Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hearts and Minds

Conclusion (for now)
I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to explain what conservatives believe and why we believe it.

What started all of this was the frequently heard assertion that conservatism is incompatible with Christianity. I’ve tried to show that conservative ideology is compatible with biblical ethics and that it’s based on a logical approach to the facts.

I am convinced that conservative principles are better; that doesn’t mean they’re perfect or that liberals have no good ideas. It certainly doesn’t mean that good compromises don’t exist between both camps – purple solutions, if you will.

But conservative positions are morally and logically strong and must be given due consideration as we consider the problems facing our society today.

The Master taught us to love God with all of our being including our minds. We must strive to think clearly and Christianly about everything to the glory of God.

As we seek to live out the command to love our neighbor, we have to ask whether the Bible shows us right ways and wrong ways to do this. We also need to consider whether our ideas for helping the poor are actually effective or, initially, at least based on sound principles.

James talks about telling a poor person “be warm and well fed” but not doing anything to make him so. Merely wishing him well is useless. So is giving him a bucket of sand. If we help people thoughtlessly, we have accomplished nothing.

We have to think carefully about the issues in front of us so that we can truly help people and so we don’t waste precious resources.

The mere desire to do right does not get us very far. We also need to do well.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Can Christians Observe Halloween?

Last year I solicited opinions on how to approach Halloween. I’m still a bit ambivalent about the occasion, but at least this year I’m taking a permissive stance.

I have no desire to convince anyone else of that position, but I’m going to share my thinking just in case someone’s curious and because I welcome corrections to my thought process. Plus I like writing.

Is Halloween inherently evil?
Depending on who you ask, Halloween either began as a pagan celebration or as a response to a pagan celebration, but either way no one can deny there are aspects of this event that appear to celebrate some unsavory things.

Does that make it evil? I don’t think so.

If Halloween used to be about celebrating demons or frightening off the dead, can anyone really say that this is the purpose today for more than a tiny fraction of the population?

Does God really view acts that are devoid of meaning to these children as idolatry? Turn it around – does God view acts that are devoid of meaning as worship? No. Then the reverse is likely true too.

Children in costumes seeking candy may be doing many things, but none of them are worshipping the devil or seeking communion with spirits.

Are some elements evil or unhealthy?
Besides appealing to my inner dentist, you can certainly question whether Halloween places an unhealthy emphasis on death, gore, or danger. I’m not thrilled about the things my kids – or other people – will see, but they’re going to see most of it whether we “participate” in Halloween or not.

Eventually we’ll have to decide whether or not my kids can go to “spook houses,” but that experience really is not different than watching a scary movie – e.g., Psycho or Scream.

What is the purpose of "harvest festivals?"
The thing that most pushed me over the line was the fact that I can’t figure out how these church “harvest festivals” are any different than any other Halloween observance.

Kids dress in costumes. There will be fewer scary costumes, but my kids will be fairy princesses no matter where we go.

Kids will get candy. Kids will play games.

The question is, if kids in costume going door to door asking for candy and playing games is devil worship in neighborhood streets, what makes it different when this happens at church?

What about those stories?
You know the ones – kidnappings and sacrifices and orgies and all kinds of wickedness are alleged to happen on Halloween.

Those things happen 365 days a year, but there’s little evidence (beyond stories than have been handed down for 60 years) that Halloween is a special day for it. If there was a special day for pagan sacrifices, it would probably be the winter solstice, not Halloween.

If the stories are true, parents should keep an extra sharp eye on their kids on Halloween. If the stories aren’t true, parents should keep an extra sharp eye on their kids on Halloween. Honestly, the pedophiles are probably much more of a danger than the devil worshippers.

Is it wrong to trick or treat?
I expect I’ll revisit this question every year for my family, but this year I’m going to say no. Of course, we’re actually taking the kids to a “harvest festival” at my parents’ church.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Problem of Parties

Over the past few weeks I’ve tried to convince you that the conservative approaches to the issues of the day are biblically consistent and/or more logical and practical than liberal approaches.

You may be saying, “My candidate holds all the right positions. It doesn’t matter that he’s a Democrat.”

I used to believe this. Unfortunately, it’s not true.

Partly as a result of how our system is set up, and partly as a result of the operating philosophy of certain political parties, voting for a conservative Democrat is really no better than voting for a liberal.

Are Pro-Life Dems Kidding Themselves?
Abortion is the best example to illustrate the problem. Here in Texas, we have three “Pro-Life Democrats” running for Congress: Kent Hargett, Brian Ruiz, and Eric Roberson. Presumably, if a pro-life issue came up, they’d vote against their party in support of policies designed to protect unborn humans.

The problem is that those policies will never come to the floor of a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. A vote for any of these gentlemen is also a vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. She’s so pro-choice she’s bordering on pro-abortion; she would not permit any pro-life bill a vote.

The same holds in the Senate. A vote for a Democratic candidate for the Senate is a vote to let Harry Reid control the Senate’s agenda. It’s also a vote against giving the pro-life side a filibuster defense.

You may protest that Democrats have allowed pro-life bills to come to a vote before, but that was a long time ago in a Congress run by different Democrats in a very different political climate. Today, pro-life Democrats are barely even allowed to speak in public, much less vote their conscience.

Essentially, there can be no such thing as a pro-life Democrat in American today.

Not Just Abortion
This system is true for any issue where you disagree with Democratic Party leadership: drilling domestically for oil, taxes, judges, or health care reform. If there is any issue that is very important to you, don’t assume you can safely vote for any Democratic candidate in today’s political climate if you don’t hold the DNC party line.

Unfortunately, the Democratic Party is in a mode where they really don’t believe in debate – even among their own.

The Sad Plight of the Homeless
Right now there really is nowhere for pro-life people to go if they disagree with the Republicans about anything substantive. The Democratic Party has fashioned themselves as the abortion party. As long as they continue to do so, pro-life liberals really have no home.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Once upon a time pro-life and supply-side Democrats were seated at the same table as the pro-choice and Keynesian Democrats. Today homogeneity of ideology is enforced – and to be honest this is a problem in many aspects of American life, not just the Democratic Party. But there is hope that one day the Democrats will again embrace ideological diversity.

The Problem of Third Parties
“Wait a minute! What do you mean there’s nowhere for a pro-lifer to go? There are other parties besides the big two.”

Yes there are, and I’ve been known to vote for the occasional third-party candidate. But in a presidential race, we have to acknowledge that a third-party vote is a protest vote and nothing more. The Libertarian or Constitution candidate has no more chance of becoming president this year than I do.

Barr = Obama
“What if I want to cast a protest vote?” Well, that’s your option, but you need to make sure you understand what you’re doing. Either John McCain or Barack Obama will be our next president.

A conservative voting for a third-party candidate is really voting for Sen. Obama; you are denying Sen. McCain a vote in a very close race. The opposite holds true for liberals.

If you’re ok with your protest vote helping to elect Sen. Obama, then do what you need to do.

But if you’re pro-life and you vote against Sen. McCain, realize that you are enabling Sen. Obama’s plans to undo every pro-life victory since Roe.

Protesting into the Wind
I understand the sentiment behind the protest vote. Neither party is very consistent about supporting their principles. The GOP especially has earned a trip to the woodshed.

But a “protest vote” will not do that. We like to think they’ll look back at election day, check the third party numbers, and re-evaluate their approach to the issues that are important to the base.

Um, who are we kidding? They’re really not that bright.

What has shown some promise is when conservatives run as conservatives and beat liberals running as moderates while moderate Republicans get their butts kicked. That and unseating sitting Congressmen in primary races seem to be the only things they pay attention to. And they barely do that.

I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: If you don’t like the choices presented to you, next time run yourself!

But a protest vote is just putting the guy you like least in office.

Do What You Gotta Do
In the end, we’re all going to do what we think is best on election day. My goal is to make sure everyone understands the implications of every decision. If you vote for a Democrat or a Libertarian on election day, be sure you’re comfortable with both the man and the message you’re sending to Washington. And if you vote for a Republican, realize that you’re probably going to want to kick him in the rear at least once a month.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Do Nothing Republicans?

Responding to Critics: The Record on Abortion

“What have conservatives ever accomplished on abortion? They talk about abortion during elections, but they never do anything. After 20 years of Republican presidents, nothing has changed. We need to try a different approach; we can save more lives by trying to reduce the number of abortions and not worrying about whether it’s legal.”

What Have They Ever Done?
Actually, though we’d love to be able to say Roe was overturned and abortion was outlawed in every state, there have been more than a few pro-life victories in the abortion fight. Our first victory was the Hyde Amendment, which prevents pro-life taxpayers from being forced to fund abortion with their tax dollars.

Though the record is not perfect, we’ve put strict constructionists on the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe if given the opportunity (even many pro-choice lawyers say Roe was ridiculously bad jurisprudence), including the recent additions of Justices Alito and Roberts.

Parental notification laws have been passed all over the US that, despite protests to the contrary, have reduced abortions just about everywhere they’ve been tried.

We’ve also been able to pass a ban on “partial birth” abortions and laws protecting abortion survivors and healthcare providers who do not want to perform these procedures. We’ve also had some success getting federal funding for pro-life crisis pregnancy centers and alternatives to embryo-destroying research.

That’s not to suggest that Republicans or conservatives have passed everything I’d like or done everything they could, nor have they focused exclusively on this issue (as if anyone expected them to), but there have been real successes and real lives have been saved.

What Would Outlawing Abortion Accomplish?
Would abortions still occur if abortion was illegal? Yes. Then why bother?

We don’t outlaw only those things we can totally stop. Murder still happens. People still speed. Armed robbery continues to occur. No one suggests we make those things legal.

Outlawing abortion would accomplish a couple of things. One, though they’d still happen, there wouldn’t be anywhere near as many.

Two, the national attitude toward abortion would change. People would eventually stop thinking of it as a “right.” In time it would make abortion less and less common.

This is true of merely overturning Roe, too. That would change the nature of the debate – from “protecting rights” to debating the morality of a procedure. That would make a subtle shift in the minds of many pro-choice people.

We Should Work to Reduce the Number of Abortions
This is the theme for many who call themselves pro-life but vote for pro-choice candidates. The question they need to answer is “how?”

What can we do to reduce the number of abortions? More importantly what haven’t we already tried?

Is it money? Will more welfare reduce the number of abortions? How? When abortion was at its peak, we were paying women per kid. What else can we do?

Is it access to contraception? Contraceptives are easily available to anyone who wants to use them. People can even get them for free with minimal effort.

Is it education? Please. One, most abortions are performed on adult women. Two, we have sex education starting in elementary school in some areas. Few women (or men) today lack the information they need to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. What they lack is character.

If lifting women out of poverty will reduce the number of abortions, great – let’s do it. But let’s not pretend that any form of government transfer payments will do that after the trillions spent on the Great Society to no avail.

But a key part of reducing the number of abortions is removing the notion that abortion is a legitimate answer to an inconvenient pregnancy from our society. That is not accomplished by refusing to make abortion illegal and saying we want to make it “rare.”

Safe, Legal, and Not-So-Rare
Those who want to vote for a pro-choice candidate to “reduce the number of abortions” also have to address the fact that the Democratic Party has removed from the party platform the language calling for a reduction in abortion. Is this the party you trust to “reduce the number of abortions?”

Health Exemptions
“We’d support many pro-life policies if they’d just include an exemption for the health of the mother.” Senator Obama even made this remark about partial birth abortion during the last debate.

Conservatives will allow exemptions for the life of the mother; liberals care very much about her “health” – they just won’t tell us what it means. That’s because the “health” is so broad that it includes any physical distress (e.g., pregnancy-induced heartburn), social problems (e.g., my husband doesn’t want another child), and mental concerns (not just depression, even “anxiety” – e.g., anxiety that I can’t abort this child).

Technically, abortion is not “constitutionally protected” after the fetus reaches viability, but Doe says that even late-term abortion is permitted to preserve the mother’s “health.”

A “health” exemption on any abortion restriction basically makes it null and void. A doctor just has to state that the procedure is necessary for the woman’s “health.”

So-Called Pro-Lifers & Obama
When conservatives say that Sen. Obama is the most pro-abortion candidate to run on a major party ticket, we’re really not exaggerating.

He has said that one of his first acts as president would be to sign the “Freedom of Choice Act” (FOCA) that will not only outlaw every abortion restriction at the state and federal level, it will also repeal the Hyde Amendment – meaning taxpayer funded abortions. He opposes laws that had broad, bipartisan support including the partial birth abortion ban and the Born Alive Infant Protection Act. He takes a radical position on embryonic stem cell research – well to the left of most Democrats.

He has also promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who are politically liberal and judicially activist – naming Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an example. He would never appoint anyone with the slightest likelihood of overturning Roe.

Sen. Obama has even opposed including unborn children in the S-CHIP program. It’s a good thing he wasn’t around when WIC was invented.

By all means, vote for Sen. Obama if you want to, but don’t tell yourself any lies about him reducing the number of abortions. He has no interest in such a feat.

Conservatives and the Republican Party have made real headway in the fight against abortion. Their records aren’t spotless, and there is room for improvement, but if you care about the welfare of unborn human beings, there is only one party that has shown any interesting in protecting them. Vote accordingly.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

7 Things You Should Know About Obama

I’m a little hesitant to post something so blatantly political here, but I really am convinced that abortion is one of the greatest evils imaginable, and since one presidential candidate has promised to undo every pro-life victory since Roe, I’m going to hold my nose and post this.

As we head into the last days of the election, you probably know a few people who are still trying to decide or have decided on Sen. Obama but can’t explain why. Here are a few nuggets to share with people, something for them to chew on, to help them see the real Obama.

1. The US has the most liberal abortion laws in the West; Sen. Obama wants to make them looser. He has promised to sign a bill that would undo the partial birth ban, parental notification laws, and conscience exemptions for doctors. Then he wants you to pay for abortions.

He has promised to sign the “Freedom of Choice Act.” Read the text of FOCA here. It’s pretty straightforward.

2. Sen. Obama wants to repeal DOMA so judges in Massachusetts can create same-sex marriage in Texas.

The Defense of Marriage Act doesn’t outlaw same-sex marriage; it simply says that the “full faith and credit” clause can’t be used to force a state to recognize SSMs from another state. Remove DOMA, and all states will be forced to treat SSM the same way they treat any other out-of-state marriage.

3. Sen. Obama wants to give a tax cut to people who don’t actually pay taxes.

Income taxes, that is, but it doesn’t really flow with that word in it. He’s promised income tax cuts to people to who don’t pay income taxes, so on April 15th, when some people are hoping to get their money back from the IRS, some people will get money they never paid in. This is part of his “sharing the wealth.”

4. Sen. Obama wants to tax the rich, so when you ask your boss for a raise, he’ll tell you Obama took it.

Do you work for a poor guy? Me neither. When taxes on “the rich” go up, the rich will have less money lying around. Think that’ll affect the company budget? Yeah, me too.

5. Sen. Obama’s economic policies look a lot like Herbert Hoover’s. Hoover started the Depression.

Sluggish economy + raising taxes on producers and employers + protectionist trade policies = crash

6. Sen. Obama likes the price of gas high. He thinks it should be higher.

Seriously, he said it on tv. He claims to be sympathetic to people struggling to make ends meet, but the environment is more important to him than your budget. It’s no accident that he resisted the call for increased domestic drilling for so long.

7. Sen. Obama wants to use judges to bypass democracy.

Well, this is pretty standard Democrat, really, but whatever they can’t get passed through state or national legislatures they “pass” by judges – for example, same-sex marriage. He has openly stated his preference for the judges who legislate from the bench.

Obviously these all of these can be fleshed out. Actually, I’m hoping people will ask you to explain them, but a good “soundbite” can stick with people.

For more, check out the Comprehensive Case Against Obama.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Judicial Philosophy

Why Do They Do That? 6 – Conservatives and Judges

“Since the US Constitution was written over 200 years ago by people who could never have imagined the issues we face today, we really shouldn’t hold it too firmly. As our society changes, our laws should evolve in keeping with what our culture finds acceptable, and the role of the judiciary is to facilitate that and protect the people from the tyranny of dead white men.”

The above is a pretty good description of the liberal view of the Constitution and the judiciary. It’s also a recipe for anarchy.

The Role of the Judiciary
The Constitution says oddly little about the judiciary: “The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court…” The fact that the role of the court isn’t spelled out suggests it was considered common knowledge. To see what that assumed role was, we can resort to the dictionary or the Federalist Papers.

In Federalist Paper #78 Hamilton wrote:
“The judiciary, on the contrary, has no influence over either the sword or the purse; no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society; and can take no active resolution whatever. It may truly be said to have neither FORCE nor WILL, but merely judgment … the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority.”
The role of the judiciary was simply to determine whether the law was obeyed. If the law was not obeyed, it would determine an appropriate resolution within the limits of the law.

So the role of a judge is simply to say “yes” or “no.” A judge does not have the power to make up his own punishment or resolution.

When the Supreme Court rules a law unconstitutional, it was well within its power. At that point, it is supposed to tell Congress or the states, “Fix this.”

If instead the Court prescribes its own fix, that is not judging; that is legislating.

Judicial Activism vs Democracy
What’s wrong with that? Circumventing the legislative process circumvents the democratic process. “We the people” are supposed to rule through our chosen representatives. Judges are not elected legislators.

In democracy, to change the law, you can convince the people or you can convince 51% of each house of Congress plus the president. Today you can just convince 5 judges.

It’s easy to see why judicial activism would be popular with “progressives” – it’s a lot easier to convince 5 than 273 + 1 much less 100 million voters.

But when judges make law that is not democracy but oligarchy.

Originalism vs a Living Constitution
How do judges change the law? That’s the best part. Somewhere along the way we lost sight of the notion that a judge is supposed to determine what the law means; now judges determine what they’d like the law to mean. A “living Constitution” is not bound by the letters on the paper, nor the intent behind the letters, but the mood of our “society” (or what the judges say it is). We can have a “penumbra” in the Constitution from which to draw whatever we want.

Compare this to church. What would you think of a preacher who made a sermon on tithing out of Matthew 1:1?

If he can do that, there is nothing he can’t make up. Similarly a “living Constitution” gives us no protection at all. The 2nd Amendment could forbid jaywalking; there are no rules anymore.

Lately this has been facilitated by applying the laws of other nations when the courts determine what they’d like our laws to be. You may recall the ruling about executing teenagers; the argument was based more on the laws of Europe than the Constitution. However you may feel about the issue at hand, the method used to reach the conclusion was completely unacceptable.

Again, compare this to church. Should a preacher give a sermon out of the Koran? No matter how many people in the world think it’s authoritative, it’s not binding on us. Neither are the laws of Europe on Americans.

Clarence Thomas recently put it this way: “…there are really only two ways to interpret the Constitution – try to discern as best we can what the framers intended or make it up.” (I highly recommend reading the whole article.)

Those are the only two choices – do what the text says, or do whatever you want. There really is no middle ground.

As long as we let the courts do whatever they want, we have no rights, no protections. What a “living Constitution” gives it can take.

We’re at the mercy of their creativity.

Amending the Constitution via Courts
No matter what the problems may be, how do we know this isn’t a perfectly legitimate method of updating the Constitution?

We know it’s not legitimate because the founders gave us a method for changing the Constitution. This isn’t it.

If you think the Constitution is outdated, you can amend it. It’s a long and arduous process – intentionally so. Amending the Constitution via Supreme Court ruling bypasses the safeguards the founders built into our system. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

It’s Not About Losing
Liberals usually react to this conversation by calling conservatives poor losers – we’re usually on the losing side when judicial activism comes into play. But the issue isn’t about losing a court case. It’s how court cases are decided.

I’m willing to lose a court case where the judges show us where our logic or reading of the Constitution was wrong. I’m not willing to lose a court case where the judges pull their opinion out of thin air.

Don’t Conservatives Do It Too?
I’m not going to claim that only Democrats do this. There are Republican judges who pull the same stunts, but when they do so they are employing a liberal, not conservative, judicial philosophy.

The conservative philosophy is demonstrated by what Justice Scalia said about abortion:
“‘[I]f indeed I were ... trying to impose my own views, I would not only be opposed to Roe versus Wade, I would be in favor of the opposite view… which is to interpret the Constitution to mean that a state must prohibit abortion,’ Scalia said.

‘And you're against that?’

‘Of course. There's nothing’ in the Constitution supporting the view.”
That is originalism in all its annoying glory.

Judicial Power and Political Nastiness
Finally, when we allow judges with lifetime appointments to become a super-legislature, we drastically increase the cost of allowing judges that disagree with a given philosophy on the bench. That has contributed to the growing nastiness around judicial appointments – and presidential campaigns, for that matter.

If we want to restore some civility to Washington, we’re going to need to restore the judiciary to its proper role.

Conservatives have complained about judicial activism for years, but lately the left has found their share of Supreme Court rulings to disagree with. So the question for us all is, how much power do we want to allow an unelected, unaccountable body with lifetime appointments?

Who’s safer – a Supreme Court that can go a decade without any change in makeup or a Congress that is constantly up for re-election and under intense scrutiny?

Isn’t it time we tell activist judges, “Thanks, but we already have a legislature?”

Next Time
I’ve tried to make the case that conservative principles are consistent with the Bible and that they are founded on sound reason and experience. Next I’m going to answer an all too common charge leveled against conservatives.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Loving Neighbors 7000 Miles Away

Why Do They Do That? 5 – Conservatives and Global Poverty

Americans are the wealthiest people the world has ever seen, yet there are still billions of people in the world living in squalor little different from conditions there a thousand years ago. How can we permit this? When we can send them food and clothes and medicine and technology, why do we just let them continue in their poverty?

Christians can and should help those people. It’s too easy to lose sight of the extreme poverty that exists outside our country – we’ve got our own lives to live, and out of sight really is out of mind. We need to make our minds up to act and then do it, but we have to act wisely. As with so many other things, if we react purely based on emotion, we may well do more harm than good.

After looking at what the Bible says about helping the poor and why conservatives take the approach they do to poverty, it probably won’t surprise anyone if I suggest that global poverty is a much more complex issue than it first appears. Whole books have been written on this subject, but I think we can get an idea of what’s going on and, most importantly, why conservatives take the approach they do.

Americans typically throw money at problems, and sometimes that works. Global poverty, however, has resisted the billions that have been thrown at it because many of the underlying causes either are money-resistant or actually devour the money.

Systemic problems
Two systemic issues appear all over the world. The first, and the most pervasive, is corruption. Two excellent examples are Somalia and Zimbabwe. Since the early 90’s Americans have sent hundreds of millions of dollars in food to Somalia only to see it seized by local warlords (and sold for weapons). Zimbabwe may represent the best modern example of a country gone wrong. In 2000 “President” Mugabe seized privately owned farms and gave them to political supporters turning the bread basket of Africa into a basket case with food shortages and hyperinflation. Sending any support into countries like these is a waste of precious resources. The popular call to cancel the debts of poor countries should be examined in view of this – whose debts, exactly, are we canceling?

Related to the above is the problem of social issues. Some people are kept in poverty by the nature of their relationship with their neighbors. For example the Dalit “untouchables” in India are discriminated against by culture, if not by law. Only the meanest jobs and lowest wages are open to them. Why? Because, according to orthodox Hindu beliefs, untouchables are born into that state as karmic “justice” for past lives; only by suffering can these people hope for a better situation in their next lives. In these situations, food can mitigate their immediate suffering, but no meaningful improvements can be made without changes within these societies.

Resistance to change
Even when we think we could make a difference in poor people’s lives, sometimes the poor people themselves fight us. People who have always known a certain way of life can resist change, even when you tell them this will improve their lot.

There are areas of Africa where the soil, though no longer able to support traditional crops, can support other plants. The problem is getting farmers who have planted the same thing for generations to change. The same goes for new farming techniques. I can’t tell you why people are so resistant to change when they’re barely surviving, but sometimes they are.

A related problem conflates two issues – lifestyles and education. How do help people who have no desire to learn about modern sanitation or medicine? What do you do about people who insist on having unprotected sex in HIV-flooded areas? What can we say to people who insist that having sex with a virgin will cure their AIDS?

Westerners have gone to these areas and invested years and many millions of dollars in an attempt to better the lives of poor people who resist change. Writing a check is not going to solve this problem.

Help that doesn’t help
Sometimes writing a check is literally the worst thing we can do. When we send food to a country where farmers are trying to eek out a living, we depress food prices and make it that much harder for the poor to survive. The same goes for clothes and anything else that can be found in the country in question.

Akin to writing a check is the “fare trade” movement. Basically, fare trade is about paying above market prices for a commodity to benefit the producers. The problem is “artificially propping up the price of a commodity distorts [the balance of supply and demand] and removes the incentive for farmers to diversify. In fact, it does the opposite: it creates an incentive for others to start producing that crop (since it has a guaranteed higher price), thus increasing output and putting an even further downward pressure on price.” So fare trade pricing can actually make people not in on the deal poorer.

How Can We Help?
As the above author put it, “the larger, more complex and more distant the problem, the more resistant it is to simple, feel-good solutions.” The underlying causes behind global poverty are complex, messy, and difficult to change. So what can we do about it?

Conservatives prefer, for good reason, to help people in ways that encourage self-sufficiency and use market forces rather than government brute strength. Here are a few thoughts on applying those concepts. I’m certainly open to other suggestions.

Strings attached
The Constitution doesn’t provide for charity with taxpayer money – whether it’s local or international – but since it’s going to happen, let’s use it wisely. International aid should be given with the expectation of measurable reform in a reasonable time. If reform goals aren’t met, funds should be cut off. If funds are misused, they should be cut off.

Buy local – on the other side of the world
Whether it’s using government or private aid, food, clothes, and whatever else can be purchased from locals should be. It’s not popular with American farmers, but buying food in Africa for Africa helps more people (African farmers) and is a more efficient use of available funds (less transportation costs).

I’d like to see Christians send money to local churches. They can best distribute the money, using it to build homes, buy food, provide medicine, or whatever is needed. And when it comes through the church, it enables them to share the gospel with those they help.

If you don’t give money to churches, there are plenty of aid organizations that work in poor countries; pick one that uses the money wisely.

Invest in small, er, tiny businesses
The jury’s still out on the whole micro-finance concept, but it seems sound – in theory even if the practice may need work. We can give money to companies that make small, low-interest loans to people (usually women) who want to start small businesses in third world countries. With most of them you eventually get your money back sans interest (it goes to operating costs), or you can re-invest. It’s charity where you give someone a leg up instead of a handout.

Kiva’s the one I’ve been looking at, but there are quite a few to choose from, however we must choose carefully.

Education to change minds
The most bang for our buck is probably going to come from education. We not only need to teach techniques, we need to change mindsets. Frankly that’s extremely difficult to do, but it can be done with time. Lots of time. Government can do this, but so can churches. Of course, teaching that Dalits are people too can get churches in trouble, but that’s nothing new for us.

As much as possible, I’d like to see us work through neighboring countries – especially in Africa. One, it cuts down on charges of colonialism. Two, it cuts down on perceptions of dependence on America/Europeans. Just as welfare can create an unhealthy sense of dependence and helplessness, too much foreign aid may create self-defeating attitudes in the people we want to help. If we can avoid that, we should; Africans helping Africans and Asians helping Asians is a healthier alternative where it’s possible.

Christians want to help the poor, but we have to be smart about it. If we make ourselves feel better without actually improving their lot, we’ve only succeeded in throwing away money that could have been used for good.

Next Time
The next installment will shift directions a bit and look at the conservative philosophy on the judiciary.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Physician Heal Thyself

Why Do They Do That? 4 – Health Care Reform

As we talk about caring for the poor, we run upon an increasingly serious problem: The US is the wealthiest nation on earth, yet millions of people don’t have healthcare. Those that do are seeing their costs skyrocket. Can’t we just create health coverage for everyone and tell companies how much they can charge?

Sure – if you want to ruin our healthcare system.

Insurance, Not “Healthcare”
First we need to clarify the terms of the debate. Every American has access to healthcare, even if they don’t have health insurance. We don’t have large numbers of people dying because they can’t get any help.

Everyone can get treatment at a public hospital. It’s not ideal for anyone – patient or caregiver – but they do get treated. Do they get every single test a person with expensive private insurance would get? Sometimes yes; sometimes no. In my experience, though, patients we get from the county hospital often have fewer restrictions than with some insurance companies, and in the end everyone gets the treatment they need whether they can pay or not.

If anyone gets the shaft, it’s the guy with not so great insurance who has restrictions on where he can go and who he can see and what they’ll pay for, but that’s caused by attempts to keep costs under control.

Sources of High Costs
No healthcare reform is possible without addressing healthcare costs. I can’t give a succinct explanation why costs are rising so quickly; this situation is as complex as it gets. I can, however, identify a few culprits that will shed some light on the problem.

First, healthcare technology has been undergoing incredible advances in the last decade or so. Treatments that were unfathomable 20 or 30 years ago are commonplace today.

New technologies are expensive to develop and to introduce into the clinic. And everyone wants them because they want to be able to give their patients the best care and because if they don’t offer patients the new technologies someone else will.

Shifted costs
Another contributor is the shifting of costs from those who can’t pay to those who can. We can’t do this for free, so healthcare providers try to charge so that they can make the money they need off those who can pay. Does that sound unfair? The underlying causes have to be dealt with.

Healthcare regulations
In any business there is a cost to comply with regulations; healthcare is no different. Many have to comply with ridiculous regulations; healthcare is no different.

The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations is a non-governmental organization to whom the government has essentially ceded regulatory power; they make sure patient records are handled properly, staff are properly credentialed, and safety procedures are followed. They also force hospitals to spend millions every year making sure staff personnel files aren’t arranged in a “discriminatory” manner and ensuring all employees know the hospital’s latest mission statement. I wish I was exaggerating.

Medicare also has its own rules about how things must be done. In my specialty, we are often forced to do things in an inefficient manner in order to get paid properly.

And there’s still OSHA, FDA, NRC…. That’s not to say all regulations are unnecessary, but they are a burden that has to be acknowledged. Man-hours are spent and materials purchased to comply with rules, and that costs money.

Insurance regulations
The cost of health insurance is also spiraling out of control. And here a significant part of the problem is – wait for it – government regulation.

Each state requires insurance companies operating in that state to cover specific medical conditions and treatments. In one state a company may be required to cover massage therapy, fertility treatments, and liposuction. They cannot offer you a policy that doesn't provide those services, and they will pass that cost on to the customer.

An example of why this matters: Many younger people are uninsured because they don’t have families and don’t want to (or can’t) spend the money on insurance. If insurers could legally offer these people a bare bones policy covering only preventative and catastrophic care, the policy would be much more affordable and these people wouldn’t be a burden on the system when they have a car wreck or get cancer.

Tort reform will be necesssary if we want to get healthcare costs under control.

One of the factors in the high cost of health insurance is the frequency with which doctors order every test under the sun. There are certainly doctors who do that for profit, but many do it out of fear.

One of the issues in the Terry Schiavo case was the $1 million her husband won in a lawsuit because her gynecologist didn’t detect the chemical imbalance that contributed to her condition. OB/Gyns don’t really check that, but you can bet her doctor will run a lot more tests from now on, and he will bill the insurance companies, and they will bill their customers.

Oh, and his liability insurance went up, and so he will need more money to pay for that. And so it goes.

All of these things and more contribute to the rising cost of our healthcare system.

Market Solutions vs Federal Fiat
If healthcare and insurance costs are racing out of control for a variety of complicated and interrelated reasons, how can we get this situation under control?

Conservatives prefer market-based solutions because we believe limited government is both Constitutional and prudent and the market will by nature try to control costs and please the customer. (Why doesn’t it please the customer now? It does; the customer is your employer, not you.)

Some market-based ideas that have been thrown out include making health insurance individual- instead of employer-based by changing the tax code, allowing individuals to purchase insurance across state lines (like employers can), and improving on health security accounts (HSAs) to encourage the customer to lower costs.

Employers purchase health insurance pre-tax; individuals cannot. Shifting the tax benefit to the individual would not harm those with employer-based insurance, and it would allow everyone else the same tax benefit. Changing from employer-based insurance makes the consumer aware of the cost of insurance thereby encouraging him to spend less and ask for less. This has the potential to encourage healthier lifestyles too.

Think about car insurance. People often avoid filing claims on small problems to avoid making their insurance rates go up. Also, people avoid purchasing products they don’t need to save money – for example, when my wife and I commuted together, our insurance didn’t cover rentals; we had a spare old car, so we didn’t need it. We saved money by identifying insurance we didn’t need. Make the consumer responsible for his own health insurance, and the same situation will occur.

Allowing people to buy insurance across state lines deals with the regulation problem mentioned above. It’s been suggested that all of the insurance companies will move to the state with the laxest regulations – the “Delaware” of health insurance. So? We’re talking about minimum coverage; if a market for more exists, it will be provided. Really, the notion is that the other states will start changing their laws to avoid losing these businesses. Since it costs 4 times more to buy insurance in NY than Connecticut, maybe NY would decide to back off their regulations to compete.

Once insurance is based on individuals who are more aware of the costs, people will also pay more attention to how much hospitals charge. Every test under the sun won’t be acceptable to people who don’t need it. Charging person A to pay for person B won’t be acceptable either. Hospitals will have to change how they do business; once the first one does it, the rest will have to follow or lose business.

If this all sounds pie-in-the-sky, remember that it’s been done before. Market forces were employed to our benefit in keeping costs in the new Medicare prescription drug program down. They were also used, if not in their purest sense, to develop drugs for B-list diseases in the Orphan Drug Act.

The alternative to a market-based solution is a government-based solution. Many people think this is the way to go, but given the astounding successes of Social Security and Medicare (both of which will soon be broke), the FDA, the TSA, and pretty much every federal program except the Army, I’m leery.

Why ask the people who broke the system – who created the excess regulations, who give too much responsibility to the FDA, who basically invented HMOs – to fix it? Their track record is just not that good.

When people try government patches to the present system, they usually come up with something like what happened in Massachusetts. What has been proposed lately depends on price caps and required insurance; the former will force everyone to be charged the same rates as a 60-year-old, and the latter, experts tell us, will very likely result in the destruction of the private insurance market entirely, creating a single-payer system. And like every other government program, it will cost more than expected.

Single Payer Systems
So what if it turns into a single-payer system? Can’t we make it work? Doesn’t it work well enough elsewhere?

The first question we should ask about a government healthcare system is who would run it. Are we going to entrust it to the FDA – the people who force drug companies to spend a billion dollars and years of testing to bring us fine products like Fen-Phen? Or perhaps it’ll be run by the folks who run the VA – the institution that treats our veterans with the best technology 1993 had to offer. Given the roaring success of the nearly-broke Medicare and Medicaid – where people can hardly find doctors at all – I’m not sure we want government-run healthcare.

The fundamental problem with our system is the out of control prices, and single-payer systems do nothing to stop that because, as we’ve found with Medicare et al, when something is free, people use a lot of it. Costs skyrocket.

Well, the response to the rise in costs is typically to restrict how much can be charged. When money dries up, research and development is generally hit hard. Our expensive healthcare system is the best in the world because companies have an incentive to develop new drugs, procedures, and technologies. Take that away and we become, well, Europe.

You see, for all we hear about the greatness of European socialized medicine, when someone gets really sick, they come here. But what will everyone do with if our system becomes like theirs? Right now the US has a better cancer survival rate than other countries (see Lancet Oncol 2008; 9: 730–56), do we want to go down their road?

Canada’s system, though a favorite among American liberals, has had problems with rationing and long waits. They send patients here, even though in Canada private insurance is illegal. Currently the wait to get a hip replacement is much shorter for a dog than for a human. That’s a system to emulate! Similar stories have come out of Great Britain, Turkey, and Poland. They don’t work, and no one likes them except American liberals.

At their worst, single-payer systems encourage struggling governments to start to regulate the behavior of citizens. Many might say they don’t see a problem with the government telling people to quit smoking or to eat right, but these things will get out of control. Go rent “Demolition Man” again; remember “salt is bad for you, thus it is illegal.” Let’s not tempt fate.

Did I say that was the worst? Oregon has gone one better – their health system, trying to control costs, refused a woman curative treatment but offered to pay for euthanasia. Is this the road we want to go down?

Is There a Place for Government?
As I said before, most conservatives have gotten comfortable with the notion of a government safety net. It is not optimal; the safety net should come from the community or the church, but there will probably always be something like Medicare for people who are extremely poor or uninsurable due to their health. But we want to have as few people in that program as possible – for everyone’s sake.

Next Time
We’ve looked at issues affecting the poor in America; next time we’re going global.

Recommended reading on the candidate's positions:
McCain Is the Real Health-Care Reformer
Obama and Health-Care Equity
McCain Is the Radical on Health Reform
The Obama Plan: More Regulation, Unsustainable Spending
False or Misleading in Every Particular

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Conservatives and the Least of These

Why Do They Do That? 3 – Poverty

We know the Bible commands us to take care of the poor, “the least of these,” and our neighbor. Moreover, Christians want to take care of them. Shouldn’t we, then, support efforts to create federal social programs to provide money and other necessities to the less fortunate?

No. For a variety of reasons.

Before getting into those reasons, though, let me state again that the issue is not whether to help the poor but how. Liberals and conservatives alike have plans they believe are best for the needy; somebody’s wrong. I hope to convince you that it is the liberal approach that is in error.

What’s Wrong with Cutting Them a Check?
Previously I argued that the Bible’s model for helping the poor is one that encourages and enables self-reliance and one that is mostly dependent on individual givers. We can see that the Bible teaches this for good reasons.

The first reason is the good of the recipient. First, human nature dislikes receiving charity. As Nietzsche put it, “Great indebtedness does not make men grateful, but vengeful; and if a little charity is not forgotten, it turns into a gnawing worm.” And then there are those who get used to it; it can create a cycle of dependency – either a person who doesn’t think he can get by on his own or, worse yet, one who doesn’t see any need to. Also, I think we can reasonably expect a difference between a gift from the anonymous government and from your friends and neighbors – the latter will carry more gratitude and sense of responsibility to the giver than the former.

The second reason is the good of the giver. Those who don’t believe the government should take care of the poor (i.e., conservatives) give about 4 times as much to charity as those who disagree (i.e., liberals). The problem here for believers is that we are not just called to care for the poor but also for the souls of the giver – if the giver gives unconsciously, even unwillingly, because he “gave at the office,” he loses out on the spiritual benefits of charity (not to mention the eternal benefits). Charity by proxy is not charity.

Limited Government Yet Again
The next problem with just cutting them a government check (federal at least) is that darned Constitution. It simply doesn’t permit federal funds to be spent on charity. The venerable James Madison said he couldn’t “lay his finger on that article in the Federal Constitution which granted a right of Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” If you don’t like this, the Constitution needs to be changed, not ignored.

Poor Lottery Winners
Next, simple lack of money is not the only reason many people are poor. It’s been said that if we divided up all the money in the country evenly, in a few years there would again be rich and poor. Our experience with lottery winners seems to support that – one estimate is that a third of lottery winners later file bankruptcy. Simply handing poor people money does not solve their problems, and handing them money without addressing the other problems wastes the money and probably exacerbates the other problems.

Welfare Reformed
The final argument against simply cutting poor people a check is that is hasn’t worked. Trillions of dollars have been spent on Great Society programs, and the poverty rate remained relatively constant. Liberals often explain this as our not having spent enough money, but they have yet to tell us how much would be enough or what changes would make welfare programs work.

Well, what worked were the reforms of the 90s that both encouraged and required welfare recipients to work. While the programs haven’t been perfect, they have not, as Sen. Obama recently admitted to Rick Warren, turned millions out on the streets. Instead, the welfare rolls finally started to shrink. The cure for poverty is not money but jobs.

The Government’s Role
The formula for wealth can be described as money + connections + opportunity + luck. The only component government really should provide is opportunity.

We’ve already discussed at length the notion that the government can stimulate the economy and encourage job creation through tax policy. Low taxes are more likely to create an environment in which people who want jobs can find them. High taxes – whether they’re levied to support welfare policies or not – deter economic growth and make it harder to find jobs.

“We’ve tried this, and it didn’t work,” say certain segments of the media and certain politicians.

Wrong: “the lowest income quintile saw a roughly 25% increase in their living standards from 1983 to 2005” as opposed to “centralized, tax-funded programs… [that slow] down the economy and encourages dependence. This was the lesson of President Johnson's ‘War on Poverty.’ Poverty won.”

Regulating Regulation
Another tool government has in its kit is regulation. Regulation is understandably a hot topic in recent days, but suffice it to say most reasonable people understand that a certain amount of regulation is necessary. In many areas, though, the existing amount is more than necessary.

Consider the case of a woman who has no real skills except African hair braiding. She can start up a little business doing hair and make a little money that she can use to feed her family and maybe make enough to expand her business or get an education and expand her skill set. The only problem comes when she’s not allowed to open up her little braiding business because state law requires a license to braid hair. Regulation, though necessary at times, can be a protection racket – creating barriers for entry in a field to keep competition as low and salaries as high as possible.

Some years ago a group tried to set up new businesses in India, Hong Kong, and New York City; time to get the necessary permits was compared. In India, it took a few hours; in Hong Kong, it took about a day; in New York, it took weeks. Care to rank the economic growth in those areas?

We’re always going to be in search of the proper level of regulation, but the answer is going to be less, not more.

Minimum Wages
What about the minimum wage? This is another place where conservatives are often maligned. It is not that we oppose helping people. It’s that we 1) don’t think government should command wages and 2) we don’t think raising the minimum wage does enough good to outweigh the harm – such as increasing costs across society and making unskilled laborers too expensive to be attractive. In short, the minimum wage doesn’t help poor people.

A Safety Net
We all know, and generally agree with, the maxim that it’s better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish. So why would we set up a charity system to hand out fish?

You say, “Yeah, but it can keep them from starving to death right now!” It certainly can, and few conservatives oppose the notion of a safety net, but the problem is having a governmental (especially federal) safety net. This is where the community and the church should pick up the slack.

We can feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked. There may be times when giving people cash is a good idea, though usually not. But the community should do this, not the government. (No one thinks we will, or even should, dismantle the existing federal net, but it certainly doesn’t need to be expanded.)

There are other things the community can do as well. We can help un- and under-skilled workers get new training – be it through new centers or just new uses of things like community colleges. We can create low or no cost day cares for low-income families. We can create job banks and referral programs from which employers who want to reach out to the poor can draw. Some churches already do these things; we need to do it more.

We shouldn’t be afraid to help the hungry, and we shouldn’t be afraid to try anything that can help the poor find good jobs, but we should be very leery of asking government to pay for it.

We want to help the needy, but in our desire to help the poor we need to make sure we actually help the poor. Intentions aren’t enough; we have to think through the various proposals and support those that can really lift people out of poverty.

Liberal programs based on government transfer payments – welfare – fail that test.

Next time we’ll look at the other big issue pressing on the minds of both the poor and the compassionate: health care reform.

Recommended reading:
The Liberal Temptation
What Do Evangelicals Want? 1
What Do Evangelicals Want? 3

Friday, October 3, 2008

Priestly Slaves

Reflections on Leviticus

Lev 22 describes the correct handling of those sacrifices in which the priest gets a share. It has rules for who, how, and when it can be eaten.

Verses 10-11 strike me as interesting. No one outside of the priestly families can take part. The holiest man in Israel cannot eat this food. But the lowest slave can.

Those who have been bought with a price have a share in the priest’s things.

We have been bought with a price, and we now have a share in our great Priest’s things.

We once were slaves to sin, but now we are slaves to righteousness. And though we are rightfully called slaves – even if we are slaves by choice – God has also raised us up to be called sons and daughters.

Now we who were called "not my people" are not only His people but His family, "heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ."
"Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!