Friday, July 28, 2017

Christianity for the Not Religious

I’m tired of narrow minded, judgmental nuts claiming to speak for Christianity, and I’m tired of so called Christians who have no intention of following Jesus Christ.  The guy in the White House claims to be a Christian when it’s obvious that he hasn’t got a clue what that means.  In the meantime, the so called Christian Right stands solidly behind him, unconcerned about his amoral lust for power coupled with ignorant incompetency that neither bothers nor stops him.  

Who can blame skeptics wondering who Christians are and what they stand for.  They claim to love Jesus, but who is this Jesus?  They say the word love a lot, but in the context of cruel judgment and threats of divine punishment. The Christian Right does not speak for Christianity and has little to do with the origins and trajectory of Christian faith.  Sadly, the image of Christianity projected in the popular media is often from them.  I have to hand it to them.  They are master manipulators of publicity.  The image they portray is not an attractive one.  It exists within the worst of Christian belief that the rest of the Church universal has long since rejected, having confessed the errors of its ways.  Most of all, what the Christian Right teaches is contrary to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, in whom Christians recognize the authentic voice of God, not as through a prophet, but directly from God. 

So who was Jesus?  The record demonstrates that he was a healer, reconciler, someone who broke down walls that separate us one from another.  He commanded his followers to live into extraordinarily high standards of moral behavior with an emphasis on loving those we least want to love, engaging with each other in humility, and restoring the marginalized and oppressed to full participation in society.  Moreover, his teaching on morality was  about honesty, integrity, and justice, not sex.  You can check it out for yourself.  A well crafted summary can be found in Matthew 5 through 7.  If you find it strange, drop me a line.  We can talk.

What about this kingdom of God?  What does Jesus have to say about it?  Well it isn’t up there somewhere in a galaxy far away.  It’s here, near at hand.  It always has been.  Sometimes we’re in it, sometimes we’re not, but it’s never far away even if we can’t sense it in the ordinary ways of sensing.  If it is a place, it‘s a place that exists everywhere at all times.  It’s now, here, but we can’t live fully into it.  We can begin.  Jesus invited everyone to begin living into it now, recognizing that the temporal world we inhabit is too limiting to allow us to be fully in it.  For that we have to wait.  This life is the anteroom for what is yet to come through a door that is already open.  Or, as we like to say, “In death life is not ended but changed.” 

Jesus used metaphors to explain what the kingdom of God was like.  I imagine it’s because human language lacks the vocabulary to fully describe it, and our brains are not adequate to comprehend it.  Like other metaphors, his invite deeper reflection about their possible meanings.  Here are some of them recorded in Matthew’s recollection of Jesus’ life and teaching.  The kingdom, which exists both here and not here, is where only good seed is sown, but not all of it will take root and prosper.  Nobody is forced to believe.  It’s always a free choice.  It’s up to each person to receive it and let it grow.  The kingdom of God is so small it seems insignificant compared to the world we live in, but it grows into the strongest of things, and  a refuge for all.  An ancient sage said she experienced the kingdom fitting in the palm of her hand, but it contained all of creation.  The kingdom of God is a treasure hidden in plain sight, so valuable that it’s worth giving everything to have it.  From it, a loving God goes in search of those who haven’t found it, and God will pay anything to bring them to it.  Christians experience God searching them out in Jesus of Nazareth, whom the record attests is the very word of God made flesh.  The kingdom of God is a net that gathers everything regardless of worthiness.  In the end, what is worthy will often surprise us.  “What on earth is God thinking, letting those people in here,” we are likely to mutter.  God says, “It’s none of your business.  Don’t worry about it.”  Who’s in and who’s out?  It’s up to God, not us, and if Jesus’ life means anything, it means the ones we are tempted to keep out of the kingdom are likely the first ones in.

Can any of this be subject to scientific inquiry?  Probably not, but it’s not important.  Christianity is not in competition with science.  It embraces it.  Science is helping us better understand the awesome mystery of creation.  The more the better.  Go science!  Just thought I needed to throw that it because it comes up every time.


OK, that’s enough for now.  More to come later.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

America's Future on China's Path

This is an article that’s been stumbling around in my head and on my desk for a year or so.  It’s about China’s move to assume and assert leadership dominance in a consortium of nations making up the majority of the world’s population, and its deepest well of potential economic opportunity.  Does America have a place in it?  I think it does, in spite of the incompetency of the current administration’s chief executive.  So here goes.

American political leadership is determined to turn the nation away from multinational agreements, in favor of bilateral agreements through which favorable terms can be arranged for American industry.  Getting involved in so many multinational schemes, it is said, has stripped the U.S. of it’s leadership dominance, threatened its independence, humbled its national pride, and shipped too many jobs overseas.  We can get all that back by playing our own game one-on-one with other nations because we are the biggest player on the field.  We are, but there are other big players out there, and maybe better ones.

Among them are the growing economic engines of Asia poised to make multinational partnerships work under the leadership of China and Japan.  Japan is primarily interested in reenergizing the Trans Pacific Partnership with an emphasis on trade agreements brokered by Japan.  China is interested in creating a 21st century version of the Silk Road emphasizing infrastructure development with China calling the shots.  It’s China that may offer the best opportunities for American investment, regardless of government policy: one of the advantages of a private market system in a democratic society where private macro economic decisions are influenced by national policy, but not dictated by it.  

Some perspective.  The U.S. Is a nation of about 325 million people, annual gross domestic product of a little under $20 trillion, and an annual economic growth rate hovering in the 2% range.  China is a nation of about 1.3 billion butting up against India with about the same number of people.  That’s 2 billion people led by governments intent on economic growth and prosperity.  While China’s annual GDP is about half that of the U.S., it has a lot of room for growth, which, though it has slowed down, is still cruising along at something over 6% a year.  Once a nation awash in poverty, coastal regions now have average per capita income in the range of $20,00 per year, and conditions in interior regions are improving.  To use an entirely inappropriate sports analogy, the U.S. has become the rumbling fullback, and China has become the scrambling quarterback.

So what is China up to?  What plays are they calling?  In 2013 they announced an initiative some called One Road - One Belt, and what a crazy idea it was. They had in mind creating partnerships with 60 countries to build transportation networks along six land corridors  and one water corridor to link the nations of mainland Asia with Eastern Europe, Eastern Africa, and the Mediterranean.  It would involve roads, rail, pipelines, modern air traffic control, and maritime routes at an estimated cost of almost $40 trillion.  To get it rolling, they created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that would underwrite a variety of public/private schemes in which China would take the lead (and profits), with other nations wading in as best they could.  Here we are four years later, and the idea no longer seems so crazy.  Maybe not all of it will happen, but some of it will, maybe most of it.  In any case, it will mean the majority of the world’s population and its fastest growing economies, will be led by China.  For the time being, America will be watching from the bleachers.

But it doesn’t mean American economic interests need be left out.  $40 trillion is a lot of money.  No one can come up with it, but savvy investors can take a part of it, and Americans have money to invest.  American companies have an enormous inventory of skills and technology to sell, along with quality equipment as good as any.  So even without a competent federal government leading the way, there are opportunities offering tremendous potential for American jobs and investment know how.  What it comes down to is that we don’t have to be Number One.  We have to be the best at what we are best at, letting others be the best at what they are best at. 

Reimagining what position America plays could move us from slow moving fullback to wide receiver.  What about scrambling quarterback?  Forget it.  It’s the wide receiver who knows how to take advantage of opportunities, catch uncatchable passes and score points.  And that, my friends, is the first sports analogy I’ve ever used, probably the last too.


In any case, opportunities such as this, in the political environment we now have, and the White House leadership we now suffer, could lead toward even more dictatorial corporate oligarchy, enriching some at the expense of others, but it doesn’t have to.  An energized electorate raising up political leaders intent on the good of the whole, with an emphasis on the well being of the most disadvantaged, can redirect American public policy toward the highest ideals of our democratic republic, while engaging with others to bring greater prosperity to ordinary people with whom we share this spaceship globe.  Those of us who acknowledging our ultimate loyalty to God alone, have a divine imperative to exercise our moral responsibility to be a part of it.  We may have a destiny beyond this world, but while we are in it we have a moral responsibility to it.

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.