Thursday, October 27, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

Over the last decade or so major corporations in every industry improved productivity and the bottom line by eliminating jobs and forcing down rates of pay for employees other than those at the top.  At the same time, the American economy was driven partly by unthinking consumer spending spurred on by sophisticated marketing techniques.  And I don’t think we can overlook that it was also driven by spending required to sustain two inane but unfunded wars.  The combination of consumer and national deficit spending was a bubble bound to burst, and it did.  
Oddly enough the current, and no doubt brief, joy over modest improvements in GDP growth rates is the result of increased consumer spending while consumer income and levels of unemployment have remained stagnant.  We need to get something straight.  A nation cannot simultaneously force middle and lower incomes to remain stagnant (or decline) while encouraging greater savings, paying down on consumer debt and building a revitalized economy on consumer spending.  
An unnamed wire service reporter wrote today that, “Economist believe that growth in consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity, will be restrained until incomes start growing at healthier levels.  That is unlikely until hiring picks up.”  At the same time, Census Bureau data show that between 1979 and 2007 the top 1 percent of households saw their incomes rise 273 percent while middle income households saw theirs go up 40 percent and low income households 18 percent.  It looks like a systemic problem, and maybe it is in one way or another.  The greater reality is that it is an ethical problem that lies squarely in the laps of boards of directors and senior management in major corporations and investment funds.
For the economy to truly recover we must adopt a new ethic, one in which low and middle income wage earners are enabled to see their incomes rise while top earners see theirs level off.  The likelihood of that happening is not great.  The government has little power to change things except through tax policy, which is not a very effective tool for things such as this.  Where the problem lies is from where the solution must come, but human greed is such a strong and seductive force that I don’t think it will.
The more likely result will be for income inequality to continue to grow.  The economy will enter a years long period of tepid growth fueled more by selling whatever we can over seas than anything else.  And most Americans will see their standard of living slowly deteriorate.  It may not be all bad.  Average Americans will learn that there is a limit to how many flat screen televisions, boats, pickups and ATVs they really need.  They will discover the benefits of community colleges and inexpensive entertainments.  Incomes will slowly catch up to declining home prices for some, and others will find the life of a renter not all that bad.  The rich will still be rich of course, and behave more and more like oligarchs, but as I have written before, oligarchies are inherently unstable.  Who knows, maybe we will become something like the French of the early 19th century with the lower classes periodically rising up to depose the wealthy for a season.  I hope not.  Perhaps the raggedy moral force of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations will make a difference.  We shall see.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Becoming Missional. Is that a new Ben & Jerry's flavor?

My young friend Paul is not simply an optimist.  He is a well educated, extremely bright optimist who is convinced that with the right structure, the right motivation and a little help from the Holy Spirit, the people who are elected and appointed to lead our diocese will transform the way things are done to fully accommodate the promises of a new and “missional” Church no longer turned in on itself but outward into a world hungry for the gospel.  Toward that end our large rural diocese of few congregations met recently in convention to make some significant changes to the way in which it is structured.  
Being a curmudgeon and realist, I have my doubts.  What is missing from the equation is a recognition of the pivotal role of personality in driving organizational change that will result in a new ethos.  Clergy, who are overwhelmed with the affairs of their own congregations, and lay leaders for whom the Church is just one of many obligations, are for the most part, supportive of the diocese as long as it doesn’t do anything to mess up their already messed up lives.  They’re willing to go along with any new idea promising a new and revitalized Church as long as being new and revitalized doesn’t actually change things too much.
Newton explained that inertia is a very powerful force.  Organizational inertia may be the most powerful of all.  It takes a powerful personality in leadership to bend an organizational ethos in a new direction, a direction that can outlast generations of personality changes.  Professional sports teams know this very well as they seek out the right combination of head coach and general manager who can and will create a sustainable “winning ethos.”  A few nights ago I listened to a half time panel of experts list the successful coaches who all came from the tutelage of one person.  That’s the power of personality in organizational leadership.  
That does not make organizational structure unimportant, nor does it take anything away from a transformational vision of the future.  It simply means that organizing for transformation requires bold and competent personalities in leadership.  Not to leave the power of the Holy Spirit aside, scripture is pretty clear on the Spirit’s use of human agency to provide the leadership needed.  Some take a long time to establish a new way of being God’s people.  Consider Moses and his forty year long basic training camp.  Some show great promise but can’t deliver.  Consider Zerubbabel.  Even God thought he could do it, but he couldn’t.  On the other hand, Ezra and Nehemiah set into motion the ethos that would guide Israel right up to and through the time of Jesus.  Personality in leadership counts.  For better or worse, we are still dealing with the fallout from St. Paul’s mercurial leadership personality.
In a more contemporary, secular setting, W. Edwards Deming refused to work with any corporation in which the CEO would not become the first, most ardent and most disciplined follower of Deming’s methods.  Why?  Because without the strong presence of a committed personality as leader, the best one could hope for is another puff of smoke, flavor of the month, buzzword burdened, time consuming distraction from real work. 
Episcopalians have decided they want to become missional.  OK, I think that’s a great idea.  Whatever missional means, it has not ever been a central focus of our denominational ethos.  We have supported many missionaries over the years and are justifiably proud of the relief and development work to which we have bent in every part of the world, sometimes bringing the gospel along with us.  But being a missional people has not been our identity.
Do I know a people whose central ethos is missional?  As a matter of fact I do.  I work closely with members of our local Seventh Day Adventist community through participation on a committee at our local Adventist hospital and friendships with faculty at the near by Adventist university.  A missional ethos is deeply embedded in the very soul of Adventism.  It has matured a lot from the days when Adventist leaders convinced their followers that unless they got out there to spread the gospel, all those heathen would burn in hell, especially Catholics.  Whatever its genesis, it is today grounded in continuing the work of Christ through healing the sick and educating the youth.  It’s a strong missional ethos that has survived many generations of leadership, some of it pretty goofy.  Moreover, Adventist congregations are just as complicated and dysfunctional as those of any other denomination.  That does not seem to affect the power of their missional ethos.  
I don’t want to be an Adventist.  I want to be an Episcopalian rooted in our Anglican tradition.  I think we have the leadership personality to become a missional diocese, and maybe even a missional denomination.  I’m not one of those leadership personalities, but if I was, I would take a hard look at the Adventists to learn how they have been able to maintain a missional ethos over such a long time.  I’d be especially interested in learning how a fairly small and not terribly wealthy denomination has managed to found so many hospitals, schools and colleges.  Then I’d look at the Packers to learn how a publicly owned team has been able to sustain its ethos of winning, even over years of losing seasons.  In both cases I imagine that the myths of personalities past and the realities of personalities present in leadership roles will be pivotal.
If I see our enthusiastic, optimistic leaders doing that, I may become less of a curmudgeon, at least on this issue.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hitting Raw Nerves with Thoughts on Sin

For some reason we seem to have a hard time talking about sin in helpful ways.  In some churches it is never mentioned.  In others it seems to be the only topic worthy of a sermon.  In all cases, at least in contemporary American culture, the word sin has taken on a hard to define meaning that teeters somewhere between biblically illegal and disgustingly immoral.  That is not helpful.
If love covers a multitude of sins, sin covers a multitude of behaviors that can be understood in many ways.  For instance, I am a man who was once divorced and have long been married to a woman who was also once divorced.  Is that sinful?  Yes, it is.  We were each married to other people under conditions in which we were not able to live into God’s promised blessings.  It’s the classic missing the mark kind of sin.  The bible says that divorced persons who remarry have committed adultery.  Is that true?  Well, I guess it is, and that also is a sin because something that God intends for the best in human relationships had not happened, or had it?  Thankfully, ours is a God of second chances.  Our marriage of over 27 years has been one of blessings without end from the very first day and through all kinds of weather.  When people ask us if a joyfully fulfilled Christian marriage is possible, we point to ourselves and say, “Just have a look.” 
When someone comes to me with a questions that begins, “Am I committing a sin if I ....,” I don’t even need to know the rest of the sentence.  The answer is almost always yes.  It’s what being human involves, and I don’t think that requires buying into the utterly depraved business so popular among some Calvinists.  It does require further exploration of how our behavior is so often an obstacle to God’s blessings, but an obstacle that can be overcome so that we are not separated from God’s redeeming love for us. 
Our sinfulness does not condemn us to eternal punishment in hell, and constant threats of that are, in my opinion, sins of great magnitude themselves.  Our sinfulness is what God in Christ came to redeem - once for all.  
There are, of course, sins of enormous immoral evil, and I am inclined to think that we are a bit to quick to apply our own prejudices in naming them for others but excusing them for ourselves, especially if they are corporate in nature, as in, say, the genocidal policies of our governments that erased enough Indians to make way for the European settlement of North America.  But that’s for another time. 
What I might close with is to touch on that very raw nerve, abortion.  Since pop culture demands that we be labeled either pro-life or pro-choice, I’ll claim the pro-choice bumper sticker.  But, is abortion a sin always and everywhere?  Of course it is.  Something has gone very wrong in the scheme of things that God would have it be for the best that life could offer.  That does not mean that abortion should be made illegal.  Abortion may be the least sinful and safest response.  It’s a tough decision best left to the woman, her doctors and people she trusts to offer sound spiritual advice in the sure and certain faith that God’s redeeming love will be present.  In the end, I have a great deal of faith in God to work it out.  I have very little faith in the legislature to do it, and no faith in people who are hysterically anti abortion while showing little interest in being pro-life.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Redistribution of Wealth

Multiple letters to our local editorial page have raised the alarm over liberals trying to redistribute income by taxing it away from the rich and giving it to the (undeserving?) poor.  An Oklahoma acquaintance posted this cartoon on her Face Book page, all in fun she said, but it’s what she believes.  There is a certain condescending self righteousness in these thoughts that makes it difficult to enter into conversation with them.  The underlying attitude appears to be that the poor and unemployed are just lazy and don’t deserve any help.  Help, by the way, seems to be understood only in terms of a handout with little thought given to the “help” they received and continue to receive that allows them to be not poor nor unemployed.
Federal tax and regulatory policies are powerful tools that establish the rules through which the economy is guided this way or that.  Complex to the point that few can fully understand them, they have created an environment in which wealth has been systematically funneled into the hands of a relative few while limiting or eliminating the possibility of it going elsewhere.  Societies where income disparities of grotesque dimensions are systemic are unhealthy societies that tend toward corruption and dissolution.  Oligarchies simply do not have much staying power.  They enrich some at the expense of whole nations.  Societies where the possibility of acquiring wealth is equitably distributed throughout the population tend toward strong middle classes with upward mobility as a hope broadly shared and deeply believed.  
It seems to me that many ultra conservatives are like the apocryphal frogs in a pot that do not realize that the rising heat will soon boil them to death.  In defense of the American dream of a strong middle class and universal hope that the next generation can do even better, they seem oblivious to the reality of policies that have rigged the economy against them in the midst of public spending debates that are resolved in favor of conditions that will likely make it even harder for most to make it while protecting the position of those who have at the expense of those who have not.
It’s not about redistributing wealth by taking it from one and giving it to another, it’s about creating an environment in which the opportunity to build wealth is more widely distributed.  It’s also about redistributing the definition of wealth to include physical and emotional well being, opportunity for jobs providing middle class wages and opportunity for career growth, education and skills needed for those jobs, and the physical infrastructure needed to support community life.  It means less military spending, especially military spending protecting us against enemies of the last century.  It means not mindless deregulation, but eliminating those that are unneeded while simplifying others and making their administration more efficient.  It also means rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy with the expectation that a revitalized middle class will begin to pay higher taxes not through rate increases but through higher earnings.  
Rugged libertarians would disagree.  What they want is as little government as possible and let the chips fall where they may.  The one thing I admire about a man like Ron Paul is that he is honest about that.  Most others who rant and rave about dismantling government, and doing away with regulations, while opposing any tax increases whatsoever see that as affecting others, not themselves.  They still want good roads, safe air travel, fine schools (for their kids), mortgage deductions, well populated prisons, and neighborhoods zoned to their liking.  They just don’t want to pay for any of that.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Few Thoughts on the Obama Jobs Bill and I'll get around to theology again soon

It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally read the summary of each title and section in the Obama jobs bill.  On the whole it’s not bad.  It relies perhaps too much on the only real tool the federal government has, and that’s money.  The intent of proposed tax cuts and grants is to stimulate private sector hiring in ways that will trigger additional job growth in important sectors of industry as well as better prepare some people for the more technologically demanding job market of our present times.  We need that, and it could work.
So far so good.  The problem with all such plans is in the inefficiency of implementation.  The policy initiatives and associated cash have to pass through successive funnels of bureaucratic approvals that begin at the federal level and continue on down the food chain to the very recipients themselves.  The process of implementation gets slowed down at each stage as the desired benefits are jumbled in with all the other matters that must be handled until, at last, it is their turn to flow out of the funnel into the next one.  Lest anyone think I am accusing government of being overloaded with inefficient bureaucracy, I will argue that every complex organization is loaded with inefficient bureaucracy because that is the nature of complex organizations.  Moreover, you don’t have to be big to be complex.  My own city hall is a case in point.  We are not a large city, our staff is relatively small, and no one dawdles around wasting time.  Just the same, the complexity of local interests competing for municipal favor within the context of local, state and federal laws and regulations means that our little city hall is a complex organization.
In like manner, so is our local tractor dealer, fiberglass manufacturing plant and YWCA.  They are all complex organizations, and even though they might each be the recipients of some of the bill’s money, they are also funnels through which everything must flow in it’s own time along with a myriad of other things that have to flow through it.
What can be done about it?  President Truman assembled the Hoover (Herbert) Commission in the late 1940s to ask that question and find some answers.  They did, and they did it well, but politics pretty much sank their boat.  It turns out that legislators have little interest, beyond complaining in front of the camera, about streamlining government at any level.  They are fond of merging and then spinning off departments and agencies, just as corporations merge and then spin off divisions and companies, but that has nothing to do with improving efficiencies.  Nor are they willing to allow the executive to have the authority to do it without their approval.  For what it’s worth, large corporations are not different and insurance companies are the worst.
Obviously the fewer layers of management the better. The fewer funnels through which something must pass the better.  The number and complexity of administrative regulations also matters.  Those who complain about over regulation and desire to eliminate regulation seem to me to be naive, ignorant or both.  I’m not one to give up regulations that help insure our health and safety, but simplifying them, writing them in plain ordinary English, and paying a little attention to duplications and conflicts would go far toward improving efficiency.  It only makes sense, but where would the motivation come from to do that?  My guess is that it can only come from a strong executive with the authority to make and enforce a new way of doing things.
It can but doesn’t often happen in large corporations.  It can and sometimes happens in smaller companies and local not for profits.  It can and sometimes happens in local and even state governments.  I imagine that it could happen at the federal level, but it would be very hard to accomplish, especially in today’s environment with the idiocy of Tea Partiers screaming for the dismantling of government and liberals defending the bulwarks.  I’ll side with the liberals on this one, but only until sanity returns to the national scene.  May it please God that happens in my lifetime.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Slaughter or be Slaughtered

In the current climate of belligerent take no prisoners and back down to no one politics, one hears the constant but unheeded plea for searching out the middle ground through honest negotiation and compromise.  
The problem is that the middle ground is often a boggy place where everyone is equally unhappy, certain that the other side got the best deal.  A shiny face is normally put on it through public pronouncements about what a fine decision was made, and how everyone affected by it will be so much better off.  Only the most naive believe that, but it’s the way we do things.  
There is another way, and it has little to do with the middle ground.  It involves discovering and illuminating the truth within each argument so that a decision can be made that honors all of it and incorporates as much of it as possible.  Sometimes that requires deep probing because the underlying truth within any argument may have more to do with beliefs and attitudes, especially those driven by anxiousness, than by alleged facts.  Indeed, when anxiety or fear is an important factor, one may even need to probe for illumination of what one is anxious about or afraid of.  
I thought about that today listening to a conversation on NPR about the pros and cons of free trade agreements in which the participants appeared to really listen to each other in civil conversation allowed me to begin to hear the truth that lived in sharply differing sides.  The same cannot be said for much of what passes for debate in the public arena.  
Beginning with talk radio, stopping everywhere along the way, and ending up in Congress, political discourse has become one act in America’s circus of gladiatorial combat in which the only objective is to shut down the other as quickly as possible with the most invective as possible.  Slaughter or be slaughtered, is that the game we have to play?  That’s very sad, and it’s terribly disappointing to see so many self ascribed Christians playing it with abandon. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Who is the Investor?

The stock market took another plunge today.  A volatile market, so they say.  Reliable news sources were full of the usual patter about how investors dumped stock.  Not so long ago the same reliable news sources reported on investors in feeding frenzies.  It’s not true.  Those dumpy sellers and frenzied feeders are not investors.  They are merely managers of other peoples’ money.  I am an investor, along with hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of others whose retirement funds and savings are invested in the stock market.  We pay the money managers to be good stewards of our investments, but good stewards are hard to find.  There is too much distance between my money and their trades.  My money is hidden within huge funds so that the funds appear to be owned by no one in particular.  They are just big piles of money that money managers get to play with as they bet this way and that on rumors, unverified information, the mood of the market or whether Vladimir Putin’s Full Monty photo made it onto a campaign poster in some obscure Siberian town.
Who can blame them?  They don’t make any money for themselves off the performance of my investments.  They make it, like any gambler, off lucky winning streaks, both long and short, abetted by some skill and good timing, accidental or otherwise.  They make it off fees for trading, fees for managing, fees for packaging and fees for things that are hidden somewhere in their statements.  I’d like to have some respect for them, but just can’t bring myself to it.
I’m luckier than most.  My investments are being managed by a middle man of sorts, a local trust department that works hard to find and stick with funds and fund managers focussed on company performance with products and services in markets that have been well analyzed.  The net result is fewer wild bets, a little less on the upside and a lot less on the downside.  But that does not keep me, or others like me, from suffering fools not gladly.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Celebrating the assassination of al-Awalaki

I am deeply saddened by the celebratory language surrounding the assassination of al-Awalaki.  It is a grim business not worthy of celebration.  No doubt there are dozens of arguments justifying it.  Perhaps, at some level, it was necessary.  At least some people thought so.  But this is not a video game.  There are no points earned for taking out a bad guy, no higher level to achieve for skillfully handling the robot controls of a drone and its missile.  This is the reality of politics by assassination. 

I regret that America has joined the ranks of those who seek blood for blood through assassination.  I fail to see how that leads us closer to whatever security is either at home or abroad.  Vendetta is not justice, and, it seems to me, does little more than engage us in the endless cycle of blood feuding that can go on for generations reaching ever deeper into the soul of a nation.

Says God through the voice of Ezekiel, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked,...and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?”