Friday, September 15, 2017

Democratic Surveys, the Tax Code, and Economic Silliness

Not long ago I wrote a column critical of Republican fund raising “surveys.”  I noted the many ways in which they assert blatant falsehoods about the state of the nation, while appealing to unreflective visceral responses from potential donors.  Sadly, the same can sometimes be said about Democratic fund raising “surveys.”  

One popped up in my inbox from my own senator, Maria Cantrell, whom I admire and trust as an effective representative of the people of Washington State.  But her fundraising “survey” employed some of the misleading tactics the GOP has honed to a fine art.  Hers said she wanted to know what constituents think are important issues to be addressed in tax code legislation.  By asking rhetorical questions in the right way using the right words, it implied that:
  • Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are being threatened.  
  • Middle income and working class families are heavily burdened by over taxation and need relief.
  • The business tax code is outdated and too complicated.
  • Tax code revision would make home ownership and college education more affordable.
  • The super wealthy don’t pay their fair share of taxes.
  • Tax code legislation is needed to keep the U.S. from defaulting on its debt.

No doubt the “survey” author would object, saying it doesn’t assert any of those things, but of course it does, by clear implication in wording they hope will trigger a favorable response from potential donors, who will not bother to examine the issues in any depth.  

For instance, while Medicaid is financed through appropriations from the general fund of the federal government, in combination with state appropriations, Medicare and Social Security are financed through FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act), which is separate from income taxes paid into the general fund of the nation.  Tax code revisions can happen in many ways without affecting Medicare and Social Security, and, at least for now, there is no serious threat to either on the horizon.

At least in my opinion, middle and working class families are not burdened by over taxation at the federal level.  They may not like paying taxes, and complain a lot about having to do it, but taxes are the collective investment in the future of our lives together as a nation.  If anything, it's the huge burden of defense spending that we should be concerned about, but defense has become a holy cow no one dares to touch.  

As for taxes on business, large corporations are pretty good at evading them altogether.  It would probably be a good idea to lower the maximum rate by some significant measure, and eliminate a few bushel baskets of special loop holes.  How that would come about eludes me. 

It’s true that some Republicans have floated the idea of repealing the deduction for home mortgage interest payments, but few take it seriously.  It faces enormous opposition from left, right, center and every flavor of special interest out there.  In any case, the problem of affordable housing, which is serious, cannot be solved, by fiddling with the tax code.  Affordable housing is a function of many issues that have little to do with federal taxes, and a lot to do with state and local regulations.  The same is true for the cost of college education.  Various deductions and other tax code incentives merely poke at a problem that has its center elsewhere.  

And do the super rich one percenters not pay their fair share of taxes?  What is a fair share?  How about taking another approach.  If we were to dramatically increase the marginal rate on very high earned incomes to, say, something over 70%, it would probably not generate much additional income from the super rich.  But it would eliminate the incentive to pay super salaries, redirecting monies toward higher pay for middle and lower income earners.  It would both boost the economy and increase revenue flow to the government to help pay for the good things we want out of government.

Finally, are we in danger of defaulting on our debt?  It seems like we might be every time congress has to vote on the debt ceiling; an idiotic idea written into the law in 1917.  In practice, after all the political posturing and chest thumping has died down, we raise the limit and continue on our way.  In the meantime, we’ve raised generations of ordinary people who have no idea how national debt is managed, and have been lied to by scare mongering politicians yowling that we are selling ourselves into financial slavery.   No!  We are not in danger of defaulting!  We’re also not going broke.  We are in danger of mismanaging spending and debt, and need to hold congress accountable, but that’s another matter. 

Having said all of that, the tax code is in serous need of revision.  However, between Trump and Ryan we have been flooded with messages that we need to get the economy going again, when it’s going just fine, thank you very much.  We’re told we need to get people back to work, when unemployment is at an all time low.  And yes, the participation rate is low too, but messing with the tax code can’t fix that.  So to fix non existent problems they propose legislation that would do two things:  cut taxes on those whose taxes should be raised, and increase the deficit claiming it will be paid for by future economic growth that seems highly improbable.  As a sop, they suggest a modest tax decrease for the middle class that, in my opinion, they don’t need and it would’t help the economy anyway.  I don’t get it.  It baffles me altogether.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Travel, Tourism, and Connections

We like to travel, exploring new places, meeting new people, and discovering more about the world we live in.  It’s especially rewarding in retirement because we have time to be tourists in ways we seldom had before.  The popular and famous places all over the globe are popular and famous because, for the most part, they’re worthy of being seen and experienced.  We’re doing our best to do just that.  So friends find it a little odd when they ask if we’ve been there or seen that, and we haven’t, at least not yet, because they know our adult lives have been spent on the road and in the air all over the place.  But it was a different kind of travel, a different kind of tourism, and in some ways just as interesting.

My wife can speak for herself about the places she’s been and experiences she’s had.  As for me, for nearly fifty years I observed, visited, and paid attention to the way people live, work, and hope.  One way or another I’ve been through all fifty states, and a good part of Canada, generally bypassing popular tourist and cultural sites, unless I had a spare day.  Being a tourist was crammed into an hour or two of free time eked out of a busy schedule.   Like many others, I joked that I was more familiar with airports, motels, and meeting rooms than anything else. 

It was the price paid to spend serious time examining, up close, big cities, small towns, huge corporations, factories, local stores, farms, ranches, forests, rivers, mines, and all the other miscellany of everyday life that drives the life we live, connecting us to each other.  With them came hours of conversation with community and business leaders, workers and top executives, and politicians of every stripe.  From them I learned about their worries, hopes, and dreams for themselves, their businesses, and the communities they lived in.

Recent articles have asserted that we live too much in bubbles that separate us from one another, limiting our ability to understand one another.  Maybe, but I’m reminded of a public television series called “Connections” hosted by James Burke.  It was popular in the late 1970s, and popped up again in the ‘90s.  Each episode explored the webs that connect us to history and each other.  Whatever bubbles we’re in, they are linked to all the other bubbles out there in the most amazingly intimate ways, so maybe they’re not bubbles at all.  In any case, my work-a-day version of travel was a constant learning experience about the connections that bind our lives together, for good and for ill.  They form an incredible organism, never still, always changing, resistant to our planning, command and control.  

It’s not that we can’t plan or should’t; planning is essential.  But the best and most well executed plans can do little more than influence modest course corrections we hope will be beneficial in the long run.  We delude ourselves if we think it can be more than that.  But I digress. This is about travel and tourism, and maybe connections.

That phase of my life of travel ended some time ago, but what an adventure it was, leaning about so many things in so many places among so many people.  Now we get to be more ordinary tourists, wandering about, mouths agape, looking here, poking there, taking photos, following guides, and visiting places we used to fly over or drive by.  National Parks, scenic rivers, off shore islands, they’re all on the list of places seen, and places yet to be seen.  A jungle lodge in Costa Rica, the museums of London, villages in Tuscany, rounding Cape Horn, and Gaudi’s amazing architecture have delighted us beyond measure.  China and Southeast Asia have called to us, and we have answered.  The Great Barrier Reef, Tasmania, and the fjords of New Zealand await. 

What makes it even richer is that I’m never anywhere that I don’t see and experience the connections that tie us together organically, wonderfully and intimately.  It may not have happened had it not been for all those years traveling to communities, meeting with companies, working with leaders to plan as we were able for a future life.  So here’s to travel and tourism. As Rick Steve’s always says, “Keep on traveling.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Darker Shade of Grey growing Darker

They would not vote for Clinton.  It wasn’t that she was a Democrat, although that was enough.  They’ve never voted for a Democrat, ever.  But, as they also claimed, there were just too many grey clouds surrounding her.  I suspect it may also have had to do with her being a woman on the heels of a black man, but they would deny it to the end of time.  So they voted for a charlatan surrounded by clouds of a darker shade of grey, hoping he might turn out to be a true conservative who would make this country great again.  With reluctance, they admit they’ve been had.  It would have been better to have not voted at all.  

I understand their reluctance to vote for Clinton.  Beyond all else, she epitomized for them an imaginary Wall Street dominated Eastern Establishment working in partnership with out of control tax and spend liberals to take away whatever was left of middle class life, replacing it with government regulation and welfare.  You can’t have eight years of talk radio and Fox t.v. selling it without making it stick in the minds of many. 

Whatever making American Great Again might have meant to them during the campaign, it’s rotted on the shelf with nothing to replace it.  The darker shades of grey surrounding Trump have turned darker yet.  What’s next?  Trump remains president.  He’s no figurehead.  He has real power and can make real decisions.  But the generals under him seem to have formed a de facto junta able to limit his most outrageous tendencies, giving some modest degree of coherence to foreign policy, if not domestic.  Hurricanes and fires have placed competent political and career technocrats in charge of doing the best that can be done with the resources at hand, without any sign of presidential leadership.  The overwhelming need to deal with them forces most everything else to a lesser place on the national domestic agenda.  It helps that the more incompetent political appointees seem to have been stymied by their own incompetence.  Their occasional appearances are duly noted and duly dismissed, with some degree of concern that they might do  something damaging, and tiny rays of hope that they might do something needed.  In the meantime, their departments keep on doing what they usually do.

In other words, the ship of state continues to function reasonably well in spite of a captain who makes Queeg look sane.  It offers some degree of comfort, but military juntas and a civil service on automatic pilot are dangerous to democracy.  The sooner it can end, the better for us all.   The 2018 midterms are a long way off, but they are the most promising opportunity for the nation to return to a reasonably well functioning congress in which far right wingers would be demoted to as far back on the back bench as possible, where they can entertain themselves throwing spitballs at far left wingers.  In the meantime, a sufficiently roiled election may inspire new leadership to work for the good of the nation, negotiating in good faith from their respective positions. 

Meanwhile, maybe, just maybe, talk radio hosts will lose enough sponsors and audience to return them to the backwater swamps from which they emerged.  Maybe, just maybe, Fox news will become a legitimate source of factual, useful information.  Maybe the rest of broadcast journalism, including public radio, will knock off their customary tone of anxious hyperbole about almost everything they report on, and adopt the calm, confident voices we desire in professional journalists.

There is hope.  Between now an November of next year, let him golf all he wants, encourage him to use Camp David often, if he wants a rubber ducky to play with, give him a rubber ducky.  Just keep him busy with whatever amuses him.  A revitalized congress will not change who occupies the White House, but it may encircle him with with enough constraints to get us through.  Congress has been complaining about the imperial presidency since Nixon.  Now is their chance to do something about it. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Love Does No Wrong to a Neighbor. Start There

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” 
So wrote Paul in his letter to the Romans as he summed up what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, not for those ancient Romans only, but for us also.  So simple, and yet so hard.  Even Paul struggled with it. 
Loving one another has been a problem for a long time. We’re not good at it.  In our day, love has come to mean something warm, fuzzy,, affectionate, romantic, and intimate, so it’s hard to imagine what Jesus meant when he commanded his followers to love others as he loved them.  Emotion had little to do with it.  Words and actions dictated what he meant.  The gospel narratives describe them in some detail, and it’s from them that we can learn how to love others whom we don’t want to love; good grief, it’s not all that comfortable.  Breaking down personal and social barriers that have worked so well to protect us from the contagion of undesirable others requires more, harder work than many of us are willing to undertake.  Engaging in the work of healing and reconciliation that goes beyond the norms of every day life is even harder, especially when it involves the lives of people we think don’t deserve healing and with whom we don’t desire any reconciliation.  Worse yet, when we are the ones in need of healing and reconciling love, how can we attend to others?  It’s easier just to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, and let it go at that, content that we (almost) never commit adultery, steal, murder, or covet.  That should be enough, right?  
It isn’t. It’s contentment we can’t claim because we do commit adultery, steal, murder, and covet.  Adultery, for instance, is only partly about sex.  It has a lot more to do with corrupting the integrity of any relationship.  That means between friends, coworkers, casual acquaintances, and entire classes of others we don’t even know.  It’s something we do with great regularity through gossip, snap judgments, prejudice, and the simply hurtful things we say about others and to others.  We steal whenever we assume the right to use something, or somebody, that we have no right to use.  Maybe it’s as trivial as pencils from the office supply cabinet, unintentionally of course.  More likely it’s more serious, such as stealing a person’s good name, running red lights, driving under the influence, running up credit card debt with no way to repay, cheating on taxes.  You can probably add a few more to the list.  We even commit murder, maybe not by killing the whole person, but by killing a little bit of a person with our cruel words, determination to get revenge, selfish works, and the host of things we do to others that, in the words of a friend, “feel like a knife thrust into my gut.”  That’s murder by inches and pounds of flesh.
It turns out that we can’t rest contended that we’re good people, while others aren’t, or at least not as good as us.  We can’t duck being held accountable for our own actions in a society where mutual accountability to each other is highly valued.  We are not excused from making judgments, provided they are provisionally made in the spirit of humility.  But in all of these things, we are first and always accountable to God for loving others as Jesus has loved us.  Where are we to start?

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor. “ Love begins through becoming more aware of how easily we harm our neighbors, adjusting our behavior to stop it, as best we can, and moving from there into the hard work of healing and reconciliation.  We’re not very good at it, but there is no alternative, if we intend to follow Jesus.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Breadth & Depth of Ignorance

The older I get (mid seventies) the more aware I am of the breadth and depth of my own ignorance.  As Country Parson, I write on politics, economics, and theology (Christian), because they’re the only three things I know much about, which I gained through academic learning and a lifetime of work.  But in truth, I know very little about any of them, and even less about the rest of the the world of knowledge and experience.  What I can be is curious about all of it, interested in learning at least a bit more, and open to new experiences.  I can think, reflect, ask questions, engage in conversation, and check facts.  I can also be honest about the things I’m unlikely to read up on or try to do, and that list is getting longer.  Backpacking through Nepal is not high on my list, but a nice three star hotel might work, four or five would be better.

I’ve been thinking about that for a while, partly because I write articles intended to be value oriented and well informed on subjects of topical interest that I hope will be of interest to others.  At the same time I’ve been distressed by the abundance of material published on the internet that appears to have little or no foundation in verifiable evidence, and often expresses nothing but unreflective, uninformed, strongly held opinion.  Even some sites favoring political views I endorse use irresponsible hyperbole, and unsupported assertions, in the cheapest from of tabloid journalism.  In the midst of it, a few acquaintances have wondered what degree of hubris it must take for me to put my own opinions out there as if they had superior value to others, especially theirs.  It’s one of those “Who do you think you are?” things.   Good question.

Close friends with advanced degrees in philosophy, theology, sociology, mathematics, and medicine have probed the depth of disciplines in which I have gleaned only a smattering of knowledge over the years.  Each of them has achieved far deeper knowledge of their disciplines than I ever did in mine.  And what are mine?  They are the proverbial “Duke’s Mixture,” a miscellany of subjects orbiting around politics, economics, and theology, permitting me to be a “Jack of each and master of none,” which, as it turns out, is an pejorative aphorism existing in almost every language and culture.  By the way, did you know that a long time ago a guy named Duke sold pouches of mixed Virginia tobacco?  It was OK but not great.  Being a Jack of all trades was once said about Shakespeare by someone who thought him too much of a tinhorn know-it-all.  So what’s a tinhorn?  But I digress.

Thankfully, among well educated friends in my age group (the sixty to eighty gang), I hear a similar lament.  It’s good to have company.  As gifted and experienced as they are in their fields, most admit their lack of knowledge about others, and their willingness to be informed because they are curious about the world around them.  What they bring to their curiosity is years of training and experience in evidence based thinking, and an openness to a variety of views.  A world of unknowns yet to be explored, and a willingness to act with courage on provisional truth, opens for them a future as pregnant with possibility as it appeared to be when they were eighteen.  So here we go.  Let the adventure begin – in a reasonable degree of decadent comfort. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

It's Time to Sacrifice. Let's do it!

It’s time to sacrifice.  Let’s do it.  Anything around we can sacrifice?  Altars came up in conversation the other day, and that led to talking about sacrifice, which seems like such an unpleasant word, conjuring up as it does images of slaughtered animals, and even humans.   Sacrifices are so, so Pagan: virgins, volcanoes, and all that.  It comes from watching too many Indiana Jones movies.  What follows is a brief take on sacrifice that may be helpful to those who have wondered about it.   

The common idea of sacrifice is to kill or destroy something of great value as an offering to the gods, hoping it will be acceptable, with the idea that, if the gods appreciate such a costly gift, maybe they’ll do something nice in return:  rain, a bumper crop, winning the Lotto, something like that.  After all, what could be ore costly than a prize bull, the best from the orchard, or something else of great material value?  Surely the gods would be pleased.  Those kinds of sacrifices were common features of many  religions all over the world, and something like them was also a part of ancient Judaism, yet it was different.

Our western ways of religious thinking are rooted in conflicting sources, Jewish and Greek, but when it comes to sacrifice, Jewish ways prevail.  In spite of all the sacrifices demanded in the Mosaic law, there was always the sense that God did not need them, and they were never meant to be bribes to get God to do something, not that people didn’t try anyway.  The sacrifice of an animal or first fruits of the harvest was intended to be costly, the best and first of what one had, as a sign of commitment to a relationship with God and obedience to God’s law.  God didn’t need to get it.  The people needed to give it.  Think of it as God’s version of the old rule that you can’t give away kittens, but you can sell sell them.  Needless to say, it got corrupted in dozens of ways, all of which are duly recorded in the Hebrew scriptures.  The tradition from which we emerged was nothing if not honest about its own shortcomings.

While ancient sacrifices may have been bloody and costly, the whole idea was that what was offered would be made holy, and the holiness would extend to the persons offering the sacrifice.  It was not the death or destruction that counted, but the making holy of something that, in a sense, opened the door between the people and God, allowing the free flow of one into the other.  Our English word, sacrifice, is clear about it, coming as it does from a Latin root that means exactly that.  The ultimate door opening for Christians was Jesus on the Cross, which, at the empty tomb, was proved not to be a bloody death of something sacrificed to be made holy and acceptable to God, but the Holy One declaring death itself defeated and a new understanding of sacrifice given in place of the old.

Jewish sacrifices ended with the destruction of the temple in 70 c.e..  In the meantime, the new Christian faith went in another direction.  Each week they gathered for worship and shared a simple meal of bread and wine, which they understood to be both a remembrance of the Last Supper, and a participation in the actual presence of Christ in the bread and wine.  It was a sacrifice in which they presented the bread and wine to God who made it into holy food and drink to nourish them for the days ahead.  Then they presented themselves, their bodies and souls, to be holy and reasonable sacrifices to God – that is, they presented themselves to be made holy and useful to God.  Being human, it didn’t last long.  That’s why it was repeated each week. 

As the centuries passed the rite became corrupt.  Somehow the priest was understood to be repeating Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the idea of sacrifice drifted back to seeking God’s favorable response for something.  For instance, paying a priest to say a quick mass could get your dead loved one out of purgatory a little faster.  The more masses, the quicker he or she could get out.  Sort of like TSA precheck financed with bribes to the agents, and a great money maker it was.  Five hundred years ago things had become so bad that a German priest named Martin Luther nailed 95 complaints to the door of his small town church, asked for debate, and demanded reform.  It didn’t stay local.  Thanks to the printing press, it got published and sent around Europe, setting fire to the Reformation.  Thirty years later the Church had divided into Protestants and Roman Catholics, and each had reformed their ways.  

Since then, the Church has continued to divide into various sects and denominations, each with it’s own understanding of what Christianity means, and disagreements about what sacrifice means.  Churches remaining in the Catholic tradition: Roman Catholics, Anglicans (Episcopalians in the U.S.), Lutherans, and some others, have altars that remain places of sacrifice, in the old sense of presenting ourselves as holy and reasonable sacrifices to God as we are fed with the holy food and drink of bread and wine in which Christ is truly present.  It’s sacrifice that means everything to those who take it seriously.

With that rough background on sacrifice, it’s time to wrap it up by saying something about the watered down, nearly meaningless use of sacrifice that populates everyday talk, especially church talk.  “I’ve sacrificed so much,” and all its cognates, is little more than a whining plea for sympathy or adulation having nothing to do with receiving that which is holy as nourishment to do holy work.  “Sacrificial giving,” a term heard often during pledge drives, is usually understood to mean giving until it hurts, which no one ever does.  What it should mean is giving resources for the purpose of making them holy for holy work.  Amazing what a difference that can make.  OK, enough of that.  We’re done for now.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Trump's Fundraising Mailers: models of political lying and they work really well

I noted in a recent column that I’m on several GOP mailing lists.  It helps me keep up with things.  A “Trump Agenda Survey” showed up several days ago, and here is what it had to say to prospective donors about the state of the nation, keeping in mind that it was sent out before Harvey hit Southeast Texas.
  • A border wall is needed to stop illegal migration
  • Obama’s executive orders were unconstitutional
  • Immigration laws have not been fully enforced (we’re being overrun)
  • Sanctuary cites should have their funding cut off
  • Our (weak) military needs to be rebuilt
  • Federal regulation is preventing economic growth
  • Lands must be opened to more carbon fuel production
  • Bad trade deals must be renegotiated to favor American jobs first
  • The inefficient federal bureaucracy needs to be shrunk, and made more accountable (to whom?)
  • A flatter, simpler tax code would be more fair to all
  • Federal spending on infrastructure should increase
  • Corporate tax rates should be reduced to increase employment
  • Government unions should be suspended by executive order
  • Federally mandated “Common Core” curricula should be eliminated
  • GOP leadership should change senate rules to overcome Dem. opposition to the Trump agenda
  • Because congressional Democrats have no intention of working in good faith with Trump
  • Mainstream media will not give Trump fair, unbiased coverage of his policies and leadership
They’re posed in the form of questions loaded with unstated assumptions and assertions leaving no doubt what the answers are supposed to be.  In fact, no one ever looks at the answers.  They only want to tell a story and get some money.  The illusion that they care what you think helps.  The point is that this “survey”, and others like it, presents rank and file GOP supporters with a grossly misleading, sometimes flat out false picture of how the nation is faring.  It’s a picture that’s widely and unshakably believed.  After all, would the Grand Old Party lie?  Heaven forbid.  Besides it confirms the story that has been told in other fund requests sent repeatedly to the same people for the last eight years.  The same thing repeated enough times becomes true in the minds of many.

To be fair, I’m also on a number of Democratic lists, and get their “surveys” also.  They too betray a bias, but in a much different way.  While their questions imply answers they hope will resonate with donors, they’re generally about issues  being honestly debated in the public arena, relate to verifiable conditions, and promote legislative solutions with some probability of success.  They don’t appeal in a way that drives into the deeply felt convictions of their base in order to elicit knee jerk responses.   In other words, they’re predictable, unexciting, and seldom stoop to fear mongering.  It could be that Democrats don’t really have the same kind of base, and, such as it is, it’s wildly diverse, made up of sharply divided opinions about what should be done, and, until recently, not emotionally up in arms.

That changed under Trump’s twitchy twitter finger, and  bloviated speechifying oozing with racism, sexism, pandering, threats of violence, and promises of more tax relief for the very wealthy.  The Democratic base may still be all over the place, but wherever they are, they’re united in emotionally charged outrage over the doors of bigotry and injustice the president has opened, and through which he has invited the worst and most dangerous of human tendencies toward racist authoritarianism.

The “Resistance”, that’s what they call it.  The thing is, resistance, by itself, seldom wins elections.  When it does, it often has no idea where to go next.  For Democrats to make it an effective political movement, resistance must be yoked to a solid, workable agenda articulating what the party is for, stated in emotionally attractive, easily understood terms aimed directly at the middle class, and those who aspire to it.  Otherwise, the  emotional energy of resistance will simply sputter out in self induced exhaustion.  

Given that, to whom do they need to appeal.  Obviously those who are emotionally outraged.  They’re first, but then who?  Not the Trump base. They’re a lost cause.  Next must be the 50-70% of registered voters who have given up voting altogether.  Finally, there are growing numbers of center-right Trump voters who now realize they’ve been scammed.  All they really want to know from Democrats is that they’re not raving, left wing socialists who will tax and regulate them out of everything.  Suspicious though they might be, they will vote for the right Democratic candidates at the state and local levels, maybe even for congress. 

We shall see what will happen. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Cultural Sophistication in the Rural West

This short article is for readers in other parts of the country who may be curious about a small city in the rural west.

Rural places are often thought of as far removed from the cultural sophistication of metropolitan areas, and they can be, but there are exceptions.  We live in one of them.  Seventeen years ago we moved to Walla Walla from the New York City area.  It’s a city of a bit over 30,000 in rural eastern Washington.  Sitting on the Oregon border, its a four hour drive to Portland down the scenic Columbia Gorge, and five hours plus to Seattle, except in winter when the pass might be closed.  It’s only three hours to Spokane, but who wants to go to Spokane?  We can always fly: three flights a day to Seattle.  It lies against the relatively small Blue Mountains, and though surrounded by the high, but productive, desert of the intermountain west , its green valley is watered by dozens of creeks flowing toward the Columbia River.  Friends in New York, and folks we met when we first moved here, wondered about the culture shock of moving from such a culturally active world capital to a small town in the  rural American West.  

In truth, culturally cosmopolitan life is not only possible in the rural West, it can be enjoyed in Walla Walla.  Yes, we have farms, ranches, rodeos, county fairs, and pickup trucks by the hundreds.  We also have three nationally respected colleges, a professional symphony orchestra celebrating it’s 150th year, a chamber music festival that attracts top talent from throughout the country, an active art community, several theater groups, and fine dining, along with burger joints and taco trucks.  If chamber music is not your thing, how about a guitar festival, rock & roll festival, or any of a dozen or so local bands of gifted musicians.  If, in your travels, you run across a magnificent piece of modern sculpture, chances are it was produced at the Walla Walla Foundry.  The arts are big in Walla Walla.

Walla Walla, it’s  a funny name, always gets a giggle.  Some vaguely remember it from Bugs Bunny cartoons, goofy songs, and old vaudeville jokes.  Others know about Walla Walla Sweet Onions.  Anything else?  With 150 wineries in the valley, its home to the finest premium wine produced anywhere in North America.  As is sometimes heard around here, “Napa is for auto parts, Walla Walla is for wine.”  What about produce?  The valley produces produce in abundance.  Some is exported, but most is consumed in the region, which means we feast on locally produced fruits and vegetables of the finest quality.  For the carnivores among us, it’s up to you to choose.  You can have the standard super market fare or, for a bit more, the best in locally grown and butchered meats where you can know the rancher and his or her livestock.

For all of that, it’s still a small city in the rural intermountain west.  It’s unlikely you’ll pass through someday because we’re not on the Interstate.  The Blue Mountains lack the visual appeal of the Rockies or Cascades, and besides, they’re accessible mostly by Forest Service roads not suitable for the average family car.  Rush hour lasts about five minutes.  A long wait at a stop sign might see five or six cars go by.  Like any small city, its warts and weaknesses are visible to all.  Not much is hidden.  Rich and poor live in close proximity to one another.  The usual distribution of generosity and parsimony, toleration and bigotry, wealth and poverty, beauty and ugliness, are all the more evident in small cities like Walla Walla.  That includes its history. The grounds of old Fort Walla Walla are now a park and museum celebrating the pioneer history of the place.  Not too far away, on the reservation of the united tribes of the Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Cayuse Indians, is the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute celebrating the history and culture of the peoples from whom the pioneers took the land by force.  What was done was done, both need to be remembered, both contribute to who we are today.  The growing influence today is Hispanic, and that’s a good thing for who we will become tomorrow.

If you’re a dedicated big city person, Walla Walla is probably not for you.  But if a little taste of almost everything the good life is supposed to be appeals to you, it could be the very best place to live.  One caveat: as an immigrant from the coastal East I can safely say, if you want to come to America’s rural west, leave your big city attitude and expectations behind.  It’s a sophisticated small city in the rural west, and that’s what it wants to remain.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Basics of Ethics for Ordinary People

This is an article for a few friends who are struggling to understand how to think about questions of good and evil, because they have swamped the front pages of papers and captured commentary on evening news broadcasts.  Even more, they have become routine fodder for late night comedians.  How then are ordinary people supposed to  think about them?  Scholars and academics can safely skip this one, but it you read it, keep your guffaws to yourselves.

Most people encounter questions of ethics or morality through habits of the heart deeply rooted in whatever they were taught as children.  It works well enough as long as the questions don’t get too complicated.  The question of evil, if it comes up at all, is heard most often from preachers who can’t give it a rest.  They use it like a bludgeon to intimidate their congregations.  Talk radio hosts use lies and distortions to make the evil look good, and the good look evil.  They’re poor foundations for engaging with serious questions about good and evil, and, given the current political climate, we are beset with serious questions.

So this is a brief article on a few basics that might be of some help to some of my friends, and perhaps some of yours.  Let’s start by saying that what is ethical and what is moral are the same thing.  Somehow ethics has become an arid term having to do with arcane things philosophers talk about as they explore whether something should or shouldn’t be done.  If not that, it has to do with how close something is to being illegal.  What’s ethical is important, but dull.  What a shame.  Too bad ethics can’t be more sexy, like morality.  Morality, it seems, has come to be almost always about sex one way or the other.  I have no idea how it came to this, but let’s untie the knot and say that the ethical and moral are identical twins.

Evil is another problem that needs to be unpacked.  In rough terms there is a difference between natural evil and moral evil, with the understanding that, in its simplest form, evil is something bad that happens in our lives.  Natural evils are events that occur because we are creatures who exist on a living, breathing earth in a living, breathing universe.  Life depends on it.  Wind, rain, earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, tornadoes, wild fires, tsunamis, they’re all the breathing in and breathing out of Mother Earth.   When we were few in number, getting out of the way of nature was not a big problem, but no longer.  There are billions of us, and we get in the way of nature by building our towns along beaches, in flood plains, and on earthquake faults.  We populated “tornado alley.”  Moreover, there are enough of us with the right kind of technologies to disrupt and exacerbate nature’s normal rhythms.  Mother Nature doesn’t like being messed with.  Natural evils destroy and kill, but they don’t do so by choice.  They do what they do to keep the earth alive, making life possible for all creation.  Wondering why God lets natural evil happen isn’t helpful.  The better question is, how can we live more comfortably and safely in harmony with nature?

Moral evil, on the other hand, lies entirely in our hands.  It’s the result of decisions we make.  There are obvious moral evils that occur when we choose to do something that betrays, cheats, injures, kills, or steals.  You know the Ten Commandments, and the record of man’s inhumanity to man is always before us.  There are less obvious moral evils that occur when we do the same things, but in more socially acceptable ways, or in ways that elicit little more than a tut-tut.  St. Paul suggested a partial list: envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossiping, slandering, demeaning God, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness. He probably wasn’t done; just ran out of steam.  The point made two thousand years ago is still valid.  These are behaviors common to the everyday life of so called good people.  They are among the moral evils we tend to gloss over, unless we can use them to smugly accuse and judge someone else.  

Natural evil and moral evil overlap.  We can, and do, make decisions about how we use the earth and its creatures to create conditions under which something bad happens.  Building a town in a flood plain, for instance, puts people in harms way.  Fracking causes earthquakes in some places.  Over grazing destroys the ability of the land to refresh itself.  Shortcuts, greed, mistakes, and sloppy designs create unsafe structures, vehicles, and equipment.  The famous law of unintended consequences is the adult version of a child’s whining cry that “I didn’t mean to.”

Obviously making moral decisions requires doing good while avoiding evil.  It also means avoiding, where pragmatically possible, placing ourselves and others in the path of natural evil.  It means avoiding doing things that accommodate moral evil.  Laws, for instance, have sometimes been used to accommodate moral evils such as slavery, discrimination, and various forms of oppression and  injustice.  Laws have also been used to reverse them.  That’s what politics is about.  

What society popularly accepts as right and natural is often a poor judge of what is good and just, not because society doesn’t care.  It’s because society doesn’t think about hard questions with any consistency.  It goes back to uncritical acceptance of what we were taught as children.  Of course not everything we were taught as kids was wrong.  Much of it was very good indeed.  That means for most of us, it’s relatively easy to choose between an obvious good and an obvious bad.  It’s good to be honest.  It’s bad to be dishonest.  Easy.  We learned that in kindergarten.  

It gets a little harder when the only choices are bad ones.  Which bad choice will do the least evil, while possibly doing some good.  Eisenhower had a lot to say about the decisions he had to make in WWII.  It was a war to defeat an obvious evil, but at the cost of many lives, much destruction, and that’s evil too.  What plan would do the least harm while achieving the desired outcome.  For him it was not an abstraction.  He knew he was sending thousands to their deaths, and he did it on purpose (Dear Mom & Dad: Tomorrow your son will be dead, and I decided it was for the best. Thank you.).  Few of us have to make those kinds of decisions, but our voices contribute to them, and we should think it over before leaping to endorse one way or another.  

Oddly enough, a tougher choice is between two or more goods.  We must choose, but choosing will mean one desired good will be sacrificed for the other.  An obvious example might be the debate over Affirmative Action.  If a college wants to make some places available to persons who were previously kept out, it means someone who previously might have got in, won’t.  If I have enough money to pay the rent or buy food, which will it be?  I want lower taxes, but I also want good roads and schools: choose one or the other, but not both.  

So what are we to do?  How do we choose?  Let’s go back to habits of the heart.  Throw out the ones you learned in childhood.   It’s time to take the training wheels off, and learn to ride without them.  Adopt adult habits of the heart.  The Ten Commandments are a good place to start.  Look deeply into the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus once said that the greatest commandments were to love God and love your neighbor.  Weigh every decision on that balance, and you will not be far off.  If they are integrated into the habits of your life, you won’t have to debate everything that comes along.  Your natural responses will be ethical, moral.    

More complicated questions require more intensive pondering, but always in the direction of why are we doing this?  What purpose does it serve?  Who benefits and who gets hurt?  Is it just, is it fair, is it equitable?  Most of all, how does it stack up against the commandments to love God and love neighbors (who are always the people we would rather not have as neighbors).  We don’t always get it right, but we can always do better than we have done before.

What is required of you?  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with your God.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Here's to Identity Politics: endorsed by St. Paul himself

Identity politics came up during the presidential campaign, with Republicans accusing Democrats of using identity politics to divide the nation into competing interests while they were all about uniting everyone.  There were a few articles and op-ed columns, then it went away – until the last several weeks.  Now it’s all over the place.  Right wingers of various stripes complain that identity politics, not racists and fascists, are the root cause of the civil disorder we’ve seen.  Whoever is behind it, and surely there must be someone, intends to take us down by dividing us one against the other, while you-know-who is struggling mightily to unite us in common effort.

A Wikipedia article claims the term has been around since the 1970s, but it only gave a name to something much older.  It’s not an ideology, nor is it a movement.  It’s not even a well defined political tactic.  At it’s core it’s giving voice to, and hearing the voice of, people whose voices had previously been ignored or suppressed.  The Civil Rights movement projected some of those voices with power that shook the illusion of a national unity expressed by a single voice accustomed to suppressing dissenting views without fear of opposition.  Feminist voices added their own decibels to the mix, as did environmentalists, and then dozens of others emboldened and wanting to be heard.

Things seemed to settle down to normal In the decades following the era of Vietnam and civil rights uprisings.  Adequate progress had been made.  Voices had been allowed to speak, sometimes heard, and occasionally given a seat at the table.  All was well, the right voices were in charge, and then one of those other voices got elected to the presidency.  Who the hell let that happen?  It began to look like politics had become a game in which one identity group would win at the expense of all others, especially at the expense of those accustomed to being in charge.  The last election nearly gave it up to yet another one.  It didn’t happen, but it nearly did.  Would American elections from now on be won by which identity group could beat the others?  Something like identity playoffs in which there would be one winner, everyone else a loser?  If candidates listened to the various voices in their constituencies, were they pandering to them, or playing them off against each other?  Those who were accustomed to being in charge, speaking as if for all, thought they knew.  Those whose own identities were sort of like the ones in charge also thought they knew.  Identity politics was destructive of national unity under one voice.

All the talk about identity politics might have died away again but for the guy who got elected.  It turned out his was a voice once identified with old gangster movies and novels about corrupt Southern politics.  With consummate skill at saying the unthinkable with the worst possible timing, he unleashed storms of voices who couldn’t, wouldn’t keep their peace any longer.  Among them were the voices of pure evil. 

What a racket!  What a chaotic, indecipherable racket!  “Can’t we all just get along?”  Can’t we all just go back to the way it use to be?  Let the people who know how to be in charge speak for all of us the way they used to.  The rest of you just be quiet, relax, chill.

It is a racket, and it is chaotic, but it’s also healthy.  They’re not voices in competition with each other so that one must win and the others lose.  With a few exceptions, they’re voices expressing genuine concern about important issues that need to be heard in the context of cooperative conversation with others.  They’re voices that live in symbiotic relationship with other voices, and the health of the whole depends on the health of the symbiosis.  

Hard to believe, but St. Paul had something useful to say about it.  He wrote to the squabbling church in Corinth that: “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.  …If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. (I Cor. 12)”

It doesn’t mean pathogens wont try to infect the body ,but I think you get the idea.  

So here’s to identity politics.  May we learn to love it as we live into it.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Deeper into the minds of Trump supporters

Ours is a conservative area that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.  It isn’t easy to understand why because, conservative though the majority may be, they also espouse high standards in moral values such as honesty and integrity.  Why couldn’t they see him for the con artist he is?  A large part of it has to do with nothing more complicated than party loyalty.  They’re Republicans who vote Republican no matter who the candidate is.  Automatic as their votes may be, they’re undergirded by a deeply ingrained myth that Democrats are socialists who favor higher taxes on the middle class, more government spending on the slackers of the country, and greater regulation of daily life.  Moreover, they hold in derision the more liberal other side of the mountains (coastal Washington and Oregon) as a land filled with people who don’t know what a hard day of honest work is like, and expect the government to do everything for them.  It’s not a story easily shaken.  There’s only one reason to go to Seattle: Seahawks games.  There’s no reason to go to Portland.  Voting for Trump was a no brainer.  He ran as a Republican.  What more did they need to know?  But there was more.  He promised to undo all the harm eight years of Obama had done.  It was an added plus despite having no foundation in reality.  

I’m on several GOP mailing lists, and received regular mailings throughout Obama’s term.  Most were in the form of surveys with questions that asserted a failing economy, teetering stock market, plummeting employment, disastrous trade deals, wasteful spending, lack of respect among other world leaders, and declining military readiness.  Democrats sent out their own versions, but Republicans mastered the art of lying with a straight face about the state of the nation.  Getting messages like that, month after month for eight years, was bound to have an effect on people predisposed to believe them.   I try to keep up with the voices of local conservative voters through social media, and was taken aback by the cascade of comments following the Charlottesville backlash in which Trump backers expressed dismay at how he was being treated.  Didn’t people know how low the nation had sunk under the disastrous policies of Obama?  On the edge of economic collapse, with jobs flowing overseas, only Trump could be counted on to restore greatness to America.  Why was he being treated with such contempt by an ungrateful nation?  All this racism stuff was a deliberate distraction from the important issues at hand.

They’re not the words of right wing Fascists.  Are they the words of racists?  Yes, but the nice kind who don’t think they are.  They’re the words of right wing tea partiers who are so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they’ve even convinced traditional conservatives about the need to keep on supporting Trump.  That’s especially easy to do when the main opposition candidate was the Grande Dame of the coastal elite who got us into this mess while looking down on the “deplorables” who actually do the hard work that keeps it all running.  And who was her alter ego?  That crazy Jewish New England socialist.  The GOP establishment was hardly better.  The only voice they offer up these days is a rich Mormon whose personality makes Al Gore look exciting.  They rest their case and stand their ground.

Are they going to change?  I doubt it.  What can change, and must change, is a concerted effort to educate the 70 to 80% of the public who don’t vote about basic American government civics, and the conditions that face the nation.  Don’t blame the schools for the lack of civic learning.  Adults who don’t vote were educated in schools that taught it, but it didn’t take.  The education required will have to come through social media, broadcast media, and politicians of integrity.  Republicans, if it they don’t want to become a right wing fringe party, must cease baiting supporters with blatantly false information, and begin arguing for a genuine conservative agenda proposed by legislative leaders willing to engage in honest negotiation for the good of the nation.  And speaking of honesty, let’s be honest about it, with malice aforethought they engaged in deliberate obstruction of any and every effort of Obama to do anything. They did it publicly, pridefully, and deplorably.  Now they’re stuck with an unbalanced, incompetent, amoral president of their own making.  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Words that Defile - but it's not about race

The nation has begun to display a collective shudder of recognition as it continues to reflect on what Trump has said, from the start of his campaign until now, on so many subjects, about so many people, in so many ways:  he is the person he always appeared to be; we thought it was just a show.  It’s hard to understand, but some continue to defend him saying, “well, they’re just words, it’s the way everyone talks, it is’t what he really means.”  

They aren’t just words.  It isn’t the way everyone talks.  Words carry real meanings and reveal real truths about those who utter them.  Jesus reminded his followers of that when he said, ”…It’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles [a person]… evil intentions, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (Mark/Matt.)  What we say can bless or curse, defile or sanctify, build up or tear down.  Words are powerful, and Trump has used them as blunt weapons to assault others in every conceivable way, not only now, but throughout his career. 

It should be a surprise, but it isn’t, that there are two common moves to deflect the power of Jesus’ words when people don’t want to hear them.  One is to assume the role of self righteous judge pointing fingers at others, especially those who can be accused of lascivious things like adultery and fornication.   There’s nothing like a harrumphed tut-tut and tsk-tsk to keep attention focused somewhere other than on one’s self, with the added benefit of implying moral superiority.  Jesus condemned exploitation and oppression, but it seems he had a soft spot in his heart for some people whose sex life was suspect.  He didn’t approve, but he didn’t condemn.  Go figure.  St. Paul seemed to understand it well when, in his letter to the Romans, he offered up an even longer list  of what can defile, and then warned the self righteous not to be quick to judge because they do the same things.  The point they both make is that being self righteous is not a solid rock on which to stand.   

The other deflecting move is to admit some small degree to guilt, but quickly point to others with a, “Yeah, but what about them?”  Trump is a master of the move, and those who continue to support him follow with their own versions.  Sure, he may have said something inappropriate, but they were just words, and besides what about (Insert name of your choice).  If you can’t think of one, Clinton always works.  If nothing else, bring up Benghazi, although that one’s faded to almost nothing. 

No!  This is not about what somebody else said or did.  This is about what Trump has said and done, and it’s important because he is the 45th president of the United States.  For that reason only, what he says has deep powerful meaning.  But for that he would still be a floundering, blowhard, celebrity t.v. idol pawning himself off on a gullible public.  That’s what he was.  Now he’s the president, and what he has said and continues to say is a constant stream of words that defile, curse, and destroy.  It ought not to be.

What about my words? Are they words of defilement or blessing?  Are they words of deflection?  They could be, but they aren’t.  They’re words of observation and description about what should be obvious and taken seriously.  There are plenty of skeletons in my closet if you want to pry, but I’m not the president, he is, and that’s important.  Pay attention to what’s important!

With that, a few of my conservative friends will undoubtedly say that I’ll end up making this about race.  Of course not.  Shocked, I say, shocked, that you would even suggest such a thing.  It may have to do with people who resented a competent black man digging us out of an economic hole when it should have been Ronald Reagan.  Failing that, it may have to do with the illusion that even Trump would be OK as a successor, as long as he was male, white and appeared to be rich.  But certainly, and by all means, it’s not about race, or gender.  No, not about gender either.   Perish the thought.