Thursday, April 19, 2012

Publilius Syrus was right

On Tuesday, the President of the United States said something that implies one of two things: he doesn't know what a speculator is or he thinks we don't know what a speculator is.  Frankly, I don't care which it is, because neither is a good quality in a president.  Remember when Bush couldn't say nuclear?  How much comfort did that instill?

"We can't afford a situation where speculators artificially manipulate markets by buying up oil, creating the perception of a shortage and driving prices higher, only to flip the oil for a quick profit."  -President Barack Obama

 Speculators are people who think that something is priced too low.  If you find a $10 lamp at a yard sale that you turn around and sell for $25 at an antique store, you're a speculator.  If you bought into a hot stock tip, you're a speculator.  If you bought a lottery ticket, you're actually a gambler, and a poor one at that. 

All of those things, though, are voluntary, and require two parties.  The guy who sold you that $10 leg lamp would have preferred to sell it for $25, I'm sure, but either getting rid of it quickly was worth something to him or he didn't know its actual value.  But, after this transaction, both the seller of the lamp and the buyer of the lamp are happier than they were before, otherwise the lamp would not have been sold.  So, in every case of speculation (even on oil), in order for a speculation "bet" to be made, somebody else must take that bet.  Somebody on the other end of the speculation thinks that the price they are being offered is, at the very least, fair, if not good.  Unless you make all your own stuff, everything you've ever bought you  because you thought it was worth the money on the price tag (or somebody else did).

Speculators have been demonized as predatory or parasitic, because they don't make things.  However, price correcting does have value and is not without risk.  Other people selling lamps are happy to know what they are worth (have you ever looked at what similar items are selling for when you post on Craigs List?).  Sometimes the price is not predictable and goes down instead of up or vice-versa, making those various bets go bad.  Like Beanie Babies. 

The price of oil might be undervalued, too.  People are complaining about the price at the pump, but the concept of price is really just a means to distribute resources.  Money is valuable because it serves as a store of value and is easy to carry.  Food is valuable to me, as are books and candy.  How valuable?  We measure that in its monetary value.  If you remember your supply and demand curves from economics, as the price of transportation goes up, people will still pay (inelastic good), but some will find other alternatives  (Biking, carpooling, public transportation, moving closer to work, getting a smaller car, etc.) or suppliers will increase production to take advantage of the higher prices.  If that's the case, then it stinks, but your lifestyle will have to change.  During the Carter Administration, gas was rationed and price was not the means that the resources were distributed, and instead it was (among other things) wait time.  Would waiting in line be less aggravating?

It may not seem fair to the poorer if this happens, but it's not any less fair that the poor don't have Gulfstreams, that the busy may not have time to wait in line for gas, or that interesting people get attractive spouses, either.  That's how resources work, really.  In fact, there are a lot of people who think extra taxes on gasoline would be a good thing in the long run, implying that there is definitely room in the market for speculation.

There is also the awkwardness of the word "artificially."  What does he mean by that?  Is he saying that some participants in the market are illegitimate?  How is that determined?  If I buy a used car for $1500 with the intent on keeping it, but later see on Craigslist someone willing to pay $2000 for it, would that be an artificial transaction?  How long would I have to keep it before it's not speculation anymore?  Or what if I hire a travel agent?  Or buy stock from a stock broker instead of an IPO?  Or buy tickets to a Clemson game on Stub Hub?  Or just a guy selling tickets outside the stadium?  Are they equally artificial?  What is a natural price increase?  What about the extra costs incurred by taxes?  The president could push to lower gas prices by introducing a bill to Congress to suspend gasoline taxes, since they are price effects that are not even made by market participants; at least the speculators have skin in the game.

Now, does that mean Obama doesn't understand high school economics?  Possible, but personally, I think it's more that he doesn't like the answer.  Like people who complain about their lottery tickets not winning.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Quid est in nomine?

"Does he know the Lord?" my pastor asked about a prayer request.  He didn't ask "Is he a Christian?"  That's significant, because labels are important.  Words are significant, especially names of things.  That labeling is kind of loaded, especially for people who do not "know the Lord," (just look at thegreatkatsby's comment here).  I didn't really think about it until this weekend and this Sunday School lesson.

I can call myself anything I want.  Think about political labels.  The original meaning of conservative was that the only check on state power (i.e., the monarchy) should be the church, while liberals felt that power should be distributed among people and decentralized.  That is not the way they are used today, of course -- similarities remain, like holding of traditional values in the conservative camp and democratization of access to social institutions in the liberal, but conservatives are talking more about the individual and liberals are talking more about centralization than ever before.  So what do either of them mean?  If I call myself a conservative, a liberal, a libertarian, a moderate, I can fit anywhere I want on the spectrum depending on which standards I use.  I like to call myself a moderate, because it makes me sound the least crazy.

Likewise, Christian has a lot rolled into it, depending on what you know about the faith.  The initial terminology used to differentiate disciples of Christ from ordinary Jews was to call them followers of "The Way."  Nobody knew what to call them to capture the entirety of the change of philosophy.  And make no mistake, this was a pretty radical change in philosophy -- our access to God is nodat contingent on our ability to be good.

The discussion of that departure this Sunday morning pivoted on Galatians 2:16-20.  This emphasizes that what separated those original followers of "The Way" from followers of The Law is knowing Christ ("I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." Gal 2:20).  A particular point of emphasis was that there isn't a checklist of dos and don'ts, it's the realization of the gravity of Gal 2:20
What we see in pop-culture, though, is kind of that sort of checklist mentality, and that it is to our detriment.  It's hard not to think of the Ten Commandments in a discussion like this -- a clear symbol of the Judeo-Christian ethic and an actual checklist of dos and don'ts/  But when asked which commandment is the greatest, the answer is not one of those ten: " 'The most important one,' answered Jesus, 'is this: ,,Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.''  The second is this: ,,Love your neighbor as yourself.'' There is no commandment greater than these.' " Mark 12:29-31.  (That was a lot of nested quotes...)

You cannot be a Christian if those two commands are not true for you.  Whatever other baggage is associated with the word "Christian," that is inescapable.  The words "Conservative" or "Evangelical" frequently get attached to "Christian" and that politicizes it to mean something different -- something added beyond its initial intent -- when evangelical just means to telling story to those who haven't heard.  (Conservative has already been discussed.)

So we how do we overcome the negative connotations that have been applied to our names?  The only way I know how is to tell our story.  Why do I want to overcome those negative connotations?  Because by "knowing the Lord," I am far better than I would be otherwise.  That differential in who I am and who I would be is great enough that I want to share the cause.  No, that is understating it; I am compelled to share the cause.  Whatever you call it, it stems from the fact that I know Christ.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

It is finished

There are seven Biblical phrases that Jesus said while on the cross and, of course, "It is finished" is one of them.  It was a declaration that His earthly mission was complete, He had accepted our sin and served as sacrifice on Good Friday.  This would be a marvelous story of self-sacrifice and an example how to treat each other if the story ended there.  But it's not where the story ended.

Three days later, on a Sunday like today, Christ rose.  He predicted this (Mark 8:31-37, Luke 18:31-35).  He told His disciples what was necessary and what would happen -- like the Scripture has told us what is necessary and what will happen -- and they did not understand.  I can't say I blame them; we still have trouble understanding now.

The importance of the Resurrection is a demonstration of both His power over death (symbolically important for us, since we no longer have to fear death) and His faithfulness (more immediately important to us because He fulfills promises).  He promises us the Spirit, the counselor, in John 14:15-21.  In Matthew 28:20, He states, "And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."  (The preacher at my church in Clemson used to end his sermons with that, and it gave me goosebumps every time.)

The Bible is a series of promises that God lays out and fulfills.  His track record is pretty hard to beat.  This, though, is the realization of the most important one.  Today is the anniversary of the Resurrection of Christ, the Son of God, the fulfillment of the promise that in addition to all the things laid on for Good Friday, that He is with us.  That He is trustworthy.  That He is more powerful than death.  I can get behind that.  Happy Easter!

Friday, April 06, 2012

What's good?

I'm pretty sure that every kid at one point asks their parents "Why is it called 'Good' Friday if that's the day Jesus died?" (getting off of school, notwithstanding).  The answer I remember hearing is something like, "He died for our sins on that day," which, of course, is true, but sin is awfully abstract for a kid.  Sin's bad (and a condemnation to death), we know that, but when you're, say, ten, what could be so bad to need somebody to die for them?

Even if you can wrap your head around that, it still seems a little irrational, if not rather nice.  This fellow was selfless enough to let himself endure an excruciating (the root of this word ex- Latin for "out of" and crux Latin for "cross" literally means "out of [or from] the cross", a descriptor that describes the pain associated with crucifixion) experience just because other people are bad. 

Sin serves as a barrier to communication between people and God (Isaiah 59:2), like when I leave my shoes out in the bedroom with my wife.  (She doesn't like that.)  Communication is critical to a functioning relationship and any kind of separation like that causes dysfunction.  Unfortunately, no one can escape this separation (Romans 3:23), either with God or any other relationship, really. Granted, shoes are small potatoes (I hope), but if I leave them despite her protestations, it's disregard for her wishes, and that's not respectful and being disrespectful of my wife is violating our marriage covenant.

God and the tribes of Israel had their own special covenant -- one of prosperity in exchange for obedience -- and His people didn't always hold up their end of the deal.  He warned them with prophets and geopolitics (Habakkuk 3), but people didn't always buy in.  They did, however, get legalistic and focus on the details rather than the message, and the prophets tried to steer them back (Hosea 6:6, Micah 8:6).  They, or rather, we, didn't always listen.

What have you done to remove the barriers in your relationships with friends, spouses, or children?  Moved schedules, bought dinners, given up free time to help, right?  Well, God feels the same way.  The book of Hosea is really a love letter to His people and tries to do those things to win us back that you would do to your husband or wife: "Therefore, I am going to allure her [His people]; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. (Hosea 2:14)" and "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion.  I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. (Hosea 2:19-20)" 

So He did.  He hated that barriers to communication between us so much that He sent us Christ, to eliminate them forever ("For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)").  Because He so loved the world.  He sent us Christ, His son, to suffer on the cross and accept our sin, to be our sacrifice, to give us a path to escape death.  Simply to make Himself more accessible to us. 

Christ even tells us how big a deal this is in John 15:13: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."  That's exactly what He did.  For you.  For me.  For everyone.  Today, we celebrate that we can escape sin because He laid down His life for us.  That's why we call this Good Friday.  Really, kids should be asking, "Why isn't it called Best Friday, instead of just Good?"