As I enter week 5 of working from home, our nation is walking through its 2nd month – and the world is wrapping up its 3rd month – dealing with SARS-CoV-2 (AKA “novel coronavirus 2019,” the virus behind COVID-19). Responses to this virus are testing Americans’ worldviews like nothing else in our current lifetime. Things are moving fast, and scientists and doctors are learning how to fight a new disease on-the-fly, while the fatality rate continues to creep up, and is at 3%+ as of this writing. Authoring a definitive tome on the entire thing is outside my abilities (and time constraints), but I thought I would write about some individual aspects, and consider how each one meshes with my understanding of a proper Christian worldview.
This first one came to my mind as I wondered “what form of government is best at handling this?” As I’ve read about various efforts at prevention and management from around the world, the answer to which I arrived was “none of them.” To be fair, some countries have fared better than others; but, to also be fair, comparing countries is a pretty terrible way to understand this pandemic. Communist countries, socialist nations, democracies, and republics have all fallen victim to this disease, especially in their larger population centers. No nation has been able to prevent the initial spread of this virus into their borders.
This does not match the expectations many people are levying on those governments. The clamoring has been loud and long for tests and treatments, and many of these people seem to think that government can just have these things at the ready, long before a need for them arises. They have a view of government and science that simply does not jibe with reality. When doctors make harmless mistakes, or miss a diagnosis that they eventually catch, we sometimes joke that “that’s why it’s called medical practice.” But, in reality, that is exactly why the term exists. To be sure, there is established science and a body of medical knowledge that, were its practitioners to ignore, they would be considered negligent. However, there is always the possibility that a doctor is encountering something that is either unknown, or presenting differently than current wisdom or protocols suggest.
Even if the medical care was there, though, the Federal government is wholly inept at doing anything, on a large scale, quickly and correctly. This is not a knock on it per se, and deeper discussions of government, both good and bad, will appear in future installments. The biggest reason for this broad statement is simply its size; it is nearly impossible to get a large organization to do anything quickly, much less something as large as a national response to this crisis. Think of the RMS Titanic - there is a reason they couldn’t avoid the iceberg, even though they spotted it before they struck it.
So, how does the Christian worldview address this? Quite simply - “duh!” Of course we are not in control. This world is fallen, cursed with sin, and subject to all manners of calamities.* Job experienced a lot of calamities, and asked God a lot of questions. When God came to answer him, though, He asserted His sovereignty over this entire planet:
1 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
2 "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
4 "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
8 “Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb, 9 when I made clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10 and prescribed limits for it
and set bars and doors, 11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?”
We trust that God is continuing to work His will on this earth, whether through a pandemic or in spite of it; and, we also trust that He is big enough to protect us through it, and give us wisdom as we navigate these changing times. We also give thanks that God’s size does not affect Him the way it does our human institutions.
* As I finish writing this, I’ve learned that my high school alma mater was devastated by a tornado overnight; be praying for Grace Baptist Church and Academy, and all of those throughout the southeast who lost something much more precious than a building.
A friend posted this picture earlier today, and combined with another headline I read, really got me thinking. A good portion of this started out as a comment under that picture, but then I thought “Why should Facebook get these thoughts for free?”
One of the arguments against large corporations is that they are unjust; and, as much as those of us who recognize them as the energy driving the gears of our economy, they have proved by their actions that they need checks and balances to prevent that very thing. The key, of course, is to strike the right balance where growth is not hindered, but abuse is prevented.
Now, consider the pharmaceutical industry. The desire to produce medicines to help people live fuller lives is a good thing, but this picture (and the society it accurately represents) proves that they are no more immune to self-serving actions as the oft-termed “evil” coporations that produce food, consumable goods, technology, etc.
How about higher education? I don’t think anyone reading this ever heard, going through high school, “You know, when you finish here, you should go ahead and get a job, and be productive.” No, we all heard “Graduation is just the beginning; you need a 4-year degree before you’re really ready! Because it’s so important, we’ll outright give you some money, and lend you the rest; don’t worry, this will be easy to pay off once you’re out there making six figures!” Yet, who is benefiting from our current under-30 sea of student loan debt? Colleges and banks, that’s who. Meanwhile, students are finding no job market for their degrees. Were they sold a useless product?
The point is that, in each of these cases, the original thought was a good one. This product will make people’s lives better. This pill will take away pain. This knowledge will give you a leg up in the world. Then, bit by bit, that germ of an idea grows, until you end up with something large and successful, which leads to an increasingly self-serving outlook. It’s the old “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” thing in real life.
The key to this is character in those who gain this notoriety. However, we cannot control others. In our fallen state, the one thing we can control is our reaction. Do we really need that product? Have these degrees really lead to higher incomes? Do these drugs’ claims make sense? “Buyer beware” is always good advice. If more people took it, maybe the market for the speculative advertising that has launched these areas into such heights would dry up, and they would have to start being more honest about what they can really provide.
One final note - government is no more immune to this than education, medicine, or corporations.
To my friends blaming the Democrats for the shutdown - you’re right. To my friends blaming the Republicans for the shutdown - you’re right. We should not still be operating on a 5-year series of continuing resolutions; all this does is prove that we earned our credit downgrade.
Both sides were elected, and virulent dissent is not incompatible with our system of government; both sides have their talking points down pretty well. It truly is a shame that arguing these back and forth is what passes for debate. It certainly doesn’t inspire much confidence for the future.
In a way, though, this just reflects our society. Schools don’t teach reasoning and logic, they are simple regurgitation centers. Instead of encouraging debate and outside-the-box thinking, the only questions allowed are those that question the institutions and traditions on which our country is founded. We allowed people to say “Freedom from religion is the same as freedom of religion” without saying back “Uh, no, it’s not; prepositions have definite meanings and were selected based on those definitions.”
IMO, this was the beginning of the intellectual weakness that is now writ large on our society. The pseudo-intellectuals use derision and contempt as their go-to weapons when they do not want to deal with opposing viewpoints. In that way, the last week in Washington has been merely a mirror to show us how ugly we’ve become.
The only thing Idiocracy missed was how long it will take us to get there.
Sequestration made the news earlier this year, when our elected officials failed to meet the obligations for which they campaigned for the right to perform. (That description should let you know how I feel about that.) One of the ways the Department of Defense (among others) chose to enact the required budget savings was through a furlough of civilian employees. The initial announcement was for 22 days, but with some further budgeting, it looks like 11 days will be the final tally.
I want to look at that number 22. Why 22? Well, 22 days is the maximum number of days a Federal employee may be furloughed in a calendar year. Why is that? Part of it is a law protecting employees, though you have to wonder what sort of protection losing 20% of your pay for a third of a year really is; at best, though, it is a restriction on a government that would likely try even more if given the chance. But why 22? As it turns out, in all but a very few states, this is just under the minimum time an employee could be laid off before they would qualify for unemployment compensation. So, this law lets the government avoid saving money in one pot, only to have to spend it out of another. Unemployment compensation is typically paid by the states, so this also keeps the Federal government from imposing on the states.
Sounds like a good deal, right? Well, if you’re the Federal government, it certainly is. They get to exercise a little-known loophole in the employment contract of their employees, while leaving the employees no recourse (apart from finding employment during their furloughed time) to make up that lost income.
Is it any wonder that part-time work has exploded under the Affordable Care Act? Business is simply following the government’s lead, exploiting the loopholes in the law to allow the government to say “Look at all this wonderful health care we provided!”, while the businesses say “We are fully compliant with this law!”, leaving the employees to think that they must be blind, because they surely don’t see it. I feel for those trying to get a start in this economy; our leadership has certainly eliminated a lot of the opportunities from which they benefited.
Whether this is right is a discussion left for another time; it is as I have described it above. Personally, I believe that laws should be written simply, unambiguously, and with a clear indication of behavior that is considered compliant. Both the government and business are complying with current law.
Keep this in mind the next time someone casts aspersions on businesses for hiring part-time help, and wishes the oh-so-altruistic government would force them to increase hours or hire more employees. That government is the one that passed the law with those provisions in it. You are getting the change for which you voted twice; ironically, mostly courtesy of a legislative body that hasn’t changed much in 30 years. There is a way to bring about some meaningful change, though; I wonder if enough people know how, and have the guts to do it.
The government gets it; businesses get it; do you get it?
I enjoy economics. I’ve enjoyed studying theory, debating with others, and when I had to choose an elective for my degree a few years ago, my economics class was among my favorites. I also enjoy how sound economic policy squares with my world and political views; it’s quite the harmonious union. The run-up to the presidential election every four years, though, is a painful time for those of us who have looked at the numbers and believe that the free market gives the best possible outcome. There are always the fringe or down-ballot candidates, like Fauxcahontas of the North, who are way out in left field. Over this past weekend, though, this lunacy came out right at the top of the ticket.
The transcript for the video clip is below; if you want to watch it for yourself, you can see it in this article. (I tried to embed it, but I couldn’t make it look right.)
We created a lot of millionaires; and, you know, there a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me - "cause they want to give something back. They know they didn’t… If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, “Wow, it must be because I was just so smart.” There are a lot of smart people out there. “It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.” Let me tell you something - there are a whole bunch of hard-workin’ people out there.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested roads and bridges - if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own; government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
Let’s get the “you didn’t build that” thing out of the way up front. There is a case to be made that the “that” refers to the roads and bridges, not to the business that was build. Neither reading of it changes what I believe is the real issue with these words, though if “that” is the business, it only confirms my analysis. And, although it is tempting to go to snark with this (“We created a lot of millionaires.” Yeah, but you started with billionaires!), that won’t be productive; I’ll try to keep that to a minimum.
We will start with the millionaire line, though. Who is the royal “we” he is talking about? His administration? America? From his other speeches, and the context later in this one, he is likely referring to the government. So, the government created millionaires? If we take that at face value, and your net worth is less than a million dollars, why didn’t the government pick you to be a millionaire? This illustrates the lack of substance in that statement. America, as a nation, has seen many people attain a net worth of one million dollars or more; but, to say she created it is a different thing altogether. It was definitely not the government who created them!
But, this flows into the point of the speech. American government, by creating roads and bridges, maintaining an educational system, and developing technology, created the environment in which such success could occur. On this point, I agree. Building out infrastructure led to expansion of our nation, and as families are spread across the nation, and commerce is transacted around the globe, infrastructure needs to be maintained and upgraded. Where the government has a vested interest in that infrastructure, they should be involved at the appropriate level.
Where this goes astray is the next logical step people like our 44th President want to take from that. The next step - well, it’s right there in his speech, that horrid phrase “give back.” (I’ve written about that before, though I don’t think I’ve dedicated an entire post to it. Great, another post for the draft pile.) Implicit in that phrase is that the entity that should “give back” did not earn or deserve what they have acquired, or that they got it for free. That’s not the way businesses work (which he would know had he ever… aw, darn, that snark is hard to hold back). Business owners:
Have an idea for a product or service for which they believe they can convince people to trade some of their money
Put in the work to develop the product or train people to provide the service
Develop a plan to provide that product or service
Secure the necessary infrastructure to run the business (physical, accounting, legal, etc.)
Risk a great deal of their or their investor’s money or, in some cases, their homes and cars, in the process
Now, if we look at that list, it backs up the “you didn’t get there by yourself” line. Who all do we see in that list above? Employees, designers, architects, lawyers, accountants, human resources, communications, logistics, and investors would be a quick list. These are the people who “gave you some help.” But, did they give you the help? Very few people involved gave their help. The materials were not given, they were purchased; employees did not volunteer, they were paid; communications and logistics didn’t “spot” the business free service, they charged this business their going rate for those services.
No, I am not picking at words - this phrase was chosen precisely because of its meaning. If a business owner does all of the above, and ends up with less than $250,000, they won’t raise the liberal’s ire. However, if they end up with $10M, they must have ripped off someone to get that, so we get this “give back” nonsense. Never mind that they contracted with each employee or service provider for a price agreeable to them, and they contracted with their customer to provide the good or service at a price that was agreeable to them. Never mind, too, that they were the last to get paid; before they saw any money, they took care of the government (taxes), then employees (payroll), then contracted costs (business-to-business, professional support, etc.), and then maintaining inventory/training (keeping the business sustainable).
“But what about teachers? Don’t they count?” Well, what about them? They contracted with the government or a private institution to teach for a given amount of money. Teachers don’t work for free either; just because their paycheck comes from the government doesn’t make their efforts any more or less valuable.
At various points in my educational career, I had to study different companies. I also worked to type others’ research papers at one point, and got to see a lot more interesting things about many different companies. Nearly all large companies have benefits like continuing education or charitable contributions (including skimming off the top for United Way). They offer matching retirement account contributions. They sponsor volunteer events in the community. When you look at the owners of these companies, you find contributions to charities, churches, and foundations. If that isn’t “giving back,” what is it? (As an aside, I much prefer the phrase “pass it on;” it’s a conduit, not the Dead Sea.)
It is class warfare. By definition, the middle class is in the middle. They are employees, not owners. They get a paycheck. They volunteer at their school, their church, or other civic organizations. They go on vacations every so often, and they have fun playing with their kids. They are not being ripped off; they are living a comfortable life (particularly when contrasted with the rest of the world) because of the fruits of their labor. But, to hear this speech, you’d think our country was filled with a bunch of greedy, evil business owners, ripping off the public to accumulate great wealth to their own exclusive use. (Yes, there have been those, and they have rightly come to legal, and sometimes even physical, consequences. The presence of abusers does not nullify the principle.)
Sure, there are a lot of hard-working people; not nearly as many as there used to be, but they are there. However, if you work really hard at an unsuccessful venture, you are not going to be more successful; you may delay the failure of the effort, but it will come around. No one on the right is saying that people aren’t working hard; it is the left who are saying that those who are successful did not.
Now, let’s take a look at that famous line - “you didn’t build that.” If the “that” is the business - well, I think the above pretty much covers that. If the “that” is the roads and bridges, though, then yes, he’s probably right. However, did the bridge cause the business owner to succeed? If so, then what about the guy living under the bridge - did the bridge cause him to fail? If the bridge has some magical economic power, we must recognize that its power affects different people in different ways. Government is no less infallible than business (in fact, it’s usually more fallibl… sit down, snark boy); if government is to be credited with all these “millionaires we created,” it must be blamed for those below the poverty line. The only time it’s blamed for that is when there’s a Republican in the White House, though.
The Internet - ah yes, that powerful conduit that enables greater middle-class rip-offs than ever before. The Internet was developed by DARPA. Care to venture a guess as to what the D in that acronym stands for? Defense. Yes, the Internet grew out of a defense research project. Just as NASA isn’t all about space, defense isn’t just about guns and bombs. The very department that Obama wants to gut is the one that gave us the Internet. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
So - if you built a business, you didn’t build it on your own; but, that doesn’t mean you ripped off those who helped you build it. Rather, your building of a business created a better life for those helped you build it. Maybe our next president will understand that; hopefully it won’t take him 4 years to get here.
This past weekend during Sunday School, we briefly discussed the raid of the polygamist compound in Texas. During this discussion, one very good point was raised - those handling this situation need wisdom. Previously decided cases hold a lot of weight in the judicial realm, and while, by all accounts, what was going on at that ranch was illegal and immoral, they are claiming it is part of their religion. It is good that those people have been stopped - however, what is to stop the government from deciding that something most mainstream churches do is illegal?
That led the discussion to this story about a photographer in Albuquerque, New Mexico who refused to photograph a “commitment ceremony” between two people of the same gender. There are lots of ironies in this story, and I would expect that this decision would be quickly vacated / overturned / made null. Can you really legally force someone to photograph an event that’s illegal by nature? However, if it stands, there are much more troubling questions, some of which we have already seen. In California, a Catholic-run hospital was sued for refusing to perform gender reassignment surgery, and the state has sued the US government over a provision that strips Federal funds from states that force medical practitioners to perform or refer abortions.
During the course of the discussion, I took the (somewhat unpopular) opinion that a business should have the right to refuse service to whomever the business owner wanted. (I also did that a bit strongly at one point - if you’re reading this, sorry about that.) Someone asked “What if they say they’re not going to serve Jews?” My reply was that, if that was their stance, the word would get out, and those who found that abhorrent would also not patronize them, and they would go out of business. (And yes, I think I did actually use the word “abhorrent” in class… heh…) In further discussions with other people, including my wife, my position continued to be unpopular. I heard things like “What about people in the South not serving blacks?” and “I just think discrimination is wrong.”
I still cannot see the government requiring a private business to serve, sell, or perform any good, service, or person that the owner does not want. Why should I invest my money and time in an enterprise if the government is going to come and mandate to me how I do it? However, by the same token, I also feel that racial discrimination is bad. However, for anyone to say, unqualified, that “discrimination” is wrong simply doesn’t realize how much discrimination occurs on a day-to-day basis.
Let’s imagine I’m a photographer. I don’t like trying to get kids posed for a picture, so I create a policy of no more than one child per pose. That’s discrimination - I am discriminating against large families (though not completely - they’re just not going to get an entire family portrait from me). Maybe I don’t want to photograph some people because I feel they’re unattractive - do “Uglo-Americans” have a right to have me photograph them? Maybe I’m a really popular photographer, and I can’t be in two places at once. I’ll have to be discriminating in how I set up my schedule. There simply isn’t a scenario that convinces me that the government has an overriding interest in forcing me to photograph someone I don’t want to. The “right to photography” is nowhere in the Constitution.
Now - let’s put the brakes on that and look at the government. While I believe that a business owner has the right to discriminate pretty much however he or she feels like, I also just as strongly believe that the government should not be in the discrimination business. Equal protection under the law should be just that - equal. Firefighters should (and do) respond just as quickly to fires in desirable neighborhoods as they do to fires in undesirable neighborhoods. Everyone should (and does) have access to their legislators, and the right to vote for the ones they think will best represent them. Everyone should have access to government-run educational facilities, with the same requirements for everyone. (OK, we need to work on that last one…) The bottom line is, government should not discriminate on anything other than merit and scarcity (i.e., we can’t give everyone $1k if we don’t have it).
But, in reality, this isn’t the way it is; I alluded to it above regarding education. When the government starts trying to play identity games, “level the playing field,” or any other sort of tinkering, they invariably get it wrong. According to the NM government, this photographer “violated human rights” by refusing to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony. Would the pastors of my church be guilty of the same if they refused to officiate one? In finding this photographer guilty of discrimination, the state is, in effect, discriminating against her free exercise of religion. (See? Every choice is discrimination!) This is the danger of giving the government the power to decide what’s “good” discrimination versus what’s “bad” discrimination.
The solution? From my view, I believe that there are very powerful forces at work in the economic marketplace. Eliminating “Jim Crow” laws was a good thing - they were a violation of the equal protection clause. Forcing state-run universities to integrate was a good thing - again, equal access to government resources. Forcing businesses to cater to those to whom they do not wish to cater? That’s bad. Sure, I believe that businesses shouldn’t discriminate based on race - but is it the government’s place to tell them they can’t? Some people think that discrimination based on gender is wrong; in fact, a few years back, there was a big kerfuffle over Augusta National not allowing women to become members. How many of those people would advocate my joining Curves? It’s all perspective, and because one person’s perspective may be different than another’s, the government should stay out of it.
To me, this is a heart thing. Sure, you can pass a law and make people comply, but all you’ve done is made people upset by forcing them to do something that they didn’t want to do. I believe in giving people enough rope so that they can hang themselves (figuratively speaking, of course) - if someone wants to open a racially-discriminatory business, that’s their own stupidity in eliminating a big chunk of their potential customer base. If someone wants to open the “No Purple Pants Club” and refuse to admit anyone wearing purple pants - well, it’s their money and time they’re pouring into the business. And, if someone wants to refuse to provide their goods and services to those they find morally reprehensible, more power to 'em.
In each of these cases, one of two things will happen. One, they may flourish as a business, which will prove there was a market for their goods and services, even without the people they excluded. Two, they will fail, and learn via the “school of hard knocks” that they shouldn’t restrict their pool of potential customers. Either way, the business owner gets out of his business exactly what he put into it, and I really don’t have a problem with that.