Saturday, November 29, 2008

Obama's New Cabinetware

So far Obama's reappointed Gates at Defense, named a centrist at Treasury, and announced Paul Volcker as an advisor. And Hillary is the next Secretary of State.

What this says is that he's being pragmatic and actually centrist in his picks. He's not appointing old school liberals looking to party like its 1933 or 1965 again. That's good.

What this also says, to me, is that he's a man who will probably figure it out as he goes along. He's not a man with a vision or a real plan. I thought he had a vague plan that he outlined during the campaign. There were times I heard him and thought for sure this guy would be the most liberal president I've seen in my lifetime. I am not sure he's going in that direction given some of these picks.

All in all, I think that's a good thing given that the policies he outlined during his campaign are disastrous. From tax the rich to universal health care to leaving Iraq in 16 months to his gut-busting assurance that every dime in new spending was paid for, each proposal seemed more laughable than the next.

So who knows? My sense is that this presidency is shaping up to an "analysis by paralysis" one. He'll probably have interesting insight into the complexity of each problem and decision we face but he'll likely offer little of substance to navigate through it. In other words, he knows the problems. He just won't know exactly what to do about the problems. At least he'll give a good speech doing what he'll do.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Bible’s Making Sense to Me Again

Over the past few months, I’ve struggled quite a bit to read my Bible. I’ve been reading it very critically and very skeptically.

What prompted a mini-revival in my Bible reading is a recent opportunity I had to prepare and deliver a devotional to about 45 men at a homeless shelter in St. Louis last Sunday after serving them dinner. I discussed Romans 13:8-14. I had two points: (1) how we are to love, and (2) how we are transformed by love.

The passage spoke to me and seeing the men also moved me. Most of the men I spoke with were reasonable but had obviously fallen on challenging times. There is a tendency at times for conservative people to think that they just have to lift themselves and take advantage of opportunities. In reality, a lot of people in that situation have a form of mental illness and cannot viably do that. We are to be compassionate and empathetic and not needlessly exhort people to accomplish what they cannot. Nobody prefers a homeless shelter to a normal family life.

When I am going through challenging times, my tendency is to be very flippant about my faith. This is not good it’s just me being realistic about myself. Everyone is different but for me I find that when I am preparing for teaching I feel a responsibility to read it for what it is – God’s Word. When I am having a down period, reading the Bible in isolation without the benefit or input of a community, can lead me to be critical.

This is a reminder to me that the Word of God is not just words on a page. The Word is to be lived out in the context of community. It’s not just an intellectual exercise of trying to make it sensible from a philosophical or apologetic standpoint, although there’s a place for that. I am starting to feel renewed again by God’s Word as I have opportunities to serve. I pray that I will continue to be transformed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Team of Rivals

As Obama starts picking his cabinet, a lot of news has come out about his love of the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book is about the behind-the-scenes quarrels that occurred between Lincoln and his cabinet members. The lesson of the book is that Lincoln was secure enough to pick people who disagreed with him and would challenge him. It’s typical for leaders to surround themselves with “yes men.” This is a flaw in a lot of leaders I’ve known in various settings.

One of the things about Barack Obama that strikes me is that he is very analytical. He is very good at breaking down an issue and thinking about it from different perspectives. This makes for a very good analyst and consultant and can make for a very good leader.

One of the things I don’t see in Obama, unlike Lincoln, is a very deep reservoir of philosophical thought and reflection. He doesn’t seem to struggle with the very deep questions of human existence. He seems to have a general pop knowledge of philosophy. I think he is, in many ways, a product of his age.

None of this is necessarily a knock against him. It’s just an observation. We’ll see how these character traits play out in his presidency. My sense is that he will probably be very pragmatic with a heavy sense that government should tackle a range of problems. I disagree that government is a good solution provider but I understand why men like Obama appeal to it in this day and age. Whether he is a big government activist remains to be seen. Being somewhat pragmatic, he may be tempered by the negative reactions markets will inevitably have to big-government ambitions. Big government and pragmatism don’t often go hand in hand.

I sense we live in a time where it wouldn’t hurt us to have a president who held deep philosophical thoughts about the big forces in motion that are shaping the world at this time. From the advances of technology and sciences and the moral issues they raise, to changing demographics worldwide, to the revival of fundamental religious belief around the world, to the nature of governments, the nature of good and evil in mankind and how it plays out every day, the challenge of pluralism, truth, and meaning and how it shapes our interaction. It wouldn’t hurt for a leader to see things from a deeper, big-picture philosophical perspective that incorporates thought from times other than your own.

On the other hand, I realize that such a man probably wouldn’t get elected in a modern western democracy. So for now, we have to be content to have a president who is analytical, who seems secure in his own skin, and who is content to read pop history by Doris Kearns Goodwin and adapt some of its banal lessons into his presidency.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Whatever it Takes

President Obama said he would do “whatever it takes” to revive the economy in an interview last night. Should I take this to mean that he’s going to allow prices to adjust, companies to fail, industry to retool, and have the patience to wait? I’d hold my breath but I already know the answer to such a foolish rhetorical question.

As government steps in and throws money at an ailing economy, and as we “fix it!”, we can still keep our senses of humor. Unfortunately, government doesn’t have an outside pot of money standing by for such an occasion as this. Money is a fairly fixed entity at a given point in time. It’s either printed or it’s obtained by the government via tax receipts or through U.S. Treasury bond offerings. Money flows in the economy through various institutions at various rates.

While this may be supremely boring to most people, it is important to understand as we embark on this course. Government, in doing “whatever it takes,” is going to have to either print more money or sell a lot more T-Bills. Printing more money tends to lead to inflation. Borrowing more money, at this point and on top of what we already owe, means we have an obligation to pay the principal plus the interest back at a future time.

In addition, it is going to have to come from foreign sources. This is not a good thing in either the short or long run. When Granny has a T-Bill she collects her principal and proceeds to spend it here. The likelihood that she will spend it in America is high. And this is good. Foreign investors do not spend as high a proportion of their money in America for obvious reasons. This is not good.

I’m normally not a deficit hawk, so to speak. Maybe this is needless to say given that I’m spending so much of my time blogging about it but I am very alarmed by what we are doing. Not only are we sinking ourselves further into debt, we are simultaneously seeing our new president make new domestic spending pledges for health care, education, energy and others. In fact, we need to cut spending on these things and in other areas such as the military. Cutting spending is not something you’d intuitively want to do. But we are at a point where the gap between what we want to do and what we have to do is getting wider and wider by the day.

Let’s hope that Obama surprises all of us and defines “whatever it takes” as more than a short-sighted, people-pleasing pledge that only exacerbates the longer term challenges we face. I’d hold my breath but…well… I gotta breath!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Economic Populism And Its Discontents

Yesterday, President Bush gave a speech at a G-20 summit that was heartening. He reiterated his support for trade and warned nations not to over-regulate because the free market still works. Indeed it does.

I’ve been very concerned about the railing against the free market and against trade. This is usually advocated as an attack on greed. Of course nobody likes greed. Greed is not a good thing. But earning a living and accepting more money rather than less when you can is not immoral.

During the campaign, Obama repeated the simplistic “we tried deregulation” mantra over and over again and it didn’t work. This is easy for him to say. But what he actually means and what policies he will enact that will solve our problems are vague, which is not surprising for Obama. Is he suggesting a massive new wave of regulation? Or, that in general regulation is preferable to deregulation?

Of course there are sensible regulatory frameworks. But what we need now are tweaks, not an overhaul. My fear is that Obama’s instincts will lead him to throw the baby out with the bath water. Free trade is a good thing. This is so obvious that I feel almost silly having to write it.

The Republican candidates this year were a cause for concern to me. John McCain’s promised crusade against Wall Street and corporate greed, combined with his obvious lack of basic economic knowledge made me cringe at times. It seemed he recast serious economic issues in his usual terms of heroes (the American People) and villains (the greedy Wall Street types who preyed on them). This is more cartoonish than a serious analysis of what is a complex problem. I didn’t find Mike Huckabee’s rhetoric on the issue comforting. Sarah Palin doesn’t seem to really know enough one way or the other. And the only guy who does seem to understand it is Mitt Romney, but he’s unelectable.

Let’s hope that conservatives find their bearings on the free market. A market reveals the prices that individuals are willing to pay for goods and services. Unnecessarily interfering or distorting prices through regulation does not best advance the general welfare of a nation’s citizens. There certainly are some markets where the price signals are distorted for one reason of another. But inefficient markets are the exception, not the rule. Regulation and protectionism only help politically connected groups over others without the same political clout.

America is the land of opportunity and not the land of parochialism and tribalism. Conservatives join in the regulation and protectionist chorus at their nation’s peril.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Money Hole

A friend just sent me a hilarious link about this bailout nonsense.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

The Wall Street Journal reported today that Henry Paulson has abandoned his original plan to buy troubled assets from financial institutions and will now focus on the nation’s struggling consumers.

Since the original plan was crafted only a few weeks ago, this doesn’t give me that pleasant warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with knowing you’re in good hands. What has changed so dramatically in the last few weeks?

This whole situation is like the Saturday Night Live skit with the financial guru, Oscar, who just shouts: “Fix It!”

I get the sense that Paulson is making it up as he goes along. I’m all for tactical changes in real-time to ensure strategic success and ultimate victory. But what is the strategy here? It’s also not clear to me why our elected leaders are so deferential to Henry Paulson on a project of this scale. Anyway...

Economies go up and down over time. In this case, credit was too freely given, asset prices were bid up because of it, and people are unable to pay back the money they were lent. The only way to get out of this is for prices to come down and for people to scale back what they buy and what they owe.

Nobody likes a recession and it seems that nobody wants to wait for a market correction. I know I don’t. I want it fixed now. For me, the value of my 401K is half of what it was. My home value has gone down. I am somewhat worried about my job. Nonetheless, there is no other alternative we have than to be patient at this time.

I expect liberals to barrel down a government “Fix It!” path. Traditionally, conservatives have held the line on these things. Let’s hope they begin to do so again.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Buddy Can You Spare $25 Bazillion!

House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi is eager to give the auto industry $25 billion to help them avoid looming disaster. And why not? How about we simply give them blank checks and have them tell taxpayers what they need? At this point it’s all funny money and it’s all a joke anyhow.

If Conservatives are going to come back from oblivion, support for this type of spending needs to end. I am hopeful that President Bush will not mark his final two months by approving a bailout for Detroit on top of what’s already been done for Wall Street.

Companies who produce poor products that don’t sell tend to fail. And that is as it should be. Bailing companies out will only prolong the agony and delay the inevitable.

The previous bailout, which I absolutely did not support, at least had a case. When credit markets freeze up, an economy can go into a tail spin very rapidly. A credit freeze negatively effects business across industries. It has potentially wide ranging consequences. Having said that, again, I did not and do not now support it. I don’t know where the $700B figure came from for that. And I don’t know why it had to be done in warp speed.

However, bailing out specific companies and industries is beyond indefensible. Jobs will be lost in the American auto industry and they should be. They lack vision, produce poor cars, and have too high a cost structure to compete. Government bailouts of this sort sets a precedent that is frightening. This is not bailing anybody out. Instead it just prolongs the necessary pain and delays the eventual remedy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Big Government: No. Effective Government: Yes.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan proclaimed that government is not the solution, government is the problem. In 1996, Bill Clinton proclaimed that the era of big government is over.
And yet, big government has persisted and its growth shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

How can conservatives stay true to their core principle that government is not the answer to every problem and yet acknowledge that government is a part of society?

My suggestion is that conservatives recast the debate. Government should at the very least be held accountable. It should be effective. It is not. Rather than making sweeping generalizations, conservatives should introduce measures that require government to be held accountable and to produce results. This should include concrete measures as well as a public relations campaign to target, as appropriate, areas where government employee unions obstruct progress for effective government.

One model for effective government that conservatives should look at is the state of Virginia. I lived there briefly while Mark Warner, a Democrat, was governor. I've got to say the guy did an incredible job in managing government effectively. He did his job.

John McCain’s promise to “name them and shame them” with respect to pork was a good one. It should be applied as part of a conservative “effective government” mantra. Government is a part of life. We can and should take steps to make it effective.

Monday, November 10, 2008

No Free Lunch: Economic Growth and Public Works

Way back when, a young President named Bill Clinton suggested that America needed a new wave of public investment. Before him there was Jimmy Carter. Before him there was… well you get the point. Flash forward and you can hear certain voices including President-elect Obama calling for public works.

Every time a Democrat wins it seems the clarion calls us to reinvigorate our public infrastructure. And every time we have to again explain why there is no free lunch.

Investment in public infrastructure tends to yield a significant return when the infrastructure is at a low level. For example, if there is poor transportation between major hubs of commerce, this can hinder trade and economic growth. In this case when a road is built commerce will benefit and there will be a high return on public investment. People can now trade more efficiently than they could before such an investment. This was true when Eisenhower undertook the building of the national highway system.

At this point in our nation’s history, building new roads and alternative modes of transportation are unlikely to yield significant economic gains. Trade and commerce are not clearly hindered by a lack of roads or train or access that could be remedied by more public investment.

I suggest that Conservatives not be knee jerk in their opposition to maintaining existing public transportation assets. Conservatives have to be willing to pay to maintain what we have and we often fail to support urban policies that will allow for necessary funding. This shouldn’t be the case.

However, conservatives should confront Democrats who suggest they will grow the economy by growing public works and public investment via increased government spending. Such spending often diverts money in the form of taxes or deficit spending from more productive uses of it. There is no free lunch. We should point that out and not join in the clarion call.

Obama and Stem Cells

Obama is poised to reverse the current ban on stem cell research. This debate has always been interesting because of how it so clearly juxtaposes two basic visions of morality. On the one hand, there is the seemingly pragmatic view that this research can lead to the saving of human lives. Why should discarded fetus’ go into the trash when they can be used for research? This might be more compelling to you if you had a relative with a disease that could be potentially cured down the road.

On the other hand, the ‘wrong is wrong’ type of view posits that the ends don’t justify the means. Life is sacred. To use fetuses in this way is initially wrong because abortion is wrong. Plus, this may actually give an incentive to advance abortion all for the cause of the advancement of science.

My sense is that America is generally a pragmatic country. We tend to support things because they work or may work in the here and now and not because they are morally right in a more abstract, religious sense. If the two correlate, and they often do, than great. But if they don’t we tend to be pragmatic.

That’s a shame. There is a great cost when a people can’t stand on principle and call what’s wrong -- wrong. I understand why stem cell research will move forward. I just don’t like it.

There are pockets of conservative support for stem cells. This is a bit puzzling because conservatives are well aware of the idea of unintended consequences. A respect for the sanctity of life is an idea worth conserving. Stem cells are not a guarantee, there are alternatives, and this may prove a false hope. We certainly know that the idea does not advance the cause of life that is so essential for a well ordered and compassionate society.

For a great article on this I’d refer you to the following:

Friday, November 7, 2008

What Would Reagan Do?

The Heritage Foundation has a link on its homepage asking this question alongside pictures of Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. These are the heirs of Reagan according to Heritage and probably Fox News. They are generally entertainers and make a good living chronicling the foolishness of the liberal left. And thanks to liberals, there’s certainly a good living to be made in that pursuit. They are one of three general types of conservative.

You also have intellectual conservatives such as George Will who has the sort of classicist “Greatness of Rome” perspective. They love Edmund Burke as well. For them to be conservative is good because there is much that is good to conserve. Newness may excite the young but conservative ideas are proven and time-tested. This group tends to be agnostic and sometimes they gravitate to atheism.

Finally, there are the religious right conservatives to whom being conservative is sort of self-evident without the nuanced intellectual, philosophical, or historical underpinnings of the second group. For this group being Christian and being Conservative is sort of self-evident.

There are also the free-market economic conservatives. However, all of the groups basically share a general support of a capitalist, free market economic system at this time. There are only subtle differences in this area.

Reagan somehow managed to masterfully form a coalition with these seemingly disparate groups. If you think about, he achieved quite a feat. It’s probably telling that the WWRD on the Heritage site is a subtle twist on WWJD because Reagan is, for many contemporary American conservatives, what Jesus is to Christians.

I find myself somehow between the second and third group. The bombast of a Hannity is certainly entertaining. But I know that in the long run it’s hurting my cause in the same way that Jerry Falwell did in the last generation.

I am a conservative Presbyterian who believes the Bible is the inerrant Word of God but I am not a literalist on everything I find in the Bible. I find things such as “Creationism” to be unnecessarily simplistic and at times, I hate to say, embarrassing. Yet, I don’t believe in Darwinism or that all we can know for certain is that which science reveals. The Bible is true and yet we would be foolish to not read the ongoing gains in human knowledge as giving us greater insight and clarity into what God is doing and has done in His creation.

In many ways the genius of Reagan is that he somehow enabled people to project their own views and dispositions on to him. People see him as they want to see him. This is actually very similar to Obama who is appealing for the same reason. It is very clear to me that in order for Conservatism to move forward we must break with Reagan. A return to Reagan will yield no better results for the conservative than a return to the New Deal would yield for the modern liberal. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, “The times they have-a-chang-ed”.

A Dose of Reality: Iraqi Style

Interesting recent article in that bastion of conservatism called Yahoo! News:

It states that Obama may have to adjust his promise of a 16-month withdrawal timetable from Iraq. That’s good news if he does. The cold, grim reality of military logistics always made such a timeline laughable. I find myself just shaking me lil' ole head when I hear it even though I know we’re in an age where politicians sort of just say stuff.

We’re coming down the home stretch in Iraq, I think. By any measure things have turned around there. Now is not the time to screw it up. Too many talented and noble people have sacrificed and given themselves to this cause to leave it now, whatever you may have originally thought about it when it began.

Obama’s transition from saying stuff – to – doing stuff is underway.

Greed, Gordon, and the Bear

It’s only been two days since America elected a new president and the Dow is already down 10 points.

There are obviously other reasons specific to the daily economic news that is contributing to the decline. Hopefully today the market will rally and this "market down again" routine won't persist. But the realization that Obama really is the new president isn’t helping the market. When Obama promises to essentially soak the top 5% of income earners to redistribute their wealth should it be surprising that the markets would react?

“Paying taxes is patriotic” as sayeth Joe Biden. Or is it true that “greed is good” as sayeth Gordon Gekko?

What would you be doing right now if you happened to be earning over $250K a year? Unrestrained greed is a killer of the soul. But it’s also true that we’re to be good stewards of the money we earn. Avoiding taxes is a major sport in America. Nobody enjoys or seeks out ways to pay higher taxes.

Hopefully, in the days ahead Obama will demonstrate the pragmatism his media cheerleaders attribute to him. He can start by retracting the self-defeating "eat the rich" tax proposals he made during the campaign. Otherwise, all of us greedy market investors will need to make peace with the bear market that follows.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Who Am I? How Did I Get Here?

Ms. Rachel Maddow will be hosting a segment on bipartisanship tonight. The theme: Obama has promised to be bipartisan – but – will the Republicans let him? The political spin is already starting on MSNBC and it only took two days.

Every so often you wonder how people get to host a TV show. Ms. Maddow’s bio on the MSNBC site informs us that she has a degree from Stanford, a PhD from Oxford, and has worked for Air America. She also lives in two places, Massachusetts and New York with her partner. Well, saddle up and get her in the host chair!

It will be interesting to see what the conservative GOP remnant does. Will it be the old Bob Michel approach of go along and get along? This is the “in at 10 and out by 4” routine. We can't just sit back and do nothing.

Will it be the Al Pacino “take a flamethrower to this place” routine? We can’t just throw bombs at Obama for the next 4 years.

Or, are we going to think about what we stand for and have a Newt Gingrich type of contract with America for the next generation? Clearly we need to provide alternatives that resonate with voters.

Ms. Maddow is apparently not planning to interview any actual Republicans currently in Congress. But who needs the other party in a “bi” discussion. Certainly not Ms. Maddow. As a talk show host, you can usually pull it off if in one of two ways. You can be an entertaining ideologue or you can be fair, informative, and open to other views. It doesn't matter which as long as you know your niche. Ms. Maddow and MSNBC fail on both counts.

Ain't Enough White Guys

On Tuesday night I watched the election returns come in at a gas station that also happens to sell cigars. These cigars by the way are not Phillies Blunt or Swisher Sweets. We’re talking Padrons, Ashtons, Rocky Patel’s, Olivas, and even Illusiones and Tatuaje’s, which are my personal favorites even if they are hard to get. If you’re a Cigar Aficionado you’ll know that these cigars are the best of the best. It’s odd to get cigars like this in a run of the mill Phillips-Connoco gas station while watching Obama win state after state with about 15 other white guys all puffing away.

As we watched it occurred to a few of us that America’s changing. It seemed pretty obvious that several of Obama’s platforms didn’t make a lot of sense. Specifically, Obama’s 95% Robin Hood type of economic tax plan. How could he expect people earning over $250K to sit there and take a tax hike on the chin? Wouldn’t they shelter their money somehow? Aren’t they the ones who can invest? How do you grow an economy from the “bottoms up” as Obama is so fond of saying? I don’t believe any of us, with the exception of the gas station owner, earned more than $250K. Who out in America is buying this? Why are they buying this?

One guy made a comment that Obama is going to make us a Matrix society. We’ll all plug in to the government’s dashboard and sit back as it solves all of our problems. Can’t make your mortgage payment? How much do you need? Having problem with healthcare? Government is on the case. How about $700B to pump up credit markets? Why not? Maybe government is going to give us all money and bail us out if need be. Obama, you know, is going to give us an even bigger tax cut than McCain would have. At the same time he’s going to take out a scalpel and save enough so that all his new spending proposals are paid for. Wow! It all sounds too good to be true and yet America bought it.

Even bigger than the head spinning specifics is Obama’s desire to unite us. Unfortunately, the things that divide us are not trivial and petty unless ideas don’t matter and principles are irrelevant. The charge of socialism that was leveled against Obama is not unfounded even if it’s waved away with the brush of a hand. Typically, when a liberal talks about unity they mean you, the conservative, need to come over to the good and right-thinking left side of the spectrum. He promises to hear us. Time will tell. Typically, in a good faith effort to woo those who disagree with you, you move in their direction. You graciously invite them in with specific overtures.

So we’ll see what Obama gives up in good faith. We’ll see if Obama takes the initiative and moves in a centrist direction.

The problem with all of this is: What does it mean for Obama to move towards the middle or center with these policies? What exactly is the center? Conservatives need to figure out what they stand for. Some feel we need to ‘go back to basic principles’ while others feel we need to ‘move forward and adjust to new realities’. However we proceed, it's obvious to me that there ain’t enough white guys to simply ignore the broader changes that are going to increasingly impact national elections.

As somebody who is “conservative” I have a hard time pinning down what that actually means anymore. Clearly, we have to appeal to more than the cigar smoking white guy in a gas station crowd.

The purpose of this blog is to discuss how conservatives can begin to define themselves starting with one man’s journey to figure it out. Over time I plan to look at issues ranging from immigration, foreign policy, economy, entitlements, church and state, law and judges, and others as they come up. Hopefully, you can join me in this discussion.