Friday, July 29, 2011

Of Kowtowing and Backtracking

For your weekend reading pleasure, here are a couple of updates on two essays I've recently written. The first concerns Wall Street's inordinant disrespect for profit reports, and the second concerns a presidential candidate's waffling on gay marriage.

At least these may provide a brief respite from Washington's petulant wrangling over the debt ceiling.

Kowtowing Corporate America Can't Even Win with Profits

Maybe I shouldn't have been so upset that Goldman Sachs' $1 billion quarterly profit wasn't enough to satisfy its Wall Street partners in crime.

Yesterday, oil giant Exxon Mobil posted a second quarter profit of $10.7 billion, a 41 percent increase over its previous quarter, and Wall Street punished the company by sending its stock lower by two percent.  Apparently, traders weren't pleased that Exxon had the temerity to post profits that were less than what ivory tower analysts were expecting.  For shame!

At least Exxon isn't rushing to fire thousands of employees to appease investors. Merck, the pharmaceutical company, announced yesterday it was chopping an additional 13,000 workers even though earnings trebled in the last quarter.  Their shares also fell two percent.  The official line from Merck involved their need to prepare for expiration dates on patents covering some of its most lucrative drugs.  But the 13,000 in announced layoffs, coming on the heels of a previous 17,000 in workforce reductions, amounts to a combined 30% cut in the company's number of employees. Actually, it's startling to consider how Merck managed to be profitable at all with supposedly so much dead weight on its payroll.

Both of these events yesterday provide further proof, in my opinion, that corporate America has gone bonkers trying to woo Wall Street's affections.  Obviously, the objective isn't profitability any more, but beating gamblers at guessing how they can best anticipate future changes in their industry.  Changes which, obviously, can best be met by getting rid of people who helped you grow your business in the first place.  Foresight and flexibility are well and good, but they're rapidly becoming bywords and code names for layoffs and unemployment.

Perry Wants it Both Ways, Kinda Like Gays

And then there's the slippery Rick Perry, governor of Texas, who has grown fond of crowing that his wife wants him to be president more than he does.  Last week, he embraced New York State's ratification of gay marriage as a triumph of Tenth Amendment states rights, picking the Constitution over the Bible as his reference document of choice. 

Except he's gotten a lot of backlash from his core constituency, hard-right social conservatives, who were baffled by his cavalier comments.  So Perry, forever burnishing his credentials as a career politician, tried a little backtracking on the issue.

In a radio interview yesterday with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, the governor tried to parse his earlier eagerness over New York's gay marriage law by saying that, in fact, “gay marriage is not fine with me.” Which I didn't really think it was.

Yet unable to keep from sticking his foot in his mouth, Perry went on to advocate for a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Which would mean that Perry wants the federal government to tell New York State that it doesn't have the right to legislate otherwise.

Try and figure out for yourself what Perry was trying to say to Perkins:

“I am an unapologetic social conservative. I’m pro-life, I’m pro-traditional marriage, and the fact is we passed a constitutional amendment, and it passed by 77 percent of the vote in the state of Texas. Our friends in New York, six weeks ago, passed a statute that said know what, that’s New York and that’s their business and that’s fine with me. That is their call. If you believe in the 10th ame3ndment, stay out of their business if you live in some other state or particularly if you’re the federal government. The idea, the idea that the FDA is spending your tax money going after Lance Armstrong for something someone said he did in France is an absolute atrocity.”

Um... OK, Governor Perry, but is what New York State did still fine with you or not?

After all, if you want states to both be able to legislate gay marriage and not legislate it, you wouldn't be the only person who wants both ways co-exist peacefully in the political universe.  You also wouldn't be the only waffle-prone politician, either.

Something tells me you've just told us all we need to know about your eligibility to be president.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

New Rules for a Majority World

When I first came across the term, I wasn't sure what it meant.

"Majority World."

Turns out, it's a relatively new term to describe what most of us call the Third World. Those countries around our globe which suffer from economic stagnation and social regression. Defined mostly by poverty, but also civil rights abuses, and even political oppression.

You know - those places we so easily forget about while we're consumed with our own troubles and problems here in the Land of Opportunity.

When I first deduced the meaning of Majority World from the context of its usage, I smirked with indignation, like many of us do when we're struck with the haughty political correctness of something. Is this new term supposed to smack those of us in developed countries with a call of contrition and remorse for enjoying a standard of living most of our fellow planet-inhabitors can't? Is this some sort of linguistic penalty for First World excesses?

Times Change

Turns out, as I researched the term, its usage actually makes sense beyond its sociopolitical contrivances. Did you know the breakdown of countries by First, Second, and Third World qualifiers stems from the Cold War era, where countries were identified based on their socioeconomic allegiances? First World countries were the "free" countries aligned with the United States, Second World countries were the "communist" countries aligned with the Soviet Union, and the Third World were all of the "non-aligned" countries, which also happened to be disproportionately poor and politically impotent.

If you know anything about our modern world, you can see how this three-world view no longer applies. Economic fortunes have risen considerably for countries like Brazil, Chile, South Africa, and Thailand, which where considered part of the Third World in the 1950's. Although today, while these countries may not be what Americans would consider to be fully-integrated First-World countries, they're hardly the squalid little backwaters they used to be regarded as.

Look, too, at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, flush with oil money, and home to some of the most ambitious construction projects of our day, including Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, and lavish Palm Islands development on artificial archipelagos. In the 1950's and 1960's, these were still mostly Bedouin sandscapes. Today, remarkably, the only remaining poverty exists in fetid colonies of foreign construction workers and servants for whom even the degradation of Islamic social stratification is better than, well, their Third World countries of origin.

Places where economic hardship still prevails, with little relief in sight. Places like Bangladesh, most of Africa, and Indonesia. The parts of the old Third World that haven't really changed much.

Even some of the poorer leftovers of the former "Second World" Soviet Union have fallen into the ranks of Third World ignominy. Places like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which weren't even much under Soviet rule, have simply fallen off the international radar, as North Korea would have done, if not for their petulant nuclear sabre-rattling every now and then.

All of which combines to paint a grim epitaph for the increasingly dated three-world economic classification system.

Don't Get Mired in Colonialism

So, OK, I can see why the term "Third World" can be considered obsolete. And although I'm not crazy about "Majority World," I can respect its intent.

Even today, after decades of industrialization and post-industrialized history, the majority of people on our planet still live in poverty. And not just poverty like we see in America's welfare society, where the definition still includes clean water, reliable electricity, readily available nutritious food, and generally more television sets than some middle-class households.

Unlike liberal social scientists, however, I'm not as interested in the politically-correct correlations between impoverished nations and European colonialism for which First World countries continue to be blamed. Yes, I understand that many Third World countries - err, I mean, Majority Countries - used to be colonial conquests of major European powers. However, the persistently incompetent governments which tend to rule these Majority World countries exist for many reasons. While I agree that colonialism as a methodology is undesirable, some nations have been able to salvage remnamts of it to their advantage, and even overcome it.

India, for example, as it struggles with growing pains as a rapidly-developing economy, wouldn't be where it is today if not for the civil and institutional infrastructure England provided under its rule. Granted, it probalby won't be a First World country anytime soon, as significant swaths of the country remain mired in subsistence living. But the political and economic building blocks India inherited from the British have helped make it the world's largest democracy and one of its fastest-growing consumer markets.

And perhaps the strongest argument against using colonialism as a crutch comes from the United States, which managed to cobble itself together as an amalgamation of colonies to pull off one of the most dramatic revolutions in history.

Democracy in Action?

Nevertheless, the overall point of Majority World countries being sensitive to their economic plight is worth making. And I'll leave the in-depth reasons for why many of these Majority World countries continue to languish in disenfranchisement for another discussion.

The importance of creating a distinction between First World and Majority World countries can withstand arguments over its historical reasons. And what is that importance? That if we in the First World believe so highly in democracy, then shouldn't we give more thought to how the rest of our world thinks and acts?

After all, if everybody on this planet got a vote, you and I would probably be voted off. As a people group, we consume most of the world's resources, create most of the world's pollution, and own most of the world's wealth.

And as I say so often on this blog, "to whom much is given, much is required."

Now, I'm not sure what form of payback we should be giving the rest of the world. But changing "Third World" to "Majority World" is at least a symbolic down-payment.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Debt Ceiling Blame Game is No Fun

Please don't scream.

I know you're tired of this topic. I know you've had your fill of debates and figures and percentages and rhetoric. Washington's intransigence regarding the debt ceiling parades all that's wrong with modern politics for all the world to see, and it's not a pretty sight.

Especially since it's the Republicans who appear to be clinging desperately to the most unpopular of positions.

Not only unpopular, but not even entirely logical.

Are They Trying to Run or Ruin Our Country?

True, by their reticence to make significant spending cuts, Democrats don't seem to fully appreciate the gravity of this situation. Or the seriousness with which Republicans - and many Americans - want government waste sopped up off of the Treasury's marble floors... and down its marble steps, and down the street, where it's been gushing for years.

Unfortunately, however - and some conservatives probably blame the "liberal" media for this - it's the Republicans who can't seem to put together a challenge to the Democrats' proposals upon which they can all agree. I've never credited Tea Partiers with much competence on the financial side of governance, but now their severe naivete and hard-line bullying seem increasingly to be jeopardizing any Republican chance of taking control of this controversy.

As you well know, Tea Partiers have been railing against new taxes for the wealthiest five percent of American wage-earners. And while I'm not convinced, either, that taxing the "Five Percenters" more will put much of a dent in the debt, it's all a matter of public perception, isn't it? America's middle class is getting tired of the same old "higher taxes eliminate jobs" soundtrack. If that were true, why haven't more of us gone back to work?  Unemployment remains high despite no new taxes being implemented.

Tea Partiers have also launched some self-defeating attacks against Social Security lately, mostly at the behest of some Five Percenters who don't understand why everybody can't fully fund their own retirements. Here again, many Americans understand that Social Security needs to be overhauled, but few middle class voters want it eliminated. Many Republicans who are senior citizens spent their careers thinking Social Security and Medicare were good things, not the beastly Communistic thievery they've suddenly been tagged as being by radio talk show jockeys.

To make matters worse, Republicans tried to rig multiple votes on the debt ceiling so that the issue could be pushed into next year's election cycle, and ostensibly upset President Obama's re-election chances. But that came across as being simply goofy and petty.

And it's become extremely difficult to take many of the Republicans seriously on the debt ceiling debate anyway, since many of them voted to approve all seven of the debt ceiling increases Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, wanted. Why the sudden, seething rancor against debt limits, if not for pure partisan politics?

First, I'd Like to Blame...

I'm not sure you can blame the Boehner's, Cantor's, and McConnell's of this rapidly-crumbling Republican front for the mess that's been made of conservative attempts at staunching spending. Instead, I'm tempted to blame the neo-con radio talk show hosts who themselves barely understand federal macroeconomic principles. Let's face it: if they did, they wouldn't be talking smack on the radio.

I also suspect our fabulous Five Percenters have played a significant role in this debacle. They likely thought they had a good thing going by sparking the Tea Party fringe to begin with, and inciting a form of class warfare against the foolish poor. Meanwhile, the wealth divide in the United States continues to widen at the expense of the middle class, threatening to destabilize the social equation sustained by middle-class tax perks.

It's been suggested in the liberal press that two of America's most notorious Five Percenters, the Koch brothers, have quietly been funding neo-con agitation for years, hoping - albeit nonsensically - to wipe out the middle class because we cost them too much money. If it wasn't for needing to protect the masses from industrial pollution, unsafe working conditions, predatory monopolies, and banking fraud - created mostly by the companies owned by the Five Percenters - government could be much smaller and less costly.

But the Blame Also Goes To...

As the clock ticks down to Zero-Hour on August 2, the inability of Republicans to galvanize a fiscally-responsible and politically-palatable consensus will likely mean that Democrats may get not only a sloppy debt ceiling win laden with liberal pork. They'll also have won a major public relations battle in the minds of many Americans for whom this debate has crystallized a belief that it's been Washington's fault all along.

But it hasn't been, has it? And this is where the Republicans would really miss their ideological chance.

The main reason why we're facing trillions in debt is because we've developed a taste for irresponsible government spending. We put into office the people who reflect our own habits and mindsets. And we don't have the backbone to vote out of office those same people when their fallibility is proven. Because that fallibility is ours, too.

The rich like making more money. The middle class like loopholes and deductions, and letting the government deal with life's unpleasantries and banalities like poverty and education. And the poor like the entitlements that give them a remarkably decent standard of living compared to the poor in other countries.

Changing voter attitudes in a democracy isn't going to happen in one or two election cycles. Tea Partiers have been betraying their woeful ignorance of history by pouncing on our debt crisis and casting it as a travesty foisted on an innocent public by the Democratic party. But they conveniently forget that the people legislating our debt have been voted into office by their fellow Americans.

As much as our problems in Washington are political, they're also social, aren't they?

The true appeal of the Republican party to me has been their insistence that personal responsibility trumps government handouts. That small government is better for economic development than big government. And that politicians need to treat taxes like an investment, not a toy store. But are these the attitudes of our country as a whole? I don't think so.

This means we need a better strategy than simply refusing to compromise. Am I dumb enough to expect that conservatives can walk into Washington and expect to wow liberals with these attributes to the point where compromise isn't necessary? Of course not. Instead, what I expect is for conservative legislators to scrutinize legislation with a fine-tooth comb and negotiate with their liberal counterparts so that as much conservative ideology as possible gets reflected in what gets done.

Hey, What a Concept

Granted, today is only July 27, which by Washington standards, still gives us plenty of time before the day of reckoning on August 2. Who knows what the pressure caused by a looming Democratic victory might do for a conservative compromise at the 11th hour.

Because if Tea Partiers continue to sabotage the conservative wing's efforts at constructing a bill that can pass both houses of Congress and the White House, then the failure they trigger could extend all the way to next fall's elections.

Wouldn't it be interesting, though, if every politician in Washington worked on the budget like this was their last term in office.

If none of them worried about their electability after August 2, what kind of sustainable legislation might they come up with?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Keeping Up Christian Appearances?

What do real evangelical Christians look like?

Hmmm. What are we supposed to look like?

Are we supposed to be wispy, kumbaya, peace-and-love groupies? Should we be in your face, thumping our Bibles on every bully pulpit we can find? Or must we disguise ourselves, blending into the scenery around us, picking and choosing our favorite parts of spirituality and pleasantly ignoring the stuff that makes us look legalistic?

What Do You Model?

Recently a gay, agnostic friend of mine asked me how Christians are expected to look and act. (Well, he claims to be an atheist, but secretly, I think he's less certain there isn't a divine being than he is that it's God.) Somebody had commented to him that Christians were supposed to be purposefully insular and cliquish to the exclusion of everyone who isn't our own kind. Yet my friend looks at me, a person who is relationally introverted and frustrated by it, and sees a disconnect.

If I'm supposed to be spending my time around goody-goody people, why am I friends with him? In fact, he knows he's one of my best friends, since I don't have many close associations at church. One of the reasons we get along so well, despite our vastly divergent worldviews, is that we share the same jaded view of pop culture, we've never been part of the popular crowd, and we both love Uncle Julio's restaurant in Dallas.

He lets me talk about stuff going on in church, and I let him talk about stuff going on in his relationships. We talk about our parents, our brothers' kids, and the people we used to work with. We met when we both worked at the same company.

Maybe I didn't model the proper exclusivity of stereotypical Christian relationships with my friend, so that's why now, he's curious about why I never seemed to hang out with a more holy-rolling crowd.

A Friend Indeed

I've heard of evangelical Christians who say they befriend unsaved people only to win them to Christ. I think that is a patently disingenuous, almost fraudulent reason to "befriend" anybody. What happens if the target for conversion never receives salvation? Do you dump them and move on to the next target? If you're not truly interested in having the friendship of another person, and they're more of a notch in your Gospel belt than a literal human being worthy of your time, how miserably cynical - and disrespectful of the humanity God has created - is that?

Besides, with my personality, as with my friend's, we're not ever going to be close friends with everybody. Neither of us have the charisma or the social magnetism to draw others to ourselves and have to fight them off with a stick. Well, my friend is far better-looking than I am, so if either of us had the chance, he would. But otherwise, maybe we do get along better with each other, rather than with some of the people in the social spheres in which you'd assume we'd circulate.

Is that wrong?

According to the Bible, in the book of James, "friendship with the world is enmity with God." But it doesn't say friendship with people in the world equates to hating God.

Don't Do Do's and Dont's

Yes, there are certain things believers in Christ generally do - or don't do - because they believe these things either honor or dishonor God. For example, we usually go to church, give money, read our Bibles, and help those in need because not only are we commanded to, but these practices help us develop in our faith. By the same token, people of faith usually avoid situations that could compromise morality. Depending on how we choose to do that, we tend to end up subscribing to lists of do's and dont's, in a pattern that some people describe as legalism.

And without going down a rabbit trail on this one, let's just say legalism generally can be described as performance-based religion. For example, some people assume that the reason I don't drink alcohol is because I'm legalistic, even though the real reason is because I'm concerned I could get addicted to it.

So do I look like a Christian? I don't drink alcohol, but a lot of Christians do. A lot of Christians claim to be ill at ease around gay people, but my friend and I get along fine. Granted, he's not a flaming, demonstrative homosexual. And neither am I a hellfire and brimstone type of Christian. Just as I'd probably become uncomfortable around a flamboyant gay person, my friend would likely have little to do with ranting fundamentalists.

But at least to me, it matters less whether I look like a Christian than if unsaved people like my friend know I'm one. When California radio preacher Harold Camping predicted the world would end on May 21 of this year, my friend and his partner quizzed me on how realistic that was, because they knew I am more balanced in my faith than Camping and his followers. When my friend throws his annual birthday parties, I'm never invited, because he knows the activities there wouldn't be compatible with my faith (although I've had church friends not invite me to their parties for the same reason). And we've had frank discussions about why I don't believe homosexual marriage is right, even though we both agree that married Christians have done a lousy job of proving me right.

Yet we're still friends. In fact, I'm confident enough that what I've blogged about today is accurate, I'm going to show him this blog entry.

So maybe I'm not what this acquaintance of my friend's would consider to be a poster-child for conventional Christianity.  Truthfully, I'm not sure what he thinks Christians are supposed to look like, but I have an idea, and I imagine I don't fit.  I don't tow the Republican party line, I'm not a neo-con capitalist, I don't not drink because I think doing so banishes me to Hell, I don't confine my friendships to the "right" people, I even let people be my friend who aren't saved, and I'm not afraid to point out foibles in the Christian culture.

However, if this acquaintance sees Christians as sinners saved by the grace of God alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, then I do fit.

And I pray that some day, my friend will, too.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Perry Picks Bill of Rights Over Bible

For Texas governor Rick Perry, morality is important.

Just not as important as politics.

Last Friday, Perry told a group of supporters in Colorado that he's "fine" with New York State allowing gay marriage. Although maintaining he's personally opposed to gay marriage, he claims it's a states' rights issue, with our Constitution apparently meaning more to Perry than the Bible.

“Our friends in New York six weeks ago passed a statute that said marriage can be between two people of the same sex. And you know what? That’s New York, and that’s their business, and that’s fine with me,” he said, as many in his audience of Republicans applauded. “That is their call. If you believe in the Tenth Amendment, stay out of their business.”

Unfortunately, Perry picked the wrong issue to use as an example of protecting states' rights. Professional licencing of doctors, motor vehicle registrations, education, and mineral resources all represent a sampling of valid concerns that individual states can rightfully administrate. Marriage, as it pertains to the legality of particular relationships, also comes under the authority of individual states. So for those with a weak grasp on ethics and a murky mastery of the provenance of marriage, Perry's assertion that states' rights applies to marriage between heterosexual and homosexual partners might make sense.

But if the Founding Fathers, who Perry and his neo-con ilk regularly lionize in their rhetoric, were alive today, I imagine that they'd find Perry's dismissal of basic civil morality highly offensive.

As I do.

Marriage as Covenant, not Companionship

Quite simply, gay marriage is not the same as heterosexual marriage. Governments around the globe use marriage as a logistical tool for legal matters, but not even laws and legal bodies throughout millennia have had the audacity of assuming that governments can actually re-define it. Lately, however, a lot of people, confused about what marriage consists of, have tried.

Can any legislative body take what is essentially a religious - and Christian, at that - contract and impute a paradigm diametrically opposed to it? Since marriage is a religious covenant ordained by the God of the orthodox Bible, just because governments have borrowed it to conveniently regulate their societies, can those governments co-opt any authority to re-write the terms of that covenant? Governments can observe the purpose and practice of the covenant of marriage.  Governments can provide protections for them, and they can even dissolve them, within the guidelines provided in the original framework of the institution which set up the covenant in the first place (which would be the Bible).  But can governments introduce changes which undermine their fundamental purpose?

Just because it may look possible on paper, is it possible in practice?

Gay marriage in no way enhances the perpetuation of the society, since natural procreation is impossible. Gay marriage in no way advances the biological convention of maternal and paternal imperatives for the maturation of progeny. Gay marriage may be sexually fulfilling, socially acceptable, and politically expedient, but even if you deny its Biblical illicitness, it's still a civic frivolity. Society as a whole does not intrinsically benefit from giving gays the right to marry each other. It's about as effective as legalizing bestiality.

Of course, since Perry's comments on gay marriage appear to prove he's as opportunistic as any groveling politician, legalizing bestiality may not be as much of a stretch for him as one might think.

Nevertheless, I'm pretty sure the reasons for why Perry would oppose gay marriage in Texas - which he says he does - would sound pretty much like why he'd oppose legalizing bestiality in Texas. It just ain't right. It's not the natural, biological, or even evolutionary order of things. Society does not gain one thing from legalizing alternative forms of marriage.

Now, I'm not equating being gay with bestiality. Homosexuality itself is a different topic from both gay marriage and having sex with animals. But just as you are (hopefully) uncomfortable with my repetition of the b-word, so you should be uncomfortable with legalizing gay marriage.  The extent to which you're not reveals the depravity to which we've become jaded in our modern post-industrialized culture.

This Isn't Just a Legal Issue

Yes, this is a difficult subject. Yes, it's going to draw a distinction between Biblical ethicists and our friends in the gay community. Yes, some of the gay partnerships I know are more loving and committed than some of the heterosexual marriages I know. And yes, it is counter-cultural to hold the line on marriage as being between one man and one woman. But it's not counter-intuitive. It's the people whose opinions have evolved to consider homosexual marriage as acceptable - or even necessary - who are being counter-intuitive. Who are denying basic principles of civilized law. Not to mention basic principles of orthodox Christianity.

Of course, a lot of people today couldn't care less about WASP ethics and Judeo-Christian principles. And as I've said before, the evangelical Christian community has done a rotten job of preserving the same sanctity of marriage claim with which we're suddenly rushing to enshrine this debate.

This is a religious issue. This is a moral issue. To the degree that you disagree likely illustrates the chill in your relationship with the only God of the Bible. Not the God you may like to think exists. You know the one: the god who lets us imagine how he might be according to our own fancies and misinterpretations of select scriptures. The same god many liberal religious people call upon to justify their apostasy.

Indeed, this is a definitive issue of faith and orthodoxy. And the more anybody thinks they're entitled to make up their own mind on this issue, the less relevant marriage will become in society. Marriage isn't a topic open for this type of re-envisioning.

There will be some who say people like me are entitled to our opinion, but if we persist in this opinion, we would be denying gays who desire to marry their civil rights. To that claim it can only be pointed out that civil rights don't automatically exist in a religious contract like marriage. Remember, the government may assign civil rights to participants, yet they are only valid in the context of the overall parameters of marriage's original design.

But it's a mute point anyway. Most gay couples today can already share assets and familial visitation rights like any married couple. To them, marriage isn't so much essential for equality as it is a narcisistic snubbing of traditional mores in the public square.

It cannot be over-emphasized: changing the definition of marriage - literally the bedrock of civilized society - is not something any government can do. Mortals can try, through emotional appeals and legal contrivances, and an illusion of validity can be created by documents and ceremonies, yet none of us have the authority to alter the intrinsic purposes and intended participants in the marriage covenant.

Unless you're Hell-bent on perverting judicial prudence and social legitimacy - which may literally be what some of our fellow Americans are - then you can't be like Governor Perry and whitewash gay marriage as a states' rights issue.

Believe it or not, some things are more important than the United States Constitution.

Friday, July 22, 2011

MTA Chief's Walk Gives NYC Fare Warning

Jay Walder is moving to Hong Kong.

"So what," you ask?

"And.. who's Jay Walder, anyway?"

OK, so maybe Mr. Walder's move from New York City to Hong Kong doesn't mean anything to you. But it should if you live in the Big Apple, where he's leaving his post as head of the city's transit authority after only two years on the job.

Considered by many to be the world's preeminent mass transit executive, Walder has been wooed to Hong Kong with a pricey salary package to lead a commuter transportation company with operations across Asia. He does so at a time when New York's transportation authority, the MTA, has come under fire on several fronts.

City officials had hoped Walder's stellar credentials could work wonders for their crucial yet ossified transit programs. Plus, he's a native New Yorker who is not unfamiliar with the unique challenges of getting things done in the congested, contentious metropolis.

Instead of working wonders, however, Walder ended up presiding over a fare hike and drastic service cuts due to funding shortfalls for the world's most heavily-used subway system, as well as America's largest bus and commuter rail systems. And he's had to fight tooth-and-nail to keep his multi-billion-dollar budgets from suffering further setbacks as subsidies from local, state, and federal governments get hijacked in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Not only was there never a honeymoon after being hired, but Walder's tenure was under siege from practically his first day on the job. Considering how eminently-qualified he is, one wonders if perhaps the fare hikes and schedule cuts would have been worse under somebody else with less credibility. Unfortunately, brusque New Yorkers rarely give their leaders much benefit of the doubt.

Riding the Rails Outta Town

Indeed, it's easy for those watching such things to quickly lambaste Walder for giving up too quickly for easier money half-way around the world. Or to lash out at New York's intransigent unions for driving star performers like Walder from Gotham with archaic work rules and salary structures that hobble innovation at the MTA.

Not that both assumptions don't have merit. Trebling one's salary in one step would be extraordinarily tempting for just about anybody. And everybody - except unions and their sympathizers - knows that New York is dying a slow death from strangulation by union irrationality.

However, as they point to gleaming subways in Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore, and elsewhere in Asia, New York's detractors fail to appreciate it's a lot easier to build public transit facilities in homogeneous cultures than in the Capital of the World, New York City. Even European subway systems run smoother, cleaner, and safer than New York's because their cultural stew is far less spicy and chunky than Gotham's.

Yes, part of the reason New York's subways and buses tend to be less appealing than their Asian and European counterparts involve thick layers of MTA bureaucracy where progress usually dies in committee. Customer service can be striking by its absence as union workers hide behind labor protections and milk the system's many loopholes.

In how many other large cities, however, can you board a subway car and find yourself crammed next to people from across the globe? Of wildly diverse income levels? With divergent political views, religious affiliations, and ethnic customs?

Especially if it's as efficiently-run as NYC's transit usually is, considering it's in a country where publicly-funded transit programs never flourish to their full potential because of the constant pressure to keep taxes in check?

Bus Boy

Designing, implementing, and managing a public transit system for a relatively homogeneous society will always look - and smell - differently than when lots of different people with lots of different expectations and standards all try to use the same aging infrastructure.

After all, New York's subway stations are some of the oldest in the world, and the real estate under which they sit is some of the most expensive in the world. Plus, as sociopolitically liberal as New York City is, it's still a bastion of capitalistic democracy, where both residents and business leaders can battle out development projects and hammer compromises with which both sides can agree. These compromises seldom result in spectacular public works projects precisely because space and funding are almost always limited. Even when residents feel like they've lost an argument, like many Brooklynites feel about the current Atlantic Yards project involving a new transit hub underneath a controversial arena, everybody knows not to expect perfection.

Perfection isn't common in a city or a country interested in the messy business of people more than the prestige of projects.

And that's the difference, isn't it, between the United States and Asia?

In Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and elsewhere, Asians by and large assume that massive public works projects deserve massive entitlements because governments know best, and people should acquiesce to them. Here in the United States, we know better.

We've already gone through the days when eminent domain could wrench land from its owners with hardly any argument. We've seen how much money our local, state, and federal governments can lavish on transportation projects, and we've gotten much more vocal and circumspect regarding costs and benefits.

It's the same reason most of the world's tallest skyscrapers are now being built in nations with autocratic rule. It's why Rem Koolhaas' undeniably ultra-cool CCTV tower got constructed in China, instead of a democracy. Even Japan, with its uber-homogenized society, lets market forces determine infrastructure development better than its dictatorial Asian neighbors.

Has the Train Left the Station?

So what does any of this have to do with Jay Walder and New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority?

To a certain extent, Walder is taking the easy way out by going to Hong Kong. There, he will deal with a culture and a government that more cavalierly debases the public than ours do here in the democratic West. Can people in Hong Kong and most of Asia complain like New Yorkers, Londoners, and even Muscovites about transit plans and how they affect neighborhoods, taxes, and fares? True, Walder is said to have experienced a measure of success when he was the head of London's subways, but remember, England is still far more homogeneous than the United States, with a different transit culture than the car-crazy United States.

Not that Walder is a fool, either. I can understand why he doesn't want to suffer the indignities and corruption of New York's entrenched unions anymore. I can understand his frustration at not being able to control crime in New York's notorious transit system. And if I had to fight with my state capital for money to install basic technological upgrades, I'd get burned-out quickly, too.

If New York's leaders use Walder's exit as a wake-up call, they still have a chance at modernizing the city's essential mass transit system. After all, his exit doesn't spell the demise of New York, but neither are the reasons for it an aberration. Yes, the city's been able to serve as a modestly successful incubator of information technology start-ups, it's managed to staunch its hemorrhaging of corporate headquarters, and plenty of people are still willing to pay what it costs to live there.

But other cities around the United States and around the world are doing all that, too, and more. They're developing state-of-the-art infrastructure, flaunting their lower taxes and costs-of-doing-business, and increasing their productivity by independence from unions.  These are cities with safer parks, cheaper housing, more reputable public schools, and modern commuter options.

Few of these economically-robust business centers will ever be able to construct the sleek, expensive transit systems and eye-popping architectural bling that are being thrown up all over the developing world. And obviously, the savvy Walder knew that going in to the New York job.

For the rest of his job's reality to sap his enthusiasm after such a short time, however, probably says more negative things about New York than it does him.

That's a cost-of-doing-business the city needs to drastically reduce.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tour de Bike Lanes

If they haven't hit your town yet, don't worry: they probably will soon.

Bike lanes.

Not for motorcyclists, but bicyclists.

From New York City to Los Angeles, bike lanes have been gobbling up existing lanes for motorized vehicles in a disarmingly furtive push to re-establish the lowly bicycle as a legitimate form of commuter transport.

What used to be a pet project of environmentalists and liberal city planners has become the stealth darling of city halls eager to re-brand their communities as hip, relevant, and athletic.

Not necessarily healthy - city leaders still want people to bike over to their nearest bar or gastronomic delight, after all - but athletic. Meanwhile, having a street full of buff, tan bike riders looks a lot better on your marketing material than politically-incorrect SUVs.

Pedal Pushers

For generations, bike-riding has been pretty much confined to conventional city parks, and recently, to linear parks and off-road trail systems. Now, after we saw gas spike at $5 per gallon in some parts of the country a couple of years ago, the bicycle industry has seized the momentum brewing in Americans, hungry for some economic thrills close to home, to expand the bike-riding experience on city streets.

And it doesn't hurt that bike riding has become fashionable again.

Indeed, there's more than one reason why bicyclists tend to be hip and young. And why bicyclists have come to demand bike lanes like never before in the United States. Might that have something to do with our country's thirst for adventure and the appeal of outdorsy fun? They're what helped spark our unfortunate SUV craze 20 years ago. These days, what better way to pump those endorphins than get your kicks riding your bicycle alongside boxy hunks of steel and glass that can flatten you like a pancake?

Except, actually, most bicyclists have hesitated about venturing out onto city streets precisely because they don't really want to be flattened like a pancake by a Ford Taurus or Lexus SUV. They want their thrills diluted by bike lanes, since we all know that thin strips of paint on any pavement provide incredible protection against a turning 18-wheeler.

Bicycle Built for Who?

Now, although it may sound like it, I'm actually not against bike lanes as a concept. I just don't think unprotected bike lanes belong on the same streets as motor vehicles. How can bikes and cars sharing the roadway be safe for anybody, let alone resolve traffic congestion, as some people claim? If city streets could be designed to allow for sufficient vehicular traffic flow, with bike lanes added to the sides and separated from the motorized vehicle lanes by a concrete barricade, then cars and bikes might be able to co-exist fairly well.

The problem is most existing city streets can't be reconfigured that way. And no matter what any bike lane advocate likes to say, reducing traffic lanes does not help relieve traffic congestion. Unless, by reducing the ease with which drivers can navigate certain streets, you force people to find new ways to drive to their destinations. But doesn't that obscure the real problem with congestion, and deprive businesses located on streets with bike lanes the commerce automobile drivers give them?

Not surprisingly, many people who oppose bike lanes on existing city streets tend to be the cantankerous sort of grumblers who don't like change of any kind. Some of them have developed wacky conspiracy theories about how environmentalists are trying to divide and conquer communities by stuffing bike lanes down their throats. Still others say that since bikes aren't taxed like cars, they don't deserve any more road space than they already have.

I realize many readers of my essays would try to put me in the "intransigent to change" category, but here in Arlington, where the bike lane debate suddenly burst onto the scene earlier this year, I support the creation of dedicated bike lanes on certain streets around town. Some streets are currently under-used 4-lane thoroughfares, and the City wants to make them one-lane each way with a center turn lane, with bike lanes added to the left-over space on the sides. I think that's a practical solution on those streets which currently lack the justification for two full lanes in each direction, which means that conflicts between bikes and cars should be negligible.

About the only conspiracy - if you could call it that - regarding bike lanes comes, I suspect, from the bicycle manufacturing lobby. They likely sees the threat of sky-high gas prices real enough to juice up their business, and getting more bike lanes is great advertisement for which they hardly pay anything out-of-pocket. And if you really want to explore the conspiracy angle, be thankful the cycling enthusiasts are enjoying more success than environmentalists pushing for lavish mass transit projects. Not that I'm against mass transit per say, but most of America's suburban subdivisions can't support things like bus routes.

I also don't buy the argument that since bikes aren't taxed like cars, they don't deserve more space on our roadways. Yes, motor vehicle drivers pay taxes when purchasing gasoline, but most roads are heavily subsidized by the Federal government, so people who own bikes still pay for our roads through their income taxes. Bikes also inflict far less wear and tear on concrete and pavement, so people who are worried about our aging street infrastructure should consider ditching their oversized cars before continuing that line of reasoning.

Balancing the Wheels

What a lot of people don't like talking about, though, involves a certain air of entitlement that seems to exude from many bicycle riders. This cocky attitude tends to pretend some things exist while ignoring those things that really do.

Bike lane advocates like to camp on the reality that bicycle riders enjoy the same legal rights as automobile drivers on public streets. Enthusiasts assert that both drivers and bikers should respect each other's prerogatives when sharing the same stretch of asphalt.

However, having the right to share space on roadways doesn't mean everything else balances out, too. Neither bikers nor drivers can avoid some obvious differences which no law can invalidate. Bikes offer inferior protection to cars. Bikes are also slower than cars, and they're less visible than cars. This means that in our ever-congested roadways, the heavier vehicle always wins. Why else have some SUV manufacturers begun installing bars below their vehicles to prevent their SUVs from completely rolling over smaller cars they might hit? The safety game is already lopsided on our streets, and adding more bicycles to the mix can't possibly keep people safe.

Of course, the emergence of bike lanes could force some changes that help make all of us in safer. Texting while driving, as well as other habits of distracted driving, could become fodder for stricter traffic safety laws as law enforcement agencies try to equalize the roadway battlefield as much as possible. Here in Arlington, I've advocated for street signs reminding drivers that bikers have a right to share our streets.

But although a great deal of responsibility rests with drivers to make sure we're all safe on the roads, bikers often don't like the restrictions and responsibilities drivers would like to see from them.

For example, why shouldn't bicycles be licensed? Shouldn't their mechanical functions be subject to inspections just like cars? Shouldn't they be required to have working lights and brakes? How about even turn signals? After all, they're sharing the same road with motorcycles and automobiles that have to pass annual inspections - why shouldn't bicycles?

And why shouldn't bicycle riders be licensed? Shouldn't they take a class and pass a test to prove their basic competence? Maybe they should also be required to purchase liability insurance. How many kids who've never taken a driving class peel out onto the street, completely oblivious to traffic laws, rights-of-way protocols, and other safety rules? We expect motorcyclists and car drivers to be licensed if they want to use our roadways - why not bicyclists?

Shall This, Too, Pass?

Perhaps one of the reasons bike enthusiasts chafe at restrictions and regulations involves their underlying understanding that all of this bike hooplah might just be another fad. It might not command this much attention again for a long time.

Bike riding resurfaced from the World War eras, rechristened not as rudimentary transportation but a hobby, and hung around through the Boomer's golden era of the 1950's. It made a brief appearance in the ecology angst of the 1970's, and has endured a prolonged dry spell since then.

For better or worse, very little exists in North America's post-modern society to sustain bike riding as a permanent replacement for the automobile. It's still mostly a fair-weather activity, since most employers don't want their workers showing up hot and sweaty, expecting to take showers in the company locker room before getting down to business. Anyway, most people commute 30 minutes by car - a trip that would become even longer by taking a bike on city streets instead of freeways.  And why bike to the grocery store when your spacious car sitting in the garage can get your purchases home before the ice cream melts?

Why take up precious road space - that most cities have had to fight to acquire in the first place - with something that likely will prove to be a fad? It makes about as much sense as creating a lane for roller-bladers (remember when that was all the rage?).  I'd almost think motorized scooters and motorcycles deserve their own lanes before cities gave bicycles one.  Motorized bikes are only marginally less-dangerous than bicycles on city streets.

Still, even here in Arlington, there are some quiet residential streets and even some commercial side streets where congestion and safety wouldn't be terribly compromised by the introduction of bike lanes. Tossing the bike lane lobby some crumbs for their hobby can't hurt too much, I suppose. After all, even in large urban areas, where population densities would seem to enhance the popularity of bike lanes, they're not really used as much as the vehicular traffic lanes right alongside them.

Meanwhile, the mostly young, mostly adventurous Lance Armstrong groupies who are agitating for bike lanes will begin to age and worry about their kids riding on busy streets. They'll discover that sweaty bike shorts aren't the best asset to help them move up the corporate ladder. And that the new generation of hipsters coming along behind them have found yet another youthful infatuation.

Wouldn't it be funny if it was muscle cars?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Firing Up the Texas Oven

As this summer's first mega heat wave spreads towards the East Coast, consider this:

Today marked the 19th straight day of 100-degree-plus temperatures here in Dallas - Fort Worth, with no rain, and 100-degree days forecast through at least next Wednesday.

That's purt-near hot, folks.

So take it from me when I say that all it takes is putting things in perspective and knowing how to cope with the heat to endure it.

Here's a handy-dandy 10-point guide to help you out:

1. Our low temperatures here in north Texas have been in the 80's. Think about that when your high temperatures settle back to around 82 next week.

2. Even here in north central Texas, on the topographical threshold of true prairieland, hundreds of miles from the coast, it ain't no dry heat. The only people who say ours is a dry heat are folks from Miami, Florida.

3. Texans don't wear ten-gallon hats much anymore - they're called 10-gallon hats because that's how much sweat pours from your head while you're wearing one.

4. All those black luxury cars, trucks, and SUVs people like to buy because they have an air of luxury actually have air alright: suffocatingly hot air inside those heat magnets.

5. You've no doubt heard about how we grill eggs on car hoods, but that's just a myth. Not because car hoods don't get hot enough, but because it can spoil the paint job. We use sidewalks instead.

6. All those brown lawns you see? We call that color "summer green."

7. During the summers, the only things that freeze up are air conditioner condensers because they're running nonstop.

8. The irony about hand-washing your car is that when you're finished hosing off the soap, the car is practically dry, but you're dripping wet.

9. Having a swimming pool isn't as much a status symbol as owning a commercial-grade ice cube maker for when the pool water gets too hot (I know at least one family who has one for that purpose).

10. Umbrellas can be just as useful on a clear day as they are when its pouring rain.

For years, native Texans have wondered what will happen when the state's long-running population boom outstrips the land. Personally, I don't think there's much to worry about when it comes to overpopulating Texas. The state has its own built-in population control mechanism: summers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Goldman's Latest Billion Dollar Doozie

Banking giant Goldman Sachs earned $1 billion in the second quarter of this year, so they're laying off 1,000 employees.

Only on Wall Street is a $1 billion quarterly profit a cause for layoffs.

And speaking of layoffs, just yesterday, Borders booksellers declared it was going out of business, meaning the loss of over 10,000 employees nationwide. Silicon Valley player Cisco Systems joined the party, too, announcing 6,500 layoffs.

If you're keeping track, that's over 17,000 jobs lost in a day and a half.

Now, the Borders story surprises nobody.  Bookstores are rapidly going the way of land lines, incandescent lightbulbs, newspapers, and DVDs.  Electronic readers, the Internet, and plain old American dumbing-down have all contributed to rendering brick-and-mortar purveyors of reading materials obsolete.  Some business pundits actually even blame Borders for not jumping on the e-reader bandwagon more aggressively, like Barnes & Noble has done.  But the smart money has said for a while that America, the birthplace of pop culture, cannot sustain two major national bookstore chains.  Executives at Borders finally agreed.

Things aren't nearly as dire at Cisco, even though the common thread of playing catch-up runs through both companies. What took generations of cultural evolution to destroy the market for printed books - as witnessed by Borders - only took the warp-speed of technological obsolescence a decade or so to begin wreaking havoc on huge Silicon Valley corporations that didn't even exist a generation ago.  Caught up in the technology sector's backwater of badly-timed product launches and missed opportunities, Cisco is just the latest flickering networking star to need a time-out to regroup.  Industry watchers aren't planning on drafting the company's obituary anytime soon, but Cisco's retrenchment represents a cautionary tale in America's newest powerhouse industry that keeps all its players on its toes.

So at least the layoffs at Cisco and Borders make sense.

Bordering on the Ridiculous

According to its own press release, at the end of the second quarter, Goldman Sachs ranked first in worldwide announced mergers and acquisitions. The firm continued its leadership in equity underwriting, as well as worldwide equity, equity-related offerings, common stock offerings, and initial public offerings.

Whew - I'm no financial wizard, but that seems to be an awful lot of stuff to brag about, doesn't it?

Yet the Wall Street Journal bluntly spells out Goldman's $1 billion profit as a crisis:

"Goldman Sachs Group Inc. reported second-quarter net earnings of $1.09 billion, significantly lower than expectations, as difficult markets led the Wall Street bank to reduce risk taking to the lowest levels in five years. The per-share earnings of $1.85 were 42 cents below the consensus expectations of analysts, only the fifth profit miss in Goldman's 12 years as a publicly traded company."

Gasp! The horror!

Correct me if I'm wrong, but a $1 billion profit is still a profit, right? Yet apparently on Wall Street, a $1 billion profit can be a bad thing. That by itself should provide sufficient proof that running companies to wow shareholders is a bad idea.

Since when have stock analysts usurped corporate boards, executives, and industry professionals? So a group of smug economic whiz-kids crunched some numbers and came within spitting distance of each other for Goldman's quarterly profit? Why can't the profit forecasters be wrong? Why does Goldman feel the urge to placate them? And if the profit forecasters are so smart, why doesn't Goldman axe the executives who were responsible for missing the "consensus expectations," instead of 1,000 of their hapless underlings? It's like feudal England all over again, only now with a bunch of ninnies from Ivy League economics programs running around crowing, "off with their heads!"

By way of a disclaimer, if you read the fine print, you'll see where Goldman claims to be posturing itself for protection against certain risks in the financial environment.  Since the profit everyone expected them to make came in under-budget, so to speak, it's possible to infer from the numbers that Goldman may be heading into murky economic waters.  Ostensibly, then, sacrificing 1,000 workers now will translate into jobs saved in the future if some of the gambles Goldman has been taking aren't as profitable as they have hoped.  Kind of an interesting statement to be making, though, considering many Goldman executives are liberal Democrats.  This doesn't exactly sound a note of confidence in President Obama's economic agenda, does it?

What "Too Big To Fail" Means in a Democratic Republic

Still, academic pragmatism aside, perhaps I'm not a good capitalist, but I simply can't see the long-term benefit to society from such a narrow-minded, money-centric business philosophy. Sure, maybe Goldman has 1,000 more workers than it needs, but senior management doesn't even try to disguise their disdain for their personnel by separating the two announcements of disappointing the industry's analysts and, oh yeah, a meager $1 billion PROFIT. It's almost like Goldman is embarrassed that it didn't have the foresight to fire a thousand folks before the analysts found out how disappointing the quarter was going to be.

To make matters even goofier, it's not even like Goldman actually creates anything, except more wealth for people who've already got it. They make money from money. Granted, there's a place for that in our society, and the elite high-net-worth people who benefit from this type of industry ostensibly help keep our economies going and our political machines well-oiled. But speaking of political machinery, didn't Goldman recently receive some taxpayer bailout money? To what extent can their current profiteering be credited at least in part to the largess of the American taxpayer?

I can appreciate that with the mess they've helped cause in Greece, along with their other sordid financial escapades in, oh, say, the mortgage meltdown, insider trading, Libya, and securities trading kickbacks, Goldman Sachs executives may be getting desperate to appease the only people left who will still talk to them at dinner parties; namely, the same greedy bottom-feeders who like to leech every last penny out of their investments: stock market players.  But seeing as how they're supposed to be too big to fail, might they be bending over backwards appeasing the wrong constituency?

While all this has been going on, non-institutional investors - ordinary taxpayers, mostly - have been pulling their money out of Wall Street, having already become uncomfortable with the risks in our economic environment, unconvinced they're able to play on a level playing field with cozy big-name brokerages, and disenchanted with the industry's recent reliance on bailouts.

Goldman may not care that it's losing the confidence of the American public.

But we do, don't we?

Talk about risk!

Monday, July 18, 2011

What Would Rupert Do?

Did you know that Rupert Murdoch owns Zondervan Publishing?

That's right. The same guy taking all the heat for his News of the World staffers hacking the phones of dead people in England also owns the publisher of the Bible's New International Version.

Wow. Try explaining that relationship to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates! Is Murdoch trying to cover all his bases by owning one of history's tawdriest tabloids as well as one of the most widely-printed copyrights of the world's most popular book?

Actually, although some evangelicals have begun getting their knickers in a twist over the apparently sordid corporate arrangement, isn't it likely that Murdoch has little knowledge of Zondervan's current top-sellers? After all, officially, Zondervan's parent company is Harper Collins Publishers, and when Murdoch purchased Harper Collins over 20 years ago, Zondervan simply came along for the corporate ride. Since then, depending on your perspective, Zondervan has either been profitable enough - or not enough of a drag on profits - for neither Harper Collins nor Murdoch to pay much attention to it.

Making Money on What Somebody Else Has Paid For

Which brings up another ancillary topic, namely, the ethics of a Christian publisher profiteering on God's holy Word. Critics of the contemporary Christian marketing movement - of which I'm sometimes one - look at the consumerism mentality in the evangelical community and wonder if capitalists have finally figured out the market value of free grace.

Part of me believes that people who write a book or edit a translation of the Bible need to be paid for their work in proportion to the value they provide the worldwide community of faith. Since I believe that "workers are worthy of their hire," one of the easiest ways to make sure proper payment is made is to peg the produced work against the free market for that commodity. The fact that most of the market for the commodity of religious literature is in North America means that prices get set based on conventional printing and marketing costs following industry standards. You can argue all day long for the altruistic merits of writing for literature's sake, but at the end of the day, writers can't survive by eating the words they've written.

Believe me, I've tried - and I've had to eat a lot of my words!

Rock the Money Box

But it's that altruistic side of providing the Gospel to people who need it that can make for a somewhat seedy side to the Christian publishing game.

My first exposure to contemporary Christian publishing came in the 1980's, when the church I was attending staged a professional Christian rock concert outreach in Dallas. Several of the bands were sponsored by Thomas Nelson Publishers, another massive player in the Bible-marketing game, and Thomas Nelson would also be using the concert as a book launch for some title I've long since forgotten.

At any rate, our church sent out a request for volunteers, and since I was in college at the time, and it was summer, I took a day off of my part-time job to help out. Even though even back then, I wasn't crazy about contemporary Christian music. And certainly not Christian rock.

I showed up early in the day, and helped set up some things, but since this was a full-fledged major production with a union stage crew, there wasn't as much to do as I thought there would be. I ended up strolling around in the bowels of Dallas' old Reunion Arena, where the Dallas Mavericks used to play basketball, poking my head into rooms that were usually off-limits to the general public.

After lunch, I was walking down a hallway and went past a conference room with its door open. Looking inside, I saw officials from my church and Thomas Nelson, and nobody was smiling. Tension brewing between everyone in the room was wafting into the hallway, and although I don't remember what anybody was saying, I remember that voice tones were sharp and definitely not congenial.

Later I learned - from overhearing a couple of church leaders who were in the meeting - that Thomas Nelson was attempting to re-negotiate some of the terms of the event contract at the 11th hour. I don't know how much of that was true, or how much any naivete on the part of our church staffers might have led to some miscommunication and unrealistic planning. Yet the overall message was clear - this concert wasn't as much an evangelistic event as it was a business enterprise.

Some evangelicals shrug their shoulders in an attitude of "so, what else is new?"  Others so highly esteem capitalism that they assume selling the Gospel can hardly be a bad thing.  But still, even all these years later, after that concert in an arena that has since been torn down, I often wonder: Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice, and Christian publishers charge upwards of $700 for us to read about it?

The problem with unbelievers owning major Christian booksellers - and I'm comfortable assuming that Murdoch is not a born-again evangelical - should be obvious: owners usually control production. Even though Murdoch is probably not in daily - or even quarterly - communication with Zondervan management, he still has the prerogative of administering content and editorial oversight should he choose to.

Granted, I'm not familiar with the reasons Zondervan sold out to Harper-Collins, but they probably had something innocuously pragmatic to do with raising funds for further product development, securing better employee benefits, and even acquiring greater market share with a bigger-name secular imprint. None of those reasons are bad in and of themselves, but the more Zondervan relinquished its autonomy, the weaker their ability to withstand challenges to its Biblical integrity must have become. Shouldn't that have factored into the business decisions its executives were making?

Reading Between the Lines

Looking back at some of the titles Zondervan has published, and knowing what we now know about Murdoch's corporate involvement, I can squint my eyes and see how the dumbing-down of content and the appeal to mass-market touchstones could be correlated. Some of the books by Tim LaHaye, Rick Warren, and Rob Bell could fit right into the blather we see on Fox, another Murdoch brand. And none of those authors would probably be household names if the theories they've peddled hadn't benefited from the superb populist marketing Zondervan undoubtedly has enjoyed as part of the Murdoch empire.

For its part, Zondervan insists its business remains entirely independent of influence from News Corporation, Murdoch's conglomerate. And since I have no concrete proof to the contrary, I'll take their word for it. For now.

Meanwhile, if News Corporation continues to hemorrhage senior staffers and Wall Street valuation in the wake of its scathing London scandal, can any of its companies expect their worlds to stay the same for much longer? Will the push for even more revenue in Murdoch's remaining profit centers lead to any compromising in core competencies?

What might somebody like Murdoch do with the realization he owns a company which publishes God's Word?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Scare Tactics Fall Flat on Debt Ceiling

My aunt in New York City is upset.

Not just because a nine-year-old Jewish boy was murdered just a few blocks away from her Brooklyn apartment this week.

But mainly because President Barak Obama went on national television and said she might not get her Social Security check if Congress can't resolve the Treasury's debt ceiling issue.

This debt ceiling debate flared up only recently, it seems, and now dire predictions of apocalyptic calamity suddenly are crashing through the media. Considering the fact that George W. Bush, Obama's predecessor, raised the debt ceiling seven times during his presidency without Republicans batting an eyelash, why have conservatives now decided to dig in their heels?

Hey - I don't think it's good governance for our government to simply get more debt when it can't pay its bills. Maybe the GOP has finally decided that enough is enough when it comes to raising the debt ceiling. And I'd like to think that Obama, even though he's a Democrat, would agree that his Republican predecessor has made an unsustainable mess of things.

Yet there goes the President, with a stern visage and choppy vocal cadence, pretty much scaring the wits out of millions of American senior citizens that one of their main sources of income will evaporate if the Republicans - let me repeat that, the Republicans (did you get that, the Republicans) - don't get their act together by the end of this month. Like the rest of America hasn't yet figured out that both political parties share the blame for our fiscal mess.

Do you hear that sound? It's the sound of a generation of Americans brought up counting on Social Security being thrown under the bus.

Now, how helpful is Obama's hype? It's not accurate, since Democrats are being as obstinate with their own sacred cows as Republicans are with theirs. It's not likely, since the Treasury scoops in billions of dollars a day already. And it's not ethical, since everyone knows - including the President - that Doomsday will not begin on August 2.

Well, it very well may, but it will have nothing to do with the debt ceiling debate.

Obama's intentions by issuing such a flagrantly alarmist statement probably had more to do with getting panicked seniors to their phones and e-mails, blasting their Congressional representatives with pleas for accommodating our President's heavy spending.

That's simply disingenuous on his part, isn't it? And a lot of people already know that.  But that's not even the worst of it.

What's dangerous about the President's tone and language involves the proof they provide for us that he really doesn't know how to lead. Leaders don't foment such fear over empty rhetoric. Nor do they rely on such tactics for establishing credibility with the group against which they claim to be negotiating. In this case, Republicans simply get more ammunition for their presidential nominee next year, affirming that the incumbent doesn't know how to get major decisions made on Capitol Hill.

If Obama genuinely cared about our senior citizens, he wouldn't use them as excitable pawns in tawdry charades over academic budget issues.  He's obviously never been in a financial situation where "fixed income" really was fixed.

Well, here again, he used to live in Chicago, where just about everything is "fixed," so maybe I'm wrong on that...

At any rate, I told my aunt that she has little to worry about when it comes to the debt ceiling. And it's her grand-nephews and grand-niece who will be paying for it in the unfortunate event it gets raised.

The President, on the other hand, since he's seized on this debt ceiling ploy, needs to worry plenty about whether his own overhead - the many programs liberals refuse to eliminate or reduce - will be like a plaster ceiling, falling down on his head in November of 2012.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Oppressive Glee in Beijing's Koolhaas


Stalking the city.
Stalks of steel poking up like weeds

We saw previews of it during the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

A controversial new building, ostensibly for China's state television company, that looks like no other structure on Earth. Chinese officials hoped it would be completed before the games, but only now, in the summer of 2011, is it readying to open.

Well, as open as the Chinese government well let it, since the building is going to be headquarters for the Communist Party's crushing mass-media propaganda machine.

China Central Television's New Home

Some critics stop right there and say that's reason enough for any self-respecting architect to have shunned the commission.

For myself, I have to admit that on a purely aesthetic level, part of me admires Rem Koolhaas' CCTV Building. As far as a wow-factor is concerned, it could be the coolest superstructure ever built. Squatting 50 stories above the capital of China, it looks like what a conventional square-shaped building with a courtyard would look like if you pulled up one end of the building and left it hanging in the air.

Without a doubt, it's the most unconventional skyscraper ever built, which isn't necessarily a compliment to the Chinese government. Like a cartoonish nouveau-riche social-climber, they've brashly commissioned wildly expensive and flagrantly inefficient buildings all over their country during the past decade. They've flattened entire neighborhoods of historically beloved, quintessentially sino-urban hutongs. They've also resettled over one million people to build the world's largest dam, and engineered a sleek bullet train to wisk people between brand-new central China cities in which nobody even lives yet.

Hardly any of their projects would have gotten off the ground in the world's current democratic, market-driven republics.

And it's this social manipulation on such an staggering scale which can be captured, at least in part, by the CCTV Building. As imposing as it is impressive, Beijing's celebrated trophy by Koolhaas embodies all that's still wrong with China.

On the one hand, Koolhaas' design draws people to it in wonder and spectacle. The Chinese government does this wonderfully itself, as witnessed by its dizzying economic opportunities and its execution of history's most lavish Olympics ever.

On the other hand, though, the building's design could be explained as Koolhaas taking a shape of contortions and hammering human elements into it. Kind of like communism does, using power, domination, and control to remind people inside who's more important.

Not themselves, but the structure around them.

Picking Apart the Design

In the CCTV Building's exterior, we have an undeniably fascinating form of haunched pillars and a dramatic V-shaped prow. All of this requires an intricate structural system that, inevitably, defies conventional spacing and order. While the load-bearing elements in less-daring buildings can be less visible and, therefore, less of an interference with interior spaces, with Beijing's Koolhaas, the structural elements take over and dominate both the exterior and interior. They let people pass through, but they're ever-present, and imposingly so.

Splayed across the sleek glass walls of the exterior lays a black grid of steel structural supports, looking as if Spiderman's web got stuck on it, and some strands have already blown off. Perhaps Koolhaas intends for them to assure people going inside that he did his engineering homework, but it comes across as an afterthought to fortify the building in case of an earthquake.

Inside the CCTV confection, structural elements trump the purpose of space and, in some cases, even the execution of function. And while Koolhaas has made a remarkable attempt to incorporate these stubborn structural elements in his edgy interior designs, they also serve as an incessant reminder that the building is more important than the people inside it.

Enormous load-bearing poles appear to poke haphazardly through spaces from floor to ceiling, rudely interrupting the space, and dressed up to look like some sort of artwork or embellishment. It's like he had these beams running through otherwise usable space, and he tried gluing some sort of wallpaper on them to contrive some justification for them not being tucked away in an unobtrusive corner. After a while, however, I suspect his attempts to try and hide or apologize for the invasion of structural elements will become as tiring and frustrating as the propaganda that will be churned out of these spaces.

Comical Perspectives?

Seen from several bocks away, the CCTV Building morphs into some kind of klutzy cyclops lurching around the city, appearing to step over smaller buildings and the hordes of people and cars scurrying around like ants.

Very domineering, vigilant, and totalitarian.

Since that matches the character of his client, Koolhaas fulfills one of the basic requirements of any architectural commission: getting paid. But to the extent Koolhaas has simply played into the nefarious hands of his client, it could be considered a dismal monument for defeatist architecture.

Except, surprisingly, for a few Chinese culture critics who have developed a plausibly libidinous perspective based on what they suspect could be a subversive Koolhaas theme. Although most tall skyscrapers have a phallacized characteristic to them, some Chinese architects - perhaps miffed that their foreign peers have won all the big commissions - see in Koolhaas' design the explicit figure of a woman on her hands and knees.

For his part, Koolhaas has emphatically denied any pornographic overtones to his sculpturesque design. Unfortunately, he's been far more defensive of his complicity in the construction of an edifice whose functions could lead to human rights abuses.

Perhaps this cold, calculating narcissism is lost on an elite architectural community increasingly consumed by nihilistic pluralism. After all, Koolhaas isn't the first architect to dehumanize his craft. And it must be difficult to walk away from the billions of dollars China spends on these projects.

Symbolism Befits China More

As impressive as Koolhaas' CCTV Building is, however, how much more impressive would it be sitting in New York City, London, or even Tokyo, where the will of the citizenry and the logic of capitalism means more than it does in Beijing?

After all, any totalitarian state can build something like the CCTV Building if it's got the money. Meanwhile, I'm willing to celebrate the fact that Koolhaas' design in Beijing says more about the Free World than China realizes. Even if developers in the United States or Europe could pull off the myriad zoning and environmental logistics inherent in such a project, could they find a client or banker willing to spend so much money on what is essentially a whimsical pretension?

Having the world's coolest building is one thing. Having it so aptly portray its owners' motives and the tasks to be done inside of it, regrettably, is disconcerting.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dallas Redux and Reality


C'mon, y'all! Thar fixin' ta do a remake 'a Dallas!

(Translation: Ya-hoo! They're going to do a remake of Dallas, the 1970's television show.)

By now, you've probably heard that cable station TNT has commissioned a new show based on the prime-time soap opera Larry Hagman and Linda Gray made famous a generation ago.

And here in north Texas, where Dallas is still the largest city, some civic hand-wringing has begun as local leaders wonder how Hollywood executives will portray Big D this time around.

Back in the original show, Dallas was broadcast to the world as an oil baron's cutthroat battlefield filled with big cars, big houses, big hats, and big hair - even for the guys. And while, yes, that image wasn't entirely unjustified, it wasn't completely reality.

My family had just moved to north Texas from upstate New York when Dallas premiered, and like a lot of other "Yankees" who'd begun flooding the state from "up north," we couldn't tell if the city was following the show's lead, or the other way around. These days, we're told that initially, local Dallas boosters weren't impressed with the trite gaudiness with which Hollywood cast the city. But after tourism to the area and Dallas' international recognition took off, they learned to live with it.

Like almost anybody wanting fame, free publicity can cover a multitude of sins.

Except this time, California's television folks need to understand two things. One, not only is Dallas definitely not what the original series' producers envisioned it as being, but two, it's become a far more diversified place with surprisingly individual neighborhoods that may not exactly transition well into television.


What used to be one of the most WASP-ish of towns has had two female Jewish mayors since the first TV show, hosts one of the largest gay communities in the country, and has become white-minority.

Indeed, Dallas essentially exists as two distinct cities. There's the relatively white, relatively upper-middle-class North Dallas, and the mostly minority, mostly poor South Dallas, with a bit of a mix scattered throughout its eastern neighborhoods.

North Dallas sits mostly east of Marsh Lane and north of I-30, while South Dallas takes in everything else. Downtown is kind of the anchor of the split, and the closer you get to Downtown, the greater the mix between whites and minorities, and rich and poor.

The wealth of north Dallas starts with the supremely exclusive and virtually all-white enclaves of Highland Park and University Park, both of which share their own elite school district, and are surrounded by Dallas proper. Then comes Preston Hollow, where some of Texas' largest and most impressive estates sprawl behind towering walls, along winding lanes lined with towering trees. More money is tucked into gentrifying neighborhoods east of Central Expressway.

South Dallas' poverty doesn't really start until after you get past a couple of trendy inner-city districts, the sprawling freeway interchanges, and the softly-worn yet attractively venerable North Oak Cliff and Kessler Park neighborhoods, where some houses rival those of Highland Park.

Then the poverty hits you, with block after block of overgrown lots, crack houses, liquor stores, dilapidated apartments, pawn shops, and taquerias (Mexican restaurants). Hispanics comprise the largest group of minorities in Dallas, which sometimes agitates blacks who, along with many whites, have grown frustrated with the city's large population of illegal immigrants. Significant pockets of Middle Easterners, Asian Indians, and Hispanics live along the northern LBJ Freeway corridor, and east of the city's recreational White Rock Lake area. To this day, blacks stay pretty much south of Downtown, where they were segregated not so long ago, and where housing values remain the lowest.

Whereas the original TV show tried to claim Dallas' suburbs for the city itself, these days, most of the suburbs in Dallas County have their own identities and don't want to be lumped in with the identity of their larger neighbor, the county seat. In particular, Plano and Richardson are home to many "silicon prairie" firms and even have their own fine arts organizations. Irving and its master-planned Las Colinas district, snuggled up next to our bustling international airport and home to some of the world's biggest corporations, is a bitter rival of Dallas' when it comes to businesses relocating to the area. And Frisco, one of the blandest new exurbs you'll ever visit, isn't even in Dallas County, yet that's where most of the middle-class whites from Dallas are flocking these days.

Livin' Large in Big D

Since this new show will likely follow the same path as the original and feature modern power brokers squabbling over money and sex, the producers should understand that money in Dallas has gotten old enough that it's starting to look a lot like it does on the East Coast. That means expensive foreign cars, yes, but a surprisingly understated wardrobe, where the label speaks louder than the design. Money has also become much more discrete in Dallas, where smallish houses in the Park Cities can command hefty premiums simply because of their address, not necessarily their built-in amenities.

Of course, discrete in Dallas still isn't the same as discrete in Manhattan, Short Hills, or Westport. Bling still counts for something in Dallas, as does perfectly-styled hair, even if it isn't big. Make-up, too, has to be flawless, whereas in Manhattan, you never know if the unadorned face walking towards you on Madison Avenue belongs to a housekeeper or a hedge fund manager.

Nevertheless, Dallas is home base for Neiman-Marcus, one of the most under-stated fine retailers in the country, and also boasts a staid Rolls-Royce dealership. It's difficult to tell whether Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, or BMW is the official car of Dallas, since so many models of each prowl the city's streets. And they're almost all black - a beastly color, considering how hot our summers get here.

Ahh, yes: summers. If Dallas were a truly well-rounded city, it would be located near an ocean or one of the Great Lakes, or maybe some mountains. As it is, Dallasites have to make do with some man-made reservoirs, private swimming pools, and relatively inexpensive airline flights to Colorado. Some people insist on baking in the heat by jogging in wilted parks, sweating on water-sucking golf courses, or gasping in open-air patios at prestigious restaurants, but most simply hit the many local malls or multiplexes for stuff to do indoors.

The world-renowned Dallas Symphony Orchestra plays in the equally-impressive Meyerson Symphony Center, and a historic trolley rattles through a newly-trendy Uptown restaurant district. One of the area's most successful shopping center moguls built a remarkable sculpture palace, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and an increasingly popular light rail system continues to spread through the city.

Its school district may be in shambles, and its crime rate sagging only by degrees, yet Dallas still manages to hold its own in terms of desirability against the brand-new gated communities popping up in what was only parched farmland when the original Dallas aired.

"Where the East Begins" Doesn't Have the Same Ring

Perhaps much to its disappointment, however, the search for an identity - which has so far confounded Dallas - inevitably brings up the subject of Fort Worth.

Thirty miles to its west, and home to a legitimate cowboy heritage, Fort Worth proudly claims to be "Where the west begins" and "Cowtown." With the bona-fides to back it up.

Even Big D's fiercely beloved Dallas Cowboys play outside the county now, here in Arlington, right next to Fort Worth. Convention-goers staying in Dallas routinely board buses to Cowtown where they can watch a real cattle drive in the old stockyards, party at the "world's largest honkey-tonk," Billy Bob's Texas, and dine at what is probably the most famous Mexican restaurant in the state, Joe T. Garcia's (although I don't particularly care for it myself).

Fort Worth may not have the reputation for wealth and ostentation that Dallas does, but it's got enough energy industry tycoons to fund a far more diverse and internationally prestigious arts and cultural district than Dallas has. Its municipal politics are far less corrupt and divisive that those in Dallas, and its cross-cultural civic life much more cohesive.

Perhaps that mix doesn't make for as provocative a television show as someplace like Dallas, but interestingly, I don't hear many folks in Fort Worth complaining about all the attention their neighbor to the east may be getting from Hollywood.

After all, Dallas' most famous resident is probably Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, while Fort Worth's is probably Van Cliburn, the acclaimed concert pianist.

Which, in a way, says a lot about each city, doesn't it?

Boy, howdy - now ain't that sum'um?

(Translation: My goodness, you're right!)

Chances are, you could probably tell whether somebody will bother to watch the new Dallas based on which one of those wealthy locals they'd want as a neighbor.

As for me, I haven't cared much for the Cowboys since Tom Landry was fired.

Oh yeah - that's been since the original Dallas, too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Love of Money Aids Asylum Fraud

As the sensationalized case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn continues to wither away in Manhattan's courts, the reason it's doing so actually bolsters arguments for immigration reform.

It's not just because the purported victim in this case has credibility issues regarding the crime she claims took place in a luxury hotel room. She also lied on her asylum application to reside in the United States.


The commitment of a crime as your first act in a new country doesn't make the best impression, does it?

Strauss-Kahn's accuser claimed she'd been gang-raped and beaten by soldiers in her home country of Guinea, but that story unraveled under questioning by New York detectives. They were investigating her background as they built what could have been a blockbuster case against the former head of the International Monetary Fund. Officials now acknowledge that hers is just another among the many examples of asylum fraud coming to light, particularly in New York City, one of America's largest immigration and asylum gateways.

Asylum Fraud adds Wrinkle to Immigration Debate

Apparently, an entire industry has sprung up in Gotham's seedier immigrant neighborhoods dedicated to providing scripts full of lies to people seeking humanitarian and political asylum in the United States. For example, Strauss-Kahn's accuser memorized a story to tell asylum judges that included the falsehood that her husband had been murdered. Russians exaggerate tales of homophobia back home, and many Africans exploit the crisis of genital mutilation to their advantage, even if it's never happened to them or anybody they know. Whatever the sociopolitical hot buttons reported in the international media, a rash of asylum cases of dubious credibility inevitably floods immigration courts here in America.

Nobody denies that plenty of legitimate cases of persecution, torture, oppression, and abuses of human rights exist in the myriad applications for asylum our government receives from people all over the globe looking for protection in the United States.

Actually, I believe it's one of the great characteristics of our country, that we are seen world-wide as a standard-bearer of civil liberties and personal safety. Governments who repeatedly deride our foreign policy and accuse the United States of fomenting international problems would do well to listen to the hope and desperation of those - maybe from those same countries which criticize us so - clamoring for protection here. To the extent our country can be a haven for those needing to escape sociopolitical turmoil in their homeland, we should continue, to paraphrase the Statue of Liberty's credo, "lifting our lamp beside the golden door."

But as with most opportunities, asylum has been beset with abuses. Many people simply want to come to America because it's easier here to build a comfortable lifestyle that in the country where they were born. After all, even a life of American poverty is far better than privilege in most African, South American, and Asian countries. So emigres who can't squeeze into our immigration quotas turn to lying and falsifying personal records, concocting wild stories of brutality and persecution which have never happened. To them, anyway.

Just to get inside our country.

With fraudulently-obtained immigration papers allowing them to work here legally and participate openly in our society.

You can almost hear them, coming through our front door, and hiring crooked lawyers to play our asylum courts like a warped violin. How they must jeer at the people who have to buy fake documentation to get through our back door and naively live here in secret.

No wonder ordinary illegals have become indignant at their plight.

Money, Money, Money, Mo-ney

In a way, Americans help make the case for asylum abuse and its sister crime, immigration fraud. Our culture flaunts our standard of living to the point where upward mobility is considered an inalienable right. Many Americans who wink at asylum and immigration fraud do so because they figure preventing anybody from economic success is, well, un-American.

Today, most Americans think money is the be-all and end-all of life. Not honor, or integrity, or - gasp! - serving others. Earning more money is what motivates most people. Getting additional education, building a resume, climbing the corporate ladder; much of our socioeconomic reality involves acquiring more money.

Well, a higher salary, anyway.

So with that mindset, it can seem hard to turn around and deny other people their chance at building financial equity just because they're not here legally. In fact, a lot of illegal workers may just help the rest of us by taking our mundane jobs, for which we can pay them at a cheaper rate, and thus further improve our own financial picture.

I'm not saying that working to improve your earning potential is a bad thing. Nor am I saying that we should be ashamed of ourselves just because we may enjoy a standard of living others might envy. Like I've said many times, it's the love of money that's the root of all sorts of evil. Not money itself.

Nevertheless, wouldn't it be boorishly insensitive of me to just push shut our border gates and turn a blind eye to the financial problems people face all over our planet? After all, I can't deny that wanting a better economic life is a bad reason to emigrate to the United States. My own grandmother came here from Finland to do just that - but she did it legally, with a sponsor and everything.

Sounds quaint, doesn't it?

Reform Benefiting the Countries of Origin

Then, too, we might be approaching this issue from the wrong direction. Instead of focusing on America's borders, what about taking a look at how we might help prospective emigres while they're still in their home countries?

Consider the popular crusade in Third World countries to encourage home-grown entrepreneuralism in towns and villages without any other viable economic opportunities. The once-fledgling industry of micro-credit, for example, has begun to blossom into a fairly respectable method of financing industrious indigenous people. People who get to remain with their families in their own hometowns, even if those places currently lack electricity or running water. People who may never attain a standard of living there that they might here, but people willing to make a go of it where they were born.

To me, this type of economic effort poses just one example of a sustainable solution to the economic crises plaguing vast swaths of our globe. Allowing people to come to the United States illegally poses a plethora of problems and represents a surprising inequity in and of itself. Instead, elevating awareness of how Americans can help the economically marginalized in their own countries could provide a vastly superior standard of living for them, and perhaps some beneficial economic partnerships for both us and them.

Think about it: Hasn't the world changed since before the United States had immigration quotas? Is America still the primary land of opportunity in the world? Is America as empty of people as it used to be? Or as awash in our own homegrown economic opportunities?

If the reason most people want to come to America involves money, we need to be realistic. Money is a finite resource. Yes, liberty is relatively infinite in the United States, and for those people whose very lives depend on escaping their homeland, we need to remain a land of hope and sanctuary. But aside from our legal immigration quotas, can we afford to let economics run a close second anymore when it comes to getting serious about asylum and immigration reform?

In a way, couldn't it be considered rather ironic that it was the then-current head of the IMF who has been accused of assault - by a woman who fraudulently entered the United States for economic gain?

Strauss-Kahn's accuser may have inadvertently made the best case for asylum reform that those most deserving of asylum could have gotten.