Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Job Myth

The fabric of a culture contains both truths and myths -– falsehoods believed by a large number of people. Many times, truths and myths straddle the same objective reality. For example, a truth about America is that it was created as “one nation, under God.” The myth is that it was designed to be a secular nation with a “wall of separation” between church and state. If you saw the SOTU on Tuesday night, one thing you did not see was the words “In God We Trust” chiseled into the granite behind and above the President. As Denis Prager has noted, that was a deliberate choice of the TV stations in service of their secular-America myth. The God-in-America myth has been profoundly damaging to our culture. It will be a primary subject of these blogs.

Today, however, I’d like to talk about another type of myth, also harmful, dealing with the economy. This very popular myth involves jobs, or more specifically, job creation. (Isn’t it interesting that job and Job – “an upright man whose faith in God survived the test of repeated calamities” -- are the same word.)

Now, Government is able to create jobs, but it involves the force-able transfer of income from one group of people to another. The stimulus package did a lot of that income transfer, but the President has now come to realize that it did not keep the jobless rate below 8%, as he promised, and, with unemployment in the mid 9% range, the people have given up on a government fix. Indeed, “Obama put the business community on notice that they have to deliver on new jobs.” (Timothy Egan, New York Times, 1/26/11)

It is unfortunate that this viewpoint reflects an ignorance of basic economics that seems to be mythological. Even the intellectual elites fall for it. The raison d’etre of private companies is to produce goods and services. Jobs are a means to that end. If sufficient demand for goods and services is lacking, jobs will be lost. The law of supply and demand, the most basic in economics, seems to have evaded the Times writers.

While many believe that the creation of jobs is a universal good, and is the moral responsibility of us all, the Bible puts all such duties below the rights of property. Michael Medved ( described it thus:

While leaders of the religious left portray the Bible as a neo-socialist document that emphasizes sharing resources with the poor, the stone tablets at the core of our tradition tell a different story. In late January, Jewish congregations around the world read the Exodus passage introducing the Ten Commandments, and two of those ten explicitly stress the sanctity of private property. God commands humanity not to steal—seizing wealth belonging to someone else – and not to covet your neighbor’s house, his animals, or “anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The commandment says material goods belong to the individual, not the state, or even to God. We are obliged to help the poor through acts of personal charity, but nothing suggests that government should seize private property against the will of its owners to achieve some higher good.

The history of the past two decades shows that lower government spending as a share of GDP is associated with lower unemployment rates. A much better way to reduce unemployment is to encourage private investment with lower tax rates and reduced regulations. The following graph shows how lower tax rates caused falling unemployment fell when private investment increased as a share of GDP. (John B. Taylor, The Wall Street Journal, 1/29/11)

Economics is a serious business, not the stuff of myths.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Two Culture Wars

In the wake of the Tucson tragedy there were accusations that political rhetoric encouraged Jared Loughner on his murderous rampage. Of course, that was mere nonsense. “None of Aristotle's four causes -- not first, not final, not formal, not efficient -- link Loughner's rampage to political chatter.” One of the great things about Americans is that we can and do engage in rhetorical battles about politics, religion, popular mores, MTV (“Skins” – yuck!), without descending into physical violence.

Two of the most consequential culture wars in America today deal with religion and the source of authority. The “Faith Matters” survey conducted by Robert Putnam and David Campbell (see the book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us”) found that “Americans are increasingly concentrated at opposite ends of the spectrum – the seriously religious at one pole and the avowedly secular at the other.” The authority war faces off those who wish to conserve the culture handed down from the past and those who would radically change it.

The conservative modus operandi for cultural change is a slow series of tiny tweaks meant to improve an already magnificent tapestry. For the change agent, on the other hand, the campaign must begin with the destruction of the culture as it exists. Usually the change campaign begins with contemptuous dismissal of the past as when Marx declared that “culture is mere training to act as a machine,” or when the deconstructionists denied the validity of all culture as being the corrupt products of “dead white men.”

Tectonic cultural shifts generally originate from within a culture, motivated by the cultural elite, intellectuals and political class. The books I reviewed in my last post (by Dalrymple and Hitchens) showed the devastating effects of the cultural revolution in England since the 1960s. “To regret religion is to regret Western civilization,” said Dalrymple, summing up the British loss. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) has written passionately about how Europe’s denial of its religious and moral foundations led to the loss of faith, optimism and courage. Reflecting on the ever declining birth rate, Ratzinger noted that “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future.” (See for example, “Without Roots” by Ratzinger and Marcello Pera)

The culture wars over religion and authority are inter-related in the Putnam and Campbell data. The “Faith Matters” survey shows that religiosity is not correlated to positions on foreign or immigration policies, and the correlation is modest when the issue is the size of government (The religious like smaller). However, the statistical correlations are strong when it comes to abortion and same sex marriage. By large margins, religious people are opposed to both. Abortion and gay marriage are simply steps too far for most religious people.

Protecting the lives of the weakest humans against a culturally approved slaughter is about the clearest possible moral stand the church could hope for. Standing against gay marriage continues the church’s protection of the innocent after birth.

However, some churches (eg. the Episcopal and the United Church of Christ) have abandoned these traditional stands to their own peril; membership in such progressive churches has plummeted in the last decades. This sad story will be the subject of a future post.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Is Britain Civilized?

When the great British bulldog was laid to rest on 31 January 1965, the crowds (more than 300,000) who queued up to see him lying in state were typically British: loyal, proud, sentimental, yet self controlled. During the darkest days of the war, when England was on the precipice of surrender, Winston Churchill had been the indispensable man. The British people were a proud family honoring their father figure, sure that British institutions were the best in the world. Thus it came as something of a surprise when the newly elected Labour government set about to “reform” British culture.

In 1965 the youthful Roy Jenkins was appointed to head the Home Office. Jenkins had made a name for him-self with the publication of a manifesto called “Is Britain Civilized?” in which he attacked Britain's "archaic" laws on abortion, censorship, homosexuality, and divorce, as well as arguing for the abolition of capital punishment. His reform of the criminal justice system was designed to make it as “civilized” to the criminal as possible. Jenkins and his Labour co-conspirators believed that a more permissive society would be a more civilized society.

One of the greatest blows was to the stability of family life. In his 1967 Reith lectures, Edmund Leach actually blamed the traditional family for most of society’s problems. In 1965 British society was one of the most stable, decent and law-abiding in the world. By the turn of the century, English society had been radicalized.

In his book “Our Culture, What’s left of It” the British ex-pat Theodore Dalrymple documents the destruction of English character: rampant alcoholism and drug use; increasing illegitimacy; children raised without any form of parental supervision or guidance; the destruction of traditional mores and respect for law.

And what happened to the family? Labour MP Jon Cruddas, a staunch liberal, said recently that the “biggest calamity facing society is the relentless disintegration of the family and the profoundly dangerous consequential element of a lack of male role models.”

Neil Clark summarized the damage in the 2003 Opinion-Telegraph: “The damaging impact of Jenkins's reforms on the society we live in is all too clear to see. One marriage in three now ends in divorce. Almost 40 per cent of children are now born out of wedlock, the highest figure in Europe. Since the 1967 Abortion Act, more than six million unborn children have been aborted. The legalization of homosexuality has not been the end of the chapter, but merely the beginning, with an aggressive ‘gay rights’ lobby demanding more and more concessions. The policy of early release of prisoners has had a catastrophic effect on the safety of the general public: 14 per cent of violent criminals freed early are convicted of fresh violence within two years of their release.”

Liberalizing political reforms made a mess of British society turning England into perhaps the “most libertine -- and frankly immoral -- country in Europe.” You may think these judgments are rather harsh, perhaps exaggerated. Well by the late 1970s the damage was already so severe that English novelist Kingsley Amis wrote a withering satire on the decay of the national culture. In “Russian Hide and Seek” Amis suggests that the trashing of English culture could only have been achieved by a ruthless foreign invader.

At the same time the churches in England were undergoing their own reforms and contributing to the destruction of English character. In his scathing critique of British social life --“The Abolition of Britain”-- Peter Hitchens notes that “Hell was abolished around the same time that abortion was legalized and the death penalty was done away with.” Anglican bishops, headed by John Robinson, began to admit that they were “not sure about the existence of God or the truths of their religion’s central beliefs.” The Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins (another Jenkins!) spoke of the resurrection as “conjuring tricks with bones.”

Lacking the “faith once given,” English churches decided to become relevant and post-modern. Traditional forms and the most cherished beliefs were jettisoned. Scripture was increasingly replaced by social theology, suited to the new social democracy, in which “Christian charity was expressed through political action rather than in your own conduct.” The churches became booster clubs for the political reforms imposed on the working class people by Roy Jenkins and his crew. And the churches became increasingly empty.

Some Anglican pastors described in “The Rise and fall of the Nine o’Clock Service” tried to entice the lost parishioners with pseudo-Christian services: “Druidic white-robed figures around an alter resembling a crescent moon… hundreds of black-clad figures peer out of the darkness, swaying to swirling, strangely ethereal breaths of ambient techno.” Very clearly, it could no longer be said that the Anglican Church was the “Tory party at prayer.” It did not work.

Amis describes a church service after the Russians have purified England. A young woman reciting the Creed wonders what it is all about: “The whole catalogue was very odd – remote and fanciful. It made sense to believe in keeping oneself to oneself, in a hot-water bottle on a cold night. But what difference could it make to think the Holy Ghost advisable, to be in favor of the life everlasting.”

So what do you think? Is Britain still civilized? Do you see any parallels in America?