Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"As False As Stairs Of Sand" - William Shakespeare


"Anyone who ignores my teaching is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand."
Matthew 7:26

As a youngster I had a mortal dread of quicksand, complete with nightmares. Not that I had ever seen real quicksand, mind you. The problem was that all my favorite TV shows like Roy Rogers and Bonanza and Gunsmoke and The Rifleman and Rawhide had an episode where somebody got stuck in the miry stuff. Often the person would be rescued, but I had seen more than a few characters breath their last struggling to escape a pit they never saw coming. So the power of what I saw on TV overwhelmed the truth that quicksand was never a risk in my life.

Eventually I grew up and got a girl who loves the beach. Any beach. Whether blustery Qualicum on Vancouver Island, lush Kiawah Island off Charleston, South Carolina, or the shell-laden Sanibel in Florida. Her recent favorite is the sugar-white strand that is Gulf Shores, Alabama. Her dream would be to live on the beach...enjoying the crisp sea breezes, the cry of the gulls, the rustling dune grasses, the lingering sunsets, the sand between her toes and, endlessly, the waves breaking upon the shore. When we're at the beach, time stands still...and drinking in the wonder of a vast horizon's span makes life's petty troubles seem so far away. But the power of what we see at the ocean's edge overwhelms what we know to be true: storms and currents and hurricanes are constantly eroding and changing our beaches. And our sand castles never survive even a single night.

Jesus knew that the world would trick us like that—whether in terror with exaggerated fright, or in seduction with visions of paradise. That's why St. Paul reminded the Corinthians (who, incidentally, had a terrific view of the Mediterranean) to live by faith, and not by sight. We all live our lives on the shifting sands of this world. But at the end, if we have built only upon what we can see and touch, all we'll have to show for it is dust and ashes.

Jesus' story about the foolish man building on sand and the wise man building on rock is the closing argument to his Sermon on the Mount. He is making the case for all he had just imparted— the Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer, laying up treasure in heaven, seeking first the kingdom—as the only secure foundation for an eternal life. In all my many years on this earth, I have yet to see quicksand in its natural state, but having finally figured out the one place to stand firm, I'm not worried about it anymore.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Obamacare's War With Reality

According to lobbyist Karen Ignagni, the CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans, Obamacare's 1,990 pages can be boiled down to a three-fold promise:

1. Cover Everybody
2. Reduce Costs
3. Keep Quality

That is as succinct a summary as I've heard, and I believe it is an accurate representation of the Change that was Hoped for with the legislation.

Let's leave aside the question of whether Obamacare's central tenet (#1 above) is permissible under the U.S. Constitution. Twenty-six states are challenging the "individual mandate", and the question will eventually be decided by the Supreme Court.

Since wishes aren't fishes, let's measure Obamacare against the realities of human endeavor. Simple geometry demonstrates that it takes two points to create a line and three to define a plane. This is the founding principle of a tripod, which is always steady, simultaneously explaining why there's no such thing as a two-legged stool and why four-legged chairs so often wobble.

It is also the analog behind the universal concept known as the Project Triangle: cost, quality and time. For anything you want in this world, you can only get two of the three: cheap, good or fast. If you prefer fast and cheap, it won't be very good. If you want it good and fast, it'll cost you an arm and a leg. If you want it to be good and cheap, take a seat and read a book, because you won't get it very fast.

Obamacare makes quality a "given"; its steadiest leg. Nobody wants bad medical care. Nobody says "I want the fourth best doctor in town to do my child's appendectomy". But Obamacare as promised has a phantom leg. That "cover everybody" leg is actually a cost component. This renders the scheme a two-legged stool that will collapse because it ignores time. Conflating quality and time can yield only one possible result in this universe: high cost.

Blurring cost with quality is understandable in health care: a pregnant woman can't wait longer than 9 months. When your leg is broken, you can't wait to get it set. If you have cancer, there is a limited amount of time for diagnosis and treatment. People need care when they need it, or their health will suffer. Delayed care is low-quality care.

This explains the budgeting tricks then-Speaker Pelosi played with CBO: "Give me a cost analysis on six years of care with ten years of taxes." Another way she could have specified the CBO score: "Give me a cost analysis, then cut it by 40%."

The reality in every country where socialized medicine has been tried is that costs skyrocket. Then when governments cut costs, care is delayed because there are only so many people trained to provide quality care, and less students in medical schools because doctor pay is declining. Then when patients on waiting lists start dying—this really happens—the governments begin to abandon their schemes and introduce free-market concepts.

I would suggest acknowledging reality and removing current government obstacles to quality care: in-state-only insurance, sky-high medical malpractice awards, employee-only tax deductions and all similar government "regulations" that empower bureaucrats but punish doctors and patients. While quality is essential and costs are consequential, it is the stubbornly sequential time that will always be our enemy here on earth.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

How Good Intentions Pave The Road To Hell

Among my Top Five Favorite opinion columns of all time is one called "Good Ideas" by Dr. Walter E. Williams, who is the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University. Williams was 73 years old when he wrote in 2009 about his winter exercise regimen and its role in keeping him healthy. He stated that despite exercise being a "good idea", a congressional mandate that all Americans engage in regular exercise is a very bad idea. His main argument was that debating whether regular exercise is a good idea or a bad idea, is irrelevant. The only relevant question should be: is such a mandate permissible under the Constitution?

Williams' hypothetical example is a good one, because most adults living today remember seeing film footage of Chinese or Russian citizens gathered for morning exercises, or sweeping the streets or gathering up the grain harvest. Isn't street sweeping a good idea? Isn't gathering up the harvest a good idea? Clearly, the problem wasn't that aerobic exercise, sweeping or harvesting are "bad". The problem was government coercion. In those examples, the coercion came at the barrel of a gun...while in our current situation the coercion will come first at the hands of an IRS agent, though there be guns behind his plastic smile.

If you have ever been in charge of any group undertaking—in leadership of a voluntary group at church, in your community or even in your extended family, you know how easy it is for a few complainers to derail your plans. Sometimes the opposition of just one person can threaten the entire endeavor. If that situation didn't make you mad or tick you off, then you were either a) already married with grown children, or b) Mother Teresa reincarnate. Think how much good could be done if everybody just did what you want them to do! Democratic Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania recently ran up against this kind of resistance to his good idea to legalize gambling.

Being in charge brings its own impetus to do something. And I have no doubt that the something wanting to be done is a good idea. How else could all these laws have been passed? Should Iowa farmers get a fair price for their corn? Heck yeah, good idea. Should Americans use energy-efficient light bulbs? Great idea. Should public schools be accountable for their students' learning? Excellent idea. And the list goes on and on and on—filling hundreds of thousands of pages in the Code of Federal Regulations. And spending tens of trillions of dollars.

But focusing on the merits of a particular idea is taking your eye off the ball. When government "mandates" something, there is a high, hard fastball coming straight at your head. Fortunately for Americans, our governments are restrained by the Constitution. Unfortunately for Americans, many of those governments have been pulling apart the seams of that constitution—especially the General Welfare Clause and the Commerce Clause—by very un-Constitutional means: by executive fiat, by judicial decree and by deliberate obfuscation. Would that they had the courage to amend it, which is the only proper and legal way to change it.

The current health care debate is not about health care at all. It is about restraining government so you aren't awakened one morning by Ed Rendell holding a broom for you in one hand and aiming a gun at you with the other. Americans must not sweep the road to hell for some bureaucrat's good idea.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Get Smart


Hymie, would you please answer the door?
(turns toward closed door) 
Hello door, what was the question again?

Growing up in the sixties, my brothers and I loved to quote gag lines from the TV series "Get Smart", but none more than Hymie's innocent reply to a closed door.  Being clever kids who didn't struggle hard enough with the sin of smart-aleck-ism, we also had a standard answer for difficult questions in Sunday School.  No matter what the question, if nobody answered for a while, we would enthusiastically raise our hand until the teacher called on us: "Do you know the answer?"  To which we would offer a heartfelt, but tentative, guess: "Jesus?"  This became known in the seventies among practitioners as the Andre' Crouch gambit, in honor of his famous song "Jesus is the Answer".

The ploy was a thing of beauty on several levels: 1) no Sunday School teacher is ever going to tell their class that Jesus is not the answer; 2) even if she suspects that you're trying to pull a prank, she can't be too harsh on a kid who proposes Jesus as the answer to a problem; 3) the cool kids will laugh because they know you're spoofing; 4) the other kids will laugh because they think you're a moron, proving that you are, in fact, a comic genius.

There is, however, an unexpected long-term side-effect to this tactic:  you grow up with one constant, ever-present thought... that the answer is always Jesus.  Worse, in order to master the innocent response gag, you have to actually be in Sunday School week in and week out for several years—which studies prove can result in an alarming rate of bible absorption.  These were not our intentions when we first hatched the plan, I assure you.  In the end, the joke was on us.  Turns out Jesus really is the answer to every serious question in life.

But he's not hired help, wearing a pager so we can beep him on short notice to supply quick answers to anything we want. Jesus doesn't merely provide answers, He himself is our answer.  

What need do I have that cannot be met by the One scripture describes as: Advocate, Bread of Life, Deliverer, Emmanuel ("God with us"), Good Shepherd, The Life, Light of the World, Messiah, Prince of Peace, Our Protection, Our Refuge, Our Redemption, Our Righteousness, The Resurrection, Savior, Strength to the Poor, Sure Foundation, Teacher, True Vine, The Way, Wisdom of God, Wonderful Counselor, Alpha and Omega—the Beginning and the End?

For everybody, including smart-aleck kids, every need within the human condition has been answered in Jesus Christ.  

Monday, January 10, 2011

WWJS about hate?

By far the most famous of Jesus' words on hate are from the Sermon on the Mount:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. 
Matthew 5:43-44

Any follower of Jesus takes those words seriously—which means we live by them. But in the political arena, with the hurly-burly of debate and disagreement, a Christian... still has to live by Jesus' words. No exceptions.

Given that the enemies of Christ are familiar with scripture, a Christian is likely to have those famous words of the Lord thrown in her face from time to time. So does this mean a Christian is disallowed from criticizing public officials or urging others to oppose certain philosophies, policies and candidates? I don't believe so.

Jesus said a lot more on the subject—some of which are truly "hard" things to hear: 

For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, 
lest his deeds should be reproved. 
John 3:20
The world...hateth [me], because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil. 
John 7:7
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife,
 and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, 
and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
Luke 14:26

Hating the light (ie: the truth, the gospel, Christ himself) is evidence of evil. And Jesus categorically states that the world hates him because He revealed its evil deeds. The really tricky one is about hating one's own family members—although when placed alongside Jesus' other teachings, this passage is plainly an instruction about loving Christ supremely. 

But Jesus most numerous statements on the matter of hate are like these:

If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.
John 15:18
If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: 
but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, 
therefore the world hateth you.
John 15:19
I have given them Thy word; and the world hated them, 
because they are not of the world, as I am not of the world.
John 17:14

The world hates Christians. Yet Jesus told us to do good and show love so that people would be inclined to "glorify God" as a result. Reconciling those two concepts tells me fruitful Christians living out their faith will  prompt some people to turn toward Christ. But not every person will respond favorably. In fact, scripture and history indicate that most people will react as described in John 3:20.

If you are a Christ-follower whose spiritual gifts are expressed in service and mercy, you may not experience much overt hatred. But if your gifts are in areas of proclamation and teaching, you'd best get a thick skin. 

Speaking the truth—even speaking it in love—will bring down the hatred of the world and the hatred of wicked people like night follows day. But don't be deterred from shining the light. Just don't return evil for evil; instead you will overcome evil with good.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Party Of "No"

This past Christmas I received a copy of Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. It may take me 'til next Christmas to finish reading the 500-page tome—nobody will mistake it for a page-turner. I keep re-reading sections to fully absorb concepts that seem familiar, but are expressed in words that have changed meaning since the mid-1700s.

The first thinker profiled is Irishman Edmund Burke, who had to invent conservatism to save the world from...Democracy, Romanticism and Reason. For 150 years he was best-known for his book Reflections on the French Revolution. He wrote his withering critique despite being famous—or infamous—in England for supporting the American Revolution. Today he is best-known for what JFK said to the Canadian Parliament in 1961:

As the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke said, 
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

And thus was born a conundrum: how is the inclination to leave things as they are (ie: do no harm) compatible with the sort of "activism" implied by the quotation above? The great modern conservative William F. Buckley resolved this well in describing the mission of his weekly magazine.

It stands athwart history, yelling "Stop!"

Burke declared that men do not make laws, they either ratify or distort the laws of God. He believed that wise men succeeded in improving civil society only to the extent that they had followed Providence. So the barons, bishops and abbots who were party to the Magna Carta of 1215 were not creating anything new—rather they were identifying, clarifying and codifying ancient wisdom from previous generations.

In the Bible, two passages spring to mind in this regard. First is Proverbs 22:28, which warns "Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your ancestors." And second is the story of the foolish young king Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12: "Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he followed the advice of the young men and...the king did not listen to the people." Misery, loss and civil strife marked Rehoboam's reign.

The conservative understands that change is inevitable in this world, but she is predisposed to venerate the ancient and look to Providence when deciding what to change and what to conserve. The conservative is also committed to understanding what is right, and true, and pure, and of good report. Burke referred to this search for wisdom as Prejudice—literally pre-judging the nature of humans, their inclinations toward sin and the institutions that best bridle their appetites and allow for harmonious living. So when innovations spring up, the conservative has a framework from which to accept or reject change.

This is why I solemnly align myself, in these days of purported Reason and Enlightenment, with those who are willing to stand up and say "No, stop!".

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Silver and gold have I none

"Do not use dishonest standards..." Leviticus 19:35

In 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt confiscated all convertible gold owned by Americans. He forced citizens to sell him their gold for $8/oz, then turned around and declared gold to be worth $35/oz. He wasn't after a measly 400% return-on-theft, however...his desire was to inflate his way out of the Great Depression without the discipline of citizens demanding their dollar's worth of gold. This kind of "temporary suspension of specie payments" had happened before—but only during times of war. And this one was not temporary.

But the U.S. also quietly maintained a "differing measure" (Proverbs 20:10) by continuing to allow gold redemptions from two privileged classes of claimant: 1) foreign governments, and 2) central banks. The U.S. had not declared bankruptcy to win WWI, as most of Europe had, and so was able to coerce foreign countries into turning a blind eye to runaway American dollar inflation. But this was always doomed to fail, because with ever more U.S. dollars in circulation, there wasn't enough gold on the planet to redeem all that paper. The rest of the world got fed up abetting America's expensive fraud.

So how much inflation did the American government do? Well, when Richard Nixon finally pulled out the $35 peg and tried to stuff it back in at $38 the world refused to go along, and gold quickly zoomed to $215. The U.S. dollar had been devalued by 2,600% over 40 years. Under Jimmy Carter gold rose to $800, and today in Obamaville it's worth over $1,400. From 1933 to 1973 dollar inflation had run at 14% per year compounded and since 1973 it's been only slightly less flagrant at 5% per year compounded. And you wonder why you can't get ahead?

There is no worse steward of our money (or our currency) than governments. Within living memory, gold was money. Our grandparents had a legal right to demand gold in exchange for their dollars. Governments hate the gold standard because it denies them the ability to inflate-at-will...forcing them to either raise taxes or borrow.

The Bible is filled with stories of the arrogant follies of Kings and Princes. But they were pikers compared to Presidents and Central Bankers. Fiat money (ie: government paper not backed by a commodity) is, quite literally make-believe money. When citizens and other nations stop believing in the currency, the game is over. Paper money "is liable to be abused, has been, is, and forever will be abused, in every country in which it is permitted.” Thomas Jefferson, 1813

When Bernanke runs his printing presses so American politicians can continue to spend-for-votes, he and they are perpetrating a Dishonest Standard. So while our current Nabobs dither and print and spend with impunity, the world is slowly but surely moving away from the U.S. dollar as its reserve currency. I do not own even a fraction of an ounce, but it does not surprise me in the least to see a resurgence of that most honest and reliable standard of all: gold.