Tag Archives: Book Reviews

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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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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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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Jesus Was Not a Self-Made Man

I know what people mean when they say someone is a “self-made man” (I’ve rarely heard the phrase “self-made woman” spoken): a person who has risen from dire circumstances to success by hard work and ingenuity. Benjamin Franklin – the tenth son of a humble candle maker – printed, invented, flew a kite, authored, and became a great American patriarch. Frederick Douglass – the son of an unknown father (most likely his original master) and a slave mother – escaped slavery to preach, write, speak, and become a foremost abolitionist and statesman. These two giants of American history have exemplified the term in question for generations.

Franklin I appreciate and Douglass I revere. The credo of hard work and ingenuity I wholeheartedly support. But the term used to describe Franklin’s and Douglass’s accomplishments – self-made? I’m not a fan of the term, nor do I ever use it. Franklin went to school until he was ten at a time when few did, and apprenticed under a brother to learn the printing trade. The wife of a subsequent Douglass master taught young Frederick to read (later, her husband coerced her to renounce this radical activity). Even though Franklin’s beginnings were humble and Douglass’s cruel and unjust, neither could claim complete freedom from the guidance and assistance of others. A community of some sort provided a foothold and direction.

Later historical figures – Carnegie and Rockefeller – and contemporary figures – Oprah Winfrey and Nasty Gal proprietor Sophia Amoruso – fit the bill of achieving success while overcoming difficult circumstances. But again, none of these four could or can honestly say that they did it all on their own. Contemporary figures who have enjoyed business success, such as Ross Perot, Mark Cuban, Michael Jordan, Sean Combs, and Michael Dell all rose from middle class or upper-middle class beginnings.

Little human beings need more caretaking and rearing than any other mammal. Newly born bears, orangutans, and elephants all require less time and effort to develop into adults than do newly born Olivia and Ezra (two of the most popular baby names in the US during 2016). When the raising up of our young ones is negligent or haphazard, catastrophes often result. Combine this proven reality with US society’s increasing inequality, and current troubles could ripen into future disasters.

Robert Putnam, in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2015), joins many in the last few years to say that the phrase “self-made” has outlived its usefulness. Economic mobility in the US (the ability of a person to improve – or lower – their financial status) has not improved in the past fifty years. We no longer lead the world in economic mobility and many older Americans consequently overestimate its vibrancy. Other countries, such as Canada, France, and Denmark, boast higher rates of economic or social mobility than does the US. The cycle self-perpetuates: inequality makes the great American attribute of social mobility a myth because of its availability only to a minority. The majority of American males born today, for better or worse, will live into the same financial status of their fathers. For these, economic immobility is their American reality.

Putnam advocates public policy and private citizen action to support all that can be done to raise up (a phrase of striking symbolism) children born into impoverished situations: investments social and financial in poor neighborhoods, establishment of more mixed income housing developments, and ending the pay-to-play aspect of extracurricular activities in public school systems. Simply relying upon an American attribute increasingly unattainable won’t make for a better society for the generations that come after us. Individual initiative emboldened by hard work and ingenuity is still an absolute necessity, but it must be manifested within the greater context of communal support and societal resolve.

That today’s “self-made man” is a raging financial success who can live the life of ease and luxury is a clear bastardization of the term’s original understanding. In contrast, during Douglass’s day, the self-made man was a positive force in society for integrity, honesty, and love. The point of making money was not personal enrichment, but liberation from the necessity of work, freeing oneself to labor for the betterment of society.

Jesus was not a self-made man. A strong mother, a supportive family, and an established communal tradition raised up, in the course of thirty years, a son who advocated the renewal of society based upon love of neighbor, forgiveness, and compassion – values representative of the coming kingdom of God. Additionally, Jesus criticized excessive trust in wealth, labeling it a worldly, not kingdom of God, attribute.

What twenty-first century America needs: fewer “self-made” millionaires and billionaires who want to tell how they did it (so the rest of us can also strike it rich) and more citizens, be they rich or poor, who understand that strong and healthy communities produce the best and brightest individuals.

 

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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Just Mercy – Book Review

Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption hammers away at its main theme from the first to the last page: courtroom justice in America, contrary to common perception, is not readily attainable if you are poor. Especially if you are poor and brown or black, and living in one of the former slave-holding states. I would have amended the subtitle: Stories of Justice, Redemption, Injustice, and Inequality is much more descriptive of the formidable contents of the book. Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization based in Montgomery, Alabama, providing legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.

My reading experience of Just Mercy was akin to reading Dee Brown’s heartbreaking and daunting Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the crucial retelling of late nineteenth-century westward expansion and attempted extermination of Native Americans by US government policy and dominant Anglo culture. Both books are must reads for anyone truly desiring to understand modern American society and its complex history.

jstmercy

Admittedly, I’m late to the game in reviewing this provocative memoir published in 2014. I read it recently as a comparative book for a new writing project (concerning retributive and restorative justice) and discovered the insidious theme of inequality prevalent page after page.

Stevenson describes his coastal Delaware home area as poor, rural, and “unapologetically Southern” where Confederate flags flapped in the wind and defiantly defined the 1960s’ cultural landscape in which Stevenson grew up. Church helped shape his early understandings of justice; he studied at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School. While serving a legal internship at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta in the early 1980s, he discovered his life’s calling – working with death row inmates.

This calling of more than thirty years has crystalized two primary learnings for Stevenson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done and our brokenness is the source of our shared common humanity. Toward the end of the book, after presenting the cases of more than twenty prisoners represented by EJI, Stevenson utilizes the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery from John 8 to illustrate the synergy between these two primary learnings.

In 2013, Stevenson and EJI scored a great success at the Orleans Parish courthouse in New Orleans. Two inmates of Louisiana’s Angola prison (the setting of Sister Helen Prejean’s work in Dead Man Walking) had life imprisonment without parole sentences restructured – both men, African Americans, had been condemned and sentenced for non-homicide serious crimes as juveniles. Both men, elderly and infirm after having spent nearly fifty years in Angola, would soon know freedom. Stevenson walked down the imposing courthouse steps after the legal proceedings concluded and was stopped by an African American woman he recognized from the restructuring hearings. He inquired of her connection to either of his clients. She responded she didn’t know either of them. She explained, however, that she started come to the courthouse fifteen years previous when her sixteen-year-old grandson was murdered by fellow juveniles.

“This place is full of pain, so people need plenty of help around here . . . someone to lean on.” She continued: “Those boys were found guilty for killing my grandson, and the judge sent them away to prison forever. I thought it would make me feel better but it actually made me feel worse.

“All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.”

She told Stevenson that she could tell he was a “stonecatcher” too – just like her.*

Life is difficult and people throw plenty of stones – actual and metaphorical – at one another; fewer people, however, do the good work of catching those stones midair. Jesus’s example and teaching in John 8 encourages the practice of compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, and standing firm in the face of injustice. Stonecatching, as described by Stevenson, is a modern-day interpretation of John 8 to help this society live up to its stated credo of liberty and justice – not for some – but for all.

The stonecatcher story is but one of many in the book that underpin Stevenson’s wise assertions about the shared human condition. Though not an overtly theological work, Stevenson’s tome is strongly supported at its foundations by two precepts advanced by healthy faith communities: love of neighbor and the confrontation of oppressive power with truth.

As children we are taught to differentiate between small and big, boy and girl, right and wrong, black and white. Important and necessary, these elementary learnings help us navigate in our early years. Later, however, change and maturity compel us to adopt more nuanced understandings of the world and its peoples: the best of us are not perfect; the worst of us have redeeming qualities; we have more in common than that which makes us different.

The newly elected president uses the elementary language of “us and them.” It helped him win election; I’m not convinced, however, that it will help this society progress. Stevenson doesn’t use the language of “us and them,” he simply uses the language of “us.”  An understanding of shared common humanity permeates Just Mercy – an understanding that will help this society not only progress but heal.

* Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel and Grau, 2014), pgs. 307-09.

 

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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Evicted – Book Review

People who are not doing well economically in the United States – are they at fault or are they trapped in a system with little opportunity of moving forward? This has been a pertinent question and conversation point in the United States for generations back to the Gilded Age and the Depression ongoing to the current era of inequality.

evicted

Matthew Desmond is a Harvard sociologist and urban ethnographer. He’s not a blue blood; born at the dawn of the current era of inequality (circa 1980), he went to college with his parents’ encouragement but not their financial backing. While Desmond was in college, his working class parents were not able to keep up with mortgage payments and a bank foreclosed on their home in Winslow, Arizona – the home in which Desmond grew up. It became a defining moment in his educational and vocational journey.

Desmond decided to go to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. He figured studying sociology would give him the best chance to understand the prevalence of poverty in the richest country in the history of the world. Left-leaners blame poverty on structural forces (discrimination, for example) and right-leaners focus on individual deficiencies; Desmond judges both suppositions as lacking: “Each treated low-income families as if they lived in quarantine . . . The poor were being left out of the inequality debate, as if we believed the livelihoods of the rich and the middle class were entwined but those of the poor and everyone else were not.”

Desmond treats poverty as existing, not in a vacuum, but in a people-to-people relationship system where influences run much more varied than simple one directional causes-and-effects.

For the project that produced the book Evicted, Desmond moved into a lower-income Milwaukee trailer park in May 2008. He lived there four months and then moved into a rooming house on the second floor of a duplex in Milwaukee’s predominantly African-American North Side neighborhood. He lived there until June 2009. (This is the same part of the city that saw violent unrest in August 2016 after the fatal police shooting of Sylville Smith, a twenty-three-year-old African-American.)  Evicted details the lives of eight lower-income families Desmond got to know during the fourteen months he lived in Milwaukee. Some of the families are white, some are black; some with children and others without children. What they all share in common: evictions from their living quarters.

Desmond argues that the fight against poverty has rightly focused on jobs, parenting, education, and public policy to alleviate social problems caused by issues such as mass incarceration. But he clamors that a sharp focus on the dynamics of the private housing market is sorely missing and intricately linked to the persistence of poverty. “We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.”

According to Desmond, the majority of Americans living in poverty spend over half their income on housing, with one in four Americans spending more than 70 percent of their monthly income on housing and the electricity bill. It’s hard to stay put when there’s more month than income. One in eight Milwaukee families experienced eviction during 2009-2011. Desmond takes his readers to eviction court – a well-lubed machine in Milwaukee (and other large US cities) involving landlords, judges, sheriff deputies, moving companies, and belongings dumped onto the street curb.

Poverty in America, Desmond shows, has become a lucrative business. The trailer park owner – Desmond’s first landing spot in Milwaukee – was a Cadillac-driving millionaire who made upwards of $400,000 a year off the dilapidated trailer park. Categorize the owner as a top 1 percent earner making his living off of bottom 10 percent earners. (He was eventually forced to sell the park as the city wouldn’t renew his license because of multiple living code violations.) Desmond writes: “We need a new sociology of displacement that documents the prevalence, causes, and consequences of eviction. And perhaps most important, we need a committed sociology of inequality that includes a serious study of exploitative and extractive markets.”

Desmond writes well. The first chapter describes Milwaukee’s formidable winter “as cold and grey as a mechanic’s wrench.” Read on and you’ll discover that he also researches well. His meticulous transcribing of recorded conversations and note-taking yielded more than 5,000 handwritten pages from which to tell this crucial and important American story of poverty.

Evicted joins a recent chorus of work (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, Linda Tirado’s Hand to Mouth, among others) that documents the lack of knowledge that exists in upper- and middle-class America about their fellows who live in poverty. Since the advent of the current era of excess and inequality beginning in 1980, America has emphasized fiscal over social policy. We’ve figured out how the rich can get richer and what makes the stock market rocket upward. We’ve fallen behind, however, in compassion and understanding.

Desmond doesn’t write himself into the story. In the Epilogue (the only part of the book where he uses his first person singular voice), he asks readers when telling others of this work not to focus on him but upon the characters in the story: Scott, Pam, Sherrena, Arleen, Vannetta, Tobin and the others. I’ve strayed from Desmond’s request in this review. I can’t give, however, a stronger recommendation for this book – bump it up to the top of your to-read list, now. Evicted is must-reading for any and all concerned about poverty and inequality in American society and for those wanting to go beyond simple suppositions about their neighbors living in poverty.

Desmond, Matthew – Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown, 2016).

 

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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Teaching Fish To Walk

Peter Steinke, the best-selling author and occasional subject of the Just a Little Bit More book blog, is at it again with a new book. Teaching Fish To Walk: Church Systems and Adaptive Challenge is now available at the website of New Vision Press.

teaching-fish-2

Steinke continues to lead the way translating systems theory to congregational functioning. With the current large-scale changes in society and church, Teaching Fish To Walk is timely and instructive. Steinke urges congregations to use change and conflict as opportunities for learning. Many of our churches face the challenge of how to better serve the world and represent the promises of God’s kingdom in the new changing context.

To set the theme for the book, Steinke uses the example of the bichir fish from tropical Africa. This amphibious freshwater fish has both gills and lungs. This species prefers being in water, but when forced to survive on land, it can do so. These fish adapt by drawing their fins closer to their bodies and elevating their heads, which allows their necks more flexibility. Eventually bone and muscle adaptations permit these fish to walk. As Steinke says, “The fish learned to walk, but it took an adaptive challenge for it to happen” (p. 3).

Many congregations founded during the church’s heyday of growth in the mid-twentieth century are now faced with dwindling memberships and questions about future mission. Steinke reaches out to leaders of these congregations and others facing acute adaptive challenges.

This book is not just for clergy but appropriate also for church leaders, many of whom are unfamiliar with systems thinking and terminology. Steinke gives a concise and understandable description of systems thinking in chapter 3, under the section “All of a Piece”:

*Seeing the relationships that exist in discrete parts;

*Knowing that things only exist in relationship to other things;

*Recognizing that the whole cannot be understood by studying independent parts;

*Understanding that nothing is influenced in one direction, as in cause-and-effect thinking;

*Acknowledging that behavior is mutually influential and maintained (p. 33).

Practical descriptions such as this one help church leaders and pastors work together with new thinking and subsequent fresh ideas on the adaptive challenges their congregations face.

Steinke’s viewpoints are not simply rehashes of his previous work – he gives up-to-date insights on the relationship between anxiety and imagination; the differences between adaptive change and technical change, between managing and leading; and, a more expansive and helpful definition of the Greek term metanoia (repentance). Metanoia understood as “large mindedness” enables new thinking and visioning.

The effective synchronizing of psychology, theology, and practical insight has always been the hallmark of Steinke’s work. Teaching Fish To Walk follows in Steinke’s well-established tradition. I highly recommend Teaching Fish To Walk to pastors and congregational leaders who trust that the cycle of death and resurrection applies even to the church in the twenty-first century.

 

Read my interview with Peter Steinke from January 2016.

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. ¡Que bueno!

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

 

 

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The Inequality Trifecta

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

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

To understand wealth inequality, consider that the Dow Jones Industrial Average recently crested 18,000. Climbing since July, the average has now hit an all-time high of more than 18,500. Are you among the 55 percent of American adults who own stocks? Before the 2008 “Great Recession” when the Dow Jones index fluctuated between 12,000 and 13,000, close to 65 percent of Americans owned stocks. Today, the pool of stock owners as a percentage of total population is the smallest it’s been in a generation, concentrating wealth. Increases in stock market indices generally mean those that already have plenty get more.

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

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

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

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

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

And for those of us concerned that public administration is by design corrupt and inefficient? Yes, those in government need to be held accountable so that the above mentioned programs and other transfer programs are designed smartly and implemented efficiently. Hopefully, just as smartly and efficiently as have been the decisions and policies we’ve seen in the last thirty-five years to siphon income and wealth upward helping to create the trifecta of inequality that now threatens to destabilize our society.

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

 

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 September 2016. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

 

 

 

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Economic Growth as Salvation

For those of us concerned about socioeconomic trends and their consequences, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth is one of the most important books we’ll see in 2016. This blog post is the fifth (and final) in a series that touches upon the issues the book covers: inequality, economic growth, and poverty, among others. Click on links for first, second, third, and fourth posts in series.

 

Wouldn’t it be great if the American economy regained the robust growth that it once had? And wouldn’t it be grand if that economic growth could, to quote Donald Trump, “make America great again”?

According to economist Robert Gordon, it’s not going to happen. Gordon, in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, has one major message that he wants to get across: The great inventions and innovations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that created the incredible economic growth that in turn drove the standard of living higher in the United States was “a revolution that could only happen once.”

The phenomenal economic growth experienced in this country from 1920-1970 was a perfect storm event that won’t be repeated. Neither a Trump nor Clinton presidency has the power to make an economic golden age return.

According to Gordon, here are the reasons why the economic revolution could only happen once:

*Relatively cheap and available energy stores. Oil became the fossil fuel of choice at the beginning of the twentieth century, fueling incredible economic growth. Today, 75 percent of world energy consumption is yet from fossil fuels. Gasoline is cheap currently, but it’s not as cheap as it used to be, and crude oil extraction is much more difficult than ever before.

*The advantages of America, post-World War I and II. The transfer of gold reserves from Europe to the US and the general lack of territorial devastation in the US helped create conditions for an economic boom.

*Worker productivity skyrockets. New Deal pro-labor regulations (the crucial standardization of the eight-hour workday along with increases in wages), the advent of air-conditioning and improved heating in workplaces, and “continuous learning by doing” forced upon the manufacturing sector during World War II all contributed positively toward productivity. As an example, Henry Ford’s mammoth B-24 bomber plant outside of Ypsilanti, Michigan initially produced seventy-five bombers per month in February 1943. By August 1944, the plant achieved its peak rate of production of 432 bombers per month.

*The plethora of subinventions made possible by electricity and the internal combustible engine. Air-conditioning has already been mentioned; additionally the following made for increased economic growth: public transportation, elevators, and all types of electric and machine tools.

*Widespread use of the assembly line in manufacturing. The nascent American automobile industry adapted the disassembly line from nineteenth century meat packers, and Henry Ford perfected the assembly line for production of his Model T in 1913. Modern commercial manufacturing was born.

*Standardization of manufacturing parts. Already begun in the nineteenth century with gun manufacturing, the standardization of parts allowed for interchangeability and afforded easier assembly and repair of machines. The standardization of seemingly mundane nuts, bolts, and screws in the 1920s was an enormous improvement for industrial efficiency.

*Education boom creates better workers. In 1900, only 10 percent of American youth finished high school. By 1940, the graduation rate rose above 50 percent of the first time ever. Today’s rate of 75 percent has held steady since the early 1970s. The post-WW II GI Bill helped swell American college and university rolls, further creating a more capable and highly skilled workforce.

*Construction of the national highway system. Started in earnest under President Eisenhower in the 1950s, and mostly completed by 1972, the US interstate highway system afforded more versatile and efficient transport for American businesses and consumers.

These revolutionary innovations and improvements, according to Gordon, could only happen once. Current and future innovations and improvements are not ruled out; they simply don’t and won’t have the impact on the rate of economic growth as did the revolutionary ones. The rate of economic growth in the US since 1980 is about 1.5 percent. During the 1960s and ’70s, the tail end of the boom, it averaged 3 percent. It’s time we replaced the term economic growth with the more appropriate term economic development, and its accompanying emphasis of quality over quantity.

Monarchs were the guardians of salvation – a strictly earthly variety for a chosen few – in ancient days. The church and its priests succeeded monarchs as the purveyors of salvation – mostly heavenly – during medieval ages. Since the Industrial Revolution, economic growth has brought, and delivered, salvation back to earth. Economic growth has provided food, clothing, housing, goods, and purposeful employment to millions, liberating many of these from poverty. It also has created a small class of economic elites whose financial holdings are historically gargantuan.

But how much is enough? The days of exponential economic growth are over. If we’d truly like to make America great again, future greatness will be determined more so by economic development that favors many, rather than a status-quo economic system (going on thirty-five years) that favors the elite.

 

 

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

isbn 9780991532827

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

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

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

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!

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