The Inequality Trifecta Revisited

Now that we’re two years removed from the Bernie Sanders campaign, the claim that American society suffers from rampant inequalities is no longer a shocker. If anything, Senator Sanders’ candidacy proclaimed inequality as public enemy number one. He’s helped us understand that inequality in the US (and elsewhere) consists of three sub-categories: income, wealth, and opportunity.richvspoor-large_600x400

Income inequality is the most accessible of the three, revealed by comparisons in hourly wages, daily wages, and yearly salaries of workers. Income inequality is on the rise in the US, and has been for more than thirty-five years.

To understand wealth inequality, consider that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has hovered around 25,000 for all of 2018. Are you among the 55 percent of American adults who own stocks? Before the 2008 “Great Recession” when the Dow Jones index fluctuated between 12,000 and 13,000, close to 65 percent of Americans owned stocks. Today, the pool of stock owners as a percentage of total population is the smallest it’s been in a generation, concentrating wealth. Increases in stock market indices generally mean those that already have plenty get more.

A number of us (myself included) have retirement pensions and other holdings in the stock market. I fit the majority stockholder profile: white college grad living in a household making more than $75,000 per year. According to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of whites, 28 percent of blacks, and 17 percent of Hispanics held stocks as of 2013. Financial market holdings, along with business and home ownerships are the main markers of accumulated wealth. The racial wealth gap has increased since 2008 in the US – whites have thirteen times greater wealth (overall assets minus liabilities) than blacks, and ten times greater than Hispanics.* Double or triple would be a significant difference – thirteen and ten times greater reveals a rigged system, historically and currently so.

Economist, financier, and author Mohamed El-Erian best explains opportunity inequality in his book The Only Game in Town: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse (Penguin Random House, 2016): “The worsening of income and wealth inequality has been so pronounced within countries that it now also undermines opportunities” (p. 84). In other words, as inequality continues to increase in the sub-categories of income and wealth, opportunities decrease. This explains why the great American tradition of economic and social mobility is morphing, especially during the past thirty-five years, into economic and social immobility. El-Erian, an American with extensive work experience worldwide, warns that the important role of inequality serving to incentivize and reward hard work and entrepreneurship now takes a back seat to excessive inequalities that harm society in many ways. We’re becoming stuck, and it’s not a good place in which to get stuck.

El-Erian further details inequality’s tightening grip. Wall Street has recovered from 2008’s Great Recession. Corporate profits, as a share of GDP, have reached record highs in the post-Great Recession era. Job creation has improved, but wages remain flat. El-Erian says while the rich continue to get richer, “conventional cyclical redistribution policies have been noticeably absent. With active budget policy making heavily constrained by political polarization, there has been a reduced emphasis on transfer payments and other support for the poor” (p. 87).  The 2018 Republican tax cuts, many inequality watchdog groups claim, will only exacerbate the inequality trifecta.

“Redistribution” – El-Erian knows that the use of the word is dangerous in today’s era of inequality. Since the first era of rampant inequality – the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century – redistribution, however, has been an important tool to help make an unequal society a better society. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Title 1 of the Education and Secondary Education Act, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) are some examples of redistribution and transfer payments that specifically benefit the elderly and children in America. Without these programs, American society would be decidedly worse off.

What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of society do we want our grandchildren to live in? I’m all for continuing to advocate for a society that is egalitarian, civil, and full of opportunity with just rewards.

And for those of us concerned that “big government” is creating a permanently dependent “slacker” class? I offer the following counter-argument: Governmental policy and actions in the past thirty-five years have favored the richer classes and are chiefly responsible for the creation of today’s rampant inequalities that threaten our shared common good.

*For you curious types (like me), as of 2013, Asian-Americans have wealth stores that are 70 percent of the level of whites.


The original version of this post was published in September 2016. 


Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

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The Entrenchment of Inequality

An engrossing article in the June 2018 issue of The Atlantic by Matthew Stewart, “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy,” exposes an America that still regards itself as egalitarian – providing equal opportunity for all – while making itself increasingly aristocratic. Being born of well-off parents is now the best bet for ending up in the same category as an adult. More so, if one is born of white parents who are well-off, staying in the economically advantaged category is a virtual lock.

The article’s length is stout – I’ve linked it here for purists. For the rest of you, read on for a pertinent summary!

Early on Stewart writes: “Imagine yourself on the socioeconomic ladder with one end of a rubber band around your ankle and the other around your parents’ rung . . . If your parents are high on the ladder, the band will pull you up should you fall; if they are low, it will drag you down when you start to rise. Economists represent this concept with a number they call ‘intergenerational earnings elasticity,’ or IGE, which measures how much of a child’s deviation from average income can be accounted for by the parents’ income.”

Zero IGE means there’s no significant relationship between parents’ income and the eventual income of their offspring, and that the rubber band is flimsy. An IGE of 1.0, on the other hand, means no variation whatsoever and a rubber band of unbreakable strength. Fifty years ago, the IGE in America was less than 0.3 – today it has increased to 0.5, which is higher than that of almost every other developed country. What it means: the American rubber band of today’s IGE is more taut than it’s ever been and the great American virtue of high social or economic mobility is a fairytale.

A robust economic mobility did exist two generations ago in post-WW II America – again, mostly for white people – but those who insist it yet exists today for all Americans risk a credibility problem. Either they are stuck in the past, or they champion a belief, as if religious dogma, that claims that those who haven’t made it in America are mistake-laden, lazy, on-the-dole, reprobate slackers. Of course, some perfectly fit the description. But most economically poor today in America don’t. And many of these who haven’t “made it” are working poor, many of these with children. And a large portion is elderly on fixed incomes.

A corollary to the above stated dogma in today’s faux-meritocratic America: Since the poor only have themselves to blame for their predicament, I – and certainly not my tax dollars – don’t have to help them.

Escaping poverty in America today is a complex process requiring discipline and will-power, but also access to opportunities that middle- and upper-class folks take for granted: social connections and infrastructure that provide ready access to childcare, healthcare, education, and money. Only 4 percent born into poverty make it to the middle class in today’s America. The lack of access to opportunities strengthens the downward pull of the rubber band.

Stewart pooh-poohs the much publicized divide between 1 and 99 percenters that emerged from the Great Recession of ten years ago. Instead he fingers the top 10 percent of wealth possessors, regardless of yearly income – $1.2 million net wealth (cash, stocks including retirement, house value, and other holdings minus liabilities) gets you into the top decile – as those who are most culpable, led by the top .1 percenters, in today’s entrenchment of inequality.

He includes himself in this culpable faction, and divides American society into three separate economic groups: .1 percenters, the next 9.9 percent (I combine these two groups into the top decile), and the bottom 90 percent.

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The top .1 percenter class now tightly holds 22 percent of all American wealth, the highest level since before the Great Depression. It has pilfered the wealth holdings of the bottom 90 percent, now also holding 22 percent, the lowest level since during the Great Depression. Stewart’s class, the top decile excluding the top .1 percent, holds the remaining 56 percent.

Stewart comments: “The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy. Our delusions of merit now prevent us from recognizing the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents. We tend to think that the victims of our success are just the people excluded from the club. But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end.”

The course of what has become rampant inequality in the United States, building steadily since the early 1980s, is not natural. As Stewart points out, tax cuts for the rich, the influx of huge money into politics, and the transfer of power from labor to capital have helped create the current trends of social and economic inequalities. These commitments, Stewart also points out, can be and should be reversed.

“The defining challenge of our time is to renew the promise of American democracy by reversing the calcifying effects of accelerating inequality. As long as inequality rules, reason will be absent from our politics; without reason, none of our other issues can be solved.”

Agreed.

 

Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (forthcoming on Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

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The Infallibility of the President

The timing is dead-on perfect. Why wait any longer? With the Russian meddling investigation promising prosecutions and turmoil, with controversy yet swirling because of the Trump administration’s decision to split up migrant families at the border, and with the country’s collective blood pressure rising to dangerous levels from toxic overexposure to political pundit vitriol concerning the president – it is time. (Perhaps Americans will instead, in throwback fashion, watch good ol’ boring baseball on TV to reduce blood pressure levels. Suffering from insomnia? Just boot up some MLB on the DVR and you’ll be drooling on your pillow within ten minutes, guaranteed.)

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Back on point: Let the nation take the next regressive step from its status as a once-upon-a-time democracy endowed with the separation of governing powers, and bestow a right upon President Trump which he would wield oh-so flawlessly: The Power of Infallibility.

Economist Paul Krugman, who leans so far left he can’t but walk in circles (so I’ve been told), beat me to the punch more than a year ago with his article “America’s Epidemic of Infallibility” but he didn’t give much historical backdrop. Keep reading – it’s your lucky day.

The Roman Catholic Church made the “Infallibility of the Pope” official church dogma in 1870. The doctrine doesn’t imply that the pope is perfect or without sin, but that when speaking “in office” – as the authoritative voice of church teaching, with the backing of the college of bishops – he’s spot on, every time. Fast forward to Pope John Paul II in 1994. He seemed to say “infallibly” that women would never be ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church. An American Catholic bishop at that time opined that the pope’s statement, of course, in no way diminished the equality or dignity of women. Hmmm . . .  more than twenty years later, the all-male college of bishops is still hashing out the “infallibility” of JP II’s decree. Ahem.

Back on historical point: 1870 was also the year of Italian reunification – political resurgence and nationalism brought an end to the pope’s temporal rule of the Papal States. Pope Pius IX, as political power slid through his hands like dry sand, cloistered himself behind church walls in Rome and became the self-proclaimed “prisoner of the Vatican” where he remained until his death in 1878. A separation between church and state, non-existent for much of Catholic Church history, took hold.

The late nineteenth century was also the age of Darwin, Mendel, and Pasteur. Science was ascendant. Religion’s reign as the sole source and arbiter of “knowledge” – the meaning of the word “science” – was coming to an end. The church, in its attempt to maintain hegemony, reacted to the challenge of science by claiming to have its own incontrovertible facts. “Infallibility of the Pope” for Catholics, and a few decades later, “The Fundamentals” for Protestants (the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus), were institutional attempts at restoring lost place and power. True believers, id est base supporters, were told these salvos would counter modernity and all of its accompanying evils.

It’s in this same spirit that I propose infallibility for the president, so he can shore up power beyond his base (30-35 percent of voters) as modernity continues its barrage upon American greatness. “President Trump”? “King Donald” or “Pope Donaldo” carries much more gravitas and either would be the necessary remedy to make American white great again – like it used to be, before Obama became president, the guy who wasn’t even born here (that’s what Thee Donald said).

In today’s America, why should gays be able to marry and order wedding cakes from whomever they please? Why should slacker youngsters and old geezer hippies be able to smoke weed with impunity? Why should blacks and Hispanics expect fair treatment from law enforcement? And why should immigrants and asylum seekers, coming to the country of immigrants, expect even a hearing? This is why we need a real ruler (like Trump said of Kim Jong-un), as if an infallible king, to whom people will actually listen, at attention! – or else!!! Oh, yeah . . . when praising the dictator, Thee Donald said that he was being sarcastic. Thank God for sarcasm. It helps us laugh and cope with incompetency, injustice, and other inadequacies.

The president who wants be so much more has showed us, by his own vitriol, the real enemies of the people: immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Central Americans, Syrian refugees, journalists, Democrats, the FBI, judges who don’t rule as he wishes, and women – not all women, of course, but some of them. At the same time, he’s made us see the good side of dictators and racists. Putin and the protestors at Charlottesville – who knew they were getting a bad deal? Now we know better . . .

Democratic principles – the aforementioned separation of powers, due process of law, equality – are so overrated. Bullying is the only real way to get things done, punctuated by extended campaign rallies long after the final tally of the election.

Pardon power? Immunity? These two are mere beginner steps for Thee Donald. Let’s allow him to take it to the next level – infallibility.

Presidential infallibility could help the country achieve even greater heights of excellent greatness. I can almost see Mitch McConnell coming into the oval office, with a promise of Senate approval, offering to make him the Great American Dictator. It would simply be the next logical step beyond infallibility: “Okay, I’ll take you up on that,” the make-white-great-again One would respond to the miter-bee senator, “but only if it’s for life, and then I’ll want it passed on to Don Jr.”

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The Era of Right Lane Passers

Wooosh!  A midnight blue sedan barrels north on interstate I-35 near Waco, Texas, doing 85 mph in the far-right lane. I’m in the middle lane doing 78 mph – a few clicks over the limit – and turn to my wife seated in the passenger seat and say, “Welcome to the era of right lane passers.” We left Austin an hour and a half earlier en route to visit our son in Dallas and the dark blue wooosh in the far-right lane was at least the tenth car to make such a move.

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Back in the day, my dad taught me these driving principles: the left lane is for passing, the right lane is entering and exiting, 3-5 mph over the limit is okay, and use your signals to let other drivers know your intentions when changing lanes. There weren’t too many three lane interstates back then. It was mostly two-laners and semi-trucks had access to both lanes. Rarely – but only rarely – would an aggressive driver accost from behind as if a bat fleeing hell and pass in the right lane with impunity.

Sure enough, times have changed. When our son began his studies at UT-Dallas in 2010, my wife and I became regulars on the 200-mile stretch of I-35 between Austin and Dallas. At that time, it was mostly two lanes but construction was promised for a decade or so to widen the heavily used interstate to three lanes. The construction is now nearly complete, and the third lane – the entrance and exit lane – seems to be the lane of choice for aggressive drivers, mostly younger, to exercise their freedoms at 85 mph or better. I understand a driver using a free lane – even if it is the right lane – to help alleviate congestion, making the roadway safer for everyone. But that’s not the case with the wooshes that blow by in the far right lane and then look for the next available lane to exploit.

The libertarian-infused “I can do whatever the f*** I want to and you can’t tell me I can’t” attitude is much more permissible today than a generation or two ago. It’s a negative freedom – part of our American DNA – but it’s typically counterbalanced by the presence of strong institutions and a shared sense of common good. Thankfully, the large majority of drivers on I-35 and other US freeways consists of people who drive considerately and give first priority to safety. But there seems to be an increasing number of super-aggressive drivers – tailgaters, weavers cutting in and out, right lane passers – who drive as if a public highway is their own private drag strip. The erosion of community and covenant on I-35 is indicative of the wane in public life (shrinking religious institutions, anti-government sentiment, moderation elbowed out by extremism in public speech and political representation) that increasingly defines our shared existence.

Something happens – linked to human nature – when we get behind the wheel, enclose ourselves behind glass and steel, and rev the engine. We become supersized, like Obadiah Stane in Iron Man, and use our enhanced power as an opportunity for self-gain at the expense of others. We also become incognito – nobody knows who we are (unless they track our license plates). I’m convinced that as I see people pushing beyond 85 mph on I-35, it’s not about getting there quicker. It’s about power, a supersized personal agency, that unfortunately can turn out to be deadly. Texas loses close to ten people a day on its roads, and nationally driving fatalities have increased for a second straight year. Speed does kill.

On occasions, I get quick-tempered behind the wheel. Later, after the moment has passed and I’m in review mode, I easily realize that harboring upset behind the wheel does no good whatsoever for anyone. Let it go: It’s not about right now, but it’s about still being here tomorrow. It’s a phrase a friend shared with me that aptly applies to the driving discipline. It’s too long for a bumper sticker, but it’s just right for a blog post.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that the more affluent a society becomes the more individualistic it becomes. US society been going down this type of road for a long time now. Right lane passers are simply another manifestation of our current era of increasing inequalities – economic and social. When and where does this road end?

Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m the Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fifteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (forthcoming, April 2019).

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Would President Trump Have Been a Slave Owner?

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014) gives greater detail to the argument that America’s economic fortune was built upon an infrastructure forged by slavery. In the wake of the bloody Civil War, the second industrial era’s twin links of mass production and mass consumerism birthed unforeseen prosperity and inequality. Yes, good ol’ American ingenuity and innovation had plenty to do with the boom, but as Baptist writes, an economic trampoline had been constructed before the war through the hands, arms, and torsos of enslaved Americans.

Baptist argues that white historians’ over-emphasis upon American ingenuity and innovation is part of the ruse to downplay our enslaving heritage. He also argues that the North wasn’t exempt from the economic benefit provided by southern slavery. Southern cotton fields produced millions of fiber bales that were eventually processed into clothes and durables in English mills, but northern states’ industry supported the enslaving enterprise with bank credit that financed firms selling slaves, and saws to clear-cut fields and shovels to till soil. If you assume that Baptist writes history from a narrow perspective because he is black, check yourself.  He’s white and grew up in North Carolina. He teaches nineteenth-century history at Cornell University, and tells students, as he does readers of his book, that cotton was the nineteenth century’s oil that fueled the majority of its economic activity before the latter resource did the same for the following century.

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The United States outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807, but enforcement lagged. Domestic slave trading was not addressed by the new law. The Half Has Never Been Told chronicles, among other moral transgressions of the era, the constant breaking apart of black families in Virginia – a true feeder system – as the economic locus in southern states and territories shifted from Old Dominion tobacco farms to cotton plantations in the Deep South. While reading Baptist’s descriptions of forceful family breakups (not only in Virginia), the connection between that brutal history and present-day realities suffered by numerous African-American families made me shake my head in shame. Enslavement is inequality at its most basic and gruesome level. Its effects didn’t simply fade away with the passage of time, and have been girded up by prejudice and racism which still thrives, incredibly, in the twenty-first century, in this land where we profess to uphold “liberty and justice for all.”

Of course, I can be aghast. I had a solid northern upbringing in the Land of Lincoln, no less, that included the following teaching about the Civil War: the battle was all about slavery. When I moved to Texas more than twenty-five years ago, I picked up the alternative notion that the Civil War was about the North attempting to dominate the South economically. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the argument, but noticed that a lot of research and footnoting went into it. In recent years, I’ve also read about “states’ rights” as a justification for the war. Both arguments contain some truth, but not enough to override or even dent Baptist’s assertion: the Civil War was not only about the maintenance of slavery, but its expansion. The vestiges of that desire plague this society yet today.

Before the Civil War, ten of the fifteen presidents owned slaves, eight of them while serving the office. This society – down to its core DNA – has always been a conflicted jumble consisting of freedoms, privileges, and advantages for some, and enslavement, bondage, and inequalities for others. I’m not mocking the values that we hold dear and confess to be part of our heritage. I’m doubling down on one of Baptist’s points: the playing field has always been significantly imbalanced and not to recognize it only perpetuates its effects. As I argue in Just a Little Bit More, the pursuit of Mammon has been the overriding spirit that has, in great part, made this country what it is. Our true national religion – the pursuit of “just a little bit more” – is simultaneously a great blessing and curse. This spirit helped build this country into the leading economic power in the world. But it also justified slavery the during the colonial days and the first eighty-five years of the nation’s existence, and the effect of this justification lingers like a permanent hangover.

Reading Baptist’s book made me think: How many kick-ass business types – money accumulation and attainment their modus operandi – would be enslavers if they had lived in pre-Civil War days (or would be today if slavery were still legal)?

Provocative blog posts titles, posed as hypothetical questions, don’t prove anything. They can, however, spur our thinking. In the oval office, the current president proudly has hung a portrait of the seventh president. Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, helped clear out Native Americans from Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi via the infamous “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s. Much of this land, in subsequent years, produced cotton picked by enslaved people, many who had been forcibly marched south and west from Virginia or South Carolina.

The challenge to look at and understand history in a new way can lead to transformed thinking, which in turn can lead to actions and interactions of greater love, clarity, and justice. May it be so in this land of stony roads and chastening rods that have not wiped out the faith and hope taught – and wrought – even from the dark past.

 

Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m the Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fifteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville (forthcoming, fall 2018).

 

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Back in the Saddle

The topic of inequality wedged itself into my mind and heart when I was a child. I was no more than four years old when my maternal grandmother gifted my brother and me with an Arch Book titled The Rich Fool. Based on Jesus’ parable from Luke 12:13-21, it tells the story of a rich farmer who failed to realize that the blessings of the earth – including that of his own farmland – were intended for more than his own consumption and hoarding. “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” By way of prelude to the parable, Jesus told his listeners that they should “be on guard against all types of greed.”

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This first Bible story that I remember learning has colored my faith and understanding of the world. I draw a direct line between its message penetrating my developing child soul to the start of my research in 2011 that led to the production of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good in 2014. I’ve had a number of good conversations and interactions with you and others on the topic of inequality since that time. During 2017, I took a self-imposed sabbatical (thanks in great part to my main supporter and spouse, Denise) and dedicated much of my time to researching the topic of restorative justice. As a result, my second book, There is a Balm in Huntsville, should be published before the end of this year. (I’ll have more to say on the incredible stories of transformation and reconciliation I’ve written about in the crafting of this non-fiction narrative.)

As of March 1, I’ve started a new position as Director of Community Development for ACL – Austin City Lutherans. ACL consists of fifteen area ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations that work together in social ministry. We have a food pantry serving working folks and their families in Southeast Austin and have designs for enacting an early childhood development program in the same underserved area of the Texas capitol city. This work includes the consideration of inequality and its effects – consequently, I feel like I’m “back in the saddle.” I’m extremely grateful for the bold leadership within ACL congregations to embark upon this ministry. I’m also humbled by the opportunity to shepherd a group of people inspired and urged by their faith to make a difference for developing young souls (and their families) in a vulnerable area of Austin. Eighteen percent of children in Austin (see the 2017 Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count data book) live in economic poverty, a great improvement from 2012 when the figure was 30 percent. The economy has improved in the past five years, but Austin’s rising cost of living has forced poorer families to move out of the city, and Austin’s population growth has diluted the percentage. Even so, today, more than 25 percent of Latino children in Travis County (where Austin resides) live in poverty.

What precisely will our “early childhood development program” look like? We’re not sure at this point. We have a lot of work to do: speaking with school principals, researching existing options, listening to and learning from experts, talking with parents who live in SE Austin, enlisting partners, and much more. The compiling of information from these conversations and considerations will help us answer the above question. Stay tuned, and if you’re so inclined, reach out and join our efforts.

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Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m the Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fifteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville (forthcoming, fall 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

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Death, Resurrection, and Cilantro

(The Austin American-Statesman published this post as an article on March 20, 2016.)

The winter gardening season – in Texas, at least – is coming to a close.

Almost twenty-five years ago, I planted my first winter garden in Texas. Having grown up in Chicago, I was unaccustomed to winter gardening. That first year in Houston, I planted some cilantro seeds (coriander), as instructed on the package for Zone 9, the middle of October. As the temps subsequently cooled off into November, the tender green shoots emerged. Wow – plant growth in the winter made me feel like I was somehow cheating. The shoots soon turned into baby cilantro plants, their little leaves exhibiting the defining crags and jags of the mature version.

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A first of the year harvest of cilantro

One post-Christmas December morning, however, I woke to see my beautiful garden covered in frost. My baby cilantro plants were drooped over, weighted down by ice crystals. My heart sank. All my work for naught – the future harvest ruined. So much for winter gardening.

But then the sun came out, and the temp warmed. To my complete shock, my baby cilantro plants revived as they soaked in the winter sun. AWESOME! The coating of ice melted, my garden glistened once again. My confidence in Texas winter gardening restored, I anticipated plenty of fresh pico de gallo fortified with our homegrown cilantro for months to come.

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March Madness – the flowering and seeding out process of my cilantro garden

For two months, the harvest met those expectations. An unexpected thing happened in March, however, right in the middle of Lent. My cilantro plants put on white flowers, beginning the deathly process of seeding out. I had a plan, though. I’d simply cut off the flower shoots, thus extending the life of my plants. What a plan! To my further surprise, my plan to stave off the death of my plants only hastened their death. Where I had cut the shoots, new ones came up only faster. There was no other option – my plants wanted to die, and timed their demise to coincide with Holy Week. As a pastor, I realized my garden was reflecting the cycle I taught and preached about during Lent: unless a seed falls to the ground and dies . . .

There are natural limits to the creation and how it works. Try and do all you can, but most of these limits are unassailable. Sometimes the spirit of “just a little bit more” needs to accommodate itself to the spirit of “enough is enough.” Creation, if we pay attention, teaches this invaluable lesson in many and various ways. My cilantro garden followed its given script. It thrived and produced during the cooler months of the year and then produced something else when spring warmth returned – hundreds upon hundreds of seeds. October would come again, and with it, the glorious cycle of rebirth.

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Cilantro pesto

Since this first described excursion, I’ve been growing cilantro every winter in Texas. The last few years, I’ve discovered a more effective way than chopping the shoots to extend the harvest: cilantro pesto. I’ve been making basil pesto for years (from the summer garden), and use an adapted blender recipe: harvested cilantro leaves, walnuts (or pecans), extra virgin olive oil, a few slices of fresh sweet onion, and a touch of salt. It keeps in the freezer for as long as needed and goes really well with grilled fish and Viognier. Provecho. 

Oftentimes gazing upon my cilantro garden, I am reminded of the cycle of death and resurrection. Death, many times, is undesirable and cruel. Yet, my garden testifies: death is not the end. More is to come.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide became available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más salió en Septiembre de 2016!

 

 

 

 

 

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A Love Supreme – A Tribute to John Coltrane

 

stjohncoltraneJohn Coltrane released his masterpiece A Love Supreme in February 1965. For those of you unfamiliar with Coltrane’s work, A Love Supreme is as fresh and timeless today as it was more than fifty years ago. Accessibly melodic, Coltrane’s exuberant tenor sax fuses with McCoy Tyner’s teeming piano chords and riffs to produce an unparalleled thirty-three minute session of ascendant and flowing grace.

Give it a look and listen here:

Coltrane’s road to A Love Supreme was anything but straightforward. An incredible talent, he often travelled a wayward path. The hungry ghost of addiction haunted him; he was booted out of Miles Davis’s band in 1957 for continued heroin use, including a near overdose. The close call propelled him to clean up, however. From the autobiographical liner notes of A Love Supreme: “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” His calling was “to make others happy through music,” which, he claimed, was granted to him through God’s grace.

Coltrane was raised a Christian, and he also sought out other faith traditions after his epiphany. His conclusion: “No matter what . . . it is with God. He is gracious and merciful. His way is in love, through which we all are. It is truly – A Love Supreme – .”

Yes, Coltrane’s credo – like some of his music later in his career – is a bit vague and esoteric. Let me put the credo in other terms, more accessible: love is a sufficiency all its own. In Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I detail the societal desire and drive that is never satisfied with enough, always seeking “just a little bit more.” Love is the antidote to the pursuit of more and more; it helps us to be grateful, to relax, to rest, to enjoy, to share, and to know what and when is enough. Love also helps us to do great things – busting our tails in the process – for our neighbor and the common good. Love covers it all.

John Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967, having completed only 40 years of life on this earth. Forgive the obvious cliché – his music does live on. Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter (John Coltrane: His Life and Music, University of Michigan Press, 2000) explains that Coltrane plays the “Love Supreme” riff (four notes) exhaustively in all possible twelve keys toward the end of Part 1 – Acknowledgement, the first cut on the disc. Love as sufficiency – it covers all we need and then some.

The conclusion of Coltrane’s liner notes: “May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain – it is all with God – in all ways and forever.”

May A Love Supreme reign for another 50 plus years, and then some. Amen.

 

Just a Little Bit More is available through the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website, Amazon, and wherever books and ebooks are sold.

 

 

 

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In Lieu of Flowers . . . Revisited

Originally published February 15, 2016 on this blogsite, I reworked this post for the Austin-American Statesman. The newspaper ran it on October 29, 2016, right before the election. Still fresh . . .

 

A message arrived from my hometown. My parents informed me that the mother of one of my high school classmates had passed away. I don’t remember having known the deceased, and I had lost touch with my classmate from our Chicago-area high school of thirty-five plus years ago. My folks shared this news with me because of the jarring request at the end of the deceased’s obituary: In lieu of flowers, please don’t vote for Hillary Clinton.

How’s that for a new twist on the obit pages? A quick search on the Web reveals that, in obits across the country during this political cycle, numerous negative requests concerning both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump reach out to voters from the grave. Who knew the disdain for these two candidates extends even to the great beyond?

Negative requests like these are a sign of the times, skewed hyper-partisan. Before this era of hyper-partisanship, a rare obit might have kindly solicited a request for a positive vote for a particular candidate. In lieu of flowers, be so kind to consider a vote for candidate X in memory of the deceased. Even so, previous to this current era, such a request would have betrayed a slight breach of etiquette.

The current wave of hyper-partisanship traces back to the early 1990s when the Republicans gained majority status in the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. Their strategy wasn’t new, but it was certainly effective: Destroy the institution to save it—throw the majority bums out. The Democrats, not to be outdone, adopted the same strategy. House Republicans and Democrats have been feuding ever since. What happened to the good old days when President Reagan (Republican) and House Speaker Tip O’Neill (Democrat) understood that they were adversaries (not enemies) before 6:00 p.m. and colleagues after that appointed time? Reagan famously gave a seventieth birthday party for O’Neill at the White House in 1982. Both partisans were of Irish descent; they understood they shared common humanity.  

The political modus operandi of the day – hyper-partisanship – tramples over the Reagan-O’Neill understanding from a generation ago. This political spirit has spilled over, unfortunately, into American society as acceptable social behavior. Economic segregation in America has increased; and, in some quarters, the demonization of others who are “different” is on the rise. It makes me wonder: Could the spirit of American hyper-partisanship be strong enough to survive into the great beyond, colonizing a few cloistered places for hyper-partisans? God only knows if there will be gated communities in the afterlife . . . 

vernon%20johns-2

Prince Edward County, Virginia

Vernon Johns was Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor at Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama—the church that proudly stands one block away from the Alabama State Capitol. Johns, provocative and creative, was a firebrand for equality.

One weekday morning in 1949, Brother Johns, as was his custom, arranged the letters on the front sidewalk sign announcing his coming Sunday sermon topic for passersby. What a shock to the good people of Montgomery, abiding by the laws of racial separation, to see the preacher’s sermon title spelled out: Segregation after Death. The Montgomery police chief noticed the sign and demanded that Johns come to the police station to explain himself. Luke 16:19–31, Jesus’s parable of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man Dives, provided Johns with his textual basis. Johns explained to the chief and his lieutenants that Dives, a staunch practitioner of segregation (economic and otherwise) during his earthly life, was cursed by it in the afterlife. The reversal of fortune—Dives suffering in Hades, and Lazarus being comforted by Father Abraham in Paradise—was not enough for Dives to see that he shared common humanity with Lazarus. The chief and his men, according to Johns’s retelling of the encounter, empathized with the black preacher. He was not required to alter or take down the sign with his bold sermon title.

Johns’ brilliant interpretation of Jesus’s parable for Montgomery’s specific context focused Luke’s message not on the afterlife, but on how human brothers and sisters, sharing common humanity, treat one another in this life. Perhaps there is a time and place for hyper-partisan strategy, but may its utilization be rare and not commonplace.

That said, brothers and sisters: Vote your conscience, love your neighbor, and begin to shed any negative hyper-partisanship that unnecessarily discolors your relationships with others in the human family. You can’t take it with you when you go, you know.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book. It’s also available on Nook and iBook/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in October 2016 – next week, as a matter of fact. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Octubre de 2016 – la semana que viene!

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Santa, Our National Patron Saint!!

A patron saint is defined as a mythical and revered guardian figure of a people or country. Who, I ask, is the patron saint of the United States? George Washington? Since he is a relatively recent historical figure, he is subsequently disqualified – we understand Washington and others like him (Jefferson and Franklin) to be founding fathers. Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyon, or John Henry? We’re getting closer, but most American kids would recognize only one of the three, at best. How about Uncle Sam? He looks the part in red, white, and blue – but what more do we know of him than his finger pointed beckoning citizens to national service? To be a national patron saint, all – especially children – need to understand the details of the candidate’s story. Santa is the only one who qualifies; he, unquestionably, is the American national patron saint in this current day of commerce, materialism, and consumerism.

Santa – unequivocally an American invention – has an interesting history. It starts with St. Nicholas (270-343), a Christian bishop who lived in Myra – modern-day Turkey. He had a reputation for favoring children; he brought them justice and gave them gifts.

jalbm st. nicholas

A depiction of St. Nicholas of Myra. Notice the bishop’s mitre, the shepherd’s staff, the cross, and the religious vestments.

The date of his death, December 6, became his festival day. For centuries, various places in Europe revered the saint and practiced gift giving on his festival day. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves if we make a direct unbroken link from St. Nick’s December festival day and its practice of gift giving to the Christmas of today. More so, there’s a deeper connection between today’s gift giving and the ancient rhythms of indulgence (sometimes to the point of excess) during the winter months.

The winter solstice, December 21 – the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere – has a deep and long cultural history. The celebration of greens and lights at the solstice, as is well-known, predates Christianity by millennia. The early church, not yet consolidated in doctrine and calendar, celebrated the birth of Christ on different dates throughout the year according to local custom. Constantine corporatized the church in 325, bringing conformity to its doctrine. Pope Julius brought consolidation to its calendar in 350 and proclaimed December 25 to be the festival day of the birth of Christ. The church understood its position to be strong enough to compete with Saturnalia and other pagan festivals celebrating the rebirth of the sun, covering over them, as it were, with the birth of the Son.

Historian Stephen Nissenbaum (The Battle for Christmas, Knopf, 1997) astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct.

Protestantism’s penchant to not revere saints meant that St. Nick didn’t make the trip to the New World neither with the Pilgrims, the Puritans, nor northern European immigrants (Nissenbaum says that American Christmas as an early 19th century Dutch import is an “invented tradition”). As a matter of fact, Christmas celebrations in early America had more in common with the ancient celebrations related to the rhythms of harvest and the solstice than they did with church teaching. In the Northern Hemisphere, the weeks preceding and following the solstice (what we moderns call November, December, and January) traditionally have been the time of gathering in harvests, slaughtering for fresh meat, and enjoying the products of fermentation, beer and wine. We Northern Hemisphere moderns who purchase fresh apples from Chile in May might have difficulty understanding this ancient rhythm, since we are able to procure most whatever we want any time during the year. Even so, let me ask you to entertain a few questions: Do you have a tendency to put on a few pounds over the winter holiday season? Have you ever signed up for a gym membership in January? December was and is the time for excess – eating, drinking, giving, celebrating, leisure – a time to enjoy the labors of year-end and a time for misrule.

Misrule, historically, was a moment of social inversion when the wealthy and powerful deferred to their dependents and poorer neighbors. Practiced in Europe and early America, misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!

One of the unwritten rules of misrule, however, was the continuation of a social bargain. The peasants, satisfied with the brief turning of the tables during misrule, were to offer their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the rest of the year. If you’ve ever received a Christmas bonus at a job where you felt you were underpaid, you can see that misrule is still with us. It’s the misrule bargain: accept your once-a-year bonus and do not grumble about your low pay for the balance of the year – a gift given in exchange for goodwill.

Misrule became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of St. Nick yet alive – was rediscovered and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services. That began to change, however, and the societal move away from excesses so ingrained into the season by climate, culture, and practice was gaining momentum – until, that is, Sinterklaas took on American shape and form.

Sinterklaas, Dutch for St. Nicholas, became Americanized awfully fast. The Dutch version of St. Nicholas was transformed significantly to become the American Santa Claus: stripped bare of all religious symbolism and enhanced according to the traditional seasonal excesses. No mitre, but a cap; no shepherd’s staff, but a whip for his reindeer; no crosses, but gifts galore. The cleric red vestments were replaced by a snowsuit, covering an extensive paunch. As a matter of fact, depictions of Santa show his belly growing larger and larger as the mid-19th century gave way to the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and its proliferation of excess.

Santa-Claus-Pics-0415

Our modern Santa – with a little commercial backing.

 

James Farrell (One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seduction of American Shopping, Smithsonian, 2004) calls Santa the most appropriate icon for an affluent society. Santa made his first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade appearance in 1924, and then became comfortably ensconced into malls when they came to prominence in post-WW II America. Malls in America: where else would Santa, the very embodiment of consumption’s blessings for the youngest members of our society, be more apropos? The united values of consumption and materialism are effectively reinforced in American malls. The domestication of misrule moves forward, as the bearded and bellied commercial icon par excellence looks into the eyes of a child and all but promises her that her material dreams will be fulfilled – with a similar misrule social bargain – as long as she behaves.

Ol’ Claus by Ferrell’s estimation is the national “symbol of material abundance and hedonistic pleasure.” Even so, the big old man has a religious aura – he’s supernatural and omniscient, somehow all-knowing of our activities, good and bad. In Santa’s kingdom, the nice receive pleasing gifts and the naughty get a second chance. And just like that, with a twinkle in his eye, he gives his divine like blessing upon our materialistic American Christmas. More Americans exchange gifts during the season than make traditional religious observance. What St. Santa represents – commerce, materialism, consumption – qualifies as the dominant religion of the land.

In my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good I argue that this dominant religion or ultimate concern (to use theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase) has for the most part been a good religion that has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions – lifting many of these from the grips of economic poverty. But when this religion goes too far, and becomes an end in and of itself – the religion breaks bad and the societal common good suffers. Our unexamined proclivity to trust in economic growth as the healer of all our ills is misguided; economic growth has done its good work for American society, but we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Further gains in income and wealth for affluent societies don’t give its citizens the improvements once seen in the societies’ earlier and less affluent days. Since 1980, economic gains in the United States, going mostly to the richest Americans, have unfortunately helped exacerbate social problems related to inequality: mental illness, teenage pregnancy, obesity, incarceration rates, and (decreasing) upward social mobility rates. Many of these problems directly and indirectly affect American children, one out of every four of them living in poverty, in the richest country in the history of the world.

It’s naturally based in history that the Northern Hemisphere’s season of winter solstice and accompanying holidays come with a touch of excess celebration, leisure, and the sharing and consumption of material goods. The grand majority of us look forward to and appreciate the December/January holiday season. It’s good to have a change of pace and break from that which the rest of the year consists: work and necessary routine.

Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, tells us quite a bit about our own character and identity as a society (and what it is we teach our children). Does it all boil down to this: If we have enough stuff we’ll be alright?

 

 

This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, distributed nationally by ACTA Publications, and available at http://www.blueocotillo.com, Amazon, or any other bookselling venue.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

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