Monthly Archives: July 2015

Water – The Ultimate Fixed Asset

The first in a series of three blog posts on water.

Ninety-seven percent of the world’s water supply is salty sea and ocean water. Of the remaining 3 percent that is fresh water, most is frozen (estimates range from 68 to 83 percent). That means over 7 billion people, and myriad plants and animals, share the relative small amount of fresh water that sloshes around. The planet’s water supply – established some 4.4 billion years ago – is absolutely stable. No new water created, none disappearing – the fresh water that exists today supported the lives of multicellular organisms, plants, and dinosaurs long before the arrival of Homo sapiens.

waves-wallpaper-nature-sea-ocean-water-freshness-hd-ocean-water-hd-desktop-wallpaper-Although there would be no life but for water, we absolutely take water for granted. We do the same with the oxygen content of the air we breathe, readily available wherever we might amble upon the green, brown, and blue planet. Water is different, both abundant and scarce, depending upon circumstances and location. We modern-world, well-to-do types simply turn on a faucet and sweet, potable water discharges. I was born in 1961 in Minnesota and I’ve yet to live a single day in the United States when potable water was not available to me on demand.

In the late 1980s, I lived in the South American country of Peru, serving as an intern pastor in a small pueblito called San Antonio de Pomalca. Located in the Sechura desert, the residents of the village retrieved water daily from a well. The folks of San Antonio de Pomalca knew two things about their water supply: it wasn’t unlimited and it needed to be shared.

This type of simple wisdom flies in the face of what has been a driving force in the United States ever since the early 1980s: unlimitedness. Whether water, energy, creativity, resources, or the all-you-can-eat restaurant buffet (an Americanism, different than the Swedish smorgasbord, meaning sandwich table, where variety is valued over endless supply) – we’re encouraged to go for it – don’t hold back. And why not? The spirit of “just a little bit more” is the driving force behind numerous American achievements and accomplishments, beneficial to you, me, and many others throughout the world. But when the spirit of just a little bit more goes too far, blatant inequalities and unjust inequities are often the result.

A good number of Americans born previous to 1961 grew up in domiciles without indoor plumbing or central air conditioning/heating. Maybe you’re one of these folks. You probably don’t take clean, running water for granted. You’re thankful for it because you remember a time when you didn’t have it.

Author Charles Fishman tells us that the twentieth century was the golden age of water. In his book The Big Thirst (Free Press, 2011), he attributes the significant increase in life expectancy in the United States – forty-eight years in 1900 to seventy-five years in 2000 – in large part to enhanced availability of clean water. He says that water became “unlimited, free, and safe” – meaning we didn’t have to worry about water. We could take it for granted. And we do.

The golden age of water, however, is coming to an end. Climate change and related drought, population increase, and heightened competition for water usage are combining to wake us up to the reality of water as a fixed, and not unlimited, asset.

The challenge: can today’s generation of Americans adjust to limitedness? Limitedness calls for conservation, efficiency in usage, and sharing. The values supporting these practices go against the grain of the way many of us are accustomed to living.

I’ll have two or three more blog posts to follow on this very topic. There’s a lot to talk about: desalinization, bottled vs. tap water, market forces on the price of water, gray water in your toilet (yup), among others topics.

By definition a fixed asset is tangible property central to the operation of a business, not traded or converted into cash. Water is central to the business of life – we do best to appreciate it, cherish it, and share it.

 

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. 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.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

 

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Whole Foods Market – Detroit

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It might seem as if all the news coming out of Detroit lately has been bad . . . blighted and abandoned neighborhoods, the first major American city to declare bankruptcy, crippling unemployment. In 1950,
Detroit was the fourth most populous city in the United States with 1.8 million residents. Its population has been in decline ever since. The 2008-09 economic crash caused Detroit’s unemployment rate to peak at 28 percent, and Detroit’s population plummeted to under 725,000 with two hundred thousand residents leaving the Motor City during the crisis.

You might have heard that Detroit is a “food desert,” meaning that there are no grocery stores selling fresh produce within the city limits. That’s not true. There are a number of loyal grocers within the city limits – the Honey Bee Market, established in 1956, caters to a mostly Latino clientele in southwest Detroit, and University Foods, established in 1979, serves the upper Midtown area. The Eastern Market, located about a mile from Ford Field stadium, is the largest public historic market district in the United States. Especially on Saturdays, thousands of Detroit area residents flock to buy the fresh produce it offers. It also serves as a tailgate destination before Detroit Lions home games in the fall. There are other local grocers and discounters like Save-A-Lot (the precursor to Dollar General as a grocer); but when the Farmer Jack grocery chain closed its single remaining store in 2007, that meant major grocery chains no longer had operations in Detroit. No Albertsons, Kroger, or Safeway stores within Motown’s city limits – not even Walmart, the largest grocer in the United States.

Austin-based Whole Foods, surprisingly, decided to enter Detroit’s city limits, setting up shop on Mack Avenue in lower Midtown in June 2013. Whole Foods sells high quality, organic, and sustainable foods to customers nationwide via employees who are treated well – starting wages are usually around $11/hour, with benefits offered after four to six months on the job. Whole Foods strives to practice environmental stewardship through its relationships with suppliers, and touts commitment to “greater good” as a core value in its aggregate operations. Whole Foods is also one of the most expensive grocery stores in the country.

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St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran youth with store manager Larry Austin

The ELCA Youth Gathering brought 30,000 Lutheran high schoolers to Detroit in July 2015. I came to the gathering with eight youth and a wonderful adult leader, Chelsi West, representing St. John’s/San Juan Lutheran in Austin. The gathering youth and their leaders performed service projects throughout the city, and filled the Ford Field stadium four nights for music, fellowship, and inspiration from superb speakers. It was a fantastic event, and many Detroiters expressed gratitude for our presence that brought service muscle and economic support to the city and surrounding area.

While in Detroit for the event, our group went for a visit to the Whole Foods store in Detroit’s Midtown. Being from Austin, I wanted to see what “greater good” connections the seemingly incongruous placement of a Whole Foods store in the Motor City were producing. We hoofed up from Ford Field about one mile to lower Midtown on a hot Saturday afternoon. New apartment buildings contrasted with burnt-out and abandoned mansions from days gone by. My Austinite youth, accustomed to a busy downtown corridor, were surprised by the tranquility. We saw few passersby and only a modest amount of cars on the roads.

When we got to Mack Avenue in lower Midtown, we noticed more activity. The Whole Foods Market stood on the corner. At 20,000 square feet, it’s one-fourth the size of Austin’s flagship store. Yet, it’s one of the biggest grocery stores within the Detroit city limits.

Some of the grocery stores in Detroit (such as Save-A-Lot) move big quantities of cheap food with meager selection – highly processed filler and junk food like chips, crackers, and sugary treats. It’s only been in the last few decades that a major shift has occurred in world history – generally speaking, the poor are now obese and the rich are thin. For all of history, it’s been the other way around. Cheap filler food – seemingly the best option for people living in poverty – is a main contributing factor. Detroit has one of the highest obesity rates for American cities (33 percent). Whole Foods has sent one of its staff nutritionists, Dr. Akua Woolbright, to live and work in Detroit; she offers free classes on healthier eating and lifestyle change.

Store manager Larry Austin (pictured above) met with our group and talked to us of the store’s two years of operations in Detroit. Larry exudes an exemplary enthusiasm for his work and for the mission of Whole Foods in Detroit. He’s been with Whole Foods for sixteen years. The five high schoolers who joined me in conversation with Larry caught a small glimpse of Whole Foods co-CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb’s 21st century business model. Larry told us, with a confident smile, that sales for these first two years have exceeded expectations significantly.

The Detroit store employs 180 people, half of whom actually live within city limits; the majority of these are full-time employees receiving health care benefits.

My book Just a Little Bit More proposes a newer concept – economic democracy – that uplifts the values of limits, balance, and cooperation within the competitive business environment. JaLBM promotes purposeful common good creation; it’s our responsibility to make sure the economic market lives up to that goal. Mackey and Robb concur and it’s a major reason why they put the first chain grocer back into Detroit since 2007. Granted, Whole Foods took advantage of city-offered subsidies that minimized the store rental rate ($6/square foot), but Kroger, Albertsons and Walmart haven’t done so and don’t have plans to set up shop anytime soon within Detroit’s city limits.

As for the prices in the Detroit store – overall, they seemed expensive. I expected to see more difference in terms of prices between Whole Foods in Austin and Detroit (the hot food and salad bar is available at $6.99/lb. instead of the usual $8.99/lb.). But as Mackey, Robb, and store manager Larry Austin will tell you, the store offers a significantly healthier quality of food not available anywhere else in Detroit. And also, if you’re making your own food – and not buying prepared food – you’re saving money. According to Slate writer Tracie McMillan, (her linked article is excellent), Whole Foods Detroit has a mountain of work to do if they expect Detroit’s poorer residents to shop there. McMillan says 38 percent of Detroit residents receive SNAP benefits – food stamps – but only 5-10 percent of sales at Whole Foods Detroit as of now are from residents using SNAP benefits. (Nationally, Whole Foods’ rate of SNAP benefit users is 1-2 percent of overall sales.)

Detroit has over 400 liquor stores, grossly outnumbering the city’s grocery stores. Whole Foods in Detroit is not a perfect match, but I give the corporation major props for choosing the city of Detroit for a much needed shot of fresh produce, healthier food options, and jobs.

The news from Detroit is getting better – unemployment is currently down to 10. 2 percent and further economic recovery seems to be just around the corner. Most importantly, all the Detroiters with whom we interacted – from Larry Austin to folks on the street – were upbeat about their city.

Thanks to the many Detroiters who helped make the ELCA Youth Gathering memorable and uplifting!

#RiseUpELCA

 

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. 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.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

 

 

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Same-Sex Marriage Legalized – Egalitarianism in Action

I’m a pastor of a national church body that is both progressive and traditional. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved, in 2009, a resolution to ordain gay and lesbian ministry candidates. This decision led a number of folks and congregations to leave the ELCA; overall membership has plummeted now to under 4 million members. At its inception in 1988, the ELCA had a membership of more than 5 million souls. The 2009 decision is not the sole factor to explain the church’s decline, but one of many including changing cultural values and increasing number of hours worked by Americans.

SCOTUS

US Supreme Court – 2015

On Sunday, July 5, I preached on the recent US Supreme Court decision (Obergefell v. Hodges) to legalize same-sex marriage. The congregation I serve in Austin, Texas is dual-language, English and Spanish; we gather to worship separately in both respective languages each Sunday within a “one congregation” context. We have members in each worship group who represent either side of the gay marriage issue – traditional and progressive. The text of II Corinthians 12:9 – spiritual power reaching full maturity in weakness – served to remind our traditional-leaning members (most of whom were raised in the previous century and taught that homosexuality was wrong) about the hidden strength of spiritual power: It gives us the wisdom to sort out the things we can change from the things we need to accept. Our Christian tradition beckons us to love our neighbors and interact with them compassionately, even if their life choices and/or politics don’t agree with our own.

The Supreme Court decision, coming days before the 239th anniversary of the nation’s birth, gave me an opportunity to preach also on the egalitarian foundations, still alive and well, of our society. Egalitarianism, as I proclaim it, goes beyond equality to a deeper reality than simply equal quantities, measurements, or values. Egalitarianism emerges and comes to light from a situation of specific inequality—dominance-subordination. Egalitarianism is political in nature: a group or commu­nity engaged in the struggle of self-determination within the larger community or with a competing community seeks, at­tains, and maintains a balance or equity with its competitor.

The word egalitarian was coined during the Gilded Age (1870 – 1900) as the maturing industrial era created economic and social inequalities previously unknown.  While the word egalitarian is a very recent addition to most languages, the concept of egalitarianism is a deeply biblical and ancient one. From God telling Pharaoh through Moses “Let my people go!” to Paul proclaiming to the Galatians that “all of you are one in Christ Jesus” – egalitarianism, be it spiritual or secular, unites and liberates those who are subordinated by unjust domination.

The biblical record serves to buttress egalitarian­ism as a social value in secular society. As a political response to the dominance that a top-down hierarchy or majority can create, egalitarianism has played a major role in American history. Many immigrants came to America from Europe because the promised or imagined opportunity provided relief from social and economic domination. The abolition movement achieved success in the nineteenth century, as did the civil rights movement in the twentieth century, fueled by egalitarianism. Egal­itarianism is one of humanity’s greatest achievements be­cause of the opportunities it affords to those previously kept under thumb. Those seen to be individually weak join forces to stand up to or have equal footing with the strong and powerful. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin’s use of the egalitarian line “all men are created equal [sic]” in the Declaration of Independence has served both to restrict the haughty and to liberate the downtrodden. Egalitarianism best serves to eliminate unjust and unmerited privilege that debilitates minority populations. America’s slaves, indigenous, immigrants, minorities, women, children, handicapped, gays and lesbians have all achieved civil rights—sometimes through blood, sweat, and tears—because of egalitarianism.

scotus 1967 warren court

1967 Supreme Court (Thurgood Marshall joined in October after the June 12th Loving decision)

The 2015 Obergefell decision echoes the 1967 Supreme Court decision to legalize interracial marriage in all the land. According to Gallup.com, some 75 percent of Americans in 1967 disapproved of interracial marriage, and fourteen former slaveholding states did not permit it. The Loving v. Virginia decision helped move the nation away from some of its racist past, and toward a future of greater light.

Our Supreme Court justices and their decisions are not infallible, but oftentimes a wisdom derived from the radical phrase “all people are created equal” comes forth from their decisions. Both liberty and egalitarianism are founding and guiding principles of this society; their simultaneous cooperation and competition with one another (balancing out the other’s excesses) help this society live up to its stated convictions.

 

 

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. 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.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

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