Monthly Archives: May 2014

Golfers – A Question of Form

Nearly flawless as a golf announcer, Jim Nantz and his dulcet tone define Masters’ broadcasts for this generation. Nearly flawless . . . his man-crush on former college roomie Fred Couples is a concern, especially as it approaches white-hot intensity every April once Magnolia Lane opens to the patrons. “Back in ’89 when Freddie had that closing 67, we all remember how . . .” No, Jimmy, nobody but you, Freddie, and his caddie remember. But since Freddie is so cool (and good), Mr. Smooth gets a pass on the man-crush. I do have one issue to raise, however, with no forthcoming pass for the Well-Pitched-One. It’s his word choice when he refers, over and again, to his current and distinguished CBS booth partner as Sir Nick Faldo. Really, “Sir”?

faldo-nantz

Nothing against the six-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Famer, or his fellow Brits. Faldo, as far as this American can tell, deserves the honor of knighthood (received in 2009) as much as any other subject of the British empire. His contributions to the sport and representation of his country merit prominent recognition. I understand that Nantz’s gesture of using his partner’s royally endowed title is done out of respect. And respect, of course, is in the golf etiquette rota.

Let me raise, however, a slight protest – American style. Respect can still be had without stealing a smidge of the Queen’s English. Sir does have proper and common usage in American English when relationships are hierarchical – US military, younger-elder – or when commercial service is rendered. But it is never used as a title, only as a generic address. Sir as title is the propriety of our English cousin-society where the monarchy, booted out of our society in 1776, yet survives.

Jim Nantz is a class act, no question. I don’t mind an initial and respectful acknowledgement of Sir Nick Faldo – one time is sufficient – at the beginning of the broadcast. But, when used over and again . . . does our boy Nantz fancy himself an aristocrat? Hanging out at Augusta National all these years, perhaps so. I don’t hear David Feherty, or any other commentator, calling their CBS colleague Sir Nick on the air. Feherty, a native of Northern Ireland, became a U.S. citizen in 2010. He understands his adopted country’s history, in this particular area, perhaps a bit better than the lead announcer.

 

Want to read on? The front side was pretty easy . . . back side tougher!

Here’s a word (I’m surprised to find out) with which many Americans are unfamiliar: egalitarianism. Along with the ever-popular liberty, egalitarianism is a founding principle of American society. Egalitarianism is shown forth by Thomas Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence “All men (sic) are created equal.” Egalitarianism does not refer to equal distribution of goods, per se; it refers to equal status and worth, socially and politically, accorded to all. Favoritism via gender, race, family name, or inherited wealth be damned! America is the land where oversized concentrations of power – whether it be a king, an overzealous military general, or a business titan – are kept in check. That is egalitarianism, and it’s American as apple pie.

The last thirty-five years have seen a steep rise in social and income inequality in the United States. In my book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I refer to the current time period as one of three recent short eras of excess. (The other two are the Gilded Age of late 19th century and the Roaring ’20s.) Like a pendulum that swings back and forth, American society has oscillated between eras of excess and relative equality. Said so well by Gilded Age critic Henry Demarest Lloyd: “Liberty produces wealth, and wealth destroys liberty.” Egalitarianism and liberty have worked together in this society to balance out the other’s excesses. Too much liberty exacerbates inequalities. Too much egalitarianism stifles creativity and growth. Eras of excess are a throwback, essentially, to the days and societies of an earlier Europe that many of our ancestors, with no chance to improve their economic or social status, left behind.

American society, where previously only white property owners had the vote, has struggled with what egalitarianism and liberty have meant for all of its inhabitants: indigenous, slaves, women, children, immigrants, and minorities. Today the struggle continues for what these two foundational principles mean for gays. Egalitarianism and liberty together are the proper form in our society. Relative balance, as evidenced in Nick Faldo’s swing when in his prime, holds it all together.

 

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. Thanks for joining me for this outing!

 

 

 

 

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Religious Syncretism and “Purity”

I travelled in Latin America as a college student, returning to the States smitten by its history and culture – repeated listens to Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer my panacea of choice. A few years later while in seminary, I consequently made plans to do my internship in Peru. (Since my seminary was in Minnesota, there was a good chance I would have served internship in North Dakota. Enough said?)*

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Cuzco, Peru, el siglo pasado – last century (1983 to be exact). And, yes – look closely – that is a WXRT “Chicago’s finest rock” t-shirt.

Part of my preparation for a two year internship in Peru included studying aspects of religious syncretism – the fusion of belief and practice systems – in Latin America. The most accessible example for North Americans is La Virgin de Guadalupe, a blending of Catholicism’s Virgin Mary and the mother-god of the Nahautl, Tonantzin. With her combination of features both European and indigenous, La Virgin is the representative first Mexican; her cult is both religious and cultural. There’s a danger, however, in labeling other systems overtly syncretistic: one can easily forgot that one’s own system is also syncretistic. Not all alleged purity is relative, but much of it is.

Syncretism has been a part of Christianity’s development and that of all major religious systems since their very beginnings. These systems could not have achieved worldwide status without being syncretistic. The church’s ability to adapt, thriving or surviving, in situations diverse such as the Roman empire (with emperor Constantine’s approval of the religion in 314) and communist Soviet Union (with its proposed eradication of organized religion), shows its vitality. Not all religious syncretism is bad; it is oftentimes necessary in order that an intended message be contextualized. Too much syncretism, however, can render the original message altered beyond recognition. Danger of another type ensues when religious leaders demand purity in belief and practice from adherents, acting as if their “true understanding” of the system is devoid of syncretism (and its supposed evils).

As the church in 21st century America continues on its downward trend, it has a great opportunity to differentiate itself from the dominant materialist-consumerist societal creed that has infected some of its quarters in the last thirty-five years. Money is a necessity, but Jesus turning over the money changers’ tables in the temple shows money’s supposed primacy as concocted. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy economy, but Jesus’s parable in Luke 12 of the rich fool who, thinking he was entirely “self-made,” considered all his gains for himself and no one else, is a blatant indictment of those who trust in the Market above all other things.

It’s a fine line between material blessings appreciated and properly utilized and those same objects venerated and pursued as life’s ultimate goal. Part of the church’s job in this society is to remind and teach: where you place your treasure, there you will also find your heart. There’s some purity in that understanding that shines like gold for numerous societies and cultures, past and present.

 

*No offense intended against the great state of North Dakota and its inhabitants! Peru was a much better option for internship – for me. And who knows? Maybe it was good for North Dakota that I didn’t make it there for internship . . .

 

Check out my book that covers this and similar themes. Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

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Brand This

I’m not the first to complain about the overuse and adulation of the words brand and branding. Naomi Klein effectively sounded the alarm in No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Written fifteen years ago, No Logo indicted consumer culture that elevates image over represented product. Hers is still a valid critique today; to it I will add just a twist of updating: branding in the 21st century includes not only products, businesses, and corporations, but people. You are your brand.

Tom Peters, business management consultant and author, is one of the persons most responsible for the above statement that equates humanity and commerce.  Like Klein, he also published a book in 1999, The Brand You 50. Despite the book’s cheerleading demeanor and its overuse of italics, bold, ALL CAPS, (and parenthetical side comments), it has a loyal following. The main point of the book – the importance of showcasing one’s unique skills, in business settings and in life – is unassailable. Distinction, as exemplified by the term Me, Inc. (used by Peters extensively in the book), makes the brand.

A few years before Peter’s book came out, I participated in a “thinking expedition” for innovators. Led by Rolf Smith, a recently retired USAF colonel, this conference gathered executives and leaders from companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Exxon, among others. I was Rolf’s pastor at the time, and he was kind enough to sponsor me as a participant. I was first exposed to the term Me, Inc. at the conference, and consequently encouraged to broaden my vocational identity through a Me, Inc. mapping exercise. (Rolf Smith – not Tom Peters – created the Me, Inc. concept.) As I look back on it, the expedition played a small but vital part to inspire me to write Just a Little Bit More.

It’s a good thing to take personal inventory – to see how one measures up and to contemplate future possibilities based upon one’s skill set and capabilities. That is precisely what happened for me when I did the beneficial Me, Inc. mapping project in 1996; Rolf never encouraged us to think of ourselves as brands.

Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel (What Money Can’t Buy) correctly warns us that market values have been on the rise for the last thirty-five years. He reminds us that there are some things that are better off not having price tags attached to them: giving blood, helping older ladies across the street, encouraging underachieving elementary school kids to read (and paying them to do so). The intrusion of market values storms forward as people are increasingly encouraged to put price tags on all things, even to the point of considering themselves as brands. How far will we allow it to advance? Not everything is to be bought and sold, and not all things (especially people) are to be branded and commercialized.

Brand this: I have unique distinction for who I am as a person, completely unrelated to brand and branding. I am not my brand, and I won’t be branded any time soon. Brand that.

 

Rolf Smith wrote The Seven Levels of Change in 1997. It’s now in its third edition. Highly recommended.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is available in paperback at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. Ebook to be released later this summer!

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The Fueling of Inequality

The following is an excerpt from Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. This excerpt comes from chapter 7 – “Inequality is Regression.”

President Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech of July 1979 called Americans to self-discipline, sacrifice, and conservation. OPEC was driving up the price of oil, the Iranian Revolution was cresting, Russia would soon invade Afghanistan, and American confidence was waning. Carter never used the word malaise in the speech, but the description stuck, and critics claimed that Democratic defeatism was televised, watched by more than one hundred million Americans. This was a watershed moment for American politics of the last four decades. Ronald Reagan—treating conservation and material sacrifice like the plague—defeated Carter handily in the following year’s election. Since that time, Reagan’s summons has obliterated Carter’s: not one leading national politician has been brave enough (or foolish enough, politically) to question the ongoing sustainability of our lifestyle and to ask for limits on consumption.

                After more than thirty years of growing social and economic inequality, Carter’s speech, revisited, reveals certain insights more apropos of a social critic or philosopher than a president. “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” Meaning, Carter intimated, isn’t sold at the mall.

                Carter’s speech was initially well received; Americans flooded the White House with approving phone calls and letters. But the tide turned quickly, and the newly elected Reagan contrasted his bold optimism with the supposed somber pessimism of his predecessor. Carter, however, was not announcing or advocating American demise. The speech has turned out to be a prophetic decree of daring that called the nation to self-examination. Its message harkened to the egalitarian spirit that helped forge American society. But the proclamation has been widely ignored. More than thirty years of unexamined commitment to unlimitedness, as if it’s the only way forward, begs critique. British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett call for America and other wealthy nations to move away from the idea “in which people regard maximizing personal gains as a laudable aim in life.”*

 

Slightly more than one hundred years have passed since sales of gasoline became dominant among crude oil’s many derivatives. Gasoline, along with diesel and jet fuels, make up more than 75 percent of the typical refinery yield for a barrel of oil in today’s world. A by-product of twenty million years of marine biomass chemical transformation caused by underground heat and pressure, petroleum is a flammable substance that is essentially converted solar energy. All fossil fuels are stored solar energy. Plants use sunlight to grow and thrive, animals eat plants, and their fortuitous decay brought about the coal, natural gas, and petroleum that have fueled our modern industrial life for two hundred years . It won’t last forever. Joseph Tainter and Tad Patzek (authors of Drilling Down) say we’re living off “the geological equivalent of an endowment from a long-dead ancestor . . . a subsidy that allows us to support levels of complexity that otherwise we could not afford.”** In a sense, the way we live now (the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population consumes the majority of the world’s energy) is a heightened aberration of history, a radical departure from what has been the norm for nearly all of human history. We can’t and won’t go back to what used to be, but we can teach our children a truth that is widely overlooked in our modern world: high-gain energy (relatively easily attained and highly productive) is precious and rare, and it behooves our respect and right use for the common good. It is highly unlikely that this aberration will be ongoing. Just like a lucky run at the poker table, all good things do come to an end.

                The first chapter of this book covered  Rockefeller’s permission, which allowed for disparities of wealth previously unknown in the history of the world. We can now say that these disparities were made possible because of oil and other fossil fuels—their discovery and commercialization. The potential energy formed over millions of years in and by the earth has been unleashed over the past two centuries: it fueled the first and second industrial eras, forged the advances of Darby, supplied Edison and Ford with the power to innovate, made Carnegie the king of steel, produced Rockefeller’s titanic wealth, and provided the foundation for the incredible advances of the middle and latter parts of the twentieth century. On the other side of the ledger, however, the energy unleashed has also fueled economic  inequality, which has increased significantly in the last one hundred years, bringing along its accompanying social ills. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said it so well: progress in better and in worse.

*Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Bloomsbury Press (2009), 253.

**Joseph Tainter and Tadeusz Patzek, Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma, Springer (2012), 188-89.

From Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing (2014), pages 160-61, 162. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Excerpt from Chapter 6 on Rockefeller, Gates, Philanthropy, and Taxes

The following is an excerpt from the book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available now at http://www.blueocotillo.com.

Bill Gates, born in Seattle, is the modern-day Rockefeller: ruthless in business, rich beyond compare, and one of the greatest philanthropists the world has known. Like Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, his company also has been accused of monopolizing practices. Both Rockefeller and Gates, their genius and drive indisputable, exhibited business acumen that bested the competition again and again. The comparisons are striking; Rockefeller excelled at buying or squeezing out smaller competitors while Gates excelled at bringing smaller players along for the ride (with the gargantuan Microsoft), only to dispose of them once their particular code was incorporated into existing Microsoft codes and then tweaked (or outright purchased). Enough of a change in a computer code—too bad Gates couldn’t have advised George Harrison when the Chiffons weren’t so fine with “My Sweet Lord”—and infringement was a nonissue, especially with Microsoft lawyers so suitably financed. And as Rockefeller wasn’t a participant in the beginnings of oil refining, neither was Gates the progenitor of the operating systems (generically referred to as OS or DOS) that serve as the backbone of small computer software systems. Gates has the computer giant IBM to thank for a lot of the success that came his way. IBM, working together with Gates and Microsoft in the early 1980s on its new product—the personal computer—was still focused primarily on business computing, which it saw as its main livelihood. Deciding that personal computers were lightweight, IBM let Gates and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen keep the rights to MS-DOS, the operating system on IBM’s new PC, the 5150. A decade later, as personal computer sales exceeded all expectations, IBM and Microsoft split ways. Microsoft’s Windows 3.0 would eclipse IBM’s OS/2; and because of Gate’s business model of incorporating and conquering,* Microsoft became one of the world’s most valuable companies and Gates the world’s richest person. Gates, a whiz at writing computer code, didn’t write MS-DOS; he bought its progenitor version from Tim Paterson, a computer genius himself, who borrowed heavily from another precursor version written by another Seattle computer whiz, Gary Kildall. Gates is brilliant, but he’s not as self-made as is typically assumed.

Gates’s father, William Gates Sr., a retired lawyer, is not someone who is taken in by the fiction of the self-made man. In the spirit of egalitarianism, he has been a tireless spokesperson for progressive taxation of the rich, those who have the incomparable ability to pay. In 2001, following George W. Bush’s inauguration, tax reform was given high priority by the new administration. The estate tax, or “death tax,” was one of their reduction targets; in the post–World War II era its highest rate was consistently held at 77 percent. During the Reagan years it was reduced to 55 percent, and the Bush administration desired to reduce it further, if not to fully repeal it. In the spring of 2001, Gates Sr., with an opinion piece in the Washington Post, became a vocal opponent of tax reductions for the rich; two years later he also coauthored the book Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes. Gates argues that the estate tax helped America maintain the egalitarian spirit that differentiated its founding from aristocratic Europe. During the height of the Gilded Age, eighteen states of the Union adopted inheritance taxes—Andrew Carnegie (not surprisingly) was one of many wealthy supporters of the new laws. Estate taxes, according to Gates, serve “as a practical, democratic restraint on massive concentrated wealth and power.” Repeal of the estate tax “would widen the growing gap in economic and political influence between the wealthy and the rest of America.” As of this writing in 2013, the United States yet employs a tax on the right to transfer property at death.

Gates Jr. has become the most generous philanthropist in the history of the world—Rockefeller and Carnegie would be impressed. Gates and investment magnate Warren Buffet joined forces to create The Giving Pledge: “an effort to invite the wealthiest individuals and families in America to commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.” As of 2013, more than 110 individuals or families have joined the pledge to give at least 50 percent of their fortunes away. Others making the pledge include Sandy and Joan Weill, David Rockefeller, and Michael and Lori Milken. No member of the Walton family has yet to sign on.

 

* Author Harold Evans says, “Hundreds of small innovative companies have died in Microsoft’s bear hug.” Harold Evans, They Made America: From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine, Little Brown (2004), 418. Rockefeller and Sam Walton would be proud.

 

Above excerpt from Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing (2014), 130-31. All rights reserved.

 

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Just a Little Bit More – The Book – Now Available!

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is now available through the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website, http://www.blueocotillo.com. Go to the website and click on the “Purchase Book” category, and then click on the book cover icon.

The first 100 books will be sold at the discounted price of $13.87. Type in “first100” in the Promo Code on the billing info page.  As of May 5, the first 100 have been sold and distributed. The sale continues at the Blue Ocotillo website.

 

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