Thursday, November 29, 2012

New Urbanists' Road Rage

Do you drive on freeways?

If you do, that's two strikes against you right there.

One, you drive.  That's bad.

Two, you drive on freeways.  Freeways are bad, too.  And if you don't live in an urban core neighborhood, that's three strikes against you.

New urbanists are out to take away your freeways, and the cars you drive on them.  And if you don't live in a central-city neighborhood, that's just more bad news for you.

While you've been stuck in traffic, just trying to get back and forth to work every day, an elite group of altruistic yuppies have been working to undermine your lifestyle so they can champion theirs.  Call it the revenge of our old downtowns, in which young urban professionals have re-branded themselves as not just reclaimers of unwanted, forgotten inner-city neighborhoods, but warriors against suburbia.  And exurbia.

Bike lanes have already become one of their favorite weapons against the car-driving public.  Touted as miraculously healthful and environmentally cool, bike lanes promise wonderful things, but sit empty most days, displacing motorized vehicles from roadways built with taxes paid by drivers of those motorized vehicles.

Bike riding is enjoying a trendy renaissance, even if most people can't afford the tricked-out rides some of the most ardent proponents of bike lanes own.  And it's hard to argue against exercise and reducing pollution.  Or creating more of a neighborhood vibe, by freeing a community's residents from the constraints of riding in an enclosed box of glass and metal.

Freeways on Progressives' Hit List

Which is how new urbanists have successfully transitioned their assault on the automobile to freeways.  In cities across the United States, they're slowly, quietly winning some stunning victories.  Buffalo, St. Louis, San Francisco, Syracuse, New Orleans, Seattle, New York City, Cleveland, and Milwaukee are all cities where portions of freeways have either already been removed, or will likely be removed soon.  Just as the federal government has provided incentives for cities to paint bike lanes on their roadways, it is now encouraging local planning offices to identify freeways they want to destroy with the help of federal tax dollars.

Now add to that list Dallas, Texas, where activists are ramping up their campaign to have one side of the congested loop ringing Big D's downtown torn down.

The argument for tearing down freeways is a simple one:  the physical presence of a freeway can act as a wall - both literally, and figuratively - separating two or more parts of a community.  This is true for both the Robert Moses style of freeway, in which urban planners brutally carved serpentine highways through existing neighborhoods, and the more modern suburban freeway, in which master planners can lay out their new roadways across undeveloped land and let communities spring up around them.  A freeway isn't like a landscaped boulevard, with strategic intersections that you can cross, even if, at six lanes wide, it's a bit risky to do so.  You can go over or under a freeway, but not across one.

Here in Dallas, the freeway new urbanists want to take down is a vast swath of concrete and steel skirting the eastern edge of the downtown core.  It's a ten-block stretch of elevated freeway that's always been in search of an identity, since it's where one highway ends, and another one begins.  I-45, coming up from Houston, ends at downtown Dallas, and Highway 75, a major artery through Dallas' northern suburbs and on up into Oklahoma, starts wherever I-45 stops.  Officially called I-345, it varies from eight to ten lanes wide, with off-ramps and on-ramps slicing to and fro.  Two major interchanges with two other freeways anchor both ends of this corridor.

Taking down this freeway will go a long way to restoring the ground-level connectivity between Dallas' bustling downtown district and its hip grunge bar neighborhood called Deep Ellum.  Currently, plenty of surface streets run underneath the freeway and its many ramps, along with a number of dim parking lots that only come close to filling up on weekends.  The idea is to remove the oppressive aesthetic of the towering freeway's superstructure, along with its noise and air pollution, and create a pedestrian-friendly boulevard in its place.  That way, people can walk and bike between downtown and Deep Ellum like they used to in whatever good old days Dallas used to have.

Um, like lots of people in Dallas walk and bicycle anywhere already.  Sure, plenty of folks ride their bikes for pleasure in parks, but hardly anybody is foolhardy enough to wrangle on Dallas' potholed streets with SUV-crazed soccer moms and entitled Maserati-driving business executives.  Plus, with our heat, you're crazy to try and ride after dawn or before dusk much of the year, and expect to show up at your destination fresh and dry.

It's not even as if downtown Dallas is a walker's paradise.  Too few people live downtown to make its streetscape truly vibrant, and the same heat that makes bike riding unpleasant also keeps pedestrians off the concrete sidewalks.  Deep Ellum may have plenty of sidewalks, but it's hardly a beautiful neighborhood.  Industrial, yes, and gritty.  Just right for Dallas' brand of designer warehouses.  You'd think the steel and concrete of an overhead freeway would add to - not detract from - the faux grim vibe.

Still, plenty of people are moving into Dallas' urban core, which includes both remodeled old houses to the east of Deep Ellum, and brand-new condominium complexes all around the center of the city.  All of those people don't need access to freeways as much as they need walkable neighborhoods that are quiet and safe.

Righteous Indignation Against Suburbanites

Which brings us to the main problem with tearing down freeways in urban centers:  New urbanists self-righteously disdain suburbanites and exurbanites.  Young urban professionals - and many of them aren't even young anymore, but empty-nesters - believe they are redeeming the long-forgotten neighborhoods of America's struggling cities and helping to bridge racial, economic, and political gaps with groups of people who have been marginalized by our suburbanized society for years.  Just as freeways helped to speed the decline of central urban cores, new urbanists want to remove those freeways wherever they can so that some sort of "healing" can take place in communities that have been ravaged by white flight.

Even here, the intentions aren't entirely wrong, and there's much to be said about the merits of reclaiming existing streetscapes and infrastructure.  Not only for environmental reasons, but simply to be good stewards of the municipal resources that never went away just because white folk did.  Aging neighborhoods closer-in to the oldest parts of our cities may not boast the sprawling parking lots and deep backyards of suburbia, but most of them feature mature trees, admirable architecture, and a convenience to high-density employment centers that can obliterate mind-numbing commutes in to work every day.

But just because new generations of city dwellers are advocating the merits of their lifestyle doesn't mean the freeways leading to the lifestyle they've left behind are obsolete.  Or that people who remain in the suburbs and exurbs should be penalized for their more car-centric lifestyles.

For one thing, our urban cores can't absorb the populations who live in the 'burbs.  The number of people living in our downtowns may have declined during the past couple of generations, but people still live there.  And many of them live in homes they're being priced out of as gentrification takes place.  Gentrification is what has been making our downtowns even more attractive to new urbanists, most of whom were raised with unprecedented levels of suburban comforts and amenities.  Plus, new urbanists don't want the genuine grime and grittiness that existed when these old city 'hoods were newer.  Today's urban pioneers want a false veneer of some sort of romanticized urban ideal, the look and feel of what historical city life could have been like without all of the soot, raw odors, noisy mechanics, and greasy laborers who helped make city life as tedious and undesirable as it was when suburbs were invented.

Remember, it wasn't just racism and freeways that caused white flight.  Living in such close proximity to other people who may not share your values isn't easy.  Having to deal with scarce parking spaces every day isn't fun, either.  It's hard running a small retail shop or diner when your customers can't park close to your front door, or have to walk across six lanes of traffic to reach you.  Waiting for mass transit gets old quickly.  If somebody burns something on their stove, everybody in your building can live with the smell all evening.  Kids complain about not having enough space to play, and city parks aren't ever as safe as you'd like them to be.  And if you don't have kids, listening to other peoples' kids in your building can be maddening.

As much as anything, suburbia offers space, which can be a buffer and insulation, both in terms of noise, as well as sight and even awareness.  Of course, we've learned that this can be a bad thing in terms of fostering an inferior sense of community in our new suburban neighborhoods.  We've also learned that, in response, some people are more willing to give up their personal space for a particular brand of urban community than others.

But are the folks still living in suburbia the bad guys?  Should new urbanists penalize people who don't want to live in urban neighborhoods by crippling their commutes?  After all, that's what tearing down freeways like Dallas' elevated Central Expressway downtown would do.  In all of the counties that comprise the Dallas - Fort Worth Metroplex, downtown Dallas boasts both the highest concentration of - and the most - jobs.  During rush hours, which can last for hours, all of the freeways coming to and from Dallas' downtown can be practically gridlocked with traffic.  And that's with the city's new light rail system, commuter buses, and conventional buses operating at full-steam.  If there's a wreck on any of those 4 freeways, then things get really bad.

In some cities where older freeways have been ripped out, the downtown cores have already lost much of their luster, so the impact of one less freeway connection may not be as noticeable.  But as somebody who has witnessed gridlock around all four of the freeways ringing downtown Dallas at close to midnight more than once, I can testify that taking down even this 10-block stretch of elevated highway could cripple what vibrancy Dallas' central business district has managed to protect from suburbia's allure.

Proponents of the freeway's removal blithely retort that commuters can simply learn new routes to their workplaces, or they can navigate the proposed new boulevard like everybody else.  Serves them right for relying on a car in the first place.

Yet isn't that a woefully myopic attitude to take?

A New Kind of Road Rage?

Face it:  cars are here to stay.  So is suburbia.  In fact, as they get older, our suburbs are beginning to look more and more like the cities people used to flee.  Shouldn't urban centers and their suburbs be concentrating on linking themselves together for sustaining the viability of their broader communities?  These petty turf battles didn't help cities during white flight, so what makes new urbanists think they'll help now?  Besides, if new urbanists want everybody in the suburbs to come back into town, even if cities could hold them all, who will live in the built environments that will stay behind in the suburbs?

Beyond our suburbs, the exurbs got a good start earlier in this decade, branching out in a sort of "ecru flight."  However, the mortgage meltdown and rising gas prices may be convincing people to reconsider living so far away from everything.  New urbanists should cheer this pause in the exurban trend, but how does reducing access to - and traffic flow in and about - our urban centers help convince people that exurban sprawl isn't a good thing?

Isn't raging against suburbanites who drive a silly tactic?  Particularly here in Dallas, where almost everybody has to drive someplace?  And isn't tearing down freeways because you think they pose some sort of barrier to community development akin to shooting your economic foot?  Downtown Dallas may not be hemorrhaging office tenants like it was a generation ago, but its occupancy rate in all of those glassy high-rises is only about 73%.  That's still pretty low, folks, especially for the landlords sitting on all that empty office space.  The mid-rise Uptown district, just north of Downtown, is the area's hottest office market, but then again, nobody's talking about taking away any of its three freeways.

They may not be trendy, they may not give anybody any warm fuzzies, and saying they're a necessary evil doesn't win them any points, but like it or not, freeways serve a purpose.  Even this one.  The only people who want this connector in downtown Dallas to be torn down are likely people who've never relied upon it to get to where they want to go.

And as for Deep Ellum, whose entertainment-focused tenants took over warehouses that post-industrialism would have rendered obsolete with or without this freeway, why bite the hands of customers who use this handy access road to reach you?

Look beyond your own little seedy-chic corner of Dallas and see how this stretch of highway - and your neighborhood - fits into the broader picture of urban mobility in north Texas.  That's all the rest of us are trying to do.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

All Talk and No Hope?


Name one of the world's most prestigious present-day philosophers!

If you immediately said, "Charles Taylor," then you're probably not a conservative Republican.  In fact, you're probably an intellectual, and likely are reading this blog essay because you like to go slumming across the Internet every now and then.

Otherwise, you be excused for being as blank-headed as I was when it comes to the subject of renowned, contemporary philosophers.  I don't follow philosophy, even though I spout my own philosophical opinions often enough.  I took some philosophy in my liberal arts college days, but little of it has stuck with me as I live out real life beyond academia.

So when a college professor acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook an advertisement for Charles Taylor's visit to Baylor University, the first "Charles Taylor" that popped up into my brain was Liberia's evil ex-president, who is serving a 50-year prison term for war crimes.  That Charles Taylor reportedly once cut into the stomach of a pregnant woman to learn the fetus' gender so he could win a bet.

Perhaps knowing Charles Taylor, the African warlord, instead of Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, says more about me than I care to admit.  Suffice it to say, seeing that name in conjunction with a lecture being posted by this college professor, a devout evangelical, made me take a closer look.  And I learned that the "good" Charles Taylor is an Oxford-educated professor specializing in political and religious impacts on the way we think.  And how the way we think impacts politics and religion.  He's won both the 2007 Templeton Prize and the 2008 Kyoto Prize, which is Japan's version of Sweden's Nobel.

Searching For Answers

The event was yesterday, in Waco, which is an hour and a half drive from my home.  I had already finished most of my article due today for Crosswalk, and I figured traffic shouldn't be too bad on a Tuesday (the interstate between here and Waco is notoriously congested, thanks to Texas' low taxes which barely fund of our highway department).  I conducted some quick Internet research on this guy, and learned that while he's a political liberal, he's also a practicing Roman Catholic, not your typical atheist intellectual.

If anything else, maybe he could explain why liberals of faith are so in love with Barak Obama.

So I went.

The room was arranged with seating for about 100, but the chairs were already full, people lined the walls, and general confusion permeated the air as I stepped in.  "Wow," I thought.  "This guy must really be famous."

"...Either that, or a lot of Baylor's professors told their students attending this lecture would be easy extra credit work."

To be accurate, I wasn't attending the official lecture that Taylor was scheduled to deliver.  That would be in the evening, in a larger auditorium elsewhere on campus.  But I wasn't interested in staying for that.  This little "conversation," as Baylor was calling it, would be just fine.  Taylor would be fielding questions from a moderator and the audience with Dr. James Davison Hunter, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia.  I suspected that plenty of social science jargon would be tossed about in a stilted, high-handed manner, and the less formality to the setting, in my opinion, the better.

Formality was certainly out the window by the time dozens more people had managed to squeeze themselves into what Baylor called a "drawing room."  A baby grand piano sat in one corner, so I folded myself up and squeezed onto its bench, which was pinched between a wall and the keyboard.  It wasn't comfortable, but I was seated and out of the way.

And, as I figured, Taylor and Hunter pontificated about "sources," "narratives," and other vague buzz-words intended to fancifully describe the ordinary ways you and I communicate and interact.  When somebody removes their audience from the discussion, as academics are prone to do, and talk in ways that implicate everybody else outside the room, it's easy to sound very pompous and disconnected, whether you're genuinely trying to or not.  So right there, I was reminded to not be pompous and disconnected here on this blog.

Ostensibly a question-and-answer format between Taylor and Hunter, the "conversation" camped out for a long while on abstract themes, like the theories of Émile Durkheim, considered to be the father of sociology, whose name I surprised myself by remembering from my college days.

Finally, when it came time for the audience to ask questions, several commoners in the crowd tried to wrest some practical applications from Taylor and Hunter.  The audience seemed to lean in, hoping for morsels of relevance as take-aways for what, since they were mostly young college students, could affirm their hope for altruistic empowerment.

Unfortunately, little was stated succinctly, or was even all that groundbreaking.  I took a notepad with me and intended on taking notes throughout the "conversation," but nothing was said that either I didn't already know, hadn't already heard before, or brought fresh insight into how people of faith can better vote their faith.  Perhaps more than anything else, it was this complete lack of brilliance that struck me about Taylor, not to mention Hunter, and even their audience.

As he finished his final comments, Taylor lamented that he didn't have any answers to the problems audience members had identified about this month's elections.  Although he'd managed to take what all of us know about our partisan stalemate and slap some academic lipstick on it, all he and Hunter offered was a repackaging of the problems.  Some fancy terminology, of course, but no solutions.  Not even any hit that solutions are out there.

Answers Blowing In the Wind?

Granted, if solutions to America's political problems could be described in a little over an hour, Taylor and Brown wouldn't be doing so in a parlor on the ground floor of a college dormitory in Waco, Texas.  But there wasn't even any attempt, by this Roman Catholic, the professor from Virginia who specializes in religion, and the moderator of the event at a Baptist institution, to point to our one Source of hope.

By looking at the faces of people in the audience, I could tell what many of us must have been thinking:  "boy, that was a waste of time.  An hour and fifteen minutes of my life I'll never get back."

When a final, half-hearted invitation to the evening's keynote lecture was over, the room emptied in a rush, as attendees appeared anxious to get on with something - anything - more meaningful in their day.  Considering how full the room had been, and how congested its traffic flow had become after a number of folding chairs had been hastily brought in at the last minute, few people seemed interested in loitering about.

For those of you who may not be aware, Baylor University is affiliated with the Southern Baptist denomination.  Yes, that Baptist group.  Not that Baylor plays by as strict a rulebook as some of the denomination's more conservative, traditional churches do.  It's certainly more of a "Christian" school than Southern Methodist University and Texas Christian University are here in Texas, and it would still seem downright dowdy to an Ivy Leaguer, but recently, some conservative Baptists have been lamenting what appears to be Baylor's slow slide towards religious relativism.

If that religious relativism had anything to do with the dispiriting, doleful session with Taylor yesterday, then I think conservative Baptists have a right to be concerned.  As the conversation dwindled down to a discouraging assessment of how American Christians seem content to let intransigence over politics become their new religion, it apparently never occurred to Taylor, Hunter, or the moderator to remind us all that God is still in control.  He's in control of President Obama, He was in control of our recent election, and we can trust that He is in control of our country's future.

We don't know what that future looks like, and as mortals, we don't understand how God uses us to accomplish His sovereign will for each of us individually, our nation, and our world.  Maybe acknowledging the inability of their social sciences to get an "actionable" grip on what's going on in our world would have been unprofessional of the participants.

And, to the extent that professional philosophers tend to have an aversion towards implicitly instructing people how to behave, then I can understand why Taylor didn't give his audience a punchlist of tactics for re-energizing Christians to engage voters with whom we might not agree.  It was still odd, though, since Taylor, at least by his bio, appears to be a big believer in the power of big government.

That's why I said earlier that most conservative Republicans likely don't know who Taylor is.  Most conservatives would probably say that generating private wealth is the answer to America's problems.  Which doesn't reflect the truth of the Bible either, does it?

God should be our peace, despite whatever is happening politically.  The answers don't come from ourselves, or science, or money.  They come from Him.

As I drove back home, and the orange sun set across the brown ranchland stretching between Waco and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the temperature in my car dipped as the sun did.

Only the heater didn't ward off all the chill I felt.

Monday, November 26, 2012

We Don't Owe NYC Any Lost Profits

Are you and I responsible for New York City's lost productivity?

In his request for $9.8 billion in federal relief following Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg includes a line item of $5.7 billion in reimbursables for economic activity lost to the storm.

Five point seven billion.  Dollars.

Are you kidding me?

Along with more plausible expenses, like helping to provide temporary housing assistance for thousands of New Yorkers who've lost their homes, and efforts at rebuilding the city's battered shoreline, Bloomberg wants taxpayers across the United States to reimburse the Big Apple for money it estimates it lost from shoppers, hotel guests, car buyers, transit riders, and other taxable activities during Sandy's visit.

This assumes, of course, that tourists remained in their hotel rooms for free while the entire city was shut down, that stores won't sell - over this holiday season - the same amount of merchandise they would have sold had Sandy not blown through, and that car dealers won't actually experience a tremendous upsurge in business as New Yorkers flood their lots in search of new rides to replace their flooded-out ones.

What economic activity did the city actually lose?

Okay, so local transit authorities let riders ride for free after they had their trains and buses back in service following a down-time of several days, but doesn't mass transit receive only token funding from the fares passengers pay?  Most of it is heavily subsidized by local, state, and federal governments already.  Whenever they raise fairs, transit authorities try and tell the general public that higher fares aren't even beginning to cover the true costs of getting from point A to point B.

But how much of what the city lost in transit fares is already included in other line items, say, for transportation?

$5.7 Billion?  Fuhgeddaboudit!

Meanwhile, the rest of this $5.7 billion is smoke and mirrors.  It's like saying Black Friday actually adds to retailers' bottom lines.  But it doesn't, does it?  To be smart about this, you have to follow the same logic that makes Black Friday gimmicks a fallacy, since such over-hyped marketing doesn't take into account the likelihood that shoppers will spend whatever they will spend and will buy whatever they will buy, whether it's the Friday after Thanksgiving, or the week before Christmas.  The fact that New Yorkers weren't able to purchase stuff for a couple of weeks doesn't mean the city will forever miss out on the economic activity that sales during that time period would have generated.  And the destruction visited upon the southern shores of Staten Island and the Rockaways didn't permanently take out enough retail space to put any dent in the city's income.

About the only industry that, on the whole, probably lost money was the electricity provider, Con Ed.  And nobody's gonna feel sorry for Con Ed anytime soon.  Even though it looks like they did an amazing job getting the city back on its feet.  The next time Con Ed asks for a rate hike, though, you can bet Hurricane Sandy's impact will be all over their appeal.

New Yorkers are known for their brashness, but Bloomberg really has some nerve submitting this bill to the Feds.  Yes, we're all aware that this was a superstorm, the worst of its type in recorded history to hit the East Coast.  And we know that money is expensive in New York.  Considering the fact that each new skyscraper being built in Manhattan, for example, costs approximately $1 billion apiece, money is more relative in Gotham than perhaps most other places in the world.  But as I'm fond of saying, a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon, we're talking about real money.

Especially when we're talking taxpayers' money.

Maybe Bloomberg fudged his numbers and exaggerated his request, knowing that the final check he receives from Washington will be lower anyway.  And yes, we all know that New York's union workers cost a pretty penny.  But being on the coast carries a certain degree of risk.  Don't any businesses and government departments have any safeguards or insurance policies on this kind of thing?  Yes, even though some Libertarian fundamentalists would claim otherwise, our federal government should provide relief funds to help communities get back on their feet after a natural disaster, and undoubtedly, we taxpayers will be helping to provide for New York City through a variety of budgeting mechanisms, such as federal transportation dollars, federal welfare dollars, federal home heating dollars, federal wetland dollars, federal parkland dollars, federal environmental dollars - the gravy train will keep chugging through Grand Central Station quite nicely on its own, thank you very much.

Legitimate Loss or Money Grab?

Don't get me wrong:  I love New York City.  I have friends still living there, and I'm glad all of them survived Sandy safe and sound.  The city is a vital component of our national economy, and even our national identity.

But lost productivity?  Doesn't that sound like a crass money grab by Hizzoner?  Even if lost productivity was a legitimate burden on the city, why foist it upon the rest of us?  Rents in the city have been astronomical for generations, and somebody is collecting all that money.  Where is it?  Can't whomever has it cough up a little if the city really needs a helping hand after this crisis?  Corporations keep offices in the city to remain close to key customers and advisers, and consider doing so to be financially prudent.  Is it not worth it to them to write-down some extra largess for the mayor?  Especially since it can only butter their own prospects if they need anything from City Hall?

And if the city and its businesses can't survive a week or so of lost - or even below-average - profitability, and the corresponding taxes generated by that profitability for the city's coffers, then everybody there should be far more worried about the state of the city's economy than demanding almost $6 billion from taxpayers to cover their losses.  If his request means the city is within a week or two of going into the red, should Bloomberg, the city's chief marketer, be trumpeting that fact for the whole world to hear?  After all, he may be on his last term as mayor, but it doesn't say much for his business acumen if he's been allowing the city to skate by on such thin ice all this time under his watch.

Let's not forget:  Bloomberg's is but one of many requests for taxpayer bucks that will be hitting Washington after Hurricane Sandy.  New York City is but one town in the state of New York that suffered a significant impact from the storm.  What about the towns out on Long Island?  What about New Jersey?  Some of those towns appear to have literally been washed away.  No doubt about it:  this is going to be an expensive storm for all American taxpayers.  But let's pay only what's prudent, and what benefits the affected communities, and do so in proportion to their contribution to America's overall productivity.

In terms of what New York City will be spending to relocate its newly-homeless residents and dry out its subway tunnels, the requests Bloomberg has made to help tide them over may be steep, but this isn't the time to insist on fixing that region's high cost of getting anything done.

In terms of its economic losses, however, that's what the city gets for kicking the can of prevention, infrastructure redevelopment, and emergency management down the road for so many years.  I remember that during my stay there in the early 1990's, then-Mayor David Dinkins was besieged by audits saying the city's infrastructure needed massive updating, not to mention all-new systems for dealing with flooding.  The city had maps for its flood zones, and it was a well-known fact that sea levels were rising before Sandy ever hit.  In addition, for decades, the city let development encroach onto its low, flat shoreline at ludicrously illogical densities.  Yes, there's a lot of blame to go around for why subway tunnels were left under-protected and barrier island neighborhoods had no substantive seawalls.  But that blame doesn't fall on the American taxpayer.

Bloomberg is a tough, smart guy.  He became mayor of the world's capital after making billions of dollars off of its finance industry.  After two terms, he was supposed to walk away from the mayor's office, but instead, he boldly asked New York's voters to change the city's charter so he could run for a third term.  They voted to change the charter, and they voted him back for his desired third term.  So we know he wants to be a hero for the city, and create a legacy that will far outlive him.

We also know he's personally worth an estimated $25 billion.

Subtract the $5.7 for his city's precious productivity, if it's truly necessary, and he's still worth $19 billion.  But being a hero?

Could that be, as they say, "priceless?"

Friday, November 23, 2012

Show Some Love for Hobby Lobby

Hopefully, you're already familiar with it.

Hobby Lobby's legal battle to protect their religious rights.

Recently, the craft retailer lost its first round in court to be excluded from having to provide contraceptive coverage in its revised employer-sponsored healthcare plan.  Obamacare now requires that beginning this coming January 1, companies providing healthcare plans for their employees must include a wide range of contraceptive options, including sterilization, intrauterine devices, and a relatively recent drug called Ella, which some suspect of acting as an abortifacient.  The president's healthcare mandate says employers should be responsible for the sexual activity of their female employees.

As you can probably tell, I strongly disagree with the president's position on this issue.  I disagree with most of Obamacare, but his program's intentional undermining of religious rights through its subtle endorsement of sexual promiscuity poses a staggering threshold of unconstitutional interference with Christian practice that is unprecedented in this country.  That's why I hope you're already aware of Hobby Lobby's fight.  Because it isn't just their fight.  It's ours.

Obviously, this mandate represents a pivotal success for advocates from a broad coalition of social liberals.  What's not so obvious, however, is the complicity of conservative adherents within evangelicalism, where opinions differ on the legitimacy of most types of birth control.  Some Christians adamantly oppose any tampering with the biological process of human reproduction, believing that any sexual intimacy should be conducted with the full realization of what its consequences could be.  After all, like I often joke when somebody tells me they're expecting, "we know what causes that now."

Then there are the evangelicals who view sexual activity with more than a procreative mindset.  They argue - correctly - that sex doesn't serve solely a reproductive function, but it also serves as a bonding mechanism between husband and wife, as well as, yes, a key source of pleasure within marriage.  Being a wise spouse means using available tools appropriately for the mutual satisfaction of both husband and wife, they say, and the science between how and what conventional contraceptives do what they do is just fuzzy enough to exclude it from the cloak of sinful behavior.

And for the record, contrary to what some Obamacare foes assert, the heinous "morning-after" pill, RU-486, is not currently on the government's list of contraceptive options to be covered under Obamacare.  That's not to say, however, that at some point in the future, RU-486 won't be added to their list.  Considering the draconian aspects of much of this new healthcare legislation, though, it might not be too early to start worrying about that possibility.

Suffice it to say, the debate within evangelicalism over contraception isn't going away anytime soon.  And yes, one reason for that involves the unfortunate reality that churched Americans participate in risky sexual behavior at rates which almost mirror those among the unchurched.  But this debate is certainly coming into sharper focus in terms of a Christian employer's obligation to provide healthcare coverage for such controversial practices.  Whether you're pro-contraception or anti-contraception, you should still be opposed to our government forcing evangelicals who own the company for which you work to pay for something they morally oppose.

It has been troubling to see that conservatives prefer debating, for example, the lengths to which the Republican Party needs to water-down its stance against illegal immigration over this far more pressing "conscientious objector" issue looming along with the Fiscal Cliff this coming New Year's Day.  Perhaps that's because contraceptive use among Republicans has become so commonplace that having a company like Hobby Lobby complaining about it seems more quaint than compelling.  It's not like Hobby Lobby is a Fortune 100 company.  They close their stores on Sundays, for pete's sake!  How antiquated a business model is that?

Nevertheless, don't we shrug our shoulders towards Hobby Lobby's protest at our own peril?  The slippery slope towards national decay benefits profusely when religious freedoms are compromised.  Cleverly enough, our current administration has chosen sex as its opening salvo into religious deconstructivism, which unfortunately, plays into the sophomoric bi-polarity many evangelicals display towards sex.  We like to play morality cards, pretending we're immune to sex's sins, but we guffaw like teenagers at the rampant sexuality in which our society is swimming.  How else do you think the FOX network can carry both right-wing political news and raunchy prime time comedies?

Slippery slopes like this don't necessary need much lubrication, and if you're having to pull your mind out of the gutter over this terminology, then haven't I've just proven how sex-saturated our society is?  Instead of being vigilant against compromising God's gift of sex, might we have become complicit in making sex - and our society's need to staunch its results - so prolific and ubiquitous in our world?  Sure, many conservatives say people need to be responsible for their own actions, but what actions might we not have been responsible in mitigating if our government soon is able to tell evangelical business owners to pay for their employees' contraceptives?

Perhaps the extent to which we view Hobby Lobby's lawsuit with a calloused - instead of burdened - eye reflects the extent to which we've been content to let the world define sexuality, instead of God.  And I'm speaking as much to myself as any of you, my readers.

If this can serve as a wake-up call and help jar us evangelicals out of our complacency, then let's pray for God to grant Hobby Lobby favor in our courts.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Can't Blame Walmart for This Creep

For a number of reasons, I refuse to shop at Walmart.

But Walmart's controversial opening of its bricks-and-mortar stores tomorrow isn't one of them.  Black Friday creep isn't Walmart's fault.  Consumer demand appears to be driving Thanksgiving's materialistic washout.

Instead, it's the things Walmart could better control that keep me from shopping there.  For example, consider that for a company whose founder used to champion the "Made in America" label, Walmart's incessant cost-cutting has been a key factor in the decline of America's manufacturing sector.

Ahh, the irony of capitalism.  Thanks to globalization, our offshoring of manufacturing jobs likely would have happened eventually anyway, but Walmart was one of the fastest to bolt for the exits and set up shop in China.*  Today, Walmart is that communist country's eighth-largest trading partner, ahead of countries like Russia and Canada.

Then too, Walmart's pioneering big-box strategy has destroyed the central-village fabric of small-town America, decimating a mom-and-pop aesthetic many communities relied upon for their identity.  Then there's Walmart's sloppy history of workers rights abuses.  Not to mention their advertisements, which border on the disingenuous, with hype over loss-leaders creating an illusion that all of their merchandise is priced at similar discounts.

Walmart's Strategy? Audacity

Of course, most of these problems I have with Walmart come not from any brilliance in their corporate strategy, but basically from the fact that their corporate strategy isn't as brilliant as it seems.  You see, Walmart's success has come from piecing together opportunities in merchandising volume, technology, shifting cultural priorities, and international logistics in a way no previous retailer had.  It's not hard getting customers to buy stuff when they think your prices are lower.  What's hard is achieving everything necessary to appeal to the lowest common denominator, both in terms of what your customers want to pay, and in terms of what you and your vendors have to do to achieve those low prices.

Revolutionary?  Maybe in some ways, but mostly, Walmart's is an evolutionary concept.  In mass-market retailing, low prices drive business.  So Walmart took that obvious maxim, applied a strict regimen of extracting low costs from their vendors, rigidly disciplined their own corporate expenses, and delivered products to their customers at prices that reflect all of those low costs.  This gives them room to make a bit of profit per item that extrapolates, thanks to volume selling, into a huge money machine.

It's still a true capitalist success story, and it's hard to deny them the credit for having the audacity for hammering all of the pieces into place to make it work.  It's not like no other retailer ever dreamed of being able to do what Walmart has done.  Or that Walmart doesn't have stiff competition at its own game, now that consumers have come to expect "everyday low prices" no matter where they shop.

Don't get me wrong:  saving money is a good thing.  Unfortunately, however, the money we save in one place sometimes gets spent elsewhere.

Granted, the costs incurred by the towns in which Walmart operates can seem obscure.  The loss in manufacturing jobs, for one.  Then there are costs in terms of poor land use management between empty old downtowns and commercial sprawl along freeways, once-prosperous shop owners being priced out of business, and even the creation of mini-monopolies in some stretches of rural America where Walmart is the only store for miles around.  Sure, now Americans, no matter where they live, have access to 100 brands of toothpaste at $1 a tube.  And some people think that's progress.  But is it?

Just because consumers have answered that question in the affirmative doesn't mean they're right.  And just because consumers will probably flock to Walmart on Thanksgiving Day doesn't mean the holiday itself is on the slippery slope to obsolescence.  Hey - at least I can hope!  Just because I think Black Friday creep into what's being called "Gray Thursday" is a bad thing, I'm not blaming Walmart for taking the next logical step down its path towards lowest common denominators by giving customers more time to buy stuff.  I realize businesses like Walmart operate on a speeding train philosophy:  it's hard to stop once it's started.

The Speeding Train Philosophy of Business

Try telling that, however, to workers at Walmart stores across the country who are fussing this year about having to work on Thanksgiving.  They claim the company is depriving them of quality family time on one of the most celebrated American holidays on the calendar.  Some have even threatened to picket their stores tomorrow in protest.  Although no Walmart store has unionized employees, rumors abound that retail union organizations are helping to foment this discord at the nation's largest retailer in hopes of winning inroads among its dissatisfied employees.

On the one hand, it's easy to feel sorry for people who have to work on Thanksgiving.  Until you realize that anybody who works for any retailer these days knows that their schedule is set by the company.  It will likely include nights, weekends, and holidays.  People who work for discount retailers like Walmart should not be surprised when their employer allows work-creep to consume holidays Americans used to consider sacrosanct.  Remember the speeding train philosophy?  Walmart abandoned American manufacturing, and it will abandon anything else in conflict with its bottom line.

And, frankly, by voting with their expendable income, consumers have said that's the way they want it.

True, working at Walmart is no glamor job, and you'd like to think your employer values your loyalty to the company enough to give you little favors, like having Thanksgiving off.  But this is Walmart, the biggest player in America's penny-pinching retail industry.  If American retailing ever had a golden age, at least in terms of how well it rewarded its salespeople, that was over long ago.

And to be accurate, Walmart first opened on Thanksgiving last year, so this year's schedule should come as no surprise, even if last year's did.  And it's not just Walmart that is opening tomorrow.  Even upscale retailer Lord and Taylor is opening its flagship store on New York's Fifth Avenue for the first Thanksgiving ever.

Now, if any employees have a right to gripe about being open on Thanksgiving, it's the staff at this, one of American retailing's legendary granddaddies.  Tradition and reserve are the hallmarks of Lord and Taylor, and many of the store's employees have likely relied on the consistency of the brand's embrace of convention.  "What is the world coming to," they must be wondering, while New York's other venerable department stores eye their somewhat dowdy peer with a mixture of skepticism and resignation.  You know they're only opening for New York's teeming throngs of international tourists, who, since everything else will be closed in Manhattan tomorrow, have no patriotic compunction to spend the day feasting on turkey.  As much as I'd hate to be a Lord and Taylor employee tomorrow, it's hard to see how management's idea will flop.

Perhaps it sounds crass to say, but if you don't want to work on Thanksgiving, you shouldn't be in retail any more.  And at the end of the day, you can't blame management for that.  As long as consumers value money and material possessions over family time, holidays will only continue to wither in terms of the respect retailers give them.

Walmart, Lord and Taylor, and any other retailer open today don't cause consumerism.  They simply feed it.

Of course, some shoppers claim that blitzing the brick-and-mortar stores on holidays actually constitutes good family time, since they do so in groups of family members.  Some even joke about the family that shops together staying together, although I doubt extended shopping hours provides as much a balm for hurting families as a relief valve so we all don't have to spend the entire day in the same house.

Then again, wasn't it the fashionable Mrs. Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island who purred, "anyone who says money can't buy happiness doesn't know where to shop."

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!

*Update - 11/27/12:  Not only China, but Bangladesh, where 112 workers at a factory owned by one of Walmart's suppliers died in a fire last week.  Walmart denies any culpability.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

WWJD About Price Gouging?

Here's a flashback for you.

Remember the WWJD fad from the 1990's?

"WWJD" stood for "What Would Jesus Do," and was intended to help provoke Christ-like responses among believers towards all sorts of circumstances.

In other words, say, you're driving along in heavy traffic, and somebody cuts you off.  WWJD?  Instead of cursing the driver, you graciously back away, and re-construct the buffer zone you'd been maintaining between vehicles.

Or maybe you're at church, and you overhear a couple of people complaining about your pastor.  WWJD?  Well, we know Christ wouldn't sidle up to those folks and join heartily in the gossipy vilification, would He?  But would He take a posture of unquestioning defense for the pastor, without admitting maybe the complainers have a point?  Or would He simply keep walking away, praying for those malcontents under His breath, but not wanting to personally intervene and foment more antagonism?

What about when you happen upon a homeless panhandler?  If your town has a well-run homeless shelter to which you and your church contribute time and money, do you just pass by the homeless person without acknowledging their presence, assuming maybe they'd gotten kicked out of the shelter for bad behavior?  Do you pass by with a quick shout-out about the homeless shelter being just down the street, in case the panhandler isn't aware of it?  Or do you stop, give the person $10, or take them to a restaurant, or welcome them into your own home?

Would What Jesus Does Change Your Behavior?

You can see how quickly the simple WWJD mantra proves itself insufficient in addressing some surprisingly complex issues.  Thus, the WWJD trend became hollow quickly.

It wasn't enough, when you were asked a question about morality, ethics, or the propriety of a course of action, to simply utter "WWJD?" and assume you'd addressed the quandary.

Many people used WWJD as a social gospel validator, applying Biblical truths about grace and mercy inappropriately.  In some liberal circles, WWJD became a pithy excuse to chastise more conservative evangelicals who, even back then, were clamoring for welfare reform, or gun rights, or immigration reform.  Basically, liberals mistakenly assumed, Christ would have pretty much let people do whatever they wanted as long as it didn't involve ending generational poverty, carrying weapons, or enforcing national sovereignty laws.

So it scares me a little bit these days to find myself increasingly asking myself, "WWJD?"  Yes, I'm a moderate Republican, but I'm no liberal patsy.  I believe in - and am immensely grateful for - mercy and grace, but those are gifts God provides to His people along with expectations for how we're to exercise them.  Both as recipients, and benefactors.

I'm no liberal patsy, and neither is Christ.

To a certain extent, I cannot argue that our modern American culture hasn't bred a spirit of dependency on our government.  There have always been needs, and needy people, but it just makes sense to me that localized communities, starting with one's family and church, provide the best-balanced and benevolently accountable environments for meeting these personal needs.  National governments come in handy for broader efforts like building highway networks, electrical dams, sovereign defense forces, and ensuring the civil rights of each citizen.  But historically, government-run charities don't have a great track record, at least in making sure systems aren't abused and genuinely needy people don't go without.

When it comes to charity, the Biblical book of Proverbs has plenty to say both about our obligation to help the poor, and about the expectations a society is correct in having of each participant, and how each person is to contribute to their community.  And I don't disagree that over the years, our society has shifted from a bottom-up form of reliance to a top-down form, with our government at the top.

Sock It To the Ones With the Most Money?

Yet as I continue to encounter Libertarian viewpoints in our evangelical media, the question "WWJD?" has begun to flutter around in my brain.  Perhaps on account of all the empty space up there, true; but also, because some evangelicals appear to have quit the grace-and-mercy side of our faith cold-turkey.

Exibit A is an article for World magazine by D.C. Innes entitled, "Price Gouging as Neighbor Love."  Innes, a professor at New York City's conservative Kings College who lives out on Long Island, writes about how he observed the long lines and rationing at gas stations across the metropolitan area in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  He bemoans the unfair restrictions against price gouging imposed by New York State on its gas station owners.  He sounds convinced that it's actually a manifestation of Christ's command that we love our neighbors to let the price of gas go as high as the market will bear during a crisis.

"State law forbids anything more than a 10 percent price increase at the pump during a shortage," Innes complains.  "But while our guardians of the common good meant well in making that law, I think their kindness was cruel."

I think my jaw dropped open when I read that.  So... he thinks Jesus would endorse price-gouging?

"The market system of setting prices serves everyone," Innes claims, apparently assuming that we live in a perfect world.  Generally speaking, when a community is not reeling from a natural catastrophe, free markets do have a way of settling into a sort of stasis which benefits the most people.  But Innes doesn't believe that preying on the unfortunate is sinful behavior?

In challenging the government's need to mitigate a fuel shortage, Innes tries to argue that "there is always a shortage of some sort insofar as there is generally less of things than we would like."  But I can't think of any tangible commodities that we Americans could have more of if they were available.  What is there less of that we would like?  Lexus seems pretty good at making just enough luxury automobiles to satisfy the demand of people who can afford them.  Oreos hasn't faced an outcry over shortages of their nutritionless cookies, although devotees of Hostess Ding Dongs have recently.  In fact, the world has no shortage of food - famine these days is a political crisis, not a production crisis.

Innes is correct in pointing out that price controls don't do a good job of eliminating the black market, and he witnessed people buying gas for one price and selling it for double to people waiting at the end of long lines.  But all that proves is that sin corrupts our world, not that price controls automatically - or solely - cause black markets.  Black markets flourish in countries - or even neighborhoods in America - where some products are officially unavailable.  Would Innes blame the despicable proliferation of child porn on the black market, for example, on price controls?

It's hard to tell where morality fits into his viewpoint.  "If gas stations had been able to raise their prices to reflect the radically reduced supply," Innes postulates, "lines would have been shorter, and there would have been easier access to gas supplies for those most in need of it."  How does anybody know that if there were no price controls, only the people who most needed gas would have easy access to it?  The only way you can determine that is by placing the proposition's value not on the person "needing" the gas, but a person's ability to pay what the market can charge.

Talk About Reviling the One Percenters!

And, voilà, you have the indelible scourge of Libertarianism, folks!  The value in a Libertarian economy is not on the person, but on the person's financial worth.  What can they pay?

The value of a person becomes not who that person is, what they might need the gas for, or what factors have impacted their life in a way that prevents them from paying exorbitant prices.  The only value a person has comes from whether or not they can play the higher price.  Money becomes more important than the person.

For example, suppose a medical doctor and a hedge fund manager need fuel for their cars.  Sure, the doctor may be able to afford quadruple the price to drive to the hospital and perform a life-saving operation.  But if the hedge fund manager can afford ten times the price or more, should finances be the sole reason that doctor would be prevented from getting the necessary fuel?

What would Jesus do?  This past Sunday, the pastor at my church pointed out in his sermon that Jesus healed the ten lepers, but only one went back to thank Him.  Was Christ's healing power any less lavish on the other nine?  Apparently not, since His grace doesn't depend on how well we thank Him for what He does for us.  Is this the same Christ who would mock His people by setting the price for what we need at a level only a few could pay?

When the Bible talks about fairness in our business dealings, mandates like "accurate and honest weights," wealth being worthless in the "day of wrath," and not taking advantage of others are interwoven with accounts of Boaz letting Ruth collect food for free.  Free!  And maybe I'm being woefully literal by assuming "honesty" is concerned less with how much money you can exact from a customer, and more with being able to look your customers in the eye the next day.  However, don't you have to be a pretty rigorous Gospel revisionist to believe that loving our neighbor means figuring how much they're willing to pay for something they desperately need?

God has shown us what is good and what He requires of us.  We're to "act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." 

Must only WWJD bracelet-wearing, coffee-mug-holding social gospel liberals believe that?

Then again, would Jesus have given away the gasoline?  Probably not, since it wasn't the gas station owners' fault that Hurricane Sandy crimped access to fuel.  Nor could the industry control whether they had electricity to transfer their gas or not.  Selling fuel during a crisis is not what's wrong here.

So, would Jesus condone price gouging?  Since neither penalizing nor accommodating people based solely on their net worth is Biblical, I humbly stand in opposition to Professor Innes and say that no, He wouldn't.

If you believe He would, however, and your faith controls your politics, then maybe we've found another reason for why a certain political party lost this month's presidential election.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Preachers as Workplace Laymen?

I used to be a church employee.

I've also spent years working in the private sector.

There are similarities, of course, between working in a church office, and working at a for-profit company.  But not many.  Even as modern churches have adopted a professional business mindset in the way they manage ministries and administer funds, being a pastor is still - and, if you're a good pastor, should always be - different from being a corporate CEO.  And church offices, no matter how many efficiencies are adopted from the for-profit sector, will likely better serve their congregations the more they remain distinct from corporate America.

So why are so many pastors these days writing books on how Christians should model Christ in the workplace?

It's not that they don't have a Biblical mandate to exhort their congregants in applying Biblical truth to every part of their lives.  But do they have the practical expertise?

Very few evangelical pastors are bi-vocational, working a 9-5 corporate job, and then preaching from a pulpit on Sundays.  Granted, the number of pastors who've entered the ministry after a career in corporate America is probably larger than their bi-vocational peers, but that's not saying much, since both groups are still pretty small.  Relative, at least, to the number of preachers who've spent their entire lives in Christian colleges, seminaries, and the professional Christian world.

I've only ever read one modeling-Christ-in-the-workplace book by these pastors, and I can't even remember if I finished it.  For the record, I also tried reading a modeling-Christ-in-the-workplace book written by a corporate CEO who professed faith in Christ.  But both books, written as they were by authority figures who were authorized to exercise control over their domains, inevitably crumbled into executive coaching manuals.  Maybe not the worst thing, of course, but hardly applicable to a broader audience - mainly, the people who work for these guys at the top.

Applying Faith to Business, or Applying Business to Faith?

America's celebrity pastors are churning out so many books these days, one wonders if this prodigious publishing is truly the leading of the Holy Spirit, or simply reflective of ambitious efforts by Christian booksellers to keep their product pipelines full.  This plethora of titles on a wide range of subject likely includes the workplace out of an obligatory - if not misguided - assumption that since most congregations spend the bulk of their weeks at work, pastors are the ideal expert to address the topic so the lives of their congregants are covered 24/7 by at least one applicable book.

Unfortunately, these celebrity pastors and their publishers assume being in charge of a large, influential church or parachurch ministry qualifies them as expert any subject, like marriage, or poverty relief, or home groups, or urban outreach.

Then, too, maybe it's because so many laypeople in their congregations who don't have any seminary training feel qualified enough to tell their pastors how to preach?  Maybe these pastors figure life in corporate America can't be any harder than it is for them as they run our modern megachurches.

If that is indeed the case, then either some pastors are very delusional, or our modern megachurches are pits of iniquity.  Either way, isn't it safe to say that, without naming any names in particular, our favorite preachers are likely no experts on the American office?

For one thing, most evangelical pastors are Type-A men.  Men who are used to pursuing objectives, persuading people, and influencing outcomes.  And churches overwhelmingly accord credibility to that mindset.  After all, the corporate types who own and run prosperous commercial enterprises are Type-A people.  But think about it:  don't men in an equivalent role in corporate America usually experience greater levels of success as women?  How well can preachers relate to women in the workplace?  Can people of either gender who are less assertive and charismatic in their personalities expect the same types of successes and challenges?

Consider, too, that while the church as an organization may be run like a business, hardly any modern business is run like a church.  A church may strive for efficiencies, and pastors may be beholden to church leadership committees, but if it's a good church, the metrics of "success" differ greatly from the bottom-line metrics in most corporations.  Church leaders are almost expected to be more gracious and model their faith in a manner befitting professional servants of God, whereas in the corporate world, even the most Christian-saturated organization likely has many unsaved employees from whom grace can't be perfunctory.  In business, expectations are different, outcomes are more quantifiable, and tolerances for extenuating circumstances usually much shorter.

Then consider the role of pastor compared with a CEO.  Many pastors, whether they're senior ministers, associates, or youth interns, are allowed a pretty flexible schedule.  Things come up during the course of a day within a robust church's office that can - and should - overrule predetermined schedules.  For example, it's expected for pastors to drop everything to rush to the bedside of an ailing parishioner.  In corporate America, unless it's an immediate family member, workers are expected to things like that after working hours.

Generally, with pastors, the flagship event for any church is the Sunday worship service, and their whole week revolves around that.  Very few pastors get called by the head of their elder board on Saturday night with an order to fly to Phoenix to attend a sales meeting tomorrow.  In the real working world, very few employees have much control over their schedules.

Business Should Operate on the Golden Standard

Now, I'm no expert in modeling Christ in the marketplace either, but here's a simple idea that will save you a ton of money on books written by people who've likely never spent a full week chained to a cubicle in their lives:  do unto others as you'd have others do unto you.

It's called the "Golden Rule," and various forms of it exist in many religions texts.  In Christianity, we can find it spoken by Christ Himself in Matthew 7:12:  "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you."

It's not a hard concept to understand.  And it's an applicable concept for any employee, whether you're the custodian, the CEO, or even a retiree.  The hard part is living out this maxim in ways that truly honor God.  Sometimes, we treat others nicely simply because we don't want to give them an excuse to treat us badly.  At other times, it's easy to forget that we need to treat our supervisors the same way we'd want to be treated if we were in their shoes.

For the most part, God has designed His people to use the skills and abilities He's given them in ways that provide economically for their families and others in need around them.  Sometimes that work is compelling and satisfying, while at other times, it can be sheer drudgery.  But if you're living for Christ, and not your paycheck, you should be able to ask the Holy Spirit for - and expect Him to supply - the tenacity to ply your trade in ways that glorify Him.

Maybe some people need to pay $20 to buy a book and have a famous preacher tell them the same thing in 200 pages of clever stories.  And it's not like preachers shouldn't have a voice on the subject.  But how many of them really do?

Indeed, if a lowly clerk who's worked for any of these pastors ever comes out with a book describing how well those pastors ran their church's administrative departments, that's a book I'll want to read.

Friday, November 16, 2012

How Fitting: Petraeus and Ding Dongs

Funny how some weeks can develop their own theme.

For President Obama, if he'd been hoping for any sort of political honeymoon after his re-election, this has been a week and a half when he's had to kiss that wish goodbye.

First came the sensational resignation of General Petraeus from the CIA.  Then came renewed suspicions over Benghazi, and then an air assault between Hamas and Israel - both Tweeted and otherwise.  Then today, Hostess announced plans to go out of business due to a union strike.

And some people feared our election's results would spell the end of the world as we know it!

Might as well stop construction on those towering inauguration grandstands in DC, boys.  What's there to party about?

Private Eyes Are Watching You

Indeed, plenty of questions remain to be sorted out regarding when Obama's administration knew about Petraeus' affair with Paula Broadwell; whether legislators should have known about it, and if so, when; and the extent to which other personnel contributed to the PR disaster continuing to unfold with the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, a Tampa socialite, and a celebrated FBI agent.

In a way, it's almost quaint for America's media and the public to be as supposedly aghast over this story as they've been.  Considering the values upon which Obama won a second term - values decidedly to the left of things like marital fidelity - you'd have thought the country would have rolled over and hit its proverbial snooze button upon hearing that a retired general had committed adultery.

Then again, it's surprising this many Americans apparently knew who Petraeus was before this scandal broke.  It's not like he was a regular on TMZ - at least, before last Friday.

Does this mean that conservative values still play a critical role in how our society expects its leaders to behave?  Or simply that people as powerful as Petraeus and buxom as Broadwell can still draw a crowd when they don't pass like ships in the night?

To the extent that after word of his affair broke, Petraeus' testimony on what happened in Benghazi, Libya, this past September 11 appeared compromised, plenty of pundits came out of the woodwork to accuse the Obama administration of staging the sex scandal as a diversion.  Turns out, however, things were unfolding quite nicely without the President's involvement, especially as we've now learned some intriguing details.  A Florida doctor's statuesque wife and another general - who'd exchanged tons of e-mails with the socialite - had asked the FBI to track down some other e-mails of a threatening nature.  E-mails that uncovered the affair between Petraeus and Broadwell.  Having a veteran counterterrorism FBI agent pursue this e-mail part of the story even after his supervisors thought he was too personally involved in the case only adds to its salaciousness.  As do the alleged money woes being suffered by this supposedly wealthy doctor and his apparently high-maintenance wife.  It's almost as though you need a scorecard to keep track of this story.

Suffice it to say that if generals have this much fun away from the battlefield, why should we feel as sorry for them as we do?  If this had been just another politician's indiscretion, and it was a slow news day, the press would still have beaten as much pulp out of this story as they possibly could, but how fascinated by it all would the general public have been?  Does it make a difference this time that generals are involved, and at least one of them is supposed to be in charge of one of the most vilified wars in recent American history?  Plenty of Americans want us to have pulled out of that quagmire yesterday.  Knowing that the guy who used to be in charge had been flirting with a gorgeous biographer, and that the guy who replaced him has been flirting with gorgeous women in beachfront Florida, doesn't exactly translate to moral support for the troops still being killed almost daily back at the war.

What does it say about the CIA that it took an investigation by an unsuspecting FBI agent, responding to a personal inquiry, to discover that the head of the CIA had been having an affair?

Tweeting a War in Real Time?

And speaking of war, all you-know-what may be on the verge of breaking out between Israel and Hamas.  Certainly not what that part of the world needs right now, nor what our administration needs, either.  One of the reasons conservatives continue to be wary of Obama involves his lack of a definite pattern of support for Israel, something many evangelicals - and even liberal Jews - insist needs to be a solid fixture of American foreign affairs.

Believers in Christ are encouraged in the Bible to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem," but as history has proven, peace is elusive - and likely impossible - in that hotly-contested bit of real estate.  For as many people who champion the rights of Israel, an equal number rise up and accuse Israel of being the aggressor towards the Muslims in Gaza, being represented - whether they want to be or not - by Hamas.

What's different this time is Israel's use of social media to broadcast their attacks, a precedent that provoked more that a few curious shout-outs on Facebook and Twitter by ordinary netizens who were reacting to what they thought were sick spoofs - or hacked accounts from Israel's military forces.  To learn that the tweets and images were legit introduced a normally detached Internet population to an eerie realization that real-time war might be coming online faster than we want.

Talk about your virtual reality.

Ding Dong, the Twinkie's Dead

Then today, it became official:  Hostess is pulling the plug on some of America's most iconic snack foods.  Corporate leaders at the "bakery" - and that term is used in the loosest sense of the word - couldn't reach an agreement with one of their unions, so brand names like Twinkies and Ding Dongs will be sold off to the highest bidder, and over 18,000 Hostess employees will lose their jobs.

Not that the company's bankruptcy comes as a great surprise.  It'd been on life support since January, after unsuccessfully reestablishing itself in the marketplace following its first bankruptcy - a 4-year slog begun in 2004.  CEO Gregory Rayburn admitted that while the union's intransigence on a new contract was the final nail in Hostess' coffin, the end had been building for years due to all sorts of mis-management and the growing awareness among us consumers that Twinkies and Ding Dongs have a longer shelf life than we do.

So, while the diets of many Americans will actually benefit from Hostess' demise, the real story here is the fallacy sold to thousands of union employees that being put out of work is somehow better than reduced benefits and wages - but, oh yeah, you get to keep your job.  Of the 18,500 people who will be losing their jobs, only 5,000 were represented by the union that balked at saving the company.

Sure, some executives at Hostess have made out like bandits as the company has struggled, but is that really worth tanking the enterprise?  What kind of point does this union's arrogance and envy make?  Sure, the company was selling $2 billion worth of product a year, but nobody was predicting profits would continue rising, as costs continue to climb, peoples' eating habits continue to evolve, and new foods come on the market.  82 years is a long time for any "bakery" to stay in business doing things the same ol' way.  And companies willing to keep their manufacturing in North America, instead of farming the work out to Central America or Asia, are rare to nil these days.

It's not like having these foods made in China and shipped across the ocean will have any impact on their "freshness."

So, who will be the first to blame Hostess' demise on Michelle Obama's campaign for healthier lifestyles among kids?  Mrs. O likely hates the fact that 18,500 people are losing their jobs, but she's probably elated that these snack foods will disappear from store shelves.  At least, for a while.  Considering the public outcry today over the fate of Hostess' stable of ridiculously unhealthy brands, who can discount the likelihood that we'll be seeing them again, thanks to new investors willing to bank on consumers' appetite for things we know aren't good for us.

Along with tales of adultery, conspiracy theories, and real Twitter wars.

No matter how you cut it, Obama's win hasn't yet translated into much happiness at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Mitt Romney may still be nursing a lot of disappointment after his loss, but he can't be entirely sad that these developments aren't his problem.

And frankly, they're only problems for Obama in that they fall under his purview as our country's chief executive.  At least he doesn't have to go home tonight and face Mrs. Petraeus.  Or Broadwell's children.

However, if the Missus is about the house tonight, he likely won't be able to take a break with a tall glass of milk and a box of Ding Dongs.

You know, if you freeze those things, they taste even better.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Urban Mythology and the GOP

Obama won the big cities.

So, big city liberals are killing America.

That's the line of logic many conservatives are extrapolating from the numbers from last week's presidential election.  And yes, it's easy to see all of the blue dots, representing Democratic power districts, concentrated around the nation's largest cities, particularly up in the Northeast, among the Great Lakes, and along the West Coast.

There's also a significant swath of blue dots that swing from the Washington, DC area down through the deep south's core.  But the population density in this largely poor, largely black region is so sparse, compared with America's major urban centers, that it's easy to forget that it's not just urban people who vote Democratic.

But politics always comes down to numbers.

Even ruby-red Texas, with its overwhelming backing of Mitt Romney this year, saw every county with a million-population-plus city go for Obama (Fort Worth, in Tarrant County, has just less than 800,000 people).

Much of the Republican Party's strength comes from suburban communities and smaller towns in "fly-over country," that great stretch of America between our two coasts.  Geographically speaking, our country appears to hold far more conservatives than liberals.  Which makes it seem unfair that liberals in such small pockets of the country can sabotage the conservative agenda.  This is one reason why the current wave of secession petitions has such popularity.  At least, in fly-over country.

And among non-urban conservatives.

You Can't Just Ignore Stuff You Don't Like

It's one thing for voters and politicians from low-population states to complain about how voters in big cities vote.  Conservative politicians like to swagger with a bravado bolstered more by the myopic confidence of their sound-bite-led supporters than mathematically genuine proof that right-wing politics is somehow still the country's most popular philosophy.

It's another thing for conservatives cloistered across less urban regions of Middle America to complain that liberal policy is all urban Americans can appreciate.  But ignoring the basic math involved with greater population concentrations in urban America doesn't really solve anything, does it?

Just look at the numbers.  Big cities are "big" for a real reason.  And homogeneous states like Kansas, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Utah, where Republicans virtually skate through elections, need to realize that the conservative politics they cherish isn't a result of their lack of urbanization.  If conservatism was based on how many people live in a square mile, how do you explain the liberalism rampant throughout quaint New England?  And the old Confederacy?

Of course, sweeping generalizations have been made about why cities predictably vote Democratic.  These include the high proportion of minorities which live in most American cities nowadays, and what conservatives describe as a dependence by minorities on the government handouts that Democrats publicly endorse, like food stamps, housing vouchers, mass transit, and public healthcare clinics.  Generational, institutionalized policy has created a persistent underclass of welfare recipients in our large cities, along with a political system designed to cater to this captive class.

We'll leave the argument about how government entitlements support conservative suburbs for another day.

Conservatives Need to Know Their Opportunities

Step away from that vignette of Democrats-and-dependence in urbanized America, however accurate parts of it may be, and if Republicans want to see hope for their party, slivers of it can indeed be found in our big, bad, overpopulated cities.

First, consider all of the immigrants - legal immigrants - who flood America's urban centers.  Very few of them come with aspirations of languishing for the rest of their lives in a public housing project.  Most of them come ready to work, and hungry for opportunity.  And isn't opportunity one of the Republican Party's bywords?  If conservatives would look past the color of peoples' skin and the unfamiliar accents they have, the GOP might find that it has far more in common with our newest urban neighbors than it thinks.  Brooklyn's incessant wave of Russian immigrants, for example, holds considerable promise for Republicans in parts of the borough Democrats used to think were impregnable.

Second, consider all of the socially conservative blacks, Hispanics, and Asians who populate untold urban neighborhoods.  Yes, many of them admire the Democratic Party because it makes the biggest show of pretending to feel their pain.  Meanwhile, most of the party's liberal platform consists of policies these minority voters would love to vote against, if they felt Republicans weren't so disdainful of them.  Gay marriage, abortion, legalized marijuana, and rampant government corruption (particularly obvious and onerous in big cities) are all things conservatives could easily sell to urban minorities.  Especially since those minorities actually constitute the majority in most of our cities, which means the potential rewards could be worth the concerted effort, don't you think?

Third, consider the lifestyle forced upon many urbanites.  High housing costs and high population densities make big-ticket infrastructure items like mass transit practically essential, so people of limited means can afford to raise their families in the best possible neighborhood, and still get to work.  Crime is a big problem in urban areas, since, contrary to the Republican myth, most people are not common criminals, and are tired of being targeted by the few who are.  There's nothing endemically liberal in these urban scenarios, but liberals have been able to monopolize the political narrative in making urban life function.

Some liberal environmentalists try to insist that high-density urban landscapes are actually more ecologically-prudent than sprawling suburbs, but the noise pollution, the lack of privacy, and the general mayhem and congestion found in most cities takes a far more harrowing emotional toll on their residents than those environmentalists can calculate.  The reason cities exist in the United States isn't because they're environmentally friendly, it's because they're amazing economic engines.  I wondered in some essays recently about the New York City region's continued viability as a corporate center after Hurricane Sandy, but even if Fortune 500 companies decide to leave it for good, plenty of smaller companies won't go anywhere.  There's simply too much money to be made when upwards of 20 million people live down the street.

Street Smarts

For conservatives, a lot of what the Republican Party stands for boils down to money.  And you can still make money in America's cities.  If altruism, and neighborliness, and care for our fellow man won't move Republicans to embrace urban America, shouldn't money at least work?

Forget all of the destructive, misleading, reckless, and uncaring talk about the 47 Percenters, wealth redistribution, and entitlement sloths, and get to know the people in urban America who, for all we know, could be waiting for the political rhetoric being spouted by conservatives to cease so they won't be inhibited by voting for GOP candidates.

Some Republicans are fearful that the things their party cherishes will need to be marginalized for the party to survive.  Other Republicans are growing ever more defiant that right-wing advocacy is the only way to save the party.  Instead, why not try investing in the potential urban America may hold for conservatives?

Conservatives usually enjoy their visits to New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco as much as anyone.  But they also usually say they're glad to get back home.  Well, if you don't want your home to suffer any of the ill effects you perceive urban liberal voters are imposing on you, why wait for those urban liberals to change their tune?

Most big city residents say they love diversity.  Why not show them how conservatism can fit into that mix?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

68 New Regs Daily? Not Exactly

"68 new regulations every day."

Right-wing bloggers and Facebook users have been seething lately over the recent announcement on that President Obama's administration is churning out an average of 68 new federal regulations per day.

Sixty.  Eight.

A day!

I knew our federal bureaucracy is enormous, but I wasn't sure if 68 new regulations a day is too much for the government of the country with the world's largest economy... or, not enough.

The conservative side of me wanted to shake my head in disgust.  How can our country's economy survive if 68 new mandates are being handed down from Washington on a daily basis?

The moderate part of me, however, wondered:  what are all these regulations, anyway?

It didn't take any effort to visit the website in question,, and learn that, sure enough, dozens of regulations hit the government's calendar every day.  However, I learned that the claim being made by right-wing pundits regarding their overall impact is - surprise! - fairly misleading.

First of all, many of the "regulations" on the list are procedures, updates, and clarifications - not actual laws, like some conservative antagonists of the President want us to believe.  Others of these "regulations" are actually recommendations by experts in their respective fields regarding ways safety and operational standards can be improved.

And they're all open to public comments.

Today, November 13, an above-average number of 78 "regulations" were "due," which means that the public comment portion of each "regulation" would close at midnight tonight.  They won't all necessarily go into effect tomorrow.  Some are headed back to court or committee, some are just postings containing bureaucratic legalese, and some are recommendations for further action.

Rest assured:  78 new regulations won't hit the books tonight.  All you have to do is click on any of them to see the real story.

Tank Farm Gas

For example, the first "regulation" I clicked was called the "Hanford Tank Farms Flammable Gas Safety Strategy."  Knowing nothing about nuclear energy, I didn't expect to understand any of it, but I was surprised to learn that either I'm missing something super-important, or this "regulation" is simply a notice about excess gas building up in and needing to be ventilated from double-shell tanks.  Flammable gas could accumulate in these tanks, which store radioactive material at this aging facility located in Washington state.  Our government's scientists want to avert a potential catastrophe if the gas were to somehow ignite.

Sounds like something I want my government to be on top of, doesn't it to you?

Right Wingers:  Fail
Obama Administration:  Pass

Texas Grass

The next "regulation" I inspected I selected because I was sure that even I would find it foolish.  Entitled "Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Determination of Status for Texas Golden Gladecress and Neches River Rose-mallow and Designation of Critical Habitat," it virtually reeked of the type of aggressive ecological conservation that I join fellow conservatives in believing to unfairly penalize rightful owners of real estate.

Turns out, some of this grass was identified in 1836 by an Army doctor, and efforts to preserve its habitat have been ongoing since 1981.  A lawsuit hung up early attempts at designating the grasses as endangered in 1997, when courts forced the government to build a better case.  After all these years, the government is now ready to close the public-comment portion of their proposal for enacting an endangered status on the grasses, which exist mostly around sand bars and other areas generally unsuitable for conventional commercial development.  In fact, since government scientists started monitoring the grasses during the 1980's, the habitat for these grasses has shrunk, meaning the amount of land the government is looking to preserve for the grasses is smaller than when they originally proposed the regulation.

Naturally, the fact that some of the land in and around this habitat is being used for oil and gas extraction, environmentalists are anxious for these grasses to become protected species.  And yes, that could have a negative impact on drilling here in certain parts of the Lone Star State.

In addition, I'm not crazy about the amount of time, effort, and money our government has been spending studying these grasses for the past thirty years.  However, the fact that their pending "endangered" designation is coming about during Obama's administration is no fault of his.  Blame Ronald Reagan's administration for starting the ball rolling on this one, and thank Bill Clinton's administration for apparently bungling its case in court, causing the delay in this designation.

Right Wingers:  Fail (good try, though)
Obama Administration:  Pass

Airbus Rudder

Wow.  Things weren't looking too good for the right wing agitators who want to paint Obama's administration as a bunch of bureaucratic busy-bodies.  And sure enough - right wingers didn't catch a break when I returned to the listing of "regulations" and found an airworthiness directive regarding the potential for cracks in the rudder of Airbus' A300-600 series airplanes.

Fortunately for Airbus, although the government estimates that their directive applies to 170 planes, it would require only an hour's worth of work on each one.

The next time you fly on an airline using Airbus planes, you can thank your government for helping to make sure its rudder doesn't crack.

Right Wingers:  Fail
Obama Administration:  Pass

Bank Control

I finally thought I'd found something that would at least keep the right wingers from completely zeroing-out on this quick tally of regulations on the docket for today:  "Change in Bank Control Notices; Acquisitions of Shares of a Bank or Bank Holding Company."

Doesn't that sound like a sinister governmental intrusion into our finance industry?  I decided to check it out.  Unfortunately for our right-wingers, it's a one-page document listing the addresses of several branches of the Federal Reserve Bank with some legalese regarding an addendum to an already-existing federal banking document.  Nothing new to see here.  This is just a benign listing included in today's dose of "regulations."

In fact, several other listings on a variety of other topics, including one for Michelle Obama's healthy kids program and another one for banking regulations, came up blank, making the list look artificially longer than it really is.

Right Wingers:  Fail
Obama Administration:  Pass

Trust Needs More Than Partisan Hyperbole

Of course, die-hard right-wingers may simply claim that I cherry-picked the "regulations" to review, hoping to slant my results in the President's favor.  But if you think I'm a man with no honor, why do you bother reading my blog anyway?  And why would I have cherry-picked only the "regulations" that would defy right-wingers and intentionally ignore the vast majority that would support the allegation that Obama's administration is churning out too many rules that are crippling our economy?  You can check this list as well as I can.  There are no secrets on it.

Suffice it to say that we live in a highly complex society, with many actors and stakeholders involved in countless decisions in both the private and public sectors.  Could it be that the safety and security we generally take for granted in our everyday lives is due in part to the minutiae like cracked rudders and radioactive gasses that government bureaucrats churn through the system?  Do you really want to find out if we could be as prosperous a country without these types of checks?

Sure, some of these "regulations" add costs to private industry.  If the government weren't around to dot these bureaucratic i's and cross the t's, it's easy to assume that private industry would do at least as good a job, and make more money without the feds breathing down their neck.  It sounds nice to talk about giving that a try, but when it comes to safety, people tend to get cold feet.

Could some of these "regulations" be redundant?  Of course.  Many of them likely mirror the advisories private companies issue regarding their own products.  Airbus, for example, likely knew before Uncle Sam did of their rudder's potential to crack, but it's easier to assume that when you're not flying on one of their planes, isn't it?  Or is that just scarier, since it means they kept planes in the air with a known potential defect?  Things like this are why we tend to get cold feet when it comes to leaving private industry solely responsible for public safety.

It's harder, however, to see the need for protecting obscure types of grass.  Even though Obama's administration can't be blamed for it, the pursuit to preserve Texas' endangered grasses seems excessive, even to me.  Indeed, nothing in this little expose on "Obama's 68 new regulations" proves there aren't areas within our government that don't need to be right-sized.  Gladecress and rose-mallow grasses have a hard time competing with trillion-dollar-deficits, unfunded wars, and cancer research.  Unless scientists think these grasses hold a unique chemical that could cure cancer.

Still, to simply assert that an average of 68 worthless, cost-increasing, bureaucracy-bloating, Obama-empowering regulations are being added to the books every day by the current administration is, at best, a distortion of the truth.  And at worst, an outright lie.

Sure, it makes for a more salacious sound bite when right-wingers toss out such statistics like they're facts.  But if conservatives want liberals to take them seriously, they're going to have to give integrity a greater role in their dialog.

How do you think we've gotten to this point of being over-regulated in the first place?