Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review (#20 of 2010)

I read exactly the same number of books in 2010 as I did in 2009. Make of that what you will.

Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller.

So I'm the last American Christian to read this book (except my wife, as we listened to the audio together, which is also updated with a "where are they now?" afterword. Read by the author, which always makes it better) and I know I should have read it years ago. But, as usually happens with these things, it was probably more timely for me to read now as Miller works through several issues that have been heavily on my mind this year.

Do you use love like money? I mean, do you withhold love from others in an attempt to get them to change their ways? There's an essay in this book about that, I found that convicting. Miller works through how to love people like Jesus did; namely, how to love those Christians who are different than you even if you think they're on the wrong track in their beliefs or attitudes or actions. That's what I currently am thinking about.

I would give the first half of this book to any non-believer as a great witness and apologetic for the Gospel. Miller's adventures and conversations at Reid College are great and extremely thought-provoking. The second half of the book, starting with the part on relationships and Emily Dickinson are only so-so as they are mostly his introspection and stories of him learning to live in community. Helpful, but no moreso than just talking to a fellow believer in your Sunday school class about what they're thinking about. Miller probably didn't intend for this book to be the best-seller that it was as it's simply a compilation of his personal essays. (I now see that he blogs, too.)

How do non-teenagers who aren't raised in the same Southern Baptist context (or someone who was not raised at all in church) that I was come to Christ? What does meeting Jesus look like to them? I find that most of my friends through life were raised in church and struggle with this question, struggle with loving those who come to Jesus differently. It's easier to think of sharing the Gospel cross-culturally in another country than it is in America. That's a problem.

I find myself thinking of Rodney Reeves' guest sermons at my church this year. "If you think someone isn't a Christian because he smokes and cusses, you might be a pharisee." or "If you think God loves you more than someone else because you've been a Christian longer and have read the Bible more than he/she, you might be a pharisee." (Read Matthew 23:33 for why it's not good to be a pharisee).

Overall, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I need to reconcile a few of Miller's thoughts, which are logically sound, with Scripture. I also need to read Francis Chan's Crazy Love. Hopefully I won't read that book 5 years late.

This is my last book review for 2010. I still have at least a dozen physical, paper books on my bookshelf that I bought either long ago or last Christmas that need to be "read and released." So, I'll be getting to work on those starting tomorrow.

Book Review (#19 of 2010)

Turbulent Times for the Soviet Church: The Inside Story by Kent R. Hill.

I found this book in a closet so it was added to my "read and release" list. I bought it from a bargain bin years ago, not sure when. It was published in 1991 and is an abridged version of Hill's more complete piece: The Soviet Union on the Brink. Hill has an interesting resume.

This book gives a fascinating picture of the Church in the midst of glasnost in the late 1980's. So much was changing so fast and Hill does his best to sort it all out. While glasnost was a time of more openness in some areas, Christians were still being martyred and the Church was very much struggling with its identity.

Hill gives a history of the Church in the Soviet Union. I found part of the pre-Lenin history fascinating as Hill gave a solid case for how Marxism and Christianity are incompatible. Hill has researched various Christians and former Marxists who wrote essays prior to 1917 of how Marxism was a huge threat to the Russian Church because it is predicated on atheism. I find this interesting in light of how people like the writers Jesus Radicals seem bent on reconciling the two.

The author also recounts the story of several known martyrs of all denominations throughout the decades and how the Orthodox church struggled with resistance and then capitulation and manipulation by the Supreme Soviet. These are all good things to know and remember.

As Russia moved toward a more open society and conformed to more Western standards on things like human rights, the media, etc. during glasnost, Christians were given much more freedom in the written laws. But the image of a government divided against itself, particularly in how it dealt with Christians, is obvious in this recounting of that period.

There is very little mention in the book of any Christian actions in the Central Asian republics. Of course there was not much action in those Muslim-context cultures but my guess is that Church history there probably was not well-known or reported. In his predictions for the future Hill mentions but downplays the problems that would arise between the Orthodox Church and protestants in many parts of the former USSR. He does caution the West in not making evangelization of the USSR a "photo op" type of thing once the doors cracked open, which unfortunately was probably not heeded.

I give the book 3 stars out of 5. I'm sure his more complete version (which is three times the length of this one) is much better.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review (#18 of 2010)

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

A powerful autobiography, painful to read at every chapter. Ali has become famous for renouncing Islam and shining a harsh spotlight on the lives of women in Muslim context cultures all over the world. (Here is a recent op-ed piece by her.) Much of what she says isn't popular, Nick Kristof, for example reviewed her most recent book and her anti-Islamic remarks very harshly.

This is truly a rags-to-riches story. Ali was born into an unstable family in an unstable country (Somalia) and spends most of her life as a refugee. She recounts her life as a Muslim Somali growing up in both "Christian" Kenya and in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Female circumcision, beatings from her mother and one of her Koran instructors, family killed and dislocated in civil wars, a harsh life without much love. Ali escapes an arranged marriage and takes refuge in Holland, where she puts herself through school and eventually becomes a member of parliament. Now she's a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (unfortunately making her an enemy of the political Left).

If you have an interest in the plight of Muslim women, then this book is a must-read. If you're interested in what folk, every day Islam looks like and how rigid militant Islam has evolved in places like Somalia then this is also an informative book.

I highly recommend the audio version which is read by the author. The most important books to read are the ones that are the most difficult to keep reading. This was a tough book to finish.

In a related note, I would love to see a conversation between Ali and Ziauddin Sardar.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Book Review (#17 of 2010)


"Church is just one part of our lives. For most tentmakers, our job is our church, and the work place is our place of worship. All Christians need to grasp the fact that business is a medium of pleasure to God and a tool of doing His good."


Tentmaking: The Life and Work of Business as Missions by Patrick Lai. This book is the bible of tentmaking. Lai has spent decades using business to enter into and plant churches in restricted-access countries. This book examines every aspect of tentmaking and tells stories from tentmakers to illustrate the highs and lows of the occupation. Lai did a survey of all the tentmakers he could find in the 10/40 window and examined what similarities and differences they had and to see if he could find any common characteristics of "successful" tentmaker church planters.

The book defines several forms of tentmaking and gives plenty of pros and cons of each approach. Lai discusses everything: dealing with the government, how to raise "third culture kids," how to do your home furloughs, how to get along with team members, and pretty much every other detail of life overseas. Even if you're going overseas on a missionary visa this book will has some great things to think about.

I give it 4.5 stars instead of 5 because he doesn't publish his survey data so you just have to take his word for it when he talks about the numbers. But the survey results are a very small part of the book.

Lai closes the book by driving home the point that many Christians today make the mistake of separating "secular" from "spiritual," as if some vocations (like professional pastor or missionary) are more spiritual than others (doctors, stock brokers, ship builders, etc.). If you don't believe you can worship God through whatever you do, then my boss would say you inherently believe in some sort of Gnostic dualism where spirit and flesh are completely separated.

Business isn't just some necessary evil, but something that God uses for His glory. We need Christian businessmen to redeem the fallen marketplace whether at home or among unreached peoples. This book gives you some "best practices" of using business to take the gospel where it might not get a foothold otherwise.

I'll hopefully get to meet Lai next month at this conference.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Advent

Yesterday, Joni attended The Encounter (contemporary) service at our church while I was out listening to Ed Stetzer. They've been doing an advent candle and devotional as part of worship, and yesterday there was a reading from C.S. Lewis' essay* "Xmas and Christmas: A Last Chapter from Herodotus." The essay is a good read so I wanted to recommend it; here's an excerpt:

And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

We've been doing this daily Advent devotional as a family, hanging an Advent ornament on a tree each day. It's been a nice reminder that the entirety of OT Scripture points us toward the coming of Christ (Luke 24:25-27). It's been fun thinking through how to do Christmas as a family, what values we want it to display in our home and what we want gifts to mean. (It's made it more fun for me this year.)

*update*: Joni informs me I have the wrong C.S. Lewis essay. This is the correct one, "What Christmas Means to Me." He more plainly condemns the commercialism. Here is an excerpt:

"We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don't know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I'd sooner give them money for nothing and write it off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance."

I like that paragraph.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My questions for Ed Stetzer

If having more than 20 people gather together for church inevitably leads to a platform/stage "show" setting that can become "dangerous" because it fosters a spectator ("80/20") mentality among group members which causes the church to "plateau," then why push for more growth instead of smaller groups and multiplication?

This is the question I'm left with after hearing Ed Stetzer, Director of Lifeway Research and church planter in residence, preach at Freshwater Church, a 14 month old church plant here in Bolivar which he says is "one of the 20 fastest-growing churches in America" having grown from zero to 750 in 14 months. He gave this stat as evidence of "God's hand" on the church and encouraged them to grow further.

Dr. Stetzer got my attention when he said that he won't complain about the setup of our Sunday mornings as spectator events because he finds a stage and pews inevitable when 20 or more gather. But he said the setup was also "dangerous" because it promotes a spectator's mentality. The challenge he presented, which echoes his latest book and blog series on "kick-starting" growth, was simply for church members to exercise their gifts in ministry and not just be spectators (text: 1 Peter 4:8-10). If the number of "customers" grows faster than the number of "workers," then needs will not be met and the church will "plateau or decline as customers leave to go find a different Wal-Mart."

It seems to me that Stetzer's logic has a circular problem: "Plateaued" churches need to motivate members in order to "kick-start" growth, but the more you grow the more the 80/20 problem is exacerbated, and the 80/20 problem is what creates the plateau in the first place.

Using numbers as both the goal of the church and measure of its health brings up bright red flags for me. The IMB trains its workers to plant small rapidly-reproducing autonomous house churches ("multiplication by division") while the SBC itself seems to focus more on growing church numbers; that dichotomy has always bothered me.

HOW a church grows is more important to me than how fast it's growing. You can attract more customers simply by lowering your price, which strikes me as the way many churches try to kick-start growth (I'll save that thought for another day). You can also grow a church without adding a single new Christian. Now, growth through "sheep stealing" isn't so bad because competition and variety are always welfare-enhancing. But is it really evidence of God's hand when you're growing primarily by people transferring their membership from other Bible-believing churches?

A former church planter once told me that his church lost its parent church's support when they did not achieve a certain growth rate. It didn't matter that they had 100 people who were growing in the Word and ministering to each other every week, it mattered more that they weren't growing by some percentage a year and had "plateaued." The removal of the parent church's blessing caused the church plant to fall apart. I see Stetzer's talk of church growth as a measure of "God's hand" as encouraging this type of behavior--although I'm sure that is not his intent.

Freshwater is a plant of Second Baptist in Springfield. Second Baptist is a very large church but it appears deeply committed to plant churches around the world rather than simply growing itself. (It gives to the Cooperative Program but also insists on spending a large percentage of its budget self-funding and sending its own missionaries as it is more Scriptural for the local church to do that than to create a denominational body to do it.)

So, another question I have is why would Freshwater, which is an example of "multiplication by division," want to grow larger rather than multiply?

If you're new to my blog/thoughts, I have previously written criteria of truly "Spirit-led" churches, ones that cannot be easily explained by rational human behavior:
1. Clear violation of the 80/20 rule (my original criteria says 90/10, a lower bar).
2. Wide diversity in race and incomes in the church (I'm finding out that racial diversity is extremely rare everywhere in the world among all people groups... there's an argument that in Revelation we see that each people group must have its own church so that this is natural and as-it-should-be. So, maybe I should just go with incomes here).
3. Staying relatively small and multiplying rather than focusing on growing larger.

Growth in numbers alone does not make the list for a variety of Scriptural and microeconomic reasons, which you can click on the link to find more about. (I leave "miracles" off the list for a couple of other reasons, but if your church is raising people from the dead it's pretty impossible to explain rationally. :-)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

When useful technology bites the dust

About a year ago I was bummed that NewsGator was discontinuing its RSS feed publishing features as well as support for its Symbian app. This was after they merged services with Google. I got over that when I found Delicious, which allows me to bookmark into the cloud and publish an RSS feed from those bookmarks. I did a presentation for faculty on how they could use Delicious to keep better track of articles and assign them to students.

Now, Yahoo! is eliminating Delicious and other services. This had been coming; they never fixed problems with their iPhone app after Yahoo! bought them and their site was in disrepair. But I had no problems with their app or their service. The latest productivity-enhancer I found was Packrati.us, which lets you tweet links to Delicious for bookmarking.

So, when I'm sitting in a waiting room surfing with my iPod and see a really great article to use for an assignment, I bookmark it via Delicious. In 2 seconds, I have forever (or so I thought) preserved it's location someplace where I'll always find it when I need it.

I have over 1,000 tags on articles via Delicious, most of them divided up by subject matter for my classes (so, about 1,000 tagged articles). When I need to find that article on hangar tariffs, I simply search my "microeconomics" tag for the keyword. When I want to give students a research source for a project, I simply give them the RSS for the class and that gives them hundreds of articles to search via Google Reader or whatever feed reader they want to use.

I thought I would just go ahead and post my RSS feeds here by subject, in case anyone wants to check them out before Yahoo! discontinues supporting the feeds (assuming they will). Some articles have multiple tags because they're relevant to multiple courses/topics so will appear in multiple feeds.

Microeconomics.

Macroeconomics.

Personal Financial Planning.

Money & Banking. (313 articles in this. I spend more time reading for that class than any other and assign more articles in it than most other classes, 20 article assignments this semester).

International Economics/Finance.

History of Economic/Financial thought (Winterfest course)

This feed is articles related to the financial crisis for students creating a wiki last year.

Insurance and Risk Management.

Anyone have suggestions for a replacement service for Delicious? What else is out there that allows me to publish my bookmarks as an RSS feed?

*UPDATED* - the belated news from Yahoo! and Delicious that they will likely survive as a spin-off is welcome news.
Though my transition to Diigo is probably inevitable. Diigo doesn't have a functional iPhone app, so that's a bummer.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Augustine and Private Property

Recently I engaged in discussion with a friend of mine who I met at Baylor while he was finishing a MDiv at Truett Seminary the same time I was finishing an MA in Economics. The discussion was over issues of capitalism, private property, and the Bible (check the comments). Lucas and his family just moved to Bolivia to work with a Low German Mennonite agricultural-based community. About the only thing Lucas and I have in common is a desire to find common ground, which is how we met. (If you only talk to people you agree with all the time, you never learn anything.)

Most of the people I encounter in my "circles" tend to accept the basic tenets of capitalism at face value. Some have worked to give a Scriptural defense of the major pillars of capitalism including the most important-- property rights.

I read an interview with Nobel laureate and erstwhile free market & globalization skeptic Dani Rodrik at Five Books yesterday in which he said about the collapse of Communism:
"I think one good thing is that pretty much everybody understands that there really is no alternative to market-based systems. "
(read the whole quote to get his meaning). Lucas, however, has introduced me to some who do not hold much love for markets and also claim Christ. He referred me to a post at Jesus Radicals about Augustine by Boyd Collins that Lucas says basically sums up his own views. The author gives an interpretation of some writings by Augustine on property. There are some interesting parts, which I will highlight. I should note I've not read any complete works by Augustine, only works about him and other citations of him.

Collins begins with the assertion:
"Augustine’s philosophy of property centered on justice, rather than the legal conception of absolute ownership which is regarded in our time as an immutable institution"
later:
"True ownership is granted only to the one who uses property justly – otherwise one is a thief and one’s property can be justly expropriated by those who will use it rightly."
The problem here is that "justice" and "right use" can be highly normative. If you don't like how I use my property, is that unjust? Collins claims that doing ecological damage with your property is unjust and grounds for expropriation. Reading through Deuteronomy I find that the Israelites cut down a lot of trees, leveled cities, and slaughtered a large amount of people and animals-- what many would call ecological damage. Those being slaughtered (and many readers today) probably considered it unjust, but it was just and righteous because God commanded Israel to do so.

Collins projects Augustine here:
"True enjoyment is found only in God. Other realities are to be used as pathways which bring us closer to God. Earthly realities find their fulfillment only by leading us to God. All lower values point toward the highest value – our hearts are ever restless until they rest in him. Since property is an earthy reality that tends to possess its possessors, tempting them to enjoy it as if it were an absolute value, how should Christians use it?"
This could be a John Piper quote. Indeed, Jesus warns us about possessions and James blasts the rich (the rich and wicked or all rich?). Any possession we love more than God is idolatry.

But does that mean that possessions themselves are sinful? Property doesn't always "possess its possessors." Saying no one should own property because of this risk is like saying no one should eat food since sometimes the taste of food tempts us to eat too much.

Augustine seems to say that the right to property is a human--not divine--right. Augustine:
“Whence does anyone possess what he or she has? Is it not from human law? For by divine law, the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s (cf. Psalm 24:1); the poor and the rich God has made from one mud and the poor and the rich he sustains on one earth. Nevertheless, by human law, one says, ‘This estate is mine, this house is mine, this servant is mine.’ This is by human law therefore – by the law of the Emperors.”
I would argue that God clearly affirms a person's right to possession in various places in Scripture. While we are stewards of God's creation, God's law (which is perfect [Ps. 19:7]) clearly outlines man's property rights. Exodus 20:

v. 15- You shall not steal. v. 17- "you shall not covet your neighbor's house...or anything that belongs to your neighbor."

God clearly acknowledges possession here and commands us how to use our possessions and how to respect our neighbor's possessions. Man could say "this estate is mine" not because of "human law" but because God said "this estate is yours." Perhaps a more full quote from Augustine would shed some light on his thinking, but it's not given in the post. I find it interesting that God's design for Israelite society involves ownership of property.

I would contend that property wasn't an idea present at creation, when the world was sinless (because sin introduced scarcity into the world). Just as thorns and weeds didn't grow in gardens before sin, and clothing was never necessary, property was probably inconceivable. So, I wouldn't say that property is "God-ordained" in the sense that He originally intended it. But He clearly affirms the right to ownership throughout Scripture--nowhere does it say ownership is in and of itself sin. That's like saying struggling to accomplish a task is sin-- tasks are difficult because of sin.

So when, if ever, is ownership sin? Collins interprets Augustine:

"For Augustine, private ownership was an expression of sin when it was not used to fulfill God’s plan for the just distribution of the world’s resources. This sin was a failure to recognize that all being participates in God, the source of being. Private property in the Roman (and American) sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation."
That first sentence is loaded, but let's think about it. We've already established that God affirmed individual right to ownership. Here Collins (and Augustine?) moves into the use of property and not the actual ownership-- and that's a huge difference. A read through Leviticus shows us plenty of laws about how God's people were to use their property, but in doing so God affirms the right to ownership. Just because I own something doesn't mean I am using it unjustly. What does "the just distribution of the world's resources" mean? It sounds highly subjective (and dubious) to me. I don't see any clear statements from God in Scripture that outline a plan for exactly how He wants resources distributed.

Leviticus 25 is the closest that I can think of. Here God outlines how we're to use property, including landowners giving back property to the original owner, and slaves being freed, every 50 years. However nowhere does it state how big a person's property can be or how many possessions she can have, etc. God isn't a central planner that decides who gets what, he affirms His people's ability to trade and make those choices.

He does command that a certain portion of property be sacrificed or given away. That appears to be a way of His people acknowledging that everything is ultimately God's and we are stewards (back to Ps. 24:1). If I refuse to sacrifice or do not allow my gleanings to fall to the ground for the poor to pick up (Leviticus 19) then I am ultimately saying that I love my possessions more than God--idolatry. (I'll come back to this idea later.)

"This sin was a failure to recognize that all being participates in God, the source of being." I'm not sure I understand or agree with that interpretation. Since I don't follow Collins' thought about a "plan for the just distribution of God's resources," I also don't understand his definition here.
"Private property in the Roman (and American) sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation."

Collins' thought seems to be that if a person believes she owns her property it therefore means she sins by not understanding that ultimately she and her property are God's. Hence, states that uphold and enforce property rights in their laws are instruments of sin. I think the fact that God outlined His people's rights to property and established ways they could arbitrate with one another when someone violated those rights is a solid defense against this idea. God also never gave His people free reign to conquer and take property from whoever they pleased-- Gentile nations around them also are said to have property rights in several places. So, property rights aren't just for God's people and sin for everyone else.

Collins:
Yet this autonomy is exactly what Milton Friedman and other neoliberals praise as “freedom” as in the famous phrase, “Free to Choose.” To be encased in “one’s own choice” is to be the slave of sin. Such “freedom” is slavery to one’s own will which has not yet been healed by God’s power.
Again, God's clearly established that people are free to own, buy, sell property. So, I think much of Collins' argument begins to break down. As I mentioned above, God didn't outline specifically how He wanted resources distributed-- he left that up to us to do with some basic guidelines and commands of usage. That reads a lot like "freedom" to me. And Gentile nations who did not "recognize God's sovereignty" were also permitted that freedom. Their ownership of property was not in and of itself sin. Non-Christians who own property aren't sinners because they own property, they're sinners because they have not experienced redemption through the blood of Christ.

If you follow Collins' logic, the idea of property ownership is sin because it is rebellion against God--something God never says and would be contradictory to the Scriptures above. Therefore any institution that upholds that idea (be it Roman or American) is sinful. (Given all the pages on anarchy on the Jesus Radicals website, perhaps his thinking begins to make sense-- government can inherently be sinful because of its enforcement of property rights. But I personally think I've debunked this notion pretty well here--since property ownership isn't sinful then simply enforcing that ownership isn't either. )

Collins quoting Augustine:
"If one therefore keeps more than what is sufficient, ethically speaking one is really keeping others’ property, because these others, by virtue of their need, have a fundamentally greater right to those material goods.”
Clearly that is Augustine speaking and not Scripture (ie: Jesus). Like it or not (and many psalms complain about it), inequality exists and sometimes by the direct hand of God. Job was a rich man before God allowed everything he had to be taken-- and then God gave him much more than he'd ever had before. You get the picture that Job had more than "sufficient," but it pleased God to give him more. Nowhere does Scripture say that someone has a "right" to your property because they need it more than you do. Nowhere does it say you are stealing from someone if you have an extra something and someone else does not. "Sufficient" and "need" are also quite normative. But this brings up Collins next quote of Augustine:

“Gold and silver therefore belong to those who know how to use gold and silver. For even among human beings themselves, each must be said to possess something [only] when he or she uses it well. For what a person does not treat justly, that person does not possess rightly. If one should call one’s own what one does not possess rightly, this will not be the voice of a just possessor.”
I've outlined above that God clearly gave commands and guidelines for use of property and in doing so he inherently affirms the right to ownership. Here, Augustine says that if a person doesn't use his property "well" or "justly," he forfeits the right to ownership. It's an interesting thought but is it backed up anywhere in Scripture? Clearly, God deposed and stripped kingdoms away from kings who did not obey or acknowledge Him. That was clearly God's doing and not man's. But in terms of actual property, the closest I can come is Matthew 25:
28'Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.' 29 For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. 30Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
(By itself, verse 29 would be problematic to Collins, I think.) Here we have a slave who misused a talent given to him and it was taken from him. But it was not the slave's money to begin with. "A ha!" you say-- but wait. Money is property just like land, slaves, cattle, etc., and God clearly affirms a right to ownership. The master took it from him, not anyone else. No one else had a right to take the property but the master. Just as no one had authority to take away a kingdom from a king unless God took away that king's authority (several places in the OT, but Jesus affirms this in John 19:11) Which is problematic for Collins next assertion, which are his words and not Augustine's:

True ownership is granted only to the one who uses property justly – otherwise one is a thief and one’s property can be justly expropriated by those who will use it rightly. Those who abuse their property and by extension degrade the ecological integrity of God’s earth, “…have forfeited their participation in God’s true ownership”
(boldface mine) I think I've already established above that we don't have any Scriptural backing for the idea that misuse of property is theft. But remember that in Collins' logic even the idea that you own property is sin because it is rebellion against God and sets up a "fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation." Hence, since just the idea that you own property is sin, you are therefore misusing the property, and forfeit ownership rights of it (Augustine) which Collins takes a step further to say is actual theft if you still maintain ownership. Collins then says that because you have committed theft your property can be "justly expropriated" by those who will use it "rightly." (and does Collins get to define "rightly?")

I see nowhere in Scripture, including the parts of Israelite law which outlines use of their possessions, where God gives a command to confiscate someone's property if they use that property "unjustly" or to the displeasure of the community. Nowhere do I see misuse of property considered theft (even in Augustine's writings). These are clearly Collins' ideas and not God's nor Augustines.

I see David and psalmists asking God to take away property, which apparently meant that they would not do so themselves (presumably because it would violate "you shall not steal.")! I see plenty of places where God says he will judge us for how we use our possessions. Collins:

A prime example of such forfeiture can be found in BP’s abuse of its undersea property in the Gulf of Mexico, Such behavior, though sanctioned by law, involves a direct violation of Augustine’s principles of right ownership... if BP’s concern for profit prevails over the obligation to set right what has been destroyed, world citizens have the right and obligation to expropriate the property which has been so abused for the sake of profit. God’s justice demands it.
Again, Collins (not Augustine, not Jesus) goes yet another step futher by saying people have the "obligation to expropriate" property. I assume if people don't meet their "obligation" here Collins means they are sinning. And how is saying that "God's justice demands it" not blasphemy when nowhere in Scripture do we see either a right of expropriation much less an obligation? Collins presumes to speak for God here, that's extremely dangerous ground.

The only clear command I can see about how we are to treat other people's property is not to steal it, and to compensate a person when we harm or kill his property. Where property is "expropriated" in Scripture it is done so by God (see the other red paragraph above).

Now, I will move down to Collins' closing.
Capitalism is often justified as a way to redirect the unalterable facts of human selfishness into socially beneficial channels, but the early Christians were not so pessimistic about human nature. For them, every earthly reality was a path that leads to God because God’s power to save was real.
I'll take his word for it about the early church fathers, but neither Jesus nor Paul were optimistic about human nature; and the idea that "every earthly reality" leads to God sounds like universalism to me. But capitalism does channel self-interested behavior into social benefit. The guy who sold you a sandwich for lunch didn't do so because he cares about how hungry you are, he did so because he needs the money to pay his family's doctor bills. You didn't care about him or his family, you bought the sandwich because you were hungry. But by pursuing those self-interests, you both benefited and got what you wanted.

Collins then backs off a little bit and just gives us Augustine's view:
Augustine did not believe that property was in itself evil. It was the Roman law of absolute ownership which permitted owners to wall themselves off from the human family that was evil.
This wildly contradicts so much of what Collins' has written above! But the underlying point remains, Augustine-- like Jesus, Paul, James, etc.-- warns of the evils of loving property more than God as that is idolatry.

But nowhere in Scripture does it say thinking you have a right of ownership means your ownership of the property is sin, and therefore you're misusing the property and therefore forfeiting right to ownership and therefore stealing from others if you continue owning it and thereby giving the rest of the world a right and obligation to expropriate it from you. (Nowhere in his writings does Augustine say all that, either.) However, several converses are found in Scripture-- and I'm always going to go with Jesus' words over a man's.

So, how can Christians make sure that their ownership of property doesn't become idolatry?

I look back to Leviticus 25 to say that the model is holding property loosely. What's yours will not always be yours, and ultimately it's all God's (Psalm 24:1).
I also look to Jesus to see that we should voluntarily forfeit our right of ownership (note: dramatically different from forced expropriation!)

"So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver" 1 Corinthians 9:7 (boldface mine)

Matthew 5:39"But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

It is "give," "let him have," etc. Not "You forfeit your right of ownership," "You have the right to take..., "etc.

I recently read testimony of a church planter who lent his stereo to someone who asked. He wanted it back but chose not to ask for it. The borrower brought it back months later and asked for a Bible. "Why?" the church planter asked, surprised. "Because if the stereo had been mine, it would have been my life. No way I'd have lent it out. But you were willing to, so now I want to learn about this Jesus you say you know." That's the way Jesus.

In short, if God had wanted things to be Collins' way or Augustine's way, he would have spelled it out in Scripture. Collins appears to take Augustine's views, even where they contradict Jesus, and take them as a prescription for life. The problem is compounded when Collins clearly adds his own words and thoughts to the mix.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Economics and Climate Change

Greg Mankiw, whose textbook I adopted for Micro this semester, posted a link to a review by Yoram Bauman giving each major textbook a grade for how it deals with climate change. Mankiw aced it, while the previous textbook we used received the lowest score ("F").

I like that the Mankiw text clearly discusses Pigovian taxes. If there is an activity that causes a negative externality (like pollution) you can either tax it directly or use a permit (cap-and-trade) system that has the same effect--raising the price and reducing the quantity of the activity and its externality. Both are market-based approaches and are more palatable than government decree. Mankiw's book illustrates how both work very simply and clearly.

In discussing a tax on gasoline, which is a Mankiw staple, Mankiw writes:
"the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline is widely believed to be the cause of global
warming. Experts disagree about how dangerous this threat is, but there is no doubt that the gas tax reduces the threat by reducing the use of gasoline."

It's a factual statement and pretty even-handed. You don't need to believe climate change is real or that pollution is a problem to study how the government can best correct negative externalities.
The text we formerly used (Gwartney) includes a special topics chapter on environmental issues and the role of government. It states:
“[T]he earth has experienced both warming and cooling trends in the past,
and the current warming trend may well be unrelated to the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”


Note the difference between that and the "widely believed" phrase from Mankiw. Bauman points out that:

This statement is not only out of line with the 2007 IPCC report, it’s even out of step with the conservative Cato Institute, which says in its 2009 policymakers handbook that “[g]lobal warming is indeed real, and human activity has been a contributor since 1975.”

Which is why Bauman gives the Gwartney text an F. This is a pretty clear example of a very subtle political slant. The Gwartney text is clearly more conservative, but I think the Mankiw text is far more useful for students to understand real life. If they graduate from a Principles class and don't understand the logic/method behind a major (but very straightforward) piece of economic legislation being debated by Congress, then that's problematic to me.

In the supplemental text I have adopted, North & Smietana's Good Intentions (my review), there is a chapter dealing with the environment and climate change. I utilize a message board for students to discuss issues related to the book. I asked the following discussion question related to that chapter (copied from a study guide accompanying the book):
What do you think keeps many Christians from being involved in the issue of global climate change?

One student wrote the following answer. It's anecdotal at best, but there were enough answers similar enough to it that I wonder if it's not a common thought for sophomore-level students here:
"I'm wondering if this climate change thing is talking about 'global warming' because it was already proven that that doesn't really exist & it was just a political scam. It seems like it is kind of just something people laugh at now."

I think this example also illustrates the stark difference between living in a"red" state (or "red" part of a "purple" state) and living in a blue state or more urban setting. Over 95% of our students are from MO, AR, OK, and KS. Conservatives like Ross Douthat writing for the NY Times and the Cato Institute in D.C. assume climate change to be real and man-made. They can't comprehend that a part of the educated populace doesn't assume that. Neither can Yoram Bauman, apparently. In any case, I'm pleased with my choice of textbooks.

Budgeting decisions

Suppose we have disposable income that would buy one of the following items, which cost roughly the same amount:

1. An iPad.
2. A Dell tablet/notebook combo (or other computer).
3. Dental appointments for the family.
4. A vasectomy.
5. Repairs for the Mazda.
6. A few days away for vacation.
7. A flat-screen plasma TV (to replace our 1998 old-school box).*
8. Save the money for probable unbudgeted expenses in the coming year.

I go over this list in my head trying to rank order them. The "wants" and the utility they bring are vividly clear, but acquiring them would bring some negative utility in the form of guilt over not purchasing a "need." There is a time-consistency problem here as well.

Kids, this is how you know you've gotten old.

*A toddler visited our house recently and couldn't find the TV. He didn't recognize the box we had as being a TV. (Similar to how Elias doesn't understand that our television doesn't operate as a touch-screen like the iPod does.)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Truer words...

From the Minority Report of the Joint Committee on the Economic Report of the President, Economic Report of the President, January 1949 pgs 4-5:

The report abounds in statements that the Government must take "proper" action, make "wise" and "needed" economic adjustments...such statements beg the questions with which we are concerned and do not help us to any clear solution. They presuppose easy "right" answers, upon which, of course, everyone is supposed to agree...If such words admitted they are only an expression of hopes, there would be no harm, but experience in other countries, as well as our own, teaches that such words often have a propganda purpose in the hands of those who use them, designed to discredit anyone who may disagree. The only "wise" decisions are those which the speaker makes. The only "proper" action, the only "adequate" steps, are those which the proponent himself takes without even suggesting or admitting that there is any other remedy. Adjustments "needed" and the order of priority assigned to them, are inevitably limited to the desires and vision of their advocates.
Emphases mine. I found this gem in a long-forgotten textbook of economic readings* and thought it might be more widely quoted. A Google search indicates that it is not.

*Basic economics; a book of readings. Editors: Arthur D. Gayer, C. Lowell Harriss & Milton H. Spencer.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Book Review (#15 and #16 of 2010)

The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers by Robert L. Heilbroner (7th edition). (original version was 1953).

and

Ideas of the Great Economists by George Soule (9th printing, 1952)
.


The Heilbroner text is considered "seminal" and is standard reading at universities. It's part of Harvard's freshman economics seminar. The Soule text is apparently long-forgotten, I discovered it at a local used book store. I read them both together since they cover roughly the same economists and chronology.

Hands down, the Soule text is better. He covers more economists and does a much better job giving context to ideas in a much smaller space. Heilbroner is verbose and leaves out important context. For example, Soule rightly credits the monetarists and Wicksell for the development of many of J.M. Keynes' ideas. Heilbroner doesn't bother to mention them. Soule was director of the NBER and ends the book with insight into the economist that got it started, something important for the present day.

Their treatment of the subject matter is roughly the same, Heilbroner gives a bit more detail. But there is only so much I need to know about Thorstein Veblen's personal life. Why Heilbroner's text was never updated to include more modern developments is beyond me. He quotes from events in the 1990s but ignores any relevant developments.

I enjoyed reading Soule because he's writing at a time when some of the great thinkers were still alive. He addresses concerns that Von Mises and Hayek have about planning, illustrating that the debate was pretty clear in 1952. What his book lacks is a proper bibliography.

I give Heilbroner's book 3 stars. It's required reading for a reason, it's just not great.
I give Soule's book 4 stars. It's a gem, and you can purchase it for $0.01 used.

For more modern updates you have to go to New Ideas from Dead Economists (my review). And you'll not find much about Austrians in any of the above.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Opinion of the day

I'm with David Beckworth. The "conservatives'" open letter to Bernanke is a shame. Respectable conservatives shouldn't echo talking points from Sarah Palin, who just regurgitates Glenn Beck's nonsense. Milton Friedman would have favored Fed operations in the face of falling inflation expectations and in the worse drop in NGDP since the Great Depression. He would have supported QE two years ago, would have said the Fed is playing "catch up" today.

Reading John Taylor's blog, I think if the FOMC had announced a specific target-- NGDP target, price level target, inflation target, etc.-- he and others would not have signed that letter. They want to see coherent policy rule, and Bernanke hasn't clearly communicated that at all.

I've mentioned before that I believe in something called aggregate demand. Milton Friedman believed in it, too. But talking about "stimulating aggregate demand" gets you labeled a "Keynesian" in the current political climate.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A letter to Elias (about Elias)

You are almost 2.5.
I do 85% of your morning wake-up and breakfast times. You always respond to my entering your room with a "Hi!" usually followed by a "How are you?" but sometimes punctuated with a quote from something you were thinking about.

You still call me "Captain D's" as a nickname. We don't know how that got started, I think it shows how clever you are because I call you nicknames like "Tiny B."

You eat more than I do which is pretty amazing. They've been telling us for a year that you'll be slowing down your eating and I think you did--for a couple days. You love to eat fish and shrimp and we're never afraid to give you snails or whatever else we're eating-- you like most of it.

You tower over your classmates in the nursery. You find ways to amuse us with your coolness.
Your favorite thing to do with me is to "go faster!" which involves me holding you while I run around. You also like to "swing!" which involves me swinging you and you also now ask me to carry you on my shoulders often.


You love to read. We have read books like Baby's First Bible and Tell Me What God Made pretty much your whole life. Most of our books feature animals or are Thomas-related books. You have most of them memorized. You know your alphabet and how to count in English and French and somewhat in Spanish. You're starting to spell every word you see on signs. Thanks, Alpha Pig!
I also do about 95% of your bath times. Much of these times lately have been spent watching you re-enact scenes from Go Diego Go that involve swimming.

You do a lot of that re-enacting, whether it's Mr. Perkins entering the room or simply reciting entire episodes of Thomas. Whatever relates to what we're doing at the time.

And you love to sing. It's great to see you try hard to hit the right notes. You do a great job.

Your dad is proud of you, and he looks forward every day to coming home to your adventures.

What Paul Krugman really means to say.

Krugman tends to repeat himself in his op-eds and blog posts about how fiscal stimulus wasn't big enough and didn't really happen. This quote could have been written by Krugman but wasn't:

There were two reasons why the cure did not work better. First, the program of government spending was never carried out to the full extent that would have been necessary to bring the economy up to full employment... such all-out spending was quite impossible; indeed, even a modest program of government expenditure soon brought murmurs that federal power was overstepping its traditional bounds. To make matters worse, the Federal Reserve Board was more concerned about inflation (at the bottom of a depression!) than of unemployment, so that policies were established to discourage bank lending... government spending was meant as a helping hand for business. It was interpreted by business as a threatening gesture.. Hence, every effort of the government to undertake a program of sufficient magnitude to mop up all the unemployed...was assailed as further evidence of Socialist design.
(emphasis the author's) Originally written by Robert L. Heilbroner in this book in 1953! (talking about the Great Depression). The more things change.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Is the NCAA Welfare Enhancing? (Addendum)

I've found it harder to not watch college football than I hoped it would be. I admit I watched the second half of the UK-SC game last week and was quite happy with the outcome. But while I was sitting there, I did some research and stumbled across a working paper from Vanderbilt's economics department:
"What Does Intercollegiate Athletics Do To or For Colleges and Universities?" by Malcolm Geltz and John Siegfried.

They more scientifically ask the questions I pose in one of my posts on this subject. They look at various research done investigating the usual "benefits" listed by universities like boosting marketing, enrollment, and donations to the overall university. The authors find the anecdotal stories lack supporting evidence. Their concluding paragraphs (emphasis mine):

What has received virtually no attention is the opportunity cost accompanying any of these possible changes. If athletic success does boost donations and attract more and
better credentialed applicants to the successful institutions, from where do the donations and
students come, and is the reallocation of these resources efficient and equitable?

It is impossible to decide if the indirect effects of college athletics are desirable or undesirable
by looking at just one side of a reallocation of resources. If a university wants to attract
more or different students or to increase donations that support general academic purposes, might the funds currently spent subsidizing intercollegiate athletics be more productive in addressing these goals directly by bolstering the budgets of university development and admissions offices? Up to this point, the net social welfare and equity implications of any indirect effects of college sports on the institutions that host big-time intercollegiate teams really remain unknown. It is possible that these effects could be sufficiently large and undesirable to outweigh the consumers surplus created by the direct entertainment value of intercollegiate athletic competition.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Monetary Policy

Today I finally got around to reading Lawrence H. White's paper from a few years back entitled "Did Hayek and Robbins deepen the Great Depression?" in which White points out that:

1. The Hayek-Robbins Austrian business cycle model was not used by nor was it influential on the U.S. Treasury or the Federal Reserve of the 1920s and early 1930s.

2. The Hayek-Robbins model calls for monetary policy that stabilizes nominal income (PxY).

3. Both Hayek and Robbins, contrary to their model, called for a deflationist liquidation during the Great Depression which they both later regretted and recanted. Hayek later stated that there is no useful role for deflation in such setting.

(HT: David Beckworth)

I got there because of this week's buzz about the minutes from the latest FOMC meeting indicating that the FOMC had a discussion about both price level and NGDP (PxY) targeting. I have been "converted" to this idea by Scott Sumner and a few other economist bloggers whose voices have grown louder over the course of the last year in the face of falling inflation expectations and a prolonged economic recovery.

I find it interesting that Hayek's idea above, and his agreement with Milton Friedman in regards to the Fed's role in the Great Depression, is rejected by many Austrians, who I would call "hypercalvinist Austrians."

It's worth noting, however, that both New Keynesian-type and Austrian economists believe the Fed "leaned with the wind" both in the 1920s and the 2000s. (*update* okay, maybe I'm wrong about this). During a time of increasing real output/income (increasing productivity) the Fed responded by pushing down interest rates. David Beckworth has been one of the biggest critics of the Fed about the 2002-2006 period, as is John Taylor (ie: the Fed inflated the housing bubble). In the 1920s it was because the Fed was following a "real bills" doctrine that White describes in his paper, while in the 2000's we were too worried about becoming Japanese. The Fed saw disinflation and panicked.

Meanwhile, the difference between New Keynesians and New Monetarists has apparently narrowed to nothing. Krugman calls himself a New Keynesian (which some take issue with) and he calls guys like Sumner "quasi-monetarists," which they take no issue with--and both camps are on the same page in regards to the Fed. New Keynesian stalwarts like Greg Mankiw long ago called on the Fed to break the "liquidity trap" using unconventional monetary policy--with most quoting Milton Friedman along the way. And these folks have firmed up my beliefs in the importance of PxY or aggregate demand.

The only camps left out in the cold are those who believe that:
1. There is no such thing as aggregate demand.
2. Aggregate demand must never be mentioned-- we must only talk about the supply side.

Such people have spent the last couple years warning of hyperinflation due any minute, claiming most of our unemployment is either voluntary or structural, and generally wanting everyone to forget that they told us the Dow would hit 36,000 soon or that housing prices wouldn't necessarily fall very far, or that the Bush tax cuts would pay for themselves.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

On Minimum Wage

I was surprised to see The Atlantic Wire pick up a "controversy" brewing about minimum wage. Some Republican candidates--Tea Party brand-- have made some comments about abolishing or reducing the minimum wage. Democrats are apparently picking up on it as "political death wishes."

We've been discussing price ceilings in the current unit of Principles of Microeconomics. Minimum wage increased in the middle of our recession and the result, as illustrated here, was an increase in teenage unemployment above what it would likely have been even due to the recession.

Here's a simple illustration from our campus:
We only have so much room in our operating budget to spend on student workers. Most of the jobs aren't very productive or difficult--many are work/study who spend most of their time studying or playing on Facebook while getting on paid to be on call to do odd jobs for their department. We have a lot of students willing to be paid less than $7.25/hour for doing this but the government says they don't have that freedom. If we could pay them less than $7.25, we could afford to hire many more than we do. So, we have a lot more applicants than jobs, or structural unemployment.

Some "progressives" find the minimum wage abhorrently low and would criticize SBU for paying it. Indeed, we could increase the wage paid to our work/study, but that means hiring even fewer students (increasing unemployment). Nancy Pelosi has unpaid workers (interns) in her office and no one raises a stink about that.

So, I hope some of these Republican candidates make this a teachable moment. It's not that hard.

NASCAR weekend

A friend of ours gave us tickets to the Nationwide series race in Kansas City on Saturday. We jumped at the opportunity to go, and my parents came in town to take care of Elias-- which went extremely well. My wife chronicled most of the event on her blog.

NASCAR is the guilt-free sport.

There are no worries about wins being stripped away because someone lied about their high school transcript, or lied about taking the SAT. No coaches who get penalized for sending too many text messages or funneling cash to prospective recruits. It's not odd to see a 20 year old professional, and no one cares that he skipped college-- it's seen as a career choice like any other. You also don't have players celebrating after first downs as if they'd won the Super Bowl, no scantily clad women doing dance routines, and very few competitors have criminal histories.

NASCAR also gives you access to the competitors in a way other sports don't, you can be right there with them in the days before the race getting autographs and striking up conversations.

We spent $15 for FanWalk passes, which gave us access to the "infield" where the garages and pit areas are. We got to see Sprint Cup practice on Saturday. Here is Chad Knaus, the greatest crew chief in the world, who we were about 30 feet away from.
The only other racing event I have to compare this weekend to is the racing at the Lucas Oil speedway (dirt track) in Wheatland, MO-- which I blogged about here. I was amazed at the similarities. Wheatland actually has the better facility-- they have free wifi and the jumbotron is larger relative to the track, and they have stores and restaurants you can go into to get away from the noise and crowd.

General observations:
Sea of humanity: Cars, RVs, and people as far as the eye can see. I've been to plenty of football games but I've never seen anything like this in size and spirit. It's an incredible feeling to be a part of it.

Couples: There are an army of women who love NASCAR, and most of the guys you see at the track are there with either a girlfriend or spouse. Here's me and my bride as a case in point.
Alcohol: I've never seen so much in one place. It's not just beer ($7/can) but rum, bloody maries, and more sold all over the place. You're allowed to take a cooler into the track, so everyone does.
I felt out of place not having a beer in my hand. And I have never felt more nervous driving home.

Noise: At most sporting events, the crowd makes the noise. At NASCAR the crowd is silent because you can't hear anything over the noise.

Driving in circles: The race is actually pretty boring in person, and hard to follow. If you have a scanner or a headset to catch what's going on, you miss out on all the little nuances and don't know what teams are thinking. The Sprint-sponsored jumbotrons were not very jumbo and unhelpful. I definitely missed the TV commentary and multiple camera angles. Watching the computer animated cars online (using GPS) through NASCAR.com's digital track pass is probably still the most fun way to watch a race, in my opinion.

In all, we really enjoyed the experience. Not sure I would shell out the big bucks it takes to attend again. NASCAR sells all of its tickets as a package-- you have to buy Nationwide and Sprint Cup races together. So, you end up shelling out a large amount for the weekend.

We're thankful to our friends who gave us their Saturday tickets.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is the NCAA welfare-enhancing (Part 3)

Continuing this series has been on my to-do list since June. The increasing press about investigations and sanctions against NCAA schools lately have made thinking about this issue important.

The Wall Street Journal published an analysis in June of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. The gist of it:

Over 18 months, the athletic reform commission compiled data on college sports finances and found that at institutions belonging to major athletics conferences, median spending per athlete ranged from four to almost 11 times more than median spending on students for educational purposes. In 2008, median per capita athletics spending for Football Bowl Subdivision conference institutions was $84,446, compared to a median $13,349 per capita for academic spending.
A graph:


The purpose of university seems to be becoming less about educating and more about training athletes. The University of Kentucky purports that its athletics budget is separate from its general fund, so it can afford to pay John Calipari what it does ($3.8 million in base salary this year). Much of the money for athletics comes from private donations. The problem is that there is a "crowding out" effect here. Every dollar raised for athletics is a dollar lost for the general education fund. Do many donors feel that more value is added to society by donating it to athletics rather than education? Or does the utility derived from their favorite team improving simply outweigh what they perceive the loss to society of having a less-educated population?

A better example would be the recent contract negotiations of Texas Tech with former coach Mike Leach. Last December, the Dallas Morning News published emails between university officials and attorneys about Leach's contract demands. One telling line in an email to the university's chancellor:
"Bottom line, we can't afford what he is asking for. Every $100,000 we give him is $1.5 million in improvements we could have bonded."

Giving a raise to the coach would have indeed detracted from the budget of the overall university.

When I look at the sidelines today, I see all of the millions of dollars spent on insurance, equipment, salaries, and scholarships and reach the conclusion that the benefits cannot outweigh the costs. Yes, the universities make millions off of TV deals and the exposure may attract student applicants. But a great deal of that money is plowed back into the athletics department and as the Knight study showed, increasingly less of it is going toward education.

I've seen first-hand how athletes are shuffled into the easiest majors, graduating with having learned little and without a marketable degree. I've seen basketball players kept eligible in the fall for spring semester while coaches looked the other way as they flunked their spring classes because nothing mattered after March was over. I've seen football coaches bring in junior college transfers with semesters of classes that won't transfer, knowing the player will transfer out again after the football season is over because all the coach wants the kid for is football that year (and, admittedly, all admissions wants is to hit its enrollment targets...). What value is added to society and the university from this? Are the thousands of dollars spent on the player and program really reaping benefits for the university and society, outside of the W/L column?

I find it difficult as a Christian to support activities I increasingly believe are immoral and harmful to both students and, therefore, the greater society. I can't look at the above and say "that's okay." I want to make sure I know my dollar is going toward the education side, and not to athletics.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Review (#14 of 2010)

Letters from Dad: How to leave a legacy of faith, hope, and love for your family by Greg Vaughn with Fred Holmes.
A friend sent this to me a while back. I had never heard of Greg Vaughn and his ministry of Legacy Groups which started in the Dallas area and spread internationally.

Vaughn and a group of men got inspired to write letters to their family members, particularly their children, as a way of imparting blessings on them and a way to leave a written legacy of who they were. Vaughn was inspired by Gary Smalley's book The Blessing. The book is basically about the men's testimonies about the impact it had on their families and how the ministry developed from it.

As you'll see on his website, they sell some expensive stationery and mahogany boxes for the letters. Vaughn spent $800 on box, stationery, and a $40 pen when he got started-- I think that's a little overkill. But I get the idea of blessing others through the written word. One thing that struck me as odd was that as the ministry grew at one point they figured out that a large number of the attendees were either divorced or going through a divorce. It struck me that the divorcing men seemed to be doing it as a way to get their kids to love them again once the divorce was final. That's Dallas, I suppose.

In all, it's a good fast read but filled with sappy emotional stuff and lots of men crying. If you don't have problems with picking up a pen, then don't bother with the book--just get started.

(I don't really want to attach a rating to this one, just doesn't seem appropriate since it's not the typical type of book I review here. )

Monday, August 16, 2010

Book Review (#13 of 2010)

Hard Heads Soft Hearts: Tough-Minded Economics for a Just Society by Alan S. Blinder.
This book from 1987 was recommended to me a couple times by a grad school professor of mine. Blinder is writing at the end of Reagan's presidency and is reflecting back on the good and bad economic policies that emerged from that era. Blinder is a Democrat.

"Hard-headed" policies are those that promote efficiency-- greater economic growth and higher utility for society overall. "Soft-hearted" policies are ones that deal more with equity-- dividing up the economic pie more equally. Economists and policy makers struggle to promote both efficiency and equity, and Blinder illustrates several examples where the two can meet in the middle.

He is highly critical of the supply-side arguments that won the day in 1981, and also critical of conservatives' attempts to rid the world of all forms of Keynesian thinking. He does a good job of showing that the schools of thought in economics are not so black-and-white easy to define and are constantly evolving. Modern "New" Keynesian economists have incorporated the virtues of the Lucas critique and rational expectations into their models. New Monetarists have abandoned many of the core beliefs held by Phelps and Friedman in light of the 1980s experience. And conservatives in both the rational expectations and monetarist schools of the early 1980s were highly critical of the supply-siders' claims that tax cuts could pay for themselves. The vast majority of Keynesians never believed that "money doesn't matter," and have common ground with monetarists on that important point. While you still have your hyper-rationalists, hyper-Keynesians, and hyper-monetarists, the majority of the macroeconomics profession is in the "neoclassical synthesis" that's found in the middle.

Chapter 5 deals with the history of tax reform from 1985-1986. Reagan's Treasury Department submitted a proposal to radically change the tax code-- including a plan that looks similar to the John McCain campaign plan of taxing employer-provided insurance as a benefit and giving vouchers or tax credits to people to purchase their own health insurance. That plan was butchered by Congress and special interests, but then somewhat salvaged by the Senate Finance Committee led by Bob Packer and Bill Bradley to be (almost) really sensible tax reform including a PAYGO rule.

Blinder holds up the 1986 tax reform as an example where sometimes sound economics can trump insider greed and lobbying. Blinder also gives some basic economic suggestions for dealing with pollution-- like an emissions tax, a cap-and-trade system and other ideas that are now part of the vernacular, and makes the strong case for free trade.

It's important to remember that even liberal economists like Blinder stand against harmful policies like rent controls, minimum wage laws, trade barriers (Blinder has recently retreated on his position here, though), subsidies and other policies typically touted by more left-leaning politicians. That often gets forgotten in all of the debate and vitriol-- economists still have a lot of common ground.

In all, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. It's almost as relevant to today as it was in 1987.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Review: P90X Phase 1


My wife and I purchased P90X back in January after trying it out with some of her family members. We had both finished spent the fall working out with various DVDs (The Biggest Loser and Jillian's 30 Day Shred), and I was pretty much already at my target weight, having lost about 50 pounds since August. But I wanted "more" and so we bit the bullet.

Throughout the spring, I would say I worked out "casually" maybe 3-4 times a week. I felt I didn't have time for the full P90x routine, so I would split the hour-long workouts into two 30-minute days. I might have gone in the prescribed order but did so slowly and skipped the Yoga X and Plyometrics workouts, substituting in Cardio X and Jillian's Shred Level 3 on those days instead. 1 I also used bands for the chin-ups instead of a chin-up bar. 2

I slacked off at the end of spring semester while work got busy, and then we moved and had a vacation. On return from vacation, I was determined to do Phase 1 completely and not skip days. I bought a chin-up bar.

Initially, I still subbed in Jillian's Shred and Cardio X for the Plyo-X and Yoga X. But then I added Plyo back in on Week 2, and did the Yoga X both days on Week 4.

My opinion is that P90X works. While I haven't lost much weight (I was already at my "target" weight) I have definitely started changing shape. Here are some thoughts if you're looking to do it:

  • Adding a pull-up bar makes all the difference for your shoulders, arms, back, and core.
  • Yoga X is totally worth the 90 minutes. It gets easier as you do the other exercises, and makes the other exercises (like wall-sits) "easier."
  • The more you do the workouts the longer they will take. This seems counter intuitive, but as you set and meet goals for your number of reps, you have to keep adding more reps. That means pushing pause, finishing your set, and then moving on. It's also true when lifting weights where you might not have the money/option of moving to a heavier weight-- you do more reps with what you've got.
  • I use 20 pound weights for most exercises. 10 pounds for the exercises you do on days like Plyo X. Those have been perfectly adequate for Phase 1.
  • X-Stretch is also a good idea. It helps you heal and will also help your Yoga X.
  • It takes time. You have to commit to 90 minutes one day a week, 75 minutes three days a week, and 60 minutes the other three days. Carve out that time. I was able to do that easily only because I am a teacher who gets summers off.
  • Keep pushing play, keep pushing play. If you're completely winded and it's break time, no shame in adding another minute of break to get your heart rate down a bit.
  • Expect to be sore ALL the time. Working out intensely 6 days a week every week is tough on your muscles.
I look forward to starting Phase 2, but work starts for me this week. I am already working my schedule to carve out the time I need to continue. Once you start getting results, you just want more.

1I found Plyo X initially really killed the arches of my feet. I'm not sure whether this was because I was on my feet teaching most of the day, or had new workout shoes, or because of the carpet in our house or what. We moved to a new house with different carpet and I haven't been teaching and I haven't had nearly as much pain. Yoga X was just awkward, uncomfortable, and time-consuming the first time I did it. My mind just wasn't "open" enough. But after a few weeks of serious P90X, I found it wasn't so bad. Highly recommend it.

2Some people use bands rather than free weights, and I would imagine it's time consuming to set that up every set. I bought a Golds Gym set of 3 bands that you can either use together or separately (using them together is more resistance). Before buying the bar, I used all 3 bands together for the chin-up/pull-up sets. You could sit and do that all day and not get the same workout as just doing a few pull-ups.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

What I'm Reading

Since I've mentioned before I'm reading a lot more these days due to great apps like Instapaper, I thought "why not share what I'm reading?" If you subscribe to this RSS feed, it should show you all of the articles that I have stored for later reading. I try to clear my cache at least every two weeks.