Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sequestration: A Bad Idea about to Become Law

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’”
Luke 14:28-30

In his New York Times column last week David Brooks told the story of how the idea of sequestration originated. According to Bob Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics,” the idea was introduced on July 26, 2011, when Jack Lew, who was at that time the White House budget director, visited Harry Reid’s office and told him that they had an idea to force a budget deal.

“What’s the idea?” Reid asked.

“Sequestration,” said Lew.

Then, says Brooks, “Reid folded himself over with his head between his knees, as if he were going to throw up. Then he came upright and gaped at the ceiling.” Reid told Lew that his staff had already suggested that as a last resort and he had told them, “Get the hell out of here. That’s insane. The White House surely will come up with a plan that will save the day. And you come to me with sequestration?”

The House and the Senate passed the legislation and the President signed it.

The theory was that this was an outcome so onerous that they would be forced to come up with an alternative plan to reduce the deficit.

As we now know, that didn’t work out nearly as well as they had hoped.

There are a few folks who think that the sequester will be just dandy, but most agree that it is a very bad idea. Economists say that it will slow economic growth by about a percent, which does not sound so bad until you recognize that even the growth projections, without the sequester, are between two and three percent. This makes the loss somewhere between twenty and thirty percent of the original projections. And it means many hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost.

The common wisdom is that we need targeted cuts to reduce the deficit. The sequester is a blunt instrument; we need a scalpel. But the budget should be cut.

And the common analogy is the national budget is like your family budget. President Obama and Speaker John Boehner have both used this analogy many times, as have a host of other politicians and pundits. A family can’t spend more than its income, and the nation can’t spend more than it takes in. The fallacy in this is what economists call “the paradox of thrift.” In a family, saving money actually saves money, but in a national economy a reduction in spending by the government slows the economy, which results in slower job growth and reduced tax revenues. Spending creates demand and demand leads to growth.

Eventually the budget needs to balance (although some might argue that “eventually” should be a long time away), but in the short run, it will hurt the economy. And it will hurt real live people. And families. And communities. And the country.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Raising the Minimum

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. Malachi 3:5

It is hard to argue that as a society we have not “oppressed the hired workers in their wages.”

From 1967 until 2011 the richest quintile of the country has seen a 75% increase in income. The second quintile has gone up 42%, and the bottom 60% of the country has averaged about half that much. If we look more closely, we find that within that top quintile the richest 5% have had an increase of over 94%.

Before the Great Recession, the gap between the richest Americans and everyone else reached its highest level since the Great Depression. Since the recession (allegedly) ended in 2009, the top 1% has enjoyed an 11% gain in income. The other 99% has gained nothing. The median income today, adjusted for inflation, is 11% lower than it was in 1999.

For those of us who are followers of Jesus (or of the Hebrew prophets), the increasing gap between the richest and the poorest Americans is a major ethical problem. It may well be the most important ethical issue we face. Certainly, it is one of the most important economic problems we face.

Raising the minimum wage to $9.00 per hour would be a small step in addressing that growing gap. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage would need to be over $10.00 per hour to equal what it was in the 1960’s, so this is a modest step.

The Cato Institute argues that raising the minimum wage will cost jobs and hurt the very people it is supposed to help. Others argue that raising the minimum wage is like “giving a man a fish,” which will feed him for a day, rather than “teaching a man to fish,” which will feed him for a lifetime. Curiously, these same critics are not proposing any job training programs or new educational initiatives.

In the gilded age before the turn of the last century, the Social Gospel reformers argued that factory workers should be paid a living wage. The owners argued that any such windfall would be bad for the workers. They wouldn’t know what to do with the money and would inevitably squander it like the prodigal son, on “riotous living.”

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman acknowledges the theory behind the arguments against raising the minimum wage, but argues that “there’s evidence on that question — lots and lots of evidence, because the minimum wage is one of the most studied issues in all of economics. U.S. experience, it turns out, offers many “natural experiments” here, in which one state raises its minimum wage while others do not. And while there are dissenters, as there always are, the great preponderance of the evidence from these natural experiments points to little if any negative effect of minimum wage increases on employment.”

Since the 1960’s worker productivity has doubled, but little of that gain has been shared with those doing the work, especially those at the bottom of the economic ladder. It’s time to give them a raise.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Something to Cheer About

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 
Philippians 4:8 

Brendon Ayanbadejo is not a household word. He is a linebacker for the world champion Baltimore Ravens, but I confess that I had never heard of him before a Maryland legislator, Emmert C. Burns Jr., wrote to Ravens management asking them to silence Mr. Ayanbadejo’s outspoken support for gay marriage.

In a letter to Ravens owner Steve Biscotti, Burns said, "I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo, would publicly endorse Same-Sex marriage, specifically as a Ravens football player.” Burns went on to request “that you take the necessary action, as a National Football League Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing."

That last sentence reflects poorly on the NFL and says something very positive about Mr. Ayanbadejo.

Chris Kluwe, a punter for the Minnesota Vikings responded with a profanity laced essay to assure Mr. Burns that Ayanbadejo was not the only one in the NFL speaking out for gay marriage. He also scolded Burns for his apparent indifference to the First Amendment. In more muted tones, the NFL and the Ravens responded in terms of free speech and tolerance.

As the Ravens addressed the media storm around Brendon Ayanbadejo, the San Francisco Forty-Niners had a storm of their own. Cornerback Chris Culliver told a radio interviewer that a gay player definitely would not be welcome on their team or in their locker room. Team management responded with declarations of tolerance and the promise that Mr. Culliver would apologize and do public penance. Seriously. If there is one thing the NFL knows, it’s marketing. You cannot say that kind of thing in San Francisco.

From my perspective, this was perfect. I had someone to cheer for and someone to root against.

But it turns out that the Culliver case was not that simple. He made the offensive remarks during an interview with radio host and comedian Artie Lange. The radio host described it as a “goofy interview” in which he asks all sorts of “stupid” questions. That’s not an excuse, but it does put the remarks in a different light.

And then there was the apology:

"The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel," Culliver said in a statement released by the team. "It has taken me seeing them in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart. Further, I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience."
If it’s not the best apology ever, it’s close. The most important thing in the apology is what he didn’t say. He didn’t utter the classic phrase, “If anyone was offended.” And he didn’t offer any excuses. He called his own words “hurtful and ugly.” He didn’t tell us that he is really a good person. And he promised to learn and grow from the experience. Following up on his apology, he issued this statement:

“As an African American male, I should know better. Hate and discrimination have a lasting effect and word matter. I also have a responsibility to myself, and especially to my young fans to be a better role model. The kids who look up to me and other athletes are the future of our country, and our future deserves better than fear, hate and discrimination…I was wrong, and I want to learn how to make it right. That’s why I reached out to an organization called The Trevor Project…No child should ever feel like they are less than anyone else, and God has put me through this storm so I can learn from my mistakes and help make sure no child has to feel that way, again.”

My guess is that the Forty-Niners had their PR people working on this, but I am still impressed with his willingness to take responsibility for what he said and grow from the experience. Sounds like a stand up guy to me.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Ray Lewis and Bad Theology

“He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” 
Matthew 5:45 

“Love your enemies, do good, lend expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great and you will be called children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
Luke 6:35-36

Thirteen years ago outside a Super Bowl party in Atlanta, Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker were stabbed to death by someone (or more than one person) in a group that included Baltimore linebacker and future hall of famer Ray Lewis. We know there was an altercation. We know that at least some of them sped away from the scene in Lewis’s limousine. We know that he told everyone not to say anything. We know that the white suit he was wearing was blood stained and has never been found. And we know that eventually he was given a deal by prosecutors and pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in return for his testimony against others in his group who were eventually acquitted.

Since then, Ray Lewis has turned his life around. He is in many ways a model citizen. His teammates see him as a role model. And he is often described as “a committed Christian.”

In a taped interview that aired during the Super Bowl, CBS sports analyst and former teammate Shannon Sharpe observed that the families of the victims have said that they find it painful to watch Lewis “being celebrated by millions.” Sharpe asked, “What would you say to the families?”

Lewis responded with an answer that was also a statement of his faith: "It’s simple. God has never made a mistake. That’s just who He is, you see.... To the family, if you knew, if you really knew the way God works, He don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory. No way. It’s the total opposite."

In other words, if Lewis were not a good person then he would not have been successful. His success proves that he is not guilty. In other words, people get what they deserve.

And just so that we are clear, Ray knows, really knows, the way God works.

The Super Bowl is often an occasion for bad theology. There are always more than a few players (and fans) who thank God for favoring their team, or blessing their effort, or in some other way choosing them for this special reward. But this goes way beyond the usual.

It’s not just bad theology; it’s evil theology.

If we believe Ray Lewis then we have to believe that Jesus was mistaken when he said that God is kind to those who are wicked and ungrateful, or that God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. And if we believe Ray Lewis then we will have to reject the Sermon on the Mount and most of the Gospels . . . just for starters.

Theological narcissism is bad enough, but the real evil comes when we look at the implications for the victims of that double murder thirteen years ago. If God chose to glorify Ray Lewis, did God also choose death for Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker? If we believe that God controls reward and punishments and “never makes a mistake” then they must have gotten what they deserved.

The rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor. Because God rewards goodness and punishes evil.

It is natural for those who have been successful to claim divine favor, so that success becomes evidence of moral and religious superiority. Ray Lewis’s faith in his own goodness has a strange parallel in the objections raised two hundred and fifty years ago by the Duchess of Buckingham after hearing the followers of John Wesley preach about God’s grace. “Their doctrines are most repulsive,” she wrote to a friend, “and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetu­ally endeavoring to level all ranks, and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the com­mon wretches that crawl on the earth.”