Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Story

Amazing Grace is a beautiful song, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable with it. I didn’t like that line “saved a wretch like me.” I don’t think I’m a wretch. Nor are most of my friends.

But once I learned the story behind the song (with a little help from my friends at the Mackinac Center), I became more sympathetic: John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, really was a wretch. Now a new movie is going to bring that story to millions of people.

John Newton was a slave trader and by his own testimony an infidel. He was converted to Christianity but continued in the slave trade. Eventually, however, he renounced that vile life and became an evangelical minister in the Church of England and an abolitionist. “Was blind but now I see,” indeed.

Among the people who heard his preaching was a young member of parliament, William Wilberforce, who was inspired to lead a long campaign for the abolition of slavery – from his maiden speech in 1789 to the final passage of the Abolition Act a month after his death in 1833.

This is one of the greatest stories in history. And now it is the subject of an impressive new movie. I’ve only seen the trailer, but the production values are obviously good, and I’m told that the movie is great. Michael Apted directed. Ioan Gruffudd (best known as Horatio Hornblower) plays Wilberforce. It also features the fine British actors Albert Finney, Rufus Sewell, Ciaran Hinds, Michael Gambon, and Toby Jones. It opens on February 23.

The story of Newton, Wilberforce, abolition, and Amazing Grace is very popular among evangelical Christians. It’s an unambiguous advance for human freedom and dignity in which evangelicals played central roles. And that’s why the movie is produced by Bristol Bay Productions (owned by Philip Anschutz, a billionaire conservative) which also produced Ray. Anschutz owns another film company which produced The Chronicles of Narnia.

If God’s amazing grace caused John Newton to give up slave trading, then who could object? But you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate what promises to be a well-made movie about this great triumph of liberty.

And for those of us who struggle in the vineyards year after year, trying to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, the story reminds us that humanity has made great progress toward freedom, that each battle for freedom can be long and seemingly futile, but that the goal is worth time and money and effort.

I was once challenged by a Chicago School economist, who thinks everything can be measured, to name the most important libertarian accomplishment in history. I said it was the abolition of slavery. OK, name another, he replied. “The bringing of power under the rule of law,” I suggested. He wanted to know how you would measure that. But even without a caliper we can see the importance of that accomplishment. We can also see that neither of these is yet a final victory.

May Amazing Grace inspire us to continue working, as long as it takes, to liberate men and women from the arbitrary rule of others and to constrain power with the chains of law.

Cross-posted from Comment is free.

Visa Policies Costing U.S. Billions of Dollars

The United States is losing billions of dollars a year and the goodwill of millions of people by unnecessarily strict visa policies that discourage tourists, students and business travelers from coming to the United States.

The problem has become so critical that a broad coalition of American businesses, universities and other interest groups are planning to launch a campaign today for needed visa reform.

The U.S. government was obviously not doing enough before September 11, 2001, to keep dangerous people out of the country, but changes to U.S. visa policy since then have gone far beyond legitimate security needs. Tighter visa rules are keeping out potentially millions of visitors who pose no security threat to the United States.

As an article in this morning’s Financial Times reported:

The National Foreign Trade Council estimated that US businesses lost more than $30bn in the two years before mid-2004 because of the visa restrictions imposed after the 2001 terrorist attacks. That figure is likely to be much larger now.
“American businesses now routinely hold training seminars, conferences and sometimes even board meetings outside of the US,” said Bill Reinsch, head of the NFTC. “At the same time you see foreign universities attracting more students by advertising the fact that they don’t have a US-style visa regime.”

One step toward a more rational U.S. visa policy would be to extend the visa waiver program to such economically developed allies as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Greece, and South Korea. The program allows tourists and business travelers to enter the United States for up to 90 days without a visa. Expanding the program to selected countries would boost tourism and goodwill toward the United States without compromising national security.

I write about the need to expand the program in a new Cato Free Trade Bulletin and talk about it in a new Cato podcast.

If You’re in New York and Can Spare a Little Time, You Could Spare a Life

Former Cato Institute interns and New York residents Constantino Diaz-Duran and Chris Kilmer are organizing an effort on behalf of an Egyptian student they’ve never met who faces a terrible penalty for writing his opinions on his personal blog. The event will take place Wednesday, January 31 starting at 3:30 pm at the Egyptian Consulate in New York at 1110 2nd Avenue, between E. 58th and E. 59th.

Kareem is scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday.  A respectful message to the Egyptian government – whether in front of the Consulate or by email, fax, or phone – encouraging them to do the right thing and let him go could save a young man’s life.

New Tax Proposal Combines Social Engineering and Class Warfare

Congressional Democrats want to use the tax code to penalize large corporate severance packages. But this should be a matter for stockholders to decide, not headline-seeking politicians. The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, explains that the middle class often feels the brunt of tax schemes designed to punish the so-called rich:

One of the ways the Senate bill does this is to place a cap on the amount of “deferred compensation” that a company can award its top executives in a given year. The cap is equal to $1 million or the executive’s average salary for the previous five years, whichever is lower. But rather than simply tax any deferred compensation above that threshold as income, it imposes an additional 20% penalty tax on deferred comp above the limit. The Joint Committee on Taxation predicts this provision will bring in $800 million over the next decade. We’ll go out on a limb and predict it brings in an amount closer to $0.

Senate leaders describe this cap on deferred compensation as closing a loophole in the 1993 law that barred companies from deducting from their taxes more than $1 million of salary paid to their CEO and other top execs. Never mind that employee salaries have always been a deductible business expense. This was the last time Democrats ran Congress, and thus the last time they could sock it to the successful.

That 1993 law has itself become a classic example of unintended consequences. The biggest “loophole” in that law was an exemption carved out for performance-based compensation, which was meant to alleviate concerns about Congress setting pay rates in the private sector. Back then, even tub-thumping Senator Carl Levin said “I don’t support the government setting CEO pay in the tax code.” Which he and his mates proceeded to do anyway. And businesses promptly responded by shifting CEO pay away from salary and toward stock options and bonuses to circumvent the cap.

[…]

[T]his time, a much larger pool of people than CEOs could be hit by the new deferred comp cap. People who make a lot less than $1 million have occasion to defer some of their salary, and at many companies even middle managers can do so. If this bill becomes law, those non-millionaires potentially face a 55% tax rate on the income they might otherwise have tried to defer. The tax code is riddled with provisions, such as the Alternative Minimum Tax, the estate tax and any number of phaseouts and caps, that were sold politically as targeting only the “super-rich” but now capture taxpayers of far more modest means.

The Laws of Arithmetic

Robert J. Samuelson writes,

Last year, then-Gov. Mitt Romney made headlines by signing legislation to cover all the state’s uninsured… Romney suggested that annual premiums for a single worker might total $2,400. But when insurance companies recently provided real estimates, the cost was much higher: $4,560.

I told you so.

The problem of paying for health-care coverage, which politicians are declaring they have “solved,” is really just beginning. The only way to make zero-deductible health insurance available at low cost is with a large subsidy; how much will depend on negotiations with insurance companies. Only when the size of the necessary tax increase becomes clear will Massachusetts’s leaders learn the laws of arithmetic.

Everyone is asking whether the Massachusetts plan can work in other states.  It seems to me that the only fair assessment is that it isn’t even working in Massachusetts.

Fighting Government-Run Health Care (Some Exceptions May Apply)

I receive the occasional email from Sarah Berk in her official capacity as the executive director of a group called Health Care America.  (Disclosure: Sarah and I used to work for the same U.S. Senator.)  Typically, these emails riff on the theme:

“Health Care America promotes common-sense policies that limit government control … in the U.S. health care system.”

A recent example is an email informing me that “Health Care America has recently released two op-eds that explain why increased government-control over our health care system reduces consumer choice, quality and innovation.”

So I’m always amused to find an example of government control that Health Care America thinks is just hunky-dory.  And then another.  And another.  And yet another.

For example, Health Care America supports:

  1. Socialized drug coverage for seniors.
  2. Government barriers to trade that prevent Americans from purchasing prescription drugs from abroad. 
  3. State laws that require people to purchase health coverage and that regulate health insurance in a manner reminiscent of HillaryCare: “The recent success of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in creating a universal system using the private sector demonstrates that it is possible to reach bipartisan agreement on positive changes.”
  4. Government control over charity care in general: “Health Care America believes in the social safety net that is funded by government.”
  5. The nightmarish Medicaid program in particular: “the U.S. rightfully invests significant resources in the program.”
  6. Expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.  According to Health Care America’s ad campaign: ”SCHIP is a notable health care success story…Expanding SCHIP to allow states to cover custodial adults is one easy way to get more children covered by the program.”

How does an organization come to adopt such a sharp yet selective distaste for government control?  And with so many types of government control that it supports, why the strident anti-government rhetoric?