Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas presents

Our daughter Alexis is pretty much a Renaissance woman. She is a great musician (listen to the links to the right), a great writer (read her blog), and a wonderful painter. She spent two years at Bard College as an art major. If you search my blog for stations of the cross, you can see more of her work. During her time there she made me a charcoal drawing of me playing guitar that I absolutely loved. For a variety of reasons I never got it hung... and then during our last move, I lost it.

I feel terrible about that. I really loved the drawing and was looking for the perfect place to hang it (which I have now) plus it was a gift from my daughter... It was one of those losses that you feel the absence... and I do.

Recently Alexis has been painting more and I asked her to do me a painting with me and a guitar. I showed her where I was planning to hang it and told her that I'd be happy to pay her for it (she is struggling financially these days).

She gave it to me as a Christmas present! I love it! This one, I hung immediately in my office for all to see. I don't see myself in it (maybe I'm not there), but it is full of guitars and guitar parts.

She did a painting for her mother as well which we have hung in our bathroom. This one picks up some images and colors from a hooked rug that Cheryl's grandmother made which we have in the bathroom as well.

We have two other paintings that Alexis did in our home... one that was a gift and another that is on loan from the artist until she has a wall big enough for it. We're hoping that she takes a long time before she gets a room that can house that painting.

running silent

Last Sunday, Cheryl and I headed off to Pacifica for three nights to get away. She has been pretty fried from her work lately and I wasn't feeling much better... so off we went... about a 5 hour drive on Sunday afternoon to a beautiful area on the coast just south of San Francisco. Some nice hiking along the ocean or in the hills and a short drive into SF for museums or across the bay to see Alexis and Christian, all of which we did.

So, we arrived at the hotel (that photo is the view from our room) and unpacked only to discover that I had forgotten my backpack... with my computer. Now, I have a data plan with my phone but hate to use it for e-mail and the web... but I thought I was still OK and could use it if I had to... No signal at the hotel. I was off line FOR THREE WHOLE DAYS!

I survived. Barely. And have a lot to say over the next couple of days.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Blessed Christmas

A Blessed Christmas to all!

Friday, December 24, 2010

so who's better?

There is a common assumption that government is inefficient at providing anything. A comment on an earlier post included a link to a paper arguing that a completely privatized road system would be better than the system we currently have and would even lower the rate of automobile related deaths. It is rare that the argument goes that far, but there we are.

I would argue that for many areas of life, government is not only the logical but also the better provider of services. Let's look at a specific example, privatized fire protection. It might be cheaper (although we won't address the ways that is accomplished). A community has two companies providing fire departments. Taxes dropped significantly when the public department was abolished. Property owners purchase subscriptions for their service. Both companies do what they do well and the price is competitive between them and lower than the attendant taxes were. They truly are competitors in all of the best and worst senses of the term. A fire breaks out at a house with nobody home. The neighbors call a fire company and the dispatcher looks up the address, only to tell the caller that the homeowner does not have a subscription with them. Then the dispatcher tells the caller that the next door neighbor does have a subscription and they will be there to keep the fire from spreading. They arrive quickly, set up, and begin hosing down the neighbors home to keep the fire from spreading... while watching the first house burn. In the meantime, the caller has contacted the second company who send a truck. When they arrive, the first company is in their way and they cannot get close enough to efficiently address the fire. Plus, the additional call cost them abut 5-10 minutes, during which time the fire got a lot worse. And it is discovered that the neighbor on the other side, trying to save money, has neglected to purchase a subscription from either company. That house catches fire and the entire neighborhood is threatened. A third house, also without a subscription, begins to catch and the second company, which has a lot of subscriptions in the area, decides to address that house to keep things from spreading further. After the incident, they send a bill to the final home and the owner responds, "I didn't ask you to put out the fire." Those who have purchased subscriptions wonder whether they should drop theirs... look at the results - one house with a subscription is gone and one without was saved.

Would it not have been more efficient had there been one department, paid for by public funds, with the responsibility of keeping the entire community safe?

Here's the basic issue for me. A for profit company has as its primary responsibility, making a profit. Indeed, it has a legal and fiduciary responsibility to make money. If a given service cannot be done profitably, it will not be done. Decisions are made based on the bottom line, and usually with short term goals in mind. Many companies provide excellent services or products and rightly pride themselves on excellence but they must be able to make a profit or they do not provide that service or product. Government, on the other hand, has as its primary responsibility, the welfare of the citizenry. There are times when that welfare will not easily translate to a dollars and cents bottom line and other times when it clearly will not be profitable, especially in the short term.

Let's look at another example - medical care (which I believe should be provided by the government). When the Obama plan (which I'm not happy with) was being discussed two big scary terms thrown out by the opponents were "death panels" and "rationing" as if either was a new thing. There already are both. Panels decide what care will be provided. I have an insurance policy with scores of exclusions. Somebody sat down and said, "we will not cover this. no exceptions." About 5 years ago, we paid nearly $60K for a surgery that our daughter needed because our company never paid for that surgery. Without it, she would have gone deaf in one ear, had difficulty chewing, and likely would have had her jaw lock periodically, requiring visits to the emergency room to have it broken. "Sorry. Not covered. Ever." As for rationing, we were able to come up with the money. It really hit our finances hard but we did it. Had we not been able to, rationing would have come into play... no money = no surgery and she would likely be deaf now and facing the other issues. For those without insurance, every medical decision is a similar one. Questions are not always asked regarding the value of a procedure, the prognosis for the patient, or even if it is good science. Long term questions are not asked regarding the way that decision will impact the larger society. Instead, a bean counter asks who will pay and how much? I would much rather have a panel of scientists asking whether the procedure is likely to be successful than a panel of bean counters asking whether it will be profitable.

And finally, if a service is being provided for profit, every dollar that is shunted off into profits is a dollar not spent on meeting the need.

There is no question that government is not always efficient and that the services it provides could be improved. Often those with the loudest voices get their needs addressed while those with less power are ignored. Often government responds to misinformation and acts in ways that clearly go against the common good... that is what we have elections for. It is the responsibility of the whole of the citizenry to stand up and change those in power. Still, that basic difference of primary goal is critical. For profit businesses are there to make money. Meeting needs is only the way they make money. Government is there to meet needs.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sin vs. human need

I used to participate in a Christian bulletin board that was populated mostly by fairly right wing folk who tended to be close to libertarian about the cold sins and very authoritarian regarding hot ones. They thought the government should not be involved in educating children or restricting business activities and certainly shouldn't be taking taxes from them but it was the governments business to restrict with whom or how you had sex. Sin was a big word for them but it only had to do with individual behavior, never corporate or systemic issues.

Whenever the discussion of entitlement programs came up, invariably someone would argue that the government should not be forcing them to help others... that indeed, were it not for the onerous tax system, they would take care of those in need. Now, these are folk who have more than a healthy respect for the fallen nature of humanity but they seem to forget their own theology when helping those in need comes up. Suddenly the better nature of human beings comes into play and we can count on good Christian people to do what is necessary to take care of those in need, providing food, shelter, education, etc.

Sin is not as important a word in my theological vocabulary as it is for them. Indeed, I rarely use the term. In this instance I would be more likely to use the terms selfishness, greed, and lack of a sense of community responsibility. I have no expectation that good Christian folk either could or would meet the needs of those in their communities if suddenly the government programs disappeared. For those of us who live in our comfortable suburban settings, it is all too easy to ignore the needs of those across the tracks. For those of us serving the needy, we know the needs are overwhelming. For those of us struggling to keep our heads above water, our children fed, the heat on... our needs are too immediate to have resources to help others.

Yes, I have seen and experienced the sacrificial love of many good Christian (and non-Christian) folk. As government funding for programs for the needy has shrunk, I have seen many good people work and give to pick up the slack. I do not believe that generosity is strong enough to overcome human greed or selfishness. I do not believe that enough good folk are open to the needs more than a few blocks away in a sustained way to meet those needs. I do not believe that without government intervention that there would be adequate resources to make a difference. The power of human sin is just too great. And I am always surprised that my brothers (they are all men) on that forum think otherwise.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

George Ought to Help

This is a typical argument of those who are against government programs that help the needy. It feels right and it seems to make sense. After all, isn't it my money that I worked hard for? And if it is, shouldn't I be able to decide what I do with it and help others only when and if that is what I decide to do?

Unfortunately, the argument is incomplete. It implies that one earns what they earn entirely on their own... that the accumulation of wealth is based solely on the talents and work of the individual. Let's add some other variables to the argument.

Let's say that Otis is blessed with incredible genetics. He has an off the chart IQ. He lives in a place where there are no public schools and dad dies in a mining accident when he is 7. At that point, in a country with no safety nets, Otis must go to work in the mines to help support the family. That his IQ is 40 points higher than that of the guy who owns the mine is irrelevant. The owner gets the profits and he dies of black lung disease at a young age.

How about Fred... he invents a new doohickey. He is pretty sure that he can come up with capital to put together a manufacturing facility to make the doohickeys but the roads and the railroads have fallen apart do to lack of government investment and he cannot get the doohickeys to market. The company fails.

Jack got a hold of one of the doohickeys and was mighty impressed. Off he goes to some other developing country and copies it, with much cheaper labor and lower quality materials. He makes a killing.

How bout Marianne... She worked hard all of her life. The company she worked for made tons of money for the owners and stock holders. She was proud of her contribution. She made a reasonable salary... but not enough to invest any significant amount for the future. She retired and was doing OK... then she got sick. She didn't have health insurance - too old and her health was poor so the cost was prohibitive. The children of the owners, who just inherited their wealth, lived in ease in gated mansions, while she made choices between heat, food, and the medicines she needed.

And James... grew up in a very poor neighborhood in a decaying city. The schools spent more energy on discipline than teaching. He didn't know anyone with two parents in the household. Half of the men he knew were either in jail or recently released. Few had legitimate jobs. When he began to skip school in 7th grade and sell drugs on the corner, nobody was surprised. His brother Bob tried to learn in school but it was difficult. He spent as much time watching his back as studying. When he graduated, he was able to get into a local college but he was so far behind the other students, he couldn't catch up and flunked out.

Steve comes from a middle class family. He went through a good school system, paid for with government funds and got a job working for a good company. They rely on a workforce that is well educated provided via the public schools. It is not possible for their employees to live with walking distance of their offices and factories so they rely on a good system of roads for people to travel to work. The monetary system is relatively stable so they can make plans for months or years in advance. They have good police and fire services to keep their capital safe. Steve's bosses are smart enough to know that the business depends on the input of all of the workers at each level and that without the infrastructure the government provides, they could make no profit at all.

And finally there is George. He is likable, smart enough, and able to keep up without working too hard. Indeed, he is a "C" student and spends a lot of time partying. He lives in the best neighborhood and is going to a top rated school. When he graduate, he gets into an Ivy League school, not because of his grades or even sports, but because of his last name. He goes to school with the sons and daughters of other powerful people and when they all graduate, they all move into positions of power and wealth.

All of that is to say that the system is not fair. Nobody makes it or fails entirely on their own. I would argue that those who benefit most from the system - like George and to a lesser but still significant extent Steve - should pay the most to maintain the system. I would even argue that the system requires some to be outside of it. Ask any Chamber of Commerce how they would feel about total employment and they will quickly tell you that someone has to be out of a job or the system would fail.

Bottom line when someone tells you that the government is stealing money they made from them, tell them to go and make that money without any of the supports that come from the government.

In a day or two I'll address another piece of the puzzle... Human generosity vs. human sin. Then, I'll get to who is better at providing for basic needs, government or for profit business.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I'm a liberal

Bet you're not surprised if you've read any of my blogs.

My brother-in-law sent me a link to a 10 question quiz published by a libertarian organization that evidently positions a person on the political spectrum pretty accurately. My scores came out 90 on personal issues and 20 on economic, with higher scores indicating less government intervention. That puts me far into the liberal area of their chart which they define as:

Liberals usually embrace freedom of choice in personal matters, but tend to support significant government control of the economy. They generally support a government-funded "safety net" to help the disadvantaged, and advocate strict regulation of business. Liberals tend to favor environmental regulations, defend civil liberties and free expression, support government action to promote equality, and tolerate diverse lifestyles.

you can find the quiz here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

mother nature

The last few days, I've been struck by the wonders of this place where I live. It is breathtakingly beautiful and the boundaries between civilization and the wilderness are quite narrow and close by. It is very common to see a pod of dolphins and not unheard of that one will see whales from the beach. Bears and deer are very often seen and there are many hiking trails with warnings about mountain lions. Rattlesnakes and tarantulas are found on mountain trails. Then there are the mountain lions of the sea - sharks - and they are sighted fairly often and every few years one attacks a swimmer or surfer. The power, the beauty, the danger, the wonder are all there. Today, three pieces really got me - one pretty dramatic and two more ordinary.

There was a song back in the 70's that had a chorus that went something like - "it never rains in California, but boy, don't they warn ya, it pours, man, it pours." It's been pouring where we live. Typical rainfall in Santa Barbara is about 15 inches a year spread over the rainy season. Now it is true that it usually comes in a few larger storms rather than a bunch of small ones. This week has been a doozy! Since Friday morning, at the San Marcos Pass which goes across the Santa Ynez Mountains just south of Santa Barbara, there has been almost 12 inches of rain and as much as 5 more are forecast before Wednesday night. The city of Santa Barbara has gotten 7+ in the same time period. It is wild to see the runoff in the creeks which just a short time ago were dry. And you can almost see the water rise in the man-made lake where we get much of our drinking water. Luckily there have not been any serious landslides but that still could happen.

Yesterday, as I was going into my office I looked down at the sidewalk and saw what I thought was a stick about 3 inches long that looked like a newt. I went into the office and remarked to Cheryl how cool the little stick was. A few minutes later as I walked past it on my way to one of our other buildings, I looked again... and sure enough, it was a newt. The coolest little thing. I moved him (without touching him - that can be bad for newts) so nobody would step on him.

The third piece happened this afternoon. We stopped by one of our favorite wineries - Beckmen - and on the way home, going down a country road, we came around a bend and there in the middle of the road was a beautiful coyote... with a rooster in his mouth. He dropped the rooster and ran when he saw us. The rooster was quite dead so it didn't do anyone any good. Hopefully the coyote came back and got his meal... why should the rooster have died for nothing?

Friday, December 17, 2010

fundamentalist atheists

The other day my daughter called me an Enlightenment thinker on her blog and then referred to her mother's "hooby dooby perspective." I'm not going to argue even though I want to... although there is likely more truth there than I would like to admit. Still, it got me thinking about things. Add Christmas into the picture and a lot has been swirling around for me.

The direction things took is nothing original to me, but still it has been weighing heavily these days as we approach Christmas. I've been thinking of literalism, which presumably is a piece of enlightenment thinking, vs. the question of mystery which clearly slides over into hooby dooby. Over the past few years there have been a lot of "evangelical" atheists out there, trying to convince others of the rightness of their system. Interestingly enough, they have sided most clearly with the fundamentalists as both have argued from a position of taking scriptures absolutely literally. How many times have we heard Bill Maher denigrate religious people as ignorant with a statement about a talking snake? There is no room to approach the text in any way other than a literal, historical document that is either correct or incorrect. For the atheists, it seems silly and therefore is discarded. For literalist believers (of any particular religion), it must be true so it becomes the lens through which science, sociology, and history must be seen. Neither position allows for mystery, poetry, or myth (in the technical sense).

As we approach Christmas, someone will invariably note that the date was chosen to coincide with a Pagan holiday and that many of the practices recall Pagan winter holidays. Others will note the difference between the Greek and Hebrew versions of Isaiah's sign to Ahaz speaking of a young girl vs. a virgin. Many will remind us that Christ is the reason for Christmas but few will get past the simple questions and wrestle with the mystery, the poetry, and the myth (again, in the technical sense of the word).

If you observe Christmas, I hope you can get in touch with a bit more of the hooby dooby side - find the mystery, poetry, and myth and be transformed by a story so amazing that it can't and must be true at the same time. It really is the most radical message that I can imagine.

Finally, I want to share a quote from David Mowaljarlai, an Ngarinyin aboriginal elder, that I had as an e-mail signature for some time and still revisit every now and then... "Once it stops bein' a mystery, it stops bein' true." At that point, the literalist and the atheist have both missed out... because there is no room at the inn for mystery. But the mystery cannot be denied... and it happens in the stable, quietly and inexplicably transforming the world.

Have a Blessed Christmas!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


Back in seminary we were given the option to opt out of Social Security on religious grounds. The requirement was a religious objection for clergy to receive government aid. As you can guess, a few classmates did opt out on anything but religious grounds. Even then (mid 1970's) there was discussion that Social Security would not be there when we began to retire. These classmates felt that they would do better by contributing the same amount to investments managing those resources on their own. I have no idea whether or how they did. My guess is that at least some of them made no additional investments and will be in a real mess when they come to retirement as they will not be eligible to receive Social Security or Medicare. Others may have been disciplined about investing and have done quite well. We'll see how it plays out for them.

I remember the discussions very clearly. I remember arguing that beyond the question of whether or not it is moral to claim a religious exemption when one is really thinking only about the economics of the situation, there is the question of one's responsibility to the common good. I argued that it didn't matter whether or not SS would be there when I retired, it was my responsibility to pay in to support those who had given their lives building the society whose benefits I enjoyed. I still feel that way even though my quarterly payments of self-employment tax (the equivalent of the payroll tax) do hurt and the fact that I am more than frustrated by the most regressive tax in our system.

Those who benefit from the structures of the society should pay to support that system and those who benefit the most should pay proportionately more. I am not only willing to pay my part... I am morally obligated to do so and the size of my part is based on the benefits I receive and have received from the system.

This chart is a very important one for thinking about taxes... and about our current situation

A few observations -

I would argue that the wealthy and the corporations that do business in the United States receive the most benefits from the system and should proportionately pay more to sustain that system.

Taxes are the lowest percentage of GDP in 60 years... No wonder we're having a budget crisis.

Corporate taxes - in a time of HUGE profits to corporations - are the lowest they have been on the chart. We have all heard of huge corporations like Exxon in 2009 reporting a tax benefit of 1.1 million on 45.2 billion in profits. The GAO reported in '08 that from '98-'05, 2/3rds of US corporations paid no income tax.

Employment taxes - Social Security, Medicare, etc - are probably the largest percentage of the chart... and are the most regressive tax in our system, effecting the poor and middle class while not being levied on higher incomes.

Estate and gift taxes, the closest things we had (and I did say had) to a wealth tax, were never large but they did contribute to the fiscal pie, have shrunk to zero.

Clearly, this situation is not sustainable. The question is what should be done. The government does things that are necessary to have a civil society and those things cost money. They must be paid for and the only way to do that is via taxes. Somebody has to pay taxes and the lion's share are now being borne by workers through the payroll tax. In this situation, the Republicans and a few Democrats are arguing that we must extend tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% while cutting safety nets, social programs, and other expenditures that contribute to a civil society. This is exactly the wrong answer. Taxes should be raised on those who benefit the most.

The argument goes that raising taxes on the wealthy will cause them to invest less, resulting in fewer jobs, etc. This logic fails when you think about it. If money is invested, that removes it from the taxable income so logically, a higher tax rate encourages rather than discourages investment. Why give the money to the government when you can use it to add capital to a business and thereby avoid paying the taxes?