Saturday, April 18, 2015

Freedom or Fear?

What does freedom mean?  My tea party friend (and yes, I do have one) says that his political views are all about freedom, but I can’t get a straight answer from him about what freedom is.  Whatever it is, he is certain that it’s being taken away.  

From what I can tell, it appears that, from his point of view, the recognition of human and civil rights for others who have not previously enjoyed that recognition somehow takes some of his freedom away and gives it to someone else.  Homosexuals are the targets of the day, but illegal aliens, women, muslims, and people who are not Europeanish looking, have all had their moment.  They still lurk in the near background. 

I’m reminded of a few hours with another friend about fifty years ago.  He was outraged that recent laws opened up housing opportunities for Jews and blacks in neighborhoods that had been restricted.  His argument was that he no longer had the freedom to live where he wanted because he no longer had control over who his neighbors would be.  He could not comprehend that everyone, theoretically, now had the same freedom to live wherever they wanted that he had always had.  The only freedom taken from him was the freedom to tell others where they could not live.  

I don’t see much difference between that fifty year old conversation and what’s being complained about today.

My tea party friend is angry about other threats to his freedom as well.  The government is becoming tyrannical.  It spies on us.  It conspires to take away our weapons.  It refuses to seal our (southern) borders.  It’s laws and regulations infringe on every aspect of daily life.  The undeserving poor get a free ride at his expense.  Everyone, except people like him, feel entitled but avoid responsibility.  We are surrounded by global enemies who intend to attack and conquer us.  We have been infected by internal enemies who are agents of foreign powers.  Secrecy and conspiracy abound.  

Curiously, not a one of these fears surfaced until a black man was elected president, but he is angrily offended when that’s pointed out.  

The thorn that keep jabbing me is that there is a tiny amount of truth in his litany of fears.  We have become a society in which the tremendous ebb and flow of electronic information means that we have less privacy than we had a few decades ago.  It’s not so much a matter of governments and corporations spying on us as it is us making ourselves more easily known to anyone who wants to know.  Our disastrous military adventures, especially in the Middle East,  have created enemies abroad.  They don’t want to invade us, but they don’t want to be invaded either, no mater how vicious their infighting has become.  Various domestic hate groups of one kind or another have been embolden to use violence to disrupt whatever it is about America they don’t like.  And so it goes.

As for the government regulating us to death.  I wrote not too long ago about an exercise we had a few years ago in which it was finally agreed that most regulations on the books were justifiable.  The problem was the way they were enforced through difficult to follow, time consuming, uncoordinated, inflexible ways.  A lot of truth in that. 

And that brings me to a final observation about government control of daily lives.  Here it is: The lower the level of government, the greater its ability to control the minutia of daily life.  So quit haranguing the federal government, and pay more attention to state, county, and municipal governments.  Think about it!  What level of government tells you how fast you can drive, where you can park, what to do with your trash, whether hanging out with nothing to do can get you arrested, how loud you can play your radio, and so on?  If you want responsive government, get involved at the local level and quit complaining.  But be prepared for a fight if what you want is to use the power of government to impose your personal beliefs on others, or  to prevent others from equal access to the public market place.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Laffer is not Funny

I see that Art Laffer has surfaced again as a trusted economic advisor to Governor Brownback of Kansas and a variety of Republican candidates for the presidency.  According to a headline and first two sentences of an article somewhere on the web, he’s confident about where Kansas is headed, certain that economic prosperity is just around the corner.  Amazing!

Back in 1974 he popularized the idea that revenue from taxation could be demonstrated on a curve that showed increasing revenue from increasing tax rates up to a certain point.  That point being the one where rates are deemed to have become confiscatory, dampening economic incentive, and resulting in declining revenue.  It seems to make sense.  At the time, the people I worked for believed that no matter what the tax rate was, it was always on the downward slope, so the key to raising needed revenue for public purposes would be lower tax rates always and everywhere.  At least that was what they said.  I don’t think it is what they meant.

For one thing, no one knew, or knows, what the shape of the curve actually is, or even if there is a curve at all.  Moreover, no one knew, or knows, what the optimum tax rate is for any given tax, or for taxes taken cumulatively.  Neither objection really matters because the underlying intent of the argument was then, and remains today, to reduce government by depriving it of revenue.  After all, as the libertarian argument goes, there are far fewer legitimate public purposes than people think there are; government is essentially wasteful anyway; and whatever government does in the name of the public interest is actually an unwarranted restriction on individual freedoms.  

The goofy thing is that it plays into a secular version of Jesus’ admonition that those who want to keep their life will lose it, and those who are willing to lose their life will gain it.  The desire to preserve individual freedom by choking government to death can only result in a more brutal economic and political environment in which oligarchical power is likely to have dominant control over limited resources and opportunity.  On the other hand, recognizing the value of a robust, well financed, government bound by constraints on its power and committed to universality of opportunity and treatment under the law, will lead in the direction of economic well being for many and an equitable distribution of power and influence.  I think the so called founding fathers, especially those who wrote The Federalist Papers, had as solid an understanding of that as an eighteenth century person could be expected to have. 

The Laffer gang has it wrong.  They have always had it wrong.  

Monday, March 23, 2015

A ridiculous, but thankfully short, meditation on the ending of Mark's gospel

Mark says that the three women went to the tomb early in the morning, saw and heard the unexpected, and fled in terror.  Why?  Jesus is risen.  Why not embrace the moment in uncontainable joy?  Why flee in terror?   

It’s the old problem of already knowing the end of the story, and knowing it so superficially well that it loses the impact it had on them.

It was dark.  Before dawn.  It was a strange place.  Cemeteries are spooky enough as it is at night.  They expected a closed tomb, a guard or two, and a dead body to be anointed.  They didn’t expect anything else, but they knew danger lurked unseen.  

Let me put it to you this way in a more prosaic and somewhat humiliating way.  Have you ever got up in the middle of the night to relieve yourself, staggered toward the bathroom, and had an unexpected voice loom out of the dark “I’m In Here!”?  Don’t tell me that didn’t scare the living daylights out of you.  And that’s nothing.

Compound that with a dark night in a strange and dangerous place in which three women were following up on the brutal murder of their beloved friend and teacher.  They entered the unexpectedly unguarded, open tomb like characters in a horror movie entering a forbidden mansion.  Boom!  It’s light!  Some guy in white says not to be scared, Jesus is risen.  Are you kidding?  What could they be but scared out of their minds, and nothing could make more sense than to get out of there fast.

I think Mark has it right.  

There has to be time for the heart to stop pounding, for the message to be truly heard, and for it’s meaning to make itself clear.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Craddock and Istanbul

We spent a week in Istanbul last fall with a small Rick Steves tour.  We had started off on a weekend of a major Muslim holiday celebrating the saving of Ishmael from being sacrificed by his father Abraham through the miracle of God providing a ram instead.  If it sounds like a familiar story, it should.  Just not the right name for Abraham’s son.  It was Isaac, wasn’t it?  Not if you’re Muslim.  Muslims from throughout the Middle East were in town by the tens of thousands, many of them from nations at war with one another, and we were in the middle of them.  A good time was had by all.   It can happen.

Sitting around in the evening talking over the events of the day, the group quizzed our Muslim guide about Islam: what it believes, what it rejects, how it relates to Judaism and Christianity, etc.  All but two or three of our group of twenty were Christians, some quite active in their churches.  It was fairly obvious that we knew little about Islam.  But I was surprised that the way questions were framed revealed that most of us didn’t know much about Christianity either.  They didn’t know the story of how the church came to be, the story of how the East and West went in different directions, the story of the Crusades, the story of the Reformation, or even the story what makes each denomination unique yet as solidly Christian as any other.  For that matter, they didn’t know much about the bible either.

The next day our guide and I were walking together, and I said that one of the problems we Western Christians have in understanding Islam is that we don’t know very much about Christianity either.  It’s not a solid foundation for learning about others if you don’t know much about yourself.  Yes, he said, and the same is true with Muslims.  They are Muslim because they are Muslim,  born into it , brought up in it, and only vaguely familiar with its sacred texts or history.  What they heard preached to them in their formative years is what they believe, and the demands of daily life are too much to go any further than that.  And so it goes.

I may have written about this episode before, but the general subject came up again with the death of Fred Craddock, the great preacher and teacher of homiletics, who was the master of narrative preaching.  Almost every seminary educated preacher I know under the age of seventy was trained to be a narrative preacher with Craddock as their model, and some are very good at it.  The problem is that too many narrative sermons are little more than entertaining story telling with a little gospel thrown in as needed to make it churchy.  My approach to preaching is different.  I’m a teacher at heart, and teaching sermons are what I have to offer.  Maybe I’m just jealous because I’m not very good at narrative type story telling.  

The story I want to tell is the story of who we are and what we believe, and I can’t do that if my sermons don’t dive into scripture, history,  and culture in an expository way.  In my pre-retirement days, Adult Christian Education was my passion.  What is in this book we say is God’s holy Word?  When was it written?  What was the context?  How has it been understood over the years?  What made our understanding change?  What was going on in the world when it was written?  What has been going on in the world that has affected the story of the Church?  What prejudices and preconceptions have each of us brought to our own understanding?  Can we dare to question and doubt?  Can we dare to hold an unshakable belief, and on what do we base it? Can we know the story well enough to tell it to someone else?

Sermons, it seems to me, must, if nothing else, whet the appetite for questions such as these, and so many more.  And sermons can’t do that if they are no more than entertaining narratives of marginal instructive value.  I never heard Dr. Craddock preach, but I imagine he was quite instructive in his use of narrative.  I have heard an abundance of narratively driven preachers at work, and most of it is religiously tainted pablum.  

And that’s what I know about Istanbul.  See!  I told you I’m not a very good story teller.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Way It Used To Be

Local social media has been rife with photos of our small city the way it used to be.  Nostalgic pictures of Main Street with dozens of favorite stores and eateries that are not there anymore have inspired comments pinning for those days, remembering how good they were, and lamenting how things have changed.  Downtown used to be real, now it’s “snooty” boutiques and wine shops, say some.    

The curious thing about nostalgia is that it gets stuck in a snapshot of the past, a snapshot not unlike the photos posted on social media.  They are the kind of snapshots that capture a stationary moment in time.  They have neither past nor future.  Carefully composed to remove images of change, they invoke what they are intended to invoke, a fond remembrance and desire to live again in a moment that never really was.

Those wonderful locally owned stores and eateries came into being on the ashes of their predecessors.  In time, they went their way because fewer and fewer wanted to patronize them.  There came a time when downtown almost died.  It was a sad imitation of itself that few visited.  They went instead to the new mall on the edge of town.  But that didn’t last either.  Downtown was revitalized and the mall is gone.  

The replacements for those wonderful old places are alive and prosperous, at least for now.  In time they too will go – here only for a season.  A few multigenerational businesses continue, but only by reinventing themselves for a new time and a new market.  

Perhaps there was a time when things were better, but, if so, it was only on the day the photo was taken.  More likely it exists only in one’s imagination.  

I’m not sure what it is that drives the emotional appeal of nostalgia.  Maybe the photos evoke a time of innocence when life was gentler.  It wasn’t.  We who are old remember not a time when the world was more innocent, but a time when we, in our youth, were more innocent in the very small more innocent worlds we lived in.  We didn’t stay there.  We couldn’t stay there because those worlds did not really exist, and neither did our own innocence.  One way or another we grew up into a world that had never been innocent.  If we are honest about it, we will also remember how, even in our childhood, we mastered quickly our own skills contributing to a world that was not innocent. 

I don’t mind a brief foray into nostalgia for the way it used to be.  The other night over dinner my sister and I rehearsed wonderful memories of the town we grew up in: of Clancy’s Drug, Woolworths, and Snuffy’s Drive In.   It was fun.  There are, however, people who get stuck in those places, their heads buried in a time that never really was.  They resent the changes that have taken them away, and are resistant to the changes that lie ahead.  They are the stumbling blocks over which the rest of us must climb to prepare the way for a good life for the generations that will follow us.  Nostalgia for the way it used to be can easily become, and probably is, one star in a constellation made up of fear, prejudice, bigotry, ignorance, and violence.   Think about it. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

And now for something completely different: Government Regulation

Too much government regulation!  I’ve heard that for years from business organizations.  In fact, I was once one of the voices of business making that complaint.  On a less reasoned level, it’s also the howl of the tea party gang.  But is that really the problem?

I was in a local study group a few years ago where the issue was raised.  It was countered with a serious question about which regulations should be eliminated.  No one could come up more than a few that stood the test of examination, but they did come up with some well thought out complaints about complexity and paperwork.  Even that had its limitations. Reducing regulatory paperwork has been an ongoing battle for as long as I can remember.  It has never made much progress, and besides, I think it’s a superficial symptom. 

I wonder if the problem isn’t something else altogether.  Bureaucrats.  For me a bureaucrat is a person whose raw product is the piece of paper, form, or computer equivalent that comes across his or her desk.  The finished product is the same, filled out and sent on.  The customer is the supervisor who can reward or punish.  There are only two rules that are important.  One is the SOP manual.  The other is the informal norms of the group.

Every large organization, whether public or private, is bureaucratic.  Persons are hired to process one part of a larger process that is intended to end in something worthwhile, but what that worthwhile thing is can be invisible to the person who is responsible for just one little part of it.  And that part can become a treasured possession to be defended against intruders while doing one’s best to increase its image of importance.  As a commissioner of our local housing authority, I see that in operation at HUD where the regulations are not that bad, but the wheels of getting anything done turn slowly, communication is held close to the vest, and there is greater reward for finding a problem than in helping solve one. 

However, even small organizations can be infected with bureaucrats.  We sometimes eat at a place with valet parking where a woman I call the Dragon Lady sits in a glass booth controlling the ebb and flow of tickets and keys.  She has no interest in anything approaching customer service, only in the correct processing of tickets and keys.  That’s it.  She’s a bureaucrat in a three person operation. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Many years ago, as a very young man, I worked for a small city where the building inspector took me under his wing to explain that his job (and mine) was to help contractors get permits as painlessly as possible and to assist them in following all the building codes.  His job was to help, and in helping to enforce.  That may be more common in small organizations, but it can happen in large ones too.  If each bureaucrat knows that his or her job is to help smooth out the process and achieve success in the least complicated way, many of the complaints about regulation would evaporate.  How likely is that to happen?  At the federal, and major corporate levels, not much.

In government it starts with writing the regulations required by legislative action.  Competing interests lobby the process to get them written in a favorable way for themselves while twisting them in an unfavorable direction for competitors.  Buffeted by competing demands, regulation writers try to prove their mettle by composing them in legalese to cover every contingency no matter how unlikely.  Field staff are often rewarded for tough enforcement of the process, not the intent of the process, or at least for dotting i’s and crossing t’s.  The idea of helping simply goes out the window.  It could change, but organizational inertia works against it.  And don’t blame it on government alone.  That same bureaucratic mindset has been the undoing of many a large corporation, while others blunder along on nothing more than momentum.  Think about American auto manufacturers, major banks, and tech giants such as HP and Dell.  If inertia doesn’t get them, hubris and arrogance do.

What it comes down to is a combination of combining a culture of customer service with a culture of honoring each employee as an important contributor to customer service.  I’m not sure how that mindset can be injected into large regulatory bureaucracies.  It’s not that remedies are lacking, it’s that established fiefdoms and patterns of reward and punishment are so entrenched.  Well, there you go.  Enough said.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Facts, Opinions, and Truth

A recent opinion column in the NYT by Justin McBrayer, a philosophy professor in Durango, CO, was headlined “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.”  As far as I could tell, he believes that in trying to teach children how to differentiate between fact, opinion, and truth, the picture becomes so muddled that they are led to take all moral questions as matters of opinion in which any opinion is as good as any other opinion.   The result, he says, is that his entering philosophy students have no sense of morality as something that can be factually true.  It is the root cause of rampant cheating in college and all sorts of other moral sins, he maintains.

I first took issue with the headline.  Our children is pretty broad.  Maybe his second grade child is having a problem with the way he is being taught in Durango, but my four adult children, whose primary education took place in different schools, all seemed to grasp the skills needed to work out reliable answers to questions of morality and truth.  They didn’t do it by the second grade, but they each received a good grounding for a start by then.  We became the Godparents of several young girls brought up in the foster care system.  Their early lives were a horror story of abuse.  They too are now adults who have mastered the ability to think critically about moral issues.  Something is working somewhere for at least some children, even under the worst of conditions. 

If I understood Mr. McBrayer correctly, he believes that children are being taught that facts are one set of things, opinions are another set of things, and truth is something that can be assigned only to facts, not to opinions.  Maybe I misunderstood.  Most of us agree that there are such things as facts: things that are verifiable, and reliable in their appearance and use.  Most of us, I suspect, also recognize that facts are facts only insofar as the information available to us supports their factuality.  If new information becomes available, our understanding of a given fact may have to change.  Opinions are not facts, but that doesn’t mean that they cannot be judged one against another based on verification, including the use of facts and various ethical codes.  Problems seem to arise when we confuse the two.  Right now I am looking out the window at mountains encircled by clouds with a steady falling rain.  That’s a fact.  It would be idiotic for someone to assert that it was just my opinion that it is raining.  Nevertheless, we see that king of confusion all the time.  For instance, it’s a common ploy among the climate change deniers.  

Truth is another question altogether.  Truth, I think is always provisional.  As a Christian priest and pastor there are a few things that I assert to be true without fear of contradiction  I hold it to be absolutely true that Jesus is, in the problematic words of our limited vocabulary, the Son of God, and that the Christ Event of his birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection is the hinge upon which all things turn whether past, present or future.  All else is provisional.  Having said that, I’m not unaware that I am contradicted by those who follow other religions, no religion, and often other Christians, who are more than willing to assert an unassailable truth of their own.  

But again, that doesn’t mean that we have to let truth wallow in a swamp of no exit.  We can investigate a claim to truth to find out what it is based on, and whether it can stand up to a vigorous examination.  You get the idea, so no more of that for now.

What I want to end with is the observation that we can’t expect second graders to get all of this.  They have to start somewhere, and every starting point is always that, a first step.  Moreover, even second graders can grasp certain moral or ethical standards that are generically true for us:  don’t cheat, be nice to each other, don’t take what isn’t yours, share when you can, and so forth.  In fact, why wait until second grade?  Robert Fulghum said that “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.”