Friday, September 30, 2011

Beholding the Manners of Love

Hey, I admit it: I'm not an expert on love.

Ask any of the women I've never married.

Of course, there's more to love than what spouses express to each other. There's the nurturing, parental type of love. And the affectionate loyalty between siblings.

But how often do you think about the kind of love God has for each of His children? And how we children of the Kingdom treat each other?

Sure, we people of faith are taught that God loves us equally, but I've never really worked that out in my mind. Or my heart. Have you? The other day, my mother made a comment about how, just as she loves my brother and me as equally as she can, she marvels that God loves each of His children even more equally, and perfectly.

Wow. For some reason, despite all of the sermons and songs and Bible studies and liturgies I've heard about the love of God, it's never hit me like that before: He loves me just as much as He loves you.

And He loves you just as much as He loves me!

What makes this fact even more freaky is that He loves people you can't stand just as much as He loves you. And me. And everybody who we already love.

I'd like to think that I'm the last person for whom this reality has dawned, but judging by the ways many of us treat others, I doubt it. Within our communities of faith, how often have we done the very things we'd never do to our own kids - or at least, maliciously?

If you have siblings, hopefully you have good relationships with them, and treat them before God just as you would before your own earthly parents. Obviously, some family dynamics have been corrupted by bad parenting, but we should all have an idea of what a wholesome family looks like. At this point, I'm tempted to wander off on a tangent about how the state of our families at home will be mirrored in the integrity of our church families, but I'll be kind and resist. Except to ask; do we behave towards our brothers and sisters in Christ like we're part of a healthy family unit?

I know I don't. Not always, anyway.

Sure, when I know God's watching, such as in church, I put some effort into playing the charade, like disagreeable siblings probably do when they're at a family gathering. But when it's easy to forget that God knows how I'm treating a child of His, who He loves as much as He loves me, I sometimes disrespect His affection for other family members in Christ.

Obviously, God knows we can't love each other like He loves us. But oftentimes, I don't even try, or want to try. How about you?

Everyone who claims the name of Christ is loved by God just as much as you are. If you have kids, and you (hopefully) have no favorites among them, think about how God looks on those who profess faith in His Son, and how He loves them infinitely more perfectly than you do your own kids.

As much as you believe God loves you, with the daily trials and successes of your life, despite your mistakes and regardless of what you achieve, He loves both you and me even more. I realize this is Sunday School theology, but it's nonetheless true and vital for our interpersonal relationships. And our sanctification. Just as you think you know my faults, and I think I know yours, and we figure we can depreciate our level of love on that basis, God loves us perfectly, and He knows all of both our faults!

If we conducted ourselves in church, at work, and in the marketplace of ideas and culture with an intrinsic awareness of this reality, what might evangelical Christianity look like in the United States of America? What might the United States look like to our world?

Behold, indeed, what manner of love the Father has given unto us, that we should be called children of God! (1 John 3:1)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

And Miles to Go Before We're Taxed

Contrary to what you might believe, government bureaucracy never sleeps.

Yes, it's vast and lethargic. But somewhere in all of that slothfulness, little hamsters spin themselves silly on spurious assumptions and half-baked ideas. All apparently designed to make life increasingly frustrating for the rest of us.

For example, consider the big changes they're cooking up for America's drivers.

By the Gallon or the Mile?

Perhaps you're already aware that the amount of taxes being collected to pay for road work has been declining. Yes, the price of gasoline has been on a roller-coaster recently, but not the gas tax. This has prompted bureaucrats and politicians to contemplate new revenue sources to fund transportation spending.

And yes, I'll comment on "transportation spending" in a moment.

One of the more popular ideas gaining steam as a revised funding mechanism involves taxing drivers not by each gallon of fuel we purchase, but by each mile we drive our vehicles.

In other words, instead of penalizing drivers for how much gas we use, the government wants to penalize us for how much we drive.

It may sound like an insignificant change... but is it? Some critics of the plan suspect it could be the next war in the struggle for tax equity.

Proof that No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Several reasons exist to support the rationale for changing course on transportation funding. First, since the federal government has mandated greater fuel efficiency in vehicles, Americans haven't needed to buy as much gas as we used to. With increased mileage, we go farther on a tank of gas, and that means we spend less in taxes to go the same distance.

You'd think that would be a good thing - and it is, for you and me. But not for state and federal transportation departments, who still have to build and maintain our roads, the costs for which continue to escalate.

Second, with our national economy tanking and gas prices becoming more volatile, fewer people are taking road trips, or even driving to work. Plus, anybody who does purchase a new vehicle these days has usually been trading-in a gas hog like full-size SUVs and pickup trucks for a more fuel-efficient automobile to cushion sticker-shock at the pump.

Way down at number three is the increase in mass transit ridership and bicycling, two anti-gas alternatives that some cities have managed to encourage. Of course, mass transit is its own tax hog, even if it helps individual drivers conserve fuel. And bicyclists don't pay any extra tax to use our smoothly-paved roadways.

So in spite of trying to to conserve gasoline, and being relatively successful at it, taxpayers still can't win. To prove it, some activist bureaucrats, faced with declining tax revenues, have been cajoling politicians to switch from taxing each gallon of gas to taxing each mile we drive.

Can Technology Beat This Status-Quo?

But how effective would such a change be in real life? After all, practicality has never been our government's best attribute.

1. We've been told that conservation is key to divesting ourselves of America's reliance on foreign oil. However, by reducing incentives for drivers to care about fuel efficiency - which removing taxes per gallon will do - how do we maintain the gains we've made towards energy self-sufficiency?

2. Penalizing people who need to drive long distances to work - which is what many suburbanites do these days - won't help lower unemployment or help secure living wages for the middle class.

3. Large metropolitan areas with shorter commuting distances will be penalized if taxes are based on miles instead of gallons. Think about it: governments in urban areas benefit from traffic congestion, which forces people to waste fuel in bumper-to-bumper traffic, even if they're not traveling very far. City dwellers use gas stuck in gridlock, even though they don't drive the distances rural folks do. So cities will collect less gas money than they're getting now.

4. Perhaps the greatest reason for sticking with the fuel tax is the wildly optimistic - almost farcical - assumptions advocates for mileage taxes make in terms of how revenue would be collected. Personal recordkeeping? Smartphone applications? GPS technology? At some point, they all rely on an honor system that has pretty much proved worthless when it comes to collecting taxes. Meanwhile, taxing fuel by the gallon is simple, efficient, forthright, and it's worked for decades.

There is the possibility that each vehicle's odometer can be engineered to transmit mileage amounts wirelessly to the government. But considering how apprehensive many Americans already are about the Big Brother reach of state and federal regulators, how suspicious will we be that even more electronic surveillance of our lives is going to help us? Then too, what's the likelihood that a booming new underground industry related to disabling the odometer's ability to transit information would be forthcoming?

Spend Properly, Tax Fairly, and See Who Complains

Just because the amount of taxes being collected has fallen as the number of gallons sold has declined, who's saying that automatically means the gas tax doesn't work?

If we need to raise the gas tax to help make up for any shortfall caused by improved mileage standards, then let's have a conversation about that. All drivers know how important good roads and reliable bridges are, and we recognize our responsibility to pay for them. Granted, I suspect that many transportation budgets could still benefit from a thorough review of expenditures before we start panicking about revenue shortfalls. Certainly, our current transportation administration's infatuation with unrealistic high-speed trains needs to be yanked out of service before it wastes more highway dollars.

Even then, however, if our nation's highway infrastructure still needs new capital to keep the driving public safe and our economy moving, don't expect Joe Taxpayer to keep scrupulous mileage records on his iPhone when he gets lost on his next cross-country drive.

Remember: a big part of taxation must be fairness. And tax systems with enormous holes - like a mileage tax - only make scofflaws happy. Which helps explain why, in this discussion, it's interesting to hear people advocating higher taxes (on gasoline) rather than new methodologies (like mileage) for collecting those taxes.

Bureaucrats and politicians should use that anomaly as proof that some old ways of running our government actually do work.

Even if none of us really wants to admit it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

URGENT - Iranian Pastor May Be Executed

UPDATE (Thursday, September 29; 12:19pm): Chances appear good that Nadarkhani will win a reprieve on appeal. Follow updates on the Fox News link below.

This is not a joke.

I was getting ready to post the essay I'd prepared for today when I saw this extremely urgent notice on Facebook from multiple friends. Please pray for Yousef Nadarkhani, a pastor in Iran, who has been convicted of being a Christian and is facing a death sentence to be carried out today or tomorrow.

This is more important than what I'd first prepared to post, so please take this matter to our Lord in prayer!


According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Iranian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani has twice refused to recant his Christian faith during two court hearings this week and will be again demanded to recant at a third trial today or tomorrow; if he continues to refuse, he will be executed. Pastor Nadarkhani was found guilty of apostasy (abandoning Islam) last year and was sentenced to the death penalty by the Supreme Court. The death sentence for apostasy is not codified in the Iranian Penal Code but judges used a loophole in Iran's constitution. Nadarkhani was not a practicing Muslim adult before becoming a Christian, but a court of appeals decided he remained guilty of apostasy because of his Muslim ancestry. Nadarkhani's lawyer made it clear that the repeated demand for recanting is against both Iranian law and the constitution, but the court of appeals insisted the Supreme Court's verdict be applied regardless of its illegality.

Click here for updates from Fox News.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Trial for Jackson Doc No Thriller

I almost feel sorry for him.

Conrad Murray, that is. "Doctor" to the late Michael Jackson, and the man being publicly lynched for being the superstar entertainer's killer.

Murray went on trial today in Los Angeles, with the government intent in proving he mismanaged Jackson's medical care. Personally, I'm content in waiting for a jury to sift through the evidence in a court of law and render their verdict. At least, before we render ours.

But does Murray's trial being in Los Angeles give you much confidence that his jury's verdict will be the right one? Recall, if you will, another black man defending himself in the City of Angel's televised courts, who got off Scott-free because a shriveled-up glove didn't fit his football-player-sized hands.

Even if Murray is as guilty as many in the international media have already made him out to be, it's not hard to have at least a smidgen of sympathy, considering the circus through which he's being forced. From the evidence we've been told by the press, Murray never was a stellar physician and he'd made more than his fair share of financial and medical mistakes during his former career in Houston, Texas. But he's not on trial for any of that.

Apparently, he became as star-struck as many folks in Jackson's narcissistic entourage, and we'll see if his defense attorneys can quell the populist surge of anger over what has been described as a reckless abdication of his Hippocratic Oath in favor of currying favor with the King of Pop.

Let's face it: nobody would be interested in this trial if the patient Murray is accused of mistreating was Jackson's maid. And considering how much most people loathe Jackson's father, Joe, if it had been him who died on Murray's watch, the doctor would probably be lauded as a hero.

I'm not being disrespectful or crass. Just realistic. Los Angeles tends to chew up and spit out its celebrities with irreverent savagery. Whatever fits the public's perception is considered fact, even when the truth is something else entirely.

If Murray is indeed innocent, yet his lawyers can't pull a lot of rabbits out of their hats to wrench media sympathy in his favor, his will not be a life worth living among the fabled communities of southern California. It won't matter that Jackson's personal lifestyle had already eclipsed sanity and relevant responsibility. Should the guy who infamously dangled his infant son over a German balcony, for example, be considered sane enough to hire his own doctors in the first place?

Remember, Jackson bleached his own skin, even as he purported to serve as a role model for blacks. He'd flirted with bankruptcy caused by his uninhibited extravagance and inability to befriend trustworthy financial advisers. Sure, he'd been raised by his money-hungry parents and some of MoTown's kingmakers as a performance protege, with no control over the trajectory of his life until it was too late to change course. But in the end, we're all accountable for our own decisions.

The very reason Jackson's death - and the inevitable trial of his hapless doctor, Murray - are as newsworthy as a mention in my blog makes them, stems from the reality that too many people derive too much satisfaction from the way people like Jackson make them feel, and the revenge with which a guilty verdict for Murray may console them.

Granted, Jackson's fame can't be marginalized simply as trite sensationalism, since his bold artistic flair I wouldn't dare deny. He was indeed unique and probably the grandest entertainer the world will ever know. For whatever that's worth.

But doesn't becoming so consumed by his aura, his sudden death, and his doctor's trial serve to denigrate true injustices that permeate our world and affect many more people far less defenseless than both Jackson and Murray?

Earlier this week, for example, the Saudi Arabian government said they'd consider giving women in their strict kingdom the right to vote. Then today, they found a woman guilty of driving a car and sentenced her to ten lashes.

Get a life, people.

"No message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself then make that change..."
- Man in the Mirror; written by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett; performed by Michael Jackson

Monday, September 26, 2011

Decadence, Thy Name is Junior's


Do you have a restaurant called the Cheesecake Factory where you live?

We have several in the Dallas - Fort Worth area, including one right here in Arlington. All of their restaurants feature a decor I call "California bling:" high on gaudy, and heavy on fake wood, fake palm trees, and painted glass. They're what a Beverly Hills IHOP might look like - if 90210's anorexic denizens actually ate breakfast - but with much better food.

Food which, even in a restaurant called Cheesecake Factory, doesn't relate much to cheesecake. Although, in all fairness, most of their menu items seem quite tasty, served in portions of surprisingly non-bikini-friendly sizes. And while Cheesecake Factories become a destination spot wherever they're located because of their entrees, they do have some serious diet-buster cheesecakes which defy the sleek California image.

Indeed, their cheesecakes boast an impressive listing of flavors, each with a rather fluffy texture, which I suppose fits with the chain's glitzy California bling decor. And sure, they taste good, but... they could be tastier, and their texture isn't what I grew up associating with cheesecakes. Because for the grand, solid, almost sticky original cheesecake experience, you can't beat the sumptuous delights found at Brooklyn's original Junior's Restaurant, at the gritty corner of Flatbush and DeKalb Avenues.

Yes, We Have Kosher Cheesecake

The flagship Junior's in downtown Brooklyn represents the old-school Jewish delicatessen at its urban - if not urbane - gastronomic best. With a faded bling of its own - gold chrome refrigerated cases and window frames, for example - this restaurant reeks of Brooklyn pragmatism and survivalism instead of West Coast indulgence. When Brooklyn's downtown area disintegrated into decay during the city's white flight of the past fifty years, Junior's was one of the few stalwarts, determined to make the most of whatever the city's most populous borough was becoming.

Turns out, Brooklyn was becoming a more vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-industry community, complete with revitalized arts institutions, universities, and a sprawling neighborhood of high-rise office towers housing back-office functions for major Manhattan corporations. More recently, residential skyscrapers have begun marching towards Junior's from Brooklyn's riverfront, while a controversial - and architecturally hideous - NBA arena gets built over one of North America's busiest rail stations.

Meaning that for all of the crime, blight, and worthless urban redesign programs Junior's has had to endure over the decades, maybe now it will really get to shine.

Especially good news, since the family of the restaurant's original owner still runs the place, and guards its recipes as staunchly as they've held their ground. Recipes which include the richest, most flavorful cheesecake I think you'll ever taste, each piece boasting a lightly golden top, and a crust that doesn't dare compete for the flavor. You can get it all dolled up with fruits and specialty toppings like you can at the Cheesecake Factory, but why would you want to adulterate the pure bliss of a Junior's original?

If you weren't hungry before you started today's essay, you should be by now!

It Wouldn't Be Christmas in Brooklyn Without It

I was reminded of Junior's several times this summer when some friends from Florida were visiting New York City and posted a photo of their table at Junior's - piled with food - on FaceBook. My sister-in-law e-mailed me a photo of two divine confections - slabs of cheesecake and chocolate cake - when she and my brother were visiting my aunt this summer.

Then last week, the New York Times ran a story about how consumers were managing to scrape together extra dollars for some of life's little pleasures, like cheesecake from the Junior's shop in Manhattan's remodeled Grand Central Station. Along with a photo. Not of cheesecakes, fortunately, or I would have likely drooled all over my laptop. But of some fanciful cupcakes and other pastries, as sweet-toothed customers struggled to decide on their order.

Years ago, when my father's mother was still alive, she and my aunt would host scrumptuous Christmas Day lunches at their airy apartment in Brooklyn. The pastor of their neighborhood's Finnish church and his wife and daughter would always attend, plus several of the older ladies in the church who didn't have family in the city, plus my family. And usually, although my grandmother did most of the cooking - including a delicately prepared lamb - she and my aunt would order deli trays and desserts from Junior's.

How I loved those bona-fide Christmas feasts!

One year in particular, I remember that my aunt hadn't managed to get by Junior's to pick up their order before Christmas Day. Fortunately, since Junior's is owned by Jews, they're open on Christmas (or, at least, they used to be), so that morning, my father and I drove downtown. I remember we found a parking space in front of the restaurant, loaded up the car with my grandmother's order, and started back to the apartment via Flatbush Avenue.

A few moments later, as we were pulling up to a stoplight, I noticed that somebody was running down the sidewalk, along with our car, waving wildly at us, and yelling. At first, my Dad, who grew up in Brooklyn and understood how rough it had become, warned me to ignore the guy. Probably some lunatic. But he came running right up to our car.

And we realized:  he was the clerk from Junior's!

We'd forgotten to take the most important part of our meal: the cheesecake! How could we possibly have done that? The clerk had noticed our mistake, scooped up the bakery boxes we'd left on the counter, and charged out into the cold Brooklyn morning, hoping to catch us as we drove away. He knew how bad we'd feel if we made it home without the day's ultimate dessert!

Back then, that kind of effort by the Junior's employee was called customer service. Today, in any business, it would likely be called a miracle.

Boy, I'd sure love a slice of Junior's cheesecake right about now to make sure it hasn't changed at all!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Coroner Fans Flames of Intrigue


Isn't that a great word? An oddly satisfying use of consonants in a testosterone-laden way that actually helps sound out the meaning of the word.

You've heard of things like the internal combustion engine, of course. But have you hear of spontaneous combustion? Things just bursting into flames? No accelerant, no fuse, no ignition, no detonation device?

How about spontaneous combustion in a human being? Somebody simply erupting into fire?

Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin, the coroner in West Galway, Ireland, officially ruled Thursday that a death suffered just before Christmas 2010 was indeed spontaneous human combustion (SHC).

Michael Faherty was found dead on the floor in his home, his torso and limbs burned, along with the flooring beneath him and the ceiling above him, but nothing else. Except a fire in the fireplace.  Which fire investigation experts concluded hadn't set the body alight.

Eerie, huh?

And gross.

Of course, not everybody believes spontaneous combustion is possible in humans. Sure, mix some chemicals together improperly, and you can trigger a flammable reaction. But the human body just does not incinerate itself. For one thing, physiologically, we're 70% water. It doesn't make sense.

Apparently, Victorians believed that SHC was God's punishment of alcoholics.  Charles Dickens incorporates a drunk in his novel, Bleak House, that ends up cremating himself. And cases around the world have been documented of human torsoes burned to a crisp while nothing else is. But this is the first known ruling in an official report by an esteemed coroner in a developed country of SHC.

There was no sign of foul play, no suicide note, or anything that could have been used to set Faherty on fire. After Dr. McLoughlin exhausted all of his other options, the only thing left was the weirdest diagnosis he'd ever contemplated.

And for which he had no alternative verdict.

As you might expect, I'm skeptical of Dr. McLoughlin's diagnosis. According to published reports, Faherty hadn't been seen for a couple of days. What if he'd fallen in his home, with the fireplace ablaze, he'd knocked himself unconscious, and a spark or ember from the fire somehow shot out of the fire and ignited his clothes as he lay on the floor? Maybe he'd had a heart attack, and never revived as the flames consumed his body.

But that doesn't explain why the flames stopped after burning through his body, does it? After all, since our bodies are mostly water, would they provide enough combustible material to satiate a fire? Why didn't the flames continue along the floor, and ignite nearby pieces of furniture? Yes, the floor beneath Faherty was burned, which would be expected, and the ceiling above his burning body, which would also be normal. Apart from those two areas, however, it certainly sounds like the flash of fire that consumed Faherty's body did not have the energy to migrate any further.

So... we're left to wonder: is Dr. McLoughlin a rogue coroner with an unbalanced sense of reality, recklessly willing to throw professional credibility to the wind?

Or does SHC really exist?

Long-time readers of my blog know that I don't drink alcoholic beverages. Or smoke.

And this story has given me one more reason not to start!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sobering Truths in the Death Penalty

Before the Internet age, I used to subscribe to Christianity Today magazine.

Then they ran an editorial musing about whether the United States should reconsider its allowance of capital punishment.

And I realized the rumors I'd been hearing might actually be true: the venerable evangelical periodical founded by Billy Graham was going liberal.

I cancelled my subscription, and even today, only occasionally check out their website. Mostly out of curiosity, to see how far they might be straying from the straight-and-narrow.

And some conservatives think I'm a left-wing radical!

Granted, among people of faith, our country's debate over the death penalty doesn't rank up there with the heady doctrinal and theological hair-splitting that likely divides most readers of Christianity Today. But over the past couple of days, as the international furor over the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia has proven, the issue of punishment by death has yet to be settled.

Both Christians and secularists in America and around the world have been either horrified that multiple attempts at resolving Davis' sentence ultimately failed to stop his execution, or satisfied that justice had finally been served.

To be certain, we should never marginalize life, nor death. Which means those who are found guilty of doing either by committing murder can morally face a punishment designed to enshrine the sanctity of life.

Not that vigilante justice is the appropriate way of securing this recognition. God has vested the responsibility for punishing murderers with human governments, and just as death in warfare is not murder, neither is administering the sentence of death as recompense for taking someone else's life.

Trail of Crimes Topped by Killing a Cop

None of us should forget the travesty of a police officer being gunned down in the line of duty. In this case, it all started when Mark MacPhail, a Savannah cop, investigated the beating of a homeless man outside a convenience store. Davis, who'd just shot another man in the face at a pool party moments earlier, was pistol-whipping his second victim with an accomplice when MacPhail tried to intervene. It ended with officer MacPhail dead with bullet wounds to his chest and face.

To this day, no forensic evidence irrefutably linking Davis to MacPhail's death has been found. We have no physical proof that Davis pulled the trigger and shot MacPhail. Could the gun have accidentally discharged multiple times during the melee with such accuracy? Are the assertions that the gun appears to be the same one that was used in both shootings that evening, and that Davis was the shooter both times, sufficient to sentence Davis to death?

Putting the Trial on Trial

Apparently, the bullets used to injure the first shooting victim and kill MacPhail were not the same, but could have been fired from the same gun. The other participant implicated in the scuffle waffled on whether he, too, had a gun. And the plausible discrepancies began to pile up from there.

A crucial piece of evidence was ruled inadmissible because it had been obtained without a search warrant. At least one witness testified under oath that he had been intimidated by the police. Eventually, seven of nine witnesses had their identifications of Davis as MacPhail's shooter disqualified as Davis' appeals wound through the legal system. Even an unusual review of Davis' trial by none other than the Supreme Court failed to uncover any crucial evidence that hadn't already been vetted for the original jury.

Davis' lawyers insisted their client wasn't guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but even though America's justice system appears to have bent over backwards during the past twenty years for them, they haven't been able to prove it.

Last night, Davis' case could go no further, and he was pronounced dead at 11:08 pm EST, at the age of 42. His last words were these:

"I want to address the members of the MacPhail family. Despite the situation we are all in, you think I’ve killed your father, your brother, your husband, I’m not the person, I’m innocent, what happened was not my fault, I did not have a gun that night, I did not shoot your family member. I’m so sorry for your loss, I really am. I hope you will finally see the truth and others will, too. To my family and supporters, thank you for your prayers and continue to pray. For those about to take my life, I forgive you. God bless you all."

Death Penalty Caught in the Crossfire

Undoubtedly, this legal drama will be debated for years to come in law schools and human rights conferences around the country.

Not only does it encapsulate the tensions that can arise when a white police officer attempts to protect a relatively poor black community, but it involves the myriad social dysfunctions that can exist in that community. Rumor had it, for example, that neighborhood drug gangs wanted somebody - anybody - to get arrested and hauled off to jail for the officer's killing, because the sweep by police looking for suspects was hurting their business.

It also characterizes the crucial problems which arise from ineffective defense attorneys. Some of Davis' appeals were denied because his legal team hadn't presented new evidence properly.

Personally, I agree with MacPhail's widow, who said Davis had two decades to prove his innocence, and he hadn't been able to. Georgia's pardon and parole board spent a year picking over the case before corroborating the jury's verdict. Even the Supreme Court weighed in on this matter, and the ACLU had been pleading with President Barak Obama's office, since he could issue a stay of execution if he so chose.

He didn't.

Granted, there's the whole thing about presidents sticking their noses in Judicial Branch procedures, a tactic that can get messy quickly. But do you think that with his tepid popularity among liberals - his support base - Obama isn't looking for every opportunity to turn the tide of discontent and play superhero to legions of death penalty opponents? What are the chances that his Attorney General's staff wasn't pouring over the case this past week, trying to find just one point of order around which they could drape reasonable doubt? If the Oval Office couldn't find anything to save Davis' case, then chances seem pretty good that nobody else could, either.

Would I have personally been more comfortable with seeing more forensic evidence? Sure. But remember, this crime took place in 1989, in a smallish southern town, before the technology commonly available to crime scene investigators today had been invented. Besides, reasonable doubt is still reasonable doubt. And plenty of experts have concluded that the jury had sufficient information to decide Davis' case beyond this linchpin of jurisprudence.

The Purpose of Capital Punishment

We can't forget somebody committed officer MacPhail to his eternal destiny that tragic night in Savannah. And for the past twenty years, at least two witnesses have remained adamant that Davis was the somebody.

The Bible teaches in the Old Testament that for capital punishment to be rendered, at least two witnesses need to attest to the guilt of the accused. And those witnesses will be held accountable for their crucial testimony.  The New Testament contains numerous passages regarding adherence to the two-witness rule, including indirect references when the woman accused of adultery was brought before Christ, and when somebody wants to bring charges against a church elder.

Some scholars like to take the lack of any definitive New Testament endorsement of capital punishment as proof that it's an expired Old Testament relic of pre-grace days.  However, the fact that Christ was framed by a whole class of religious leaders and crucified without any legal recourse because of it - even though He'd never murdered anyone - actually lends credibility to the permanence of capital punishment's Biblical validity.

Having Christ die from a prosecution whose governmental authority for capital punishment the apostles never contested - although they did point out the illegality of the charges and testimony against Jesus - hardly seems to portray the actual use of capital punishment itself as immoral.

Does it?

If the state of Georgia has been led to an erroneous conclusion in the Davis case, God will judge appropriately those who have born false witness against the accused.

If that sounds like a cop-out, don't worry: God promises that revenge is His. By way of contrast, capital punishment is not revenge; it's an affirmation of life.

Because meanwhile, while crowds of protesters decried Davis' execution in Georgia last night, here in Texas, another execution took place.

Self-avowed white supremacist Lawrence Russell Brewer died by lethal injection at about 6:20pm CST for the infamously horrific dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., in the rural east Texas town of Jasper.

No crowds of anxious death penalty foes mourned Brewer's passing. Instead, our local media recounted the life of his victim, and interviewed his family, trying to find consolation in justice.

Justice that isn't revenge, but an advocate for what is right.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Less Ponzi than Pragmatic

The younger you are, chances are you agree with the pundits blasting Social Security as a Ponzi scheme.

After all, Texas governor Rick Perry isn't the first person to make that infamous comparison. And in our current season of malcontent over perceived inequities in entitlements, Social Security is the big target at which everybody wants to shoot.

(Although, if you ask me, a professional politician like Perry has no credibility telling people who won't benefit from his lucrative government pension & healthcare benefits how they should endure old age.)

Yes, in some ways, a Ponzi scheme a'la Bernie Madoff can look like the way Social Security works, since there's technically no guarantee that workers putting money into the program today will get to benefit from it when they retire.

But is that the fullest expression of a criminally valid Ponzi scheme? It's a politically convenient analogy, but like most of those, it's not entirely accurate. And I suspect the jokes and insinuations over Social Security's alleged fraudulency obscures its primary purpose, harms what benefits it provides our country, and distracts from valid efforts to re-engineer it.

Which I think is unfortunate.

Yes, it's broken, but it needs to be fixed, not scrapped. And comparing it to a criminal enterprise is disingenuous.

Nefariously Hidden in Plain Sight?

For all of the similarities between a generic Ponzi scheme, America's critical anti-poverty campaign for senior citizens is hardly a big con job, is it? The fact that some people don't realize Social Security is funded by current workers doesn't make it a fraudulent program. It shows how uneducated the American worker is, perhaps, but not how bad Social Security is. And nobody's ever promised bigger returns from Social Security than personal investments. Indeed, nobody gets rich on their Social Security benefits. On the contrary; it's often what keeps America's elderly from becoming full-blown welfare cases.

Plenty of older Americans have saved and invested for their retirements, only to live longer than those funds. Why penalize people for not dying before their money runs out?

Considering the volatility of the stock market, does it make much sense to put your retirement eggs in Wall Street's basket? The reason our government administers Social Security is because it will probably be around longer than many investments. Or at least have a better credit rating. Granted, credit is part of the problem that has Republicans setting their sights on Social Security in the first place. But few Americans trust the crooks on Wall Street more than the crooks on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Plus, it's human nature's tendency to avoid delayed gratification, at least in the United States. Our economy is driven by consumerism, and how many conservative owners of - and investors in - companies that make stuff want their customers to save more than they spend, fearful of running out of money in retirement?

What if people who turn 50 suddenly stop buying new cars, new homes, new clothes, new appliances and electronics, and start hoarding their cash as a safety net for when their employers eventually say they're too old to work? At least with Social Security, Americans have a moderate level of confidence that something will be there to help them out in their Golden Years.

If we didn't have Social Security, wouldn't we need to have some other mechanism to help our elderly survive? Not everybody can have six-figure salaries and sock away thousands of dollars they may never use. I talk a lot about the top five-percenters, but do you realize the baseline income for this elite group starts at about $160,000 a year? That means 95% of Americans earn less than that. Most American workers earn about $40,000 per year. And with property values dropping by upwards of 30% in some markets, retirees can't bank on their homes as a last-ditch source for cash in a pinch.

Fix or Scrap?

The key difference people fond of invoking Madoff along with Social Security forget is that in a true Ponzi scheme, participants don't have a chance to amend variables as the program matures. We do - and we need to amend the variables that can help make the same program our grandparents relied upon work for our generation and beyond.

Since we're living longer, raising the official retirement age to 70 from 65 makes sense, not only because workers will be able to contribute more into the system, but they'll have to wait longer before tapping into it. As the Baby Boomers retire throughout the next couple of decades, experts say America will experience a shortage of workers, so hopefully good jobs will be available longer for enough people.

We also need to have a rational, national dialog about what funding mechanisms can be tweaked on the federal level to stabilize Social Security while the mammoth Boomer population matriculates through old age. Personally, I'd like to see stricter enforcement of welfare regulations and a clamp-down on Medicaid fraud, so money saved there can be reallocated to people who've actually helped fund the retirement of previous generations of workers.

No, Social Security is not a perfect program. And no, having the government run a glorified retirement plan is not ideal. But it's what we've got, it's worked relatively well in the past, and Washington does not have a good track record of implementing new programs in our current bureaucratic malaise. Because if we scrap Social Security, a new program will have to be put into place to take care of many senior citizens in the United States.

For those who disagree with me, please go and ask your grandparents what they think about this reviled entitlement I'm defending. And then consult your own bank account statement, and see how much you could kick in to help keep them financially stable were they to be deprived of their monthly check.

If our Lord tarries, retirement will eventually come to us all. But financial wealth may not. And if you end up on the wrong side of the portfolio ledger, would you still consider Social Security to be the bane of American democracy?

Would you rather sweat out the deductions from your paycheck now, while you can work? Or then, when your youth is a distant memory of idealism... rather than pragmatism?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Vetting Actionable Data for Class War

Is class warfare heating up in the United States?

According to a recent study by some social scientists, certain correlations may exist between wealth and religiosity, painting a morose picture of economic subjugation relieved through religion. Particularly in America.

Meanwhile, President Barak Obama has seized on billionaire Warren Buffett's suggestion about raising taxes for the top five-percent of US taxpayers, eliciting cries of classism from some conservatives.

I'm starting to dread presidential campaign seasons.

Does Religion in America Hide Economic Disparity?

In terms of the new research, as surmised by Tobin Grant for Christianity Today, the greater the material wealth in a society, the less prevalent religion should be.  In other words, money breeds secularism, as witnessed in most of post-Christian Europe.  However, the more imbalanced the distribution of wealth becomes in a society, the more religious the society tends to be.

Maybe not the Christian religion, but a faith of some sort, serving as a panacea for the masses over whom the wealthy are lording.

As far as the degree to which religiosity relates to economic variables, I must disagree with this assessment of the data used by Grant and other sociologists he references.  Quite simply, God calls His people to Himself  regardless of their income, their socioeconomic status, and their nationality.  To the extent that human groups create religious systems to indoctrinate their adherents and provide a framework for manifesting their faith, I suppose religion can be traced along with other cultural factors for certain purposes.  But in terms of salvific causation, nothing in any society can get people to God or keep them from God.  God's sovereignty will claim for His eternal purposes those whom He calls.

So trying to use wealth as an indication of where religiosity should or shouldn't be present is a fallacy. Amen? Regardless of whether rich people do or don't try and manipulate poorer people using faith-based mechanisms.

When Ranking High Isn't a Good Thing

Interestingly enough, however, if you dig into the data Grant references in his article, you find a stunning revelation that does appear to provide a clear refutation of a political barb many conservatives have popularized.

How many times lately have you heard a right-winger accuse Democrats of inciting class warfare as calls for tax increases for the wealthy persist, along with talk of holding the line on entitlements? As if there is currently no strife between the economic classes in the United States, and income inequity is a figment of the liberal left's wild imagination.

Well, unfortunately for those rich Republicans who'd just as soon leave their poorer bretheren ignorant of reality, even our own CIA has done the math on income inequity in the United States. Among all of their research to anticipate political hotspots across the globe, they've calibrated the socioeconomic volatility existing in various countries which could make them susceptible to conflict. And sure enough, we appear ripe for some class warfare, just like many impoverished countries in Africa and South America.

Don't believe me?  Check out the stats for yourself, according to the CIA's World Factbook.  The United States ranks 39th out of 136 economies in terms of income inequity.  We're worse than Iran, Nigeria, Kenya, Russia, and even China.  Here's a break-out of some other reference points (the numbers indicate their inequity score):

1 Namibia (70.7)
38 Jamaica (45.5)
39 United States (45.0)
40 Cameroon (44.6)
42 Iran (44.5)
51 Russia (42.2)
52 China (41.5)
74 Japan (37.6)
92 United Kingdom (34.0)
101 Canada (32.1)
124 Germany (27.0)
136 Sweden (23.0)

Now, granted, since America has been home to most of the world's largest and most profitable corporations for years, and since most of the world's richest people are Americans, being a nation of wealth isn't surprising. But what's surprising - and disturbing - is that this data doesn't measure wealth, but the disparity between the rich and the poor, relative to each country's population.

I would think a healthy ranking for a country of our size and economic output might put us between Japan and the United Kingdom, two prosperous nations with enviable standards of living not too dissimilar from our own. But for the United States to rank between a tiny British protectorate and an impoverished African nation? The ignominy!

And, maybe peril?

Of course, some conservatives will immediately protest that the reason we have a disproportionate number of poor people in the United States skewing our ranking downward is because of generational poverty caused by our welfare state. But the numbers aren't just weighted on the bottom of the scale, are they? The disparity also comes from the people - the "five percenters" - who control such stratospheric wealth in comparison with the other 95 percent of American wage earners.

Remember, though, this analysis by the CIA is based on income, not wealth. So to say that workers in Cameroon have it only slightly better than workers in the United States in terms of income equity isn't anything to brag about, especially since their gross domestic product is a pittance compared to ours.

While we still have a relatively large middle class, it's not helping the mood of the country - or our faith in whatever principles of economic equity we like to think exist - to have so many rich people moving so far up the income ladder, while employment stagnates, costs keep rising, and home values deflate. Yes, these problems affect everybody, but some feel the pressure more than others.

And the people who don't respect the power of that pressure could get burned the most.

Compromise Requires Reciprocating Logic

I've said before that while I don't see any particular moral problem with raising taxes on the super-rich, I haven't thought doing so would raise enough money to put a dent in the nation's debt. The value I see for the country, however, is the ability to enact an emotional outlet valve that will help simmer resentment against the top 5-percenters who've benefitted the most from our country's abundance.

Having said that, however, I've been appalled to see how high Obama has proposed to raise taxes for the rich. Quite simply, conservatives are well within their rights to call his tax rate hike unfair. From what I've read, he basically wants to double their tax rate, putting it at about 30%.


If that is the case, then the president will be taxing thousands of high-wage earners out of the United States. Literally. Because most of them work in jobs that don't literally require them to live here. Think "Internet technology," and you get both the industry in which many rich people earn their big salaries, and the method by which they get their work done.

Besides, isn't it just plain petulant to double somebody's taxes just because you think they can afford to absorb the hit? Yes, liberals, it is!

Bottom line for tax-and-spend liberals is that spending should match revenue, not the other way around. This means our government's budget must be slashed. And if tax rates do need to rise (which, again, I don't think will be very productive), they should rise at a percentage that doesn't patronize or penalize people just because they earn more than many other folks.

Silly me - here I've been, thinking that Democrats were talking about raising taxes on the top 5-percenters a few percentage points. I didn't think they had the audacity to want to double it!  I guess that's one of the perils of trying to be a moderate conservative and advocating compromise on some of these issues.  I need to be less naive that radicals on the left won't try and pull stunts like this.

Not that radicals on the right don't have their own fears to face with the reality that America's income inequity is real and poses real dangers to the stability of our society.

It's just that the class warfare for which liberals appear to be spoiling - and which conservatives don't realize has considerable ammunition already - could erupt into something which nobody wins.

Our peers on the CIA's roster of income disparity can verify that.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Avoiding Egg on a Poacher's Face


We all think we know what it means.

But in terms of economic survival, do American voters really want our politicians to take it seriously? We like to put up our country against any of the world's emerging powerhouses and assume we're still tops, but do we really understand the stakes?

For example, can the state where you live compete with China for jobs?

After all, states rights has become a popular rallying cry among conservatives these days. Yet we tend to forget there is still strength in unity.

As in, "united" states.

Poaching as a State's Right

Although Governor Rick Perry currently serves as the Tenth Amendment's highest-profile cheerleader, and Texas spends millions every year poaching companies and jobs from other states, Perry and the Lone Star State aren't the only flagrant traitors to America's economic unity. Just about every state has a department devoted to wooing employers from other states, and most American cities have at least one person paid to compete for corporate relocations, even from other cities in the same state.

Now, they don't call it "poaching," like I do. Maybe because when Texans do it, it's more akin to "rustling," like they used to do with cattle.

Meanwhile, economic incentives paid with taxpayer dollars are used like candy to appease wanderlust businesses, or persuade local companies to stay instead of mosey off to another city or state offering better incentives.

It's become a big game to see how loyal companies are to their hometowns, or how desperate those hometowns are for new employers. By now, we know that we're all robbing Peter to pay Paul for these corporate Chinese fire drills, but who's really winning?

Probably not the United States, but the Chinese. And every other emerging market across the globe, most of which has the wherewithal to undercut the best deal America's healthiest municipality or state can possibly offer.

After all, nobody in America can live on $1 a day, and even the the most belligerent anti-environmentalist won't risk their health working in a dangerous facility with cancer-causing chemicals open to the elements. But plenty of workers in countries with lax or non-existent environmental laws will. And capitalism - which for better and worse, seeks the lowest common denominator for higher profits - will inevitably trickle down where obstructions to profit are the weakest.

If that wasn't true, the United States wouldn't be hemorrhaging jobs to Third World - excuse me, Majority World - countries every year.

Is it Rustling When Unions Have Already Milked the Herd?

This is partly what prompted Jennifer Granholm, a two-term governor of Michigan, to write her book, A Governor’s Story: The Fight for Jobs and America’s Economic Future. Granholm, a Democrat, is quoted by the New York Times as advocating for a more comprehensive front at the federal level for protecting jobs in the United States.

Granted, a Democratic governor from Michigan won't have enough credibility to voice this opinion loud enough for Republicans in right-to-work states like Texas to listen. After all, one big thorn in Michigan's side has been the unreasonable might of labor unions. The state's crumbling Big Three made plenty of mistakes on the corporate side, but hard-line unions prevented fundamental changes to pay structures that could have actually saved their jobs.

If they'd been producing cars of a quality Americans would buy.

Part of the problem has been that unionized labor became convinced of its invincibility, even as it allowed their own manufacturing standards to plummet. Americans might have been willing to pay obscenely unreasonable prices for the Big Three's products if they'd actually been well-built to start with. But even as Detroit's design studios got hacked by bean-counters, union wages failed to match worker craftsmanship.

Not all American manufacturing has been held hostage to union labor and blind corporate governance. So Michigan's tale of woe represents a worst-case scenario in terms of jobs lost to overseas competition. Still, isn't Granholm's point about interstate jobs-poaching a valid one?

To the extent that state laws and taxation make running a business more expensive in one part of the country than another, each state needs to mind its costs and expectations if it wants to remain competitive with other states. But by viewing the battle for jobs within an American-centric perspective, might we be losing the war?

Globalization, Jobs, and Some Protectionism

Just because Perry has been able to attract new jobs to Texas, does that mean he can extrapolate his success into attracting new jobs to the United States?

Perhaps. Like many other governors, Perry has taken junkets across the world to try and attract foreign investment in Texas. But how effective is this buckshot approach? If governors from a dozen states woo the same officials from Shanghai, can those economic pitches stand up to the incentives countries like Vietnam, Russia, and Kenya can provide? Countries where China is establishing ever-stronger footholds, and where an ambivalence towards the old must-be-in-America business model appears to be gaining steam.

After all, post-industrial America is the new Europe, with a standard of living that is only obtainable in places like Russia through graft and corruption. And still practically unheard of in Vietnam, Kenya, and many spots across the Majority World.

So... what does all this mean in terms of America's upcoming election?

Just that in America's competition for jobs, the stakes between the states may prove to be punitive when considering that the job market isn't just an American playing field. Instead of making Dallas more appealing to a corporate relocation from San Diego, we need to be working on solidifying America's ranking as a viable global economic competitor.

If that means higher import tariffs, lower or more flexible corporate tax structures, and other changes in international trade policies, then let's talk about it. We need political candidates to debate these issues, which means we need political candidates who know enough about our world to be eligible stewards of America's place in it.

And in that regard, poachers hold little credibility with hunters.

Friday, September 16, 2011

On the Record for This Week's News

Regular readers of my blog know I'm not much of a sound-bite kind of guy. Usually, my opinions are more complex than a one-sentence summary or catchy shout-out.

Hey - I've never wanted to be a politician anyway. Politicians make their living off of sound-bites. Which kinda helps explain why our country is in the shape it's in these days.

Meanwhile, some of this week's news stories have been so stark in terms of content, it's hard for me not to dismiss them with some of my own one-liners.

Which, while my one-liners may not be profound, may at least help prevent us from wasting too much more time on them:

>  On the 700 Club's Pat Robertson and his claim this week that a husband is morally allowed to divorce his Alzheimer's-stricken wife: "Will the national media NOW realize Robertson doesn't have the credibility to speak as an evangelical Christian?!"

>  On the NFL's New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his call for Boston football fans to show up for the game this Sunday drunk: "So all the ambulance-chasing lawyers can sue you directly when drunken fans driving to Gillette Stadium cause wrecks on Foxborough's Route One?"

>  On Democrats now wishing Hillary Clinton, former presidential candidate along with Barak Obama and Obama's current Secretary of State, had been their nominee instead of Obama: "Ouch - don't look now, Mr. President, but the woman who's been trying to clean up your diplomatic blunders for the past three years is apparently the "change" your party would have really preferred."

>  On junior-level trader Kweku Adoboli's ability to fraudulently dither away $2 billion in UBS profits - and that it was his own personal confession, instead of internal UBS knowledge of his scam: "It's difficult to evaluate somebody's integrity when the industry in which they work has so little to begin with."

>  On Australia's new national passports, the first in the world to feature Male, Female, and "X" categories for gender: "If you don't know what sex you are, you surely don't want the government telling you."

>  On Republican Catholic Bob Turner's surprise defeat of Jewish Democrat David Weprin in a special election in New York City:  "Nobody can bow to the king of Saudi Arabia and expect New York Jews to 'fuggheddabatit.'"

>  On the US Postal Service's threat to eliminate overnight First Class mail if Congress won't let them restructure other parts of their failed business plan: "Do they really think anybody will be able to notice?"

OK.  There.  I've said it.

And you can quote me on that!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Towards a Truly Christian Nation?

13 Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. - Romans 12:13-21

For some Republicans, people like me are part of America's problem.

Being independent and politically moderate wins few kudos from right-wingers who insist raw fiscal discipline is the only way to save our country.

I don't deny that we need to overhaul welfare programs, close our borders, raise Social Security's retirement age, and overturn Obamacare. But neither, for example, am I convinced higher taxes on the wealthy reduces employment. Or that our government should be whittled down to basically just the Defense Department, as some far-right-wingers would like.

Read the Declaration of Independence and Constitution carefully, and you'll note that our Founding Fathers assumed both federal and state governments would play a significant role in the identity of the United States of America.  Yes, there have always been and always will be people who don't want anybody to tell them to do or not do anything - especially somebody in authority.  Yet the marginal baseline for governance held by such pseudo-anarchists doesn't necessarily benefit society as a whole.

Just as a crushing bureaucracy advocated by most liberals doesn't.

Hence my defense of political moderation.

While I tend to be politically moderate, however, I'm not a religious moderate. I cling dearly to a belief and confidence in the sovereignty of God; His forgiveness of my sins through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son; the indwelling of His Holy Spirit for comfort and guidance; and His promise of eternal life in Heaven with Him.

Although my nationality is American, my identity is fixed in God through Jesus Christ. And my salvation has not been won for me because I'm an American, or even vote Republican more often than not. But because before the creation of time, God called me to be His own.

I have to remind myself of these profound truths daily - sometimes, multiple times throughout the day. Because if I don't, I can easily become consumed with consternation over more trivial things... like American politics.

After all, on a scale of triviality, even though politics ranks low, it's higher than many of us think.  Our misperception comes from it being in-your-face real, whereas the facts of our faith aren't necessarily tangible, although they're no less real. And even more essential than politics, which is built more on perception and posturing than eternal truth.

If you stop and think about it, all of the problems facing the United States - or any country, for that matter - are based in some sort of sin. Mostly, the opposites of the Fruits of the Spirit. Instead of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, meekness, and self-control, many Americans display ethnocentrism, angst, petulance, harshness, oppression, corruption, haughtiness, and greed.

Add to these problems the optimistic delusion that human faults can be mitigated through political and economic means, and you end up mired in the same obstinate morass we Americans find ourselves today.

Basically, Republicans tend to think that if left to their own devices, individual citizens can solve problems well. Democrats already know that individuals left to their own devices tend to cause chaos, which they think can be ameliorated by government intervention.

And then there are people like me, who think it takes a little bit of both individual autonomy and government rule-minding for our country to survive. Not that I'm any model of the Christian described in Romans 12, of course, but I'm struck by the noticeable dearth of other believers who are.

I'd like to think the solution is as easy as taking Democrats out of the urban areas, where they're surrounded by people who've grown accustomed to relying on the government, and dispersing them into relatively thriving suburbs, where entrepreneurialism is constrained by bureaucracy. And I'd like to take Republicans out of the suburbs and put them into our inner cities, where they'll see that reforming governmental cradle-to-grave policies won't be as easy as simply cutting services by arbitrary percentages.

As the saying goes, you can learn a lot about somebody by walking a mile in their shoes.  And since God expects His children to live as peaceably as they can with their neighbors, that includes those who don't vote the way you'd like.

Here in the United States, we're each blessed with the opportunity to educate ourselves on issues, evaluate candidates, and make an informed vote.  And we have an obligation as contributing citizens to do so. Still, I sometimes wonder if the author of Romans 12, who of course, is God, agrees with the issues we consider to be top political priorities.

And if He deigned to run for office on a platform as outlined in this passage from Romans, we'd want to vote for Him.

Granted, this passage from Romans is intended to be a template for Christian community, as clarified in verses 4 and 5 of Chapter 12. But I'm not brave enough to suggest that the way God expects us to act amongst ourselves shouldn't at least be a model for how we interact with the world around us as well.

Then again, considering how we sometimes are guilty of treating fellow believers uncharitably, maybe the way some of us carry on in national politics is par for the course.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

How Easily Youth Can Diss Social Security

You know you're getting old when you start attending more funerals than weddings.

People my age have arrived at that time of life when our parents begin to suffer the travails of old age and pass away. Today I attended the funeral of the mother of a friend of mine. And I'm reminded yet again that my cohort - people who graduated college around 1990 - will be meeting under similar circumstances more and more in the next few years.

Several years ago at the funeral of another friend's father, the comparison was made between a parent's death and a mountain. As a young person, you see the mountain representing the death of a parent in the distance. It's far enough away that you don't really think about it. As you get older, the mountain gets closer and its details come more sharply into view, but it's still far enough away to not consider on a regular basis.

Then, suddenly, one day, you're at the foot of the mountain. Your parent has died, and you have no alternative but to climb that mountain of grief and loss. You've turned a corner in life, and without realizing how close you'd come, the mountain you'd seen ahead of you all these years stands at your feet.

For those of you who've already experienced the loss of a parent, is that a pretty accurate analogy?

I shared it with my friend today, whose diabetic mother had gone into the hospital a month ago with an annoying cough she couldn't get rid of. Eventually, her breathing got so belabored that even with oxygen, her heart simply couldn't keep up. They're still waiting for the results from an autopsy to learn what went wrong.

Perhaps because of my own family's travails recently, about which I've already written, I'm sensitive right now to issues involving the aged. You'll recall that when we were evaluating rest homes for my aunt in Brooklyn, our options ranged from $7,500 to $10,000 per month for an average private facility. Public city facilities would have been cheaper, of course, but then, I don't need to explain the differences between public and private care in New York City.

Getting old is expensive. Particularly in this day and age, when people are living longer, but haven't necessarily had a lucrative career that helped fortify their bank accounts. I find myself getting angry when I hear wealthy politicians and corporate types complaining about entitlement programs like Social Security as if such they're evil incarnate, or as Texas governor Rick Perry has infamously claimed, "Ponzi schemes."

Granted, a simplistic assessment of Social Security, which assumes current workers are paying for benefits received by current retirees - with no guarantee of receiving benefits when they themselves retire, seems like something Bernie Madoff dreamed up. But is Social Security, despite its faults, the corrupt, wealth-draining fraud some right-wingers like to cast it as?

Nobody gets rich off their Social Security check, yet for some people, that check is all that stands between them and utter poverty. Some critics of Social Security say it's the fault of old people for not saving enough for retirement, but how many of those critics have enjoyed a relatively high income during their working lives? Plus, the cost of living doesn't become frozen in time when one retires, and sometimes expenses incurred during old age can quickly strip even the best-planned portfolios.

Indeed, I suspect that the more steadfast a person's belief that Social Security is bad for America, the less experience they've had in dealing with older relatives who are facing daunting medical bills and other aging expenses. The real world is about as forgiving as those people who view Social Security as negatively as a Ponzi scheme.

Sure, it needs to be fixed, and among other things, its official retirement age needs to be raised. But how a society treats its elders says a lot about its values. And should we be such ogres over providing a financial cushion for our parents and grandparents - even if some of them didn't plan as fully as they could have for their golden years?

Several years ago, when everyone was bullish on the stock market, some pundits said people should have the option of investing by themselves instead of being forced to pay into Social Security. Isn't it funny how silent those people are these days, with Wall Street convulsing over the world's economic woes? How much money have you lost lately? Would you want your entire retirement income depending on the machinations of Goldman Sachs, Greece, and sub-prime lenders?

Maybe your old age will be something your family will be able to comfortably afford. But how many of today's retirees thought the same thing? And how much does Social Security cost our nation, compared with the deep poverty many Americans might suffer without it?

As you assume more and more care for the aging loved ones in your family, keep track of how helpful Social Security can be.

Maybe then you'll be more interested in preserving it for when you may need it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Is Contempt of Compromise Wise?

As the saying goes, familiarity may breed contempt.

But affinity can breed illusion.

How many of us spend so much time with people so similar to ourselves that we develop a myopic assumption that the world is full of people who think the way we do?

Or if not the world, then at least, the United States?

If this type of ethnocentrism is as prevalent as I suspect it is among both sides of our political aisle, might it be particularly popular among evangelical conservatives, who think we have a lock on methods of effective governance? How many churched voters have fostered a belief that the American electorate isn't as much of a problem as politicians? How many evangelicals have woefully underestimated the degree to which the mores and morals by which we evaluate politics are shunned by people outside our faith? And how has this inaccurate assessment encouraged us to consider political compromise by our nation's elected leaders a bad thing?

After all, try voicing a moderate political opinion these days among groups of evangelicals, and see how fast you get accused of heresy.

But is political compromise necessarily wrong?

Politicians Don't Get Elected in Vacuums

For the most part, politicians get elected by being the person who best represents the ideology of the majority of their voting constituents. We often forget that basic rubric of democracy. Therefore, the extent to which liberal politics resonates with as many voters as it does comes in large measure from the fact that many voters hold liberal viewpoints on political issues. As happens with conservatives. And liberals are as loathe to change their minds as conservatives are theirs.

Not just the politicians, remember, but the people who elected them in the first place.

Which makes blaming politicians for our country's woes a rather ineffective strategy for fixing those woes.

Nevertheless, some evangelical activists have embarked on a campaign to implicate politicians for acting against the wishes of the majority of Americans. This campaign assumes that liberal politicians have somehow hijacked the political process and managed to seize their mandate from a victimized electorate.

But all this effort acknowledges is that many Americans simply don't vote, which is a dangerous point for conservatives to want to prove. Think about it: if people don't vote, that generally means they're content with the status quo. And if they're content with the status quo - a status quo which many evangelicals, including myself, think is taking us on a negative trajectory - then isn't the fact that there aren't enough of us to push for relevant change more of a social indictment against what conservatives want? If people still don't feel compelled to vote, even after things have gotten as bad as we think they've become, for what are they waiting that conservatives haven't been able to provide?

I suspect that a majority of Americans simply aren't waiting for change; they're content with life as they know it. So politicians aren't getting a mandate to change course.

That should scare us into prayer for our country and it's citizens, not just its leaders. But it sounds like some conservatives, particularly some Tea Partiers, maybe find it a lot easier to blame politicians.

How Compromise Got Its Bad Rap

Meanwhile, activists of both conservative and liberal stripes look back on the history of politics in the United States and conclude that the reason we're in our current stalemate owes heavily to bad compromises previous administrations and congresses have made.

And we can probably all agree there's a certain amount of truth in that assessment.

But was it the need for compromise itself that was bad, or the simple fact that past leaders didn't craft good compromises that has led us to where we are today?

Don't forget that compromise crafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the two keystone documents of our country. If succeeding generations of presidents and congresspeople haven't been able to replicate that original pattern of unity for the sake of the union, how does that automatically implicate compromise?

Without compromise, what's left besides developing a dictatorial style of leadership? Isn't tyranny what the Colonists were trying to defeat? Yet listen to some hard-core conservatives, and you'll hear calls for a dictator to foist the desires of one group of voters upon everybody else.

Aren't unilateral decisions the hallmark of the China's, USSR's, and Iraq's of our world? Isn't excluding the voices of major chunks of the United States electorate because they belong to the wrong political party something we expect from Third World despots?

We need to remember that God, not politics, provides our daily dose of what makes America great. And He's also appointed the people who serve in our elected offices, and He's granted you and me the ability to vote those people into - and out of - those offices.

And not just us evangelicals. Or, for those of you who remain skeptical that I'm politically conservative enough, not just Republicans. I talked with somebody last week who was genuinely shocked when I told him I knew of evangelicals who were registered Democrats. That was as implausible a notion to my friend as Baptists being superior to Presbyterians.

Whomever Makes Diversity Work for Them Wins

In politics, compromise may not be desirable, but it is essential. Running a country like the United States isn't the seamlessly efficient, resolutely uncomplicated, and charmingly heroic undertaking many Americans today like to believe it should be. Politics can be viewed through a Christian worldview, but it is not theological doctrine. The Gospel of Christ is worth dying for; the gospel of Rush Limbaugh isn't.

This doesn't mean that liberals and conservatives should be each other's doormats. There's nothing pure or perfect in any political theory.

Remember, absolutes belong to God, but there are few absolutes in politics. Yet don't we often reverse those two facts? With grace, we float through life assuming that whatever sins we may be committing are covered, but we dither over legislative issues as if the free world hangs in the balance over each one.

Let's face it: conservatives and liberals in the United States find their greatest differences in how each interprets the absolutes in our politics, which come down to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For example, on life, conservatives generally believe life begins at conception, while liberals generally believe life begins at birth. A significant difference, yes, and for many people, a game-changer. But both conservatives and liberals still have a lot to learn about life on both sides of birth, and how it needs to be respected.

On liberty, conservatives generally believe that rules and regulations restrict freedoms, while liberals view rules and regulations as necessary buffers for personal and corporate excesses. Conservatives are also generally more willing to spend significant more tax dollars on defending freedoms than liberals are. But can't rules and regulations which may crimp freedoms for some, while protecting the rights of others, be seen as an exercise of freedom for the greater good? Otherwise we'd have anarchy, in which nobody is really free, and we'd be faced with some of the same types of turmoil our military attempts to quell overseas.

On the pursuit of happiness, both conservatives and liberals find plenty to bristle over, depending on the rule or regulation they perceive to be inhibiting their definition of a good time. People who wanted prayers during New York City's official 9/11 observance faced the same consternation as do gays who want to marry. It all boils down to what you think is important. And whether we like it or not, that will vary by the individual.

United We Stand, Divided...

Maybe back when the ways voters got their information were less sophisticated or plentiful, history could be more easily chiseled in the edifice of public opinion by elite masters of national dialog. But today, we've got websites and pundits from a panoply of political ideologies contributing to the stew that has become our national shouting match. And this has elevated real-time rancor and rhetoric to a frustrating level of stagnation which imperils the socioeconomic future of our country.

By now, evangelicals should know that moral arguments aren't going to win many converts. Even inside communities of faith, we have our own problems with hedonism and carnality which portray poor examples of Christlikeness to the culture around us. We're enduring a rocky transition from a churched culture to a non-churched culture, where Biblical references once commonly understood - if perhaps not believed - are increasingly foreign to new generations of Americans. We want our old America back, the country where nativity scenes went unchallenged in front of city halls, and where God was our Heavenly Father, not Allah.

Conservatives don't realize that the more we alienate our fellow countrymen with such polarizing stances as eliminating Social Security, the more we dilute our political posture. By the same token, liberals don't realize that they're alienating our nation's entire employer class by forcing through Obamacare while they controlled Congress. Radical imperialism cuts both ways, and neither way benefits the country as a whole.

For years, it's been the political moderates who've decided national elections, and most pundits predict that 2012 will be no different. But moderates like me tend to look for the people we think can work the best with both their party and the opposition.

The way to do that is know your core principles, the opposition's core principles, and how to leverage everything else. Those types of politicians aren't going to be everybody's hero all the time. But why should we expect them to be?

Many of the problems they're dealing with were created by other people our electorate voted into office years ago.

Both conservatives and liberals.

How will belligerence on our part lend our generation any respect?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Facing the Fact of 9/11

This essay has been adapted from an earlier post on March 4, 2010.

Hey - I admit it.

I'm skeptical of many things, and cynical about many others.

Not that I'm proud of the latter, or find that the former wins me friends.

But I'm neither skeptical nor cynical about whether our government perpetrated 9/11. One of the few things I can say with confidence, even as the 10-year anniversary of that event dawns this Sunday, is that there was no Washington conspiracy.

None. Nada. Zip.

Which, conversely, makes me incredibly cynical towards those folks who do still insist that American officials contrived to perpetrate those despicable events of September 11, 2001. I realize that many Americans harbor incredible animosity and vitriol against our own government. And none of us thinks Washington is scrupulously honest, or always looking out for the interests of the general public.

But planning 9/11?

Is it the sheer, stunning audacity of what happened that makes conspiracists unable to process it all? Has that much vile contempt for Washington been fomented over the years that people would rather suspect it of terrorism than Muslim extremists?

What kind of satisfaction do 9/11 conspiracy theorists expect to find in the knowledge that our own leaders masterminded the whole thing? If George W. Bush were to walk out onto the lawn of his Dallas home to a press conference and admit that, yeah, he and Clinton plotted the whole thing – would conspiracists rejoice?

Good grief – what kind of wacko, delusional fatalist does one have to be to believe our federal government is a sham? That it’s utterly despicable, full of brazen traitors and zombie killers?

Because that’s what having the US government plot 9/11 would have required.

No elite domestic terrorism cell within any covert agency or branch of the government would have been able to pull off the stunning scenario watched by people all over the world that awful Tuesday morning. No group of 10, 20, 100, or 500 people still run around the Pentagon, or live in some sort of witness protection program, sharing secret handshakes and holding alumni reunions underground in honor of their brazen plot.

For the level of cover-up required to pull off 9/11 as an inside job, trying to coordinate so many people of so many disciplines with so much equipment and such widespread access would have been sheer folly. Granted, Washington has known its share of folly, but not from a clandestine operation of that scale.

Look, we can’t safeguard normal state secrets any longer than it takes somebody to dial a phone. If anybody knew of the breathtaking plans for 9/11, wouldn't Moscow have been buzzing about it within hours? Our entire capital district is one giant sieve of confidential information.

Why the World Trade Center Wasn't an Inside Job

I don’t know much about the Pentagon, or whatever target Flight 93 was destined to destroy before passengers heroically forced it into a Pennsylvania field. But I do know something about New York’s World Trade Center (WTC). So let me help debunk at least one critical aspect about which many conspiracy advocates keep harping: the WTC's destruction being an inside job.

First, I’ve heard them say that since the WTC was a government facility, government operatives would have had easy access to plant explosives and other destructive devices.

Well, yes, it is a government facility, but the governments are the states of New York and New Jersey, not the federal government. It was – and still is – owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and a more over-bureaucratized and union-saturated organization you’ll never find. Absolutely nothing happened in that huge, 7-building complex without at least dozens of people knowing about it.

Not only did the Port Authority control the complex, but the City of New York, the New York governor’s office, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and any number of too-big-to-fail banks all had operations in the World Trade Center. These are organizations with lots of busybodies and redundant security protocols.

In addition, veteran Manhattan developer Larry Silverstein had just won a mammoth new management contract from the Port Authority to run the WTC. It's simply beyond reason to suspect such an experienced and shrewd operator as Silverstein would bungle his due diligence by ignoring telltale signs of sabotage on the WTC structures. It's also the apex of cynicism to suggest that he would be complicit with spies and play along with their grand charade, crafting an innocent diversion like a management contract so new, the paperwork hadn't even come back from the lawyers before September 11.

In addition to Silverstein and his executives, consider the sheer volume of people from whom the prep work for 9-11 would have had to be hidden. Over 50,000 people worked in or visited the WTC every day – that’s greater than the population of many cities. It had a shopping mall, restaurants, subway stations, and a commuter rail station – just in the basement levels. Do you honestly think somebody could hack away drywall and concrete to strap plastic explosives on a steel beam without one person noticing?

A favorite bit of “ah-ha!” evidence conspiracy theorists like to trot out is the odd collapse of 7 WTC late in the afternoon of September 11. They say that without warning, this newest addition to the Trade Center complex fell of its own accord, hours after all the other structures in the complex had already been obliterated. Look at the videos, they insist: you see puffs of smoke, indicating explosives being detonated floor by floor.

There are so many facts here that conspiracy theorists ignore, it’s hard to know where to start. Fortunately, I don’t have to go into all of them – I’ve found a fairly comprehensive and easy-to-read description of the fall of 7 WTC on Wikipedia. While I’m normally hesitant to recommend much on that site, this material has references and research notes to copious to be faked.
  • You’ll recall that nobody died in the collapse of 7 WTC. But it wasn't because some spy had a change of heart and warned tenants; firefighters noticed the building becoming unstable hours earlier, and made sure it was completely evacuated and nearby streets cleared well in advance of its falling.
  • Media images of the building taken throughout that day, plus official reports of the afternoon's recovery efforts, provide documented evidence that the building was significantly, structurally damaged from the fall of the WTC's north tower.
  • Popping sounds (not explosions) could be heard inside the building well before it fell. These noises came from structural elements buckling and dislodging as the stricken building shifted in preparation for its collapse, not demolition detonations.
  • The smoky puffs visible in photos and videos were from smoldering fires sparked when debris hit the building earlier in the day, whose smoke was released when windows popped out of their frames as the building facade crumbled.
Are You Smarter Than a Forensic Scientist?

Now, I suppose the most intransigent conspiracy theorist could insist that the news coverage was doctored, the fire department was running two sets of books when it documented events as the day unfolded, and that all of the scientists who have spent years studying the physics of this catastrophe are on the take.

But which is harder to imagine: that our government was audacious enough to orchestrate all of this and overcome so many prohibitive obstacles? Or that some ill-advised and desperately suspicious citizens are audacious enough to believe our government could do it?

Quite simply, no proof, no logic, and no motive exists to justify and explain such an outlandish accusation towards our government. For such theorists to continue hedging the possibility that legitimate questions remain over the planning, execution, and clean-up of 9-11 seems more than preposterous. It paints adherents to such suspicions with more than general silliness; it douses them with dismal acrylics of mean-spiritedness, spite, and absurdity.

We’ve moved past the time for such insipid speculation, and those who insist on perpetuating the fantasy of such unimaginable scales of state-sponsored terrorism need to cease and desist. Respecting those in authority – particularly within a democracy – remains our civic obligation unless we have proof to the contrary.

And if you believe you’ve got real proof, what makes you think a government that could pull off 9/11 is gonna let you spill the beans?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Prelude to 9/11, Part 4

With the tenth anniversary of 9-11 rapidly approaching, I'd like to return to 1993, and the first attack on New York's World Trade Center. I was living and working in New York City at the time, and doubt I'll ever forget that strange, confusing day.

This essay was originally posted in September, 2010:

The First World Trade Center Attack: Friday, February 26, 1993

Part One - click here
Part Two - click here
Part Three - click here

Part Four: Conclusion

Back at the office, I discovered how brown-outs got their name.

The elevators worked just fine, but the fluorescent ceiling lights cast a decidedly dull glow. Combined with the leaden skies outside, our office actually had an eerie yellowish-brownish tinge when I walked in.

By now, the computers were completely useless. Several of my co-workers had simply turned off their desktops and were doing invoicing with our old - yet still not obsolete - typewriters.

Since we didn't know how long our building's elevators would keep running in the brown-out, we decided to take what invoices we could complete to the post office, and then call it a day. Our boss had called again from California, and having seen coverage of the evacuation from the Twin Towers on television himself, he encouraged us to wrap things up for the day.

Three of my co-workers lived on Staten Island, just a ferry’s ride away from the pier near our office building. After hearing my story about the damsels in distress at Burger King, a fourth co-worker who lived in New Jersey - and always commuted via the PATH train underneath the World Trade Center (WTC) - decided to take the ferry too. She called her boyfriend to have him drive over from Secaucus and meet her at the terminal on Staten Island.

After everyone else had gone, I stayed behind in the office for a while just listening to the radio, which by now had gone to an all-news format with constant coverage of the emergency at the WTC. Apparently, our radio station was one of the few left on the air, since the main broadcast tower atop One World Trade had been put out of commission by the explosion. We'd discover later that several television stations would also be without their signal for days.

Staff at the law firm next door were getting ready to head home early, too, so before they left, I went into their office to look out at the Twin Towers again. This time, the garage entrance was clearly visible; any smoke coming out was of the light, wispy variety. Rescue workers were still bustling about, while as far as I could see, West Street remained choked with fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.

First responders had come from all over the city even as officials still weren’t sure what they were dealing with. Was it a disaster involving Consolidated Edison and their combustible steam pipes, as my co-workers and I imagined? Was there some sort of massive structural failure within the bowels of the WTC? Or, as some reporters were beginning to suggest, was this some sort of terrorist act?

Either way, the WTC was the most-densely populated office complex on the densely-populated island of Manhattan, so a major problem there was a major responsibility for the city's entire first responder workforce.

We saw the same thing happen on 9/11 seven years later, of course, but with unprecedentedly horrific results.

Terrorism Not Yet a Part of Life

Back in 1993, terrorism on United States soil remained almost unimaginable. It hadn’t happened before, at least on that scale.

There was the LaGuardia Airport Christmas bombing in 1975, which killed 11 people - five more than we'd learn died at the WTC - but only destroyed a baggage claim area. All these years later, that bombing has yet to be solved, although some experts suspect a Puerto Rican political group that had also bombed Lower Manhattan's Fraunces Tavern earlier in 1975, killing 4.

The bombing of Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building would come two years after the WTC's first attack, in 1995, and feature a similar modus operandi involving a rental truck stuffed with explosive material. 168 people were killed in this rare atrocity in "middle America," and over 500 injured.

Nowadays, terrorism has become a part of many ordinary patterns of life. Air travel presents the most noticeable deference to terrorism concerns, but many public buildings also now have scanning machines, closed-circuit cameras now proliferate from downtowns to suburban malls, and our presidents now ride around in a bomb-proofed Cadillac with its own oxygen supply.

Yet even back in the relatively innocent year of 1993, within hours of the Trade Center explosion, New York media began reporting that over 100 claims of responsibility had been phoned in from terrorist organizations just within the city.

Good grief! Most of us had no idea so many hate groups existed in the United States, let alone the Big Apple. Since that sounded so absurd to us, it made the idea of terrorists striking the WTC that much more unlikely.

At the time, anyway.

As I closed up the office and struck out for Uptown, mapping out in my mind the subway routes that were probably open to me, I once again crossed the pedestrian bridge spanning the gaping mouth of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

Just like it had been at lunchtime, the ramps below me were eerily empty and quiet. They should have been bumper-to-bumper with rush hour traffic. I looked to my left, and gazed at the Twin Towers soaring four blocks away, a bright blue police helicopter hovering mid-way up Tower Two.

It was weird to realize that for the first time since they were built, those two towers were likely completely empty of people.

New Era Dawning

By the end of that weekend, we would learn it wasn’t Con-Ed’s fault at all. Instead, Muslim terrorists had rented a yellow Ryder truck in New Jersey, loaded it with explosives, and detonated it in the WTC’s underground parking garage.

Apparently, their plan was to topple Tower One with their bomb, and that as it fell, Tower One would destroy Tower Two. This scenario assumed, of course, that the skyscraper wouldn’t fall into the wide boulevard to its west, the old ATT building to its north, or the open plaza to its east; or, as we all witnessed on 9/11, basically collapse in on itself.

I remember our office staff laughing out loud when we heard on the radio days later that the FBI had closed the case. Apparently, a couple of the terrorists, upon learning that their plan hadn't worked, reported the Ryder truck stolen, and went back to Ryder to claim their deposit, where the FBI was waiting for them. With idiots like that trying to blow up New York landmarks, we quickly assumed that while the city might be plagued with other major disruptions like February 26’s in the future, we had little else to fear.

In fact, after the WTC was cleaned, repaired, remodeled, and reopened, I was standing in line in the lobby of Tower Two, waiting to get a photo identification badge that would give me open access to the complex, since I often ran errands for the company there. I remember chatting with a couple of other guys in line, also waiting for their badges, and we got to joking about the foiled destruction of the very building we were in.

Like typical civilians who mock government bureaucracy, we saw the I.D. procurement process as useless red tape meant to pacify building tenants who might be leery about moving back into the towers. Just another hoop to jump through; just a veneer of security to try and show that the Port Authority is serious about protecting their trophy property.

After all, nobody would be insane enough to attempt the destruction of the Twin Towers ever again!

I so wish we were right.