Friday, March 31, 2006


Why I'm a Red Letter Christian

The call, first issued by Tony Compolo, Jim Wallis and other leaders, has gone out. The nation needs a new Christian movement, one not bound by the false distinctions of "conservative" or "liberal." This new movement avoids the labels "left" and "right" or "red state" and "blue state." By basing positions on the teachings of Jesus Christ, we can avoid the acrimony and divisiness of party politics and stand on a common, unified ground.

The words of Jesus in scripture appear as red print in many Bibles, thus the term, "red letter Christian."

I greet this new opportunity with joy, and am happy to share why I consider myself a follower of this movement.

I chose to believe in Jesus the Christ; His teachings, His life and His ministry and the saving grace He gave to me and to everyone.

I believe in the Kingdom of Heaven, as He taught. The vision Jesus gave to the world is ever before me. I believe this is the vision:

In the Kingdom of Heaven, no child is hungry.
In the Kingdom of God, the sick find healing.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, no one harms another.
In the Kingdom of God, no one is cold.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, sins are forgiven.

In the Kingdom, humans live at peace, with dignity, and never suffer because of the indifference, anger, hostility, or hatred of their fellows.

I feel called to work to establish the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. I want to live in obedience to Christ's teachings. That is the struggle for me and the challenge for Christians everywhere.

I continually study the words and the works of Jesus, and always try to keep His thoughts close. One must know Jesus to follow Him. The only way to truly get to know Jesus is to spend time with Him. To listen when he speaks and watch when He acts. We hear priests and preachers talk about Him, we watch movies that fictionalize His life, and we learn much but we are misled. Why listen to the words of another when we can go straight to the Bible and hear the words of Jesus himself? Why listen to me preach about what Jesus says, when you can easily look at the red letters on your own?

He said, "Blessed are the peacemakers..." and "As you do to the least of these, you do to me..."

As a red letter Christian, I care about issues. I view political parties as servants of entrenched power. As a red letter Christian, I challenge rich and powerful Christians to live out their faith by obedience to Jesus.

As a red letter Christian, I feel the tide of our times has turned against Jesus and his teaching. I see us, as a nation, taking away from the poor and giving to the rich. We could provide for the all the physically sick in our own country, but choose not to. We could open our doors and welcome the oppressed, but as I write this Congress debates ever harsher penalties for immigrants. We boast to each other of our generosity, but as a nation we give a smaller percentage than most to charity. We talk endlessly about peace, but spend as much on arms as all the rest of the world together. We talk a lot about free markets while pouring out vast sums to protect our own farmers and oilmen. I see the consequences of our reckless wars, and my heart cries out.

Jesus commands us to love our neighbors; He wishes us to care for the poor, the sick, the widow and the helpless. Jesus wants us to welcome the stranger as Abraham did so long ago. Jesus did not bear arms; He lived under the oppression of a foreign occupation. Jesus did not dine with the elites and celebrities, but broke bread with the despised and outcasts. Jesus did not deny anyone His healing power, but gave it freely, never asking anything in return.

As a red letter Christian, then, my politics are informed by simple ideas based on the teaching of Jesus:

Don't start wars. Ever.

Welcome those who need help, and do what you can. Sacrifice.

Take care of sick people.

Feed hungry people.

Give to those who have the least; instead of taking from them.

Teach the children what they need to know. All of them.

Always be fair, even if you must lose.

Always chose the high road. Even when no one notices.

Always speak well of your brothers, no matter how boneheaded they are.

Assume the best of people unless shown direct evidence to the contrary.

The whole of the Bible bears study. All of the Bible matters to Christians; but the red letters are the actual words of Jesus, and thus merit a special place. Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habbukuk, Elisha and the rest were prophets of God and deserve our attention. Entire books and lifetimes of scholarship have been devoted to most them. But our days on this earth are short. As a red letter Christian, I emphasize the words and works of Jesus, and I choose to devote more of my study to Him than to those who went before Him. I choose to draw most of my inspiration from Him, and less from the prophets. In church, it is God we worship, not His prophets.

In my view, the leaders of our nation act as though ignorant of basic Christian precepts. They profess Christianity, but seem to forget the text of the red letters. They offer up all sorts of justifications for injustices. They explain, with considerable force, why it is necessary to give vast sums to the wealthy while reducing the pittance allotted to the poor. They shout out loudly that we must fight an unjust war, that we must strike the first blows lest we be struck. Their barbarous barks echo on our televisions, repeated in excited tones by talking heads. People who should know better nod in agreement. Christians, men and women who go to church every week, allow fear to deaden them to the teachings of Jesus.

But the words Jesus said more often than any others were, "Be not afraid."

I am just a Sunday school teacher living in Kansas. I have no power. I have no influence. My voice is a whisper in Arrowhead on game day.

But if there were enough red letter Christians, if we banded together and spoke with one voice ... our roar would shake the very foundations of the capitol.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Class and Queues in Kissimmee

The sharp class divisions in America that usually hide in neat little geographic units are all illustrated by a vacation to central Florida.

Heaven help me, I do love nice things. I grew up sharing one room with my two brothers, wearing cheap clothes that had passed from boy to boy until they got all shiny and thin, etc, etc. So I hope to be forgiven for my fondness for five-star resorts. Who wouldn't want to stay in beautiful surroundings with fountains and waterfalls; golf courses; tennis courts; spacious rooms fully equipped with all the amenities of luxury living like Jacuzzi tubs, balconies and decks, a tv in every room, full kitchen, attentive staff, etc, etc.

If it were not for the attentive staff, and the knowledge (in the deep recesses of the back of one's mind) of the maids and groundskeepers and janitors making minimum wages to clean up behind us; if it were not for them, the underclass would truly be invisible in Kissimmee. But if you hang around your suite and check out late, you can't help but run into teams of smiling, seemingly happy, friendly women with crooked teeth. They are mostly Hispanic, and you see them pushing carts laden with rolls of toilet paper, bottles of cleaner, linens and feather dusters.

But the underclass never makes it to the theme parks that draw millions of visitors each year. At least, not on their own. With parking, a single day admission for one person actually costs roughly two full day's labor at minimum wage. For a family of four, a week and a half of work covers the price of just one day at the park.

People blithely accept the divisions between middle and upper income; divisions Universal Studios capitalizes on by segmenting the market within its two parks. Patrons line up in two queues at nearly all attractions in those parks, a short queue and a long queue. For an additional fee, nearly equal to the day’s admission price, anyone can purchase an "Express" pass and use the short queue. "Skip the regular lines!" say the ads.

That part of Florida is dotted with toll roads, in some cases running exactly parallel to "free" highways. The limited access of a toll road provides a faster trip, avoiding the traffic massed at stoplights and construction zones.

It strikes me as odd how we see line jumping as rude and boorish, except when extra fees pay for the privilege.

Well, not that I would be above paying for the privilege of moving to the head of a line. And I used the toll roads this vacation, to save time. In fact, I have seriously considered the purchase of those express passes and would definitely do it if I ever get caught down there during the peak season (again.)

It’s just that it all seems somehow so … unfair.

Monday, March 27, 2006


Highway Queues

We seldom fully realize how much we trust and rely on each other as human beings. Experience teaches us that, most of the time, our behavior falls within easily predictable norms. We adhere to basic rules of decency, fairness and consideration for others.

Even the modern tasks we most take for granted, like cruising down the highways, rely on cooperative, communal efforts that have no precedent in history. Not merely the financing and construction of the interstate, an effort involving tens of thousands of workers, millions of taxpayers, and untold billions in treasure; but the promulgation of dozens of rules and the education of over a hundred million drivers to enable them to follow those rules.

Not that very many people actually obey speed limit laws.

A traffic jam is a kind of queue. The number of people – drivers and passengers – who want the same thing exceeds the capacity of the system to deliver. A bottleneck forms – my family and I went through two such backups last weekend – and the cars and trucks form a line, waiting their turn to get down the road.

As we waited our turn, a few cars and trucks blew by on the shoulder. Perhaps somone in one of these illegally driven vehicles was having chest pains. Maybe one contained a woman in labor. All good reasons to drive past a jam on the shoulder; but not the way to bet.

I turned on my CB radio and eavesdropped on the truckers. The first backup, from the Florida turnpike up along I-75, stretched out for twelve miles. A camper had gone off the road and cracked open like an egg, spilling clothing and household items two hundred yards along the side of the road. A family sat on a blanket on an embankment, watching a lone woman picking up her belongings. Everyone one the freeway slowed to a crawl to get a good look. Our hearts went out to them in sympathy.

It would be interesting to know if the numbers of people driving on the shoulder during traffic jams has changed over the years. Fortunately, I was able to resist road rage. Despite the morons who risked their own safety and those of us around us, the social order was maintained.

Maybe this is a hopeful sign.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006



Academic economists, by focusing nearly all their attention on the price system, ignore many critical mechanisms people use to allocate scare resources. Queues, for example, serve as a means to equally and fairly divide scarce resources. My recent visit to Florida gave me ample opportunity to observe queues on the highways, in a hospital emergency room, and at amusement parks. Each place displayed a rich message of social cooperation and conflict.

The ER in the Florida hospital located in Celebration, Florida, partakes of the general craziness common to so much of central Florida. After checking in and getting screened, I approached the nearest empty chairs.

"Those chairs are occupied," said a woman seated nearby. She sounded angry. I waved my arms over the empty seats, trying to find the invisible occupants. A couple of people laughed at my antics, but the hostile woman was in no mood for humor. "It's a woman with a baby, she went to change a diaper" she said. I wandered over to the other side of the waiting room.

Aren't cell phones wonderful? What a blessing! For nearly four hours, I was able to hear a woman seated nearby explain, through her cell phone, to her family and friends that she last took her meds three weeks before, last slept two days before, and had decided to try to get more meds. She thought maybe she was going crazy and needed the meds worse than the rent, car payments, and so forth.

I watched people carry in bags from MacDonald's, Chick-Filet, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I supposed their loved ones got hungry during the six or seven hour wait.

A tall, heavy set man with slicked back, oily black hair came in with a small, wiry woman. He looked acutely ill. After a few moments, he was seated in a wheelchair and whisked away. A short time later, the woman who had accompanied him sat near me.

"How long have you been waiting?" she asked.

"About four and a half hours."

She shook her head. "In Brazil, we would never allow such a thing. It's outrageous, it's intolerable. Why do you Americans put up with it?"

"Many of us are annoyed with the state of healthcare in our country," I said. We chatted a while more, then my turn for service came.

It turned out the woman from Brazil told me only part of her story. The next day, at the pharmacy, I ran into her again. The tall man approached me, "Weren't you there, in the emergency room last night?"


"How long did you end up waiting?"

"About six and one-half hours.

"I told them I had chest pains. I really just had a bad cold. But if you say you’ve got chest pains, they look at you right away."

I said nothing.

"Back in Brazil, I’m a doctor. In Brazil, you have to have a good plan. If you have a good plan, you get seen quickly. I never have to wait more than a few minutes. Not like here. But if you don’t have a good plan, it's worse."

So the doctor from Brazil lied about his symptoms to jump the queue. Talking with a friend who is an ER nurse, I heard that this is all too common. She explained that when the EKG results came back, she knew when the patient lied. It occurred to me to wonder how many EKGs ordered up in the ER result from lies. I wonder how much the excessive waits in ERs add to our medical costs. She told me the average wait in her ER is four hours.

And it turns out that eating often worsens the problems for the patients who need surgery. Since they cannot have surgery on a full stomach, they must wait even longer for treatment.

Obviously, one cannot generalize from the poor behavior of one Brazilian doctor; but my friend the ER nurse confirms that people often lie about symptoms to avoid the long wait for service. To put the situation in terms an academic economist might understand, the situation in ERs across the country represents a market failure. For a simple person like myself, I worry about how we allocate scarce resources. I worry about undermining the social contract that enables queues to operate effectively in the first place. I worry about the care my children and grandchildren will get in a world where it’s every man for himself.

Opponents of National Health Insurance often argue that any workable plan will result in rationing healthcare. Such an argument assumes two things: first, that rationing is a bad thing; and second, that we don’t already have rationing. The second assumption is patently false; the "facts on the ground" show that health care is already rationed in this country. The real question is, do we want to ration health care intelligently and with foresight; or shall we have an ad hoc hodgepodge of de facto rationing lurching forward into the future?

Next: the highway as a queue.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


Mike's Vacation

What are the social implications of "Hulk" the roller coaster versus "Spiderman" the ride? How about "Space Mountain?" Not to mention "Tower of Terror" or "The Mummy?"

It's been over a year, so I obviously need to refresh my memories of the fantastic plastic experience of central Florida.

Sorry, I won't post for about 2 weeks while I investigate "The Rock n Roll Rollercoaster" and the like.

And I've got so much to say! I've read a really good book recently - Freakonomics. I want to write on some deep topics. I've got a draft of a long piece about causality and I.D. The excellent Bill Tammaeus wrote recently about not seeking the historical Jesus. Plus, why I'm a "Red Letter Christian."

Not enough time, what with the wife and kids, 50 hour workweek, grad school, the part-time business, Adult Education and Sunday school at my church, etc, etc.

Till next time, cheers!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Federal Civil Service Future Bleak

Like canaries dying in mines, the recent resignations of federal inspectors general has gone largely unnoticed by all except a few. These warnings, like the lack of air, are silent.

March 3 will be the last day for Nikki Tinesly, widely respected IG for the EPA. In her resignation letter, she said "I fear the pay inequities that were created with the implementation of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2004 will make it increasingly difficult to convince career employees to accept IG appointments in the future." Behind the reserved language of a professional bureaucrat lies a story of potential disaster that needs to be told.

For over a hundrend years, the federal professional class has been prohibited from taking part in public partisan politics. The abuses of the spoils system resulted in the passage of laws designed to limit the influence of partisan politics on the day-to-day operation of the federal government.

Title 5 of the United States Code governs the traditional federal civil service. The 2004 Act referred to by IG Tinesly exempts over 70% of the federal workforce from Title 5.

In place of the staid, insulated civil service we now have a civil service that runs on "pay for performance." Who could oppose linking pay to performance? It sounds so reasonable. And many people have had the experience of frustration when dealing with the vast, complex federal bureaucracy.

Of course, the supervisor determines performance, and thus pay. And therein lies the rub.

If your job is to criticise the superior's performance, to audit the agency, then your pay is determined by the political appointee you are critiquing. So much for honest audits. The conflict of interest is intolerable, and auditors with intregity and ability will refuse to serve under such a system.

The wider implications remain to be seen. The potential for abuse is there. Certainly, smart young civil servants serving in a partisan environment will now have incentives to align themselves with the party of their appointed bosses; incentives that were banned over a hundred years ago, but are back.

But the same civil service that employs only Lake Wobegon executives may not be able to make real use of the new system. (You know - they are all above average. About 60% of all Senior Executive Service employees are currently rated at the highest level.") Actual experience with limited pay for performance expriments in the federal service shows that nearly everyone is found to be performing at the top level within a few years of adoption of the new system.

The new system is clearly bad for auditors since it creates a prima facie conflict of interest. No internal federal audit in the future will be free of the taint of suspicion.

We can only hope that the future will prove the system merely ineffectual. Otherwise, we'd better be ready to answer the IRS man when he asks us who we voted for in the last election.

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