Monday, November 19, 2018

Online $pending $eason is Here Again

Online shopping is booming, and has only just begun its rise.  At around $130 billion in annual sales, it’s still only about 10% of total retail spending (source: FRED).  Somewhere around 40% of the buying public does so online several times a month, and over 80% of them are quite happy with the experience.  My own family prefers shopping online, although they also say they like to support local stores.  Not entirely sure how that works. 

This leaves me in the minority.  I shop online from time to time, mostly for ebooks, but occasionally for other things.  For instance, I recently bought a pair of slacks and a new iPad online.  Was I happy with the experience?  No!  

All I wanted was a pair of khakis.  How difficult is that?  Apparently only old guys like me buy them because there are none for sale locally.  As of now, I’m waiting for pair number three to arrive via UPS.  Maybe they’ll be the right ones this time.  Probably not. 

In days of yore I would have wandered into the store, looked around, found the right pair, paid and left.  Total time – maybe twenty minutes.  Now the weeks roll by as I wait for the next box to come.

I like to see, touch and try products I’m thinking about buying.  I want to read labels, check alternatives, ask a few questions of a helpful sales person.  I like the tactile human experience.  Quaint isn’t it?  Are there any helpful sales persons?

It may seem old fashioned, but I needed (wanted?) a new iPad.  Every molecule in my body screamed for driving to the nearest Apple store to look them over, mess with a few, talk to a genius, and hand over the plastic money.  Shoot, I might even have done it with Apple Pay.  The nearest Apple store is 200 miles away, so I bought it online.  You’d think I’d be satisfied.  Look at all the money I saved not driving 400 miles round trip plus hotel and food.  But it seemed so –– sanitary.

Well, it’s that time of year again.  “Tis the $eason to be $pending; tra la la, la la, la la la la.”  Did I get enough las in there?  The mail box is stuffed with catalogues from vendors I’ve never heard of, each begging me to order online.  We can $plurge it all over the internet, and never have to worry about choosing between Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas when paying at the cash register.

I’ll get used to it.



Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Unifying American Narrative

A few days ago, David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the NYT noting that Trump and Trumpsters have a simple but effective narrative about what America is and who Americans are, but mainstream conservatives and liberals don’t.  They sprinkle well researched positions on issues all over the place, each of them important, but they don’t weave a cohesive narrative that sells well to a public that needs to grasp it in 240 characters or less.  Brooks wrote in part that: “Trump’s blood-and-soil nationalism overturns the historical ideal of American nationalism, which was pluralistic – that we are united by creed, not blood; that our common culture is defined by a shared American dream – pioneers settling the West, immigrants crossing an ocean in search of opportunity, African-Americans rising from slavery toward equality.”

Liberals, and some traditional conservatives, are accused of divisiveness because of their overt appeals to different ethnicities.  So called identity politics has been ridiculed by the right wing as undermining the unifying theme that describes America, and which has served the nation well since its inception.  Their unifying theme describes everything from the point of view of a mythical white middle class.  It has changed in many ways over the years, but it’s always been anchored by whatever was deemed to be white, male, and middle class.  Everyone else was expected to adopt it as their own if they wanted to be accepted as true Americans.  They say liberal appeals to other ethnicities as if they were equal to it is disruptive, threatening, and bereft of a center that can hold.

To win back America, liberals and traditional conservatives need an attractive unifying narrative of a pluralistic America populated by people from a wide variety of ethnicities and cultures.  It would be a narrative portraying an ideal, not a reality, but ideals are what progressive political reality starts with.  Ideals define what we honor and spire to become, knowing it’s a journey from where we are.  The new narrative must preserve a respected place for Trump’s white base, but not one of privilege exceeding that of others.  The old white, male, middle class narrative was not all bad.  It contributed much to the well being of the nation, and should not be demonized for its shortcomings and failures.  But neither should it be exalted to a place of unwarranted privilege.  It served its purpose and must step aside for what comes next.

What does come next?  Or to put it another way, what should come next if we’re to be faithful to the ideals of the noble experiment that gave birth to the nation?

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all [persons] are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution of the United States of America.”

These preambles to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution provide a vocabulary that can accommodate the needs of a pluralistic 21st century nation far removed from conditions existing when they were written.  From them can be constructed conservative and liberal narratives of shared values  able to speak to one another in cooperative ways.  It’s not an entirely new thing.  From time to time events have moved the nation closer to the ideal of being united by “creed and not blood.”  It happened during WWII in a sort of ‘fake it til you make it’ kind of way.  Movies and news coverage made much of an American Way that united all races and faiths in the fight for freedom.  Twenty years later, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s established a legal framework to give it enforceable reality.  We have not lived into that ideal, but it is the foundation on which to build. 

Being an old guy, some of my ideas are grounded in ancient learning.  For instance, back in 1974 the economist John W. Kendrick wrote about Total Factor Productivity in which the nation’s future prosperity rested on investments in intangible capital.  By that he meant integrated public and private investment in research and development, education, health, and job safety (which, in today’s environment, might be expanded beyond jobs).  He also favored policies facilitating mobility of labor and capital between economic sectors.  To be sure, the nation also needs massive investment in tangible infrastructure, so it’s not an either/or proposition.  But giving priority to these intangibles would benefit every “tribe,” strengthening the interdependent bonds between them.  It would be a far cry from today’s presumed descent into combative tribalization of winners and losers.  It would move the conversation away from the worship of radical individualism without giving up the value of individual rights and accountability.  It would be a huge step away from Trump’s delusional plan to restore old time industrial jobs in a self sufficient country walled off from the rest of the world.  To the contrary, it would be a form of nationalism comfortable in a global economy of which it is a fully participating member.

Liberals might prefer a version of it with a greater emphasis on the public sector in public/private partnerships.  Conservatives might prefer the reverse.  Liberals would insist on those most in need getting the resources they need for success in life.  Conservatives would assure that individual effort be rewarded according to its value added.  Both would demand accountability.


There’s nothing perfect in any of this, but it could become the narrative that Brooks believes is needed if Trumpism, and its slide toward fascism is to be stopped.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Hush the Noise and Cease the Strife

One hundred years ago, November 11, 1918 marked the armistice ending The Great War.  No one knew another, greater war was yet to come.  It was only World War I, but we didn’t know.  We hoped it was the war to end all wars.  We said it was the war to make the world safe for democracy.  It wasn’t.  Instead, it introduced the horrors of modern warfare that would become greater horrors of which we have not yet seen the end.  It introduced the world to the politics of totalitarian rule, set the stage for the rise of fascism, and ushered in the possibility of global annihilation, not by God’s hand but by ours.  It prepared the way for the hot wars of the cold war that seldom ended in victory for anyone.  We live now in a world of little wars, hoping to avoid a war to end all life.  

The dawn of the 20th century had promised something different.  Religious leaders believed the civilization of humanity was bringing us ever closer to a more godly state in which goodness would prevail and social justice would bring peace on earth.  A lot of good came out of the Social Gospel movement.  It pushed public policy toward the standards Jesus expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  It gave hope for a better life that would soon come to everyone.  All of us have benefitted from it because it really did bring about changes in public policy.  Its influence still echoes in today’s work through churches and people of faith.  Nevertheless, WWI stripped it of its illusions about human perfectibility.    

The third verse of the well known Christmas carol, “It came upon the midnight clear,” says it this way: “Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long: beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong; and waring human kind hears not the tidings which they bring; O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.”

Today would be a good day to be honest with each other, confessing that we have not loved God or our neighbor as we should; that we have sinned in thought, word and deed through what we have done and not done, said and not said, believed and not believed.  It would be a good day to hush the noise and cease our strife, at least for a day.  Perhaps we will hear the angels sing.  Maybe it would be a good day to again take up the cause of ending wars in a world safe for democracy where each nation is free to decide for themselves what that means for them, and none imposes its will on another.  In the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  We Christians say we are the body of Christ at work in the world today, which means we are to both bless peacemakers and be peacemakers.  It’s a good day to remember that.

Peace sometimes comes at a high price.  Today would be a good day to honor the veterans who gave much that we might have another chance for a better life.  They deserve all the honor we can give.  Fly the flag.  Put flowers on the graves of the fallen.  Say a prayer for the living and the dead.  Take some  time to hush the noise, and cease the strife.  Maybe you’ll hear the angels sing.






Thursday, November 8, 2018

Magical Thinking & Elijah

The story of the widow of Zarephath will be read in some congregations this Sunday.  To refresh your memory, it’s from 1 Kings in the Hebrew scriptures. During political turmoil and a severe drought, God sent the prophet Elijah to sojourn with a widow and her young son in the foreign town of Zarephath.  A single man living with a woman not his wife would not only be unthinkable, it could lead to death.  Even worse, living with a foreign woman in a foreign land.  But that’s what he did.  In the story, the widow had no food except for a little oil and some flour.  She intended to make bread for her son and herself, then lie down to die.  Elijah convinced her to make the bread for him instead, promising that the jars of oil and meal would not be used up as long as he stayed with her.  And so it was.

Like several Elijah and Elisha stories, it reads more like a fairy tale than scripture, and it can entice naive believers into magical thinking.  Magical thinking among religious believers is the expectation that the right prayer, said in the right way, with enough faith, will result in the outcome one desires.  Magical thinking is also what many non religious people believe is what religion is all about.  For them, Christianity is simply another backward made up folk religion not much different from that of ancient Greeks or remote Amazonian tribes.  If magical thinking has any reality, maybe the Wiccan have it right.

It may be impossible to know how the Elijah and Elisha stories were meant to be understood when first written.  Within the context we now have they illustrate the in breaking of God’s power, manifested through God’s chosen persons, to demonstrate the foolishness of belief in other deities and their magical rites; as signs of God’s supremacy over the greatest of human authority; and as indicators of God’s presence with and for all persons, even non-believing enemy aliens.  

Elijah and Elisha could not manipulate the world about them according to their own will, but could only serve, as they were called to do, as vehicles through which God’s will was enacted.  It’s the very opposite of magic in which the “witch” entices the gods to do his or her will.  It’s not an easy lesson to learn.  Humans are forever trying to bend the spiritual powers of the universe to their will.  The most common expression  of it is the oft said prayer for an open parking spot to be where we want it to be.  Believer and non believer alike are said to utter it without a second thought.  Golfers and bowlers are enthusiastic practitioners.  It’s a staple on both sides of football stadiums.  I know a couple who effused over their new car.  They’d asked God for one and he delivered when they won it in a raffle.  It was proof to them that their faith was stronger than almost anyone else in church.

The lesson Elijah has to teach is just the opposite.  Surrender yourself to God and let the chips fall where they may.  Perhaps God will call you to some amazing feat, perhaps not.  Perhaps you will be chased across the countryside by your enemies.  Perhaps you will live in comfort with your loving family.  In the midst of famine, hungry, near to death, you may be called to do the impossible, or you may die.  It doesn’t matter which.  If you’re going to follow where God is leading, follow and quit trying to lead.  For what it’s worth, there was only one Elijah and one Elisha.  Everyone else was just everyone else, like you and me.  No one else was called by God to do what they did.  They were called by God to be messengers, beacons of God’s presence.  We’re not called to be like Elijah.  We’re called to pay attention to the message and follow on the path the beacon has lighted.




Monday, November 5, 2018

Why Trump Voters will Stay the Course

I continue to be dismayed by steadfast support for Trumpism from two overlapping sets of friends and acquaintances. The first are solid small government conservatives, and the second are fundamentalist leaning Christians.  They’re people I know, reasonably well educated, active in the community, and good to friends.  

The one favors limited small government at every level, tends to be anti-tax in any form, and believes welfare should be the province of personal charity or non governmental community organizations.  To the extent it can do so, government should aid transportation and commerce, and secure the nation’s defense, but no more than that.  Otherwise it should stay out of private lives.  The other believes Jesus had little to say about government, much to say about personal accountability, and tends to believe social ills are caused by individual and collective failure to accept Jesus as lord and savior.  Separation of church and state has gone too far. Government should enforce moral standards, which they call traditional, and encourage prayer (Christian?) in schools and at public events.  Each has some valid points, so can’t be dismissed out of hand, but it’s as if they see the world through a keyhole, unaware of how much else there is, and suspicious of anyone offering to open the door.  Each overlaps with the other, unconcerned about the ironic conflicts involved. 

For them, Trump is the answer to tax and spend, big government, anti Christian, socialist, liberals.  It’s a mantra they’ve memorized, and from which they cannot be shaken.  Who are liberals?  Anyone not looking at the world through their keyhole.  What amazes me about the Trump supporters I know is not their commitment to limited government or religious faith, but that they can’t see Trump is the antithesis of both.  By can’t see, I mean it’s invisible to them.  He’s not downsizing or limiting government, but moving resources and power from one part to another.  He has no understanding of or interest in fiscal restraint.  He’s enthusiastic about asserting federal executive authority over states and persons in new, probably unconstitutional, ways.  Under Trumpism, the momentum of government power has shifted toward favoring corporations over individuals, wealth over poverty, and privilege over rights.  Many have warned of creeping fascism under the banner of America First and Make America Great Again.  Trump supporters  shrug it off as jealous left wing fear mongering, name calling over having lost ability to impose their socialist ways on free Americans.  To them, fascism is a figment of liberal imagination, unimaginable in a free America.

If liberals can see what to them isn’t really there, Trump supporters can’t see what really is.  Invisible to them are the immorality, corruption and criminality of the Trump world.  Trump’s personal history of blatant immorality has been catalogued in books, reviewed in articles, and recorded on video, but to erstwhile Trumpsters it’s hidden under a cloak of invisibility, or trivialized as a redeemable example of the ordinary fallen nature we all share.  His record of corruption in business and personal dealings has been documented beyond all reasonable objection yet treated as if it never happened.  The indictable likelihood of crimes committed are attributed to anyone but him.  Convicted associates are cast aside as if they were never a part of his organization.  Multiple fact checking lists of lies don’t exist.  For them, he is a truth telling promise keeper, and they have the proof of it, which, in a strange way, they do.  He cut their taxes, is building the wall, and is talks a tough, no compromise game with other countries. What else is there to say?

It’s the blank stare of incredulity in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that gets me.  As one conservative pastor friend, said, “I don’t know what your problem is, he’s keeping us safe.  We can’t let the country be invaded.  I’m all for immigrants as long as they follow the law, and he’s enforcing the law.  Besides, look at how well the economy is doing.”  What he didn’t say was he’s hoping for repeal of gay rights, return of classroom school prayer, and women to their biblically appropriated places.  Trump might be the one to make it happen.





Thursday, November 1, 2018

For All the Saints

Halloween (The eve of all holy ones) has become a popular secular holiday for children and adults alike. It’s fun. But today is more than left over candy, tummy aches, and hangovers. It’s All Saints Day. It’s a day to remember not only saints officially recognized by the church, but also those uncounted others whose lives have demonstrated for us what it means to love God and love our neighbor. 

They were imperfect women and men who messed up, as we all do, yet persevered in leading others as they followed as best they could on the way of godly love.  

When I think of the saints, they seem to drop into a few broad groups.  There are the traditional saints of the early church well known to every Christian, even those who don’t put much store in saints:  Matthew, Mark, Luke, John(s), Mary(s), and so on.  Then there are saints most have heard of, at least second hand:  Jude of last resort, Anthony of lost things, Nicholas of children.  The Middle Ages gave us hundreds of saints more mythically magical than anything else.  My own favorite is a certain Gerard who was said to be able to bi locate – be in two places at the same time.  Very useful for pastors.  Many may have been repurposed pagan demigods, while others were real people who led extraordinary  lives of faith.  it’s sometimes hard to know which was which.  

Finally there are the men and women of history whose courage and conviction stand out as guiding lights for others to follow.  Some are officially recognized by the church, canonized as it were.  More are saints by popular acclamation, and some are known only to those who knew them personally.  No church can make someone a saint.  The best any church can do is publicly recognize them, adding them to a calendar of saints to be remembered.  For me, saints not even need to be Christian.  Gandhi and the Dalai Lama come to mind, with Gandhi as an example of how a saint’s passion for one form of justice can blind him or her to other forms of injustice he or she tolerates and commits.  There are no pure and holy saints. 

More important to me than well known historical figures are the saints who have been present in my life.  My dad is one of them.  I know of no person more generous than he toward his family and church.  An old time conservative, he was also a spiritual guide, teacher of right ways to live, reluctant fighter for racial justice, and utterly confused by a world of technology beyond his ken.  Another was Tony, professor of philosophy, law and religion, who forced others to ask hard questions about the meaning of godly love, led many into ordained ministry, and fought his own demons of alcohol and cigarettes.  My friend Pat died a few days ago.   Her funeral will be held on November 24.  She did the hard work of becoming an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church when she was well past retirement age for clergy.  A political right winger tending toward conservative evangelicalism, she bent to the task of caring for the homeless, hungry, sick, and others in our community regardless of race, sex, or condition of life.  A several times over cancer survivor, she gave hope and courage to others.  When uncertain, she let godly love be her guide.


They are all saints, as are so many more.  Take a few moments out of your day to recall those who have lead the way for you.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Solid Support for Trump Policies

A few Trump supporting friends have begun to acknowledge that his rhetoric may be out of line (a bit), but they still like his policies, which are working well for the good of the nation.

What policies would those be?  The usual suspects are economic.  For a while the stock market was the shining beacon of how well they were working, but I haven’t heard much about that lately.  Still the economy, as a whole, looks strong, and his supporters believe Trump gets the credit.  While not exactly fact checking, I’ve been poking around in FRED resources looking at durable goods orders, consumer purchasing and debt, retail sales, and such, and they do show a health economy more or less on the path established for them early in the previous administration.  There’s no indication of a Trump bump of any lasting duration.  What they do indicate is that the tax package stimulated surge in corporate investment and wage growth have not materialized as promised.

That leaves his policies on tariffs as weapons to get better bilateral trade deals, while turning away from multilateral agreements.  It appears they’re popular among some Trump supporters not because they work, but because they exhibit a strong America facing down overseas bad guys.  They like that.  It goes well with their distaste of namby-pamby liberals who let other nations steal jobs and rob us blind, stealing our technology and jacking up trade deficits.  It doesn’t seem to matter that tariffs may not be working to our advantage as well as we were told they would, or that new trade deals turn out to be tweaks of old trade deals more easily had without all the blustery Sturm und Drang.  It’s the posturing and strutting that counts.  

So what else do they like about Trump’s policies.  A big one is the two for one regulation directive that requires two existing regulations be flushed down the drain for each new one promulgated.  It makes no practical sense, but somehow it fits with decades long complaints about over regulation, although few individual Trump supporters can point to a regulation that’s given them problems.  Public relations campaigns by corporate interests upset over being prevented from doing business any old way they wanted, regardless of affects on the environment and public safety, have been very effective.  To be fair, many businesses large and small have been swamped by meaningless paper work and bureaucratic regulatory staffs who have no concept of customer service.  Trump supporters don’t care whether his policy is good for the nation, the two for one policy looks like someone is finally doing something.

In the end, the Trump supporters I know will waffle, if pushed, on their support of his economic policies, mostly because they don’t want to get too far out on the thin ice of their knowledge about the dark arts.  It’s safer to say something nasty about liberals and go on to other things.

What other things?  Now we’re at the heart of the matter.  What they like about Trump’s policies are his public pronouncements about nationalism, immigration, and his not so subtle endorsement of white supremacy.  They like his Archie Bunker appeals to their exclusive interests, they like his put downs of intellectuals and elites.  They believe he favors ordinary good people like them as no other president has.  He says so in all his rallies.  None whom I know consider themselves to be racist in any fashion, but there’s something reassuring in the way Trump keeps white male hegemony at the center of what it means to be American.  Black, brown, yellow, and red, they’re all good people, in their proper places.  Women too.  White men, and their women, have a place as well, and Trump is defending it.

It’s never stated that way, but it comes out when they talk about open borders, invasions by illegals, out of control #MeToo fanatics, rampant voter fraud, and the criminality that goes with all of it.  The values that have made America great are under attack. 

Curiously, they seem to be immune to any recognition that Trump’s moral character is deeply flawed, that he has a life long record of betraying friends and business partners alike, that he holds an unbeatable record for flat out presidential lying, and that he’s clearly uninformed about the fundamentals of governing.  It’s hard to understand because these are the same people who have high moral standards for themselves, their friends, and those with whom they work. 


Be that as it may, they’re quick to point out that Trump promised to put a stop to immigration across the southern border, get tough with China, open talks with North Korea, renegotiate NAFTA, cut taxes, and do away with burdensome environmental regulations.  He’s kept his promises.  They approve.   The creeping fascism that goes along with it?  It’s just a liberal scare tactic.  Ignore it.