Monday, October 29, 2012

Energion Political Roundtable Question #11: Foreign Policy

Our penultimate topic is the purposefully broad topic of foreign policy and how we ought to think about that issue in light of what should be our ultimate and I would argue exclusive loyalty to the Kingdom of God. As mentioned this topic is awfully broad and more than can be properly dealt with in one blog post. I will link some of my prior posts on my main blog dealing specifically with Christians and the sword further down in this post.
One of the myriad topics that was brought up was the disaster and apparent cover-up in the handling of the Benghazi consulate attack and subsequent murder of four Americans. I think it is safe to say that the more we find out the worse it sounds, not quite to the level of Mogadishu and "Blackhawk Down" but in the same vein. It ought to go without saying that a foreign policy that puts citizens in harms way ought to be prepared to come to the aid of those citizens when necessary regardless of one's positon on warfare. This should also serve as yet another lesson in the decades long failed experiment of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East with one set of unintended consequences after another. Someday perhaps we will come to our senses and stop trying to force an American political culture onto an ancient people who are not interested in emulating our way of life. In a nutshell the Obama administration badly dropped the ball and four American died but the whole situation is part of the broader mess that is the result of American tinkering with the Middle East since the end of World War II.

The bigger question has to do with foreign policy and warfare from a Kingdom perspective, specifically how we should view American foreign policy and our involvement in war as Christians who live in America. Of all of the places where I diverge from the traditional party line among conservatives, theological and political alike, none is more stark or leads to a more visceral reaction than my theologically non-resistant and geo-politically non-interventionist (or as I call it "Constitutional") position. You would think that suggesting that Christians, even those in America, should be peacemakers who live peaceably with all men, was tantamount to heresy!

This is also a topic where we need to divide up the question because we are not talking about one issue but two. First, is war ever justified? Certainly from a secular standpoint there are cases where it is in the national interest to go to war. The declaration of war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor comes to mind. Given that Germany then declared war on the U.S. it naturally follows that the U.S. would get involved in the war in Europe. As I have written elsewhere, World War II is merely the continuation of World War I following a lengthy intermission (yet another example of the unintended consequences of the interventionist U.S. foreign policy) but it comes the closest to a completely justifiable war even if all of our methods are not (i.e Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki). God has clearly put the sword in the hand of Caesar and Caesar is all too happy to wield it. I can easily make a "just war" argument provided I don't bring theology into the equation.

That is fine and dandy. Caesar always has and always will go to war until all the powers and kings of the world bow before the King of Kings. That is not all that relevant to this conversation which takes place between the five of us in an intentionally Christian context. Whenever I have this conversation online regarding Christians and war and the unhealthy and unbiblical love affair with American military might that is on display daily in the church, those conversation invariably veer off into two directions. One is the "exception that overturns the rule" tactic that often revolves around a few passages like Luke 22:36 where Jesus tells His disciples to buy a sword and the examples of centurion and other soldiers who are not told explicitly during the brief recorded conversations in the New Testament to stop serving as soldiers in the armies of Rome. The other is the playing of situational ethics where the argument is centered around "Yeah, but..." where there is a tacit acceptance of what the Bible teaches followers of Christ about peacemaking and enemy love but then a situation it trotted out to put one in a position of either embracing warfare or suggesting that World War II was a bad idea, normally accompanied by "Should we have just stood by while Hitler gassed the Jews!". For my response to some of these questions, see Questioning the World War II Trump Card , The Situation Trumps The Scripture? , There Are No Right Circumstances For A Christian To Go To War and my lengthy series on Christians and the sword.

When you carve away all the rhetoric about national security and patriotism and American exceptionalism you are left with the simple and obvious fact that participating in war often means directly or indirectly taking the life of another. That is what war means in spite of efforts to paint it as noble or necessary. Those Christians who take the life of another in war fall into two categories. Either you have a Christian who is killing another Christian or you have a Christian ending the life of someone who will in turn languish for an eternity in hell. At the most basic level that is what participating in war means for the follower of Christ.

On the first category, it is without question that there are innumerable examples of Christians killing other Christians to satisfy the demands of the state. When I think about this it makes my heart ache. Jesus told His followers that people would know we were His disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35). What does the world think when it watches Christians killing one another? That we surely love each other enough to kill one another when the national interest of one nation collides with the national interest of another?

On the second category it is undeniable that Christians who serve in war are often killing the very people Jesus is sending us to evangelize. The idea that the last thing an unbeliever would see is a Christian pointing a gun at him is so disturbing that it ought to give every single Christian pause. That so many Christians don't see this as an issue (so long as the one pulling the trigger is on "the right side" of course) speaks volumes to how far we have gotten away from the teachings of Christ and how deeply the leaven of the world has gotten into the church.

Faced with those two choices I would rather face persecution in prison like Mennonites in World War I faced in America in unspeakable conditions at the hands of the U.S. government or even death before I would take up arms to kill a fellow believer or an unbeliever who is heading for an eternal hell. I can say without hesitation that actively serving in the military is incompatible with and in fact the very antithesis of the Gospel which at the core is a living example of loving our enemies.

When Jesus said we cannot serve two masters, that doesn't apply just to money. Money is just a symptom of the pull of the world on those who have been bought with a price and called to walk as He walked. When we divide up our loyalties and violate the commands of the one to satisfy the desires of another we are guilty of a grievous transgression. When we encourage others to do the same on our behalf we are just as guilty. Even when not actively participating in war, supporting war has the same basic impact without getting blood directly on our hands. It is a tragic irony that of all the religious groups in America none is more consistently and enthusiastically supportive and even encouraging when it comes to warfare than American evangelicals.
What makes this conversation so difficult are two culturally dominant assumptions that strongly influence our worldview when it comes to American foreign policy.

1. As Americans we always assume that the rest of the world is as enamoured of our foreign policy as we are and if they aren't it is because they are ignorant or evil.

2. As Christians in America we always assume that American foreign policy is in keeping with God's will even when that foreign policy results in the death of innocents. Sure Romans 13 commands us to be subject to the governing authorities but surely He didn't mean for us to apply that to countries that aren't democracies with capitalist economies!

These two assumptions, both false, are the foundations of American foreign policy and evangelical support for the same. Without setting these assumptions aside it is impossible to have a genuine and honest conversation about how the church should think and behave, first and foremost, as citizens of the Kingdom that happen to live in America. Given this reality I am starting to really question whether Christians in America can objectively and faithfully be engaged in the civic and political process at all or if we would not instead be better served by just serving and loving our neighbors. There certainly is plenty to be done for the Kingdom without getting entangled in politics and like addicts or alcoholics our only recourse might be complete abstinence.

An important additional issue to deal with is the relationship between America and Israel, a relationship that is further muddied by a confused eschatology that leads to many American Christians believing that they have a sacred obligation to seek to use American military might to "support Israel". Henry at Energion mentioned this in his question and it is perhaps the single most important factor in American foreign policy especially when looking at the relationship between the church in America and the American state. I don't have the space here to dedicate to this conversation but it is an important one.

As voters we are faced with the unenviable choice between two men with very similar foreign policies, one who has shown no hesitation in using drones to assassinate people, including an American citizen, and often beats his chest in triumph because "he got bin Laden" versus another man who promises to spend even more on American military might and seems eager to start yet another preemptive war in the Middle East. Given this choice I will be voting for a third party candidate that rejects military adventurism as foreign policy, either Gary Johnson or if possible writing in Ron Paul which is my first choice. It is a sign of the odd world of evangelical political conservatism that a man who is an actual evangelical believer, married to his first and only wife, an OB/GYN who is staunchly pro-life and as conservative as they come was rejected by Republicans because he was insufficiently pro-war.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Energion Political Rondtable: Education

Our next question has to do with education and as is pointed out in the question this is an issue that gets virtually no play at in the Presidential debates and endless advertisements. The question is a big one: How can we go about improving the quality of education in this country?

As I said, "education", defined as spending money at the Federal level on various programs that have nothing to do with actual education, has gotten almost no attention in this election cycle. Little surprise there as both major candidates seem fine with a system that takes money out of local school districts, filters it through the Federal bureaucracy and then passes it back out (after taking a deep cut) to those same school districts and expecting the people that had this money seized from them to be duly appreciative at getting their own money back with Federal strings attached.With jobs and the economy dominating the discussion, "education" is a non-issue but this is short sighted, as is the mindset that see more Federal intervention and spending as synonymous with improving education.

I fall into the camp that believes that there is no Constitutional role for the Federal government in compulsory public education. If there ever was an issue that falls under the 10th amendment, it is education. I can hardly think of a worse system than to have bureaucrats in Washington D.C. sucking funding out of states that they have never been to and then telling the parents of those states that they know best how to educate their children.

The face of the Federal "education" racket is the U.S. Department of Indoctrination Education (hereafter DoED). Small by Federal government standards, it is one of the most untouchable of departments. Raised to a Cabinet level position by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, the Department of Education is the capstone to a disastrous Presidency. In a Presidency marked by an energy crisis, an economy in disarray, the shameful Iran hostage crisis and botched rescue attempt and an ignominious defeat to Reagan, you would be hard pressed to find a malignancy that lingers from that era quite like the DoED.

The reach of the DoEd is massive, outsized for the size of the department and ridiculous in scope. As the Cato Institute notes:

The department will spend about $98 billion in 2012, or $830 for every U.S. household. It employs 4,300 workers and operates 153 different subsidy programs.

That quite a lot when you consider that most of that money is as noted above going back to the same communities it was taken from and all of that spending has minimal impact when it comes to improving performance. It is the perfect bureaucratic monster, a bureaucracy that demands more and more money for education while not actually doing a thing to help educate Americans. As the chart to the left shows, also from CATO, Federal spending in constant dollars has gone up steadily for decades for K-12: "from $12.5 billion in 1965 to $72.8 billion in 2008". I am not great at math (I went to a public school after all) but that sounds to me like over five times as much spending. Would anyone care to argue that the quality of education has gone up? Now imagine a business that spent more and more money each year for stagnant results. A business like that would die away. The DoED demands more money every year and typically gets it. No politician wants to be labelled as not caring about education so both parties keep writing checks.

In the Presidential race, there are pretty dramatic differences regarding the DoED, especially when you look at the libertarian candidates. Ron Paul spent zero time beating around the bush and is an advocate for complete elimination of the DoED. Gary Johnson also calls for the elimination of the DoED. Mitt Romney doesn't even mention it but he does talk about more choice and more local control. Barack Obama? Like everything else, he calls for doubling down on yet another failed, inefficient and unconstitutional Federal government program.

The politics of education is a different beast the more locally you look at it. At the state level here in Indiana we have a pretty drastic difference between the two major candidates. Republican Mike Pence speaks a lot about education, emphasizing flexibility and choice, two important issues in my state which has some of the most homeschool friendly laws in the country and also one of the best voucher systems around. Pence believes in rewarding high performing schools. On other hand the Democratic candidate (and I had to search for his name because I have honestly never seen a single sign or bumper sticker for him and can never remember his name) John Gregg barely mentions education on his webpage, throwing out some random ideas about spending more on early childhood education, full day kindergarten and a tax credit for working families to help pay for daycare (not sure what in the world that has to do with education but whatever). In a fun pop culture twist, Rupert Boneham of Survivor fame is running for governor as a Libertarian. His platform is pretty similar on education to Mike Pence.

As a general rule education should be as local an issue as possible. School choice, vouchers, alternative schooling and competition are the ways we need to be moving even if those common sense solutions are opposed by the biggest road block to educational reform in existence, the teachers unions. The best thing the Federal government can do for education is to get out of that business entirely.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Energion Political Roundtable: Voter Resources

Our latest question has to do with being an informed voter. Question #9 is...

An informed electorate is important in sustaining a democracy. We’ve just completed a presidential and vice-presidential debate, and will see two more presidential debates. I’ve just read some factchecking from the vice-presidential debate which suggested that accuracy was a bit scarce. What specific recommendations would you make to individual voters as to how they can become informed voters? Feel free to list and/or link to resources.

How does a voter cut through the baloney and get to the facts? In some ways this is easier than ever. No longer are we restricted to the three major stations (ABC, NBC and CBS), our local paper and the radio that all approached the news with a left leaning worldview. Now we have a dizzying array of news sources. Starting with conservative talk radio and then exploding with the internet a voter can get a myriad of opinions. Candidates tweet, Facebook, blog, Youtube as fast as they can. Any comment by a candidate is immediately rebutted by their opponent. The "news" comes fast and furious, often without being confirmed or vetted. This gives us the opposite problem where we now have so much information that it can be nearly impossible to sort through it. So what to do?

First I think we need to admit that we all have biases and second that we all are being marketed to, even by our favorite candidates. Elections now more than ever are about marketing, a candidate selling him or her self to the voters. The old saying "How do you know when a politician is lying to you? His lips are moving" has never been more true.

I personally stay away from sources like Jon Stewart, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, etc. Those individuals are entertainers and have no issue with exaggeration, hyperbole and demagoguery. Beck especially is someone that I think is completely untrustworthy and more than a little mentally unstable. I try to read thoughtful sources on both sides.

My main "liberal" sources are the Huffington Post, the New York Times and most media reports that come out of the AP and CNN. I also listen daily for about 40 minutes to Morning Edition and All Things Considered on NPR. While NPR is unquestionably liberal in every sense, it is also thoughtful and

My conservative sources are National Review and the Wall Street Journal opinion page. Unlike the stereotype that people often try to paint me with I do not watch Fox News and in fact do not even have cable or satellite TV. I also read a fair number of blogs and follow people on Twitter that often link to good news stories. Finally, I also read the papers from several think tanks, primarily the Libertarian CATO Institute and the more traditional conservative Heritage Foundation.

The most important piece of advice? Be informed and be open minded. Don't wall yourself off. Know what other people are saying even if you disagree.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Energion Political Roundtable: Judicial Nominations

This week our question is less policy and more legacy. Question 8 is...

One of the ways in which a president shapes the future of the country is through appointments to the judiciary, and especially the Supreme Court. How do you see each candidate shaping the future of the court, and why is this important? (If you are supporting a particular candidate, focus on that one.)

Bills can be overturned, executive orders rescinded but a judicial nomination, especially to the Supreme Court, has lasting impact on our nation that is hard to measure. While it gets almost no play in our here and now, "what is in it for me" society, the way a potential President views the court should be a critical issue for voters.

Who Will Join This Group?
One of the most powerful functions of the President, an overlooked power that has far a longer impact on shaping American history than pardoning a turkey on Thanksgiving, is the Constitutional role of appointing members of the Federal judiciary and especially choosing replacements for the Supreme Court.The next President will quite possibly need to replace a Supreme Court justice. Four of the current justices were born in the 1930's and are obviously near retirement or death. Replacing even one of them could could an enormous shift and since two of those Justices (Breyer and Ginsburg) are solidly liberal along with swing vote Kennedy, chances are good that the majority on the court could move from a split between conservatives and liberals to a solid conservative majority. Conversely a liberal President could replace these aging justices with far younger justices who will serve for many decades to come. The importance of judicial nominations should not be underestimated.

Exhibit A for the importance of the Supreme Court is the legal monstrosity known as Roe v Wade (and yes I have read the entire decision). In this perversion of the Constitution, the Supreme Court not only overturned a Texas law but created whole cloth a "right" for women to abort their children. This decision has led to challenge after challenge, it has contributed to the poisonous circus of confirmation hearings and worst and unforgivably led directly to the murder of tens of millions of innocent children.

Unfortunately, thanks to that paragon of honesty and virtue, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and his shameful attacks on Robert Bork, we now have a system where people put forth as the most qualified legal minds who will occupy a lifetime seat on the highest court of the land somehow have no opinion and indeed have never considered any actual legal cases based on their answers to the circus known as the Senate Judiciary Committee. Like so much of our political world, nothing substantive is debated and we get  lowest common denominator discussions instead of dealing with the real, "big issues" of the nation because everyone is terrified of saying something frank and honest and then being skewered for it for the next news cycle. Because of this unfortunate reality I don't see any real hope of future nominees that will speak honestly about the issues.

So this is a pretty straightforward one. The next President should nominate judges that will operate strictly within the framework they have been given. Not creating laws or "rights". Not interfering in issues that the Supreme Court has no business in. If an individual wants to write laws, let them run for a legislative position. A Supreme Court Justice, really any Federal judicial nominee, should be painfully aware of the limits in their role.

That sounds great. What does that mean? Well we need to go to the Constitution to answer that question because that is where the framework for establishing the Federal judiciary is found. In Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution we see the powers granted to the judicial branch.

Section. 2. The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority; — to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls; — to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; — to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party; — to Controversies between two or more States; — between a State and Citizens of another State ; — between Citizens of different States; — between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects. 

In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make. 

The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed. 

What is most interesting in this listing of powers is that what we commonly think of as the primary function of the Supreme Court, i.e. judicial review, isn't explicitly stated and certainly not really implied. Like most powers of the Federal government the Federal judiciary was designed as a home for issues that could not be decided at the state level: treaties, case involving ambassadors, disputes between states or citizens of different states where a neutral court was required. One other area was placed in this jurisdiction, the crime of treason. When you compare that listing to the myriad ways that the United States Supreme Court gets involved in our lives, it should be apparent that we have a major problem. Every law that is passed in this country at some point is subject to review by the Supreme Court and likewise subject to being upheld, reversed or modified for any or no reason at all.

All that to say that, although cliched and overused, nominees should be strict Constitutionalists. That means that they understand and respect the Constitution and the means by which is it applied and how it is supposed to be altered (i.e. via amendment, not judicial fiat). Unfortunately we don't have much to work with. Of the major and semi-major candidates, only Mitt Romney has a specific section dealing with the courts (see here). We have a pretty good idea of what President Obama thinks of the Supreme Court and it is definitely the wrong direction. Gary Johnson doesn't speak directly to the issue but given his stance on limited government you can certainly infer what he would do. The court issue really comes down to two visions, a vision of limited scope for the Supreme Court and another of an activist court that sees the Constitution as silly putty to be molded and modified as the intellectual elite sees fit. Presuming for a moment that Romney would do as he says, a big presumption, a Romney court nominee should go a long way toward pulling back on the size and scope of the government.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Energion Political Roundtable: JOBS!

The latest question, number seven if you are keeping count, has to do with...

Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!

This is a crucial issue, not because it really should be but because that is all we have been hearing from the candidates. Romney claims he will put in place policies that will "create" x number of jobs. Obama claims that his trillions in deficit spending "saved" millions of jobs that otherwise would have been lost. Both expect us to believe that a President someone has a magical ability with just the right policies to "create" jobs. In reality the only thing the government can really do, modern day neo-Keynesian theory aside, is impede job growth.

The question we have been tasked with answering is as follows:

What are the key policies that should be implemented in order to [create / facilitate the creation of / not impede the creation of] jobs? As always, feel free to compare your ideas to those of the candidates.

That is a big one.

First the major candidates. Romney's "jobs plan" is mostly targeted around getting government out of the way and reducing the barriers to free enterprise, competition and economic activity: lowering taxes, reducing regulation, etc. Pretty standard Republican fare that typically is forgotten about five minutes after they are sworn in. The Obama plan, like most of his other "plans" mostly says Mitt Romney is evil and that we need more and more government tinkering in the economy. President Obama seems to think that jobs are best created with government "investment" (i.e. Solyndra) versus Mitt Romney who claims to favor government getting out of the way. Gary Johnson as a Libertarian takes the Romney approach and goes much further, proposing an elimination of the IRS and replacing the income tax and business taxes with a tax on expenditures, eliminating Federal government subsidies (i.e farm subsidis and other targeted tinkering) and drastically reducing the amount of spending at the Federal level. To summarize, the Johnson approach is a drastic rollback of government interference in the economy, the Romney approach a far more moderate rollback and the Obama approach is to double down and increase the role of the Federal government in the economic activity of the United States.

No surprise I would be most in favor of the Johnson approach with the recognition that the Romney plan is probably more realistic. The Obama plan, a plan that thus far has given us four years of 8% unemployment and $5 trillion in new debt, has managed the feat of being both a short term and a long term disaster but one that has appeal because many people perceive that they are getting something for nothing (i.e. the Obama phone). We can't afford what he has already done and we certainly can't afford four more years of it.

The great myth that is sold to us like economic snake oil is that government spending helps "the poor" at the expense of "the rich". That notion only works if each action taken by the public sector happens in a vacuum. In reality, when you get away from the hallowed halls of ivory tower academia, common sense would tell us some basic economic facts. Money that is spent by the government is either a) taken from the private sector so it can't be used to invest in actual jobs or b) borrowed against future revenue that further sinks this country into debt. We don't create jobs by taking money from Oklahoma, filtering through some government bureaucracies in D.C. and then sending it back to Oklahoma in the form of public sector jobs. That is just shuffling money around. Instead jobs are created when people invest and take risk, meeting a need for capital in return for the potential for profit. Profit is a dirty word but it is the engine that drives investment and investment is what creates jobs.

A perfect example of this was the Keystone pipeline debacle. The plan was to build a pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, carrying oil from the oil sands in Alberta to the southern U.S.for refining. This would have had several positive results. First, jobs would have been created to build the rest of the pipeline and these are not McDonald's jobs but rather in industries like welding, construction, trucking, engineering, surveying, etc. All high paying, good jobs. Second it would have created additional permnent high paying jobs when completed at the refineries. Third it would have helped in our goal of energy independence, not a completely realistic goal but still every bit helps. Alas it fell victim to the environmental lobby and has been pushed off again until after the election. President Obama would obviously rather borrow more money to fund unionized public sector jobs, jobs for people in a natural and loyal constituency of Democrat voters, than not spend money we don't have and permit the private sector to engage in profitable economic activity that would create jobs and add to the tax base. This is what happens when you have an ideologue with no private sector experience deciding to micromanage the economy.

The private sector has an incentive to come up with innovative products and services at competitive prices. If an employer in the private sector is inefficient or has a bad product, they either adapt or go out of business. In the public sector, notions like efficiency, profit and competition are completely foreign. Little wonder that virtually everything the government does it does inefficiently. Even the vaunted "bailout" of the automakers is a farce because to make that happen bond holders got shafted and the UAW got rewarded.

So the last thing the private sector needs is advice from a bunch of public sector bureaucrats that have never had a real job being lead incidentally by a President who has never had a real job and has as his most significant achievement prior to his inexplicable election as President an incredible string of "present" votes as a legislator. The role of the government in the economy should be, like the Hippocratic oath, to first do no harm and preferably stay out of the way. The less the government gets involved in the economy, the better off we would all be.

At a more fundamental level, the issue is far more stark. It is not and should not be the role of the Federal government to tinker with the economy, to "create jobs" or any of the other nonsense that we have been spoon fed over the years. The real purpose and role of the Federal government is by design very limited, limited to the point that the founders saw fit to specifically state that any powers and authorities not specifically granted to the Federal government belong to the states or the people. In reality what we have is a Federal government that controls every aspect of our life and has created a permanent underclass of dependents who rely on that same government for food, for housing, for education, for transportation, for money, for cell phones, etc. When jobs are scarce people line up and ask Uncle Sam plaintively "Where are the jobs? Save me!" The jobs debate is just one more example of how the Federal government has perversely exceeded its original and proper role and mandate and morphed into a monster.