The Thinking Man’s Guide to Bernie’s Socialism

bernie

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.

I Am Endorsing . . .

Let’s get one thing out of the way.  I will not be endorsing a Democrat.  I have voted for one Democrat in my entire life.  He was an African-American man running for Sheriff in Jacksonville, Florida.  He ran a tough on crime campaign and did become the top cop.  I hope this lack of endorsement for the party of the left will not too much disappoint my friends who think I am almost reasonable enough to go Democrat.  I’m not.  Not even close.*  🙂

Now, on to the matter of my endorsement (which I imagine may move ten voters if I am lucky, but I am an optimist).  I have to hope that some of those ten are in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.  This choice is an agonizing one for me.  I like practically all the candidates in the field.

Trump is an outlier.  He has his charms, but not as a GOP standard bearer.  In any case, Trump is out for me in the primaries.  Talk to me again if he becomes the nominee.

Ben Carson is also out for me.  He is not prepared on a policy level.  Neither is Trump, actually.  My question to Ben Carson is whether he would perform surgery with the level of preparation and understanding he has on policy.  He wouldn’t and shouldn’t.  He’s out.

The rest of the major candidates are live options.  I don’t easily eliminate any of them.  I will tell you honestly that up front I was a Bush man.  I deeply regretted Jeb Bush’s loss in the 1994 Florida governor’s race because I thought he was the best Bush and had the most to offer.  I also had great hopes for his appeal to Hispanics given the make-up of his nuclear family.  But he has either been out of the game too long (since 2006 after two terms as FL gov.) or the field has been too much disrupted by Trump for him to win.  I am not endorsing him because victory appears to be impossible at this point.

I am also not endorsing John Kasich and Chris Christie because I think they are too limited to get enough votes in state after state of primaries.  They can do damage in New Hampshire where they can camp out for weeks, but as the primaries pile up, they will be left behind.  I like both men and think they are well-qualified.  Christie would have run best in 2012 when we were all joyfully watching him blast his detractors in New Jersey on Youtube.  (While I’m at it, Huckabee would have been something in 2012.)

In different circumstances, I think Rand Paul would have done better.  Part of his problem is that he has Ted Cruz pushing for an originalist view of the constitution and for federalism and doing it in a much more interesting way.  That hurts Paul.  In addition, I don’t think he is a match for his father, Ron, as a libertarian evangelist.  He’s out, too, but there is a future for him or someone like him in national politics.  Libertarianism will gain traction in a low-consensus society.  It will also grow in reaction to the burgeoning socialist-lite movement Bernie Sanders is leading.

Carly Fiorina is out because her resume’ just doesn’t match up.  In many ways, she’s Mitt Romney, but less successful in business and not a former governor.  She is really good on the campaign, though.  She needs to run for Congress or find a friendlier state than California.  The future is there for her if she wants it.  She also has been struggling to be on the big stage.

All of this leaves me with Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.  At the beginning of the race, I would have told you that I didn’t want a senator and certainly not a first term senator.  I wanted a governor.  President Obama, in my mind, has demonstrated that executive experience is a must.  But here we have Rubio and Cruz like Kennedy and Nixon.  A couple of young guys rising fast.  Both good at getting votes.  Both men who overthrew establishment opponents.

I like both men.  They are excellent on the debate stage.  Neither will be victims who run around apologizing for their conservative views.  Having been to law school and understanding how our constitution has been warped and twisted, I feel real affection for Ted Cruz because I know he gets that.  Watching him go off on the moderators for their questions in the CNBC debate was amazing.  In addition, I have felt angry with evangelicals who treat Cruz as though he is some theocratic monster.  It isn’t that hard to know what he’s really about.  As I’ve said before, he is really just a Reagan conservative.  Pure and simple.

However, I have decided to endorse Marco Rubio.  My reason is simple.  He is the most conservative candidate who can win.  It’s the old William F. Buckley formulation.  I have been watching politics my whole life.  I still remember watching the 1976 returns come in as I sat on the couch with my mother.  I was so in love with Crossfire in the 1980’s, a friend and I would call each other at the beginning, at the commercial, and at the end to talk excitedly about what we’d seen.  My fascination never abated.  Marco Rubio is the most talented candidate I have ever seen.  Cruz is awfully good.  Rubio is awfully good and then some, plus he doesn’t attract as much enmity.

It is crucial to win now.  We don’t need any more HHS mandates.  Obamacare must be reformed and improved upon.  Perhaps most pressing for me is that I don’t want to see a bureaucrat at the Department of Education issue a regulation that will block access to financial aid for students at Christian colleges and universities.  We also need to win now if only to preserve some balance in the federal court system.

Marco Rubio has the greatest chance to improve the state of the union and to prevent and roll back overreach from an emboldened left.  For that reason, I endorse him.

(There is one caveat to all this.  Ted Cruz has made the point that he is the only candidate who can beat Trump in Iowa.  It seems to me that it would  be wise to prevent Trump from winning Iowa AND New Hampshire back to back.  If I lived in Iowa, I think I would vote Cruz to try and prevent Trump from getting the win.)

Marco Rubio is my guy for the nomination.

 

*Why can’t I vote Democrat?  Two main reasons.  The first is that the Democratic party is decidedly pro-choice.  Morally, I equate that view with something like segregation.  That means it has massive priority that cannot be ignored.  There used to be plenty of pro-life Democrats, but they are nearly extinct.  The second is that the Democratic party is increasingly secular and uninterested in religious liberty.  That again is a situation that has changed.  If we go back 25 years or so, the Democrats probably valued religious liberty more highly than Republicans.  Secular, left-wing liberal values are too antithetical to my own.  I can’t vote that way.

The Year’s Reflection: Writing, Fitness, Life Changes

I turned 45 this past year.  It is hard for me to believe because moments in my memory are so accessible.  I remember sitting in the front row in first grade, being threatened by a bully the next year, listening to a fourth grade teacher rave unhappily about our bad behavior, having a fight at a bus stop in middle school, sitting nearby when a big kid snapped and pounded his tormentor . . . Some of these memories are violent, aren’t they?  Well, they are from my time in public school.  But I also remember my mother’s Christmas cookies, my dad catching probably hundreds of thousands of balls thrown by me in the backyard, and spectacular stained glass windows in an Episcopal church we attended for a while.

These memories are so fresh and yet at 45 I am feeling my own mortality.  I may have sleep apnea.  My knees are a mess.  I have a vicious caffeine addiction that I have nearly extinguished (for the fourth/fifth time?).  I had massive back problems which seem to be largely solved by getting a new mattress.  That’s a long way from the days when I could crash on the floor of a friend’s house.

2015 began and ended with the flu.  I had a severe version about year ago and a much attenuated round this December.  Thank God for a wife and a primary care physician who pushed me to get the vaccine.  It worked this year.

I tried something new in terms of working out in 2015.  I have long been a big walker.  One of my favorite things is to walk about five miles while I listen to music or podcasts.  There were two problems.  One is that I got tired of having to protect my increasingly vulnerable skin from the sun.  The other is that all the pavement pounding seemed to be exacerbating my back problems.

As a result, I finally acceded to my wife’s desire to join a fitness club.  We started going to Gold’s Gym.  It has the advantage of having treadmills with television.  That way, we can get our kids to walk while the Cartoon Network plays in front of them.  They appreciate it since we cut the cord this year.

I thought I was going to be a bike and treadmill guy, but it just didn’t capture me.  Walking inside is not as good as walking outside.  So, I ventured into the room with weight machines.  Since June, I’ve been lifting.  And I have to say — listen my fellow chronic fat fighters — nothing has been better for me in terms of reshaping my body than lifting weights.  My arms, shoulders, and chest are bigger, while my waist is smaller.  I feel taller, more like a healthy beast (at least when I’m not waking myself up with some titanic snore in bed).  The bottom line is that I have had years where I put an enormous amount of walking miles on the scoreboard, but didn’t experience nearly the body improvement I got out of lifting.

The great thing is that it didn’t even require much in terms of overcoming intimidation.  I have done most of the lifting in the room with the nice, padded machines.  Only in the last month have I begun to venture down into the basement where the hulks of Gold’s Gym dwell.  I had to go down there because I made it to the point of using 30 pound barbells and everything upstairs is lighter.  It’s a little weird being down there with people who feel like dedicated professionals, but they go about their business and you go about yours.

A lot of my writing this year translated into speaking.  I began the year speaking at Trinity International University (at the seminary) in Chicago (with snow!) and ended it at a small, start-up great books school in South Dakota.  In between, I delivered a presidential inaugural address at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.  The place is often a hotbed of controversy because of Douglas Wilson’s amazing ability to generate it. I have to say, though, that the town was beautiful and the community around the college seemed very warm and productive in terms of learning. One stop took me back to Houston Baptist University where I had the chance to give “A Graduation Speech before Graduation.”  I’ve sat through so many commencement addresses, I have developed a pretty strong sense of what I’d like speakers to say.  So, I said those things to students at a chapel service in the beautiful Dunham Theater.

In addition to the speaking, I wrote online mostly for The Federalist, which is a website created by Ben Domenech.  Ben is well known as the editor of The Transom (a daily email service) and increasingly as a national media personality.  I recruited him to create and edit The City back in 2007.  He and I collaborated on that publication (with me writing the back of book reflections) until this year.  Now that neither Ben nor I are at HBU, the college decided to put it under the control of its own personnel.  We had a nice run of about seven years.  Some folks might be curious about my choice of The Federalist as an outlet because it can be a bit edgy (despite being conservative and Christian friendly) in terms of some of the items it publishes.  My logic has been to go where the readers are.  And The Federalist has readers.  One piece I wrote a couple of years back on the liberal arts was shared thousands of times of Facebook.  Bill Buckley quit writing for Playboy when he figured out there were very few actual readers for him to influence.  I don’t have that worry with The Federalist.  Its readers are thinkers and the content is about the text, not pictures.

The dominant theme of the speaking and online writing had to do with Obergefell.  During these last several years, I have been somewhat unique as a Christian conservative in the sense that I worried very little about gay marriage (in and of itself), but worried a great deal about the impact of gay marriage on religious liberty.  I think those concerns have been well-founded.  Gay marriage has the potential to be a lever for removing Christian institutions (other than the churches narrowly as churches) from the entire non-profit charitable and educational life of the country.  While the majority decision in Obergefell offered some reassurance on that score, the warning issued by the Chief Justice in his dissent has a piercing ring to it.

I wrote a chapter for a book put out by the Gospel Coalition on whether Christians can still change the world after Obergefell.  In addition, I wrote essays for the Journal of Christian Legal Thought (“Was Carl F.H. Henry Right?) and for the Journal of Markets and Morality (on whether the idea of Christian America was invented by corporations).  Both of those are forthcoming.

Finally, but not comprehensively in terms of the work, I served as a judge for the Christianity Today Book Awards.  One thing I have learned from that process is that if you think you have a good book to offer, then you should encourage your publisher to nominate it.  While all the books I reviewed were quite good, I’m sure several others would have been worthy of inclusion.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, I agreed with practically everyone else that Russell Moore’s Onward deserved the nod.  But I also liked Stanley Carlson-Thies and Steven Monsma’s recent effort on religious liberty.

On the personal side, I had two opportunities to spend time with Rod Dreher.  His book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, absolutely wiped me out emotionally when I read it.  We met at an ERLC event and then again when he came to Union University.  He suggested I drive through Louisiana and visit at some point.  Maybe he’ll become our conservative version of Wendell Berry with folks driving over just to take in the spirit of Walker Percy amid the pines and set a spell.

Leaving work aside, I think I’ll finish with something that meant a lot to my wife.  Ruth wants to travel.  I don’t like traveling.  Too much fuss for me.  But I recognized that I needed to go along with it this year.  We planned a trip to Colorado.  Denver was a lot of fun, but the really special part was the YMCA in the Rockies.  Possibly the greatest real estate purchase of all time.  And guess what?  This is a YMCA where the C still stands for Christian.  Most people were there with conferences, but we were just there as tourists.  We hiked, saw wildlife (such as elk and moose), fly-fished (where I caught nothing and Ruth caught seven), heard a John Denver tribute band, played Bingo, and sat by as son Andrew pursued Josh McDowell into a bathroom to ask if he knew his dad.

See you in the funny papers.  (I just realized everybody under 40 has no idea what I mean . . .)

 

 

The Idea of the “Worthless” College Degree

new york public libraryI keep seeing stories about “worthless” college degrees. That’s hard for me to understand when I look at the comparisons between the economic lives of those who have a college degree and those who don’t. College is obviously worth something on the market.

Now, is the college graduate always going to have a better economic future than a technically trained person (such as Rubio’s welder or a plumber or what have you)? No. But in general, the college educated person has a much easier time navigating the job market than those who don’t have such a degree. To choose one indicator, those who have college degrees experience a much lower unemployment rate than those who don’t.  It’s silly to keep arguing that college is worthless.

But let’s go a little deeper.  Let’s assume that you think the content of the learning at college is worthless.  So, take a history major and assume that you believe the information transmitted is of zero worth.  I disagree strongly, but let’s assume it, anyway.  The student who majors in history spends four years showing up on time to class, learning how to take notes, reading, writing, observing how professors think and work, and hanging out with a group of people who are pursuing their education.  At a minimum, the habits and raw skills picked up in the course of such an experience are worth something.

This is where grades come in to some extent.  If you take a student who has majored in something unrelated to the job for which they are applying, I would ask about their grades.  If they have proven they can satisfy their professors through on-time performance, following instructions, and showing up (which is a big deal), then that means something to me.  It means they are willing to learn, can do what they have been asked to do, and can do it successfully.  That’s a person who can function well in the workplace.

Let’s take it further again.  I double majored in economics and political science as an undergraduate.  My learning in those subjects have enriched my life in many ways.  My life as a citizen is better.  I know more and understand more than I otherwise would.  I have a broader range of things I enjoy reading and watching beyond just popular entertainments.  I encounter the world in a more sophisticated way.  The way I evaluate institutions, the things I think about when interacting with a salesperson, the way I think about incentives . . . these are all things that are positively influenced by my education, whether or not I ended up using it in a direct, professional way.

We could go on.  Education is good.  It just is.  The only reason we are getting these stories about it being “worthless” is  because tuition prices are high.  That’s a valid complaint, but don’t make the mistake of turning a dissatisfaction with price into a critique of the substance of higher education more broadly.

But you know what worries me?  The people who write these stories about “worthless” college degrees appear not to appreciate their own education.  But that’s okay.  They’re in good company.  Peter Thiel (who co-founded Paypal and was an original Facebook investor) pays young people not to go to college.  He doesn’t seem to recognize the good his philosophy degree at Stanford did for him.

Socrates at Sportsclips

I put my glasses down on the counter and sat down in the barber’s chair.  Sometimes, it feels as though that act will preclude conversation, as though I had removed hearing aids instead of eyewear.  The young woman cutting my hair in this case felt like chatting.  She asked the standard question about my occupation.  I answered that I teach politics at the local university.  And when you say politics, they tend to get interested.  Everyone has an opinion about politics.

She observed that now must be a big time for me because of the upcoming presidential election and the debates.  I told her that’s true, but that most of my teaching these days has to do with political thought from another age.  One of my colleagues took a job in another city.  Now I find myself teaching Plato and Aristotle.

“How is that different?” she asked.  As an example, I told her about Plato’s proposal for a community of wives and children for the guardians of his city.  He thought it would create greater love and unity.  Every boy will have many fathers.  Fathers will have many sons.  I followed that by explaining Aristotle’s objection to the idea.  He said that a son in such a community would not really be a son, but more like 1/1000th of a son.

Most people I know react by agreeing strongly with Aristotle.  But this woman surprised me.  She said, “I’m a single mom with five kids.  I think I like Plato’s idea where everybody takes care of each other’s children.”  I didn’t stop her to clarify that nobody in Plato’s proposal really has their own children because her admission hit a nerve.

I thought about what it must be like to be a woman with five children, a job, and no husband.  From where she’s standing, a society pulled in much closer by government plans and ideology seems like a good idea.  I don’t blame her.  She’s going to want the government daycare, the public after-school programs, the universal healthcare, and the rest of it.  She feels alone and is looking for allies.  Government is one answer to her vulnerability.

If you are a person who prizes liberty and who wants to keep the government limited (which is where I have always been), it is important to realize that there are a lot of people like the woman who cut my hair.  The challenge she poses is a serious one.

Don’t write her off.  She’s out there working and striving.  The question is whether both sides have something compelling to say to her . . . or only one.

Chubby 44 Year Old Goes to Yoga

Yesterday, after hearing a colleague extol the experience of yoga at Gold’s Gym, where I am a member, I decided to attend a class.  My wife, Ruth, was going to meet me there at 5:30.  Somewhat assured by the idea of having Ruth and a colleague in the class, I decided to commit to the venture.

Upon arriving, I quickly learned two things.  First, this would be HOT yoga (with the thermostat turned way up).  Second, every other person in the class (Ruth didn’t make it and neither did the colleague) was a prime physical specimen.  No body fat on the men or women and bulging muscles on the men.  That left me to serve as the “before” picture in the group.

Nevertheless, I was there and wasn’t going to back out, even if I did look silly in my pleated khaki shorts with a big leather belt.  I forced myself to abandon my reserve just enough to remove my white athletic socks.

The teacher turned down the lights and turned on the soft, global  village sounding music.  I prepared for an experience that I hoped would be relaxing and would help my chronically sore lower back.

Our instructor led us through a series of poses.  With each one she offered us four options.  The first option was the easiest.  I adopted that pose each time (and did not find them all that easy).  Every other member of the class went for the fourth and most difficult pose.  I was generally okay with that dynamic except when it came to our default position.  The rest of the class returned each time to downward dog.  I had to be content with what the instructor called “the child’s pose.”  I must have adopted the child’s pose 20 times or so during our class, which lasted for a hot and difficult hour.  I spent a lot of time as a 44 year old child.  I kind of thought that they should call it “the rickety, stiff, middle-aged person’s pose.”

As a political scholar, I reflected on what we were doing.  It seemed to me that the positions involved a lot of subordinate-seeming bowing and scraping along the floor.  I wondered whether yoga related in some way to the tendency of people in the east to go low before some mighty ruler who commanded worship.  But then we began going through the various warrior poses  in a standing position and my theory was shot.

The verdict was ultimately positive.  My back pain was gone, though temporarily, after we finished.  The resting time at the end of the hour was truly blissful and would have been more so if I’d been less self-conscious.  And I noticed that for at least a couple of hours after the class, I seemed to have a bit of a vibrant buzz.  I wondered if some magical alignment of the spine had plugged my brain into a new power source.

An Open Letter to Christians in the Wedding Trades

Also available as part of a double essay presentation at The Federalist.

Dear fellow Christians in the wedding trades,

I write first to let you know that I understand your plight. You have derived joy and satisfaction over the years by providing cakes, flowers, and photographs for couples getting married. In the rare circumstance that a same-sex couple came to your place of business, you simply politely declined and knew that other providers would happily take the work.

Unfortunately for you, you happen to be trying to make a living during the exact tiny slice of the history of world civilization when gay marriage has become the laser focus of our culture (and especially our cultural elites). In 2008, the current president shared your view. Now, he stands with the folks on the other side of the issue looking askance upon you and your convictions. Hillary Clinton also endorsed traditional marriage. She, too, takes a new view today. The really tough part is that everyone who has changed their opinion, which is a lot of people in just a short time frame, seems to expect you to perform the mental flip, as well. They don’t want to hear your reasoned explanations about the biblical text or about how you will serve gay customers in any regard other than a wedding. They just want you to shut up and adopt the new consensus. Despite their constant complaints over the years about soulless corporations, they deny that your personal convictions and morality should have any application to the way you do business.

You would expect some solidarity from your fellow Christians. And many have chosen to stand with you and to try and protect you from having your faith and conscience trampled. But others have done everything they can to rationalize why you should get with the cultural program. They say that Jesus would bake the cake or that you are simply wrong in thinking that you should abstain from same-sex wedding work. Somehow, they fail to understand that they are effectively establishing themselves as the equivalent of some kind of pope who infallibly interprets the faith for others. There must be more chairs at the Vatican than you think there are. I suspect the reality is that they are embarrassed by you. They are tired of looking out of step. It doesn’t help that here you are trying to be faithful. You’re preventing things from going more smoothly. What are you, some kind of fundamentalist?

At the same time, you are the perfect target for petty bureaucrats looking to make a mark and for policymakers who would rather focus on anything other than balancing budgets, solving pension crises, improving schools, and other difficult and energy-draining tasks. Better to do something that might get a mention in the latest Profiles in Courage volume. And it really doesn’t cost anything. Well, it won’t cost the taxpayers. It will cost you, sure (maybe $135,000 or more), but you’re just a bigot!

The good news is that many people do care about your plight. They rally into crowdfunding opportunities and even find new ways to help when some fundraisers are hounded into dropping you by zealous opponents. But I doubt that there is enough crowdfunding to protect all of you, especially if the witch-hunt attitude continues. These neo-Puritans in the service of a new kind of religious zeal probably occupy enough regulatory and judicial positions to generate extraordinary costs and punishments relative to the “offense” of which you have been or will be accused.

Some of you may already be looking to sell your business or are thinking about simply finishing the current lease and choosing a new occupation. Before you do, I would like to suggest an alternative. It doesn’t seem right to accept that one cannot be a baker, florist, or photographer unless you compromise convictions that were well-accepted and widely shared until about five minutes ago.

The easy way out is to simply stop doing weddings. But I think you can probably be a bit more subtle than that. The problem for you is that you believe it is wrong for you to participate in a same-sex wedding. Here’s an alternative to getting out of the wedding business. I propose that if you are a baker, you no longer offer “wedding” cakes. It doesn’t mean you won’t make cakes that are suitable for weddings, but to you it will just be a cake and the client can use it in any way they like. Since you are not offering it as a wedding cake, you can say with integrity that you are not selling a “wedding” cake for a same-sex ceremony. The same logic applies with regard to florists and photographers. Just stop marketing packages as wedding packages or offering wedding arrangements.

Perhaps this strategy seems a little too clever to you. Maybe that is the case, but I believe that if no one else cares about your conscience or integrity, then you are obliged to take steps of your own. This strategy may resonate with the biblical injunction to be “wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.” Many of us in a variety of occupations may eventually be in need of such stratagems.

Of course, it would be better . . . AHEM (let’s hope some others are paying attention) . . . far better if our fellow countrymen were to decide that conscience is important. Perhaps they could realize that Sweet Cakes not baking a wedding cake for a same sex wedding is hardly Apartheid or Jim Crow at work. Maybe they could distinguish isolated objections based on conscience and faith from massive, formal, and systematic systems of oppression. Maybe they could come to that conclusion. But in the meantime, I offer you my sympathy and my advice. Some people like throwing the book at you, you know? It’s tough when you’re up against someone with a little authority who enjoys their work.

With my prayers and friendship,

A fellow citizen (and a brother) who shares your burden