Discussing same-sex marriage

I stand in favor of same-sex marriage and equal rights for homosexuals, including adoption and reproduction. I have many gay friends and have attended all of their weddings. Those were some great parties! As a result I have historically been intolerant of religious conservatives who do not share my view.  From my perspective as a non-believer, there was no consequence to them and their enmity just seemed mean spirited if not wholly bigoted. Furthermore, I was intolerant of the argument that this is a religious freedom issue.  It made no logical or Constitutional sense that one person deserves the freedom to worship while another person is denied the freedom to marry (or buy a cake without prejudice).

But I have come to the realization that to some believers, there is a reasonable foothold for opposing same-sex marriage. They believe there is a consequence for their support and it is based in their respect for the laws of their church and more importantly in the penalties for breaking those laws.  They believe acting to support that which their church opposes will cause them real harm. Of course from a secular perspective it is difficult to understand what that harm could be. Yet the church is clear: obey our laws or your internal well-being in danger: you will go to hell (no kidding).

Most of us went to church as children and were educated with two sets of laws. There is the law of the land – or the government – and there is the “law of God”. The law of the land promises penalties for violation, including fines and jail, but the “law of God” promises penalties in the form of the disapproval of our peers and punishment in the afterlife. To many people, these are just as powerful.

Ideally the law of the land and the law of the church would correspond perfectly, but on a few issues they do not. Some believers manage the conflict by cherry picking the church’s laws that work for them. But others do not believe they have the right to decide which of the Church’s laws can be ignored. A good number of religious Americans believe that you follow the rules of the church as dictated or there are severe penalties. We are not in a position to tell them that they are wrong, and I believe the Constitution supports that.

I continue to disagree with my religious friends who cannot support same-sex marriage, but I no longer question their motives. I accept that they have been educated by a wrathful teacher and have genuine fear of breaking their church’s laws. My hope is that their religious leaders come to a more rational, fair, and contemporary position. In the meantime, I think the religious right would be well-served to re-frame the discussion to underscore the penalties they genuinely fear rather than relying on a lopsided and prejudice-charged argument of religious freedom.

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My Christian Guilt (gone)

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First Presbyterian Church In Rockford Illinois

Although I am a non-believer, I enjoy talking about, reading about, and writing about religion. This may strike some as hypocritical, but on the contrary, a belief in god is not a requirement for caring about religion. In fact there is a joke at the University of Chicago’s Divinity school that being an atheist is a requirement for receiving one’s PHD.

I was raised in a Christian house, went to church every Sunday and Wednesday, was the youngest (and highest revenue generating) usher in my church’s history (there is absolutely no data to back up this claim), sang in choir from the earliest age until I went to college, and was fully confirmed. The dwindled congregation of First Presbyterian has since disbanded and the building has been sold to a performing arts organization, but I can still walk the halls of that grand building in my head and see the details of every room, corner, and hiding place.

I also went to a liberal arts college where I let go of my religious beliefs when I realized that the universe could be just as cool without the existence of a sentient creator. Yet, at the same time, my courses in philosophy, history and the study of ethics instilled a deep curiosity about religion.

So…I may have been able to shake my Christian guilt, but I am a sympathetic critic.

Predatory Lending can be a Good Thing

Predatory lending has been a hot button issue for the last ten years or so – especially since the financial crisis of the mid oughts. Stories of perpetual payments, families rendered homeless by parasitic schedules, and greater than 100% annual interest rates abound. Legislation has been quick to follow regulating or outlawing these establishments, and their proprietors have been branded the pariahs of the financial industry.payday-loans-sign

But the truth is, payday lenders are a valuable last resort to America’s poor. They offer an emergency solution to repair a child’s glasses so she can read at school, to fix a car quickly so one can make it to work, to make an sudden appliance repair so that everyone can wear clean clothes, or any number of other family emergencies.

Payday lenders charge exorbitant interest rates by mortgage loan standards, but they are not unreasonable by banking fee standards. Imagine the scenario where a mother needs to find 100 dollars to fix her child’s glasses. The darned kid should have been more careful with them, and now mom is in a tough spot, but kids are kids and these things happen. The local payday lending shop will lend her $100 dollars today but wants $110 in return next Friday which is the mother’s pay day. I think most of us would think this sounds like a reasonable agreement. We are occasionally willing to pay a $5 ATM fee for a $100 withdrawal – and that is getting the money from our own account. Paying twice that to have it lent for a week in an emergency situation seems acceptable.

But in order to compare that loan to those available in other situations requires that we look at that fee annualized – in order to compare apples to apples. When viewed through this lens, the annualized interest rate on this loan is 560%. That looks predatory, mean spirited and downright unfair. For comparison, this is about 100 times the rate of most home equity loans.

It is because of this comparison, that legislators and activists are quick to attack the payday loan industry. Recent regulations require that they cannot occupy locations in poor neighborhoods, cannot charge more than a certain interest rate, or must close their doors altogether. Forcing these operators out of the neighborhoods they serve simply increases the cost to borrowers who now have to travel or take time off of work to secure their loan. Capping interest rates forces the operators to increase transaction fees (so the end payment is the same) or stop offering certain types of risky loans. And forcing lenders to close their doors means that needed loans can’t possibly be made. Does anyone actually believe that people are better off having the last resort option taken off the table?

Now, there are real problems within this industry. There are borrowers who do not pay their loans on time and find themselves in trouble quickly. At these rates, a $100 loan can turn into a $200 debt in a couple months or thousands if let go for too long. Some borrowers may be borrowing for non-emergency situations such as entertainment, frivolous purchases, or drugs. Still others may not understand the math behind what they are signing up for. And finally, there are operators who are truly awful. But all of these are exceptions and and can be managed down to acceptable levels by smart legislation and good operators. At the end of the day, so-called predatory loan operators are offering opportunities to poor communities that have no access other financial solutions.

There is another issue here which revolves around the concept of “fair.” When someone is in financial trouble and facing penalties they often claim it is unfair, even if they are in that spot as a result of their own doing. Society is sympathetic to this argument and often makes excuses for them such as they were taken advantage of, they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into, or the lender made it too complicated (which is another way of saying the borrower is too stupid). There may be legislation required to ensure that things are clear, but people taking responsibility for their own finances is one of the costs of taking out a loan. No honest person borrows money without expecting to pay it back when they say they will (or face consequences).

Be wary when the mob with pitchforks tries to kill the monster by burning down the windmill, as they are often hiding the larger issue. Community banks have been driven out of poor neighborhoods due to 20 years of well-meaning but over-bearing regulation. In their absence payday lenders should be welcomed, nurtured, and regularly reviewed.

Are greedy landlords destroying our neighborhood?

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It was recently posted on a neighborhood Facebook page that the rising number of empty storefronts in Bucktown (the extremely trendy neighborhood in Chicago where we live) is evidence that skyrocketing rents are forcing businesses out and soon we will find ourselves living in a ghost town. The comments went on to celebrate landlords finally getting what they deserved. Those vicious bastards drove-out all the cool stores with their rising rents and then – whoops – they accidentally pushed it to far! Now no one can afford to be here anymore and its all coming crashing around. Where is my violin which I wish to play in ironic mock-sympathy?

But is that really what is going on? Could rents really be increasing at a time when all businesses were fleeing the neighborhood? The answer of course is “no”. Rent can only be increasing at a time when demand outstrips supply. So why the empty store fronts?

The simple reason is that when rents are rising dramatically, landlords can more easily afford to let a storefront sit open for a bit while they find a new tenant who will pay a much higher rent.

Imagine the normal example – the way people think it used to be. When rents are flat – give or take a few percentage points in either direction – a landlord wants to keep all his tenants because the cost of having the unit sit empty for a month or two can’t be recouped by higher rents later. As a result, landlords will aggressively try to keep their storefronts full – even if that means lowering rents a teeny bit.

However, when rents are rising rapidly a smart landlord will see a temporarily empty storefront as a good investment that can bring in a higher paying tenant later. In fact, an empty unit that is re-rented at a rent 15% higher after one month will recoup the lost rent in 10 months and generate 180% return on investment (forever!). Compare 180% return to the less than 1% return your interest bearing checking account delivers to understand how attractive this is.

So before you go expecting tumbleweed to roll across Damen Avenue, recognize that rents in Bucktown are jumping right now which means it is the best possible time for landlords to let their units and storefronts empty for a bit. Over time, things will change and the number of retailers wanting to get into Bucktown will get closer to the number wanting out, turnover will fall, and rents will stabilize. Until then, expect to see lots of empty storefronts and expect to welcome new higher-end (and arguably less-interesting) retailers.

Let’s start with “we want the same thing”

Welcome to the first A Common Sense Conservative blog post. I am aware that Conservatives often do themselves no favors when they talk about things in ways that seem exclusionary and mean spirited. My posts will take these positions, and hopefully, reframe them so that they sound as they should – generous, fair, and based in intellectual foundation. In other words, I am going to be making the case that no matter what you have heard, Conservatives are not mean – or at least no meaner than anyone else.

But first we must acknowledge that all Conservatives are not alike. Just like all Liberals are not alike. There are those we care about and those who care only about themselves.

Lobbyists are a very public group of conservatives with whom we are not concerned. They believe their lives or those of the people they represent would be better with the passing of a certain agenda. Believe it or not, politicians are another public group for which we care little because they tend to believe that their lives would be better off if they were re-elected. Lobbyists and politicians are often hired guns. Lobbyists work for the betterment of the small interests that support them. Politicians work for the betterment of themselves.

This blog is about ideas and the group of people that it cares about is idealogs. I consider myself a Idealogs and if you are reading this, you may be one also. An Idealog is someone who is interested in ideas and the ways those ideas can change society for the better. Certainly there are lobbyists and politicians who are also idealogs and hopefully their ideas line up with the agendas for which they are fighting.

Idealogs on both side of the political spectrum ultimately have their goals in common. They both want the strongest economy, the most jobs and the greatest wealth for everyone. They both want a better, free-er, more open society where everyone is better off. Where they differ is how to get there.

Idealogs on the left believe the way this can be achieved by Robin Hooding the economy. If we take from the rich and give to the poor then the people who had nothing will have something. Meanwhile the people who are rich won’t feel it because they had too much anyway. No one is really hurt. Society is better.

Idealogs on the right believe that the way you create more jobs is by helping businesses to create them. I.E. reducing their taxes and eliminating unnecessary regulations and obstacles to trade. More jobs means more working people, means more disposable income, which ultimately means greater tax revenue. Society is better!

So I ask you to follow me and keep an open mind. If you really believe that all conservatives are greedy or that all liberals are stupid or lazy, then your mind is too broken and your soul is too dark for understanding. But if you can start with the simple premise that idealogs on both side want a better world for everyone, then what I am going to say should make sense.

And I hope this can be a dialog as it so often has been on Facebook. If you think I’ve cut a corner or missed a fact, then I hope you will let me know. So thanks and let’s get started!