Monthly Archives: March 2015

Winthrop Rockefeller’s Steak

Two free-spirits ramble into a New York City restaurant bar looking for a drink. It’s late afternoon and the bar is darkly lit; even though the year is 1972, the décor and ambiance of the establishment is Mad Men to the core. The two young men order drinks at the bar. Hippies by appearance and mindset, they plan to get something cheap to eat – elsewhere – after soaking in their drinks.

Behind them, seated at a table, an older establishment type enjoys a steak dinner. Alone, impeccably dressed in suit and tie, handsome and self-assured, he slowly savors his meal while reading a newspaper. His presence in the near empty restaurant is unmistakably fitting; like a lion on the savannah, he has no competitors. Eventually, he pushes his half-finished meal aside and sits back farther in his chair and continues to read. The considerable remaining steak calls the attention of the two hungry hippies at the bar.

“Excuse me, are you going to finish that steak?” The question is almost as out of place as is the presence of the two hippies in a downtown Manhattan joint in the days of Nixon and Vietnam.

“Actually, no. You can have it if you let me ask you a few questions.” An agreeable bargain, the two hippies join the distinguished middle-aged gentleman at his table. Animated and engaging, the ensuing conversation flows back and forth. The gentleman learns that the young men have been living on a utopian commune in northern California. He wants to know if idealism is truly flourishing among the young these days. And what is the whole back-to-the-land movement about? The two hippies have just as many questions for their inviter as he has for them. They have a sense that the world is going off-track, through pollution, over-consumption and intolerance, and they want to know if someone from the older generation shares their views. More food and some delicious Cabernet is ordered by the lion for his new tablemates and the conversation goes on for an hour or so, longer than either party anticipated. The vaunted generation gap itself seems to vanish before their eyes in the soothing darkness of the bar. Two distinct worlds and mindsets – hippie and establishment – meet and commingle. Questions beget insight, and the two previously distinct worlds are understood, if momentarily, to inhabit shared space. The three men shake hands, and bid adieu; the law of homeostasis – all things return to their natural state – reasserts itself. But a lasting impression is made, and a bond is fashioned as American as Rockefeller and 1960s-’70s era hippies.

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Winthrop Rockefeller

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Michael DiLeo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On their way out of the bar, one of the hippies asks the bartender, Who was that masked man? Oh, that’s Winthrop Rockefeller, the bartender answers. The Governor of Arkansas. Grandson of the original titan, John D. Rockefeller.

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Good friend, author, and native New Yorker Michael DiLeo was one of the protagonists on the other side of the table in this story. He related his story to me a few years back when I told him I was researching the Rockefeller family for a book I was working on. I appreciate Michael letting me share his story and its encouragement to have a conversation with “the other.”

Winthrop Rockefeller was a native New Yorker, but developed a fondness for Arkansas during a trip there in the 1950s. By 1966, he was elected the first Republican governor of Arkansas since Reconstruction. World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, philanthropist, and rancher, Winthrop Rockefeller served two terms (2 years each) as Arkansas governor. Later, his son, Win Paul Rockefeller, would serve as Arkansas’ lieutenant governor. Winthrop Rockefeller was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly after the impromptu meeting with the two hippies in Manhattan. He died in 1973 at sixty years of age.

My book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, tells the story of the interplay of two great American traditions: egalitarianism and liberty. The story starts with the titan himself, Winthrop’s famous grandfather, who was the greatest philanthropist the world has ever known. American liberty allowed him to become the world’s first billionaire. Rockefeller’s business acumen was unmatched in his day; his ruthlessness, however, was certain and unquestionably damaging to competitors and innocents within his vicinity. John D. Rockefeller’s legacy is mostly good but it is also complex: his incredible wealth gave American society the permission to leave behind its egalitarian foundations. American egalitarianism, properly understood, is not an equality of material goods or wealth, but the opportunity for the weaker members of society to join forces in order to stand up to or have equal footing with society’s more powerful members. “No taxation without representation” – that’s liberty and egalitarianism working together. America has seen its best days when liberty and egalitarianism balance each other’s excesses – the pendulum does swing in both directions – and America’s darker days have occurred when the two traditions are out of sync or unbalanced.

I argue in JaLBM that since 1980, American society has been out of sync because of the domination of liberty. Today, many Americans don’t know what the word egalitarianism means because its use has diminished significantly in the last decades. American society, since 1980, has become increasingly isolated. The rich live and consort with fellow rich, and don’t know anyone who is poor. As an example, Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe during the 2012 presidential campaign is entirely indicative of the age.

John D. Rockefeller had humble beginnings. But even as he became Rockefeller, he continued to consort with rich and poor alike. Winthrop was like his grandfather in this sense – he actually consorted with others, including a couple of hippies of the early ’70s. He shared a table and genuine conversation, replete with curiosity. He didn’t have all the answers, and consequently was interested in talking to two fellow citizens with whom he had differences in lifestyle and opinion. Even so, conversation and exchange happened – akin to the interplay of liberty and egalitarianism. Two different entities working together can do much more than one alone.

Winthrop Rockefeller was a “good government” Republican who didn’t eschew a compassionate side to his politics. As Arkansas governor, he facilitated prison reform and oversaw the racial integration of the state’s public schools. His last act as governor was to commute the death sentences of Arkansas’ death row inmates to life imprisonment.

What would it be like if Fox News and MSNBC didn’t play into well-worn stereotypes and spent less time on accusations of the “other side”? I suppose ratings would plummet and we’d actually have to talk to one another to hear and understand each others’ opinions and viewpoints.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

– John Lennon, Imagine (1971)

 

Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

 

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Lloyd Blankfein Agrees with T. Carlos!

 

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Lloyd Blankfein

Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, agrees with me: American society has done a much better job creating wealth than distributing it.  This current era of excess, circa 1980, with its emphasis favoring a top-heavy economy, isn’t getting the job done. In a February 12th interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow, Blankfein said income inequality is “destabilizing” American society and that “we all need to get together to work on the problem.”

Blankfein has humble roots. Born in the South Bronx in 1954, he grew up in Brooklyn. His family lived in the Linden Houses, a public housing settlement predominantly, at that time, inhabited by Jewish families. Blankfein’s father worked the night shift at the post office, and his mother worked as a receptionist at a local burglar-alarm company. Young Lloyd attended Hebrew school at nearby B’nai Israel, and had his first job (at thirteen) working Yankee Stadium selling sodas as a vendor in the upper deck.

Class valedictorian at Thomas Jefferson High School in 1971, he moved onto Harvard and garnered a law degree in 1978. He joined Goldman in 1981. He became Goldman’s CEO in 2006.

Blankfein has had a few moments of infamy as Goldman CEO. In testimony to a Senate subcommittee in 2010, he claimed Goldman Sachs had “no moral obligation” to inform clients that Goldman was actually taking leveraged positions against the financial products they were selling. I doubt that Blankfein learned that rationale when he was in Hebrew school.

In 2009, Blankfein gave The Times of London a far-reaching interview. The most memorable line of the interview, however, was an off-hand comment that Blankfein later retracted, saying he was only joking. He described himself as a banker “doing God’s work.” The line buttressed his previous comments in the interview concerning the social purpose of the high-end banking industry. It reminded me when Ivan Boesky threw in the comment, deviating from his prepared notes at a 1986 graduation ceremony at UC-Berkeley, that “greed is good.” Boesky meant it and didn’t retract it even as he spent time in jail because of his greedy behavior – and there’s no question that Blankfein meant what he said about his vocation having divine implications, even if he did say it with a bit of bravado and irony. Earlier in the same interview, Blankfein conceded that “he could slit his wrists, and people would cheer.” Bravado, irony, and self-awareness.

The creation of wealth and the accompanying opportunity for credit are categorically God’s work. Common folks, like Blankfein’s parents, do not provide for their children and “climb the ladder” simply by working hard. They need credit – credit that is fair, manageable, and available. That’s what banks do. Lloyd is right. Thank God for banks.

Yet there’s more to the God-talk when we broach the topic of wealth creation – we also must consider wealth distribution. Ah, good ol’ wealth distribution and redistribution. Now it’s getting interesting!

After Blankfein’s theological statement in 2009, he’s obviously had a lunch meeting or two with his rabbi and reviewed some previous Hebrew school teachings. He’s been on record since 2011 criticizing American wealth distribution. He defended his comments further in 2012 saying while he wasn’t “a socialist,” he understood that social unrest in the US (Occupy Wall Street) was related to the poor distribution of wealth in “the last generation or two.”

The Hebrew Bible is adamant that the well-off in society have a responsibility toward the poor. Ancient Israel, of course, was a theocratic monarchy, whereas the United States is a democratic republic. All the same, from their related faith systems, Jews and Christians share a common understanding: All good things come not only from the Creator God, but all things are rightly God’s property. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). Our proper use of the goods in and of the earth – from wealth and possessions to talents and abilities – is faithful stewardship. And, yes, there are those in God’s green earth that take advantage of good stewards and their good intentions; even more so, the challenge to share the wealth of the earth calls for our very best efforts and strategies.

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T. Carlos

In my book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, I detail the traditional religions’ claim against greed as a destructive agent upon individuals and communities. Judaism relates greed to “the violence of the rich” and Buddhism warns of the toxic nature of the “hungry ghost.” I also focus on the social problems that fester in a financially and economically unbalanced society, as we’ve seen in the last generation or two in the United States.

And this is where Lloyd and I part ways. I stand with him for better distribution of wealth, but it will only happen once the folks at the very top are disengaged from their conviction – as if a religiously held belief – that the uninhibited pursuit of wealth is a social value worth living by and teaching our children.

 

Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

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“A Reasonable, Balanced, and Authoritative Public Word”

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Professor Phil Ruge-Jones in action at TLU

Phil Ruge-Jones is a pretty bright guy. That’s not hyperbole; you can ask anyone who knows him or knows of his work. ELCA pastor, bearer of a Ph.D. in systematic theology, and professor of theology and philosophy at Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, Texas, Phil is also bilingual en el bendito Español. For close to twenty years, he and his spouse, ELCA pastor Lori Ruge-Jones, have been leaders in the biblical storytelling movement. As a matter of fact, Phil recently recited the gospel of Mark – in two one-hour sessions – for the theological conference gathering of the three Texas/Louisiana synods of the ELCA.

Phil recently took some time to digest Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Here’s what he has to say:

     “Anderson’s book is an extensive chronicling of the people, movements, and streams of thought that have led us on the quest to want just a little bit more. In the role of a theologically aware social critic, he reminds me of Niebuhr. He is deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, but has listened carefully to many other voices and thus speaks a reasonable, balanced, and authoritative public word. Anderson shows us the way back to the North American commitment to egalitarianism that has become lost over the last century.”

Just a Little Bit More describes the dominant American culture of the last thirty-five years – the confluence of commerce, materialism, consumerism – as a religion. It’s been a good religion that has clothed, fed, employed, and sheltered us. But it has a tendency to go too far and when the aforementioned pursuits become excessive, the religion breaks bad and the common good suffers.

Available as a paperback or ebook, Just a Little Bit More is an excellent resource for personal reflection and/or group discussion. Is social inequality the necessary price to pay for the uninhibited pursuit of wealth? Do social inequalities destroy democratic ideals? Is there a connection between the common good and God’s realm or kingdom? These questions, and others, await you in the reading of Just a Little Bit More.

Just a Little Bit More is available through the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing, www.blueocotillo.com, and Amazon. Blue Ocotillo Publishing – paperback – $14.95 + tax (for Texas residents) + shipping. Ebook format available on Amazon, iBooks, and Nook.

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