Mind over Matter: Hunter Gets an MRI

I had a physical at my last trip to the doctor’s office. We talked again about some of the problems I’ve had with my back and knees. That led to an x-ray. The x-ray led to an MRI. I await the verdict.

Happily, I haven’t needed an MRI up until now. So, this was a new experience. I was more interested in the results than worried, which left me in a reasonably good state of mind as I went to the imaging center.

Right away, I got a bit of a shock. As I went through the check-in process, the tablet I was using informed me I would need to pay $542 for the MRI. I asked the receptionist, “Is this right? I was told the procedure was cleared by insurance.” She showed me the price, which was over $900. “You must be making progress toward a deductible.” Alas, alas . . .

But let me tell you, I am grateful for that $542 price tag. It gave me some serious skin in the game. And I needed skin in the game.

I am one of the world’s most fidgety people. Even in my sleep, I probably move more than most people do when awake. I twitch, adjust, shift weight, shake my leg, move my shoulders. I do it all and all of the time.

Before we started, I was worried about claustrophobia. But as she was putting me in the tube, I asked, “Do you have to stay still for this?” The answer was affirmative. You have to stay really still or the pictures will be blurry. I realized that if I went through this procedure as my normal self, living my TRUTH as a fidgety person, then I might as well set fire to the $542 I just put on my credit card.

I went into the tube. My rock should have been the Lord, but I was holding tightly to a different foundation, which was not blowing $542.

The tech put a rag over my face and some headphones with music. As we began, she asked what kind of music I’d like or perhaps a radio station. I knew I wouldn’t want to listen to people talking or words in a song, so I asked for classical music. “My classical CD is broken. I have instrumental.” Thinking about some very good instrumental music I’ve heard over the years, I opted for that. Well, I spent about 20 minutes struggling like crazy not to move while I listened to pure, unadulterated, hokey elevator music.

But still, armed with my desire not to shred $542, I clung to every note of the cheesy versions of pop songs from my childhood. I held onto those notes as if they were pillars or columns. I was like Samson blinded, but forced NOT the pull the temple down because THAT WOULD INVOLVE MOVEMENT and MOVEMENT WOULD MEAN LOSING $542.

The tech gave me hope at one point. She said, “Just another couple of sets.” I wish she hadn’t said that, because that made me think it was almost over. I guess they have some guide for when people are going to lose it, so they offer hope right at that moment.

Amazingly, the confined space never bothered me. I suppose if there is something you dread worse than tight spaces (STILLNESS!), then you can survive a tomb-like MRI. There was a mantra I repeated every time the urge to move became nearly irresistible. “Mind over matter, mind over matter, mind over matter . . .” They used to say that when I was a kid. It worked. Well, it kind of worked. The reality was that I was determined not to blow half a grand by shifting my body (have I mentioned that?).

I emerged with a couple of convictions. First, I don’t want to do it again. Second, if I do have to do it again, I would enter the tube in the classical pose of the dead with my arms crossed over my chest. Imagining myself dead might help with the mind over matter.

No, You Aren’t Better than George Washington.

When I read about protesters vandalizing statues of George Washington, I became angry and offered the following post on twitter:  “If you think you’re better than George Washington, you don’t know yourself very well.”  Almost immediately, the perfect flip response came back: “Well, I don’t own slaves, so I’m counting that as a W.” 

         Ah, yes.  George Washington, one of the bravest and most accomplished men to walk planet Earth, simply can’t stand before even the most callow youth willing to castigate him for owning slaves.  His record is a complete nullity thanks to our enlightenment.  I suggest we think about this.

         What if we could resituate you, the young woke person, in history so that you became a man of means in Virginia in the 18th century?  What are the odds that you would have owned slaves?  We don’t need a calculator.  It is almost inevitable that you would have owned slaves.  That was the way the agricultural economy worked.  Men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson participated in that economy and both clearly had misgivings about the system of which they were a part.  With regard to owning slaves, George Washington was a man of his time.  It might be said of him, though, that he was better than most men in his treatment of his slaves and through the steps he took to ameliorate their conditions.

I say none of this to suggest that owning slaves can in any way be excused, but few of us really rise above the times in which we live in terms of our attitudes.  How many of the great Greek and Roman thinkers argued in favor of slavery?  Would you discount them entirely on that score?  Is there nothing of value in their civilization for that reason?  And what are we doing glorifying those brave Spartans at Thermopylae?  Their civil rights regime would really upset you.  Michigan State needs to get on that immediately.  I think “Ponies” is available as an alternative mascot.

         So, in some ways Washington was a man of his time.  But are you doing justice to the ways in which he was more than a man of his time?  It is likely that you would have owned slaves if you had been similarly situated as the great man Washington.  But how likely is it that you would have accomplished all the good that he did?  How likely is it that you would have the bravery to defy the world’s most powerful empire?  How likely that you would be charmed by the sound of bullets whistling past your ear rather than having your insides melt like water?  How likely is it that through the force of your character and example you would be able to hold together a beleaguered, freezing, starving force of men such as those at Valley Forge?  How likely is it that grown men hardened by war would be undone to see you grasping for your spectacles and remarking that you had grown blind in the service of your country?  How likely is it that you would become the first president of a new republic virtually through acclamation?  How likely that your example would be so strong that the precedent of your two terms functioned as a limit on the office of president for almost a century and a half?  How likely is it that of you would have been written the words, “the first, the last, the best, the Cincinnatus of the west?”  How likely is it that you, first among men in your country and in your time (first among Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, and the rest!) would have voluntarily relinquished power and returned to your home in the country?  Suffice it to say, none of these things are very likely.

Yet you, saintly you, claim your “W” (your superiority!) because Washington owned slaves and you do not.  That is quite an accomplishment since you live in a country where slavery has been illegal for over 150 years.  Oh, and you are an anti-racist!  That is also very impressive given that your position accords with that of every company and institution with whom practically any of us has done business.  Check your email box if you have doubts.

On the other hand, let us give George Washington the benefit of living in our time.  I don’t know if you realize this, but Washington in our time would certainly not own slaves and would certainly have virtually all the same beliefs about race and civil rights that we do.  But here is the difference.  Washington would still be Washington (by the way do you want to rename the capitol, perhaps for yourself?).  He would still have his bravery, his fortitude, his endurance, and his ability to provide inspiring leadership to human beings.  He would be a better president than 95% of the people who have held the office and would certainly excel either Donald Trump or Joe Biden. 

But I write all of this really just to encourage you to do one thing.  Check your historical privilege. 

An Open Letter to Donald Trump after the National Prayer Breakfast (from a guy who voted for you . . .)

Dear Mr. President,

         I am writing an open letter to you because you understand social media and because I have at least a chance you might read this.  As I write, we are less than a year away from the election that will either give you a second term or send you into the less distinguished ranks of defeated presidents.  But why do I write to you in the first place?  I want to straighten things out between you and the evangelicals the press ties to you like a gun in a holster on your hip.

         When you ran for the Republican nomination in 2015 and 2016, I thought you were completely out of your league.  I didn’t think you had the knowledge, the network, or the support to become a president.  On the other hand, I always gave you credit that others denied.  I know it takes an impressive person to figure out how to build skyscrapers in the great cities of the world.  But I’ll be straight with you.  I opposed you all the way to the bitter end of the nominating process.  I voted for Marco Rubio, but Ted Cruz was right next to him in my mind.  And then I would have voted for every single one of your opponents before you.  I remember begging people not to vote for you during the primary season.

         When you carried the Republican flag against Hillary Clinton, I sometimes believed the whole thing was an elaborate conspiracy designed to elect her.  I doubted you on judges.  I doubted you on pro-life.  I doubted you had any idea of what to do with the government once you had it.  But you had something going for you.  I knew exactly what to expect from the Democrats.  You, at least, were a wild card.  I didn’t go to early voting because I wasn’t settled.  On the morning of election day, I stood in the booth still not sure what I would do.  But then I remembered that the best human being I have ever known was voting for you (I won’t name the person here).  I held my breath and pulled the lever for Donald Trump.

I’ll never forget election night.  I was stunned when you prevailed.  (I think you were, too.)  But the thing I felt most of all was relief that Secretary Clinton did not win.  I know that many of my neverTrumper friends felt the same way.  At the time, I think even Bill Kristol would have said so. 

According to polls, 81% of white evangelicals voted for you.  That has led to a lot of high and mighty judgment (sometimes from the other 19%) castigating us for the decision we made.  In terms of your policies, I think we did the right thing.  The economy is humming (and benefitting the least of these) thanks to your realistic view of the competitive international tax situation and your insistence on reducing red tape.  You have redressed trade imbalances, especially with China.  You’ve avoided getting us into another Middle Eastern morass, while simultaneously dealing favorably with Israel (quite a feat).  Most important, you have kept your promise on judges.  Both the sanctity of life and religious liberty are stronger than you found them. 

But there is another side to all of this.  And I think this is an area where we have served you poorly.  Some of us have cultivated your friendship without speaking faithfully to you about your words and behavior. (Some call these “court evangelicals,” I suppose.)  Others have attacked you with the most unattractive self-righteousness that would appall us if applied to almost anyone else.  We spend a lot of time talking about loving sinners and hating sin, but I have seen too many who feel free to hate your sin and to hate you AND to congratulate themselves about doing it. 

I want to do the thing that I think should be done, which is to appeal to you in a way that is friendly and direct.  Let’s talk honestly.  It has been important to some to characterize you as a Christian.  I think you’ve passively allowed that, more or less.  But it seems to me you aren’t really comfortable with that designation.  You haven’t experienced a conversion that brings with it a drive toward continuing repentance and personal holiness.  For me, the kingship of Jesus Christ is the most significant fact there is.  (Way bigger than the presidency of Donald Trump, which is YUGE, I know.)  For you, that’s an interesting (and probably weird) claim, I suspect.  What you are is an American (like many Americans) for whom Christianity is an accessory and not an engine.  If you want to correct me on that, you do it and I will take you at your word.  Most conservative churchgoers understand what I’m saying here just as I think you do.

But let me ask you for something.  I am part of the coalition that has voted for you and will likely do so again.  You believe in deals.  So maybe you can make a deal for us.  Please don’t shame us by attending events like the National Prayer Breakfast and turning a meeting based on faith into another avenue for political combat and vindication of your grievances.  I don’t think it is too much to ask you to navigate those waters with more care as part of earning our support.  Just attend and be respectful.  We all enter situations where we don’t necessarily speak the language or feel the feelings.  Those are good times for humility and care. 

And here’s another related thought.  When you went to the National Prayer Breakfast, you’d survived impeachment and given probably the best speech of your presidency for the State of the Union.  My hopes rose when you gave that speech without talking about impeachment.  I thought maybe you’d learned to rise above the fray and maybe even just to be thankful things turned out well for you.  Instead, you jumped right back into the mud the next morning.  People say that a person of a certain age can’t learn anything new, but I have to tell you, I keep expecting you to shock all of us just like you did on election night.  I think you can learn something new. Here’s a Bible verse that might appeal to you and help with that.  It’s Romans 12:20, which reads, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Maybe you should try that.

I might also add that you probably underestimate what you could do if you learn that you don’t have to go full New Yorker every time you fight a battle.  My conservative estimate is that greater personal grace and statesmanship would be worth at least five more points at the ballot box.  Anybody with your numbers should be sailing to re-election instead of anticipating a hard-fought battle.

                                                               With respect,

                                                               Hunter Baker

Chick-fil-A vs. Popeye’s Chicken Sandwich: Who Comes out on Top?

On consecutive days I ventured out to Popeye’s Fried Chicken with a friend from work. Why did we go? To finally eat the much-lauded new fried chicken sandwich. (We are both evangelical Christians. Given Chick-fil-A’s bond with that affinity group, I feel I must disclose the connection. I mean, I actually know somebody from the CFA family.)

It was not our intent to go two days in a row. On the first day, I had the regular Popeye’s fried chicken sandwich. My friend had the spicy version. Intrigued by the experience, we both finished lunch thinking we needed to have the full experience and try the one we hadn’t had. Having tried both and both possessing decades of experience with Chick-fil-A, we are able to render a verdict.

But first, I’d like to describe the actual eating of the sandwiches. On the first day, I had the regular sandwich. What grabs you right away is size. We are talking about a big, thick piece of boneless, fried chicken. It is perched on a very good bun with excellent gourmet pickles and something like a thin mayonnaise dressing. The second thing you get is crunch. The sandwich is crunchier than Chick-fil-A. It is a delightful kind of crunch. My primary takeaway was that I had encountered a worthy competitor to Chick-fil-A’s original sandwich. On flavor of the chicken breast, I give the nod to Chick-fil-A, but the superior pickles, plus the bun and the crunch put Popeye’s into the conversation for best chicken sandwich.

However, there was a second day and a second sandwich. I had the spicy chicken sandwich on the next visit. I’m going to go ahead and declare that it is the best chicken sandwich in America and possibly the world. I believe that when Popeye’s created their sandwich, they actually created the spicy version. The spicy Popeye’s sandwich is perhaps the Platonic form of the chicken sandwich.

What makes the difference? I think the key is that Popeye’s has a thin, spicy mayonnaise that goes PERFECTLY with the gourmet pickles in the spicy version. The result is one of the better tasting things I have ever put into my mouth. I will be going back for this sandwich, repeatedly.

My eating partner declared that Popeye’s spicy chicken is better than CFA’s spicy chicken, but that he prefers the CFA original to the Popeye’s regular sandwich. I think I might agree with that, BUT I would put the Popeye’s spicy at the top of the list, period.

There is an important note to add that cannot be avoided. On both days, my eating partner had to wait a long time for his order at Popeye’s. On the second day, he may have had to wait 15 minutes. That NEVER happens at Chick-fil-A. In decades of CFA experience, I have yet to encounter a service failure or slow service. So, regardless of the sandwich, itself, they are unmatched in service and speed.

Christianity and Paradoxes

From my journal written back in 2001:

Tertullian: I believe because it is impossible.

Jews: God’s people, yet most persecuted.

Christ: Fully man, full God. A king with no material kingdom, no army. Innocent of any crime, but crucified. Message of peace and nonviolence, but came to bring a sword and assaulted the moneychangers.

Trinity: How can you have one God in three distinct persons?

Major heroes: Terribly flawed. Moses, David, Peter, Saul/Paul

Christ: Virgin birth. The meek shall inherit the earth. Blood that cleanses. Faith like a mustard seed moves mountains.

Paul: I do what I do not want to do.

Christ: Life after death. Total defeat to win total victory.

What’s Doing the Work in the Trump/AOC Squad Controversy? Is it racism or something else?

Many years ago I served as a teaching assistant for the political philosopher Francis Beckwith. As we talked and spent time together, I learned some of his habits of speech. One thing he would often do was to analyze an argument and then say “what’s doing the work in the argument is . . .” It seems to me that in the Trump/AOC Squad controversy we have a misconception of what’s doing the work.

The AOC Squad, featuring Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley, function as a bloc on the left who agree on a highly critical view of American politics and culture. In essence, they believe the United States is extremely unjust, reparations for slavery are appropriate, socialism is a good guide for economic policy, a green new deal is needed, etc.

Donald Trump responded to them in a ham-fisted and offensive way by encouraging them to go back to their original countries and fix what is broken there. The problem, of course, is that they are American citizens who have been elected to the U.S. Congress. Clearly, he is mistaken or is not mistaken, but is rather trying to offend or whip up negative sentiment against them.

So far, so good. But here is the problem. The president’s remarks, which I agree are offensive and mistaken, have also been repeatedly characterized as racist. So many people I respect and consider guides for my own thinking call these remarks racist.

The use of racism as a critique here doesn’t sit well. It is a crumb in the sheets. It is the tinnitus in the ear. What’s doing the work here? Is it really race?

Let’s perform a thought experiment. Imagine that we had members of the U.S. Congress who were ethnically identifiable as Swedish and Norwegian. Imagine they had names that fit the bill and that they cultivated the identification by way of critique of U.S. cowboy capitalism and militarism. And let’s imagine they, too, were highly critical of President Trump and promised his impeachment.

Let us further imagine that this Bjornsson and Thorsdottir drew exactly the same rebuke from the president or something like it. “Go back to your stupid socialist countries and your minimal world influence. Go back to being irrelevant and useless. You love Scandinavia so much, go back there.”

Viewing the scene, would you conclude that racism was doing the work in Trump’s offensive remarks? I don’t think you would. I think you would conclude that Trump’s hatred of the Scandinavian view of national priorities and his anger at being criticized were doing the work. But you couldn’t say racism, could you? Of course not, it’s a white on white drive by rhetorical shooting.

But in the other aspects, the situation is basically the same. What we have is not the operation of racism, but the operation of jingoism, nativism, and Donald Trump’s own sensitivity to being criticized. I have a hard time understanding why the emphasis is so firmly on the color of the people involved.

Now, I know that many people will be shaking their heads and saying that I’m clueless, but I invite analysis of what I’ve suggested. I agree 100% that what the president said is wrong. I just disagree with why it is wrong. I don’t think racism is essential to the complaint. I suspect racism is the frame we use because it is bombastic and because we largely agree on the heinousness of it. If you are a political opponent of the president, you would rather charge him with racism than jingoism or being thin-skinned. It just resonates so much more strongly.

But again, what’s doing the work?

A Conversation with Libertarian Christians

I’m not a libertarian, but I’ve always been highly sympathetic to that point of view. I recently discovered a letter I wrote my parents in 1988 in which I talked about how I’d seen Ron Paul addressing a group, had been impressed by his arguments, and was sorry that he could never win. So, while I’m not a full-scale libertarian, I am a bit of a fellow traveler to some extent. (I’m also a fellow traveler with the folks at the American Solidarity Party, so go figure . . .)

For that reason, I was very happy to give a podcast interview to the Libertarian Christian Institute. We talked about faith and politics and particularly about why government is both necessary AND potentially the most dangerous institution in a society by far. I hope you’ll enjoy the conversation.

“Don’t Ban Equality.” Seriously?

By now most folks are aware of the ad run by a couple hundred CEO’s expressing their opposition to Georgia’s anti-abortion law. They characterize the law as “bad for business.” That’s a strange approach since it would seem to pose killing unborn children as “good for business,” which is fairly unsettling.

I also can’t help but think about the language of not banning “equality.” I may have missed something. Can men commit infanticide with impunity? Or to be as even as possible, are they permitted to terminate the pregnancy of their partner on their own initiative? Neither of those things being the case, I don’t think we are talking about “equality.” The letter strains the meaning of language to the limit and beyond.

As ever, the fundamental question is not equality. The fundamental question is the personhood of the unborn child. If the unborn child has personhood, then male/female equality is not really the most pressing issue, is it?

The Strange Matter of Walt Longmire’s Age

The cancellation of a television program detailing the exploits of Sheriff Walt Longmire, first on A&E and then on Netflix, left me hoping for more.  I began gathering and reading the novels by Craig Johnson.

Walt Longmire is a somewhat different guy in the novels.  Bigger personality, more outgoing, larger guy (about 250 pounds), and a much used sense of humor.  By contrast, the Longmire of the television show is more the strong, silent cowboy type.  A muted Clint Eastwood.

There’s another thing that is different about Walt in the books.  He’s a Vietnam Veteran.  That’s what takes me to the matter of his age.  In the novels, we hear a lot about Walt and Henry in Vietnam.  Both men also played football.  Walt played for the USC Trojans in the early 1960’s.  Let me run that by you again.  Walt played college football in the early 1960’s.

The novels all appear to take place in the period consistent with their publication.  I wondered about that, but saw a reference in 2013’s As the Crow Flies to 9/11 as something that had happened several years ago.

Now, Walt mentions playing football at Southern Cal in 1962.  Let’s assume that was his freshman year by way of giving Craig Johnson the most charitable interpretation.  If Walt was 18 years old in 1962, then he was born in 1944.  Longmire’s first adventure is in 2004.  That means in his first adventure he was about 60 years old.  In his most recent, he’d be about 76.  This is a pretty old age for someone who still chases after bad guys and wins his share of fights.

For my money, Johnson should have just set Longmire’s tales in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Then, he could easily keep his Vietnam vet character.  Alternatively, he could follow what others have done and update their Vietnam vet characters to Gulf War vets.  In any case, I needed to pick the nit and I have.

Taking Inventory of the Writing Life

vintage letters typo vintage typewriter

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I just had a birthday.  As with many milestones, I find myself taking stock.  Because I know many people hope to write and leave something behind of their thoughts, analysis, beliefs, and feelings, I’m posting a personal inventory.  Maybe it will give you a sense of the possibilities.

When I was just about thirty years old, almost two decades ago, I yearned to publish something and thought that if I were to die without writing a book, I would consider my life a failure.  While I don’t encourage anyone to think of their lives in quite that way, such was my mind at the time.  I still remember the day when I sent an email to the editor of American Spectator offering a correction on an article.  He responded in such a friendly way, I suggested that I might write something for him.  He agreed.  I could almost see the new pathways opening in front of me.  Here is a rough inventory of what I’ve had the privilege to do since that time:

The Online Work (some estimation involved)

American Spectator: 30 pieces plus maybe 100 or more blog items.

National Review Online:  25 pieces inclusive of articles and symposia

The Federalist:  17 pieces

First Things:  One essay plus many blog items for First Thoughts

Public Discourse:  One essay

Quillette:  One essay

The American Interest:  One essay

The Acton Institute:  12 pieces plus blog items

Christianity Today:  8 pieces online

American Greatness:  One piece

Atlanta Journal-Constitution:  One piece

Chattanooga Times-Free Press:  Two pieces

Jackson Sun:  Around 10-20 pieces (full archive unavailable online)

The Gospel Coalition:  5 pieces

Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission:  4 pieces

Mere Comments (Touchstone): many blog items

RedState.com: various blog items

The Reform Club/hunterbaker.wordpress.com: hundreds of blog items

There are others that I can’t recall at this time.

Print Articles in Academic Journals:  6 articles for a variety of journals (Example: Journal of Law and Religion)

Print Articles in Intellectual Journals:  20 articles for a variety of journals (Example: Modern Age)

Book Chapters/Features/Forwards:  14

Books:  3 (The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student’s Guide, The System Has a Soul)

Book Reviews of which I’m most proud:  Mike Potemra’s review of The End of Secularism for National Review, S.T. Karnick’s review of The End of Secularism for Books & Culture, and Andrew Klavan’s review of The End of Secularism for Pajamas Media.

Invited Lectures:  43 (So much of the real labor is here.  When people invite you to speak, you tend to write something new for them, which you can find a way to work into an article, a book chapter, a book, etc.)

Now, why would this inspire you?  It seems like an awful lot of work.  Yes, it is a lot of work, but it was done over the course of about 15 years with regular effort.  Nothing superhuman.  Writing begets writing.  If I recall, I may actually have had something ready to go the first time I corresponded with Wlady Pleszczynski at American Spectator.  He published me.  I’ve been going strong ever since.  It seems to me that a big part of the reason some people write a lot is simply because they feel they have the opportunity to publish and have an audience.

I’m deeply thankful for that first opportunity and for everything that came after.  But it is important to note that I’d been preparing for that opportunity with years of education, reading, thinking, analyzing,  (and frankly praying for it), etc.  If you have something good to offer, chances are you’ll be able to seize a moment.

Finding friends who write helps, too.  We tend to engage in the activities our friends undertake.  Writing is like that.  Find a fellowship of writers.  My fellowship started online, but I’ve met many of them over the years in real life and count some of them among my best friends today.

On Suicide: Reflections on Anthony Bourdain’s Death

food chef kitchen soup

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The chef Anthony Bourdain’s death is hard for me to understand and accept.  Perhaps it is so because of my reading of Walker Percy.  Percy invented the concept of the ex-suicide.  The idea is that you can get all the way to the point of committing suicide and then turn back.  You are now a suicide survivor.  You can walk out into the light and air and realize, “I could be dead right now.  Instead, I’m alive.  Whatever happens next, I can compare it favorably with death.”

Of course, one might say that Anthony Bourdain knew as much.  It would be hard to believe he had problems he couldn’t solve with money or perhaps use money to escape.  The more likely problem is Weltschmertz (world-weariness).  When one is tired of the way the world is, that is a difficult problem to overcome.  He had already been down the road of severe drug addiction in the past, so he knew that didn’t offer a constructive solution.

World-weariness presents a powerful challenge, especially to an atheist like Bourdain.  When the atheist concludes that the world is infinitely sorrowful or is doomed to repeat the same mistakes again and again or is disappointed by himself or others, then he asks himself, “Why should there be more?  Why not simply be done with it?”  He is convinced there is nothing on the other side than a fade to black.

I sometimes share the sense of Weltschmertz.  It is especially a problem for those of us who think too much about politics.  There are few arenas of life where one is exposed to as much dishonesty, cynicism, and confirmation of human frailty as politics.  And the same, regrettably, can be true of religion, which has been the other great pre-occupation of my own life.  We find that people we hoped would serve as exemplars and pillars are often all too weak or perhaps all too strong in their own cause.  And thus we hear about the esteemed Christian academic leader (not the spangled televangelist) who earns a very high salary and whose wife has a “fur safe” or some other silly worldly contrivance.  It is enough to utter the words, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

Facebook, which I love and hate, is its own great source of world-weariness.

But there are things that rescue me from the Weltschmertz, from the pain of continuing to live and think.  One is the many, many people who move in a different direction from the world’s prerogatives.

I think of the commitment of some amazing people in the pro-life movement.  They are the ones who advocate for those who will never be able to do a thing for them.  I am humbled by the thought of them working as sidewalk counselors outside of abortion clinics, giving free ultra-sounds at crisis pregnancy clinics, and actually adopting children thus allowing mothers in distress to walk away and yet know that someone is caring for their child.  What a gift it is to be able to hand off a child rather than incurring the weight of death in order to get back on top of one’s own life.  I think about how these people have suffered cynical, Machiavellian treatment at the hands of some parts of America’s elite political establishment, while being reviled by others.

I think about the people who do the hard work of attempting to help people receive an education and get ready for employment rather than just writing off some populations as marginal and consigning them to a lifetime of subsidies.  Such persons are among the most compassionate of all people involved in a political movement and yet are also among the most likely to be charged with heartlessness.

I think about the preachers who never make more than $50,000 to $60,000 a year (and maybe much less) who labor over their sermons with care, who visit the hospitals, who perform the funeral services, who officiate over the weddings, who try to put back together families in danger of falling apart, and who will never, never know an ounce of fame in this world.  How I love such people, the people who do ministry for all the right reasons and who are not captured by the seductive call of materialism.  They probably will never go on a big destination vacation, but have their eyes on the greatest of all journeys to be taken by any people at any time.

It helps me to think about those people.  It helps me to think about God.  Anthony Bourdain lacked the fear of God.  His parents raised him that way.  No matter how desperate a person is, he might come to a halt before going so far as to take everything that he is and throwing it back into the face of the one who made him.  The brilliant Anthony Bourdain didn’t have that fear.  I wish he had.  Fear can be one of our best friends in this life.

But fear is not the only reason to refuse to give in to a pervasive sense of world-weariness.  It is certainly not the best reason.  The best reason not to give in is trust in God.  No matter how dark my feelings are about the world or leaders who disappoint me, I have faith that we will see real justice in the end from the Lord.  The wrong things will be put right.  The proud will be humbled.  The true saints will be exhalted.  We will all look upon God’s work and will say that the creator of justice has done right by his people.  Indeed, we will look upon it and say that he gave us grace in generous, overflowing measure.  Spend this life preparing for the next.

23 Years with a Girl

Like so many great happenings in my life, I met Ruth Elaine Martin around the same time I met Jesus through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Florida State University.  I recall attending a Bible and Life conference somewhere in Florida.  There was a Christian commune where we stayed for the weekend.  I met Ruth at a nearby fast food place where some of us had gone.  I had one of those M.C. Escher shirts on, the one with the image of the stairs that inexplicably go nowhere.  What I remember about her was her smile.  Even as I write this, I can feel the warmth in that smile.

We became friends after that.  She noticed I was driving around on a temporary spare and convinced me to let her help me change it (I’d been immune to my father’s efforts to teach me).  We became prayer partners (against the rules as a guy/girl combo), but we prayed earnestly and well together.  One day we had dinner with a friend.  Ruth mentioned she was thinking of never getting married and giving her life to medicine.  It was as if she had picked up a steak knife and stabbed me in the heart.  But I didn’t say anything.

About a year later, I found myself hiking on a mountain in California and had a thunderbolt realization that she was the one and had to be the one.  But knowing it and convincing her of it were two different things.

Through God’s providence I finished graduate school in Athens, Georgia and got a job in Jacksonville, Florida only two hours away from Ruth in Gainesville.  By that time, she was a driven and determined medical student.  I visited her at a dorm she stayed in while spending a month rotation in Jacksonville.  The intensity of the students in the building was palpable.  I mentioned it to Ruth.  “These are such serious people.”  She responded, “I’m a serious person.”  She was right.  And she’s still that way.  I love the fact that she cares and is all business when it counts, especially for her patients.

I eventually got that serious girl to include me in her plans.  We’re 23 years into this marriage with as many years as God will give us ahead.  As much as I liked her back then, I like her so much more today.  The serious girl is just as focused and determined as she ever was, but it is a beautiful thing to be married to someone of her character and spiritual commitment.  If you could win the lottery or marry well, I think I’d advise you to marry well, because I wouldn’t trade Ruth for as many millions as you could muster.

Happy 23 years, sweetheart.  Let’s put together 23 more and then maybe another 23 after that.  — HB

Is Chick-fil-A a Worm in the Big Apple?

You can get my take here at the Acton Institute.

But here’s a clip:

To be fair to the author, he’s not crazy about McDonald’s and Starbucks, either. He throws shade at both companies for their “deadening uniformity”. Consumers are also a problem, because of their preference for established goods over things that are “new and untested.” He seems to be saying that if Chick-fil-A has the gall to bring another chain to New York, it should at least have the good taste to adopt the progressive politics he can count on with Starbucks.

Though Our Ears Be Deafened . . .

In Cicero’s On the Commonwealth, Scipio has a dream of heaven where he goes to visit his grandfather.  While there, he is entranced by the music of the spheres.  Sadly, he learns that men have lost the ability to hear it, though it is everywhere:

Men’s ears have been filled with this sound and consequently grown deaf to it.  You have no duller sense than hearing, just as at the point where the Nile plunges from high mountains at the place called Cataract, the race of men that lives there is completely deaf because of the magnitude of the sound.  The sound made by the rapid revolution of the universe is so great that human ears cannot grasp it, just as you are unable to look directly into the Sun, because your sight and sense are overcome by its rays.




To Be Wise, Strong, and Loving: A Prayer for All of Us

I’ve been thinking about a prayer I used to offer each night while putting the kids to bed. You really have to think about what you want to pray for your young children. One of the things I settled on was to ask God that he would help them to become wise, strong, and loving.  I still pray it, but no longer while sitting on the edge of a child’s bed.
If I could pray anything for the people of my country and for myself, it would be this same thing. It seems to me that we are currently far from the goal.
What is it to be wise? To be wise is not to be caught in the grip of one’s passions and to lose discernment in the process. The wise person doesn’t have to know everything, but they do need to be sure that they DON’T know it all. The wise person must be measured and judicious. Wisdom means not jumping to conclusions, prejudging motives, and making too easy denominations of people into friends and enemies. Being wise means seeking understanding rather than casting aspersions and assuming ill will.  To be wise is to give others the benefit of the doubt and to assume they mean well until evil intent becomes obvious (which is quite rare).
 Being strong doesn’t have to do with physical strength, at least not the way I was praying for it.  When I ask for my kids to be strong, I mean that I hope they will learn to be resilient.  Strong people don’t give up easily.  They take their licks from the world and don’t go into permanent retreat.  To be strong is to continue to try to learn and grow.  It is to encounter difficulty and to realize that while the challenge is too big right now, it won’t always be that way.  Strong people intuitively understand that they have inherent value (given by God, in my mind) and that the world is not enough to dissolve them down to nothing.  Strength comes in part from finding joy in overcoming failure.  We also display strength when we make correct use of our will.  Instead of dominating us, it exists to give energy and emotional substance to our reason.
When I ask for my children to be loving, I am looking for them to gain the ability to extend their heart out beyond themselves.  Love is fierce and real for spouse, for family, and for children.  That is true.  But love should not be in partnership with the preference and hatred that can emerge for those we see as being outside of our circles.  Love has to do with seeing every person as a special creation of God.  It means situating yourself within God’s will as a person who reaches out to others and who tries to bring them in to the fellowship of all mankind.  Love doesn’t mean abandoning your beliefs, though, because without conviction love can degenerate into nothing more than sentiment without foundation.
My prayer is that we would gain the wisdom, strength, and love to bear with each other.  We need to utterly deny the sick, emotional satisfaction of seeing others as villains in the Lex Luthor mold.  We need to be resilient enough not to make enemies too easily and to bounce back quickly when our pride is hurt.  We need to love well enough to give up the self-centeredness and tribalism that so easily possess us.  We need to gain the capacity for real friendship even with those with whom we disagree.
I pray these things for my children.  I pray them for you.  I pray them for myself.


Explaining Why Trump’s Charlottesville Comments Were a Mega-Fail

Because I write so often on politics and culture, people who know me often bring questions or something they’d like to discuss.  The thing I keep hearing lately, especially from folks who aren’t big political partisans, is a question about why Trump’s comments regarding Charlottesville are such a big deal.  I want to try and address that.

Let’s begin with an admission.  Much of what the president said about events in Charlottesville was factually accurate.  There were people in the counter-demonstration who were ready to use violence and who were provocative.  If the question has to do with simple law and order, it is entirely possible that the counter-demonstrators were the spark that lit the fuse.  The problem is that to see events in this light lacks substantial context.  And in this case, context is everything.

It would be one thing if the Charlottesville protesters were your standard Southern men who collect Civil War (or the War between the States as many would have it) memorabilia and who cherish the gentlemanly reputation of Robert E. Lee.  Whether you agree with them or not, that’s a debate that can be had without necessarily entailing a strongly racist view.  After all, the defenders of Lee typically see him as something of a tragic figure.  He was arguably the best military man in the nation, but his sympathies were with his native Virginia.  Had Virginia been a Union state, Lee might well have ended up as president of the United States.  I’ve never heard these folks promote Lee as some kind of champion of the slavery cause.

But the reality seems different.  It appears that the Charlottesville protesters did, indeed, embrace something like white nationalism.  If we put the best possible face on it (which takes some work), then we can see them as people who believe that the European culture promoted the highest level of civilization.  Unfortunately, they believe that to continue enjoying western civilization artificial or political means must be employed to keep minorities out or limited to marginal numbers.  That’s where we get away from the best possible face (which still has problems) and move toward the marred side of the Janus profile where white supremacy lurks.  They are not really defending Lee so much as they are cynically using Lee to promote an ugly form of racial superiority.

When President Trump entered the picture, which was made necessary by the ultimately fatal consequence of the clash of protesters, he spoke almost as if addressing two gangs of kids who had mixed it up and needed to be dressed down and sent home.  To paraphrase, “Hey, now, you kids are better than this.  There’s plenty of blame to go around.  Clean yourselves up and go home.”

The problem is that this is the wrong frame.  Even if both sets of protesters were bad in certain ways, the simple fact is still that one set is setting forth a form of white supremacy (white nationalism can’t get away from that charge) and the other is opposing (unfortunately, violently) the first group’s speech.  Yes, it’s bad to start swinging clubs at white nationalists holding a demonstration.  But there is nothing good about the particular demonstration in the first place.  Like I said, they aren’t the good-hearted apologists for Lee.  They are promoting the idea that western civilization has to be protected from many non-European races.

In addition, the President didn’t speak to the situation with American history adequately in mind.  In all my 47 years I have hated carrying around the legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism.  It seemed like some unjust tax I have always had to pay.  But the simple fact is that I do live in this particular world with the history that we have and it can’t be escaped.  I would never dream of speaking about a protest like the one in Charlottesville without fully recognizing that this is not a conflict conducted in a vacuum.  The history is fresh enough that white supremacy connects to a time when it had a lot more power behind it.  To fail to adequately describe that reality as a president is to fail in the spiritual and emotional sense of leading.

These are the reasons why President Trump’s comments caused so much distress.  He isn’t living in the cutthroat world of New York real estate any more.  Neither is he any longer the type of celebrity who benefits from any story so long as his name is correctly spelled.  He’s the leader of a country with both a tragic and a great history that still wields more power than almost all the others combined.  Shooting from the hip is just not an option.

Trailing Edge Review: Spider Man Homecoming

  1.  I’m just gonna say it at the outset: I greatly prefer the Sam Raimi Spider-Man, which is much more true to the source material.
  2. This Spider-Man is the first one who actually IS the menace J. Jonah Jameson repeatedly claimed him to be.  His reckless incompetence is part of the story here, but it bothers me.  The Peter Parker I knew was deeply responsible after failing to stop the death of his Uncle Ben (now a missing figure).  Now, his destructiveness sets the stage for a new origin of sorts.
  3. I like Zendaya and enjoy seeing her liberated from those Disney shows.
  4. The film is effective at bringing multi-culturalism to the cast.  Makes perfect sense in New York.  MJ is half-black.  Flash is Indian-American.  Pete’s sidekick (previously a non-factor because his secret always made him a loner) is an Asian kid.
  5. Pete has a side-kick.  I don’t like it because it interferes with the tragic nature of Spider-Man.  He can’t be known because of what will happen to Aunt May.
  6. Aunt May is Marissa Tomei.  I miss the Aunt May who was Pete’s one solid source of love in his life and who needed him, too.  She was old and frail, which made her all the more compelling as someone he had to protect.
  7. What is up with the crazy 70’s outfits Marissa Tomei is wearing?
  8. Spider-Man wears a suit that is basically a Stark creation with its own “Jarvis.”  While it provides comic relief and drives the story in certain ways, I can’t stand it.  Please, please let this Iron Spider concept go away.  In the 1980’s we saw Spider-Man develop in ways (see his battle with Titania in Secret Wars) that showed he was one of the most formidable characters in the Marvel Universe.  He doesn’t need Tony Stark’s technology to get there.
  9. The Vulture of long-standing comic fame was a lawyer.  Spider-Man Homecoming presents us with a Vulture who is basically a Trump voter.  The uncaring elites come and take away his honest work, thus earning his lasting enmity and convincing him to do things he would never have otherwise done (like voting Trump?).  But pay attention, the Vulture has gone from being a member of the elite (by implication who feasts on carcasses) to being a working class type guy tired of being oppressed.  What’s wrong with this guy?  Couldn’t he just take unemployment or go on disability???  I hope my sarcasm comes through.  The Vulture has effectively been transformed from a parasite lawyer to a working class criminal.
  10. Is the spider sense gone?  I think the spider sense is gone.  This Spider-Man gets taken by surprise in combat.  Unthinkable.

Thoughts from the Treadmill: Dirty Dancing Edition

  1.  How long is this vacation, anyway?  There’s time for a tremendous amount of drama and an awful lot of dance training.  Do people stay at resorts in the Catskills for a month at a time?
  2. Why is Patrick Swayze putting so much effort into a dead-end dance career?
  3. Parents during this time clearly have different expectations regarding knowledge of their teen’s whereabouts than most of us do today.
  4. Isn’t Jennifer Grey headed for the same kind of unexpected pregnancy that landed Swayze’s dance partner in trouble?
  5. What’s all this business with training barefoot on an elevated log?  Is Patrick Swayze training to be a ninja?  Will Jennifer Grey become a ninja, too?
  6. Are they training to become ninjas of dance?
  7. Or is it something deeper they seek?  Is dance merely a pretext for something else?
  8. Are they becoming — dare I say it? — ninjas of love?
  9. Is the film really about Marxism?  The owner of the resort is clearly an oppressor.  Grey’s parents are obviously members of the uncaring, corrupt bourgeoisie.  Dance is setting the proletariat free from the drudgery of labor.  Jennifer Grey is an intellectual from the bourgeoisie who recognizes the real potential of the proletariat in the form of beautiful, chiseled Patrick Swayze.  She clearly thinks that revolution never looked so good.

Donald Trump and Sticks and Stones

trump mic

Being conservative and having Donald Trump for your president is pretty much the opposite of having Ronald Reagan.  Where Reagan was full of class and fought back well when he had to, Donald Trump is on the wrong side of the sticks and stones debate.  He thinks that words are the weapon of choice and frequently wields them with the intent to wound.  When it comes to presidential rhetoric, Donald Trump is a boor.  That’s just a fact.  It’s silly to argue otherwise.

It’s even sillier to have a presidential spokesperson standing on a podium defending the president in a situation like this one.  What’s the point?  The only one who can defend the comments is him.  Why would a reporter even bother to ask a spokesperson about it?  And why would the spokesperson bother to answer?

How should we go about discussing it?  Should I post that I disapprove of his comments?  Should others?  Isn’t it basically obvious?  If anyone defends his remarks with regard to a television host’s purported facelift, then they expose their own lack of class.  Look, we’ve hit upon a self-evident truth!

These days we sometimes talk about signal versus noise.  We’ve gotten the signal.  It’s not the first time.  Donald Trump lacks class and restraint.  That’s known.  I’m not sure why we need belabor the point.  If we choose to have a national freak-out every time the president tweets badly, I contend we’ll just waste our time and satisfy a lot of emotional needs.  We’re endlessly thrashing about in an ocean of noise.

The whole thing makes me think of my wife’s approach to behaviors she disapproves of from our kids (and sometimes even from me).  She just refuses to acknowledge it.  She calls it extinction.  My suggestion is that we just extinguish the behavior from the president by refusing to acknowledge it.  But that won’t happen because there are points that need to be scored.  I get it.

Every second we spend fussing over a non-event like this Mika Brzezinski blow-up is still less time spent talking and thinking about real policy.  The hotter the president runs, the cooler the rest of us need to be.


Why I Spend Time on Facebook

I think I’ve been on Facebook just about as long as it is possible to have been on the social media site without being a college student.  (If you recall, that was once a requirement.)  One of the questions that anyone has to ask themselves is why they choose to do the things they do.  What types of activities are worth our time?  I have invested significantly in Facebook and to a lesser extent in Twitter.  To what end?

As I think about how to get down to the essence of what social media offers me, the simplest answer is that it provides me with access to other minds.  The group of people I have collected and who have collected me make up a valuable resource that would be difficult for me to replicate in any other way.  I have a ready-made cloud of various types of people — pastors, professors, politicians, corporate professionals, teachers, mothers, fathers, family members, fellow Christians, sometimes even the occasional celebrity, and many more — from whom I can learn and with whom I can seek to communicate and share.

Let’s start with how social media provides input to me.  Before Facebook and Twitter, I had a morning routine.  I visited about 5-10 different political, news, and religious websites.  Then, I consulted another handful of blogs.  It was a good routine.  It worked for me.  But it was inferior to what I have now.  By merely scanning my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I get a sense of the stories many people I find intelligent and interesting recommend.  These links take me to publications I may not have known exist and expose me to new writers and thinkers.  Is there some chaff with the wheat?  Certainly, but the overall effect is better.  I know too many smart people not to benefit from the things they are reading and discussing.

The personal side is pretty obvious.  Facebook is now the way we hear about so much of what is happening in people’s families, their professional lives, and sometimes their personal struggles.  I absolutely understand the people who choose not to spend time on social media.  There are definitely virtues to it, but staying out also brings a degree of isolation simply because so many people use it as a way of communicating about personal events.

Alright, so what about output?  Some people are Facebook lurkers.  They don’t have a desire to ever make a post and not even really to comment.  They are satisfied to read, observe, and simply be in the know about what’s going on.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  But if you are reading this, then you probably know I’m the opposite.  I am a professor, a writer, a former professional public policy combatant, a husband, and a father.  All of these activities, for me, fall under the Lordship of Christ over my life.  I am accountable to use what I have been given and to be a good steward.  It has always seemed to me that I should enter the fray if I have something to offer and that I should share the things that I have that are good.  It is perhaps not surprising that what people like the most about my Facebook activity are the interactions I share with my children.  Unfortunately, those are spontaneous and I don’t have a great kid moment every day!

Again, though, this is a question of having access to minds.  I feel that I should try to reach out and touch other minds when I have something I think is worth saying.  For me, social media is not some little added activity.  I consider it something like a personal ministry.  I have to be accountable to Union University, to my church, and to others for what I do there, but that only makes sense.  I want to be an integrated person with everything in my life relating to the other parts in a consistent way.  The goal is to speak and write so as to give something that is of benefit to others.  Sometimes that is funny or cute.  Other times it has to do with matters that are urgent and serious.

There is something else, too.  I have found that relationships on Facebook often turn into real relationships.  I’m not sure I could produce an adequate inventory of the people I have met online and through social media and then had an opportunity to meet in person.  Not only have these people very often become some of my closest friends, but they have also been incredibly helpful to me professionally.  We form networks that lead to opportunities to speak, to write, or to put together projects.

If you are reading this, maybe you are asking yourself about your own social media use.  My advice would be simply to use it intentionally and not just passively or reactively.  Sure, it can be entertaining, but it can also be an opening into all kinds of new fellowship, cooperation, and shared influence.  Have a strategy for how you use Facebook and then allow your sense of purpose to help you avoid the mistakes of mockery, unwarranted aggression, and allowing disagreement to too easily turn to disassociation.


Anatomy of a Protest and a Form of the Smear

I just noticed that students at a Christian college protested a speaker who has held political office and is now a media personality. In justification of their protest, they associated this man with racism, sexual violence against women, police brutality and various other sins. So, I thought of this public individual and asked myself a few questions.
1. Does he argue for the supremacy of a particular race, for the inferiority of a particular race, or for giving different rights to different races?
2. Does he argue that women should suffer sexual violence at the hands of men or commit such violence himself?
3. Does he argue that police brutality is a good thing? Does he try to do away with investigative processes established to determine fault in the area of police brutality?
No. What you will really find is something more like the following:
1.  He explicitly argues against racial supremacy and discrimination, but disagrees with various legal remedies proposed to address racial inequality (such as affirmative action).  The way the game is played, this gentleman is now a racist.
2.  He does not argue for sexual violence against women and is not known to commit such acts.  However, he supported then-candidate Trump.  If that choice establishes him as a supporter of sexual violence against women, then I suppose people who supported President Clinton were proponents of intern seduction.  (See, the logic gets a little funny.)
3.  He does not embrace police brutality.  What is far more likely is that he has looked at an incident where police brutality was charged and came to a different conclusion regarding the guilt of the officer involved.
You will notice that the examples here are all instances of left-wing political sensibilities being used to make someone radioactive (a racist!) when in fact they simply disagree with proposed solutions for addressing a particular issue.  However, I would be wrong not to admit that the same thing happens in the opposite direction.  Here is an example:
Assertion:  “Left-wing politician X is an anti-semite.”
Question:  “Why is politician X an anti-semite?”
Response:  “He believes the Palestinians should have more rights to territory occupied by Israel than I do.”
What can we conclude?  Politician X may be an anti-semite (who knows but God who sees hearts), but not because of his position on this particular policy.  His chosen policy simply indicates that he believes the Palestinians have a stronger claim than you do.
Having now examined this abusive rhetorical strategy from left and right, I very much hope we can agree to stop using it.  It is unfair, dishonest, and intellectually lazy.

Getting Past the Drama: What Trump Means for Policy


Donald Trump has been elected president.  People are processing lots of emotional feedback, much of it related to the headline scrum that took place over Donald Trump’s purported racism, sexism, etc.  But the reality is that Trump’s presidency offers the possibility for a particular turn in public policy that has the potential to benefit virtually all Americans.  My argument is that the Trump administration will work to improve the American balance sheet through the development of national assets.  We don’t tend to think of public policy in those terms, but we should.  I’ll explain why.

The Democrats have emphasized the redress of racial or sexual grievance (such as the highly disputable pay gap) and the delivery of money and benefits through redistribution.  So, for example, President Obama managed to expand health coverage (though at a cost to many working class people) and aggressively increased the pool of food stamp recipients.  Republicans, on the other hand, have argued for the power of the growth that free markets can generate.  While the historical record is quite good on that front, it has seemed more recently (whether fair or not) that the benefits of such growth have not been widely shared.

Where does Donald Trump fit into this picture?  I think he embraces a third way.  He will prefer some kind of strong industrial/infrastructure strategy over the left-wing emphasis on entitlements and dependency.  And he will decline to believe with Republicans that free markets are the key to human flourishing (alas, but so be it).  Trump will try to build and protect America, Inc.

As a fairly orthodox small government, free market, free trade conservative, I prefer the Paul Ryans of the world to the Donald Trumps, but I think there is some benefit to Mr. Trump’s approach.  It may help to begin by considering comments from a 2012 Wall Street Journal interview with European Central Bank president Mario Draghi:

In the European context tax rates are high and government expenditure is focused on current expenditure. A “good” consolidation is one where taxes are lower and the lower government expenditure is on infrastructures and other investments.

Draghi’s insight is one American policymakers need to understand. If the government is spending a great deal of money simply to put dollars in people’s pockets, pay salaries, etc. (in other words, “current expenditure”), then we are not getting nearly the good we could obtain with better government spending that develops real assets.  Plus, we go bust trying to afford those ephemeral “current expenditures.” The superior situation is one in which you can keep taxes low and government spending is on items that last and have the potential to spur growth into the future.  I have the sense that Donald Trump, the businessman and builder, instinctively understands this point.

For example, consider the difference between a government paying for things such as the interstate highway system or the Tennessee Valley Authority power plants versus a government that sends out a lot of entitlement checks. The first government will see substantial benefit over the long run. Just consider the return on investment those highways, dams, and nuclear plants have generated decade after decade.  The second government (the one that focuses on entitlement payments) is mostly just poorer at the end of the year.

What I am suggesting (and friends on the left get ready to choke on your organic wheatgrass juice) is that Donald Trump buys into strategies suggested by John Kenneth Galbraith in The Affluent Society.  Galbraith encouraged liberals to stop focusing so much on income redistribution and to concentrate instead on investments in public goods.  Galbraith complained that we have a policy that encourages private consumption (both tax cuts and entitlements do that) when we should instead have one that tips the balance in favor of creating goods that benefit whole communities and provide a platform for better lives.  Thus, he argues that roads should be improved, power lines should be buried, better parks and libraries should be built.  Donald Trump’s thinking follows those same movements.

The upshot is that if a Trump presidency manages to shift our public policy away from simply encouraging more private consumption (via tax cuts or government checks) and in favor of providing work and generating public goods which could potentially serve us in good stead as national assets for a long time to come, then I think he could achieve something with broad based benefit to American citizens.

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is a university fellow at Union University and the author of three books on politics and religion.


A Christian Approach to Thinking about 2016

I am a pro-life voter before anything else.  The reason has been that I consider the sanctity of life to be fundamental.  It seems to me that if the law removes the personhood of the unborn child, it operates in the same way that other laws have which dehumanized African-Americans, Jews, and others.  There is no truly moral and logical way to distinguish the unborn child from the recently born infant.  The dehumanizing logic of our abortion laws follow the old Greco-Roman practices the early Christians opposed as they sought to save babies who had been exposed or abandoned because their parents did not want them.  We live in a time when as many as 90% of unborn children with Down Syndrome are aborted for the same reason.  In any other context, we would call this practice barbaric.  Today, we call it a prudent result of genetic counseling. We are and have been in a bio-ethical crisis.

I have also prized religious liberty in my voting choices.  However, that has been less of an issue until recently.  Up until the past 20 years or so, federal office holders tended to overwhelmingly embrace religious liberty and to accept the rigorous defense of it provided by the Warren and Burger Courts during the latter half of the 20th century.  It has primarily been the advent of the gay marriage revolution that has caused many office holders to abandon religious liberty due to the apparent conflict between Christian orthodoxy and broader acceptance of homosexual practice.

While the Republican party can make a strong claim to the moral high ground when it comes to abortion, it has a less certain record on religious liberty.  Democrats have been quicker to minimize religious liberty, but some Republicans (even in the south, see Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia) have shown a lack of interest in vigorously standing up for rights of free exercise and conscience.  As has been typical, the Republican party is highly responsive to corporate interests.  Corporate interests place little value on religious liberty.  Indeed, the executive class is currently wedded with entertainment and government elites in actively disdaining it.  With regard to the current presidential contest, however, there were many candidates on the Republican side who had demonstrated a strong interest in religious liberty.  All of those candidates lost in the primary to Donald Trump.

I believe that both of these issues, life and religious liberty, are issues that Christian voters should use to guide their choices.  To vote for a pro-choice candidate, in my mind, is highly morally and spiritually suspect.  The issue is so serious that I do not believe it can be balanced by saying that one agrees with the candidate in some other area.  A preferred policy on say, food stamps, does not buy amnesty for a candidate who endorses a policy which effectively means, as Secretary Clinton has said, that “the unborn child has no constitutional rights.”  Ask yourself if you would excuse a pro-slavery candidate as easily as you might a pro-choice one.  Yet, the logic in both is similar.

Religious liberty is critical as part of the understanding that God gives Caesar a clear mandate that is not comprehensive in nature.  We are bound to obey when the government acts within its appointed sphere, but it must not (as Augustine wrote) compel us to commit sins or claim our allegiance beyond what is right.  As government grows larger, unfortunately, we potentially face a greater number of potential conflicts.  For that reason, we need a candidate who will encourage a harmonious and thoughtful religious liberty for all persons.  Religious liberty is not about giving religious believers a right to disregard laws.  It is about respecting conscience and belief in a way that helps us to live together instead of trying to force each other to bend the knee in some insincere way.  Religious liberty also serves as an important reminder to the government that it does not own us, but rather serves us and that it is limited in its power.  In this way, religious liberty reminds us of our constitutional heritage as citizens of a limited government of delegated powers.

This is the first election I can remember in which there is not a major candidate who satisfies me as a champion of either life or religious liberty.  Hillary Clinton is a dedicated supporter of Planned Parenthood and abortion on demand, as is the current president.  Donald Trump is, I believe, essentially indifferent to the pro-life cause.  One has to believe he has converted on the issue, which is unclear to me.  So far, I’ve heard him say he changed his mind because a child who would have been aborted turned out to be “a winner.”  That doesn’t sound like someone who thinks Down Syndrome kids shouldn’t be aborted.

With regard to religious liberty, Hillary Clinton strikes me as someone who would likely have supported efforts to protect religious liberty in the early 1990’s (as did her husband), but who views free exercise as something which must decrease as same sex-transgender revolution increases (as does her party).  Donald Trump, again, seems to me to be essentially indifferent.  I’ve heard him say that we’ll get people saying Merry Christmas in December again, but that’s not what I want the president to be doing.  That’s what the church is for.

With the priorities I have outlined, Donald Trump would be a defensive vote for me if I were to choose him.  I have no doubt of Secretary Clinton’s ability to implement the will of her party to the greatest effect possible.  Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is a political amateur.  I suspect his subordinates would have a great deal of influence.  To vote for him, I’d be voting for a unspecified outcome versus one that is specified.  Not very inspirational, but there is a logic to it.  I’d be hoping that he’d be responsive to his electoral coalition, but he may not see people like me as part of that coalition.  When I ran for office, I recall a man saying, “All this religious stuff is fine, but what about jobs and immigration?”  Mr. Trump probably sees that man as his supporter and me as somebody stuck with voting against Hillary.

What about Gary Johnson?  He has identified himself as pro-choice on abortion, pro-gay marriage, and anti-religious liberty.  He called religious liberty “a black hole,” which is an odd choice for a libertarian.  No relief there.

That leaves me with other possible choices of Evan McMullin, a former CIA agent and Mormon who is effectively a stand-in for a typical Republican and Mike Maturen of the American Solidarity Party, which is seeking to bring European Christian Democracy of the Kuyper type to the U.S.

If you want to hear something pragmatic on voting, here it is.  Let’s say Trump and Hillary were running neck and neck.  In that case, I’d be hard pressed to grit my teeth and vote for Trump just on the chance that I can better achieve my objectives that way.  But every revelation alienates me more and pushes me to ask whether honor demands that I reject him categorically as a candidate.  Honor may be well past that at this point.  However, if Hillary seems poised to win easily (which is looking likely), then I think my best choice is to both deprive Trump of my support and to vote for someone else so as to maximize the power of the message that we must not have another nominee like Trump in the Republican party.

Chicago Travelogue: Fall Break Edition

We just returned from a four day weekend trip to Chicago.  What was it like for a middle-aged (forties) couple and their two kids (11 and 14)?  Here’s the story.

We left from Jackson, TN late on Wednesday afternoon and drove to Champaign, IL to stay for the night.  On the way, we stumbled into an apparently famous restaurant called the 17th Street BBQ.  While the restaurant has been nationally profiled and the food much lauded, I suffered from the curse or blessing of having grown up during the heyday of Big Bob Gibson’s Barbecue in Decatur, AL.  I have yet to meet the barbecue pork that exceeds it, except maybe its almost across the street rival, Whitt’s.  So, 17th Street, you provided good, warm food to weary travelers and I thank you for that.  It’s not a small thing.

After a stay in a Drury Inn, we took off for Fair Oak Farms, which was only a little out of the way to Chicago.  Ruth had been there before and enjoyed watching baby cows blow through the birth canal and land heavily on straw.  (She has a professional interest.)  We went along for the ride.  This was my first encounter with big time farming.  I’d seen a lot of the smaller version as a kid, but I got to see the pigs all the way from birth to pregnancy.  I also saw the cows living together in a quest to provide massive amounts of milk to the world.  It was clear to me that the cows had it better.  They get to be more or less outside and spend a lot of time riding the carousel where they get hooked up for milking.  The pigs’ life looked more boring.  One thing blew me away in both cases, the agricultural use of information technology is astonishing.  If you thought computers were just for the office, think again.

What’s the best part about Fair Oak Farms?  It’s the food.  They make their own ice cream, milk, and cheese.  We had all of it.  The grilled cheese sandwiches rank in the special category.  I had the sweet, smoky swiss, while the rest of the family ate cheddar.  In both cases, you’ve got world class grilled cheese.  We ate so much dairy we had to delay any pizza for later in the Chicago journey.

After spending several hours at the farm (and that is virtually unavoidable if you want to full experience), we hit the road to Chicago.  We were entering the city between 6 and 7’oclock pm.  My hopes that traffic would be light were entirely unfounded.  Things were pretty good at first, but the closer we got the worse it was.

Tolls.  I have to talk about the tolls.  If you don’t have an EZ-Pass for Chicago, the tolls are absolutely barbaric in nature.  We are all accustomed to being able to throw change into a bucket and then to quickly move on.  These toll booths required that you put each coin separately into a slot.  Doing so with tolls of a few dollars or so at a time made me feel as if all human progress had been lost.  If you had cash, you were going to wait a while.

We decided to get a hotel deal via Hotwire in the tony part of town.  As a result, we got the Hyatt Regency on East Wacker.  It was a little less expensive than usual, but still pretty aggressive price-wise relative to what I’m used to in my interstate Hampton Inn world.  We had the idea we’d drive into downtown and get a parking garage.  Around 7pm, that was an absolute nightmare.  I never pay for valet if I can avoid it.  In this case, after fruitlessly trying to get a parking garage where I could leave the car for a few days, I gave up and gratefully put the car in the hands of the capable men at the Hyatt.  More money, yes, but my sanity was at stake.

Inside, some kind of assistant director spotted us in the check-in line and waved us over to his kiosk.  I think he took to our disheveled, nuclear family appearance and enjoyed getting us set up with a double queen room on the 21st floor.  He recommended we eat at Portillo’s, which turned out to be a restaurant that essentially contained a mini-food court inside.  An American place and an Italian place in one building.  The food was unspectacular, but good after a long day.

We had to get up the next morning for the Shoreline Architectural River Cruise.  It was on the way that I snapped this immortal picture:


The fellow was annoyed, but who could avoid snapping that pic?

In any case, we made it to the cruise, which docked near the Navy Pier and had a tremendous time navigating the Chicago River as our guide regaled us with stories about the town and its eclectic architecture of classical, art-deco, modern, brutalist, and postmodern styles.  After we disembarked, I tipped the gentleman and told him that “I am a professor and I enjoyed your class today.”

This was a shot from the cruise:


After a big cruise, you have to eat.  I had one meal in mind for Chicago.  A bucket list meal.  I had to go to Lou Malnati’s for Chicago-style pizza.  I’d seen it on the Food Network and I wanted it.  Somehow, we got seated within a reasonable period despite the throng that extended well past the lunch hour.  And then we waited and waited for the pizza.  But no problem, that’s part of the experience.  What can I say about it?  First, it’s good.  Let’s get that out of the way.  It’s good.  But you have to compare it with other types of pizza.  I simply find that I prefer the perfect balance of crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings you get from a New York style slice.  Lou Malnati’s has a really good, thick, crunchy crust.  I liked that.  But it is absolutely overwhelmed with meat, sauce, and cheese.  I had the sausage pizza.  Virtually every slice was basically covered with a flat patty of sausage.  It was like a meat crust on top of the crust.  Some people will love that.  But it wasn’t for me.  I’m glad to have tried it.

We also visited the Field Museum.  It is an impressive museum, but it also has a pretty powerfully retro feel to it.  It is very much a museum of the 1980’s in terms of how it presents.  After one has spent much time in the Smithsonian, the Field Museum seems fairly far from the cutting edge.  Plus, it’s expensive.  If I am the calculating tourist, I’d arrange as much of my museum going for Washington, DC as possible.

There were other things, but I think what I’d emphasize in the end is the overall sense of coordinated human achievement you get from visiting Chicago.  The buildings are spectacular.  The way the river intersects the downtown area is beautiful.  Almost all around you there are working monuments to human ingenuity.  If I had it to do all over again, I think I’d spend all of my time touring.  I’d take the cruises.  All of them.  And I’d spend time riding on the sight-seeing buses with the narrated tour.


Religious Liberty: The Government Doesn’t Own Us

When I spoke at Southeastern Baptist Seminary last month, I also participated in an interview with Bruce Ashford.  These remarks on religious liberty are excerpted from that interview.

On temptations to curtail religious liberty.

“That’s one thing I observed on the campaign trail. This is West Tennessee that we’re talking about, where I was running [for office]. Part of my logic [was] that these are people who will be very interested in religious liberty.

“But that having been said, I would very regularly get people saying, ‘I’m totally with you on religious liberty, but what about the Muslims?’ I told them, if we embrace this concept of religious liberty, then we also will tolerate the Muslims to build their mosques and to live their lives….’

“Gary Johnson recently said that religious liberty is a ‘black hole,’ meaning that he thinks it authorizes just any unlawful activity. But that’s not really the case. If you look back to the founding fathers and their understanding of religious liberty, the idea [was] that people are entitled to the free exercise of their religion as long as they don’t essentially threaten the peace and safety of the community. So cutting people’s heads? That’s out. Sacrificing virgins? That’s out. Throwing the girls in volcanoes…. But, within the bounds of what we understand as the normal life of religious people, that should be accommodated.

God has given Caesar a certain mandate, but it’s not everything.

“Now, why should we request religious liberty? Well, first of all, if we embrace religious liberty, we are implicitly saying that the government does not own us. We’re kind of taking that Caesar’s coin view of things. Yes, God has given Caesar some things to do. God has given Caesar a certain mandate, but it’s not everything. Some things belong to Caesar. Some things are God’s and jealously guarded as such. And when you embrace religious liberty, you’re saying that, ‘Hey, Caesar, you don’t get it all. Sometimes I’ve got to obey the higher law.’ And it’s better if you acknowledge that.

“And, look, human beings’ integrity means that [we] live according to [our] beliefs. So if the government is going to interfere unnecessarily with you doing that, then it is truly oppressing you. It is oppressing your conscience. It is trying to force you to live in accordance with a code that you do not hold. And there’s something terrible about that….

“John Courtney Murray, the great Catholic theologian, did a lot of work in religious liberty back when it wasn’t popular for Catholics to do so. He said [that] you need to look at the religion clauses in the first amendment as articles of peace. That these are clauses that if we learn to respect them, then we can live in harmony with each other. We don’t have to stamp on each others’ beliefs and force each other to conform in ways that are unnecessary. In that way, it’s easier for us to live together. And in a pluralistic society, that’s even more important.”

The Cruel Reality of Trump/Clinton

The mixture of politics, Christianity, and conservatism has served as a continuing running theme in my life.  I have delighted in the exploration, the debate, and the expression.  And for the first time, I’m watching an election that is taking all the joy out of these things I have loved.

Trump v. Clinton is an acid in my life.  Some things it dissolves.  The things it doesn’t dissolve, it leaves marred.

Since I sat on the sofa with my mother watching Ford/Carter election returns coming in on television in 1976, I have been interested in politics.  My dad was a proud former Goldwater voter, not all that surprising for a meritocratic engineer-type of guy.  As a teen, I began paying close attention to the early CNN and its amazing show Crossfire with Pat Buchanan and Michael Kinsley.  An interest in politics developed into something more like an obsession.

Two big things happened in college at Florida State University.  The first was that I became a born-again Christian tutored by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship to bring everything in my life under the lordship of Christ.  Second, I came under the influence of some serious free-market economists in the persons of James Gwartney and Randall Holcombe.  As a result, my anti-communist tendencies (pretty natural for a Cold War kid) combined with Christian social conservatism and powerful free-market thinking to create a worldview that turned me into a highly fusionist type of conservative without apologies.

Later, I would come to understand that there was a conservatism other than National Review’s style (such as the classic Burke/Kirk version) and that Christians came in a wide variety of viewpoints, too, but the underlying point is that I became a nerd of the type who has always been drunk on ideas and somewhat religious about them as well.  Although stopping the Soviet Union and protecting the free market were the first attachments, I later found the writing of Francis Schaeffer.  Schaeffer made a thorough-going pro-lifer out of me.  And Schaeffer associate John Whitehead showed me the fundamental importance of religious liberty over the course of a summer at his Rutherford Institute.

Take this package of beliefs and intellectual commitments and combine them with the presidential election of 2016.  I was a Marco guy with strong sympathies toward Ted Cruz, as well.  (Why Cruz?  I think that few understand the original constitutional design as well as he does.)  It also happened that I was a conservative who appreciated Jeb Bush.  Though he was often pilloried as some kind of sell-out squish, I knew he hadn’t governed that way in Florida.

In the beginning, I saw Trump as a novelty candidate.  I called him the guy who says all the stuff your uncle drives everyone crazy with at Thanksgiving.  When he criticized John McCain for getting captured, I was sure he was done.  To my horror, he continued to climb.  Debate after debate took place.  Each time I saw a boorish performance by a man who was unprepared on policy and who just blustered his way through every encounter.

Of course, he won.  In retrospect, I see his victory as a classic 1980’s business phenomenon that fits perfectly with his 1980’s birth as a celebrity.  Trump’s coalition enabled him to perform a hostile takeover of the Republican party.  Like most corporate raiders, it looks like he’ll take control, drain the party of its useful assets, and then leave behind a crippled wreck.

Despite this dim view of Trump and my support for virtually anyone else at the primary stage, I did commit myself to supporting him in the general election.  The answer is simple and should be easily understood by all.  I know Hillary and her plans.  She is a pro-choice, secular collectivist of the type with whom I tend to disagree most vehemently.  The best thing about her, in my view, is that she is a much worse salesman for her views than President Obama has been for his.  Other will put the emphasis on her record, on Benghazi, on the email scandal.  Fine, but for me it is the continued development of U.S. policy in a direction I think of as hostile to true liberty and the marginalization of unborn human life that troubles me the most. Next to this, I saw Trump as a wildcard and an amateur.  I continue to think he would cede most governing to his vice-president and that he would mostly be a sloganeer and an image maker.

But I cannot deny the points that friends ardently opposing Trump have made.  They view him as a faux-Republican, a total non-conservative, a man of wealth without an apparent moral compass, and a political opportunist who must not be trusted.  In light of his recent comments which suggest sexual assault, they argue that he lacks even a baseline of character that we should expect of a president.

On the other hand, there are the friends who say that Hillary represents a generational threat for two reasons.  They fear that she will embrace an immigration policy that will fundamentally reshape America’s electoral balance.  (I disagree here, believing that even illegal immigrant families have a good chance of becoming Republicans.)  In addition, they say that she will turn the Supreme Court like a pro, which she is, and that the causes of life and religious liberty will be set back for decades.  While they often deeply regret Trump as the candidate, they feel that failing to support him represents a lack of seriousness and determination to fight.  Those who are unwilling to sully themselves by supporting Trump should get out of the way and let real warriors do battle.

I have many friends in both camps.  For my part, I have tended to be closer to group two than to group one because of my worries about the court.  I figured that a blustering dilettante with no government experience could scarcely do the harm that a master of the process could do.  For that reason, Donald Trump the candidate has seemed to be worth the trouble (if just barely).

But with this latest revelation (and knowing more is likely to come), the pain of the whole thing has intensified.  I have had to ask myself whether there is ANY point at which my personal sense of honor kicks in so as to deny the candidate my support, even in the face of an awful alternative.  (There must be such a point.  There must be.)

My #nevertrump friends don’t understand how hard it has been for me and others.  They look at me backing away from Trump in these last days and say, “What has changed?  Didn’t you always know this about him?”  In truth, probably so.  All I can say is that when one determines to persevere in order to vindicate a cause he is able to withstand the stacking of a great many straws before his knees begin to tremble.

We have to face the fact that it is terrible to be a conservative, a Christian, and/or both who faces the electoral decision before us.  There is no truly pro-life Republican or Democrat candidate.  There is no true religious liberty Republican or Democrat candidate.  There is nothing approaching an actual conservative of any type, really.  There is no one who genuinely shares our values, our spiritual commitments, and our way of life in this race.

We have before us a creature of Washington and a creature of Manhattan, one whose wealth was made through leveraging government access and another who made money selling vice and paying off politicians.  

Our situation is bad enough.  The least we can do is to stop tearing each other apart and to stop treating one another as though we no longer recognize whatever good once drew us together.  Goodness help us, we have all tried to do what we thought was right.

Trump v. Clinton: Round One

The first thing to say is that Hillary Clinton won this debate.  She won the debate when it should have been almost impossible for her to do so.

Why do I say it should have been impossible?  The answer is that Donald Trump faced a super low bar of expectations.  Basically, all he had to do was to appear calm, decent, and rational.  Despite that, he tripped over a bar sitting at ankle height.

He had moments.  Hillary referenced her vast experience.  He made out a case that much of it was bad experience for the country.  When she offered a short treatise on the implicit racism of police officers and systemic racism in the nation, he responded with a call for law and order for the benefit of people in the inner cities who have to live in unsafe conditions.  I thought that was reasonably well done.

He missed a big opportunity.  Hillary talked about how he had been very fortunate to have a rich father.  I thought he could have responded that she “had the great fortune to marry the future president of the United States.”  But he missed that.

In addition, let’s face it, he was a boor.  He frequently interrupted Hillary during her turn to speak.  When it was his turn, he often rambled and struggled to make a point.  There was a low information density to his answers.

But what about Hillary’s performance?  She betrayed no sign of ill health.  The concentration was there.  So was the patience and endurance.  I have to give her credit for being alert enough to tweak Trump at virtually every opportunity.  She knew what the points of attack were and she pressed them relentlessly.

And how about the email controversy?  Hillary was asked about it and made no attempt to excuse or explain.  She simply said that she made a mistake and takes responsibility.

Trump attempted to push that point, but he would have been wise to follow her example.  When she pointed to issues regarding his taxes, bankruptcies, etc., he put forward long, windy rationalizations that just made him look untrustworthy.  It would have been better for him to say that he has spent his life in an ultra-competitive business environment and often competed in a cutthroat way.  He might have regrets, but you’d want somebody as tough as him looking out for the country.  Something like that.  And again, he may have tried to basically say that but it was lost in the meandering mess of rhetoric.

By the end, Trump seemed deflated and beaten (and so was I).  He walked off the stage with his family while Hillary stayed up front shaking hands and smiling.  She knew she’d thrashed him.

The Need to Prepare for What You Want

During the past month or so, I concluded a campaign for Congress, wrote a couple of articles about it, submitted a significant scholarly project, and then spoke at one of the big Southern Baptist seminaries.  In between, there was a lot of teaching.

As I stood in front of the seminary audience of what looked like a couple hundred people or so, I felt the challenge.  Felt the necessity of having had to write something that would be meaningful to them.  Felt the obligation to try and keep their interest.  I had written about 6000 words for that purpose.

When you speak to an audience and have about 50 minutes, that can be a big mountain to climb.  It isn’t the same as teaching.  When you teach, you invite the students into conversation (or at least I do) and between the questions and answers 50 minutes can go by quite rapidly.  But when you carry that ball alone (and the audience is grading you instead of receiving a grade from you), it’s a bigger task.

I thought about how much I wanted to speak to audiences like that one when I was younger.  How I wanted to get the attention of groups and have them listen to what I had to say!  Now that I look back, I realize that was a classic example of the immature desire to do something when you aren’t even close to being ready.

I make no claim to being a great speaker.  For example, I don’t have the gift of memorization.  (It was tremendously comforting to me when I learned the same was true of William F. Buckley.)  But I do make a strong effort to develop the content and to really have something to say.  When I was younger, I think I would have felt fantastic about speaking to a big audience all the way up until the moment when I suddenly realized I didn’t have the rhetorical horse to ride.  (The same was true of the first time I tried to write a book.  I suddenly realized that I barely had enough for a chapter!)

I didn’t begin to hit my stride career wise until I was in my mid-thirties.  But all during those earlier years I was reading, thinking, making attempts at writing, learning from wiser men and women, and generally preparing.  I didn’t know whether all the preparation would bear fruit, but it did.  And now, when the time has come that there is some interest I have something to offer.

So, to follow the title of this piece, I want to offer advice to the young (or maybe even the mid-career or the old).  Perhaps you are like me.  Maybe you are that person who didn’t have a clean path to engineering or accounting or nursing or whatever profession where the steps seem fairly clear.  Maybe you have had some ideas about what you want to do with your life, but you have a lot of uncertainty about how to do it.  My advice is to turn preparing for that life into your hobby.  Read, watch, and learn.  Find smaller opportunities to do the things you hope to do on a bigger and possibly professional scale.

If you spend enough time getting ready, you just might have something to offer when a door opens before you.


Information about Hunter Baker for TN Voters

baker union pic

Hunter Baker is an associate professor of political science and university fellow at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. In addition, he serves the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission as a research fellow.

Hunter is married to Ruth Baker, M.D. They have two children, Andrew and Grace, who attended Thelma Barker Elementary School and now attend the Augustine School. They are members of Englewood Baptist Church. His father’s family, the Bakers and Johnstons, have lived in Tennessee for over 200 years, which includes Hunter’s grandmother Winnie who turns 100 this spring in Columbia. The Johnstons still occupy the old family farm in Hohenwald near the Natchez trace.

Baker holds a degree in economics and political science (double major, Florida State University) and graduate degrees in public administration (University of Georgia), law (University of Houston), and politics and religion (Baylor University). He has worked as a corporate analyst, a public policy director, and college dean, in addition to his time on faculty.

He is the author of three books (The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student’s Guide, and The System Has a Soul), has contributed chapters to several others, and has spoken in venues around the nation (including Hillsdale College and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary). Baker has also published widely in both popular and academic outlets including National Review, the Federalist, Touchstone, the Journal of Markets and Morality, and the Journal of Law and Religion. His work won him the Michael Novak Award in religion and liberty given by the Acton Institute.


The Thinking Man’s Guide to Bernie’s Socialism


There are good reasons why Bernie Sanders’ version of socialism is catching fire with a segment of the electorate.  One explanation is that Barack Obama’s much ballyhooed healthcare plan (“the big ****in’ deal” as Joe Biden called it) has turned out to be helpful to many fewer people than expected and more costly to many more than believed.  If clever American entitlement engineering doesn’t work, then why not go for the real deal Canadian or British style?  We also might note that while President Obama has not made great strides in terms of socialism, he has certainly put a friendly face on that kind of thinking throughout his two terms in the White House.  His worldview fits more comfortably in that frame than it does in the portrayal of “rugged individualism” that has often inspired Americans.  We used to applaud Horatio Alger’s rags to riches stories, but today the author’s name is mostly a byword for a cruel hoax.

The young, in particular, are interested because they are struggling with a deck that seems to be stacked against them.  Compare Generation X vs. today’s group on education.  My state school tuition was a little over $1000 a year in the late 1980’s.  Their rate is about 10 times that, far more than the typical inflation for other items.  They get out of school with debt.  In addition to their own monetary baggage, they enter into a political community hampered by tremendous leverage of its own assets.  Many states are virtually arrested by their wrong-headed pension deals with state employees (which are full of moral hazard, but that’s another article).  Those obligations grow to unmanageable levels.  And to the extent that the crisis states could have obviated the obligations by prioritizing funding, they instead assumed unreasonable rates of return and increased benefits, thereby worsening the problem.  In addition, the national debt has exploded to approximately $20 trillion.  Social Security is not on a sound footing thanks to regular raiding of the trust fund and a bad funding mechanism.

What are Americans to do?  Bernie Sanders emerges with a seemingly simple answer in the Willie Stark style.  He proposes to take the accumulated cream of American wealth and then to spread it out nice and thin so everybody gets a taste.  He’ll do that with taxes concentrated on the fat cats.  In so doing, he will pay for our underfunded obligations, solve the problem of student debt for higher education, force businesses to pay a wage dictated by politics, and create new entitlements to make life better for everyone.  Attractive though it may seem, there are some serious problems with his answer.

Before I get to the critique of Bernie’s viewpoint, I want to be clear about something.  His socialism is definitely of the half-hearted variety.  Strong socialism would mean government ownership of the means of production.  Britain has some of that and has had more of it in the past.  The state owns the apparatus of health care, for example.  Before Margaret Thatcher, the state also owned industries such as coal production.  To my knowledge, Bernie Sanders does not yearn for the state to own production.  If anything, I think the left has learned that actually owning and running things is a big hassle and entails getting blamed when things are done poorly.  Instead, he simply wants to tax business at a very high rate and tell it what to do whenever the government would like to dictate, such as with wages, labor conditions, maternity/paternity leave, etc.  This model fits with what is often called either democratic socialism or social democracy.

Now, why do I think Bernie’s approach is a bad idea?  There are several problems.  I do not propose to give an exhaustive account, but I will offer a number of cautions.

My first critique relates to democratic socialism’s methodology.  The old socialists had to actually run factories, manage workforces, and deliver goods the public wanted and needed.  Generally speaking, they were not very good at that job.  The variety, quality, accessibility, and desirability of goods they produced was poor.  You need only speak to the clients of those systems to know that.  The social democrats seek to solve that problem by permitting private business, while exerting control over it in an ideological fashion.  We already do this to some degree with our extensive regulatory state.  But Sanders proposes a much higher degree of regulation.  Such a relationship encourages the state to be largely unaccountable.  It is permitted to impose whatever costs it wishes, while simultaneously having essentially no responsibility to actually deliver the goods.  The result is the exertion of power in a wishful and largely infantile fashion.  Give me what I want and you worry about the consequences that follow.

More deeply, I question the easy assumption that the state has a right to act in this fashion.  One of the reasons I am passionate about teaching politics is that I am eager to convince students to think about whether such exercises of power are really legitimate.  Okay, let’s imagine that I have a business located within a society and which produces a product which has value.  What is it about that situation that gives the government the right to place a nearly unlimited potential set of demands upon me?  I look back to the HHS mandate, which has sought to provide contraception to all female employees by simply requiring employers to provide it.  Here’s a novel idea for the state:  why don’t you impose the taxes directly upon the public and then pay for the contraception yourself?

It makes little sense to say that simply because a business operates within a community it should have to meet the many conditions government would seek to impose upon it.  May we demand a business not generate adverse costs for the community, such as pollution?  Absolutely.  But let’s scale back to the individual worker level.  May we insist the enterprise serve a nutritious lunch that follows some version of the dietary pyramid?  No.  Why?  Because employees are adult human beings who do all kinds of things such as make contracts, purchase automobiles, raise children, etc.  They can provide for themselves with the income they make by creating value for their employer.  Certainly, they can figure out their own lunch situation (and contraception habits, too).  The same applies to many other aspects of life.  Would we like to simply dictate that some person or organization with money and resources provide for our needs?  Sure.  But that’s not really a free, adult way of doing things.

In addition to the problem of allowing the government to simply impose the will of a public with potentially bottomless appetites upon the productive sector, there is the issue of taxation.  Ideally, taxation should apply as broadly as possible at as low a rate as possible.  The only time you’d want to tax goods or services differently would be in an attempt to stifle them.  For example, high taxes on smoking tobacco, alcohol, or goods from another country might all be designed to curb our consumption of those things.  If you fail, at least you get the money!  The eager consumers of Bernie’s socialism have it in their minds that they will continue to pay very little, while the fortunes of the dodgy and suspect CEO’s of the world offer an endless bounty that may be tapped to cover all needs.  They’ll drop an extra private jet from the fleet and the rest of us will have health care!  What wise king wouldn’t promote such a deal?

Somehow, the American left has developed the idea that both great progress and a moral statement can be made by placing high taxes on wealthy persons and businesses.  The difficulties with that approach are almost too many to catalog.  But consider a few.  For one thing, there isn’t enough money in the honey pot.  There are some spectacular fortunes out there, but once you start dividing them up by the hundreds of millions and consider the negative impact on incentives, you realize that Margaret Thatcher is correct to say that you eventually run out of other people’s money.

But also take into account that individuals and businesses are mobile.  They can move.  This is why the high tax dreams of so many “progressive” mayors often fail.  The big money moves outside the city limits.  The same can happen with a state or even a nation.  Corporate inversions are turning American companies into Irish ones, for example, with substantial benefit in terms of lower taxation.  What policymakers like Bernie Sanders need to understand is that taxation is a price like any other price.  If people or organizations are not willing to pay it, then they will pay a lower price offered by another provider.  Nations, in reality, are just like states, cities, and even businesses.  They provide value at a certain rate.  If that price is too high, then people and organizations go shopping.  Pay close attention because I have just explained why some countries have to build walls to keep their people in, rather than building them to keep people out.

Take a moment to consider the “moral” victory of a 35% corporate tax.  It seems obvious that we could stop the corporate inversions tomorrow if we were to impose a 25% tax instead of a 35% one.  But somehow there is something morally significant about the 35% rate.  It is as if the businesses are being punished for doing something bad and must not be allowed to escape that punishment.  If the issue were really about helping to pay the bills of the government, it seems one would prefer the rate that will actually bring more revenue instead of encouraging avoidance.  Remember, tax rates are prices.  If you can’t find people willing to pay your price for a product (in this case, government), then you have to control your costs and reduce the price.  Put government services on sale and you might find more takers willing to pay for them.

There is an answer to the problem I have raised.  One might object that companies should be more patriotic (an unusual claim from the left, but still!) and therefore should not shop around for the best deal when it comes to taxation.  There is a further problem in that today’s corporations compete internationally.   If tax policy threatens to make a corporation less competitive than some of its peers, it will either lose business or find a way to adapt.  Corporate inversions are a way to adapt.  Even a company people on the left would consider “enlightened,” such as Apple Computer run by Tim Cook, operates in such a way as to protect its revenue for investment rather than confiscation.  If Bernie Sanders were to win and have his way in policy, he would have to figure out how to confine our companies to the U.S. and then to protect them from international competition.  That’s a pretty tall order and one that is unlikely to have good results.

But what about the Scandinavian countries with their purportedly wonderful experience with socialism?  I think there are a couple of things to say there.  First, the enhanced welfare states of the Nordic countries owe something (as do all of our welfare programs) to an earlier time in which we were demographically blessed.  We had a post WWII abundance of children to sustain a population of elderly that was much smaller.  When the math is on your side and you have a very large young, healthy, and working population, then you can afford to provide more for those who need it.  Unfortunately, if you look at something like social security, we are coming to a place of having two people working for each beneficiary as opposed to a time when you might have more like 10-12 people working for each beneficiary.  Second, and following the first, the Scandinavian countries are no longer pursuing democratic socialism with the vigor they once did.  The reason is simple sustainability and affordability.  Finally, though not conclusively, the Scandinavian countries face the same issue the rest of us do, which is international competition.  The reality is that the old model may have been a demographic blip.  There is a sense in which Bernie Sanders’ view of the Nordic nations may be trapped in an earlier time, which would not be surprising given his age.  I’m 45 and I think music stopped in the late 1980’s.  He may be suffering from the same thing with regard to public policy.

There are other reasons available to combat Bernie Sanders’ brand of social democracy, but I think the ones I have offered help to make the evaluation of it a bit more sober.  The reality is that his policy is more of an anesthesia to ease the pain of modern life as opposed to a tonic designed to improve our prognosis.  What we need to do is to make it easy to do business, easy to work, easy to pay taxes, and easy to collect them.  We also need to figure where it makes sense to have government spend and where it doesn’t.  It’s no accident that things individuals pay for themselves, such as technology and elective medical procedures (like LASIK), continue to get better and cheaper, while those the government subsidizes like education and health care, become incredibly expensive and without the rate of improvement.

Bernie Sanders is right that there is a problem.  If he weren’t, there wouldn’t be so many people listening to him.  But his solutions are outdated and have a mixed track record at best.