortsighted economic activities, do not only harm the immediate victims; they hurt all of us.

Hunter Baker examines the push for the “public option” — the creation of a government backed insurance system — as part of health care reform in his commentary.  Baker takes an interesting approach at examining the push for a public option by dropping his readers into the life of a doctor, articulating the stress and sacrifice of the job:

Imagine that you are a physician. You have made it through four years of college on a steady diet of biology, chemistry, and calculus, four years of medical school so demanding that you have no life outside of school, and at least three years of residency in which you have regularly worked 100 hours a week for a very low salary. You have been the first to get up and the last to go home. And somewhere in there your third decade of life, commonly known as your “twenties” (normally a fun time), has disappeared. Along the way, you have probably racked up an astronomical personal debt because there is no time to work a second job to help pay it off. The first professional hurdle you set out to clear will be six figures accumulating interest. Forget family. If you have a spouse at this point, he or she is probably full of resentment at never seeing you.

After all this, have you made your way to an easy job? No. You are likely spending four days a week seeing patients, another day in surgery, taking a 24 hour call every four days, and working one weekend out of every four. The only time you are ever off is when another doctor can be found to cover your responsibilities while you are out. The job itself is rewarding, but incredibly difficult.

Furthermore, Baker addresses the argument that a public option is basically the same thing as Medicare, and demonstrates just because we already have Medicare does not mean that we should have a public option.  Taking it a step further, Baker points out the flaws of Medicare and parallels this flaws to those that may occur under a public option:

Why the big protest? Doesn’t Medicare do the same thing? Doesn’t Medicare dictate prices? It does, but it works for one reason. Medicare is essentially parasitic on a functioning free market for medical services. Doctors are willing to accept low compensation at the margins because they do want to help people and programs like Medicare help them pay the cost of treatment for those who can’t pay. But if the whole market became like Medicare, the economic freedom of doctors would disappear. And that is the problem with an open-door public option that could expand to envelop the practice of medicine.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
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Since it appears the health care reform debate isn’t going away any time soon (and, just maybe, has moved in a positive direction from where it started several months ago–e.g., one of the most dangerous proposals, the public option, is itself in danger), we’ll keep pressing the issue.

Two recent articles of interest:

David Goldhill in The Atlantic. Outstanding exposition of the dysfunctions of American health care and which policies will ameliorate rather than exacerbate them. It’s imperative that we revise our thinking about “health insurance,” returning it to a standard model of insurance. A key step is to shift the insurance tax break from employers to individuals.

Martin Feldstein in the Wall Street Journal. Agrees that tax reform is crucial, but, supposing that doesn’t happen, makes an interesting point about rationing and national spending on health care.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
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There’s more evidence that amidst the economic downturn people are becoming more careful and intentional about the kinds of charities they fund. We’ve seen that those likely to continue to flourish are those that have cultivated a “family-like” connection with their donors.

Often more local charities do well in this kind of climate. And, of course, the focus of the charity matters, too.

Robert J. Samuelson reports (HT: Theolog) that charitable giving was down $308 billion in 2008, and will likely be down even more this year. This will undoubtedly be due to less excess out of which to give, as well as potential changes to the tax code discouraging high levels of giving by the wealthy.

But Samuelson points out an exception to this trend. Feeding America, a group dedicated to providing resources for local food banks, has seen funding jump by 42%. Ross Fraser of Feeding America said, “Charities such as ours do well when times are hard. If you have to choose between giving to the ballet and feeding a hungry child, who’s going to win?” As Samuelson writes this dynamic “compounds the pressure on other nonprofits: colleges, hospitals, and environmental groups.”

Givers can be quite savvy, giving to the areas they perceive to be the most pressing. That’s why giving patterns can change quickly and respond to broader economic and social trends. With unemployment up and foreclosures on the rise, it makes good sense that food banks and other similar aid groups would have a competitive advantage relative to other kinds of non-profits.

This from a new Uncommon Knowledge interview with Harry Jaffa:

The society of the future is one in which the moral distinction that is based upon the Judeo-Christian and Greek traditions will dissolve. We are moving into a Communist world; we are moving into the world that Marx wanted without knowing it and without having the kind of revolution that Marx predicted and thought was necessary. For example, the President always talks about our values. What does [President Obama] mean by values? Values are moral choices, which have no object or basis. The value is a subjective desire, not an objective truth. He does not know what he is saying; he does not know the importance. A hundred years ago, nobody would have spoken about our principles as being values.

For more on the necessity of a transcendent moral order to the development and maintenance of liberty, see Acton’s latest documentary, The Birth of Freedom. The trailer, as well as several video shorts, are available at www.thebirthoffreedom.com.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
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A great deal has been made in recent weeks about Ronald Reagan‘s critique of nationalized or socialized health care from 1961:


We can go back a bit further, though, and take a look at an intriguing piece from 1848, a dialogue on socialism and the French Revolution and the relationship of socialism to democracy, which includes Alexis de Tocqueville‘s critique of socialism in general.

One interesting note is that Tocqueville identifies one of the traits common to all forms of socialism as “an incessant, vigorous and extreme appeal to the material passions of man,” including the exhortation, “Let us rehabilitate the body.” Reagan’s point of departure in his broadcast is the observation that “one of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on a people has been by way of medicine. It’s very easy to disguise a medical program as a humanitarian project.”

And here’s Tocqueville on socialism in America:

America today is the one country in the world where democracy is totally sovereign. It is, besides, a country where socialist ideas, which you presume to be in accord with democracy, have held least sway, the country where those who support the socialist cause are certainly in the worst position to advance them[.] I personally would not find it inconvenient if they were to go there and propagate their philosophy, but in their own interests, I would advise them not to.

It may well be that ideologically democracy (as Tocqueville conceived it) and socialism are opposed, as Tocqueville claims. But historically they may well be linked. Lord Acton connected “absolute democracy” (something like majoritarian rule) to socialism: “Liberty has not only enemies which it conquers, but perfidious friends, who rob the fruits of its victories: Absolute democracy, socialism.” And once the majority discovers that it can use the power of the State to plunder the wealth of a minority, the road is well-paved toward socialism.