Christmas in Chicago, 1905





From left to right—front row: my grandmother Cora, her sister Ruth, and their brother Clarence. Second row: their cousin Christian, their grandmother Pauline, and their uncle Christian.
The photographer was probably my great grandfather Adolph. My great grandmother Clara died a few months before this picture was taken.

Health care: privilege or right?

When John Locke and Thomas Jefferson wrote that human beings possess God-given rights, including the right to life, and when they said that governments exist to protect those rights, they were not suggesting that governments ought to provide every citizen with food, clothing, shelter, health care, and all the other things needed to sustain and prolong their lives. Instead, they were saying that governments should deprive no one of life without due process; furthermore, that governments are obliged to protect the lives of citizens from dangers posed by foreign attackers and domestic criminals.

Locke and Jefferson envisioned a world in which people provided food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities of life for themselves and their dependents through their individual wealth and through wages for their labor. Individuals facing extreme need found help from extended family, neighbors, worship communities, and charitable organizations. Ebenezer Scrooge might sneer that workhouses and prisons sufficed to meet the needs of the poor, but in many cases compassion and charity filled the gaps where hard work and diligence did not suffice. Had God’s Law been obeyed by all the Israelites, there would have been no poverty in Israel. In his Judgment Day parable, Jesus commended those who have the hungry something to eat and gave the thirsty something to drink; he said nothing about lobbying the government to provide resources for those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, and ill.

In the “good old days,” doctors made house calls. Sometimes they accepted vegetables or baked goods as payment for their services; sometimes they waived payment out of the kindness of their hearts. But in those “good old days,” doctors did not remove cataracts, provide knee and hip replacements, or use CAT scans to diagnose problems. Health care and medicine have come a long way since the “good old days,” which is why they are so expensive. People expect more from their doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, and therapy centers than ever before. Every year, research and development provide new benefits to conquer disease and to prolong life and health. Some research and development is funded by government grants, and some raises money through donations, but much is done by for-profit companies. They have the combined goals of making life better for all people and offering a return on the investment of their sponsors.

Health insurance was invented as a way to spread the cost of health care move evenly over time and throughout the population. Buyers of insurance gamble that they are going to get sick and need expensive care; providers of insurance gamble that most people are not going to get sick and need expensive care. Insurance is necessarily inflationary—an insurance company must pay workers, maintain offices, and return a profit to their investors, while still keeping their promises to pay the medical expenses of their customers. A complicated system of fees, deductibles, negotiated settlements, and other financial arrangements has developed out of these needs. Otto von Bismarck of Germany was one of the first government leaders to ask employers to contribute to the health insurance of their workers. Today a person struggling to pay medical bills may also be benefiting from the health care industry through investments that are adding to that same person’s retirement fund. Life is complicated that way.

In the free market, health care and health insurance may not always be fair. People with more money can afford more helpful health insurance, while those with less money have insurance that does less for them. Wealthy people can afford care that is unavailable to others. Within the free market, governments intervene to make sure that essential care is available to all. Doctors, hospitals, and clinics cannot deny certain kinds of care to people in need, even when those people cannot afford to pay. Defining “essential care” is a challenge faced by members of the government, who must negotiate with each other to write a law that meets that need.

Under pure socialism, the government would gain control of all hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, medical offices, rehabilitation centers, and therapy providers. The government would pay the salaries of all health care workers as well as all other costs of maintaining these facilities. Citizens could receive health care at no cost; although, to reduce the burden on taxpayers, the government might require fees for certain services that are not defined as “essential care.”

The Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 (known as Obamacare) stopped far short of socializing all health care in the United States. Much of the legislation in that package focused its attention on health insurance rather than on reducing the cost of health care. More innovation in the latter regard might solve some of the current problems in American health care without threatening greater government control or a trend toward socialism.

Education of health care workers is expensive. Many professional health care workers begin their careers with enormous debts. Government loans that are part of that debt could be reduced or forgiven when these professionals participate in health care benefits to the poor and deprived—providing health care through urban centers for the poor, homeless shelters, and the like. Medical facilities and equipment are also expensive. Government grants could make them available in low-income communities at less cost than it takes to promise free health care to all the poor in those communities. Research and development need to continue in the health care industry. Government grants and charitable organizations contribute to the costs of research and development, but private funding with a hope for a profitable return should never be excluded from the equation.

The world contains sufficient food that no one should be hungry. Food is not distributed fairly. Inviting the government to collect all the food and distribute it evenly would be wasteful and unfair. Charitable giving, with some government participation, solves the problem far better than would total government control.

Sufficient housing exists in the United States for all the people who live here. Problems of homelessness are complicated by mental illness, addictions, personal choice (in a few cases), and other factors. Forcing every American to live in government-provided housing would be wasteful and unfair. The free market—with some charitable help and some government participation—solves the problem far better than would total government control.

Health care can be provided for all Americans. Putting the government in control of all health care—or even in control of all health insurance—would be wasteful and unfair. People need to be allowed to choose among various options regarding both health care and health insurance. Charitable help, with some government participation (such as Medicare) solves the problem far better than would total government control.

Protecting each citizen’s right to life is not the same as meeting each citizen’s needs in every way. The free market always innovates and creates better answers than would total government control. Through further study, negotiation, and compromise, more help can be found for the needy. Socialism does not offer answer that would improve upon the current system. J.

Frosty and Karen

Last night my daughter and I watched the Christmas classic “Frosty the Snowman.” She was quick to notice some of the curious foibles of the story, such as the schoolchildren playing in the snow while wearing shorts and short dresses, as if their legs were immune to the cold; also, Santa Claus leaving Karen stranded on the roof with no way of getting off near the end of the story.

But I watched the show with another agenda. Since last Christmas, many of us have become familiar with the “Karen” trope. “Karen” represents a white, blonde, middle-aged woman who carries a sense of entitlement, making her a difficult customer, and known for her frequent demand to “talk with the manager.” With that trope in mind, I wanted to see if Frosty’s Karen might be one of the first Karens, perhaps the original Karen who started the whole image. From the evidence I witnessed and gathered, I would have to conclude that, yes, Frosty’s Karen is a prototypical Karen.

She does not stand out in the classroom scenes, but she first comes to the forefront when she exaggerates her contribution to the making of the snowman by saying, “The head is the most difficult part. Ask anyone.” None of her friends dares to disagree with that assertion.

Next, Karen must intervene with a police officer who threatens to give Frosty a ticket for disregarding the traffic light and the officer’s instructions. Karen is able to thwart justice by pointing out that Frosty has just come to life and doesn’t know all the rules. A well-known maxim states that “ignorance is no excuse” for breaking the law, but the police officer is charmed by young Karen and gives Frosty a break.

She then speaks for the group when approaching the Ticket Master, wanting to send Frosty by train to the North Pole. When he tells them that the ticket will cost three thousand dollars and four cents (tax included), she is as discouraged as the others. Yet she has no misgivings about putting Frosty in a refrigerated car without purchasing a ticket. When Frosty invites Karen to join him on the train, she agrees instantly, assuming the permission of her mother “as long as I’m home in time for supper.”

From this childhood experience, Karen learns the value of going straight to the top of any organization. What higher authority can she find than Santa Claus on Christmas Eve? Though Santa has a job—a slim window of delivering toys and gifts to every good little boy and girl in the world—he still takes the time to revive Frosty and to bring Karen back to her home (even if he did leave her standing on the roof). No wonder Karen grows up to be a woman who assumes that any problem can be fixed so long as she can speak with the manager.

I fell in love with Karen when I was a little boy. Her devotion to Frosty, her willingness to face risks on his behalf, and her vulnerability all appealed to my sensitive nature. If only I had known what kind of adult Karen would become, I might have hesitated to give my heart away so quickly. In closing, let me say that the group of children dismissed the suggestion of “Oatmeal” as a name for the snowman much too abruptly. J.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing (again and again and again…)

Other years, if you were to ask me to name my favorite Christmas song, I probably would have chosen “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The tune is uplifting, and the lyrics are meaningful. How many Christmas songs convey the precise theology of “God and sinners reconciled,” or, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see/ Hail the Incarnate Deity”? “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman,” and, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” are two candidates for good Christmas theology; many other seasonal songs are weak and shallow and trite.

The original words to “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” were written by Charles Wesley; today’s familiar version comes from a rewriting done by George Whitefield. The original tune was composed by Felix Mendelssohn; text and tune were brought together by William H. Cummings. The hymn has prominent placement in our Christmas memories, showing up in A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, among other seasonal favorites.

Perhaps that ubiquity of the song has left me jaded this year. It is the seven o’clock song on our Christmas carol clock, which means that I hear it most mornings after exiting the shower and heading toward the kitchen for breakfast. Then I hear it again most evenings after supper. Perhaps I have overplayed the hymn too much other years—especially the version from Amy Grant’s Christmas album of 1983. That version features an enthusiastic orchestra and choral setting of the hymn, including a repetitive instrumental rendering of the third line which has become an earworm, cycling endlessly in my head while I am trying to access other thoughts. Many years, I have set my alarm to waken me Christmas Day with Amy Grant’s version of “Hark….” Not this year.

Another problem I have with the song is a joke my father told years ago about a commercial version of “Hark…”—one that promoted Beechum’s pills. My father never claimed to have invented the joke. Indeed, it shows up on the Internet with various back stories, no doubt all of them apocryphal. But my father’s version includes a line that I have not found anywhere else, so he may have contributed his own wit to the joke. At the risk of putting these words into your head and ruining the song for you (as it has evidently been ruined for me), here are the words my father sings: “Hark the Herald Angels Sing/ Beechum’s pills are just the thing/ Peace on earth and mercy mild/ Two for men and one for child/ Joyful all ye nations rise/ Try the new economy size…”

I don’t know whether to say “I’m sorry” or “you’re welcome.” J.

Regulation

In a free market economy, governments regulate certain aspects of the economy for the good of consumers, of workers, and even of business owners. Although the motto of pure capitalism is laissez-faire—“leave it alone!”—even Adam Smith (the foremost proponent of capitalism) recognized that government regulation was needed for capitalism to succeed among imperfect people.

How do governments acquire the authority to regulate the economy—or, for that matter, to make any laws telling people how to live their lives? The many theories about government and the source of its authority can be sorted into three general categories: strong people seize authority and use their strength to tell others what to do, people give authority to the government to ensure safe and productive lives, or governmental authority comes from God and is given by God to those who rule.

These three theories can be combined. For example, some might believe that strong people seize authority and become rulers (“caudillos”) but that people allow that to happen and have the power to prevent a strong leader from arising or to transfer power from one strong leader to another. Likewise, some people (this author included) agree that government authority comes from God (as described in Romans 13:1-7) but that it is bestowed through the people; therefore, the people have a God-given right to overthrow one government and replace it with another when the first government is no longer using divine authority in a God-pleasing manner.

Under some theories, government must be strong so it can accomplish its purposes. Under other theories, government should be limited by the people so it does not rob them of their rights. One approach says that some problems are too big to be handled by anyone other than the government; another approach says that too much government is the biggest problem. Thomas Hobbes described government as a necessary evil, a monster that must be fed and maintained, but that also must be watched constantly and controlled to keep the monster from causing too much trouble and destruction.

So, governments make rules on behalf of their citizens. They inspect food and other products to be sure that they are safe and uncontaminated. They ensure that workplaces are safe and that workers are being treated fairly. They prohibit monopolies, trusts, and cartels, breaking apart businesses that otherwise could take advantage of customers and workers. They protect the air and land and water from pollution. They zone some areas for industry, some for sales, some for homes and neighborhoods, and some for parks and natural preserves.

All these regulations are part of the social contract, an agreement between the people and the government. The government claims strips of land from landowners, develops them as roads, demands that travelers move from place to place only on those roads, restricts the speed and other behavior of travelers (fining lawbreakers when they are caught), and charges for the use of the roads with taxes, licenses, and tolls. Most citizens accept the government’s right to do these things because we need roads; many kinds of trouble would follow if each citizen traveled from place to place as he or she wished, without government roads and without traffic laws.

Within that social contract, disagreements arise and compromises much be reached about the level of government regulation and the details of that regulation. Which pollution standards are beneficial, and which are excessive? Excessive regulations are costly to businesses and consumers. They can rob the economy of jobs and businesses. Yet insufficient regulation leaves people in danger of being poisoned by pollution. Likewise, minimum wage laws are controversial. Some people insist they are needed to reduce or prevent poverty; others say they increase poverty by raising prices and by persuading businesses to hire fewer workers, replacing them with affordable machines. Lawmakers must consider all sides of such a debate. They must decide for themselves which regulations help the people and which are excessive. They must vote according to those decisions, and they must explain their votes to the voters who will decide if those lawmakers keep their jobs or will be replaced.

Some regulation is needed. Some regulation is beneficial. When the government assumes the job of controlling the economy, the people suffer. When the government uses its power to make decisions that are better made by the business owners, the people suffer. A free market, regulated but not controlled by governmental laws, historically works better than a socialist system in which the government manages the economy. J.

“If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all”

On Thanksgiving Day, I broke a mirror.

The mirror was in our storage shed/workshop, a structure that was replaced in 2017 after an electrical fire. Many of the materials stored in that shed until the fire were discarded, leaving room for the shed to function also as a dance studio for my daughters. Their mirror was tall and narrow, the kind of mirror people often attach inside a bedroom door or bathroom door so they can see how their clothing looks from head to toe. Needless to say, the mirror was also helpful for their dance practices.

I was preparing to cook the Thanksgiving turkey. I always cook the turkey outdoors over charcoal, leaving the oven in the kitchen free for bread, muffins, vegetable casseroles, pies, or whatever else the other cooks have on the menu. Rather than using starter fluid, I ignite the coals with an electric coil. Since I locate the grill a safe distance from any other structure, I need a long electrical cord to work the starter coil. On Thanksgiving, I was leaning over the mirror to plug the extension cord into the outlet when I bumped the mirror and it fell forward, shattering on the shed/dance studio floor.

I am not superstitious. Borrowing a joke from baseball manager Joe Madden, I’m not even “just a little stitious.” I agree with the adage, “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.” We have a black cat in our household; it crosses my path several times a day without bringing me bad luck. Friday the thirteenth is just another day on the calendar. I don’t bother to knock on wood after saying that things have been going well so far. Breaking a mirror is an inconvenience, and replacing the mirror is an expense, but I’m not worried about seven years of bad luck. (Although I did gash one of my fingers picking up the pieces of the broken mirror, a wound that had to be bandaged for the next five days.)

If there were any truth to the superstition that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck, I would like to declare the bad luck retroactive to the breaking of this mirror. I would like to cancel the bad luck of the last three thousand days, extending back to the start of the Mayan Apocalypse in October 2012. In particular, I would like to cancel the shed fire, the various automotive troubles the family has faced, and a few other disappointments along the way. Failing a cancellation of the past, I would like the broken mirror to signal an end to seven years of bad luck. No more quarantines, no more rigged elections (or accusations of the same), no more dark nights of the soul.

Life is too complex to blame bad luck on black cats or broken mirrors. In spite of the darkness, a number of good things have happened in the past seven years. My children have received college diplomas and have started jobs. Our family debts—pretty serious at the start of the Mayan Apocalypse—have been paid. I’ve written and published a few books. Yes, things could be better, but they could also be a lot worse.

On Thanksgiving Day, I broke a mirror. The pieces have been hauled away with the family trash, and a new mirror has been purchased and put in the shed. The turkey was eaten and enjoyed. My finger has healed. Christmas decorations have gone up, Christmas gifts have been bought (but not yet wrapped), and Christmas cookies are being baked. Our annual Christmas party at work has been replaced with a gift card—for an introvert like me, that’s a win. We won’t be traveling this Christmas season to spend time with family—a mixed blessing, since I’d like to see these people, but also a massive reprieve from stress and tension. The end of the year is coming. I hate to put too much pressure on New Year’s Day and the change of calendars, but closing the book on 2020 may provide a boost of morale. Life goes on, the good with the bad. What more is there to say? J.

Taxes

Governments require taxes. Governments need money raised through taxes to pay their elected and appointed leaders and the many other servants who fill out the departments of these leaders. They need money to build and maintain government buildings, to provide roads and schools and other services wanted by citizens, to train and equip and maintain armed forces, police departments, fire departments, courts, prisons, and other needed facilities. The Bible requires Christians to pay taxes: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21); “pay taxes when taxes are due” (Romans 13:6).

A dictatorship can set tax rates, demand taxes, and punish those who fail to pay. A democratically chosen government must listen to its citizens. On the one hand, many of them want lower taxes; on the other hand, many of them want more government services for themselves or for others. Leaders in a democracy must strike a balance—when the louder demand is for services, they must provide those services and raise taxes to pay for them; when the louder demand is for lower taxes, they must decide which services to reduce or eliminate.

The simplest tax is a head tax—everyone pays the same amount. Income taxes can require the same percentage from every worker, or they can be graduated, demanding a higher percentage of the earnings of higher-paid workers. Taxes are levied on property. Taxes are assessed and collected when things are bought and sold. Taxes appear as fees: vehicle license plates, drivers’ licenses, hunting and fishing licenses, marriage licenses, and so forth. Businesses are assessed taxes on their productivity and on their property; an increase in business taxes means that consumers will be paying higher prices.

A second purpose for taxes is the encourage some behavior and discourage other behavior. Do you want to persuade people not to smoke? Tax tobacco. Do you want to persuade them not to drink? Tax alcohol. Do you want to persuade them not to waste gasoline with inefficient cars? Tax gasoline. At the same time, offer tax incentives for efficient cars and for electric cars. Offer tax incentives for using alternate sources of energy. Use the tax structure to encourage people to enroll in higher education, to save money for their retirement, and to contribute money to charitable organizations.

In a pure socialist state, the government provides people with everything they need: food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, legal services, even entertainment. The same government demands much from its people, both in taxes and in limitations upon freedom. Without competition of the free market, people accept the food and clothing and shoes and medical care that is provided. They have no choices. Their jobs are provided by the government, but most of their income returns to the government through taxes. Those who complain might be ignored, if they are lucky; often, those who complain are punished for resisting the will of the government. History shows that people tend to migrate away from such societies and to try to find homes in free market societies. The Berlin Wall eloquently illustrated the difference between socialism and the free market.

In pure capitalism, people buy what they can afford and do without the things they cannot afford—including food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and all the rest. In a free market, the government intervenes to provide some care to its poorer citizens. Food programs, government housing, Medicare, and other programs have been devised to assist people. Free education is provided through the twelfth grade, but not without competition from private schools and home schooling. Some citizens desire more government participation in health care—more care available for all people, treating health care as a human right rather than a privilege. Others want the free market to govern costs and expenses of health care, fearing that government control leads to higher costs and lower quality care. Unfortunately, the Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 focused more attention on medical insurance than on actual health care (although its many provisions did include some health care regulation beyond insurance coverage). In a future post, I will offer some alternate suggestions regarding affordable health care, measures that allow the free market to work but still ensure that needy citizens are not excluded from necessary care.

Taxation sometimes has unintended consequences. Wanting to discourage wasteful use of gasoline, state and local governments raised the tax on gasoline. They also offered tax incentives for more efficient vehicles. Their program was successful—drivers bought more efficient vehicles, and gas consumption fell. But the gasoline tax funded highway repair in those localities. Reduced gasoline usage meant less revenue from the tax that maintained the highways, to the point that some government officials proposed taxing electric cars and fuel-efficient vehicles to recover the missing income.

One of the most famous unintended consequences of taxation happened in 1990. The United States Congress approved a ten percent tax on the sale of luxury boats, any boat costing more than $100,000. The idea behind this tax was that wealthy people who could afford yachts could also afford to pay more money in taxes—money that could be used to help the poor, the needy, and the unemployed. Under the new tax, yacht sales fell from 7,500 in 1990 to 3,500 in 1992. Thirty thousand jobs were lost in the boatmaking industry. Instead of gaining additional tax revenue to help the poor and unemployed, the government increased the number of unemployed who needed help. Wiser minds prevailed, and the tax was eliminated. Lawmakers who try to reverse economic inequity through taxation of the rich must beware of such unintended consequences. J.

Freedom, government encroachment, and compromise

The range of options between pure socialism and pure capitalism is a spectrum which includes free market capitalism and the welfare state. Sometimes advocates of capitalism accuse their opponents of promoting socialism when those opponents only want more restrictions for the benefit of workers and consumers without desiring socialism. Sometimes people even call for socialism without realizing that what they truly want is not socialism but merely a more comprehensive welfare state. Labels can be slippery tools in our hands, especially when we exist on a spectrum of options.

One of the clearest guides to distinguishing capitalism and socialism is intent. Those who want a few more regulations to protect workers and consumers are still working within the free market system. Those who want to spread the wealth—to take money away from the rich and give it to the working classes, or to give away for free what was formerly bought or earned—by taxing and penalizing wealth are clearly working for socialism and against capitalism.

Here is one example I have seen online: imagine a society where the wealthiest people are earning $50,000 a year and the poor are earning only $25,000 a year. Imagine a change that brings the wealthiest people up to $100,000 a year and lifts the poor to $50,000 a year. Someone inclined to support capitalism will rejoice that all the people in the society have seen improvement. Someone inclined to socialism will complain that the disparity—the difference between the wealthy and the poor—has doubled because of the change, and that disparity is not fair.

Kurt Vonnegut, in one of his novels, imagined a society that tried, by law, to make life fair for everyone. People stronger than average were forced to carry weights. People smarter than average were forced to wear earpieces that distracted them with random noises. People more attractive than average were forced to wear clothes and makeup that made them ugly. Such efforts to make us more equal in every way clearly cause more harm than good. Bringing the higher-level people down to average does not necessarily help lift the lower-level people up to average. In fact, every attempt to reduce the wealth of the richest people through taxes and other legislation only causes them to move their wealth away from the places where it is vulnerable. It discourages them from making more wealth by selling improved products, hiring more workers, and performing other tasks that increase the wealth of the rich and also add benefits to the working classes and the poor.

Government’s job is to protect the rights of all people and to defend citizens from those who would harm them. A right to life includes protection from invasion and from crime; reasonable people still differ and debate whether that right to life also includes guaranteed food, clothing, and shelter for all citizens. In a democracy, the government is chosen by the people to do the will of the people; however, doing the will of the people means more than following and obeying the latest opinion polls. Those elected to govern are expected to learn and understand what is best for the people. Elected officials and their appointed staffs consider proposals, research them, and ultimately vote whether to enact them. Opinion polls might show that more than half the population wants college to be free for all students. Elected officials must still study and learn whether free college would be a benefit to most citizens or whether the cost of free college, assumed by the government, would become a burden to most citizens. Those who govern balance benefits and burdens. They speak to each other about these benefits and burdens. Their votes represent, not only the opinions of the people they represent, but also the best interests of those they represent. As a result, their votes often disagree with the opinions of the majority of the population.

Moreover, a representative government cannot condone injustice, even if the majority wants to be unfair to the minority. In protecting human rights, the government considers all the people, not most of the people. Even though the government has fallen short of it duty in the past, permitting oppression and abuse of some of its citizens, the solution is not to be unfair to a different group. (Two wrongs do not make a right.) We cannot change the past; we can only start with the current situation and move forward, seeking to make things better for all people.

Every person running for office states positions to attract like-minded voters. Different candidates have different priorities among the number of issues that matter. Elected officials work together for the common good. Each official holds some positions that cannot be compromised and others that can be compromised. Negotiation and compromise are part of the art of politics; they are necessary skills for anyone who seeks and gains elective office.

When a government gives each benefit that some citizens wants and then forces all the citizens to pay for all the benefits, that government cannot last long. The value and cost of various benefits must be considered; agreements and compromises must be reached. The more a government encroaches upon the freedom of its citizens—even with the encouragement of many or most of those citizens—the more that government fails to govern wisely and successfully. Sooner or later, the government that offers too much and promises too much and charges too much will collapse. The social contract is canceled when government demands too much of its citizens, because they still retain their basic rights to life, to liberty, and to property. Government does not give these rights to people, and it cannot take them away. J.

Christmas decorations

If I said I was having trouble raising energy and enthusiasm to decorate for Christmas this year, most people would probably assume that this is a virus-crisis problem. But, the fact is, the last several years I have lacked energy and enthusiasm for celebrating the Christmas holidays.

The Salvageable family has so many Christmas decorations—and has had so many for most of our years together—that long ago I started a custom of adding one decoration a day to the house from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas Day. The first decoration, which makes its appearance on Thanksgiving, is a clock which plays one Christmas carol to mark the hour from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (It assumes that we all want to sleep between ten and seven.) Then, day by day, more items would appear: wreaths, hangings, tabletop displays, books, music boxes, candles, mugs, china, and so on. It became a game for the children, guessing which decoration would appear next, searching the house to find that day’s new decoration. I even kept lists from year to year, keeping track for myself the order of items to put on display. Big projects like hanging lights from the eaves or putting up the tree would be reserved for weekends. Smaller decorations would appear during the course of the week.

The holiday pattern was broken a few years ago when we had a fire May 5 that damaged a storage shed/workshop and its contents, including our Christmas decorations. Our insurance company served us very well, paying to replace the building and those contents that were permanently damaged and paying to clean the items that could be restored. They refused to consider trying to clean our artificial tree, but the same tree has remained in service after surviving the fire. (It was not in the path of the flames, being scrunched into a box on the floor, and so smoke scent was the only problem with the tree… and we were able to air it out pretty well that spring and summer, first in the garage and then in the new shed.

Our most valuable decorations—including two hand-crafted ceramic manger scenes—were successfully restored. Some items were scarred, such as the hand-sewn tree skirt; it has stains from the smoke and heat, but it looks no worse than any tree skirt that has survived for years in a family with children and cats. We got rid of a few things that we didn’t really like anyhow. But the cleaning of the items that summer and fall returned them to us in new packaging and boxes which have made it harder to locate and bring out just one item a day, as I did for years before the fire.

So now things appear as I have time and energy to pull them from the shed. Today, for example, I am ready to pack up the special china in the china cabinet—plates and cups and saucers that are on display year-round but used only on Thanksgiving and Easter—and replace them with the special Christmas china that will be on display for about a month and used on Christmas Day. If it rains today, I’ll get the china out tomorrow, and this evening I will instead hang more Christmas cards on the wall.

When I was little (and, I am sure, even before I was born), my parents would hang Christmas cards on the living room wall. They had red and green ribbons that they stored the rest of the year; but, as Christmas cards came in the mail, they would add them to the display until, by Christmas Day, the living room wall was covered with dozens of cards from family and friends, just as my parents had signed and addressed Christmas cards to dozens of households around the beginning of December.

I began pursuing the same custom with our household, using white ribbons instead of red and green. But years ago I noticed that we were not receiving dozens of cards each December. So I stopped discarding the year’s cards after Christmas and instead collected cards over a number of years, discarding duplicate pictures and pictures I found unappealing. We now have over one hundred cards hanging in our living room, and I have more than one hundred more to put on the hallway wall tonight or tomorrow.

The tree is different this year. Last winter we added a kitten to the household. He is now full-grown, but still filled with energy and curiosity. So instead of putting up tree and lights and ornaments on the same day, we decided to put the tree up last Saturday, to add the lights a couple of days later, and to hang the ornaments this coming weekend. So far he has taken to the tree well—curling up on the tree skirt, not trying to climb the tree. On the other hand, he has cleared the windowsill of candles that we usually display there. Other years we have survived young cats climbing the Christmas tree, but he is the first cat we have had in the family who demanded access to the windowsills even through the Christmas season.

I am decorating this year as I decorated every other year, but it’s mostly for the benefit of the rest of the family, not for myself. Last month I changed radio stations in the car to avoid the annual tradition of playing Christmas songs wall-to-wall from the middle of November until the end of December. (It wouldn’t be so bad if they would include traditional carols in their playlist; instead, it’s holiday drivel like “I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus” and “All I Want for Christmas is you.” Some mention of the Reason for the Season would at least make it palatable, but the reality is far from sacred.) We have our Christmas DVDs set aside—Miracle on 34th Street (the 1947 edition), A Christmas Carol (the 1951 edition), A Christmas Story (1983), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), and a few more—but I haven’t taken the time to sit down and watch any of them yet.

In short, my Christmas perspective is expressed by a quote from “When Harry Met Sally”: Boy, the holidays are rough. Every year I just try to get from the day before Thanksgiving to the day after New Years. Except that we have two seasons to handle: the Advent season which precedes Christmas, and the twelve days of Christmas which begin on the 25th of December and continue into January. None of the decorations will come down until after the 12th day of Christmas. But the satisfaction of boxing them for another eleven months and returning life to some semblance of normal sounds very appealing to me on this 11th day of December. J.

The welfare state

Already the free market economy reflects a compromise between pure capitalism and pure socialism, although the free market preserves the benefits of capitalism and permits only necessary legislation to moderate the economy. Governments limit pollution of the air and land and water. They make sure that the products sold to consumers are safe. They also regulate work areas for the safety of the workers. Governments even place limits upon who can work—setting minimum working ages to keep children out of the work force—and they limit the number of hours per week required of workers and demand rest times and meal times for workers.

A further compromise between pure capitalism and pure socialism is called the welfare state. Although some kinds of government welfare can be detected in ancient times—the Roman government subsidized bread and circuses for the people—the real welfare state began in the late nineteenth century as a result of the conflict between the ideas of capitalism and socialism. Otto von Bismarck introduced the welfare state to the newly-formed country of Germany in the 1880s. Fifty years later, Franklin Roosevelt introduced aspects of the welfare state to the United States as part of his New Deal, an attempt to overcome the troubles of the Great Depression.

Behind the welfare state lies the concept that all people have rights and that governments exist to protect those rights. In the original definition of human rights (life, liberty, property), the work of the government was largely negative. The government was not to deprive people of their rights without due process (a declaration of war or a criminal trial, for example). The government was to protect the rights of some citizens from enemies and criminals that would violate those rights. But, at first, no one said that the government should guarantee life by positive efforts to support the lives of all citizens.

People have basic needs. We need food and drink, clothing and shelter, and other physical supplies. When John Locke and Thomas Jefferson wrote about a right to life, they did not intend for the government to feed and clothe and house all citizens. People who work are given money, and they use that money to purchase what they need. People who do not work receive care from their families—children, the elderly, and the ill generally expect their families to feed and clothe and shelter them. Churches, community groups, and other charitable organizations care for those who are lacking the support of a family and those whose needs surpass the capacity of their family to meet. The government, therefore, had no role in supporting and protecting the poor beyond its essential task to keep enemies and criminals from taking advantage of those who were poor.

God gave his Law to his chosen people, the Israelites. He said that poverty would not exist if his Law was obeyed, but God acknowledged the reality of sin when he said, “You will always have the poor with you.” Jesus calls his people to be loving and generous, caring for those in need. If every Christian obeyed those commands to their fullest extent, poverty would not exist. Today’s Christians must confess that we have not perfectly followed the commands of Jesus. The poor, the needy, the homeless, and the oppressed among us reveal our shortcomings, our sins, our need for forgiveness. Christians are forgiven. Jesus paid the debt of all sinners in full on the cross. Being forgiven, Christians are being transformed into the image of Christ, doing what Jesus would do. Because the transformation is not complete, the poor and needy and homeless and oppressed are still among us.

Socialists point to the poor and oppressed and blame capitalism for their plight. Rather than acknowledging the sinful nature of all people, they focus their accusations upon the wealthy, the business owners, the people who benefit most from capitalism. Bismarck and Roosevelt did not want to renounce capitalism and endorse socialism. Instead, they used the authority of the government to require more help for the needy from those who could afford to offer help. Businesses are required to give their workers health insurance, disability insurance, and retirement plans. Under Social Security (part of the New Deal), workers are taxed to provide the government money; that money pays other people—chiefly the elderly and the disabled—not to work.

Does its defense of the right to life require the government to guarantee food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care to every citizen? This question defines the debate between conservatives and liberals in Europe, North America, and much of the rest of the world. The more services the government undertakes to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and provide medical care for the ill and injured, the more money it must collect from all its citizens. Government programs tend to be less efficient and more expensive than comparable programs under private ownership. Wealthy capitalists and their foundations often provide help for the poor that addresses their needs more specifically and more completely than government programs. On the other hand, when citizens begin trusting the government to solve the problems of the poor, those citizens often become detached from the problems of the poor, losing their compassion and their willingness to help their neighbors one person at a time.

Many Americans who say that they support socialism are actually longing for a more complete welfare state. They do not necessarily want their government to run all the factories, all the farms, all the hospitals and clinics, and all the means of production. They merely want a guarantee that all the hungry will be fed, all the homeless will be sheltered, and all the sick will receive the care they need. Calling for socialism, they blame the wealthy for creating and perpetuating the needs of their neighbors, and they accept no personal responsibility for causing or for solving those needs. The welfare state is not as bad an answer to human problems as is pure socialism; but it falls short of being the best answer available. J.