Monday, July 24, 2017

The Moral Responsibilty of Commercial Property Owners

Here’s a column that invites conversation.  Several weeks ago I posted a question on one of our local Facebook news pages about the moral responsibility of downtown property owners to the community from which they profit.  It came up because several successful businesses had been told by their landlords that rents would be doubled or tripled.  Moreover, it was not open to negotiation.  Take it or leave it.  I talked with two of them.  One has closed up shop and left.  The other is considering what to do.  As for the landlord, the immediate impact of prime downtown property sitting vacant is not much to him or her.  It’s just a tax write off.  On the other hand, a new tenant capable of paying the higher rent might be waiting in the wings.  Either way, the impact on the community raises questions worthy of discussion.  

The question I asked erupted in a cascade of comments on all sides, some quite angry.  There were the predictable harangues about our award winning downtown being taken over by the wine industry, which overlooked the reality that it is wine tourism driving downtown prosperity.  At the same time, is a downtown that caters only to tourists, offering little to the lower middle income majority of residents, a healthy downtown?  Does it make for a healthy community?  There was plenty of room for anger for those who said no, but even more irate comments came from those who claimed that a property owner can do whatever he or she wants with his or her property, it’s nobody else’s business, so butt out.  Knowing a few of them, they might as well have added, “you socialist pig!”    

Insults aside, what is property ownership?  When we say we own something, what does that mean?  Does the community (whether local, state, or federal) have a right to regulate what property owners can do with it?  Do property owners have a moral obligation to the community in which they do business and from which they profit?  Is a moral obligation enforceable?  By whom?  

The brutal truth is, we never really own anything.  We just take possession of it for a time.  We can own something in the legal sense that we have exclusive right to its use until we sell or give that right to someone else.  We never own anything in perpetuity, only a season if you will.  Someone owned it before us, and someone will own it after us.  The best we can say is that our legal ownership gives us temporary custody.  As custodians, we are its stewards, and stewardship always brings complex accountability to others.  If there is one principle agreed to by conservatives of every stripe, it’s the principle of accountability.  People should be accountable for their actions.  Right?  Maybe they should, but in reality there are good stewards, bad stewards, indifferent stewards, ignorant stewards, and stewards who deny they are stewards.  There are all kinds of stewards, but there’s no getting out of being one.  The thing about accountability is that it makes one’s actions other peoples’ business, but which people and to what extent?   

Among those to whom accountability is due is the community in which a property owner does business, and from which they profit.  What is the community?  It’s the historical creation of people who desired to live in a certain place, in a certain way of life, and in as much security as they could muster without jeopardizing individual freedoms.  By definition, it has the right to set standards and enforce regulations that guide development in directions the community deems appropriate for the kind of place they want it to be.  In our American way, who speaks for the community are its elected representatives, and they have the legal power to enforce their decisions.  The fundamental truth of that is celebrated in the mythology of every old Western movie and t.v. show where the hero rides into town to rid it of the selfish rancher, banker, or casino operator who is intent on usurping community values to set his own rules for how things will be run.  He runs roughshod over the good people who want nothing but the peace and security of a law abiding place where other good people will want to live and raise their families.  He does it until the community, backed by the hero, runs him out of town, or kills him.  It’s a powerful myth, and like all myths it carries a light of truth.  If you don’t like Westerns, consider the Mayflower Compact of the Pilgrims.  It works the same way.

The whole point of the myth is that the moral responsibility each person bears toward the community includes the stewardship of their property, and the way in which they do business.  Have you never watched reruns of Little House on the Prairie?  The greater truth, of course, is that we have never lived into the fullness of our American myth.  The historical record is one of preserving it for some, keeping it from others, and destroying those who get in the way.  Nevertheless, it is our myth, and it does proclaim the best values we hold for ourselves. 

Can you do whatever you want with your property, as some of my interlocutors insisted?  No, you can’t!  We enact building, sanitation, and fire codes to save lives, and protect the collective property value of the community.  For better or worse, zoning regulations dictate the kind of land use permissible in different parts of town.  We even allow private home owner associations to enforce more stringent restrictions, such as colors of paint, outdoor decorations, quiet hours, and the like.  All of this after the Lone Ranger, Matt Dillon, and Clint Eastwood have taken care of the bad guys, making the town safe for the good people to take root.   That we often as not mess it up and do it badly, is beside the point.

So what about downtown property owners who jack up rents that force desirable businesses out of business, just because they can do it if they want to?  Do they have a legal right?  Yes.  Do they have a moral right?  Now that’s a question.  What kind of downtown area does the community want?  In my community there are many who want a nostalgic return to a 1950s that never did exist.  All those stores whose memories they treasure so much, they went out of business for a reason.  The community did not spend enough in them to keep them going.  Heartless property owners may have contributed, but they were not the primary reason things changed.  The world was changing.   It still is. 

The wine industry began to take off in our area about twenty years ago.  At the same time, community leaders were determined to resuscitate the downtown area, with no clear idea of what that might mean.  What it meant was the advent of fine dining, wine tasting shops, boutiques offering quality goods, and the decline of low end retailers in search of cheap rent.  Downtown not only boomed but earned a collection of prizes for being one of the best small city downtowns in the country.  It continues to do so.  In the meantime, property owners complain that second and third floor space remains vacant when they could be used for residences, and it’s the city’s fault because the city demands sprinklers and fire resistant reconstruction owners are unwilling to invest in.  Can the city do that?  Yes!  Because the community does not want to risk unsafe conditions jeopardizing lives.  Are owners being prevented from taking full advantage of the income producing potential of their property?  No!  Because the community does not recognize the possibility of an unsafe potential.  The rule in commercial real estate is always highest and best use, but what an owner thinks that is, and what the community thinks that is, is negotiable, with the community having the final say.  What remains to be said is how mixed uses that cater to a wider array of customers from a variety of economic means can be incorporated.

It’s all about the conservative principle of accountability in which moral accountability has a role, ill defined though it may be. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Driving Blind: A nation of GPS zombies

It’s common for today’s travelers to drive blind.  They have no idea where they are, and little sense of the route they are taking to get somewhere else.  It’s a new thing.  Even in the oldest of days, few people went blindly into the unknown of a cross country trek.  When human beings began to populate the continent, they found their way by traveling from landmark to landmark as described to them by earlier trail blazers.  It formed a mental map that may have been fuzzy about distances and conditions along the way, but it worked.  

The advent of wagon roads improved things.  You knew where the road started, where it ended, and how far it was between the two.  Army and railroad surveyors developed more detailed maps with better information about terrain and other local conditions.  They did what they could to show trails and wagon roads.  For all of that, a person launching out for a long trip across the country still needed their own mental map constructed from available sources.  If you’re interested, check out the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.  It’s on line.

It was not until cars began to proliferate in the early 20th century that road maps were drawn and made available to the public at little or no cost.  The earliest ones relied as much on descriptions of landmarks as they did drawings of routes.  A traveler could carry a folded map or map book to plot a well defined course to almost anywhere, and use it to see where he or she was as they went a long the way.  For the next hundred years, a road trip began by pouring over maps, plotting routes, and, maybe, getting instructions from AAA TripTiks – map booklets that sketched out the recommended route fifty miles at a time, annotated to note attractions, construction, and hazards.

Mobile phones, iPads, and GPS apps changed all of that.  Between Apple Maps, Google Maps, and Waze, all one has to do is request directions from a current location to another place, and a disembodied voice will tell you how to get there, turn-by-turn, without any need to look at a map, recognize landmarks, or understand anything about the country through which you are driving.  No mental map of where you are is needed or expected.  Just obey the voice and you will get there.  It’s very disorienting, at least for me. Driving blind is what I call it. 

I thought about it while driving a rental car from the Columbus, Ohio airport to Kenyon College in Gambier.  The disembodied voice got me there, but I had no idea about where I was, and no sense of what was around me.  It was a bit of a surprise, and a relief, when the Welcome to Gambier sign hove into view.  I didn’t like it.  It’s why in my personal car there are maps of all kinds, in spite of onboard GPS, a cell phone and tablet.  I want a sense of where I am along the way, what lies ahead, what’s behind, and what sort of country I’m passing through.  Is that unusual?  I hope not.

It would be a shame to think we are producing an entire population of GPS zombies who mindlessly navigate from point A to point B without ever knowing where they are, and how that might lead to knowing more about other people, other places, history, geography, and conditions that affect the lives of many.  A nation of GPS zombies?  Watching people amble down Main Street glued to their mobile phones, oblivious to their surroundings, it could happen.    

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Following Jesus into the Disreputable Swamp

Each of the four gospels has a story about a woman anointing Jesus.  In three of them, during a dinner party with other guests, a woman anointed Jesus’ head with costly perfumed ointment.  In Luke, a woman anointed his feet with tears, and I want to spend some time comparing Mark’s version with Luke’s.

Mark set the anointing at a dinner in the Bethany house of Simon the Leper, when an unknown woman entered, broke open a container of costly ointment, and anointed Jesus’ head (Mark 14.3-9).  Luke’s setting is in an unknown village at the house of Simon the Pharisee.  During dinner, a woman known to be a sinner entered uninvited to anoint Jesus’ feet with tears (Luke 7.36-50).

What strikes me is that in Mark, Simon was the ultimate outcast, a leper.  He could not be seen in public and had to keep his distance from all but other lepers.  Whoever the woman was, she had the resources needed to acquire a jar of ointment worth 300 denarii.  If a denarii is the usual daily wage for unskilled labor, that equals about $30,000 in today’s market where I live.  This was not cheap stuff.  Whoever she was, she was not afraid to enter the intimacy of a leper’s dining room, nor was she miserly with the costliness of her actions.  I think it’s safe to assume she was of the economically elite, but with a poor understanding of social boundaries.

On the other hand, Luke’s Simon, Simon the Pharisee, was the ultimate insider.  Perhaps not among the economically elite, but certainly among the intellectually elite, and he knew a social boundary when he saw one.  By contrast, the uninvited woman was the ultimate in outcasts, a known public sinner segregated from and rejected by polite society.  We assume she was a prostitute, but that’s never said.  Whoever she was, she was not afraid to enter where she was not wanted, and showed disrespect for her betters in doing it.  Like the other woman, she was not miserly with her anointing tears that cost all of whatever was left of her shamefully battered pride.  Costly ointment indeed. 

So there we are. A man and a woman who were among the ultimate elite.  A man and a woman who were among the ultimate outcasts.  Between them sat Jesus.  What can we say about Jesus?  He welcomed the hospitality of the leper and the Pharisee.  He welcomed the gifts of the elite and the outcast.  Each of the actors in both scenes were invited, without condemnation, into the possibility of forgiveness, reconciliation, and a new way of life.  He opened doors through which each was invited to receive the other as a brother, a sister.  Would they?  In Mark, the bystander Judas could not.  In Luke, Simon the Pharisee might.  In Mark, the wealthy woman’s deed would never be forgotten, always honored.  In Luke, the sinning woman’s gift brought forgiveness and assurance of God’s respect for her acts of love.

About ten years ago, my friend Roger Ferlo wrote a book on experiencing God through all of our senses.  Cleverly enough, he entitled it Sensing God, and in it explored what it meant to  experience God’s presence through seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing.  I was thinking about that when considering these two stories.  In them is the sight of unlikely combinations of people in unlikely venues.  The repulsive appearance of a leper.  The morally offensive presence of a known public sinner.  The taste and smell of good food and wine.  The stench of disease, and the dirtiness of the poor.  The touch of a wealthy person’s smooth hands, and a poor person’s rough ones.  The smell of expensive perfumed ointment.  The feel of wet tears.  The sounds of shocked voices raised in angry objection. 

In the midst of it was Jesus honoring every smell and touch, every voice, every expression of every sense.  With what?  With his own voice and touch of healing, and reconciling promise.  The rich, the poor, the sick, the healthy, the sinner, the virtuous, the food, the wine, the voices of each, his presence enfolded all of it into one community whose transient members experienced the Holy by seeing, hearing, and touching the one who saw them, heard them, and touched them with God’s love in the depths of their souls.  

In the immortal words of Chester A. Riley, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”  That Jesus, the one whom we say we follow, would calmly, benevolently, willingly, sit in the company of such a disreputable potpourri of characters without even a hint of offended righteousness, well, what kind of role model is that?  He touched and was touched by that which we avoid out of fear, but in the name of good taste.  He socialized with the 1% at the top, whom we envy but detest, and the 1% at the bottom, whom we pity but deplore.  He openly embraced the morally corrupt.  He enjoyed the friendship of intellectual and religious snobs, and welcomed the hospitality of those who were so physically repugnant they couldn’t be seen in public.  He received gifts from the super rich, and from those who had nothing but tears.

Why wasn’t he more like that nice psalmist who wrote about befriending only blameless people who speak only truth, and had nothing to do with wicked slanderers, money lenders,  and such? (Ps. 16)  And then there is Paul, Saint Paul that is, who warned the good people of Corinth to not associate with immoral people. (1 Cor. 5)  A psalmist, and a saint, an apostle no less, you would think Jesus would pay some attention to them.  Clearly a few Christians have lost their moral compass by following Jesus into quagmires like the ones described by Mark and Luke.  Fortunately, most have not.  It’s OK to believe in Jesus.  You can even accept him as your personal lord and savior.  It’s sort of like having your personal butler and maid, but better because he’s God.  Just don’t follow him or you’ll end up in a swamp with disreputable people. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Income Inequality & The Middle Class

Does the middle class have a future?  Of course it does, but will it be one of growing prosperity?  It’s a question that came up with unexpected frequency during a recent week long conference at Kenyon College in Ohio.  Most were progressive clergy of one kind or another, with the balance in communication.  They were women and men, younger and older, but mostly in their 50s and 60s.  They were what might be called the middle of the middle class.  They’ve earned modest incomes, have little in savings, hope for even more modest church pensions, and are relying on Social Security and Medicare to be there for them when they retire.

They seem content, but are worried about the future of others in the middle-middle class who make up the bulk of their congregations.  Will there be jobs that pay well?  Will skilled and unskilled factory work come back to America?  Can income inequality be reduced?  What can be done?  All good questions, important questions.  Maybe it’s a clergy thing, but as important as they are, and dedicated as clergy are to issues of social justice, their interest in probing deeply into how the economy works was somewhat limited.  What they know, and are led to believe, is what they get from headlines, and snippets on radio and television.  As example:  If it wasn’t for NAFTA, factory jobs would still be here; the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a giveaway of even more jobs, and it’s good we’re out of it;  super salaries are the product of capitalistic greed.  Tax reform might be needed, but how would that fix anything?  It’s just more gobbledegook manipulated by lobbyists. 

Who can blame them?  I pay fairly close attention to the economy, but even as an informed amateur it can often seem like diving down a rabbit hole to end up in a maze that would confuse even Lewis Carroll.  With that in mind, here are few things to chew on.

High paying manufacturing jobs have been displaced, in large part, by automation.  Jobs that migrated to Mexico would have gone south without NAFTA, and jobs that Asian nations have created would have been created no matter what.  Even in the U.S., high paying union jobs in union states have butted up against lower, but good paying jobs in non-union states.  With others, I believe that America’s economic future is dependent on our engagement with other nations in a multitude of ways that include agreements such as NAFTA and the TPP.  I regret that some of my fellow progressives not only think otherwise, but find themselves in league with right wingers who think they can resurrect 1955.   

What would do the most to reduce income inequality and establish conditions for middle income growth?  It’s in the tax code.  In its simplest form, the current code has seven brackets topping out at 39% on income over $471,000.  In contrast, the 1980 code had sixteen brackets topping out at 70% for income over $215,000 (equal to about $550,000 in current dollars).  No doubt you’ve herd how immoral it would be to redistribute income, taking money from those who had worked so hard to earn it, and give it to those who hadn’t.  Since Reagan’s days, the tax code has been subtly amended to do just that, but in the other direction – redistribute income from the bottom and middle to the top.  Wow!  Who would’a thunk it?  And yes, it’s immoral.

I went over this with a well educated clergy friend, and was surprised to learn he believed each step up in a tax bracket applied to all other income.  He had heard the phrase marginal rates but didn’t know what it meant.  It was a revelation to him that the rate for each bracket applied only to the income earned in that bracket, and not to the income earned in others.  That small misunderstanding allowed him to be influenced by right wing demagogues screaming that tax and spend liberals wanted to take all of his money and give it to someone else.

No one wants to go back to a code of sixteen brackets, but revising it to include a few more than we have with steeply increased rates for multi-million dollar super salaries, say 80% or more, would diminish incentives for super salaries to even exist.  It would increase incentives for corporations to offer better pay at the middle levels where the investment would pay off in many ways.  What ways?  More adequate compensation with additional opportunities for income growth reduces anxiety about day to day living, while adding a measure of satisfaction about being valued by one’s employer.  It opens more doors for creative innovation and efficiency, if management is smart enough to take advantage of them. 

It sounds too simple doesn’t it?  In a sense it is.  The tax code is complicated.  Not all income is earned income.  Which is exactly the argument defenders of the current system use, claiming that such a simple fix would be impractical.  They’re wrong.  Because most personal income is earned income, and because a courageous Congress could include certain other sources of income as earned income, a change like this would create a tidal wave effect beneficial to the entire economy.  Will it happen?  Not under the current administration, not while right wingers have control of the legislature, and not while lobbyists for the wealthiest are unlimited in what they can spend to influence elections.  Not while otherwise well educated people are so ignorant about how the economy works.  But all of that can change.  Maybe it will. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Breaking Rules

 Why would anyone vote for a man who has broken all the rules of common decency?  He’s even broken the rules of campaign decency, if there are such things.  Then follows a brief litany of specifics, each well known to all.  As it turns out, he may also have broken a good many laws, and seems to get away with it.  So, what’s going on?  How can so many otherwise salt of the earth solid (church going?) folks have voted for him, and continue to support him?  

I’ll tell you why.  Because he’s broken all the rules.  The question is, whose rules?  I don’t know about your part of the county, but in mine they are seen as rules set by big money coastal elites who have little respect for, and less knowledge of, Western rural interests.  The rural intermountain West has been dominated by tea party loving lower middle income people, and a smaller number of more affluent life long Republicans.  Together they live under the illusion that the government is their enemy, except, of course, for the military.  There’s little recognition that their existence and livelihood is dependent on a strong federal government underwritten by taxpayers on the other side of the mountains financing their continuing way of life.  Nope!  They’re all hard working, self reliant, individualists.  They’ve earned every penny by their hard work, and don’t expect a handout from anyone, especially Uncle Sam.

What did Trump represent for them?  A self made man who thumbed his nose at the entire elite establishment and all of its snooty politically correct rules.  A man who showed you didn’t need to be a high-brow filled with intellectual hokum to make it big.  A man who was, in many ways, just like them – if they had ever won the Power Ball.  A man who would stick to the liberal elite.  While he was at it, he would stick to all those socialist Europeans, job stealing Mexicans, and money grubbing Asians.  If he could get away with breaking all the rules, then maybe their tea party hopes could yet be realized.  Yes, that was their man, and they voted for him.  Why are they still with him?  It could be changing, but It’s hard to admit you've been had by an incompetent, malevolent humbug.  That those coastal elites might have been right all along is humiliating, and no one likes to be humiliated.  They’ll stick with him as long as they can for the sake of their own dignity.

These then are the Trump voters.  They’re not the majority of the population in the region, nor are they the majority of eligible voters.  But low voter turnout is the norm, and they are committed voters.  Is it changing?  Perhaps.  Demographics are certainly changing.  Small, rural towns are declining and dying.  Farms and ranches are fewer and bigger.  Resurgent urban centers, often hundreds of miles apart, owe their good fortune to higher education, health care, tourism, and government.  It’s a combination that attracts residents who tend to be center-right, center-left, better educated, and comfortably aware of their place in a global environment.  Things might change even quicker if the coastal elite, whoever they are, would show a little respect for the people of the rural intermountain West. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

What needs to die? What ought to live?

An interesting question came up in a writing workshop:  What needs to die, and what ought to live in the context of the things you write about.  Since politics have been on my mind too much these days, it inspired a few thoughts.  What needs to die, but won’t, is our determination to use straw men and red herrings as introduction to the points we want to make.  When I say our determination, I mean it in the broadest possible sense because that’s the way it’s used by too many of them when they make a point about what they and them think, or do, or say, or believe, before launching into their argument for what is better, or more right, or just, or good.   

Not long ago I wrote and article on leadership that began with a modest chastisement of a young essayist who asked for some help, and had started her piece by saying that society had forgotten what leadership is, but it could be found in the military.  To begin an argument by putting down others, particularly entire classes of others, or, in her case, all of American society, is more than classic straw man and red herring trickery, it’s morally unacceptable.  It’s morally unacceptable because it attributes moral culpability to whole groups of others, often with determined conviction but little evidence, and then indicts each person deemed to be a member of that class as personally guilty, liable for damages, and worthy of punishment.  In a sense, it’s the reverse dynamic often heard in coffee conversations where the shortcomings of one or two persons are attributed with emphatic certainty to the whole population of people like them.

The problem goes beyond individual behavior.  Over the years, I’ve written several articles criticizing our current menu of anti-racism training that falls into the same trap.  Racism is a real and present danger in our society.  It’s a complex issue hard to understand, even harder to fix, whatever fix means.  Ignoring that complexity, most of the training programs assert that Americans of European ancestry are the source of racism, therefore each “white” American is a racist who must accept the burden of their guilt, confess it, and stand properly ashamed until told otherwise.  Well intentioned, the result has been an abysmal failure.  The defensive hackles are raised among those most in need of honestly facing the issue of racism, and nothing much has been accomplished.  The swift move from a broad social issue to particular accusations of guilt is no more legitimate than having experience with one or two persons and generalizing to the entire class of people who are like them.  There needs to be a better way.

Begin with the affirmation of your argument, and the evidence to support it.  If there are those who must be identified as the deserving opposition, know who they are with enough specificity to stand up to probing cross examination.  Are there exceptions?  Yes, at the Kenyon College writers conference I attended, the keynote speaker began with a withering condemnation of demagogues who are public purveyors of public lies as he encouraged conference participants to become courageous defenders of the truth.  What made the difference?  He focused on particular behaviors of demagogues and their ways with artful specificity that made it clear he was not condemning whole classes of society, but only those who practice public lying with malice aforethought.  As polemics go, in the hands of an expert it was effective, but I don’t recommend it for most of us.  It can come off as exceedingly self righteous, and if you don’t have personal experience with the behaviors you are intent on condemning, it’s just hearsay barely one step removed from backyard gossip.  

So much for what needs to die.  What ought to live?  It’s not must live, or needs to live, but ought to live?  It implies a moral right to live, but leaves open the question of whether it will.  Consistent with the argument so far, and reaching back to an old metaphor, for some people, Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame ought to live.  Logical rationality is sometimes cast as a minor character when issues of strong emotional content dominate the scene.  When an emotionally charged position is justified by an emotionally charged demand that “I have a right to tell you what I feel” I’m suspicious that Mr. Spock has been relegated to the back corner, if not confined to quarters.  Why?  Because it implies that the strength of one’s moral position justifies one’s claim for moral righteousness.  Mr. Spock ought to live!  Live not as the ruler, but as the mediator whose voice has a place at the table challenging emotion to be examined by the evidence.  

Decades ago something called Transactional Analysis was the hottest  fad in pop psychology.  Using Jung as a starting place, it described each person as having three basic parts to their personalities: child, adult, and parent.  Every transaction with another person was described as communication between them, originating from and responding to any of the three parts.  Very convincing; it never stood up to close examination, but the idea had merit as a metaphor.  In this case, Spock is the adult speaking from experienced, evidence based rationality, but not as a commanding parent.  That, in a sense, is what needs to live, must live, ought to live.  It doesn’t displace emotion.  It gives verifiable credence to emotion.

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Few Thoughts on Leadership

A young friend began her essay on leadership by writing that society had forgotten what leadership is about, but examples of good leadership could be found in the military.  She was partly right, the military has developed the art of leadership better than most.  But she was wrong about society.  Society, whatever that means, has not forgotten what leadership is, and her statement was emblematic of a common practice.  That is to put down someone or something in order to make your own point of view appear more virtuous.  It comes up most often in the coffee conversations I often write about.  Society, or them, or those people, whose degenerate way of life defines all that is wrong with the nation, are set against the high standards of virtuous self righteousness that I and my friends share.  It’s such a common thing to do that my young essayist wasn’t aware she had done it too.  

Maybe it’s always  been that way.  After all, over two thousand years ago Jesus counseled his followers to examine the log in their own eyes before trying to take the splinter out of another’s eye.  Jesus didn’t have the internet, and that does make a difference.  We see splinters everywhere, logs nowhere, and tell the whole world about it without much reflection.  More on that some other time.  What I want to consider here is the idea of leadership.  

Borrowing from W. Edwards Deming, among others, effective leadership is always about doing what one can to create conditions under which others can achieve success.  I call it effective leadership because there are all kinds of ineffective leadership.  Cruel leaders, incompetent leaders, selfish leaders, ignorant leaders, lazy leaders, there are all kinds of leaders out there.  Effective leaders, by definition, are  committed to creating conditions under which others can achieve success.  It makes all the difference.  For one thing, creating those  conditions requires attention to the health of the organization itself, the community, if you will.   It’s hard, not impossible, but hard for  someone to achieve success if the community in which one works is not healthy, and what is required for community health? 

At a minimum it means that adequate facilities and resources are available to all who need them in order to be successful.  It requires that everyone has equitable access to them, and knows how to use them.  It also means other parts of the community, or organization, that provide support services are equally well endowed to do their jobs.  That won’t happen unless structures and processes are in place to create and implement coordinated decision making and communication between all parties.  Finally, none of it's worth anything unless there's a clear understanding of the market: who and what are we doing this for, do they care, do they know, will it work?  Call that mission, goals, marketing, whatever.   If you don’t know who your audience is, how can what you’re doing have any purpose?  

We tend to think of leadership, and try to teach leadership, as if it was a form of one-on-one applied psychology, and in part it is, but effective leaders know that individual persons and teams they are leading cannot succeed if the organization is dysfunctional.  So effective leadership has a lot to do with the sociology and politics of organizations, which is why we’ve spent so much time on that side of things so far.  The other side does have to do with how effective leaders work with others on a more personal level.

With that in mind, effective leaders who work to help others succeed know how to listen, I mean really listen.  They listen to what superiors, peers, and subordinates have to say with an ear toward a deeper understanding of how to make things work better, whatever better might mean.  They listen to stories about life and its pressures that may require a flexible response outside the normal way of doing things.  They listen for opportunities, and for problems.  They listen, as much as possible, without pre-judment.  They listen with penetrating discernment not unlike an old teacher of mine who would often say, “That’s a great answer; what’s the question?”  Having listened, they work for solutions, not blame.  It’s hard work.

Effective leaders know that every system works within acceptable standards of variation, so they don’t worry much about ordinary day-to-day changes, but look for the exceptions that signal something is really out of whack.  Sometimes exceptions are just exceptions and need to be ignored.  Sometimes they signal a big problem.  Knowing the difference is what effective leaders work to discover through the people they lead.  At the same time, they work on ways to reduce ordinary variation in performance so output, however measured, improves at ever higher levels of consistency and quality.  Knowing what higher levels of consistency and quality mean is key, which is why effective leaders communicate clearly what they are, understanding that people tend to live up to them if they have confidence that they are achievable, clearly understood, and supported by the organization or community.  Effective leaders find their success in the success of others.  We call that humility, something in short supply among ineffective leaders.

It brings me back to the opening point.  Effective leaders don’t put others down in order to make themselves, or their team, look good.  

How many effective leaders are there?  Not as many as we need.  I hope my young essayist becomes one of them.

Friday, June 30, 2017

July Fourth and the Unifying Myth

July 4 is coming up, and with it more controversy emblematic of these recent decades.  Many generations in every place have observed the 4th with patriotic parades, picnics, decorations, concerts, and fireworks.  All in celebration of a unifying myth that the war for American independence from tyranny was driven by our desire to form a “more perfect union” of representative democracy in which all “men” were equal before the law.  It was not required that everyone agree about what that meant, and with communication less instantaneous than it is now, it was easy to assume that how I understood it was probably the same as how you understood it, so we could celebrate together as a nation as if in accord with one another.  Needless to say, the Civil War interrupted that ideal, but it was soon restored with a new veneer of patriotic idealism aided in part by the Spanish American War and the growing industrial might that gave America greater standing in the world.   Reinforced by two world wars through which America became the dominant world power, it was not seriously challenged until the civil rights movement and Viet Nam.  

The unifying July 4th myth is harder to celebrate these days.  Some whine about the Revolution being a middle class war waged on the backs of the poor, or that it was a rich man’s war waged on the backs of everyone else.  The disgrace of slavery is swung at it like a wrecking ball.  Accusations on behalf of American Indians, women, indentured servants, and unwanted immigrants are not far behind.  In the meantime, remnants of Civil War animosities intrude along with elements espousing white supremacy.  The instantaneous ubiquity of 24 hour news coverage and the chaos of social media means their voices can be heard throughout the land, each competing ever louder for attention and influence.

As for me and my ancestors, if they were involved at all in the Revolutionary War, they were wearing red coats and saluting Gen. Howe.  We didn’t come over until after the nastiness of the Civil War had subsided, and the coast was clear for taking the railroad to get some free land recently liberated from the Indians.  On top of that, most of the clergy in the denomination I serve were loyalists who fled to Canada or back to England.   One might wonder whether I have anything legitimate to say, but I’ll go on as if I do.  

And here’s the point: The unifying myth is good and we should celebrate it with gusto.  Because it’s a myth it isn’t required to be literally true, but it is required to bear truth.  The truth it bears illuminates the highest and most honorable of American aspirations, even if they are yet unrealized.  Making them the subject of July 4th celebration keeps them in the public eye, reminds us of what we have always hoped to become, and says something about how far we have to go to get there.  It isn’t so much a celebration of what we have done, but of what we have begun to do, at the cost of great human suffering, and what we have yet to accomplish.  

July 4th will inspire many patriotically themed prayers to be lifted up in places of worship, and in public places.  Maybe we cold amend them to go in a slightly different direction, as in these words cadged together from one in the Book of Common Prayer:

Grant, O God, that our holy and life giving Spirit may so move our human hearts as we celebrate the Declaration of Independence proclaiming our highest aspirations for living in a free and just society, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

It must be God's plan. God has a plan, right?

Has God got a plan for you?  I’ve touched on this question in the past, but it’s come up again with renewed anxiety because one of our two local hospitals, Walla Walla General, is closing its doors on July 24.  Shutting down the campus includes affiliated clinics, physician offices, and home health care services.  A little over 400 employees will be let go, not counting employees of contract services.  

It’s not that the community will suffer loss of quality hospital medical care.  The larger St. Mary’s Hospital is near by.  Except for the emergency department, they can absorb demand for hospital treatment.  Several physician clinics offer almost every specialty.  With luck, most displaced workers will find jobs in the health care sector.  Nevertheless, General will become a vacant, lifeless campus filled with lifeless equipment.  Yes, the highest quality care will still be available at St. Mary’s, but there’s a subtle difference in the way the two offer their services.  It seems like a small one, but it has a huge effect.  St. Mary’s is in the business of producing and selling quality medical care to those in need.  General’s is a ministry providing sanctuary for physical and spiritual healing to all who enter its doors.  To be sure, each has Christian roots.  St. Mary’s was founded by missionary  nuns, and continues to be a part of the Catholic affiliated Providence health care system.  General was founded by Seventh Day Adventists, and is a part of the Adventist health care system.  However, St. Mary’s and its Providence parent better understood, perhaps, the business of producing and selling hospital services.  In the changing environment of health care economics, General’s way became a money losing operation that could not be sustained, so it will close.  With it the community will lose a place where God’s grace and presence was infused in the every act of medical healing, but never thrust in the face or down the throat of anyone.  It’s a loss that extra beds and more physicians cannot replace.  

With that said, you can understand the level of anxiety it has created in the community.  As an Episcopal priest, I’ve had an enduring relationship with Adventist centered General as a patient, committee member, and occasional chaplain to staff, so it was not unusual for me to be among those setting time aside to listen to emotionally charged concerns about what was happening.  The most common thread was an appeal to God’s plan, for surely God has a plan, this is a part of it, and everything will work out OK – won’t it?  What do you suppose each person meant by their appeal to God’s plan?  Have you ever said something like that?  What did you mean?

My theology says that God’s plan is revealed in scripture and worked out through the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is a plan for salvation in which our individual lives are not planned out in detail, only in the sense that in Christ God calls us to follow where Jesus has led.  God may certainly call some persons to particular service, but even then it does’t appear that God dictates each event of their lives.  Consider the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses as examples.  Did God lay out a complex flow diagram establishing the day-by-day events of their lives from which no deviation could be made?  Scripture itself says no, that’s not the way God does things.  Their stories are filled with questions, doubts, and negotiations with a God who was willing to negotiate.   Still, it’s comforting for some to believe that God has a plan for their life, and this time of intense anxiety must be part of it.  It’s short lived comfort because there are only two steps forward one can take.  One is to figure out what that plan is and follow it with God being maddeningly vague about giving directions.  Mess this up and you’re bound for reprobate land.  The other is to relax and let God do the work.  No doubt the phone will ring, an offer made, or maybe not, but whatever, it must be God’s plan.  If nothing else, it’s a way to avoid personal responsibility.  Both tend to fall into that form of Calvinism in which predestination takes all the questions out of it.  Either you’re in or out, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  Wanting desperately to discover you’re among the saved, you have to look for signs of that plan and follow it, or you’re doomed.  Or, what the hell, you can’t do anything about it anyway so why worry?    

That doesn’t sound right, does it, and it isn’t.   But what is right?  Returning for a moment to those old stories of the Hebrew patriarchs we can find some clues.  God has plans.  God created order out of chaos.  God established processes, human and otherwise, that lead somewhere. Where?  To a new land, the formation of a new people, a new nation, a new way of living together.  To a new creation of all creation.  What God intends will come to pass, but God accomplishes it through engagement with people who are free to say yes, no, maybe, or can we talk about it.  Moreover, what God intends takes place in God’s time that extends hundreds, thousands, millions of years in all directions at the same time, which puts our puny life spans at a disadvantage.  It’s  not a scope of things we can easily comprehend, and our part in it, if any, is nothing but a micro step.  

Well, if not a sparrow falls from the sky without God’s knowledge then the micro steps of my life must be important too.  What about a plan for that?  If we are serious about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him, then that plan is clearly laid out.  “Here’s how I want you to lead your life,” says Jesus.  “Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself.  For additional details consult the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and the Great Commission.  That’s the plan.  Any questions?”

Well yes, it doesn’t seem like much of a plan.  It doesn’t say whether God planned to close General Hospital, or throw 400 health care providers out of work, or what the next step of the plan is.  And that’s the frustrating part.  God engages with us, but does not control us.  The more open one is to engaging with God, the more present God becomes in guiding and guarding our steps, but it’s our responsibility to choose and take those steps.  On the other hand, the less open, or more closed to engaging with God we are, the less present God becomes, leaving us entirely to our own devices.  Moreover, each of us lives in a time and place inhabited by several billion other persons, each making thousands of daily decisions that may affect our lives in unknown ways at unknown times.  On top of that, each of us is affected by the presence and actions of countless generations preceding us.  It means chance plays a big role in life, and “Luck be a Lady Tonight” is not among the approved prayers.  

None of that is very satisfying to those who want God to work out what is best for them according to his plan because it suggests there is no plan, at least not the kind of plan they have in mind and desperately want.   Sitting with an anxious person about to become unemployed who wants to know what God's plan is, is not the time to explore an alternate theology.  It’s the time to listen, and hold them in prayer.  But here in this place is the time to go back to the basics.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love yourself.  Then take the responsibility to take the next step in your life with God as your companion on the way.   

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Trash Talk and Propaganda

I sat down intent on writing something away from politics, something fun and maybe mildly entertaining.  Then I started thinking, always a bad sign, about the stuff that stuffs my inbox each day, and about the quality of political writing that used to epitomize the right wing but now infects the progressive side as well.  If you don’t want to read this entire article, it comes down to this.  It’s bad writing that doesn’t help.  It often uses the tools of classic propaganda that progressives should not simply avoid but condemn. Two pieces that caught my attention in the last couple of days stand out as examples of what I mean.  One was an editorial diatribe from Drew Magary in an online edition of GQ.  The other was a fund raising appeal from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV).

Magary wrote a scatalogically scathing article about his distaste for NYT columnist David Brooks, particularly Brooks’ take on the Russia investigation, which he thinks is adding up to not much.  Magary was offended that Brooks would dismiss a Russian cyber invasion to undermine American democracy as no big deal.  Differences on important issues argued out in public is a good thing, but Magary used up most of his energy on ad hominem attacks using the usual variety of sophomoric words one hears on talk radio and late night t.v.  Why?  He had a legitimate point to make.  Why demean it with irrelevant trash talk?  Isn’t that something better left to Limbaugh and company?  It’s not  likely that any voters and potential voters progressives need to attract will ever read GQ ,or anything Magary writes anywhere else.  And that’s a good thing because it’s precisely his style that shines a crude light on progressives as elite snobs who look down on everyone else as what?  Disreputable?  Despicable?  Low class?  The servant class?  Oh sure, they say they’re for the workers and struggling middle class, but they’re just a bunch of self righteous, over educated, elitists, and Magary proves it.

The First Amendment gives him (and me) the right to write whatever he pleases, and the internet gives him the ability to distribute it to the widest audience he can find.  But in this case he wasted a legitimate argument on cheap, snide shots that did a disservice to progressive interests.  So much for example number one.

Example number two concerns appeals for money from dozens of organizations representing causes that, in principle, I support, mostly on the progressive or liberal side of things.  The majority use a two step formula of hyperventilating about the horrible things that will happen if the government does or doesn’t do such and such, followed by an urgent appeal for money, the use of which is left vaguely implied.  I get such an appeal from the League of Conservation Voters several times a week, sometimes several times a day.  The most recent appealed for funds based on the Trump administration’s plan to repeal the Clean Water Rule, thus endangering the drinking water of up to 117 million people.  Oh No!  Help!  Now what does that imply?  That there is a Clean Water Rule protecting drinking water?  That it establishes a norm for clean drinking water?  That it might be related to something like Flint?  That its repeal will result in immediate harm to millions?  Quick, send money!

As it turns out, the Clean Water Rule was adopted in 2015, two years ago, and has never been implemented due to litigation and court ordered stays.   From what I can tell, it’s a decent rule clarifying how the Clean Water Act of 1972 should be applied to certain upstream waters and wetlands in a more systematic and less expensive way than the current case-by-case practice of enforcement.   The thing is, repealing it does nothing to change current practice, nor does it affect standards established by law or other regulations.  So the entire LCV appeal is nothing but old time propaganda in which a smidgen of truth has been contorted beyond credibility to take advantage of gullible people who won’t bother to check the facts, but are frightened into sending cash.  

To be fair, my friend Kieth, a right wing Trump supporting wheat farmer, went ballistic when it was promulgated two years ago because his right wing interest group pulled the same propaganda trick to scare their cash cows into believing every pot hole and seasonal wet area would be controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers and Coast Guard.  It was patently false to anyone who bothered to do a little investigating, but it raised enough angst and cash to help litigate and get the stays they wanted.  Let’s leave that kind of thing to the right wing.  Progressives can do better.  

As for me, if you’re not going to be honest with me, I’m not going to send cash to you.  I’ll keep reading Brooks even when I think he’s dead wrong.  If I accidentally stumble across another Magary article, I’ll probably trash it.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

An Open Letter to Washington's 5th District - and maybe to yours too.

Washington’s fifth congressional district has been held for a decade by one of the most useless representatives one can imagine.  Cathy McMorris Rodgers ran her first campaign as a conservative evangelical Christian who would defend traditional family values.  She won handily, and has continued to do so with no trouble.  In the meantime, she has done as little for the district as is possible not to do, but with an attractive smile and none of the maniacal histrionics that have eventually ended the careers of other oddball members of congress.  Without visible accomplishment or competency, she has risen to the number three position in House leadership, seldom heard from but frequently seen as an adornment in photo ops.  Her most recent letter to constituents said plainly that she is 100% behind Trump’s agenda, and proud to be there.  It’s a solid statement of support for an agenda of phosphorescing swamp gas – seen for a moment in the dark of night, but gone by daylight.  How does she keep getting reelected, and will she finally be defeated in the next round?

No, she will not be defeated.  She will be reelected, and easily.  Why?  In spite of easy as pie mail-in ballots, voter turnout tends to be low.  Moderates and progressives haven’t seen a good reason to get excited about alternative candidates.  Cultural antipathy for the mythical extreme liberalness of the west side of the mountains inclines the east side to vote conservative just out of spite.  But wait!  There’s more!  Democrats, at least where I live, act like exclusive club members who talk with each other but don’t know how to talk with ranchers, farmers, and others who keep voting for McMoRo.  The district’s most committed voters think of themselves as conservative, and they understand that, no matter what, she will oppose the creeping socialism they’re convinced is what Democrats are all about.  Limbaugh and O’Reilly say so, so it must be true.  They want nothing from the federal government other than what they already have, so it doesn’t matter if she accomplishes little.  She can be counted on to keep the federal government from doing more, and that’s what they want.  The irony escapes them that Eastern Washington is dependent on federal government largesse.  Snake and Columbia River dams, paid for by the federal government, provide low cost electricity and irrigation water that enables our farms and ranches to exist.  Land grant colleges and county extension services bring the latest and best knowledge to their doors..  National forests, national parks, rural electrification, and generous farm bill goodies provide even more sustenance to people who detest government handouts and gripe about how poorly the ones they get are managed.  Many of their employees, and some of them, are on SNAP.  Sadly, they’re not without a valid point.  Too many government bureaucrats have forgotten, if they ever knew, they’re in the business of customer service.  There’s a difference between making people jump through government hoops under threat of penalty, and helping customers make government programs work well for them.

That’s the context, and here’s the problem.  Democrats have been running against McMoRo and her record.  It’s a losing proposition.  You can’t win by running against something.  You can only win by running for something on behalf of somebody.  The something must be clearly defined.  The somebody must be real and benefit from the something.  Both must be communicated in terms easily understood by potential voters who do not follow politics closely, except for what they’ve heard for their entire adult lives on talk radio.  That doesn’t mean dumbing things down so lesser mortals can understand, a mistake Democrats often make.  It means respecting the dignity of the voters they need but have seldom attracted.  Take two lessons: one from the far right wing, and one from the history of Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer Labor Party.  The former has been wining elections by running for lower (burdensome) taxes, fewer (onerous) regulations, and more freedom from Uncle Sam.  That sells, even in the face of long term detrimental effects on the average person’s quality of life.  The latter was known for giving voice to  farmers, ranchers, hourly workers, kids, teachers, and the oppressed for government action to make life better for the average person.  That meant investments in the future through fair taxes, protection from corporate and environmental abuse, and laws to better guarantee the freedoms that define the American dream.  When it’s done right, the far right’s propaganda becomes little more than a cheap back alley crap game run by con men taking suckers for a ride.  Oddly enough, when it’s done right, it opens the door for true conservatives to do what they do best: negotiate in good faith to impose needed discipline and restraint.    

Ignore McMoRo.  Ignore tea party   Concentrate on what needs to be done for the district that can only be done through bipartisan openly debated congressional action.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Are You Good Enough?

A few days ago we went to a performance of Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale”, which is a retelling of Faust, or most any other story about the devil and human gullibility.  Like other versions, the tale ends with a question: Has the soldier learned anything?  The closing dialogue suggests he hasn’t, and that the audience probably hasn’t either.  In the midst of it all, the script overtly offers two options, everything or nothing.  To have everything one wants is to have nothing.  To be without anything is to have everything.  Left unsaid, but lying in plain sight, are other options: What is good? What is enough?  What is good enough?  Why is it so easy to entice humans to believe more than enough is better?  Do they ever learn?

They’re not new questions.  The Hebrew scripture’s book of Ecclesiastes explores lessons learned by a wealthy person who discovered that wealth, by itself, is vanity, a chasing after the wind, worth nothing.  Not that it’s a bad thing.  It opens doors enabling access to  goods and experiences that can bring a certain amount of pleasure.  But the pleasure is fleeting, of no lasting value, unless anchored in healthy loving relationships, comfort in the work of moral responsibility to others, walking daily with God.  To be wealthy is not a sin, nor is it a virtue.  It cannot bring worthwhile value to life.  However, it can easily seduce one down the path toward nothingness of the soul.  Why are we so gullible?  Why can’t we be satisfied with good enough?

What is good enough?  The idea has been around for a long time.  From psychologists, to engineers, to song writers, what is good enough has been explored in the public arena.  To be good enough is to recognize that human frailty, fallenness if you will, stands between us and perfection, not in some things but in everything.  Few things are perfect, but they have to be good enough.  What's is good enough to send astronauts to the moon and back is different from what is good enough to build a cabin in the woods, or to run a company, or to be a parent, teacher, student, or anything in creation.  Good enough is a high standard, but it’s not perfection.  Gullible as we are, we don’t buy that.  Gullible as we are, we buy another story.

In contemporary culture, good enough is the same as not good enough,  surrender to not trying hard enough, not doing one’s best, the lazy person’s excuse.  Who says so?  Advertising and cultural myths for starters.  Anything less than a perfect 10 is not good enough.  Anything less than a gold medal is not good enough.  Anything less than a green jacket is not good enough.  Anything less than a 4.0 is not good enough.  Did you do your best finds no adequate answer in good enough.  Want to keep your job?  Be better than good enough.  It won’t be easy because you are not pretty or handsome enough, you don’t own a good enough car, you don’t drink good enough whiskey, you don’t own good enough clothes, you’re not in good enough shape.  You’re not good enough for the mythical world of perfection.  

What.does this have to do with a soldier, the devil, and unlimited wealth?  Everything, because we are as gullible as the soldier in our idolization of perfection, what we envy about what others have, our discontent, even contempt, for not being good enough or having enough, and our dismissive judgement of others for being more not good enough than us.  The devil may not be around to tempt us with unlimited success, but advertisers do, as do Power Ball and Lotto day dreams, and pop culture myths about perfect families living in perfect houses, taking perfect vacations.  Good grief, with the perfect deodorant you could be skipping along the perfect beach against a perfect sunset with the perfect sex object of your dreams.  But no, your deodorant is not good enough, and neither are you.  None of us measures up, and in our gullibility too many of us, not being satisfied with good enough, become unhappily comfortable with being not good enough, overly judgmental of others for being even less good enough, and lusting in our day dreaming hearts about what it would be like to have it all, which would finally be good enough.  The devil wins.  

The great geniuses of the world, every one of them, have told their stories of failure after failure before success came their way.  A few days ago I read a short essay by a recent college graduate whose 4.0 GPA was sunk by a B, and the freedom it gave her to know that she did not have to be perfect to be good enough.  Passionate lovers celebrating fifty or sixty years of marriage, long ago gave up perfection, learning to love all that was good enough in their marriage, and it was very  good.  To be good enough is to recognize that in all things there is room for improvement, the next step being better than it was before, with even better yet to come.  Perfection?  The choice is not everything or nothing.  If that’s the choice, the devil wins.  

What’s the right choice?  To be good enough, working diligently to become more good  enough tomorrow than we were today.  To rejoice in God’s creation, taking seriously our obligations as its stewards.  To be kind to ourselves and respect the dignity of every human being.  To rejoice in what we have.  To remember that God so loves the world that he came to live and die as one of us that we might have eternal life, not after we had attained perfect faith, but while we were yet unbelieving sinners.  If we’re good enough for God, we’re good enough.