Category: economics

Sorry, Rush, this Pope ain’t no politician

By Alan Bean

“The Pope here has now gone beyond Catholicism here,” Rush Limbaugh told his radio audience last Wednesday, “and this is pure political.”  

Although Pope Francis wasn’t speaking “ex cathedra” in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (and therefore made no claims to infallibility) he does get to define Catholic teaching.  He is the Vicar of Christ, after all.  At least if you call yourself a Catholic.

A bit later, Limbaugh claimed that “This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the Pope.”

There is some truth to this claim.  Pope Francis has been influenced to a modest extent by liberation theology, an effort by Third World theologians to explore God’s “preferential option for the poor” from a Marxist perspective.  It is orthodox Catholic teaching to claim that God has a heart for the poor.  It should be orthodox Protestant teaching too, and, beyond the confines of American culture Christianity, it is.

But Pope Francis hasn’t been critical of capitalism, as such; his beef is with “unfettered capitalism”.

Limbaugh, correctly, points out that unfettered capitalism doesn’t exist anywhere.  Markets are always subject to some government regulation, the question is, how much.  But the rapid worldwide increase in wealth inequity is a direct result of steadily declining government control of global markets.  Moreover, the “trickle down” school of economics the Pope is critiquing largely endorses unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism. Markets may not be completely unregulated, but Limbaugh and his ilk seem to imply that they should be.

A 2011 poll conducted by Public Religion Research Institute found that 44% of Americans believe Christian values are at odds with capitalism while only 36 percent believe that Christianity and capitalism can be harmonized.  In fact, only 56% of Tea Party enthusiasts think capitalism and Christianity are completely simpatico.  According to this survey, 61% of Americans don’t believe businesses would behave ethically without government oversight.

Capitalism & Christian Values

Not surprisingly, the study found that minority Christians believe the Church should address social and economic issues; white Christians want to hear sermons about social issues, but they don’t want their preachers talking about economics.

Limbaugh’s claim that the Pope’s critique of trickle down economics is “pure political” (sic) isn’t surprising.  The white Christians who don’t want to hear issues of economic justice addressed from the pulpit frequently make the same claim.  “I don’t come to church to hear political sermons,” they say.

They really mean that they don’t want to be reminded about Jesus’s statements regarding about the love of money and the fires of hell.

But how “political” are pastors being when they talk money from the pulpit.  When politicians talk about money they are trying to tell voters what they want to hear without losing support from deep pocket donors.  Politicians from poor, minority districts occasionally talk straight about money; but elected officials with wealthy constituencies (Democrat or Republican) deflect attention whenever possible from  the addiction to unrighteous mammon that has become an inescapable part of the political game.

A Brookings Institute economics values survey from this summer shows that 44% of American white evangelicals describe themselves as economic conservatives.  I suspect most of these people hold trickle down economics in high regard.  Among white Catholics and Mainline Protestants, only 34% embrace the economic conservative label.  But among Latinos, only 7% describe themselves as economic conservatives and only 3% of African Americans are comfortable with the label.  

When American Christians complain about “political” sermons, they are really objecting to prophetic biblical preaching that hasn’t been passed through a political filter.  We don’t hear this kind of talk from politicians or from political pundits.  If preachers don’t give us the biblical perspective we will have to find it for ourselves.  If we take our definition of normality from the political sphere, we can’t read the Bible with comprehension.

White American Christians insist on political sermons.  The kind that reinforce what we already believe.  The kind of that appeal to the handful of deep pocket contributors who keep the church finances in the black.  That’s political preaching, and we can’t get enough.  

Pope Francis gave us prophetic biblical preaching stepped in the ethics of Jesus.  Compare his frank rebuke with the pablum we have come to expect from politicians and the difference is stunning.   Pope Francis is an astute political philosopher but, thanks be to God, he ain’t no politician.

Why Cato was so wrong about welfare

By Alan Bean

Researchers at the Libertarian Cato Institute made headlines last month by claiming that welfare recipients are a lot better off than minimum wage workers.  A lot of people want to work, the study suggested, but when you can make the equivalent of $35,000 in benefits, you’d be crazy to take a job on the lower rungs of the wage ladder.

Ergo, government largess has made poor people dependent on the dole.

It took several weeks for cooler heads to realize that Cato’s “research” started with a conclusion and went looking for facts to back it up.   (To see just how flawed the Cato study was read Josh Barro’s post in the Business Insider below.)

By the time Archie-and-the-debunkers fire up, of course, no one is paying attention, so the study’s authors won’t have to face the music and dance.  People who work in ‘Think tanks’ are rarely paid to think; they are reimbursed for providing facts to match the prejudices of whoever pays the piper.

Josh Barro has been called a libertarian, a conservative and a liberal, but he’s actually a center-right thinker who doesn’t buy anyone’s orthodoxy.  That’s the hopeful thing about blogs; in theory at least they free opinion from the constraints of moneyed interests . . . assuming that anyone is listening.

I have never understood the appeal of libertarian thought.

Sure, applying simple market principles to the war on drugs can be highly instructive.  And the libertarian suspicion of our costly imperial-military machinery resonates with me.

But the idea that government intervention inevitably makes things worse is horribly simplistic. (more…)

Is the “fiscal cliff” debate a proxy for a conversation about race?

By Alan Bean

Are we talking about the “fiscal cliff” because we are afraid to talk about race?  Imara Jones of Colorlines thinks so.

This is not your standard, “hooray for our side” culture war trope; the argument here is that the blue team is just as responsible for muddying the waters as the red team.

According to this account, Republicans gained power in the late 1970s, and have held power ever since, by arguing that programs designed to help the poor are morally debilitating gifts squandered on lazy black people.  The argument proved so successful that Democrats challenged it at their peril.  As Jones points out, it was a Democratic president that ended welfare as we know it.

Among Republicans, the idea that black people vote for Democratic candidates because they want welfare is deeply entrenched.  But the success of the Republican “welfare is toxic” argument is best reflected in responses to the common opinion poll question about whether welfare does more harm than good.  When the question for first asked in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in 1995, 72% of whites, 57% of current or former welfare recipients, and 52% of African Americans agreed.  The numbers haven’t changed that much in intervening years.

It is difficult to argue that the government needs to do more to help poor people of color when even the recipients of government assistance think welfare is counterproductive.  Barack Obama knows that, given the current state of public opinion, Democrats can’t win this argument.  On the other hand, a majority of Republicans support the idea of raising taxes on the rich, so that’s the way the argument is framed.

It might be easier to argue for compassionate budget priorities if “welfare as we know it” was replaced by programs dedicated to providing meaningful work to unemployed individuals who aren’t responsible for raising young children.  Unfortunately, the jobs our economy creates for unskilled workers come with poverty wages.  Walmart routinely counsels its employees in the art of applying for government-sponsored poverty programs; they know most of the jobs they advertise don’t pay a living wage.    (more…)

The “theology” of a Lubbock Judge puts Texas back in the spotlight

Lubbock County Judge Tom Head talks with Texas Governor Rick Perry earlier this year. Head made comments about President Barack Obama this week that is drawing reaction from both sides. (Stephen Spillman)
County Judge Tom Head greets the Governor

By Alan Bean

Lubbock County Judge Tom Head wasn’t looking for national publicity when he set up an interview with the local Fox affiliate.  Head just wanted to plug a 1.7% tax increase that would fund an expansion of the sheriff’s department and put more money at the disposal of the DA’s office.

But Tom Head is now famous, for the moment at least.  Perhaps the County Judge thought the voters needed a really good reason to open their wallets.  How about this scenario.  There’s a good chance that Barack Obama will get himself elected (God forbid), and if that happens we’re gonna have as an old time insurrection, right here in Lubbock County.  And Obama, he’s not gonna like that so he’s just likely to call in UN troops, an army of foreign occupation, and force his will on the good people of Lubbock County at gunpoint.  And if that happens, I’m gonna stand boldly in front of those UN personnel carriers and say, “You ain’t comin’ in here!

I am paraphrasing.  You can find Mr. Head’s exact words here (and in several thousand other places).  His paranoid screed went viral.

Lubbock attorney Rod Hobson (who helped shut down the ill-famed Tulia drug bust) was so impressed by the judge’s rhetoric that he hung a UN flag outside his office.  “When I saw the story I thought, once again, Lubbock is going to be the laughingstock of the entire nation,” Hobson told a local TV station. “What makes it so sad is he is our elected county judge, who is in charge of a multimillion-dollar budget. That is scary. It’s like the light’s on, but no one is home. … I’d just like to think he’s off his meds.”

A few days ago, Fort Worth columnist Bud Kennedy expressed his relief that Missouri’s Todd Akin was deflecting attention from notorious Texas weirdos.  This morning he admitted that the prurient interest of America has returned to the Lone Star State.  To put things in perspective, Kennedy offers a little background on Mr. Head.

Folks, please understand. In Texas, we don’t choose our county judges or commissioners based on any qualifications besides who’s good at dominoes.

In the orchard of targets for TV joke writers, Texas county officials are low-hanging fruit.

Head, 63, is an administrator with only a psychology degree. He worked first in law enforcement as a Texas Tech University campus officer and city marshal, then as an elected county justice of the peace.

He moved up to county judge in 1999 and led his own mini-rebellion against Obama in 2009, posting literature and cartoons mocking him on a hallway bulletin board before commissioners removed them.

One of the posters showed jail book-in photos of nine arrestees in Obama T-shirts. Seven were African-American.

Asked to explain himself to the Lubbock Avalanche-JournalHead boldly shared his Christian witness:

I cannot divorce my theology and my philosophy from my office.  I’m pro-life, I’m pro-gun rights and if you’re gonna vote for me and if you’re not for gun rights, then you probably don’t want me in office.

In other words, this isn’t a story about a single Loony-Tunes (check out his tie in the picture above) judge in West Texas–the voters of Lubbock County like this guy.

But wait a minute here, what possible connection could there be between Mr. Head’s “theology” and his paranoid take on Obama and the United Nations?

The judge is likely referring to Agenda 21, an uncontroversial fluff-document signed by 178 world leaders, including President George H.W. Bush, in 1992.  The idea was to encourage the efficient marshaling of scant natural resources in times of famine and natural disaster.  Or that’s what we originally thought.  Listen to Glenn Beck’s dispassionate take on Agenda 21:

Those pushing … government control on a global level have mastered the art of hiding it in plain sight, and then just dismissing it as a joke.  Once [internationalists] put their fangs into our communities and suck all the blood out of it, we will not be able to survive.

Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center explains the paranoid perspective on Agenda 21 in remarkably restrained language:

Under Agenda 21, these activists argue, the expansive American way of life, in which everyone can aspire to the dream of owning a house with a big yard and two cars in the driveway, will be replaced by one in which increasing numbers are crammed into urbanized “pack ’em and stack ’em” apartment complexes, and forced to use mass transportation and live according to a collectivist ethos. Once the UN’s radical utopia is achieved, gun ownership will be forbidden and the UN will raise an army intent on terrorizing the populace in the name of social order and equality, sustainability and smart growth — all words that anti-Agenda 21 activists believe signal the true intent of the UN’s plan.

The tattered remnants of the John Birch Society are all over this stuff, which would be irrelevant were it not for the fact that Tim LaHaye, author of bestselling “Left Behind” series, is a proud JBS stalwart.  LaHaye and co-author Jerry Jenkins sprinkled Agenda 21 paranoia throughout their end times thrillers.  I distinctly recall sitting in a well-attended Sunday School class in Tulia, Texas (70 miles north of Lubbock) in which Mr. LaHaye’s eschatology was embraced as the gospel truth.

But this isn’t just about West Texas.  Texas is riddled with Anti-UN nuttiness.  Ted Cruz, the man expected to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison as Texas Senator, is mad as hell about the imminent UN destruction of American sovereignty.  In the mind of Ted Cruz, the Antichrist is George Soros, but the general thrust mirror’s the views of Beck. Cruz recently printed this rant on his personal blog:

Agenda 21 attempts to abolish “unsustainable” environments, including golf courses, grazing pastures, and paved roads. It hopes to leave mother earth’s surface unscratched by mankind. Everyone wants clean water and clean air, but Agenda 21 dehumanizes individuals by removing the very thing that has defined Americans since the beginning—our freedom.

Cruz is particularly concerned that the UN plans to abolish the game of golf.

All of which explains how a simple-minded Texas judge could see opposition to a US president and an innocuous (and largely meaningless) UN document as theological issues.  When the saints of God are raptured to heaven and the Antichrist (known as Nicolae Carpathia to Left Behind enthusiasts) comes to power, United Nations troops will spring to his assistance.

How do we explain this craziness?  Or maybe it isn’t crazy.  When the majority of people in a given locale (say, Lubbock, Texas) share a common delusion maybe it’s the unbelievers who are crazy.  Who gets to define normal?

Tom Head’s fears about Barack Obama reflect the deep dread many Americans feel about the future.  Where are we heading?  What is happening to America?  What’s it all about, Alfie?

How else do we explain the Tea Party’s undimmed enthusiasm for free market fundamentalism?  After the financial industry lied and swindled the world to the brink of financial catastrophe, how can anyone believe in the natural goodness of unregulated markets?

Because it’s all we have.  If the free market won’t save us, who will?  If the free market won’t save us, the glory that was America disappears.  It’s Ichabod time!

How do we explain why a great nation like the United States of America has a crumbling infrastructure and can’t pay its bills when the folks in collectivist dystopias like Canada, Norway and South Korea seem to be faring so much better?

We could blame the fact that we spend more on defense than all the other nations of earth combined.  We could point to our bloated prison system.  We could acknowledge that America is now a wholly owned subsidiary of a consortium of international corporations.

But that doesn’t sit right somehow.

How much better to believe that America has been hijacked by ultra-liberal socialist big-spenders like Barack Obama who give their true loyalty to Allah and/or a One World dictatorship.  That way, we simply turn the reins over to pro-business folks like Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz and an unregulated market will gradually drag us back to prosperity.

Sound good?

If you’re Tom Head, it does.

Why Paul Ryan doesn’t have an Ayn Rand problem

By Alan Bean

Now that Paul Ryan is Mitt Romney’s choice for VP, you will be hearing a lot about Ayn Rand, probably not enough to impact the election, but a lot.  Many will ask how a devout Catholic and family man can lionize a woman who despised God, rejected the “altruistic” teaching of Jesus, and called the family an artificial and unnecessary creation.

The easy answer is that Paul Ryan doesn’t really like Ayn Rand at all.  In fact, he is now saying that he rejects her atheistic philosophy without reservation.

For the tiny handful of Christian conservatives who may have been concerned about a potential VP embracing the religion of Antichrist, that should suffice.  There simply aren’t enough voters in our brave new America who know enough about Ayn Rand’s glorification of reason and selfishness, Roman Catholic ethics, or the teaching of Jesus to see a problem.

Ryan’s recent protestations of love for Rand’s economic philosophy were the stuff of romance.  In 2005, Ryan told the Atlas Society:

There is no better place to find the moral case for capitalism and individualism than through Ayn Rand’s writings and works . . . I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are.  It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff . . . The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.

It’s hard to disavow an endorsement like that.  Either he was lying in 2005, or he is lying now.  Fortunately for Ryan, it doesn’t matter.

(more…)

Krugman calls for New Deal-style public works project

By Alan Bean

My thanks to Judge Ron Chapman for bringing this interview with economist Paul Krugman to my attention.  Krugman thinks Barack Obama will lose the election if he doesn’t get his economic message straight, but that’s not what interests me.  In his new book, “End This Depression Now”, Krugman calls for the creation of a New Deal era public works program designed to put able-bodied men and women back to work.  I have been advocating something similar for several years and, although the proposal doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in the current political environment, it is nice to hear a prominent intellectual agreeing with me.

Krugman: Obama May Lose Re-Election

There may not be much President Obama can do to improve the economy between now and the election, but telling a clear story about why it remains weak could mean the difference between victory and defeat this November. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman fears the Obama team is getting that critical narrative wrong.

“They’ve tied themselves up in knots because they’ve bought into this notion that it would sound wrong to admit that they haven’t been able to do everything that they really should have done,” Krugman told TPM in an interview following the release of his new book, “End This Depression Now!” “It’s incredible — they can’t quite make up their minds on whether the theme is that Republicans are standing in the way of doing what has to be done, or things are really good and America’s back on track. The problem is that you can’t perceive both of those lines at the same time.”

Team Obama’s narrative — that the stimulative measures he took were precisely what the country needed, and as a result America is on the mend — is based on a gamble that the economy will be in a steady recovery come Election Day. But if outside factors diminish the outlook, it will leave voters with the impression that Obama’s approach itself was the problem, rather than the vigorous Republican resistance that forced him to scale back his ambitions.

“What they should be saying is, ‘We have the right ideas and we’re pursuing them as far as we can given the opposition from Republicans,’ which would be more or less the true narrative,” Krugman said. “They have decided that it sounds like weakness to say that we haven’t been doing everything that we should be doing. And so they have instead opted to always pretend that what they thought they were able to get is also exactly what they should have done. So they’ve never conceded that that first stimulus was too small, or that there really should have been a second round of stimulus. And that means that if things go badly, they end up owning it. They can’t say, ‘Don’t blame us, blame the do-nothing Congress.’”

In his book, which hit shelves May 1, Krugman laments the “shadow of economic catastrophe” we live in, and the opportunity cost of huge stockpiles of underutilized human and physical capital. The government should put that to work, Krugman says, first by reversing the state layoffs of teachers, firefighters and other employees, and then ideally with a New Deal-style public works push to rebuild American infrastructure by putting the unemployed to work. But even though GOP opposition makes that all but impossible, Krugman believes it’s a mistake for Obama not to go the extra mile and at least tell voters what more he would do if only he could.

“There is a political danger to Obama, which is that [Mitt] Romney can go around saying, ‘The economy is still lousy,’ which is true,” Krugman said. “And the fact that Obama has never made a really clear case for his own economic leadership hurts. Now, I still think Obama will probably win, because there are other issues, but they have created a trap for themselves on the economic policy front by allowing themselves to own a weak economy in a way that they shouldn’t, because a lot of the problem has been tortured opposition from the Republicans.”

The White House’s narrative developed amid strong political headwinds. Pressure not only from Republicans but many Democrats and even administration officials, along with a broad establishment consensus, compelled Obama to pivot to deficit-reduction, after the Democrats’ 2010 congressional losses and in the face of an exploding national debt.

When the ensuing negotiations with Republicans collapsed and nearly took the U.S. economy with it, Obama turned to his current narrative. Krugman worries that the story’s not strong enough, and there’s still some chance that the economic recovery could slip and toss the election to the GOP.

“We have a slowly developing cycle of an improving economy and improving household balance sheets that lead you on the road to recovery,” Krugman said. “But obviously a lot can go wrong if there’s some kind of major setback — problems in Europe could still hurt the United States, or a spike in oil prices as a result of what’s happening in the Middle East. … We could have morning in America still. But probably not in 2012. So I don’t think there’s going to be a strong enough recovery to make it easy for [Obama].”

Boycotts of ‘Stand Your Ground’ group

by Melanie Wilmoth Navarro

(Note: This article was updated on 4/10/12.)

In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing, groups are boycotting the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC is the well-funded conservative organization behind the controversial “stand your ground” gun laws.  Organizations like Color of Change have pressured groups to stop funding ALEC, and NPR reports that major U.S. companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have recently dropped their ALEC memberships:

“Two of America’s best-known companies, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, have dropped their memberships in the American Legislative Exchange Council, a low-profile conservative organization behind the national proliferation of “stand your ground” gun laws.

ALEC promotes business-friendly legislation in state capitols and drafts model bills for state legislatures to adopt. They range from little-noticed pro-business bills to more controversial measures, including voter-identification laws and stand your ground laws based on the Florida statute. About two-dozen states now have such laws.

Florida’s stand your ground law has been cited in the slaying of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teen who was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on Feb. 26.”

In addition to stand your ground and voter ID laws, ALEC supports a number of disturbing initiatives, including prison privatization, anti-labor union bills, and Arizona-style immigration policies.  Other major companies that fund ALEC include Walmart, Kraft Foods, AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, UPS, and ExxonMobil.

Let’s continue to put pressure on these organizations to divest from ALEC.  Hopefully, they will follow in the footsteps of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Co.

UPDATE (4/10/12):

Several more groups, including Kraft Foods, Intuit (the maker of Turbo Tax), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and McDonalds, have decided to withdraw support for ALEC.