Monday, February 29, 2016

Heirs of Promise by P. Chase Sears (Book Review #12 of 2016)


Heirs of Promise
Heirs of Promise focuses on the church as the fulfillment of prophecies made to God's covenant people--Israel. Unlike other books dealing with covenant theology, Sears focuses mainly on the Apostle Paul's arguments in Romans. If you have purchased the Kindle version, you are in for a treat as all Scripture passages referenced are reprinted for easy one-touch look-up and return. All References are likewise linked, but this is the first book of biblical study that I had found the biblical passages so easily accessible, even when cited multiple times. The book would get five stars just for that-- this is how electronic book reading should be. (Note, all of the reprinted material means that over half of the book content are References.) Disclaimer: I received an advance copy for review from the publisher with the understanding that I would publish a review. The review and ratings are my own opinion and are no way influenced by the publisher.

Sears begins every section with an introduction to the argument he will lay out, develops the argument, then neatly summarizes in conclusion. That makes it read a bit more like a thesis, but also helps the reader not miss the main points; it makes for easy highlighting and there are no tangents or rabbit trails. I made numerous highlights, and I have tried to string together key points that stuck out to me below. To gain greater insight into covenant theology, I read Michael Horton's acclaimed An Introducing Covenant Theology afterward. Sears' book is zoomed in specifically on Paul, whereas most works on the subject argue for the system as a whole and do not exegete specific texts, and that is what differentiates Heirs of Promise. If you want broader background on the Noahic/Abrahamic/Davidic covenant, the Sinaitic covenant, the historical suzerainty covenants that Sinai is so similar to, and how covenant theology has developed since the Reformation, then read a work like Horton's first.

The basic argument of the book is that Paul sees the church as the "new Israel," meaning not that the Church has replaced Israel, but rather that it inherits Israel's promises. Loc. 200:
"By calling the Church the new Israel I do not mean the replacement of Israel, but rather the continuation of Israel reconstituted in Christ. Understood this way, Christ is presented as God’s true Son/Israel, through whom all of God’s purposes for Israel and creation are realized. Consequently, through faith in Christ, the Church, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, becomes God’s new covenant people and heirs of all of his saving promises."

(Horton phrases this as the church being "Israel's fruition," which I think is a better description, Horton and Sears both note others have used similar phrases.) Sears relies heavily on commentaries by Beale, Moo, and Schreiner; if there is a weakness it may be in not consulting more historical works on the topic, and Romans, particularly from the early Reformers and the Puritans.

The author begins with a critique of some of the disparate views of dispensationalists, illustrating that there is diversity among dispensationalist thought as well as among covenantalists, though covenantalists come across to me as more unified. Sears is using a biblical-theological approach (Loc. 187):
"biblical theology is exegetically driven, sensitive to the historical, literary, and theological features of the diverse corpora of Scripture, while at the same time conscious of the interrelationship between these documents as a unified whole. Second, biblical theology is concerned with redemptive history, following the development of theological themes and motifs along the biblical timeline. This redemptive historical timeline finds its culmination in the Messiah. Finally, as the first two features are employed, the Bible is understood on its own terms, allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture."

Covenant theology is, to my mind, inseparable from biblical theology, the overarching story of the Bible is a continuous one as God's purpose for Creation is being fulfilled in Christ and His chosen people. The covenant motif runs from creation to the Church. Christ is the "true Israel" who fulfilled both the Sinaitic Law and all the promises of the Old Testament. Only those who believe in Christ are children of Abraham and heirs to his promise (Galatians 3:7-8) and are the "new Israel," the Church. Sears appears to be addressing mostly dispensationalists who believe Messianic Jews are somehow first-class citizens in the Kingdom, or those of the more universalist persuasion that national Israel today is blessed and protected even though its people reject Jesus as the Messiah. He endeavors to show that believing Christians and Jews are on "equal footing." Key to this is proving that "Paul’s gospel is a fulfillment of the promised deliverance from exile and a new creation spoken by the prophets," (loc. 217). The Old Testament promises made throughout the Old Testament to a restored Israel are fulfilled in the Church, not the nation of Israel today, because of the Church's relationship to Christ, the true Israel.

While Sears sees the Sinaitic covenant as temporary, he notes the fulfillment of various aspects of Exodus 20 by the Church. Israel was called to be a "nation of priests" through whom God would bless and judge other nations, just as God promised that Abraham's offspring would bless every family on earth (Genesis 12). "Paul sees the new exodus, the new covenant, and the Abrahamic covenant as fulfilled in the Church. If such is the case, it is difficult not to see the Church as the new Israel in Christ" (loc. 662).

What about national Israel, and what about the land--Palestine-- promised to Abraham and inhabited by ethnic Jews today? Some of Paul's writing is eschatological, but covenentalists and dispensationalist differ on their interpretation, particularly in Romans 11. Romans 11 tells us that one day ethnic Israel will be grafted back onto the tree of Israel that gentiles have been grafted onto by a gracious God through Jesus (Rom. 11:24). There are ethnic Messianic Jews who now are part of the tree, and Paul forsees a further ingathering of Jews into the "new Israel" of the Church. However, "dispensationalists still want more from Romans 11 than merely salvation for national Israel. Some advocate that Romans 11 teaches not only a future salvation for the nation of Israel, but also a future restoration" (loc. 1687).
"Paul’s allusion to Jeremiah 31:33–34 does not necessitate a national restoration for Israel. Paul is simply saying that Israel will not be left out of the new covenant. Further, we must not forget that the new covenant includes the Gentiles as well; otherwise, we undermine Paul’s emphasis on the Gentiles being grafted into the one people of God (11:17–24)" (loc. 1699). "Paul likely sees the land promise to be expanded from Palestine to “the world'" (loc. 1704).

Prophecies like Ezekiel 36:33-36 should not be applied to the re-establishment of national Israel in 1945, as many American evangelicals seem wont to do, but rather should be seen as being fulfilled by the Church. Loc. 847-849: "(T)he new creation was promised to Israel (Isa 65:17; 66:22), but Paul sees this promise belonging to the Church, the new Israel...Paul has argued this reality—namely that 'Christians … [are] to be the actual beginning fulfillment of the prophesied spiritual resurrection of Israel that was to transpire in the latter days at the time of their restoration from exile' (citing G.K. Beale).”

Location 1341, 1439:
"Although Paul will later argue that there is still a future salvation for the nation of Israel, because God foreknew them (Romans 11:2), this salvation will not be experienced outside of the new covenant community of the Church...this Israel is not national Israel, for unbelieving Jews are excluded. Rather, this is 'the spiritual Israel within Israel that, according to Romans 9, has always been in existence and, according to 11:16, grows from the seed of God’s promises to the patriarchs' (Moo). This olive tree, which consists of both believing Jews and Gentiles, is the Church, a continuation of spiritual Israel expressed under the new covenant. Consequently, it is appropriate then to identify this new covenant people as the new Israel."

So, Sears writes that there is a future salvation for the nation of Israel which does not contradict Paul's conception of the Church as the new Israel.
Loc. 1525: "we may find it more helpful to consider the Church to be the new Israel while at the same time holding to a future for ethnic Israel." Loc. 1624: "Paul says the plērōma of Israel (11:12b) will not occur until the plērōma (“fullness”) of the Gentiles has been consummated (11:25b). Once all the elect from among the Gentiles believe, it is at this time “all Israel will be saved” (11:26a). Consequently, the “all” (pas) of 11:26a must correspond with the “full inclusion” (plērōma) of 11:12b. Otherwise, Paul’s argument would be anticlimactic" (loc. 1611, citing Cranfield).

Sears sums up his argument thus (loc. 1752): "Although one could object that Paul never explicitly calls the Church the 'new Israel,' we shouldn’t reject this theological designation. To identify the Church as the new Israel is merely to grant it a term that encompasses the truth that the Church is God’s new covenant people and heirs of all his saving promises. The Church is not the replacement of Israel, but the continuation of Israel reconstituted in Christ."

This book is an excellent addition to any study of covenant theology or of Romans. I give it five stars out of five. Buy the Kindle version and enjoy the experience.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Podcast of the Week (2/21-2/27, 2016) "Tragedy Strikes Kevin Harris' Family" on Reasonable Faith

Reasonable Faith is a must-subscribe if you are interested in any way in apologetics or Christian philosophy. This week, Dr. William Lane Craig interviews the show's usual host--Kevin Harris-- about dealing with the recent loss of his teenage son in a motorcycle accident.

Read the transcript or listen here.

I've remarked before that there is a lack of a theology of mourning in Christian works. Why do we mourn the loss of a believing loved one, and how? Harris is very aware of how atheists use Christian mourning-- arguing that it means Christians don't really believe in a heavenly afterlife. He misses his son deeply, feels parental guilt for allowing the motorcycle, and deals with much in raw fashion. But he thoughtfully explains the hope that he has in Christ. He, like C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed, also cautions Christians for saying inappropriate or unbiblical statements like "He's riding that great motorcycle in heaven." It is a very real interview and I highly recommend.

KEVIN HARRIS: We are going through that grieving process. You and I have done a podcast where someone asked, “If you guys as Christians believe that they are in a better place and that you will see them again and that Jesus defeated death, why are you so upset?” Because we miss them so badly![2] That was my boy, my son. We had a great relationship....

KEVIN HARRIS: So at times when I feel, when we are weeping and we are crying and going through the grief, we’ve never grieved without hope. Suddenly when it feels like the world is too bleak or this is just too hard to take (and it is the worst thing in the world – it is as bad as they say to lose a child), but suddenly this bubble (is all I can describe it as) of hope that kind of comes up from nowhere. Not in an artificial sense, not in a way of anesthetizing you, but suddenly a sense of hope kind of comes in and you feel encouraged...



Saturday, February 20, 2016

Sermon of the Week: Christians and Gun Ownership. Andy Stanley's "Tough as Nails" series (2/14 - 2/20, 2016)

Tough as Nails
"Uncertainty is unavoidable. Being fearful is optional."
This four-part sermon series is, I believe, the first I have heard that is intentionally "meta." I bet most in the North Point audience wouldn't recognize it, but Stanley is very cleverly addressing the recent debate in evangelical circles about gun ownership, as well as (more overtly) responding fears over immigration and refugees. I appreciated this series because it clarified some arguments I was making in my own mind.

John Piper and Jerry Falwell, Jr. engaged in some critical dialogue after Falwell encouraged students on his campus to arm themselves and take a conceal-and-carry class offered on campus in response to Muslim-initiated violence. Falwell said:
"I’ve always thought if more good people had conceal-carry permits then we could end those Muslims before they walk in and kill. I just want to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. Let's teach 'em a lesson if they ever show up here.”

Piper, from his position as Chancellor at a seminary, responded with a biblical critique that went so far as to call into question any Christian ownership of firearms for the purpose of protection.
http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/should-christians-be-encouraged-to-arm-themselves

Stanley, very subtly, seems to be aligning himself with Piper's principles. He recently preached a series on the "N Commandments," focusing on all the commands Jesus gave that include the word "not." "Do not fear" is chief among those commands, echoed throughout the Old and New Testaments; I don't think there is a command in Scripture found more often. Preaching from Hebrews, Stanley notes the suffering of the early Christians, many of whom were Jewish converts being persecuted by fellow Jews. As Piper points out in his argument, we have no biblical record or record from other sources of early Christians taking up arms in resistance either to the government or to their neighbors, and certainly none that the Apostles were encouraging them to do so. Some critics have pointed out that Christians were simply showing proper submission to the Roman government (1 Peter 2) in their martyrdom. However, persecution came not just from the government proper but from both the Jewish diaspora (Acts 20:3 as one example) who were also under intermittent persecution and from Gentiles who felt threatened by Christian teaching but were not themselves in authority (see Acts 19:23-29). In the New Testament, we see Christians either fleeing persecution to preach in a different city, or examples like Paul willingly submitting himself to Jewish arrest later, but not Christians arming themselves. (This is vitally important given that the Jewish rebellion against Rome and civil war among Jews was gaining steam as epistles were being written.) Post-biblical history suggests this has always been the majority position of the church, (visit the Voice of the Martyr's website).

Stanley asks the question: How many guns and how much ammo do you need to feel safe? And at what point in these purchases are you putting your trust in something other than God? At what point does your desire for safety and security limit your faith, and other people's access to the Gospel? There is always a risk of danger-- God isn't safe, and the Christian was never promised by Jesus to be as such.

The response of some advocates for armed response have been to note that Jesus did not forbid his disciples to own swords; some interpretations of Luke 22 seem that he advocated the purchase of swords.

Luke 22:36 (HCSB) Then He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money-bag should take it, and also a traveling bag. And whoever doesn’t have a sword should sell his robe and buy one. 37 For I tell you, what is written must be fulfilled in Me: And He was counted among the outlaws. Yes, what is written about Me is coming to its fulfillment.”
38 “Lord,” they said, “look, here are two swords.”
“Enough of that!” He told them.

Falwell Jr. and his supporters argue that Jesus was restoring the old order of things, advocating for protection, encouraging them to defend themselves from persecution, etc. This seems an odd interpretation, given that the previous verses contain Jesus' warning about the fall of Jerusalem and promises of persecution to his disciples in Luke 21:16 You will even be betrayed by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends. They will kill some of you. 17 You will be hated by everyone because of My name, 18 but not a hair of your head will be lost. 19 By your endurance gain your lives." That does not sound like a call to organized self-defense, which could easily have been arranged as there were so many motivated groups in Israel at the time.

It is hard to square Falwell Jr.'s ideas with Matthew 10:28 "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

Piper disagrees with Falwell, Jr. & co.'s interpretation of Luke 22 based on the context and what is seen plainly in the text:
"I do not think that Jesus meant in verse 36 that his disciples were to henceforth be an armed band of preachers ready to use violence to defend themselves from persecution...If that is the correct interpretation of this text, my question is, “Why did none of his disciples in the New Testament ever do that — or commend that?” The probable answer is that Jesus did not mean for them to think in terms of armed defense for the rest of their ministry. Jesus’s abrupt words, at the end of the paragraph, when the disciples produced two swords, were not, “Well, you need to get nine more.” He said, “It is enough!” or “That’s plenty!” This may well signify that the disciples have given a mistaken literal meaning to a figurative intention. Darrell Bock concludes,

    Two events [are] commentary on this verse [36]: Jesus’ rebuke of the use of a sword against the high priest’s servant (22:49–51) and the church’s nonviolent response to persecution in the Book of Acts (4:25–31; 8:1–3; 9:1–2; 12:1–5). In fact, Acts 4:25–31 shows the church armed only with prayer and faith in God. Luke 22:36 sees the sword as only a symbol of preparation for pressure, since Jesus’ rebuke of a literal interpretation (22:38) shows that a symbol is meant (Fitzmyer 1985: 1432; Marshall 1978: 825). It points to readiness and self-sufficiency, not revenge (Nolland 1993b: 1076). (Luke, volume 2, page 1747)

What seems plain to me is that the uncertainty of this text (which I share) should not be used to silence the others I have cited."
I personally begin with the premise that fear is the opposite of faith. If God has repeatedly commanded us not to fear, then it's a sin to fear. Further, without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and faith in Christ is a critical component of decisions we make regarding our behavior before one another (Romans 14:19-23). If I arm myself with the expectation that my life and others' lives are in my own hands, then is my faith not in myself and not in God? When Peter took up a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus' response was "Matthew 26:52 Then Jesus told him, “Put your sword back in its place because all who take up a sword will perish by a sword." Piper has elsewhere speculated that perhaps we run extraordinary risks in arming ourselves (beyond the elevated risk of an accident), indicating we prefer faith in our own protection to God's.

I am not completely convinced that Piper is correct on the issue of self-defense or defending a loved one when threatened. Piper rightly notes that whatever action we take in that moment, it must not be out of a spirit of fear or vengeance; he just does not think that is possible in pulling a gun on someone (or maybe even calling 911 on them). I think there is merit in arguing that I am loving my neighbor if I see a crime being committed and I can stop it, whether by gun or other means. If I can do so out of faith and love rather than fear and vengeance, then I am not succumbing to sin. But fear is sin, and to live a lifestyle submitted to it is unbiblical. Like Stanley and Piper, I am concerned that the balance of American Christianity has shifted toward a spirit of fear and selfishness (the attitude of "Look what THEY'VE done to MY country!") rather than one of love and fearlessly radical discipleship. Stanley's sermon series is a call to get back to the latter.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Exodus (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) by Carol Meyers (Book Review #11 of 2016)


Exodus (New Cambridge Bible Commentary)
I used Meyers work alongside Victor P. Hamilton's own Exodus commentary in working through the book of Exodus; the latter is far superior, particularly for exegesis. Meyers book has some value, but I could not recommend it over other works. The publisher advertises that "It explains important concepts and terms as expressed in the Hebrew original," but Meyers largely does that by ignoring looking at how the Hebrew words are translated and used in other contexts in the Hebrew Bible. This book is a not a verse-by-verse commentary, but mostly an overview of how a few aspects of Exodus fit into Israel's national identity. She assumes the documentary hypothesis (most good commentaries these days have good critiques of the weaknesses of this approach) which leads to her to assign meaning to certain texts that the authors most certainly would not have. The book is devoid of any biblical theology--seeing how the work fits in the total arc of scripture--and does not connect much with other passages in the Hebrew Bible that rely on Exodus; Exodus is mostly left on an island by itself, and even its Genesis roots and parallels are largely ignored. That makes her assertations about Israeli identity questionable, in my opinion.

The strength of the book are the "closer look" sections on topics like circumcision, the Sabbath, comparison of the Decalogue to the Laws of Hammurabi, and more. Meyers draws from modern anthropology and archaeology to make her points.
Meyers also draws more attention to the role of female heroins in Exodus than other male authors, this is worth noting. The Torah truly elevates the status of women, and Exodus is no exception. An example (pgs. 51, 69):

"Jochebed is a theorphoric personal name with a shortened form of Yahweh (see Exod 6:20), making her arguably the first person in the Hebrew Bible to bear such a name and signifying the origin of Yahweh as the name of god with her son...A name is related to identity; and the name of Israel's god indicates an open and fluid identity, not linked to any specific cosmological, natural, or functional phenomena, as was the case for other deities in the biblical world...Jochebed's name is also significant - using a shortened form of yhwh, it means 'Yahweh is glory.'"

In some cases, she may stretch a bit to find feminine characteristics of God in the text. D.A. Carson might find some "exegetical fallacies." One example (p. 123):
"the use of the epithet "merciful" for God as the source of divine compassion is probably related to such maternal images. The adjective "compassionate" (or "merciful") and the noun "compassion" (or "mercy"), as well as the verb "to be compassionate, merciful," all are related to the Hebrew word for "womb" (rehem); and they all are used in relation to God more often than to humans in the Bible."

Nonetheless, there is some good commentary on law and legal customs among the Jews and other Near Eastern peoples that I found helpful. I give it two stars out of five. It gets a bit thin at the end as Meyers appears to get bored with the text.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary by Victor P. Hamilton (Book Review #10 of 2016)


Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary
This is one of the best biblical commentaries that I have read, with plenty of notes on each Hebrew word in the text placed prior to an expositional study of each pericope, making it accessible to Hebrew scholar or lay Sunday school teacher (me) alike. It is modern, contains the author's own thoughts and humor, and and is highly readable. Hamilton demonstrates clearly the use of Exodus language in the New Testament (see example below) which makes it easier for the reader to see how the themes presented fit into biblical theology (the arc of Scripture as a whole).  I read this while reading Carol Meyers' commentary on Exodus; Hamilton's contains much more information about the text, translation, and other scholars' works than does Meyers'. I highly recommend this work.

Hamilton divides the book into seven parts, with a few paragraphs introducing each part. Each pericope within in each part is outlined. He begins with a Translation, then Grammatical and Lexical Notes on each verse. This includes descriptions of the Hebrew words and a brief study on where else they are found and translated in the Hebrew Bible, how others have translated them, and the Hamilton's own open-ended questions. Then there is an expositional commentary. Some of the commentary gets a bit shorter toward the end of the book.

Examples from the book:
"Fourteen times God remembers the covenant he has made with somebody, as here: Gen. 9:15, 16; Exod. 2:24; 6:5; Lev. 26:42 [3x], 45; Pss. 105:8; 106:45; 111:5; Jer. 14:21; Ezek. 16:60...
"God’s remembering always implies his movement toward the object of his memory. . . . The essence of God’s remembering lies in his acting toward someone because of a previous commitment.”

The narrator tells us that this place is “Horeb,” which is another name for Sinai, maybe in the sense that “The Big Apple” is another name for New York City, or “The Windy City” is another name for Chicago.

Nobody in Genesis is called holy or even challenged to be holy. Noah is “righteous” (ṣaddîq) and “blameless” (tāmîm, Gen. 6:9), but not “holy” (qādōš).

The Lord calls Abraham to be blameless (tāmîm, Gen. 17:1), but he never calls him to be holy. Holy places and holy people appear in the Bible only in conjunction with the covenant and covenantal law that God gives to his chosen people, Israel.

Moses after fleeing Pharoah and being told by God to return (p. 150-151):
"men seeking your soul” anticipates Matt. 2:20, “For those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead”: tethnēkasin gar pantes hoi zētountes sou tēn psychēn (Exod. 4:19) tethnēkasin gar hoi zētountes tēn psychēn tou paidiou (Matt. 2:20). Most interesting here is the preservation of the plural participle hoi zētountes in the Matthew reference even though Herod is the only one trying to kill the infant Christ. The retention helps to maintain the parallel with Exod. 4:19. Third, in Exod. 4:20 Moses takes his wife and child(ren) and returns to Egypt. In Matt. 2:21 Joseph takes his wife and child and leaves Egypt. The death of Pharaoh opens the door for Moses to leave Midian and return to Egypt, just as the death of Herod opens the door for Jesus to leave Egypt and return to Palestine.

On the Sinaitic Covenant compared to surrounding nations' legal codes (p. 610-611):
Two items set the Covenant Code apart from all other Near Eastern legal corpora. First, in none of these cuneiform law codes does any deity ever speak...A second item sets the Covenant Code apart: unlike any of these cuneiform codes, the Covenant Code is set within a historical-narrative context, without which it would be shorn of much of its significance.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Passion for Leadership by Bob Gates (Book Review #9 of 2016)

A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service

I work in state government and have seen all the "barnacles" that Gates describes. I am closely observing how our newly-elected Governor, Matt Bevin (R), with no prior political experience, tries to lead Kentucky's executive branch bureaucracy through transformative change (my observations at the bottom of this review). I find it encouraging that a manager of billion dollar budgets would write a book specifically targeting leadership and management in government bureaucracies. He admits that much in the book is "common sense," but adds that the reader may be surprised how little actually exists in government management; Gates is exactly right, unfortunately. However, I felt that this book fell short of Gates' goal: making government a more encouraging place for Millennials to want to work, rather than shunning it as they increasingly do. He does little to prescribe anything specific toward the concerns of Millennials. I listened to Gates' recent interview about the book at the Council on Foreign Relations; he does a better job critiquing specific leaders and policies and stating the purpose of the book in the interview than he does in his writing. In his memoir Duty (which I loved), Gates was rather revealing in his criticism of specific policymakers and leaders; there is nothing like that in this book. I recommend Duty over this one, especially for more specifics about how Gates had to work and negotiate the Defense budget with the White House. Someone once said "where you find a leader, you find a reader," but Gates doesn't mention many books that were influential to his leadership-- a big disappointment, if not a red flag.

"Everyone hates bureaucracy," even those who work in them their entire lives. Gates worked in three different bureaucracies to trim the inefficiency and advance them into more modernity-- The CIA, The Defense Department, and Texas A&M. 95% of the book focuses on these three institutions, while the rest is autobiography and some mentions of the Boy Scouts and a few companies (Chili's, Starbucks) for which he serves on the Board. In government, you're usually legally limited in what you can offer by way of pay raises and advancement. Most leaders are short-term appointees, even if short-term means a full four-year term. He or she is then limited in what they can do, the budget he inherits, and not inclined to rock the boat. Gates had to reform the Defense Department's employee review system, it seems more archaic than the 360 degree method used at the State Department. In government, there is limited ability to mark someone down negatively on their performance reviews. Like Gates, I've seen supervisors inflate reviews positively in the hopes that another agency will hire the sub-standard employee away; there is little ability to fire someone.

Sec. Gates understands this environment and argues it is still possible to have transformative change and boost the morale of everyone, making the department or agency more efficient and productive. One book I kept thinking of in reading Gates' work is The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins (I highly recommend, especially if you're in a bureaucracy or an institution with any history or tradition). Gates does not give many specific prescriptions about how to go about implementing change quickly in a bureaucracy, but just some basic guidelines. Be aware that "outside ideas automatically generate antibodies within the organization." Gather input from stakeholders, inside and out, and set your goals "quickly." Make your goals known to everyone, and empower those beneath you to figure out how to accomplish them. Reach down to low-level employees for input, include them in the process. This will boost morale and give the Chief a greater understanding of how things look at the ground level. He encourages the reader to first gain respect of long-term employees and approach them with new ideas first; once they buy in, they will bring everyone else along.

Most of his "chafing against institutional tradition" stories come from Texas A&M, which is a different culture than most people outside of Texas realize. He first fought a battle to become President, his nomination was opposed by Governor Rick Perry, who made the fight personal. (Gates adds that he tried sending handwritten notes to Perry but never got a response.) When he wanted to increase racial diversity, he got pressured by university stakeholders and politicians. (Sadly, some in elected office privately agreed with him but publicly blasted him.) He simply let everyone felt the need to vent, and calmly pushed ahead because he knew it was the right thing to do. He was successful in seeing his minority initiative take hold and grow the diversity of the campus by (sadly) a large amount. He included students on his major decisions, including budgets. He reached out to many on campus, getting to know people from the bottom up before he announced any initiatives. Another initiative was to fire the AD and hire a new football coach to reinvigorate the base of football boosters and to empower Deans on their budgets and decisions. Gates moved power from trustees to a larger body that included councils made up of the deans of the colleges, requiring everyone make one-year and five-year plans by department, including specific goals of what would be accomplished in those years. He also worked to make A&M a more-recognized teaching university, initiating awards for faculty (I can't believe they didn't do this until his tenure).

Another weakness of the book is that Gates doesn't lay out his criteria for when to push back, when to compromise, and when to give in. When students started a living wage campaign, he started a working group to study the situation over the objection of certain stakeholders. While he personally disagreed with the need, he gave workers a modest raise. A&M has a large endowment plus money from Texas oil, so budgeting may not be much of a concern-- just look at what donors were willing to pony up for athletics facilities to compete with UT Austin. Where he had money, he spent it to placate his opposition, be it students or US Senators.

Gates doesn't write too much about institutional change at the CIA or Dept. of Defense. He mistakenly began his time at CIA with a scathing critique of the organization that led to hostility he would later regret-- live and learn. He would eliminate Don't Ask Don't Tell in the army and considers this a success, but omits the bit from his memoir of his anger at the Obama administration for pushing too fast and getting ahead of the formal review process previously negotiated on with the White House. Similarly, he has pushed the Boy Scouts toward more inclusive policies toward homosexuals.

The key to change is to focus on how people do their jobs, not where. Leave the organizational charts alone, focus on the efficiency of the tasks everyone actually performs. In implementing your strategy, make it clear that the outcome is the same for every goal. Form working groups and task forces so that everyone feels they are a part of the process. I was surprised he did not mention the importance of "red teams," people with an outside view to critique the assumptions and strategies. (That seems to be much more common at the CIA today than in Gates' time.) Include a clear timeline with your strategy. Gates spends an hour a day on his daily agenda alone, and how it fits into his larger strategies. Be sure to heap praise on workers at every level, but keep the BS to the minimum.

The most interesting advice comes in regards to the media and leaks: accept them, embrace them, "the media is not a hostile force." Gates would not have known troops needs for MRAPS or the scandalous conditions at the VA without the media. While he does disdain leaks of intelligence that put people in harm's way, he accepts leaks on major programs or budget decisions since it is taxpayer money and ridiculous to expect an airtight ship of thousands of employees who are affected by every cut. The leader should avoid opaqueness in the budget process, in any case. He urges political leaders not to be condescending to the media; "the media will always have the last word." Likewise, encourage candor among employees. Candor helps identify problems. He does mention that leaders who won't accept criticism or candor typically have insecurity issues and are poor leaders. Gates, however, does not talk about negativity or dealing with toxic attitudes among subordinates.

But Sec. Gates coyly explains that in diplomatic positions you have exercise self-discipline to put a lid on your candor in front of your patrons or superiors. "Never miss a good chance to shut up." "Always suppress the urge to blow up regardless of how stupid the idea is that you are hearing." Several in Congress were surprised to read of Gates' disdain for them in his memoir-- he gave no such hint of his disgust while in office. He exhorts the reader also not to be "little Stalins," those who make sure everyone obeys their whims or face punishment. He points out a few commanders and superiors he's met who were "jackasses" and Gates always told cadets they would work for at least one in their careers-- learn to deal with it and resolve not to be one yourself when you get a command. He encourages the leader to "fire incompetence instead of micromanaging it" but that contradicts his earlier understanding of how hard that is to do within the government merit system.

The book that comes closest to this one in my library is Colin Powell's It Worked for Me, which lays out his principles of management (more readable and applicable than Gates' work; interestingly, Gates doesn't mention Powell. Gates would seem to agree with Powell's principle "Don't be a busy bastard," don't be a workaholic such that your subordinates feel they have to match the effort to gain your favor. Gates did not work on Saturdays as a rule and let his subordinates go home. (I would note that Gates' successor Leon Panetta flew home to California most weekends with a similar mindset.)

Another merit to Gates' style, and perhaps something he has picked up from private companies he has worked with, is his belief that organizations should be aware of how they impact the community. He was briefed daily on conflicts between military bases and their civilian surroundings. He encourages open forums to talk to community leaders. Organizations, like their leaders, should be seen as having impeccable character. He reminds us that while the corrupt get media coverage, the best leaders have good character. Sometimes they don't get glory because they learned to compromise. He points Republicans to Ronald Reagan - Reagan said "take the deal if you can get 60" of the rest, you can come back for the rest later." Listen to views that are different, even if they are crazy. Plenty of times at Defense they would read an analysis that on its whole was "insane" but contained some kernels of truth or nuggets Gates hadn't considered. Gates closes the book with a rant on Congress for its polarization and unpopularity, further discouraging young people from considering public service.

My observation of newly-elected Governor Bevin is that his playbook is similar to Gates. He has reached down to low-level employees, letting lower-level staffers attend and voice opinions in meetings critical to forming his budget. He also encouraged all employees to email in ideas just before releasing his budget. (That maneuver was interesting because his budget decisions had already been made; perhaps some minor tweaks were made due to employee suggestions.) He invited them to his State of the Commonwealth and recognized them publicly.

Governor's Bevin's first budget contains the "intestinal fortitude" (Gates) of not budgeting to zero. While the cuts were widespread, there were some programs largely spared, so it was strategic and not completely across-the-board-- and Gates would agree with this strategy. Bevin implemented a hiring freeze, and Gates maintains such a freeze should not last longer than a year; it disrupts the flow of recruitment and replacement, and is dangerous for morale and efficiency. Further, implementation of Bevins cuts was delegated to the Cabinet Secretaries and program Commissioners. Bevin has, by and large, been slow to replace previous non-merit appointees. Gates was similar, adopting a philosophy of working with the previous administration's appointees until he could figure out who he could or could not work with.

Bevin's biggest departure from the Gates playbook has been with the media. Several writers covering the state have written of his harshness and condescension, both on the campaign trail and in office. Gates would remind Bevin that this is a long-run losing strategy because the media will always have the last word. The positives of the media (exposing corruption, finding mistakes to be corrected, etc.) outweigh the costs.

In all, I give this work 3 stars out of 5. I might highly recommend it if you are in government, but there are 100 books better than it if you work in the private sector without the same constraints. Gates leaves too much out that is critical to management. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Podcast of the Week (2/6 - 2/13, 2016) NPR's Intelligence Squared Debate: "Should the U.S. let in 100,000 Syrian Refugees?"

Intelligence Squared is one of my favorite podcasts. Two teams of experts hash it out and answer questions before a live audience who votes on the question before and after the debate. Whichever team moves the needle the most to their side, wins.

http://intelligencesquaredus.org/debates/past-debates/item/1492-the-u-s-should-let-in-100-000-syrian-refugees
In this episode, Amb. Robert Ford, the last US Ambassador to Syria (who resigned over disagreement with the Obama Administration's Syria policy), and David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee argue for the motion.
David Frum, who I otherwise have great respect for, argues against the motion alongside Jessica Vaughan, who seems to be a conservative working on immigration and crime. Interestingly, Vaughan was once a Foreign Service Officer, so you have two former State Department employees on opposite sides.

Spoiler alert, much to my joy, Ford and Miliband win by a large margin. Frum and Vaughan's arguments are rather weak, focusing on the relatively small cost to the localities who receive the refugees and raise some red herrings about terrorism. I encourage you to listen to the debate and think for yourself.

I'm reminded of an email I got this week from some friends who work with refugees in a country greatly affected. They've been stateside for several months and do some public speaking in their travels. They're getting an increasing amount of questions that, basically, are asked out of fear:

"Do you think terrorists are disguising themselves as refugees in order to enter the US?"
"Do you think Islamic governments are deliberating sending Muslim families to the West in order to populate them with Muslims?"
"Aren't refugees mostly young men?"
"Isn't 'real Quranic Islam' militant rather than peaceful?"

I like their preferred response, taken from the article they link to:

"While we shouldn’t downplay these concerns, I do wonder what would happen if Christians stood counter to American culture on this issue, by asking fundamentally different questions. What if, while America was asking questions about safety and risk management, Christians were asking, What is God doing? What if, through the senseless evil of civil war, God was bringing unreached people groups to our cities? What if, through great tragedy, God was bringing about the triumph of the gospel?"  -David Crabb  
Here is the full article (it's really good!): http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/building-his-church-in-a-refugee-crisis

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk (Book Review #8 of 2016)

Istanbul (Vintage International)
This is my first Orhan Pamuk book; I am better with nonfiction than fiction. The book is ostensibly about the history of Istanbul, of which I am pretty familiar. But the actual experience of the book is the author's autobiography, as Pamuk writes "Istanbul's fate is my fate." This book mainly consists of childhood memories and experiences, intimate in such a way that I am not sure who it would appeal to other than an obsessed fan. Some topics are perhaps taboo in Turkey (though probably not so much in Istanbul). While translated from Turkish, it seems clear that Pamuk is writing the book for the Western reader, explaining history that would already be known by a Turk, and elements of Turkish for those who are not familiar.

Besides a brief stay in the city a few years ago, my literary experience of Istanbul comes mainly from Told in the Coffeehouse, a collection of old fables and short stories from the recorded or translated by Westerners in the late 1800s, and the memoirs of Cyrus Hamlin, an American who lived there from 1830-1870 who founded Robert College, where Pamuk went to school. I have also read through Cambridge's History of Turkey volumes I and II which includes some Istanbul history in the couple centuries after Constaninople was conquered. I would highly recommend the first two works to anyone interested in the tales of the city that Pamuk's stories are reminiscent of.

"I've never left the Istanbul of my childhood." Pamuk, of course, fled Istanbul in 2007, after being prosecuted for "crimes against Turkishness" due to comments he made around the time this book was published. He is aware that many childhood memories are ones that are told rather than actually remembered, and he explains the Turkish -miş past tense for events that "apparently" or "reportedly" happened. Glimpses of the old city live on only in his memory or in the old black and white Turkish films Pamuk longs for, the reality has since been destroyed by modern development.

This longing for the past makes up part of the feeling of "hüzün" that Pamuk believes permeates the city and all who connect wıth it. Hüzün means, roughly, melancholy; Pamuk dives into the entymology of the word, its Arabic roots and its historical meanings with examples cited. The poet Gautier captured the melancholy of the city in his book Constantinople in 1856. (Pamuk doesn't mention Cyrus Hamlin, unfortunately, but his memoir also records the trials and tribulations of living in the city in roughly the same period. The divisions, the cholera, the Sultan, etc.) Pamuk tells the history of Istanbul through its writers and poets as well as Western observers. One interesting tangent is when he reads a random collection of newspaper clippings from the city over the decades. He focuses on how it feels, what music best expresses it, and what was lost. Hüzün is necessary "it is the failure to experience hüzün, that leads (one) to feel it" and it is forever in Istanbul's shadows.

Pamuk also focuses on his misconceptions of the city, realizing it's important to see how foreigners experienced the city. "My city is not really mine." Many comment on the city's dogs, but he notes that dogs were banned when the jannisaries were. The conquest of Constantinople and its memory differs across Istanbul's historic population of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, now much fewer in number. He ponders the 1956 pogroms of Greeks in Istanbul, something I'm sure raised an eyebrow when this was published.

The author appears to have come from a middle class Kemalist family with affluent relatives. He writes of attending lavish parties with people who used to be connected to the Sultan. The parties were upbeat but the people were depressed. His personal recollections deal with puberty and how he was more than a teenager when he realized he wasn't alone in his struggle with feelings. The details of all of this are a bit much. He recalls romances and difficulties with his parents, whose relationship was fraught as his father betrayed his mother. His family's preferences caused him to look down on religion, and it was only later in life that he learned to respect the preference of the religious as well.

In the end, he spends years studying to be an architect, but never truly happy. The book closes with his decision to become a writer.

Again, I wish that other long-forgotten (but freely available on the Internet) memoirs of Istanbul had been cited; I'd love to make Pamuk aware of these. I recently herad an interview with Kaya Genç, author of An Istanbul Anthology that contains much of the classic writing on Istanbul that Pamuk highlights-- Genç seems to borrow heavily from Pamuk in the interview. Genç notes that everyone has a love/hate relationshp with Istanbul. Pamuk basically explains why. I give the book 3.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Being a Dad Who Leads by John MacArthur (Book Review #7 of 2016)


Being a Dad Who Leads
This was once a free audio book of the month from christianaudio.com and I listened to it while shoveling snow in January. I don't think I'm the first to note that, in his prolific book publishing, MacArthur seems to get a little sloppy with his logic, facts, and flow. This book is relatively short, like most of his books, and is focused on fatherhood with a slant toward bringing up boys.

It is a pretty basic book, not a lot of deep insights here and even fewer personal anecdotes either from MacArthur's childhood or his personal parenting. Why not give examples of how he has led his family through difficult times or personal decisions?
Here is what I gleaned:
MacArthur begins by expositing Ephesians 5 and 6. Parenting begins with parents demonstrating sacrificial love for one another. The best parenting a father can do is demonstrating how he loves and cherishes his wife. In Ephesians 6, MacArthur reminds dads not to exacerbate (v.4) their children by being excessively harsh or unapproachable.

The context of Ephesians is the Roman culture of infanticide and exploitation. Romans would abandon children on hillsides, and later churches when it became clear that Christians would adopt the unwanted; or they would sell them into slavery or prostitution.  So, Paul is elevating the status of both women and children, despite modern feminist commentary to the contrary. Christians

MacArthur writes that TV is the devil and largely to blame for society's ills. He falsely claims that violent crime has been on the rise since television got into households (violent crime has been trending downward for decades). This is common in many MacArthur books and sermons, when he strays from the biblical text he errs into what he thinks must be true even if verifiably false. That is dangerous. "If you don't teach your kids to love your neighbor, the devil will teach them to love themselves." Share the Gospel all the time. Conversion and discipleship is a lifelong process of guidance and correction-- not a one-time rote prayer to "ask Jesus into your heart."

MacArthur also walks through Proverbs, pulling out the parenting insights there. He closes the book with a retelling of the parable of the Prodigal Son as a reminder that no son is too far gone to be forgiven. MacArthur has a sermon on the Prodigal Son that I consider one of the best I've ever heard, so the book ends on a real positive note.

In all, however, I give it about 2 stars. It is not very engaging, has the tangent on social ills that contain too many factual errors to be taken seriously, and is not very deep or personal.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Superforecasting by Gardner and Tetlock (Book Review #6 of 2016)


Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction

(This review appears on my personal blog, hence the personal nature of the review.) I work in a state government office responsible for forecasting large-dollar revenues and expenditures. Given the billions of dollars at stake, you would hope the profession would follow the advice of this book; I can assure you, taxpayer, that they rarely do. I have been to many econometrics and forecasting training seminars, as well as seminars put on by analysts at the Federal Reserve. These are put on by academics and practitioners and attended by forecasters in both government and private sector (energy, finance, real estate, etc.). I can say, sadly, the studies and Nobel-prize winning research underpinning this book are never mentioned.

I like this book because it's in the logical progression of books produced by several authors who are cited in the book, all of which were influential to me. Kahneman (who sits on the board of the Good Judgement Project), Taleb (and Mandelbroit), Silver, Thaler, and a couple books on chaos theory I read long ago (Ziauddin Sardar was one author), for examples. The book lays out several concepts those authors presented about cognitive biases, not being fooled by randomness, and thinking probabilistically that I already try to be aware of daily-- I try to be a Superforecaster. One of the authors (Tetlock) gives a good summary of the book in his interview with the Freakonomics podcast, and there is some depth on particular details of the book in an interview on Russ Roberts' EconTalk as well; I recommend listening.

This book is the result of The Good Judgment Project, an experiment funded by IARPA (ie: US National Intelligence) to see if crowdsourced forecasts of world events by thousands of closely-scrutinized/measured forecasters could beat "experts" with greater access to unclassified intelligence. IARPA's involvement follows an over 20-year study by Tetlock and others involving hundreds of researchers making tens of thousands of forecasts. The authors are studying the difference between accurate and inaccurate forecasters and looking for differences. The researchers were aware of random success and messed around with regrouping experimenters to see how the results would be affected. The Brier Score is used to evaluate success, and the book explains the concept well. IARPA was interested in short-term forecasts as opposed to long-term ones.

The book, alarmingly, opens with Tom Friedman as an example pundit/forecaster. (Friedman is of course laughable for his repeated "wait six months" comments repeatedly from 2003-2007 during the Iraq war, creating the term "Friedman unit" for an inconvenient amount of time to be proven right/wrong. The authors are nowhere near harsh enough with Friedman.) How did Friedman, who travels the Middle East and gets news translated from various languages, not forecast the Arab Spring? The difficulty of forecasting the Arab Spring is that nobody could. Conditions weren't really different than they had been in previous years, some of which saw pundits predicting upheaval to no result. The Tunisian man setting himself on fire and sparking protests that spread like wildfire is a bit like the butterfly effect in chaos theory. Gardner and Tetlock cite Lorenz's insight that events aren't easily predictable because phenomena (like weather) are non-linear and cannot be precisely modeled.

Kahneman's first and second systems are discussed (as explained in Thinking Fast and Slow). One of Kahneman's insights that sticks with me is that algorithms, mathematical models, will beat subjective judgements almost every time; even in cases they don't, they're usually only tied with subjective judgement in successes. There is a good summary of various cognitive biases that plague decision-makers and forecasters. In hindsight, we look for reasons for everything. It pains me to watch PBS Newshour and hear "the Dow dropped 5 points on disappointing earnings news." Really, millions of shares changed hands over the course of the day and one indicator drops a tiny fraction of a percentage and there is only one reason for it? The best forecasters teper intituion with caution.

One caution that I need to heed in my own job is to avoid adjectives. "Significant" or "serious" mean different things to different people. The most famous example of this in the book was the CIA's assessment of success at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy interpreted the CIA's "fair chance" of success to mean >50%, when the CIA meant more like 30%. (I'm not sure the veracity of this story.) Leaders need to know probabilities and possible outcomes.

Brier scores are concerned with resolution and calibration. It is a bit like the mean squared error but in dealing with probabilities rather than specifically forecasted variables. A weatherman who forecasts a 60% chance of rain can be measured over time to see how often it rained. If it rains exactly 60% of the times that he predicts a 60% chance, his Brier score is a 0, the best possible, he is completely reliable. All of the "sabermetrics" found in sports these days always have me looking at probabilities of teams winning. The best team does not always win, it would win the majority of the time. College basketball and football don't have best-of-7 series, it's an n=1 deal. So, models may predict an overwhelming 75% chance of success for a team, which means it would still lose 25 out of 100-- and perhaps the next one. (This drives me nuts every March when people marvel about bracket predictions. Don't be fooled by randomness, the best team will rarely win a one-and-done tournament.)

The best forecasters are also Bayesian, they update their forecasts when new information comes available. Nate Silver has probably written the most about Bayesian statistics from a popular standpoint. The book notes that Silver got famous by calling each state's presidential votes, but that a "no change" prediction would have won you 48 out of 50 states, almost as good. Adjusting and updating rather than sticking to your original forecast is crucial. Try, fail, analyse, adjust, try again. Don't let noise sway you (though it's hard to determine signal from the noise). Research shows that even when people adjust their positions to new information, they do so less so than Bayes' theorem would say is optimal-- conservation bias. This is slightly better cognitive weakness to have than confirmation bias, where you selectively screen out information that contradicts what you think is true.

Blending forecasts, as Silver also does, leads to better results than just one forecast. Interestingly, the researchers culled the top 2% of forecasters after one year and grouped them together and found that their forecasts significantly improved-- they became even more "super." 30% of "superforecasters" regressed to the mean, suggesting their initial success was luck. The authors admit they have no way of knowing how many of the "superforecasters" are still successful by chance, but as time and more predictions are made it appears pretty certain that there is a significant difference among those at the top. This is not Bill Miller beating the S&P 500 for 10 years straight, this is more akin to someone beating the S&P 500 thousands of times.

The authors seem to steal language from Jim Collins-- foxes versus hedgehogs-- by assigning definitions. (Collins borrowed from the Greek Archilocus.) Hedgehogs are people who have only one idea. These may be the Nouriel Roubinis or the Jim Cramers of the world, everything is "recession" or "inflation." A broken clock is right twice a day but this is not very useful for predictions. Foxes, meanwhile, have a broader range of knowledge and are significantly better at forecasts--particularly short-term ones. Foxes were also more accurate in the confidence level they put on their forecasts.

Another key to forecasting is to be sure to get the "outside view," again espoused by Kahneman and Tversky. The infamous 2003 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and its WMD capabilities never had any "red teams" check it for accuracy or question the assumptions. "Red teams" of people who will push back on these points and find weaknesses in the argument are critical. The CIA did a better job of this vetting in finding Osama bin Laden and the authors give illustrations from the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Probability estimates were given by each CIA analyst and each key decision-maker read those probabilities differently. The authors contrast President Obama's decisions and Leon Panetta's. (One now-famous analyst had the guts to say "100%" when going around the table.) President Obama supposedly put the odds at 50-50 and gave the order to go in anyway, while Panetta allegedly did not want the risk. (I've read Panetta's account of this in his memoir, there are differences.)

One interesting aspect of the research is that a forecaster's "faith score," ie: how strongly he felt about God's intervention in the world, or fate, correlated negatively with accuracy. Basically, people who believe events happen for a reason or are foreordained make worse forecasters than those who chalk things up to randomness. The authors wonder "is misery the price of accuracy?" (As a Calvinist/Augustinian-oriented Christian who happens to make forecasts and judgments about those forecasts, I find I can be detached enough and be mostly aware of the cognitive biases I might succomb to. As it is, I'm always warning people not to be fooled by randomness. How I square this with believing that no molecule in the universe spins outside God's control is a difficult matter that I have not pinned down yet. I have listened to R.C. Sproul lectures on the subject of chance and lectures by Christian physicists. Sproul has a better grasp on it as a philosopher than myself. I have also not yet determined which theory of time I subscribe to, and it's all related.)

Interestingly, the book contains a decent critique of Taleb's thoughts on antifragility. I agree with them that it is "expensive" and "impractical" to insure that decisions are antifragile. Fragility is essentially the existence of fat tails-- events with really small probabilities but enormously bad outcomes. I fly on airplanes because it would be inconvenient not to, even though airplane travel clearly falls into the realm of the fat-tail event of the crash.

It's hard to make predictions on everything. "Not everything that can be counted counts, and some things that count can't be counted." In the end, the researchers beat IARPA's objectives, their forecasters were up to 60% more accurate answering questions that IARPA proposed than analysts who had access to more sensitive information. The book closes with a less admirable look at Tom Friedman. The authors argue that our nations' critical institutions must change how they forecast in order to improve outcomes and the lives for everyone at stake.

I give this book five stars out of five. It is a good illustration of how I try to problem-solve. I would give it to anyone who wants to know how I think.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Taking a Stand by Rand Paul (Book Review #5 of 2016)


Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America

I live in Kentucky where Rand Paul is my Senator. I'm writing this review after his 5% finish in the Iowa caucus, and I'm glad his Presidential star has long faded because I'd rather he build his brand as a Senator. This book raises important points about liberty, privacy, and public policy that are not being heard much on the political stage. He can further his positions best by remaining in the Senate. Ironically, Paul believes in the information conveyed by the free market but ignores his poor poll numbers that suggest very few people want him to be President.

I think it's important for all constituents to monitor their elected representatives' thoughts and policy preferences-- be an informed voter. I finished this book while the Kentucky General Assembly was in session, where one of Paul's policies, restoring voting rights for felons, was passed by the Legislature with support from the Governor (the measure failed last after Paul came to testify on its behalf). Paul touches on several aspects of Kentucky-related policy, the state is featured throughout the pages. Hence, I recommend it to all Kentuckians.

Paul begins with criticism of Obama's overreach by bypassing Congress with unconstitutional executive orders, including ones regarding legislation like the ACA, targeting at least one American citizen without a trial, etc. Much of this book seems written just after Paul's filibuster to get an answer from AG Holder regarding drone strikes. Later in the book, Paul makes his criticism bipartisan, where "Clinton stomped on the Third Amendment, Bush trampled the 4th."

The Senator then goes into his biography. His grandmother's occular degeneration inspired him to become an ophthalmologist. He tells of the courtship of his wife and their marriage in her Kentucky hometown. He even claims to have rooted for Kentucky in the 1992 Duke-UK game, even though he was a recent Duke alum at the time (and writes of how he enjoyed their championships, right). He notes the problem of red tape in professions like his own. He formed a group of ophthalmologists to form their own accreditation body to compete with the ruling one, which was passing regulations that would have held older doctors to more lenient standards than new doctors who were competing for their business. He tells of his charity work in Kentucky with the Lions Club, free surgeries, and trips to Guatemala.

The book has a strong libertarian defense of the price system, Paul quotes Von Mises and Hayek and explains the basics of The Fatal Conceit in layman's terms. Paul cites many books throughout this work, including several biographies and many works on the NSA. (I'm glad my Senator reads.) Paul applies the logic of The Fatal Conceit to America's healthcare system and Obamacare, writing that the ACA quells competition, discourages transparency, and encourages wide spread price controls via the Medicaid expansion. He seems to believe encouraging voluntary indigent care would have been better than Medicaid expansion.

As a Kentuckian, he's familiar with his forebear Senator Henry Clay. Paul notes several strengths and weaknesses of Clay, including his waffling on abolition. Paul considers Cassius Clay, Henry's abolitionist brother, to be the greater Kentuckian. He is clearly currying favor with the coal vote in Kentucky, hyping he "war on coal." He writes that "The coal industry is not destroying the natural beauty of Kentucky," writing that mountaintop clearing is not so bad and criticizing environmentalists: "They make it sound as if miners are laying waste to the land." Activists I know aren't critical of miners; they're critical of mines and infringement on the property rights of those who live downstream-- those whose groundwater gets contaminated with slurry and streams contaminated by lead. Nevertheless, Rand Paul proclaims himself an "actual tree hugger" who even composts.

Paul has a list of policy prescriptions as the basis of his Presidential campaign: Eliminate "corporate welfare," establish term limits, a balanced budget amendment, require an aloud reading of all bills in Congress (no more "we have to pass it to learn what's in it"), have computers draw districts to abolish gerrymandering, audit the Fed (the CFPB is also unaudited, why not both?), and basically abolish or dramatically scale back the NSA. Paul cites no fewer than four books on the NSA and hearkens back to the Church hearings. He writes that he "knows how many" people the CIA kills based on metadata, but it's classified so he can't say. There are "hundreds of thousands" of FISA warrants, and the government can essentially justify a warrant for anything. He writes that the media has been complicit in all the government overreach, there is sort of a media-industrial complex. He does not seem to fault the readers who implicity choose what the media publishes with what they click on or tune into.

Of government failures, Paul puts prisons at the top. Prisons are a "waste of money," and I am sympathetic to his argument that prisons are local boondoggle projects to get federal dollars and jobs into communities. This then justifies more laws being passed, or local law enforcement aiming for harsher sentences in order to fill those prisons. Paul would push to abolish mandatory minimums, push for greater expungement, and look at programs to better integrate prisoners back into society. Local police departments seem to care little about the Constitution and more about jobs. Rand Paul agrees with President Obama's alarm about the increased militarization of the police force, questioning why police need rifles with scopes that can kill from 400 yards away. Paul was one of the first from Washington to visit Ferguson, MO, he takes a swipe at other Congressional reps that didn't bother. He highlights much of the tension and unfairness related to race and relates it back to unfair housing policy and other ills. Civil asset forfeiture is another concern.

No Child Left Behind is the great unfunded mandate. Sen. Paul writes that the pubic school system in Washington, D.C. spends $18,000 per child per year with little to show for it. Paul would push to utilize MOOCs to provide free quality education to students, and school vouchers with school choice. Worse than education policy, perhaps, is the federal housing policy, which Paul blames for much of the segregation and racial tensions we see today.

What are some of Rand Paul's specific policy prescriptions? For places like Detroit and Eastern Kentucky, Paul would establish "economic freedom zones" where there would be a lower or eliminated personal income and payroll tax rate. Paul proposes a payroll tax of just 2% and an income tax of just 5% in any county with unemployment greater than 1.5 times the national rate. He proposes a flat 17% income tax across the board. He claims to be working with Sen. Boxer to lower the corporate repatriation tax and move it to the road fund to shore up US infrastructure. He also proposes ending foreign aid to any country who supports policies or groups that are hostile either to America or to Christianity. In this, he is targeting countries like Egypt, Pakistan, and Iraq which get large amounts of military and humanitarian aid but tolerate or encourage open persecution. He gives many "war on Christianity with your tax dollars" examples, he seems to neglect persecution of Jews and other minorities in these same countries, but does take up the issue of women's rights, having met with one of the female survivors of Boko Haram kidnappings. Paul writes that he is "hesitant" to talk about his faith, but that he is a Christian who, like Dostoevsky, suffers from doubts about God's goodness while observing so much suffering in the world.

His foreign policy is largely centrist "neither an interventionist nor an isolationist, but a realist." He believes in a strong military but one that does not go searching for demons abroad to fight. Congress, as stipulated by the War Powers Act, would have to authorize any prolonged military engagement. Paul is a firm believer in free trade and believes in opening trade with Cuba, China, and Russia-- trade, but not aid. Paul blames Hillary Clinton for the Libyan debacle, generally, and Ambassador Steven's death, specifically. (Having read Bob Gates' memoir, I'd agree Hillary is to blame for much of the desire to engage in Libya without much strategy other than overthrow of Qaddafi.) Paul reminds the reader that Mike Mullen's own independent review blasted Hillary's management of the State Department. Paul writes of CIA gun running through Benghazi to Syrian rebels and potentially secret cover-up. Paul would definitely limit the militarization of foreign policy, citing Bob Gates on this point.

Paul also concludes with a defense of capitalism-- rich capitalists like Rockefeller and Bill Gates are the greatest humanitarians and environmentalists. Capitalism is no enemy of the environment. He even finds praise for Donald Trump's work in New York City projects, his environmental concern and improvement of property values. This finds odd placement in this book, given the forthcoming campaign as he was writing it.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. Paul explains his observations and policy prescriptions clearly. Whether you agree with them or not, they are at least intelligible. Kentuckians should read this book to understand who they have elected and where his priorities are.