The Coming Collapse of Middle Class Giving

I just watched a youtube video of Elizabeth Warren’s 2008 lecture “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class.” It was very clear and helpful. I’m going to distill it, and add a few thoughts of my own. I hope that you will chime in on a subject we haven’t explored yet: the intersection between promoting giving and politics. Why is this intersection important?

Between 1970 and 2007, the median 2 parent family increased expenses on:
* houses by 76%,
* health insurance by 74% (if healthy and employer-sponsored),
* cars by 52% (because families used to have 1 car on average),
* child care by 100% (a new expense),
* taxes by 25% (because moms are now working in addition to dads).

The family paid 50% of its income for those five things above on 1 income back in 1970. But now, the family pays 75% of its income for those things on 2 incomes.

The family saved 11% of total income in 1970, and now we save a whopping 0%. In fact, we are in debt. We’re assuming more risk and stress. What happens if one parent loses a job or gets really sick? What happens if we need to care for elderly parents? So how in the world is the average middle class Christian family going to give towards global poverty, when we feel like we’re skating on the edge, or already treading water?

If I’m interested in giving, and in helping other people give, I’ve got to be interested in the system and not just individual choices. I’ve got to care about why our big “non-negotiable-feeling” expenses (housing in wealthy school districts, etc.) have shot up so much, not just why we are in more consumer debt. So why has this happened?

One reason is that in the 1970’s, bank mortgage law changed to consider 2 incomes and not just 1 income; that shifted the entire real estate market towards larger homes. Now in many places, it’s not even possible to get a mortgage without 2 incomes. We need to go back to smaller homes, so that we can afford mortgages on 1 income. We really have to consider living in intentional Christian community, in the city and the burbs. In the long run, Christian real estate developers and policy makers need to leverage their influence in city planning and housing policy. Bringing down housing costs would free up dramatically more money to give.

Our overall health has really changed over the last 40 years, too. For those of you who know me, you know that my family and I are really into eating healthy because society’s change in food is making us sicker. One in three Americans born after the year 2000 will have diabetes. So we’ve got to eat healthier and ask stores to carry healthier foods. We need to stop Monsanto and other companies making genetically modified food, which gives us allergies and inflammation. We need higher standards for testing and packaging. We need to stop giving $8 billion in subsidies to corn producers, which doesn’t go to the farmers anyway but rather chemicals and oil companies. And dare I say that we need a public option to drive down health insurance costs? Private health insurance companies made a 26% profit during 2009, during the depth of this recession! Why is insurance a profit-making industry? Lowering our health costs would free up more money to give in the long run.

We need to raise the tax rate on the rich. It’s fairly clear from the 1920’s, 1980’s, and the 2000’s that rich people do not stimulate the economy or create jobs. They put their money in risky financial investments that then “need” government bail outs. The rich give less as a % of their wealth, so helping the lower and middle classes will result in more giving overall.

We need to reign in banks and financial institutions. They changed the real estate market, then bet against middle class families in the mortgage crisis. They promote overconsumption and debt. They oppose the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau which is like opposing a “list of ingredients” on our food packaging, etc. And on a global level, the IMF and World Bank are dubious. The ancient Jewish, Christian, and Greek suspicion of interest rates was well founded, because they recognized how the rich could further take advantage of the poor through interest rate lending. Unregulated profit motives and unchecked private power will always grind down the face of the poor especially.

I’m sure you can think of more, and I’d like to consider it. If we care about giving, and especially middle class giving, then we need to care about the systems we live in, and not just individual consumer choices, as important as those are. What do you think?

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18 thoughts on “The Coming Collapse of Middle Class Giving

  1. Problem is that the government is being looked to as a savior for all society ills. even Jesus said there will always be the poor. sadly, the part of our society who are on welfare are usually overweight and have bad health habits because they know the some one will do something for them instead of taking their own initiative. Spending too much by the government is the problem – not the collection of taxes. politicians get re-elected because of what they can “get” for their districts by pooling tax money. but in reality, they are just stealing from one working group (middle class) to give to another. the housing downturn was caused by government policies pushing for ownership even tho some people may be better able to rent than own. there was too much credit available from china and other countries wanting make money from loans. there is still alot of corruption from barney frank/Fannie/Freddie Mae and some banks too. even tho the banks got the bailouts, it was the government who gave it away… the gov’t should not have bailed these failing banks because of these bank’s corruptions. they did not have to, but their lies scared the market and the sheep agreed. of course there was probably kickback for the gov’t officials involved. instead of quickly clearing out the system for a fast turnaround, our gov’t has kept a zombie banking and shadow foreclosure inventory in place for a drawn out downturn with no end in sight. there was a time when communities and churches genuinely helped the poor and needy. why not allow God and willing volunteers to help at individual level? bill gates has a charity fund – has he helped? what about bartering? why not target government officials who get free premium healthcare and cushy pensions, not to mention all the lobbying money under the table…government should be public servants who give up their pay to genuinely help – not crooks and thieves. why contribute to class warfare and further destroy the working middle class? a family of 4 making $250,000 is not “rich”…targeting the “rich” may drive them away to other countries where they will not pay any taxes here anymore. then all that are left are the dwindling middle class and poor, just like many 3rd world nations…

    • Like morgsavage, I like your premise but I’m not sure I agree with most of your methods. However I don’t feel like I know enough about most of those things to add anything worthwhile to the conversation.

      So let me ask you about just one tiny point: why do you think that “genetically modified food… gives us allergies and inflammation”? I have heard various arguments against genetically modified food (by which people usually mean genetically modified by biochemical techniques, as opposed to selective breeding), but this is not one of them. I’m curious why you think this, is there a reference you can direct me to?

      I have no doubt that overly-refined / overly processed foods may be problematic in those ways. I’ve just never heard that genetically modified foods have a special allergy/inflammation issue.

    • Thanks for your comment. Perhaps I wasn’t being as clear as I could have been, so I’ll clarify. I’m not suggesting that government is being looked to as a savior for all society’s ills. I’m suggesting that government should simply have more integrity. I want to comment first on an incidental point you made, because I think it might clarify what I’m trying to get across. This is a little tangential to the issue of giving, but we’ll bring it back around.

      The reason why people on welfare may be more overweight and have bad health is not because they think other people will take care of them, as you claim. Here are some other reasons: (1) The federal government encouraged people on welfare to consume fructose products (like fruit juice) through WIC food subsidies. See the youtube video by Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at UCSF called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth.” Also, the federal government encouraged mothers on welfare to buy baby formula instead of breastfeeding, and this has health consequences. Thus, we have an obesity epidemic of 6 month olds across all income demographics but especially among lower income families. The government told families that formula and fruit juice were just as healthy as mother’s milk and real fruit, and it wasn’t. They were lied to; we were lied to. (2) There is a larger issue regarding grain-based carbohydrates in our diet. Various corporations behind the USDA – whose main responsibility is not to protect consumers but to promote agricultural industry in the U.S. – told the American public to consume lots of grains and carbohydrates, all refined and processed and sometimes genetically modified, all of which we absolutely do not need, so we got fat, sick, allergic, and diabetic. The fact that the USDA just substantially changed the 1992 ‘food pyramid’ to the 2011 ‘food plate’ is also an indication that we were massively lied to for two decades. They reduced grain-based carbs from ~50% of our diet to about ~25%, and they haven’t even touched the problem of refined and processed flour yet. Once again, this is not a case of people thinking that other people will take care of them. It is a case of the corporations behind the government feeding the American public misinformation based on their interests and not ours. (3) The fast food and junk food industries are clearly predatory. Potato chips and sodas are devastating. So is McDonalds. That combined with the fact that (4) organic food stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are out of reach either financially or geographically or both, make lower-income people the most at-risk for bad health.

      So when you say that welfare recipients ‘think other people will take care of them,’ in the context of a discussion about nutrition, I think you’re misinformed and promoting a caricature. To the contrary, these people do not expect others to take care of their bodily health and nutrition. They expect the same thing other middle class and upper class Americans do: They expect to be told the truth about what they are eating, especially by their government. A lot of people, especially welfare recipients, were deceived and are being deceived. That’s a problem we need to fix. The question is not about ‘more’ or ‘less’ government here. The question is about whether we have an ‘honest’ government, specifically disentangling government from corporate interests.

      Then you said, ‘the housing downturn was caused by government policies pushing for [home] ownership’ rather than renting. That’s an interesting, but very puzzling, point. People apply for a home mortgage with a loan officer in a bank, not with a federal government employee in a government agency. I know banks pushed for home ownership, and government under the influence of banks certainly allowed for banks to do that, but I’m not sure exactly how the government itself directly pushed people to buy rather than rent homes. Perhaps you could elaborate on what you mean. In any case, I’m in general agreement with you that government policies and agencies like Fannie and Freddie need to be cleaned up. But here is where I think you miss a key point: The repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act contributed a great deal to this mess, and you don’t bring it up. Glass-Steagall was passed after the Great Depression. It divided commercial banks from investment banks. The idea was to protect the commercial housing market and other basic sectors of the economy which we wanted to be stable, from the kind of wild, financial volatility that investment banks took on because they were funding riskier ventures. I think this was a good idea. Repealing it in two steps in 1980 and then 1999 was a bad idea, because then home mortgages were bundled with derivatives and other riskier investments between banks. They became reconnected to the same kind of speculative forces that investment bankers regularly deal with.

      In general, you clearly favor a ‘free-market’ solution to all these problems. I have three difficulties with this. First, your concept of the free market does not account for the incredible influence corporations have on the government. The example above about how big agri-businesses (and now biotech and oil companies) influence government food policy and hand out misinformation is a good example. Are we supposed to just stand by and let corporations influence government like that? If you favor political solutions that are on the right, then I’d recommend you read Kevin Phillips, a Republican policy maker who is a Theodore-Roosevelt-style, populist, trust-busting Republican. He would say that the market, in this sense, is no longer ‘free’ because it is dominated by a few large corporations and banks who dictate terms to the government to protect their interests. Caring for the poor often overlaps with caring about those who have been lied to.

      Second, the free market privileges this generation over future generations of people. If you want to make and sell something, you can get natural resources from the earth at the lowest possible cost, add your labor to it, mark it up a little to account for the risk and time you took, and then sell it. But that price you’re passing on does not account for resource depletion, pollution, and disposal. Future generations of children, if they could be represented today, would most certainly stand up and say that the true cost of natural resources is higher than what we think, that the pollution we’re spreading in our air and water and soil is a huge problem, and that the way we dispose of cell phones and plastics and all kinds of things is also causing a crisis for them. But the free market does not perceive those kinds of costs. The free market, in fact, is a way of acting on short-sighted selfishness without regard for the future. It is a way of passing on the true costs of our actions to future generations. Hence, we are pushing off onto future generations not just a huge budget deficit, which I believe is also a problem, but also the food availability crisis, genetically modified food problem, nutrition and health crisis, clean water crisis, oceanic crisis, energy crisis, global warming crisis, and so on. It’s a form of taxation without representation across time. I believe we have not inherited this world from our parents; we are borrowing it from our children. If we are to think about ‘giving’ not just to poor people in this current generation, but to our children’s children, then we have to think a lot more about these kinds of issues. What kind of world are we returning on loan to them? This shows a major flaw in the free market system.

      Third, what about Scripture? As the Lazarus at the Gate/Global Poverty Impact curriculum highlights from both Old and New Testaments, **how we make and get money** is just as much of an issue as **what we do with it once it’s in our hands**. For example, Leviticus 25 shows that God placed strict limits on wealth acquisition in Israel; He did this to prevent any Israelite from exploiting another because of bad crops, or from lending at interest and capitalizing on someone else’s misfortune, or from keeping someone in indentured service or slavery forever; each Israelite was to go back to his or her family land, and the land was to return to them in the jubilee year. Leviticus 25 is a good example that God wants His material creation to be enjoyed by all people, not just the ‘industrious’ or clever or conniving. It also shows that the mistakes or misfortunes of one generation should not permanently carry over to affect future generations. Isaiah 58 criticizes the wealthy Israelites for working their laborers too hard: ‘Behold, on the day of your fast you find your desire, and drive hard all your workers…Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?’ (Isaiah 58:3, 6). And James says, ‘Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth’ (James 5:4). What I notice here is that Isaiah and James are very concerned about where our wealth comes from. Who made it? What were they paid? What were their working conditions? God is not only concerned about what we do with money once it’s in our hands. So we have to ask the question, ‘Who is affected in the process of us buying stuff at the store?’ Even if some things look cheap to us, it’s not necessarily true that the ‘free market’ has told us the truth about what the real cost of these things are to other people. And we are to care about what the true cost of all our things are, especially the cost incurred by other people. That, too, is part of Jesus’ posture of love and giving towards them.

  2. I agree with your premise that it is a good idea to think about ways we can free up money to be able to give more. But I disagree with most of the ways you mentioned. One of the reasons housing costs are high is because federal tax law encourages people to go into debt by allowing interest deductions. Take away these deductions and prices drop, allowing housing to be more affordable.

    I agree we need healthier food options, and it would be nice if the federal government would stop subsidizing the industries they like, in essence picking winners and losers, and let the market be more at play.

    I think the health insurance conversation needs to change, because it is not insurance. If you are planning to see the doctor, get immunizations, get a physical exam, etc., then it is not insurance. Insurance is something you never plan to use. Health insurance does not fit this criteria. Of course, we hope to never have the bigger expenses – surgery, mri tests, treatment for disease, etc., but the routine visits are not insurance. No one wants to talk about end-of-life situations and how those should be handled, which are very costly, and drive up health care coverage costs. I don’t pretend to have a perfect solution, but I think the conversation needs to change away from the idea of insurance.

    “We need to raise the tax rate on the rich.” I disagree with this. I don’t see how this would free up middle-class money to give away. And instead of taxing more, running the money through the government, and then having a fraction of the amount taxed be available to give, why not just increase the incentive to give? (Also, if you take away the mortgage interest deduction, you are, in effect, taxing the rich more, because it is the “rich” who own multiple homes, housing developments, etc.)

    I agree there needs to be oversight of financial institutions. But you failed to mention that many of the bogus mortgages that these financial banks were giving, and then subsequently selling, were backed by FreddieMac and FannieMae. In essence, the federal government was insuring the mortgages without fully understanding the underwriting and everything else that went into them. If you take FreddieMac and FannieMae out of the equation, I wonder if the same thing would have happened, and if so, to what degree. To say that banks promote overconsumption and debt may be true, but the federal government does as well, so I don’t see their intervention and oversight as being a solution to halt that promotion.

    If “systems we live in” is meant to mean the government we currently have, I don’t have much hope that will change. For example, our government, by their tax code, promotes placing children in day-care, instead of having a mom or dad care for the child. So if a parent wants to make a sacrifice (of money) and stay home to raise his/her kid(s), they do not get the same monetary incentive as two parents who want to work outside the home. I am not making a social commentary on whether a kid should be in daycare or not, but I am saying that government promotes that lifestyle, so that it, in effect, can employ two more people (the parent that is now working and the daycare worker) than the other stay-at-home scenario. This means more income for government, and more “disposable” income for the family, which keeps the economy moving. I am not of the belief that government want us to give or save. Government wants us to earn and spend, then they can use the tax collected on that so they can give/spend. Not very compatible with the theme of this blog. I think we can care about the systems we live in by making wise individual consumer choices, modeling it to others, and hopefully changing the “systems” from the ground up.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful post. What I posted above wasn’t meant to be fundamentally exclusive of other solutions, be they personal or corporate or governmental. I think you’ve called attention to things which I didn’t, and I agree with some of those things, like health care. I’ll just comment on a few places where you directly asked questions of my position.

      Your point about home mortgage deductions in our tax code may be worth considering on some level, but does your explanation account for the incredible inflation of the real estate market and how much we’re spending on it? Here’s an example from a website that has a concise example: ‘To see how eliminating the deduction affects housing values, consider a prospective homebuyer purchasing a house priced at $625,000. With a 20 percent down payment this leaves a mortgage of $500,000. [Assume a] fixed 30 year mortgage rates about 4.375%. Thus under today’s tax code the buyer in the 28% tax bracket will receive a stream of tax benefits over those 30 years with a present value of just over $72,000 (using the mortgage rate as the discount rate). Absent that flow of tax benefits, however, that home is no longer worth $625,000. Rather it falls by 11.6% to only just over $552,000. Homes sold to higher tax bracket taxpayers will suffer larger declines, while those sold to lower bracket taxpayers will see smaller declines. But all home prices will decline.’ (http://americanactionforum.org/issues/eliminate-home-mortgage-interest-deduction-not-so-fast)

      The cost difference here is about 11.6%. That is an insufficient explanation for why the real estate market has changed so dramatically between 1970 and today. For instance, in my home town (Cerritos, CA), real estate has increased by over 1500% over 40 years. I realize that’s just one anecdotal data point, but I’m fairly sure that real estate prices across the board have increased by more than 11.6% over this period. I’m not familiar with tax code history, but even if the home mortgage deduction was started in 1970, that would only account for 11.6% of the total increase in real estate prices. However, if the tax code has been relatively constant since 1970, then the tax deduction completely fails to explain the increase. Either way, I think we have to look at other explanations for this particular problem, and once again I think it’s worth looking at the banks, mortgage laws, real estate developers, city planners, and public education inequalities.

      You question why I favor taxing the rich in the context of a discussion about helping the middle class give more money. There are two main reasons. The first reason is because of Medicare. I think the most straightforward way of solving our federal budget problem is by raising the tax rate on the wealthy to the pre-Bush period, because this impacts many middle class families who will care for their elderly. I understand that the Medicare system needs to be very carefully examined. But Rep. Paul Ryan’s alternative solution is to cut social services like Medicare, which I don’t agree with. Since the 1960’s, U.S. social policy has dramatically cut poverty among senior citizens, which I think is a good accomplishment. Ryan’s budget would place responsibility on middle class families to provide more care for our elderly, and most likely cause a new rise in poverty among our seniors. Elizabeth Warren gives us lots of reasons to question whether the average middle class family will be able to handle that. Given that the major alternative would include taxing the rich, in addition to other possible cuts (defense spending, government waste, and a bunch of other measures), I would rather tax the rich and make some other cuts. That’s one concern for why taxing the rich translates into more financial relief for the middle class.

      The other reason is that the rich have a proven track record of actually damaging the parts of the economy that greatly affect the middle and lower class. Through the many corporate and institutional forms in which the rich keep their money, they seem to not know what else to do with it other than make super risky financial investments in pursuit of higher and higher returns. In the 1920’s, it was stock market speculation which helped contribute to the Great Depression. In the 1980’s, it was junk bonds and corporate mergers and acquisitions which resulted in Reagan bailing out the failed Savings and Loans banks. In the 2000’s, it was the subprime mortgage crisis bundled with derivatives which resulted in Obama rescuing certain ‘too big to fail’ banks, which continue to pay their executives huge bonuses, which continue to be ‘too big to fail.’ During all these episodes, middle class and lower class people were disproportionately affected. For example, recently, homebuyers who got subprime mortgages, or even relatively normal mortgages, suddenly found that the value of their homes was worth less than their mortgage, and they were stuck. Jobless people in this kind of situation then cannot migrate to find jobs elsewhere, because they’re stuck with a huge mortgage they can’t pay and a house they can’t sell; foreclosures are even higher in Black and Latino communities than others. Then, the single greatest asset that helps parents pay for their children’s college tuition – their home equity – is destroyed. This pattern, compounded with the lack of oversight of financial institutions (like banks) or other corporations (like Enron) contributes to our current problems and the growing gap between rich and poor. They do, in fact, reflect the influence that corporations, banks, and the wealthy have over government policy.

      You write, ‘I think we can care about the systems we live in by making wise individual consumer choices, modeling it to others, and hopefully changing the “systems” from the ground up.’ I agree with what you affirm but disagree with what you deny. I think public policy and our institutional life are worth talking about because, for example, some people are responsible for making good accounting standards so that Enron doesn’t gamble away employee pensions, and the rest of us are responsible for holding them responsible for doing it. I do mean the ‘system we live in’ to mean government but not just government. I mean the whole picture, involving all our roles, at every place we relate to other people. And since we live in a capitalist, democratic republic where people are can play various roles at work and in politics, so I conclude that we intersect with other people at almost all levels.

      I don’t want to make assumptions about you and your spiritual background, since you didn’t make any comments about that. Nor do I want to take you by surprise by the nature of this blog. I’m a Christian, so I’ll speak as a Christian, and I hope this explains why I blogged what I did. I think it’s easy for me as a Christian to set aside Jesus’ teachings by separating the public and private roles that I play. Hence if I were a credit card representative or bank loan officer, I might feel I need only be willing to give to the homeless person on the street, because that is a ‘private’ decision. But I might feel that when I sit behind my desk, I am not a person who can or should listen to Jesus’ teaching and apply it. I may feel instead that I can charge high, predatory rates of interest even to low-income families, claiming that Jesus’ teaching is infeasible in the ‘real world’ and impossible on a professional level. Yet what happens when I meet a family on the street to whom I sold a pack of lies and a bill of goods? And what is my responsibility if I am a Christian at a health insurance company who is told by my manager to deny someone coverage for a surgery? Do I press for changes, risking my job? What is my responsibility as a Christian shareholder of Nike who discovers that Nike is exploiting workers in the developing world? Do I agitate for shareholder activism? What is my responsibility as a Christian journalist or film-maker with a human rights concern? Do I use media to educate people to take action? And so on. What is my responsibility as a Christian citizen who discovers that I bear responsibility, not just for consuming or not what is put before me, but for shaping the laws and institutions and culture of the context of my life? I am called to do this out of care and concern for others, by Jesus. Whether or not I have lots of hope that the system will change (although I think it does more often than you apparently believe, and you can ask me more about that also), I am nevertheless called by Jesus to engage with my world in a way that bears witness to his love.

      You wrote that raising the systemic questions is ‘not very compatible with the theme of this blog.’ But as a co-founder of this blog (as well as the Lazarus at the Gate curriculum as a whole), I can safely say that this blog is about caring for the poor, not merely personal giving. That means I care about whether people were paid fairly to make the stuff I buy, what the ecological impact is as these things were made, etc. The word ‘Just’ in the title of this blog, ‘Simple Living for Just Giving,’ refers to ‘justice.’ So the blog is not merely about ‘personal giving’ but to the wider issue of ‘justice in giving.’ Leo Tolstoy once said, ‘I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back.’ That quote illustrates the difference between charity and justice. In a context of injustice, merely charitable, personal giving involves sitting on someone else’s back and giving him money. Justice in giving means getting off his back and giving him back his dignity, freedom, opportunities, and a financial contribution of some sort to help. Charity that is fueled by a deeper injustice is deeply hypocritical.

      So the question I ask is, ‘Am I sitting on someone else’s back? Is there injustice somewhere?’ This posture will cause me to struggle enormously with the current political and economic environment, that is true. That’s why I’m always interested in learning more about other policy proposals and different schools of thought on this, and ultimately I am called towards some constructive engagement. All institutions began as yesterday’s personal initiatives; and the running of these institutions is now someone’s responsibility to manage today. So the main question is whether Jesus intended for me to compartmentalize my life and apply his teaching merely to my ‘private’ life. Nor does he intend for others to do that. While the ultimate solutions to these situations are by no means simple, I find ample reason to challenge this private vs. public dichotomy. The bottom line issue is whether there are areas of anyone’s life that Jesus intended to remain beyond his teaching or his love, and to that the answer is emphatically ‘no.’

      Again, I’m grateful for any further thoughts on the original subject. I find it helps me refine my own thinking. And if you’d like more explanation of my commitment to Jesus, how it relates to the commitments laid out here, I’m happy to talk more via email.

  3. “You wrote that raising the systemic questions is ‘not very compatible with the theme of this blog’.” I did not write that. I wrote that the idea of government wanting us to earn and spend is not compatible with the theme of this blog. Raising the question is great.

    Thanks for your reply. In general, it seems that you believe government has a big role to play throughout this process. I agree in some areas, and disagree in others. Having oversight of certain areas of our economy is necessary. But there are many areas of monetary issues that they simply pick winners and losers. (I gave you examples in my earlier post.) The government chooses what they want to promote, and if I am not part of that segment of the population, then tough for me.

    Your housing numbers are fine. I’m not saying that the tax code is the “only” reason prices have increased dramatically, just one of the many. But again, it’s government picking where they want to have influence. And it effect more than just housing prices. I don’t own a home, so in order to deduct my giving, I need to itemize my deductions, which only makes sense if it exceeds the standard deduction. But someone who owns their home, because of interest deductions would most likely be able to deduct giving $1 to charity. To me, that doesn’t promote giving.

    Maybe taxing the rich more will help, I just don’t know. I don’t think it will. I don’t know how taxing them more will stop their track record of damaging parts of the economy. Rich people take risks. That’s how many of them became rich. So I don’t see how taxing them at a higher rate changes their behavior or attitudes. Also, your idea of taxing more for a specific reasons (Medicare) is fine. However, how can we trust government to spend it on the very thing they say? Social security is an example of a pool of money that government said they will set aside for you for your later years, until they pass a bill saying they can take from that pool of money and use it for other things.

    The main reason I am against raising taxes is the exact same reason the speaker talks about it the video you posted: As soon as you have more income (2 incomes), you grow you lifestyle and incur more, and sometimes new, expenses. Same with government. The more they collect, the more they will spend, and not always on what you would like.

    I think our main difference is not in what we would like to see as the ultimate goal (freeing up resources to be given, and having a world of justice), but that you believe government is one of the main vehicles to make this happen, and I do not. Government has a role, and we should try to shape it as much as possible to what we think God would have for us. But in my view, government has proven to me that they can not be trusted to do what they say, nor are they the most efficient way to get things accomplished (usually).

    • Thanks for clarifying what you meant – that makes sense and I’m glad we both feel comfortable raising the systemic questions. I appreciate your skepticism about government, certainly. I share your concerns about whether government officials and policies follow through on what they said they would do. I can understand disappointment that government policies benefit some other people.

      On the one hand, I can offer you platitudes like, ‘If government cannot be trusted to do what they say, it’s because the price of democracy is constant vigilance – and we must always hold government accountable.’ And, I suppose there is a certain amount of validity to that statement. Otherwise we wouldn’t hear it repeated so often.

      On the other hand, I think there is something else at stake that is deeper. If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that we agree about the ends (justice, giving) but disagree about the means (government or not). That is partly true… and I understand how you could have that impression given that I posted this blog entry in the first place. You think our main difference is whether we think government is an effective means towards that end. But I’m not sure if that’s our main difference. Can you explain to me what kind of government you think God would have for us? Or is there a particular Christian thinker whose opinion you respect?

      • To be honest, I don’t want to pretend that I have a completely formulated and fixed idea of what government should and should not be. I have not done any research or much reading on the matter. (Which is why I like this blog, because it invites me to think about things that I might otherwise not think about.) But I will try to answer your first question about what kind of government I think God would have for us.

        First, let me say that government is so complex, with many policies effecting multiple areas of life and multiple countries at a time. Given that, I have a basic belief about the role of government, but I realize that my ideas may be simplistic in relation to the complexity of the reality of the day.

        Generally speaking, I see the government’s main role (federal) as being the preamble to our constitution: provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. That may sound cliché, but many things fall into this category. First, I make a distinction between the words “provide” and “promote”. Provide means it will be given to you; promote means it will not be given to you, but rather be encouraged. So when people say they want less spending on “defense”, that’s great. I want that too, if it will still protect us. But defense is one of the areas government is actually allowed to spend as much as necessary, according to my interpretation of the word “provide” in the constitution.

        The word “promote” is used for the general welfare of our citizens. I interpret this to be setting policy that allows and encourages people to take care of one another, support one another, etc. An example of this would be subsidized student loans. Most people view higher education as a positive thing, allowing students from all walks of life to have a chance to better their lives and future careers. So in order to help do this, the federal government does not charge the student interest on the loan they take while they are in college. This costs relatively little, but it promotes the idea of getting a higher education.

        In my estimation, what happens when we rely upon government to provide money for the poor, money for the unemployed, health care for all, etc., is it takes much of the compassion and grace out of giving, and it hardens hearts because 1) government does not usually do this effectively or efficiently, and 2) people don’t see where there money is going. I believe the church and the community should be the ones to step up and provide those things, and I know many do. I also think local government is a good place for this to happen. I describe myself as federally conservative and locally liberal. Needs in each community may be different, and to make blanket policies from the federal government is a lazy way to govern in my opinion. When Paul wrote to the different church communities, some things were emphasized to one church, and not to the others. (Of course there is some overlap.)

        In terms of your quote about holding government accountable, I agree. However, it is increasingly hard to hold government accountable within the current structure. Our government was never created with the mindset that we would have life-time politicians. Yet that is most of what we have today. I promote the idea that we have term limits for all branches of government. Congress – no more than 4 years; supreme court judges – no more than 10 year, etc. I think this would help curb special interest and lobby groups from having as much influence as they do, and I think it would definitely help in keeping government accountable.

        I think the original structure of our government is solid. Let the federal government handle what the states cannot (I.e. national defense). And I think God would be pleased if his people were free to operate in a society where they had more to give to Him, because they had less they had to give to Caesar. I equate giving to your neighbor (literal or not) as giving to Him.

        Again, I understand this may be an over-simplification of the issue.

  4. I agree that many of these issues are problems, from healthcare reform to better regulation of the financial industry. But if the ultimate issue is middle-class giving, I don’t know if the real problem is too many other financial commitments. Like you said, these are “non-negotiable feeling” expenses. The question is about priorities. There will always be competing demands on our wallets.

    I think concerns about Christian charity should be more focused on the culture that the church allows, which often accommodates commercial culture rather than confronts it. Further, saving money from one category of expenses so that giving can increase without a sense of tightening somewhat eludes the spiritual purpose of giving, which is meant to encourage a perspective of sacrifice that reflects our belief in the kingdom of heaven beyond this world.

    • Thanks YAH. Oh, you’ll find no no disagreement from me about the importance of Christian discussion about priorities, confronting the culture, and sacrifice.

      But I keep wanting to slip in discussion about more institutional aspects of our reality that impact giving and the middle class (and beyond – we are certainly called to care more broadly about people and ourselves than in just these ways). That’s because institutional realities affect…let’s just say jobs and the housing market for now. It seems to me that there is some kind of relationship between how much credit is out there and how much money is being borrowing by people and especially large banks. Here’s one of the things that got me thinking about this: Within the last few years, a friend of mine who took a high level job at a bank was suddenly fired because of recent contractions by the bank. She and her husband tried to sell their home but couldn’t, because the housing market was also tied to an economy that was overheated by debt. This landed them in trouble.

      So it seems to me that people in the middle class can really rise and fall on the behavior of banks (among other things) controlling the money supply because employment and housing is really tied to how “superheated” the economy is. People then have to go scrambling for new jobs that may not be there. They may also be stuck with a house they can’t sell and a mortgage they can’t pay. And if they have to move for a job, they won’t be able to. Retail and service jobs also seem to collapse faster than other types of jobs. In this recession, employment hasn’t risen quickly – not only because people were overconsuming but because they were in jobs based on that overconsumption. That’s one reason why I think we need to care about institutions and policy, for the sake of the poor, and for the sake of giving.

  5. To morgsavage (apparently the website wants me to start a new thread):

    Thanks. What I appreciate about your explanation is that you recognize that there are different levels of action: the local vs. the national/federal. I’m glad your first example of federal action to promote people’s general welfare concerns education. You wrote about federal student loans as an example of that. While agreeing with you on that particular issue, I’d like to take that as a jumping off point for discussion about caring for the poor. I think it will serve as a helpful, tangible point to highlight practical and theological concerns that I think are at play in the larger conversation about Christians in government, and what that has to do with caring for the poor.

    At this point, I’m sheepishly aware that I’m moving our discussion beyond what structures and institutions would enable middle class giving, although I would still maintain that that issue is part of the whole picture. I’m concerned about caring for the poor in many different ways, and I think it’s all related, so I hope reading this is worth your while.

    I’ll make a summary statement, and then substantiate it with illustrations from the general field of education. Here’s my own understanding of the dynamic between Federal and State/local politics: The main question from a legal standpoint is who defines and protects our civil rights. (1) Prior to the Civil War and the passage of the 14th Amendment, strong States denied civil rights to minorities and women, so we needed a Federal response to enforce civil rights consistently. (2) That battle is far from over. Today, there are still ways that States do not uphold civil rights, so we still need some Federal response to that. (3) In addition, corporations are greatly eroding our explicit civil rights and implicit human rights, and since corporations are not State entities but Federal entities, we need a Federal response to that as well.

    (1) The States denied minorities and women civil rights, and the Federal government was needed to defend those civil rights. You mentioned the Bill of Rights found in the preamble to the Federal U.S. Constitution. Prior to the 14th Amendment, States did not actually have to uphold that Bill of Rights in their own State domain. While some did, others – namely the Southern States – did not because they viewed the Federal Constitution as a tacit agreement from other States to not interfere in the affairs of other States. Of course, they did this because of slavery and racism. As we sadly know, black slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person when it came to the population census, but were counted as property in every other respect. After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment was passed to abolish slavery of the non-penal sort, and the 14th Amendment was passed to make sure the Bill of Rights enshrined in our Constitution was actually enforced at the State level, in every State. Federal action was needed to respond to the denial of civil rights by States.

    (2) When it comes to education, however, States continue to be complicit with other institutions of inequality, even though this is not popularly understood or discussed. In this country, public schooling is funded by local district property taxes. Rich neighborhoods have very rich schools. Poor neighborhoods have poor, and often very poor, schools. This contributes to huge inequalities in terms of education and opportunity. Although the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education attempted to address this problem by requiring some form of racial integration within school districts, the 1974 Supreme Court case Milliken v. Bradley nullified it and, additionally, ruled that States had no responsibility for racial integration across school districts. Milliken v. Bradley ruled that desegregation, ‘in the sense of dismantling a dual school system,’ did not require ‘any particular racial balance in each ‘school, grade or classroom.’’ The Court also emphasized the importance of local control over the operation of schools. Justice William Douglas dissented: ‘Today’s decision … means that there is no violation of the Equal Protection Clause though the schools are segregated by race and though the black schools are not only separate but inferior… Michigan by one device or another has over the years created black school districts and white school districts, the task of equity is to provide a unitary system for the affected area where, as here, the State washes its hands of its own creations.’ Liberal legal historian Lawrence Friedman said that the impact of Milliken was this: ‘The world was made safe for white flight. White suburbs were secure in their grassy enclaves …. Official, legal segregation indeed was dead; but what replaced it was a deeper, more profound segregation … Tens of thousands of black children attend schools that are all black, schools where they never see a white face; and they live massed in ghettos which are also entirely black.’ (Lawrence M. Friedman, American Law in the Twentieth Century, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, p.296.)

    So Milliken v. Bradley ruled that if an affluent white school district sits next to a poor black school district, the State in which that happens has no particular responsibility to provide equality of education across those two school districts. Even if this inequality and segregation across school districts comes as the result of people moving out of one school district which was trying to address inequality issues and into another school district which was not, the State in question has no responsibility for it. The result, as educator Jonathan Kozol called it in his 2005 book Shame of the Nation, is the subtitle of his book: ‘The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.’ This inequality in education certainly contributes a great deal to the increase in the wealth gap between white and black families: In the period 1984 – 2007, the racial wealth gap between white and black families quadrupled from $20,000 to $95,000 (Thomas M. Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede, and Laura Sullivan, ‘The Racial Wealth Gap Increases Fourfold,’ Institute on Assets and Social Policy, Brandeis University, May 2010).

    Now I know funding is not the only issue in education. Teacher unions, parent involvement, student evaluation metrics, leadership, the presence of charter schools or not, and other factors contribute for sure. But it is undeniably true that funding plays a big part of educational outcomes, and of keeping the poor and powerless…poor and powerless across multiple generations indeed. While I know of a few ‘success stories’ on the local level, and certainly want to participate in whatever local efforts there are, this is a State-wide and nation-wide problem. In addition, I don’t think it is appropriate to hold up ‘success stories’ in such a way so as to hide the more fundamental problems or avoid dealing with them. In this case involving education, State governments and the Federal government are contributing to social and economic inequality. This is, after all, one of the most basic foundational issues facing children today.

    I think the Christian community should prepare Christians and even non-Christians by explaining the fundamental funding inequalities built into the public school system, and the regrettable race and class dynamics that exacerbate the problem. We don’t have to be sure about any particular course of action, and can leave that up to discussion, but it really helps to educate people on the basics. I believe that a faithful and thoughtful Christian engagement with this issue has to, at the very least, diagnose the problem like this from top to bottom. And since there are, in fact, proposals to deal with educational inequality on local, State, and Federal levels, I think it behooves us to pay close attention to them. For example, evaluating teacher performance based on individual student improvement over the year, rather than against grade level content, seems to make good sense. This means that a teacher who gets a 12 year old student to go from the 2nd grade level to the 4th grade gets rewarded; under the current system, the teacher would not be rewarded because the 12 year old student would still be underperforming her/his age group. President Obama, in his ‘Race to the Top’ program, is encouraging this shift in a subtle way, despite some teacher union opposition. But in coming years, perhaps with more buy-in from teachers and unions, we may be able to have a national conversation about this in a more public way. You say that people should take local action, and I certainly agree, but that I’m wondering how and why you think that merely ‘local’ efforts to combat this problem will suffice?

    I want to add some points here for the benefit of other people reading the blog, not because you necessarily hold positions that I want to debate. So, please excuse me for adding this paragraph – again, I am not doing this because I’m imputing these thoughts to you. It seems to me that most American Christians are like most American non-Christians, in that: They are resistant to owning up to this sad and complex history; they insist that American meritocracy is ‘fair’; they therefore interpret the poor as not working hard enough so that their poverty is the result of their own laziness (for example, see the 1st response post to my entry by ger, above, and my response to ger as well); they protest affirmative action more than they do legacy admissions; they want to do ‘charity’ without addressing the fundamental injustice of unequal funding; they do ‘charity’ at their leisure which allows them to feel good about themselves; and they do not feel the urgency of ‘injustice’ which would raise the moral obligation to dismantle their unjust power advantage.

    (3) Moreover, States are not the only political agents that are implicitly or explicitly eroding our civil rights. Corporations do that, too. This dramatically affects public education and education in particular, and our welfare in general. Corporations are legally ‘persons’ because of a peculiar interpretation of the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment was designed to allow black people to appeal to and sue in Federal courts if the State courts were not protecting their civil rights. The firm definition established in Federal courts that a black person was legally a full person was the great accomplishment following the Civil War, one of the greatest legislative milestones in this country because it established that the Bill of Rights would in fact be the law of land, in every State.

    Ironically, the 14th Amendment came to be used in ways that undermines the black community in particular and people in general. In 1886, corporate lawyers for a railroad company in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company won a legal case that established Southern Pacific Railroad Company and all other corporations as ‘persons’ under the 14th Amendment, with corresponding ‘rights.’ Previously, Western jurisprudence in Britain and the U.S. had thought of the corporation as a charter which had a fixed purpose or fixed duration. But this decision dramatically changed all that. Corporations then began to dominate American, and then British, life because corporations could limit a person’s liability for any actions they took, essentially shifting the responsibility for negative effects to someone else. The industrial Robber Barons were the first to utilize and hide behind corporations. They developed steel, oil, coal, railroads, and other industries like tobacco. The American public by and large hated them for amassing incredible fortunes at their expense. Yes, they created some goods and services which were helpful, but they also put laborers in harm’s way, paid low wages which periodically needed to be protested, manipulated new immigrant and black strikebreakers to pit them against already vulnerable laborers, exploited children, overworked people, created harmful products, misled people, advertised falsehoods, polluted local towns and environments, etc.

    The argument I’m putting forward here is fairly simple: Since corporations are often not contained in one State, but are instead are entities that have national and even international effects, it follows that our public response to the negative effects of corporations must be at least on the Federal level. This is not to negate State and local community organizing, or shareholder activism, or ‘start your own business and have more integrity’ type of personal ventures, but it is to say that ultimately the Federal level must be engaged.

    These issues relate to education and the general welfare in many ways: Oil companies make Louisiana and Mississippi, along with federal tax payers, suffer the consequences of their oil spills while they position their drilling rigs far off the coast so they don’t have to pay any State taxes, even though LA and MI have the lowest performing and least funded schools in the nation; trash trucks take one route through Harlem to dispose of Manhattan’s garbage, so Harlem kids have the highest rates of asthma and the most severe, which certainly makes their education difficult; food corporations bid for providing school lunches at the lowest cost and often the lowest quality; biotech companies and industrial food companies and fast food companies all feed kids ‘food’ that is genetically modified or heavily processed or just plain toxic, giving children allergies, inflammations, ADD, ADHD, and autism – and that certainly affects their ability to learn; the federal government under pressure from food companies gives WIC subsidies to welfare families for fructose-heavy fruit juice instead of fruit, and baby formula instead of mother’s milk, leading to an obesity crisis in children, especially in poor families – which also affects their ability to learn; real estate developers shape which people a neighborhood is designed for, which impacts local schools; banks determine what kinds of mortgage loans are available and who gets them, which also impacts local schools; etc.

    One of your questions is specifically whether political action taken at high levels is ever effective enough to justify it, even considering government flip-flops, unintended consequences, and all that. I think so. In the past, people have done remarkably successful things to limit the abusive power of corporations: enacted child labor protection laws, established 14 hour then 10 hour then 8 hour work day standards, set policies for vacations and retirement, cleaned up dangerous workplaces, addressed discrimination and glass ceilings and sexual abuse cases, insisted on truth in advertising, dismantled monopolies and collusion between related corporations, campaigned against tobacco and alcohol consumption, pressed against harmful products, stopped near-slave labor practices in Third World countries, made corporations pay for dumping toxins in our environment, cleaned up financial misreporting, etc.

    So I’m motivated by a sense of real possibility but also a sense of love. As much as we’ve done, there is a lot left to do to protect vulnerable people. We need to look carefully at which corporations and banks profit from war, like Halliburton, and how that influences our foreign policy. We need to examine our corporate prison system and the fact that we are using near-slave labor in our prisons, which are run by corporations who have no inherent interest in rehabilitation. We need to look at biotechnology companies and industrial food companies to see which of their former executives they are putting into posts in the USDA, FDA, and other agencies, which strongly suggests a conflict of interest. We need to stop subsidizing $8 billion a year of corn production, and subsidizing other crops because, in addition to flooding the market with high fructose corn syrup and killing ourselves with it, we are outpricing Third World farmers in their own markets and driving them out of business. We need to disentangle the media companies from other product-related corporations because we’re not getting enough good information. We still need to protect the environment and future generations. We need to overturn the Citizens’ United Supreme Court case which counts unlimited corporate money given to political campaigns as the ‘free speech’ of a ‘person.’

    Some good documentaries on this subject of corporations include:
    • The Corporation
    • Why We Fight
    • The Last Mountain
    • King Corn
    • Food Inc
    • The Future of Food
    • The Dark Side of Chocolate
    • The Price of Sugar
    Some good books include:
    • David Skeel, Icarus in the Boardroom: The Fundamental Flaws in Corporate America and Where They Came From
    • Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy
    • Michael Klare, Resource Wars
    • Noam Chomsky, Survival or Hegemony

    At this time in the history of the U.S., the history of the corporation, and the history of our relations with people around the world, is it responsible to withdraw from action at the Federal level? I completely understand that you might pour the majority of your efforts into local activities. I understand the disgust aimed at Washington DC. But leaving the national forum altogether in resignation and pure pessimism is something that I ask you to reconsider. I’d like your partnership, and so would a lot of other folks.

    You make another point that you feel that when we rely on government to care for the poor, that it takes much of the compassion and grace out of giving. I’d respond in three ways to that. First, local churches acting only locally can never affect the environment enough. In some version of the ‘act locally’ argument, we might still be waiting for the Southern States to happily abolish slavery, and for racists to kindly dismantle segregation. The biggest questions about human rights and civil rights must ultimately be engaged at the Federal level. The issues are just too big and unenforceable at the local level, and sometimes even at the State level. The material I presented above should at least raise some serious questions about whether it is an abdication of responsibility to disengage from the Federal level.

    Second, I am not simply talking about a ‘redistribution of wealth’ based on the stereotyped ‘welfare’ model. I am talking about doing an ongoing analysis of concentrated power and its effects on human rights, civil rights, and democracy. I am, in fact, saying that Christians must always engage the state and other people in a conversation about the ‘redistribution of power.’ Jesus started it. He stripped both the Roman Caesar and the Jewish governing bodies of certain pretenses to power. Yes, he called his followers to endure whatever came as a result, and otherwise honor rulers as they much as they could be honored, but the fact remains that he took the first radical step and began something that could not be stopped without ultimately betraying him. Jesus leveled a scathing critique at Gentile power, which he called pure hypocrisy: ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.’ (Luke 22:25 – 26) And to his followers Jesus leveled all human relations, ‘But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.’ (Matthew 23:8 – 10). So the early church taught Constantine from his reported conversion in 313 AD to resist the traffic in human flesh that saturated the Mediterranean world, and Constantine a mere two years after reportedly becoming a Christian, issued edicts saying that kidnapping a child for enslavement or possessing one as a slave was punishable by the death penalty. He also made it easy to manumit slaves while in church services rather than through government offices. In France in the mid 600’s, King Clovis II and Queen Bathilde abolished the slave trade, and declared that any new slave setting foot on the soil of the Kingdom of the Franks was immediately free and that no new slave may be acquired. This ended slavery in one generation.

    This is the dramatic effect of Christian teaching on human dignity and political power. Fast forward to the United States and we enter the discussion above about which level of government is responsible to uphold human rights and civil rights, and limit the power of other individuals and corporations to infringe on them. So I hope that you will notice, and agree, that I have not really said much that sounds like ‘welfare.’ Because welfare programs aim for a certain type of socio-economic outcome that strikes some kind of balance with capitalism, efficiency is a legitimate concern in that framework. But because I am not actually advocating for welfare-like programs, efficiency is not a primary means of validating what I’m saying. I am for breaking up concentrated power anywhere it infringes on human dignity and especially jeopardizes future generations of our children’s children. I believe that is a Christian responsibility in any and every society but especially ours because our society is a participatory democracy. Actually, your idea about stronger term limits on elected officials fits right into that. It’s a limitation on power.

    Third, and lastly, if indeed people get discouraged because they sometimes don’t know where their money is going, and because they suspect that the money is not being used efficiently (even though I’ve already voiced my qualification about ‘efficiency’ and the fact that I’m not advocating primarily for ‘welfare’) – even if that is what people feel, why is government the problem? It is just as much a problem of attitude, character, and spiritual formation for people. Why don’t we practice the spiritual discipline of thankfulness when we pay taxes, if part of our taxes goes to help the poor directly? The same attitude problem exists in American philanthropic giving as it does in paying taxes to help other people. Nicholas D. Kristof, in a New York Times, May 10, 2007 article called ‘Save the Darfur Puppy’ (http://iht.nytimes.com/protected/articles/2007/05/10/opinion/edkristof.php) notes that Americans give in response to seeing one starving child on a poster because we think we’re doing some good directly to that child. Perhaps Americans give to establish a personal relationship with the suffering child on the poster, as if that were really going to happen. But put a sad-eyed puppy dog on that poster instead of the suffering child, psychological studies show, and American give the same amount of money. Or when you add to that poster another starving child, and another, and another, American giving drops off dramatically. Why? Americans are not able to sustain disciplined giving when we don’t feel or see ‘results.’ I think that is our character problem, and we address it as our character problem in the Lazarus at the Gate curriculum. Paul took up an apparently large financial offering among Gentile Christians who had never seen or met their Jewish Christian brethren (see 2 Corinthians 8 – 9 and Romans 15:26 – 27). That is impressive. Yet Americans take our ‘problem solving’ mentality and try to apply it to global poverty as if there were a natural fit between those two things. We get discouraged when the issues seem overwhelming and depersonalized and we stop giving. That is as much an emotional-spiritual problem in philanthropy as it is in paying taxes to help people. Whatever the motivations, Americans are clearly immature in the way we think about money and people. So while I would absolutely agree with you that local action is vital for Christians, I question your premise as you extrapolate that to larger levels of influence. Just because we don’t see exactly where, or to whom, our money goes doesn’t mean that we should stop giving. Pressing for clarity is different than dropping the effort wholesale. To simply blame government for any and all of our feelings of resentment about social policy is rather one-sided. To insist that I must see the person I help is an indication that a spiritual muscle is underdeveloped and needs to be worked out.

    If you’ve made it this far, then thanks for reading such a lengthy post. I know I’ve been long-winded but I thought your good comments deserved a good reply, and that our readers deserved to eavesdrop on a good conversation.

    • Wow. That is quite a response. And, yes, I did get through it all. Thanks for all of your thoughts and information.

      Let me start by saying that I am not a person who generally thinks in extremes. So when I make the comment that the federal government should handle the things that states cannot, that’s exactly what I mean. I do feel there is a role for the fed to play, and that means ensuring human rights, and responding to corporations on that level as well. I am not downplaying the importance of that, so on that I think we agree.

      To address your point about not seeing where our giving goes, and thus we need to exercise our undeveloped spiritual muscles, I half-way agree with you. I think it’s true that we all need to strengthen our attitude, character, and spiritual formation. No doubt. You said, “Why don’t we practice the spiritual discipline of thankfulness when we pay taxes, if part of our taxes goes to help the poor directly?” I agree, but I am uncertain of the word “directly”. If I give to a specific charity, one of the things I look for is how much of what I give reaches those in need – whatever percentage that is. I understand that 100% of the funds will not reach them directly, but I like to see a high number. I don’t need to see those who receive it, but would like to know that a large portion gets to them. That is my concern; not the intent, not the idea, but how it actually plays out. I don’t use that as a reason to disengage, but it does make me question.

      I liked your ideas of the limiting of power, and in fact, I think if government was limited as much as I would like, it would go a long way curb many problems.

      Being in the field of education, I have many thoughts about what you wrote. First off, I believe education to be the single biggest topic for us today because it effects so many other aspects of life. I am not going to write all that I believe here, but if you would like to know how I completely feel, give me your email, and I will email you. I will address a couple things here, and then just pose some questions.

      First, you made the statement “In this country, public schooling is funded by local district property taxes.” I think your statement is misleading, as only a portion of the funding comes from property taxes. In California, where I live, local sources of income (property taxes and other local incomes) only account for 30% of our funding. 56% comes from the state, and 14% comes from the federal government. Now, other states may have a different financial picture, so I can’t speak to that. But regardless of the district in CA, 70% of the funding is exactly the same. That is not to say that inequity doesn’t exist, because it does. And you do well to address it in your points. Second, judging teachers by a student’s test score, in my opinion, is a lazy way of evaluating. If you want to find the worth of a teacher, be in the classroom, and talk with the students, teachers, and parents. Those are the people who have skin in the game.

      I will pose these questions: 1) If funding is a major problem, then why not go to a system where every student gets the same amount of money? 2) Would education be better if it were not mostly a monopoly? 3) What other options do students have if they (and their parents) don’t want to be tracked to go to college? Can they get funding to go to a trade school instead of sitting in an English poetry class their junior year? 4) How much more efficient would schools run if they were all private, and you didn’t have to pay for district offices? 5) Wouldn’t it be interesting to see, if we took the strict parameters of education away, and allowed each state (or even each county) to come up with their own form of education, which states emerge as the leaders? 6) How is success measured in education? Is it by a stack of data? Do parents and students have input?

      Again, if you would like to hear my thoughts on the matter, I’d be happy to email you.

      Thanks for engaging.

      • Please do email me, at mako.nagasawa@gmail.com. I’d be glad to hear your perspective on education. I was raised in CA and I know that CA has taken some courageous steps. However, I’ve also heard anecdotally that wealthy parents find other ways to supplement – sometimes very substantially – the resources of their childrens’ schools, through non-profit parent organizations and the like. This seems to be a challenge with any system, though.

        While I’m grateful for your thoughts on curbing government power, what interests me in our conversation is that you don’t seem to discuss curbing other forms of power, especially corporate power. What are your thoughts on it? Do you think that corporate power in particular has any relation to the growing disparity between rich and poor? Other problems we face?

        As it pertains to education: I also like the vocational trade skills that are offered earlier in the British educational system, and private or semi-private educational systems might be worth considering, but how much of a “free market” should we have, where corporate businesses can then explicitly or implicitly shape our educational system through funding, or just the capitalist pressure to get job skills? I think this is very likely to produce students who are just technology-oriented, pro-capitalist, and pro-business, kind of like high school versions of MIT students, because wealthy parents will more likely value getting their kids the technical or business skills that will get them the big salary. It is likely to be unhealthy for democracy, the arts, the humanities, and perhaps truth in general. In your email to me, can you please comment on whether you see a way around this?

    • I also recommend this book (to add to your list of reads/documentaries:

      Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook, Andrews McMeel, 2011.
      From Foodpolitics.com: This book is a welcome expansion of Estabrook’s stunning, prize-winning article in Gourmet. Estabrook writes a compelling account of the injustices and social costs of industrial tomato farming to farm workers and to the environment. We could and should do better, and Estabrook explains how. Tomatoland scored a rave review in the New York Times, most deservedly.

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