Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Importance of Incentives

Those who know me know that I have an unhealthy addiction to talk
radio. I don't discriminate much in my listening habits, I'll listen
to conservative, progressive, book talk, baseball, whatever. I find
the combination of dynamic radio personalities and often ridiculous
callers to be a recipie for first rate entertainment. My fiancee (and
almost any everday American) disagees, so I am limited to listening to
it when I am in the car alone... which happens to be about 97% of the
time. So, needless to say, I get a healthy (?) dose of it everyday.
My go-to station lately has been 850 KOA, which is Colorado's version
of the famous station of my hometown Cincinnati, home of the Reds and
the ever entertaining Willie Cunningham, who my step-dad once called
in to yell at on air for calling liberals "baby-killers". Not that I
don't enjoy listening to conservative talk radio, which by-and-large
is way further right of center than I would claim to be, but for the
sake of my sanity as well as my propensity to be fair and balanced
(not unlike my favorite news network), I sometimes turn to Colorado's
Progressive Talk radio station.

It's funny what one can notice when they are listening to a program,
or to anyone for that matter, if they don't have the "everything you
say is right" filter on. The blatant untruths I hear across the board
when listening to this station is sometimes nothing short of
laughable. The primtime personality of  Colorado's progressive talk
radio station, Mario, is an interesting and bombastic fellow, who
refuses to pronounce "Colorado" like an American, and is never in
short of completely fallacious and ridiculous ideas.

His latest gem was his show a few days ago, which was completely
devoted to defending the recently defeated "tuition equality" bill in
the Colorado House. The proposed bill would have allowed undocumented
residers of Colorado to attend Colorado schools and pay in-state
tuition. Mario went at length to emphasize that this was a "black and
white issue" ; to oppose it would be simply to be oppose the dreams of
innocent children.

What Mario refuses to consider is what incentives such a bill would
provide for parents in Mexico considering illegaly crossing the
border. Just as I would have taken a much closer look at Colorado
schools if I knew I could get cheaper tuition here, a Mexican parent
would surely be incentivized to bring their child to Colorado illegaly
if this bill had passed. Here's an idea: let's pass a bill which gives
tuition breaks for naturalized citizens, therefore providing
incentives for LEGAL behavior? I'll put a bumper sticker on my car for
that one. Apparently, Mario thinks that encouraging parents to cross a
raging river and desolate desert (alliteration anyone?) with little
food and water while being chased by law enforcement, WITH THEIR
CHILDREN, is the compassionate thing to do.

Mario, on second thought, this IS black and white issue, I'll agree
with you on that one. I applaud the members of the Coloardo house who
refused to give in to such an ill-conceived piece of legislation.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An Inconvenient Truth About the Economic Environment - Part II

This post is largely in response to a claim made by a reader, Michael. He is a soon to be fellow Miami University alumnus, who pointed out his perception that politicians (particularly speaker John Boehner) tend to oversimplify their assesments of the economy (See response to Feb 17th post). Michael is a bright guy, has the benefit of the education from an ABSOLUTELY first rate academic institution (Go Hawks!), and no doubt has a bright future as an economist should he choose that path, despite his misguided views in some areas - I mean, heck... Krugman hardly ever knows what he's talking about... and the guy won the Nobel Prize! I kid, I kid, Micheal. I do have to say, however, as a supplemental instructor in his introductory macroeconomics course, I did catch him sleeping on many occasions... this may explain some of the holes in his thought process on the matter - but I will attempt do my best to fill them here. So stay awake, Michael!
I think that the perception about politicians’ tendency to generalize complex problems is a fair one. We live in a day and age in which Speaker Boehner knows if he says something that lasts more than ten seconds, the media is going to pick out just a piece of it that will be aired on the evening news, and that’s all the American people will hear. I’m not faulting the media for that, but it just the way things go. Whether or not that means Boehner is ignorant of the complex economics and gray areas which accompany his statements, I don’t know – but if he were to go into a complex explanation of the components of GDP, what role government spending plays in all of it, and how that may or may not contribute to growth, he would probably find most reporters in the room YouTubing piano playing cats on their I-phones rather than listening to his response.
What I believe the Speaker is bringing light to is the fundamental difference in the fiscal ideas between the political right and left. In the age of sound-byte politics and hyper partisanship, Democrats and Republicans seem to retreat in to the corners and be less likely to admit there is a middle ground in these matters.  I’m sure the Speaker knows this, but at the end of the day, he is a politician, not an economist – and moreover, he’s the voice of the republican house majority, as well as the millions of Americans who put the majority there. When push comes to shove, the American people voted in these Republicans based on two observations : (1) They saw spending dramatically increase under the Obama administration (2) They did not see a dramatic recovery.  Simplistic? Yes. Rash? Maybe. Wrongheaded? No – or at least not if there is any truth to all this crowding out stuff we’ve been talking about, or if it’s true that running yearly deficits can have real effects on the economy. Boehner is a conservative first, a politician second, and economist last – so I’m not necessarily faulting him for his over-simplified claims, especially given he will be in the next crate thrown into the Boston Harbor if the Partiers in congress think for one second he advocates increased federal spending (on anything but defense that is).
Sometimes Washington is a place where great ideas go to die. Good policy instead becomes the policy that works best for your viewpont. I’m not being cynical, just realistic about the way things work. But the decision we have to make is do we really want to always give the benefit of the doubt to the government  that  it  will lead us to prosperity? Or should we leave more money in the hands of firms and individuals and hope that consumption, investment spending, and international trade will grow our economy. There’s not a simple story being told here – there is so much at play that politicians will never heed, and probably don’t care about, but there is a clear divide between what the right and the left believe when it comes to this matter.  Perhaps each side believing that there is no middle ground will in and of itself lead us to that middle ground… either that or shutdown the government. Oh democracy, how beautiful.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Who has the last word?

The topic even He wouldn't have dared brought up that night.

Some of my posts lately, it may be noted, do not necessarily hold true to the original intent of this blog. You may have been thinking for example, that talking about a backpacking trip may be an OK, or perhaps even pleasant dinner table discussion, provided your mouth wasn’t full. I admit such topics lack the controversy and spice that all of my thousands of avid readers hope for week after week, given that the blog’s title suggests such contentious material. Well, in order to stay true to the theme, I felt that it was about time that an issue be addressed that would truly be inappropriate for a dinner table discussion; one that may even cause some to stand up and walk away to avoid the topic and discussion. So here it is: abortion – read on if you dare.

I was inspired to think about this issue anew a few days ago, after Lawrence O’donnell, on his show “The Last Word,” passionately defended federal funding of Planned Parenthood. In tears, O’donnell read the email of a woman who pleaded with him to “yell some sense into [the] people” who desire to prohibit taxpayer money from funding the organization.

First of all, I’d like to reiterate what I said months ago in a previous post. I think that politicizing God and religion is a dangerous road on which to travel. I doubt a single person has ever been converted by the argument that God endorses a particular party – and I believe making such a claim cheapens God, and even borders on blasphemy. That being said, I don’t ever like approaching topics like this with the intent of “getting people riled up,” or to put anyone or any viewpoint down – but I think that on certain occasions, the two things (religion and politics) cannot be separated.

I should also disclose where I come from on the matter (which you may have gathered from some previous posts of mine). I am an evangelical Christian, I do believe in moral absolutes, absolute truth, and the Bible to be the divinely inspired Word of God. I realize that I have lost all credibility with many people on the subject after saying this, but I don’t desire to fool anyone by claiming my worldview doesn’t inform my opinion on the matter. I would only say read on, and acknowledge that your worldview informs yours too (more on that later).

The truth of the matter is, anyone reading this post by this point has already decided where they stand on this matter. I’d be quite silly to think that there is someone out there that is on the fence who is going to read this and end up having their minds changed by what I’m about to say. That being said, you faithful dissenters out there, I don’t think that means that we should avoid engaging each other on this issue. Honest and civil discussion even on controversial issues can lead to a mutual understanding which puts both parties in a better place than where they began.

Now that most people have gotten up from the dinner table, let’s discuss.

I could not help but wonder when I saw O’donnell - a grown man and a seasoned political commentator and debator - in tears while talking about this issue: “How have we come to this point?” How have we come to this point where an individual’s right to choose what they want for their life (and others lives) is so sacred that it can make a grown man cry? Choice has been elevated to such a high level that it is actually immoral of me or anyone to claim that there is some over-arching truth, some law of right and wrong that should inform the choice you should or can make.

Many out there claim that science and religion are irreconcilable – that we live in an age of reason, and that there is no room for the superstitions in the Bible or any other “Holy Book.” But on this issue, no one is debating whether or not an abortion is taking a human life or not. Any scientist would tell you that terminating a fetus at any point after conception is ending the life of a human being – I have not said anything controversial yet. Here’s the controversy: it’s not for us to choose whether that human can live or not.

Martin Luther King once said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” I believe King to truly be a gift from God to a society which had things dangerously wrong about what it believed the “moral universe” was. There is so much truth in his statement, and we should always be asking ourselves whether we are living out God’s call for us from Micah 6:8 to “act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [our] God.” But I think that as a society, we are beginning to bend that arc so as to point toward the "justice" that is an individual’s right to live however he or she wants. Many believe that the next great battle of our time is the battle between conservative fundamentalists and those who believe in sacred individual rights.

What if we are bending this arc too far? At what point does this arc snap, and we are left with no moral universe at all? I don’t think that’s what King would have wanted – and I would venture to say that the Reverend would never have agreed with the claim that an individual’s right to choose the way they live their life trumps and absolute moral law in society which exists whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

I am aware that I am treading on thin ice right now with many people - as any exclusivity claim as to an “absolute” moral law is viewed as immoral in our day. At the end of the day, however, every one of us is making an exclusivity claim. One may say when I open up my Bible to Micah and say “God says here that… [yadi, yadi, yada...]” (A very wise claim from God by the way), that I am no longer credible, because I am citing from a book which only I believe is true and they do not – but have you not at this point “opened up your Bible,” so to speak, in saying that the word-view of moral relativism and individual choice is exclusive and authoritative over what the Bible says? I could just as easily say to you: “Close that book too!” My point is that we should both acknowledge that we both have our “Holy Books”, and rather than yell at each other to close them, let’s just think about why we have them open in the first place.

I think that our postmodern society is not necessarily straying away from the idea that there is in fact a “moral universe” of which King is speaking. No, it is instead just redefining what King meant when he said the words. It no longer means the "moral universe" means saying “this is right,” or “that is wrong” – it means : “I am allowed to make up my own mind about that which is right and wrong.” To those who believe the latter, including Mr. O’donnell, I don’t desire to smack you across the face with the Bible in order to enlighten you with my claims to absolute truth, I would just ask why do you believe what you believe? Why is an individual’s choice so sacred, and why do we get to define what is moral and what is not in our society? Those that believe the former can answer such a question definitively, but I fear that everyone else is simply writing their “Holy Book” as they go along.