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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All I Want for Christmas is a New Lexus or Mercedes – 2017

‘Tis the season of consumerist delights and gratifications. Chicago native Mel Tormé crooned that “Christmas was made for children,” but the current age of excess and inequality encourages well-to-do adults to wish true their materialistic dreams. As was the case in 2016, Lexus and Mercedes have new commercials that show the power of seasonal goodies to make adults act like children. Whereas the Mercedes commercial (like last year) tastefully gets its message across, the series of Lexus commercials (again, like last year) is over-the-edge cynical in its depiction of adults whose childlike behavior is excused in the pursuit of perfect holiday plunder.

American-style holiday gift giving – focused on children – has been around about 150 years, necessarily coinciding with standard of living advances achieved during the Second Industrial Revolution. American Christmas as an import of the St. Nick tradition from Europe is a convenient myth that helps keep a religious veneer on the American holiday season. More historically accurate, however, is the explanation of today’s American Christmas as the modern manifestation of the ancient rhythms of rest and indulgence connected to Northern Hemisphere winter solstice.

The practice of misrule – common in Europe and early America – was a moment of social inversion centered around the solstice (December 21st) and its accompanying spoils of gathered harvest, freshly slaughtered meat, and fermented drink. 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!

Misrule, a social bargain whereby peasants agreed to give their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the remainder of the year, 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 eventually disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of good St. Nick – was rerouted 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, but soon enough, the tide turned and the modern Christmas holiday emerged – the often contradictory mix-match of the baby Jesus, consumerist greed, lights, excessive consumption, hymns and songs, a silent night, and an awfully noisy morning with gifts for the children (and some adults). Historian Stephen Nissenbaum astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct – now more than ever!

There’s nothing wrong with owning a Lexus or Mercedes – they’re good cars to get from Point A to Point B in style. The same goes for Cadillac. The above mentioned commercials (follow this link for my take on a similar Caddy commercial), however, instill an alternative reality: possession supersedes function. Notice that none of these commercials actually showcases the promoted car in action, driven by the owner. What’s marketed and sold is not function but wished-for superlative status. During the Gilded Age – another age of excess and inequality – economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe spending by the richest Americans to build up their prestige and image. Veblen criticized conspicuous consumption as characteristic of a regressive society, similar to the stratified European aristocracies that many American immigrants had left behind.

When we teach our children – by propaganda, creed, and example – that wealth and possessions determine status more so than service, commitment, and character we only perpetuate the regression of American society.

Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, reveals much about our societal character and identity. The gift giving tradition of St. Nick sought out needy children. Today’s American Santa does it all – taking care of children and even affluent adults. When possessions for this latter group serve the primary purpose not of utility, but of self-aggrandizement, there’s an attached danger the adult Jesus warned of numerous times and in various ways . . .

On second thought – blog post title be damned – I think I’ll keep tooling around in my ’07 Accord for the foreseeable future. Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

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 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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Happy Black Friday Eve!!

Happy Thanksgiving  . . . I mean, Happy Black Friday Eve.

Daaammmnnn – I’m doing my best to adjust to the new reality, but I’m having some trouble.

I’m so deplorably old-school. I just can’t get the hang of the new lingo or the new way to roll.

Gathering together with family and friends around the table and enjoying turkey, ham, Tofurky (that’s vegetarian tofu-turkey for you extremely old-school types) and all the trimmings, toasting the day of gratitude with some nice oaky California Chardonnay . . . I now realize this description represents a by-gone era, like a black-and-white Jimmy Stewart holiday classic.

Today – early twenty-first century – “Thanksgiving” is increasingly about getting ready for Black Friday Eve and Black Friday, the biggest shopping days of the American calendar year. Turn on the football games if you must, but get ready to go! Shop!! And for our hard-working Americans, go and get the Walmart, Target, and the plethora of mall stores ready to rock, stock, and roll! Push away from the table and do your duty!

This is our time.

Or, at least it used to be.

——————————————————————————————————-

blackfriday2811e
I saw commerce-based Christmas commercials on TV before Halloween this year. I’m not knocking commerce; buying and selling defines the modern world and provides goods, employment, services, and meaning for the vast majority of us. Market activity is a good thing – unequivocally. We’d rather the youngest generation – able, creative, and impressionable – become integrated into the world of commerce than one of other-worldly disinterest and hate, which in extreme cases, can lead to things like terrorism.

Even though commerce is a great civilizing force, it ultimately does not make the world go round. The words of a Jewish prophet from long ago, “Life does not consist of the abundance of possessions,” cut against the grain of commerce’s ability to dominate. Maintaining balance and perspective in the midst of all the pots, pans, smartphones, sofa chairs, and cars that surround us requires either poverty or discipline.

Thanksgiving Day 2011: Walmart, Kohl’s, Target, and Best Buy annex the holiday for commercial purposes by opening their doors at 10 p.m. That very night “customer versus customer shopping rage” is reported and responded to by police in at least seven states. This year, Walmart and Target are hitting the airwaves unabashed with advertisements inviting shoppers in at 6 p.m. for Black Friday Eve. Kudos to the checkout aisle workers who, upon handing shoppers their receipts, crack a wry smile and go subversive: Have a good Black Friday Eve holiday weekend. 

Not all Americans are falling for the ploy. The pushback to maintain Thanksgiving as holiday without street fighting at the local big box retailer is gaining momentum. Increased internet commerce mitigates the big box stores’ physical lure. And that really cheap 40″ LED television on sale for Black Friday? It truly is cheap – made exclusively on the cheap for Black Friday and only sold on Black Friday.

On the positive side of the ledger, REI, the national outdoor equipment store, is leading the way by being closed on Thanksgiving Day and Friday. Locally in Austin, Tree House, an environmentally conscious home improvement store, is also closing its doors to commerce on Thursday and Friday. #optoutdoors

Two exemplary theologians of our day – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Dr. Walter Brueggemann – have done excellent work lifting up the classic teaching of biblical Sabbath. Sabbath is time to give thanks, slow down, take inventory, breathe deep, and get away from some of the distractions of everyday life. I’m looking forward to Sabbath time this Thanksgiving with family and friends. And then I’m going to sleep in on Friday . . .

 

T. Carlos Anderson is the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014).

 

 

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 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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When Money Speaks, the Truth is Silent

Reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money has solidified a long-held conviction: I simply don’t trust people who revere money and the attainment of wealth as a two-pronged highest good. Blame it on my stolid religious upbringing – a number of the Hebrew prophets and their protegé from Nazareth taught the same conviction, and my parents exemplified it to me and my siblings in their actions and speech. Mayer exposes the fallout of the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision that deemed corporations free-speech enabled persons. It’s not so much that ExxonMobil and Walmart have kicked in millions to the political process, Mayer says, but that excessively rich Americans – like the Koch brothers and George Soros, and a few others – are increasingly commandeering the process. Their massive financial contributions, through various “social welfare organizations,” is what she calls “dark money.” Those scummy and scathing political television ads, mailers, and social media ads – produced by “Shadow Group 501(c)(4)” or some such entity – that invade your space right before an election? Produced by non-profits that shield donor names from public knowledge, they promote the political agenda of donors via their unlimited contributions – questions rarely asked. Mayer documents that dark money spending has increased exponentially since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote in favor of Citizens United, a 501(c)(4) organization that promotes a conservative political agenda. Not only has the 2010 decision opened the door to dark money’s influence on elections, but also to rogue players like Russia.

Mayer argues that our commitment to the greatly cherished American attribute of liberty can go too far. The increasing lack of transparency in our political process threatens collective liberty. I’m not saying that money is bad or that people who have it (most all of us reading this post) are bad, either. Money, simply put, is one of the principal entities that can magnify the human propensity for good and for evil. Money implements and supports actions that uplift common good, but it also had a dark side. As I argue in my 2014 book, Just a Little Bit More, egalitarianism – equal opportunity, helping to mitigate imbalanced inputs that lead to outcomes of blatant inequality – is the foil that keeps liberty honest. I’ll call upon a Russian saying that aptly applies: When money speaks, the truth is silent. 

Gilded Age partisans John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, with their never before realized and gargantuan gains in wealth, gave a new permission to modern American society: to leave its egalitarian foundations behind. Rockefeller and Carnegie, in their defense, sensed the responsibility to redistribute their vast fortunes and acted upon it. What’s different today? As egalitarianism’s influence has faded, a number of today’s wealthiest sense no responsibility to redistribute their gains but instead use these gains to influence the political arena to their own benefit – the Koch brothers, as Mayer argues, being the most arrant example. Common good, in this post-Citizens United age, has become a private rather than a public ideal where freedom is narrowly defined (incorrectly) as the making of money, and wealthy and corporate interests are able to act with impunity. Mayer quotes the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin: “Total liberty for the wolves is death for the lambs.”

Citizens United is helping to crush the moderate voice in the political realm, notably on the Republican side of the aisle. Mayer quotes Lee Drutman, of the New America Foundation: “The more Republicans depend upon 1% of 1% donors, the more conservative they tend to be.” The Kochs’ preferred brand of cutthroat libertarianism, an outlier a generation ago, is ascendant today with its anti-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation, and anti-climate agenda. It has a few common intersections with Donald Trump’s populist nationalism, but is decidedly distinct from it. These two groups are out for the soul of the Republican party – moderate Republicans like John Kasich and Lisa Murkowski be damned.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that societies of increasing affluence tend to become more individualistic, jeopardizing their social cohesion. Sacks’s description perfectly frames the American society of the past thirty-five years, and helps explain its rising rates of inequality. Mayer fingers Steven Schwarzman and Charles Schwab as players on the Koch brothers’ dark money team, using their wealth politically to further serve their personal economic interests.

Conversely, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet, in the spirit of Rockefeller and Carnegie from a generation ago, understand the responsibility inherent to great riches. Philanthropy is not the greatest good, but its proper practice remains vital until that utopian day arrives when political and economic systems produce wealth sufficient for all of its members.

 

T. Carlos Anderson is a pastor and writer based in Austin, Texas. His first book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is 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 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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DACA, Immigration Reform, and a just a little bit more Sarcasm

Lady Liberty has beckoned for more than a century, but now it’s time to give back – or better said, time to expel. President Trump’s uncharacteristic wishy-washy revocation of DACA, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s enthusiastic endorsement of the revocation, and the House Republicans’ steady inaction on immigration reform could result in the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Latino youth (and others). American society, over the centuries, has given slaves, migrants, child laborers, and foreigners the opportunity – that’s right – to build the nation through their blood, sweat, and tears. Yeah, legalized slavery is a thing of the past thanks to the stinkin’ abolition movement and that obstinate president named Lincoln. And the days of kids getting their fingers stuck in cotton-spinning looms and coal mine breaker boys getting their lungs full of coal dust are over because of the stinkin’ rise of unions, child reform labor regulations, and compulsory education laws. The problem of all these horrible DACA recipients in the country couldn’t possibly be one of our own doing, could it? Two words: Cheap labor. Five more words: Oh how we love it.

Coal mine breaker boys – circa 1910 – photo by Lewis Hines

Without America’s long-standing love affair with cheap labor, why would the parents of these DACA recipients have come here in the first place to do their unpatriotic duty from the bottom rungs to make America great?

Remember the foreign and migrant workers who laid rail track in the western territories and states? Lucky them! Today their vocational descendants pick fruit in the south and west and harvest wheat in the Plains, slaughter pigs and cows in the Midwest, clean up restaurants and office buildings and cut grass and trim trees all over the country. Why give them – and their children – a path to citizenship with legal rights and protections when we can continue to exploit them for what we need so dearly – unprotected and loosely regulated cheap labor? How the hell are my wife and I supposed to enjoy relatively cheap California wine ($10-15) if it becomes more expensive ($25) because some damn Mexican grape-pickers need to be paid a living wage? WTFlagon.

If you must know the specifics: DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – was a policy put into place by the Obama administration in 2012, after a do-nothing Congress did nothing on immigration reform. Close to 800,000 applicants have been approved since that time with the majority of these living in California and Texas. And now the great American president has given a green light to AG Sessions to pull the plug on the program.

All of these horrendous “Dreamers,” who came to the USA on the backs of their parents – get the hell out! Thank God for the Texas Attorney General (currently indicted for securities fraud) doubling as a fine Christian man, standing up for the US Constitution with a threat to sue the president if DACA is not revoked. The poor, tattered Constitution is under fierce attack from Dreamers who go to school, work, and make their families stronger. Hell, some of them even go to church. It’s so entirely un-American of them – if only they would learn how to smoke weed and binge drink like a lot of white kids from the suburbs do, while cruising around in cars provided by Mommy and Daddy. That’s the American way.

A musician in Austin that I’m fond of (James McMurtry) sings, “We can’t help what came before.” These damn Dreamers, if they’re so smart, they should have known to do something about their status before their underachieving parents brought them here.

Another American musician I’m fond of (Lou Reed – RIP) sang of the aforementioned Lady Liberty: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor and I’ll piss on ’em. That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says.” Reed was a New Yorker. As you can tell by his lyric, he knew, just like the great American president knows, that Lady Liberty was soooo nineteenth century. It’s about time we start living up to the updated credo, championed by the really, really rich president from New York: Put America first, baby. Go home, wherever that is, you damn Dreamers, and quit ruining our – not yours, but our – country.

We’ve come a long way from the dark days of the summer of 2013 when fourteen Republican senators joined fifty-four Democratic senators to approve an immigration reform bill. A bipartisan group of eight senators championed the bill, but, thank God, the House Republicans wouldn’t join in the apostasy. The bill died before the president who wasn’t even born here could sign it.

The problems America faces are too many to list in a blog post designed to run 750 words. Suffice it to say, getting rid of close to a million Dreamers would set the country back on the path to greatness because expulsion would get at the very root of every single one of the problems – again, too many to mention – that beset us. And hell, once we get rid of all these stinkin’ Dreamers, we’ll feel much better about ourselves as a society. Probably, maybe.

————————————

Lou Reed was on to something, but for the moment I’m going to call Lady Liberty “The Statue of Irony.” It’s times like these that we need her torch of enlightenment (ironic, isn’t it?) to shine ever so brightly!

James McMurtry, “Iolanthe,” Where’d You Hide the Body? (1995)

Lou Reed, “Dirty Boulevard,” New York (1989)

 

T. Carlos Anderson is a pastor and writer based in Austin, Texas. His first book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is 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 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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Trash and Trump

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve queried: How in the world did Donald Trump become president? My blog post from October 20, almost three weeks prior to the election, speaks a cultural truth – for better and worse, Americans equate wealth with success – but my prediction that Trump would “convincingly” lose the election, despite his wealth and because of his many flaws, reveals that I have more to learn about Americans.

Nancy Isenberg’s provocative White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is essential reading for understanding the Trump phenomenon, and for delving deeper into American society’s long history of inequality. Even though the hardcover version was released in June 2016 before the advent of the Trump era, Isenberg effectively describes the context that helps answer the above query. The LSU American history professor, in the paperback version released earlier this year, directly answers the query in a new preface. Class and identity politics, she says, not one more than the other, operated in tandem to help elect the forty-fifth president.

History tells that colonial Australia was a dumping ground for English convicts and other undesirables. Colonial America, with widespread indentured servitude and expanding slavery, wasn’t markedly different. Consequently, Isenberg argues, American society has always been stratified and class-based. The group of marginalized American underclass – enslaved Africans and blacks, Native Americans, and expendable laboring migrants – also included white undesirables, initially labeled as waste people, rubbish, lazy lubbers, crackers, clay eaters, and swamp dwellers. The moniker “white trash” would come later as a catch-all phrase subsuming these and other descriptions.

The extension of suffrage to non-property owning white men in 1828 helped Andrew Jackson win the presidency that same year. Jackson – vengeful, blunt, defensive, retaliatory, braggadocious, and crass – was the original Trump. An arch-populist, he spoke the language of common folk and railed against elites in Washington. Jackson won reelection in 1832. He signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, aiding white settlement and abetting the deaths of thousands of Native Americans in the infamous Trail of Tears.

During his first week in the oval office Trump proudly hung a portrait of “Old Hickory” near his desk, calling the seventh president “an amazing figure of American history.” The two men, and the political contexts that produced their presidencies, have many commonalities. I scribbled “Trump” in the margins of my hardcover version of White Trash no less than twenty-five times on the pages where Isenberg described Jackson and his era.

Isenberg says that, like Jackson and other politicians before him, Trump has tapped into a rich vein of American identity politics. Trump embraced the forgotten white, sometimes rural, working (or previously working) class – many who are afraid for the future, feeling disinherited, some blaming Mexicans and immigrants for unfavorable changes, and others perilously hooked on opioids. Thomas Edsall reports in the New York Times that, according to a 2014 Center for Disease Control and Prevention report, opioid prescriptions in twelve states outnumbered their populations: Arkansas, Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia. Strikingly, all twelve states voted in the Trump column on November 8th. Edsall also cites a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation release that reports overdose death rates from opioids, including heroin, were much higher for whites at 13.9 per 100,000 persons, than for blacks (6.6) and Hispanics (4.6).

When Hillary Clinton referred to half of Trump’s supporters as a “deplorables,” she filled up a white trash basket with racists, sexists, homophobes, xenophobes, and Islamaphobes. While Trump’s numerous disparaging comments rarely hurt his political fortunes, Clinton’s phrase turned against her. Not only was it over-generalized and inaccurate, it further galvanized some of Trump’s supporters – non-college educated, left-behind whites – into a class and an identity that separated them from elites like Clinton and her ilk from above, and “Mexicans and immigrants” from below. Their fear of falling down the socioeconomic ladder met up with Trump’s promise to be their savior. A small slice of this group – white supremacists and neo-Nazis – acted out mid-August in Charlottesville, Virginia and the president, incredibly, came to their defense.

Trump was not elected solely by whites anxious about losing status and tumbling into a lower socioeconomic class. There were plenty of college educated, and economically well-to-do that voted for Trump. Isenberg argues that America has always been a class-based society, and despite all our talk of equality, a society quite comfortable with hierarchy. With the attainment of the American Dream for many becoming nothing more than empty promise and platitude, Trump masterfully tapped into (and continues to stoke) historic resentments and an electoral college majority of Americans bought it.

In part, this is how Donald Trump was elected president. I’m still learning about my fellow Americans, even though it sometimes leaves me scratching my head.

I’m loathe to make another lousy prediction, but for the life of me I can’t see how this presidency ends well.

 

T. Carlos Anderson is a pastor and writer based in Austin, Texas. His first book, Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is 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 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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Better Than Church

The women file past me into the room. They all wear the same bland prison whites, a pullover top matched to loose pants with an elastic waistband. Most of the women are in their twenties and thirties, and not attractive in the conventional sense. Their collective presence jars me, though I do my best to appear nonchalant. The prison unit, a substance abuse felony punishment facility in Texas that offers treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, claims them for seven to twelve months because of drug possession or DWI conviction. A number of the women are missing teeth, due to crystal meth abuse. Some of the women’s faces betray hard decisions and painful memories – of which I will hear when they begin to speak.

I’m at a graduation ceremony for Bridges To Life (BTL), a restorative justice prison ministry that joins surrogate crime victims and perpetrators face-to-face. (BTL is a volunteer program that is not part of the prison’s in-house drug treatment efforts, but it buttresses those efforts all the same.) All of the women in the room have completed the ministry’s fourteen-week program that coaxes forth self-awareness, accountability, and restoration by requiring participants to engage in rigorous self-evaluation. Small group discussions allow participants to honestly share their stories with one another. The traditional healing practices of confession and forgiveness are used to help inmates examine the effects of their crimes upon themselves, upon their relationships with family and friends, and upon the relationships their offenses have created with the victims of their crimes.

It’s open-mic for this ceremony night of graduation. Three questions guide the women’s remarks: 1) How have you changed in the last fourteen weeks? 2) How do you feel now? 3) What do you want to say to the group?

The first woman to speak steps up to the wood podium in front of six neat rows of folding chairs, where her fellow inmates, ten BTL volunteers, the prison chaplain, and I watch her intently. She tries to speak but can’t as tears well up in her eyes. Immediately, a chorus of fingers snapping, raised in the air – as I’ll learn, their particular expression of support – fills the room. The woman covers her face with her hand and wipes her tears. She takes a deep breath and begins: “For the first time in a long time, I’m living actively and not passively. I feel alive again and my attitude has changed immensely. I’m letting feelings about my past go as I’ve learned I need to forgive myself. I feel important to myself again.” This last phrase jars me, but in a distinct manner from the jarring that internally shook me when the women filed into the room. I feel important to myself again – this particular description, the tip of an iceberg of human darkness and light, sets the stage. I will hear variations on the same wonderful theme for the next seventy-five, tear-inspiring minutes.

Released emotions, more tears, and at-the-ready snapping fingers accompany the ensuing testimonies, each one upon its conclusion met with cheers and applause that buoy the speaker back to her seat:

“I didn’t feel like I was worthy of change before, because I came here with a lot of guilt and shame . . . but now I have acceptance.”

“My everything has changed – the way I look at others and the way I look at myself. I’m proud of myself. I haven’t been proud of myself for years.”

“For so long, I hated myself and couldn’t forgive myself. But I feel lighter and freer now. The more I tell people about my weakness, the more restored God has made me feel. I have hope again.”

“Before I started this program, I felt like I was a victim. But when we wrote our letters, it occurred to me that I had harmed other people. I was blind, but now I see.”

The letters to which the speaker refers are confessional letters of apology to those harmed by the offender’s actions. A letter is written to a family member and a victim of the offender’s crime – the letters are not sent but used for small group discussion in one of the weekly BTL sessions, for the purpose of claiming responsibility, accountability, and forgiveness.

Others testify:

“Some of us haven’t had positive role models in our lives. To have ears listening to us, helps restore my hope. I have a future again.”

“I never used to care about completing anything. Receiving this certificate tonight is so important – now I know I can complete things. My self-esteem has been lifted up so much.”

“To come here and be loved and accepted and forgiven – we’re all God’s little miracles.”

Toward the end of the testimonies, another woman, after fighting back tears like so many before her, shares with the group six words of profound self-understanding:

“Now I remember who I am . . .”

By this time, I’ve come upon an eye-opening realization myself. I see that what these women are sharing, straight from their souls, is the most beautiful thing I’ve witnessed in some time. As a male in the yet male-dominated twenty-first century world, my first glance at women often times, almost instinctively, is one of simple examination for what my eye understands to be beauty or good looks. I don’t say this in a braggadocious way, but in a truthful and confessional way. The women this night – some with missing teeth, and others unkempt in prison whites and freed from having to present themselves to the outside world – remind me that what binds us together more than anything is the common humanity we carry inside consisting of feelings, emotions, and experiences. All of us are in need of the inner gifts of love, acceptance, and support. Outward displays of possessions, accomplishments, and good looks – all of these having positive attributes – are overemphasized in popular culture, often to the detriment of the more important inner gifts.

Bridges To Life has a crucial place in my new book on restorative justice, There is a Balm in Huntsville, due out April 1. 2019. The woman who invited me to the graduation, Ellen Halbert, told me ahead of time: “You’ll see. The graduation ceremony is incredible.” She was, and is, absolutely right. Ellen is a crime victim and a prominent restorative justice proponent – the prison unit in Burnet, Texas where we’ve gathered for the graduation, is named for her. She was a presenter, during an earlier session of the fourteen-week program with this same group. The women were so moved by hearing Ellen’s story that they insisted she come back for their graduation.

As we linger in the room and share refreshments with the graduates and volunteers, I – a preacher – share with Ellen my evaluation of the evening: “You’re right, Ellen. This was great – better than church.” She smiles and nods her head. She’s seen it before and she’ll see it again: The healing power of shared story and testimony to make a new way forward, for bearer and listener alike.


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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Restorative Justice, Face-to-Face

I’m committing the bulk of my attention this calendar year to the fascinating field of restorative justice. I’m writing a new book (available April 1, 2019) that tells the story of a young man who killed two people in a 1996 drunk driving wreck and subsequently received a forty-year prison sentence. He experienced transformation not because he decided to rehab his life, as if it was a do-it-yourself solo job. His reformation came via a gradual process that was greatly enhanced by encounters he had with surviving victim family members, and other victims of crime. His healing was the direct result of face-to-face encounters with those deeply and innocently wounded by the ravages of his crime and other crimes.

State-sponsored retributive justice is a bedrock of modern Western society as understood in the colloquial phrase “You do the crime, you do the time.” Societal order and expectations are positively shaped by laws and corresponding punishments of their violations. In retributive justice theory, the state is the principal victim and consequent administrator of punishment.

Restorative justice—distinct from retributive justice—goes back to traditions that pre-date modern Western societies. Its goal is to restore the relationships damaged by crime and sustain the community where both victim and offender reside (usually the case). In restorative justice theory, the person violated is the principal victim, not the state. Face-to-face encounters between victim and offender aim to match victim needs and offender responsibilities as concerns confession, apology, information, restitution, reconciliation, and future security. In restorative justice practice, offenders take responsibility for their crimes by acknowledging their debt to their victims and by paying them back, if possible, in concrete ways. A grade school teacher, for example, practices restorative justice when she has two of her students, previously fighting, sit down face-to-face to work out their differences instead of sending them to the principal’s office for mandatory discipline.

A restorative approach is not applicable to all situations of crime victimization. Situations of sexual abuse, especially, are not suited to face-to-face encounters. Surrogate meetings, where victims encounter offenders—offenders of similar crimes but not the offender(s) in their particular case—are effective vehicles to positively impact both parties.

Texas’s was the first state criminal justice system to offer a restorative approach for victims of violent crime—its program starting via profoundly unique circumstances in 1993. A woman by the name of Cathy Phillips wanted to meet with the imprisoned killer of her daughter. She didn’t know the man but wanted to tell him face-to-face what her daughter meant to her and what his actions did her family. Anthony Yanez was sentenced to life without possibility of parole for the brutal kidnapping, rape, and murder of Brenda Phillips. Most of Phillips’s friends told her she was crazy, but she was undeterred. As there was no official means by which to pursue her desire, Phillips eventually appealed directly to Texas governor Ann Richards. Richards had previously appointed the first crime victim, Ellen Halbert, to the powerful Texas Department of Criminal Justice Board—and Halbert’s advocacy led to Phillips having her day across the table from Yanez. The meeting, with a trained mediator present, allowed Phillips to unburden a part of her soul. It wasn’t about forgiveness or reconciliation—it was about honesty and disclosure: This is what you did to my family and you need to hear me out. The meeting occurred in 1991. Yanez offered an apology and Cathy Phillips said she felt better after the meeting, with some of her questions answered. She no longer had to play the “What you don’t know will drive you crazy” game.

Ellen Halbert and John Sage receiving TDCJ Board special recognition for prison ministry work in April 2017. Sage’s “Bridges To Life” prison ministry uses restorative justice practices to bring together offenders and surrogate crime victims.

After Phillips’s encounter with Yanez, Halbert helped direct funding to the victim services unit of Texas’s criminal justice system and a victim-offender dialogue program was created and made available to victims of violent crime in 1993, the first of its kind in the nation. To date, more than thirty other state criminal justice systems have followed suit.

My book tells its story in narrative fashion, the specific story of the 1996 wreck fitting into the larger story of Texas’s foray into state-sponsored restorative justice practices. My goal is to reveal the life-changing and -enhancing practices of restorative justice. Before I delved into this project, like many, I was only vaguely aware of restorative justice practices. This book aims to expose many to its healing ways.

A number of friends and acquaintances have asked if this book project has anything in common with my first book, Just a Little Bit More, which exposes economic and social inequalities and offers a better way forward. This new book will be very different in form and message, but, yes, it will lift up, as does Just a Little Bit More, face-to-face meetings as a powerful balm to cure some of what ails us in our current day. The sharing of and listening to a genuine story, told with humility and honesty, holds within it the ability to help us see our shared common humanity. We need more of that today.


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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Income Tax – The Original Inequality Equalizer

Did you have a good time compiling and filing your taxes last month? As much fun as I did, I’m sure. Most Americans agree (link to Gallup poll) that it’s time for a change to the tax code.

T.R. Reid’s A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System (Penguin, 2017) breaks down the complicated subject of income taxation with a cursory global compare and contrast of other countries’ taxation efforts with those of the United States. This type of formula worked well in his previous effort, The Healing of America (Penguin, 2009), exposing America’s inefficient and disjointed healthcare system. Reid invites us to see how other countries do healthcare and taxation and asks: What best practices can we adopt to make our systems better?

A bit of history: Property and consumption taxes (excise, duties, tariffs, and sales tax) have been around since colonial days. A temporary federal income tax existed during the Civil War. Corporations have been taxed since 1909. In the wake of the Second Industrial era’s Gilded Age, and its previously unrealized economic inequalities, the Progressive era birthed the federal income tax in 1913 via the 16th Amendment, empowering the federal government to tax Americans’ personal income. Only 4 percent of Americans – the country’s highest earners – paid an income tax that first year. I call the federal income tax the original inequality equalizer – those who had “the ability to pay” did so for the common good. It was only after WW II that a broader base of Americans paid federal income taxes. In 1927, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes opined: “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” As our bridges and rails and other structures deteriorate, a collective reset on our attitude about taxes could help.

A bit of reality: Of the thirty-four richest countries in the world, as measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2014, the United States ranked thirty-first in taxes paid at slightly more than 25 percent of GDP. Only in South Korea, Chile, and Mexico is there a lower tax burden than in the United States. Reid also reveals that US government spending is comparable low at 15.5 percent of GDP, ranking thirty-second among OECD nations. Reid says the dual argument that Americans are overtaxed and the size of government is out of control is fictitious. More genuine would be for Americans to admit that our societal DNA – “no taxation without representation” – makes us skeptical about paying taxes. We prefer to do some things with private rather than public funding. Americans privately give more to social programs and charities (than do citizens in other countries), but none of these good works fixes bridges or roads or public structures.

Reid explains that there have been major revisions to the tax code in 1922, 1954, and 1986. The mathematical symmetry of a significant change every 32 years targets 2018 as the year for the next reset to the code. While President Trump promotes a revision to the tax code as a major agenda item, a polarized and dysfunctional congress will make it difficult to attain.

The 1986 revision – a bipartisan effort – was widely hailed as a needed breakthrough. Reid says other countries adopted its main thrust of slashing income tax rates for the highest earners. The code has since, however, been overburdened with loopholes, breaks, and complexities. Yes, it’s a mess. The majority of US taxpayers hire professionals to do their taxes, and Reid says that the “Tax Complexity Lobby” (Jackson Hewitt, H&R Block, Intuit, and others) strenuously opposes innovations like pre-filled tax forms that save billions of hours and fees for citizens of Japan, Britain, Sweden, Spain, and Portugal.

Reid discusses three main options from his global survey: BBLR (broad based, lower rates), VAT (value added tax), and flat tax.

Quoting Reid on BBLR (all the hyphens are his): “The tax base – that is, the total amount of income, or sales, or property that can be taxed – is kept as large as possible, then the tax rate – that is, the percentage that people have to give to the government – can be kept low. Virtually all economists and tax experts agree that this is the best way to run a tax regime.” Remember Bowles-Simpson (aka the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) from 2010? Even though it died in committee (it had its bipartisan supporters and opponents), it featured a BBLR approach to reduce the national deficit. A BBLR approach buttressed the 1986 tax reform law. One of its architects, former Sen. Bill Bradley, a long-time BBLR advocate, says, “The key to reform was to focus on the attractiveness of low rates, not on the pain of eliminating reductions.”

The two main deductions needing elimination in 2018, according to Reid, are well-loved by middle and upper class Americans: the mortgage interest deduction (MID) and the charitable contribution deduction. Reid claims the familiar rationale behind the MID – it encourages home ownership – is now passé; other OECD countries without an MID have home ownership rates similar to ours (about 65%). Reid also contends that Americans will continue to support charitable organizations whether there’s a tax break for itemized deductions or not. His rationale for this latter assertion seems mostly to be personal opinion. I do strongly agree, however, with his overall assessment: “Like the charity deduction, the benefits for home ownership are strongly skewed to the richest taxpayers.” This turns out to be – let me use a loaded phrase to make a point – government dole mostly for the well-to-do to the tune of $200 billion in 2016, with three-quarters of the MID tax break going to households that make more than $100,000/year.

Matthew Desmond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted (see my review here), goes farther than Reid and claims that the MID is greatly exacerbating American inequality. His NYT article of May 9, “How Home Ownership Became the Engine of American Inequality,” details the cases of four homeowners and three renters in various American locales. Desmond calls the MID “public housing for the rich.” That’s not all: “A 15-story public housing tower and a mortgaged suburban home are both government-subsidized, but only one looks (and feels) that way. It is only by recognizing this fact that we can begin to understand why there is so much poverty in the United States today.” Desmond’s work is provocative and well worth reading.

Reid says that 175 of the planet’s 200 countries employ some version of a value added tax (VAT). Essentially a sales tax on consumption, the VAT is applied to every stage of commercial production, not just to the final sale in a retail store. Two advantages emerge: there is less incentive to evade the tax for producers, and its collection is more steady. That it tends to be a regressive tax is its main disadvantage.

While praising its potential simplicity, Reid rejects the flat tax outright. He says it can work in countries where a polarity of income doesn’t exist (like the former Russian satellites in the last half of the twentieth century), but not in highly unequal societies like the United States. The flat tax takes in precious little income, and it further increases inequality. Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially utilized the flat tax but them dumped it as an oligarchy class gained prominence.

Reid additionally suggests that the US corporate tax rate be lowered (which would help deflate the current rampant incentive to avoid the tax), that our very richest citizens be taxed progressively, and that a financial transactions tax be implemented on Wall Street. He also says increasing the gasoline tax is a no brainer that can easily help bolster sagging US infrastructure.

Mr. Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, has said the administration is confident that it can create a new tax plan that “pays for itself” with economic growth. Flat taxers, like Grover Norquist and Ted Cruz, spout the same type of fervor – that tax breaks will unleash economic growth like never before. This type of dogmatism has dutifully entered the realm of bogus cliché. The days of robust growth are over – see my five-part blog series on Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth – and it’s time for Americans to hold political leaders accountable to a responsible and sustainable understanding of economic development.

How a country structures its taxes matters for inequality, economic development, and social spirit – all these included in an understanding of common good. In the earliest days of federal income taxation, “the ability to pay” was recognized by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt as a patriotic duty of the economically advantaged. The tax also helped America maintain some sense of egalitarianism. Today, with a federal poverty rate of 13.5 percent, the majority of Americans can claim status as economically advantaged. Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society – a tax code that is simplified, more equitable, broader-based, and progressive toward the top can help this society recover some much needed civility.

 

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 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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