Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spoonful of Sugar Could Help Deficit Go Down

"To whom much is given, much is required." - Luke 12:48

Noses to the grindstone.

Our illustrious Senate had planned on taking next week off for the July 4 recess, just as the House took this week off. But today, Senate leaders decided to make a statement of how dedicated they are, saying they're going to work next week instead.

Well, their definition of "work," anyway.

Since little progress has been made on the budget and reducing the deficit, President Obama held a rare hour-long press conference Wednesday to chide Republicans for stalling. That's partly what sparked the Senate's recess revocation, but not before House Speaker John Boehner reiterated that Republicans would not abide any new taxes, one of the concessions for which Democrats have been holding out.

Meanwhile, Democrats continue to insist that their own list of sacred cows - entitlements, mostly - cannot be touched by any meaningful spending cuts.

It's high noon in the steamy streets of midsummer in Washington, DC. Who's gonna blink first?

Partisanship Equals Ossification

Our elected leaders have made a science of not actually getting anything done, haven't they? This summer's budget standoff surprises only those people who still think politicians want elective office to be public servants. Of course, part of the reason Washington has ground to a halt involves years of partisan bickering and sniping which has ossified the Executive and Legislative branches like rusting machinery. Over time, the refusal to lubricate moving parts with compromise causes things to freeze into place.

Proving Newton's First Law, that stationary objects tend not to move.

Major freezing points lately include financial considerations like debt ceilings and extra taxes on the rich. Democrats want to increase the debt ceiling so they don't have to cut as many of their pet projects, while Republicans see plenty of waste that needs to be jettisoned from our ship of state. Democrats want to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, while Republicans claim taxing the rich means further destabilizing the economy.

Nobody wants to admit there's any middle ground on these issues. And on the debt ceiling debate, Republicans are correct: there is no middle ground. Little merit can be found in allowing the government to acquire more debt, since we can't even figure out how to pay down the debt we've already acquired.

But I see some wiggle room on the wealth tax thing, even if hard-line Republicans can't.

Swallow Hard

Although we're several years removed from the start of the Great Recession, it's hard to still insist with a straight face that more taxes on the uber-rich will cost America's middle class more of their jobs. Do Republicans who subscribe to that theory expect us to believe that America's billionaires are being generous to the workers of this country by letting the unemployment rate stagnate around 9%? If the tax rate for the uber-rich gets lowered, will unemployment go down? How come the unemployment rate shot up while income tax rates remained relatively stable? And how many billionaires actually employ the people working in their companies?

If these rich people were already subscribing to the basics of capitalism, like Republicans claim they are, shouldn't they already be employing the right number of people to get the work done that needs to be done? How does raising the taxes of the uber-rich reciprocally lessen the workload of ordinary Americans? Do Republicans mean that all of the layoffs which have taken place already might not have been the result of companies downsizing and offshoring, but high personal income taxes on the uber-rich?

Republicans need to be careful about the causal factors they attribute to things. It could trip them up in the long run.

Personally, I'm not all that crazy about taxing people more just because they're rich, either.  I can see how it's unfair to disproportionately penalize certain taxpayers just because they have lots more money than everybody else. The problems plaguing the US Treasury don't stem from not taxing people enough, but from making government too big and expensive. Why blame the uber-rich for that?

Plus, how many of these uber-rich folk exist anyway, since we keep hearing they comprise a fraction of the U.S. population? How much of their current income can be taxed at a rate which will put a significant dent in our national debt?

Of course, our federal government was bloated by the big-government spending of Republican George W. Bush, but that's a story for another day. Suffice it to say that Democrats, just as they're not entirely responsible for the current size of our bureaucracy, can't justify raising taxes for the rich just because, well, they're rich.

After all, budgets aren't entirely about money. You also need to factor in what you're spending the money on. In times like these, Democrats must face facts about programs we really, really don't need, and not assume the rich exist for the government's benefit.

How Much?

Yet disproportionate taxation, however unfair it may seem, is technically difficult to criticize from a Biblical standpoint. "To whom much is given, much is required" may on the surface read as a simple equation, but is it? It's easy to read the verse as saying this: if taxpayer A has a greater income than taxpayer B, even if they're taxed at the same rate, the taxes A pays are going to be more than B's because A earns more. But is this the scenario described in Luke 12:48?

Check out the various translations of this passage, and you'll see that Christ is not talking about a simple equation, but an exponential increase in what is expected of those who have gained much. Fight me on this if you want to, but remember, these aren't my words to begin with.

So, yes, while on one level, taxing wealthy people at an excessively disproportionate rate can be considered unfair, it's not without Biblical precedent. Although it's hard to believe increasing taxes on the uber-rich will legitimately lower our deficit, the real lesson for America's top wage earners is that compounded interest doesn't work solely in their favor.

Adding the Sugar

If the uber-rich did have their taxes increased, I've had some hair-brained ideas about how that might work.

For example, what if they were taxed in proportion to the income they obtained as the beneficiary of government entitlements?

If our uber-rich taxpayers owed a chunk of their wealth to the subsidies our government grants their enterprises or industries, doesn't the Treasury deserve to recoup some of that capital on behalf of the taxpayers who've "invested" with them?

What's wrong with taxing, say, the incomes of executives in the oil and gas industry according to the $4 billion annual subsidy their industry received from our government?

What about Wall Street brokers, bankers, and executives at Chrysler and General Motors, whose paychecks have remained liquid thanks to the largest taxpayer bailout in American history?

After all, Republicans say they hate entitlements and subsidies. So why not prove to intransigent Democrats that giving parts of them back isn't as painless as it would seem.

Not that I'm a Communist or hater of rich people. To prove it, I'll go a step further (this is all hypothetical anyway - this kind of logic never works in real life.) How about this caveat: allowing the uber-rich, when paying their increased taxes, to extract a type of matching grant from the government! For each extra dollar the wealthy pay out in taxes, they get to require Washington to cut a dollar from its budget.

So if $200 billion gets raised by hitting up the uber-rich for extra taxes, the politicians have to slice $200 billion from the budget, over and above anything else that gets cut during the normal budgeting process.

That way, maybe the medicine could go down with an equalized amount of bitterness between both the top earners and everybody else.

After all, we could fight over the necessary medicine until the patient dies. At which point, my ideas might actually look preferable.

How desperate are we going to have to get?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dissing the Pledge Shows True Stripes

Many conservatives point to liberals like Barak Obama and Nancy Pelosi, accusing their ilk of wreaking havoc on traditional pillars of American society.

"Look at their political track records," conservatives sputter in frustration, "for all the proof anybody needs as to how they're misguiding our country."

Yet, while the Obama's and Pelosi's of the Beltway do indeed wreak havoc on social policy in our country, are they the only ones leading our country astray? Are they the ones charting the course, or are they giving voice to the warped sensibilities of significant segments of American society? Oftentimes, instead of symbols, aren't they symptoms of what's taking place within the general populace of the United States, and how ordinary voters are thinking and acting? Might liberal politicians on the national stage be not so much the cause of what conservatives identify as America's problems as they are expressions of those problems?

Take, for example, our liberal brethren's increasingly provocative animosity towards the Pledge of Allegiance. A couple of weeks ago, NBC staged a crafty little publicity ploy by omitting the words "under God" from a video montage shown at the start of their US Open golf coverage. I say publicity ploy because NBC's feeble "we forgot" excuse doesn't withstand muster, especially on a pre-produced video package which undoubtedly was scrutinized by editors paid to catch obvious mistakes like that.

Personally, I suspect NBC figured they needed something to juice up interest in their golf coverage, even if, on balance, it was negative interest. Particularly when it comes to televising a mercurial sport like golf. You know no network would pull a stunt like that before a major football game.

Is this City Named for Left-Wing Eugenics?

Then there's the majority of city council members in Eugene, Oregon, who decided the Pledge of Allegiance is divisive.

Well, maybe they've proved the Pledge can be divisive, but not in their favor, when considering how less liberal Americans have reacted to their lack of patriotism.

Councilmember Mike Clark had proposed starting each council meeting with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. He considered it an innocent nod to Eugene's few conservatives who feel as though the liberal mantra of "tolerance" ceases to apply outside Democratic party headquarters. Plus, how many other civic organizations across America already start their meetings in a similar fashion? What could be the harm?

According to six of the eight councilmembers, however, there's plenty of harm in the Pledge. One councilmember, George Brown, told Fox News that it "does not unite us," and another, Betty Taylor, compared reciting the Pledge to reading a portion of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto before council meetings.

(The next time you get frustrated with your local representatives, think about the outlandish hyperbole and vitriol you'd have to endure in Eugene, Oregon.)

Eventually, a compromise of sorts was hashed out by the council so that the Pledge could be recited before meetings close to major patriotic holidays. But the media had already gotten wind of the story, and damage to Eugene's civic reputation was about to be unleashed.

Or was it?

What are the chances any of this will hurt these local incumbents the next time they run for office? Like anyplace else in the United States, Eugene's councilmembers have been elected into office by a majority of voters. Therefore, it's reasonable to assume that the Council represents the mindsets and worldviews of its constituents.

Ever since 1776, this type of local, grass-roots advocacy has spread like weeds in the summer rain, affecting the voting patterns of all sorts of people on all sorts of issues. Some of it is good, and some of it isn't. Even low voter turnout influences who gets elected to offices from city halls to governorships to the presidency. Some voters become enamored by politicians who sound a lot like Rush Limbaugh, and some voters hear what they want to hear from, well, the type of people who sit on Eugene's city council.

In a way, it's rather difficult to envision how Eugene's electorate could vote for politicians they probably consider moderately liberal, like Obama and Pelosi. Neither of these two Democrats have made any extraordinary efforts to veil at least a tacit belief in God. Does it gall the left-wing people of Eugene to hear Obama end his speeches with "God bless the United States of America?"

Regular readers to this blog know that I'm no fan of Rush Limbaugh. But neither am I a fan of any farcical fanaticism which, by denying the Judeo-Christian virtues of the United States, denigrates the very values which give us our civic freedoms.

What What You Do in Freedom Says About You

Some people compare the controversy over the Pledge of Allegiance to Constitutional protections for burning the American flag. Yes, you legally have the right to refuse to recite the Pledge. And yes, you legally have the right to burn our national flag. But the performance of either of those rights doesn't mean you're not proving yourself to be ignorant of their symbolism.

To those who do it, burning the American flag may symbolize contempt for governmental policy, fury at social attitudes, or some other disagreement with a facet of American life. But the flag represents our country as a whole, not necessarily individual people in it. So if you're burning the flag, you're not just demonstrating disrespect against a group of people who may have crafted a law you dislike, but against the very people who've died so you have the right to burn it in the first place. Which kinda proves that your desire to burn the American flag says more negative things about you than the country you think you're desecrating. After all, our soldiers may have died so you could burn the flag, but does doing so respect their memory?

By the same token, the Pledge of Allegiance is a personal affirmation of the totality of America's reality, warts and all. Not wanting to recite it demonstrates a surprising lack of historical knowledge, considering how enlightened most people who disown the Pledge like to consider themselves. Read up on the Second Continental Congress and the drafting of our Constitution to learn about how America's early leaders had to put aside some closely-held opinions and compromise for the sake of the country as a whole.

That's what the United States used to represent. In a republic, it should be normal for nobody to be completely happy with everything taking place in the body politic. That's because working together in government requires compromise. Deliberately extricating yourself from the processes and challenges of unity, therefore, says more negative things about you than the country that's trying to hammer together some sort of consensus that we can all live with.

Of course, if the main reason you don't want to recite the Pledge of Allegiance has to do with its reference to God, then you're only further making a mockery of the very tolerance you claim to espouse. If you don't believe in God, then yes, you're in the minority in this country, and the rest of us will allow you to not utter those two words during your recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. And for that you should be thankful.

If, still, you disagree with the entire Pledge, then although it sounds like a trite cop-out by right-wing fringe groups, perhaps you should consider whether you might fit better in some other country than the United States of America.

And, oh yeah: like the joke says, forgo the use of any currency with "Under God" printed or stamped on it, too.

After all, you wouldn't want to contaminate your wallet.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are You Smarter than a Tea Partier?

Okay, class.

In light of Michele Bachmann's announcement of her candidacy for president yesterday, perhaps now would be a good time to take a refresher quiz on some facts about American History and our founding fathers. Judging by the way Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and other right-wingers have been challenged by history lately, who knows when we'll need to weed truth from fiction in a political environment overheated more by rhetoric than reason.

1. How much debt did the colonies incur fighting the Revolutionary War?
a - Debt? What debt? The colonists were pure and undefiled!
b - The only debt was gratitude
c - Approximately $75,463,476.52

2. To whom was this debt owed?
a - Our intrepid founding fathers
b - Don't be a Communist - there was no debt
c - The government of France, plus banks in France and Holland (most of the wealthy people in the colonies were loyal to the British)

3. What was the Biblical justification for the Revolutionary War?
a - Taxation without representation
b - Separation of church and state
c - Since the Revolutionary War was fought for economic and political purposes, there was no Biblical justification for it

4. What was Shay's Rebellion?
a - Some liberal democrat refusing to bow down to George Washington
b - One of our founding fathers who refused to pay taxes to England
c - A protest by Revolutionary War veterans upset because George Washington had enacted high taxation to pay off the country's war debt.

5. When did England completely withdraw their troops from territories in and around the United States?
a - After losing the Revolutionary War
b - After ratification of the U.S. Constitution
c - In 1794, 7 years after the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and 11 years after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783

6. When was the term "to form a more perfect union" coined?
a - When colonists wanted to celebrate states' rights
b - When the first liberal Democrat encouraged gays to marry
c - After George Washington realized the loose association of powerful states was compromising the country's ability to function on a global stage

7. Who said: "Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide."
a - Al Gore
b - Some Commie pinko at CNN
c - John Adams, second president of the US, in 1814

8. Who were idealized during the early years of the Republican Party?
a - Wealthy industrialists
b - Wealthy bankers and investors
c - Farmers

9. Who was Paul Revere?
a - A British guy who warned the British that the British weren't coming
b - A guy who shot at church bells in Lexington and Concord, New Hampshire
c - A courier sent to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that the British were coming to arrest them

10. Who did not support the Boston Tea Party?
a - Al Gore
b - All those patsy British loyalists
c - Benjamin Franklin, who called it an "injustice" and offered to re-pay the British out of his own money

So - are you smarter than a modern-day Tea-Partier?

Funny how history isn't all neat and simple, isn't it? How what gets rehashed and regurgitated in the illusory world of talk radio gets farther and farther removed from the way things really were?

It's been said that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. Sometimes I wonder if there's anyone more eager to prove that saying true than some of America's right-wingers.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Two Bridges to Nowhere


In a nutshell, it's what beckoned pioneers to America's great frontier.

In particular, Alaska and California have each come to enjoy a fabled niche in western lore. Yet as they cap our country's romance with the unexplored and untamed - the wild, unpretentious Pacific Coast a bookend to the starchy, colonial Atlantic Coast - they also share a tale far more timely.

It's a tale of how two different bridges can illustrate the fallacies of political subterfuge and economic shortsightedness; two problems increasingly plaguing our nation, and dimming hopes for future opportunity in the United States.

A Bridge to Nowhere, Literally, Plus More Pork

I'm not a big fan of risk. But neither am I a big fan of Sarah Palin. So maybe it's worth the risk of contributing to her notoriety on one of the few days her name isn't splashed across the tabloids.

Well, in bold face, anyway.

Unfortunately, these days it's become difficult to talk about Alaska without mentioning Palin. Which in a way may be fitting, since they're both the stuff of myth and legend. Take Palin's unabashed love of her adopted state, and the quality of life that makes Alaska so easy for her to enjoy.  A quality of life propped up by the very thing Tea Partiers revile most.

Ahh, yes... subsidies.

How shall we count the many subsidies Alaskans have been paid on the backs of taxpayers in the Lower 48? We could start by counting to one, since Alaska happens to be America's most heavily-subsidized state, by far. And has been for about 30 years.

Commenting today on what he perceives as a state of denial by many Americans regarding our economic predicament, Justin Webb of the BBC claims that since the rugged individualism of Alaskans comes at a steep price to the country's taxpayers, "Alaska is an organised hypocrisy."

Examples of the waste have become legendary, such as the "Bridge to Nowhere" replacing a small ferry between Ketchikan and the Island of Gravina.

You'll probably remember the "Bridge to Nowhere," Alaska's $320 million national embarrassment intended to connect Ketchikan's 8,900 inhabitants to an airport on the Island of Gravina, where 50 people live. Although the Gravina Island Bridge has not yet been built, incredibly, money remains appropriated for the project in this year's federal budget.  It could still happen.

When she was governor, Palin went ahead and authorized a $25 million road to be constructed on the island in anticipation of the bridge's eventual existence, which has become the world's most expensive cul-de-sac.  Governor Palin also ended up flip-flopping on whether a bridge was necessary and who should pay for it.  Tired of not getting straight answers from her on the subject, the media has pretty much let the issue die.

It would be unfair of me to attribute the sordid Gravina Island Bridge story to Palin alone. Actually, compared to her state's senior senator, hers was a bit part. Indeed, according to a 2008 article by Jacob Sullum for, the notorious Senator Ted Stevens has been credited with dragging $3.2 billion in 891 earmarks from the US Treasury to Alaska between 2004 to 2008, during part of Palin's tenure as governor.

"That works out to about $4,800 per Alaskan, 18 times the national average. And earmarks represent just a fraction of federal spending in Alaska, which totaled $9 billion in 2006 alone," sputters Sullum. Earmarks which helped people like Palin enjoy an artificially high quality of life in their remote corner of the globe.

This despite the state's refusal to levy sales taxes or state income taxes to help cover their bills. In other words, taxes paid by folks in the Lower 48 were OK if directed towards Alaska, but Alaskans shouldn't be responsible for their own needs.

With this porkbarrel legacy for Alaska, you'd think people like Palin wouldn't be able to hold their head up in public, let alone pontificate on how entitlements and subsidies are wreaking havoc on our country. But apparently, Palin's good looks charm the logic out of Tea Partiers, so she gets away with it.

Meanwhile, if you think lavishing billions of dollars in entitlements on an ungrateful state like Alaska is bad, you haven't heard what's going on in San Francisco Bay.

A Bridge to Nowhere, Figuratively

Today's New York Times has a troubling account of the brand-new, $7.2 billion Bay Bridge linking San Francisco to Oakland, California. This replacement for the current Bay Bridge features what engineers say will be an iconic design, but it isn't actually being constructed in California. Or even the United States.

No, California's newest super-bridge is being built piecemeal in China by a steelworks owned by the Chinese government. Completed sections are shipped from Shanghai to San Francisco Bay, where they're being assembled by employees of Fluor Corporation, in partnership with American Bridge Corporation as the contractor of record for this project.

And how much money is American Bridge/Fluor (ABF) saving California by outsourcing the 2.2-mile span to a non-OSHA shop over 6,000 miles and one ocean away?

$400 million, or roughly 6% of the total cost.

ABF executives and California bureaucrats claim the savings will come from the experience Chinese contractors have building super-bridges, even though, um, the specific manufacturer on this project, Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company, has no bridge-building experience.

More money will be saved in labor, since Zhenhua is paying 3,000 steelworkers roughly $1 an hour.

I'm not kidding.

Something tells me that while ABF may be saving the state of California $400,000 on this multi-billion-dollar project, some people are making a pretty penny with exorbitant profits earned on the backs of skilled laborers working 12 hours a day for $12. Not that I'm against anybody earning an honest profit; however, this case, albeit described by the liberal Times, screams unmitigated greed.

I'm no union sympathizer, but ABF's corporate officials and shareholders have literally sold American labor up the river on this contract. I'm not sure ABF even entertained a bidding war with American steel unions, but there's no way any American contractor could compete with $1 hourly wages in China.

Does a $1-an-hour steelworker in China produce the same quality work as a $40-an-hour union steelworker under OSHA regulations? I guess the people who'll drive the new span in earthquake country will find out soon enough.

Meanwhile, ABF's corporate spindoctors claimed to the Times that no American company has the expertise to construct 2.2 miles of steel bridge, that the financial resources of the Chinese government overrode baser capitalistic and democratic considerations, and that increasing the participation of union labor stateside would have been more trouble than it's worth. After all, ABF already has to pay union concrete workers to pour the decking once the steel pieces get conjoined on the San Francisco job site. One American official even chuckled that the sprawling manufacturing plant in China sits on what used to be a lush orange grove. Isn't that special?

At least California didn't bother seeking federal funds for their new Bay Bridge, so you and I aren't directly paying for this travesty. The reason no federal funds were used is because they were trying to avoid the Made in America clauses restricting where they could get their material, and the state, along with ABF, already knew they were going to outsource their prefabricated bridge pieces from China.

Of course, if you own shares in either American Bridge or Fluor, then you probably don't care what I think. If you're a capitalist purist, then you probably have no problem farming projects like this offshore to countries famous for their human rights abuses and shoddy labor standards. It's all about making money, money, and more money. It's about seizing on opportunities to cut costs, exploiting people with less power and influence, and letting any negative consequences be incurred by people to whom you assume you owe nothing.

To say that our political and business leaders in America are rapidly selling away our future to China has become a trite assumption, something we can trace intellectually, but not adequately visualize. Yet San Francisco's new Bay Bridge is becoming, piece by imported piece, the literal proof of that previously invisible reality.

Pairing the two ludicrous examples of greed, shortsightedness, and civic carelessness from Alaska and California doesn't simply represent an exercise is boiling one's blood. Why can't we Americans use history to our advantage, learn from past mistakes, and make better choices to keep opportunities for the future from being squandered today?

We can neither dither away half-a-billion-dollar chunks of taxpayer-funded subsidies or float our future across the Pacific Ocean from China. For Tea Partiers, this will mean developing a realistic assessment of the integrity of our political candidates. And for corporate America, it will mean weening themselves from shareholder-centric practices and investing in strategies which sustain America's viability in the long run.

Not that America needs to develop a severely isolationist posture when it comes to globalization. We all know that wouldn't be feasible. But shouldn't we guard our assets with greater integrity, spend our tax dollars prudently, and create wealth from our own human capital?

After all, bridges are usually meant to go over something.

Not take us to the edge of a cliff and leave us there.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Chase to the Cul-de-Sac

Watching the gunman run shirtless through our neighborhood this afternoon, I wondered why the cops didn't just shoot him.

Our normal, quiet morning had been winding down, and my stomach had begun informing me that lunchtime was arriving soon. I work on my blog in an overstuffed chair in front of a window, looking out over our front yard. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a police car cruise by our house with its lights flashing.

Getting up to look out the window, since I'm prone to curiosity, I noticed that another police car had blocked off another street in our neighborhood. Immediately, my mind flashed back to the federal raid last fall on the house some Muslims are renting nearby. But this wasn't a raid - something about the way the police cars would halt and surge told me they were either looking for something, or trying to box somebody in.

Wouldn't you get hooked by the intrigue?

In Pursuit

About this time, a choir of sirens began to wail so loudly nearby, I became instantly convinced something big was going down. Some neighbors who'd parked in the street where one of the police cars had gone were getting in their vehicle, yet looking up the street, further confirming to me that excitement was brewing.

I dashed outside into the front yard, the cry of police car sirens growing even stronger. There's something about that sound - isn't there? - that makes your blood race. Gets your adrenaline going. Even if you've done nothing wrong.

Well, I got to the street, where I could look and see where the police had gone, and they were just sitting up there, as was the other cop further away.

By that time, the neighbors who had been getting into their vehicle had driven to where I was standing, so we chatted for a few moments. Actually, we were laughing about how just yesterday, we had commented on how quiet things had been in our little corner of the world.

Shortly, my next-door neighbors emerged from their house with their two toddlers, announcing they were going to her parent's ranch for a long weekend. So there we were, a chatty little tableau of ordinary suburban life, when suddenly, police cars began to swarm our street.

Everything happened so fast, I don't even remember if they still had their sirens on, but here they came, from seemingly all sides, tires squealing and engines revving, with a small army of police officers in black uniforms running along the lawns.

And then we saw him. A skinny white guy with no shirt on, seemingly fearless, racing as fast as he could, holding a shotgun, looking like he was trying to aim it while he was sprinting across other people's lawns. A handful of police officers were hot on his heels, their guns drawn, several aimed right at the guy they were chasing. They ran across the wide yard right across the street from where my neighbors and I had been visiting.

All of us civilians yelled at the same time: "Get the kids inside!"

Their mother grabbed the kids and began herding them towards their front door, while their father, instantly indignant that this guy would dare threaten his family, appeared to want to run and help pursue the gunman, probably out of sheer paternal reflex. However, he caught himself - as well as his son - and got his family safely inside. It was all incredibly surreal.

My other neighbors, in a silver Lexus SUV, were too stunned to move, but there really wasn't anyplace to go anyway. Police cars were still whizzing by us in the street, and officers seemed to have cornered the gunman between two houses right in front of us - one of them owned by a state judge.

"Maybe if I get in your SUV, I'll be a little safer than standing out here in the open," I suggested to my neighbors, but by the time I'd opened the door, the officers had already begun backtracking, running breathlessly between other houses.

Obviously, the thin, shirtless gunman had given them the slip.

Shots Fired

"They shoulda shot 'em when they had the chance," somebody said. Maybe me, I don't know! Events were still unfolding rapidly. Cops continued running from yard to yard, and some police cars tore out of our neighborhood, back to the main street.

As my neighbors in the Lexus determined it was getting safe to go ahead and drive away, more cops returned, running back into our neighborhood, joined by a couple of squad cars, racing down into a cul-de-sac at the bottom of a hill.

I left the Lexus and walked - perhaps stupidly - down the street to the crest of our small hill, where I could see all the police cars stuffed into the cul-de-sac and lining the street, officers running to and fro like ants. There was some shouting, and then at least three shots in rapid succession; two obviously from the same gun, and then another shot.


Down in the Cul-de-Sac

Turns out, according to news reports already posted online, the guy had been doing drugs all night at his father's home not far from here, and holding him hostage. Just before noon, the father managed to call police from a neighbor's home, and when cops showed up, his son fled the house with a gun. Before too long, Arlington's Finest tracked him down in our neighborhood.

While down behind the houses in our cul-de-sac, beside a narrow creek, the gunman had fired a couple of shots into property owned by a neighboring mosque, and that's when police finally shot him.

In the leg. He's recuperating at taxpayer expense in the hospital.

Fortunately, nobody at the mosque was injured, although they do run a day care on-site. Today being Friday, the Islamic holy day, worshippers were probably already arriving for services. At this point, nobody's saying whether the gunman intentionally targeted the mosque, but I sincerely hope he wasn't. Regular readers of this blog know that I harbor little affection for Muslims, but neither do I wish them harm.

Of course, after all this had taken place, a police helicopter finally showed up on the scene, chopping and clattering away above our house like it was looking for a place to land! I'm sure it would have been a big help in the capture of their suspect... if it had arrived about half an hour earlier.

As it is, some news trucks found their way into our neighborhood and, a little while ago, I noticed them interviewing one of our neighbors - who wasn't even home at the time all this went down. The helicopter is gone, and all of the police cars, except one.

Not knowing all of the circumstances that let up to the kid abusing drugs, and holding his father hostage in his own house, I can't really accurately analyze blame and identify causal scenarios.  Except to say that the kid on drugs who raced through our otherwise peaceful, family-friendly neighborhood at midday with a gun should be locked up for a good long while.  After he gets out of the hospital, of course.

I feel sorry for my next-door neighbors who left for a family weekend during an atmosphere of confusion, violence, and danger.  And for the judge's wife, who was alone in the back of their house, fearful over why a horde of police officers were suddenly crashing through the backyard.

Even though only the gunman was hurt, I've had to ask God to give me compassion for him. It's difficult for me to feel anything but disdain for people like that. Yet I live in such a closed little Christian world, perhaps it's necessary for me to be occasionally reminded of the pain and wretchedness that exists in people around me.

Not that this little story is about me.

But that maybe I should be grateful this little story really isn't about me, but a miserable, drugged-up guy the press have identified as John.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Does Waiting Really Help Illegals?

According to Merriam-Webster, "repatriation" means "to restore or return to the country of origin, allegiance, or citizenship."

That's my simple answer to the politically-charged debate over illegal immigration in the United States. It's not pretty, it's not popular, and it's not perfect, but it's more practical than you may think.

Repatriation isn't so much a punishment as it is the correction of a wrong. There is no lengthy prison sentence, denial of constitutional protocols, or any contravention of human rights.

It doesn't fill up our prisons, or encourage the "anchor baby" phenomenon which has enflamed passions over birthright citizenship. Nor does it perpetuate the English-as-a-Second-Language experiment, which not only ill-prepares children of illegals for being productive Americans, but creates a divisive environment when it comes to apportioning ever-dwindling education funds.

Waiting to Learn this Lesson

Ahh, yes: education.

You know, the more I think about the plight of Jose Antonio Vargas, the journalist who confessed to being an illegal immigrant, and about whom I wrote yesterday, the more I think the people who helped him conceal his true status actually contributed to his predicament today.

By refusing to confront Vargas' illegitimate residency, they kicked the ball of legal reality further down the road of consequences. Perhaps they believed that illegal immigration shouldn't be illegal, or that it wasn't their place to enforce federal laws. But despite Vargas' admiration of those teachers, they really did him a big disfavor.

Should being a bright student, as Vargas was, be sufficient exoneration for being here illegally? I'm not saying that his teachers should have callously reported him to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), but shouldn't they, if they really cared about him, have worked with Vargas and his grandparents to get Vargas on the path to proper citizenship or residency?

If that involved repatriating Vargas back to the Philippines, albeit an undesirable scenario for his family, wouldn't that better prepare Vargas for a productive career with an American company in the future? Isn't that what schools are supposed to do: prepare kids for their future? Instead, waiting for somebody else - either our politicians or our society at large - to somehow fix Vargas' dilemma hasn't ended up solving anything.

Alabama, Y'All Ain't Helpin'

And speaking of dilemmas, it doesn't help that earlier this month, the state of Alabama passed what some consider to be the most stringent legislation yet targeting illegal immigration. Its vague language appears to make small businesses and even non-profits, like schools and churches, culpable for determining and reporting on the validity of a person's residency status.

That's just plain goofy, isn't it? First, small businesses can barely keep up with all of the governmental red tape in our weak economy already, and now forcing them to use verification processes could further challenge their bottom line. Second, even though educating the children of illegals costs legitimate taxpayers significant sums, isn't making school districts police their classrooms for criminals counterproductive to the education process? We don't make schools search for kids whose parents have forged checks or robbed banks, do we?

Perhaps the worst facet of Alabama's bill, however, comes in the way it appears to force religious institutions into the law enforcement business. Doesn't requiring a church to report the very people they're supposed to help make a mockery out of religious freedom? It certainly violates the constitutional tenant of clergy privilege, where a religious professional is entitled to preserve the secrecy of information learned from a parishioner (except for cases involving child endangerment). In other words, it's legal for the pastor of your church to not tell the police that somebody in your church has privately confessed to murder. It may be unethical for the pastor to withhold or refuse to confirm that information, but it's not illegal. In Alabama, however, it would now only be illegal if the parishioner admitted to being an undocumented immigrant.

This makes the Alabama bill, which is even worse than Arizona's bill last year (which I also oppose, on the grounds that it endorses racial profiling), a sad testament to the apparent desperation states feel as they wait on our federal government to enforce our existing laws regarding repatriation.

Back to You, Uncle Sam

Of course, the main reason we can't get our President and Congress to enforce immigration laws involves the impossibly political rhetoric which saturates this issue. And this divisive, partisan rhetoric, in which few decisions get made, and few imperatives are communicated, has corrupted many facets of North American life. Politicians have become scared to do the right thing based on law and logic, and instead fret over how their constituents will react to every move they make.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure the evangelical community is helping anybody reach consensus with their talk of amnesty for illegals. We can say that evangelicals should not be expected to enforce the laws our federal government won't. We can say that Christ's commission for us to love our neighbors overrides our need to preoccupy ourselves with a person's legal status. But do we really contribute to the advancement of a solution to illegal immigration by - as several prominent clergymembers have done - drawing weak parallels between Biblical examples of migration and modern immigration, positing policies which corroborate those by amnesty advocates, and failing to draw clear distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants?

Moreso than anybody else, we evangelicals need to remember that this world is not our home. Since our eternal home still awaits us, this mortal life serves as a sort of prelude, rather than a curtain call. So in a sense, we're immigrants on this planet, on our way to a new Land.

By God's grace, we've been saved through Christ from our guilt of breaking His holy laws. One of the ways we now serve our Lord, through the power of the Holy Spirit, involves subscribing to the ethical structure of our society. This includes observing governmental authority which doesn't contravene our allegiance to God. It might seem poetic or virtuous to apply God's forgiveness to people breaking the immigration laws of the United States, particularly as our federal government is dragging its political feet. But as believers in Christ, can we claim that option?

Does illegal immigration for economic gain obviate the need to respect sovereign laws meant for national protection and preservation? Our immigration laws may be arcane, complex, and in need of some streamlining, but don't they still serve a valid purpose?

With these past several blog entries exploring illegal immigration, I've been intently describing my convictions to make sure I'm not dishonoring God with my stance on this issue. I'd like to think that if other people did the same thing in an honest, transparent fashion, they'd arrive at the same conclusions I have. But I'm not that naiive.

It's still up to those who argue against repatriation on ostensibly humanitarian grounds to prove they're not being naiive, either.

How much longer can any of us - from law enforcement agencies to schools, churches, state governments, and even illegals themselves - wait?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How Do We Solve a Problem Like Vargas?

It won't go away.

The debate over illegal immigration.

This past Sunday, Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas outed himself as an illegal immigrant in a compelling autobiographical article he wrote for the New York Times Magazine.

Coming to America

Here's his basic story, in his own words:

"One August morning nearly two decades ago, my mother woke me and put me in a cab... When I arrived at the Philippines’ Ninoy Aquino International Airport with her, my aunt and a family friend, I was introduced to a man I’d never seen. They told me he was my uncle. He held my hand as I boarded an airplane for the first time. It was 1993, and I was 12.

"My mother wanted to give me a better life, so she sent me thousands of miles away to live with her parents in America — my grandfather (Lolo in Tagalog) and grandmother (Lola). After I arrived in Mountain View, Calif., in the San Francisco Bay Area, I entered sixth grade and quickly grew to love my new home, family and culture...

"One day when I was 16, I rode my bike to the nearby D.M.V. office to get my driver’s permit. Some of my friends already had their licenses, so I figured it was time. But when I handed the clerk my green card as proof of U.S. residency, she flipped it around, examining it. 'This is fake,' she whispered. 'Don’t come back here again.'

"Confused and scared, I pedaled home and confronted Lolo. I remember him sitting in the garage, cutting coupons. I dropped my bike and ran over to him, showing him the green card. 'Peke ba ito?' I asked in Tagalog. ('Is this fake?') My grandparents were naturalized American citizens — he worked as a security guard, she as a food server — and they had begun supporting my mother and me financially when I was 3, after my father’s wandering eye and inability to properly provide for us led to my parents’ separation. Lolo was a proud man, and I saw the shame on his face as he told me he purchased the card, along with other fake documents, for me. 'Don’t show it to other people,' he warned."

Vargas' grandfather had initially tried to get his son, daughter, and grandson into the United States legally by petitioning the government on their behalf as family members.  But he dropped the case when he suspected that while researching his petition, the government would find out that his daughter, Vargas' mother, was married, which was against the rules.

So Vargas' family paid a coyote, or a human smuggler, to get him here using forged documentation.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  History that probably gets written all the time these days.  We just rarely get such a poignant first-person account of the deed.

Anatomy of a Crime

And yes, while it is an emotional story, it was still a dirty deed.  On several levels.

First, we have the failure of a father in the Philippines to provide for his family and remain faithful to his wife.  It's incredibly likely that had Vargas' father been an honorable man, no immigration fraud would have been committed here at all.

Second, we have a mother willing to send her son out of the country for "a better life." What does that mean, exactly?  She's given birth to two more children who live with her in the Philippines, but are they starving or politically oppressed?  While the Philippines isn't exactly a First World country, it's not Sudan, either.

Third, we have grandparents legally residing in the United States who were willing to break the law so their grandson could grow up here instead of the Philippines.  Did they think the culture they enjoy here, and from which they draw benefits, survives on ambivalence towards sovereign laws?  Vargas describes how his grandfather would run off copies of his forged paperwork at Kinko's like they were party invitations.  Did they see the United States as being big enough to absorb their own private shenanigans?

None of this early deception was Vargas' fault. And it's to his credit that the agony over his deceit finally pushed him to confess. He's facing the real possibility of deportation, and perhaps having to adjust to a country and culture with which he's barely familiar.

He's also walked away from a promising career in journalism, but then, his grandparents didn't want him to aspire to much anyway. They knew Vargas wouldn't be able to sustain the lie if he pursued higher education, worked at prestigious media companies, and won global awards like the Pulitzer. Had he stuck to menial labor and blended into the landscape, he could have made an adequate life for himself and his wife - hopefully an American. At least, if Vargas hadn't also determined he is gay, a revelation which shot the whole marriage thing out of the water, much to his grandfather's frustration.

Love and Equity in the Balance

Does any of this sound fair?

Of course it doesn't. There's usually nothing fair about illegal immigration. Multiply Vargas' story by all the untold numbers of kids brought here illegally by their illegal parents, and you don't know whether to be furious or anguished.

But at what point are we going to decide whether illegal immigration is really a crime? I've been carrying on an e-mail conversation with a good friend who supports a traditionally Christian view of liberal absolution in these cases, much like Baptist theologian Russell Moore advocates.  On the one hand, I feel guilty for sounding like a ruthless ogre by taking a hard line against illegal immigrants.  But I also feel angry for feeling guilty - not angry at my friend, but angry at the illegals whose selfishness makes me wonder if my stance is one of selfishness as well.  But is it?  Why should I feel sorry for Vargas, when all sorts of crimes are committed every day which send their perpetrators to prison?  Does love truly overrule law in cases like this?  Should Christians, even more than anybody else, expect our government to exercise extraordinary compassion and grace over this particular crime?

To me, that sounds like amnesty.  Am I wrong?  And if Christians take the amnesty route with illegal immigration, with what other laws should we let love overrule?

And does love always overrule law anyway?  What about when parents teach morals to their kids?  When I was a toddler, I petulantly stole a toy car from some family friends we were visiting who lived half an hour away.  When we got home, my mother saw me playing with that car, and she asked me where I'd gotten it.  After learning that I had acquired the toy without the owner's permission, she put me back in her van and drove for an hour round-trip to return the car and apologize.  What would have happened if she had "let love overrule law" in this instance?

Getting Real About Immigration Laws

I guess I simply don't understand what's unBiblical about resolving the debate over illegal immigration by enforcing immigration laws.  Otherwise, don't we risk letting our country hemorrhage money and default into poverty by letting anybody who can get here avail themselves of our publicly-funded subsidies like education and healthcare?  I understand that "to whom much is given, much is required," but aren't we also supposed to be prudent with money?  Don't we have immigration laws and quotas to help manage our economy in a responsible way so we can efficiently plan for what we need and develop our social infrastructure so we can remain a vibrant country?  How can we maintain the high profitability of our economy - that makes America an attractive destination for illegal immigrants in the first place - if we can't safeguard our country's fundamental residency parameters?

Let me be clear:  I have never supported, nor can I ever imagine myself supporting, a cessation of legal immigration to the United States.  I've said it before and I'll say it again:  our country needs to offer compassionate respite to people suffering persecution around the world.  We need to welcome new people to our country who will enrich our society and, reciprocally, broaden America's global social, economic, and political opportunities.  America is a nation of immigrants, and immigration has helped to make America Earth's lone superpower.

Yet even as the Statue of Liberty lifts her lamp "beside the golden doors," it would be unrealistic and irresponsible of us to tear down the drawbridge, fill the moat with concrete, and let some sort of sociopolitical migrational osmosis determine the future of our country.  Even Christ's Kingdom doesn't welcome just anybody.  Heaven isn't a come-and-go reception for a celestial bride and Groom.  National borders serve a purpose, and how is it loving to decide that purpose is irrelevant in the face of grievous human stories crafted in the pages of fraudulent immigration documents?

In This Case

Which brings us back to Jose Antonio Vargas, whose predicament has been affixed to our sordid illegal immigration narrative in real time.

If I were deciding his case, what would I do?

Since his grandfather, the mastermind of this scheme that's landed Vargas in such hot water, has passed away, and it's pointless to prosecute his aged grandmother, who likely had little part in it, there's nobody in his family here in the States to take the blame.

Since Vargas hadn't a clue about his immigration status until he became a teenager, and even then was only 16 and still not a legal adult, I wonder if the courts have any leeway in his case? Perhaps some probation equivalent to the time between when he was 16 until this year would suffice, which according to Vargas' testimonial is about twenty years?

Since the Philippines has high-speed wireless Internet and virtually all of the technology we enjoy here in the United States, would it be that punitive to his career if he were repatriated to his home country?  He could still work for a major international media company like the Washington Post or Huffington Post, just with a Manila office instead of a stateside one.  At least until he is able to procure proper authorization to live and work in the United States.  Or even become a legal citizen.

Fortunately for Vargas, he has options that shouldn't irreparably penalize his career or even his lifestyle. Even trickier solutions will be needed for the untold numbers of kids whose parents have brought them into the United States illegally, and who possess far fewer opportunities. Indeed, for these kids, whose plight only further burdens the dilemma of illegal immigration, the question of how seriously America will treat the crime their parents have committed needs to be answered sooner rather than later.

Wouldn't that be a form of compassion? Not to say that we don't love the people whose lives have been wrenched into a legal vacuum because America needs to protect our sovereignty.

But that, when we're forced, we discipline those we love?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wal-Mart and the Cookie Jar


Call me a flawed human being if you like, but I wouldn't have felt too sorry for Wal-Mart if it lost its pending discrimination case before the Supreme Court.

Not because I'm anti-capitalist. I simply don't like the way Wal-Mart operates.

Yet alas, I'm bigger than that (no jokes about my girth!), and must agree with the majority decision from the justices yesterday which found in favor of the behemoth department store company. A class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of over one million female employees was, in effect, ruled to be too large to be legally viable.

Apparently in court, size does matter.

Walton's Market

I've never been a fan of Wal-Mart. My first exposure to the company was as a kid, riding with my family through eastern Arkansas along I-40, between Little Rock and Memphis. In a dusty town named Forrest City, a Wal-Mart store could be seen from the interstate. Squat, flat-roofed, and colorless, fronted by a potholed parking lot, the store had all the charm of a warehouse. I remember whenever we drove by, I'd feel sorry for the townspeople who had to shop there. It looked exactly as rudimentary as any store in Arkansas was supposed to look.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Wal-Mart announced they would construct a sprawling concept store called HyperMart here in Arlington, Texas. I was in college, and working at a prestigious clothing store part-time. One of our managers, who was from Mississippi, started talking excitedly about the new Wal-Mart coming to town. Since none of us in the clothing store knew much about Wal-Mart, he informed us it was a popular chain in the Deep South run by a no-nonsense old guy from Arkansas. Not much on aesthetics, but famous for low prices. Which explained the dreary store I'd seen in Forrest City.

After it opened, I visited the HyperMart to see what all the fuss was about. From the street, it looked like an aircraft hangar, with a barrel roof that ran across the entire facade. Inside were rows and rows and rows of checkout counters, with a vast selling floor the size of which I'd never seen before.

After plowing through aisles crowded with dazed shoppers and never being able to get my bearings in the supersized space, I left. And I think I've been back - literally - twice since. It was simply too big, too noisy, too crowded, and too complicated - and this is from a guy who loves New York City.

Over the years, the news about Wal-Mart has evolved, from the praise of people like my former manager to questionable business practices the company has developed in its quest to dominate American retailing. Old Sam Walton, the founder, initially built up a patriotic clientele by emphasizing how so much of their merchandise was made in the USA. After he died, his heirs practically stampeded over his grave in their rush to China, where most of their merchandise is now made. In the meantime, through their ruthless penny-pinching, Wal-Mart has almost single-handedly created the phenomenon we now call off-shoring, which has eradicated hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States.

Wall-Mart also perfected the merchandising sleight-of-hand known in the trade as loss-leaders. They hold a supplier's feet to the fire to extract a ridiculously low price on a limited number of products, then they feature those artificially-low-priced products prominently in their advertising and on their sales floor. This gives the illusion to unsuspecting shoppers that wow, if Products X and Z are this inexpensive, everything else in this store must be, too!

Meanwhile, mom-and-pop stores and less greedy competitors across the country fell into bankruptcy as legions of customers became cheerleaders for Wal-Mart. At one point, if Wal-Mart had been its own country, it would have been China's fifth-biggest trading partner. It was untouchable. Retail gold, and Wall Street's darling.

Well, I could go on and on about the domino effect Wal-Mart has had in North American culture. And about how other national retailers have tried to ride Wal-Mart's coattails. And about how retail unions have vilified Wal-Mart for refusing to let its employees unionize. And about how civil rights advocates blame Wal-Mart for unsafe conditions for impoverished workers - including children - in China.

Loss Leaders from the Plaintiffs' Attorneys?

But this isn't about how bad a corporate citizen Wal-Mart can be.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed Wal-Mart what some business experts claim is a victory for capitalism. And in a way, it very well may be. And that wouldn't be a bad thing, would it?

Yes, Wal-Mart may be a bottom-feeding blood-sucking retailing vulture. Yes, Wal-Mart's Darwinian culture, thriving on a "survival of the fittest" mindset, may be capitalism's gift to the theory of evolution. Yes, the "People of Wal-Mart" are real shoppers.  And yes, if you want to insist that you really do save more money at Wal-Mart than anyplace else, you have that right.

But the Supreme Court has also now used this discrimination case involving Wal-Mart to send the following messages about doing business in the United States:

1. Even if Wal-Mart did, as a corporation, participate in employment bias against women, lumping a bunch of similar claims together and calling it a class-action lawsuit is more laziness on the part of the lawyers than a desire for legal equity. They figured that one massive lawsuit could win them a lot more money in the same amount of time an individual lawsuit might. They were wrong. Remember, there are worse things in life than Wal-Mart, and trial lawyers are one of those things.

2. One of the reasons the Supreme Court sided with Wal-Mart involved the company's claim that stores are relatively autonomous when it comes to local personnel decisions.  Perhaps from the start, Wal-Mart didn't want the added expense and logistical headaches of a centralized human resources department responsible for all of their millions of employees around the globe, so being able to deflect a class-action lawsuit like this is simply icing on the cake.

But even if Wal-Mart did have a centralized HR office, might the bureaucracy necessitatedy by a department that size actually contribute to what plaintiffs claimed were unfair employment policies? Too, if they're insinuating that Wal-Mart needs to micromanage HR from their corporate offices, they might want to consider their very employment. Judging by some of the cavalier attitudes of Wal-Mart's employees, the job they got from a neighborly local manager might never have been offered by a stickler corporate type at headquarters.

3. Disparities in pay between men and women doesn't automatically prove worker bias based on gender.  Just because Mary earns $8 an hour and John earns $14 doesn't mean Mary is being gypped.  A disproportionate number of female employees at Wal-Mart may actually choose lower-paying, part-time positions, which naturally aren't going to pay the same wages as full-time management positions.  If there is discrimination over who gets promoted to management, or some other apples-to-apples scenario, then maybe plaintiffs will have a case.

But slapping together the complaints of 1.6 million female employees and painting a broad brush of gender bias makes a farce out of the judicial process. If there was a fire in all of the smoke detected by these trial lawyers, they should have gotten together and bundled the cases into similar suits.  In the short run, it would have meant more work for them, but then again, the trial lawyers didn't seem as concerned about the plaintiffs as they were the bucket of cash they hoped awaited them at the Supreme Court. None other than liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg admonished the lawyers for irresponsibly constructing a sloppy case.

Even in Winning, Wal-Mart Might Lose

Even though Wal-Mart "won," however, they may have taken a beating in the court of public opinion. A lot of liberals already refuse to shop at Wal-Mart because of the civil rights abuses already littering the company's past in China. And now, a lot more women, the predominant shopping class in the United States, may decide to drive their SUVs into other retailers' parking lots since the media has pretty much spun this story as a setback for womens' rights.

Wal-Mart employees who've rebuffed organized labor's attempts at unionizing them in the past may now give the teamsters the benefit of the doubt, possibly spelling labor troubles for Wal-Mart's future. And if all these discrimination cases individually are legitimate, filed by disgruntled female employees from across the country, shouldn't Wal-Mart have been more proactive in trying to mediate these disputes in their stores? I mean, 1.6 million plaintiffs is a lot of people. Who really believes that many people are blatantly lying about their same employer to the courts?

Of course, Wal-Mart's success hasn't been built so much on providing a dazzling retail experience as it has capitalizing on the American consumer's desire to buy stuff cheaply. So even though some of their customers may act on their principles and abandon the giant retailer, there are still those areas of the country where Wal-Mart has become the only shopping option, and there are still plenty of people who love a bargain, even if the price our country's paying for "low prices" at Wal-Mart isn't something we can afford in the long run.

But that's an argument for another day.

For now, at least, Wal-Mart's executives at their rural Arkansas headquarters can breathe a sigh of relief with the Supreme Court's verdict.  It remains to be seen if the trial lawyers will actually backtrack, categorize the claims their plaintiffs have made, and file more suits against the retailer. Wal-Mart isn't even the only major corporation currently facing gender-bias class-action lawsuits.  Costco, a competitor of Wal-Mart's, Toshiba, and Goldman Sachs have cases warming up in the judicial wings.

I'm not anti-woman, nor am I anti-justice.  It's not a bad thing for the Supreme Court to hold trial lawyers to a legal standard which requires them to specify charges and narrow the spectrum of evidence so a court of law can responsibly determine guilt or innocence.  Remember, this decision has nothing to do with determing whether Wal-Mart has committed gender bias.  The trial lawyers thought they could score a spectacular haul by glossing over legal protocol.  And they got caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

Let's not forget that plaintiffs and defandants remain the key players in our courts of law.

Not lawyers themselves.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Veneer or Virtue to Illegals?

Ordinarily, I agree with Dr. Moore.

Russell Moore, Dean of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, writes a blog exploring our North American culture from a relatively reformed Baptist perspective. Last year, I was delighted to discover that Moore and I share the same alarmed conviction about conservative blowhard Glenn Beck. Moore took a lot of heat for that blog entry from many in the evangelical community infatuated with Beck, but he was right-on.

Last week, however, not so much.

This past Friday, Moore blogged about our need as evangelicals to stand down from the political contention over illegal immigration. He believes the Gospel and our rigidity towards observing sovereign immigration laws are incompatible. He characterized the infant Christ as an illegal immigrant when Joseph and Mary fled Herod's wrath to Egypt. And through it all, particularly for an academic, he commits surprising lapses in logic by floating between immigrants here legally and illegally, and how they should both be treated the same way.

If you peruse the reader feedback on his blog, you'll find some astute rebuttals to the most obvious flaws in Moore's argument. For example, could the Holy Family have been illegal immigrants when Egypt had no immigration laws or quotas? Can we pick and choose which laws we're going to support when they don't explicitly contravene God's holy laws? And who in the evangelical community has officially expressed an interest in deporting legal immigrants?

Yes, we are to show compassion to the "sojourner and stranger." But at the same time, most of the "sojourners and strangers" coming to the United States are not fleeing political or religious persecution. They are not simply passing through our country, on their way to a farther destination. Nor are they really even strangers any more, since they are being aided and abetted by political liberals, slave labor employers, and even human traffickers in the United States.

To be fair, Moore does not actually come out and advocate for granting blanket amnesty to illegal immigrants. And he acknowledges that evangelicals have varying - and deeply-held - political viewpoints on this subject. In addition, he legitimately criticizes a racism that persists in mostly-white evangelical congregations from Seattle to Miami which likely contributes to the attitude of intolerance he, albeit inaccurately, attributes to the immigration debate. I have to agree with Moore's suspicion that a lack of love motivates much of the closed-border rhetoric.

Yet the overall language of his blog entry describes a mindset which pooh-pooh's the how's and why's of illegal immigration. His perspective, at least as he's conveyed it, lumps all immigrants together regardless of their legal status. And ironically, he strikes an accusatory tone against those of us in the evangelical community who have become frustrated with our society's continued mish-mashing of this issue, exemplified by Moore himself.

Racism With a Twist

While Moore correctly diagnoses a strain of racism in America's border debate, it's not just white bigotry that's in play.  Consider, for example, that most of the illegal immigrants in the United States today are Hispanic, having traversed the natural land bridge connecting South and North America.  Although they've risked robbery, rape, and murder along the way, they've had a relatively simple commute to America, at least compared to people who might want to emigrate here from Africa or Asia.  El Salvadorans, Brazilians, and Mexicans don't have an ocean to cross to get here.  Which means letting our southern border act as a damaged sieve is akin to, as our liberal brethren would otherwise accuse, racial profiling. 

Sound far-fetched?  Think about it.  By failing to enforce our land borders, we're creating an unfair advantage for illegal immigrants from Central and South America at the expense of Africans and Asians who might come to America illegally.  Most people traveling to the United States from Rwanda or Bangladesh arrive through a seaport or airport, where their identification and travel authorization will be checked.  Yet how many more immigrants from war-torn countries in Africa, or from nations like Indonesia known for religious persecution, could more accurately be described as political refugees instead of ordinary immigrants?  And therefore, probably more worthy of sanctuary in the United States, despite what our quotas say?

Meanwhile, millions of Hispanics have crossed into our country not as political refugees or dying of hunger, but simply looking for better work. Speaking as one of the chronically under-employed, I can understand the desire to improve one's economic lot in life.  But from both a sociopolitical and a Biblical standard, breaking sovereign laws to find a better job doesn't stack up against religious persecution, genital mutilation, and other crimes against humanity that we know are being endured by people in other parts of the world.

Even hinting at amnesty - however granted or "earned" - for illegal immigrants is a slap in the face of those who might desperately need to be resettled in the United States not for just a better livelihood, but for a better life, period.  How many openings in our legal immigration quotas are being denied people in real need so that we can accommodate the illegals who've, in effect, butted into the head of the line?

As it stands, winking at illegal immigration from our southern neighbors could be considered a form of fraudulent humanitarianism.

Repatriation as an Economic Development Tool

Consider, too, that amnesty is not a responsible, proactive social or political policy.  It does not improve employment conditions for illegals already working in the United States, because as long as the border is open, fresh supplies of undocumented workers will continue to displace documented workers.  After all, even though a lot of business owners claim they can't get legal Americans to do the work they can get illegals to do, the reason isn't so much because Americans are lazy, but that American workers know they are due at least a minimum wage and OSHA protections.  If an employer knows he can pay $5 cash per hour and not have to worry about illegal workers reporting him to OSHA, who do you think he's going to hire?

If America repatriated the illegal immigrants already in this country, couldn't we actually be helping to expand economies in the poorer countries south of our border? After all, those governments have been reaping the rewards for years of not investing in their nations, while receiving receipts their citizens working illegally in the United States have been sending home. Isn't it about time we started forcing these corrupt governments and officials to take responsibility for the economies, educational systems, and social services of their countries? By sending home millions of people who've seen how effective a functioning democracy can be - despite our problems - isn't is possible that real change could begin to sweep through their perennially defunct homelands?

Of course, this is exactly what many of those governments don't want: real change. They're happy with the status quo; of having disillusioned citizens - people for whom they can't provide basic services anyway - leaving for greener pastures. Who cares if they go into America illegally? If they're so unhappy at home, chances are they could be troublemakers, agitating for economic and political change that would upset their autocratic applecarts.

How is this scenario humanitarian? How does this help to solve the nagging problems plaguing most countries in Central and South America? If millions of prime working-age people are leaving their families behind in impoverished countries, who's going to be taking care of their parents as they age? How does glossing over the problems illegal immigration creates in the United States help solve the problems we don't see in the countries these illegals have left behind?

Taking Christ to the Nations

And if we're talking about evangelizing illegals - one of the strategies Moore advocates, and against which I can't argue - couldn't repatriation help here, too?

After all, spreading the Gospel by sending believers back to their homelands could send a powerful message of trusting in God instead of jobs. In terms of practicality, it could also help keep Anglo missionaries out of harm's way, as believers returning to their native countries might be able to elude the unwanted attention white Americans might attract during the brutal drug wars ravaging that part of the world.

Shouldn't we be teaching that breaking the law is not a virtue? If and when God redeems to Himself people who are illegal immigrants, wouldn't it be appropriate for them to recognize that their presence in the United States hasn't been secured legally? How would the whole pattern of conviction, repentance, and restoration work in this situation?

And doesn't granting amnesty based on economics also throw a kink into the whole "love of money is the root of evil" thing? In other words, don't we perpetuate our society's over-reliance on money, jobs, and affluence by saying illegal immigration can be justified just because someone wants a better job? Upon Whom, or what, are we teaching illegals to trust?

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin?

To the extent that evangelicals need to treat all individuals as people created in the image of God, yes, we need to heed Moore's exhortation to exhibit God's grace to illegal aliens in the United States. But is grace a license to sin? That's not what we teach our kids, is it? What about criminals behind bars in our country, some of whose crimes were less heinous that violating sovereign boundary laws? What message does writing off the crimes of people who aren't even citizens of this country send to people who suffer proper penalties in our judicial system?

We all benefit from the fact that God's love doesn't always look like ours. I confess that I have not been consistent in my benevolence, particularly when it comes to people I think may be illegally living in this country. And to my shame, I'm not exactly a model of graciousness. So I've got things to work on in this situation, too.

But I can't help but rely on the testimony of a former co-worker of mine from Costa Rica who, for twenty years, jumped through all of the immigration hoops to live, study and work in the United States legally.

Finally, an immigration officer told him unofficially that his chances of securing citizenship were not bright, because he had mastered English and obtained a PhD in engineering. He wasn't a manual laborer our government could easily ignore; he was an educated, driven person who could take away jobs from Americans.

Our immigration system is rife with inequities. Maybe I'm a bad Christian, but I fail to understand how blithely dismissing illegal immigration under the guise of compassion rectifies any of them.

Friday, June 17, 2011

And Now, for Something Completely Different

Anthony Weiner.

The Dallas Mavericks.

Casey Anthony.

A hockey riot in Vancouver.

The late Aaron Spelling's $150 million mansion in Los Angeles.

Bono's $70 million Spiderman opens on Broadway.

Meanwhile, the killings in Africa of both ethnic and evangelical Christians continued this week, as Muslim fanatics pursue their religious cleansing of northern Nigeria and Sudan.

At least one house church in Beijing, China, was raided this past weekend by government authorities and several of its members reportedly remain in jail.  In China's capital city alone, up to 300 Christians have been jailed between this past Easter and this last weekend.

And news came to light this week that a blind Christian lawyer and his wife in Linyi, China, were severely beaten earlier this spring in apparent retaliation for the family's attempt to inform the outside world of their treatment by Communist authorities.

Like most Americans during most any week, we evangelicals have been lapping up the piffle and drivel of our pop culture, consumed by a crush of television, Internet, and newspaper coverage on a wide range of compelling social, political, and economic dramas.  But I suspect that if you're anything like me, you've been unaware of the persecution some of our fellow believers have been suffering in other parts of our world.

Even this week.

Having so much news from our Western society available at our fingertips and eyeballs isn't necessarily a bad thing, and to a certain degree, we need to be informed about events taking place around us so we can effectively navigate our spheres of influence, however broad or narrow those may be.  And oftentimes, we're unwitting victims of media overload, as in the perversions of the now former representative from New York.

But let's not forget the people of faith who are living life along with us, but in different parts of the world, who don't enjoy our freedoms and luxuries; who claim the cross of Christ under assurance of not only God's grace, but the attacks of their neighbors and government officials.

Why has God placed those people in those countries to suffer those dreadful conditions?  And why has He given us lives of relative affluence and ease?  Because He's God, and we're not, and He will provide the same love and spiritual fruit to His suffering servants as He will those of us far removed from persecution's reach.  Not that our own troubles and trials don't matter to God.  But they may matter less to us, no matter what we're going through right now, if we put them into perspective.

God's promises are the same to all of His children, no matter where we live, or what trials we do or don't face.

Which means you and I are just as much responsible for living our lives to God's glory as our brothers and sisters in China, Africa, and elsewhere, who are suffering for their faith even as you read these words.

Arise, LORD! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless. Why does the wicked man revile God? Why does he say to himself, "He won't call me to account"? But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand... You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry..." - Psalm 10:12-14a, 17a

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Of Race and Riots

I'm gonna be frank.

If the riots in Vancouver last night have taught us anything, it's probably that whites can be just as destructive and violent as blacks during these senseless urban tirades. It just takes the right sport to juice up the crowd.

Yesterday, it was hockey, which pretty much remains a white boy's game.

Watching your favorite hockey team, with 70,000 to 100,000 of your closest friends, lose the final championship game obviously would be fairly disappointing, whether you were white, black, or purple-polka-dotted. And since our North American society, including evangelicals, has pretty much embraced an alcohol culture, having a bunch of drunken young adults refusing to accept responsibility for their actions and emotions is not terribly surprising, either. But it's still disappointing, as Vancouver residents have been lamenting all over the Internet today.

In the United States, regardless of it being wrong to do, many whites almost expect blacks to riot after major sporting events in places like Detroit. But last night's mayhem didn't take place in a gritty minority-majority neighborhood, or a rust-belt downtown district. Vancouver is a glassy, ultra-modern, and urbane Canadian metropolis with political correctness oozing out of its pores. Socially tilted towards the liberal side of life, the last host city for the Winter Olympics boasts multiple modes of mass transit, bike lanes, aggressive environmental initiatives, and audible traffic signals for blind pedestrians.

It's not a hotbed of racial tension or a poverty-stricken shell of economic malaise. It's the polar opposite of Detroit in almost every way.

Yet there they were last night, white folk jumping up and down on cars they'd tipped upside-down. Smashing windows, cheering each other on, taunting police officers, and looting. Look - there are some others, posing in front of burning vehicles, displaying a bravado as though they'd conquered some hostile invader. With lots of other white folk standing by, laughing, taking photos and videos with their smartphones.

In Vancouver, Canada.

We're reminded that back in 1994, Vancouver had a similar disturbance that injured about 200 and caused over $1 million in damage, mostly in broken store windows.  Then as now, it was over losing the Stanley Cup. In addition to the two hockey riots Vancouver has hosted, some quick research reveals that a handful of other riots have taken place because of a hockey game.  There were two after each University of Minnesota hockey championships in 2002 and 2003, and 6 in Montreal and other Canadian cities dating all the way back to 1955. Czechoslovakia experienced some hockey riots in 1969, but some of that violence was rumored to have been incited by the Communist secret police.

Perhaps it's racist of me to admit that when I first looked at the photos and videos coming out of Vancouver, what struck me more than anything was all the white skin.  Some of Vancouver's civic defenders have tried to blame some of the violence on the city's minorities, but from the media I've seen, there hasn't been a black person anywhere.  Maybe some guys of Asian heritage, but no, this was a 95% white crime spree.  And it wasn't all white guys, either.  Don't you think the parents of this participant are really proud of their little baby girl now?

You know she'll want to include this photo on her resume. (photo credit: Associated Press)
Of course, this has been among the first hockey riots which have been extensively documented by the participants.  Which means the future looks very, um, bright for amateur journalism.  Since Vancouver is on the west coast, and the game was being played in Boston, it was still light enough in Vancouver when the game ended - and the rioting commenced - for the world to get crystal-clear images.  And since some photos show the darkness of the night, these hoodlums didn't just run down the block once or twice and go home; they where there for quite a while, smashing and burning to their hearts' delight.

Vancouver's police chief, desperate to save face after some have complained that his department should have anticipated trouble after 1994's riot, says that yesterday's violence was perpetrated by anarchists intent on roiling Canadian society.  But if pictures tell 1,000 words, instead of professional rioters, I see a bunch of petulant white folk not making a political statement, but letting their inhibitions run wild in a profoundly anti-social manner.

Normally I don't look at world events through a lens of racism, yet this time, isn't the lesson hard to ignore?  In the white community, it's all too easy to watch some people of color rioting and sneer at their lawlessness in a prejudicial manner.  But to the extent that human nature is bathed in sin, we need to learn that whites can be just as vile, destructive, illogical, and uncivilized as people we think are different from us.

What separates races isn't as great as we think it is.  That's the good news.  Unfortunately, it sometimes takes repugnant episodes like Vancouver's to help prove the point.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Theology of Fun

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.  - Ecclesiastes 8:15

"Come on, Daniel! It'll be FUN!"

Over the back fence, I could hear Charlotte, my three-year-old neighbor, trying to coax her older brother into playing with a new water toy their mother had bought them. And with temperatures yesterday in the 90's by mid-morning, it shouldn't have even taken that much cajoling to get Daniel playing in the cool water.

But fun is what Charlotte wanted, and she thought two kids splashing around would be twice as much, well, fun. And after a bit more prodding, their mother was soon asking the two of them not to splash her so much!

Fun. How many times have you talked somebody into doing something with the same logic? Or consoled somebody who let one bad experience mar an otherwise enjoyable time with, "well, at least you had fun the rest of the time."


"Did you have fun?"

"We had so much fun!"

"It was a fun thing"

Fun, fun, fun.

It's become ubiquitous in our post-modern lexicon, so much so that most of the time, we're probably unaware of the amount of times we use the term in everyday conversation. In our church bulletin this past Sunday, "fun" was used to describe two different events being promoted.

Generally, we consider "fun" to be a positive thing, and use the term as an affirmation of something worthwhile and, sometimes, even something we deserve. We seek it, we revel in it, we want it for others, we'll even pay more for it that it's really worth. "Fun" is even like money - we're usually never quite satisfied with the amount of "fun" we manage to have.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word "fun" dates from the 1680's, when it was a verb meaning to trick, or create a hoax.  You may have heard country folk with a rural dialect use this definition when saying "he's just funning you," meaning he's simply pulling a practical joke for amusement.

Most of us, however, use the term "fun" to describe something that's a pleasurable diversion, or an enjoyable activity. It's become as much a part of our life as anything else we do, even if we don't have as much of it as we'd like. We're taught that "fun" is even good for us, because all work and no play can lead to heart disease. Which puts people who find hard work "fun" in particular danger.

But has "fun" become excessively important in our entertainment-driven, narcissistic culture?

After all, Westerners probably enjoy the most "fun"-saturated society the world has ever known. Amusements, pleasures, and frivolities have been part of most civilizations since the Garden of Eden, and "fun" itself is not sinful. Yet even as we like to think our 21st-Century life is getting more burdensome and complex, we also expect our "fun" to be even more sophisticated, and as abundant as possible. We're told that we deserve to have "fun" because of how hard it is to earn an income and afford everything we're supposed to afford.  "Fun" is payback for all of the menial, conventional, responsible, unexciting chores that we wish we didn't have to do.

Wasn't That Fun?

It's not that God doesn't want His people to have "fun," even though the word isn't in the Bible.  God's Word includes numerous references to religious feast days, weddings, shared meals, and even sex, which were designed to be what we today would call "fun." God made a planet for us filled with natural beauty, and He's gifted people with creativity to express His craftsmanship and artistry for us to enjoy.

Isn't it hard to repress a smile upon hearing the delighted pleasure of a child? Isn't it hard to frown at good, clean humor? Isn't it hard to ignore the peaks of the Rocky Mountains or marvel at the incessant tides? Hasn't God designed us to appreciate "fun?"

But like everything else He created, we tend to overdo it, don't we?

We love money, even though money in and of itself is neither good nor bad. We fornicate, even though sex is a divine gift. And we let ourselves be driven by "fun," even though it's not really guaranteed anybody.

After all, how much "fun" do you think the underground Church is experiencing in China, the Middle East, and Indonesia these days? How about cancer patients down at your local hospital? Or forgotten senior citizens at your local nursing home?

"Fun" is not a reward for working hard, because plenty of people work hard in desperate conditions for little else but the misery of a similar tomorrow. Hundreds of children in China, for example, are being poisoned by unregulated lead pollution, and their parents who work in the factories contaminating their villages weep in agony over the fate of their sickened offspring.

Many Americans have been trained in how to hear words of sorrow about the unfortunates around the world coping with tragedy and dismal living conditions. We listen, we react with an appropriately grim shaking of our heads, and then we bounce back to whatever we're pursuing that will lead us to "fun."

Part of this, of course, is acknowledging the sovereignty of God, and that He is in control of all of these situations. Many of us who contribute financially, or even go on short-term mission trips, actually make a demonstrable commitment to help alleviate these stories of suffering. And to a considerable extent, to become wrapped up with all that's wrong in this would would make all of us blithering idiots, unable to process all of the good around us, and unable to appreciate God's provision for us.

Take the Fun Out of It

Yet I can't help but wonder how some of our fellow believers in other parts of the world would react when they hear we North American evangelicals gush so much about "fun." Is God disproportionately blessing us with "fun," while unfairly forcing His other children in China, Egypt, and elsewhere to endure torture and death on a daily basis?

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest otherwise, doesn't it, as you hear the same stories I have about how the underground Church in persecuted countries is flourishing. While the North American Church stagnates and festers.

Might it be that we're not appropriating the blessings God has for us in the freedoms and comforts we enjoy here as much as the persecuted Church is appropriating God's blessings despite their circumstances? How much are we taking for granted, or think we deserve? How spoiled have we become?

Just as the writer of Ecclesiastes commends to us the enjoyment of life, let us not forget the parable Jesus told of the rich farmer:

And he told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'

"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." '

"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'"

"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." - Luke 12:16-21

How can we reconcile these two descriptions of "fun" in the Bible? I think it's in the concept of joy, which as you'll notice, is actually absent in the story of the rich farmer. He was self-assured, enjoyed pleasure, and reveled in abundance, but he was not content. He hoarded without giving to others, two characteristics of people who lack the joy of contentment and service.

The man in Ecclesiastes may have been poor, or he may have been rich, but in this case, it doesn't matter, because he was GLAD. He was content in the Lord's goodness, whatever that looked like.

Nowhere in the scriptures are we directly told to have "fun." But we are told to be glad.  Of course, depending on your personality, being glad and having "fun" may or may not be mutually exclusive.  But I'd rather be able to be glad in circumstances that aren't otherwise "fun," rather than needing to have "fun" in order to be glad.

Splitting hairs? I don't think so. Daniel, while in the lion's den and the fiery furnace, probably wasn't having much "fun," but he was joyful in the Lord.

Those of us who can have both "fun" and joy at the same time are truly privileged. Yet isn't that privilege just one of God's many graces and mercies? How can we take that for granted?