Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Ills of Bureaucracy

Ideal Citizens for Most UN Member Nations - Dag Hammerskjold Plaza, NYC

On Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in Dag Hammerskjold Plaza, across from the UN complex, reading The Way of a Pilgrim (an Eastern Orthodox classic on prayer and communion with God) waiting for the NOM rally for marriage to begin. That sets the scene. A young woman with a mischievous 2-year-old sat down beside me on the bench and asked me what I was reading. The conversation went from there.

I discovered that she was Rwandan who left Rwanda around the time of the genocide and worked for the UN in Croatia during the time of the conflict in that region. She came to America in 1997. But she no longer works for the United Nation. She is an abstract artist with a distaste for the UN that she was happy to share with me. "I couldn't stand the bureaucracy," she told me. I was then surprised that she looked at me intently and asked me, "What is the problem with bureaucracy?" She had her own ideas, but wanted to know what I thought. I paused to think, and then it all came flooding to mind. Bureaucracy has the sour connotation that it does because it is four things: impersonal, unresponsive, self-serving, and (largely because of these three features) inefficient.

This is the topic for my column this week at "The Bureaucracy Gospel." Everything a liberal wants to do to solve the world's problems, including all of your problems, involves a federal government program, which in turn requires a bureaucracy.

These four ills have a lot to do with public opposition to Big Government. (I capitalize those words because Big Government is genetically related to Big Brother.) Nationwide, federal solutions to social and economic problems (Big Government) always create and perpetuate bureaucracy and its ills. Think of the Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Social Security Administration. These agencies have combined budgets of approximately $238 billion and employ 132,000 people. HHS administers over $700 billion, a quarter of all federal outlays, including Medicare and Medicaid payments. It is estimated that Social Security will pay out $734 billion in benefits this year.

Consider how Social Security, to say nothing of Medicare, is going to bankrupt us in the next thirty years as the baby boom generation passes through the retirement entitlement system. In 1945, about a decade after the Social Security Administration was established, the ratio of workers paying into the system to the aged drawing out of it was 42-to-1.* That is, for every one retiree making use of the system there were 42 working people. No problem.  Now that ratio is about 3-to-1. Do you see the problem? People are living much longer than they did in 1940. The boomers will reduce that to 2:1.

The debt crisis is the crisis of the welfare state. As Europe is discovering, you just cannot keep borrowing to fund ever more generous government giveaways for everything that you feel everyone should have.

"As Europe buckles under the weight of debt-financed social programs, America still has time to address its social dependence on government entities that are by their very nature impersonal, unresponsive, self-serving, and inefficient. But time is quickly running out."

(I threw in those haunting statues of seemingly tyrannized, soulless human figures scattered around Dag Hammerskjold Plaza in New York because they are the sort of people that bureaucracy creates and likes to serve.)


* I got this figure from the SSA website. The figures seem to hide a story, however. It lists the 1940 ratio as (roughly) 159:1. That is eligible workers to beneficiaries. Five years later it is only 41:1. Five years later in 1950, it is 16:1. Five years later it is half that. Then it's 5:1. In 1975, it is just above 3:1. It moved down to 2.9-to-1 in 2010. So it has been in the very expensive range for 45 years now.

Look here for figures on the complicated life expectancy factor.

The link for the 42:1 figure I give in the body of this post comes from the Prudential. If you can trust a life insurance company to give you straight numbers, who can you trust?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

What to do with Children

If we're so clever at raising kids these days, why are there so many little monsters in the schools, in the stores, and everywhere? Yet what is more important than how our children become adults, and what kind of adults they become?

The thing about the current orthodoxy is that it is never current for long (though you are punished severely for violating it). So of course there is growing public discussion that is questioning the high levels of attention that we show our children these days.

My children attend a private Christian school in the metro New York area, and I attend the parent orientation night, the open house, the Christmas program, the spring play (I put my foot down at attending all three nights), and the "moving up" ceremony at the end of the year. I have begun to wonder how necessary all of this is. I don't remember my parents attending all of these things. If they attended any (I'm sure they were at some), it doesn't register with me now. This got me thinking.

You can read my reflections in "Figuring Out Kids" (, July 20, 2011).

At one time you could fall back on the wisdom of the surrounding culture and perhaps not go far wrong. But today everyone else is at least as confused as you are. To complicate things further, both kids and culture keep changing as well. ...Take something as simple as how much time to spend with your kids. How much of your attention should you give them?...This emphasis on quality time and bonding is new. Is it necessary? Is it even good? Are boys becoming better men because of it? Are we who are men messed up for want of it?...

Of course, there has to be time and place for wisdom-transfer moments between a father and his children that we see in Deuteronomy 6. But the Deuteronomy 6 father did not trail his kids throughout their childhoods. If anything, they trailed him.

Children also need their father’s approval. Our heavenly Father bolsters us with unbreakable and oft-repeated promises and with assurances of his sustaining presence. He will greet the faithful at their journey’s end with “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:20-23). We were created to be satisfied in our heavenly Father’s approval and communion. Yes, fathers in particular are important to children’s development.

But some distance is good. It stokes longing in the souls of the young. It’s unwise to flatter and sate them. Forgetting this, fathers in particular have gone from unapproachable to irrelevant. How about adopting the stance of an important and busy guy (which you are, dads), an object of admiration whose sincere expressions of love at reasonable intervals lift your children upward and drive them onward to at least comparable levels of achievement.
A friend of mine whom I mention described his emotionally distant but faithful and admirable father to me also put me on to this article. Essayist and Weekly Standard contributing editor, Joseph Epstein, wrote this account of his childhood which in some ways echoes my own and many others, it seems: "Kindergrachy: Every Child a Dauphin" (The Weekly Standard, June 9, 2008).

Also, have a look at this interview from the Atlantic.

Amy Henry mentions this Atlantic story in her own Worldmag column on this topic, "Being TOO Good a Parent?" (June 23, 2011). She cites many other books that no doubt fill out the subject for anyone looking to study it, including Wendy Mogul's The Blessing of the Skinned Knee and Jean Twenge's The Narcissism Epidemic.

One reader in the comment thread fears that this train of thought will just give license to lazy, negligent fathers to shirk their responsibilities as dads. Of course, you don't remedy the extreme of child neglect with the extreme of child-centeredness.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Moral Reflections in Bad Traffic

What do you think of when you are in bad traffic?

Sometimes, "Aaaargh!"

Sometimes I thank the Lord for delaying me in one way or another so that it is not me up there in the accident. (Not that I'm happy with anyone's suffering.)

Sometimes, apparently, I think of what a better person and citizen I'm becoming through the patience I am learning...if I happen to be learning patience at the time. 

This was the case when I was on vacation earlier this month in Falmouth on Cape Cod. So I wrote, "Bad Traffic Forms Good Citizens" (, July 13, 2011).

That column got a record low of 2 comments. But it was worth saying (someone had to say it!), and now it's off my chest.

The final reflections anticipate why column this week on the mysteries of child rearing.

"When children learn that they are not little gods or little tyrants, i.e., that the world is not their private highway between private toy boxes, they learn self-restraint and consideration for others. They may even learn, as the Bible teaches, to consider others better than themselves (Philippians 2:3). That is, they may learn that people are more important than things and one’s private ambitions.

"Many adults these days continue to act like children who have never learned these lessons. You see them on the road. You see them most places. They have failed to grow up. They may have passports and they may vote, but they have failed to become citizens in the moral sense. Perhaps a few more graciously allowed left-hand turns in difficult traffic would change that. But change or not, you still let them in. It’s what decent, grown-up people and good citizens do."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Modern Marriage and the Antithesis

Most Americans profess to be Christians (76% in 2008). So where is all this support coming from for same-sex marriage? While we're at it, where does the support come from for Family Guy, South Park, many other television shows and movies, advertising, no-fault divorce laws, internet pornography, aggressively secular public schools, and so on?

The answer is that many of those professing Christians are merely nominal in their affiliation (Protestant and Catholic), and they are fairly indistinguishable from their godless neighbors in how they think and live. But even most of the church-attending, religiously serious Christians are culturally compromised. Of course, we are all compromised to some extent or another. Deepening our adoption of the culture of Christ is called the process of sanctification, and it is lifelong. But too many Christians in America are scandalously and unconsciously conformed to the ways of the world that considers itself wise apart from and contrary to the wisdom of God.

The legalization of (or legislative invention of) same-sex marriage in New York State prompted me to call for the church to take it's counter-cultural calling more seriously, i.e., to understand and apply what Reformed theologians call "the antithesis" more widely, more conscientiously, and more rigorously ("A Call to Christian Counter-culture,", July 6, 2011).

The legal establishment of same-sex marriage in New York state—not by a rogue court, mind you, but by legislative act—raises pressing questions for the Church. Will we stand for Christian principles in the face of this blindly egalitarian normalization of homosexuality, and the polygamy and incest that will logically follow? Will we stand firm when people call us bigots and compare us with unreconstructed racists? Will we continue to follow uncritically the principles of the world around us? Evangelicals have a history of cultural accommodation, after all. Will we join with our clearly anti-Christian society in this moral collapse, or will we present an alternative by clearly identifying, thoroughly rejecting, and firmly replacing those socially self-destructive principles? ...

If the Church continues to address individual issues as isolated challenges—abortion, divorce, teen rebellion, same-sex marriage—she will continue to plug holes in the dike while the rising waters come up through the ground to her knees, to her elbows, and then to her neck. The problem is not this-and-that hole where the water is leaking in, but where you are standing relative to the sea. Christians need a more thorough understanding of the culture and seek the high ground in the mind of Christ.

In the age of same-sex marriage, how radical a Reformation do we need if the Church is to remain distinct from the world? Remaining distinct is not about hemlines, how much you drink, nose studs, what entertains you, etc., though being distinct has consequences for these things. It means being transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:2). It means understanding the world in distinctly Christian categories of thought.

I then point readers to Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism (1898) where he distinguishes between the Christian worldview and the modern one. Part of the modern has grown out of the Christian, but fundamental aspects merely mimic the Christian view but are fundamentally opposed to it. That is, they are idolatrous and corrosive of the Christian way of thinking.
We need a renewed understanding of the spiritual warfare involved in all of life, not just personal but corporate between the church and the world. We need a renewed appreciation of the distinction between what Augustine called the city of God and the city of man, an awareness of the antithesis at work in all of life, the kingdoms that are in conflict in every thought, word, and deed, and throughout the culture. We are what Stanley Hauerwas called "resident aliens."

Christians are at war. Christ is our king and champion. He is spreading his kingdom, reclaiming his world, and putting every enemy under his feet. We are glad captives and combatants in that war. The dramatic slide of our culture into moral vertigo is an opportunity for us ready our minds for battle and live faithfully and redemptively in this clash of cultures.