Monday, April 18, 2016

tax day 2016

for Tax Day, I give you an AEI study that looks like an impressive effort to compile survey data on public perception of taxes...

The three most misunderstood and important things about taxes:
 
1.) Although you probably pay little attention to them, you probably lose a lot more of your income to FICA taxes. If you earn less than $118,500, round your income down to the nearest $10K and multiply by 15% to give you an idea what you lose from that nasty tax. 
 
2.) Remember that "April 15th" only represents an *adjustment* to your "federal income taxes". You've been paying too little or too much throughout the year-- and they don't know what you should pay. The 1040 helps you/them figure it out.
 
3.) The current income tax code is also a tax on your time, since it's done so inefficiently. Americans spend billions of hours and dollars to fill out needlessly-complex tax forms. Crony capitalism and all sorts of regressive subsidies (some of which you probably enjoy) are responsible. A flat income tax; the "Fair Tax"; or simply the elimination of loopholes would be a great improvement in this regard.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

the economics and politics of the ACA (and an update on its impact)

Since the ACA (at best) deals with symptoms rather than 70 years of underlying govt policy causes, it could not do more than band-aid and distort the market for health care and health insurance in other ways. Here's a report on the latest, six years into it...

What would one expect from such an approach? Exactly what we've seen (and will continue to see)-- as we often see with govt policy:

In terms of the economics:
-some short-run, obvious policy benefits
-some short-run, relatively obvious policy costs
-longer-run, subtle policy costs

In terms of the politics:
-those who avidly defend it: partisans and fundies; cronies who directly benefit; and those who (reasonably) don't do much in terms of policy analysis
-those who avidly oppose it, quite a few as partisans and fundies


Friday, April 8, 2016

on daily devotion...

I've never felt big pressure on this metric. But I've seen it on occasion and do what I can to share my testimony and dispel the legalistic tendencies of that view-- that I have (relatively) rarely done "daily devotionals".

The closest I've come to daily: running for Congress, I read the Gospels over and over again, a few chapters per day. I've also had a few runs where I read devotionals, mostly daily, over a long period.

Two big caveats: I went through a long period where I was studying Scripture ten hours per week-- in chunks, typically over 2-4 days. Presumably, I'm living off of the capital accumulated over that run. And my prayer life is a lifestyle more than an event, so I'm talking with God regularly.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

a troika of trios on Trump: 3 historical precedents; 3 on his supporters; and 3 on his style, incl. famous people who talk/act like him

Three Historical Precedents:

In City Journal, David Marcus compares Trump to Perot-- a comparison I've drawn many times. Marcus sees Trump as the next wave of the Reform Party, with another billionaire businessman who would "get things done". Both Trump and Perot had a few firm ideas, a lot of gibberish, and projected a sense of competence and leadership. 

In Reason, Jesse Walker compares Trump to "Pappy" O'Daniel-- a comparison I've never heard. It's an interesting read on a now-historically-obscure "character" in the popular and political realms form the middle of the 20th century. 

In The Hedgehog Review, Johann Deem goes back further in time to compare this movement to the Know-Nothing party/movement of the mid-19th century. The "attraction" to Trump seems to "have little to do with a detailed program or platform, and far more with Trump’s successfully projected image as a fearless man of action...Trump’s promise to do something makes him stand apart from a political establishment, right and left, that seems clueless and adrift." 

Deem's conclusion: "To the extent that Trump’s supporters represent a new Know-Nothing movement, the lesson is clear. Globalization has resulted in significant cultural and economic changes that many Americans feel have been hurtful not only to themselves but also to the nation as a whole. Those same voters feel betrayed by a political elite that seems, in their view, more committed to cosmopolitanism and the international order than to national self-interest. The loss of jobs and even of whole industries, drug use, violent crime, the spread of terrorism, and the challenges of an increasingly diverse society—all of these can be connected with some of the disruptive and dislocating effects of globalization. Trump’s brand of nativism shifts all of the blame for these and other problems to people and nations beyond our borders. But it would be wrong to see his supporters’ attraction to such nativism as simple xenophobia, though of course it can easily become that. Above all, Trump’s supporters want someone who will do something, almost anything, about problems they think are growing worse."

Who's Voting for Trump? 
In this syndicated piece, Ramesh Ponnuru tries to move casual observers off of simplistic and self-serving explanations for the Trump phenomena. Two data points: Trump has less support from the most conservative than one would think and more support from the college-educated than one would think (apparently doing better than Perot on that metric).

His conclusion: "There are several streams that feed Trump’s river. Some of his voters are working-class whites who feel Republicans aren’t looking out for them; some of them want to deport all illegal immigrants; some of them want to overthrow a hated Republican establishment; some of them admire Trump as a successful businessman and think he would run the government well too. And, of course, some small number of them, all too amply represented on Twitter, are David Duke and his friends. An oversimplified view of Trump’s coalition can lead us to mistaken conclusions. If we think that all of his supporters are bigots, for example, we will have an unfair and alarming view of a large share of our fellow citizens. If we think that they are all dead-set against Republican politicians, we will assume that anti-Trump statements by those politicians are futile efforts, or assume that all of them will be furious if a divided convention nominates someone other than Trump."


In the WSJ, Aaron Zitner reports on exit poll data from the 20 states that have voted through March 21-- and how Trump has done vs. the other candidates. He's doing better with 10 of the categories listed: "some college" or less,  < $50K income, males, rural, 45 and older, "somewhat conservative", immigration as most important issue, and illegal immigrants should be deported. And he's doing worse in the other 19 (generally smaller) categories. Perot-like, although Perot had more appeal further along the income/education spectrum.

In this First Things essay, R.R. Reno notes the rebelliousness of voters, exhibited most notably in both support for Sanders and Trump. In particular, Reno focuses on the willingness of various factions in the GOP to stand apart from the GOP establishment given their disappointments with the promises and actions. (One can only hope that more in both parties will not have such low standards!) 

On Trump's Style and how it apes a lot of popular people who remain largely unscathed...
Again in First Things, R.R. Reno compares Trump to Pope Francis, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh, Nicholas Kristof and Bill Clinton-- a nice, diverse set of folks! I hadn't seen this (or looked for it-- I don't pay much attention to pop political culture), but it sounds correct to me. Reno also notes that this is, in a sense, the culmination of the 1960s anti-establishment movement. 

A really cool piece in Reason by Nick Gillespie on Trump as a Troll-bot, including an interview with Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert).

A good piece by Chris Cillizza on the brilliance of Trump's slogan.

who advocates SS?


Why work so hard to protect a lousy system like Social Security? 
 
Who could like its 15.3% tax on every dollar earned by the working poor and middle class?
 
Who would like its 0% average rate-of-return and its negative rate-of-return for African-Americans?
 
I can only think of six groups: 
-the KKK
-statists
-power-hungry Dem politicians
-their partisans
-people who lack policy imagination
-people who don't know any better

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Good News! (NT Wright's book)

Simply Good News was my introduction to N.T. Wright's books. (I had read essays previously.) Wright is in the mold of CS Lewis-- thorough, relatively easy-to-read, and vitally interested in "Mere Christianity". I can certainly recommend this book strongly-- for its style and substance. Wright lays out an important reminder, from many angles, that the "Good News" is really Good News.
Wright opens by defining "good news" (3-4):
1.) "a new and unexpected development within a much longer story";
2.) "everything will be different now"; and
3.) it "introduces an intermediate period of waiting".
In this, "good news" is similar to "apocalyptic" as a literary genre-- with its difficult context, intervention by God, change in the current, and hope for the future. Revelation is the prototypical example, although it's not read often enough as apocalyptic. But there are other examples in Scripture as well, within the prophets (e.g., chunks of Isaiah) and even the gospels (e.g., Matthew 24). Both Gospel and Apocalyptic create a new perspective and call for "new decisions". (12)
Wright argues that it's important to see the Christian faith as both "good" and as "news" (2). Instead, Christians have often reduced the good news to a "system" of religion, salvation or morality (65). Little of that would be "news" and not much of it would be considered "good". It’s 2,000 years old and if it's not the on-going revelation of a dynamic God, living through believers and expanding his Kingdom, then it's simply "old news", not especially "good" and certainly not "news". (6)
Jesus was not offering incomparable teaching, though it is remarkable. Another problem is that, while true, it is only part of the picture. He was not offering a moral example, although if you're looking for that, it was impeccable. "He was claiming to do things through which the world would be healed, transformed, rescued and renewed. He was, in short, announcing good news..." (36)
In fact, it’s the greatest news in all history. Wright (59): "Jesus' resurrection falls into a different category...it if did happen, it set a new standard for our understanding of the way the world is. Lots of events do that in smaller ways. Splitting the atom. Space travel. The discovery of America. Everything looks different once those have happened."
Reductionism
One of Wright's biggest themes is that the Gospel is often reduced to only one or two of its (chief) elements. The reductions distort the Gospel, largely through omission.
For example, Christianity is often reduced to Christ's death as payment for sins. But "there is a.) more to Jesus' death than this; and b.) more to the gospel than Jesus' death." (66)  So, the Gospel is sold as a ticket to Heaven or a ticket out of Hell, reducing it to a formulaic set of beliefs. (Dallas Willard memorably describes this as a "bar-code faith": if you have the correct beliefs, you get the code slapped on your butt and you'll get scanned into heaven.) "The usual heaven-and-hell scheme, however popular, distorts the Bible's good news." (5)
Related, people often see Christianity as having little or nothing to say about the "world downstairs", aside from observation of a moral code. And if someone does talk about making a difference on earth, they are often rejected as worldly and unspiritual (76-77). Both secular and religious fundamentalists ironically hold the same view and both "are committed to not noticing it": "The secularist lives downstairs and has locked the door at the bottom of the stairs. The [Christian] fundamentalist lives upstairs, those he constantly shouts down the stairs to tell people they should be coming up to join him." (79)
When it has downstairs relevance, the Gospel is often portrayed as “truth”-- and sold on its reliability and usefulness. As such, the Gospel is reduced to "good advice": here's how to live, to pray, to become a better person, to get to heaven, etc. (4) Advice to be considered, "an option for your future" (19). But "despite Paul's talk about God, he was not telling people about a new religious system...many people today assume [the same thing]-- that Christianity is a religion, a moral system, a philosophy. In other words...advice." (16)
His larger point is spot-on: don't reduce the good news to good advice (47). Still, Wright knows that he must answer the question: "but is it true?" and devotes all of chapter 4 to the task. For one thing, news is not something to be debated-- like advice or moral systems: "Either the event happened or it didn't; if it did happen, either it means what people say it means or it doesn't." (17) He notes that people often have a high bar for believing something historical-- well, at least for some sorts of historical events. (He doesn't go into it, but I'm always amazed of the historical faith of skeptics for other historical events, and even the narrative of macro-evolution with relatively little evidence.) History "works from evidence and looks for high probability about what caused that evidence. Like science, however, history works by hypothesis and verification." (58)
A New Kind of King and Kingdom
On the "paradox" of Jesus' mixed reception, Wright notes that "people found [Jesus] both compelling and puzzling". He was not simply adding to knowledge, or providing a "new formula for how to go to heaven", or giving "new or more detailed answers to questions they were already asking". Instead, "he was doing and saying things designed to tease his hearers into facing new and dangerous questions...Most people, then and now, find disturbing and try to avoid it." (61b-62)
Moreover, it's not just that God is (becoming) King. His Kingdom is altogether different: "a different kind of power...neither of brute force nor of superior argument but of something that goes much deeper...the power of agape." (42) Moreover, "power comes through service, particularly through self-sacrifice". (63) Wright then notes that "The reason Jesus went on talking about kingdom, despite the obvious risks of misunderstanding in his own day, was because he wanted to replace the ordinary sort of kingdom with a quite different sort." (63)
Wright notes that part of the good news is difficult for us to understand because we take it for granted now: Paul "was offering good news about a different God. A living God. A God who had made himself known in and through Jesus of Nazareth." But today, "people often use the word god as if it always meant the same thing".
Again, the Gospel is often gets reduced to "getting people to heaven and teaching them to behave along the way." (22b-23) But Jesus didn't "say much about heaven in the sense we normally mean it." (6) His focus was on bringing heaven to earth (Mt 6:10). "Instead of suggesting that we could escape the earth to go to heaven, Jesus' good news was about heaven coming to earth." (7)
Biblical and Theological Context for the Gospel
Wright points to "two telltale signs that something has gone wrong" in our explanation of the good news (69): they're not placed within the narratives of creation and covenant; and they fail to set the news in the context of a God of Love. "By itself, an empty tomb in the ancient world would mean grave robbery." (50) Instead, the resurrection is at the heart of the Christian faith, combining three foundational biblical themes about God: creation, rescue, and redemption (49).
Chapter 7 is devoted to questions of theodicy and the claims of atheism and esp. deism. The former tries to get rid of God: "the idea of the big bully in the sky. If there is no god, you can relax and enjoy your life. Perhaps." (129) The latter assumes that God creates, but does not sustain it; He's off somewhere, uninterested in His creation and His creatures. Both are responses to the problem of theodicy: why doesn't God intervene (more often) in the blandness and the injustices of life? His answer (131): "not parachuting down...to dispense solutions to all problems, not zapping everything into shape...but living in the mess and muddle...at an especially difficult moment in its history and absorbing the pain and shame of it all." (131-132) Wright appeals to both Genesis 1 and especially Genesis 2 to fill out the picture. "The most important point was not to understand him but to trust him." (133) From there, Wright continues by describing the Biblical pictures of God as Creator, Judge, and Lover.
Wright is quite helpful on eschatology as well-- both in helping one draw inferences and to help avoid excesses and errors whatever one's eschatological views. "Elaborate theories about the second coming have been developed in which the whole point is that Jesus will come back, not to stay on this earth to transform and renew it, but to take his people away. But this misses the whole point...the good news about the future cannot be about leaving earth and going to heaven. It must have something to do with heaven and earth coming together...creation itself being renewed and restored." (90) As such, the Gospel is greatest version of “the now and the not-yet”.
Wright also clarifies Philippians 3:20's reference to "citizens of heaven". We think of citizenship and heaven as that's where we really belong. But this "isn't how citizenship worked in [Paul's] world." The hope was that the colonists (including retired soldiers) "would bring the benefits of Roman civilization to Philippi." Philippians 3:20 continues with Jesus coming here. And so, "It isn't that we are going off to the capital city to join the king; he is going to come from there to transform our lives here." (94-95)
What do we do with this?
One problem: the true/full Gospel will often be seen as foolishness or scandalous. Wright devotes all of chapter 2 to this pairing. "The news is either offensive or boring. either scandalous or merely nonsense." (22) (As an aside, he uses an excellent analogy about England's World Cup victory over Australia. It was Good News to him, but foolish to Americans [who cares?!] and scandalous to the Aussies! [9])
Wright argues that we need to keep five "propositions" in balance (118-119): 1.) the lordship of the risen Christ (which implies that "real and lasting change is possible at personal, social, cultural, national, and global levels"); 2.) real and lasting change is costly; 3.) such change is sporadic (rather than always forward); 4.) the opposite: that we will be tempted to "retreat once more into gloom and negativity"; and 5.) the importance of working tirelessly for real and lasting change.
That said, in the face of rationalist skepticism, Wright warns against an over-reliance on rationalist apologetics and its opposite--romanticism, with its appeal to experience and feelings. (80-81)
Postscript
Finally, as an aside of sorts (since I'm not tying it into the review), Wright is very helpful in understanding the structure of the Lord's Prayer in chapter 8. In a word, he reads it backwards-- in order to read it, better, forwards. In this, I was reminded of Dallas Willard's immensely-profitable take on the Sermon on the Mount in Divine Conspiracy and Eugene Peterson's many useful insights on the Gospel of Luke in Tell It Slant. Those nuggets alone make each book worth the read.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter!

For those who know about Jesus, everybody believes some miracle about His death and resurrection: my beliefs (and its variants) include the supernatural; the other options are all-natural; all are miraculous.

For example, some believe that the Romans and Jews lost a politically-important dead body; that the Roman guards were inept; that a swooning Jesus recovered; that the cowardly disciples quickly regained their mettle; that the disciples were later willing to die nasty deaths for a big lie; and so on. Miracle upon miracle!

What amazing faith it takes to believe the purely natural here! But in this case, I'm certainly glad to be among the "ye of little faith".

Happy Easter to you and yours as we celebrate this aspect of the Good News!
_________________



Hopefully, when we recognize our sins (which can be quite difficult), there are four stages: remorse and regret-- and then ideally, repentance and redemption.

Instead, we often try to rationalize it away; blame-shift to others; (favorably) compare ourselves to others; and distract ourselves with shiny objects.

Also, they provided a useful comparison between Peter and Judas. I don't know why I hadn't thought this before, but what if Judas had been able to wait 24 hours instead of committing suicide? He would have learned that the life-saving truth that no sin is too big to be defeated by the Cross and the Resurrection.

I also appreciated the reminder that the only two uses of "charcoal fire" in the NT: when Peter denies Jesus (Jn 18:18) and when Jesus cooks them breakfast at the redemption of Peter (Jn 21:9).

And one more detail on the John 21 passage: In the English, it's not obvious. But in the Greek, Jesus and Peter are using two different Greek words for love. Jesus asks whether Peter will "agape" (unconditional love) and Peter uses "phileo" (more of a brotherly love) instead. Maybe it's nothing, but it seems like Jesus is using agape to make a deeper point with Peter.

_________________

h/t: Jeff Hunter (through Abey Kuruvilla)


In 1 Cor 15:1-11, Paul spends more space than one might expect on Christ's resurrection. There are 4 things which are of primary importance we take from this scripture. 1. Christ died for our sins 2. He was then buried 3. After 3 days (no swooning! He was dead), He was raised to live again (as we all shall) 4. Then appeared to many, many people over a long period (40 days)

It's a bit puzzling that Paul would say these 4 things are of *primary* importance. It might appear that only 2 of these things are primary (#1 and #3). But they are critical because (#2) Buried proves "dead", (substantiating evidence as it were) and (#4) Appearance proves "raised" (to many people over a long time; their ability to validate the evidence). So these are ALL of first importance. Moreover, Paul labors this point for a long time, indicating that this is a vital point in his arguments.

The fact that Jesus appears is important because He wants all of us to see, to know Him.

Friday, March 25, 2016

how can you know if you're saved?



The base-level answer is quite easy. Verses like Ephesians 2:8-9 make it clear that we're saved by faith in God's grace, rather than trying to justify ourselves to God through our deeply-flawed works. But Ephesians 2:10 follows by noting that we're created to do good works. We're not saved by "good works". But we're saved-- and then we're supposed to do good works from the overflow of a saving faith and the empowerment of Christ in us. Or in a word, we're not saved by good works, but to do good works.

Biblically, there is (or can be) some challenge here. The biggest rub is not (and cannot be) the existence of sin or even "besetting sins" (however defined), since everyone sins, believer or not.

Particularly from John's epistles and James, the question is what to infer from a lack of fruit or the production of largely-rancid fruit. The problems are that:

a.) it's difficult for one to judge someone else on this (in fact, there are warnings against that and prohibitions against a firmly-held sense of judgment about someone else); and

b.) it can even be difficult to judge that within oneself-- thus, leading to potential and highly-appropriate questions about whether one has a saving faith.

If I had to recommend one passage on this, it'd be James 2 on "can such faith save?". There, Abraham and Rahab are examples of those who are justified before people by their deeds, even though they are justified before God by their faith. John and James indicate/write that if I don't have appropriate fruit in my life, then I (and those close to me) should be asking some tough questions.

If one is saved by grace, embraced through faith-- and has the relevant "fruit"-- then biblically, one can be assured of salvation, eternal life, Heaven, etc. It requires as much faith as believing that Abraham Lincoln was president.