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 Inequality Trifecta Revisited

Now that we’re two years removed from 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 has hovered around 25,000 for all of 2018. 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).  The 2018 Republican tax cuts, many inequality watchdog groups claim, will only exacerbate the inequality trifecta.

“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 “big government” is creating a permanently dependent “slacker” class? I offer the following counter-argument: Governmental policy and actions in the past thirty-five years have favored the richer classes and are chiefly responsible for the creation of today’s rampant inequalities that threaten our shared common good.

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


The original version of this post was published in September 2016. 


Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).

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).

 

The Era of Right Lane Passers

Wooosh!  A midnight blue sedan barrels north on interstate I-35 near Waco, Texas, doing 85 mph in the far-right lane. I’m in the middle lane doing 78 mph – a few clicks over the limit – and turn to my wife seated in the passenger seat and say, “Welcome to the era of right lane passers.” We left Austin an hour and a half earlier en route to visit our son in Dallas and the dark blue wooosh in the far-right lane was at least the tenth car to make such a move.

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Back in the day, my dad taught me these driving principles: the left lane is for passing, the right lane is entering and exiting, 3-5 mph over the limit is okay, and use your signals to let other drivers know your intentions when changing lanes. There weren’t too many three lane interstates back then. It was mostly two-laners and semi-trucks had access to both lanes. Rarely – but only rarely – would an aggressive driver accost from behind as if a bat fleeing hell and pass in the right lane with impunity.

Sure enough, times have changed. When our son began his studies at UT-Dallas in 2010, my wife and I became regulars on the 200-mile stretch of I-35 between Austin and Dallas. At that time, it was mostly two lanes but construction was promised for a decade or so to widen the heavily used interstate to three lanes. The construction is now nearly complete, and the third lane – the entrance and exit lane – seems to be the lane of choice for aggressive drivers, mostly younger, to exercise their freedoms at 85 mph or better. I understand a driver using a free lane – even if it is the right lane – to help alleviate congestion, making the roadway safer for everyone. But that’s not the case with the wooshes that blow by in the far right lane and then look for the next available lane to exploit.

The libertarian-infused “I can do whatever the f*** I want to and you can’t tell me I can’t” attitude is much more permissible today than a generation or two ago. It’s a negative freedom – part of our American DNA – but it’s typically counterbalanced by the presence of strong institutions and a shared sense of common good. Thankfully, the large majority of drivers on I-35 and other US freeways consists of people who drive considerately and give first priority to safety. But there seems to be an increasing number of super-aggressive drivers – tailgaters, weavers cutting in and out, right lane passers – who drive as if a public highway is their own private drag strip. The erosion of community and covenant on I-35 is indicative of the wane in public life (shrinking religious institutions, anti-government sentiment, moderation elbowed out by extremism in public speech and political representation) that increasingly defines our shared existence.

Something happens – linked to human nature – when we get behind the wheel, enclose ourselves behind glass and steel, and rev the engine. We become supersized, like Obadiah Stane in Iron Man, and use our enhanced power as an opportunity for self-gain at the expense of others. We also become incognito – nobody knows who we are (unless they track our license plates). I’m convinced that as I see people pushing beyond 85 mph on I-35, it’s not about getting there quicker. It’s about power, a supersized personal agency, that unfortunately can turn out to be deadly. Texas loses close to ten people a day on its roads, and nationally driving fatalities have increased for a second straight year. Speed does kill.

On occasions, I get quick-tempered behind the wheel. Later, after the moment has passed and I’m in review mode, I easily realize that harboring upset behind the wheel does no good whatsoever for anyone. Let it go: It’s not about right now, but it’s about still being here tomorrow. It’s a phrase a friend shared with me that aptly applies to the driving discipline. It’s too long for a bumper sticker, but it’s just right for a blog post.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that the more affluent a society becomes the more individualistic it becomes. US society been going down this type of road for a long time now. Right lane passers are simply another manifestation of our current era of increasing inequalities – economic and social. When and where does this road end?

Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m the 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 (forthcoming, April 2019).

Would President Trump Have Been a Slave Owner?

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014) gives greater detail to the argument that America’s economic fortune was built upon an infrastructure forged by slavery. In the wake of the bloody Civil War, the second industrial era’s twin links of mass production and mass consumerism birthed unforeseen prosperity and inequality. Yes, good ol’ American ingenuity and innovation had plenty to do with the boom, but as Baptist writes, an economic trampoline had been constructed before the war through the hands, arms, and torsos of enslaved Americans.

Baptist argues that white historians’ over-emphasis upon American ingenuity and innovation is part of the ruse to downplay our enslaving heritage. He also argues that the North wasn’t exempt from the economic benefit provided by southern slavery. Southern cotton fields produced millions of fiber bales that were eventually processed into clothes and durables in English mills, but northern states’ industry supported the enslaving enterprise with bank credit that financed firms selling slaves, and saws to clear-cut fields and shovels to till soil. If you assume that Baptist writes history from a narrow perspective because he is black, check yourself.  He’s white and grew up in North Carolina. He teaches nineteenth-century history at Cornell University, and tells students, as he does readers of his book, that cotton was the nineteenth century’s oil that fueled the majority of its economic activity before the latter resource did the same for the following century.

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The United States outlawed the importation of slaves in 1807, but enforcement lagged. Domestic slave trading was not addressed by the new law. The Half Has Never Been Told chronicles, among other moral transgressions of the era, the constant breaking apart of black families in Virginia – a true feeder system – as the economic locus in southern states and territories shifted from Old Dominion tobacco farms to cotton plantations in the Deep South. While reading Baptist’s descriptions of forceful family breakups (not only in Virginia), the connection between that brutal history and present-day realities suffered by numerous African-American families made me shake my head in shame. Enslavement is inequality at its most basic and gruesome level. Its effects didn’t simply fade away with the passage of time, and have been girded up by prejudice and racism which still thrives, incredibly, in the twenty-first century, in this land where we profess to uphold “liberty and justice for all.”

Of course, I can be aghast. I had a solid northern upbringing in the Land of Lincoln, no less, that included the following teaching about the Civil War: the battle was all about slavery. When I moved to Texas more than twenty-five years ago, I picked up the alternative notion that the Civil War was about the North attempting to dominate the South economically. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the argument, but noticed that a lot of research and footnoting went into it. In recent years, I’ve also read about “states’ rights” as a justification for the war. Both arguments contain some truth, but not enough to override or even dent Baptist’s assertion: the Civil War was not only about the maintenance of slavery, but its expansion. The vestiges of that desire plague this society yet today.

Before the Civil War, ten of the fifteen presidents owned slaves, eight of them while serving the office. This society – down to its core DNA – has always been a conflicted jumble consisting of freedoms, privileges, and advantages for some, and enslavement, bondage, and inequalities for others. I’m not mocking the values that we hold dear and confess to be part of our heritage. I’m doubling down on one of Baptist’s points: the playing field has always been significantly imbalanced and not to recognize it only perpetuates its effects. As I argue in Just a Little Bit More, the pursuit of Mammon has been the overriding spirit that has, in great part, made this country what it is. Our true national religion – the pursuit of “just a little bit more” – is simultaneously a great blessing and curse. This spirit helped build this country into the leading economic power in the world. But it also justified slavery the during the colonial days and the first eighty-five years of the nation’s existence, and the effect of this justification lingers like a permanent hangover.

Reading Baptist’s book made me think: How many kick-ass business types – money accumulation and attainment their modus operandi – would be enslavers if they had lived in pre-Civil War days (or would be today if slavery were still legal)?

Provocative blog posts titles, posed as hypothetical questions, don’t prove anything. They can, however, spur our thinking. In the oval office, the current president proudly has hung a portrait of the seventh president. Andrew Jackson, a slave owner, helped clear out Native Americans from Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi via the infamous “Trail of Tears” in the 1830s. Much of this land, in subsequent years, produced cotton picked by enslaved people, many who had been forcibly marched south and west from Virginia or South Carolina.

The challenge to look at and understand history in a new way can lead to transformed thinking, which in turn can lead to actions and interactions of greater love, clarity, and justice. May it be so in this land of stony roads and chastening rods that have not wiped out the faith and hope taught – and wrought – even from the dark past.

 

Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m the 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 (forthcoming, spring 2019).

 

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!

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!

 

 

Just a Little Bit More in Houston

I’ll be in Houston on Sunday, June 4 to  present themes from Just a Little Bit More, kicking off four Sundays of conversation on faith and inequality. Thanks to the folks at Chapelwood United Methodist Church for the invitation.  Chapelwood’s address is 11140 Greenbay Street on Houston’s west side. My presentation, starting at 11:00 a.m., is the first of four adult education sessions on Just a Little Bit More themes scheduled for the four Sundays in June. My good friend Kathy Haueisen and Noel Denison will lead the three remaining sessions.

Social and economic inequalities continue to command attention in American society, as they have for the last thirty-five years. How do people of faith respond to the ongoing challenges inequalities present? This general question brings us together for conversation that, hopefully, helps clarify our faithful response, individually and collectively, to some of the problems created by excessive inequalities.

Legend tells us that John Rockefeller, history’s first billionaire in the early twentieth century, when asked the question How much is enough? answered ingeniously and accurately described American culture: “Just a little bit more.” One hundred years later, Rockefeller’s legendary response still describes American culture spot-on and it serves as my starting point for the June 4th presentation.

We’ll also consider biblical passages and stories, including the parable of the rich fool from Luke 12 and Jesus’s intriguing statement to explain the parable of the sower (found in all three of the synoptic gospels): “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 13:12, NRSV). This statement seemingly endorses inequality. We’ll talk about it and more! Come and join the conversation!

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!