My Top Five Reads of 2015


Twenty-five books a year – roughly two a month – isn’t a lot of reading compared to some. I am part of a family of speed readers. My father devoured books. My brother turns the pages fast enough to burn his fingers. My wife reads faster than I can talk and my children appear to be following suit. I love to read, but it takes me a while to carve through the text. I usually put out a top ten list of my reading journey for the year, but in 2015 writing took as much of my attention (if not more) than reading. With two book projects, two blogs, weekly sermons, and reviewing some of my children’s writing I only managed to finish reading through seventeen books in 2015. I felt that the data set wasn’t large enough to warrant a top ten list and opted for a top five instead. Though I could easily list ten very good books, you deserve a true cream of the crop listing. So, without further ado, following are my top five reads of 2015 listed in the order I read them.

  1. hand in Hand: The Beauty of God’s Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice by Randy Alcorn. If you’ve never read any of Alcorn’s work, do yourself a favor and grab one – any one. Alcorn is a deep thinker who delves into the implications of the plain text of Scripture with a boldness I’ve seldom read elsewhere.[1] This book is his contribution to the Calvinism (God’s will saves and man has no choice in the matter) vs. Arminianism (God’s will saves and man has a choice in the matter) debate. Regardless of which theological camp you find yourself currently in, this book will challenge your presuppositions and give you some appreciation for the other side. Alcorn spent his first ten years in the faith as an Armenian and then slowly moved over to four-point Calvinism (which, to be fair, some would say is no Calvinism at all!). I found that much of my angst toward Calvinism was really a reaction to what could be more aptly termed hyper-Calvinism (which to me is nothing more than pagan fatalism wrapped in Christian terminology). After reading this book, I am still closer to Arminius than I am comfortable with Calvin. But the book helped me temper some of my hyper-Arminian assertions (which at times could be nothing more than secular humanism wrapped in Christian terminology). Alcorn’s book is a fine apologetic for two contrary views that remain orthodox. Not only is the text engaging and provocative, the book also includes great tables and informative diagrams. What’s not to like?
  1. The American House of Saud by Steven Emerson. Published in 1985, I consider this book a classic and a must read for anyone who really wants to understand our government’s response to 9/11, how we’ve prosecuted the War on Terror, and the real power of the petrodollar. My greatest regret in reading this book was that I hadn’t read it sooner – thirty years sooner! The influence of Saudi money in the US reaches beyond government to the business decisions that impact many middle class Americans living blissfully in fly-over country. If you’ve ever wondered why America went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq after 19 Saudi Arabian nationals killed nearly 3,000 US civilians, this book is for you.
  1. The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp by Marin Katusa. I ran into this book while researching the petrodollar undergirding of our financial system. What I found was a treasure: a venture capitalist and energy expert whose telling of the stranger-than-fiction tale of the rise of Vladimir Putin puts Tom Clancy to shame. Great books have great beginnings and I wish I had come up with this one: “I’m going to tell you a story you’ll wish weren’t true.” And he delivers. Katusa is a specialist in his field – he’s made millions at it – but he makes the subject matter accessible to the layman. Making the complex concise and comprehendible is a great talent; which Katusa displays in spades. He doesn’t allow the text to get bogged down in jargon and the statistics are given in great infographics. Though he has skin in the game in the sense that he advises educated speculation in the energy market as a hedge against the impending implosion of the petrodollar[2], he doesn’t say “invest with me and I’ll make you rich” as other authors on this subject do. Katusa’s sense of humor is salted throughout the text in numerous insightful and funny quips. Here is his observation on the succession of the Saudi throne: “Whenever a throne room is crowded with would-be successors, it’s easy for a brawl to break out, which favors the most ruthless over the best qualified. The chance that Prince Right will emerge the winner is remote.”[3]
  1. A Time to Betray by Reza Kahlili. When I was a young teenager, I had a mentor who was a missionary living in Iran when the Islamic Revolution took place. She was a courageous woman and her eye-witness accounts of how demonstrations and riots broke out did much to help me see through what I was watching on the evening news. Some years after the American hostages were released from Iran, I read Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles, the story of the two EDS employees that Ross Perot made sure got home. Kahlili’s book rivals Follett’s on multiple fronts. While both are non-fiction, Kahlili lived his. As a member of the Revolutionary Guard from the early days of the revolution, he was a spy for the United States. In America, we incarcerate spies. In Iran, they arrest them and their families, friends, and loved ones. The captured endure untold torture while their wives and daughters are raped before them and their loved ones are executed. Only after extracting its ten pounds of flesh does the regime decide to execute the traitor. Kahlili knew this before he became an agent for the US in the hopes of saving the Iran that once was. True spycraft is the ultimate confidence game. Kahlili walked that tight rope for years while providing vital intelligence to our government. As I read it, I wondered how many hundreds – if not thousands – of foreign agents our government has been able to recruit because the assets really believed in the American ideals of truth, liberty, and justice for all. Kahlili’s belief and honesty are palpable throughout the text. The manner of his handling by the US in light of American foreign policy would certainly justify a fair level of cynicism on his part. But his narrative never falls into it. His hope for his people and his pain in their suffering shines above it all. Any who agree with the Iran Nuclear Deal should be made to read this book.
  1. Agnes Sanford and Her Companions by William L. De Arteaga. This is a complimentary and updating work to Quenching the Spirit by the same author and contains great perspectives on the Charismatic Renewal from the Catholic and Anglican perspectives. They laid the groundwork in many ways for the growth of modern Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement. His explanation of experimentation and his understanding of the graces in sacraments and the energies of God are enlightening and refreshing. I’ve been a fan of De Arteaga’s since reading Quenching the Spirit over a decade ago. Through a series of divine appointments, we wound up being Facebook buddies and I recently attended a healing workshop he held in an Anglican church in North Carolina. De Arteaga is the real deal. He doesn’t just study, write, and teach. He walks the walk and preaches a full Gospel, ministering not only the revelation of the Scriptures but the grace of healing through the power of the Holy Spirit. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

All these titles can be found on Amazon and would make a worthy addition to any library. I certainly enjoyed them and found them enlightening. I trust you will too.

[1] In his book Heaven, he makes 21 brief jaw-dropping observations on the nature of existence in the intermediate Heaven from just three verses (Rev 6:9-11).
[2] The short story: The Saudi’s only sell oil in US dollars. This arrangement causes a demand on US currency that keeps it valued beyond its real worth. For this hedge, we provide the Saudi’s with just about anything they ask for. Russian energy development threatens to upset this paradigm. Should the Saudi’s abandon the dollar, the US economy would suffer greatly.
[3] Marin Katusa, The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp, (Hoboken: Wiley, Stowe: Casey Research, LLC 2015), 189. Since the publishing of the book, King Abdullah died and was succeeded by his half-brother, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. One of his first reforms was to reduce cabinet level positions, consolidating power in fewer hands. Portents of things to come?

Denarii, Dollars, and Day Laborers: A Living Wage Tale – Part 2

“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” Jesus of Nazareth on labor relations, circa AD 33.[1]

“And whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship, and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest…and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required; as, for example, by…the provision of an adequate living wage…[and] recognition of the principle of equal remuneration for work of equal value…” Preamble to the International Labor Organization Constitution, AD 1919.[2]

I believe that both the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963 were birthed out of two ideals: a reasonable desire for fairness (defined as an equality of outcomes) and a belief that employers have a predisposition for exploiting labor. Our legislators meant well and believed that by such regulations, they would improve the lot of all workers. Though it would be fun to debate the veracity of that, it’s not the purpose of this post. I’m not here to argue about their effectiveness. I am here to argue about their legitimacy in a free market economy.

On January 28, 2014, President Obama will give his fifth State of the Union Address. Rest assured that he will bang the drum of an “adequate living wage” and an increase to the minimum wage. Members of Congress will stand and applaud. Man-on-the-street interviews will find the populace very accepting of the proposal. Proponents for the poor will claim it as another step toward “wage equality”. And employers everywhere will begin estimating how much more they will need to charge for their products once another synthetic wage increase goes into effect.

In a truly free market, employers vie for labor based on market value. If there is a large supply of labor, the price goes down. If the labor supply is limited, the price goes up. It matters not what type of labor is in view, whether skilled or unskilled. For instance, our institutions of higher learning produce more lawyers than the current market demands. So, though the median wage for lawyers in 2012 was around $113,000 per year, it doesn’t mean that 2014 graduates will make that in 2015. Those looking for jobs after graduation often have to settle for posts that are tangential to the legal profession. Many agree to come aboard firms for much lower pay simply to get in the door. Supply and demand, plain and simple.

But who is going to shed a tear for the plight of lawyers? What politician would be able to rabble-rouse the populace over the issue of unfair wages to professionals?  Will we see a law enacted that forces law firms to pay a minimum hourly wage to new lawyers in order to guarantee their ability to pay off their school loans and have enough left over to eat? I doubt it. After all, why would lawyers need a living wage?

Though I believe the above argument makes sense, somehow its validity dissolves in face of the day laborer and the minimum wage worker. Emotion overrules reason to the degree that folks who haven’t been paid minimum wage in decades clamor passionately for the need of fast food workers to make over $10 an hour.

I worked in an Arby’s Restaurant in my late teens. I had a coworker who took off to Alaska during the canning season to make some quick money. He had heard that the cannery workers could make $15 an hour (this was in the early 1980s). When he got there, the cannery was on strike. So he wound up working at the Arby’s – for well over twice the minimum wage. Why? Supply and demand. Virginia had a much larger unskilled labor supply than Alaska did at the time. To attract workers to food service jobs, Virginia employers only had to offer minimum wage. Alaska employers had to sweeten the pot to attract workers from other venues. This is how the free market is supposed to work.

But ever since the social upheavals of the early twentieth century, progressives of all stripes have pressed to stipulate what employers must pay, regardless of market conditions. They sold these notions to the employers themselves by claiming that it protects them from competitors who might gain an unfair advantage by paying less for their labor. If everyone is forced to do it, they reasoned, it levels the playing field. All the while, freedom – both of people and markets – bled out more and more.

Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the field was given primarily to illustrate spiritual truths. But contained in it are all the issues of market value, fair pay, labor relations, and employer freedoms. I won’t print the entire parable here, but I would encourage you to pick your Bible up and read it. You will find it in Matthew 20:1-16.

In the parable, a landowner negotiates with a group of men to work in his vineyard for the day. The market value for a day’s work[3] was one denarius and the landowner hired the men for that wage. Supposing that the work began at sunup, 6 AM, the landowner hired additional laborers at 9 AM, 12 PM, 3 PM, and 5 PM. When the sun went down at 6 PM, the landowner paid all the workers one denarius each. I’ll attempt to bring this a bit closer to home.

Minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. Supposing that four of the twelve hours would be paid at overtime rates, let’s call the average day wage for 12 hours $102.[4] With this conversion, the average hourly wage result per worker class is illustrated in the table below. 

wage table

In today’s rhetoric, the landowner’s generosity caused a 1200% economic inequality between the top wage earner and the lowest wage earner. This is obviously unfair. After all, a group of men labored for twelve hours and only made what men who worked for a single hour made. Time to go on strike, file a complaint with the Department of Labor, and get in front of any camera that will listen to how evil the employer is. In swoops the government mandating that all laborers be paid $17 an hour because the landowner can obviously afford it. Furthermore, the landowner is restrained from giving discretionary bonuses. All laborers of a particular class must make the same wage. And if a bonus is to be handed out, it cannot be based on generosity; unless the employer is willing to be equally generous with everybody.

It’s interesting to see what side of this argument Jesus lands on. When the first laborer hired accuses him of unfairness, he says, “Friend, I’m not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work the day for $102? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man that was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus doesn’t land on the side of fairness, defined as equal outcomes. He lands on the side of freedom – the freedom to use his money to compensate labor as he saw fit.

I’ve worked in corporate America for quite some time now. I’ve known more than a few human resource professionals in my day and have had to dabble a bit in the trade myself. Trust me, if Jesus were a CEO today and pulled a stunt like that on the factory floor, his head of HR would have a heart attack. And the demand for lawyers would go up the week after payday.

[1] Matthew 20:15 New International Version

[3] At the time, this was a nominal 12 hour work day. These would be longer hours in the summer and shorter in the winter as regardless the season, the daylight hours were divided equally into twelve parts.

[4] The math: ($7.25 x 8) + ($7.25 x 1.5 x 4) = $101.50. I rounded up in the text to make more cents.

Dishes, Lawns, and Windows: A Living Wage Tale

“How much do I owe you for the lawn?” he asked me. “$20,” I answered flatly. “Twenty dollars? How long did it take you to mow it?” “A couple of hours.” “But that’s $10 an hour!” he exclaimed, visibly upset. I should have seen it coming. He was used to paying me minimum wage, which at the time was only $3.10 an hour. I probably should back up a couple of steps to give you some context. 

I am the youngest of seven. In our household, children were required to get a job by the age of thirteen. By “get a job” I mean a regular gig with a pay check; you know, the kind where they take taxes out and you start paying Social Security. We were required to get a job at thirteen, but they put us to work as soon as we could reach the sink. Dishes were the first duty. As the older kids went to work, their household chores were scaled back. My father decreed that 7% of the income earned had to go into the household finances. As the children got jobs they also took on the expense of buying their own clothes and paying for their own extra-curricular activities. At eighteen there was the unwritten expectation that the child would move out.[1] 

Job requirement aside, my folks decided I needed a business when I was eleven. Well, they decided that my brother Timothy and I should have a business (in part probably because he was thirteen and they might not have been sure someone would hire him). They had life-long friends whose sons had a lawn mowing enterprise. The dad had built their house on inherited land and worked for Ma Bell when she was the only telephone company in the country. He was pulling in union wages with limited overhead and only two kids in the center of the Ozarks in 1976. They had the full-sized pickup truck with a nice trailer to pull their lawn tractors, mowers, trimmers, and blowers to all the manicured graveyards where the boys worked hard to keep the grounds pristine. 

On that fateful day, mom and dad loaded Tim and I into the back seat of the two-door family Pinto (you remember, the model with the hatchback and exploding gas tank) and drove us to the local Western Auto three miles from home. There they purchased a lawn mower and a gas can for $75. After paying the cashier, they informed us that we would be paying them back with the proceeds from our fledgling business. Then they got back into the Pinto and drove away. Tim and I pushed the mower home; all three miles, mostly uphill. Mom had worked her contacts at the hospital and lined up several yards for us. They were not pristine graveyards. They were overgrown hippie pads owned by local slum lords. I slung more rocks, doggie doo, and beer bottle glass than I did grass pushing that mower through the weeds. What can I say; it built character and a distinct distaste for mowing lawns.[2] 

In my thirteenth summer, the traditional time when Larum children go a job getting, it was clear that my father’s time on this earth was short. He forbad my departure to the workforce and kept me home for my last summer of training under his wise tutelage. His lessons that summer have stood the test of time and are with me still. During one particularly poignant and prophetic conversation, he counseled me on earning potential and job security. “You know son,” he said, “there are a couple of fields you would do well to get into. One of them is accounting. The world will always need accountants and if you were one, you could always find work. The other is this new industry involving computers. Two of your brothers are involved in it now and I think it’s going to be big. If you go for accounting or computers, you’ll be set.” The year was 1978. Computers were going to be big business. And the world still needs accountants. I loved my dad and trusted his advice. So when the time came for me to get my first local job, I went to work as a dish washer at the age of fourteen. I would work in restaurants for the next seven years.[3] 

And so it was that at the tender age of fifteen, my boss in the Cook’s Back Door Restaurant asked me to mow his yard. My mower was broken, I informed him (see footnote 2) and even if it wasn’t, I had no means of transporting it to his house (see footnote 1). No bother, he told me, I could use his. I probably should have given him a break in the price for using his equipment. But I didn’t think of it at the time. Besides, his lawn was of a size that I charged $20 for. My price was my price. It wasn’t my fault that all he was obligated to pay me as a dish washer in his restaurant was $3.10 an hour. 

“Twenty dollars?…But that’s $10 an hour!” I probably should have negotiated. Or at least I should have explained the difference between washing dishes and mowing lawns. I like washing dishes and was willing to do it for $3.10 an hour. As a matter of fact, I was thankful to have the job at all. But I didn’t like grass cutting, with my mower or anyone else’s. So, it cost more to get me to do it. Besides, he came to me for the service. I didn’t go to him looking for lawn work. In any event, I should have been a bit more humble. Instead, I upped the ante. “You should be glad you didn’t ask me to wash your windows,” I said, a bit smugly. “I charge $35 an hour for that.” I probably should back up a couple of steps and explain. 

By the time I was fourteen, the family rules were out the window. 7% of the income to the family fund? No, that wouldn’t cut it anymore. Dad was dead. Only my mother, my brother Timothy, and I were left at home. Mom needed help keeping a roof over our heads. Room and board was set at $100 a month (about $283 in today’s money). Tim went to work as a cook in a local restaurant. I got a gig with a state CEDA program as a cast member in a sing-and-dance troop. In essence, this meant that when mom set rent at $100 a month in my fourteenth summer, I got a job out of town and sent most of my earnings home. When I returned from my travels ten weeks later, I got a post as a dishwasher in the kitchen my brother was working in. 

That same summer, I made friends with some folks who had a window cleaning business. They trained me in the basic techniques, how to find jobs, and how to price them out. And when they moved, they gifted me with some accounts and equipment. On my best day doing windows, I cleared $70 in two hours. It’s where I got the figure that I shot at my boss when he criticized me for my lawn prices. He paid the fee, but promised not to use me in that capacity again. I must admit I was relieved. 

My earnings in the restaurant that year (1980) amounted to $1,389. Even at fifteen I knew I couldn’t live on that wage. These earnings were supplemented by window cleaning, but I was in school full time and windows are hard to do in the winter. I fell in love with restaurant work and within seven years made my way into a managerial post. My last year as a manager, I made $9,340. It wasn’t great, but it was a site better than minimum wage, which was still sitting at $3.10/hour. I had to do better. I opted to learn a trade. 

After a short stint as a carpenter’s helper (a post I took at a wage loss from where I was in order to learn a new skill), I was hired by a commercial office furnishings installation outfit. My first year as a semi-skilled laborer garnered me $19,603. This amounts to fourteen times the earning power that I had as a minimum wage worker in 1980. And I wasn’t even working for a union shop. 

After plying my newfound trade for nearly three years, I got a business offer from a colleague in the industry. “Move down and run the business with me,” he asked. The entrepreneurial days of my youth came back to me and I said yes. I uprooted my young family and moved to uncertain waters full of promise and potential problems. My first full year of self-employment (1990), I earned $29,353. It would take me another eight years to nearly double that. At $56,000 per year, I was the sole provider for a family of seven: myself, my wife, and our first five children. 

What is the moral of this story? Well, recent news and protests would have us believe that minimum wage workers are a static class of American citizens who are trying to raise their families on the meager wage of $7.25/hour. This policy, we are told, causes economic inequality and must be remedied by an increase of the minimum wage to a “living wage” of $15/hour or no one gets a Big Mac. Seriously? This wage only gets you out of poverty level if your family size is five or less.[4] No, I’m not arguing for a higher minimum wage or smaller families. I’m simply highlighting the absurdity of it. When did flipping burgers become a job choice invested with the guarantee that one could provide for an entire family? Answer: never. 

The reality of economy is that people value labor and products differently. Were I to tell you that a physician and a plumber should make the same hourly wage, you would call me crazy. And yet, our government seems intent on specifying by law what the doctor can charge and ultimately what the plumber must be paid. And this philosophy is predicated on the ideal that capitalism and enterprise are intrinsically exploitative and that any laborer, regardless of their skill or post, should be paid at least enough to support a family of six and not be considered poor in America. Someone needs to take their mouth off the crack pipe! 

Neither the poor nor minimum wage earners are a static group in our country. Minimum wage jobs are generally entry level, low-skilled positions. They are not intended (and neither can they sustain) the economically untenable “living wages” being demanded. Rest assured that if the trend continues and the socialist ideals of labor become law for the Golden Arches and their like, folks in America will eventually go south of the border for real to get their fast food.

[1] To any of my siblings who may be reading this, bear in mind that these are my recollections. You’ll probably have a more fleshed out version. Just remember, I’m the baby – gotta love me!

[2] By the time I turned 15, I had perfected the knack of ripping off the top of the mower with just two good pulls of the start rope, whereupon my step-dad would bring out his riding mower and cut our half-acre lot. He wouldn’t let me use his mower because it didn’t have brakes and he thought it unsafe for a teenager like me.

[3] I’ve since spent the better part of my adult life in business trying to understand accounting and computers. I should have listened to my father!

[4] According to US Poverty Guidelines published by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Of course, what goes for poverty in the US would qualify as wealth in a good portion of the planet.