Keep Yourself Unspotted From the World

Annually, our church has what they call “Standards Night”. The leadership in the region, encompassing multiple congregations, invites the youth in the area together to have a discussion on navigating life’s difficulties while maintaining high standards of Christian living. The discussion mostly focuses on avoiding sexual related temptations, avoiding drugs and alcohol, and staying away from bad language and inappropriate material through the various media channels coming at us these days. Last Sunday, part of the discussion centered on a phrase that put me in a wrestle – “keeping ourselves unspotted from the world”.

Before I dive into that, let me say I have no idea how to teach teenagers spiritual lessons. I’m not doing a great job of it with my own children. I’m on my own individual spiritual journey, gaining insights, learning lessons, but I’ve had decades now of wrestle, starting at a young age. My life resides in a completely different context than them – born as I was into childhood poverty, raised by an autistic mother in a crumbling house without air conditioning in the Yuma desert. They have no idea what I went through, why I am where I am, why I’m concerned with what I’m concerned with, how I came to the insights I have. It’s really difficult communicating any of this to them. They are on their own journey and need to learn their own lessons on their own mostly from scratch.

Their context is just different. They are overwhelmed with a school system that is far more demanding than mine, with parents desperate they receive opportunities that alluded me. They have advantages I didn’t have, but disadvantages as well. I leaned hard on God in my difficulties. A difficult childhood deepened my faith, loyalty and devotion to the church who nurtured it.

My children’s paths are different. Difficult in many ways, but not obvious in ways that will lead them into the same type of spiritual conviction mine did. I’m not sure they will continue down the religious path they were born into. Will they find another path? Will they do what so many of their peers will likely do and opt out of religion altogether? This choice will  be theirs. I want them to have a spiritual life. I have no idea how all of this will turn out.

Given all of that, I understand the point of Standards Night and I understand the need for the church to distill the gospel down in ways that young minds can hold onto as they navigate a complex world. And I desperately depend on the church to provide a structure of spirituality fine-tuned for young minds. There’s institutional wisdom in the church far better than my own. I depend on it.

This post is not meant to criticize or push against the messages contained at standards night, just an opportunity to dig into one idea that came up. Just what does it mean to be “unspotted from the world”. Doing a search of the scriptures I found just two references to this phrase:

James 1: 27

Pure areligion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To bvisit the cfatherless and dwidows in their eafflictionand to keep himself funspotted from gthe hworld.

Doctrine and Covenants 59:9

And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself aunspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of bprayer and offer up thy csacraments upon my dholy day;

There’s not a lot of specificity in either verse, but I do like the context. First in James, pure religion requires us to take on the burdens of the most vulnerable – the fatherless, the widows, those in affliction, the poor, the sick, the dying, those in prison, really all of us because we are all vulnerable and in affliction. Is there some connection between orienting our lives in service for others and remaining unspotted from the world?

There must be.

We need to avoid habits and behaviors that puts us in an inward, selfish orientation. In my church, we often conflate being spotted with sexual sin. In this view, we become spotted if we look at pornography, or engage in heavy make-out sessions with someone we just met, etc. We clean ourselves from these spots as we confess and forsake our sexual mistakes. There’s something to this. Sexual desire can be handled selfishly but it can also be an essential expression of deep intimate love with a committed partner.

But I’m wondering if an over-emphasis on avoiding sexual sin (or drug use or alcohol or whatever) can be counterproductive as well, in all the same ways an over-emphasis on following God’s laws led the New Testament Jews astray. Being too devoted to our own personal righteousness feels like spots to me. It makes us self-obsessed and inward focused, keeping us from the pure religion James describes.

Doctrine Covenants 59:9 adds another wrinkle. To remain unspotted we need to “go to the house of prayer and offer up sacraments”. There’s something sanctifying in regular ritual. Attending our church meetings with an open heart and a willing mind, united in humble prayer with others nearby, committing ourselves to each other in holy, sacred sacrament.

We need to come to prayer each Sunday and then to commit ourselves to take on the afflictions of others through the week, avoiding distractions and addictions that keep us in our heads.

Perhaps we find cleanliness in pure, selfless connection. We become spotted in isolation or as we use others for our own self interests.

I think this is a message I can communicate to my children. Spirituality comes through pure religion, selfless service, sacred communion in rituals, regular meditative prayer. None of this is easy. It’s a journey. Perhaps, we are born spotted and we spend a lifetime learning how to free ourselves of these selfish impulses so that we can finally live within the pure religion James describes.

Sunday School Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1-13

1 Corinthians 13:

1 Corinthians chapter 13 reads like poetry. This small nugget of a chapters is the most beautiful, provocative chapters in the entire cannon.

First of all, in the opening three verses, Paul becomes more and more provocative. Even I am the most eloquent, even if I have the tongue of an angel, it means nothing if I’m not filled with love. Makes sense. There are a lot of smooth talkers out there.

He goes further in verse two. Say I’m filled with the gift of prophecy and I have all knowledge and understand all mysteries. Yeah, nothing if I’m not full of love. But wait, even if I have all faith and all power, so much so that I can command the mountains to move. Nada, without love, it’s meaningless. Verse three ups the stakes still further. Say, I give up everything, everything I have to the poor. Say, even if I give my body to be burned. Still… meaningless without love.

There is literally nothing I can do that matters. No commandment I can keep, no sacrifice I can make, no gift I can bestow, no talent I can acquire that can make up for the lack of love. Love has to be at the root of all we do. Love is at the heart of religion if it’s to mean anything at all.

What type of love is Paul describing here, then? He breaks it down, in rapid succession:

Love suffers long, we are patient with ourselves, with others, with the world that is often exasperating.

Love is kind. With love, we have no envy, we celebrate and appreciate the gifts and accomplishments of others.

With love, we don’t elevate ourselves over others. Love operates within proper context (is not unseemly), love recognizes it’s not about us. We aren’t easily triggered by others when we operate within a loving context. We don’t think ill of another. We rejoice in truth. We believe, we hope, we endure.

Paul concludes this chapter the way he begins. We just cannot know everything. We know so little. We are fools. We see through the glass darkly. Prophecies fail, our words eventually cease, we’ll never know enough. But no matter, we can always love, no matter where we find ourselves, in our limitations, we can always love, the greatest of all.

1 Corinthians 12:

Chapter 12 is almost as important as 13, almost as provocative. Paul makes the case that we need each other. We can find unity in diversity. We all have different spiritual gifts, but they all come from the same spirit. Some of us doubt, some of us wrestle, some of us are wise, some of us are good with words, some of us have a believing heart, but we’re all essential in the body of Christ.

“The body is not one member, but many.”

Paul makes this point even clearer, those members of our congregation who are the most marginal, our weakest members, we elevate and honor them above all. “And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.”

1 Corinthians 1-11:

Paul is writing this letter from Ephesus during his third mission. He’s received word that the church community he created during his earlier missions are running into trouble. Paul spent a long time in Corinth.

In this letter, he addresses specific problems, answers specific questions. Apparently Corinth was rife with divisions. People got caught up in elevating certain leaders over others – some factions for Paul, others for Apollos, some for Peter. There were the long running concerns about circumcision. Many converts struggled with idolatry. One of the chapters focused on sexual concerns. Paul wrote about marriage. Some of these chapters sit well within the context of the time.

But I love the bits about the wisdom of the world, that it is foolish. We are all children struggling to drink milk. We need to be one and united in our differences. I love Paul’s descriptions of the way apostles interact. With Jews, Paul is a Jew. With the weak, he’s weak, with the Greek, he’s Greek, and so on. So much of what we obsess with doesn’t matter. We have our idiosyncrasies. We come to church in our own context. Some of us are democrats, others republicans. Some are more educated, others less so.

But we all come, trying to develop agape, God’s love, universal, unconditional, often unrequited. We all come, in unity, as fools, limited, in weakness, but with a desire to serve and learn with each other.

This is the gospel of Christ.

Sunday School Lesson – Acts 16-28 – Part 1

I think most of us Christians take Paul for granted. I’m not sure how many of us, especially those of us swimming in a Christian context the entirety of our lives, believing as we all do in a resurrected Jesus as an inevitable fact, can fully appreciate the world the early Christians were reckoning and the mission Paul, in particular, chose to embark on.

Trying as I am to get a crash course on the contextual world at that time, leaning heavily as I am on NT Wright’s biography of Paul has helped me a bit to put myself into that world.

First of all, consider Paul, he grew up a devout, in his words zealous pharisee in the cosmopolitan city of Tarsus, a city teaming with intellectual diversity, Romans, pagans, philosophers, and Jews spanning that devoted spectrum. Paul, notably, was a Roman citizen but also notably a devote, perhaps a prodigious scholar of the Hebrew scriptures. His knowledge of philosophy, scripture and languages become evident in his writings and interactions on his multiple missions.

But early on, his zealous membership in the pharisaical tradition placed him in a violent collision course with the early Christians. The Jews at this time were desperate to shed themselves of Roman rule and reinstate the Jewish kingdom in Israel. They knew the scriptures, and they believed what it would take to get their was complete devotion to the one true God, and complete adherence to the law of Moses. Any deviation from that path could not be tolerated and in that vein, violence was deemed necessary to stamp down heresies.

We know what happened next. Paul has the miraculous encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. He’s blind for three days, in total darkness, realizing his worldview has been completely turned upside down. He’s miraculously healed, joins the early Christians and re-absorbs what this means. Acts traverses this time period rather quickly, but in reality, he spends quite a bit of time reorienting himself with this new paradigm. Restudying the scriptures, discovering fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus, but in a way he never anticipated.

Soon after, Peter receives the revelation to share the message of this gospel to the entire world.

So, now consider the world at this time. Paul is about embark on multiple missions, walking hundreds of miles, talking to zealot Jews desperate to overthrow the Romans, expecting a Messiah to help them get that job done, conversing with Romans and non-Jewish pagans, who have established complex societies steeped in a deep historical culture of philosophy, multiple gods and a Roman empire whose head is considered near deity.

Many, likely, never heard of Jesus. Many who had, knew him as a radical, sentenced to death by crucifixion, one of the most ignominious punishments at the time.

In Acts 17, Paul spends some time in the synagogue in Thessalonica. He ends up organizing a small community of believers here but not before incurring the wrath of the Jews. In verse 6 they say, “These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also;”

They were right about that. Paul’s mission was to turn the world upside down. And for those of us now living in it, it’s easy to forget just how successful he ended up being in that mission.

Sunday School Lesson – The Resurrection and Acts 1-5

Imagine what it was like for Jesus’ closest followers, loved ones and family members the day after he was unjustly crucified. He had a remarkable and revolutionary three year ministry – took on the Jewish power structure, amassed loyal followers and left an imprint of service, revolutionary teaching and compassionate action culminating with an ignominious crucifixion among thieves.

Jesus was buried on Friday, the Jews observed the Saturday sabbath. Then, early Sunday morning Mary Magdalene, another Mary – likely Jesus’ aunt and other women came to the tomb with spices to prepare the body of Jesus. The four gospel accounts differ on the specifics. In Mark and Luke, they arrive to find the stone already moved. In Mark, a young man in a white robe sits in the tomb and tells the women that Jesus is risen. In Luke, they find an empty tomb and pause in wonderment when two men appear near them to announce the news. In Matthew, a great earthquake erupts, while an angel moves the stone in what seems to be timed roughly at the moment the women arrive. Mark and Luke make no mention of guards, but Matthew does.

John has the more fully fleshed out resurrection narrative that drives the way it’s typically described in church talks and movies. In this narrative, Mary Magdalene arrives alone to discover the moved stone and immediately runs back to tell Peter. Peter and another apostle run to see for themselves. They discover the empty tomb and then leave. Mary returns to the empty tomb, but lingers, weeping. It’s here Jesus appears unrecognized, mistaken for a gardner, asking “why weepest thou”?  When Jesus calls her by name, she recognizes him and is told he must ascend to his Father but tells her to tell the events to the disciples.

The narrative proceeds similarly in the four gospels. The women see the angels, then Jesus. They tell the disciples who often don’t believe at first. Jesus suddenly appears, to Mary, to different disciples and finally to them all in various ways. Invariably, he’s unrecognized at first. Luke describes the two disciples on the way to Emmaus who unknowingly discuss the events of the past few days with Jesus. They don’t recognize him until when urged to abide with them longer, he joins them for a meal. In the act of breaking and blessing the bread, they recognize.

In John, only Thomas is shown to disbelieve until he can see for himself. In John, when Jesus appears, they recognize him. Later, though when some of the disciples decide to fish, while on the boat out in the water, Jesus calls out to them. They don’t recognize him until Jesus suggests they throw their net on the right side of the ship, echoing the events when they were first called to be his disciples. At that point, catching so many fish they are unable to haul them all in, they realize this is Jesus.

How important are the contradictions and discrepancies between the narratives. Not much. Each author felt the urge to record this important event highlighting different details. What’s interesting to me is that Jesus’ closest followers didn’t expect any of it. They didn’t recognize at first, they often doubted. Recognition often came in Jesus’ actions, when he acted in ways that he had acted before, or when he calls Mary, in particular, by name.

It took them time to understand and appreciate the implications of Jesus’ resurrection. In each of the gospels, most poignantly and personally in John, they are called deeply into the ministry. In John, Peter is commanded that if he truly loves Jesus he would feed his sheep, three times.

Finally, in Acts 1, Jesus leaves. Some had hoped Jesus mission would be to restore the kingdom of Israel to its previous glory. They ask Jesus in Acts 1:6 “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”. What they got, instead was a call to do as Jesus did, to serve, to talk truth to power, to heal, to organize a church, to speak with boldness and authority and to spread the good news.

In Acts 1-5, we witness that transition in action. In chapter 1, they call a new disciple to replace Judas Iscariot. They narrow the field to two worthy candidate, emphasizing the need to choose someone who had personally witnessed the resurrected Jesus. The leave the final selection to revelation, ultimately selecting Matthias.,

Acts 2 highlights the fact that these early Christians were still Jews, gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Pentecost. The spirit rushes in like a wind, the disciples begin to teach and everyone, many who have gathered from foreign lands, understand language in their own tongue. Some assumed they were drunk and its to them Peter delivers his first address, testifying of Jesus, quoting scripture and accusing them of the crucifixion.

They heard this and ask the question each of us should ask, “What should we do?” Three thousand people are baptized that day. With these new converts, they organize a community focused on mutual care, sharing all things in common.

In Chapter 3, Peter’s new life continues to echo Jesus. With John, as they enter the temple, they encounter a lame man from birth begging for money. Peter gives him so much more, healing, telling him to arise and walk. Peter continues into the temple with the newly healed man and teaches those within of Jesus.

Speaking truth to power gets them arrested in Acts 4, where they are questioned. Here, the narrative takes note that neither Peter or John are educated, they are common, but speak boldly anyway. Not sure what to do with them, they release them with an admonish to quit this preaching.

Finally, the last chapter, Acts 5 describes a rather disturbing story. Converts Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for failing to honestly report the sell of property, echoing a bit the old testament story of the man who was struck down trying to steady the arch. It’s harsh punishment and difficult to understand. I get that this kind of deceit could undermine the community they were trying to build up. But capital offense for it seems uncharacteristic and out of step with Christ’s core message.

Acts 5 finishes with another imprisonment of the apostles. An angel releases them at night and they go to the temple to testify despite previous orders not to. They are brought before the council for more questioning. They continue to testify with boldness enraging those in power. Gamaliel talks the others in the council out of killing them, saying if their work is of man, it will fail, if it’s of God, you will not be able to stop it.

In that, Gamaliel is right. And that is the story of Christianity. From these humble beginnings it has filled the entire earth. Its a message that could not die with the death of even Jesus. But it’s through that death, ironically enough, that the message has touched an untold number of lives, multiple generations later.


Prayer: A Quick Autobiography

I remember most the loneliness of the weeklong scout camp some time during one of those long summers between junior high grades. I didn’t have a close friend in the group which means, as a desperately shy kid, I trusted no one. I did not trust the scout leaders in charge of this event. Well, I trusted they wouldn’t kill us, but felt like I was always on the edge of angering or frustrating them in some way. I especially did not trust my parents, who while they did not come on this trip, had no idea how to make sure I was properly prepared for a week long trip in the woods. I did not trust myself to say or do the right things to win the respect or friendship of the other boys on the trip. Given all of this, I determined to make myself as small and unnoticed as possible.

I have passing memories of that week in the woods. I remember getting my own tent and taking some comfort in having control of that little space. I was (and still am) a bit of a weakling. I remember attempts on a lake on a row boat, trying to manipulate the oars to move across the water. I remember the other junior high boys’ impatience with my unsteady efforts. I remember in my chore rotations, my turn to help wash the dishes, accidentally cutting a towel while trying to dry a knife and hearing the leader ask accusingly, “didn’t your parents teach you how to wash dishes?” No they didn’t actually, feeling horrified that I had been found out, shrinking a little more.

I remember working on our Wilderness Survival badge requiring each boy to build a shelter in the woods using only found material, then sleeping in it overnight. No way did I trust myself with this task. I found a couple of other boy I could hitch myself with, doing whatever they wanted me to. I do not remember anything about the night. I do remember another kid, that next morning, pulling himself out of a little cave he made by covering a couple of down logs with sticks. I remember feeling really grateful I wasn’t that kid.

What I remember most of all, though, was a lost shovel. The leaders called on all the boys to help find it. I felt responsible, probably the culprit. I prayed desperately to find it. Almost immediately I felt a prompting where to go and then finding it and returning it to the leader grateful that this particular disaster was averted. The lost keys prayer that everyone kind of makes fun of.

I’m not sure the accuracies of these memories. I trust how I felt and how I interpreted the situation more than I trust the specifics. But I remember more than anything that I felt especially close to God that week. I felt God’s love and no matter how small I tried to make myself, God noticed and cared anyway. I trusted implicitly God heard and answered my prayers. I leaned heavily on that. When I trusted no one else, I trusted God.

This time in the woods was a common childhood experience. I prayed before every test, the prayer intensity increasing with the stake of the test, but really every test felt high stakes to me. I remember praying each night that my dad would find a job during those years of economic instability. I don’t ever remember praying about what my church told me to pray about, whether the church was true or Joseph Smith was a prophet. I took that as a given, immersed as I was in that world view.

But then I went on a mission. For the first time in my life I had two years when I did not have to think (much) about finances or grades or what I should be doing with my time.  For two years I committed nearly all my time serving for my church and giving all of my time to the rigidity of someone else’s rules and schedules. Up by 6:30am, three hours committed to prayer, scripture study and daily preparations, then another ten hours trying to find people to teach.

I prayed as a manner of course. I prayed because I was told to. I prayed because I did not want to waste my two years and of all the many areas I lacked control, whether someone joined my church, or whether my companion and I got along, I controlled my prayers. That habitual, follow the rules type of praying continued after my mission, like clockwork before every meal, before I left my house for the day, before I closed my eyes at night. My prayers were most intense when I needed them the most or when I felt scared or lonely. I prayed for others sometimes, but most often I prayed for myself.

But I didn’t pray when I met the woman who would be my wife, at least I don’t remember it. At first, I obsessed over it. Talked through it over and over again with friends. I kept asking her on dates, dutifully so, liked how I prayed. I wanted to see where it would go, date a girl until it either worked out or didn’t. Rinse and repeat. Despite my algorithmic dating, I fell in love anyway. Right before proposing, I thought maybe I should pray about it, but I don’t remember doing it, I’m sure I did. I don’t remember an answer but I proposed anyway. From the moment we held hands, I felt sure about it. I wasn’t rewarded with an overwhelming emotional response – the way my church teaches me answers to prayers come. Well, until on my wedding day, kneeling as we do wedding ceremonies in our temples, looking into her eyes that day in the Salt Lake temple, saying yes to those commitments, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and joy. It felt right. It felt like God sanctioned the decision.

I continued to pray, of course, after marriage. It was part of our wedding goals we made on our honeymoon. But now eighteen years into marriage, some time along the way, I stopped praying. Not completely and not completely for reasons I can put my finger on. My faith has changed. I have read a lot of Mormon history, got involved in a lot of social media discussions with skeptics. I know friends and family members who left the church. I also feel less desperate, more in control of my life more confident in the generous nature of the world.

Mostly, it didn’t feel that necessary, too transactional, too habitual, too rote, too self-interested. Or was it? I definitely believe I lost something significant when I lost prayer. But I also felt like I never really had prayer either, not really. Because I think prayer is necessary, but not in the way I was doing it. There are too many ways life can go sideways if we’re not paying attention, careful, thoughtful attention. Prayer done right is a way to help one pay attention. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I really want to rediscover prayer anew. And I’m being too hard on myself. I trust my positive experiences with prayer.

What I want to do is a kind of a deep dive on prayer, both in study and in practice. I want to dive deeply what the Mormon tradition says about prayer. Mormonism is part of the larger Christian tradition, so I want to explore prayer in broader Christianity as well. From there, I want to see what more progressive, secular and eastern perspectives say. Prayer and God are inextricably linked, so I think to understand prayer, one must understand God.

Finally, I want to bring prayer more fully back in life but in a more meaningful, thoughtful less self-centered sort of way. I hope to do so in a series of posts. Wish me luck.

We Need to Deal with MMT

download (2)Introduction

A rising segment of the democratic party is taking a left turn which means, apparently, proposals for huge spending increases without necessarily increased taxes to pay for it. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) provides justification for what would otherwise look like a reckless buildup of national debt. Critics claim MMT’s proponents use it to justify never-ending government expansion without compensatory revenue streams. In fact, proponents also believe this, allowing liberal politics the freedom to run on sugar without any of the medicine.

I joined the democratic party in order to vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 democratic primaries and because I felt the party acted as a moderate response to the more radicalized Republican party. That party under George W. Bush of the early 2000’s or Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh in the 1990’s has grown more ideological and uncompromising. It was the party of reckless foreign interventions, growing military spending, a callous shredding of the safety net and ever growing debt and deficits.

Barack Obama’s candidacy promised compromise, responsible governing, a more modest, realistic foreign policy, and more fiscal constraint. Unfortunately, Obama inherited a global economy in collapse that required massive stimulus and bailouts and a military enmeshed in two seemingly intractable wars in the middle east. Liberal economists felt his stimulus was too small and the resulting economic recovery was as a result too long and too slow, incurring painful social consequences, placing large segments of our workforce in painfully long bouts of unemployment.

Ezra Klein Hosts a Debate on MMT

With this background, and in response to a disastrous two year Trump presidency, three years if you include his insane candidacy, a wave of young, liberal and vocal rising stars of the democratic party have swept into Congress eager to set the agenda for both the party and the country writ large.  The rising liberal faction’s first objective is to take control of the democratic party by taking on the more moderate old guard, using kids if necessary.

Ezra Klein recognizing this inter-party disagreement, recently hosted a debate between an MMT proponent, economist Stephanie Kelton and President Obama’s chief economist, Jason Furman, an advocate for the more traditional economic theories that drove Obama’s presidency. Living through the 2008 economic crisis forced me into quite, a bit of deep analysis on the causes and appropriate responses to the economic down-turn. Obama spent eight years governing slightly left of Bill Clinton in the 1990’s, who actually triangulated his way into a moderately conservative presidency. Despite Obama’s moderation, he faced unprecedented obstruction and a mindlessly angry conservative response for daring to take even baby steps away from the 1980’s conservative Reagan consensus.

I think the debate between the more moderately constrained old-guard of the democratic party and the more liberal and energized newcomers is both important and interesting and echos pretty closely the 2016 primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

MMT, according to Kelton, proffers that monetary policy should be more focused on inflation rather than debt. In this view, taxes do not have to match spending as long as inflation stays within acceptable targets. Too much money chasing too few goods and services raises prices causing inflation. Government pulls money out of the economy through tax increases using it to pay down its debt, reducing the supply of money and therefore reducing inflationary pressures. Raising taxes or cutting government spending during low inflation is counter-productive and results in higher unemployment and risks deflation.

When asked if tax increases should accompany the massive spending proposals within the Green New Deal, Kelton’s answer to this is “it depends”. She would ask for six months and a team of economists to evaluate how much inflationary pressure such spending proposals might cause and then introduce just enough taxes to keep inflation in check. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez believes the Green New Deal investments funds itself and so at this extreme the bill requires no increases in tax revenue to pay for it at all. “For every one dollar invested in infrastructure we get six dollars back.” This statistic may or may not be true and depends largely, I assume, on the effectiveness of the infrastructure spending.

Furman responds in a number of fairly subtle ways. More traditional economic models already does the work MMT attempts to do. The government should respond to deflationary pressures and low unemployment through temporary spikes in deficit spending rather than permanent spending programs. Furthermore, the Federal Reserve keeps inflation in-check by altering interest rates, so tracking inflation is the wrong metric anyway.

Furman believes the US should follow the European model in that all new and especially permanent spending proposals, such as medicare for all or a jobs guarantee should be paid for 100%. It’s not that Furman is a deficit hawk. He believes in Keynesian stimulus especially in times of high unemployment, but he denounces the idea to assume high unemployment in future projections.

Republican Counters?

In practice, MMT provides an economic framework that tracks what actually happens in government under both political parties. Politically speaking, the voters demand high deficit spending, they want government to do stuff for them, but they don’t want to pay for it. We all want free stuff and politicians respond to these political incentives accordingly. We’ve been in this mode for a long time now, decades in fact, and we haven’t seen high inflation since the 1970’s and that happened for a number of complicated reasons we have yet to replicate since.

In practice the two parties behave like they believe in MMT although they play lip-service otherwise. What differentiates the two parties is in policy. Republicans want a large federal government devoted to security enforcement, walls on the border, a lot of resources policing the streets and a lot of prisons for those we can’t tolerate in our society. They also advocate a large military, policing the globe attempting to promote US interests and to keep terrorists threats far from our borders.

The Democratic party prefers a large federal government devoted more to domestic concerns, providing universal access to education, health care, strong infrastructure and enough money to aggressively reorient our economy to avoid the devastation climate change may cause.

Deficit hawks and a shrinking libertarian wing of the Republican party would like to see a smaller government, lower taxes and a balanced budget, but they are moving more and more to the fringe of the party.

Where I Stand

I’m sympathetic to MMT’s promises and I believe they’ve largely been confirmed in practice. I believe lip service to fiscal prudence and a more humble approach to what the federal government can actually accomplish provides a much needed constraint on aggressive government expansion that comes from both parties.

In theory, the government can mobilize the country to effectively respond to global and environmental challenges. In practice, government tends to behave inefficiently and with a significant amount of corruption.

Obama governed softly, using the markets to do much of the heavy lifting, nudging it in one direction or another. This seems appropriately right to me. Will it be enough to correct global warming? Probably not, but you never know. I’m not sure government will ever be up to the task on its own either. And it’s possible this is a problem we really cannot adequately solve.

The Green New Deal – A Few High Level Thoughts

I’m obviously not an expert on this, but here are the best points from different sources.

The Argument

First of all, if you want to get a really good, high-level vibe on a policy proposal or other national political controversy, “The Argument”is a really great podcast. It’s concise, extremely civil, a smart, thoughtful panel, and a diverse point of view. Their latest is on the Green New Deal and I recommend listening to it for a basic overview.

Ross Douthat compares it to some of the wackier ideas that have come from the right during their presidential primaries – the flat tax, the 9-9-9 plan, the elimination of entire departments, etc. The left has historically mostly shied away from moonshot primary proposals, but it looks as if they feel emboldened to make bigger policy statements if only for symbolic purposes to potentially get long-term movement in this direction.

The panel describes it as more vision than policy, a kind of a blueprint that anticipates a political realignment away from 1980’s Reaganism that has dominated our political system for more than three decades now. This realignment is a long time in coming. Although, the vision has been uniformly supported by the democratic presidential candidates, there’s a lot of room for differentiation as the vision gets more specific. Although the candidates support the idea of a “Green New Deal”, they may not support every policy proposal found within.

As far as practicality, Goldberg believes it has just as good of a shot at getting passed as the more centrist ideas proposed to fight global warming, most notably the carbon tax. Imposing a broad tax in order to make carbon consumption more expensive is obviously going to be politically more difficult than simply spending money on green infrastructure. It’s a long shot but everything is in these hyper-partisan times. And spending money, verses spending cuts or raising taxes is an easier political pill to swallow.

The Atlantic

One way to look at this proposal is within the context of how most liberals view global warming. If you see it as a slow-moving global disaster that will likely impose catastrophic costs on the global economy on the order of our previous centuries’ global wars, then re-orienting our economy along those lines seems imminently reasonable.

A re-orientation of our economy around climate friendly technologies will be naturally disruptive so there are a slew of seemingly unrelated policy proposals thrown in to make that transition less painful.


Just to repeat the point above, we have two completely opposite political party responses to the potential global warming catastrophe. One party denies its existence and the other is certain of its catastrophic consequences to human existence. That neither party has any coherent response to it only makes sense for the Republican party. It’s imminently reasonable, then, that the democratic party is organizing itself around a proportionate response to the perceived danger.

Although many of these ideas have been percolating around the democratic party since the early 2000’s, some of which made it into Obama’s stimulus, and further back within Ralph Nader’s campaign, or in op-eds in liberal and even centrists opinion papers over the years, this particular proposal has been crafted by legislative newcomers who swept in during the 2016 anti-Trump wave election. Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leadership have, so far, given it the “stiff arm”, believing, likely rightly, the bill is too extreme, too ambitious, and gives too much ammunition to Trump’s reelection campaign.


One salient criticism of the Green New Deal is that it’s an aggressive spending program with no viable way to pay for it. Robert Hockett has a nice breakdown in this article explaining why it’s more complicated than a simple matter of aligning outflows with inflows. The bottom line here is that the US treasury can print all the money it needs. The trick is to make sure we properly balance the money supply with the goods and services our economy produces. Spending money on infrastructure, if done right, given this calculus, is kind of a magic trick in this regards. The government prints money and then uses that to generate the goods and services the new money can chase. This, in effect, keeps inflation in check.

The primary problem in our modern economy has not been inflation, but deflation. As our economy has become more efficient through automation, globalization, specialization, and education, we have not properly increased the money supply to match an increase in our production capacities.

Investing in ambitious new programs like the Green New Deal, is a way to counteract that to a degree.

National Review – Jonah Goldberg

The conservative criticisms of the “Green New Deal” are rather obvious, but Jonah Goldberg makes a less obvious criticism here. That government spending programs almost invariably favor big corporations with the political clout to influence and divert those funds in their favor.  I’m not sure how you can really work around this inevitability. In a marketplace, big businesses have all sorts of disadvantages to more nimble upstarts. They are entrenched in a business model that may become obsolete as the markets shift. New companies built from the ground up can drive market shifts and respond to them much faster.

These disadvantages can be assuaged in a couple of ways and big corporations use them all the time. They can collude and dominate market niches by forming oligopolies or monopolies and use their market power to either acquire or bury smaller, less resourced competitors. Or they can influence the government to prefer them in both regulatory laws or investments. Our politics is oriented right now in a way that makes these consequences inevitable.

For the Green New Deal to be effective, the benefits have to outweigh this likely negative.

Goldberg Again

This criticism echos the first alluding to the dangers of massive government intervention in remaking the economy as drastically as this vision lays out. Goldberg likely rightly describes the vision fantasy. But then, notably, pushes back on AOC’s assessments of the free market’s failure to address environmental concerns. His push backs are fair. We are and have been pretty successful at navigating powerfully effective markets while, in many cases, imposed regulation that effectively cleaned up our act without destroying the markets ability to function. Even with climate change, we have and are making improvements in CO2 emissions.

The American Conservative

I think this article is representative of the most straight forward criticism – it’s too expensive, we can’t afford it, and AOC’s plans to pay for it are accounting gimmicks that won’t work in reality.

My Take

First of all, we’re a long way to get anything as comprehensive as this passed. The Republican party as we know it would have to disappear. Given the way the electoral map is organized right now, the Republican party has basically locked themselves into a pretty stable minority-rule position. As long as they can get close to 50% of the popular vote, they get access to considerable power in the US government.

I personally don’t take the proposal seriously, politically, but it doesn’t make it a non-serious proposal. It is. The Democratic party is organizing itself for the long-haul as demographics potentially shift in their favor.

I believe that global warming is a significant threat worthy of significant proposals to address it. I don’t believe free-market only forces are ever going to be adequately aligned to address problems like these effectively. It’s going to require more broad-based cooperation to resolve it. I don’t believe our government or our corporations are hopelessly and so thoroughly corrupt that they can’t be trusted to do the right thing for the right reasons.

It’s incredible the Republican party has so fully bought into anti-science global warming denying that they have not only have failed to come up with policy solutions of their own but they actively block any attempts by the opposing party to do so as well. That’s a crime.

But let me say, I also believe global warming is one humanity ending catastrophe among many other possibilities. I don’t think we can predict the future very well and it’s possible scientific projections could be drastically incorrect. This is not an excuse to do nothing, but it does mean we have to assess all of the risks, all of the ways we can invest our finite resources, and make smart decisions accordingly.

I don’t think the Green New Deal really does that.