Monthly Archives: June 2012

The greatest public scam may be one hardly anyone is talking about: state pension plans

How big of a mess are state pension plans in today? It’s huge. As Walter Russell Mead writes in a recent essay:

As a new report from Boston College’s Center for Retirement notes: “there is a total of $2.6 trillion of assets on [the 126 public sector pension plans tracked by the study] but current liabilities under today’s assumption that they can grow by eight percent annually are $3.6 trillion. If the investment assumption is moved down to four percent (still high when compared to current returns), then the liabilities of those plans jumps to a staggering $6.4 trillion.”

For those of you not following this story, this may all be Greek to you. However, Mead offers a helpful explanation of how the public pension fund problem is related to the recent financial crisis and how it feeds off corrupt collusion between labor union leaders, politicians, and Wall Street. Mead explains it far better than I could so I am going to quote him at length. But you should really go and read his whole essay.

The biggest scam going in American financial life may be the collusive effort by Wall Street, the political class, and public sector unions to use union retirement money to prop up Wall Street speculation.

Step One: state politicians promise big pension and health care benefits to their unionized work forces, but don’t set aside enough money to fund those benefits when the bill comes due. This makes union leaders and unions look good, because they can point to the shiny new benefits they have negotiated with the politicians. Meanwhile, it makes the politicians happy because the unions support them with contributions and volunteers at election time, but because the unions don’t insist on full funding for the benefits, the politicians don’t have to raise costs or otherwise disturb the big majority of voters who don’t work for the government.

Step Two: Make aggressive assumptions about the rate of return on pension investment funds. This has two consequences: it covers the gap between promise and reality (for a while), thereby postponing the day when the politicians have to face the voters and the union leaders have to tell their members that those beautiful benefits were bogus from the start. But the other purpose, equally important, is that it forces America’s public sector pension funds into the deep end of the financial markets, leading pension funds to be major investors in hedge funds, derivatives and various other not-for-the-widows-and-orphans investments. If these work out, great — the funds hit their investment targets and the benefits, or at least some of them, get paid. If they go awry — as many did in the last few years — then the pension problem turns into a crisis.

But whether or not the investments work for retirees, they work very, very well for Wall Street. Fees from giant public sector pension funds played a significant role in creating Wall Street’s buccaneer culture and speculative frenzy that the left claims to hate.

Looking for examples? Head to Pennsylvania:

The Pennsylvania State Employees’ Retirement System, for example, has more than 46 percent of its $26.3 billion in assets invested in riskier alternatives, including private equity funds and real estate. Over the last five years, the system paid roughly $1.35 billion in management fees – over 5 percent of the total value of the fund over a five-year period – while realizing an annualized return of just 3.6 percent, well below the 8 percent it needs to meet its financing requirements and also lagging behind the 4.9 percent median return for all public pension systems.

There’s bad news for Pennsylvania’s teachers, too:

The $51.4 billion Pennsylvania public schools pension system…which has 46 percent of its assets in alternatives, pays more than $500 million a year in fees. It has earned 3.9 percent annually since 2007.

California is also struggling:

Fees for the $242 billion in California’s giant state pension system, known as Calpers, nearly doubled, to more than $1 billion a year, after it increased its holdings in private assets and hedge funds to 26 percent of its total in 2010, from 16 percent in 2006…

Calpers…has earned 3.4 percent annually over the last five years.

Compare that with Georgia, which is at the other end of the investment risk spectrum:

In Georgia, the $14.4 billion municipal retirement system, which is prohibited by state law from investing in alternative investments, has earned 5.3 percent annually over the same time frame and paid about $54 million total in fees.

Pension reform is about more than cutting benefits to realistic levels, and ensuring that politicians and union leaders have to stop the collusive scams. It is also about enabling pension funds to invest in safer investments and stop paying huge fees to hedge fund managers and investment banks — and because public pension funds are such large pools of capital, this would be an effective way to help bring Wall Street back down to earth.

Pension funds should not be aggressively invested. Retirement funds should be conservatively managed — and that means enough has to be paid into those funds so that with moderate investment results, retirees can be sure that their promised benefits will in fact be paid.

The key to this change is stronger regulation of government pension funds, to force them to observe the same requirements that apply to private sector pension funds as well. Amazingly, the same union leaders and lefty experts who call for tough regulations elsewhere in the economy want to keep government workers chained to the roulette wheel in the Wall Street casino: they are bitterly opposed to seriously prudential regulation of government pension funds.

The debt problem in this country is not just a federal problem. You, the taxpayer, stand behind a mass of financial commitments off of which public employees, politicians, and Wall Street have been winning big time. What do you think of that?

The Supreme Court’s refusal to fight a culture war; for the good of the country

There are now a bejillion articles on the Internet examining yesterday’s Supreme Court decision and trying to figure out the implications of it all. There is no way one person can keep up with it all, and for many people it is all somewhat bewildering. Many conservatives in particular wonder how in the world it is possible for the Roberts-led decision to have been good for this country if it upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Some liberals think that the conservatives who try to find silver lining in the case are giving nothing more than a desperate attempt to come to terms with grief.

What’s really going on?

There are many people, on both the right and the left who think that every significant issue that faces this country should be viewed through the zero sum lens of the culture wars. If Obamacare survives, one side wins, and if it falls, the other side wins. Take no prisoners. Give up no ground. Everything is at stake. All compromise is bad. People like this don’t tend to care about the long term ability of our political institutions to handle the stress of culture war. To them the concern of a conservative chief justice to ensure the credibility of the Supreme Court in a nation that includes both liberals and conservatives is nothing short of betrayal.

More sober minds, whether or not they agree with this particular decision, look at the long term implications of the decision in all of its nitty-gritty detail, both in terms of what it means for conservative constitutional theory and the long term viability of the great experiment that we call the United States of America.

Taking this approach, Walter Russell Mead writes,

The decision should also remind people that despite the increasingly partisan nature of the process by which justices are appointed and confirmed, the court is not a partisan organization. Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justice Kennedy both surprised much of the world with their votes; whatever one thinks of the conclusions they reach it seems reasonably clear that all nine justices vote with their legal convictions rather than their partisan interests.

Many who hate Obamacare will curse the Court and many who like the law will bless it, but the Court is functioning as a Court of law and not a political tribunal. That the Chief Justice appointed by George W. Bush cast the deciding vote to save President Obama’s most important legislative achievement is a clear signal that partisanship in this country goes only so far.

In contrast, Mead notes, look at the inability of Europe to solve its problems through the ordinary structures of government. I would add that in many countries of the world a dispute of this magnitude would lead to national collapse or even war. Mead writes,

I don’t think the health care policy we’ve adopted is a particularly good one, but at least our institutions more or less worked. The President made a proposal, the Congress then in office debated the proposal and, after much agony and pork peddling, passed a law. The law was and is controversial; it is being relitigated in two forums. Judicially, it moved through the Court system and received a full and thorough review, and a definitive decision has been pronounced. This is the law of the land, and it will and should be enforced until changed.

Like me, Mead thinks Jay Cost’s initial analysis of the decision contains great wisdom.

It’s going to take some time for the dust to settle, but the most interesting early take in my view comes from Jay Cost, who wrote in a tweet no less, “It is about scoring your side a huge legal victory while quieting the heat of opponents; that’s ONLY way to effect enduring change.” Jay’s theory is that the limit on the powers of Congress under the commerce clause will matter more for America’s future development than Obamacare — a law whose weak financial base ensures it will have to be revisited sooner rather than later. That’s why he compares the decision to the famous Marbury vs Madison when the astute John Marshall secured Jeffersonian acquiescence for the Court’s power to nullify Congressional acts by making the overturn of a law the basis for a decision that, in practical terms, got the results Jefferson wanted.

Ah, the long term. It is the actual argument that matters, not just the outcome. If you want to hear more about what exactly happened with Marbury vs Madison check out Sean Trende’s analysis at RealClearPolitics.

Trende notes that in this ruling the Federalist Society, which represents the conservative and essentially strict constructionist view of the Constitution, got virtually all that it wanted.

But judicial conservatives who are not just concerned about the outcome got more than they could have reasonably hoped for. Doctrinally speaking, this case will likely be remembered as a watershed decision for conservatives.

Five justices just signaled to lower courts that, but for the unique taxation power argument, they were prepared to rule that a major act of Congress that plainly touched upon economic activity exceeded Congress’ commerce powers…

The court just constricted its Commerce Clause jurisprudence; if liberal commentators are correct, they did so by a lot. It doesn’t matter today, but 10 years from now, it will probably be a different story…

Seven justices just agreed to real limits on Congress’ ability to attach strings to legislation. This is significant. Until today, these limits were hypothetical, and it was believed that Congress could, for example, remove all Medicaid funding as a punishment for a state’s refusal to comply with the Medicaid expansion. I did not expect the court to rule the way it did here, much less to do so by a 7-2 vote.

What’s more, Trende points out, Roberts achieved much of this even though it was in part irrelevant to the case at hand.

One of the interesting features of Marburyis that the Court didn’t have to decide that Marbury was entitled to his commission.  Indeed, it probably should have decided the jurisdictional issue first, then left the remaining issues for the Courts to decide upon refiling.  But Marshall wanted to get the most favorable for Federalists that he could, while still maintaining the Court’s credibility.

Similarly, Roberts actually didn’t have to reach the commerce clause/necessary and proper issues.  Having decided the tax issue, he actually probably could have stopped there.  That he didn’t suggests that he wanted to make sure that, even in defeat, there were five clear votes for the conservatives’ view of the commerce clause and necessary and proper clause.

Of course, for those who think that there is only one Christian view of health care and that the Supreme Court should have known enough about the Bible to detect that view and therefore throw out Obamacare, none of this matters at all. Who cares about procedures? Who cares about maintaining national institutions that can resolve disputes between liberals and conservatives, even if not always in favor of conservatives? Who cares about arcane matters like the commerce clause?

But as the conservative Matthew J. Franck writes as a guest on the Washington Post blog, there is no Christian view of health care that can decisively mediate between liberals and conservatives on how to solve the health care problem. In fact, there may have been just as many Christians praying that the law would be upheld as were praying that it would be overturned. As Franck puts it,

is there a single “Christian view” on health-care policy—or even a single Catholic view?

Not exactly. Like everyone else, those who take a self-consciously Christian perspective on health care fall out along familiar liberal-vs.-conservative lines. Some will claim that the responsibility for “the least of these” necessarily falls chiefly on government, because government really is all of us. The responsibility being everyone’s, the response must be collective, and what is government but the active arm of the whole society? Therefore, according to this view, the Christian love for neighbor is frustrated wherever the government is held back from doing all it can do, in mercy and charity.

Others will point out that this obscures the extent to which “everyone’s responsibility” means each individual’s. Human needs are personal, one by one, and the works of charity and mercy must be equally personal, calling forth the virtues of voluntary action. The state is by nature impersonal (viewed in the right light, this is actually one of its virtues); it cannot love anyone, and is not a reliable channel for the love of neighbors for one another. On the way from Neighbor A to Neighbor B, if the love has to be transmitted through the state, what might have begun in charity and mercy will wind up distorted by coercion, inattention to the human element, and stunting of the free actions of persons.

The big picture in all of this is that our system is working. You may not like the results. I certainly would have hoped things worked out a little bit differently. But the fact remains that the institutions of American government are successfully channeling the process of America self-government in a way that is peaceable and procedurally just. Nothing is set in stone. If you don’t like Obamacare, there is still a fairly decent chance that it will be overturned. But the way in which that may happen will be the right way, through the political process. All of this is reflective of the fact that our country, the great experiment of the founding fathers, is working.

The Supreme Court Ruling: upholds Obamacare; upholds the Constitution; refutes Obama

The Supreme Court decision on the health care law just announced is a remarkable decision. No one expected conservative Chief Justice Roberts to cast the key vote that upheld the law, with sharp opposition from moderate Justice Kennedy. No one thought the decision would revolve around the government’s power to tax. No one thought that a ruling upholding the health care law would create a big electoral headache for President Obama in his campaign for reelection. Yet all of this has now happened.

Jay Cost provides a sharp analysis over at the Weekly Standard:

First, the Roberts Court put real limits on what the government can and cannot do. For starters, it restricted the limits of the Commerce Clause, which does not give the government the power to create activity for the purpose of regulating it. This is a huge victory for those of us who believe that the Constitution is a document which offers a limited grant of power.

I would actually argue that this was the most important issue at stake in the case, far more important in the long run than Obamacare itself. If the administration had won on its interpretation of the commerce clause, the idea of the Constitution as a limit on federal power would have been dead in the water. The commerce clause would have truly have become the Trojan Horse for anything the government wants to do. Thankfully, the constitution remains meaningful.

Cost also notes a second way in which the ruling upholds the Constitution.

Second, the Roberts Court also threw out a portion of the Medicaid expansion. States have the option of withdrawing from the program without risk of losing their funds. This is another major victory for conservatives who cherish our system of dual sovereignty. This was also a big policy win for conservatives; the Medicaid expansion was a major way the Democrats hid the true cost of the bill, by shifting costs to the states, but they no longer can do this.

In other words, the ruling is a big win for states’ rights, arguably the second most important issue in the case. States can and will defy the Obama administration on this issue. Federalism is preserved.

But, you may say, what about the power to tax? Does this not simply expand government power by placing it all in the power to tax, rather than in the commerce clause? No, it does not, because the government has always had radical power to tax. Yet this is not a great threat to American liberty, because as we have seen in the last decade and a half, Americans are very touchy about taxation. It is very difficult to raise taxes, even for a Democratic president who controls both houses of Congress. That is why when Obama campaigned for his health care law he was adamant that the penalty attached to the individual mandate was categorically not a tax.

What the court has done, then, was to tell Obama that he was wrong, and that the penalty is a tax. In other words, the centerpiece of Obama’s administration amounts to a tax increase that Obama himself vowed not to support. Note carefully, then, what this means for the future. Had Obama admitted that the health care law contained a very important tax, it probably would not have passed. The bill only passed because it was based on a false assumption. Now in the upcoming election the country will essentially vote in a referendum on whether or not it wants that tax increase. And if history is any guide, that does not bode well for Obama. Americans don’t generally vote to raise their own taxes.

As Cost polemically describes the situation:

The Democrats were at pains not to call this a tax because it is inherently regressive: the wealthy overwhelmingly have health insurance so have no fear of the mandate. But now that it is legally a tax, Republicans can and will declare that Obama has slapped the single biggest tax on the middle class in history, after promising not to do that.

To be sure, it is by no means sure that the Republicans will win in November, and even if they do, it is by no means clear that they will successfully destroy Obamacare. I am not trying to portray this ruling as a great victory for conservatives.

But I do want to suggest that we keep all of this in perspective. The ruling is a lot more complicated than the headlines suggest. The winners and losers are not as obvious as immediately meets the eye. And the most important thing in all of this – the integrity of the constitution – was upheld.

How sustainable is our money system? You should probably care.

From Via Meadia a few days ago:

In most western countries, central banks are, at least in theory, wholly divorced from the political process. Central bankers are selected to terms far longer than that of the average politician—and they are typically allowed to oversee numerous changes in political leadership during their time at the helm—in order to insulate them from the rough and tumble of everyday politics. In theory anyway, the central bank concerns itself purely with inflation rates and monetary policy; fiscal policy, tax rates, and other such matter are left up to the politicians.

At the end of the day, this is about the long term sustainability of a fiat money system. If monetary authorities get into the habit of excessively manipulating the money supply, a fiat money system gradually loses credibility. That loss of credibility was a factor in the inflationary wave of the 1970s, and the greater move toward political independence for central bankers was part of the response.

So what’s wrong? The constant state of financial crisis in which we seem to find ourselves is prompting just the sort of excessive manipulation the money system may not be able to handle long term.

The real worry is that the unconventional measures like quantitative easing that central banks have been using are politically motivated. To put it another way, there is so much pressure on central banks to keep the world economy from collapsing, that the banks have lost all autonomy over their policy. Instead of performing an independent function in economic policy, central bankers have blackmailed by politicians who refuse to take politically costly measures to stabilize the economy. Central bankers are faced with an impossible dilemma: do they let the economy and the financial system collapse, or do they take steps to insulate the economy (and the politicians) from the consequences of poor leadership?

As Mead says, all of this may lead to a crisis of confidence greater than the crisis of confidence in Wall Street or in European (or American) governments. The problem may be with the money system itself. The fiat money system has not been in existence long. In many ways it is still an experiment. The question is, can the West sustain it?

Jimmy Carter goes after President Obama: on morality in national security

Jimmy Carter has always been an outspoken advocate for human rights and peace in American foreign policy. He has stated that one of the most important goals of his presidency was to keep America at peace, to never send American troops into combat. And he has repeatedly explained how he views this commitment and his advocacy in this area as a direct outworking of his Evangelical Christian faith.

One thing that can be said for Carter is that he has not allowed his advocacy to be dominated by a spirit of partisanship. A few days ago Carter wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that criticizes America for its continuing use of tactics like assassination, drone strikes, surveillance without warrant, torture, and detention without the possibility of trial. Carter claims that the United States is in violation of at least 10 of the 30 articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And while he does not name President Obama, we all know who our commander-in-chief is. Carter is not going after George W. Bush.

Carter writes,

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.

In addition to American citizens’ being targeted for assassination or indefinite detention, recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications…

Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable. After more than 30 airstrikes on civilian homes this year in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has demanded that such attacks end, but the practice continues in areas of Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen that are not in any war zone. We don’t know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks, each one approved by the highest authorities in Washington. This would have been unthinkable in previous times.

Meanwhile, the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, now houses 169 prisoners. About half have been cleared for release, yet have little prospect of ever obtaining their freedom. American authorities have revealed that, in order to obtain confessions, some of the few being tried (only in military courts) have been tortured by waterboarding more than 100 times or intimidated with semiautomatic weapons, power drills or threats to sexually assault their mothers.

Carter believes that all of this places America in direct violation of its most basic commitments to the values of peace, justice, and freedom. What’s more, he thinks that it damages our own national security because it alienates hearts and minds.

I do not want to take issue here with Carter’s particular allegations, although persuasive rejoinders might be offered to his various criticisms. The fact is, the issues Carter is raising (and has been raising for a long time) are serious, and even if we disagree with his conclusions, we should at least find the problems troubling. No one should be happy about the situation at Guantanamo Bay, or about assassinations, or warrantless surveillance.

The question is, however, are these evils necessary to a certain extent, given the responsibility of a government to protect its citizens. After all, it is not like terrorism is a phantom threat that has never taken any American lives. I wish Carter would acknowledge the enormous difficulties involved in any military conflict, particularly one in which the enemy routinely hides behind international institutions and practices that protect civilians, using America’s own national ideals against it. As President Obama has discovered, condemning Guantanamo Bay and promising to close it is one thing. Managing to do so while protecting American security is another.

Let’s keep one thing straight. The primary task of government is to protect the people under its charge. As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr so eloquently insisted, this often requires government to get its hands dirty, to do things that under any other conditions we would say are wrong, and that even under these conditions make us uneasy. It is hard for a Christian to be a magistrate or a soldier. Luther himself (the great two kingdoms advocate!) said that a Christian prince is a rare bird in heaven. Nevertheless, governments are accountable to God to fulfill their basic task. All the rights and freedoms in the world don’t take away from that basic obligation.

To be sure, I do not think the American government should ordinarily practice torture, detain persons without the possibility of a trial, spy on American citizens without warrant, or needlessly endanger the lives of civilians. On the other hand, President Obama’s tactical use of drones and his authorization of the assassination of terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden strikes me as being eminently within the parameters of basic just war theory. No practice of war or military conflict is above challenge, and governments may never do wrong that good may come of it, but as Carter surely knows, working out what this means in practice is an awfully difficult task. Rather than shouting out UN platitudes, I wish Carter would acknowledge this. We surely need to be reminded about our most basic moral commitments, but we could also use the realism Carter may (or may not) have gained from his experience in the White House.

Southern Baptists debate Calvinism: how do we decide what issues are important?

The Southern Baptists have been debating Calvinism and Arminianism again, and the matter was addressed at the recent historic meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). As the Baptist Press reports,

The issue of Calvinism also was addressed from the platform several times, with each speaker urging messengers to remain united for the Great Commission. Executive Committee President Frank Page — who said he’s not a Calvinist — addressed each side of the debate. He told the non-Calvinists: “There seems to be some non-Calvinists who are more concerned about rooting out Calvinists than they are about winning the lost for Christ.” He then addressed Calvinists, some of whom he said “seem to think that if we do not believe the same thing about soteriology that they believe then somehow we are less intelligent or ignorant.” Soteriology is the study of the doctrine of salvation.

The article quotes the outgoing SBC president Bryant Wright:

“Our calling is to be centered on Christ and grounded in the Word, while agreeing to disagree on the finer points of theological issues,” Wright said. “May we all agree that Christ … has given us a very clear message and mission for the church.”

Wright added, “If we pride ourselves more on being a traditional Southern Baptist or more on being a Calvinist or a Reformed theologian, more than we are thankful that we are Christ-centered and biblically based … then it is time to repent of theological idolatry.”

For Reformed and Presbyterian Christians this attitude to Calvinist soteriology is quite interesting. Many Calvinists tend to view the “Five Points of Calvinism” (really the five points of the 17th Century Synod of Dort) as the heart of the gospel rather than as the “finer points of theological issues.” We are often more willing to allow divergence of opinion on the sacraments than on predestination. We are more likely to work closely with Reformed Baptists than with Methodists.

But the Southern Baptists see things differently. In his Imagine! A God-Blessed America Richard Land, the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, distinguishes between primary, secondary, and tertiary issues that divide Christians. Among primary issues, on which there can be no compromise, he lists doctrines like the resurrection of Jesus. Among secondary issues, on which Christians divide denominationally while affirming one another as true Christians, he mentions doctrines like baptism. Among tertiary issues, on which Christians may disagree but should not divide, he lists controversies like Calvinism versus Arminianism. For Baptists, in other words, the sacraments are more important than the debate over predestination.

At first glance John Calvin actually seems to agree with Land. In the Institutes Calvin argues that one may only leave a church if that church shows itself to be a false church, and a church can only be said to be false if it fails to preach the gospel or to properly administer the sacraments. Calvin even clarifies that a church may have many doctrinal problems but that as long as the gospel is preached, believers should not separate from it. From this angle, at least, it seems like Calvin may have been willing to be a Methodist, but that he could not have been a Baptist.

Of course, Reformed believers might quickly respond that the Five Points are essential to the right preaching of the gospel, and that although Baptists do not baptize infants, they still administer the sacrament correctly in virtually all other respects. And I have no disagreement with this claim. My point is not to say that we should not be committed to the Five Points, or that Baptist churches are not true churches. Let me be clear for the record, I would never make that argument, and in fact, I have argued in print against others who do. Many of the best preachers of the gospel are Baptists and one of the most faithful and enriching congregations I have ever worshiped in regularly was Baptist. I am not trying to be critical of the Baptists; on the contrary, I am trying to learn from them.

It is helpful sometimes to reflect on how we determine what doctrinal issues are important. Is predestination really more important than infant baptism? Why do the Baptists (and many other denominations) see it differently? If anything, I suspect we tend to exaggerate the importance of theological formulations concerning salvation and to underestimate the importance of the appointed means of grace in the church. After all, Jesus never outlined the Five Points as such (though I agree, he and his apostles did teach them, as should we). He did give us the sacrament of baptism.

It’s better to have same-sex marriage than to privatize it: preserving marriage as a public commitment

In a controversial op-ed in the New York Times prominent traditional marriage defender David Blankenhorn has given up his opposition to same-sex marriage. I was not planning on commenting on this piece, but a friend urged me to consider it more seriously. I want to make a few comments with reference to those thoughtful conservatives who think government should simply get out of the business of marriage and leave it to private organizations, as well as to those thoughtful liberals who think supporting the basic institution of marriage is more important than defining it traditionally.

Blankenhorn’s op-ed is striking because he begins by reaffirming the basic tenants of his defense of traditional marriage. Few critics of same-sex marriage could make the argument as well as Blankenhorn does.

I opposed gay marriage believing that children have the right, insofar as society makes it possible, to know and to be cared for by the two parents who brought them into this world. I didn’t just dream up this notion: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990, guarantees children this right.

Marriage is how society recognizes and protects this right. Marriage is the planet’s only institution whose core purpose is to unite the biological, social and legal components of parenthood into one lasting bond. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. In this sense, marriage is a gift that society bestows on its children.

At the level of first principles, gay marriage effaces that gift. No same-sex couple, married or not, can ever under any circumstances combine biological, social and legal parenthood into one bond. For this and other reasons, gay marriage has become a significant contributor to marriage’s continuing deinstitutionalization, by which I mean marriage’s steady transformation in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined.

Well put. And Blankenhorn declares that he still believes all of this. So why is he now reversing his position on same-sex marriage? Simply put, it seems that he is disillusioned with the traditional marriage cause because it is not making these sorts of arguments and it is not making its opposition to same-sex marriage part of a serious effort to strengthen marriage generally. Rather, it is relying on anti-homosexual bigotry.

I had hoped that the gay marriage debate would be mostly about marriage’s relationship to parenthood. But it hasn’t been. Or perhaps it’s fairer to say that I and others have made that argument, and that we have largely failed to persuade. In the mind of today’s public, gay marriage is almost entirely about accepting lesbians and gay men as equal citizens. And to my deep regret, much of the opposition to gay marriage seems to stem, at least in part, from an underlying anti-gay animus. To me, a Southerner by birth whose formative moral experience was the civil rights movement, this fact is profoundly disturbing.

I had also hoped that debating gay marriage might help to lead heterosexual America to a broader and more positive recommitment to marriage as an institution. But it hasn’t happened. With each passing year, we see higher and higher levels of unwed childbearing, nonmarital cohabitation and family fragmentation among heterosexuals. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to the reconceptualization of marriage as a private ordering that is so central to the idea of gay marriage. But either way, if fighting gay marriage was going to help marriage over all, I think we’d have seen some signs of it by now.

I have to say, there is something in Blankenhorn’s argument here that resonates with me. What is the point of being opposed to same-sex marriage if more than half of our children are born out of wedlock? Why waste so much money and energy on this issue if those resources could actually be directed to strengthening marriage and recommitting ourselves to ensuring that all children are raised by their two biological parents?

In short, and here I agree with Blankenhorn, it is better to affirm same-sex marriage and save the institution as a public commitment than to oppose same-sex marriage by advocating its privatization. There is simply too much at stake. Too many of our children are having their lives destroyed by selfish adults committed to sex, pleasure, and having their own way rather than to caring for others in the context of justice and accountability. It is a crime against the next generation to allow the institution of marriage to be destroyed (i.e., abandoned by the government, whose responsibility is to ensure a basic modicum of justice for the most vulnerable members of our society) for the sake of purism. Marriage is absolutely fundamental to the survival and development of both individuals and of society generally. It is patently unjust for Christians or liberals to damage the public commitment to the institution of marriage by defending its privatization.

Living in Hope of the Future

In Colossians 3:1-3 the Apostle Paul writes,

If then you have been raised with Christ seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Christians often talk about how we should set our minds on heaven rather than on earth, but frequently you get the sense that they are thinking more like Neo-Platonists than like Christians. It is as if material things, indeed, even life itself, are irrelevant to the kingdom. To set our minds on things above, they seem to think, is to focus on ethereal things like piety, worship, and a beatific vision of God.

That is not what Paul is talking about at all. The contrast Paul is drawing is not between what is immaterial and what is material. Rather, the contrast he is drawing is between the concrete, physical future, which exists in Jesus’ body, and the physical yet fragile present, which is passing away. The reason why we are to set our minds on Jesus is because nothing has any genuine existence apart from him (Col 1:15-20). He has reconciled all things, and whatever is not found in him will be destroyed. Those who set their minds on things on earth think they are being realistic but in reality they are dwelling on a mirage, or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would put it, an abstraction. Paul is focused on the hope that the future of all things, including life itself, is tied up with Christ. We fix our minds on him in the hope that he will one day appear, transforming the entire cosmos.

What all of this means is that to set our minds on Christ is not to be uncaring or unconcerned about human beings, or about justice, mercy, or peace. Indeed, these form the essence of the kingdom itself. Rather, to be focused on Christ is to be able to see through the lies and the illusions that lead us to think that salvation from injustice, conflict, misery, and death can be found in things that are passing away. We testify to the gospel by embracing the virtues of Christ, demonstrating that we know in whom is our future and in whom is our salvation.

As Paul puts it,

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body… And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:12-15, 17)

To set our minds on Christ, or on things above, rather than things on earth, is not to retreat into a monastery or into exercises of piety at the expense of the real people and circumstances around us. On the contrary, it is to concentrate on bearing witness to our future in Christ by being compassionate, humble, forgiving, and loving. It is to do everything as Christians, even in our secular vocations, as Paul goes on to show in the following verses. To be sure, our hope and salvation are not tied up these vocations, or with secular institutions and possessions (1 Corinthians 7). We cannot turn these things into the kingdom of God. But when we love one another in Christ, treating people in light of their hope in him, rather than in light of what perishes, we do the best thing we can do in this life. And that is to give people genuine hope. It is to give people a future.

A Hockey Line of Three First Overall Draft Picks: It’s going to be good to be an Oilers fan

To this point I have resisted the temptation to blog about hockey. No more, in light of last night’s unprecedented events, which any sports fan should be able to appreciate.

Last night the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League, which just so happen to be my favorite team, chose first overall in the annual NHL draft. Of course, you have to be pretty bad for quite a while to choose first overall three times in a row, but that’s all water under the bridge.

Last night the Oilers chose Nail Yakupov (RW), an elite Russian offensive talent, to go with the two elite offensive talents of 2010 and 2011, Taylor Hall (LW) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (C). In the years to come the Oilers will be able to ice a line of three first overall draft picks at once. That has never happened before.

We are not going to recreate the Gretzky-Messier days. But in the modern era, perhaps this is as close as we can get. It’s good to be an Oilers fan.

Political Correctness at the Expense of Safety: should businesses be forced to ignore criminal records?

Walter Russell Mead writes on his blog,

Hiring managers take note: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has announced that it will more aggressively enforce rules prohbiting hiring bias against applicants with criminal histories. Under the new enforcement guidelines, companies that don’t hire people with criminal records (regardless of race) can be sued for discrimination.

Mead is commenting on a story in the New York Times that describes the general ignorance among small business owners of longstanding policy in this area.

The notion that using criminal records in employment decisions could constitute discrimination has been government policy since at least the 1970s. The E.E.O.C. has in the past issued policy statements, called enforcement guidance, about how employers may use criminal records without running afoul of the Civil Rights Act, but in April the agency published new enforcement guidance.

To be sure, on its face the EEOC’s policy makes sense.

[L]abor lawyers say the new policy requires companies to establish procedures to show they are not using criminal records to discriminate by race or national origin.

The landmark Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964 and expanded over the years, protects people from racial, ethnic and other kinds of discrimination in a variety of settings, including at work.

Employment discrimination provisions of the act apply to companies with more than 15 employees and define two broad types of discrimination, disparate treatment and disparate impact. Disparate treatment is fairly straightforward: It is illegal to treat someone differently on the basis of race or national origin.

But what happens when the policy is applied even in cases of unintentional racism, or “disparate impact”?

Disparate impact is more complicated. It essentially means that practices that disproportionately harm racial or ethnic groups protected by the law can be considered discriminatory even if there is no obvious intent to discriminate. In fact, according to the guidance, “evidence of a racially balanced work force will not be enough to disprove disparate impact.”

As the E.E.O.C. establishes in its guidance, members of some minority groups are much more likely to be arrested and convicted than whites. From the commission’s perspective, the Civil Rights Act serves to make certain that disparity is not compounded in the workplace.

To be sure, the guidelines do seek to allow businesses to take some common sense steps to ensure that an individual’s criminal record does not impair his or her ability to perform a job or threaten the business or its employees in some way. In that sense, Mead’s worries about the law seem a little excessive.

But the guidelines seem awfully nannyish for a country committed to economic freedom.

Even if an employer develops a job-related and business-necessary rationale for excluding some criminal convictions, the exclusion could still be considered discriminatory if there is a less discriminatory alternative that would achieve the same result. For example, Mr. Stuart said, an employer that has a legitimate reason to exclude convicted drug criminals could presumably achieve the same result by screening job candidates with drug tests.

The guidance specifically discourages employers from asking about criminal history on an application, and Mr. Stuart said that he was telling his clients that to avoid a fight, they should wait to ask about criminal convictions “until they have determined that the person is qualified and in the pool of people who would be offered a job.”

Seems like a scenario for all sorts of lawsuits and discrimination claims if you ask me. The burden clearly falls on an employer, not on an individual with a criminal record. To be sure, our country has a history that demonstrates a need for this kind of legislation. But to what extent should past history define current policy? Disparate impact seems to denote just the sort of social engineering that is appropriate to a nanny state guided by academic elites and socially minded do-gooders who want to tell everyone else exactly what justice and responsibility should mean in their lives. It is hardly the right balance for a free country.

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