Sunday, February 26, 2012

War on Religion?

Over the last few weeks the news has been full of controversy about the intersection between religion and government. The catalyst was a ruling regarding medial insurance coverage, but since then the 'debate' has grown to a broader concern of government interfering in individuals religious practices.

I would never claim that this is a simple issue, but I also don't believe that there is a systematic attack or war on religion by government, as claimed by Newt Gingrich among others..

Of course there is reason to fear such an attack. History is filled with examples of governments outlawing and attacking religion. Mexico, the Soviet Union and China are good examples.

But our government has religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution, along with a requirement in the first amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." And this isn't a hollow promise as demonstrated by numerous lawsuits and court rulings.

The problem is that it's not always clear how to accomplish these two requirements. There's a lot of grey between the black and white, so this debate will continue indefinitely. Unfortunately, at least the public debate seems rarely to be conducted as a respectful conversation.

From the left the goal sometimes seems to be a desire to completely exclude religion, even though the great majority of citizens are religious. On the other hand, the religious arguments appear to be more a desire to protect or promote a particular religion or even belief.

For instance, last year's demand to prevent the creation of an Islamic community center in New York City would seem to be a clear violation of the first amendment. And within the Christian community politicians can be very selective when quoting religious arguments. For an example take a look at an article by Juan Cole titled "Top 10 Catholic Teachings Santorum Rejects while Obsessing About Birth Control".

To me the fundamental issue is that religion, by it's nature, is faith based and therefore not subject to any objective test for legitimacy. This means that I'm free to invent any religion I please and then claim protection from the first amendment. At some point the public good will trump individual belief and the result will be an incursion by government. Recent examples include Warren Jeffs conviction for statutory rape or the murder conviction of Muzzammil Hassan.

So what about the specific issue of insurance, birth control, and religious institutions? I have no idea what the 'correct' solution is, but I doubt that the issue is simple or that there's an obvious fix that would satisfy everyone. I just wish that the public debate would consist of reasoned arguments rather than attacks on individuals or sensational claims.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Money for Nothing?

Despite recent setbacks over the last 30 years the US economy has grown by over 120% in constant dollars. This should be good news for all Americans, but there's something interesting about this period of time that's quite different from prior years.

Over most of the history of the US gains in GDP were shared more or less equally on a percentage basis among all income groups. This makes sense if you assume that the success of an enterprise, whether it's a small business or the country as a whole, is the result of the efforts of the group rather than a few individuals.

What's unusual about the last 30 years is that, unlike prior periods, the gains have gone exclusively to the upper 20% of wage earners, and the bulk of that to the top 1%.

My first reaction is that this just doesn't seem 'fair'. Shouldn't everyone participate in our country's financial success?

We know from history that there's no economic force that tends to favor equitable distribution of gains from a large enterprise. Business operates to maximize profit, and it took government regulation to eliminate slavery and sweatshops. And unions, which can give employees a voice in the distribution of gains, also need government to exist and survive.

But beyond the ethical arguments from a completely practical point of view this trend doesn't seem sustainable. We know that the US economy is heavily dependent on consumer spending, so if 80% of consumers are getting a smaller and smaller part of the gains their spending will have to decrease as well, resulting in a downward spiral. If this is true business does have a long term incentive to share gains, but I don't see a strong feedback mechanism. The correction could be traumatic.

So here are my questions;

  • Is there a problem, or is our economy behaving correctly?
  • If you believe there's a problem will it correct itself, or is some type of intervention required?
  • If you believe intervention is required, what would you do?

If you're interested in additional reading on the topic take a look at "Winner Take All Politics" which details the authors opinions that government actually created the current imbalance. Other suggestions for reading on this topic are welcome.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Minority Rule

One of the foundations of our democracy is rule by the majority. Of course early on there was a lot of debate about who was allowed to vote as well as the issue of the power of states versus a plurality of voters. But the general idea was that a vote would be taken on issues and the majority would decide.

Starting in the 1970's the filibuster, began to be used in the senate by both parties as a means to prevent a vote that would be won by a simple majority. This tactic allows 41 Senators to block passage of a bill, and over time this has become the rule for all major decisions resulting in gridlock at the will of a minority.

During the debate over ratification of the US Constitution Alexander Hamilton saw the danger of this and described it in one of his contributions to The Federalist Papers, a series of articles in support of ratification of the proposed US Constitution. Here's an excerpt from Federalist 22;

"... what at first sight may seem a remedy, is, in reality, a poison. To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser. ... If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy."

Hamilton's prediction seems prescient given recent events.  

Routine use of the filibuster appears to be a clear case of our government operating in a way that is both at odds with the fundamentals of democracy as well as the intentions of at least one of our founding fathers. I believe that the filibuster should be eliminated and rule by the majority reinstated. What's your opinion?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Wrong Direction?

One recurring theme during the current election cycle is that our economy is heading in the wrong direction, that current policies are killing jobs and hindering our economic recovery. I think that everyone agrees that we have a long way to go to recover from the recent economic meltdown and that things are proceeding slowly, but I think that there's room for debate on the issue of direction.

For instance, here's a graph of initial jobless claims as reported by the US Department of Labor starting in January of 2009, just before the peak later that spring. This graph seems to show jobless claims heading in what appears to be the right direction.

The next graph from the US Bureau of labor statistics is for the US unemployment rate. Again this appears to be heading in the right direction, although at a rate that no one would be happy with.

Given these two graphs is it reasonable to argue that we're headed in the wrong direction? Should the debate more properly be that the rate of change is too slow? Or are there other data that better make the case for the wrong direction argument?

What do you think?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Ants and Grasshoppers

I've been watching a series on Moyers and Company that explores the issues of the day in a thoughtful way. A recent episode titled "The Roots of our Contentious Political Culture" featured author Jonathan Haidt who presented his thoughts on the foundations of the differences between the world views of the left and right.

One example that Haidt presented really resonated with me. He told the story of the ants and the grasshopper, where the ants work all summer while the grasshopper plays. When winter comes the grasshopper comes to the ants' door to ask for food. What should they do? Conservative philosophy tends to feel that the grasshopper should suffer for his actions,that this is his karma, while liberals are more inclined to feel compassion and offer to help.

I think that there's one more aspect of this debate that shapes my view, and that's my belief that just working hard doesn't guarantee success in the world. There's a lot of randomness in life. Good people who work hard can end up in trouble and need help.

Haidt's point is that the differences in support of social programs is due to the conservative value of fairness and karma versus the liberal value of compassion combined with the belief that failure is not always self inflicted. It's easy to provide examples that support either position and both sides tend to discount counter examples, an example of confirmation bias.

The point is that both sides have defensible arguments that could be explored without resorting to name calling, and in my opinion the answer is somewhere in between. My guess is that both sides would be comfortable with a safety net that doesn't reward bad behavior. What do you think? Do you have an example of government encouraging or rewarding bad behavior? How about an example of government creating winners and losers?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Deregulate What?

I've been watching the Republican debates, and two universal beliefs among the candidates are that high taxes and excessive regulation are strangling the economy. I'm sure that there are many taxes and regulations that I would personally agree are damaging or unnecessary, but the message from the candidates seems to be a rejection of any tax or regulation. I don't agree, and I'm sure that if pressed, neither would the candidates.

It seems to me that our economy couldn't function without the framework of contract law and enforcement imposed by government. And when I hear that government should get out of the way of business so they can create jobs, I'm skeptical. A quick review of recent headlines or our own history provides too many examples of unrestrained businesses behaving badly, including out of control air and water pollution, adulterated foods, sweat shops, and unsafe buildings.

It seems to me that the mantra of no more government regulation should be replaced with a discussion of specific regulations, starting with those that appear to be causing the most problems. I can't say that I have a well thought out opinion, but my first thought is agricultural subsidies. 

What would be at the top of your list?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

What Happened?
Over the last few of years I've watched the increasingly divisive public commentary on current events, politics, and politicians and I can't help but wonder how we got here. To me the constant, strident exchange of insults and sound bites is pointless at best. But it also tends to drown out any reasoned analysis or debate of the pros and cons of real decisions that have to be made.

I think that this is dangerous. In my opinion there are no simple or obvious solutions to difficult problems, and while the media and politicians focus the public debate on sound bites, the policies that are actually implemented are usually complex, poorly understood, and many times result in unintended consequences.

The idea of this site is to encourage a civil discussion of issues and potential solutions, including the real differences between candidates during the upcoming presidential campaign.

As moderator I won't tolerate attacks. If you disagree with a person or opinion on this site you're expected to provide a reasoned response based on logic and verifiable data.

Interested in participating? Please post your comments and or suggestions.