Monday, July 3, 2017

The Politics of Jesus: dilemmas

For some Christians I know, who happen to be Labour Party candidates in this year's election, I imagine the discernment of the "politics of Jesus" in relation to the politics of Aotearoa NZ is straightforward. To follow Jesus politically speaking is to vote Labour! Ditto for those Christians standing for National, the Maori Party, the Greens etc.

It does not seem so easy for me, a mere voter.

I find myself weighing up and worrying about (in no particular order of anxiety):
- National's obfuscatory handling of the Todd Barclay matter;
- National's reluctance to act decisively on house prices in our most populated city: is their membership over-subscribed with property speculators and landlords?
- Labour's inept handling of their overseas volunteers' call centre campaign (if they run the country like that ...);
- Labour's recently announced industrial relations policy which seems to me like a return to some very bad days for our economy;
- United Future as a party with way too much importance in decision-making relative to their virtually zero nationwide support;
- NZ First's bewildering array of positions on a variety of matters, most of which are clever clickbaits but not much else;
- every party's position on immigration (I appreciate this is a complex issue and every party is trying to get "the balance" on this matter right, but I find myself responding to the latest policy proposal with a "yeah, I think that misses a key point or two";
- several parties' critique of "neo-liberalism" (i.e. the general theoretical underpinning of our current economy) without offering an alternative which looks like it would actually work better than what it would replace.
- even worse, some of what I hear from some parties amounts to "loads more things in life should be free of charge" with an occasional follow up that the "rich should pay more tax." Spoiler alert: the better off among us already shoulder most of the tax burden.

What is a follower of Jesus to do in the voting booth on 23rd September?

I ask this question with particular reference to our "party vote." (With our local vote for an MP to represent our electorate there might be other considerations than those addressed in this post. We might, for instance, because we feel we know our local candidates better, wish to vote for a candidate because they are a Christian, or because they played rugby for our club, etc).

I would be interested in your views!

The following options strike me with respect to our party vote as theologically plausible (on the unquestioned-by-me presupposition that a Christian should vote):

Option A: choose one issue of great (theological) significance and vote for the party promising to do the right thing on that matter (and "hold your nose" re all other matters on which that party, if governing, might to the wrong thing). The Single Issue option.

Option B: survey many if not all issues of significance, perform a political calculation as to which party on balance is better than the others, and vote accordingly. The Pragmatic option.

Option C: pay little or no attention to what the issues are at this election but focus instead on each party's track record in terms of handling of matters, responding to issues of the day, etc. Then vote for the party that is likely to do the most good for the country/the poor/the worker/the sick/ business/environment. I assume, for example, that the Christians I know who are Labour Party candidates this year would not think each and every policy of the Labour Party was in accord with Christian values, but that they are committed to the Labour Party as the party which, on balance, will do the most good according to Christian values (fight for the underdog, tackle poverty, improve access to health, etc). I assume that Christians standing for National believe that in the long run everyone is better off if a strong economy is maintained and if people are encouraged to stand on their own two feet rather than depend on the state. The Arc of History option.

There is, as the intelligent and learned political scientists know, a fourth option, often favoured by Kiwis, at least at regular intervals ...

Option D: Give the Other Lot A Go.


Anonymous said...

The most common I hear is "yeah....there are no good options....but vote for the lesser of two evils" to which I find myself thinking that as a Christian I'm not really keen on voting for Evil at i don't!
It was quite refreshing then to have a really good candidate to vote for in our local body want to vote...and to actually care about the result! So it is still possible I think to engage the increasingly disaffected voting population.
Till such a change occurs in national politics tho I won't be voting....imagine that...what would happen to our national political system if more people chose to NOT vote, rather than vote. Probably won't have to wait to long to find out....
Till then, remember if you choose to play the game and vote, you can't complain about the result ;-)

Andrei said...

“If voting made any difference they wouldn't let us do it.” - Mark Twain

Of course in this country its a farce because in most urban electorates both the National and Labour Candidate will get in - if you vote one out they just parachute in on the List and maintain their place at the trough and vote for things that are abominations!!!!

Doesn't matter who gets in we will get Euthanasia rammed down our throats which is the latest advance of the Globalist Elites in their war with God and his people

Don't Vote! Express your disgust at our potemkin democracy by boycotting the election

Jean said...

Well I haven't had time enough to even know what the campaigning points are this year yet. I adamantly believe in voting whether or not it counts in the end, far too many people in far too many countries have died in the quest to be able to have vote to not respect the privilege.

National burnt their bridges with me as I witnessed first hand a few under-hand things that happened when they last came to power. They never made the media which surprised me given the way the media had hounded Helen Clark.

I am not sure what more people want for free Peter but I generally agree with a higher tax rate for higher income levels. This wouldn't even touch what we might label middle income. New Zealand still has one of the flattest tax rates in the developed world.

I also vote the highest paid job in NZ should be that of cleaning public toilets.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ben and Andrei
I heartily disagree with you.
Not least because I do not think that "lesser of evils" is necessarily involved in choosing between (say) Labour and National. Might be different if it was between the Communists and Nazis.
I also suggest there is and will be real differences between Labour and National led coalition governments (e.g. in industrial policy).

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Jean
Winston Peters is mooting remittance of student loans.
Stirrings are occurring re further subsidies for GP fees, extending the recent significant pay increase for rest home workers to other low paid occupations.
A number of suggestions re housing solutions involve the government building lots of houses for affordable prices (to purchase, to rent).
That is quite a lot of "free" stuff being sought and/or offered.
And each and every one of them is a lovely thought!
But where does the cash come from?
The rich already pay higher taxes according to higher income.
How much more could they be taxed before they would flee the country and take their businesses (and the tax they pay) with them?
My understanding re tax is that the government gets most tax when (a) businesses are flourishing (cos they pax on profits) and (b) employment is full (cos employees pay tax and unemployment benefits are low).
There would be even more tax paid if (say) every middle income earner paid 2 cents more tax in the dollar.
Will that large section of voters vote accordingly?

Jean said...

Hi Peter

Thanks for the update! So we go with Winton Peters then? Joking he's not on my list... nor is the Hobson Campaigns propaganda - couldn't quite believe Don Brash on that.

Currently in the OECD I think NZ's highest personal income tax rate only has two competitors for being the lowest, those are, the Czech Republic and Latvia. Almost all other countries have a social security component to their tax rates. Even the US - and don't ask me how given their ummm... well.. it isn't the best social system; has a high tax rate of 46 %. As for our lowest tax rate we only just head off Mexico for the lowest in the OECD. I just don't see how we can even maintain the social welfare we have now, which I am grateful for, with the tax rates we have. I am unsure how we rate on company taxes.

I know taxes aren't popular and they are often used (e.g. To lower taxes) as an incentive/bribe/promise to voters but I do not think the collective we always takes in the wide social cost of lowering them, we think mostly of our own income; naturally I suppose. When I was on a higher income I didn't feel the pinch of taxes as much given that only the income above a certain rate is taxed at the higher rate; so proportionally I guess I was always earning more. However, yes it would be a brave political party who would campaign on we are going to raise tax rates in order to fund significant social benefits for the well-being of our society at large : ) ...that is not to say it wouldn't be a wise decision for Kiwi's collective well-being.

Thanks for the update as to what is on the political agenda:
Re GP fees, I think they border on okay at the moment; I think retaining more GP's and doctors is of greater concern. Maybe getting newly trained doctors to agree to stay in NZ for a certain period of time post-training; even with a reduction in university fees as a trade-off. I was fully supportive of the pay increase for care-givers, it was pretty bad considering the type and hours they work. Other occupations well I support the living wage which I don't think would be hugely significant rise for many - research has it that you get a more stable (e.g. Higher retention rate and reliable workers = less re-training and loss of income for employers with employment changes) workforce as a result. Housing is a tricky one. I am not sure selling off the state houses we had was a great decision. My friend a solo mum currently gets $200/week before tax in the hand to pay the expenses for herself and three children after paying rent and it would be twice that if she was in a state house so... hard to say; the only local and non-government entity I know that offers affordable housing Is the Catholic Church.

Fun and games!

Liturgy said...

Thanks so much, Peter, for this series!!!

We have to take a long hard look at ourselves and make some serious decisions.
We are increasing about 100,000 people a year - that's basically the city of Dunedin. Each. Year.
For the Maths impaired, that's an extra person in NZ every 5 minutes: to house, educate,...
Or put it another way: are we building a Dunedin each year - houses, schools, hospitals, libraries, roads,...
Auckland has 800 more cars on its road. Each. Week.

We are (one of) the country with the fastest growing gap between rich and poor in the world.
We were green because, until recently, we had so few people in such a large country.

Explain to me why we have no capital gains tax on houses: we tax income gained in every way except housing. Of course homes will be unafordable - in our capitalist society we have confused people having homes with the best way (for the haves) to make a profit.

We need to free up more land. And revolutionise the way we make houses - what is it with our passion that every house must look different and so needs to be individually designed with its own individual mistakes (imagine building for about half the price and on less expensive land) ... And rethink infill housing - with the quarter acre section being carved up for, say, three houses - half our land is being lost to driveways.

Let's seriously consider a universal basic income.
Let's seriously consider a flat tax AND taxing wealth (we've already got a sort of taxing of some of our wealth in the way people pay rates).

Just some early morning musings...


Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Peter

I find it disturbing when many of the commentators on this post make you sound rational.

Andrei said...

It is not irrational not to vote when the candidates on your ballot paper are going to end up in parliament regardless of the votes they receive from the electorate and once there will advance agendas that you are diametrically opposed to

In fact it is foolishness to allow them to claim they have a mandate from the people for their depredations against civil society by participating in this farce

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Brendan and Andrei
I am assuming Brendan's comment is ironic humour, possibly a dig at me. Otherwise it is ad hominem and should not be published!

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco
I am myself warming up to a capital gains tax (on basis that all forms of income should be taxed, not just some) but I do not warm up to it as a means of slowing down a heating up housing market.

In general terms your thoughts about less variety in house design make a welcome point, that we Kiwis build expensive homes.

But in some particular cases, such as a new housing estate near where I live which I cycled past recently, there were a number of "cookie cutter" houses which (when I looked them up onthe internet) turned out to be jolly expensive!

The issue now, I believe, is the size of houses we wish to have built. Many Kiwi families with several children grew up without harm in houses 80 - 100msq and a small garage and bike shed out the back. Now we want 180msq houses to do the same job along with an attached 40msq garage ... tres expensive!

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Peter

Nothing personal, just some ironic humour as you rightly detected. I thought you laid out the issues reasonably well in your post, complete with your usual attempt to rehearse both sides of the argument to maintain a veneer of impartiality.

I have a sincere Christian friend who doesn’t vote for all the reasons Andrei has articulated. It’s a valid perspective, although what we replace democracy with should all abjure is an open question.

When it comes to politics I have some empathy with Yeats who said:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

As we continue to polarize and trust erodes in our institutions, both civil and ecclesiastical we are paving the way for totalitarianism in some shape or form, perhaps something akin to the kind of ‘government’ we see in the middle east where rule is either by a 'democratically elected' strong man or the military, or God forbid, the UN.

Politics follows culture and the trajectory in the west is not encouraging. We are conducting a previously untried experiment to see if absent Christianity in the public square, we can maintain civil society based on the abstract notion of 'human rights'.

This is really setting the stage for a diminution of human rights, as we shall see as the years pass. All ready free speech has been lost in Britain and most of western Europe. We are not Britain yet, but again we are on the same trajectory.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

I laid out a similar menu in a talk last week. Although my menu was roughly the same as yours, I included-- indeed started with-- Andrei's Option E-- Don't vote.

Of course, the context here is not that of the blessed isles. We are looking mainly at the 2018 midterm election for Congress, and at a dyad in which each party's choices both drive factions in the other to react and attract fickle voters into the electorate.

Among wealthy Republicans, for example, a monomaniacal zeal for cutting taxes not only strengthens the influence on wealthy Democrats of those who want a bigger welfare state, but also subtly discourages the Republican base from voting at all. Conversely, various identitarian causes energise many liberal Democrats, but also many more citizens who cherish the goods of commonality, especially evangelical Republicans who are otherwise disinclined to vote. And whatever the dreams of Mr Trump's political advisor, his remaining followers are mainly reacting against their social enemies, loving what our coastal elites hate and hating what they love.

Thus voting as personal expression is in perverse tension with voting as political action. Yet as a secret act, voting has no symbolic value whatsoever; it is an exercise in pure consequentialism, or it is nothing. So then, if one's voting actually frustrates the outcome one favours, why do it?

Before answering with an appeal to one's own sublime Christian values, please note that it is precisely the most moralising personal expression that is most thoroughly checked in the body politic. Organisations for abortion sleep until campaigning against abortion awakens them. Outrage that any of the poor live under bridges elicits an answering outrage that any should get a roof without working for it. So, if moralising votes actually make voting less effective, then how could anyone cast a vote in Christ?

More on this tomorrow.

Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...

Postscript-- In America, my comments about voting are true, not only of the götterdämmerung of Federal politics, but of local government as well.

Bowman Walton

Bryden Black said...

Re housing and CGT.
It has been waived Next Door when that house is owned as the main residence of the tax payer(s). And rightly so. As for further house ownership: there are other ways of taxing sales on increases in their value than a general and broad CGT.
Thereafter, re shares and the like: the grandparenting rules get inordinately complicated, to the point that indexing (again a fair enough principle) also gets most complicated. It is certainly a most complicated exercise to establish and demonstrate compliance, over time.
Lastly, while at first blush a CGT looks an equitable way of taxing certain forms of wealth, its nett gains for the public purse only just outweigh the cost of gathering and certifying it. In other words, there are better and easier ways of taxing specific forms of wealth (as opposed to general income) other than what is viewed as a simple across the board Capital Gains Tax. Rates have already been mentioned, for example. Yet that also has consequences for tiers of government - another potential quagmire for power (and so wealth) distribution.
In fact, flatter taxes on lower income brackets and thereafter steeper rates of increase on higher brackets - as long as they always remain less than 50%; recall the old fiasco of Supertax in the UK! - is a more just means of lessening The Gap overall ... In fact, I view CGT as the lazy politician’s way of being viewed as addressing all sorts of ‘nice’ ideological matters economic, which actually achieves very little and causes all sorts of other complicated issues. The few people who benefit are ... accountants and lawyers whose task it is to sort out the complications!
A return to the Jubilee principle anyone?

Brendan McNeill said...

It is not possible to tax our way to economic prosperity, or the socialist ‘holy grail’ of income equality. Both these utopian aims fail to account for human aspiration and the modifying effect of diminished ‘risk vs reward’ on human behaviour. There are enough 20th century ‘case studies’ to have discredited these ideologies, but it seems they persist.

Former Labour finance minister Trevor de Cleene is reported to have said: ‘Either tax the tree or the fruit but not both’ which is somewhat refreshing from a Labour cabinet minister. A capital gains tax following a tax paid investment into a capital asset whose income is also taxed, is to tax both the fruit and the tree.

Besides, CGT has no impact on the rising house costs. Sydney that has both a CGT and an onerous ‘stamp duty’ on house sales, and has one of the highest house prices in the world in relation to income.

House prices are driven by a combination of supply and demand, the individual’s ability to service debt, and the banks appetite to loan money. Politicians can and do intervene to distort the market, but for the most part their interventions count for very little.

Despite its critics GST as a consumption tax is probably one of the fairest taxes because it is inescapable. Both the thief and the sophisticated tax avoider (if that’s still possible) must pay GST on the purchase of a new fridge. Yes, GST impacts disproportionately on the poor, but in highly socialized countries like New Zealand, even with GST the working poor effectively pay little or no tax, or are net beneficiaries of the tax/welfare system, not to mention the ‘free’ services that are provided by way of education and health care.

Unlike Australia that has significant debt and structural problems, we go into this election with very few issues to energize the slumbering voter.

Jean said...

I am with you on the tax suggestion Bryden.

Bowman I had a look at your link. I keep having these spurious thoughts such as 'thank goodness I don't live in America' : ) ... Despite a bit of moral politicking in kiwiland we don't come close to the complications you point to, perhaps it has something to do with the varying size in our population base or kiwi pragmatism. Anyhow, some of the points raised in that article defy logic such as why would anyone want to ban anyone from banning plastic bags, and why would anyone want to take anyone to court for not being able to shoot a gun in a public park, and...... speechless.

As for the federal government pre-emptying state and/or local laws I can see cause for this at some level, but I also see cause for concern when federal law itself is questionable. One of the hardest things you gather when reading his autobiography that Nelson Mandela had to wrestle with as a lawyer is that the law is not always on the side of right. And the scary thing with some of the pre-emptying laws being employed by Mr Trump is they seem to echo more of a totalitarianism stance than a response to people's concerns and welfare within a democracy.

Anonymous said...

On taxes.

How rare it is to hear anything at all serious about them in a Christian forum. My thanks to Carrell & Co for this brief discussion.

Together, the full story of the Great Recession (2008) and Thomas Piketty's monumental work on economic inequality (cf Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 2013) have begun a wholly new discussion about state finance. Societies like ours are awakening from the dream that a middle class is a natural and inevitable result of capitalism. We now see quite plainly that the middle classes have come to be where states have fostered economies that enable and sustain them. In my circle, this has opened a deepening divide between conservatives alarmed by the disappearance of middle classes and libertarians with clear ideals for individuals and states, but none for societies or their economies. And the debate between progressives and conservatives centres on the open question where any intervention would do some good. This is new.

CGT are social laws like the old sumptuary laws that regulated the amounts of lace or glass one might have, or indeed like the biblical Jubilee laws to which Bryden refers. They are meant to fend off a society in which relations among the living are fixed by the wealth of their ancestors. So like weather forecasting, mail delivery, and spying on North Korea, they are best are evaluated, not on their net profit to the state, but on their utility for that end. Of course, CGT have not prevented inequality, but then police, fire, and water departments have not prevented crime, fire, and thirst either.

GST may be the most profitable revenue sources for states. But the reader will have guessed that Piketty and the Great Recession have weakened their former appeal. Unlike income taxes, GST sidestepped contentious arguments about fairness that few are now in any mood to avoid. Because they affect the incentive to produce very little, GST also seemed to avoid "distortion" of the "natural" workings of the economy. But the house of civilisation is not a cave, and that now seems like an argument against artificial rooftops that interfere in the natural fall of sun, rain, and hail.

Before 2008 and 2013, one could reasonably talk about politics somewhere as if the political economy there were known to be a force of nature with laws of its own that just happened to coincide with certain moral sentiments. This was useful for some in the way that the *divine lie* was useful to Plato's philosopher-king, and for others in the way that divine omnipotence was consoling to Voltaire's Dr Pangloss, for whom "everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." Now there is no doubt that people, money, and exchange do follow some patterns that economists, especially after Keynes, understand rather well. But a science is not necessarily about nature. The political economies of my country and yours are well-known, but they are not natural phenomena that will maintain themselves without decision and intervention. Nor will they inevitably serve our values. Without wise political action, our political economies can be and probably will become inhospitable to our received values.

If this challenge is not our responsibility, then whose is it? The surprising thing is that Christians discuss That Topic so much and this topic so little.

Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...

Yesterday, Peter, I left two questions here:

(1) [Why] should one vote when doing so hinders adoption of one's preferred policies? ("So then, if one's voting actually frustrates the outcome one favours, why do it?")

This question supposes that a secret ballot is no kind of symbol, and that intelligent voting is meant to have consequences.

(2) How, in such circumstances, can one vote in Christ? ("So, if moralising votes actually make voting less effective, then how could anyone cast a vote in Christ?")

This question supposes that a Christian performs all human acts in Christ, and that voting is not an exception to that ideal. Some will dislike these premises, but they will not find a reasonable ground for rejecting them.

Answering the first question, the consequence of a vote cast in Christ should be a local body politic that is a healthier whole than would otherwise have been the case. Perhaps the non-partisan participation of bishops in the House of Lords is analogous to the role of Christians in any commonwealth.

In America, partisan disagreement over policy is greatest among the most wealthy, and least among the non-wealthy. This rancor between donors to the two parties confronts Christian voters here with three diseases in the body politic-- (a) national polarisation, (b) the reduction of even local politics to it, and (c) increasingly rare transfers of power-- that disrupt governance according to the received constitution. Insofar as Christians vote for relative centrists, they will (a) reduce the polarisation among their neighbours, so that a win for the partisans in one local party is not a total loss for partisans of the other. They will also (b) empower voters and candidates who are relatively left or right of their local centre, but who are far closer to it than national leaders who do the bidding of their polarised donors. Finally, they will (c) make it more likely that rival constituencies will take their turns in power. Rival interests and dreams will compete for power until the Lord returns, but they need not divide and embitter civil communities.

Answering the second, insofar as Christ's person and work reconcile all to all, a vote that integrates the body politic is in him, and one that divides the body politic is not in him. This is an inescapable consequence of knowing all that the Church has learned from the scriptures about who he is and why he came. By implication, voting that sickens the body politic with embittered divisions is not in him, even if it does invoke moral principles that are arguably scriptural. Were all the ethos of the scriptures to be equally applied to all policy, it would not be divisive but unifying, of course, but it would also be a sign that God has begun the next aeon. For the present, Caesar is responsible for unity, order, and justice, and merely partisan application of selected scriptures is more worldly than faithful.

Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...

Jean, thank you for looking up the link and typing such a thoughtful reply on moralism and preemption.

"I keep having these spurious thoughts such as 'thank goodness I don't live in America' : )"

And I keep thinking that nobody actually does. North America probably has a dozen or more de facto countries distributed into its three nation-states. Issues that are less tractable at the Federal level in the US would be more simple at some regional level for which we have no constitutional structure.

"Despite a bit of moral politicking in kiwiland we don't come close to the complications you point to"

A hypothesis: as religion recedes, persons mark their identities with politics conceived as a brand of self-defining moralism that is disconnected from all the reality-based habits of statecraft. Thus a politics of narcissism has broken out on both the left and the right, and because it is narcissism, it is also absolutist in a way that burdens the public business.

Yesterday, a local activist told me that none of the organizing activity on the left is associated with the Democratic Party. "Why should it be? That is not a left organisation." I have heard similar disdain for the Republican Party from young conservatives. Where politics is self-expression, it is no longer politics.

" why would anyone want to ban anyone from banning plastic bags, and why would anyone want to take anyone to court for not being able to shoot a gun in a public park, and...... speechless"

Well, if you have spent the money required to get a state legislature to let you put groceries in plastic bags, you will be most unhappy to find that you also have to spend even more money lobbying every city council in the state. So the state pre-emptions defend the sanctity of the bribe.

The issues involved reflect the moralism mentioned above. Those in favour of the plastic bags belong to the All Regulations Kill Jobs And Profits cult; those against the plastic bags belong to the Wildlife Must Be Protected From Humans cult. Those who banned guns in city parks believed that Guns Are For Hunting Somewhere Else, whilst those who would prosecute them believe that Guns Are For Protection Of Self And Others Everywhere.

"...they seem to echo more of a totalitarianism stance than a response to people's concerns and welfare within a democracy."

Less than a fifth of voters support any version of current Republican healthcare legislation that affects everyone breathing, but that has not prevented congressmen from voting for it. To me, this looks like men in expensive suits diving out upstairs windows and flapping their arms, confident that they have defeated gravity at last. But we shall see.

Bowman Walton