American Nations – Book Review

Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Penguin, 2011) was late to get on my radar. The 300-plus page historical synthesis has suffered no loss of vitality almost a decade after publication – like any good work of history, it helps readers better understand the current day. If you still scratch your head trying to figure out how the same electorate elevated both Barack Obama and Donald Trump, in consecutive terms, no less – I recommend that you add American Nations to your reading list.

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Having grown up in the Chicago area, with family ties in rural Minnesota, I was intrigued to discover to which “nation” my family heritage best aligned. With a quick glance at the book’s cover map, I eliminated “Deep South” and “Greater Appalachia.”  Standing out to me was “The Midlands,” a swath of land in the Upper-Midwest stretching from Pennsylvania to Nebraska. I was surprised to discover, as I began to read Woodard’s descriptions, that “Yankeedom” best fit my family heritage. “From the outset, [Yankeedom] was a culture that put great emphasis on education . . . and the pursuit of the ‘greater good’ of the community . . . Yankees have the greatest faith in the potential of the government to improve people’s lives, tending to see it as an extension of the citizenry, and a vital bulwark against the schemes of grasping aristocrats, corporations, or outside powers” (p. 5, paperback). A few other descriptors used by Woodard to describe “Yankees” touch on values I hold dear: “egalitarian,” vocation as “divine calling,” and opposition to “inherited privilege” and “conspicuous displays of wealth.” Yup, I’m Yankee to the core.

With support from The Midlands, Yankeedom was the main combatant against the Deep South and its cousin nation “Tidewater” (coastal Carolinas) in the Civil War. The fundamental disagreements that fueled that war have remnants that yet hold sway in American society, as Woodard makes clear on pages 55-56, by his careful contrast of liberty with freedom. Liberty, as understood by nineteenth-century Deep South culture, was a privilege – not a right – that few were granted. Virginian John Randolph (1773-1833) summed it up best: “I’m an aristocrat. I love liberty. I hate equality.”

Freedom, on the other hand, was understood by Yankeedom as a birthright of all peoples – no exceptions. Differences may have existed in status and wealth, but all were “born free” and equal before the law.

These differing understandings led to a bloody war in 1861. Today, the current strains of these understandings brace the battles about voting rights and restrictions, labor laws and worker rights, support of public school systems, taxation of the wealthy, and the expansion of health care. Consider the near fifty-year-old issue of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment: not one state of the Deep South nation bloc (excluding Texas) has voted for its approval.

Texas is a thoroughly hybrid state, as Woodard writes, with its southeastern and cotton-growing region part of the Deep South nation, its northern half part of the Appalachian nation, and its southwestern expanse paralleling the Mexican border part of “El Norte.”

I’ve lived most of my adult life in El Norte, arriving (and staying) because of my facility in the Spanish language. Woodard describes El Norte, which includes parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Southern California, as historically independent, adaptable, and work-centered. Woodard predicts that the bloc that wins the allegiance of El Norte will move forward in political gains in the first part of the twenty-first century. Perhaps a Yankee-El Norte ticket in 2020 – Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro – has a chance to defeat the incumbent “New Amsterdam”-Greater Appalachia ticket, with Deep South allegiance – Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

I’ll close with a Woodard observation (page 318) that pits, like 150 years ago, Yankeedom versus Deep South. Unlike many other countries that have religion or ethnicity holding them together as a commonality, the United States is held together by its central government and its institutions: Congress, federal courts, military branches, national agencies. Woodard warns that this one nation won’t survive if the separation of church and state is weakened or abolished, if political ideologues overwhelm the Justice Department or the Supreme Court, or if open debate is squelched by hyperpartisan divides that erode congressional rules designed to uphold ideas to public scrutiny.

Our “oneness” as a nation is tenuous. Compromise, a disparaged word in this hyperpartisan age, is shown by American Nations to be a unifying force. Our differences will remain. Our nation’s future will be determined by our willingness to either fight about them or live with them.


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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 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).

See all my book reviews – linked here.

Check out my new author website: http://www.tcarlosanderson.com.

 

Todos Juntos – Everyone Together

This past year in my work as Austin City Lutherans’ director of community development, I got to know a woman in Austin who directs an innovative “2-Gen” education center for parents (mostly moms) and pre-school aged children. Christina Collazo is executive director of Todos Juntos Learning Center, an organization that for ten years, has served refugee and migrant families.

I’m grateful to Christina for giving me an inside look at her organization and her own life. I wrote the linked story below, published as a lead article in the “Life Section” of the Austin American-Statesman on September 14, 2019. Todos Juntos LC creates equity and promotes opportunity by empowering women and their children. It’s an incredible program with an indominable leader.

“Christina Collazo’s 10-year mission to teach parents and children at Todos Juntos”


 

balm.cover.2Tim/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 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).

 

Check out my new author website: http://www.tcarlosanderson.com.

Sapolsky’s Behave, Part 1

This is the first of two posts reviewing Robert Sapolsky’s Behave – the second post is linked here.

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is one of my all-time favorite book titles – to boot, the book rocks. Robert Sapolsky, the esteemed American neuroscientist, writes that acute stress is a life-saver: a zebra sees a lion and runs like the wind. We humans are equipped with the same fight-or-flight response mechanism, and though we can’t run like zebras, we benefit similarly. Zebras and other animals have less brain capacity than we do, consequently they’re no good at worrying. We are capable of prolonged worrying which elevates our stress levels to chronic status, which in turn gives us ulcers, hypertension, and other life-threatening maladies. Whereas acute or momentary stress can be a life-saver, chronic stress is a slow killer.

The long-time Stanford professor originally published his book in 1994. It soon became a classic and I read its third edition in the summer of 2006, recommended from the book list of a leadership class I was taking. In the years that have since passed, I’ve referenced the book multiple times. I opine that there’s a connection between the increasing rates of pet ownership and social anxiety in the US. Most dog breeds are good with acute stress – it’s their job to bark when a stranger comes to the door – but, like zebras, they’re no good at achieving chronic stress levels. What a remedy for us to come home after a long day to a tail-wagger who’s happy to see us and whose beating heart warms and calms our own.
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In 2017,  Sapolsky published Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst. This big book of 675 pages (not including notes) touches on some of the same territory as Zebras, but Sapolsky enlarges his scope to include discussions on inequality and egalitarianism, the effects of poverty on health, the dichotomies of “Us versus Them,” the development of empathy and compassion within the determining powers of genetic code and environment, and – it doesn’t get much better than this – the biology of political orientations and loyalties.

Let’s take a look at each of these themes. The “last best” theme will be covered in the second post in this review.

Stratified, or non-egalitarian, societies are better suited at conquering and survival when times get tough. This helps explain their ubiquity in the history of civilization. Because of their stratification, mortality is sequestered to the lower classes. Essentially, the unequal distribution of wealth and access to resources translates to the unequal distribution of death.

Modern democracies – and the advances associated with industrialization – have balanced things out (somewhat) concerning life expectancy rates between the higher and lower classes, but rampant inequalities still threaten various markers of 21st century life in many societies: weakening social capital, exacerbating poor health, increasing crime and violence. Sapolsky points out, most tellingly, that “inequality means more secession of the wealthy from contributing to the pubic good.” Inequality, without the mitigating effects of egalitarianism, is self-perpetuating.

Which brings us to the dichotomization of Us versus Them. Evolution has equipped us with the life-saving ability to differentiate between friend and foe, and we all derive much happiness and joy from being part of “Us” groups – whether golf buddies, sorority sisters, or mates in a military service platoon.

But when not held in proper check, this same ability can produce, as Sapolsky says, “oceans of pain” – with white supremacy groups at the top of the “For example” list.

Sapolsky advises his readers to distrust essentialism – the idea, like stereotyping, that people groups are always defined by a fixed set of characteristics and traits. He warns that what we think to be rationality is often just rationalization. Because of our “automatic tendency to favor in-groups over out-groups,” our seemingly rational explanations about the behaviors of others are sometimes better described as evidences of tribalism.

The recent rise of authoritarianism – Trump, Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Morales in Guatemala, along with the long arc of rule by Trump’s buddy Putin in Russia – is a troubling trend for many of us. Sapolsky shows that this rise benefits from the deep roots that conformity and obedience have in the human family. It fits hand in glove with another tendency or conditioned response in humans: our natural like of hierarchies. Sapolsky: “Hierarchies establish a status quo by ritualizing inequalities.” (Hierarchies, from ant colonies to corporate employee structures, are capable of unparalleled performance and production. My purpose here, as is Sapolsky’s in Behave, is to focus on inequality.)

Unlike the chimpanzees and baboons that Sapolsky has studied for much of his life, we humans in democratic societies actually choose our (political) leaders. He sites studies showing that we elect leaders with more masculine traits – high forehead, prominent jaw lines – during times of war and younger, more feminine faces during times of peace. Another study he sites had children looking at pictured pairs of faces where they were asked to choose their preference between the two for a hypothetical boat trip. The paired photos were actually competing candidates from obscure political races, and the children were asked which one would be most competent as captain for the boat trip. Their skippers, 71 percent of the time, were the actual winners of the elections.

We have entrenched biases and preferences. We have the option today (exercised by many) to consume the media output most aligned with our positions . . . and, like we often see partisans do on TV, we end up yelling at and past each other. Rationality or rationalizing? Sapolsky, again, says the latter: “Our conscious cognitions play catch-up to make our decisions seem careful and wise.”

If we’re only watching Rachel Maddow or only Sean Hannity – we’re not doing much more than stoking our own fire. Rational deliberation comes not from “doubling down” but from consideration of different points of view.

As promised, we’ll go deeper with Sapolsky into the biology of our political loyalties and preferences in the next post. Stay tuned!


balm.cover.2Tim/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 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).

 

Check out my new author website: http://www.tcarlosanderson.com.

 

 

 

 

Turning the Page to 2019

As this blog enters its sixth year, it’s time for a new look and a new name. As always, I’ll promote egalitarianism as a way to build up common good in the midst of increasing inequalities. A new addition to this blog will be a heightened emphasis on restorative justice based on the work I’ve done the past two years to write There is a Balm in Huntsville.

Restorative justice is defined as “repairing the harm done by crime beyond what happens in the courtroom” and also as “the opportunity for a crime victim to find hope and resolution.” Restorative justice practices – whether middle school students circling their chairs in a resolution conference, prisoners in a ministry program listening to crime victims tell their stories, or victim-offender mediation – share this important factor: the consequential act of face-to-face encounters between adversaries.

As the current age of hyper-partisanship shows no signs of restraining itself, restorative practices offer a way forward from the morass. Stay tuned.

Five years has produced more than twenty blog posts on books that I’ve read and reviewed. Consequently, I’ve added a new header page to the blog: “The T. Carlos Book Review List.” Check it out. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, Thomas Piketty’s Capital, and Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth are but a few of the important books reviewed according to the themes of egalitarianism and inequality.

Additionally, this blog is now linked to my new author website, www.tcarlosanderson.com, in anticipation of Balm’s release date of April 1, 2019. Check it out for updates, reviews, and events related to my new book which weaves a double narrative: the long-term reformation of a drunk-driving teenager who killed two people; and, the development of the Texas criminal justice system’s victim-offender dialogue program, the first of its kind in the nation.

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Expect new posts – or updated ones – at least once a month. Special thanks to my friends Brittany and Sae Cho who took the headshots utilized on my new website. They also took the pic featured above. I do have something to say (the microphone) based upon the social justice convictions of the Christian tradition (the cross) with the goal of positively impacting our shared life.

I appreciate your interest and your support. Please help spread the word as you are able: Egalitarianism – opportunity and access for rich and poor alike, blind to the advantages typically derived from social status, pedigree, and wealth – is a great biblical and American virtue worth fighting for. As long as we continue to effectively advocate for it, we’ll help minimize rampant inequalities and their ugly side-effects in these days and in those that follow.


Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fifteen 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).

The Entrenchment of Inequality

An engrossing article in the June 2018 issue of The Atlantic by Matthew Stewart, “The Birth of the New American Aristocracy,” exposes an America that still regards itself as egalitarian – providing equal opportunity for all – while making itself increasingly aristocratic. Being born of well-off parents is now the best bet for ending up in the same category as an adult. More so, if one is born of white parents who are well-off, staying in the economically advantaged category is a virtual lock.

The article’s length is stout – I’ve linked it here for purists. For the rest of you, read on for a pertinent summary!

Early on Stewart writes: “Imagine yourself on the socioeconomic ladder with one end of a rubber band around your ankle and the other around your parents’ rung . . . If your parents are high on the ladder, the band will pull you up should you fall; if they are low, it will drag you down when you start to rise. Economists represent this concept with a number they call ‘intergenerational earnings elasticity,’ or IGE, which measures how much of a child’s deviation from average income can be accounted for by the parents’ income.”

Zero IGE means there’s no significant relationship between parents’ income and the eventual income of their offspring, and that the rubber band is flimsy. An IGE of 1.0, on the other hand, means no variation whatsoever and a rubber band of unbreakable strength. Fifty years ago, the IGE in America was less than 0.3 – today it has increased to 0.5, which is higher than that of almost every other developed country. What it means: the American rubber band of today’s IGE is more taut than it’s ever been and the great American virtue of high social or economic mobility is a fairytale.

A robust economic mobility did exist two generations ago in post-WW II America – again, mostly for white people – but those who insist it yet exists today for all Americans risk a credibility problem. Either they are stuck in the past, or they champion a belief, as if religious dogma, that claims that those who haven’t made it in America are mistake-laden, lazy, on-the-dole, reprobate slackers. Of course, some perfectly fit the description. But most economically poor today in America don’t. And many of these who haven’t “made it” are working poor, many of these with children. And a large portion is elderly on fixed incomes.

A corollary to the above stated dogma in today’s faux-meritocratic America: Since the poor only have themselves to blame for their predicament, I – and certainly not my tax dollars – don’t have to help them.

Escaping poverty in America today is a complex process requiring discipline and will-power, but also access to opportunities that middle- and upper-class folks take for granted: social connections and infrastructure that provide ready access to childcare, healthcare, education, and money. Only 4 percent born into poverty make it to the middle class in today’s America. The lack of access to opportunities strengthens the downward pull of the rubber band.

Stewart pooh-poohs the much publicized divide between 1 and 99 percenters that emerged from the Great Recession of ten years ago. Instead he fingers the top 10 percent of wealth possessors, regardless of yearly income – $1.2 million net wealth (cash, stocks including retirement, house value, and other holdings minus liabilities) gets you into the top decile – as those who are most culpable, led by the top .1 percenters, in today’s entrenchment of inequality.

He includes himself in this culpable faction, and divides American society into three separate economic groups: .1 percenters, the next 9.9 percent (I combine these two groups into the top decile), and the bottom 90 percent.

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The top .1 percenter class now tightly holds 22 percent of all American wealth, the highest level since before the Great Depression. It has pilfered the wealth holdings of the bottom 90 percent, now also holding 22 percent, the lowest level since during the Great Depression. Stewart’s class, the top decile excluding the top .1 percent, holds the remaining 56 percent.

Stewart comments: “The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy. Our delusions of merit now prevent us from recognizing the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents. We tend to think that the victims of our success are just the people excluded from the club. But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end.”

The course of what has become rampant inequality in the United States, building steadily since the early 1980s, is not natural. As Stewart points out, tax cuts for the rich, the influx of huge money into politics, and the transfer of power from labor to capital have helped create the current trends of social and economic inequalities. These commitments, Stewart also points out, can be and should be reversed.

“The defining challenge of our time is to renew the promise of American democracy by reversing the calcifying effects of accelerating inequality. As long as inequality rules, reason will be absent from our politics; without reason, none of our other issues can be solved.”

Agreed.

 

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 (forthcoming on Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

 

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!

 

 

Listening to Other Voices

If only Jesus of Nazareth had a Twitter or Facebook account, he would have had so many more followers! I jest, of course; self-promotion, while not a modern invention, has reached a fevered pitch in the social media saturated twenty-first century.jesus twitter

Jesus did call upon many to follow him, but on occasion he also practiced something with which the human family has always struggled: listening to other voices.

Mark’s gospel – chapter 7 – tells of Jesus travelling to the foreign city of Tyre, four to five days walking distance to the north and west of Jerusalem. Presumably, Jesus travels to reach out to Jews living there. A woman, decidedly not Jewish, with a sick daughter engages Jesus. Desperate to the point of trespassing convention – women were not to address men in public – she wants Jesus to heal her daughter. He puts her off by saying that he has only come to serve and seek Israelites: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Not only was this an insensitive comment, it was arguably a racial insult.

The Syrophoenician woman, however, doesn’t flinch. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus, as if slapped in the face, acquiesces. He tells the woman to return to her daughter; she does and finds her daughter restored to health.

We assume that Jesus had everything figured out at the commencement of his public ministry, and that consequently he needed no further social or theological development. Listening to the voice of this foreign woman, however, Jesus had to reshape – in an instant – some of his understandings. She wasn’t a dog but a full member of the human family; and, God’s mission extended even to her.

Jesus was a committed social egalitarian before this encounter with the unnamed foreign woman; he became a stronger one after the encounter. A social egalitarian is a person who understands all others – those similar and those different – as equals in God’s eyes. Because of this conviction, Jesus spoke and interacted with all sorts of people: religious leaders, the well-to-do and powerful, the sick and excluded, common folks, women, children, and, yes, foreigners. Rarely did he exclude others.

Those who follow Jesus today – not on Twitter or Facebook – do best to heed his example of social egalitarianism, listening to the other and regarding the other as equal in God’s purview. It’s intriguing that in the twenty-first century world with myriad media for communication and connection, we still don’t know one another all that well within the human family. We yet rely on stereotypes and innuendo in our attempts to understand the neighbor who is different. These weak attempts at understanding contribute to many of the problems – from the inability of Congress to enact immigration reform to police brutality and the targeting of police – besetting our society.

We hear it said today that black lives matter. Absolutely they do, just as the lives of widows, orphans, the poor, and foreigners matter according to the divine language of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. A good question for my fellow white readers who are Christian: Would you have the same type of worldview and outlook you currently claim if you had been born black or Hispanic or Jewish or Muslim?

A worthy goal in today’s modern age is to have a worldview and outlook that incorporates the wisdom of other voices. Authenticity requires being true to one’s own experiences. It also requires the responsibility of listening to others’ experiences. If your experience is the only one that matters, trumping all others, most likely you’re nothing more than a self-promoter.

Much more often than not, spending face and ear time with someone who offers a different perspective than your own makes the world a better place. In today’s America that suffers of too many hot spots of polarization, listening to other voices is difficult but necessary positive social action. Democrats and Republicans, gun owners and non-gun owners, rich and poor, blacks and whites, atheists and religious partisans, folks living in zip code A and folks living in zip code B – what would it be like to talk with and listen to one another rather than talk about others in negative tones and stereotypes?

Social egalitarianism – it sounds like a political party. Rather, it’s a spiritual commitment utilizing the gift of other voices that has the ability to improve our politics and common life. It’s truly what the one human family needs now.

 

 

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 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!

 

Why DOMA is Unconstitutional or America’s Grand Heritage of Egalitarianism

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 third in a series that touches upon the issues the book covers: inequality, economic growth, and poverty, among others. Click on links for first and second posts in the series.

 

Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press), an economic history of the United States, highlights important moments of American egalitarianism. Yes, good ol’ American egalitarianism!

gordon book

In the current age of excess that exuberates in chest-thumping hyper-partisanship and the attitude of winner-take-all, the meaning and sense of egalitarianism seems forgotten. A biblical concept, egalitarianism is the cry of the Israelites wanting freedom from Pharaoh and slavery; we hear echoes of it when the apostle Paul, calling for unity in the nascent Christian community of Galatia, challenges the Galatians’ understanding of entrenched identities, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female . . .” The word itself comes from the French egal – meaning “equal”but it refers to much more than equal parts or measurements. Egalitarianism emerges and comes to light from a situation of dominance-subordination, or inequality. Egalitarianism is opportunity and access for rich and poor alike. Egalitarianism is blind to the advantages typically derived from social status, pedigree, and wealth.

“What Happened to Egalitarianism?” is the title of the third chapter of my book Just a Little Bit More. I reference anthropologist Christopher Boehm, who studies primates and their social relationships. Boehm looks for interplay between the competing spirits of egalitarianism and winner-take-all in our evolutionary relatives as he investigates the origins of morality in the human family. He speaks of the principle of “reverse dominance hierarchy” as a form of egalitarianism; he witnessed weaker members in a group joining forces to combat the dominance of alpha males.* I call this not survival of the fittest, but survival of the united. Egalitarianism is a sociopolitical phenomenon. A group or community engaged in the struggle for self-determination within a larger community or with a competing community seeks or maintains a sense of equality. The achievements of the civil rights era in the United States are a prime example of the workings of egalitarianism, as is the process that led to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that the US Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional.

Gordon knows that America has a grand heritage of egalitarianism, starting with the Boston Tea Party and the revolutionary plea “No taxation without representation.” When Thomas Jefferson asserted in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” the divine right of kings (sorry, George III) took a decisive egalitarian kick to the groin from which it has not recovered.** The competitive spirit of winner-take-all is legitimate and necessary, and has benefitted American ingenuity, inventiveness, and innovation. The winner-take-all ploy becomes troublesome, however, when there is no mitigating force to keep its excesses in check. Egalitarianism serves as the mitigating force of winner-take-all (and vice versa, for that matter), ensuring that the values of equality and greater access for the many win out over unmerited privilege for the few.

Here are some other gems in the history of American egalitarianism, according to Gordon:

The Price Tag: John Wannamaker opened the nation’s first department store, Grand Depot, in Philadelphia in 1876. Whereas bartering and haggling dominated the ways of buying and selling prior to this time, Wannamaker believed all people were “equal before price.” He eliminated price breaks and discounts for the connected, favored, and powerful. A religious man, he believed that all as equals before the Creator meant “one price for all.” He was the inventor of the price tag, an egalitarian innovation that revoluti0nized the consumer age.

The Networking of  Utilities – Electricity, Heating, Telephone, and Sewer: It wasn’t until the mid-1930s that more than half of Americans lived in cities. A majority of these urban dwellings were constructed after the turn of the century, enabling the inclusion of indoor plumbing, electricity, heat, and telephone. As Gordon says, “Networking implies equality. Everyone, rich and poor, is plugged into the same electric, water, sewer, gas, and telephone network. The poor may only be able to afford to hook up years after the rich, but eventually they receive the same access” (p. 95). Because of American society’s relative youth, the networking revolution of utilities spread much more quickly than it did in older European societies. (The current tragedy of lead-laden water in Flint, Michigan is a shameful example of inequality in this land where we refer to these utilities as “basic.”)

Radio: Pittsburgh’s first department store, Joseph Horne’s, began to sell amateur wireless sets – radios – for 10 dollars in the fall of 1920. On November 2, 1920, KDKA in Pittsburgh made the first radio broadcast in American history by transmitting election results as Warren Harding defeated James Cox to become the nation’s twenty-ninth president. Twenty years later, 80 percent of American households had radios in their domiciles. (For sake of comparison, only 75 percent of American households today have Internet access.) Gordon says the invention and rapid diffusion of radio was an example of “striking egalitarianism . . . enjoyed equally by the richest baron or poorest street cleaner” (p. 193).

Both forces – cooperative egalitarianism and competitive winner-take-all – are legitimate and inherently American; our society shines best when neither force dominates, but when they hold each other’s excesses in check. Too much egalitarianism stifles drive and creativity; too much winner-take-all produces inequality and accompanying ill effects. In Just a Little Bit More, I argue that our much cherished democracy needs egalitarianism in order to function at its best. American egalitarianism has helped make possible the following: emancipation from slavery, women’s suffrage, the many acheivements of the civil rights era, same sex marriage, and other accomplishments. Egalitarianism is a main driver of social progress in American and beyond. May we continue to lift it up and advocate it.

 

*Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Harvard University Press (1999), pgs. 1-3.

**More than two centuries after Jefferson’s famous formulation, we’re still working on fully living out its implied intention.

 

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!

Jesus 2016 – Social Egalitarian Party

The Donald leads, but is not a lock, on the Republican side of the presidential primaries. Hillary boasts similar standing on the Democratic side. What if Jesus were running for highest office in the free world?

Jesus asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Peter spoke not only for his fellow disciples, but for the early church. His answer “Messiah” – God’s chosen one – has stood firm for two millennia. jesus politico

Jesus’s question hasn’t gone away. I answer it today like this: “Jesus, you are my social egalitarian Lord.”

Granted, social egalitarian sounds a bit silly. It’s about as silly as Jesus running for POTUS.

Bear with me, however, and let me unpack the phrase social egalitarian. Egalitarian is a biblical concept, as exemplified in Exodus 5 – “let my people go” – and Galatians 3 – “for you are all one in Christ.” Both the American and French revolutions were fueled by the concept. The word itself has been in use for some 150 years; its root is the French egal (equal), yet it goes beyond equal quantities, measurements, or values to a deeper reality. Egalitarianism emerges and comes to light from a situation of specific inequality—dominance-subordination. Egalitarianism is political in nature: a group or commu­nity engaged in the struggle of self-determination within the larger community or with a competing community seeks, at­tains, and maintains a balance or equity with its competitor. The spirit of egalitarianism opposes unfair advantages; it’s biblical and American to the core.

As for the social aspect of the phrase, we remember that Jesus was pretty good at spending time with all sorts of folks. He spent face time with religious leaders, the outcast, the well-to-do, the sick, the connected, the lame. He also spent time, oftentimes shocking his own disciples, with women and children. Additionally, while travelling, Jesus led his disciples through foreign territories. This was untypical behavior; Jesus’s disciples were accustomed to avoiding certain foreign areas and peoples.

While traversing boundary lands in Mark 7, Jesus and his disciples are confronted by a foreigner – a Syrophoenician woman. She knows something about Jesus and wants him to heal her daughter. Jesus shows typical human behavior in this encounter; he tries to put her off. He seems to know enough about her – that she is a foreigner.

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The dogs? That’s blatantly derogatory. This time, at least, Jesus’s reaction to a foreigner is no different than that of his disciples.

“But even the dogs under the table get to eat the crumbs that fall.”

It’s as if she says to him: If you are who they say you are, you need to pick your game up.

And he does pick up his game. “Woman, be on your way. The demon has left your daughter.”

Jesus was human. We tend to see Jesus as having an ever-present halo hovering over his head, indicating his perfect behavior and all-knowingness in all things. But that’s unrealistic and it’s not true to Scripture. To be human is to be limited. Like the rest of us, Jesus had to go through processes and experiences in order to learn and better understand the world and its peoples. This woman showed him something that he needed to learn. He was an advanced social egalitarian before this encounter with the woman; after the encounter, even more so.

To be a social egalitarian in American society today is to traverse boldly against the grain. It is to spend face time with those who are “other” rather than only interacting with those who look, think, and value similar to “us.” American society is highly segregated – perhaps not as racially segregated as in previous eras, but certainly so in terms of socio-economic differences. Unquestionably, wealth is a blessing and (more often than not) a reward for hard and smart work. Wealth can serve as a bubble, however, isolating well-off Americans from other Americans – those who work for minimal wages, have little or no health insurance, and/or struggle under debilitating circumstances.

Do you know anyone – on a friendship level – who lives in poverty? Or anyone who speaks English as a second or third language? Or anyone who practices a different religion than yours?

Politicians – regardless of party affiliation – who negatively stereotype “other people” (including immigrants) are not worthy of the highest office in the land. This society doesn’t need more separation into “us and them,” it needs more interaction between its inhabitants. This society is the world’s richest in terms of diversity, experience, and capabilities. It’s time for us to delve deeper to see where we can trust one another. Fear of the “other” might be good enough to win a party nomination, but it won’t do much good for the society as a whole.

Even Jesus didn’t want to have to deal with a woman who wasn’t part of his regular community. But as she confronted him, he stopped. He looked into her face and into her eyes – and was changed. This is the spirit of social egalitarianism. It is to encounter the other as an equal in God’s eyes and to act upon that conviction.

Jesus, my social egalitarian Lord. This is the one I will follow.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), 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.

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

Same-Sex Marriage Legalized – Egalitarianism in Action

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

SCOTUS
US Supreme Court – 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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