Forget Grover Norquist. Here’s the Pledge Every Candidate Should Take.

I offer the following language for every candidate for office.

I hereby pledge that I will not accept speaking fees or any other kind of payment for services related to the fact that I held office.  I will also not set-up a personal foundation to which contributions that might benefit me or my family can be directed. Neither will I become a professional lobbyist.

Americans and others should be rightly suspicious if office holders can be tempted through speaking fees, payments for services related to politics, or “charitable” contributions.  If those payments are made in the time after a politician has exited office, they remain potentially tainted.  Holding office is an honor and a privilege.  The work of a public official is intended to be a service performed for fellow citizens and the republic.  It should not be an on-ramp to wealth generated by the hope of courting favor or access.  I will not participate in a culture that perverts the elected and appointed offices of our country by turning office-holding into a business.

Reflections on a Week in Colorado: Baker Family Vacation Version

Ruth Baker doesn’t insist on many things, but she was determined about this trip.  “We are going to go on a real vacation.  And this time I don’t mean another place within eight hours of our house.  This time, I want to take the family to see the Rocky Mountains.”

I grew up with trips of 3-4 days within driving distance of our home.  We mostly visited relatives or went to the Gulf of Mexico.  Those experiences, which I loved, formed my feelings about travel.  I begin to get nervous after more than a long weekend away.  I hate spending time in airports and worrying about rental cars.

It didn’t matter.  We were doing this.  After all, my bride had only been asking for a couple of decades.

We packed up four suitcases and at least four backpacks and headed for a Southwest flight out of Nashville.  Ruth and the kids managed to tolerate my need to get to the airport nearly three hours ahead of time.

I sat in an exit row.  Ruth and the kids sat nearby.  I put in my earphones so I wouldn’t hear the engine noise, which tends to fill me with anxiety.  My usual eclectic mix of Christian, electronica, and eighties rock drowned out the ambient sound while Ernest Cline’s novel Ready, Player One distracted me from thinking too much about being many thousands of feet in the air.  (Short review:  Good story with non-stop eighties and nerd nostalgia.  I found that I dreamed about it at night. Fair amount of philosophical and religious disagreement on my part.)

Uneventful flight.  We arrived in Denver.  I was about to go on a forced oxygen diet for the next week.

Baggage claim.  Avis rental car.  The agent asked if we wanted to upgrade from our Buick Regal.  Ruth insisted we did not.  We took all our luggage to the car and filled the trunk.  Not everything would fit.  By the time I sat down and got my seat the way I like it, our daughter had become a sardine in the back seat.  She doesn’t normally speak up for herself, but actually decided to express dissatisfaction.  Ruth went back to the desk and returned with a brand new Ford Explorer (at an increased rate, but who cares!).  (Short review: The new Ford Explorer is the best Ford I have ever experienced.  And this one had seat coolers.  SEAT COOLERS!  My rear end was cool throughout our journeys.)

We made our way into Denver.  Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, we began with a meal at a Mediterranean place in one of those hip parts of town.  You know.  Run down buildings.  Nifty, well-aged neighborhoods.  Creative vibe.  The restaurant featured grape leaves, kebabs, pita bread, all kinds of other wonderfulness.  The dry, rare air and the delicious water caused us to drink about twice as much as we usually would.  As we enjoyed the meal, a freak hailstorm pelted the world outside.  We took it as a good omen.

The next day we went to the Denver Botanic Garden.  It is typically beautiful.  I found myself surprised to see that there was a scripture garden with a Judeo-Christian emphasis.  I wasn’t sure whether something like that would still have a place in Denver.

After the gardens, we went to a doughnut shop that has been discovered by the Food Network.  Voo-doo Doughnuts.  Parking was a semi-nightmare as I had to find a parallel spot for our rented Explorer.  We got inside and waited in a long, snaking queue.  The bottom line is that they do the standards well.  Glazed doughnut.  Good.  Raspberry filled.  Also good.  But they encourage you to pay big bucks for a mixed box that they choose.  You end up with very attractive doughnuts with a ton of icing and toppings like Captain Crunch, bubble gum, bacon, etc.  We didn’t really like any of the jazzed up doughnuts with enough icing to be cupcakes.  Though we are all big fans of doughnuts, the truth is that we pitched most of the souped up versions into the garbage can at a local park.

That evening we encountered something wonderful.  Denver’s City Park is a treasure.  Acres of gorgeous, soft, green grass.  A delightful lake at the center.  We made our way around the water to reach a central grandstand which emanated jazz.  It was interesting to walk through the crowd, which got a little rough-looking at times.  We saw a motorcycle gang.  One guy’s jacket said “Enforcer.”  And it didn’t seem like a joke.  Some of the women had vests that said things like “property of Jack.”  Again, didn’t seem like a funny thing.

We kept making our way through the crowd.  I noticed signs forbidding the use of marijuana in the park and figured that’s probably a pretty serious issue given Denver’s legalization of the drug.  I had seen at least two “green cross” dispensaries offering medical and recreational marijuana.  The biggest thing I noticed as we continued around the lake was the predominance of dogs over children.  Lots and lots of dogs who were clearly treasured and adored.  Not so many kids.  Draw the conclusion you will from that.

The next day we left for the YMCA camp in Estes Park just outside the Rocky Mountain National Park.  It was extraordinarily picturesque.  Just driving from Denver to the area was a spiritual and emotional experience.  As a lifelong southerner, my view of mountains comes from the Appalachian chain.  There is just something about the scale of the Rockies that induces a sense of awe, especially the sheer size of some of the rocks.

Estes Park has the Stanley Hotel, which I will always think of as the Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining.  In the film, the Overlook appears to stand alone and foreboding in the wintry mountains.  Today, it sits just above a semi-schlocky tourist area.  McDonald’s is at its base.  You can’t drive up and check the hotel out.  They have a guard shack to keep out the sight-seers.  I was a little bummed about that.  If the movie were made today, Jack would never go crazy.  He’d just amble down the hill for a combo meal at Taco Bell.

The YMCA camp was much more than I’d hoped.  Maybe the first thing to say is that despite the seeming full secularization of the YMCA as an organization nationwide, the camp we encountered in the Rockies was truly a Christian camp.  There were large numbers of Christian campers eating, praying, praising God, and having a great time.  We saw Josh McDowell at breakfast one morning.  He was clearly there as a speaker.  I watched as he worked on a powerpoint presentation with an assistant.  Though I wanted to talk to him, I am constitutionally opposed to bothering celebrities and appearing like a fanboy.

What happened next is a matter of controversy between me and my son.  Andrew got up from our table and went to the bathroom shortly after McDowell did the same.  He returned to say that he had spoken with the author.  He told him that his father was Hunter Baker, an author and a professor at Union University in Tennessee, and that his dad liked his books.  Andrew claims that McDowell responded that he had read my work and likes it.  As all of this dialogue happened off-stage, I have trouble accepting it.  But I do believe they spoke.  And if I apply the professor’s test in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I should believe Andrew.  Enough of that.

The camp was uplifting and fun.  There was praise and worship.  There were outdoor concerts (with proper homage paid to John Denver).  We hiked and learned fly-fishing.  The whole time I felt astonishment at the natural beauty.  Anytime I wanted to, I could look up and see something breathtaking.  I also got my first view of a coyote and an elk in the wild.  The elk stunned me.  We don’t get a lot of fauna that size in our part of the world.  We also played a fair bit of bingo.  Simple pleasures.  It was a nice detox from the usual routines of electronics, electronics, and electronics.

After leaving the camp, we drove into the Rocky Mountain National Park.  Ruth had been there before and was determined to get above timberline.  I struggled with the thin air all week, but it was at its worst at the high point in the park.  Denver’s mile high air is tough enough, but try 10,000 feet and above.  As I write this blog post, I am drinking in the rich, humid, oxygen soup of West Tennessee.  It is glorious.  Despite the clean, dry, thin air which I felt was slowly suffocating and dessicating me, I loved seeing the tundra at the high altitudes.  We hiked on special paths and climbed boulders.  It felt like being on top of the planet.  The wind was so fierce at points it was almost as though you might get blown into space.  One young man was up there in a wheelchair and had an oxygen cannister.  While I wondered if he should be there in his condition, I also thought that it was a great thing that he could see the same things I was seeing.

Hiking above timberline was the high point (pun intended).  We eased out by stopping in Winter Park where we rode the alpine slide and saw what a ski resort looks like in the summer.  Then, we went through Golden, Colorado where Coors is made.  They are in no danger of losing the massive brewery because Coors depends on the Rocky Mountain spring water for its beer.  The Coors complex was one of the largest commercial operations I have ever seen.  It was like a huge appendage attached to the quaint downtown of the city.

The Baker clan finished by staying at an airport hotel and returning to Tennessee the next day.  Andrew, who likes his predictable world, went on and on about how much he missed all the good things waiting for us at home.  He promised to kiss the ground upon our return.  I suddenly understood all the old newsreel footage of politicians as they pressed their lips to the tarmac upon returning to their native lands.  I’m happy to be back, too.

Learning from a Life Under Communism

I had the pleasure of eating lunch with a new friend today.  He lived the first three decades or so of his life under Communism in Romania.  As a person who writes about politics, I took full opportunity of the chance to pick his brain.

When we began, he told me about how poor he thinks American public education is.  As a parent, he felt his daughter was receiving an education inferior to the one she would have gotten in Romania.  That interested me.  I asked him whether he would say that American society is otherwise superior to what he experienced in the Soviet satellite.  He was quick to affirm that it is.  We talked about shortages of goods, inferior goods, forced adherence to Communist ideology, and other things.

Okay, then, if that is all true, I asked him, then why do you think Romania and its superior educational system came up so short of the U.S. overall?  He responded indirectly by describing life in his former country.  It amounted to a society in which the ultimate goals are political goals.  In other words, politics sets the agenda for the society and for individuals in the society.

If political goals are the most important, I suggested, then it may be the case that some of the things that come with freedom, such as technological progress, would be stunted.  He thought about that.  He said that I was using the word politics, but he would rather speak of corruption.  For him, politics are the occasion for corruption.  If everything requires permission from the state and its functionaries, then the system creates seemingly endless replicas of little political tollbooths.  Each occupant of a tollbooth (and this could be a state official, a doctor, a nurse, a manager, a utilities worker, etc.) recognizes the opportunity to collect a little fee in order to allow you to pass through to the other side.

I said politics.  He said corruption.  There is an interesting relationship there.  Politics is not synonymous with corruption, but politics possesses incredible potential to create opportunities for corruption.  Don’t be too quick to ask politics to do the job that we can do otherwise lest you multiply those little tollbooths.

Let Me Get This Straight: The Current Modern Left Logic of Culture War

Okay, let me make sure I have this straight. I have tried to learn from more enlightened persons.

If you don’t approve of abortion, then don’t have an abortion.

If you don’t approve of smoking marijuana, then don’t smoke marijuana.

If you don’t approve of gay marriage, then don’t have a gay marriage.

BUT . . .

If you are a baker, florist, or photographer and you don’t want to participate in a gay wedding,

THEN . . .

SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND DO WHAT THE GOVERNMENT TELLS YOU.

I hope we all understand that.

Gay Marriage and Religious Liberty: Two Scenarios

karen mcarthur

Scenario #1

Two men walk into a bakery.  The owner of the bakery, who runs the small shop by herself with some part-time help, comes to the counter.

Bakery owner:  Hello, how are you doing?  May I help you?

Man #1:  Yes, we’re getting married and would like to order a wedding cake.

Bakery owner:  Oh, I’m so sorry.  I would love to make you a cake for almost any other occasion, but I am a Christian and do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding.  I know you disagree with me, but I feel that weddings are religious in nature and would be uncomfortable being part of your nuptials.  I know that creates some unpleasantness between us.  I regret that.

Man #1:  You are right.  I disagree, but I understand your point of view.  It is unlikely that I will do business with this shop again.  Many of our friends in the gay community will not want to purchase from your store.

Bakery owner:  Yes, I am sure that is true.  I don’t feel I can compromise on this point, but I would happily help you in any other way I can.  Thank you for coming by.  And thank you for respecting my feelings about the issue even if we don’t agree.

Scenario #2

Two men walk into a bakery.  The owner of the bakery, who runs the small shop by herself with some part-time help, comes to the counter.

Bakery owner:  Hello, how are you doing?  May I help you?

Man #1:  Yes, we’re getting married and would like to order a wedding cake.

Bakery owner:  Oh, I’m so sorry.  I would love to make you a cake for almost any other occasion, but I am a Christian and do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding.  I know you disagree with me, but I feel that weddings are religious in nature and would be uncomfortable being part of your nuptials.  I know that creates some unpleasantness between us.  I regret that.

Man #1:  Oh, you’ll regret it all right.  The civil rights laws of this state are applicable to commercial transactions such as buying wedding cakes.  By not making a cake for our wedding, you will be in violation of those laws.  I shall report you to the authorities.  You will likely have to pay a steep fine and may face further penalties if you repeat this behavior.  I may also initiate a lawsuit in which I will seek damages.

Which is the better culture?  You decide.

Glenn Beck, Meet Coleman Young: A Critique of a Type of Political Purity

coleman young

At the time of this writing, I am teaching a course on public administration and policy.  I had my students read a chapter in a book by Edward Glaeser about the decline of cities.  In that chapter, one discovers a malignant key to American politics.

While Glaeser sympathetically explains the details of Coleman Young’s biography (racism, second class status, repression), he is critical of Young’s leadership of Detroit as its mayor.  Young was a practitioner of racial politics.  Once he became mayor, the white population of Detroit declined dramatically over the years.  And that was fine with him.

Here is the critical point.  Though Young’s racial politics were bad for Detroit, they were good for Coleman Young.  His hold on the mayor’s office became stronger as Detroit lost more and more of its white population.  The racial politics harmed the city and cemented Young’s status.

What does any of this have to do with Glenn Beck?  I noticed a headline proclaiming that Glenn Beck is done with the Republican Party.  Statements of that type are protests against what he views as political weakness from John Boehner and/or Mitch McConnell.  I have certainly heard him say as much on the radio.

Glenn Beck is like Coleman Young in the following sense:  When Glenn Beck stakes out a hard position and bolsters it by declaring his political opponents (even within the party closest to his own views) to be anathema (worthless weaklings!), he simultaneously reduces the opportunity he has to exert a real influence and bolsters his reputation with the subset of Americans he sees as his natural audience.

In order to be a hit as a conservative media personality, you need a few million people.  But in order to actually govern, you have to have several million more.  Tens of millions more.  Glenn Beck has every incentive to take a really hard line, heap scorn on politicians who are not pure enough, and to insist on outcomes which are unlikely to happen.  In so doing, he will increase the affection of his audience, but will close himself off further and further from real influence.

When Rush Limbaugh states that he is “just an entertainer,” I think he is referring to this fundamental problem.  But one cannot be too overt in sketching out the dynamic or the audience will realize that they are actually becoming more isolated from real politics.

Some will read this and will think, I am arguing for a leftward turn.  Not at all.  I am objecting to the method of engagement more than I am the substance.  I am also dealing in certain realities.  I am arguing for domestic diplomacy.  Diplomatic and friendly are good ways to be when dealing with one’s fellow citizens who should be convinced more than they should be conquered.

Politics is fundamentally about addition, at least to the point of developing governing majorities.  Part of how we develop those majorities is through casting a positive vision.  Another part comes through brokering compromise.  (With regard to a great many issues, you can compromise in politics without enduring the stain to your integrity that compromise in theology would entail.)  Still another part comes from being winsome in dealing with partners who don’t fully agree with you and in the way one deals with opponents.  This last part acknowledges the reality that many people in the middle of the political spectrum respond to personality and demeanor more than they do to substance.  That was Ronald Reagan’s secret weapon.  Though his politics was identifiably to the right, his class and good nature spoke volumes to many Americans.

The goal here is not really to criticize Glenn Beck or Mark Levin or any other political entertainer.  Rather, I would encourage their listeners to remember that what they are hearing on programs of that sort is as much a drug as anything else.  You get ramped up on rhetoric.  You get a charge out of identifying enemies and hearing them argumentatively slain.  Adrenaline is pumping.  Brain waves are bouncing.  But what you don’t get is the attitude that leads to either real progress or victory.

On the Progress of Capitalism

men built america

I have just watched a History channel documentary series on Netflix on The Men Who Built America.  It is interesting to observe that the fortunes made by men like J.P. Morgan, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie dwarfed those of the wealthiest men today such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

And yet, despite that massive accumulation of wealth, it is fascinating to see the old Hayekian insights about free markets at work.  The goal of capitalism is not to enable factory girls to make stockings for the queen, but rather to make stockings available to factory girls.  Just that sort of thing happened over time.

So, as we consider the enormous wealth stockpiled (and much of it ultimately given away) by these figures, I cannot help but see how the progress of the free economy benefits all of us.  No matter how great the fortune of a Carnegie, he could not have anything like the transportation options I have had.  He never saw or dreamed of anything like an iPhone.  J.P. Morgan with more wealth than Croesus could not choose from thousands of movies and television shows.  Rockefeller could not within seconds possess almost any text in the world on demand at an affordable price downloaded to a Kindle.  Certainly, none of them could communicate as easily as I can.

My people were just farming the land when these men were financial giants.  But look how the impact of the free economy has built the world we live in and created such amazing possibilities for me and you.

Judging capitalism is not as simple as it looks.  Are there large gaps in wealth which result from a free and competitive system?  Absolutely.  But don’t discount the performance of the system over time.  It does, indeed, tend to lift the mass and not merely the captains of industry.