Monday, January 31, 2005

Social Gospel and Basic Economics

Very quick thought, 'cause I'm out the door.

We don't often find ourselves in agreement with the most traditional forms of economic theory. But I was thinking this morning that our theology and basic economic theory may actually have something in common where I thought we diverged the most.

For the economist, "efficiency" is the touchstone. Often the only touchstone. Efficiency is fancy way of saying maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. With efficiency as the be-all, end-all, traditional economists ignore what they call mere "distributional effects." That is, for the traditional economist, total wealth is what matters, not who gets that wealth. This point often infuriates me, as my law and economics professors often dismiss points I make about the "distribution" of benefits among rich and poor on this ground.

But maybe I'm missing at least a little common ground here. One of the "distributional effects" most often "ignored" by economists is whether the economic good goes to ME or to SOMEBODY ELSE. Isn't this something like what we're trying to get people to do when they love their neighbor as themselves? That is, both Social Gospel adherants and traditional economists should be in agreement that someone else finding a $10 bill on the street should be just as good as my finding the $10 bill. If I love my neighbor as myself, her good is my good. I ignore the "distributional effect," that is, whether it goes to her or me.

The big difference, really, in OUTCOME is the special solicitude we accord to the "least of these" in paying strict attention to "distributional effects" in such situations. Of course, secular economists also derive their conclusions from different premises. Ours are faith-based, theirs based on pure secular reasoning. But maybe our conclusions are not quite as polar opposites as I thought.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

On Social Security, Part 5

The day of reckoning has come. And I'm not talking about the Iraqi elections. (In case you haven't figured it out yet, the authors of this blog are comparatively ignorant of foreign policy and will, thus, take longer to digest what is happening today than your average blogger.)

I mean that now I must answer, if I can, our biggest fan (in terms of actually reading our blog) and critic (in terms of carefully assessing our ideas) with respect to social security. For those who are just tuning in, all of this relates to my suggestion that we means test social security and my agreement to answer any objections to my proposal in the hopes of spurring a social security conversation within the Christian community.

DLW writes:

[Social Security's] justification has purportedly been that many of us are naturally bad savers and can benefit from the economies of scale and security provided by the US gov't. I think these are valid justifications for its existence.

I'm not sure that I understand what it means for us to be "naturally bad savers, but I'm going to try to speculate at exactly what you mean.

First, maybe you mean that people tend to favor immediate consumption over savings because they have difficulty defering gratification. If so, I think that this is best solved - not by forced savings - but by massaging people's incentives in other ways. It's best solved this way because it is less coercive and people therefore resent it less. (I know younger workers resent payroll taxes being withheld for example.) And in fact, we already "massage" people's incentives to make their preference for immediate consumption over savings less severe. (1) The much lower "capital gains" tax rate (which is less than half of the normal tax rate and generally applies to money made when people save for any purpose), (2) retirement accounts like 401(k) which exempt from taxation money people save for retirement, and (3) the "stepped-up basis" tax rules which exempt from taxation forever the previously untaxed gain from property people acquire in a will, are just a few examples of the many, many rules which encourage people to save and tend to mitigate the problem of us being "naturally bad savers."

But perhaps more importantly, those that have a lot of money and who would fail my means test have proven that they are not "naturally bad savers."

This aspect of the naturally bad savers point, I take it, relates back to the "security" point that you made about what the government can do. Well, my means-tested program still provides that security. If people turn out after-the-fact to have been naturally bad savers or (more likely) simply unable to save because they lived paycheck-to-paycheck, then they are covered by the program.

Second, maybe naturally bad savers means that it is too expensive and too much of a hassle for individual people to find out how to invest, where to invest, and what specifically to invest in. Understanding the stock market and hiring a broker are both annoying and costly. (As an economist might put it, individuals have too high "transaction costs"). I take this to be related to the "economies of scale" point about the government programs. My response here is that there are private entities that risen into prominence since the 1930s, such as pension funds and mutual funds, which serve to lower the expense and hassle associated with savings and make individuals better savers.

Thus, for me the individuals-are-bad-savers argument is not a sufficient justification for social security especially in the face of a budget crisis.

DLW writes:

for the purpose of income redistribution and poverty-reduction, we can just implement the Basic Income Guarantee program I mentioned before. That would maintain the incomes of the elderly and permit them to work part-time if they so desire. And, notably, it would effect inter-class transfers in, perhaps, a more even-handed manner.

First, this is absolutely politically infeasible. I believe that, within the next few years, my proposal will become feasible.

Second, insofar as we add an income guarantee on top of social security as it presently exists, we dramatically exacerbate the budget problems which I have pointed out are very serious and, indeed, very serious for "the least of these." In my opinion, "there ain't room enough in this town" for both social security as it presently exists and a basic income guarantee. If we can save money on social security by means testing it, then we might have the financial ability to implement an income guarantee.

DLW writes:

I have problems with turning a forced-savings program into a redistributive program in an ex post manner. Those that paid into social security, expecting to get the money back eventually, should get it back, regardless of their income and savings.

Insofar as people's "expecting" to get their money back represents simple feelings of entitlement, I've already indicated below that I think feelings of entitlement should not be accorded much respect and are not a sound basis for public policy.

Your idea of people's "expecting" to get their money back may mean that they, in the words of Contracts Law, "reasonably relied to their detriment" on the fact that social security payments would be available. This objection also may be countered. First, people rely on government programs that get changed all the time. People make long-term financial plans based on the tax code, and we change it every year. If your sense that we should defer to people's expectations about government programs was applied more broadly, complete stagnation in government policy would result.

Second, even if you don't accept the point I made above, there is another issue. A very wealthy individual who has "relied" on social security payments being there and who would be denied those payments under means testing hasn't suffered any real damage. She saved anyway despite the expectation that social security would be there. If someone did rely on the payments being there and not save, then they would "pass" the means test and have the payments available. Maybe the wealthy person would feel psychologically cheated in some way. But in the face of true, physical human suffering and limited resources, is this a good justification for an expenditure?

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Re: Social Security

More misrepresentation from the Bush Administration concerning social security. Frustrating because it always takes more effort to unravel a lie than to tell it.

Chertoff and Torture

Can't Bush appoint anyone to positions of high importance that doesn't approve of the use of terror?

We've known about incoming Attorney General Gonzalez's problems in this regard. Now we're learning more. This from Saturday's New York Times:

Michael Chertoff, who has been picked by President Bush to be the homeland security secretary, advised the Central Intelligence Agency on the legality of coercive interrogation methods on terror suspects under the federal anti-torture statute, current and former administration officials said this week.

At this point, there has got to be a reasonable inference that Bush is appointing these people in part because of the fact rather than in spite of the fact that they hold relativistic views on torture. President Bush: where are the clear lines between good and evil you are so fond of drawing here?

The Social Gospel and the Environment

Read this: a speech by Bill Moyers, accepting Harvard Medical School's annual Global Environment Citizen Award.

The speech discusses Moyers' fear that those who believe in the infallibility of the bible are more than willing - if not actively trying - to exploit and destroy the environment in order to hasten the second coming of Christ. It is a chilling thought.
Remember James Watt, President Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior? My favorite online environmental journal, the ever engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, 'after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.'
Given our commentaries about how the bible has been - and continues to be - used to promote incredibly selfish policy objectives, I am not surprised.

But after first scaring us about our future and that of our children, Moyers grabs us by the heartstrings with an impassioned call to action:
The news is not good these days. I can tell you, though, that as a journalist, I know the news is never the end of the story. The news can be the truth that sets us free - not only to feel but to fight for the future we want. And the will to fight is the antidote to despair, the cure for cynicism, and the answer to those faces looking back at me from those photographs on my desk. What we need to match the science of human health is what the ancient Israelites called 'hocma' - the science of the heart…..the capacity to see….to feel….and then to act…as if the future depended on you.

Believe me, it does.
You da man, Bill. Keep fightin the good (Social Gospel) fight. The battle is a long one, but knowing that your buddies are next to you on the front line gives us frail humans all the hope we need.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Interpreting Matthew 25: 31-45

I'd like to devote some space today to trying to define a critical term in Jesus' message.

No, this is not a renege on my promise to keep answering objections to and fleshing out my thoughts on Social Security. (I promise, DLW, I will respond to your thoughts soon.) This is just in the way of "breaking things up" and keeping it interesting.

Now, as we've made clear, we think Jesus' moral message (entire message?) boils down to two fundamentals (what a loaded word): (1) loving our neighbors as ourselves and (2) a "preferential option" (as they say in Liberation Theology) for "the least of these." Deciding exactly what these things mean and trying to live them out is life's greatest challenge and highest purpose.

Today I want to start a conversation about just one "term" in Jesus' message. Who are "the least of these" towards whom we are supposed to give special attention in our acts of love?

Some will object that this is obvious. Jesus tells us explicitly! In the verse cited in the title to this post, Jesus talks about the economically poor (specifically the "hungry," the "thirsty," and the "naked"). He also speaks of the "stranger," the "sick" and those "in prison" as "the least of these." Can't it just be that simple. Well, I'm a lawyer, and so I can assure you that it won't be that simple. In fact, I think the issues here are so important and difficult that I would rather hear others' opinions than try to "preach" my own tentative positions. So help me out and comment!

So, who are "the least of these"?

(1) Assuming we can decide who fits into the particular categories of people Jesus mentions in Matthew 25: 31-45, does this exclusively define "the least of these"? For example, if small children are not economically poor, strangers, etc. could they still be considered one of "the least of these"? Or is this a wrong interpretation of the verse just because Jesus doesn't mention them specifically. (The 0ther questions below assume, by the way, that the enumeration is not meant to be exclusive.)

(2) Is "least" to be understood holistically or characteristic-by-characteristic? For example, would a very wealthy person, with an otherwise comfortable life, who suffered from a serious physical disability qualify as one of "the least of these"? (Note that an answer of "no" to this question would not mean that this individual would not be entitled to love. It would just mean that she would not be entitled to the special attention, the "above and beyond," that Jesus contemplates in Matthew 25.)

(3) Is "the least of these" defined only individually or can it be understood collectively? To put it more concretely, if we decide that African-Americans, due to racial subordination, are often members of "the least of these," do I fulfill some obligation to "the least of these" if I help an upper-class African-American? Note that this question is intimately related to an issue of Constitutional Law that has fiercly divided judges and scholars for over a generation. For those interested in this related issue see this link.

I have other questions about the definition too, but I think this is enough for now. I've been thinking about these things (at least the last two) for months and haven't been able to come to a conclusion.


PS: I understand - given that we've written what are arguably invectives against excessive, hand-wringing Biblical interpretation - that it is ironic that we've engaged in what looks like textual exegesis. My response is twofold. One, our positions are always tentative because we're not perfect (or quite as smart as we think we are). Also, we're devoting so much attention to these words not because there in the Bible but because Jesus said them. See this post for the meaning and importance of that distinction.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

A confession

I really liked my sidekick's "confession" piece, and have unilaterally decided that such confessions will become a regular post on this blog. Not only will it help "the blogosphere" understand our sense of morality, but hopefully it will challenge our readers' conception of morality as well.

Confession: A woman on the street working for Children International stopped me on the street today (and their workers have done with some frequency). She asked me if she could have a minute of my time, to which I responded "I've spoken with y'all before." She then said, "Oh, did you sponsor a child?" As I was walking away, with the walls falling in on myself, I mumbled to her "yeah." She then asked me what country the child was in, to which I responded "I forget - it has been a couple of years."

Confession: I've never donated money to a child in a foreign country through Children International. Though it won't change my subconscious reaction to this woman's question (the part that really saddens me), tonight I fully intend to change that. Maybe you can too.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

On Social Security, Part 4

Now that I'm done with my Tax Exam - hopefully spiritually as well as academically - it's time for more discussion of social security.

I'm very excited to report that I've gotten some dissent, some very thoughtful comments that is, on "my" social security proposal. Consequently, instead of answering my hypothetical "discouraging savings" objection just yet (which no one has yet raised but me), I'm going to attempt an answer to our readers' objections. My hope is that this is turning into a part of an extended "conversation" on social security within the Christian community - which would be a great thing right now. At the very least, it looks like this "series" on Social Security and Christianity on our blog will continue for some time now. Hope no one is getting bored. (If so, let me know.) Here's one comment I got on my last social security post:

Anonymous writes:

If you let them means test it they'll set the test way too low. Social Security should enable a decent retirement for all at well above the poverty level.We are already far from that. We will go further, still, if we give them this opportunity to trim it back. Meanwhile, plenty of money to conquer Islam to save the world, eh?
Several points in relation to this:

(1) As to the "test way too low" objection:

(a) This is my hypothetical bill, so I can set the means test high enough. Let's say, for example, that any retiree who does not either earn 100K per year or currently possess 500K in savings gets the benefits that year. That solves the objection because anyone with that much money is assured of even more than just a "decent" retirement.

(b) A stronger (more generous) reading of this objection is that it is a purely political one: that the terms of my proposal, once released, will not be fully under my control and will be subject to amendment or compromise by other lawmakers. This objection further assumes that the middle and upper class will side together against the poor and set the benefits too low -- so as not to spend too much on social security. But I think, politically, just the opposite would happen. The only way we can change social security in the fundamental way that I've proposed is through a sort of "class warfare" that allies the poor and the middle class against the wealthy. If anything, the means test will be set too high (i.e., some still realatively wealthy people will get the benefits) because eliminating the benefits for all but the most wealthy would not be politically feasible. If I'm reading your thoughts right, I just think you've analyzed the politics incorrectly.

(2) Connection between means test and benefits. There is no necessary connection between a means test and the extent of benefits those who qualify for the program receive. I think your comment recognizes this, but I want to make sure I'm being clear. I would, indeed, support a means test combined with an increase in benefits for those who do still qualify.

(3) As to the "plenty of money to conquer Islam" objection. This amounts either to (a) a denial that there's really a budget crisis or (b) an objection to using social security specifically to address the budget crisis when we might save money in other ways, say by not spending so much on war.

(a) There is a real budget crisis. The United States is $7.6 trillion in debt. (Check out this interesting national debt counter.) This amounts to almost $26,000 for each American citizen. Many Americans believe that this money is somehow "paper debt" or otherwise "unreal." This is emphatically not true. The fact that excessive debt makes our currency unstable and makes other countries (our predominant creditors) less likely to lend to us (or to lend to us at reasonable rates) is one reason this debt is real and problematic. More importantly, we have to pay interest ever year on this debt. Does all this concern about the national debt make me a "fiscal conservative"? In short, no. "Fiscal conservatives," at least as traditionally defined, are concerned about the debt because the interest that we have to pay on the debt keeps taxes high. On the contrary, I'm concerned about the interest that we pay on the debt because this is money that we could be otherwise spending on helping "the least of these." We spend about $3.5 billion annually just paying interest on the national debt. Can you imagine the anti-poverty measures we could adopt with $3.5 billion per year? What if we didn't have this debt and could have given $3.5 billion in aid and development to the countries hit by the tsunami in Asia? How much suffering could this have relieved? How much would it have improved our national standing in the world? In sum, the national debt is very real, and my concern with it is a Social Gospel-derived concern.

(b) The second question, then is whether social security reform via means testing is a good way to address this debt crisis. I believe that it is for several reasons.

First, as a purely political matter, I see no reason why the government should be giving handouts to the wealthy. In the face of the debt crisis described above, dishing out payments to the wealthy who don't need it is profoundly irresponsible.

Secondly, eliminating social security payments for the wealthy would, by definition, not violate the Social Gospel's fundamental concern with the least of these. Everyone in need - all of the least of these - still get support. Hopefully increased support.

Thirdly, eliminating social security payments for the wealthy is not only not inconsistent with a concern for the least of these, but affirmatively serves the least of these. To the extent that social security redistributes payroll taxes (which are paid disproportionately by the middle class and poor) to wealthy retirees, that portion of social security is profoundly regressive. (Please, please do not misunderstand me as claiming that social security is regressive. I just mean that part of the program is regressive.) By stopping this redistribution from the poor to the rich, we are affirmatively helping the least of these.

My favorite blog reader, DLW, also made some very insightful points as regards my proposal. Unlike his comments sometimes are, these were not over my head. (It stinks when people who evaluate my thoughts are smarter than I am!) I do have some thoughts on DLW's comments, and I will post them in the next installment. But since his comments came later, and because this post is already long, that'll have to wait.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Stress as Sin: a Confession

Here are some "theological" thoughts before I continue the long social security debate. I offer these thoughts now both because they are weighing on my mind and because I want to make sure this doesn't turn into a political policy blog.

I took my Tax Exam yesterday. I felt an immense sense of relief at finally being done with a month of intense studying and preoccupation. Law exams (at least at my school) are generally 3 or 4 hours long, and even that is rarely enough time to finish. They count as 100% of your grade. They are specifically designed to test the conceptual "boundaries" rather than the "basics" of the legal rules that you learn, which is another way of saying that they're really hard. You are expected not just to recite the rules you learned, but to try to apply them to factual situations to which they have never been applied before and/or to explain the extent to which the rules make sense as a matter of economic or social theory or policy.

Yes, this is in fact going to be a theological discussion eventually, and the above facts are relevant. Be patient =).

So basically the law examination period is an extremely stressful period. And I had particular trouble with stress this time. I had trouble sleeping, and I was so stressed out about one exam that I didn't sleep at all the night before.

Could this stress, in addition to being unhealthy, also be sinful? Or, if you're squeamish about using the word "sin," is it inconsistent with Christian ethics? I think it might be.

As we've indicated many times, we believe that following Jesus' message requires us to live an other-directed life, and a life directed specifically toward helping "the least of these." The other-directedness portion of Jesus' message means, at least, that we should recognize good for others as equivalent to good for us, and bad for others as equivalent to bad for us. This is what it means for me to love my neighbor as myself. A stranger winning the lottery is as good as me winning the lottery. A co-worker being diagnosed with cancer is as bad as me being diagnosed with cancer. On this blog, we usually focus on excessive personal consumption and other physical, active manifestations of self-directedness as being inconsistent with Christ's ideals. But I don't believe the principles outlined above are so limited. I should feel, as well as act, as if my neighbor is equivalent to myself.

Admittedly, no one can meet these standards ("all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God"). But this is the ideal towards which we should strive if we are to live a Christian life. That being said, I believe that my extreme stress over my exams was a clear violation of Christian ethics as we've articulated them.

Given the nature of law school exams described above, it is understandable from a secular and psychological perspective, that I would be stressed out about them. But from a Christian perspective, the stress was wrong. My stress was (and stress in general usually is) an extreme concern over self in violation of the other-directedness Jesus requires. My comparatively minor troubles and stresses are given extraordinary prominence just because they relate to me. This is not loving my neighbor as myself. I've spent a thousand times more worry on my law school exams in these months than I have on the tremendous destruction and human suffering caused by the Asian tsunami. If I could live in perfect communion with Christ (which no one can), then the precise opposite should be the case. The fact that such outrageous suffering occurred while I was predominantly concerned with myself and my own troubles has "convicted" me (as a Southern Baptist might say) and forcefully brought home to me the fact that stress can be sinful.

Stress is difficult to control. But we must try, not just for health reasons, but for ethical reasons. We must remind ourselves (to steal an insight from someone I can't recall) that the divisions among us are merely illusions. My little stresses about exams and classes are insignificant as compared to the true physical suffering of others. It is to the suffering of others to whom my "stress" (or thoughts) as well as my actions should be directed.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

On Social Security, Part 3

Warning: this post is being written before I've imbibed my morning coffee, which can be a dangerous, dangerous thing. More dangerous, for me thank God, than this crazy NYC blizzard I'm writing in the midst of. (Total accumulation of 12 to 20 inches.) My prayers are with all of those not so lucky as to be comfortably ensconsced in a heated home in these days....

But we're getting far afield from the subject of this post. I warned you about the coffee!

I'm surprised that there have been no objections (voiced in comments or that I could find trackbacking) to my radical, if unoriginal, proposal that a Christian way to reform social security would be to "means test" it - that is, to limit social security benefits to those who need the help. (This is the hot political topic right now isn't it?)

I suspect I've gotten no objections because most of our good readers - even our enigmatic, beloved "frequent-flyer" DLW - are quite progressive and quite young.

But even though none objected, I'm still going to come through on my promise to answer some obvious objections to the proposal. (Note: first cup of coffee imbibed at this point; readers safer.)

First, my well-to-do grandparents might argue that they should be entitled to benefits because they "paid in" to the program throughout their lives. Initially, it's worth of noting that government in general just doesn't work that way. We don't have occasional accountings to make sure people's benefits from government equal the taxes they pay. Everyone pays taxes that go for extra tough terrorism defense in New York City, but the residents of rural areas don't derive any direct benefits from such programs. Even more fundamentally, many government programs are explicitly redistributive. That is, we intend that people who pay into the programs through taxes don't get the benefits of them. Rather, the programs go to those who need them. Medicaid is an example of such a program.

So the first objection has to amount to a claim that social security is somehow different. But my very proposal is that it shouldn't be different. The feelings of entitlement are just that: feelings. We're used to a paying taxes now, getting back benefits later structure of social security. Since we've become accustomed to this structure, it comes to feel like an entitlement. But these "entitlement feelings" are not a rational basis for policy.

Perhaps the objection also amounts to a claim that many middle-aged and elderly people have relied on the promise that these benefits would be available to them regardless of how much they make. My answer to this is twofold: one, if they have already saved enough to survive the means test, then they haven't really "relied to their detriment" on social security's universal availability; and two, I would have no objection to a "grandfather clause" which would provide that the means testing and denial of benefits to the wealthy wouldn't start until, say, my generation. (I'm 25.)

The other obvious objection to my proposal is the allegation that means testing social security might result in people not saving for their retirement on their own. I.e., if I'm going to lose government benefits if I save for myself, why should I do so? There are good answers to this objection, but they'll have to wait for yet another post - both because this one is getting too long and because is Tax-study time again.

P.S. I would disagree with anyone who would object that this discussion is getting pretty far afield from the Social Gospel. My original idea was based on Social Gospel principles, and these completely political arguments are necessary to defend (and show the feasibility of) the original Christian public policy proposal.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Tax Posts Coming

One of us in deeply in the midst of studying for a Tax Exam. Afterwards, I intend to have lots and lots to say about Christianity and (1) taxation in general and (2) tax reform in particular. In the meantime, let me just say that Bush's sense that the Tax Code needs to be simplified is not wholly off-base. I'll disagree completely, I'm sure, with how he will try to do it. But something needs to be done.

Take this little dandy of a provision as an example of why tax simplification is indeed necessary:

Internal Revenue Code Section 274(c)(3): Certain foreign travel -

"For the purposes of this subsection, travel outside the United States does not include any travel from one point in the United States to another point in the United States."

Two questions:
(1) Why in the world is someone's travel destination relevant to how much of their income we tax?

(2) What sort of loophole was being exploited that this ridiculous provision is meant to close?

So, at this moment, I have a couple of thoughts: the Tax Code needs to be reformed, and I hate Tax Law.

Baseball as a Road to God

Yes, that is the name of the undergraduate class that I am a teaching assistant for this semester. Pretty freakin' fantastic, if you ask me.

An introduction to one of the readings for the class (Baseball and the Meaning of Life, by Donald Hall) reads:

In this lonely land of ours, where the beacon of individuality has guided us from the onset of nationhood, baseball has become the tie that binds. Where religion, family, class, even ideology unite people of other lands, here baseball is the lingua franca: it connects males across the barriers of class or age, as Donald Hall notes, and in its arcane ways lies the immigrant's sure path to beoming American. But what baseball does is apart from what it is, and like music or art, it is a thing of beauty for its own sake.
Think about that the next time you see an immigrant wearing a Yankees hat. More on the class after it gets rolling on Monday.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

New Chuck Currie Paper

Chuck Currie, perhaps every progressive Christian blogger's hero (including my own), has brought to my attention a new essay he has written on Walter Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel. You can access his paper for free at his blog here. I always commend you to Mr. Currie's insight, but I especially encourage you to explore his thoughts on this important subject.

On another note, I would like to request Mr. Currie's permission to include his paper on the syllabus of the course I'm helping teach this semester.

Professors JJ

Both law student authors of this blog, who are neither academics nor religious specialists, ironically find ourselves teaching classes on religion and society next semester. I'm team teaching (with several other students) a "Reading Group," which is a student-led course for which my law school awards credit. The course is called "Christiantity & Politics: Assessing 2004's Constitutional Moment." It proceeds from the assumption that the 2004 election changed the relationship between religion and politics in the country and attempts to come to grips with this fact. I thought our readers would be interested in the course description which we've just submitted to the Registrar:

The 2004 election signaled, arguably, an Ackermanian-style “Constitutional Moment” in the history of the United States. Although the Constitution contemplates, at least to some degree, a separation between religion in politics, the boundary between the two spheres is becoming increasingly permeable. In this reading group, we would like to study the direction that this arguable “Constitutional Moment” is taking our country, with particular emphasis on the agenda of the “Religious Right” and potential alternatives. Doing so will require a detailed study of modern American Christianity and its impact on the public sphere.

We intend to address the following questions:
(1) What are the theological foundations of Christian fundamentalism in America?

(2) How should we understand the relationship between fundamentalist Christian theology and the politics of the Religious Right?

(3) How significant is the political influence of the Religious Right?

(4) Does progressive Christianity provide a satisfactory answer, intellectually, to Christian fundamentalism?

(5) Would a “Religious Left” movement be consistent with progressive political principles and a vigorous understanding of the Separation of Church and State?

(6) Assuming an affirmative to question (5), what specific public policies and political strategies should such a “Religious Left” explore?

I'm very excited about participating because it will give me a chance to explore, even more deeply, many of the questions we address weekly on this blog. Moreover, it will give me an opportunity to familiarize myself with non-Social Gospel strands of progressive Christian theology, such as Queer Theology, Liberation Theology, and Feminist Theology. At this point, I am woefully ignorant of these things. As the course progresses, I will certainly keep our good readers updated on whatever insights are generated from this course.

Wish me luck!

P.S. I encourage the other author of this blog to discuss the course he's teaching at his law school. It is exciting as well.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Tuesday Night on "The Daily Show"

Joining Jon Stewart on the Daily Show last night was Jim Wallis, auther of God's Politics: Why the Right gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get it.

I haven't read the book, but judging by his comments on the show that (1) war and poverty are moral issues too, not just abortion and gay marriage; and (2) that there are over 3000 verses in the Bible about fighting poverty and helping the least of these (specifically mentioning Matthew 25), I can't wait to pick up his book.

In closing, a quote from one of his former volunteers that tragically died too young: "Don't tell me these problems are too big. Don't tell me there are no Martin Luther King's in the world. Don't you understand - WE are the ones that we have been waiting for?"

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Rich nations not meeting poverty pledge, UN says

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - Wealthy nations are not making good on their pledge to deliver the money needed to halve extreme poverty worldwide by 2015, a panel of UN-appointed experts said in a new report.

Nations around the world have committed themselves to an ambitious programme of UN "millennium development goals" to improve the lot of the world's poor and suffering....

Despite promising to funnel 0.7 percent of gross national product (GNP) in aid to the developing world, the world's 22 richest countries are only giving 0.25 percent, the experts said.

Why am I not surprised at this news? Don't get me wrong - people and countries DO give a massive amount of money to those less fortunate than they are, and they should be commended for doing all that they do.

But there's still a problem... when millions of people are suffering and millions of children are dying, how can we be happy settling for the mere generosity of the rich and comfortable to help alleviate the pain and suffering of millions? Shouldn't we have systems in place to help these people that DO NOT DEPEND ON VOLUNTARY COMPASSION?

Voluntary compassion sounds great on paper but when the rubber hits the road, people don't sacrifice enough to truly fight these systemic problems. Think about it: when there is a big war, we institute a draft and stop depending on people's generosity to fight for their country. When it comes to fighting poverty, however, we seem quite content to settle for whatever individual generosity can bring us. How sad.

Governor Arnold and the Christian Prison Model

If I were a Californian and could vote for Governor in that state, Arnold 's Schwarzenegger's bold move to reform California's broken prison system ("the largest and most troubled in the nation") might make me consider voting Republican for the first time.

NPR reported this morning that the Governator has appointed prison warden Jeanne Woodford to head the Department of Corrections. What is significant about this is that Woodford has a distinctive track record for emphasizing rehabilitation in her prisons -- significant educational opportunities, counseling, support groups etc.. She is well-known as an adherant to and advocate for the rehabilitation model of corrections. Woodford's appointment signals that reforming offenders, not punishing them, will be the primary goal of the California prison system. And the Governator agrees. He has been recently quoted observing wittily that "correction should be the goal of the Department of Corrections." As obvious and banal as that sounds, all of this focus on rehabilitation is quite radical these days.

Arnold's decision to appoint Woodward, to emphasize rehabilitation, and to deemphasize social vengeance in the form of retribution is a Christian move. Rehabilitation is consistent with Jesus' command to love our enemies and consistent with his message of love and reform in general. A focus on rehabilitation is something we have been calling for for a long time. Maybe this is the start of a wonderful trend.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Minimum Wage, again

Maybe this issue really is starting to get some political traction. Check out this link. Fellow Progressive Christian bloggers: this is a critical moral issue, let's talk it up.

Allies on the Social Security Front

Well, distinguished Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin agrees with me that the social security system isn't in crisis and that privatization isn't the way to go. Balkin quoting Harold Meyerson:
Social Security is on a sounder footing now than it has been for most of its 70-year history. Without altering any of its particulars, its trustees say, it can pay full benefits straight through 2042. Over the next 75 years its shortfall will amount to just 0.7 percent of national income, according to the trustees, or 0.4 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That still amounts to a real chunk of change, but it pales alongside the 75-year cost of Bush's Medicare drug benefit, which is more than twice its size, or Bush's tax cuts if permanently extended, which would be nearly four times its size.

On Social Security Reform Part 2

So we've established (I hope) that there isn't a crisis which is specific to social security. We've also admitted, however, that there is a deficit crisis: the government is spending more than it is taking in, and this will cost us in the long run (in some ways I understand and in many ways I don't). Social security is related to the real crisis, the budget crisis, only insofar as it is a major government expense. So the question becomes not how to "save" social security, but whether reforming social security in some way -- as opposed to other options like cutting other programs, quitting starting preempting wars, raising taxes, etc. -- can help save us from our budget crisis. Again, I apologize if I am out of my league in terms of policy, but I want to try.... At least I'm thinking.

I think that we can and should reform social security as a part of an overall plan to get the federal budget under control. My controversial -- but far from innovative or novel -- proposal would (1) save the government money on social security, reducing the deficit in the interests of all and (2) MOST IMPORTANTLY from my Social Gospel Christian perspective, do so consistent with the interests of "the least of these." President Bush's plan to "privatize" social security would do neither of these things. It fails both tests.

First, let's look at what is wrong with Bush's "private accounts" approach.

Social security costs money because it is an obligation that the government owes to its senior citizens. Every month the government must (and should) pay Granny Smith $500 a month (or whatever sum the current benefits are, I have no idea). The government pays these obligations from current payroll taxes -- from social security taxes that you and me pay today. The program is redistributive. It redistributes money from the young to the old, who, often unable to work, find it difficult to support themselves and deserve our social support.

So the problem with Bush's plan is that it takes money out of the pool of money available to pay Granny Smith. Social Security will still have to pay out the same amount to seniors, but some of the payroll taxes it uses to do this will now be locked up in private accounts. The revenues for paying social security to today's seniors decline, while the obligations remain constant. This fails the first prong of the test outlined above: instead of saving the government money and reducing the deficit, it does just the opposite.

It also fails the "Christian test," by failing to serve the least of these in two ways. First, insofar as private accounts make social security more rather than less insolvent, it makes the program vulnerable. With the de facto reduction in payroll taxes that private accounts represent, the social security program may become so expensive that it has to be killed altogether. This would obviously be disastrous for seniors in poverty. Second, and more fundamentally, private accounts don't help the poor with their retirement. It's all well and good that I pay $100 a month into a private account that will be available for me at retirement. But what happens to the minimum wage worker? How large could her "private account" be? The very purpose of social security is to help those who never made enough to save for their own retirement. If we base social security payouts on how much you earned during your lifetime, then the entire "least of these," redistributive purpose of the program is destroyed.

My alternative will serve the least of these and save the government money. The idea, which has been around for a long time but never seriously entertained because it is politically dangerous, is means testing. Since social security is redistributive (from today's workers to seniors) and meant to help seniors tho can't help themselves, then perhaps we should limit benefits to those seniors who really can't help themselves.

Although I consider myself as having a middle class background -- my mom is a kindergarten teacher and my dad a nurse -- my grandparents are wealthy. They're what you might call "almost millionaires," that is, they have somewhere around a million dollars saved and invested. Yet, despite their wealth, they still receive that social security check every month. I consider it nonsensical that we redistribute money from today's workers -- payroll taxes paid by the lower and working class no less -- to people like my grandparents.

Social security benefits should be phased out for retirees who don't need the help. Benefits should be retained or even expanded for those poorer seniors who truly need the help. This would save the government an immense sum of money. That is, billions upon billions of dollars per year. Moreover, it would be consistent with serving the least of these. By definition, their benefits would not be affected.

There are two major objections to means testing, the first is the "I-paid-into-the-program-so-I'm-entitled-to-get-benefits" objection. This is the one my wealthy grandparents would most likely make. The second is that means testing social security would induce seniors not to save for their retirement. I'll address both of these objections in my next post, since this one is becoming unwieldy.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Bush and the Poor

A new Pew Research Center poll indicates that a strong plurality of Americans believe that the poor will "lose influence" as a result of "Bush being in office for another term." Specifically, 49% said they believed the poor would lose influence, 31% either said they weren't sure or that the poor wouldn't be affected, while only 20% thought the poor would "gain influence" with Bush in office.

Americans get it. They're not dumb. I just can't understand why they would vote for someone they know will disserve (or not serve) the poor. I refuse to believe that people vote so selfishly.

The only answer then is that many Americans are making a calculated decision: a wrongly-calculated decision in my opinion. They are voting more on gay marriage and Ten Commandment displays than they are on the situation of the poor.

Calling all Christians: please reconsider your compromise as the next election approaches.

Friday, January 14, 2005

United States v. Booker

On Wednesday the Supreme Court issued an important and extremely complicated opinion, Booker, which transforms criminal sentencing in the federal courts. My non-legal readers may find what follows complex, but I've tried to break it down, and it is necessary to get to my "Social Gospel analysis" of the opinion.

Under the previous sentencing regime - the controversial federal sentencing guidelines - judges sentenced offenders by (1) finding aggravating facts and (2) imposing a sentence based a schedule taking those facts into account. Thus, if defendant is convicted of robbery by a jury, a judge at sentencing may find that he possessed a gun and, in effect, tack on 1 year to the sentence. The main crime was robbery, which justified a sentence within a range. The finding of an aggravating factor, like a gun, required the judge to sentence towards the higher end of the robbery range.

In Booker, the Supreme Court said that this scheme violated the right to trial by jury. To understand why, take an extreme example: suppose a defendant is sentenced to life for murder because (1) a jury found as a fact that someone died and (2) a judge found aggravating sentencing factors that the defendant caused the death and intended to cause it. Would that really be a jury trial for the crime of murder? No because the judge found the important facts, not the jury.

In Booker, the Supreme Court carried this line of reasoning to its utmost conclusion. The right to trial by jury, said the court, entitles the defendant to have the jury find all of the facts that go into his sentence. So if a defendant is to be sentenced for robbing a store with a gun, then the jury has to find that he robbed the store and that he had a gun. They must convict him of the crime of "robbing with a gun." They must find all facts beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the actual effect of the decision isn't what one would expect. Under the previous scheme, the main crime was robbery -- which justified any number of sentences within a large range. The "sentencing factors" were merely constraints on the judge as to how he or she could sentence within that range. Once the Court says that the sentencing factors are unconstitutional because they are facts found by the judge which affect the defendant's sentence, the effect is to put totally unconstrained discretion back in the judge's hands. Now the jury has convicted of robbery and the judge can sentence from 1 to 20 years according to what he or she thinks is just punishment regardless of whether there are aggravating factors like possessing a gun or not.

I'm oversimplifying a bit: the decision doesn't directly hold the guidelines unconstitutional; it does say that they aren't binding on judges -- which basically means the judges don't have to follow them if they don't want to. As Linda Greenhouse put it:

The Supreme Court on Wednesday transformed federal criminal sentencing by restoring to judges much of the discretion that Congress took away 21 years ago when it put sentencing guidelines in place and told judges to follow them.
As an adherant of the Social Gospel, I assess all social decisions like this with an eye to the least of these -- to those who suffer persecution and subordination. In the criminal law context, my concern is almost always with criminal defendants, who I believe are often treated unfairly (e.g., discriminated against on the basis of race and wealth) and in general treated with far too much vengeance and severity.

The problem is that it is difficult to make heads or tails of this decision in those terms.

On the one hand getting rid of the sentencing guidelines (or at least making them non-mandatory) is a very good thing. The sentences mandated by the guidelines were often excessively harsh. Judges imposing them often felt what they were doing was unjust. A few resigned in protest. Thus, insofar as making the guidelines discretionary allows judges to "have a heart" and take some of the destructive, vengeful sting out of federal sentences, this decision is a good thing.

On the other hand, there at least are two aspects of the decision which concern me. First, Congress could just reenact a law keeping the harsh guidelines in place but providing that juries find the aggravating factors. This would satisfy the constitutional requirements of Booker, and it would leave criminal defendants in just as bad a shape as before (or worse) -- that is, at least if you believe, as I do, that juries are no more sympathetic to the plight of the accused criminal than judges are.

Second, the discretion given to judges by the opinion to sentence according to their consciences (which remains in place unless Congress acts as described above), is by no means a panacea. The purpose of sentencing guidelines wasn't just to make sure that the criminal system got its pound of flesh from each criminal defendant. They also had the benign purpose of ensuring that defendants weren't discriminated against according to race, sex, poverty, etc. If judges have to sentence by a schedule, there's no room for the rampant prejudice that we find all too often in the criminal system. The Booker decision, in the absence of Congressional action, opens the floodgates to a system in which the poor and minorities receive higher sentences if for no other reason than the fact that it is more difficult for upper-class (often white) judges to sympathize with them than it is for them to sympathize with people "more like them."

In short, I am very conflicted about this decision. I can't say for sure whether it serves or undermines the good of the least of these.

I can say that something needs to be done about the excessive retributive length of criminal sentences. It is this substantive injustice -- not the procedural question of who decides -- which is the real Social Gospel problem.

On Social Security Reform Part 1

Wading into treacherous waters (because the policy details are probably over my head), in the following two posts I will attempt to (1) assess whether there is a social security crisis that we should do anything about and (2) specifically assess the President's "privatization" plan and propose a specific alternative. In the second post, this discussion's relationship to the Social Gospel and Christianity will become clear. In the first post, some background is necessary.

First, there is no social security crisis independent of the generalized budget deficit crisis. As Princeton Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has shown

Right now the revenues from the payroll tax [supposedly dedicated to social security] exceed the amount paid out in benefits.

Thus, while the rest of the government runs a deficit, social security -- the program targeted by the Bush Administration as a "problem" is actually the one program -- because it has sufficient, designated taxes -- which is running a surplus. See Inventing a Crisis, New York Times, December 7, 2004 A27.

But I sense an objection brewing in my readers minds. What happens when the baby boomers retire and we have more beneficiaries? Won't the resulting expense be crippling? In short, no. The distant future benefits that the current dedicated taxes won't support are modest. In other words, while the general budget runs a massive deficit now, the social security program will run a modest deficit in the future.

What would it take to make up the shortfall? Not much. Krugman crunched the numbers (which he got from the Congressional Budget Office) and found that
extending the life of the trust fund into the 22nd century, with no change in benefits, would require additional revenues equal to only 0.54 percent of G.D.P. That's less than 3 percent of federal spending -- less than we're currently spending in Iraq. And it's only about one-quarter of the revenue lost each year because of President Bush's tax cuts -- roughly equal to the fraction of those cuts that goes to people with incomes over $500,000 a year.

So if we added back just the Bush tax cut that went to those making over half a million dollars a year to the payroll taxes which have been specifically dedicated to social security for years, then we could assure the program's solvency at least through the year 2100.

So what's the problem?

Well, basically the problem is that the government has been dipping into social security-dedicated payroll taxes to fund general budget items for years. So the money is supposed to be there theoretically, but it isn't.

If you think about it then, the problem isn't social security. The problem is the massive budget shortfall in general which is caused by many things including economic recessions and excessive tax cuts for the wealthy. Social security contributes to the problem only insofar as it is a pricey budget item in general. But National Defense, National Security, Medicare, etc. are also costly budget items which are increasing in size.

So it isn't social security per se, but the budget in general which is in need of "salvation." The question becomes, then, not how we can save social security -- because we can do that alone in any number of quick and easy ways -- but whether social security "reform" is a good way at attacking the general budget crisis, recognizing that cuts in other programs or tax hikes could accomplish the same objectives.

In the next post I will, oddly, agree with the President that "reforming" social security is an important piece of the general budget reform puzzle. But I will vigorously disagree as to means.

Thursday, January 13, 2005


A victory for much-maligned lawyers everywhere...

Didn't your mother tell you not to cast stones if you live in a glass house? Guess what??? We ALL live in glass houses.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Reconciling Religious Faith with Tsunami Deaths

I just heard a phenomenal story on NPR about reconciling religious faith with the tremendous death and destruction of the tsunami tragedy. The story interviews Catholic, Buddhist Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu religious leaders. If you've never followed a link from this site, make this your first one. Our views on the matter generally accord with the Reform rabbi in the NPR story: "God does not micromanage the Universe."

New Jersey Governor: Raise Minimum Wage.

Last month, we congratulated New York on its decision to raise the minimum wage within the state above the federal minimum. Now its officially becoming a trend. Acting Democratic Governor of New Jersey Richard Codey is proposing to raise the minimum wage within that state.

With the Federal government asleep at the wheel, its good to see the states getting involved. (Yay federalism for once.)

I wonder when all of those Christian-controlled state governments in the South are going to act on this crucial moral issue?

No Southern state has raised its minimum wage higher than the federal minimum, even though a significant number of states overall have done so.

Is all of this just South bashing? No, as a native Southerner, I know that Christian politicians in the South believe in treating well "the least of these." They just have to start voting consistently with that principle.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Stepping outside yourself

I think I may have stumbled on to an explanation this afternoon without even trying to do it.

Both of the author's of this blog were history majors in college. Many of the authors that I have read and tend to agree with have a keen understanding of history. Many of the conservative Christians that I get into heated arguments with today, however, lack a historical view of things. Sure they can name the year that every battle of World War II was fought or who was the 16th President of the United States, but they understand history as something that is dead and detached, not something that we are an intimate part of. Essentially, they cannot see the world through anyone else's eyes but there own.

For example, during many arguments, many of my conservative Christian friends will talk about how quickly our world is going "straight to heck," i.e. how much further away we are today from God than we were in the past (a common sermon on many pulpits in this country). Whenever I hear this argument, I always counter with something like this: "well, we don't have slavery much anymore; we don't torture people; we don't execute people for small crimes like theft; we don't have brothels on every street corner; we understand the human condition more than ever before," etc, etc, etc. To this, my friends will usually respond with a "whatever" or something to that effect.

I posit to you that what divides us (my friends and I) isn't intelligence, faith, or a higher communion with the Divine. I believe what divides us is more of a transcendtal experience --- the ability to see the world from a seperate set of eyes, transcending your own being as best you can to understand the world from someone else's perspective and thereby forcing you to QUESTION your own assumptions and up-bringing. I had such an experience in college while studying history, a history different from the canned stuff that I had been fed throughout my youth in public schools and settings. I realized that the things I believed weren't really mine at all - they were put into my brain without me even realizing it (just like the English language). I think most mainstream Christians today fall into this category. They believe, for example, that the bible is the word of God not because they can show absolute proof of it, but because that is what people have been telling them their whole lives.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

A Good Story, for once

Christians love to gripe - whether its the religious right lamenting sex on television or this webpage pointing to the widening income gap. So every once in a while, it is nice to see - and to point out - when good things do happen.

In such spirit, I am very pleased to see that Americans have had a very Christian response to the tsunami tragedy. The AP reports today that Americans have given to date in excess of $200 million to charities to provide relief for tsunami victims. Individual donations have ranged from Sandra Bullock's gift of $1 million to 3-year-old Antonio Cabrera's and his brothers' gift of their allowance to the American Red Cross office in Denver.

Even U.S. corporations, much maligned on this site, are involved. Coca-Coca has given $10 million, and drug companies have given not only cash but medical supplies, including antibiotics.

In Tennessee, a municipal judge is letting errant motorists donate $100 to tsunami relief rather than paying traffic tickets.

Donate to the American Red Cross here.

Blogging apologies

We've been a little slow on the uptake lately. Longtime readers will understand - we go through these phases: one of us is studying furiously for finals, and the other has been on the highway visiting a friend in the hospital. And to that the craziness that has become the holiday season and, well, you understand.

Look for further posts soon, but in the meantime HAPPY NEW YEAR!