Friday, April 04, 2008

Chicken Little Economics

I have learned a simple lesson in handling MSM news; don’t trust them. So I wondered a bit about the whole subprime mortgage mess and all the recession talk (by the way, I seem to recall recession being suggested by the media every election cycle since Clinton left office. Interesting coincidence, that). So I looked up the basic facts:

There were 2.2 million foreclosures in 2007, compared to 1.2 million in 2006, and 0.85 million in 2005.

So there has been a rise in foreclosures for some time now. But what does it mean on the strategic level? Not as much as you might think. 67.8% of American households owned their own home at the end of 2007, compared to 68.9% at the end of 2006. While news reporters get hysterical in front of the camera, the actual ratio of homes foreclosed is about 1 in 50. That is, 49 out of 50 homeowners, or more, will make their payments and pay off their mortgage.

Not to ignore the problems that some homeowners are facing, but it means that the housing crunch we are seeing just now is actually not much more than a correction, as overpriced homes drop in value and people who cannot afford their hoems lose them. I would say that whose fault it is, that a particular home is foreclosed upon, is a case-by-case matter, as has always been the case.

My point is that while foreclosures are up, as well as delinquencies in paying for them, it’s not as if the home mortgage industry is about to collapse or we are headed for a genuine crisis as a nation. That is, as long as we do not overreact. Some moves may be defended on the basis that they are meant to restore consumer confidence, which actually creates most recessions when it falls significantly, but to some degree it becomes circular logic, and in any case someone has to pay for the bailout. Guess who that would be?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

God and The Choice

How to get into trouble, 101. In a lengthy post last week, I discussed the dilemma of Heaven and Hell. One section which caused trouble for me later was this one:

“…while we Christians all confess our sins, we often repeat some of them, either out of weakness, a bad habit we have trouble breaking, or worst, we like that sin and are reluctant to really give it up. From that perspective, it seems hypocritical indeed to suggest that just being Christian gets you into Heaven, while even a nearly perfect life of goodwill and compassion would not help you if you are not Christian. The Bible seems to say the same, reminding us of non-Jews who pleased God in various places, and non-Christians whose faith impressed Jesus.”

and this one:

“…on the day when we stand before God, all evil will be destroyed. All that is good will be taken into Heaven. Whether we go to Heaven or Hell, then, will depend on whether our heart and desire were with the good works or the bad, whether we are aligned with goodness or clung to a badness we enjoyed. If that is so, the proper role of the Christian is to help people see what they cling to, especially our fellow Christians, so that they do not suffer for the old ways, but pursue what is truly right and good, and so enter the Third Heaven with a joyful spirit and a full heart.”

I did state at the time that all my words were a “poor attempt”, but I met up with some strong dispute and doubt about what I was trying to say. Mostly from fellow Christians. This article is a mix of trying to clarify what I was saying, why I said it the way I did, and to make a few observations about Christianity as it exists in the modern world.

First, to anyone unclear on the point: It is my unwavering conviction that Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God, the Messiah who redeemed Mankind from his sins, because of God’s love for us. It is not a quality we can earn or will ever deserve, but this does not matter because the Lord gives it freely to anyone who wants it. The reason I wrote what I did, though, was because I have met a great many non-Christians who see our evangelism as coercion and our God as a tyrant. Some of this is a matter of the devil’s lies, but it also comes from honest confusion to a degree. Since people are often curious about what happens after death, the qualities and nature of Heaven and Hell are vital parts of the discussion.

The plain fact is, that while the life and teachings of Jesus Christ are tremendously appealing to many people, the behavior and tone of many church leaders is offensive to non-Christians. Often, Christians come across as judgmental and angry, as looking down on other people who do not believe as they do. While I believe that this happens mostly with a minority of Christians, and that when it does it is the personality of the Christian rather than the will of God that creates the bristling antipathy. I had hoped to explain the faith in the light of reason, from the simple logic that if there is something after death, that we should seek and follow what we recognize and know to be good and right. To set aside the words when they get in the way, and to speak in terms which create common ground for a foundation of discussion. The purpose of that discussion would be to explore deeper questions, but without the sense of threats or compulsion. I believe that we still hold free will, even after we become believers. That’s part of what makes it hard to be a Christian, I think – we still live in the conditions created by the world and by our own past decisions, but we desire to serve the Lord and to do right. We will be imperfect, but because God’s definitions are based on His love and hope, rather than technicalities and traps, we work every day on drawing closer to Him, and we are able to accept our stumbles in the grace of knowing we will have help getting back up again. By my thinking, that blessing alone would make me glad to have a chance to know the Lord, but of course there is so much more. Oh, my.

Anyway, I have always taken the Bible seriously. Some folks may think I believe it too much, and others that I do not follow one passage closely enough to their liking. Ehhh, I pray about my walk and listen for the Lord’s will. That’s not to say that I think God tells me anything more than He tells other folks, but I would say that just maybe I listen to God and compare His word to what the Bible says. So far they always combine without conflict, and I don’t expect that to change. But anyway, the way I see it is that God is consistent, despite the jeers of some folks he does not forget or get confused. What He does, is stay true and straight, and wayward man gets angry because his own curving path takes him away from God, for which occasion he blames God. But there have always been people, in every nation and culture, who hear God and do what is right. If someone loves Justice, they love God, whether or not they ever voice the opinion. If someone cares for his fellow human bein, then they love God’s will, no matter whether their doctrine is perfectly aligned or not. If someone will accept loss rather than do what they know to be wrong, then that person pleases God, regardless of what they call Him, or even if they ignore Him. What’s more, a person can say all the right words, be called a leader of the church by thousands, yet remain an enemy of God – just look at Judas Iscariot.

So what’s the deal about choosing to enter Heaven? In my understanding, God makes Heaven possible for anyone, yet he compels no one. So even as C.S. Lewis observed that the gates of hell are locked from the inside, so too I think that the gates to Heaven are locked from the outside; first Jesus unlocked them as a man by the worth of His sacrifice on the cross, but also that any person who enters Heaven will choose to accept that gift. I never meant to imply that we deserve it or hold the power over its gates, but that no one will be dragged into Heaven against their will.

One thing which frankly bothers me about modern Christianity, is that it is rich and powerful. Here in Houston there is a huge church with thousands of members, and which pulls in millions of dollars a year in revenue. The pastor owns a lot of property, several fine cars, and his family lives like royalty. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, except that my company does work organizing charity work from churches, and this church stands out for its absence – it seems a lot of money goes in, but the poor and needy get no help from it. Other churches do a wonderful job of helping folks in need, of course, which is something I should emphasize – frankly the people in the most need often get the most help from churches and faith groups. But at the same time, churches often focus on money a lot, and more than a few seem intent on influencing politics. I realize this happens in other places, as well – every time a large group gets together, money and power are natural goals which always get emphasis. But that is just it, I think - Christians were originally the poorest and the weakest, and they held immense moral credibility because their faith was clearly not based on merely human priorities, but something greater than themselves. Again, such people exist today and are truly the saints who please God, but there are a lot of places where a well-dressed person who gives a nice ‘offering’ in the plate can get praised and assured of his eternal well-being, while his sin festers and his corroded heart waits in vain for repair. So, in these discussions I am not content to say that quoting the Bible or claiming membership in the right fellowship of believers is what impresses or pleases the Lord. The Lord chooses, and so do we. We can never trump Him, yet we must take care to understand – as well we may – the impact of our freedom.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Grand Theft Blog Article

More on this issue later, but for now you HAVE to read this account at Say Anything.

Short version of a classic:

Blogger writes article
Radio guy reads article, is impressed
Radio guy posts article without atribution
Blogger asks for attribution
Radio guy proves he is a thief and a jerk

Ending to be determined.

I don’t know exactly what I can do to help here, but heckling the radio yahoos is a start. They have their show here in Houston, so in addition to being thieves, idiots, and jerks, they are making H-town look bad.

Feces Wrapped Up As Wisdom

My step-daughter was gushing about a book when I last spoke with her. We were discussing her upcoming graduation from the University of Houston with a degree in Marketing. Because she was unsure about what she wanted to do next, I suggested some books that ideally she ought to have read before choosing her major, but she came back with two books she was very impressed with, books she said had opened her eyes on how to arrange venture capital for her business ideas. The one she gushed on the most about, was “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” by Richard Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter. The book boasts of it’s time as a “#1 Best Seller”, which apparently is the closest it ever came to establishing any sort of credentials. The cover reminded me of one of those vapid romance novels, and I was right – once I started reading the thing, it became very obvious that Mr. Kiyosaki is very enamoured of himself. The book is a poor primer on finance, but it does produce a strong chronicle of mercenary narcissism. I have since come to understand that Mr. Kiyosaki, hmm, embellished his biographical accounts with “fictionalized” citations in order to “educate” his readers. Kind of like Hillary’s mythical account of her trip to Bosnia, a lie and a stupid one. In Kiyosaki’s case, however, it seems there were many lies, repeated and underscored, and the man seems to care nothing for the truth – not a good quality at all in a financial advisor. It seems that writing a series of books (18 so far) for gullible readers who don’t think things through to any degree, is the path Mr. Kiyosaki chose for his financial success. Caveat Emptor and so on.

The reason I wrote about Mr. Kiyosaki’s Lies-For-Luxury, is because there is a lot of that out there. I mentioned Hillary’s pack-o-fibs from her failed attempt at establishing foreign policy credentials, there’s Obama’s ‘nothing unusual’ association for more than two decades with an anti-American racist, and of course there’s McCain’s war record, both for his steadfast love of his country and comrades in Vietnam, and his stubborn determination to cut off Free Speech in McCain-Feingold, and his expeditious attack against letting Judicial nominees be guaranteed an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. But what’s worse, is these largely self-infatuated politicians running for President are largely representative of the government we have today. You see, pretty much all of the problems Americans are worried about come into three classes:

1. Things the Government can address effectively
2. Things the Government cannot address, but individuals can
3. Things beyond human control

I won’t go into an exhaustive review here, but it should be obvious that the first class is the smallest group. And what’s strange, of those things that the government can address, very very few of them are the duty or within the scope of the President of the United States. Yet all the speeches from the candidates promise things that either would be addressed by Congress, or by the state or local governments, or else cannot be fixed by government at all. And speaking of non-federal government, don’t be too sure that your local government is going to be a big help. Here in Houston, for example, the District Attorney had to resign, in short because he was exposed as a conniving racist who saw nothing wrong with abusing his department’s budget and authority limits. The new candidates to replace him are all talking the shiny new ideal of accountability, none of them noting that such precautions were supposedly already in place. On a different level and in another place, it is both ironic and troubling that not even a week after the Governor of New York resigns because of in appropriate conduct, his replacement also admits that he had an extramarital affair, as well. Perhaps the most significant message from such stories, is that no one is really surprised anymore by them.

I have seen this all before, and I guess the bad news is that corruption and unaccountable government is common, indeed endemic throughout the world, even here in the United States. There is some good news, in the fact that for all its flaws the United States has a better system of government (even at the federal level) than most countries, and that government in the United States is more responsive now than it used to be, especially in the age of blogs and YouTube. But mostly, the good news is that for all its power and noise, the government is no substitute for the invidual’s ability to take care of his own affairs. Most Americans seem unaware that the Great Depression of the 1930s was not the first one in our history – the others were weathered largely through the strength and perseverence of ordinary people. That is not to say that government should not consider acting when and how it is able, but it is to say that a lot of the credit government takes for fixing a situation is actually due the individuals who put things back together on their own. In that light, recovery from Hurricane Katrina should be credited to the hard-working people along the Gulf Coast who rebuilt their lives on their own efforts, for example., rather than the self-praising mandarins of either FEMA or the local and state governments. And in that light, recovery from the sub-prime mortgage will basically happen because regular people work to fix the problem, from the market correcting rates and prices, to banks and financial firms taking steps to protect against unexpected volatility and debt. I am not na├»ve about human nature and the desire for people to hide risky ventures inside double-talk and new hybrid financial instruments – it really should have been obvious early on, that ‘Collateralized Debt Obligation’ was a sneak phrase for ‘Junk Bond with Makeup’. But the inevitable lawsuits over this problem will likely once again teach banks and finance companies that judges and juries are not impressed with anything that won’t pass the smell test. So on this point I disagree with President Bush; a radical overhaul of the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission will not improve consumer confidence or make the system run any better; when the problem is due to monkeys in the works, the answer is not to add more monkeys.

In conclusion, to all those people looking for a simple eay to get rich I will admit that there is one solid way to make money. There are many formulas and practices which can help build wealth, and there are any number of tactics applicable to help set financial goals, but the core principle is really very simple:

Spend less than you earn. Repeat until you are satisfied with the amount of money you have saved.

Sadly, that is a lesson no government ever seems willing to learn.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Heaven and Hell Revisited

Over the years, I have many times tried to discuss my faith with non-Christians. That is not to say that I try to compel anyone to believe; to my mind and heart there is no good purpose to trying to force someone to believe as you do; it is going to fail most of the time and only breed resentment, and if by some chance you do compel someone to accept your beliefs, that only means that someone stronger and meaner can and will convert them, which sort of explains militant Islam. But anyway, my point there is that while we Christians are commissioned to spread the Gospel and bear witness to Christ’s authority, we must do so in the same way He taught; through love and work and no end of patience. That includes interaction and debate with non-Christians. Frankly, a lot of people get offended very easily and the discussion quickly becomes a bitter argument. I have had trouble letting go of such conflicts, but in the main I think we must let go of anyone who is not willing to have a civil discussion. I hasten to note that Christians are just as prone to show offense and bitterness as non-Christians in these exchanges, so it’s not as if being a believer makes us more persuasive, or even more open-minded. Just something we all, I included, should think about.

But when a discussion does get going, one thing which commonly comes up is the question of Heaven and Hell. Aside from whether God exists and what He is up to should He be real, non-Christians are frequently upset by the notion that some people go to Heaven while others go to Hell. Two alternative suggestions are frequently offered; that everyone meets the same fate, or that everyone should be judged solely on the work they did – that everyone gets what they deserve, no more and no less. For some time I had trouble answering why those alternatives would not work, but I had a strong sense that they were false possibilities. This post addresses those contentions, and tries to explain why the Christian Heaven is the best hope for us all.

I begin with a quick overview of how God has made things. I do not presume to state this as an absolute fact, but rather as my comprehension of things, and so any flaw in the reasoning does not disqualify God, but would be only my own embarrassment. I have always accepted the existence of Good and Evil in the world, as I think nearly all people do. So far as I can see, Evil is a natural condition, in that a person who is strong may come to do as he pleases because no one can stop him, or a person who finds an advantage may use it for his own benefit without a thought about who that action harms. Goodness, on the other hand, is an unnatural condition, as it often directs a person to act in a way which helps others and costs him; it is inconvenient, personally difficult, and frankly not very common in human behavior. Poverty, for example – it seems that there are plenty of resources for food, shelter, and clothing to help those who do not have enough, were everyone to pitch in. Yet throughout History there has never yet been a time where everyone, or even the majority, did so. Some people are clearly good, more seem to be bad, and the majority just goes along without being really very good or very bad. Judge it as you will, that’s been the way of things for all of human record. So why do some people choose to be good, and why do we all profess to love goodness? I believe that is the reflection of God, His love for us showing through that goodness which is done, against all self-interest and the nature of the world. The bad things are a combination of the world we know, the environment in which we are taught, and our own personal choices. While many people mock the idea, it is apparent to me that God allows us free will in our lives. Some mock that idea because they have to face limits at all, but the fact remains that we all have a range of choice in how we face things. And choices have consequences.

So, with that in mind, we look at the first contention, that everyone gets the same thing. For the annihilationists, we die and that’s all. For others, we all go to Heaven, no matter who we are or what we did. And there are a great many beliefs in between, but the point is there are many groups which believe that – in the end – nothing matters. To me, that is a horrible thought! The idea that the generous man does no better than the greedy man, that the rapist or murderer who is clever enough to never get caught will not pay for his crimes, that in the end we might as well do as we like in this world because there is no real distinction between the good man and the evil one, is to me a truly abominable idea. And I think at the heart of us all, we do not accept such a contention as valid.

The second contention initially appears to be just and fair; everyone gets what they deserve. The problems there, however, come from the fact that everyone fails in some way and at some time; such a system would lock out virtually everyone from the best rewards, and no matter how just it may appear at first glance, it does not accept that people can and do change, and so a person who does well early in life but turns to evil, may be rewarded while a man who regrets the wrongs he has done and tries to make amends, may be punished for it. And even where the consequences of works are fair and just, a system which relentlessly counts every act, word and thought will inevitably separate people from each other – when every moment of a lifetime is chalked into a column, no one is truly the same as anyone else anymore, instead the world devolves into the chaos of absolute disparity, and on the eternal level a system of unleavened justice would mean a universe barren of compassion and mercy, and ultimately banning hope. It is a system which inevitably consigns everyone to hell.

So what to do? The maltheists contend that God hates us, the atheists contend that such a possibility precludes His existence, and even the most devout Christian must wonder what purpose there is, that evil is allowed to exist and indeed flourish. And that brings me to the third heaven. I use that phrase because I have sneaking suspicion that this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he referred to the “third heaven”. Heaven ultimately belongs to God its maker, and for all the arrogance of Man that God must give up His realm because we say so, it is God who designed, built, and maintains the sovereign realm of eternal joy. While the Lord created both good and evil, He made good for a good purpose and evil to allow us our choice. No one is compelled to sin, because sin always requires the choice to act against the right. And the notion that evil may be tolerated on the eternal scale, much less rewarded, is dispelled even before a man enters the Courts of God’s Judgment. There are indeed consequences to every choice, and God is not poor in memory on that day. Yet it must also be understood that the Lord is merciful as well as just, compassionate as well as holy, and He knows our hearts better than we do ourselves. In the end, the choice everyone makes is simple – they are either reconciled with God or choose eternal enmity. Heaven is not the same for everyone, yet neither is it closed to all but an exclusive few. The aspects of Heaven are the same as every good aspect of the world we know, save those which are holy to the Lord. What I mean, is that there is no good thing in this world which will not be found in Heaven, but in Heaven even the good is perfected, and that includes people.

This brings up the prospect of Hell. A lot of people dismiss Hell as a fairy tale used to scare folks into behaving or staying with the church, and to be sure some folks have done that kind of thing. But Jesus warned people about Hell more often than He made promises about Heaven, and He was clear about its danger and the need to make every effort to avoid Hell. Some folks dismiss Hell as a temporary condition, until our sins are – I suppose – burned out of us or we have otherwise satisfied the debt. The problem there, is that I never saw a mention in Scripture about people finishing their punishment in Hell and then going to Heaven; the decision was always final one way or the other. That makes a kind of sense, since it would be inconsistent to say that one choice has eternal consequences and another does not. But people also argue at length that a system which produces eternal punishment for even a momentary offense cannot be just. I don’t really buy that argument too far, because there are acts a person can commit in a very short time which permanently change other people’s lives or end them. But I am concerned, because as I mentioned earlier everyone I know has sinned one place or another, and it seems difficult to comprehend anyone going to Heaven on the basis of what they deserve, which in turn makes it difficult to imagine a human deserving Hell. And what’s more, while we Christians all confess our sins, we often repeat some of them, either out of weakness, a bad habit we have trouble breaking, or worst, we like that sin and are reluctant to really give it up. From that perspective, it seems hypocritical indeed to suggest that just being Christian gets you into Heaven, while even a nearly perfect life of goodwill and compassion would not help you if you are not Christian. The Bible seems to say the same, reminding us of non-Jews who pleased God in various places, and non-Christians whose faith impressed Jesus.

That jumbled paragraph before was my poor attempt to consider a possibility I think may happen – on the day when we stand before God, all evil will be destroyed. All that is good will be taken into Heaven. Whether we go to Heaven or Hell, then, will depend on whether our heart and desire were with the good works or the bad, whether we are aligned with goodness or clung to a badness we enjoyed. If that is so, the proper role of the Christian is to help people see what they cling to, especially our fellow Christians, so that they do not suffer for the old ways, but pursue what is truly right and good, and so enter the Third Heaven with a joyful spirit and a full heart.