Friday, October 24, 2008


Yesterday I posted a piece on Rush Limbaugh in which I lamented the ethos of consumption which is such a prominent part of his daily program. Then, at the behest of my friend Byron, I read an essay by Andy Crouch titled "Why I Am Hopeful" which made a similar point but applied the lesson more generally.

For example, Crouch writes this:

I am not hopeful because I have confidence in whoever will be elected president in 15 days. I have grave concerns, as a Christian and as a citizen, about both candidates and will in all likelihood vote for neither. I am not hopeful because I think we are well prepared for what is ahead of us. We are not. We are a terrifyingly unserious people, our heads buzzing with trivia and noise. This is more true, if anything, of American Christians than the rest of our country. The stark contrast between what I experience among Christians anywhere else in the world-and not just the "Third World," because Canada and Germany and Britain and Singapore come to mind as quickly as Uganda and India-and American Christians is astonishing. We are preoccupied with fads intellectual, theological, technological, and sartorial. Vanishingly few of us have any serious discipline of silence, solitude, study, and fasting. We have, in the short run, very little to offer our culture, because we live in the short run.

I am not hopeful because I think life is going to get easier in America. I am hopeful because I think it is going to get harder, and in a very good way. And I am hopeful because I think this means my children and grandchildren will live in a deeply and truly better world than I would have thought possible a few years ago.

I want to differentiate this hope from a kind of declinism among some of my "progressive" Christian friends, who frankly seem to salivate over the prospect that our capitalist culture may be teetering on the brink of collapse. I don't share their sense of satisfaction, and I don't share their analysis. At the analytical level, I believe liberal democracy and free markets are resilient and beneficial systems of human governance (granted that they are also, as Churchill said, the least bad of the alternatives). They have powerful self-correcting capacities. There is a reason that the American stock market has fallen the least of all the major world exchanges in the past few weeks. We have an impressively transparent economic system that, while certainly not preventing corruption and greed, does reveal it and punish it sooner than any comparable system, and frequently, though not always, rewards effort and innovation more effectively. Our political system is less robust, to be kind, but outside the depressing morass of electoral politics there are public servants of incredible intelligence and character-among whom I would certainly include Ben Bernanke, Henry Paulson, and Sheila Bair, along with many of the prospective leaders in an Obama administration. Precisely at times of crisis, as we've seen, the idiocy of politics can still be overcome by credible leadership from civil servants like these. I am deeply proud to live in a country where someone as fantastically wealthy as Paulson spends his days, nights, and weekends doing the largely thankless task of public service. Our markets and our system of government, for all their flaws, are an amazing renewable resource handed on to us by our forebears.

And this is why I can't share the sense of satisfaction I sense in some of my "prophetic" friends. I believe the first step in culture making is not creating (let alone condemning, critiquing, or consuming) but cultivating: keeping what is already good in culture, good. American Christians, on the right and the left, have been painfully bad at cultivating. We want to jump to "transformation" and "impact" (words generally used on the right) or to "resistance" and "revolution" (favored words of the left). We often seem incapable of seeing ourselves first as gardeners: people whose first cultural calling is to keep good what is, by the common grace of God, already good. A gardener does not pull out weeds because she hates weeds; she pulls out weeds because she loves the garden, and because (hopefully) there are more vegetables or flowers in it than weeds. This kind of love of the garden-loving our broken, beautiful cultures for what they are at their best-is the precondition, I am coming to believe, for any serious cultural creativity or influence. When weeds infest the garden, the gardener does not take the opportunity to decry the corruption of the garden as a whole. She gets patiently, discerningly, to work keeping the garden good.

Good stuff. So, why is he hopeful? You'll have to go to the link and read the rest of the essay to learn that.


How to Strangle an Economy

Senator Obama has frequently assured us that 95% of the people in this country would receive no tax increase under his tax policy. Only the top 5%, those persons, families and businesses making over $250,000 would see their taxes raised. This claim is a little misleading for a couple of reasons:

1. By raising taxes on business he will give businesses a big incentive to either reduce benefits, reduce wages, lay off employees, move offshore, and/or pass the added cost onto the consumer. In any case, the average person is going to wind up paying the tax increase in one way or another whoever Obama imposes it upon.

2. The Democrats plan to let the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010 which means that everyone's taxes will go up automatically. Obama has said that he would keep the lower rates for the middle class in place, but it remains to be seen whether a Democrat congress would agree to this. This also means that the upper income earners and businesses will get hit by another tax increase right after the first one. Obama also wants to raise the capital gains tax. The cumulative effect of these increases will be crushing and although they will not immediately impact those making less than $250,000 the middle class will soon enough be faced with all the consequences noted in #1.

3. In addition, the Democrats are planning to do away with 401k plans and place them in a government run account at 3% interest funded by the sale of government bonds. This would increase the tax liability on everyone's income (if they had a 401k), including employers who had previously contributed to the plan and received a tax break for so doing, and reduce the amount the contributions would have earned over the long term if these accounts had stayed in the market. It will also depress the market even further when the funds are removed.

4. 40% of American filers currently pay no taxes but under Obama's plan they will get a "refund" anyway. These people will essentially get a check from the government paid for by those who do pay taxes. It's essentially welfare. It's one way to "spread the wealth around," I guess.

There's more on what's in store for us after Inauguration Day here, here and here.

I've heard a number of commentators attribute the current bear market, which seems to puzzle many experts, to investors' fears about what Obama and his fellow Democrats will do to the economy once they ascend to power. Maybe they're on to something.