Authority

God says, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.”

Salvageable adds: Once again, to despise can mean to hate, but it also can mean to consider unimportant. When we treat parents and other people in authority as if they did not matter, we sin against the authority of God, because all human authority represents God’s authority.

This commandment has no age of expiration. Adults honor and respect their parents in a different way than do children living in the homes of their parents. Even the white-haired father and mother in a retirement village or nursing home still should be honored, loved, and cherished. As we grow older, though, we encounter more authorities. Parents entrust their children to sitters and then to teachers. Anyone who applies for a job is expected to honor and respect the authority of a supervisor. Pastors have authority in their congregations, and all citizens are under the authority of the government. That authority is held not only by elected officials, but also by other government employees, including police officers and judges.

But those in authority often sin. When they command us to sin, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Still, even when Daniel was commanded not to pray to any God but only to the Persian Emperor, Daniel did two things. He broke that wrongful law, but he continued to honor and obey the Emperor in all other matters. Likewise, Peter and Paul both wrote that government authorities should be respected and honored, in spite of the fact that the highest authority of their government was the corrupt and wicked Caesar family.

American culture struggles with our relationship toward authority. We value independence and the right to question authority. Worse, we are surrounded by people who mock authority. After an election, supporters of the losing candidate often fight against the plans and commands of the winner, seeking to undermine his or her authority. Entertainers join the fray, mocking and scorning those who have been placed in control of the government. Likewise, literature and drama belittle teachers and school administrators, workplace management, police officers, and—especially—parents. It seems as if no one remembers that opposing earthly authorities is, by its very nature, opposition to the authority of God.

Jesus is our model of perfect obedience. As a child he honored and obeyed his parents, and as an adult he continued to honor his mother. Though he debated scribes and Pharisees, priests and Sadducees, he did not seek to overthrow them, nor did he treat them with scorn and mockery. In his trials he respected those of authority, earning in return the grudging respect of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who three times declared that Jesus was innocent and tried to set him free. Though the Jewish authorities and Roman authorities were corrupt, Jesus never called for their overthrow. His respect for human authorities did not have to be earned by them; it already existed as part of the respect Jesus has for his Father.

When we fail to follow the perfect example Jesus set, we grieve the Holy Spirit and contribute to the penalty Jesus paid on the cross. Yet Jesus has freed us from all our sins, even our sins of disrespect towards authority. We are free—not to mock and scorn authority or rebel against it, but free to submit as Jesus submitted, doing what is right in all matters, only breaking the rules when those rules conflict with God’s rules. J.

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Harvey, Irma, and the hand of God

Earlier this week I read a conversation between two bloggers. One is a Christian; the other is an atheist. The atheist accused the God of the Christian of being genocidal. (Indeed, the rage the atheist expressed against an imaginary, Bronze-Age, fairy-tale god seems incongruous, but that is beside the point.) The atheist mentioned the flood from the days of Noah, as well as God’s command to the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites and the Amalekites. Causing the death of so many people, whether through direct action or by divine command, the God of the Christian failed to meet the standards held by the atheist blogger.

One would have to be an atheist to dare to judge God. Anyone who knows even a little about the power of God and the wisdom of God would find it hard to try to measure God by his or her own standards. One can defend God by speaking of the evil of those people he chose to destroy. The people of Noah’s generation were a blight upon the planet. The Canaanites were so evil that they killed their own children and slept with priestesses as part of their religion. A good God, a just God, cannot tolerate evil. If God does not strike down sinners, then God is not worthy of honor and praise.

If my pet cat was afflicted with fleas or intestinal worms, I would take vigorous steps to destroy the parasites. My conscience would not be troubled by the death of dozens of fleas. Even if they were a very rare flea, a species of flea that was endangered, I would kill them all for the good of my cat. In the same way, for the good of the Israelites, God wanted the Canaanites killed. When the Israelites failed to obey God’s command, the Canaanites managed to make the Israelites equally evil, so that God had to strike down his own people, using the Assyrians and Babylonians to bring death and destruction upon the sinners who had rejected God and his commands.

God is powerful, wise, and just, but God is also love. Love is the very nature of his being. God does not enjoy punishing sinners; he does not delight in the death of his enemies. God wants all people to repent of their sins, to turn to him, and to receive from him the gift of eternal life. To make this happen, God became one of us. He lived among us, following his own rules, earning the rewards of total obedience. Then he turned the tables upon himself. He took up our guilt and our punishment, facing the wrath of his Father while hanging on a cross. At the same time, he bequeathed to us the rewards he earned by his perfection.

Christians are not called to exterminate God’s enemies—not even Muslims, not even atheists. Christians are called to warn sinners of the cost of their sins and to call for repentance. When those sinners repent, Christians are called to share the promises of God, to invite the sinners to enjoy God’s forgiveness, eternal life in a perfect world, and a share in God’s victory over all evil. Yet all of us remain sinners. Together we live in a sin-polluted world. God does not rely only upon Christians to speak of the wrath of God’s judgment. God uses his creation to demonstrate the power of his judgment and to remind all people of the Day of the Lord that is coming.

This brings me to Harvey and Irma. Those do not sound like the names of powerful storms. Harvey and Irma should be the parents in a 1950s television show, a comedy about an average American family. In the 1950s, when children misbehaved, they sometimes received a slap or two on their backsides from Harvey and Irma. No one considered spankings “child abuse” in those days. Society understood that, to correct children, to turn them away from wrongdoing, sometimes one must first get their attention.

Harvey and Irma may be that slap on the backside that the United States needed. Things have been getting out of control around here lately, and someone needed to react. The ugliness of hatred does not belong in our nation, but it took powerful hurricanes to quiet the shouting and to force people to care about their neighbors. Old Testament prophets lectured the wealthy few in Israel about their abuse of wealth, gathering it at the expense of their neighbors and keeping hold onto it, ignoring their neighbor’s needs. The aftermath of these storms may help to redistribute our national wealth, not through government regulation and taxation, but through compassion and a desire to help those in need.

All authority comes from God and represents his authority. Yet some American voters thought so little of their government that they cast their votes for a celebrity with clear and obvious character flaws. Worse, others began—the very next day after the election—to plot his overthrow. For months they have been challenging every one of his decisions, constantly depicting him in the worst light possible, and searching high and low for excuses to overturn the results of the election. The nightly news has become a morass of accusations and criticisms, loudly and shrilly and repeatedly offered as if repetition would make them true. (In most of the world, these broadcasts would be considered treasonous.) For all the damage they brought, Harvey and Irma have given us something else to talk about and to hear about and to care about.

We sinners need such reminders, from time to time, that the sinful world stands under judgment. But do you suppose that the people who died because of these storms were worse sinners than those who survived? Jesus would say no, “but unless you repent, you will likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). The atheist might blame God-who-does-not-exist for allowing the violence and destruction of Harvey and Irma, that of the Mexican earthquake, and that of the wildfires in western states, offering that random violence as proof that God-who-does-not-exist cannot be good or just.

Evil is random and unfair. God permits us to see evil—whether the violence of nature or the crimes of terrorists—so we can distinguish good from evil, and so we can hunger and thirst for what is good. Any Christians who died in the storms or the earthquake or the fires is with Christ in Paradise awaiting the resurrection. They are happy to be there; they are not complaining. Unbelievers who perished would have died from something else sooner or later. They are no worse off now than they would be had they survived to die another day.

Believers and unbelievers lost property in these storms. Tragic as the loss may be, it also reminds all of us to value heavenly treasures rather than earthly wealth. Insurance companies, relief organizations, and compassionate neighbors will help to restore or replace what was lost. Along the way, jobs will be provided, meaning that families will be fed and sheltered. More precautions will be taken to make homes and other businesses safer from future storms. Meanwhile, one can only hope that another blessing from these tribulations will be less hatred, less rebellion, and less division among Americans—more compassion, more cooperation, and more faith. J.

Labor Day

The industrial revolution changed the world. One thousand years ago, Chinese technology created a new and better version of steel. Over the centuries that recipe spread, until it reached the British Isles, where iron and coal were abundant and were near each other, and where transportation by water made it easy to distribute what was manufactured. Labor-saving devices such as mechanical spinners and looms allowed increased production, and what happened in Britain began to happen in other European countries, in North America, and eventually throughout the world.

Capitalism had already begun to develop in medieval Europe. Workers formed guilds which controlled each craft, putting the power of production into the hands of workers. Along with the guilds came financial leagues which led to modern banking and a new financial system. With the industrial revolution came a new form of capitalism. Only those who had access to wealth could buy the new machines. Now workers came into the factories and worked for the investors instead of working at home and controlling their own careers. Following the precepts of capitalism, investors and factory owners paid as little as they could to workers and got as much work out of them as possible, thereby keeping prices low for their customers which allowed them to gain a profit.

Many people realized the problems implicit in the system of capitalism. Even Adam Smith, who wrote the book defining and defending capitalism, explained that workers needed to be treated well to produce a better product—and to be the customers that the factories required. Karl Marx was not the first thinker to attack capitalism, but he offered the most dramatic solution. He complained that the system was rigged to keep the many workers under the control of the few people who had wealth. Government and even religion, he said, always took the side of the wealthy few against the many workers. Marx predicted that the workers would rise in revolt. They would overthrow the wealthy few, along with government and religion, and create a new and fairer system. For a time, the government would own and control the factories and farms on behalf of the people (socialism). After a while the government would wither and die and the people would own the factories and the farms. They would distribute the wealth they produced according to the workers’ needs, and each worker would willingly labor according to his or her ability (communism).

Marx said that the revolution would begin in the countries where the industrial revolution began and would spread as industry had spread. When it had reached the entire world, then the conversion from socialism to communism could happen. Marx did not foresee any way the workers could achieve their goals of proper wages and decent working conditions without violent revolution. He did not foresee any way that capitalism could be preserved.

Marx was wrong. Workers in Europe and North America found ways to organize themselves into unions which could speak to the owners of factories on behalf of all the workers. Christian sensibilities took the side of the workers and implored factory owners to treat them better—fair wages, fewer hours of work, better and safer working conditions. Swayed by Christians and by the growing power of the labor unions, governments began making laws to require the workers in factories to be treated properly. Child labor was gradually abolished, work hours were regulated, and inspectors were sent into factories to guarantee the safety of the workers. Although there were exceptions, generally governments required factory owners to permit their workers to form unions that would negotiate with the owners for the good of the workers. Socialism and communism were not necessary. Capitalism, under limited government regulation, could be preserved, with investors and customers and workers all benefiting from the system.

In the United States we celebrate workers and their contribution to the nation and the world with a holiday called Labor Day. Unlike Memorial Day (which was originally May 30, until it was moved to the last Monday in May), Labor Day has always been celebrated on a Monday, the first Monday in September. Originally that Monday was meant to be a time when workers would parade through the streets of the city to be recognized by their fellow citizens. It was, naturally, an extra day without work for the laborers, a day when they could gather with their families and those of their coworkers in picnics and other festive occasions. Labor Day weekend has become the social end to summer, as Memorial Day weekend is the social beginning of summer.

Every Memorial Day a few people speak out about the importance of recalling the reason for the holiday. Memorial Day is not just about cook-outs and the beginning of summer. On Memorial Day we remember soldiers who lost their lives fighting for their country. I have written such reminders myself. Scolding Americans because we have forgotten the meaning of Labor Day happens far less often. Of course we should be grateful to those workers whose labor improves our lives. We might not go into factories and shake the hands of laborers there, but each of us can mark this Labor Day weekend in some appropriate way. Be kind to the restaurant workers and grocery store workers you encounter. Thank them for doing their jobs. Think of those other laborers who do not get time off for the holiday—police officers, fire fighters, hospital workers, pastors, and all those expected to continue working on a holiday weekend.

Labor Day recognizes workers. It also reminds us of a process—the way labor unions, governments, and Christians concerned about the lives of factory workers combined to assist those workers. Along the way, they rescued capitalism from the danger of revolt. We continue to debate how much regulation is necessary and which laws hinder capitalism excessively. We should debate these things. On Labor Day, though, we also rejoice and are glad for the good things we have because of the work of our neighbors. J.

Bluster and North Korea

Nobody would be worried about missiles fired from North Korea if the Yalta Conference of February 1945 had turned out differently.

The Yalta Conference was the second of three meetings involving the heads of state of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union during World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Premier Joseph Stalin had met in Tehran, Iran, in 1943. All three also attended the Yalta Conference on the Crimean Peninsula in the Black Sea. The third meeting, held in Potsdam, Germany, also included Stalin, but Roosevelt had died and been replaced by Harry S Truman. Churchill was still alive, but Clement Attlee had displaced Churchill as Prime Minister.

These meetings had two purposes. They helped the allied governments cooperate in their war against the Axis powers, and they also helped those governments plan for the post-war era. For example, as the United States and the United Kingdom planned their D-Day invasion, they were able to persuade Stalin in Tehran to launch an invasion of German-held territory at about the same time to pin German troops on the eastern front. The partition of Germany following the war was also determined at these conferences.

Probably the most important agreement made in Yalta was that each of the allied powers would set up governments in the lands that they captured from the Axis. Aside from eastern Germany, the Soviet Union also formed governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary at the end of the war. Churchill and Roosevelt had insisted that free elections be held-especially in Poland-and Stalin promised that such elections would be held. Instead, all those countries were placed under governments following the Soviet system, and they remained under Communist Party rule until 1989.

Stalin also promised that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan roughly three months after the surrender of Germany. This promise he kept. In the beginning of August, Soviet troops entered Korea and began battling the Japanese forces occupying the country. This Soviet invasion factored into President Truman’s decision to rush the end of the war by dropping atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, although his fear of the loss of life that would be caused by a conventional invasion of Japan was a larger concern. When Japan surrendered, Soviet forces had captured the northern half of Korea, and they invoked the Yalta agreement to create a Soviet-sponsored government there as well. Roosevelt and Churchill had never intended Korea to be divided, but Truman and Attlee were not about to concede all of Korea to the Communists. Korea was split into two countries, and today it remains two countries under separate governments.

North Korea is the only Communist nation to be ruled by a single dynasty. Three generations of the Kim family have ruled North Korea since 1945. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea, setting off a three-year war which would later spawn an eleven-year television show called MASH. The United Nations condemned the invasion. Soviet representatives in the UN were absent that day, so they failed to veto the UN’s decision to send troops to support South Korea. (This is generally offered as proof that Kim and North Korea were invading on their own and not under instructions from the Soviet Union.) When the UN forces prevailed against the North Korean army, Chairman Mao sent reinforcements from the Peoples Republic of China, and the war became a stalemate that was settled by treaty in 1953, leaving things much as they had been before 1950.

The division of Korea became an interesting test case for different economic beliefs. With the support of the United States, South Korea built a capitalist economy, while North Korea built a socialist economy inspired by that of the Soviet Union. South Korea has blossomed into an economic power, while North Korea has remained stagnant economically. The government of North Korea has invested heavily in military equipment, including atomic weaponry and missile technology. With little opportunity to boast about anything else, the North Korean government regularly reminds the world of its power. The United States in particular has responded to these reminders with its own reminders of American military power.

I teach history classes. I am more qualified to discuss the past than to predict the future. I can say with confidence, though, that governments like those in North Korea and Cuba are doomed to failure sooner or later. No matter how hard they try, despots can only fool their people for a while. News of what people in other countries possess leads to discontent and a desire for change. At some point the mistakes made at the Yalta Conference will be upended and freedom will prevail, even in North Korea. J.

 

Those secret groups that run the world

Imagine what could be done if someone could gather together the most influential people in the world—leaders of industry, finance, academia, government and politics, perhaps even entertainers and members of the media. Imagine what would happen if all these people would speak to one another and—more important—listen to one another. Imagine each of these important people gathering insight into other points of view, other approaches to leadership, and other goals for business and government.

You do not have to imagine. Meetings like this actually happen. In fact, there are three regular gatherings that meet this description. The oldest, founded in 1921, is called the Council on Foreign Affairs. It consists of American leaders, and it clearly was begun in an attempt to ward off the isolationism that was dominating American thought after the Great War was over. The next, founded in 1954, is called Bilderberg. It includes Americans and Europeans, and it dates to the aftermath of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War. Along with them is the Trilateral Commission, founded in 1973, and including Japan as well as North America and Europe. Recently other east Asian countries have been included in the Trilateral Commission along with Japan.

The three groups have common interests and goals. They share one other trait: all three are accused of being secret organizations plotting to control world events. Conspiracy theorists regularly invoke one or more of these groups when they try to explain how a hidden elite force is running the world, causing everything from terrorist attacks to the fluoridation of water.

Some years ago, the governor of a certain state was invited to join one of these three groups. After he accepted, he received dozens of letters from alarmed citizens—some from his state, and some from other states. They warned him that he was being sucked into an evil cabal, one bent upon one-world government and other nefarious plots. He was cautioned that known Communists had addressed meetings of this group. (This was while the Cold War was still happening.) The governor’s staff mailed a reply to these letters with his signature. The reply emphasized that the group existed only to listen to different points of view so people would understand one another. The group had no agenda apart from speaking and listening. In many cases, that reply induced a second letter scolding the governor for naivety and recommending a book to the governor, a recently-published book which claimed to reveal all the dark secrets of this particular group.

Conspiracy theorists focus upon these groups because they seem elitist and powerful. Accusing other people of conspiring to run the world reduces one’s own personal responsibility to the world. A person who believes that a secret elite controls the world and that the rest of us are helpless is a person who feels free to ignore the problems of others. Feed the hungry and shelter the homeless? Cut back on littering and on wasting fuel? Be kind to a stranger? Why bother? THEY are in control, and these small gestures cannot change anything. Moreover, doing any of these things might just be playing into THEIR hands.

The Rockefellers and the Rothschilds are wealthy families. They are regarded with suspicion by many conspiracy theorists. But the Rothschild fortune and the Rockefeller fortune were acquired in the same fashion that Bill Gates and Sam Walton became wealthy more recently. Such wealth begins with an idea—a thought about how to give other people what they want and get paid for doing it. Having that idea, the entrepreneur advertises the product or the service. As profits build, they are reinvested in the company. Further investigation of what people want and how to provide it, and continued advertising, bring about a growing business that eventually produces a family fortune. This procedure requires effort, determination, and a little bit of luck. Competition and economic downturns might stifle the company for a while. In the end, the Rockefellers and the Waltons are wealthy today because of a predecessor in the family who worked very hard over a period of time to succeed.

With privilege comes responsibility. Rockefellers and Rothschilds sponsor efforts to improve the world for everyone. They contribute to schools, hospitals, libraries, concert halls, art museums, and other social benefits. They create foundations to continue helping other people. They fund and participate in gatherings (such as the three mentioned above) because they agree that powerful people should speak to one another and listen to one another. Far from conspiring to control the world for their own benefit, they are giving back to a world that made them rich by wanting what their predecessors sold.

Yet these wealthy and powerful people are like everyone else. They are sometimes thoughtful and considerate. They are sometimes petty and self-centered. They can be suspicious of one another. They are neither interested in combining forces to rule the world nor capable of doing so. And, I suspect, they are both puzzled and amused by the countless theories that claim that they are doing such things right now. J.

“Why is populism growing?”

In the fall of 2013 I conducted an unscientific poll in my neighborhood. I asked one question: “If two people were running for Congress, and the only significant difference between them was that one had never been in politics before and the other had been in politics for years, who would get your vote?” The most common answer was, “the one who had never been in politics.” In fact, that position earned some seventy-five to eighty percent of the responses, while the second-most common response was, “I would examine their positions to decide my vote; I wouldn’t pay any attention to whether or not they had been in politics before.”

I was conducting this poll to see whether or not I had a shot at getting elected to Congress. My banker urged me to run; she wanted to vote for me. My barber urged me to run; he wanted to vote for me. The police officer getting his hair cut—a man I had not met until that conversation—wanted to vote for me. One store clerk told me that he would vote for me in the next election, but then he would vote for someone else the next election. “You’ll have been corrupted by then,” he said. Only when I began looking into fundraising did I learn that the wealthy donors in the party had already committed their donations and their votes to “my good friend” (as they described him), a businessman who had been involved in politics for years, although this was the first time his name would appear on a ballot.

Because of this brief experience with populism, I was less surprised than most Americans by Donald Trump’s success in last year’s elections. American voters are increasingly disgusted by the way government goes about its business, and they blame Democrats and Republicans equally for the problems they see. The campaign of Bernie Sanders also drew strength from populism. Both the Tea Party Movement and the Occupy Movement were populist expressions of displeasure over the decisions and actions of those in power. For that matter, the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom is equally a populist expression of distrust in government and in those serving in the government. The more recent losses by the Conservative Party are part of the very same package of populism.

Populists distrust the government. They also distrust the news media, although they generally describe their distrust in terms of conservative or liberal biases in various media organizations. Populism is not new—in the twentieth century it led to the direct election of Senators (rather than United States Senators being chosen by state governments) and to laws allowing referenda created by citizens to be placed on the ballot, giving voters power to decide matters usually left to elected officials.

Populism scares the elite. “Why is populism growing?” they ask. The answer is simple: people no longer trust the elite to make decisions for everyone. People increasingly believe that the elite make decisions that serve themselves without regard to whether those decisions help or harm the rest of the people in the country.

Consider this: between the 1952 Presidential election (Eisenhower-Stevenson) and the 2008 election (Obama-McCain), twelve elections were held in which one of the two major candidates was either the incumbent President or the incumbent Vice President. In each case, the opponent was either a Governor, a Senator, or a former Vice President. If that doesn’t sound like government by the elite, I don’t know what does. Campaigners regularly presented themselves as outsiders who were going to fix the government, but somehow the government never seemed to be fixed. Symptoms of populist revolt were felt in the late twentieth century—the campaigns of Ross Perot, for example. Tax protests in the 1980s used the tea party theme well before the official Tea Party movement was organized. Americans have long considered themselves to be populists, even though they generally reelect the same leaders or replace them with extremely similar leaders.

The presidency of Donald Trump has been sponsored by populism. Democrats and members of the media are astonished by the continuing power of populism to support the President. Efforts to maintain a spirit of crisis, efforts to mock and disparage the President, and efforts to show that he is rejected by a majority of Americans all fail to shake his true support. They wanted an outsider in the White House, and they are delighted that President Trump continues to speak and to act as an outsider in Washington.

Talk of impeaching the President is terribly premature. Any attempt to impeach Donald Trump for something less than a blatant and obvious crime will fail, and such an attempt would end the political careers of those who participate in it. Insulting the President’s supporters—calling them racist, out-of-touch, and deplorable—only sharpens the divide between the elite and the populists. As they demonstrated last summer and fall, when challenged and inspired, America’s populists can be a powerful force in politics. J.

The war on information

Ray Bradbury wrote a number of science fiction stories in which a totalitarian government attempted to forbid the preservation of literature and history. The government tried to maintain control over the population by restricting information available to that population, often by forbidding and burning books. In one of his stories, though, Bradbury imagined the government controlling citizens by using the opposite extreme. The government flooded the market with information, producing so much material that no one could receive it all and comprehend it all. Important matters were lost in the flood of information, and the citizens were unable to resist control from the government under that condition.

Contemporary society has, perhaps, reached the point that Bradbury envisioned. The ordinary laws of supply and demand—and not a malevolent government—have overwhelmed people of our time with information of every kind. We have at our fingertips news and history, medical information, the results of scientific research, access to all the fine arts, and many more sources of education and of entertainment.

People use this abundance and freedom in strange ways. Instead of viewing the plays of Shakespeare, or listening to the symphonies of Beethoven, or enjoying the artwork of the Italian Renaissance, the largest number of people has turned to scripted shows that are called, ironically, “Reality TV.” News about current events and about historic events is increasingly being presented in entertainment formats rather than researched documentaries. Satirical news has grown in popularity, in part because many people cannot discern the difference between satire and real news.

From the Baroque era into the twentieth century, modern philosophers assumed that information could be received objectively and communicated objectively. Postmodern thinkers assume that all research and all communication is biased. As a result, contemporary people choose among a variety of news media, selecting those that match the biases already formed within their minds. Some trust The New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC. Others prefer the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Breitbart. Each group accuses the others of trusting biased and distorted sources of information while failing to acknowledge that their own sources are also biased.

Some news stories are covered across the spectrum, although they are addressed and described differently in different places. Others are reported only by one side or only by the other. In controversial matters—for example, climate change—contrary studies are presented by different news sources as authoritative. Contrary reports also reveal mistakes or deliberate distortions in some studies, undermining the authority of the other side’s evidence for its position.

In the midst of all this contrary information, a growing segment of the population doubts everything that it hears as news. One day coffee is good for a person and red wine is dangerous; the next day red wine is beneficial but coffee should be avoided. Conspiracy theories prosper precisely because they seem more believable than the news that is being reported.

As to conspiracy theories, they began to flourish in the days of Watergate and because of revelations about conspiracies and crime within the White House and also in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Watergate actually revealed how government conspiracies really work: they are subject to incompetent agents, selfishness of individuals, and a lack of trust within any organization. Human people are fallible; they will not succeed with conspiracies that require large-scale participation, continuing deception, or a possible reward for the first conspirator who tells the truth about what really happened.

The danger in our current condition, this war on information, is that people who believe nothing inevitably begin believing anything. Satirical news frequently is repeated as if it were reliable information. Pity the poor elected leader a few years ago who, on the floor of the state senate, called for regulation to ban or at least limit the use of a certain chemical because it was directly responsible for thousands of deaths each year. (The chemical was water.) Because truth sometimes is stranger than fiction, many strange fictions are accepted as truth.

Doubt any report that relies upon the assumption that all the people of a large group with one common characteristic are working together for a common goal. All politicians, all leaders of big business, all entertainers, all homosexuals, all Christians, all Muslims—none of these groups are united enough to be working together to try to control the world.

Doubt any report that depicts a large number of people keeping grand secrets. Doubt any report that describes some massive hidden technology that is behind some unexplained event. Doubt any report that claims that a hidden group of people (especially one that hides in public with web sites and scheduled meetings) is secretly running the world. Doubt any report that a widely witnessed event never happened but was faked by some group for nefarious purposes.

Fake news existed in ancient times and will continue to exist beyond our lifetimes. What used to be labeled “rumor” is now spread by technology that gives it an added layer of credibility. We can survive the war on information by using a little common sense, checking sources when possible, and remembering to think for ourselves rather than allowing others to do our thinking for us.

 

 

Puerto Rico

This weekend, the residents of Puerto Rico who bothered to vote overwhelmingly endorsed the proposition of statehood for Puerto Rico. Previous elections on the topic have been less decisive, and some opponents of statehood for Puerto Rico boycotted the polls this year. However, only the United States Congress can grant statehood to Puerto Rico. What would happen if Congress responded to this election by making Puerto Rico the 51st state in the Union?

  • Puerto Rico would be the thirtieth state in population, just ahead of Iowa. It would have four or five Representatives in Congress, as well as two Senators. In presidential elections it would have six or seven electoral votes.
  • Based on past voting records, one may assume that most of those officials would be Democrats rather than Republicans. Given this fact, the likelihood of Puerto Rico being offered statehood by the current session of Congress is small.
  • Citizens of Puerto Rico would be required to pay federal income taxes, but they also would be eligible for additional federal assistance programs.
  • The following fact would be altered: Puerto Rico is currently the only region in the world that is neither an independent country nor a fully functioning member (state, province, etc.) of an independent country having more than one million residents. Most such regions are either very small or are sparsely populated. (However, the relationship of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China is ambiguous.)
  • Someone would have to design an arrangement of stars for the United States flag that contains 51 stars and is visually appealing.
  • The residents of the District of Columbia would probably increase their pursuit of statehood. Again, they would be unlikely to succeed during the current session of Congress, based on past voting records.
  • Consideration might be given to balance the four new Senators (likely Democratic) by creating two new states with Republican majorities. The easiest way to do this would be to divide Texas into three states, something which could not be done without the permission of the state of Texas. I consider this event to be extremely unlikely.

The voters of Puerto Rico have spoken. Whether or not the government of the United States answers them remains to be seen. J.

On tariffs–and a proposal

I wrote yesterday about globalization to provide a context for today’s post about tariffs. A tariff is a tax assessed by a government upon imports. Governments assess taxes to gain money, of course, but the purpose of a tariff is often more than income. Tariffs add to the cost of imported items, making it easier for similar items made in the country to compete for buyers.

In theory, if the United States government wants to help wine makers in the United States, the government can place a tariff on French wine, making French wine more expensive than California wine. Some buyers will still prefer the French wine, even if it costs more than the California wine. Others will switch to California wine to save money.

In theory, if the United States government wants to help car makers in the United States, the government can place a tariff on Japanese cars and German cars, making them more expensive than American cars. Some buyers will still prefer the Japanese cars or the German cars, even if they cost more than the American cars. Others will switch to American cars to save money.

As I indicated yesterday, because of globalization it is difficult to measure how American a car is. Manufacturers have headquarters in several cities around the world, and their major shareholders come from various countries. Factories for parts and factories for assembly are also scattered around the world. Writing a tariff law that helps preserve American jobs in the automotive industry is far more difficult than it sounds.

In addition, when one country starts increasing tariffs, other countries often follow suit. Given the above examples, France and Germany and Japan very likely would place tariffs on American products, which would cancel the benefits the United States hoped to gain by its new tariffs.

Meanwhile, I also made the point that building factories in other countries seems to cost America jobs, but that is not necessarily so. At the same time that the company that built the factory is trying to lower its costs and save its customers money, it is also paying workers in that other country, people who might use some of their income to buy products made in the United States.

Why is it less expensive to pay workers in other countries than in the United States? The United States has stricter laws about minimum wages and benefits than most other countries. The United States has stricter laws about safety in the workplace than most other countries. The United States has stricter laws against pollution than most other countries. We cannot force other countries to adopt laws like ours, and we would not want to lower our standards so far that pollution increases, that workplaces are unsafe, or that workers cannot survive on the wages they are paid. Some compromises undoubtedly can be made in these areas—some regulations probably are excessive. But removing all such regulations would be bad for workers in the United States.

Americans generally want to save money. They are happy with stores that keep their prices low. Yet most Americans do not wish other people to suffer for our prosperity. When we hear of sweatshops where workers are abused, underpaid for their work, and forced to endure unsafe conditions at work, we would prefer not to finance those sweatshops by purchasing their products. Yet how can we know which of the things we buy were assembled by suffering workers? And how can we be sure that our boycott of such products will improve working conditions in these other countries? If the factories close, how will their workers find income to stay alive?

This leads me to a proposal. I suggest that the United States Department of Commerce (DoC) create a team of investigators to inspect factories in other countries, particularly factories owned and operated by corporations based, at least in part, in the United States. These investigators could not force their way into factories; they would need to be invited by the owners of the factories. But those factories that passed inspection would be allowed to carry a seal of approval on their products. The inspection would ensure that workers at the factory receive enough money for the workers to live in their communities (which would probably still be far less than minimum wages in the United States). The inspection would ensure that working conditions at the factory are safe. The inspection would ensure that the factory is not polluting the air, the water, or any other part of their environment—not necessarily according to the measures of American law, but still within the capabilities of the company that owns the factory.

Congress then could place tariffs on products that do not carry that seal of approval from the DoC. The lack of a seal of approval would be the result of failing to pass inspection or the result of failing to permit inspection. Using the seal without having passed inspection would result in higher penalties, whether higher tariffs or higher taxes on the United States property owned by the corporation to blame.

Of course the salaries, the benefits, the office space, and the travel expenses of this new branch of the DoC would need to be added to the national budget. I expect some of those expenses would be offset by the new tariff. At the same time, this tariff would benefit two groups of workers. It would benefit American workers, who would have reduced competition from overseas factories that underpay and mistreat their workers. It would also benefit the workers in other countries because corporations would be more motivated to improve their salary scales and the safety of their factories. My suggestion would be good for America and good for the world. J.

Globalization

“Globalization” is a word invented by historians to describe the increasingly interdependent relationship of cultures and nations all over the world. If a factory opens or closes in Japan, the impact is felt by American workers, and vice versa. More and more, our economies rise together and fall together. No nation can stand alone any more.

Globalization results from rapid transportation and instant communication. Centuries ago, when transportation was slow and messages were carried by hand, various cultures could remain distinct, unaffected by others. A few Italians visited China, and a few Chinese visited Italy, but most people never traveled far from their homes. Even two thousand years ago Chinese silk was available in Italy and Italian glass was available in China, but both were very expensive because of the number of merchants who had bought and sold these items and the number of governments who had taxed these items as they traveled.

Globalization is good because we can learn about other people and experience their culture without leaving our homes. Purchased recordings, television, and the internet expose us to music and drama and other forms of art from nearly every culture in the world. Japanese music is performed in Vienna, and the works of Mozart are performed in Tokyo. One old warehouse downtown has been transformed into an eating establishment with a dozen booths selling food. Customers choose from cheeseburgers, pizza, gyros, tacos, Japanese food, Thai food, Indian food, and soul food. Moreover, economic links reduce violent confrontations between nations. Until 2008 (when Russia attacked Georgia) there had never been a war between two nations that both contained McDonald’s restaurants.

One risk of globalization is homogenization of culture. When every city in the world has McDonald’s and Walmart, will local cultures survive? If you were blindfolded and transported to a shopping mall somewhere in the United States, could you guess what city you were in by looking in the various stores? Perhaps the caps and T-shirts in the sporting goods department might give you a hint, but even there you will spot Cubs hats and Yankees hats and Dodgers hats in every part of the country.

Globalization makes it harder to “buy American” in the United States, to quote a movement from the 1970s and 1980s. Most carmakers have headquarters in several countries and are owned by major stockholders in several countries. They have parts factories and assembly factories in various countries. Hours of research would be needed to choose a make and model of car and determine how much it was “made in America.”

When a company based in the United States builds a factory in Mexico, they are hoping to reduce their expenses to increase their profit. However, they are also hoping to pass some of the savings to their customers, beating the competition with their better prices. At the same time, by providing paychecks to Mexican workers, they are increasing the likelihood that more products “made in America” will be bought in Mexico, which increases jobs or enlarges paychecks in the United States.

Globalization is complicated. No easy answers exist for the problems it causes, and those problems are offset in many ways by the benefits of globalization. As long as travel remains rapid and communication remains instant, globalization is unavoidable. The best we can do is work to preserve local customs and manners while we enjoy the fact that nothing is truly local any more—everything is international. J.