Religion & Public Policy

Phil Dillon at Another Man’s Meat writes about The Dilemma for Christians in the Current Political Climate. (credit to Jollyblogger for the link.)

What follows is just an excerpt, and arguably not Mister Dillon’s primary point. His whole post is well worth reading.

There are several houses near ours that are nothing more than hovels. They’ve been neglected to the point they are no longer fit for human habitation. And yet, incredibly, they are being bought and sold to desperate people needing shelter. How? It’s simple really.

This ‘respected’ citizen then finds his way around the code enforcement statutes, buys the house for, let’s say $5,000. About a week after he buys the house he finds another desperate person or family, usually minority, and offers to sell the house for $25,000. Knowing that the house would never pass an inspection, he offers the house ‘on contract,’ telling the potential buyer (or ‘mark’) that he’ll be generous and only require $5,000 down and then get the rest through direct payments to our ‘respected’ citizen. The desperate buyer agrees and the wheels are set in motion. About a year after the deal is sealed the buyer defaults on mortgage payments after getting a month or two behind. The buyer is evicted and the process proceeds to the next desperate buyer. The offer is made again; the ‘respected’ citizen gets his $5,000 up front, and so forth. It’s a very profitable treadmill.

He’s not wrong; It’s stuff like this that keeps me voting Democrat as often as Republican, at the local level. (At the national level, well, I hope the Democrats will make that possible again someday.) Here are some thoughts of my own:

I’m surprised Habitat for Humanity isn’t all over this. Could they target some of these shacks for purchase, tear-down, and replacement? Still, they can’t do everything. Why is there a shortage of affordable housing? Here are some questions I’d ask:

What are the tax rates on owner occupied versus non-owner occupied property? If non-owner occupied property is taxed at a higher rate (Soak those rapacious slumlords!), guess who ends up paying higher property taxes? The landlord may write the check to the tax collector, but the tenant pays the tax.

A small number of tenants will trash the property and disappear. Insurance rates reflect this cost. And you know where the money to pay the insurance comes from.

The local building code might make it impossible to build decent rental property. How could that be the case? Set up a spreadsheet and see. I did this exercise fifteen years ago, and found that I couldn’t build a house and then rent it out for enough to make a profit. Even if I had had the cash to invest without getting a loan, I would have done better to buy savings bonds. The only profitable ways I could see were to build an eight-unit apartment building, or buy the cheapest existing house I could find. I did neither, deciding real-estate investing wasn’t for me. The contract-for-deed scheme didn’t occur to me. I know it exists though, because my father warned me about it years ago.

So it seems to me that the free market, as modified by local regulation, is failing to provide decent, affordable housing to a minority of people who want it. Mister Dillon points out that Christians have an obligation care for people in need. In practical terms, how? What should we do about it?

Well, Mister Dillon is off to a good start. He’s tried to get his friends at church interested, with disappointing results. He’s had more success getting the local newspaper going on the story. No matter the complexity of the issues, if people would be ashamed to have their behavior known, that’s a good sign that it’s unethical.

Beyond that (and shame will only do so much), what’s the policy answer? What should be the nature and extent of government involvement? A county housing authority? A higher minimum wage? Stricter employment laws? I’m not in principle opposed to these, but it depends on the details. It’s increasingly hard to do just one thing. The high level of home ownership that we have today is a result of policies put in place all the way back to the New Deal. One of the consequences of those policies is the shortage today of decent, affordable housing. The solution has become a problem in its turn.

Certainly Christians can differ in what they think the practical approach should be. We may disagree on the extent of government involvement. We may disagree on how much the Church should be involved in meeting people’s temporal needs. Not everybody has to be involved in everything. Some people feed the hungry, some people volunteer at school, some people try to craft wise government policies. You can’t, and shouldn’t try to, do everything. But I don’t think Christians have the option of doing nothing.

And that reminds me of a poem, The Sons of Martha, by Rudyard Kipling.


Me and Humpty Dumpty

First, let me explain how dictionaries work. The dictionary exists to record the language used by people like me. When I look up a word, as often as not it’s to see if the editors got it right. Occasionally, I’ll look up spelling or etymology.

That said, let me note that willy-nilly means willingly or unwillingly – with or without consent; will ye or nill ye, see? It also has a secondary meaning as an adjective describing vacillation or equivocation; Like shilly-shallying.

If you want to refer to something done in disorganized haste, try harum-scarum. For an existing mess, as a jumble of houshold goods, you could use tohubohu, (Sorry; I’ve been into the thesaurus again) or the more pedestrian topsey-turvey.

Lately I’ve been seeing willy-nilly used incorrectly to mean casually, or impulsively. In these contexts, if you must use a rhyming compound, you might try higgledy-piggledy. It’s not as glaringly incorrect, and it deserves to be used more than it is. For that matter, you can make up your own rhyming pairs. Just don’t just use willy-nilly higgledy-piggledy.

Next week, sleek.

Your Attention, Please!

Lately I’ve been using the Sage plug-in for Firefox. It’s neat, but I’m having trouble integrating it into my browsing habits. I’m not sure how to use it most effectively. Where do I put it in the scheme of things? There are so many different delivery mechanisms out there already. Look at what we have:

The postman delivers mail, but not newspapers; unless you have an out-of-town paper mailed to you. The paperboy brings the newspaper, unless you buy it at a newsstand. You read Newsweek at the library, now that your subscription’s expired; Unless you happen to buy a copy at the bookstore when you stop for coffee. You read the Atlantic in the waiting room, and the Tribune in the barber shop, unless the game’s on.

I can visit the BBC’s website, or subscribe to their email newsletter, or listen on short wave. There’s Usenet newsgroups, email newsletters, and web forums. There are still active BBS’s, something called gopher, any number of IRC/IM things that I don’t even understand, this Snowplains thing, whatever it is; MUD’s, MUSH’s, MOO’s, and Everquest. Ham radio, billboards, and T-shirts with writing on them. There’s even face-to-face verbal communication.

So I guess we can accommodate RSS feeds; But what I’ve found more convenient is to bookmark a dozen links in a folder; then Firefox lets me open them all in tabs. I can read the first tab as the others load, or I can read stuff in another window. I’m on dial-up, so I like to get my news, then disconnect and read it in a batch. As I find links I want to pursue, I bookmark them is a temporary folder, then load them all in tabs the next time I go online.

Maybe what distinguishes these different ‘media’ (IM, email, Usenet, etc.) is how much of the other guy’s attention you have, or can expect. Being free to choose among these allows us to negotiate for attention between speaker and listener. Using Sage, if I open another tab or window, the pending feed appears there. I can’t do anything else while I use it. Sage demands too much of my attention.

Nothing to see here

I worked for a while on a post about the left’s reaction to their defeat; how saying that everyone who disagrees with you is stupid and/or evil misses the point. But it grew too long, and frankly I got tired of it. Let them figure it out for themselves. Some things are better learned than taught.

I’ll post something, hmm… Monday afternoon, I guess. Until then, you could have a look at Interior Desecrations, by James Lileks.

The Undiscovered Country

For the past month, I’ve been following Professor Sam Wang’s Electoral College Meta-Analysis. For election night he has an excellent Election guide/score card. I’m already on record with my prediction.

Today, I’ll be looking in occasionally at Tradesports for any last minute changes. I’ll also read BBC and check my favorite weblogs. Mostly, I’m going to go vote myself, and then try not to obsess about what other people are doing.

For election night coverage, I’m going to watch Fox News, CNN, and C-Span. If I had any sense, I’d put Lord of the Rings in the VCR and watch that until 10:00 or so. I think it’s dollar night at the video rental store. Maybe I’ll buy some Sierra Nevada Stout and a bag of cheap pretzels.

Here are what I see as some possible election-night surprises. I regard all of these outcomes as unlikely, hence the element of surprise. I just think these are the most likely of the unlikely outcomes.

  • A tie in Electoral votes.
  • An Electoral vote blow-out, where one side wins all the swing states.
  • Similarly, the Republicans could end up with fifty-five or more seats in the Senate.
  • A Popular vote landslide; There’s enough uncertainty that we could end up with one candidate getting fifty-five percent of the popular vote. The way things are today, I’d consider that a landslide.
  • The Libertarians do better than expected; If it’s close, this could make a difference in a few key states. The Libertarians have been under-reported this cycle; They certainly deserve as much attention as Ralph Nader.
  • High turnout and strong support for President Bush in the solid red states could give some unexpected Congressional races to the Republicans, and vice versa.
  • Could Hawaii go to President Bush? We don’t know enough to rule it out; This is an example of the level of uncertainty among the talking heads and pollsters; This ignorance is why I think an unlikely outcome is more likely than usual, if that means anything.

Finally, in my favorite unlikely scenario, everything goes smoothly. There’s a clear winner with a popular mandate, and we get on with our lives. Anyway, it’s time to go do my part.

If I’m not in the Inner Ring, am I in the First Circle?

When I hear people say, “I’ve been a Registered Republican, Democrat, or Independent for thirty years,” I always feel like I’m missing out on something. Where does one go to register? I’m registered to vote, but no one asked my party. When I vote in a Primary (here in Illinois) I have to ask publicly for a Republican, Democrat, or non-partisan ballot. I think what ballot you get is a matter of public record, but that’s the only official acknowledgement of party affiliation I know of. (It’s obvious to me that this system of closed primaries is corrupt. The parties are in theory private organizations that can choose their candidate however they want. Yeah, well; Theory and practice…) I could ask for a different ballot each time I vote in a primary, or not vote in the primaries at all.

I guess I could call up one of the parties and ask how to formally join. Presumably I’d pay dues and get a card for my wallet. Then I’d be a party member, right comrade? Or I could just start my own party. I could be the Chief Registrar, and after I registered I’d be a registered nitwit.

The problem with joining a party is the same as the problem with joining anything, union, party, denomination, or social club. You gain strength and safety in numbers, and loose some autonomy. Soon I’d find myself trying to defend a position I didn’t agree with, or working to elect some toad because it was his turn, or hanging out with people I didn’t much care for. People like me (note the irony there) say with pride that they’re not joiners, but I’m not sure cranky independence is a course I’d recommend to anyone else. I suppose you can go too far either way.

Here’s a hopeful sign that enough of us may be able to rise above partisanship. Robert Hayes says whether President Bush or Senator Kerry wins, he’ll be My President Either Way. I hope we have a high turnout, a clean election, a clear winner, and an honorable looser. It’s not impossible; it requires that all of us remember that the process is more important than the outcome. It will also require that about half of us stifle our outrage and do what’s best for the country. If you want to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women, you’ll have to achieve that through something other than the ballot box.

I guess I can wait until Tomorrow

What happened to that secret plan where the Saudi’s would drop the gas price before the election? When’s that supposed to kick in? I’d better hold off until Monday on getting the car filled up.

For a Suitable Definition of Victory

In this article on The Spectre of Declinism, Carroll Andrew Morse writes, “They assume that ‘getting real’ or ‘taking responsibility’ for the war on terror can mean only one thing — taking action to win the war on terror.” (Credit to Doc Rampage for the link.)

I think I finally understand Senator Senator Kerry’s plan for the war on terror; He’s offering a truce.

Of course he can’t come right out and say so. That’s not the way diplomatic negotiation works. But look at his talking points: Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11; Saddam was contained; He had no weapons of mass destruction that were a threat to us; Wrong war, Wrong place, Wrong time.

The message is, “You leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone. You don’t threaten us (other than verbally) and we won’t threaten you (other than verbally). We stand down, you keep the suicide bombers out of the continental US, and the whole war on terror goes from hot to cold; from a matter of war to one of law enforcement.” Nothing in writing, just a gentleman’s understanding.

Then we can get on with making the US a paradise of equality and social justice, with free medical care for all; You can get back to killing your own people, if you must; Leave us out of it, and we’ll let you retain power. The occasional low-grade incident won’t be handled by the Army, but by the Justice Department (Under new, more sensitive leadership, of course).

The effect of Senator Kerry’s campaign pronouncements, and the support they receive, is to offer the terrorists a cease-fire. Why would rational people capitulate, instead of fighting to win? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. Francis W. Porretto at Eternity Road doesn’t think we’ll defeat ourselves again. In The Tale of the Tape, he writes, “The central fact about the United States at war is that the only adversary that can defeat us – that has ever defeated us – is ourselves. We won’t make that mistake again.” I hope he’s right.

It’s not that they (the American far left) are evil people. They mean well. They always mean well. The far left is chock full of good intentions. Nobody could possibly be more aware of their nobility of purpose than I am; Except maybe for they themselves.

Nor is the plan irrational, as such. It follows logically from the American far left’s convictions about human nature, how the world works, and what’s important. The views of Senator Kerry’s core supporters were formed in opposition to the Vietnam war, solidified by years of MASH reruns, and articulated by Noam Chomsky. They see Senator Kerry as the model soldier, and genuinely don’t understand why a substantial majority of soldiers on active duty vote Republican. Didn’t the Senator say he’d bring to office the same spirit he brought to Vietnam?

This, I think, is Senator Kerry’s plan for victory in the war on terror. It promises an end to the fighting, because that’s what the far left understands as victory. After all, Vietnam is the last war they won.

But what about today’s news? If any of this is true, what do we make of Osama bin Laden’s Halloween video? That’s left as an exercise for the reader.

Last-Minute Voter Guide

This year, we have a greater than usual number of new voters. Most who have taken the trouble to register know whether they prefer President Bush or Senator Kerry; Or at least they remember the number their shot-caller told them to punch. But at the local level things are more complicated, so I thought I’d share some tips that have served me well.

It’s especially important to have honest, capable people in local government, but often there are no particular issues, nor any way to distinguish the candidates. Some of the races are non-partisan, and some people are nominally independent. Now, first of all you should make a genuine effort to find out what’s going on and determine who you want on (or off) the school board.

If after reading the paper for a few weeks you still can’t decide, you’ll need to use indirect methods. Look at the yard signs, and see who people you admire (or detest) are supporting. Robert Heinlein said, as a last resort, to ask the opinion of a well-meaning idiot, and then do the opposite. If you don’t know any well-meaning idiots, ask around. I’ll bet your friends know at least one.

Still, sometimes you find yourself in the voting booth faced with County Board – vote for 4 of these 12. That’s when I fall back on my emergency selection criteria. I vote:

  1. For people I know;
  2. For people with Irish names(except ‘Ryan’);
  3. Against any school-board incumbents (except for the one I like);
  4. Against people with hyphenated last names.

Finally, I vote to retain any judge I’ve never heard of; and

I vote against any ballot initiative I don’t understand.

Of course you shouldn’t just adopt my criteria; Invest the time to create arbitrary standards of your own; That’s what democracy is all about.