Let Them Eat Cake

Over the last decade or so major corporations in every industry improved productivity and the bottom line by eliminating jobs and forcing down rates of pay for employees other than those at the top.  At the same time, the American economy was driven partly by unthinking consumer spending spurred on by sophisticated marketing techniques.  And I don’t think we can overlook that it was also driven by spending required to sustain two inane but unfunded wars.  The combination of consumer and national deficit spending was a bubble bound to burst, and it did.  
Oddly enough the current, and no doubt brief, joy over modest improvements in GDP growth rates is the result of increased consumer spending while consumer income and levels of unemployment have remained stagnant.  We need to get something straight.  A nation cannot simultaneously force middle and lower incomes to remain stagnant (or decline) while encouraging greater savings, paying down on consumer debt and building a revitalized economy on consumer spending.  
An unnamed wire service reporter wrote today that, “Economist believe that growth in consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity, will be restrained until incomes start growing at healthier levels.  That is unlikely until hiring picks up.”  At the same time, Census Bureau data show that between 1979 and 2007 the top 1 percent of households saw their incomes rise 273 percent while middle income households saw theirs go up 40 percent and low income households 18 percent.  It looks like a systemic problem, and maybe it is in one way or another.  The greater reality is that it is an ethical problem that lies squarely in the laps of boards of directors and senior management in major corporations and investment funds.
For the economy to truly recover we must adopt a new ethic, one in which low and middle income wage earners are enabled to see their incomes rise while top earners see theirs level off.  The likelihood of that happening is not great.  The government has little power to change things except through tax policy, which is not a very effective tool for things such as this.  Where the problem lies is from where the solution must come, but human greed is such a strong and seductive force that I don’t think it will.
The more likely result will be for income inequality to continue to grow.  The economy will enter a years long period of tepid growth fueled more by selling whatever we can over seas than anything else.  And most Americans will see their standard of living slowly deteriorate.  It may not be all bad.  Average Americans will learn that there is a limit to how many flat screen televisions, boats, pickups and ATVs they really need.  They will discover the benefits of community colleges and inexpensive entertainments.  Incomes will slowly catch up to declining home prices for some, and others will find the life of a renter not all that bad.  The rich will still be rich of course, and behave more and more like oligarchs, but as I have written before, oligarchies are inherently unstable.  Who knows, maybe we will become something like the French of the early 19th century with the lower classes periodically rising up to depose the wealthy for a season.  I hope not.  Perhaps the raggedy moral force of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations will make a difference.  We shall see.

Some Thoughts on The Public Interest

First a disclaimer.  Last night I wrote a brilliant post on the question of public interest.  My complex argument was bullet proof, the logic impeccable; it was an intellectual masterpiece.  Then I did something to erase the whole thing.  What follows is a mere shadow of what was lost, and humankind will ever be the lesser for it. 
I closed a recent post with the following paragraph:

The point is that individual greed can always be counted on to undermine the public interest if given the chance.  Therefore, the question should not be about limited government, but about effective government, regardless of size, that is capable of striking  the right balance for current and anticipated conditions that both optimizes individual and corporate freedom to act while protecting the public interest.  That, of course, brings us to the next question: What is the public interest?  We will take that up anon, but a quick review of previous posts will point in the right direction.

What is the public interest?  It seems to me that the public interest has to do with the structures, systems and values that define our communities, states, regions and nation.   Each of them is a debatable matter, and debate is essential for us to come to provisional agreements about what is in the public interest for the times and conditions that are present or anticipated soon.  Our foundational documents provide both the basic structures for doing that and the ideals that point in the right direction.  
Those ideals combine a passion for individual rights with limitations to prevent the systemic privileging or oppression of one segment of society over another.  Moreover, our understanding of what constitutes unwarranted privilege or oppression has changed over the years.  The standards of the 18th century cannot do for the 21st.  
My own understanding of the public interest draws a little on John Rawls (1921-2002), and heavily on the work of W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993), a statistician who turned his attention to understanding economic systems in the work place.  One of his principles was that unless a system is structured to give the workers what they need to be successful, it is pointless to hold them accountable for performance.  Transferring that to the realm of the public interest suggests that a society that creates or tolerates conditions that militate against the potential for success in the lives of ordinary citizens cannot then hold those citizens accountable for their failure to do better.  
What conditions are needed for the average citizen to enjoy the potential for success?  I suggest that they include the best in educational opportunity; freedom from oppression, bigotry and prejudice; fair and equitable taxes; fair and equitable courts; fair and equitable access to governmental decision making; public policies that reflect the ideals of stewardship of all resources; fair and equitable access to those resources, and the like.  In other words, the public interest is about the health of the community and the health of the relationships that exist within it.  It is about building up and preserving community.  Perhaps not surprisingly, public policies that strengthen and protect the public interest also promote a robust ethic of individual accountability – a very American value.

Political agendas that emphasize the aggrandizement of power and wealth for those who are already powerful and wealthy are not in the public interest.  Political agendas that emphasize the rights of some individuals to exclude, oppress or otherwise limit the freedom of other individuals are not in the public interest.  Political agendas that absorb national resources for purposes that provide little or no benefit to the building up of the community are not in the public interest.  
Obviously the question of public policy deserves more than a short post, especially a reconstructed one, but it may serve to encourage some thinking and conversation.

What Was Elijah’s Problem?

What was Elijah’s problem?  How many times did God have to rescue him, or use him to pull off some amazing event, for Elijah to get it through his head that, with God as his special companion, he did not have to be afraid of Jezebel or anyone else?  What is with this running away to hide in a cave?
I think it has to do with how hard it is to confront the mind bending insanity of a chaotic world.  Faith can sustain one for a time, but there come’s a point when, in the face of a tangle town of political, moral and social manipulation, it’s hard to navigate a reasonable course, even in companionship with God, or, for that matter, to be confident of God’s presence at all.
Getting away to a quiet place, a place of refuge, a place where it is possible to think, pray and commune with God is essential to maintaining one’s sanity in the face of the craziness that characterizes so much of what passes as civilization.  Oddly enough, I think that there was something comforting in the earthquake, blazing fire, roaring wind, thundering storm, and the silence in which the still small voice could be heard.  There was a sense of order in each of them.  They made sense.  Besides that, they existed for a season. They came and they went, and when they were gone, they were gone.  In that time and space it was possible to make some sense out of his relationship with God and gain enough understanding about the work God had given him to go out and do it.  
Elijah could not stay there.  He had to reenter the cynical, manipulative insanity of the world of Ahab, Jezebel and all the other characters in the drama that surrounded them. That had not changed, but Elijah was ready to have at it again.  
We also live in an Ahab and Jezebel world.
A few weeks ago I read Michael Lewis’ new book The Big Short in which he chronicled the rise and fall of the subprime mortgage fiasco, and the fortunes of a half dozen persons who saw it coming and made billions betting on it.  It’s a story of arrogance, stupidity, avaricious greed, utter disregard for the common good, incompetence and ignorance all working at cross purposes that could only result in mutual self-destruction.  It may be that Wall Street types played the role of Ahab and Jezebel, but the rest of us were not innocent bystanders.  We egged them on, endorsed their work, bought their products and trusted them with our money.  We, collectively, played the part of Naboth’s neighbors who were so easily persuaded to betray an honest man.  I don’t think Lewis’ book was so much an indictment of Wall Street as it was an indictment of the banal greed of all the Main Streets one finds in a Sinclair Lewis novel. 
A similar theme was followed with my next read, a highly recommended novel by Daniel Greenberg: Tech Transfer: Science, Money, Love and the Ivory Tower.  I don’t recall who highly recommended it, but they have very low standards.  It was advertised as a witty, yet informed, novel probing the incestuous relationships between university research and big business.  It turned out to be populated entirely by characters of no discernible integrity whose lives overflowed with duplicity and fraud.  In Greenberg’s world there is no honesty, only degrees of coverup so that those who can best disguise themselves have the best chance of winning whatever it is they are out to win.  It’s only a novel, of course, but one written by a science journalist whose non-fiction works appear to follow the same path.  
Both books displayed a disordered contemporary world in which ignorance, self-serving manipulation, disregard for the well being of the community, political opportunism, and enthusiastic falsification of truth are the normal patterns of life for great and small alike.  It is Noah’s world, Elijah’s world, Luther’s world and our world.  Just look around:  Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, North Korea, Arizona, South Carolina, British Petroleum, McNeil Labs, Tea Parties, political advertising and media consultants, pharmaceutical advertising, and that’s just this week’s news.  Included on that list is every you and me who sneeringly point at ‘them’ and ‘they.’  We, you and I, are the ones about whom Paul wrote when he said: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”
It isn’t that our world is fallen or dark.  It is that our world is sinfully chaotic driven by hundreds of millions of selfish decisions, including our own.  No wonder Calvin went for a theocratic dictatorship or that Plato favored the absolute rule of a philosopher king.  Both were terrible ideas, but they do show how the nuttiness of Marxism could be so attractive at first glance.  They attempted to impose order on chaos.  They failed for good reason.  Whatever God is up to, it does not include the imposition of order on society by the self appointed, whether by good or evil intent, nor has God made any appointments himself.
Elijah, indeed scripture through and through, offers another way.  It is the way of boldly entering the world as it is carrying the light of God’s presence to be shined in all places regardless of power or position.  We who have taken the name of Christ are called on to learn from Elijah but not follow him.  We are to follow Jesus Christ carrying with us a new kind of light: a light of healing, reconciliation, and godly justice.  Like Elijah, we may sometimes feel overwhelmed by chaos and even lose our way, and like Elijah, we will have to seek refuge in communion with God to regain strength, energy and sense of purpose.  In the end, it seems to me that we are not intended to live an orderly life of predictable equilibrium.  We are intended, by God, to live in communities of communities in an improvised and ever changing perichoresis.  We do not live that way now, but we Christians can approximate what that might look like in our own daily lives among those with whom we live, work and play.  We Christian can, and sometimes we do.  Just not often enough.  

Moral World Leaership

Editorial comments abound on Obama and the Nobel Prize. The usual sneering from the right has been joined by disbelief from some of the more pacifist elements on the left. The president’s own most gracious words of self deprecating acceptance seem to have been lost in the babble. My own take goes in another direction. We just returned from several weeks traveling about Italy, Greece and Turkey, quite luxuriously I might add. I tried to poke my nose into the news about local politics and world opinions in the places we visited, and we found ourselves in the company of other tourists mostly from England, Canada and Australia who had a lot to say from their perspectives. Apparently the sun still never sets on the British Empire if one thinks of it as a river of English speaking tourists flowing around the world. But I digress. The point is that in every place there was renewed confidence in the United States as a respected nation of moral world leadership – not of world dominance but of moral world leadership. Obama is for them the symbol of that restoration. Whether earned or unearned is irrelevant. Our nation had become despised as just another corrupt super power. All of that has changed in slightly less than a year. To be sure, public opinion is fickle and all could turn again in a moment, but I believe that it also indicates how important moral world leadership is.

Now, here is the question. Why is the Christian Church not a symbol of moral world leadership? Why is Christianity, as an ideal, not a symbol of moral world leadership? Do we have to wait generations for the occasional Mother Teresa or Bishop Tutu to arise as moral world leaders? Are such Christian saints that rare? Is the institutional church incapable of that sort of leadership?