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Friday, March 28, 2008

Cory Booker - Watch This Space

Tired of watching the punditocracy rail back and forth from the extremes over the inspirational or hollow symbolism (depending on your view) of the Obama speech or (worse) the meaning of the meaning of someone's interpretation of the speech? Do yourself a favor. Watch the appearance of Newark, New Jersey Major Cory Booker on the March 28 edition of Bill Moyers' Journal:


Actually, watch the entire show. It includes an interview with Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, who helped draft the Kerner Commission Report, issued in March 1968, which reviewed the specific events around the inner city riots of the mid-1960s and the larger economic and racial factors of the times. Harris recounts how surprised many were at the time that the commission found no evidence of any organized, pre-planned conspiracy to initiate the looting, arson and destruction that took place. It wasn't due to large numbers of individual whites having the thought in their head that "I do not like that one black person or all black people."

Instead, it reflected a society that failed to address inequalities in education, which produced growing inequality in income. These factors were exacerbated by sudden fluctuations in manufacturing jobs that suddenly abandoned many American core cities which resulted in a common blueprint of problems: highly concentrated poverty, poor urban schools, high unemployment, stark racial segregation and police forces which lived elsewhere and patrolled inner cities as a day job rather than as a core community function.

The show fast-forwards to today for an extensive interview with Cory Booker and his take on the challenges he faces in Newark where some of the effects of its riots are still apparent 40+ years later. Booker talks about how even now, seemingly subtle differences in the resources available to the average inner city child versus the average suburbanite child get magnified for the worse by the broken processes of our public systems. He compares the likely result of a arrest for marijuana possession on a typical suburban teenager (parent brings a lawyer, sentence suspended in lieu of an early drug intervention program, three weeks of missed school...) versus an inner city teen (single parent, likely no money for lawyer, kid might actually go to juvenile court or jail, no money for health insurance so no coverage for drug rehab, might spent a year in prison, miss LOTS of school...) and you can see how a "minor difference" quickly produces a vast difference in outcome. It's the same original offense yet the outcome for one is not only vastly worse for that teen in particular but all of us. None of us "want" that or actively work to structure the system that produces the broken result, but by not taking the time to understand that it happens and understand how the system can be changed to stop it, it continues to happen to our collective detriment.

The interview with Booker is worth it for this comment alone:

That's the final question people should ask. What am I doing to deserve this country? I'm an American. That comes with obligations. We have the Statue of Liberty on one side. I think we should build another statue in this country called the Statue of Obligation, the Statue of Responsibility. And people should understand that by the very nature people are fighting to become citizens of the United States of America, willing to do whatever it takes, but, we're taking for granted what that legacy means.

How impressive is this interview? It's a more entertaining, engaging, positive, and CONCRETE discussion of problems and problem-solving than I've heard from ANY politician. PERIOD.

America -- THIS is the kind of problem solving and communication we need. In EVERY aspect of our government and society. Watch this space. We'll be hearing a lot more from Cory Booker. Hopefully...

If you'd rather read the transcript than watch it, the transcript is also available here:


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ignorance on the Cafeteria Plan

Barack Obama's speech (#1) on race and racism in America and its drag on the progress of our country served more as the latest political Rorschach test on Americans at an individual level than a directional sign on where to go in the future. Read or watch the speech itself and you might see a well-crafted philosophical analysis of the particular issue of racism -- an issue of obvious political and social importance surrounded by lots of political correctness, noise and anger but very little enlightenment. Look elsewhere at what is going on the country with this dust-up at the edge of the frame and a different picture should emerge from your cognitive peripheral vision.

The legitimate questions from those on the right about the Wright sermon and Obama's reaction (or lack thereof) to it might be:

1) how can you focus so much anger on the damage others do to your community while ignoring the damage inflicted from within?
2) how can you, Barack, listen to such vitriol and flawed logic and not walk out?

The legitimate questions of those on the left might instead be:

1) how can you deny that a fixation on incarceration instead of development hasn't solved the drug problems of our society?
2) where is the dividing line between unprovoked religious terrorism and blowback from nearly a century of Western interference in foreign countries for the benefit of perceived American military and business interests?

All perfectly valid questions. Excellent questions, in fact. Obama addressed many aspects of these questions in his speech and did a pretty good job at it. However, as appropriate as all of these questions may be, they actually obscure a larger problem in the country by their specificity. The real problem with our country is what I would term "ignorance on the cafeteria plan".

Academics and writers who follow religious life in America have noted two dominant trends over the past twenty to thirty years. One involves the growing number of Americans who have switched Christian denominations or switched religions entirely. The other involves the large increase in the number of so-called mega-churches. For several reasons, the two trends are directly related. Americans have been essentially picking and choosing elements of religions that fit their evolving concepts of social justice and morality and provide a sense of tradition, community or reassurance. Even if members stick with the church in which they were raised, they often begin practicing selective theology by ignoring official doctrine with which they disagree, ranging from birth control, stem cell research to divorce.

The growth of mega-churches is simply the logical "macro-theological" outcome of the "micro-theological" choices made at the individual level. Pastors who pay attention to trends with family, work and society continually refine the unique blend of ideas in their ministry that are attractive to people in a particular geographic or demographic niche. It may not be conscious or intentional, but when a particular style of ministry fills the pews and collection tills, that combination will inevitably be reflected in the ministry of more congregations. Call it theological Darwinism, if that isn't too sacrilege.

Signs that more individuals are actively picking and choosing aspects of their beliefs like they choose health care benefits in their company's "cafeteria plan" benefit program might be a good sign that more people are taking the responsibility to consciously think about ALL of their beliefs rather than blindly accepting without thought what they learned as a child. However, one critique of this pick-and-choose approach to religion as product is that instead of yielding a consistent theology or guide to living, it produces something of a hodge-podge of inconsistent but convenient, unchallenging, feel-good platitudes. Think of it as the spiritual or moral equivalent of a product promoted as a dessert topping AND a floor wax. Or a Sunday TV evangelist.

In reality, this theology on the cafeteria plan may in the end wind up serving neither the shepherd nor the flock. If you're the minister dispensing the dessert topping / floor wax, it is easy to delude yourself that even if you know you're soft-pedaling some important concepts the flock really SHOULD hear for their own good, you're at least getting them into the tent so you can eventually get those concepts across. Right? If you have to sacrifice a few years of hard hitting truth as you build the flock, you can always come back and deliver the real message later. Right?

If you're part of the flock, attending a church that's "comfortable" and agrees with all of your preconceived notions about morality and justice isn't exactly the point, is it? Being "right" in the long term in terms of a spiritual salvation or leading a moral life is supposed to be the goal rather than being "comfortable" in the short term. Avoiding the uncomfortable and choosing the familiar doesn't require a careful analysis of your beliefs so how is that going to strengthen those beliefs if they are to provide any strength to withstand the shocks life inevitably sends your way?

So how do the trends in mainstream American religion differ from what's taking place in mainstream American politics? They don't. They are identical. Our politics are dominated by a false, two-dimensional continuum that is superimposed on every solution proposed for every problem. Within that false two-party dichotomy, the same "ignorance on the cafeteria" plan kicks in terms of both demographics and policy. Candidates for office from both parties refuse to speak the truth for fear of losing votes in the short term and the public refuses to listen to any candidate with an open mind who doesn’t already agree 100% with what they already "know" and believe or worse, TELLS THEM THE TRUTH.

Imagine for a moment you are an African-American candidate from a major metro area with a large African-American voter community. Imagine that overall, across the entire national population, you support policies and you have communication skills that make you a likely winning candidate, able to win 51% or more. Do you think you can win if a voter block you are expected to dominate, the African-American community, for some reason doesn't support you? What will the rest of the voting public think? If he or she cannot secure that base, why should I provide my support?

Imagine for a moment you are a conservative candidate from a region with solid financial conservative support. Imagine that overall, across the entire national population, you advocate policies on spending, regulation, etc. which are attractive to a large number of your party and independents, making it possible for you to win 51% or more. Do you think you can win if a voter block at the core of your party, religious evangelical conservatives, for some reason does not support you? If you can't nail down a super-majority of support within your party, why should I provide my support?

Barack Obama deserves to be faulted for failing to flat out state the spiritual and moral failure of his pastor's preaching. Regardless of whether you can find a grain of truth in Wright's divisive sermon after layers of analysis and decoding, the fact that a so-called religious leader cannot find a more constructive way to engage his flock in a dialogue that enlightens them rather than simply enrages them tells you his conduct was wrong. Obama failed to take the opportunity to make that point and thus failed to communicate a crucial lesson about improving the level of dialogue in the country. How important is that lesson to learn? The new pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, Reverend Otis Moss III, took the time on Easter Sunday to characterize the debate over Wright's comments as a "lynching" and compared Wright to Christ. (#2). Really? THAT'S the best sermon you could come up with on Easter Sunday?

John McCain deserves to be faulted for his capitulation to the religious evangelical right for exactly the same reason. He rightly castigated the bigotry of the ultra right-wing evangelical wing of the party as embodied by Bob Jones and his "University" by criticizing Bush's appearance there in 2000 and sarcastically inviting the school to leave the 16th century behind and join the 21st. Of course, little has changed in the theology of Bob Jones and its ilk, yet McCain got farther in the campaign process in 2008 in part because he began backpedaling on his prior stance as early as 2006, refusing to rule out any appearance at the school.

All of our politicians engage in the same deluded dance with We the People as many ministers do with their congregation. If we expect every political candidate to storm out of their congregation in a huff at the first sign of something they hear that they or we don't agree with, we won't have a single candidate on the ballot at any level of government who attends church. Is a majority of Americans really willing to support an openly un-religious candidate for any office? I thought not. For that matter, is every American really stating that THEY agree with EVERY thought expressed in their own church, synagogue or mosque? I thought not. So list the three points together and think about what they say:

1) no American agrees 100% about everything with any other American
2) yet, we expect politicians to be 100% in agreement with any policy or statement of any party or parish to which they belong or we label them a hypocrite
3) yet, no politician who remains religiously or politically independent (and not a hypocrite) will be accepted for national office

Put these together and it says Americans demand to be lied to. Lied to about religion and practically everything else. Guess what? We have been lied to and will continue to be lied to, about many important issues, not just racism.

Obama's speech might have done wonders to make people re-think the flawed, dysfunctional debate about race issues within America. However, by fixating on racism, it failed to address the larger broken record of behavior that perpetuates not only racism but sexism, classism and every other "dumb-ism" that is preventing the United States from more effectively using all of the human capital at our disposal to improve the country and the larger world.


#1) http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/03/18/obama.transcript/index.html

#2) http://elections.foxnews.com/2008/03/23/in-eastor-sermon-trinity-united-pastor-compares-rev-wright-to-jesus/

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Look up the Word "Gall"

...in the dictionary, and this might be on that page.

This is an entry in the "Other Comments" section of the March 10, 2007 issue of Forbes, a regular section in which the publisher attempts to highlight other recent articles and editorials which further the Forbes credo that all that's really needed is an ever-lighter tax load and predictable, pro-business policies for the uber-wealthy and all will be right for the rest of you serfs... At some point... Eventually. Trust us. We're the financial and economic professionals.

Strong, Stable Dollar -- The elephant in the living room -- the topic Washington won't broach -- is the dollar itself as a powerful but unused monetary policy tool. In his recent 500-page memoir former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan barely mentions the wide swings in the value of the dollar - probably the most important economic and investing variable in the last decade -- and their causal connection to first deflation and now inflation. The best stimulus policy is a sound currency. -- DAVID MALPASS, chief economist, Bear Stearns, Wall Street Journal

A sound currency is the best stimulus policy? Really? Of course! It's so simple! Hank, order me up a slice of one of them "sound currencies" and we'll put this whole "financial crisis" thing to rest.

This is why I cancelled my subscription to the Wall Street Journal. What utter self-serving tripe.

How about enforcement of anti-trust laws in mega-bank mergers? Remember how Citicorp arrogantly announced its $140 billion dollar merger with Travelers in 1998 and just began operating as one company without waiting for formal Justice Department approval, despite banking/insurance prohibitions still on the books at that time?

How about functioning bond rating agencies?

How about ANY regulatory oversight of hedge funds?

How about bank CEOs and chief economists avoiding strategies involving holding THIRTEEN TRILLION DOLLARS in "value" in derivative securities (an amount equal to the United States GDP) with only $11 billion in assets?

It's pretty tough to secure a "sound currency" when banks are producing fiat money by operating with a .08 percent reserve ratio of real assets to garbage and bank CEOs are laughing all the way to their own vault as the government assists in the fraud.

Mr. Malpass, maybe if you had spent a little more time (any time?) fulfilling your own fiduciary duty to Bear Stearns stockholders in the weeks prior to March 17 instead of writing an op-ed column for the WSJ, you might not have had to sell your company for a bogus $2.00/share price in a Federal Reserve Bank sponsored fire sale hastily arranged over a weekend to avoid a true bankruptcy that would have likely triggered a worldwide financial collapse.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Democracy in America (Yea Right)

In one week, from March 4 to March 10 2008, all of the following occurred:

A Republican candidate for President clinched his party's nomination despite a) advocating the veto of legislation banning torture practices he claims to oppose and b) stump speeches suggesting America will remain in Iraq for 100 years if necessary.

The current President vetoed said bill outlawing the use of water boarding and similar techniques by the CIA -- one of only eight vetoes in his entire tenure in office.

National Democratic party insiders, who opted to punish Michigan state Democratic insiders (who had the nerve to ignore party leader preferences on primary dates) by ignoring their primary election, began considering ways to un-punish those state insiders by allowing a new primary or caucus presumably paid for by those political campaigns and special interests with the most to gain by having a do-over.

The media confirmed its collective incompetence in covering national politics by conflating the Michigan fiasco with the Florida fiasco in which the national Democratic Party rejected legitimate votes in a legitimate election scheduled by the State Legislature because the Legislature didn’t obey the party's wishes in scheduling the state primary.

A Democratic governor divulged his repeated involvement in a $5500/hour prostitution ring despite a ten-year reputation as a holier than thou crusader against corporate corruption.

First one brief word before any philosophical analysis…

Eliot. Eliot Spitzer. Yea you. Get out. TONIGHT. And don't let the doorknob hit you in the can on the way out. You have no moral standing left to raise the flag in front of the Governor's mansion, must less conduct any business on behalf of the public.

It's hard to imagine more obvious signs of the disconnect between what's truly important and what occupies the attention of our so-called leaders than these recent events.

* The US Labor Department announced job losses for February 2008 of 63,000 after losing 22,000 in January
* the Fed announced another ONE HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS in short term repo loans over 28 days to prop up paralyzed short-term interbank cash lending
* crude oil hit $108/barrel, partly because of military instability in multiple locations, partly due to a collapsing US dollar and partly due to nervous investors buying crude futures as a hedge against the collapsing US dollar
* A new book was released providing ample evidence supporting a monthly estimate of $12 billion dollars per month for 2008 for the war in Iraq -- a war we're supposed to be winning and winding down -- and a total cost estimate of over $3 trillion.

Despite all of these events (and others) in the headlines, none of them are occupying more than a handful of sound bytes in the Presidential campaign on either side. On March 10, Clinton spent time in a town hall meeting offering a spot on the ticket to someone painted as unworthy of a 3 am phone call so they could be one heartbeat away from that call. Obama spent an entire stump speech talking about the irony and political gall of the non-front-runner offering the front-runner the co-pilot seat on a flight that has yet to take off. McCain spent the week planning a month of financial fundraising catch-up and trying coax former HP CEO Carly Fiorina onboard to help educate him on the difference between billion and trillion.

With all of this on the plate, all of the presidential candidates are failing MISERABLY at educating voters about the problems we face or clarifying their own strategies for solving them. If a candidate sneaks through an entire campaign without either EXPLAINING the forces at work that pose a threat or opportunity for the country or DESCRIBING what they will do once in office, they may get their hands on the wheel but will have no ability to steer the country. Every politian opposed to their policies can rightfully claim the American people didn't vote for that when they elected you.

Of course, I really don't expect any politicians of any party to try any other approach as long as they are so well rewarded by the corrupt status quo doing the same ol' same ol'. We the People, on the other hand, don't have the luxury of time. It's our dollars they're spending like drunken sailors on shore leave -- on proverbial and not-so-proverbial hookers.