Of Lessons of History and Preventing Wars

History does not repeat itself, not precisely. Humans, though, have been doing similar things for thousands of years. History offers patterns from which we can learn. That is to say, that there is nothing new that is wholly new.

There is too much for comfort in the current international situation—and the U.S. response to it—that feels like the 1930s. The republics of the West, focused inward, struggle with economic traumas and work hard to make them worse in the name of making things better. National leaders even when aware of storm clouds on the global horizons ignore them if they can, and minimize the dangers if they cannot, applying symbolic but ineffective remedies where action is unavoidable. Aggressive second rate powers strive for recognition as though first rate powers, conspiring to disrupt the international equilibrium and the peace that rests on it to get what they want. While potential enemies rapidly rearm, the West disarms in the name of peace, heedless of the wars and conflicts that fill the vacuums of their military retreats. Again, I am talking about today, not the 1930s, but the parallels are disquieting.

The United States has gotten into unwanted conflicts, especially in the 20th Century, when adversaries miscalculated our nation’s willingness to sacrifice to defend crucial interests. Weak-kneed, pusillanimous, or just unwise national executives invited war by giving enemies many reasons to doubt our will and resolve: unprepared armed forces, verbal warnings enforced with bluster, shirked fulfillment of pledges to help endangered friends. The Japanese thought that isolationist and poorly armed America would seek a negotiated settlement after Pearl Harbor, the North Koreans were confident that we were too war-weary to defend the South, Saddam Hussein—twice—believed that we would not want to fight a war in the sands of Iraq. Our responses to frequent goading did little to dissuade them. Logically following our miscues they each went too far at last. They all could have been stopped by a determined show of strength early while war remained avoidable, when we could have corrected their calculations at lesser cost to us and to them.

The communist leaders of China are by nature cautious. You survive the palace intrigues of the Forbidden City by avoiding mistakes, not by making them. But the Chinese leaders also have big plans, increasingly marked on a global map. The leaders of the regime in power are the heirs of their founder, Mao, who liked to refer to the United States as a paper tiger. For a time Nixon and Reagan disabused them of that notion, but they seem to be reconvincing themselves of Mao’s insights. Where is the recent evidence to the contrary?

At first, Chinese forays were camouflaged by equipping and supporting the adventures of the proxy North Koreans. Lately, the Chinese military itself has repeatedly hacked into U.S. civilian and military computer systems, with efforts ranging from nuisances to theft of military and technology secrets. The rapidly expanding Chinese navy is now building aircraft carriers, though it has no overseas enemies. In a related effort, the Chinese are dredging up artificial islands in the South China Sea, a thousand miles from their shores, closer to the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam than to the southern coast of China. With naval stations and air strips on the islands, the Chinese are asserting a dramatic expansion of territorial waters measured from these militarized sandbars. Connecting the dots from new island to new island (there are some half dozen or more of these land-creation projects underway), the Chinese navy alleges control of sea lanes and airspace, demanding that planes or ships not pass their theoretical net without Beijing’s permission. The U.S. has made protests, recently backed up by a reconnaissance plane flying across what has been international waters and free airspace since before and after World War II. At least for the moment the Chinese only fired words, eight times (according to a CNN story) warning the U.S. plane to stay away. “This is the Chinese navy. You go.”

This is a minor disturbance in a major geopolitical struggle. Busy trade lanes cross the South China Sea. In the context of Beijing’s acquisition of an offensive, MIRVed nuclear missile arsenal now approaching the size of Russian and U.S. nuclear forces (the U.S. being the only one developing plans to reduce its stockpile), the risks are becoming very high.

China has big domestic problems. The economy is slowing, if not already in recession. That will make it even harder for Beijing to keep quiescent a population only half of which has experienced extraction from grinding communist poverty. An aging population will be difficult for the declining workforce to support in coming years. And then there is the legacy of China’s one-child policy, more than 100 million males with no possibility of marriage and family. What to do with those restless men?

Throughout history, China’s biggest dangers have usually been from Chinese, vulnerabilities from the outside attracted only when there was weakness caused by internal struggles. Might the heirs of Mao seek to distract internal discontent with international adventurism? A lesson from history is that the more autocratic the regime, the more likely it is to resort to this gambit.

We need a foreign policy that convinces the Chinese leaders how dangerous and unrewarding such moves would be. That becomes harder to do the more we allow the Chinese to fool themselves that it might be otherwise. That was a pattern of disaster for Tojo, Hitler, and others—and for us.

Of Compromises and Congresses

The beginning days of 2015 have brought the convening of a new American Congress. It is fair to say that expectations and skepticism are high.

Both are merited. Our Constitution was inaugurated with high expectations, not that the end to all problems was at the door but that the means were available to deal effectively with the problems of government for the new nation. The people who wrote the Constitution and those involved with implementing it (many the same people) were also deeply skeptical of government, including the one that they had just created. Memorable and personal experiences had shaped their skepticism. For that reason, the adoption of the Constitution had been a close thing, the opposition coming chiefly from those who thought that it imposed too much government on the people. There may have been some contemporary views that the proposed national government would be too weak and light, but I have not found any examples.

No surprise, then, that an early use of the new Constitution was to adopt the Bill of Rights—a set of fundamental rights to protect individual people from their government. If this new government were really self-government (a misconception reflected today in such bromides as, “Don’t worry about the national debt, we owe it to ourselves,” and “we should not fear the government because we are the government,” as well as much similar foolishness), then these first ten amendments would all be unnecessary. They have since proven to be very necessary, sometimes breached by our government, but more often employed to preserve and protect us from government offense.

Much as with the convening of the First Congress in 1789, the 114th Congress convenes after a troubled period of bad government. Hopes and wishes abound that errors can be corrected, freedoms restored, troubles addressed. As then, so today patience is in order.

A great virtue of our Constitution, an intentional feature, is that no one person can do much, for good or ill, in the federal government. It takes a lot of people cooperating together to get things done. Both Houses of Congress, usually with significant majorities, must agree to identical—word for word identical—legislation for it to be sent to the President, who must agree enough to add his signature to make it law. And then the President and his colleagues in the executive branch must actually execute the law, which as we are seeing with this President is no sure thing, despite a solemn oath to do so.

All of that coming together of many people, with varying ideas and backgrounds and interests, seldom happens quickly. For a people who do not need a lot of laws and direction from government to know how to live their lives, that is a fact to be celebrated. As the Founders envisioned, making law requires compromise and accommodation of the many interests of the many who compose our great nation. That takes time, as it should.

It is a mistake to banish the use of compromise from republican government. Those who would eschew compromise in our Republic would doom us to the fate of the Roman Republic. The members of the Roman Senate lost the ability or willingness to compromise. In so doing, they were doomed to inaction—not just slow deliberation—in the face of crisis, followed by reliance upon dictators, whom they fancied they could limit if not control. They sometimes chose wise men, sometimes they trusted their liberties to demagogues, invested with nearly unilateral authority for an entire year. The Republic and Roman freedom regressively devolved into the rule of the Caesars.

I understand the impatience that many have with compromise, people who would wish bold and decisive action in response to the would-be Caesar currently in the White House. To these I would say, do not despair of the strength of the Constitution, even as the chief executive seeks to violate it. In such times strengthening the Constitution and reinforcement of its checks and balances are the orders of the day, not further erosion of accommodation and compromise that have held our nation together (even through a Civil War) for two hundred years and more. It is true that some compromises are bad; despotisms or anarchies are not much good.

One of the most important compromises involves idealism and realism. American legislation requires a marriage of idealism and realism. Idealism can offer the vision of a free and prosperous nation and the inspiration to action to protect and promote our liberties. Realism, when operating in the light of idealism, focuses our work on what can be achieved now, without exhausting our energies and resources on quixotic quests that may do little more than tear the national fabric. Realism would teach that much of the policy errors of years will take years to unravel. With idealism and realism together, we can know what can and should be done today to make things better and get national policy moving in the right direction.

While a realistic view of the doable is essential to good legislating in a Congress of free men and women, the key and fundamental principles of our idealism help us discern a good compromise—one that makes things better and enables further progress—from a compromise that walks us closer to the abyss. President Reagan made many compromises, but he had a vision and knew where he was going, each compromise uniting our nation for more prosperity, greater freedom, and stronger security.

We should rejoice that no one in the Republic by himself can bring about much change, however well meaning. That virtue of our Constitution is why it has taken many steps and many mistakes to come to the many calamities our nation now confronts. In the same way, because of this Constitution, it will take seemingly many steps along the way to optimal answers. Every reason to be about the work and not tire of it.

Of Unbanked and “Underbanked”

Speaking of banks, as I did on this page a short time ago, there are those who are concerned that too many people in the United States are “unbanked” or “underbanked.” By the former they seem to mean those who do not use any banking services, particularly who do not have any bank accounts. By the former, they mean those who obtain some banking services from businesses that are not banks. The very existence of the terms, and the way that they are used by those who use them, implies that being “unbanked” or “underbanked” is a bad thing.

I will here disclose that I have worked for banks for nearly 10 years and for all I know may continue to do so for some time into the future. Whatever bias or color to my views that this condition provides I will nevertheless try to comment from a fair and factual point of view.

My first point, therefore, is that I am not prepared to assert that absolutely everyone should have a bank account. I can easily envision the value of a bank account for most if not all people, but I concede that they should be allowed to choose for themselves and that it would be terribly wrong to force people into banks. I acknowledge that there are some alternative providers of financial services who seem to please their customers, and I do not deny that banks can benefit from good competition. Banks have a long history of drawing upon the ideas and innovations of non-banks, just as non-banks have been eager to try their hand at successful new products and services that banks have pioneered. Bank customers have benefited the most from that process, as the variety and value of financial products have expanded, and the United States has led the world in the discovery of new and useful financial services.

Having said that, the nation cannot do well without a strong, vibrant, and prosperous banking industry. Our nation and people grow as we save financial resources and invest them in improvements for the future, whether new homes, new factories, or new ideas of how to do and make things better, faster, and cheaper. That is a major part of what banks do and are all about.

Moreover, there are a lot of things we do and a lot of places we go because we know that our ability to pay and get paid—to exchange things we value less for things that we value more (the reason we buy and sell things and use money to do it)—is secure, reliable, accurate, and relatively quick. That is our payments system, and banks created it and are at the center of it.

Americans also like the idea of becoming wealthier and expect to do so. If that seems a commonplace to you, recognize that it is not so in all parts of the world, where getting by from day to day is about the most to which people can aspire, for whom poverty is a way of life that they expect to bequeath to their children. To the extent that this miserable condition is becoming less the case in much of the world, that more people are beginning to believe that they can build and improve their wellbeing for themselves and their posterity, this new-found hope for accumulating wealth is attributable to the dispersion of principles of freedom and prosperity that Americans take for granted but which are new to much of the world. The global adoption of many American principles of prosperity has been a major contribution of the New World to the Old World and to all mankind.

Now get ready for the bold but true statement: you cannot get there and stay there without banks and the services that banks provide. Banks gather wealth, safeguard wealth, allow it to be used efficiently, and apply it to building the future. That is why governments pay so much attention to banks, and also why it is so harmful when governments try to capture banks and channel their services to the personal gain of themselves and their cronies. That is also why misguided bank regulations are harmful—even if in subtle but powerful ways—to the nation and its people.

Which brings us back to the agenda of the “unbanked” and the “underbanked.” In the United States, chief causes for people remaining “unbanked” are regulations that make banking more difficult and services more expensive; cultural barriers for people who come from societies where personal banking is either unknown or where the experience has been one of banks used by local governments to harvest wealth from people to enrich the governing elites and their cronies (much of Latin America, for example); and people who for whatever reason just do not prefer to use banks. The first cause regulators can solve but have largely been resistant to solving; the second can be overcome by time and experience and is showing signs of that; and the third cause is no more of a problem than people who prefer to rent rather than own their home, to eat eggs without grits, or who do not like the New York Yankees. I do not have to understand the personal preference to acknowledge it.

The concept of “underbanked” (that government needs to help banks figure out how to serve people who may get some banking services outside of banks) I fear may be a political device to harness American banks to serve the cronies of the “underbanked” advocates. We have already seen this game with the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) regulations, adopted ostensibly to ensure that banks lend to their local communities (as if bankers, unlike other businessmen, need government regulation to notice business opportunities right under their own nose). In practice, CRA has been used to coerce banks into providing loans and even grants to and through poverty advocacy agencies that tend to prosper more than the people whom they claim to be helping. The folks who fret about the “underbanked” have marvelous formulas and plans for other people’s money to solve problems about which the people to be helped seem little concerned. I have never heard of any truly “underbanked” people themselves calling for the firm hand of government to get them into the banking system; if they want banking services, they just go and get them.

I have the haunting suspicion that the “underbanked” advocates would if they could use banks the same way found in the abandoned societies of the “unbanked,” where banking services came through the hands of people who knew better than others and always made sure to get their cut for their benevolence. That is not really banking, and that is symptomatic of why people flee those lands. The wealth creation of such captive banks seems to be for someone else. If it happens in America, where will the people go?

Of the Meaning of “Still” and the State of the Union

These thoughts, first published almost a year and a half ago, still seem pertinent today.

Notice how frequently these days when discussing the state of the American union, or any parts thereof, people rely upon the word “still.” That is a bad sign. When someone says, “I am still able to see my own doctor,” he or she implies that continued access is in doubt. Rather than reassuring, it insinuates caution and reveals anxiety. What do you hear when someone says, “At least I am still married”?

You do not commonly hear people using “still” in connection with things that they are sure of. If a baseball player boasts, “I can still hit the ball out of the park,” is he likely to be in his prime or in the twilight of his career?

Allow me to offer for your consideration a dozen recent objects of STILL in public discourse about the condition of the nation:

  • The United States is still the largest economy in the world.
  • The United States still has the strongest/best military in the world.
  • The dollar is still the world’s reserve currency.
  • The United States still is a free country.
  • America still is the land of opportunity.
  • The Supreme Court still can be counted on to defend the Constitution.
  • By hard work and best effort you still can become anything you want.
  • My children will still have a better life than I have had.
  • My children will still live in a bigger house than the one I grew up in.
  • In this country you can still get the best healthcare.
  • America still has the deepest, most liquid, and efficient financial markets.
  • At least the air you breathe is still free.

Undoubtedly, you can think of more for the list. Then, there are some things we do not hear people saying “still” about any more:

  • America is the best place to get an education.
  • Americans make the best cars.
  • I can freely speak my mind.
  • I can trust what I hear or read in the “news.”
  • You can count on the elections not being rigged.

I forbear going on. You can add more if you wish. There are some topics where the doubt is too palpable for people to venture “still” in their expressions.

If we leave the discussion at that, then we have a sad commentary on the sad state of the union. The expression of “still” in our conversation can reveal a desperate clinging to the past with a forlorn wish that things will work out for the future, without doing the good works to make the good future happen.

I would suggest, though, that “still” can also mean “not over,” or “not gone.” We need not settle for “still” and do nothing about it. That which we value can be reclaimed from assault and reinforced, the erosion stopped, the tide turned. After all, John Paul Jones is famous for winning a naval battle from the deck of his sinking—but still afloat—flagship, because he used it as a platform from which to regain what was lost. “I have not yet begun to fight!” is still part of the American heritage.

(First published February 10, 2013)

Of Easter and the Resurrection of Christ

As we approach the Easter season, it may be valuable to reflect on the meaning of the season. It is, after all, Easter that gives meaning to Christmas, and the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ give meaning to Easter.

Few if any events of ancient history are as well attested as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His rising from the tomb after His death at the hands of the Roman executioners is a hard fact. It is a particularly hard fact to grapple with if one is of the mind that religious phenomena are “spiritual”—by which critics mean “unverifiable.” Their efforts for nearly two thousand years have been to try to change the subject or impugn the witnesses or make the reality appear somehow merely symbolic, allegorical, or fabulous. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ remains as startlingly real today as it was to the Greco-Roman world of 34 A.D. The emergence in the 1830s of powerful new evidence of the Savior’s resurrection from the dead makes objections to its reality impossible to sustain.

The list of witnesses of the resurrected and immortal Christ is a long one, spanning continents, ages, and sexes. It begins with Mary Magdalene, in Jerusalem, who went to the tomb early on Sunday morning after Jesus’ execution, expecting anything but to see Jesus alive once more. She was there to finish the process of anointing the body, which she and others could only hastily begin on Friday evening. To her wonderment and sorrow the tomb was empty. Rather than expecting that the dead was alive once more, her one thought was to find where the body now was. To a joy that none but she could describe, Mary was told by Jesus Himself that He was risen from the dead. Mary also became the first to testify of the Savior’s resurrection, as she quickly reported her experience to the disciples (John 20:1-18).

The record reports how later, in the evening, the resurrected Christ appeared to these disciples, who included at least ten of His apostles in company with others of Jesus’ followers. As if to answer future skeptics, Jesus made a point of the physical reality of the resurrection from the dead. First, to attest to the death, he had those present handle the mortal wounds in hands, feet, and side (the last inflicted by the Roman soldiers to assure the death of Jesus before they removed His body from the cross), as He declared to them, “handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:36-40; John 20:19-21) Next, to demonstrate the full functionality of a resurrected body, Jesus ate a piece of broiled fish and part of a honeycomb (Luke 24:41-43). This is tangible evidence, intentionally offered by the Savior to emphasize the fact of His physical resurrection, with a very physical body.

Sometime that same day Jesus walked for an extended time with two disciples as they journeyed to the nearby village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). A week later the apostle Thomas, who had been absent the week before, was added to the list of physical witnesses, as he in turn was shown the mortal wounds of the risen Christ (John 20:26-29). Again in Galilee Jesus met His disciples for a meal of fish and bread and then taught them about charitable service while sitting with them around the fire. To these and other interactions of the mortal disciples with the immortal, risen Christ, is the record in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that “above five hundred brethren at once” saw the resurrected Christ, to which Paul adds his own personal witness (1 Corinthians 15:6-8).

The Book of Mormon, first published in 1830, is another witness, from a separate people on another continent, of the Christ who had lived, died, and been resurrected far away in Jerusalem. Across the ocean, in ancient America, Jesus Christ appeared to 2,500 more disciples who became personal witnesses of their resurrected Savior. “And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom was written by the prophets, that should come.” (3 Nephi 11:15)

To these ancient testimonies, the list grows with modern day witnesses of the resurrected Christ. Add the names of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Oliver Cowdery, “That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:22,23; see also Doctrine and Covenants 110:1-10).

The testimony is sure. You can accept it or not, but you cannot change the fact that Jesus, once dead, rose again from the dead, as He and the prophets foretold and as He and the prophets since have reported. With that knowledge, Easter becomes more than a quaint relic of just another “faith tradition”. It becomes a celebration of the greatest event in the history of the world.

(First published February 22, 2009)

Of Minorities and Society

The saddest chapters of history chronicle the breakdown of human society. Rights are abused, the innocent—if innocence is allowed to exist—are trampled. Poverty, hatred, violence, and uncontrolled human passion prevail. Destruction and degradation, physical and moral, replace human progress.

All society, except that of master to slave, relies upon an element of free association. Societies may have more or less elements of coercion as well, but it is the element of free association that allows the society to continue, that motivates its members to acquiesce in or even encourage the society’s continuation. Free, voluntary association is what gives a society its legitimacy. Without it, there is no society, just a group of people ruled by one coterie of thugs or another.

Cooperation in society cannot be taken for granted. When it is, when free cooperation, instead of being nurtured and encouraged, is replaced by coercive rules and compulsion, particularly rules and compulsion designed to benefit some at the expense of others, society declines, people interact more by will of others than by their own volition. With time either the situation is redressed or the society disintegrates, often to be conquered from the outside when its internal strength has turned to weakness.

In its latter years imperial China was prey to numerous foreign incursions because its society was a mighty empty shell, old traditions surrounding an empire of competing warlords. Ancient Greece, which twice when united proved too much for the Persian empire, became relatively easy prey to the Romans after the ties of Greek society had become tired and weak. Rome, in its turn, after a thousand years, was enormously wealthy but mightily weak in the internal strength to repel the roaming barbarians, vibrant societies powerful in their own internal cohesion. Much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America today remains mired in poverty from the inability of relatively young countries to develop cooperative societies that encourage the generation of wealth and its application to promote prosperity for the present and for the future.

With cooperation at the core of successful society, one would think that democracies must be the most successful. History records otherwise. There are no historical examples of a successful democracy, at least not one that lasted for long enough to matter. Like a match set to paper, democracies flare up brightly into power and glory but all too soon die away to ashes.

The problem with democracies has been that all too quickly the majority in the democracy learns that it can become wealthy by robbing the minority, under camouflage of statutes and government. That only lasts until either the minority successfully rebels, becomes a majority in its turn, or the wealth of the minority is exhausted. In reaction, the majority may seek to preserve its advantages by yielding to a dictator—a “mouth” for the majority—to govern in the name of the majority to discern and express its will. Few of these dictators have resisted the temptation to wear the mask of the majority to govern for the benefit of themselves and their cronies. That has been the case for every communist government, without exception.

But, is it not right and just for the majority to prevail? Perhaps, but to prevail over what? Everything? Consider: if majority rule is applied to deprive the minority of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, why should the minority cooperate? All that such society offers them is slavery, unrequited labor and service to fill another’s belly and pockets. In a pure democracy, there is no check on majority avarice, no refuge for the minority. The majority must always have its way.

Republics, however, are built upon a foundation of minority rights. Republican governments are granted only limited powers, exercised by representatives of the people, within boundaries beyond which the government may not go. A written constitution serves to enshrine and strengthen those rights against violation by the majority. The system gives a stake to all—not just the current rulers—in the continuation and strengthening of the society. No democracy, hereditary monarchy, or dictatorship can provide that.

In a nation as great and diverse as the United States everyone is part of a minority. Whether we consider age, ethnic background, religion, geography, culture, profession, or a multitude of other distinctions, we are a host of minorities. We can only come together and remain as a nation, strong and vibrant, if we are confident of protection in our minority rights, for protecting minority rights in America means protecting everyone’s rights. That is why the Founders proposed and the nation embraced a Republic formed on a federal structure of divided and limited government.

In that context, what are we to make of the current direction of American society? Are we preserving the Republic? Does our society feel like it is coming together? Recent public opinion polls find that more than 60% of Americans believe the nation to be going in the wrong direction. In another poll, a mere 22% believe that the current government rules with the consent of the governed.

What is the national political leadership doing about this? We have a President who aggressively pursues a variety of programs that have in common the taking of wealth from one minority segment of the nation to reward others. These wealth transfers are lionized for the undenied purpose of political and electoral advantage for the President and his supporters.

You will recognize the pattern. A crisis is discovered by the President, and an industry or group is demonized in public speeches and echoed in the establishment media as causing the problem and/or standing in the way of its solution. A plan is announced that involves confiscations from the demonized industry or group to fund benefices bestowed on Administration favorites.

Consider a few examples of many. Global warming is hailed as an imminent crisis with disastrous consequences; the coal, oil, and gas industries are identified as the foes of progress; and a variety of taxes and other restrictive policies are proposed, together with planned subsidies for businesses and companies favored by the White House. Banks are declared to be the nefarious forces behind the recent recession, new laws and regulations are applied that confiscate billions of dollars from the industry, much of which is then channeled to hedge funds and other political allies of the administration. Some millions of people are discovered to be without health insurance, doctors and the health insurance industry—among others—are fingered as being at the root of the problem, so a major overhaul of the entire structure of the health system is enacted that favors some at the expense of others. Administration cronies receive lucrative contracts to develop and administer the new system. There are many other examples, large and small, in education, welfare, housing, transportation, law enforcement, and many other government programs.

Is there any wonder that there is gridlock in the national government, when policy after policy is aimed at transferring wealth from some to reward others? Where is the room for cooperation and compromise, when the issue is how much of your family’s wealth is to be taken and given to someone else? The Roman Republic fell into gridlock after decades of appeals to mass acclaim for schemes of popular distribution of public plunder. It ended in the triumph of the Caesars, and later their eventual fall to the barbarians. It is perilous to abuse social comity.

President Obama has announced the transfer of wealth to be the chief focus for the remaining three years of his administration. Can our society weather that?

Of the Babe of Bethlehem and the Savior of the World

At this Christmas time, as we worship, if we worship, whom do we worship? Is our worship focused on the Babe of Bethlehem, the Babe so often celebrated in songs like, “Gesu Bambino,” “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” “The Babe, the Son of Mary”?

What image comes to your mind at Christmas time? Is it a picturesque one made up of mangers, swaddling clothes, and a tender, helpless, voiceless little baby? Is this the Christ we worship? As important and miraculous as was this long foretold birth, we may and should linger there, but not settle there.

What of this image?

The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened.
We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber.
His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying:
I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father. (Doctrine & Covenants 110:1-4)

At Christmas which do we worship? The Babe of Bethlehem, or the resurrected and glorified Lord of the universe? I suggest that it makes a world, an eternal world, of difference whether we prepare ourselves to worship and follow the babe of our postage stamps, who cannot speak for Himself and therefore affect our behavior, or whether we worship Christ, the Lord Jehovah who created the world, who spoke to Moses on the mount, and who continues to speak to the prophets today.

There is a similar question at Easter time. Do we worship a cross or the One who suffered death on the cross, was placed in the tomb, and rose from the dead on the third day? It was no babe, it was no child, who brought salvation to mankind. Though the story started with a babe, miraculously and wondrously born, it did not, it could not, end there. There was Gethsemane and a cross, and a willing atonement made. Then there was a once filled and soon empty tomb, empty because a God had died who had power to rise from the dead and bring all mankind with Him.

The prophecy proclaims, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given”. Note that after this point in the scripture, there is no more talk about babes in the prophecy, but there is a listing of what made this birth so important. It is what came after that was the point of the scripture:

. . .and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9:6,7)

The people of ancient America never experienced the baby Jesus. This was not part of their history. Their experience with the Christ was direct and full. It was with the Christ who saves.

He came to them as He will come to us, resurrected, glorified, all powerful, having won the victory over death and sin. As Christ descended from the heavens and stood among the worshiping people of America nearly 2000 years ago, people who loved him with all their souls, He announced,

Behold, I am Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world.
And behold, I am the light and the life of the world; and I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world, in the which I have suffered the will of the Father in all things from the beginning.
And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words the whole multitude fell to the earth. . . (3 Nephi 11:10-12)

Do we look forward to the day when we are brought into the presence of the almighty Lord Jesus Christ? Do we prepare for that day by worshiping Him now? Do we gather in those joys that a closeness to God always brings? If not, may we be converted, and like the Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas day revel in the enjoyment of long neglected riches that are ours.

(First published December 14, 2008)

Of Washington and the Life of the Nation

Washington, D.C., is a strange place. I speak from experience. My whole working career has been in Washington. In many meetings with people visiting Washington I have explained to them that Washington is not America. Few have been surprised by the remark. In many visits away from Washington (and in connection with my work I accept nearly every invitation to leave town and be among those whose lives too many in Washington try to run) I am ever and powerfully reminded how different the rest of America is from Washington. I have not been surprised. Kansas City is much closer to America than Washington ever was or will be.

In support of the point I offer a few painful examples. I see one each day that I drive into the city. Looking at the cars around me I note that very few are more than a few years old. At the same time I am impressed by how many of the cars are foreign luxury models. It is typical, when paused at a stop light, to notice that many of the surrounding cars are BMWs, Mercedes, Lexus, Acuras, Audis, and not an insignificant number of Jaguars, high end Range Rovers, and Porsches. I also see a lot more Prius cars and other hybrids. This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with driving any of these or any other late model high-priced cars. I merely note it as very different from what I see when paused at a typical traffic light in other cities and towns in America.

As an aside, I am grateful to the people who buy and drive a Prius or other model of hybrid, because they subsidize my purchase of gasoline. Their cars do use less gasoline (though not enough less to compensate their owners for paying so much more for their cars), leaving more for people like me who drive regular gasoline-consuming vehicles. That reduction in gasoline demand helps reduce the price.

The Prius drivers might be offended were I to tell them, however, that I am entirely unimpressed by their conspicuous token of environmental sensitivity. Their purchase and operation of a Prius, after all, is very likely more harmful to the environment than is my more conventional automobile. First of all, they pay $10,000 or more extra to buy their hybrid, and if the price system works at all efficiently that means that making a Prius or other hybrid consumes far more in resources than making a conventional car. Second, the hybrid car fans and their coteries in the D.C. area have convinced the masters of the highway networks to create special less-traveled commuter lanes that the hybrid drivers are permitted to use, meaning that they reduce the efficiency of the highway infrastructure. So, to the Prius drivers of the world I say, thanks for the subsidy, but save your enviro lectures for when you are looking in the mirror.

The automobiles of the nation’s capital region are a sign of an even more painful reality of how Washington is different from the rest of America. It is also the wealthiest part of the nation, by far. On April 25, 2013, Forbes magazine published an article about the richest counties in the United States in terms of average income (Tom Van Riper, “America’s Richest Counties”). Six of the ten richest counties are in the Washington, D.C. region, including the top two and one more out of the top five. While recession lingers in the rest of the nation, Washington and its suburbs are doing rather well, with unemployment down to 5.5%, well below the national average.

I will also say that I am not opposed to wealth and wealthy people. I wish all of the world to be wealthier and rejoice that it is far wealthier today than people of just a few generations ago could have dreamed. But we could all live so much better still. I ache that the policies of governments around the world stifle economic growth and development and hold so many of their people down in poverty. The poor nations of the world are not poor because their people are less talented and intelligent than others, but because their governments are so oppressive and have been for generations.

Therein lies my beef with the wealth of Washington and its environs and the key to its estrangement from America. That wealth is hard to explain from the perspective of value added to the rest of the nation. Washington is basically a one-company town. Unlike other one-company towns, however, it produces little that adds enough value to the lives of others that would allow it to prosper in open competition in free markets. The product of Washington instead is forced upon the rest of the nation, whose productive income is confiscated to keep the Washington wealth-eating machine going.

Try to name an economic product or activity that is not somehow subject to special handling by or permission from someone in Washington or controlled from Washington. After the Dodd-Frank Act, for example, all financial activities have become more subject to direction by Washington bureaucrats than ever before. Today, a bank has to pay more attention to its regulators than it does to its customers. Who gets the best attention out of that arrangement? The same is true for energy producers, communications firms, health care providers, and you can continue the list. All that special handling comes with a toll, payable in taxes, or borrowed from the financial markets, or layered upon private incentive and individual initiative. Today in Washington the most convincing argument for new rules and laws is to announce that something is “unregulated.” When you regulate liberty, how much liberty survives? How much of America survives?

Next year, 2014, will mark the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington by the British in the War of 1812. The curious thing about the burning of Washington was that it did not make a lick of difference. The rest of the nation went on about its business, little harmed or even affected. The same was true during the Revolutionary War when the British occupied Philadelphia. Rather than end the war it did nothing to bring the British victory. In America the nation was not run by its government, and in fact government was mostly irrelevant to the daily life of the people. That was very different from European experience, where nations were so dominated by their rulers that capturing the capital was tantamount to beheading the country.

Washington is strange to America. That can be tolerable, but only if it is smaller and less significant. Let the real nation draw its life from the people and live where they live their lives without direction from their rulers. Let us have a Washington whose disappearance would not mean much to the rest of the nation.

(First published May 18, 2013)

Of Democracies and Demagogues

The demagogue has ever been the bane of democracies. By definition, democracies rest upon the choices of the people. When wisdom guides, democracies prosper. As history shows, wisdom does not always prevail, and it never does when demagogues do. Since the demagogue seeks his own power by taking power from others, once the people give him their voice they will be hard-pressed to get their power back; the democracy deteriorates into dictatorship, invoked in the name but never the reality of the rights of the people.

Why would a free people yield their power to the tyranny of the demagogue? It is not reasonable to place your own hands and feet in fetters. In every successful democracy there is a balance between reason and emotion. Rather than advise wisdom, demagogues appeal to the basest popular emotions to overcome reason. American Founder, James Madison, drawing lessons from the best known democracy of history, the democracy of Athens, warned Americans of the danger:

In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.
(James Madison, Federalist no. 55, as quoted in John Samples, “James Madison’s Vision of Liberty,” Cato Policy Report, Vol.XXIII No.2, March/April 2001, p.12)

Madison recognized that in groups fiery emotion can make for a more persuasive pitch than cooler reason can. He recommended the Constitution as a defense against demagogues, a structure of fundamental limitations on government and against those who would seek to govern by preying upon the passions of the people. The formula has worked and the Constitution has held—against many trials, including a Civil War—for more than 200 years.

The typical demagogue is a forceful speaker who seeks power by stirring up the people, whom he sees as masses to be manipulated and managed rather than as a body politic of reasonable individuals. It does not particularly matter which emotions are invoked against reason; the most successful demagogues draw upon a variety. Perhaps the emotion most powerful to the ends of the demagogue is fear, but he will also use hatred, avarice, envy, sorrow, vanity, vengeance, vainglory, among others. He will even try to invoke love, though love is hard to make compatible with the demagogue’s message of contention, but it can be used to garner sympathy and to get people to let down their guard against an appeal to baser emotions.

Are Americans and the American constitutional democracy perpetually proof against the demagoguery that has destroyed democracies before? The Founders did not think so. A popular watch phrase among them was, “eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty”. They were referring more to internal dangers than dangers from foreign enemies.

How do we keep watch on the threshold of the 21st Century? Here are ten tests to help unmask the demagogue:

• He gives powerful, emotional speeches, as public speaking is one of his most powerful tools. “Facts” will usually play a minor role in the speech, and when used will often either be half-truths or outright lies, sometimes very big lies with passionate appeal.

• As discussed, emotion rather than reason predominates in his arguments, with fear the most prevalent emotion.

• He conjures up apocalyptic dangers and manipulates crises (and creates them when none are readily available). The sky seems to be always about to fall.

• Riding on the wave of crisis, he will offer sweeping “action plans” that would cede to him major powers and authorities and push aside sources of opposition. “Forward” is the frequent cry shouted to drown out objections, “the debate is over.” (In a real democracy, can the debate ever be “over”?)

• He dishonors the Constitution and violates it without regret; the Constitution and demagoguery are incompatible. Neither can survive while the other prospers, to paraphrase J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter formula for her fictional demagogue.

• He accuses others of employing his own despicable tactics. In order to create fog and camouflage, and blunt criticism of his own actions, the demagogue will often claim opponents are lying, fomenting contention, engaging in petty partisanship, and so on, all the while employing those tactics himself. Note that the accusations will usually employ an appeal to sentiment.

• He points to enemies of the people, enemies that his plans will vanquish. These enemies are usually chosen to evoke emotion, such as “big business” to foster fear, “the rich” to stir envy, race or ethnic divisions to feed hate.

• He calls for unity while proposing plans that divide the nation, opponents of his plans being cast as those who would seek to divide a nation that would be unified by agreeing with him. Issues are chosen that find and feed emotional fissures in public opinion. Most effective, the demagogue will propose to take something of value from a group in a minority and “share” it with the group whose favor he seeks, such as targeted taxes or confiscations to provide some popular benefit.

• Following on that point, he develops classes of supporters dependent upon what he promises to give them from the government, benefits that will need his continued care to be sustained. That is what lies at the core of the difficulty in fixing problems with welfare, Medicare, and Social Security, and why the demagogues have a field day when anyone offers reasonable proposals to deal with these very real issues.

• He hates a free and independent press that raises objections of fact and evidence to challenge the emotional appeal, but he loves an obliging press that magnifies his message and drowns out dissident appeals to reason.

It is not hard to recognize demagogues among us today appealing for ascendancy. Democracy in our day demands that we retain our freedom and that we do not yield. More than our freedom is in the balance, but our freedom is in the balance.

(First published August 12, 2012)

Of War and Freedom

Independence Day 2013 had perhaps a more than usual significance for our national holiday. On that day, 150 years before, the Army of the Potomac waited on the hills and ridges south of Gettysburg for a rebel assault that did not come. Though General Meade and his officers and soldiers were unaware of it that morning, the rebel army was beaten, after three fruitless days of attacking the soldiers of the United States to clear a path to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even Washington itself. Instead, Robert E. Lee was engaged on July 4, 1863, in plans to extricate what was left of his army from Pennsylvania and get it across the Potomac and into Virginia before it could be destroyed.

On that same day a thousand miles to the southeast, the rebel army in Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered to the U.S. Army and General U.S. Grant. It was strategically an even more important victory. The fall of that rebel stronghold would lead to the free navigation of the entire Mississippi River, from its source to the Gulf of Mexico, for all shipping loyal to the United States, and it divided the rebel Confederacy in two.
As Grant reflected later in his Memoirs,

The fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell. Much hard fighting was to be done afterwards and many precious lives were to be sacrificed; but the morale was with the supporters of the Union ever after. (Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, p.297)

Some who are not friends of the United States Constitution make the false claim that the War of the Rebellion was clear evidence that the Constitution was hopelessly flawed, that the war revealed the weakness of the American government rather than its strength. Such critics little understand history or what a rare thing it is for nations—or rather the people of nations—to learn to be willing to settle issues of life, death, and livelihood by the casting of ballots. It is an acquired discipline.

Consider how very few democracies or republics have been established and accepted by the populace without the people being convinced by bloody war and rebellion that deciding issues by votes and law is superior to trying them by force. England had many civil wars and rebellions on its way to rule by parliaments instead of kings. France, too, went through several revolutions before its current Fifth Republic achieved political stability. The Weimar Republic of Germany teetered for some fifteen years until it descended into the Third Reich, and only upon ruins was a stable federal republic built. Japan at last settled for meaningful republican government after its military dictatorship completely prostrated the nation in World War II. Republican government was only months old when the Bolsheviks replaced it with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the verdict is not yet in as to whether the Russian nation has embraced free republican government even now. Similar stories can be told all across the globe, about China, Korea, Turkey, Mexico, and many other lands that through trauma and struggle came today to be governed by leaders chosen by the people limited in their authority by viable constitutions.

But if the American War of the Rebellion demonstrated the challenges to constitutional government in the first one hundred years of the Republic, it also showed its strength. That can be illustrated by what its critics consider its most damning flaw, for they denounce the document for enshrining human chattel slavery instead of abolishing it. In this they are entirely wrong. The Constitution took the thirteen new American states as they were in the late eighteenth century and brought them into a society of constitutional freedom incompatible with slavery, where the operations of that Constitution would sooner or later bring slavery to an end.

It is true that there are provisions in the Constitution as adopted in 1787 that recognized slavery. That was the price for bringing the slave-holding states into the Union within the structure of the Constitution. That very Constitution, however, made it impossible for slavery in the United States to endure. Four score and seven years after the Declaration of Independence, war waged by the people under that very Constitution was abolishing legal slavery in America. Perhaps there was a time when it might have ended peacefully, but peacefully or not, slavery in the United States had to end.

As Abraham Lincoln predicted at the 1858 Illinois Republican Convention, “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” I believe that Lincoln knew which would triumph, but I do not know that he suspected that he would be the constitutional officer that would see that the Union was not dissolved and that all of the United States would become free.

By the end of 1860, slaveholders knew that they could not retain slavery if they stayed under the Constitution. Sooner or later, the votes would be cast to end the practice. The slaveholders chose to rebel and get out from under the Constitution before its principles of human freedom inexorably overcame them. But once under the Constitution, it was too late to leave. Under the organization of the Constitution, the armies of the Republic were organized and put down the rebellion and slavery, holding congresses and conducting elections along the way.

The War of the Rebellion did not free the land from enemies of freedom and constitutional law. Those who would impose their will on their neighbors remain with us today. Their freedom is protected by the Constitution. But the Constitution has ever stood in the way of their plans to subjugate their fellows, and it will continue to do so as long as it is upheld. Hence the relentless efforts to undermine it, to claim it a flawed document, or pronounce it a “living document,” changeable at the whim of politicians and judges who are allowed to raise their own will above its meaning. Our devotion to that Constitution, if we are to remain free, cannot be any less than that of those who fought at Gettysburg and other battles of freedom. As we remember them, it is our turn to show “increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion”.

(First published July 11, 2013)

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