Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Nation in a State of Angst

The nation appears to be in a collective state of angst.  Never before before has one party expressed such unreflective loyalty to a president whose corruption, ineptitude, and mental instability have been on such public display.  Never has the nation’s international reputation been so sullied.  The beloved myth of the United States as the leader of the free world, the paragon of civic virtue, the protector of weaker states, the promised land for immigrants, the shining torch of democracy and respect for rule of law – it all lies tattered in the gutter. 

Trump, who has betrayed wives, girlfriends, associates, friends, employees, creditors and customers over the course of his entire life, has now betrayed allies, befriended foes, and made enemies of competitors.  He’s cozied up to dictators and ridiculed democratically elected leaders.  His most recent betrayal, the betrayal of the Kurds in Syria, is inhumanly cruel, and of it he makes light.

America has been through tough times before.  Our collective behavior has never lived up to our beloved myth of national virtue, but we’ve always aspired to do so.  A brutal civil war nearly destroyed hope for a united nation committed to a federal system defined by a constitution whose enduring stability was guaranteed by a strenuous amendment process.  We more than survived, we made progress toward living more fully into the myth.  We did so even as charlatans were in political leadership, robber barons tried for plutocracy, and America First movements thirsted for fascism.  As destructive as the era of race riots was, the greater number of Americans remained convinced that civil and human rights were not to be reserved to some and withheld from others. 

Through it all, the United States emerged as a sign of democratic and economic hope for the entire world.  Respected by many, feared by some, it became a reluctant imperial super power greater than any other in recorded history.

In less than three years, Trump, Senator McConnell and the Freedom Caucus have eroded enough of its foundation that the nation will never recover its former glory.  It may not be all bad.  A few years ago I wrote a column arguing that we Americans must learn to be one nation among many.  It’s not important that we be first in everything.  We can be content with the good life that is at hand, and not lust after a richer life to the detriment of others.  I thought it was a reasonable argument, but did not expect to achieve it at the cost of ignominy casting Americans as foolish rubes easily led by an imitation Mussolini.  It stuns me that there remains a core of the electorate not simply loyal to him, but convinced he is the savior of all that’s important to them.

We will survive again.  Hopefully, a new administration will be elected next year.  It will not be perfect.  Right wing howling about a dive into socialism may raise emotional hackles, but it’s entirely without merit.  The most liberal of candidates is pretty mainstream, even if the right wing is easily persuaded that anything to their left is dreaded socialism, leaving no room for traditional conservatives.  For hard core libertarians, any form of government is suspect.  May they ever remain a small sect.  Curiously, committed as they are to individualism free from governmental interference, they’re the most likely to opt for autocracy.  But I digress.

A new administration will restore public decorum, adherence to the rule of law, and hesitant trust among other nations that the U.S. will again become a reliable partner in international relations and trade.  In keeping with previous Democratic administrations, it will probably restore fiscal discipline as well, and that should reassure traditional conservatives.  

Should it not happen, we will have more years of digging deeper holes taking longer to get out of when the time comes.  We may even lose our democracy.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Are All Equally Corrupt?

I have a libertarian Trump supporting friend with whom I maintain regular correspondence.  He’s unhappy with Trump’s “character flaws,” but likes his policies because they’ve been dismantling the federal government piece-by-piece, something he’s wanted for a long time.  He’s not persuaded by accusations of Trump’s unethical, perhaps criminal track record because he believes all politicians and corporate leaders are equally corrupt, so what’s the difference? There was a time, he thinks, fifty or sixty years ago when it wasn’t so, but it is now. 

In his view, Trump is no worse than Hillary, Biden or any other politician.  They’re all equally bad.  Regular people, real people, are not as fallen as that, but politicians and corporate leaders are.  Left on their own, regular people, real people, would do very well with limited local governments and smaller family owned businesses.  It’s a romantic ideal prizing the rural life of small towns populated by self sufficient citizens right out of Hallmark Channel movies.  What’s keeping us from it is the evil of big government, socialism, and greedy corporations, all led by corrupt people.  They’re represented by the worst of the darkest of Batman’s Gotham City.

Having spent a good many years working on the edges of public policy at the federal level, and with a wide variety of corporate leaders, I disagree.  I don’t believe politicians and corporate leaders are either more or less ethical than ever.  In fact, I have a generally high regard for most of them, but there have been systemic changes making ethical commitments harder to keep, or, maybe, more costly to keep. 

For instance, in that magical time of fifty or sixty years ago, many of the largest corporations had strong ties to their home communities, the places where they came into being.  Major share holders were often heirs of the founders, or executives with deep roots in the community.  Minority share holders were widely distributed among the local population.  The result was an implied commitment to the well being of the community.  Those connections have faded away.  Major shareholders are more likely to be mutual funds, pension funds, and impersonal hedge fund types.  Computerized algorithms create wild gyrations in the stock market, as technotraders try to eke out profitable margins on the casino tables of the floor, rather than investing in a company’s future.  When connections to communities and their people are severed, so are implied ethical commitments.

Current tax and corporate governance law, as I vaguely understand it, requires CEOs and boards to manage affairs for short term maximum return based on share value.  It means manipulating the business to keep stock prices as high as possible outweighs all other commitments, no matter what the annual report and press releases claim.  Moreover, the seductiveness of super salaries for senior executives can easily subvert good intentions to be ethically responsible decision makers.  Paul warned his student Timothy that ”a love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (I Tim. 6)  I can’t ask the corporate world to adopt Christian values, but I can point out the universal truth of Paul’s warning, and encourage actions that might mitigate the corrupting influence of demands to maximize monetary return to the exclusion of all other forms of return. 

It seems to me that a few minor changes to the law, together with a high marginal rate on super salaries, would do a lot to change things for the better.  Corporate tax incentives for better wages at lower levels, and tax disincentives for excessive stock buybacks and super salaries might work to improve both investment and wage distribution. 

Over the course of many decades, I’ve met and engaged with hundreds of politicians at the local, state and national levels, as well as staff on one hand and corporate lobbyists on the other.  For the most part, they have been people who desired to do what they believed to be right for their constituents, and tried to do it with integrity, keeping in mind that defining integrity is always influenced by the social mores of the time.  There were always exceptions.  They often made the headlines.  Some went to prison.   I think it’s still true.  

Yes, the political life is filled with dangers.  You can’t be a politician and not have an ego that delights in public approbation.  Doing whatever is needed to get it is dangerous.  Being skilled in the give and take of political negotiating with other ego driven politicians is a must.  Losing one’s way by making it a zero sum game is dangerous.  State capitals, and Washington, D.C. to an even greater extent, are filled with people attracted by power, intent on getting as close to it as possible, and competing with each other for position and influence.  It can be very seductive.  There’s a fine line between legitimate influence and bribery paid with money, sex, and insider trading tips.  Moreover, what’s moral and what’s legal are not the same thing.

That’s life in any capital city at any time in human history.  An honest reading of American political history reveals the ebb and flow, push and pull, between political integrity and political opportunism, between corruption and reform, between justice and injustice.  Over time we have made enormous strides toward “a more perfect union”, but we have made them stumbling and lurching.  Popular memory prefers another image of smoother progress combined with reverent patriotism, and faith in the  future.  It’s a wonderful image now torn into polarization that I think came from sources claiming patriotism for themselves while denying it to others.

The rise of extreme libertarianism (tea partiers, freedom caucus, etc.), combined with propaganda machines skilled at using the internet and social media, have undermined respect and support for the institutions of government, and led their followers in an authoritarian direction, all in the name of patriotism.  It’s worked well for a relatively small number of corporate barons (Koch, et al) who have little respect for the libertarian masses, and would prefer Oligarchical control over as thin a veneer of democracy as they can get away with.  But even they have convinced themselves it would be for the good of the  nation, claiming and believing in their own integrity.

Is it cause for despair?  For worry, certainly, but not yet for despair.  Politics remains the art of deciding how we want to live together in community, whether local, state or national.  It is, in that regard, a noble art worthy of our best efforts, and one in which every citizen should play their part.  Our federal system of representative democracy is unique in the democratic world, and it’s lumbered through several centuries to prove itself enduring, flexible, and resistant to being overwhelmed by those who would corrupt it for their own benefit, or push it away from democratic ideals.  We have reached a nadir with the current administration, but House investigations and the 2020 election may yet turn us in a better direction.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Honoring Conservative Values in a Progressive Agenda

The impeachment express is full ahead, and not without justification.  Combine it with Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop blustering about other peoples’ corruption, and we’re all distracted from important issues that must be addressed by the next administration. 

Democrats will nominate a liberal candidate who will be quickly labeled as a radical left wing socialist, in spite of the fact the he or she will be about as mainstream as can be.  We’ve already seen how Trump’s mastery at slapping the socialist label on primary candidates resonates with those who think of themselves as conservatives, even if they dislike Trump.  Consider these talking points currently used by the GOP:
  • Pelosi & Co. are holding hostage Trump’s agenda and the good of the country
  • Democrats will raise taxes (on you), squander resources on free health care and college tuition, open borders to all immigrants, let inmates vote, allow dangerous abortions, and abolish the electoral college.
  • They promote a big government socialist agenda.
  • Big and social media are in their pocket.

They’re points engineered to raise emotional angst to a high level, and they work very well, partly because they can cite something some Democrat once said that, out of context, lends them credence.  To be sure, Democrats have their own emotional trigger pulling talking points, but right wing Republicans have honed theirs with more skill to better effect. 

On the other hand, the GOP is also raising issues that show concern for:
  • Stagnant wages
  • Soaring deficits
  • Rebuilding infrastructure
  • Fixing health care
  • Adequate funding for Social Security and Medicare
  • Veterans health care
  • Global instability
  • Cyber security

Each of these issues is addressed as a priority in various campaign messages.  They’re also issues of concern to progressives because they’re important to the future of the nation.  In an age of polarization, they cross the divide.  It means a key to wining the election will be how well the candidate and party can truthfully present a progressive agenda appealing to the values of voters who have voted Republican, or who tend to not vote at all.  They will never win over libertarians for whom the federal government is a malevolent creature in need of dismantling.  But they can win over those whose conservative values can be honored by a progressive agenda.

What would such and agenda look like?  Here are a few thoughts that might be worth considering.  Advance warning: there is nothing here about climate change as such, and no grand scheme for health care.

  1. Modest changes to the IRS code to encourage higher rates of wage growth for low and middle income earners.  Use corporate tax credits to create incentives for higher wages at lower levels.  Apply tax penalties for overuse of stock buybacks and excessive executive compensation.
  2. An infrastructure plan focussed on the Interstate, bridges, water & sewer systems, and regional airport improvements.
  3. Demonstration of ability to restore respect for American leadership on the world stage.
  4. Free but fair trade through reengagement with multilateral negotiations emphasizing worker rights, and protection for intellectual property.  Make agriculture a public priority.
  5. Revise the tax code to make it more fair to all, with a significantly higher marginal rate at the top end.
  6. A health care plan expanding the ACA and allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices for all.
  7. An affordable housing program that restores special advantages for tax credit financing to build low and moderate income housing through Housing Authorities and NGOs.  Expand and fully fund the voucher program.  Strengthen HUD enforcement of rules for safe, clean housing financed under its authority.
  8. Offer planning assistance to encourage economic diversification in distressed areas.
  9. Restore regulations protecting health and the environment, but streamline processes, and require federal agencies to adopt customer service practices replacing impersonal bureaucratic enforcement.
  10. Reconfigure FEMA to accommodate greater frequency of severe weather events.  Restrict rebuilding grants to reasonably safe areas.
  11. Restore the integrity of government, particularly in the: FEC, SEC, Inspectors General, CFPB, Consumer Protection Bureau, and federal R&D agencies.
  12. Immigration of course, but keep it simple.  Make it clear, no open borders; simplify and speed up processing asylum seekers; allow higher numbers of legal immigrants; reform CBP; guarantee dreamer protection.
  13. Restore Federal budget integrity: eliminate debt ceiling; commit to getting budgets and appropriations out on time; improve the sequester system to once again initiate deficit reduction without jeopardizing core social programs.  
  14. Celebrate low unemployment numbers as long as they last.
  15. Celebrate military preparedness, but avoid promises of new weapons systems.  Restore funding highjacked for the wall.
  16. Celebrate House passed legislation stopped in the Senate without further consideration.
It’s not a perfect agenda, not even a beautiful one.  The intent is to appeal to conservative minded voters who represent significant numbers of electoral votes, as well as urban voters in traditionally Republican neighborhoods, because we need them. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

A Welcoming Congregation? Maybe Not.

A recent day long gathering of congregational lay and clergy leaders focussed its attention on conditions that favor and oppose inviting and welcoming newcomers into the fellowship of worship.  The usual menu of all the good things they do to was posted, with everyone nodding that, yes, these were good things.  In addition to coffee hours, greeters at the door, follow up with personal contacts, new signage, and better access, there things like soup kitchens, room for AA and other community groups, and a variety of other social service activities.  Each and every one a good thing indeed.  Yay for us. 

Conditions that were unfavorable to inviting and welcoming were a little harder to come by.  Compliance with ADA standards was a big one.  Poor signage, and lack of good things mentioned above of course.  One brave soul admitted that the matriarchs and patriarchs of her congregation didn’t want any new people because they knew everyone in town, and anyone new would be someone they didn’t want.  She was grateful that none of old leaders were in the meeting with us.  Another admitted that, in spite of the congregation’s financial support of community needs, few knew where they were located, or wether an Episcopal Church was even Christian. 

The common denominator linking all the discussion was the subconscious assumption that new people, invited and welcomed into the fellowship of worship, would probably have the same cultural values and expectations of church as did the congregation.  They would certainly know who Jesus is.  Even those who desire to open the doors to people not like us tend to think about what would be more welcoming from their own point of view, which includes assumptions about what “those others” would find attractive.  

It’s not our problem only.  It’s the same set of assumptions shared by every organized assembly wherever, in what ever culture.  We, mostly white Episcopalians from the intermountain west, are not unlike a congregation in Nigeria, Lakota lands, suburbs of a big city, or the rural deep South.  It’s human nature.  What we stumble over is our inability to look at the question from the point of view of the other whom we think we want to welcome.  The real question is: what is it about what we offer that the other will find uncomfortable and unwelcoming?  What is it that will make them feel vulnerable, not fit for the likes of those present, embarrassed or humiliated?  They’re hard questions to answer because it requires us to step out of our area of comfort to see things from an alien perspective.  To experience it for yourself, go to church in another denomination in another part of the country where you are a stranger.  Better yet, make it a church attended predominantly by a race other than yours.

The dean of the Episcopal cathedral in Portland, OR was featured in a Whitman College magazine article, in it he described the difficulty of opening the congregation to the others who are a part of the neighborhood.  It’s already an LBGTQ friendly congregation, so how hard could it be?  Very.  The poor, unwashed, and mentally ill – what is it that prevents them from feeling welcome?  What makes non-whites feel uncomfortable?  What makes the never-gone-to-church-know-nothing-about-Christianity feel uncomfortable?  What makes the straight, white newcomer feel uncomfortable?  You can’t know unless you ask them, and you can’t find out from them unless you’re willing to engage with them in listening conversation.  Engaging in listening conversation is an active way to encourage others to open doors from the outside and come in.  It’s not easy, and it can raise anxiety to a high level.  

There’s a more passive way to open doors from the inside, and that’s by losing the anxiety associated with trying too hard.  It means giving up on cultural projections and expectations.  The congregation from which I retired struggled with how to attract some of the growing percentage of Hispanics in the community.  Some suggested adding Spanish prayer books, reading the gospel in two languages, or maybe hosting a popular Mexican saint’s day.  It was all well intended.  No one noticed that the church is in a part of town not frequented by the Hispanic population, nor that what the expected was their easy adaptation to the warmth of our Anglo Episcopalian ways, albeit with a Mexican touch.  It was all well intended, but nothing happened.  

Curiously, with that failure behind them, they became less uptight about who they were, and less anxious about welcoming the other not like them.  They began to discover gay couples among their number, a few Africans (not American), some struggling with behavioral issues, and a number of odds and ends who were definitely not your typical middle class whites.  They even discovered that noisy children, who sometimes wandered around the nave during worship, could be welcome with only an occasional tsk-tsk and tut-tut.  It’s remains a struggle.  A large apartment complex of low income elderly on the same block remains an untapped well.  The twice weekly luncheon for any who are hungry is oversold, except for an invitation to join worship, which remains undersold. 

The point is, we can sometimes allow our anxieties about not being welcoming enough get in the way of being more welcoming congregations.  How about simply opening the doors and welcoming whoever comes in?  What really gets in the way is reluctance to make the open door more well known in the neighborhood.  Maybe it’s fear of looking too evangelical, in the worst sense of what that means.

A final point.  Some, in their desire to welcome all, absentmindedly obscure the special characteristics of our Anglican tradition.  Denominational differences are important.  We Episcopalians have a particular way of expressing our faith within a tradition that has real meaning.  Diminishing what makes Episcopalian polity and worship different demeans what is important in our understanding of what it means to be Christian.  We aren’t more right than others, but our Anglican tradition has value.  We are not just another vanilla variation.  We’re reformed Catholics for a reason.