Friday, October 28, 2016

Nantucket Thoughts

The Nantucket ferry whistle just announced its departure for the mainland thirty some miles to the north.  Friends know we are partial to islands.  I have no idea where that comes from, but we seem to be drawn to islands.  The islands of Hawaii have been our momentary respite from winter for over thirty years, and "Oh to be in England" (at any time of year). Whidbey and the San Juans establish the epitome of Pacific Northwest beauty.  Nantucket, thirty miles off the coast of Cape Cod, is a family destination for us a couple of times a year.  We love them all.

This week on Nantucket I've been struck by an observation I had not made before.  It's about community health and the value of ethnic and economic diversity.  Summer is the big season here.  The population swells to claustrophobic proportions of wealthy visitors, people who want to look like wealthy visitors, and people who want to look at wealthy visitors hoping for a celebrity.  They come for the sea, beaches, and colonial charm too of course.  We come to visit family during the shoulder seasons in the spring and fall when the weather can be brisk, windy, and wet.  Most places don't close for the winter until after Thanksgiving, opening up again in April, so avoiding the summer season provides access to all the shopping and dining amenities minus the crowds.  Hiking and biking trails are uncrowded, even solitary.  What struck me as I walked around the city center is that the island's diversity of people is more obvious in the off season.

I'm told that during the summer season the glare of sunshine on a sea of white faces makes it hard to see much diversity.  That's too bad.  Black families have been fixtures with a proud heritage in this community since colonial days.  Today's island population has been supplemented by immigrants from the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.  Without the horde of tourists it's a pleasure to walk around among the ebb and flow of greater diversity who greet each other, stop for brief sidewalk conversations, and exchange small talk in the shops.   Not to overstate it, there is still a large gap between those who earn their living here, and those who can afford to make it their vacation or retirement home.  There is a large gap between those who own successful business, and those who work for them.  It's not an an inexpensive place to live, and those on the bottom rungs have a hard time finding decent housing.  Just the same, the off season brings out a community that gives the appearance of real authenticity.  So what does that mean?

It means that I believe communities are healthier where ethnic and economic diversity mix freely in the public arena, and work together with mutual trust and respect for the welfare of the community.  Not that segregation ceases to exist.  Some is the echo of imposed segregation from former times.  Some is self imposed.  Some is the product of economic difference.  But all barriers are permeable, existing as much as possible within the walls of homes, and not at all in the public arena.  The summer season brings economic largesse to Nantucket, and that's good, but the off season brings community.

It's one of the things I like about living in Walla Walla.  There are wrong side of the tracks neighborhoods, and neighborhoods thought to be snooty, but in a small rural city, even one with several colleges, there is not much room for exclusivity.  Rich and poor mix because there is no place to be exclusive.  It isn't always easy.  Tensions can flare.  But the community is healthier for it.  We experienced some of the same in parts of New York City, where we lived for a few years.  Chelsea, for instance, was a neighborhood where mixing with each other in the community, and working with each other for the community, was the normal way of living in the place.  We've had experiences in other places where that was not true.  We've lived in communities where the exclusivity of the place gave the illusion of living by right in an elite world apart from the unpleasantness going on elsewhere, apart from the unpleasantness of mixing as equals with people not like us, in expectation that the purpose of people not like us is to maintain the life style to which we are entitled, and that this is the best of all possible ways to live.  If Dr. Pangloss had hung on a little longer, he might not have been wrong after all.  That's not healthy!  It's not even sane.  On Nantucket, and in Walla Walla, there are plenty of people who think like that, but they cannot live like that because there is no place for it in the public arena.  

Who knew walking around Nantucket's city center would bring all that out?  Ridiculous isn't it.  Maybe we should go someplace exclusive for dinner.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Dorothy Sayers and Laws of Inheritance

I'm trying, again, to expand the subjects on which I write to get away from politics, economics, and theology.  So here goes.  Friends know my self therapy reading is British murder mysteries.  Of course there are dead bodies to contend with and crimes to be solved, but I'm not interested in thriller mysteries that wallow in as much graphic gore as possible while taking the hero through as many  cliff hanging adventures as an old Saturday matinee movie serial.  One author stands out as a favorite, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) who wrote in and about the interwar years.  Her command of the English language is superb.  She is honest about the conditions and prejudices of English life in those years, but she doesn't sensationalize it.  Her works are sprinkled with references to and citations of classical literature.  Her ability at writing dialogue knows no equal.  Her cast of regulars develop, mature, learn, and so do occasional characters within the limits of a few hundred pages.  Each story demands that the reader examine a series of ethical questions in the process of solving the crimes.  Indeed she is a gifted theologian, as is known through some of her other writings.  Her principal hero, Lord Peter  Wimsey, is both Prince Hal and Falstaff, Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, or, as she herself said, Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster.

Right now I'm reading Unnatural Death, which is set in 1926.  In it our hero and friends are discussing the laws of inheritance, and a new law passed in 1925 that was supposed to clarify and simplify the complicated array of statutes and case law that had been cadged together over the previous several centuries.  Wimsey said. "I know what an Act to make things simpler means.  It means that the people who drew it up don't understand it themselves and that everyone of its clauses needs a law-suit to disentangle it."

What was true in 1925 England remains true in our own time.  Who has not heard or said that over regulation is one of our biggest problems?  What lies underneath the complaint is the greater reality of redundant, unclear regulation administered through Kafkaesque inefficiency by staff who do the best they can given the material they have to work with.  And what is that material?

It is the law.  The well intentioned, probably necessary law, as written by legislators and their staffs who have little understanding of the complexities required to implement it, even though well aware that they will exist.  Combine that with intentional underfunding, and reliance on the courts to sort things out, and 'voila,' we have modern inefficient government bureaucracy.  It's popular to blame tax and spend big government loving Democrats, but recent history suggests that small government Republicans have been the greater contributors to growing the size of government while masterminding increased deficits.  Let's just say it's been a team effort that, in recent years, has been joined by the tea party gang intent on mucking everything up by their know nothing libertarian opposition to everything.

I suppose it should reassure us that the British parliament of 1925 was no better, and the nation survived, even prospered, in spite of two world wars.  As long as we are drawing on them as an example, it might be wise to remember also that the British Empire, on which the sun never set, has become Great Britain, first among equals in a commonwealth of independent nations, and may soon find itself reduced to Little England, one nation among three or four competing for its place on two rather small islands.  Empires come.  Empires go.  So might America's empire.  I don't think it has much to do with laws the framers don't understand, and the courts have to untangle, but it may have to do with public distaste and discouragement with governments whose best efforts at doing good simply add to the pathology of bureaucracies trying their best to implement what legislators enacted into law without understanding how it would work.

Dang.  This began as commentary on the writing of Dorothy Sayers, and look where it ended up.  I'll try again.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Reading about Paul Growing

This is an article for those who have difficulty reading the bible yet are drawn to it just the same while wondering about claims of biblical inerrancy.  The rest of you can skip it.  Go do something else.

For the last several weeks those of us in liturgical churches have been hearing portions of Paul's Second Letter to Timothy read as the epistle lesson in church.  This Sunday we turn to Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians.  Most biblical scholars agree that the letters to Timothy were not written by Paul, but in Paul's name, well after his death, yet remembering many of the things he said and wrote to Timothy.  On the other hand, First Thessalonians is the earliest Christian document that we have in our possession.  It predates all of the gospels, so it gives us a clear picture of what Paul believed and taught fairly early in his ministry.  It would be wrong to assume that it tells what all early Christians believed, for as is known, there were disagreements between Paul and those in Jerusalem, and even between Paul and his missionary partner Barnabas.  Having said that, First Thessalonians gives us our earliest insight into the beliefs of Paul and the lives of his little flock of brand new non-Jewish Christians in Greek Macedonia.

A common mistake made by some readers of the bible is to assume that something once published in it must be incontrovertibly and eternally true as written.  The greater truth is that scripture gives us the unfolding story of humanity's growing relationship with God.  It's easy to forget that Paul was a human being growing into his faith, setting aside old ways of thinking as he learned new ones.  In other words, as one reads through Paul, one encounters the story of a person's growing, changing understanding of who Christ is and what it means to be a Christian.  I'll leave it to you to discover for yourself more about that as you read through Paul on your own, but here are some hints.  His first letter to the Thessalonians anticipates the end of time and the second coming to be imminent, perhaps a few years away but close.  Years later he had set aside that thought in favor of living into the "already but not yet" of an indeterminate second coming in which the last day is likely to be the day of death for each of us.  In his early years, Paul was disinterested in whether the authorities approved or disapproved of Christianity.  He would take them on as they came.  By the time Timothy was written, the Church had grown and prospered enough to be the target of occasional persecutions.  It seemed wise to do what one could to keep a low profile, behaving and acting in public in ways less likely to draw unwanted attention.  Thus Paul's early championing of the role of women in the Church gave way to restrictions on women more in keeping with local customs.  After all, these were the normal cultural values with which his new Christians were familiar and comfortable.  With those two hints in mind, I'll leave it to you to dig deeper with questions of your own about how Paul's understanding of who Jesus is and what it means to be a Christian developed over time.  Paul's letters in the bible are organized from longest to shortest, so you will have to do some research on your own to put them into chronological order. It's not hard.  An internet search will give you several versions that are mostly in agreement with each other.

Like Paul, we too mature in faith.  What was taught in Sunday school isn't adequate for life in the adult world. Moreover, with age and study our ability to hear God's Spirit speaking though the words of scripture improves greatly.  And lest we be too hard on the early Church for adopting more than they should of Greek and Roman culture, consider how we have so thoroughly integrated our Christianity with the American way of life.  A classic in 20th century theology was H. Richard Niebuhr's book, Christ and Culture.  In it he reviewed the important ways in which Christ is above culture, yet in culture, but stands against culture, while transforming culture.  It isn't just one way, but all four at the same time, and we, as Christians in our own day, are called to walk along the same balance beam.

And there you have it.  At least for now.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Using and Abusing the Power of Words

The political debate has been filled with accusations and counter accusations about what was said in years past that does not comport with what was said last week, or what was said in private that is at odds with what has been said in public, or what was said in a slipshod way that is now portrayed as deliberate lying.  It's time to talk about the use of the spoken word.

Let's start with the public private divide.  Since my columns are under the title of Country Parson, why not consider the well known after church parking lot conversations?  The preacher, warmly thanked on the way out, is chastised for his or her crummy sermon once in the parking lot.  The enthusiastic applause for the newly elected parish leader is demeaned in the parking lot as the worst choice among an unqualified slate.  The new paint color to which all agreed is said, in the parking lot, to be awful, and why didn't anybody ask my opinion?  In different ways it happens every Sunday about matters large, small, and utterly inconsequential.  I begin with that example because, as a pastor, I know that every pastor has had something to say about it in his or her own private conversations.  And speaking of pastors, consider any clergy gathering and the conflicting diversity of words shared privately, in small groups, and publicly before, during, and after meetings.  Not everything is said in love, and not everything is said in truth.  I know that’s a shock to some readers, and I’m sorry to have had to break the news to you.  Maybe it’s time to move beyond the church and its clergy?

In corporate life as in political life, what is said in meetings is not what is said in the hallway.  What is said in public is not what is said in private.  Explorations of options, opportunities, pros, cons, possible outcomes, etc., are expounded on with good words, bad words, judgmental words, terrific ideas, idiotic ideas, banal ideas, and bizarre ideas launched just for the fun of it.  Staff criticize bosses.  Bosses criticize staff.  Words are batted about with little discretion because, I suppose, we don’t consider that they are likely to have much life beyond the time and place they are spoken.  The same dynamic is true in our social and domestic lives.  We politely greet people we don’t like with feigned warmth, and cruelly gossip about them when they’re gone.  We sprinkle conversations with rumors, half truths, and outright lies, without giving it much thought.  What we say behind the bedroom door is not what we utter in the living room.  What we say to adults is not what we say to children. We choose to share some things, keep some things private (secret), and fudge on the rest.  Friends and acquaintances are on a sliding scale that determines how much we are willing to share with who.

That is the ordinary, everyday milieu of words in which we live.  Does that mean nothing is true and sacred about the words we use?  Must we be content to live in a word swamp where we can never be sure about truth?  No!  Certainly not!  It’s not that we live in a world of deception, it’s that we live in a world in which meaning and perception of meaning are not easily shared between people who each have their own life story that affects how they offer words to others, what meanings they attach to those words, and how they hear what others are saying to them.  Somehow it works.  We tolerate a broad range of word exchanges, and have learned how to navigate among them with considerable skill.

We also live in a world where we recognize the value of privacy.  There are parts of our lives that are private, and it’s no one's business to pry.  Keeping them secret is not deception.  It’s maintaining privacy.  You know that about your own life.  Business negotiations are often conducted in privacy for a variety of legitimate reasons, and you know that about your own way of making a living.  The same is true for political negotiations.  The stakes are high.  Words are exchanged with care.  Full transparency is seldom an appropriate strategy.  Behind the scenes discussions within each camp test out possible decisions and their consequences.  Candor is essential, and a certain amount of privacy provides the space needed for candor.  As members of the public, we demand public transparency, but working things out between opposing sides, and being candid with colleagues, requires a certain amount of privacy, secure in the knowledge that “what is said in this room, stays in this room.”  It’s a balancing act.

We also have boundaries beyond which words are recognized as dangerous, destructive, just plain wrong.  Intentional lies told for the purpose of deceiving others in hurtful ways.  Words that demonize that which is not demonic.  Words that destroy the dignity of others.  Words that bring evil into the world.  Words that promote unethical and immoral behavior.  Words that betray trust.  Words that excuse bad behavior.  You know what they are.  It’s a long list.  The boundaries are not always well defined, and they are always flexible.  We have a tendency to hold others up to a higher standard than we hold ourselves.  We’re full of excuses for ourselves that we wouldn’t tolerate in others.  Just the same, the boundaries are there.

For these reasons, it troubles me that In our current political environment it has become common place to accuse candidates of horrendous crimes and misdemeanors for the use of words that would from any other person in any other time or place be in the ordinary, everyday milieu of words in which we live.  At the same time, words that are clear and consistent indicators of immoral malevolence are tolerated as unpleasantly problematic, even if they point to egregious acts of fraud and deception for private gain.  There is something fundamentally wrong about that.  It demeans the power of words by making them cartoonish caricatures of responsible conversation.  It uses the power of words to engage in violations of even the fuzziest, most flexible boundaries while maintaining a false front of righteous indignation in defense of prejudice masquerading as truth.  As the saying goes, we can be better than that.

I doubt that anything will change until the election is over.  I hope there will be a return to a more responsible use of words afterwards.  We shall see.



Monday, October 17, 2016

Hillary, Foundations, and the FBI: What I learned at breakfast

Grape Nuts and blueberries, that's as normal a breakfast as I'm likely to have.  But the other day  I went out instead.  Not far from me at the diner were a group of three old guys thinking about going hunting, or maybe fishing, or maybe not, being served by one of those old time waitresses who call everyone honey or dear and have no problem entering into the conversation.  When they finally got down to it, politics was what was on their mind, presidential politics.

It was not that odd of a political conversation in the sense that no one offered any evidence or source for what they believed to be true.  They simply asserted it as incontrovertible.  You have probably heard the same.  Maybe you have done the same.  And what was incontrovertible, you ask?  The big one was Hillary's foundation.  Each of them had special inside knowledge of the many, I mean many, FBI and Secret Service investigations that the liberal media was suppressing.  How exactly they were so well informed while the rest of us live in ignorance was never explained.  Nor were their differing sets of incontrovertible facts that each could expound on with increasing knowledge of greater detail about what the FBI and Secret Service know, but the rest of us don't.  Even among the four of them, each knew what the others didn't, but now they had shared a cornucopia of intelligence that brought them collectively up to speed.

The conversation ended with the assertion that if Hillary gets elected the Constitution will no longer be the law of the land.  The Supreme Court will replace it with its own rulings.  Wow!  Who knew the Supreme Court could rule on the meaning of the Constitution?  It's just another hole in the hull of our sinking ship of democracy I guess.

I'd like to say that my mainstream Republican and Democratic friends are better than that, but coffee conversation seems to be filled on every side with a gullible willingness to believe as fact whatever attractive rumor passes by.  We reinforce each other by sharing them with certainty in their truth.  I am  even more stunned at the lack of basic knowledge of American civics, not in the young, but in mature adults who were supposed to have learned this stuff back when schools were schools.

I suppose it might help to have some kind of mass remedial education in 9th grade civics, but would it take?  There appears to be a missing link, and that is the ability to think critically.  Did we never teach critical thinking in high schools?  Or did we teach it but no one was paying attention?  Conservative acquaintances harrumph at critical thinking as just another liberal fad to brainwash kids.  Liberal acquaintances love critical thinking and assume that whatever they think must have been arrived at critically simply because they thought it.  The hard work of testing one's thoughts with logic and verifiable evidence that spans the political spectrum seems to be an alien idea unworthy of American exceptionalism.  There also seems to be a general discomfort in learning that what is true is not the whole truth.  It's never more than a partial truth, but properly tested it can be enough of the whole truth on which to act with confidence.

Oh well, we have to live with what we have, so here's to the three old men and one old woman at breakfast.  May they decide to go hunting or fishing after all, and may they do it on November 8th.




Thursday, October 13, 2016

Metaphor, Allegory, and the Bible

Each time I come across the story of Jonah I'm reminded of how difficult it is to explain the bible in metaphorical and allegorical terms.  It seems that people who grew up in the '50s and '60s (or maybe even later) were drilled on the bible as literal truth, even if they attended Sunday schools in mainline churches.  That's important because Sunday school probably ended their formal education in biblical studies.  I guess the thought was that children could not understand metaphor or allegory, so the bible stories were told as simple truth.  How could that be, given all the Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons, fairy tales, and Saturday movies kids watched?  Children are raised in a world of metaphor and allegory, and understand it well.  In any case, with formal education ended at the grade school level, the pews are filled with adults who have a hard time understanding the bible in any other way than what they were taught as children.  I'm selfishly grateful that my Sunday school lessons fell on deaf ears.  I was not entertained by paper cutouts mounted on flannel boards while some story was told by a teacher speaking in a voice appropriate for toddlers.  Being in church with the grownups was a better deal, even if I had to sit through a boring sermon.  But I digress.

Those who grew up in more recent times are a different matter.  They are likely to have had no exposure to the bible at all, except for what they may have heard through mass media, or in conversation with earnest door knocking evangelists.  For them it's easy to dismiss the bible that they have never read as a literary chimera useful only as a companion to scriptures of other religions, also never read, and whatever spiritual book has been popular in the last couple of months, if indeed anything of a spiritual nature has attracted their attention..

How do you explain metaphor and allegory as bearers of holy truth to either them?  I think I wrote before about a faithful lifelong Episcopalian who was distressed to the point of anger when I told him that the story of Jonah was not historical fact.  He could not conceive of that possibility.  He wondered what other bible stories I might say were not factually true.  We spent an hour with me trying to explain that just as Jesus told parables, so did the writers of the Old Testament, and Jonah was a parable.  We did not achieve a breakthrough, but he did become more tolerant of my irregular views.  Those who have had no exposure to the bible are harder to reach.  Some simply have no interest in it, not even enough to be mildly curious.  Others attach all kinds of extraneous meanings to it, mostly related to what they don't like about European colonial outrages and cultural dominance.

My best bible students over the years have been young teenagers willing to go through preparation for confirmation, the few college students who made our parish their home for four years, and adults who came to annual adult confirmation classes.  Obviously they were self selecting, and not representative of the larger population.  That said, young teens ate up scripture with enthusiasm once they were turned loose to discover metaphor, allegory, adventure stories, and the power of God's love.  College students devoured scripture as it spoke to whatever they were learning in their majors and minors.  It didn't always answer their questions, but it always set high standards for what an answer might be.  Two of them went on to become Episcopal priests.  The annual fall adult confirmation class, advertised as finally learning what you were supposed to have learned in confirmation but weren't paying attention, always attracted ten to fifteen for an hour a week of deep conversation.  It was liberating for them to discover the bible in a whole new dimension.

As encouraging as all of that was, it's also true that several life long members left to join more conservative denominations where such nonsense was not tolerated.  Discerning holy truth through metaphor and allegory can be hard work, particularly when it's mixed in with elements to be taken literally, or nearly so.  It's just easier to go where one is told what is true, what isn't, and everyone says amen.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Case of Itchy Ears

"For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths." (2 Tim. 4.3-4)

I've always been fascinated by this passage.  Being a two handed sort of guy, on the one hand it comes to mind when I've been frustrated by the enthusiasm some have exhibited for chasing after new fads in spirituality, or the teaching of evangelists who have distorted scripture to fit bizarre world views.  I have a locker room friend at the Y who is keen on anything claiming the end of time is next Tuesday, secret cabals of global rulers, and any secret conspiracy story connected to church history.  He's the sort of guy who reads Dan Brown books to get the facts.  All of it is linked to what he thinks Christianity is about.  He's got itchy ears.  Crazy isn't it?

On the other hand I have stood accused of having itchy ears.  As my own Episcopal Church has lurched through the revisions of its Book of Common Prayer, ordained women, and opened its doors to the gay community, I've had clergy, parishioners, former parishioners, and strangers lob this passage as a scriptural hand-grenade.  It is my Church, and me personally, so they have said, who turned away from listening to truth and wandered away to myths.  Good grief, how on earth could they think such a thing?  Can't they see how blind they are to the guiding light of the Holy Spirit?  Why can't they see what I see?

The accusation of itchy ears can demolish good things in the name of scriptural truth.  I remember the day and place when our local ministerial association began to fall apart.  It had existed for many years as a fellowship of pastors from traditions of every kind.  We shared prayer, offered mutual support, and had a good time.  One day some newer conservative evangelical pastors invited a speaker to talk on subject of reenergizing the church.  He was energetic and certain that the downfall of Christianity was caused by pluralism, the tool of the devil.  Pluralism was the work of itchy ears opening Christian worship to foreign gods that took the form of what?  Meditation.  Gay people.  Deviation from the substitutionary doctrine of atonement.  Being a Catholic.  Being an Episcopalian.  There were a few others, but you get the idea.  Loud amens from some of those present let the rest of us know who had the itchy ears and wandered away from sound doctrine.  Us.  It was the end of the fellowship.

What is sound doctrine?  In the West, sound doctrine was for centuries whatever the Church said was sound doctrine.  Any deviation was heresy punishable by excommunication, exile, or death.  Then along came the Reformation with its several menus of sound doctrines, each defended by theological rhetoric and force of arms.  You know that can't be right.  Competing sound doctrines make for itchy ears.  So what is sound doctrine?  How do we choose?  I commend to your reading an article by Ben Moushon, a Seventh Day Adventist who has nailed the core of sound doctrine as well as anybody.  You can find it at thinkinganddriving.wordpress.com.  Look for "Dear Church Leaders, I Don't Want Your Unity."

When you get down to it, I guess itchy ears are not necessarily bad things to have.  They can be signs of theological curiosity.  Not always, but now and then.  Maybe the Holy Spirit can't be heard except in itchy ears.  Luther had itchy ears.  Tutu has itchy ears.  I think the Dali Lama has itchy ears.  Maybe the current pope does too.  Itchy ears can put received orthodoxy to the test.  Itchy ears can hear the Holy Spirit leading on when others can't.  The trick is not to get drawn off chasing after myths, in the common understanding of myths as untruths made up to look like truths, but to keep the core of sound doctrine as the measure of what the itchy ear is hearing.  And what is sound doctrine?  Read Mr. Moushon's article.  Here's a hint.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.  Love others as Christ has loved you.



Sunday, October 9, 2016

Understanding HIllary Haters

A note to my  Democratic and liberal friends.   This may surprise you but the people I know well who will never ever vote for Hillary are not Trump supporters.  They may have a Trump sign, or say something Trumpy on FB, but they don't even like the guy.  They know he's a humbug.  You don't have to convince them of that.  Trying is a waste of time because it's not about Trump.  It's about Hillary, yet only partly about her.  They blast away at her about Benghazi and email servers, which they partly believe, but deep down they know it's all rubbish.  However, once having dug the hole, they are not going to climb out of it.  Going over that history won't change their minds.  Too much pride at stake.

What they can't stand about her, but can't find the right words for it, are her three big sins.  One, she's a woman coming on the heels of a black man, and that just doesn't feel right.  It's not nice to be sexist or racist so other words have to be found that sound more defensible.  Two, she's a Clinton.  They weren't too fond of the Bush dynasty, and they don't want a Clinton dynasty.  They don't like anything dynastic in politics.  It's too monarchal, although that's not a word they would choose to call it.  Three, and this is the big one, she's an elite member of the ruling class with strong ties to other members around the globe, and that means she doesn't care about or know about the real life of real people.  She's Marie Antoinette trying to take over the throne.  This is important so pay attention.  Remember the Bastille?  They don't like or trust elites, or the entrenched bureaucracies that serve them, especially if they are connected to Wall Street, which is not a place but an icon of wealth manipulating wealth for the benefit of wealth.  If it wasn't for their tea party labels and Republican registration they could be old time Bolsheviks, but don't let them know that.  They hate everything Marxist.

As if that wasn't enough, the world is changing too fast to keep up with it.  If you get a chance take a look at Yuval Noah Harari's article in the October 8 New Yorker Today, "Trump's Rise and Liberalism's End."  Their identity as (white) Americans is threatened from all sides.  They are very aware that their status as white American males who define the American way of life is eroding away, and it's uncomfortable.  Good grief, our elite local college now has a female president, and (gasp) she's a lesbian living (can you believe it) with her spouse right there in the president's mansion.  Well what can you expect?  They're a bunch of far left liberals over there anyway.  But on the other end of town, the reliably conservative SDA college fosters ordination of women in the SDA church.  Even they are tilting left it seems.  The future looks scary.  Trump's dystopian rhetoric merely echoes what they have been told and led to believe is true by talk radio hosts and congressional leaders over the last eight years.  You can't pound away at willing listeners for eight years and not have it stick.  For them, Hillary can't be trusted to do anything useful about that.  Neither can Trump, but at least he's rattling cages.  That may not feel right either, but it does feel good.

Will they ever back away from Trump?  Yes.  Even they are offended by the flow of revelations about his moral character, and the "Yeah, but what about Bill Clinton" retorts have little traction because they didn't like Bill either.  It won't move them toward Hillary.  They may turn toward Johnson.  Who knows?  What they will do is stew for the next four years.  The only thing likely to lift them out of it is an economic resurgence adhering to the middle and lower classes that includes a slashing of bureaucratic floundering among government agencies at the retail level.


Friday, October 7, 2016

Bill and the national debt

My friend Bill is a raving libertarian who has a visceral dislike of Obama, and now Clinton too.  We have had some interesting discussions.  Obviously his politics are not mine, which I consider to be pragmatic and center left.  I'm not unfamiliar with the basics of libertarian ideology, which can encompass  wide range of thoughts.  It can be a useful check on the coercive power of government.  Bill’s version of it is extreme, and  translating it into public policy would, I am convinced, quickly sink the nation into impoverished second world status possibly leading to the breakup of the union.  He thinks it would enhance personal freedom and economic opportunity.  For whom?  Well, it’s left unsaid but the clear implication is for those willing to live as traditional white middle class men.  

That aside, our latest exchange was over the size of the national debt, which is obviously the fault of Democrats, especially Obama, the worst president in history.  Bill really, really does not like the size of the national debt, a huge number he likes to use as a scary bludgeon.  He would like to cut the federal government down to a provider of defense, a builder of limited infrastructure, and a regulator of those things absolutely necessary to the safety of the ebb and flow of otherwise unregulated commerce.  He would eliminate the departments of Education, HUD, Commerce, HHS, most of Interior, and a handful of other agencies.  His favored weapon?  A balanced budget amendment. 

The debt is a big number, a little over $18 trillion (it looks even scarier when it’s written out with all it’s zeros), but big by itself means little.  It would be a lot less big if it wasn't for the two idiotic unfunded wars launched under the previous administration, or if we hadn't been thrown into the "great recession," but what's done is done, so let's move on.  As you know, national debt has to be understood in the context of national income.  In our case, national debt is about 1 times national income.  It's at the top end of sustainability, too close to the tipping point for comfort, but we've endured worse in times past.  Many industrialized nations have higher ratios than that, some by quite a bit, and that is a worry for the future of the global economy.  However, this is about our own debt.  Bringing down the deficit is part of the solution, and it has been coming down for some time now.  If economic growth outpaces what the deficit contributes to debt, the national debt will decline as a percentage of national income, and that's what we want.  A balanced budget or budget surplus would be a nice addition, and maybe we can get to it, at least once in a while.  Just the same, it's not essential.

The consensus among economists is that national growth of around 2% is what we can expect for the foreseeable future.  Anyone who says it can get to 4% or better, and stay there, does not know what he or she is talking about. The key is for national income to increase faster than national debt.  What would help make that happen?  Within that 2%, whatever we can do to increase the income of the average person will help in three ways.  It will reduce dependency on public services, increase revenue flows to the government, and increase demand for goods and services.  Whatever we can do to increase the efficiency of the nation’s transportation infrastructure will reduce the cost of doing business while improving on issues of safety and reliability.  Bill, of course, doesn’t want increased revenue flows to the government.  He wants to starve it into submission.  We’re at an impasse there.

He and I would like to see corporate American invest more in job creating ways.  I understand that corporations are sitting on trillions of reserve, and claim to be waiting to invest when demand increases. That won't happen until average wages increase.  Reagan style economic policies that have been the darlings of the right tend to reward capital more than wages, which certainly benefits people who live off their investments (as I do), but does little for the economy as a whole, and it always leads to greater income disparity, which is one of the reasons for the pickle we're in now.  Bill favors old policies that reward the rich, which he isn’t.  Maybe he plans on winning Power Ball some day and joining their ranks.  In the meantime, giving Reaganomics the heave-ho, what should we do?

We live in a democratic republic, which is a messy, inefficient form of government.  Plato thought a benevolent dictator would be better.  Aristotle didn’t think much of democracy either.  So, being the benevolent person that I am, if I was dictator what would I do?  I'd adjust the personal income tax code to create steeply increased rates at the very high end, maybe as much as 70-80% at the top.  That would not raise much revenue from top end, but it would be a disincentive to super salaries and an incentive to wage and salary increases farther down the ladder.  I would eliminate several of the pass through type exclusions that allow some of the very wealthy to manipulate their way into paying very low or no taxes.  I would cut the corporate income tax rate to a level more competitive in the world market, but simplify the code to eliminate the thicket of special privileges granted to industries and individual corporations.  I would invest heavily, very heavily in infrastructure and education.  Capital gains and estate taxes I would leave pretty much where they are.

All of that would work toward reducing the debt ratio while encouraging wage growth for the educated and skilled middle class.  What about the so called lower classes?  We are not bringing back union wage factory jobs.  Get over it.  We deliberately emasculated the unions, and automation has taken over many tasks formerly done by hand.  But we can recognize that many of the jobs we now call unskilled actually provide significant value added, and compensate them accordingly.  I favor starting with a $15 minimum wage and indexing it.  I'd eliminate anti-union state laws balanced with new laws to prevent unions from being as abusively goofy as they were in the mid 20th century, or as they are now in places like France. 

Health care?  I prefer a system like Canada's.  Failing that, I would treat the insurance companies as public utilities, requiring them to insure everyone at fair rates negotiated by the government.  Big Pharma?  I have no idea.  

I'm not sure what I'd do about defense.  It might help to start with questions such as: What is the purpose of armed forces, and how does that relate to the world as it is?  As dictator it would be  a little easier, but in our country it's very hard to crack the "military-industrial complex" that is massively inefficient but even more massively protected by legislators in whose districts plants and bases exist.  My preference would be to eliminate unneeded/unwanted weapon systems, reduce civilian and contractor employment, increase employee benefits for the ranks, and fully fund the promises we have made to veterans.    

There is one other way to bring down the debt ratio, and that's through controlled inflation.  When it works, it works well, but controlling inflation is almost impossible.  It's a dangerous tactic. 

What will actually happen in the next four to eight years?  I don’t know, but am hopeful that the influence Bill and others like him have exercised these last few years will be relegated to the dark corner from which it emerged.  I’d like to see congress led by pragmatic members, both left and right, who know they can work out agreeable compromises.  Will that happen?  We shall see.  It might help to rein in high cost lobbying by preventing government employees from becoming lobbyists for five years or more after they leave government service, overturning Citizens United, preventing former members of congress from having floor access, and things like that.




Wednesday, October 5, 2016

And now for something you'll really like: a TSA story

Air travel has inspired complaints, horror stories, and epic tales of woe beyond number.  Getting through TSA screening is foremost among them, so I thought I’d entertain you with the small city airport version of it.

We have three flights a day.  They all go to Seattle.  It’s a short flight, around forty minutes.  Once there the world awaits, but what’s it like at our end?  

The most popular flight leaves at 6:00 a.m. sharp – assuming the last flight in (midnight) made it.  Getting to the airport at least an hour before take off is important.  It may be only you and seventy-three others getting on the one and only plane, but the staff checking you in is also the staff manning the gate and loading the plane.  There’s a lot to do in a short time.  Alaska, our airline, runs on time, so people who have tried a last minute dash to the airport have found themselves missing the flight, even as they watched passengers waiting to board.  

We’ve got self check-in kiosks, but no one uses them.  It’s easier to go through an agent at the counter, and you have to do that anyway if checking bags, which brings up another oddity.  You can check bags through to almost any place in the world, but checked luggage is inspected by hand because we don’t have the room or volume to warrant a big X-ray machine.  They’re very nice about it.  What ever way you packed is mostly the way you will find it when you open up.  Inside will be a card letting you know that TSA has rifled through everything, have a nice day, and you passed.  They do have a regular metal detection gizmo to walk through.  Out of every plane load there are always a half dozen or so who have to be told about how the system works, not counting the elderly who have learned how to act confused and incompetent.  I think they entertain themselves that way.  Rodeo belt buckles or a couple of pounds of jewelry always slow things down.  Pat downs are routine.  It’s a casual affair, but everyone (who got there early enough) gets through.  It helps that our TSA agents are a friendly low key group with a good sense of humor.  Once at a small airport in Wyoming I watched a cowboy swear he had nothing left to declare, except for a pocket full of rifle ammunition he didn’t think counted.  But I digress.

A short walk across the tarmac and it’s off to Seattle.  Coffee and juice are served in the morning.  Wine and beer are served in the afternoon.  Not much time for either.  I figure I can leave home, park, check in, get through security, fly to Seattle, and board my connecting flight in less time than Seattleites starting from their own city for the same flight.


Oh yeah, parking is close and free.


Monday, October 3, 2016

Racism, Public Safety, & Black Lives Matter

I have a couple of friends in public safety who feel something between outrage and humiliation over the flood of stories about innocent, unarmed black men shot by police.  The public, they complain, leaps to conclusions before the evidence is in.  The media sensationalizes events when sober reporting is called for, so that when investigations are finally complete they suffer from public pre-judgment and stale newsworthiness.  It diminishes the public's understanding of how dangerous public safety work has become, especially with the explosion of personal protection firearms.  It overlooks the good work public safety officers do, not daily but hourly.  And it encourages such distrust of police that it increases the likelihood of violent confrontation.  They wonder if anyone knows or cares how many cops are killed in the line of duty each year (it's in the vicinity of 135).  At the same time, they are angry about the Black Lives Matter movement because they understand it to favor black lives over all others, to encourage defensive resistance against any police contact, and to be unpatriotic in its disrespect of American symbols and ideals.  

They have some good points.  They are not wrong about everything.  However, their emotionally charged posture of self defense and self justification blinds them to other voices.  For instance, they cannot understand, because they don’t know, that the 300 years of American history during which black lives did not matter, lynching was not uncommon, blacks could not get fair trials, and that killings blacks was not a crime, ended, at least officially, in the mid twentieth century.  That's not ancient history.  It's not behind us.  Remnants of it remain, and the extreme right wing polarization of American politics has given it hope for revival.  They can't understand that Black Lives Matter does not mean other lives don't, that the movement might be patriotically pursuing what the American ethos promises but has not delivered.  It’s hard for them to recognize that those choosing to kneel for the National Anthem may be honoring what it stands for but is not yet lived out in the lives of a large portion of the population.  They honestly do not and cannot see what white privilege and institutional racism is or means.  Moreover, they fear that any conversation about race, law and order, especially with someone representing minority rights, will result in them being verbally attacked, told that they are so hopelessly lost there is nothing they can ever do to make it right.  And you know what?  It's a reasonable fear.  

Maybe none of that is true where you live.  Out here in our small city in the inter mountain West, it's a problem for at least a few, not for everyone, but a few.  What to do?

How about anti racism training?  The approach many anti racism programs have used is a combination of hellfire and damnation preaching with Salem witch trial tests of possession.  It doesn't work.  It starts with the name.  If a program is about anti racism and your are in the program, then ipso facto, you are a racist – you neanderthal pig you!  You cannot badger, condemn, and intimidate someone into admitting they're an unrepentant racist in need of exorcism.  It doesn't work.  But well meaning folks keep trying it anyway.  Maybe they want to inflict as much humiliating damage as they can by way of revenge, or as an endorsement of their own delusion of self righteous sinlessness.  It’s a fiendish twist on twelve step programs, one in which the leader confesses the racism of everyone present, and insists that no one will leave the room until they also confess, after which it will be discovered that the room has no exit.


Is there a better way?  There are others far more qualified than I who can answer.  As for me, I’ve attended a number of workshops conducted by Eric Law (Kaleidoscope Inst.) who focuses on understanding cultural foundations and effective ways of cross cultural communication.  Although oriented toward religious institutions, his basic approach could, with some adjustments, be applied to the world of public safety.  I wonder also about teaching a bit of American history with an emphasis on voices and views that have not been a normal part of high school texts (when few were paying attention anyway).  It couldn’t hurt.  Just a few thoughts.  Maybe you have  some.