Friday, January 23, 2015

Podcast of the Week (1/18-1/24, 2015) William Lane Craig on Neil deGrasse Tyson

If you don't subscribe to Reasonable Faith's podcasts, you should. William Lane Craig is one of the foremost Christian philosophers and a skilled debater. Also, one of his books is free on Amazon this week, go get it: On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision

In this episode, Craig gives commentary on a recent interview (on someone else's podcast) with physicist-atheist Neil deGrasse Tyson. You can just read the transcript at the link if you'd like.

Tyson: "Here’s the thing. Every time I talk about God with someone who is a believer, God is all-powerful, and all-knowing, and all-good. Right? Good is a big part of this. And then I look at all the ways Earth wants to kill us. You know, a tsunami takes out a quarter-million people. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Tornadoes. Floods. And I add all of that up. Either the God is not all-powerful or is not all-good. But it can’t really be both, given all the ways the universe wants to kill us."

The interviewer tries to call Tyson out on his position assuming moral superiority-- Tyson must be defining what "good" is:

"But don’t we define what is good and what is bad? So we see a tsunami wipe out a whole bunch of people and we’re as human beings going “Wow, that is bad” because we define what bad is. Maybe in God’s brain,eyes, whatever the hell, that is not bad?"

Craig points out the logical contradiction and how Tyson avoids the interviewer's question:
"(O)n the naturalist basis, what meaning is there to speak of good or bad with respect to these disasters? What Geivett points out is that when we say that these things are bad, we are saying they ought not to happen. These things ought not to be. But when you say that, you are presupposing there is a way things ought to be and this isn’t it. But if there is a way things ought to be, that means there is some sort of design plan for the universe and for the Earth that these things are or are not fulfilling. You can’t have a design plan unless you have a designer. So when the naturalist claims that these things are bad, that these things ought not to be, he is implicitly, I think, assuming there is some kind of a designer – some sort of a standard against which these things can be measured. I think that the interviewer is actually making a very good point here with respect to natural evil."

Tyson presents his experience with how Christians argue:
"if you are going to say God actually is good and a quarter-million people dying from an earthquake and a tsunami and other natural disasters and God presumably has control over that and God is good then we have to then say God works in 'mysterious ways.' People only say that when their understanding of God fails them."

Craig (naively, I think) thinks this is a straw man and that most Christians don't really argue like that. (Sadly, too many Christians really do argue this way which is why I think Craig is being naive). He makes the excellent point that Christians/theists should never give speculative reasons as to God's will when events occur:
"When something good happens, the theist doesn’t, I think, necessarily say, 'I know that God did it for this reason.' How do you know what reason he did it for? The reason might not emerge until hundreds of years from now through the reverberation this event sends through human history. We can be thankful for the good things that happen, but I don’t think any informed theist would be so presumptuous to think that we know all of the reasons for which God permits things to happen whether good or bad because these are simply beyond our scope of knowledge as finite creatures limited in time and space and in intelligence and insight."..,
So I would simply say that in going through life we don’t have the ability to make any kind of guesses about why things happen in the world. We are just not in a position to make those kind of judgments. Rather, our responsibility, I think, as the book of Job emphasizes, is to trust God and live faithfully for him through the circumstances that we go through. Maybe some day in heaven looking back we’ll see the reasons why good and bad things occurred, but while we are here in the midst of life, that knowledge is simply not within our grasp."

It's a reminder of Romans 8, God is in control and the message of the Bible is repeatedly that He is working His will even in what we see as unjust, cruel, and difficult circumstances. (See this post on a recent sermon on Joseph. We don't know the end of our personal story any more than he did when in prison.) This has profound implications for our mourning, our complaining, and our treatment of others.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Politics by Aristotle (Book Review #6 of 2015)

There are so many consequential ideas in this book that it's amazing it's not required reading in Western classrooms anymore. The Benjamin Jowett translation is easily accessible in many formats (for free) and quite readable. Perhaps just as it was "lost" to the Middle Ages until "rediscovered" and translated into Latin in the 12th century it is lost to today.

Prerequisites for reading this book are Plato's Republic and The Laws, of which I read the former (my review) but skipped the latter. The Republic is the more important of the two as Aristotle spends much time critiquing Socrates' ideal state and the deficiencies of its description and order. There are parallel themes but the many variations of the basic forms of government are explained more clearly by Aristotle, who is not designing so much the "ideal state" as Socrates was. I will read Augustine's City of God later this year, as both works were influential in affecting future thinking about governments by Aquinas and others which, in turn, affected Thomas Jefferson and the Founders. (This is a helpful article on Aristotle and Augustine by Glenn Sunshine.)

I was surprised how much economics was in this book, circa 350 B.C.. At points, it reads quite a bit like Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. It is hard to believe such a gap in years exists between the two works, actually. I'm also surprised by how little of Aristotle's work is mentioned in traditional books on the history of economic thought. Take, for example, Book II's exploration of the importance of property rights. Part V:
"should the citizens of the perfect state have their possessions in common or not?...Property should be in a certain sense common, but, as a general rule, private; for, when everyone has a distinct interest, men will not complain of one another, and they will make more progress, because every one will be attending to his own business. And yet by reason of goodness, and in respect of use, 'Friends,' as the proverb says, 'will have all things common.'.. It is clearly better that property should be
private, but the use of it common; and the special business of the legislator is to create in men this benevolent disposition."

Aristotle responds to those who would argue for common ownership directed by the State:

"there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property. These advantages are lost by excessive unification of the state...Such legislation may have a specious appearance of benevolence; men readily listen to it, and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody's friend, especially when some one is heard denouncing the evils now existing in states, suits about contracts, convictions for perjury, flatteries of rich men and the like, which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, are due to a very different cause- the wickedness of human nature. Indeed, we see that there is much more quarrelling among those who have all things in common, though there are not many of them when compared with the vast numbers who have private property."

Aristotle understood that greed and avarice were inherent in human nature. People were more likely to act in mutual benefit when property is held privately-- Adam Smith's butcher seems to pick up on this theme. Another benefit, according to Aristotle, was greater "temperance toward women" than when they were held in common as prescribed by Socrates in The Republic.

Conservatives everywhere find agreement with Aristotle in arguing from the wisdom of historical precedent when confronted with ideas that challenge the existing order:
"Let us remember that we should not disregard the experience of ages; in the multitude of years these things, if they were good, would certainly not have been unknown; for almost everything has been found out, although sometimes they are not put together; in other cases men do not use the knowledge which they have." 

In the above I hear echoes of Solomon's "there is nothing new under the sun," and the modern axiom that those who don't remember their history are condemned to repeat it.

One major critique of Socrates' The Republic is that Socrates established law for the Guardians but does not say what he would do for the lower classes. Aristotle argues that if same laws apply, the people would not have any desire to submit to the government. If all property were held in common there would be no motivation to work the fields. This recognition of property rights creating incentives is an important cornerstone of microeconomics and is too often forgotten by modern policymakers.

Socrates' Guardians were destined to rule for life, but Aristotle states this is dangerous. He also points out that if the government is going to fix the amount of property, it should also fix the number of children, and then you start getting into a critique of central planning that borders on Hayekian. He also asks what should be done with slaves and cites the Cretans as having a "wise" policy of allowing them to have the same institutions as freemen but forbidding physical training or armaments among them. There is a wealth of information about the make-up of institutions in various Greek city-states.

Book III, Part XI:
Socrates examines autocracy, oligarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and describes both theoretical and historical variations on all types. In examining arguments for the various forms, I noted that Aristotle often cites the wisdom of crowds that sounds very Hayekian or at least from the 20th century:

 "The principle that the multitude ought to be supreme rather than the few best is one that is maintained, and, though not free from difficulty, yet seems to contain an element of truth. For the many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse. For each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence, and when they meet together, they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses; that is a figure of their mind and disposition. Hence the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them they understand the whole."

There are also explanations for how governments evolve from one form to another. I found these similar to Socrates' explanations of the same. For example, Book V Part IV:
"Governments also change into oligarchy or into democracy or into a constitutional government because the magistrates, or some other section of the state, increase in power or renown. Thus at Athens the reputation gained by the court of the Areopagus, in the Persian War, seemed to tighten the reins of government. On the other hand, the victory of Salamis, which was gained by the common people who served in the fleet, and won for the Athenians the empire due to command of the sea, strengthened the democracy."

Aristotle writes that laws should not be changed frequently as it takes time for citizens to develop the habits intended under the law. Frequent changes undermine both the basic institute of law and the constitution. This is a good reminder for modern Progressives who chafe against the laborious efforts required to change the law. Why were the powers and rules of the U.S. Senate, for example, so bent toward impeding legal changes? Because the founders knew their Aristotle and, like their European forebears, found wisdom in it. (A reminder that Senators in most states were not even elected by the population until the early 20th century.)

Aristotle examines various nation-states' constitutions and weighs their pros and cons. There is a great question in each government of who should rule and how they should be chosen. Popular election is problematic because the majority of the population is poor and likely to take bribes. It's much better to elect people according to some system or measure of "merit," or "virtue." For details, see Book IV Part XV. I am reminded much of Acemoğlu and Robinson's exhaustive work in Why Nations Fail (in a nutshell, their thesis is that nations fail to develop because certain people gain economic power and erect exclusive political institutions to defend their holds. Extractive economic institutions + exclusive political arrangements = lack of property rights and incentives for the majority population, and hence poverty and unrest).

Aristotle mainly describes and accepts political institutions as the present reality, be it tyranny or democracy. All can have positive elements. But he seems to favor certain forms of democracy as the best, which seems to have been the common Greek belief of his day. But anarchic, populist democracies are the least-preferred of all:

Book V Part IV:
"For two principles are characteristic of democracy, the government of the majority and freedom. Men think that what is just is equal; and that equality is the supremacy of the popular will; and that freedom means the doing what a man likes. In such democracies every one lives as he pleases, or in the words of Euripides, 'according to his fancy.' But this is all wrong; men should not think it slavery to live according to the rule of the constitution; for it is their salvation."


Likewise, Book VI Part II:
"The basis of a democratic state is liberty; which, according to the common opinion of men, can only be enjoyed in such a state; this they affirm to be the great end of every democracy. One principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn, and indeed democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just. Every citizen, it is said, must have equality, and therefore in a democracy the poor have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme. This, then, is one note of liberty which all democrats affirm to be the principle of their state. Another is that a man should live as he likes. This, they say, is the privilege of a freeman, since, on the other hand, not to live as a man likes is the mark of a slave. This is the second characteristic of democracy, whence has arisen the claim of men to be ruled by none, if possible, or, if this is impossible, to rule and be ruled in turns; and so it contributes to the freedom based upon equality. "
...
"there is no difficulty in forming a democracy where the mass of the people live by agriculture or tending of cattle. Being poor, they have no leisure, and therefore do not often attend the assembly, and not having the necessaries of life they are always at work, and do not covet the property of others. Indeed, they find their employment pleasanter than the cares of government or office where no great gains can be made out of them, for the many are more desirous of gain than of honor."

Aristotle describes four different kinds of democracy, and apparently favors the first:
"One type of democracy is when farmers and those possessing a moderate amount of property have authority. They govern themselves in accordance with law because their work leaves them little leisure time. They therefore meet in the assembly only as absolutely necessary [to make decisions on matters not covered by the code of law]. A share [in the system of government] is open to anyone as soon as they meet the financial assessment set by law. They cannot be at leisure [for public service in governing] unless there is public revenue [to subsidize their participation]."

He has an apt description of tyrants in Book V Part XI:
"Tyrants are always fond of bad men, because they love to be flattered, but no man who has the spirit of a freeman in him will lower himself by flattery; good men love others, or at any rate do not flatter them. Moreover, the bad are useful for bad purposes; 'nail knocks out nail,' as the proverb says. It is characteristic of a tyrant to dislike every one who has dignity or independence; he wants to be alone in his glory, but any one who claims a like dignity or asserts his independence encroaches upon his prerogative, and is hated by him as an enemy to his power. Another mark of a tyrant is that he likes foreigners better than citizens, and lives with them and invites them to his table; for the one are enemies, but the Others enter into no rivalry with him."

Like Hayek in Road to Serfdom, Aristotle argues for a basic social safety net even in a constitutional democracy with limited government:
Book VI Part V:
"the poor are always receiving and always wanting more and more, for such help is like water poured into a leaky cask. Yet the true friend of the people should see that they be not too poor, for extreme poverty lowers the character of the democracy; measures therefore should be taken which will give them lasting prosperity; and as this is equally the interest of all classes, the proceeds of the public revenues should be accumulated and distributed among its poor, if possible, in such quantities as may enable them to purchase a little farm, or, at any rate, make a beginning in trade or husbandry"
rich should also pay the fees for the assemblies and the religious institutions." 

Likewise, he argues, the wealthy should also pay for the fees for the assemblies and the religious institutions. The role of the state, overall, is to maximize the happiness-- read: utility-- of the population. This seems very 18th century. Aristotle then examines what constitutes this happiness. One aspect reminds me of the epistles of the apostles James and Paul. Book VII Part 1 deals with the relationship of material goods and virtue (emphasis mine):
"Some think that a very moderate amount of virtue is enough, but set no limit to their desires of wealth, property, power, reputation, and the like. To whom we reply by an appeal to facts, which easily prove that mankind do not acquire or preserve virtue by the help of external goods, but external goods by the help of virtue, and that happiness, whether consisting in pleasure or virtue, or both, is more often found with those who are most highly cultivated in their mind and in their character, and have only a moderate share of external goods, than among those who possess external goods to a useless extent but are deficient in higher qualities; and this is not only matter of experience, but, if reflected upon, will easily appear to be in accordance with reason."
... God is a witness to us of this truth, for he is happy and blessed, not by reason of any external good, but in himself and by reason of his own nature. And herein of necessity lies the difference between good fortune and happiness; for external goods come of themselves, and chance is the author of them, but no one is just or temperate by or through chance. In like manner, and by a similar train of argument, the happy state may be shown to be that which is best and which acts rightly; and rightly it cannot act without doing right actions, and neither individual nor state can do right actions without virtue and wisdom. Thus the courage, justice, and wisdom of a state have the same form and nature as the qualities which give the individual who possesses them the name of just, wise, or temperate."

In this I hear Paul's exhortation of contentment in 1 Timothy 6:5-12:
"constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.  But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, andc we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness."

It's worth noting that the Church eventually essentially canonized the work of Aristotle, which had problematic results in the area of science just as much as philosophy (just ask Galileo). But could Paul be agreeing with Aristotle here? Another passage that is reminiscent of Paul comes in Book I, when Aristotle is talking about the natural order, including the relationship between men and women, parents and children, masters and slaves:
"Clearly, then, moral virtue belongs to all of them; but the temperance of a man and of a woman, or the courage and justice of a man and of a woman, are not, as Socrates maintained, the same; the courage of a man is shown in commanding, of a woman in obeying. And this holds of all other virtues, as will be more clearly seen if we look at them in detail...All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women:
'Silence is a woman's glory,'
but this is not equally the glory of man. "  

Another translation I found renders this: "silence is a woman's ornament"- and Sophocles identified as the poet. This immediately reminded me of 1 Corinthians 14:33-35: 
"As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church."

likewise, 1 Corinthians 11:13-15
"Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?"

Long hair (or head covering) in conjunction with silent submission seem to be for her "glory" and Paul affirms this to be true both in the Hebrew Law and "nature," the latter of which is referred to in Politics Book I. Fascinating. 

Aristotle concludes with a look at what the state should do in regards to children and education in order to maximize the future happiness of the citizenry. Book VIII Part I:
"The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives. For each government has a peculiar character which originally formed and which continues to preserve it. The character of democracy creates democracy, and the character of oligarchy creates oligarchy; and always the better the character, the better the government...Neither must we suppose that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole. In this particular as in some others the Lacedaemonians are to be praised, for they take the greatest pains about their children, and make education the business of the state. 
The customary branches of education are in number four; they are- (1) reading and writing, (2) gymnastic exercises, (3) music, to which is sometimes added (4) drawing." 

Aristotle calls for public education provided by the state in contrast to the common policy among Greeks to hire private tutors to teach whatever the client wished. Aristotle channels Socrates a bit in discussing an ideal state where people would be forbidden from marrying and procreating too young, or in having children at too old an age in order to prevent "weak" children incapable of defending the state. Children should be allowed to develop a sort of "meanness" in their early years and parents should properly expose them to the cold in order to develop heartiness. (I'm struck how Nordic cultures apparently follow similar practices while those in Eastern Europe keep their children from the cold as much as possible.) 

The book closes with interesting comments about the proper teaching of music and rhythm to children. The flute is basically dangerous: 
"The flute, or any other instrument which requires great skill, as for example the harp, ought not to be admitted into education, but only such as will make intelligent students of music or of the other parts of education. Besides, the flute is not an instrument which is expressive of moral character; it is too exciting. The proper time for using it is when the performance aims not at instruction, but at the relief of the passions. And there is a further objection; the impediment which the flute presents to the use of the voice detracts from its educational value. The ancients therefore were right in forbidding the flute to youths and freemen... "

This is a classic 5-star book. Everyone should read it, probably in the original Greek. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Book Review #5 of 2015)


Hard Choices
I have read Hillary Rodham Clinton's (HRC) previous memoir as well as a couple biographies of her. This is the third book I have read by a Secretary of State and the third memoir by an Obama cabinet member (Gates' and Geithner's memoirs the others). Secretaries of State write the most interesting memoirs because they get to see the most cultures and both the initial and after effects of American foreign policy. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (HRC) book is fairly sterile, the reader has to occasionally read between the lines to get a sense of whether she sparred with Obama or not. There are occassional flashbacks to her days traveling with the Clinton White House there are few, if any, comparisons between administrations or styles.

Most disappointing for me was that there was very little about how HRC managed her office, particularly when it came time to making tough decisions. Colin Powell and Robert Gates included their own management styles and philosophies in their books. I work in a cabinet agency in state government so I'm fully aware that the cabinet secretary rarely gets involved in micromanaging day-to-day operations but he or she does set the tone for how the cabinet gets things done and it's not clear how deliberate HRC was in her tone.

Obama comes across mostly as "upset" and "frustrated." He is often impatient, not able to get the information he wants. Staffers, when mentioned, come across as young, naive, and reactionary as Gates described them.

Since we know from Gates' memoir and various articles that VP Biden is heavily involved in day-to-day affairs, including foreign policy, it's a bit of a surprise that he does not appear much at all in the book. HRC, running for President, probably does not want to air grievances but that certainly would have helped differentiate her from others in the administration that she was perhaps frustrated with.

This memoir is chronological and geographical, stopping at each place and giving HRC's personal history with the country or region and the events that unfolded while she was Secretary. One of the most intriguing stories involved her decision to assist and grant asylum to Chen Guangcheng who was under Chinese house arrest. Clinton makes some forthright statement about her beliefs on American values of freedom and human rights and the importance of not backing down once the decision was made. She maintains that the peaceful settlement of the Chen crisis made possible only through her great emphasis on prior negotiations and respectful communication with China.

Dealing with Burma and the issues arising around Aung San Suu Kyi was another interesting story. Sen. Mitch McConnell's support of Suu Kyi and his assistance were previously unknown to me, and perhaps illuminate while she did not criticize the Senator by name when she was campaigning in Kentucky for his opponent in 2014. Clinton and McConnell were both furious at the crazed American who swam to Suu Kyi's residence but Clinton also recognized her duty to help the American as his Secretary of State.

While discussing events leading up to the "Afghan Surge," Clinton tells some interesting revisionist history in regards to Iraq. HRC claims she clamored on behalf of UN weapons inspectors for "just a few more weeks" against the wishes of the Bush Administration. She rejects the notion that Congress gave Bush authority to start the war and also regregs "giving Bush the benefit of the doubt" in regards to WMD. The reality is we know that she did not read the CIA's declassified intelligence report (almost no one in Congress did) and she didn't do the investigation she claims to have done. These were all issues in the 2008 presidential campaign, how quickly we forget.

HRC elaborates on the difficult relationship with Hamid Karzai and trying to foster democratic transition in Afghanistan. She takes credit for introducing the late Amb. Richard Holbrooke to Gen. Petraeus and relates that they hit it right off and talked policy for nights on end. Clinton praises her friend Holbrooke profusely (he was an advisor to her on the campaign trail). Holbrooke served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and died shortly after initiating negotiations with the Taliban; HRC and others' mourning make up one of the more emotional parts of the book. One can contrast HRC's recollection of events with Holbrooke with that of Gates who wrote of the "clumsy and failed putsch" orchestrated in part by Holbrooke. HRC also doesn't mention that Holbrooke was fairly critical of Obama's policies, stating he could never tell if Obama's intentions were for negotiated transition or hasty withdrawal.

Her historic overview of modern Turkey is, in my view, largely correct. She gives many anecdotes of dealing with both Erdoğan (then Prime Minister, now President and still in charge) and Davutoğlu (then Foreign Secretary, now Prime Minister). HRC writes that Davutoğlu was openly talking of "war" between Turkey and Israel after Israeli soldiers boarded a vessel running the Gaza blockade and killed several Turks. (Obama later helped heal that rift by having Netanyahu call Erdoğan, but comments after the Paris Charlie Hebdo attacks of 2015 suggest those wounds are wide open again.) HRC also tried to smooth relations with Turkey during the Libyan intervention. Turkey was quite frustrated with France and Sarkozy over Sarkozy's opposition to Turkey ever gaining EU accession. The balancing act with Turkey over Syria comes up in the book as well.

Contra Gates' memoir (and George Kennan's beliefs), HRC praises NATO expansion outright with no reservations. HRC mentions that accords after NATO involvement in Kosovo were aimed at keeping Russia in check and were forward-looking to something like the 2014 annexation of Crimea. She argues Crimea would be a bigger mess without united NATO to threaten further aggression.

This book lacks the deep attempts at insight into the Russian foreign policy psyche that Gates', Condi Rice's, and George W. Bush's memoirs attempted. She describes the similar ups and downs with Russia as those memoirs outline but in perhaps a less-sharp tone. She retells a story that Vladimir Putin told her about his family history. He claimed that his dad found his mom half-alive in St. Petersburg while he was on leave from the army and he nursed her back to health. Ambassador McFaul also had never heard the story, apparently no Russia hands were aware of it. I'm intrigued she published in the book and offers it as potential insight into Putin's views on the importance of Russian independence and suspicion of the West.

Supposedly, Clinton opposed intervention in Libya until she saw favorable developments in Egypt and the Arab League. Sarkozy was supposedly "deeply moved by the suffering under the dictator" recorded by a Frenchman traveling in Libya. The cost and benefits of this operation are not outlined cleanly. (Gates opposed both the operation and the Administration's later micromanagement). HRC relays the near-disaster of almost losing a pilot downed in Libyan airspace and remarks that American sentiment would have turned sharply had he not been rescued safely.

She talks pretty candidly about the hard choice of propping up dictators during the Cold War, forming strategic partnerships with them, then having a dilemma when the people want democracy. She does not reach any conclusions here, there is a that's-just-how-it-is mentality. She tells of how she pushed privately for individual human rights cases in Saudi Arabia, acknowledging that 9/11 hijackers came from there and oil money is used to foment extremist violence around the world... "but they partner with us in security and against Iran," so apparently it's supposed to even out.

There is a long recount of Benghazi, a defense of her role, and an attempt to correct the record from misinformation constantly circulated by opponents who knew better. HRC managed an agency with 70,000 employees, and surprisingly applications increased after Benghazi. The most emotional moment in the book comes with the funeral of the Benghazi staff and conversations with their relatives. I accept her explanations and sincerity here.

In regards to Syria, HRC and Petraeus favored arming a "small group" of "moderates" more as a signaling device than anything, so that Assad's allies would continue to defect and the regime would collapse internally. Obama demurred, only favoring it after revelations of more chemical attacks. She hedges that it was the "least bad of very bad options." There is no thought, however, to what the aftermath would have been if the Assad regime had fallen. Clinton makes pains to stress the lessons learned from Iraq on nation-building, the concerns the Administration had about what would come after Mubarak in Egypt and Qaddafi in Libya, and the transition of power in Afghanistan. But no mention of "after Assad..." Today's New York Times is writing that the Obama administration has reversed course, continuing to arm rebels but only to fight ISIS groups and working with the Assad regime while giving reassurances. One gathers that Obama's foreign policy is fairly inconsistent. As HRC said in an interview after the release of this book "'Don't do stupid things' is not a policy."

She includes a section on dealings with Iran and their "clenched fist." She hopes for reform but an understanding that the Supreme Leader is in charge. She regrets the Administration not speaking out more during the Iranian uprisings after Ahmadinejad was re-elected. There are very few regrets listed in the book, but that is one. Frustrations in dealing with Israel are universal, but it's clear from the book that there was a real serious rift between Obama and Netanyahu.

On climate change HRC gives an inside look at how Obama & she barged into the meeting with Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, and South African heads. This meeting is a reminder that foreign policy is perhaps the one area of influence Presidents really consistently have, and is perhaps where Obama comes across the best in the book.

She claims to have increased the State Department's emphasis on economics in the aftermath of the financial crisis. She states outright that she wanted to work with Economics FSOs to fight against protectionist and mercantilist policies. I'm not sure her political rhetoric favoring unions and protectionism matches this at all. Which policy is really preferred by HRC? She equipped USAID to do more entrepreneurial development, something that she had some familiarity with through the Clinton Global Initiative. In some cases it sounds like she's taking credit for pre-Obama initiatives like the Millenium Challenge Accounts, which were set up under the Bush Administration. "That's why we created the MCAs..." "we" here apparently means America and not her administration.

She discusses the need to respond to government & corporate espionage and claims (like Colin Powell claimed on his watch) that she greatly boosted State Department investments in technology. She encouraged Russian Ambassador Michael McFaul to be front-and-center on social media, even calling him on open channels to praise him. This is interesting because he was shunned by Kremlin for being too vocal, saying things everyone knew to be true but did not say publicly, and his term in Moscow did not end positively.

The greatest red flag for me comes in the chapters on human rights. HRC finishes the book with a look at her efforts toward women and LGBT rights around the world. She quotes Eleanor Roosevelt on human rights. This section comes immediately after discussing her Methodist faith, repeating the oft-told story of how her youth pastor made a huge difference in her life and career choices by emphasizing faith in action. But her statements on the importance of human rights lack any faith grounding whatsoever. According to HRC, humans have rights simply because they are of the human species, not because they are "endowed by their Creator," or made in the image of God as is essential to American law. While HRC trumpets defending rights as an American virtue, the Founders' view of human rights came from Western thought from Aristotle and Augustine onward-- that there is a divine spark within us. To hard-core liberals or atheists reading this, I remind you that even President Obama has claimed a belief in God as a reason for respecting the rights of others to exist. HRC does not mention as such in her book, which is what really separates it from the work Condoleeza Rice's book in addressing the same subjects.

An almost equally troubling red flag came in her comments about considering another run for public office that "there is no higher calling than to serve one's country." I'm sorry, but that's just an insult to the millions who pay the taxes to pay the salaries of those "serving." You can make the statement broad enough in meaning that in doing any work well, teaching, entrepreneurship, tax accounting, etc. you are "serving one's country," but the comment comes across that politics (or perhaps the military) is the highest calling and that's just false.

In all, I enjoyed the work. There are a few insights into how HRC would do foreign policy and where she stands on dealing with China, Russia, Israel, and more. I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It would have been better with more insights into how she runs her office, her own leadership and management philosophies and such, given that she's running for President. I recommend the book as a work of American and international history.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Side-Effects: The Economic Consequences of the Health Reform by Casey Mulligan (Book Review #4 of 2015)



Side Effects: The Economic Consequences of the Health Reform
I'm writing this review as an economist who looks at policy issues regarding Medicaid in a state that was among the first to adopt the ACA and push for expansion. I, like others, followed the health care debate and the claims by various health care economists like Jonathan Gruber very closely. This book is the most technical and helpful I have seen thus far in analyzing the ACA, but it is too technical for the average reader with plenty of equations and explanations of the convexivity of his curves and such. Dr. Mulligan ought to have someone write an executive summary and put it out for free, this text can be bought by those interested in the mathematics behind his conclusions. The book is an applied microeconomics text, I would recommend it for a health care economics course.

This book cannot be read without some understanding of Mulligan's previous work (a book and various articles in the NY Times and on his blogs) about labor economics and the effects extending unemployment insurance had on disincentivizing people to seek employment during the Great Recession. Mulligan calculates that the "jobless recovery" through 2013 was caused by the generous expansion of the social safety net. Unlike most economic pundits, however, Mulligan has carefully put together a case by analyzing data and doing the math. Like other Chicago-school economists, he is focusing on supply rather than demand. It's his position that U.S. recovery begins when the generous UI extensions expire, and then the ACA permanently pushes back on the recovery by providing even greater incentives for people to reduce their hours or stop working altogether.

"In other words, I expect the ACA to stop the recovery as measured by hours per adult, and likely significantly reverse it" (loc. 4227).

Mulligan calculates that the greatest damage (a little more than half) is done by the employer mandate, which has not been fully implemented (and Mulligan projects will be repealed by 2017). The Obama Administration has claimed that the delay is to help businesses with the increased administration costs, but the reality is that it creates a strong incentive for firms to reduce the working hours of employees.

This book sets out to establish a framework by which to measure the ACA's effect on employment and economic growth going forward. I'll note that Mulligan has been mostly silent on his blog since this book was published and in much of 2014. I would say the great drop in unemployment and the fastest growth of employment since 1999 has caught him by surprise, he does not predict this either in his previous work or this book. We'll see what he says in 2015.

This book was quite helpful and I came close to maxing out the allowable highlights on my Kindle version. The noteworthy conclusions:

"while Medicare and Medicaid help their target populations and give them a bigger slice of the economic pie, the programs also diminish the pie itself" (loc. 168).

"(The ACA adds) about six percentage points to the marginal tax rate faced, on average, by workers in the economy" (loc. 203).

"The ACA will have the nation working fewer hours, and working those hours less productively, so that its nonhealth spending will be twice diminished: once to pay for more health care and a second time because the economy is smaller and less productive" (loc. 320).
"Overall, weekly employment rates (not to be confused with the fraction of persons who work sometime during a calendar year) will be depressed about 3 percent...I assume that aggregate hours worked fall, in the long run, about 0.36 percent for every 1 percent that taxes reduce the economywide average reward to working...the average 2016 worker under the ACA keeps 68.7 percent of what he earns at the margin, as compared to the 75.0 percent that he would have kept if the ACA had not been passed...ACA-induced misallocations will reduce both wages and GDP per quality-adjusted hour worked by about 0.6 percent in the long run and reduce total factor productivity by 0.4 percent...the productivity loss is about $100 billion per year...the ACA increases by 4 percent (14 percent of 24.7 percent) the fraction of workers who can get assistance from, and would participate in, Medicaid...Without its employer penalty, the ACA would depress log aggregate work hours “only” 0.023, or about 2.3 percent, as compared to 0.031 with the penalty...the long-term impact of both ACA and non-ACA events on the log of real GDP per capita relative to its trend is 0.009 plus the range of impacts for log labor hours per capita: the combination is the range of −0.019 to +0.019 by 2016–17, which means that by then the log of real GDP per capita will have deviated from its trend by −0.014 to +0.014...the ACA—will include about 3 percent less employment, 3 percent fewer aggregate work hours, 2 percent less GDP, and 2 percent less labor income...sixty million people (workers and dependents) will be experiencing significant labor market disruption, not to mention those experiencing lesser changes in their wages or work schedules."  (2233, 2259, 2269, 3776, 3779, 3985, 4091, 4294, 4696-4698).

The employer mandate ends up creating a class of "29-ers," people working around 28-29 hours and no more. It also creates a huge marginal tax on the 50th worker of medium-sized firms. Unlike the health insurance it could have offered employees, the penalties paid under the ACA are not tax-deductible. When factoring in the tax deductions it could have earned through higher employee wages, the opportunity cost to the employer is greater than the nominal amount of the penalty:
"In effect, the fiftieth employee-year costs $40,000 more with the ACA than it would without it. As long as the employer restrains hiring to remain below the threshold of fifty, the $40,000 hiring disincentive does not appear as government revenue even though it affects the labor market...For every employee for whom the employer’s coverage is not affordable and who receives exchange subsidies, the employer owes $3,000 (plus health cost inflation after 2014) per year...I estimate that salary equivalent of the employer penalty (for the purpose of comparing to 2014 salaries) will be $3,113 in 2015...half of the full-time workers at penalized employers earn less than $15 per hour and would each have to work at least four hours per week for free in order to compensate his employer for the penalty owed because of his employment...Large employers not offering coverage and having more than thirty full-time employees in 2016 will, as a consequence of the employer penalty, owe the salary-equivalent of an additional $3,163 per year for every full-time employee they add to their payroll, and save an additional $3,163 per year for every full-time employee they remove from their payroll...that fiftieth employee costs her $62,265 plus the employee’s normal salary and benefit" (loc. 498, 507, 931, 955, 973, 977).

One needs to recognize that employers pass the cost of the ACA penalties onto their employees in the form of lower salaries. Firms will increase the hours of already full-time employees while reducing the hours of those close to 30 hours in order to avoid the mandate, where possible. While estimates are that this is a relatively small portion of the U.S. workforce, it is still a few million workers who will be affected.

Aside from the employer mandate, Medicaid's availability to 138% of the poverty line and the subsidized insurance offered to those qualified also create disincentives to earn additional income-- implicit marginal income taxes.

"Many families below 400 percent of the poverty line but above about 220 percent of it would have a marginal income tax bracket of about 25 percent: 7.65 percent for employee payroll taxes, 15 percent for federal individual income taxes, and roughly 3 percent for state individual income taxes.22 The federal rate would commonly be between 21 and 36 percent (instead of 15) for families between roughly 100 and 220 percent of the poverty line as the federal earned income tax credit is phased out (Congressional Budget Office 2012b), putting the combined rate over 30 percent and perhaps higher than 45 percent" (loc. 1411).

There are always some who are worse off if their employer pays them more, either making them ineligible for Medicaid or causing them to lose potential subsidies.

"(I) suspect it will be increasingly rare for employers to offer coverage to part-time employees, because the offer will usually prevent them from getting an exchange subsidy...a household with a 25 percent marginal tax rate has to earn another $1,333 in order to make up for loss of $1,000 of its subsidies because it would pay $333 worth of tax on the additional $1,333 it earned...the ACA puts some workers in the position where a part-time schedule gives them more disposable income than a full-time schedule would" (loc. 1394, 1407, 1492).

He is not certain of the exact number, but states that some workers will face a marginal tax rate on an additional dollar earned of over 100. Mulligan also notes which demographics would be affected, the distribution of effects is uneven:
"Unmarried people are more likely than married people to face the one-hundred-plus rate because the former do not have a spouse with opportunities for family coverage. Unmarried women are more likely to do so than unmarried men because the former are more likely to be working thirty to thirty-nine hours even without the ACA...more than ten million nonelderly household heads and spouses—about 9 percent of the workforce—will face those new taxes in 2016, and among them marginal income tax rates will be about twenty percentage points higher than they would be without the ACA" (loc. 1574, 2082). 

This aspect of the ACA is forgotten or ignored by those advocating an increase in the minimum wage. Until the poverty line adjusts, increasing the minimum wage will lift some households out of eligibility for Medicaid, making them worse off by having to purchase health insurance (until prices rise such that the poverty line eventually adjusts). Mulligan mentions the exacerbation of the effects of an increase in minimum wage but its combination with the ACA is beyond the scope of this book.
Advocates are disingenuous if they argue that these wage increases will both help the poor and save the government money by reducing their transfers or subsidies.

The last chapter deals with those who argue against Mulligan's propositions by citing the lack of adverse effects seen in Massachussets under "Romneycare." Mulligan contrasts the two plans, showing that the employer mandate was much smaller ($295/employee), and was deductible from federal income tax. The marginal implicit tax was about five times lower than that of the ACA. Massachussets already had one of the most generous Medicaid plans in the U.S., offering it to much higher incomes than the rest of the country, so little change occurred under the ACA.

Some possible criticisms: If I were looking to make a counter-argument, I would point out that while Mulligan rightly predicts that the number of uninsured falls dramatically under the ACA, he fails to account for the gains due to increased productivity of a healthier workforce. I'm not saying that would completely offset the productivity losses he calculates, but it is worth noting that there is a benefit to the supply of laborers of being healthier (there are positive externalities to my co-worker being more healthy as well, I'm less likely to be unhealthy). ACA proponents argue a demand-side effect that Mulligan mentions but does not address. He focuses his criticism on those studies' lack of any analysis on the increases in implicit marginal tax rates due to the ACA. In a state that adopts ACA expansion, the increase in federally-subsidized health care means more disposable income for its low-income population. This has been estimated for Kentucky and chronicled anecdotally in various outlets like the New York Times.

There is also some confusion about productivity, in one section he writes that productivity (as the BLS measures it) will actually increase as the low-income, low-skilled workers reduce hours or leave the workforce to obtain subsidies, leaving the high-skilled, higher-income workers in the workforce. But in his conclusions he writes that productivity overall decreases, perhaps he means skill or wage-adjusted productivity.

This book serves as a great reference for information on the ACA. It's a must-read and will be worth coming back to as more data is available. So far, 2014 saw a continued decrease in labor force participation, about half of which is explained by demographics (and most of that is due to aging population) but the other half is not as easily explained. I can give local anecdotes of hours and income intentionally reduced in order to maintain subsidies. But the growth in RGDP and overall employment in 2014 is not something predicted by Mulligan's analysis, even without the employer mandate. Time is needed to judge Dr. Mulligan's analysis. 4 stars out of 5.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Sermon of the Week (1/11 - 1/17, 2014) John Piper on The Gospel of the Grace of God

This sermon was the ordination service of someone apparently going to plant a church in East St. Louis. You can read it, stream it, or download it here. What I enjoyed most were the comments on Galatians, perhaps my favorite epistle (outside Romans):

Whole law. Or no law, but only Christ. Works or grace. At the bottom of our justification is total grace — grace alone. Not one millisecond of human effort can be added to the ground of our justification. We are justified by grace in Christ. (emphasis mine)

As our churches become ever-polarized and focused separation from one another over various issues, these comments came as a reminder to me that right doctrine does not make you or me righteous. Not eating or drinking while someone else does has no consequences for your righteousness. Biblical theology and expositional sermons do not make you righteous. You did not become righteous by your own works, nor can you stay righteous (or more righteous than the person you're looking at) by your works. Christ alone.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry M. Caudill (Book Review #3 of 2015)



Night Comes to the Cumberlands is a must-read for anyone interested in Kentucky, whether you're working in public policy or a church planter (which Caudill provides specific insights into), a sociologist, or curious tourist. It ought to be a prerequisite for members of the Kentucky General Assembly to read before taking office. I am writing this review as an economist for the Commonwealth whose office often evaluates legislation and projects touted to bring jobs and growth to the mountains. I also evaluate Medicaid and am aware of the challenges the Appalachian region bring to that program. I have also lived in the Caucasus mountains, the Smokies, and at the edge of the Ozarks, and note many of the similarities (world wide) of the "highlanders" described in Night Comes. It's incredible that Kentucky is putting millions of tax dollars into SOAR, an effort to find solutions to problems that Caudill pointed out 50 years ago-- and many of the solutions presented as "new" are identical to Caudill's prescriptions 50 years ago! That's why this book is a must-read.

One prerequisite for any public policy maker, economist, or anyone interested in economic development before reading this book is Why Nations Fail by Acemoğlu and Robinson. Those economists' theory, developed while examining impoverished regions like Appalachia all over the world through the centuries, are that regions fail when extractive economic institutions set up exclusive political institutions to consolidate both political and economic power. That, in a nutshell, is the experience of so many counties in Appalachia who still struggle economically and are dependent upon the government and charity for so much. Reading that book will help you greater understand and critique Caudill's observations and policy prescriptions for Eastern Kentucky found in Night Comes.

Harry M. Caudill was the son of miners who became a lawyer, was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly, and taught history courses at the University of Kentucky. He witnessed the difficulty and peculiarities of Appalachian life and the book is written more to educate than the advocate. I do not know how precisely accurate all of his history is, but he does quote at length of various letters, memoirs, and newspaper articles from the 1800s to the time of his writing (1962). Caudill gives an interesting history of the settling of the Appalachians. I consider John Mack Faragher's biography of Daniel Boone (my review) to also be recommended reading along with this book. The future mountaineers were initially brought over to the Colonies as indentured servants to work in the fields of Virginia and elsewhere, laborers from London, Scotland and elsewhere. Largely uneducated and seen as a burden to the British to be neatly exported, they escaped to the mountains or moved/squatted there as soon as their contracts were up.

Caudill documents the superstitions and stories of witchcraft common into his boyhood, and prints some quotations of songs played on ancient fiddles that have been past down from Scotch-Irish forebears. These songs were transmitted despite an illiterate population that could not understand the meaning of some of the words in the old English. The various Hatfield-McCoy-like feuds came out of Civil War rivalries. Clans enlisted in opposing factions, and word of the death of one family member at the hand of the opposing army in battle would cause armed retribution on behalf of his kinfolk against opposing neighbors on the home front. When the soldiers returned, these rivalries continued and the land was difficult to govern.

The author also chronicles the history of the churches, relatively few, in the area. I was aware of Old Regular and Primitive Baptists, who have sort of a hybrid Calvinism and odd beliefs (like meeting once a month, a tradition from when circuit riders did the preaching and traveled from church to church, and a belief that children are born in sin and unredeemable until an age of accountability). According to Caudill, John the Baptist was the hero of church attenders, and there was much emphasis on a church's "trail of blood," linking its heritage back to John the Baptist having been uncorrupted by Roman Catholicism (this might have been important to Scottish Presbyterians?). Since most of the people were illiterate, there were very few who could read the King James Bible and even fewer who could understand it. At the time of Caudill's writing, church attendance was waning and he gives quote of correspondence from various church planters who found it difficult to get churches started even in large towns. More main stream denominations are/were avoided with skepticism by the locals. No snake-handling churches are mentioned, however.

There are detailed descriptions of coal mining, which would be quite tedious except for how Caudill illustrates the technological changes and their implication for wealth and the work force over the decades. Towns sprung up overnight, built by coal mining companies that owned the commerce and quickly bought up the fiscal courts and other constitutional offices. (Kentucky still struggles with administrative overburden with people getting paid large salaries to be jailer in over 40 counties with no jail.) The people were dependent on the mines and lived in the boom-and-bust cycles of the economy in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Support for FDR's New Deal shifted Eastern Kentucky from being mostly Republican to staunchly Democrat, a trend that held until the 2014 Senate race where the Democratic candidate was soundly trounced in all Appalachian counties (due in part to the perception that the Democrats had declared a "war on coal.") World War II enriched many miners who weren't drafted, returning veterans remarked at how fortunes had changed in their absence.

Caudill chronicles the bare-knuckle political races of his day, including the tight Senate race between FDR's man, incumbent Alben Barkley, and Governor A.B. "Happy" Chandler. Chandler had gained support in the mountains and looked like he might win until Barkley spread false rumors of a mahogany-furnished bathroom in the Governor's mansion that Chandler built for himself and would not let his own wife use.

Caudill both bemoans and encourages subsidization of the migration from of the hills. Veterans returning from WWII opted to use their GI Bill to get educated at universities, and most did not return. Entire graduating classes of some of the high schools reportedly moved away. Kentucky's low budget for infrastructure made highways and maintenance sparse, as engineers were drawn away into private sector jobs. Since the roads were not funded nor no longer maintained by the private coal companies, mine roads fell into disrepair. 

Caudill remarks that despite the mass migration of high school graduates, who at the time could automatically obtain enrollment at schools like the University of Kentucky, tey were largely "poorly educated" and unable to keep up with their peers. He cites a study by UK stating that high school students in Harlan County were three years behind their peers nationwide in reading, math, and science. He remarks as a teacher that few students had read any classics or seemed to have the capability, most of them having studied under teachers who were locally trained at teachers' colleges. Math courses were too often taught by coaches who devoted most of their efforts to athletics. Caudill detests the money put into athletics, coaches, and stadiums over education-- oh what he'd say today!

The author is writing from a 1962 perspective, having recently witnessed the "transformation" of the Tennessee Valley by the TVA under FDR. He argues at the end of the book for a Southern Mountain Authority, another TVA-like federal project to transform the region into a tourist hub by creating lakes and trails for visitors from the increasingly-crowded East Coast. At the same time, he calls for subsidizing industrialization in some areas and revitalization of towns. Interestingly, he calls for the subsidization of migration away from Eastern Kentucky, arguing that the ex-miners would be better off if the government paid them to resettle in Ohio, California, Florida, and other places where industry might be booming and pay better, and to pay to retrain them for those jobs.

His argument against against criticisms that such a federal program is socialist is interesting and could have been written in 2015: Firms in every U.S. industry get subsidized in some fashion by tax dollars. We also give foreign aid to prop up the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, where child slavery is legal and the monarchy rules like autocrats. Could some of those tax dollars not better be spent in creating a TVA for Kentucky?
He is open to other ideas by "future students," but writes that the reader must understand the following when arguing for market solutions:
    - Miners are not self-sufficient. There is no present industry moving in to support them at any wage.
    - Miners are unskilled. The skills they had were dependent on mining, and that's gone.
    - The population is widely uneducated. UK study showed Harlan Co. grads were 3 years behind peers nationally in reading, math, science.
    - Most of the population is on welfare otherwise, so the government might as well give them work to help their pride,  dignity, and health.
    - The women are idle and frustrated, also uneducated and largely unable to work.
    - The population is "too big for its needs."
        - Since we subsidize farmers to not even grow anything, why not subsidize miners to move to where wages are high?
    - The land needs to be left to grow naturally and will heal if we let it.
    - Every county needs better local governance. The county judge or magistrates have constitutional offices but little power in actual management.

This book is monumental, helped inspire LBJ's War on Poverty which in turn inspired visits to the region by dignitaries from LBJ to Mother Theresa. I wonder if Caudill would have been supportive of all the pork that Rep. Hal Rogers (R) has brought to the region, or simply would have complained of the resulting greater dependence on government. He likely would have favored the federally-subsidized industrial parks that now sit empty, and would probably shake his head to know that President Obama and the current Governor were thinking of new spins on old programs. I suspect Caudill would be sympathetic to economist Paul Coomes' idea to combine counties, since Kentucky has so many for such a small population and many Constitutional offices require local taxes to support, discouraging commerce, and providing no benefit (see the jailers without jails above). Taxes are as hard to collect in some of the mountain counties as they were in 1962. All of the aid that goes into the region often subsidizes people just to live there. We're repeating history because we haven't learned from Caudill's. 4.5 stars out of 5. A real gem.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Sermon of the Week (1/4/2015 - 1/10/2015) Dr. Jeremy Pierre (Clifton Baptist) on Hebrews 11:22

Pierre is one of several Southern Seminary faculty who serve as elders at Clifton Baptist in Louisville. (He is professor of biblical counseling.) This is a great first sermon of the year on Hebrews 11:22 (and Genesis 41-45) titled "Broken and Better Dreams for the New Year."
We usually judge years by measuring our "blessings" versus our "trials."  "2014 was a great year because..." Pierre's point is that as Christians, God is always with us and every moment is great. Our years should be measured by how much more we desired God than before. His example is the life of Joseph. Joseph's trials were brought by God in His plan for Israel. In his circumstances, not knowing the eventual outcome, we all would be tempted to be bitter, say "if only..." etc. But Joseph is an example of submitting to his circumstances and seeking God in them. Joseph acknowledged God when brought to Pharoah to interpret his dream.

Pierre makes the point that it's not about "God's bringing you through this so you can be the best you can be." God has a purpose beyond you. Enduring your trials through your own grit does not endear you to God, only Christ's sacrifice can do that. And just like Joseph's trials were for the future good of Israel, God's purposes are beyond you.

Great sermon to start the new year off with.

(As an aside, I listened to a Joel Osteen sermon on Jonah's trials after this one and the difference between real and counterfeit could not have been more clear. The more you listen to the real the more easily you can identify the counterfeit.)