Friday, January 29, 2010

From Tower to Warship, and More

I’m sure I have friends who think I talk about New York City way too much. I know I have friends who think I’m a closet liberal pacifist. And there are probably a few people who have seen the photo of the USS New York on the right pane of this blog and figured maybe I was just playing with Blogspot’s photo feature.

To all of you wonderful people, I say yes, my time in the Big Apple still resonates as the most dynamic time of my life - at least, so far. Yes, I have a problem with people like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld who think picking scabs is the best way to score points with hawks, although I’ve never opposed Bush’s original foray into Afghanistan to track down bin Laden (how’s that going, btw?).

And yes, I was originally playing with Blogspot’s photo feature, but I already had the New York Times' photo of the USS New York in my image library because I think it says so much.

And what does it say? Well, to answer that question, I’ll have to wrap up all three of these topics into one tidy package. Which means another story set in the city of my birth.

Ahh, the Good Ol' Days

Although I’m proud to be a native New Yorker – and from Brooklyn, no less – I only lived there three months before my parents whisked me away to the idyllic countryside of suburban Syracuse. We still visited Brooklyn a lot, and I have family there, so I don’t think it’s improper for me to consider myself a New Yorker, even though I’ve spent over half my life in Texas.

I remember a day back in the early 1970’s, when my father took my brother and me to visit the newly-opened World Trade Center (WTC) in Lower Manhattan. To me, it was just two big buildings, looking like a couple of cigarettes sticking out of the top of their container. I remember seeing the dirt excavated for the basement of the Twin Towers still freshly piled in the Hudson River, with the footings for the first apartment building being constructed in what would become Battery Park City.

Flash forward several more years, and my dad again took my brother and me to the Twin Towers, which had become a major tourist attraction. I remember standing up against the glass wall along the eastern side of Tower Two, inside the observation pavilion, when the tower – shifting as it was designed to do in the wind – tilted eastward, meaning I could briefly see allmost all way down the side of the building to the plaza 107 floors below! I've been skittish about skyscraper windows ever since.

Several times, my aunt, a die-hard New Yorker, took us to the Twin Towers, too. One evening, we met friends for dinner in one of the greasy-spoon restaurants they used to have in the center’s underground mall. It was Christmastime, and our friends had been visiting from Florida and doing the tour of the towers.

In December of 2001, I received a Christmas card from these friends, which consisted of a simple photograph they had taken during that visit years earlier: a photo of the main elevator lobby in one of the towers, with banners saying “Merry Christmas” in multiple languages ringing the mezzanine level. The irony was unmistakable.

And Then There Was 9-11

I was there the day of the first terrorist attack in 1993, working four blocks south, watching the thick, black smoke billow out of the entrance to its parking garage. I visited the complex frequently on company business, and even enjoyed two company Christmas parties at Windows on the World. Back then, terrorism never entered the minds of most New Yorkers – we all assumed the blast that snowy morning was a faulty Con Edison transformer.

After the towers reopened, standing in line to get a new security badge so I could visit clients in the complex, I remember those of us in line joking about closing the barn door after the horse had bolted – nobody would be stupid enough to try and blow up the WTC again.

So in Texas, on that Tuesday morning in September, dropping off my car at the dealership for routine maintenance, I only briefly acknowledged the news my service advisor had just heard about a plane hitting the world trade center. I assumed he meant Dallas’ big brown box of a trade center which sits directly under the flight path to Love Field airport. I was as stunned as everybody else when I arrived at work and our receptionist greeted me with, “Did you hear what’s happened in New York?”

We had the TV on in the break room, but I couldn’t bear to watch. Somebody came out and yelled that one of the towers had just fallen, and all of us struggled to comprehend what that meant. I was watching the television when the second tower fell, and I thought I would be physically sick.

A family friend was in Manhattan, stuck in the usual traffic, on his way to a business meeting in the 70-somethingth floor of Tower One. His father, watching the news in Florida, called him on his cell phone to tell him there was a fire at the WTC. Already running late, and figuring the fire trucks would make traffic that much worse, our friend turned around and drove back to his office in New Jersey. He later heard seven people in his meeting had died.

Nobody I knew was in the buildings during the attack, although another friend in a nearby building saw the second plane hit, people jumping from windows, and the fall of both towers. Firemen prevented people in his building from leaving the relative safety of their lobby for hours as debris continued to fall and chaos reigned.

A children’s Sunday School class at my dear Calvary Baptist Church in Midtown had adopted a fire station a block away from the church, and the children visited frequently with cookies and such. On September 11, nearly all of the men on duty from that station were killed in the collapse of the towers.

In Brooklyn, my aunt watched the news in horror. With disbelief, she walked up the block to Sunset Park, where she could have a full view of Lower Manhattan. There, along with Chinese immigrants, Poles, Jews, blacks, and Hispanics, she watched the unfolding scene in silent incredulity; no panic, no talking, but more than a few people wiping away tears in grief. People born in the city, and people recently arrived, of all colors and ethnicities, all struggling to comprehend who and why.

Returning For A Different Type of War

Well, this time, we all pretty much knew the "who". And today, we know the "why". Which brings us to the USS New York, made in part with over seven tons of steel recovered from the WTC site.

They say that before all of the wreckage from the destroyed complex had been removed from the WTC disaster area, steel pulled from the debris had already been repurposed for other projects. Buildings, yes, and probably bridges, and some of it destined for the new Freedom Tower now rising on the original WTC site. But somehow, having part of the old WTC as part of this new warship makes perfect sense. Even the ship’s motto is, “Strength forged through sacrifice. Never forget”.

You see, I’m not the liberal pacifist some people suspect me to be. I just think there's more to war that economics, politics, and macho bravado.

When it comes to protecting our country, the USS New York may not be able to intercept suicide bombers, or infiltrate the Taliban and neutralize them. Seeing the photo of the USS New York gliding through the harbor of her namesake city, I was first tempted to think that such an important place like the Big Apple should be represented by a far bigger and more regal ship.

But actually, the USS New York is part of a triumvirate of amphibious landing craft, part of the Navy’s San Antonio class of “landing platform, dock” (LPD) warships (although why the Navy named a class of warships after a landlocked city, I don’t know). In total, the Navy has commissioned three warships to be named for the three terrorist sites on 9-11 in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, with the USS New York being the first. So in essence, the USS New York is but one-third of a set of ships that will join five LPD's already cruising our waters.

According to the ship’s official website, the USS New York is a “force-projection platform” designed to deliver state-of-the-art aircraft, landing craft, and other vehicles for military operations conducted from a beach or coastline. So, while it’s not going to participate in the full-scale naval bombardments of battleships from World War II, our wars today aren’t like the epic confrontations that dominated the Twentieth Century, either.

No, America’s enemies today are too timid to wear a military uniform, and too frail in allegiance to fight for a sovereign nation. They hold their own warped ideas about power that have become too myopic for even the most dastardly of political tyrants. The nimbleness and flexibility called for by today’s type of warfare seems appropriately matched in the USS New York. Hopefully, if ever she is needed on our shores, her capacities will more than meet the challenge.

Why the Twin Towers, Anyway?

When I think back to the World Trade Center I knew, I never really saw it as great architecture. Tall, yes; and big – there were a total of seven buildings, a luxury hotel, a shopping mall, a sprawling subway station, a commuter rail station, a massive parking garage, and a plaza nobody spent much time in because of the wind that would slice between the two towers and blast across it.

The vast, steep bank of shiny escalators stretching between the PATH commuter station and the mall could invoke claustrophobia. I attended a seminar on the 80-somethingth floor of Tower Two one day in March, and the swaying of the tower in the wind made the ceiling tiles rustle. The water in the bathroom toilets at Windows on the World sloshed softly from the tower's movement.

It was a speculative, government-built project housing mostly government-affiliated offices in what had been a much-maligned attempt by the Rockefeller family to modernize the western side of Lower Manhattan. That it would be a terrorist target in 1993 struck many New Yorkers as foolhardy – there were much more powerful symbols of New York and America throughout the city than the WTC. That it would be brought down in a far more brazen attack in 2001 was inconceivable - that is, except for our new enemy.

On the Waterfront

When I worked on the 25th floor of a building overlooking the Hudson River, most everyone in our office enjoyed watching the spectacle of important ships coming through the harbor and up the river.

Our company's venerable, crusty owner would come out of his office to watch the imperial Queen Elizabeth 2 promenade to and from her berth. Women in our office gathered admiringly at the windows when the mighty aircraft carrier JFK would plow past, with it’s crew lining the deck. Even some of the lesser cruise ships merited an admiring glance from my boss, the owner’s son, who grew up when docks still bristled up Manhattan's west side, hosting vessels from around the globe.

Our old office building is now a condominium, with new residents enjoying the same view we had. Hopefully, when they watch the USS New York plying the waters below, they will recall what we lost – and what we’re still trying to gain – from that fateful day that yielded some of the steel for her bow. She brings with her a bitter hint of New York's sacrifice, but also a renewed sense of purpose.

That's the story I think this photo tells.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Form, Function, and Corporate Worship

Two things: Recently, I’ve had an interesting FaceBook conversation with a long-time friend about the worship entries she read on this blog. Last night, a new feature debuted on the weekly update we get in my church choir; the music director at our church wrote an inaugural column about the origins of worship.

So for those of you who've assumed I’ve moved on from this topic of corporate worship, I’m sorry, but it appears this subject is going to keep popping up in the blog. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, since corporate worship exists as a vital part in the life of an evangelical. Or, at least it should.

By now, some people would also be tempted to think I’m simply fixated on a mission to eradicate rock music and banish contemporary casualness from church, and replace it with stuffy organ music and boring liturgy nobody understands. In other words, you think I simply want to switch one increasingly prevalent worship style for another one from a different age.

If all I wanted to do was make everybody follow the same style I like, I’d be no different or better than the folks who dragged their drum traps and electric keyboards into churches to begin with. I am convinced, however, that most churchgoers today haven’t so much thought about function as they’ve thought about form.

When I was in architecture school, our professors were constantly preaching that form follows function. In other words, the design and execution of a building should accommodate and facilitate its purpose, the reason it’s being built in the first place. If the form of the building interferes with or discourages its intended function, then its form is a failure. It may be a pretty building, with great detail and impressive, soaring spaces, but it’s still a failure.

Maybe if the architects had their hearts in the right place, and they honestly thought that their design would suit the purpose, the client would say, "OK, I see your intentions were good". But if the architects swaggered into the project, saying that everything that had been designed before was no longer suitable or effective for modern construction, and proceeded to build a trendy bauble that flew in the face of the building's purpose, then how should the client respond?

What is the Function?

Let’s do this: toss out of your mind everything you know, assume, and practice about corporate worship.

I don’t care if you prefer rock music and a casual atmosphere, or classical music and an order of worship. I don’t care if you don’t have a preference about music style. It doesn’t matter whether or not liturgy is involved, how long the sermon should be, or whether there should be an offering or a box at the back. Choir or praise team, I don’t care. Pastors in suits, jeans, business casual, or robes – I don’t care. Throw it out of your mind.

Forget for a moment about the type of building in which your fellowship meets for corporate worship, whether it’s a school, a grand cathedral, a seeker-style box or pseudo-factory, a New England-style traditional, or a sprawling suburban-style complex. Worship in a private home? Don’t worry about it. Share worship space with another congregation? I don’t care. Put all of it aside.

Think Fresh

Now, you’ve got a clean slate in your mind, right? We’ve got no preconceived notions about corporate worship, we’re got no cultural baggage with which to contend. We are completely without preference to style or form of worship. It’s all scraped clean. You’re dangerously close to not having any thought of anything at all (kind of like a politician).

It is within this unadulterated, uncorrupted, unbiased plane of consciousness before us that I’d like to ask some simple questions. Think about them, and their answers, without jumping ahead and drawing conclusions or assumptions.

  • Worship existed long before the world began, right?
  • The angels in Heaven constantly, incessantly adore their Creator God, correct?
  • So, worship is not our idea, it is God’s, and He’s been worshipped by His creation since infinity, correct?
  • You and I have been both commanded and invited to worship God, right?
  • Worship – not just corporate worship, but the very way we live our lives - is of Him, for Him, to Him, with us as the unworthy beneficiaries of His invitation. Right?

Now, with this historical imperative for worship – which I hope you’ve agreed with! – in place, please hear me out on this:

  • Is it possible that we mere mortals have co-opted the sacred act of worship and turned it inwards upon ourselves?
  • Should we assume that our culture possesses the high arts and worthy instruments of praise that can project the glorious adoration of the saints in gratitude for the incomprehensible work of salvation, justification, propitiation, and sacrifice?
  • Does the culture in which we live exist to serve Christ?
  • Isn’t our culture an increasingly hedonistic, pleasure-driven vortex of impulses, self-centeredness, gratuitousness, and callous ambition?
  • How do we determine what we use to craft righteous worship in the midst of our hedonistic culture?
Holiness Is More

Now, hold on – I’m not talking about rock or classical, suits or jeans or robes, liturgical or casual… we haven’t gotten there yet. I’m just asking questions about how we approach the Throne of Grace, the Mercy Seat upon which the Holy Trinity receives our offerings.

Shouldn’t we think long and hard about the attitude with which we corporately enter the presence of our supremely holy, Creator, God? He’s not just our daddy, although He is that. He’s not just our friend, although He is that. Don’t you see that He’s so much more?

  • God's holiness is more than just a term of endearment, isn't it?
  • Doesn’t holiness mean being “set apart”?
  • Do we really understand what holiness is anymore?
  • Can we find anything in our western culture that reveres holiness, which helps to define it for us?
OK, I am guessing that because of the incredibly short attention spans we all have, your mind is quickly slipping out of the “free to think” state and into an impatient “where’s he going with this?!” state. So I might as well fire with both barrels now:

  • As we consider God’s holiness, how do we prioritize corporate worship in our lives?
  • Do we manage to fit corporate worship into our schedules like just another trip to the mall or business meeting?
  • As we consider God’s holiness, can we bank on the notion that our emotions can guide us properly through a worship service?
  • As we consider God’s holiness, should we set aside corporate worship as something that is our wonderful obligation, our offering of genuine adoration, our refutation of everything in our culture that tries to pull our affections and focus off of Jesus Christ?
  • Are our lives so full that all we can manage is quick handfuls of religious candy instead of a full, sit-down four-course meal?
  • How often do you arrive before your church worship service starts? Even in my church’s wonderful, classic worship service, so many congregants arrive after the services have started – and they start at the same time every week, yet people seem caught by surprise that 11:00 has snuck up on them again. They didn’t plan ahead to arrive early to get a seat and prepare their hearts; they let the kids sleep in and then got everybody mad by pushing them out the door. Shouldn’t our corporate times with God be less incidental and peripheral than that?
Now, guess what – I’m not going to say anything about the form of worship that an evangelical church should pursue. If you’ve taken this little exercise seriously, you will be like me, and will have some heady ideas to think through, reconsider, and pray over.

My long-time friend commented that sometimes churchgoers make idols of their preferred worship style – whether it’s classical or contemporary. She is right – I used to do that myself, and even today, I have to fight against it. It is so easy to take our preferences and objectify them.

Ascendancy and Ascription

Shhh... we're still not talking style, though; we're talking substance. Can we agree that ours is a God of awe, wonder, and reverence. Even excitement, joy, and gratitude. Glory, majesty, dominion, power, authority... just to name a few of God's attributes.

From the beginning of infinity to the ending of eternity, the Heavenly Hosts proclaim God's majesty.

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!" The four living creatures said, "Amen," and the elders fell down and worshiped. - Revelation 5:13-14

God is high, and we ascend towards Him, ascribing to Him the glory due His name. That, in essence, is the function of corporate worship.

Does the form follow?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

How Should We Then Give? Part 1: Lavish Charity

Charity can be a touchy subject. In a country like the United States, with a heritage of individualistic tenacity and a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality, it can be easily misinterpreted and downright ridiculed.

For most of us, the idea of getting something for nothing either means you’re getting a good deal at a store or you’re the beneficiary of something because you can’t pay for it yourself. The first isn’t considered charity, it’s considered savvy marketing. The second is considered charity, and it can often imply inferiority for the recipient.

If we genuinely need the charity, we often feel embarrassed, because in our culture, we’re taught to value self-sufficiency. Givers are the good guys, while receivers are a drain on our resources.

After all, we Americans pride ourselves on our work ethic, our belief in paying back and paying forward, and the unbiblical yet popular “the Lord helps those who help themselves”. To the extent that what we give to charity is used in ways we think are proper to produce the results we think are reasonable, we don’t really mind forking out a fraction of our income to help the helpless.

For Christians, the Conventional Viewpoint...

I’m not sure that’s really the best motivation for charity, especially for Christians. It sound right, and seems logical for our common-sense American mindsets, but is our religion really that results-oriented?

For a typical discussion of how Christians should engage the needy, this helpful outline on by Pennsylvania lawyer Stephen Bloom covers the basics of the traditional church approach. Bloom seems to focus on worldwide relief, and rambles sociopolitically about the goodness of capitalism, but overall, it’s how most Christians view charity.

...and the Unconventional Viewpoint

However, for insight on intra-neighborhood, community-based charitable assistance, reaching out to those on welfare, and acting as agents of love and support to the needy, Dr. Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church offers some startling suggestions that contrast on several levels with Bloom’s approach.

Sure, we can sit around and grouse about people on welfare. I can type out blog posts examining nuanced issues in urban poverty and racism. We can give money to our churches for the benevolence fund, and many of us may even give a dollar or two when beggars approach our cars at stoplights.

But Keller goes a lot farther. My Sunday night Bible study has been listening to his audio sermon series on the Old Testament book of Proverbs. While the series basically examines various aspects of wisdom, Keller sometimes branches out across related topics, and this past Sunday, he broached the subject of charity.

In particular, three verses stuck out from the assortment of passages Keller references:

“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it” when you have it with you.” Proverbs 3:27-28

"Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his deed.” Proverbs 19:17.

If you want to hear Keller’s entire sermon, please click here (you’ll have to pay for it). Otherwise, I’m going to try and do justice to the crux of what he was saying and condense it here: give to the needy regardless of your assumption of their integrity, their intentions, or what you would consider to be a good return on that “investment”.

In other words, believers should be generous to people on welfare simply because it’s what God commands. His sovereignty is greater than our ability – or our temerity – to presume how the resources we offer will be used and what good it will produce. These proverbs bluntly order us to give to the needy when we can, and to give today, not later on. We should give generously, because we’re not really giving to the poor, we’re giving to God. And by the way, what we’re giving is really what God has already given us, so whose is it anyway?

We struggled with this sermon this past Sunday, because the concept of giving without analyzing risks and benefits is so beyond our mindset. Some Christians, such as Bloom, would immediately dismiss Keller’s sermon as rhetoric from the Religious Left, but as a PCA pastor, Keller hardly typifies the liberal wing of Christendom. So if Keller isn’t completely off the wall, how do we take his sermon?

  • What about the proverbs which instruct us to be wise with the money entrusted to us by God?

  • What about the proverbs which say lazy people should not eat?

  • What about the proverbs extolling the virtues of work and toil?

  • If we’re giving money to welfare recipients who don’t seem anxious to get out of their plight, aren’t we just exacerbating the problem by being enablers?

Should the Church Change Its Strategy Concerning Welfare?

To be completely honest, I can’t answer all of those questions – at least not right now. However, I don’t think it’s coincidence that we heard Keller’s sermon just as I happened to be writing a lot about poverty. Maybe I don’t know enough about God’s sovereignty to appreciate His ability to simply command us to do things that don’t make sense to us. Maybe I don’t trust Him enough to be able to accomplish His perfect purposes despite my inability to see them myself.

  • What is the degree to which believers have a responsibility to make sure their charitable giving is spent in a manner we consider to be wise?

  • What is the level of fiscal responsibility we should expect from a person or organization we assist – if indeed, we should expect any at all?

  • How much of our attitude in charitable giving is based on our perceptions of the worth of the person or organization, and does/should that assessment control the amount we give?
  • When we see a beggar on the street, should we give $10 or $50, instead of $1 or nothing at all?

I’m not willing to say that individuals and churches should abdicate what we currently assume is a fiscal responsibility to vet out improper uses of charitable funds. I'm not comfortable with just giving stuff away. At least, not yet.

I have to tell you, for me, right now, Keller’s sermon illustrates a profoundly counter-cultural way of thinking. Could it be that we've been engaging the poor and welfare recipients unbiblically all this time? Yes, Christ says the poor will always be with us. But could God be waiting for us to relinquish more of the resources He's given us for something we can't see or control?

Is the prevalence of poverty in part a result of our lack of faith?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Unpopular Fix for Generational Poverty

Just as I was preparing to change tunes on this blog from welfare to something more uplifting, news began spreading about South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Andre Bauer and his comments about welfare recipients breeding like stray animals.

Here is Bauer’s exact quote: "My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed! You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that."

Apparently, Bauer already has a reputation in South Carolina of speaking before he thinks, and to his detractors, "feeding stray animals" is just more of the same right-wing hogwash.  In this instance, Bauer has tried to clarify his remarks as a call for greater personal responsibility on the part of welfare recipients. A beneficiary of free lunches himself, Bauer describes from personal example the need for people receiving welfare to work harder at breaking the generational poverty that is endemic in our welfare system.

Nevertheless, South Carolina Democrats have already lined up against Bauer and described his comments as cruel, immoral, and reprehensible. In other words, they all knew what he said is pretty accurate, it just wasn’t politically correct.

Generational Poverty Can't Be Ignored

In my previous posts on this topic of poverty, I've tried to avoid the subject of welfare recipients and their penchant for procreating.  I've tried to stick to the institutionalized poverty aspect, not the generational poverty aspect.

Institutionalized poverty involves the conflicting ways our society and government actually perpetuate poverty.

Generational poverty is more of what Bauer is alluding to – the seemingly constant cycle of desperately poor people have kids, who grow up desperately poor and have kids themselves, and so on.

Nowhere along the way does the family manage to break free from a cycle of welfare dependency.

Traditionally, people in generational poverty have blamed society and the government – anybody but themselves. Increasingly, however, these assertions by those in generational poverty are falling on deaf ears amongst society at large. Too many people have been able to escape generational poverty into the middle class – the lowest rungs of our middle class, perhaps, but still a rung past poverty. And how did they do it? Maybe some finite government assistance. Probably some personal help and encouragement from extended family and friends. Certainly a lot of hard work and determination on their own part.

Politicians and activists who derive a significant part of their power from - and over - those on welfare rolls don’t like talking about personal responsibility. That little line from Dr. King’s Lincoln Memorial speech about the “content of character” is conveniently dropped from their rhetoric.

And if you start talking about having welfare recipients being more responsible about their sexual activity – something many politicians can’t even fathom for themselves – you really cross the line into forbidden territory.

It's All About The Kids

But you can’t avoid the logic. If you were on government assistance and wanted to get out of it, what would be one of the easiest and most obvious ways to do it? Get a job, right? While that would be a good first step, most people on welfare are single mothers, and there’s the immediate problem of daycare. Then there’s the problem of the types of jobs available – they almost all require at least a GED. However, a lot of these single mothers started having kids when they were in high school, and they dropped out. Even taking a GED class seems complicated for them, because again, there’s the problem of daycare.

Do you see the recurring theme? Kids. Pregnancies. Not problems in and of themselves, but they become big obstacles when you’re a teenager or young adult who should be taking responsibility for your future, not having unprotected sex. Or sex at all. Just because society tells you it’s OK doesn’t mean it is. And even with all of our wonderful technology, the only 100% proven method of contraception is abstinence.

Many people – conservatives and liberals alike – have such warped ideas about sex these days that the subject has become a minefield. Old morality which used to shake its head against sex before – and outside of – marriage has disappeared in our culture at large. The mantra of personal responsibility has been extended to many aspects of life, except the libido.

So to all of a sudden have to reckon with the notion that poor people should refrain from sex sounds to almost everybody like a weird, impossibly unrealistic, totalitarian punishment.

Are Liberal Politicians Trying to Prove Darwin Wrong?

A friend of mine, a professed believer in evolutionary theory, made a stunning comment on our way to lunch one day. We were watching some obviously indigent people crossing a street, and he mused, “people like that disprove the survival of the fittest”.

Wow. Evaluating the futility of a whole system of thought based on three people crossing an intersection!

But my friend touched on a remarkable facet of American society today. The people we were watching in the crosswalk were two adults and a baby. The adults were malnourished and obese, and based on other observations that I won’t go into here, we both drew what appeared to be an obvious conclusion that they were on some form of public assistance.

Now remember, this isn’t what I said; this was my friend, who is an educated computer geek, who votes Democratic, who’s agnostic and champions all things liberal. What he was saying is this: “people on welfare disprove the survival of the fittest”.

People who bear children while on welfare rarely get out of it; they start the cycle of generational poverty that has proven so difficult to extricate oneself from. In the meantime, our society bends over backwards to provide housing, food, clothing, healthcare, daycare, and more to these families. And for what? In Darwin’s model of survival of the fittest, these families that can’t support themselves should be fading away. But they’re not – they’re propagating, and our society enables them to flourish unnaturally. At this rate, the intransigent poor will drag down healthy society until we’re all drowning in debt, inefficiencies, and degradation.

Was Freud right? Is life all about sex? Is sex simply a basic, primal instinct that humans can’t control? Are we incapable of formulating plausible scenarios about the effects of sexual activity, and acting to reduce those effects we consider to be negative? After all, that’s what impoverished women and men seem to be saying: "Sex is such a basic instinct, and having babies is a natural side-effect of sex, and even though you’re paying for my healthcare and my baby’s healthcare, you can’t deny me my right to have even more kids."

Isn't procreation a problem here?

Providing A Good Example

Taxpayer-provided subsidies for disenfranchised fellow citizens can be seen as a social contract, in which taxpayers, as the funding group, expect certain things from welfare recipients they are funding, such as personal responsibility, honest effort, and integrity. Basically, the “content of character” Dr. King mentions in his famous speech.

However, what is the degree to which taxpayers need to set a proper example in order to justify their expectations from others? Or does just being a taxpayer make us worthy of the honor of telling welfare recipients how to behave? Is this purely an economic relationship, or is there any morality or ethics involved to help seal the deal?

In his seminal book, The Closing of the American Mind, the agnostic philosopher Alan Bloom writes about how we in the United States have dumbed ourselves down, and how we have developed patterns of narcissism that are unraveling the fabric of what used to be an ordered and productive society. More and more Americans don’t incorporate logic in their actions and decisions. We have developed a sense that our society is big enough to absorb all of our selfish desires, and we strive for pleasure more than purpose. The big fallacy in this mindset is that no society is large enough to absorb all of this pettiness when the majority is slipping further and further into the malaise of mediocrity.

To the extent that the poor have watched the rest of America fall into a hedonistic depravity of consumption, sex, and rewards, perhaps it should come as no surprise that they want gratification, too. Sex is easy, it comes naturally, and plenty of government programs actually enable people on welfare to benefit from procreation. However, would it be impertinent for me to suggest that we taxpayers set some sort of better example in the way we spend our money and raise our families? Does not receiving public assistance make us better than those who do? Does being able to spend our own money on unnecessary pleasures mean we should?

When middle-class teenagers get pregnant, does the fact that their parents can better afford to absorb the costs of their unexpected grandchild become the only difference between them and kids on welfare? The opportunities middle-class teenage parents have in our economy are only marginally better than those on welfare, aren’t they? Just because no welfare is involved, should society not be alarmed at the promiscuity and lack of character that is involved when people who can better afford to be immoral are?

On the flip side, for people on welfare, here are some questions for you:  Why should taxpayers pay to support the biggest drain on income and most significant impediment towards earning a living wage: child rearing? Most of us can understand if a parent has children before sinking into a welfare situation. But once you’re there, why do you still procreate? Can't you wait until you can afford it? Does having more kids make you a more attractive job candidate? Does having more kids mean you can get a better education quicker? Does having more kids mean you can better provide for the ones you already have? If the answer is because the government “rewards” you for the number of children you have, then you’ve completely missed King’s admonition to be a person with character.

And you boys and men on welfare:  where are you, besides out getting women pregnant? Why aren’t you in school or at work? Forget earning money to put rims on your jalopy; how about putting some food on your kids’ table? And marrying the woman you’re sleeping with? What kind of man are you to let taxpayers keep doing your job? Don't think that because your baby comes out of a woman that it's all her responsibility.

At the end of the day, Dr. King’s famous phrase, “content of character” applies to all of us. Integrity, personal responsibility, delayed gratification, and chastity aren’t virtues for just the rich or just the poor.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Begin With the Content of Character

Fourth in a series about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Back when I was in graduate school, I interned one summer for the City of New York. Although my program was urban planning, I ended up in one of the first welfare-to-work programs in North America. And although the internship lasted only three months, what an eye-opener it proved to be!

The official name of my department was The City of New York Human Resources Administration Office of Employment Services Work Experience Management B.E.G.I.N. Program, or NYC HRA OES WEM BEGIN. Whew!

“B.E.G.I.N.” stands for “Begin Employment Gain Independence Now”, and it was headquartered in a faded beaux-arts monolith between gritty Union Square and exquisite Gramercy Park. At first, I didn’t know anything about it, or social work general, but a city employee who lives in my aunt’s Brooklyn co-cop thought it would be a good resume filler. I’d have my own assistant (a public high school student) and the opportunity to attend special intern meetings in City Hall.

When I arrived, B.E.G.I.N. had been going about a year, with the objective of weaning welfare recipients off of public assistance and into the workforce. Its comprehensive scope extended from English language education and basic job skill classes to one-on-one job placement services, provided in a sprawling network of sites across the city.

Being an intern, my responsibility was to provide a sort of “other perspective” of what and how they were doing. I attended executive meetings and made site visits across Manhattan, interacting with a surprisingly dedicated and diverse group of people trying to make a difference.

Stories From the Front Lines

One day, security called my boss and told us the building was in lock-down because an angry welfare recipient visiting a lower floor had brandished a gun, threatened a social worker, and stormed up a stairwell to elude guards.

One day, in one of the building’s once-elegant stairwells, I passed two welfare recipients... well, being very friendly. One day, I lost my sweet, quiet teenage intern when she was sexually harassed by a clerk in the employment office, and my boss couldn’t get him to apologize because his union refused.

I hated visiting the lower client service floors because they were always jammed with people who were confused, loud, angry, smelly; children cried in fright at the cacophony, with city clerks and social workers physically and emotionally overwhelmed by it all.

One bright morning, I found my way west of the Port Authority bus terminal to a delapidated 1970’s-era city building, where ESL classes were being conducted. I sat in on a session in a big, airless room where Hispanic, Russian, and Bangladeshi immigrants – mostly women, mostly in their 30’s or older – were smiling and laughing along with their gregarious instructor. Their good nature filled the dark hallways of that decrepit building, although I never understood what was so funny.

My boss and his staff made a big deal out of my visit to a client site in Harlem, me being a white boy in what was then still very much a ghetto. I actually didn't know what to expect. I stepped out of the subway onto the platform, immediately engulfed in a swarm of police officers. I learned later that a major drug bust had just gone down, and mine was the first train allowed to stop in the station. After that auspicious welcome, I briskly walked down 125th Street and found the client site, a remodeled walk-up that boasted new carpeting, paint, light fixtures, furniture… but no clients. Actually, I think one came in before I left. I remember one of the social workers saying they were having a hard time getting welfare recipients to keep their appointments. Apparently, the idea of transitioning from welfare to work hadn’t yet gotten a lot of buy-in from clients there.

Contrasted with Harlem was my visit to the “Yorkville” site on east 34th Street, several blocks from Macy’s. I would call this neighborhood Murray Hill, not Yorkville; nevertheless, east 34th Street was mostly middle-class with public housing mixed in. This location was bustling with clients, although the building itself was decorated in the typical grime, grays, and dim light of most city offices. It was so busy, in fact, that I remember I couldn’t visit with the staff who were to show me around.

Our offices in the beaux-arts pile provided interest as well. One long-suffering director – I’ll call her Martha - headed up part of the program from her corner of our long suite. Martha seemed to spend her entire day on the phone with people trying to get out of having to go to work. Often, I would hear her on the phone – in her nasal Queens accent – with the same guy (who I’ll call Arthur) with whom she had a long-running struggle.

You see, not only did Arthur target Martha for his many complaints, but Arthur had gotten ahold of then-governor Cuomo’s private phone number, and occasionally he would chastise Cuomo personally about having to find a job. Arthur also had learned one of the office numbers for then-mayor Dinkins, and he’d call Dinkins' staff with the same complaint. The staff for Cuomo and Dinkins would then call Martha – and Martha would call Arthur and tell him to quit bothering the mayor and governor - they weren't going to give him any waivers.

It was a silly, farcical circle of phone calls and veiled threats through which Martha patiently suffered. Once, Martha told me that she’d told Arthur, “Do you realize, with your skills at finding out private phone numbers, needling major politicians, deceiving your caseworker, and constantly whining about this program, you could be making a killing on Wall Street with less effort than you’re using trying not to work?!”

Coloring Between the Lines

Now, I’m not going to draw the simplistic conclusion that clients of a particular race were working harder to get out of welfare and into mainstream employment. If I remember correctly, Arthur was white. The secretaries for both my boss and the director of B.E.G.I.N. were both former welfare recipients; one was black and the other Hispanic. Both of them were actually earning LESS working full-time for the city than they were getting in welfare benefits, but they both were trying to break the welfare cycle as single parents.

One of them, Madeline Ortiz, I saw years later on the Lexington Avenue subway line. She got on the same car as me at Union Square Station. I went over to her, she recognized me, and we chatted until our stops came. She was still working, still with B.E.G.I.N., and instead of a jaded welfare recipient, was now a jaded taxpayer. Which, in my book, is a success story.

So... Did It Work?

B.E.G.I.N. began in 1989, and I worked there during the summer of 1990, when it was still fresh and full of optimism – a rare quality in any New York City employee. 20 years on, what has history told us about this then-groundbreaking program? Has it worked? How many New Yorkers have been moved from welfare to work?

Well, of course, a lot of the answer depends on who is running the statistics. And like any other over-used terminology, “welfare” can mean different things based on government classifications and agencies. Still, the number that seems to stick for New York City is approximately 350,000 people on welfare, down from nearly one million back when I worked at B.E.G.I.N.

So, how much of the drop can be attributed to B.E.G.I.N.? Again, a lot of the answer depends on who you ask, but of the 650,000 people weaned from welfare in the past 19 years, the best number I could find in B.E.G.I.N.’s favor is 100,000 success stories. Most experts agree that a combination of programs like B.E.G.I.N., a relatively healthier economy and job creation during New York’s recent boom years, different counting methods, more stringent eligibility rules, and an increasingly complex application process can all be attributed for the welfare decline.

But what about the cost? What does that translate into when factoring in the cost of the program? How much are these people earning now? Do they earn incomes that afford them private housing? Are they working in New York City, or have they taken what NYC provided them to another city in another state? How many of these people were recent immigrants who likely would have worked hard to make it in their new country, or how many had been welfare recipients for years?

Valued By the Content of Their Character

So the numbers don't tell the whole tale - at least, not yet. What lesson I think can be learned from this, however, is a lesson preached by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and which no reasonable person can deride. It's from the same Lincoln Memorial speech from which I quoted earlier, his resounding "I Have A Dream" speech:

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character".

Being "judged... by the content of their character". If King wanted that for his children, surely he wanted that for his race and for his country. Not that people who are on welfare don't have integrity or are of low character content. What the phrase means is that people with integrity act upon that integrity in the best way they can with the opportunities they are given - or find despite obstacles. Depending on the circumstances, some people may not rise out of poverty and may need some form of welfare to survive. These are the people for whom our society needs to care and remember.

Whatever our race, if we were on welfare, and had the opportunity to transition from welfare to work, our moral obligation would be to take advantage of that opportunity. We want to be judged by the content of our character, and employment contributes to character (sometimes the hard way!). If we as a society can transition to having a legitimate safety net - either through our churches or through other civic organizations - race and ethnicity won't be a factor as much as content of character. Those with integrity will look for a way up, just as those with integrity assist those who need it.

Poverty, like wealth, is not a sin; it's what you do (or don't do) with it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Home Sweet Home?

Third in a series about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I believe that public housing is a contributor to racism and institutionalized poverty in America. What began as an ambitious project to provide more humane shelter for tenement dwellers has been perverted into a program for repressing a class of disenfranchised people and perpetuating the myth that certain people groups cannot make it on their own without the government providing that linchpin of all needs: shelter.

It started after World War II, in America's biggest cities: a massive construction boom that reshaped urban areas and accelerated racial segregation. It contributed significantly to the creation of what has become a seemingly permanent underclass of citizens. Although recently, many public housing residents have been moved out of "the projects", they're still beholden to taxpayers for Section 8 housing vouchers that pretty much preserve the status quo.

I wonder if Dr. King were to revisit America today, wouldn't he be shocked at the racism perpetrated by the liberal social bureaucracy - seen predominantly in the travesty that has become public housing - that claims to be the advocate for the poor?

Public Housing Isn't Equal

Let me clarify what I mean by public housing. As I see it, public housing could typically be described as housing that either does not make the owners any profit or housing that is made available below market rates. Not all public housing is slum housing. Some below-market-rate housing has been designed to provide a protected housing stock for working people of middle-income status who simply wouldn’t be able to afford market rate housing.

For an example, after World War II in New York City, corporate and city leaders alike recognized the need that moderate-income professionals like teachers and nurses had for homes close to their city jobs. To keep these professionals, massive apartment complexes were constructed and rents stringently indexed as a safeguard against exorbitant housing costs. Successful examples of such projects are Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town along Manhattan’s East 14th Street. They were built and owned by Met Life, which enjoyed special tax incentives on the properties.

Of course, real estate executives fumed about this protected housing stock for decades. Some argue that if they were so sorely needed, these workers' salaries would have risen accordingly, and their income would keep up with rising rents. However, New York is relatively unique, being home to a significant number of extraordinarily highly-paid people who skew the real estate market upward.

Interestingly enough, Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town and another similar complex in Brooklyn, Starrett City, have been sold to commercial developers with the intention of transitioning apartments into market-rate rentals. So, New York's experiment with middle-income "public housing" may not last too much longer. *(see update below)

"Real" Public Housing

When I talk of "public housing" in the general sense, I'm not referring to the Stuyvesant Towns and Starrett Cities that have been relatively successful, and certainly don't contribute to institutionalized poverty. The public housing I’m talking about is housing for the poor that has been constructed by and managed by local governments with money from states and the Federal government. It extends in theory today to Section 8 housing vouchers for subsidized housing within the private sector, one of the sneaky little secrets government agencies have devised to hide the dispersal of public housing residents outside of the projects.

Post-war public housing was originally meant to be a temporary shelter for people transitioning between jobs or economic crises. Instead, it quickly became the permanent home of what became an entire sub-class of Americans which was disproportionately black, disproportionately chronically unemployed, and disproportionately uneducated.

Modern Architecture's Dark Side

While the middle class soldiers from World War II came home and went to the brand-new suburbs, the poor soldiers came home and holed up in squalid tenements, which were already old and hadn’t been built well to begin with. They were fire traps, ridden with vermin, and completely unacceptable in the brave new post-industrial, post-war society that was reshaping virtually every aspect of American life. The big idea? By providing the urban impoverished better living conditions, those people would have a better environment in which to get their feet on the ground and begin the transition upward into private housing.

One of the architects – literally – of America’s solution for housing the poor was Robert Moses, who is either credited or vilified for destroying many historic neighborhoods in New York City and replacing them with ugly, modern towers. Into these towers Moses stuffed the unfortunates who were being evicted from the old tenements that were being torn down. Other tenants included blacks moving north from the racist cauldron of the south; while New York wasn’t exactly a haven of equality, there were jobs and opportunities blacks couldn’t find below the Mason-Dixon line. The fact that New York had one of the most liberal social welfare programs in the country didn’t hurt, either, since most of the blacks leaving the south had been so disenfranchised they came north with nothing but hope.

Architecture’s “Modern” movement reveled in the opportunity to project their mass-housing theories onto the American cityscape. Celebrated modernists like Le Corbusier had already achieved notoriety for their then-groundbreaking designs for low-income Europeans. Using exposed steel and concrete, suffocating population densities, minimal infrastructure amenities, and assuming ridiculous levels of cooperation among future tenants, the new breed of urban designers built complete vertical towns with everything except a sense of place and community.

No thought was given to the peripheral problems and maladjustments inherent among many people who would become permanent residents, the casualties - or lazy bums, depending on your viewpoint - of institutionalized poverty. Blind corners became mugging hotspots, remote stairwells became havens for sexual abuse. Shoddy construction by corrupt contractors soon revealed itself in maintenance nightmares. Nobody expected public housing to be Beverly Hills, but by the time mayor Jane Byrne moved to Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green as a publicity stunt in the 1981, people were wondering how much better these projects were than the turn-of-the-century tenements they replaced.

For those unfortunate few who landed in public housing and realized they needed to work extra hard to get out of it, their tenure in these monuments to bureaucratic narcissism proved blissfully short. For the people who landed in public housing and stayed, they became part of the new under-class of American citizens who weren’t being marginalized necessarily because of their skin color, but because of their income status.

There was also a case of bad timing. By the 1950's, manufacturing began to slump in New York City, and by the 1960’s, factories were in full retreat to the suburbs or to the south. Blacks who had moved to the urban north and found themselves in public housing assumed that they would work their way out soon enough, but the economic tide was turning against them, and in effect, many got beached in their high-rise housing projects as manufacturing jobs left the cities.

Liberals and Their Nanny State

While at the beginning of the urban renewal movement, public housing was considered temporary housing, as time went on, the new bureaucratic class of social scientists completely forgot why public housing existed. With a hubris characteristic of the nanny-state mindset popular at all the best colleges after World War II, social scientists came to justify their existence by the social strictures they concocted to subjugate the urban poor. Some may have done it unintentionally and with the purest of motives, but these social scientists actually stopped assisting in the transition of public housing residents into the workforce and private housing. Instead, it became a given that this poverty-stricken underclass was here to stay, and the urban culture needed to change to accommodate this new group.

The fact that most of these unfortunates were black played into the hands of politicians looking for a solid political base and bureaucrats who wanted to implement their social engineering theories on a captive audience. It didn’t take the Democratic party long to realize that they had a solid voting block right there in public housing. If the poor blacks were made to think they were being oppressed by a white majority, Democrats could build a political empire with white Republicans as the villains and symbols of authority – including the police – as their lackeys.

Public Housing Isn't a Prison

Racist folk tend to simplify the plight of blacks living in public housing with the assumption that they have no sense of personal responsibility. While that may be the case for some, I have explained above that it's likely other people have hit the bureaucratic brick wall so many times they're now cowed into conformity with the process of the projects. For others, being disenfranchised for whatever reason for so long can make it difficult to object when somebody tells you that because of your skin color, the projects is where you belong.

However, while today's public housing residents are overwhelmingly minority, that doesn't mean blacks - and now Hispanics - don't have the opportunities to take advantage of social programs that do work: programs for education, job placement, and more. Many former residents of the projects realized their fate was in their own hands, and they stepped out and into the workforce. They got jobs that paid enough for rent in a private building. They moved into neighborhoods where their kids could go to safe schools and get good educations. I'm not just spouting self-improvement platitudes; I'm simply describing the reality that people can beat the projects.

Same Problem With a Different Look

Today, public housing across the country can generally be described as one big idea that has proven to be a failure. Chicago has torn down its infamous Cabrini-Green, while here in Dallas and Fort Worth, several major projects have been bulldozed and residents sequestered in sprawling apartment complexes and duplexes with less density.

But whether it’s form is the aging, brick towers of the Bronx or the new, suburbanesque townhouse villages of west Dallas, the main problem of public housing remains: it is not seen as temporary assistance between one private housing arrangement and another. Entire generations are born, raised, and then have their own kids either in the same apartment, or within the public housing structure. This is part of institutionalized poverty. There exists a pervasive assumption that public housing provides a permanent home for people, and this mindset can neuter ambition.

Of course, there are broader societal issues which contribute to poverty and racism, and public housing itself can still be a better last resort than homelessness. The reason I’m discussing public housing in this fashion is because having a home is a basic component of life in America. The government and your employer want to know your address. If your kids go to public school, that school is dictated by your address. Your home is the place where you find shelter even if no other place offers it. Your home gives you the privacy to be yourself, to raise your family, and to give you a certain sense of identity and belonging.

The Slippery Slope

If public housing is where you do all of this, and we all know the poor quality of life inherent in public housing, then what is the best your family can expect in terms of its safety, security, and social opportunity? If you're not paying the costs of of your home, how much incentive do you have to maintain it? If, for some reason, you’re satisfied with your shelter in public housing, then why pay market rates to rent something else? What is the extent to which society has a responsibility to house those who have not, do not, or appear unwilling to obtain the qualifications necessary to contribute to society? At what point does public housing contribute to the lack of initiative, the dearth of economic development, and increased crime within society? The more one capitulates to the least common denominator, and the more other people join you, the worse our society becomes.

This is not just a racial issue. This is an issue about the basic level of respect people have for one another and for the society of which they're a part. Not just whites looking down on public housing residents, but public housing residents refusing to use what tools are available to them to try an extricate themselves out of someplace they know they don't want to be.

There are many reasons for poverty. Jesus Christ advises His followers that "the poor will always be with you". However, living in poverty doesn't mean abdicating responsibility. To the extent some people have come to expect that the public will always provide them a home, institutionalized poverty will continue to cripple a significant sub-group of our society and contribute to the perpetuation of racial profiling that continues to divide us.

I'll talk more about this next week...!

* Update:
The Stuyvesant Town deal has already ended in default - on Monday, January 25, the borrowers returned Peter Cooper Village and Stuyvesant Town back to their creditors after the value of the project sank. For details, please click here. -1/26/09

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Great Scott! 9 Healthcare Fix Ideas

Stunning news out of Massachusetts this week: the grip liberal Democrats have held on what they considered to be Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat has been broken by a Republican.

Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, how many long-time Republicans hold Senate and House seats that they consider to be theirs? A lot of office holders – and their constituencies – have developed a taste for career politicians, which has only jacked up the amount of pork and imperious attitudes that are stifling our great country.

So, if the Senate seat being “returned to the people” in Massachusetts had been one that a Republican held as long as Kennedy did, then I’d probably be similarly pleased; not that a Democrat had won out, but that the political machine there had finally ground to a halt.

You already know I don’t consider myself a Republican or Democrat, and I’m growing more mindful of the fact that, as my good Heritage Foundation friend likes to remind me, one can be a Republican without being a conservative. Still, I am conservative enough to recognize the giddy opportunity Scott Brown’s win provides sane thinkers in Washington to call a time-out on President Obama’s wildly off-track healthcare legislation.

We’ve been told that the federal government’s overhaul of America’s healthcare system served as one of the crowning glories Ted Kennedy pined for when he wasn’t boozing it up, carousing with other men’s wives, and trying to ingratiate himself with New England’s stoic blue bloods who never bowed to what the press claimed was America’s royal family. (I’m sorry, but I’ve given up trying to feign respect for the Kennedy's.)

So much the sweeter Brown’s victory is! At the 11th hour, an opportunity has emblazoned itself across DC’s sky, sending the brick-a-brack of bribery-laden, heavy-handed, pie-in-the-sky dripping-with-pork-fat legislation that Democrats have the temerity to call healthcare overhaul back for a re-think.

Quit Playing Politics With Healthcare

If it’s any consolation for Democrats, Republicans don’t deny that things need to be fixed in our healthcare system. Costs have risen steeply, employers are drowning under the paperwork, and doctors are abandoning (or being pushed out of) their practices. A significant crisis has developed in hospital emergency rooms, where patients can wait hours for care, defying the very meaning of “emergency”.

What many Americans are saying is that plenty of things can be changed and improved without “overhauling” the system at the federal level. I believe conservatives are correct in saying that Obama’s coy term “efficiency” is a code word for "takeover". Let’s face it: our government doesn't do many things efficiently, and a takeover of our healthcare system will mean higher taxes in exchange for reduced quality – and quantity – of care.

For proof, simply consider the colossal mess of our current tax structure, the atrocious waste inherent in Medicaid and Medicare, the institutionalized poverty perpetuated by sprawling welfare programs (an upcoming topic in my blog, btw), and the increasing inability of our armed forces to respond adequately and quickly to changing warfare scenarios. Americans have a right to be concerned: do we really want government to now handle our healthcare?!

A dear cousin of mine in Finland thinks that we Americans don’t understand how inefficient our healthcare system is right now. However, with all due respect, Finland and the other European Union countries have much smaller populations, share much more homogeneity, and still have to tax themselves silly to run their healthcare systems.

By virtue of its population’s sheer size and diversity, the United States does not function like our fellow democracies in Europe. There is little that is homogeneous in our society. People even think and act differently in distinct geographic regions of our country. We have significant sub-sets of people groups that have different physical makeups and wellness tendencies. And yes, there's about 400 years of individuality that makes us inherently suspicious of big government.

None of that means our current heathcare system doesn’t need fixing. So, let’s gather a collective breath, relish the borrowed time we’re working under because of Brown’s win, and think about the rational possibilities:

1. Stop the Hemorrhaging at Medicaid

For starters, we all know Medicaid and Medicare are systemically corrupt and need to be completely overhauled – so if Obama wants overhaul, let’s put some sound business practices in place here. The problems stem not so much from the patient side but the provider and billing sides; every day brings a new scam. Don’t software systems exist that can match vendors with reimbursables, coordinate authorization schedules, and deploy other controls? We’ve learned the FBI can’t network itself, but maybe Medicaid can.

2. It Ain't Called A "Practice" for Nuthin'

Some states have experimented with limiting malpractice jury awards, and this idea should be extended nation-wide to protect all doctors and healthcare providers. We seem to have forgotten that medicine is a practice. It is not perfect, humans will continue to make honest mistakes, and we have to live with the consequences of all sorts of things. Surgeons who amputate the wrong leg should still be subject to lawsuits, but calculating damages needs to be more refined.

3. Consult Your Physician, Not Madison Avenue

One of the easiest ways of reducing the cost of medicine is restricting the currently-bloated marketing budgets of pharmaceutical giants. Do we really need so many perky business school grads strutting around doctors’ offices in designer suits giving away football tickets? Does appealing directly to patients through slick TV ads mean that doctors can’t judge the merits of a particular medicine on their own?

4. Pending Patents Cost Time and Money

I understand pharmaceutical companies aren’t in business just to help people – they also want to make money, and as long as they do it responsibly, that’s fine. One area in which these companies spend tons of money is their research and development of new medicines and equipment. I have no problem with them being able to protect the investment they’ve made in this time-consuming, costly process. I think the FDA should streamline their process for approving new medicines through better co-screening with similar agencies from other developed countries. I also think pharmaceutical companies should enjoy enhanced protection for their research and products. Knowing that they can benefit from their efforts over a longer period of time may help spread out the cost of developing new products and also better reward companies for their investments in products that may take time to prove themselves.

5. Take the Consequences

Personal responsibility needs to take a greater priority in one’s personal health. Healthcare providers and payers should be able to penalize customers who engage in habits and practices that are indisputably unhealthy or pose major health risks. These practices could include smoking, alcoholism, and even hobbies like skiing. People who make no effort to lose weight, aside from contributing factors like prescription medicines or ancillary health issues, should also be penalized. I’m not saying people can’t smoke, eat anything they want, or should give up their trips to Colorado. I’m just saying they should have to pay more if they want to engage in risky behavior.

6. No Legal, No Free Healthcare

Healthcare providers should deny covering healthcare costs of illegal immigrants except in life & death cases. For example, Hispanic families frequently cross the border illegally and pop out kids left and right in our maternity wards, and we get to pick up the tab. I say no. You’re making a mockery of American citizenship by birth.

7. Drive Like Your Health Depends On It

We should shift a greater burden for hospitalization coverage for motorists from their general healthcare insurance to their auto insurance coverage. If drivers know that they personally share a greater responsibility for their healthcare costs when they’re behind the wheel, hopefully they’ll become more careful drivers, and injuries from auto accidents will decline. Of course, we’ll have to actually enforce laws already on the books requiring drivers to carry car insurance. Remember that driving is a privilege, not a right.

8. Jump In the Pool

I do agree with many employers: why should they get stuck managing healthcare programs for their employees? Company health insurance started as a way to attract and retain good employees, but now that everybody does it, how much reward is there for the employer? Wouldn’t insurance work more effectively if it was offered to large pools of customers regardless of employer? What are the difficulties in having insurance companies set up their own pools, maybe based on geopolitical boundaries like counties or clusters of counties, and allow individuals to join regardless of their employer? An employer could cover part of the health insurance cost, but they wouldn’t need to administer a healthcare program. Would that lower heathcare costs?

9. Rainy Day Healthcare Fund

Regardless of whether or not insurance is handled by employers, the IRS should expand employee participation in tax-free healthcare programs. Basically, employees should be allowed to have deducted from their pay a certain amount each pay period that is automatically transferred into a tax-free holding account. Whatever isn't used that tax year gets dumped back into their income account and is taxed normally. This practice is already widely used, but the rules can be confusing and should be streamlined.

Do you see that we've got a lot of things already that we can try before throwing up our hands and saying the federal government is our only hope!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Reparations Don't Add Up

Note: Some of the material in today’s entry has been taken from Monday’s entry on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Faithful readers of this blog – I think we’re up to three of you now – will understand that I’m still learning how to condense and organize my thoughts in an efficient manner, so thank you for obliging me!

For those of you who had a holiday Monday (those of you still with jobs, that is), by now you’ve been back to work, and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday is a distant memory, if indeed it ever commanded consideration at all. In busy lives, sometimes that’s the way it is.

I, however, see so much unfinished business surrounding the topic of King and the Civil Rights Movement. Off and on in the next several days, I’d like to comment on the journey our society has taken since King’s assassination, both in terms of the civil rights idea at large, and also the state of race relations today. I'd also like to discuss what I consider to be a newly-emerging social stratification based on class, not simply race.

You May Not See It, But It's Real

Our first topic probably isn't on your radar, so you might be surprised to know that behind the scenes, the push for reparations for slavery remains alive and well for several misguided politicians and activists.

Liberal factions in America’s black community occasionally float the idea of reparations (also called restitution) with the outdated theory that for blacks to achieve a level playing field in their competition with whites, some sort of financial compensation needs to be made in remuneration for past sufferings inflicted on blacks by whites.

Unfortunately, one of the lead activists in the reparations movement hails from my native Brooklyn, New York. Deadria Farmer-Paellmann and fellow activists believe companies like Aetna, railroad company CXS, and Chase bank owe blacks upwards of $1.4 trillion, and she filed nine lawsuits in 2002 to start that repayment process. In 2007, one of her cases had made its way to the Supreme Court, where the justices declined to hear it. Still, she's raising money and support through her website for her other initiatives, and is considered a leader in the restitution movement.

In addition to private lawsuits, there are government efforts - at least at the state level - to try and get some sort of reparations process started. In Massachusetts, state representative Byron Rushing proposed this past September a bill that would force about 10 Boston companies to investigate how much they profited from slavery before the commonwealth prohibited the practice in 1790. Apparently, Rushing's state legislation is modeled after others in California and Illinois.

If you want to read more about the reparations debate simmering on the back burners, just Google the topic.

Could Payback Level the Races?

To answer this question, just think of what would be involved to develop an equitable, mathematical formula for reparations. And then think about how the overall objective of equity needs to be preserved for reparations to have any significance.

First of all, there’s the issue of who pays. As we've seen, some people want a few corporations to pay out. Others think our government should cough up the money, since slavery was actually legal. But beyond those overly-simplistic assumptions of villainy, the complexity can quickly boggle the mind.

If the government pays, that means it's paying on behalf of all living taxpayers, but is that fair? Should just the “southern” states pay? What about the British, who owned many of the ships that transported the slaves? Or the Dutch, who purchased many of the actual slaves in Africa? And then there's the sticky question about the African tribes who sold their captured enemies to the Europeans in the first place.

And why should all whites be blamed for slavery anyway? That’s racist too, isn't it? Although I'm white, neither side of my family participated in or benefited from slavery. My maternal lineage starts in New England in the early 19th Century from Scotland, and at least one of my ancestors is recorded to have been at Appomattox for the end of the Civil War (don’t hate me, southern boys!). My paternal lineage starts in New York City after World War I, from Finns who had nothing whatsoever to do with the slave trade in any way. And my family is just one story in the impossibly complex scenario of trying to determine culpability for slavery.

Big Business As An Easy Target

If people like Farmer-Paellmann have their way, major corporations will have to shell out many millions of dollars, but again I ask: how can that be fair?

For its part, Aetna has already admitted that soon after its founding in 1853, it did in fact insure slaves for slave owners, and they have already issued a corporate apology. But how could Farmer-Paellmann determine the extent to which this part of their early business actually was profitable enough to extrapolate reparations in the hundreds of millions of dollars?

Farmer-Paellmann claims to be working off of similar reparations lawsuits filed after the Nazi atrocities in Europe. Unfortunately for her, the problem is that even if the Nazi reparations are valid, they are based on a far better-documented historical period; involve significantly fewer - and more easily identifiable - perpetrators; benefit from the testimony of living witnesses; and include traceable artifacts like bank statements, heirlooms, and artwork with verifiable provenances.

It's not just Fortune 500 corporations that find themselves in the crosshairs. Oddly enough, some elite universities - including Harvard and Yale - have been targeted for reparations because some of their early endowments came from slave owners.

We haven’t even talked about determining which American blacks or black-centric organizations receive reparation payouts. Or how dollar amounts are calculated. Or about other people groups that may line up for their own reparations from the United States government or US corporations. Or how any of this will help bring any sort of closure to the atrocious legacy of slavery. After all, two wrongs do not make a right.

All of Us Need to Move On

Admit it – the past is in the past. Wrongs have been done by a variety of peoples for a variety of reasons. Government endorsement of and complicity with slavery occurred on the local, state, and national levels. Private businesses were involved, entire industries incorporated slavery into their business models. I'm not excusing the past, just explaining it.

At the same time, there were people of conviction who believed slavery was wrong, and they worked to stop it. Many helped the ones who could escape their bonds through grass-roots organizations like the Underground Railroad. Painting a race with the same brush is just what whites have been accused of doing to blacks, and just as we are wrong to do it, so are blacks.

Blaming today's whites for slavery hundreds of years ago may be some sort of panacea for some people, but it isn't a healthy way to live in our modern world. And to top it off by expecting some sort of financial payback is illogical and threatens to destroy so much of the progress that has contributed to blacks even being able to be successful lawyers and legislators in the first place.

Our history is not perfect. However, one of the marks of a modern, progressive society is being able to take what it’s been dealt and moving on with – or despite – it.

Haven't we got too much positive momentum going now to have it jeopardized by people that - may I be blunt? - are more interested in making names for themselves than serving the common good?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Woman By the Side of the Road

I was actually working on a post about poverty, racism, and classism in America, but towards the end of the morning, I got the bright idea of paying my respects to the Arlington police officer killed in the line of duty last week (see earlier post, "Death of an Officer").

The funeral for Craig Story took place this morning at a mega-church south of Arlington, and the funeral motorcade’s route from the church to a north Arlington cemetery came up a freeway near my home. I knew of a spot on a bridge over the freeway where I could watch the motorcade and the impressively long lines of police vehicles that usually accompanied police funerals.

So, I threw some cookies and a banana into a plastic baggie, grabbed a coat, and drove to the bridge. Being unemployed, you can just take off and do spur-of-the-moment things like this.

As I turned the corner near the bridge, I saw there were already some emergency vehicles parked on it with their lights on. A couple of passenger vehicles were also parked, and a small group of civilians and uniformed civil servants had already formed. I parked, got out of my car, and was stunned by the velocity of the wind that swept across the bridge! I was glad I had brought a jacket.

I had also brought a large American flag, which I hoped to suspend from the bridge’s railings. A fireman and I tried fastening it, but the wind was so strong, we didn’t think anything we had would really secure it. So three of the firemen held onto it, and even though the wind prevented it from flying freely, drivers speeding below us on the freeway could still see the stars and stripes undaunted by the gale.

Eventually, we saw the traffic in the freeway’s northbound lanes begin to dwindle as cops further down the freeway began closing off entrance ramps in preparation for the motorcade’s passing. Finally, the northbound lanes were empty, still, and quiet. Meanwhile, the northbound service road paralleling the freeway quickly became jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic.

After waiting some more, in the distance our little group could see a moving glob of red pulsating lights. As they crested a nearby hill, we could distinguish a long, snaking line of police motorcycles – over 200 in the first group, one of the firemen heard through his radio. The line of motorcycles, two abreast in the center lane, snaked down the hill and under our bridge, and kept coming, and coming.

Traffic in the southbound lanes, which had been flowing normally up until now, began to slow dramatically as many drivers, realizing what was happening, began pulling out of the main lanes and stopping.

Several southbound drivers got out of their cars and stood quietly as the line of motorcycles kept cresting the hill and coming towards us, lights flashing, two by two. Those of us on the bridge marveled at how long it took those 200 motorcycles to pass. I wasn’t looking at my watch, but considering they were traveling at a rather slow, dignified speed, I’d say maybe it took five minutes. That’s a long time when you’re standing on a bridge in a strong wind, watching the flashing lights continuing to crest the distant hill.

When the motorcycles had passed, the hearse and a number of stretch limousines came by. All of the uniformed police officers and firemen on the bridge were standing stiff at attention in a salute. No one said anything.

Then came another impressive line of police vehicles with officers representing various parts of the state. They came from towns I’d never heard of, plus some close to home, like Cedar Hill, University Park, and a lot from Fort Worth. Standing as I was on the bridge, right over the center lane, I couldn’t make out most of the names that were on the sides of the police cars, but a woman standing near me was calling them out, almost like she was taking inventory.

Situated as we were in such a prominent spot, all of the passengers in vehicles going beneath us could see us, and many of them waved to us or took our picture. A few cops whipped their sirens. Sometimes, as the motorcade would slow down ahead, we could tell the drivers further back were paying too much attention to us, and they’d have to slam on their brakes because they weren’t watching the vehicle in front of them. At least a couple of times, a squad car had to veer off to the right to avoid rear-ending another vehicle. Wouldn’t that have been embarrassing – going to the funeral of a fallen fellow officer and rear-ending another cop in the motorcade?

It was during the long parade of police cars that I noticed a woman who had parked and stopped on the southbound side of the freeway. She had pulled off onto the shoulder back when the first motorcycles had passed, and gotten out of her car. But now, as I looked again at her, I realized she was standing still, like she was at attention. I pointed her out to another person on the bridge, and we watched her occasionally as other drivers would pull over; some would get out of their cars, but they would then drive on to whatever appointment they needed to keep.

Not this lady: she appeared to a shortish, middle-aged black woman driving a late-model silver Chevrolet Malibu. She didn’t move – as the motorcade passed her in the opposite direction, she just stood there, traffic in her lanes crawling past her just a few feet away.

And then I realized – she was shifting her arm, and she repositioned it in a salute. She had been standing at attention, saluting the entire time! In the wind. Without a coat. Obviously on her way someplace, otherwise she wouldn’t have been traveling on the freeway. But she felt obligated to stop and stand in salute, for the entire procession.
She stayed that way until the very last vehicles in the motorcade had passed by, with regular traffic following close behind.

Those of us on the bridge were impressed. Not only at the sight of all those motorcycles, police cars, fire trucks, at least one SWAT armored vehicle, limousines, and a surprising number of luxury cars for a police officer’s funeral. We were also impressed by that lone lady in the southbound lanes, standing still at attention, with a salute, and undoubtedly, a story.

Was she the mother of a cop? The wife of a cop? Was she a cop herself? Obviously, she had some sort of deeper connection to the funeral procession than most of the rest of us had. Maybe she was simply deeply civic-minded, or maybe the police had helped her deal with a tragedy of her own.

The idiot driver who caused officer Story’s death should have watched this woman. Respectful, and patient; two virtues she displayed without knowing we were watching her. Two virtues that speeder could have employed that would have avoided the very funeral whose motorcade we watched today.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What Dr. King Saw

Most of us white folk really don’t know much about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And what we do know about him tends to be filtered through political lenses.

We’ve had our perspectives intrinsically warped by a nasty thing called slavery. For the first 200 years of the “New World’s” existence, the systematic subjugation of a people for profit defined race relations. Slavery served as a grim paradox for a country heralded as a land of liberty, and although white folk now generally consider slavery a bad thing, we're still not sure how to treat racism's most famous antagonist.

For a country that looks so much to celebrities for heroes, it took a black preacher to frame the "dream" of equality despite race - or indeed, because of it. King certainly wasn’t a one-man-band; the Civil Rights Movement had other celebrities, such as Rosa Parks and even the evangelist Billy Graham, who refused to allow segregation at his crusades.

But sometimes I wonder if all of the political baggage that came after King has unfairly tainted him. It could be argued that political imperatives like affirmative action (which is racist against whites), social promotion (which would be considered communism outside of the racial context), and even the current mortgage lending crisis (which has disproportionally involved black borrowers as liberal politicians blatantly gamed the home lending industry) have all been spawned by the success King achieved in gaining the critical mass necessary in his march towards parity.

King Stuck to His Message, and So Should We

I have to think, though, that if you simply take King at his word from the speeches he gave, his idea of leveling the playing field between the races didn't involve retribution as much as it did restoration. How much more eager was he to attain simple equality with whites - not just in law, but in daily life - than to twist society to the opposite extreme, where blacks now lorded over whites to try and get back payments for wrongs suffered in the past?

Even if there was a scientific, viable process for reparations, how far could that go in securing equality for all Americans? Our country spent a fortune in human blood, and eminent scholars continue to debate whether the Civil War was over slavery or states rights (which, in part, had to do with slavery, right?). Even the courts, in a series of rulings, couldn't secure equality in daily life. That would require social buy-in from more than just the political elite and a few sincere people of faith. So, with his made-for-TV looks, charm, energy, and loquaciousness, King served as the modern mouthpiece for a people wanting to live in peaceful freedom.

Now, I'm not a big Dr. King cheerleader - I'm suspicious of anybody who cheats on their spouse, and I'm not crazy about how he interwove Bible passages and political imagery. But King has earned the right to be considered a legitimate American hero through his commitment to non-violent demonstrations and beseeching the American public outright with the plea for human rights.

It's Not All Black and White

Racism is tricky business, indeed, because it is a learned response to something that is different, and over which the possessor of the difference had no choice. Thankfully, my parents didn’t raise my brother and me to think that blacks are inferior. In our tiny village near Syracuse, New York, there was only one black family anyway, and this family lived in one of the newest and most attractive homes in town. When we visited relatives in Brooklyn, the only racist talk was against Puerto Ricans, who were flocking there under the city’s newly liberalized welfare policies. So while I was somewhat bigoted against Hispanics, it wasn’t until my family moved to Texas that I encountered racism against blacks, and quite honestly, it confused me for a while.

This doesn't mean I’ve learned to accept other peoples’ differences. It is with considerable regret that over time, I have adopted many of the negative stereotypes and perceptions through which I now see people who are different from me. It's no excuse, but I have to add that many people who are different from me have also adopted stereotypes and perceptions of white people that are equally wrong. But for those of us who recognize the fallacies in and destructiveness of racism, King’s imperfect legacy can challenge us forward.

The Legacy of Dr. King

After all of the analysis has been done over King’s historical importance, I don't see why his legacy should be trivialized. Sure, he died fighting for union rights, a fact not lost on political conservatives, but he didn’t just die – he was assassinated for something bigger than Memphis garbage collectors. Sure, he could be considered a media hound, but does being savvy about broadcasting his message negate its content?

I’m not saying the ends justify the means. I'm not saying that all of his supporters had the same motives he did. I'm not saying that liberals didn't co-opt his ideas and manufacture social policy from them that ended up contributing to institutionalized poverty. I’m merely pointing out that King managed to capture the essence of civil rights and communicate it clearly and respectfully. Today, to the extent that racism exists at least as an acknowledgement that both sides still have issues to resolve, we can thank King for the significant strides he made in moving America away from the brink of a regressive suppression that dehumanized us all.

The Speech

You’ll probably see and hear this quote a lot today, and cynics like me could easily point to how unrealistic it is. However, I tried something different with it this morning, and I invite you to as well. As you read the most famous part of it below, try closing your mind’s eyes to the skincolor of the person who preached it from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Try to overlook the theologically-questionable use of Scripture that was employed in parts of this speech, because I don’t consider this a Christian speech, or a religious “eternal rewards” destiny speech, or even a political speech, as much as it is a nationalistic, civic treatise on what our society should look like.

Try instead to concentrate on the message itself, because it describes a fascinating portrayal of free-ness… a palpable sense of achieving something that others consider so ordinary. This is what King saw:

"...I have a dream today.

"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

"This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.

"So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

"But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

"And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

"'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"