Friday, December 17, 2010

Labels, Learning, and One More Story

I mentioned in my last post that I was going to watch the No Labels launch via webcast since I didn't make the trip to New York. It was impressive to see some major political and media figures express their support for an organization that won't be driven by hyper-partisanship. Anything that lessens name calling, misrepresentation, and pat answers is something I'm in favor of.

It was enlightening to watch the event and then read the response in the media. Some argued it was business as usual. Others said that it was simply Centrist Democrats trying to regain the position they held in the Clinton years. Others complained that by equating name calling on the extreme right (Hitler, socialists, etc.) with those name calling on the left (obstructionists, homophobes) that we weren't condemning bad behavior.

Here's what I've been reflecting on this week. First, there is no value in trying to prove that my behavior is not as extreme as my opponent. If there are assumed norms of proper behavior and I've crossed them in my caricature of the other side, it doesn't really matter HOW FAR I crossed the line. The truth that the other's behavior was more egregious isn't an excuse for my behavior. My response, as hard as it is, should be one of apology and repentance. I'd like to think that would bring about a reciprocal response from the other, but even if it doesn't it's the right thing to do. If I want to see civil behavior, the pressure is on my to demonstrate it. (Think of it as the Sermon on the Mount does Politics.)

Some observers of the No Labels launch recognized that the only Republican speakers participating were moderates, some of whom had been forced out by Tea Party challenges. I think that's a good critique and a movement committed to true engagement of issues must find ways of reaching out to all segments of the political spectrum. They may not want to come, but the invitation needs to be regularly made.

There were several media figures that participated in the event. In watching them, particularly as part of panel discussions, it clarified one of the major issues in cable news today. They think it's about them. On more than one occasion, media figures talked too much, for too long, and kept other voices from being heard. I remember Walter Cronkite as "the most trusted man in America" but I don't remember him as A Celebrity.

This leads me to something my daughter Niki shared with me today. A group called World Public Opinion conducted a study of what people knew about the recent campaign and where they got their information. Not surprisingly, they reported that the 2010 campaign was seen as more distorted than those in the past. Further, they show how much reliable data exists to dispute claims made in the election. Finally, they examined how the source of news correlated with certain incorrectly held views.

This last piece was instructive on several grounds. First, folks who watched Fox News every day were far more likely to hold a number of distorted views (this is correlation, so it could be that folks with distorted views just watch Fox more often). There were some other interesting patterns where people's views moved toward more correct positions (with the same correlation exception -- maybe rapid NPR listeners already know a lot of stuff).

But the amazing data to me was HOW LITTLE DIFFERENCE viewing patterns made. If I were a news executive, I'd be mortified. My best guess is that the media has so bought into the approach of "on the one hand we have A" and "on the other hand we have B" that people think that all data is suspect, that everybody lies, and that I can simply decide what I think is right and then find sources to back me up. This is a major challenge to democracy.  Like it or not,  FACTS EXIST. We may disagree as to what the policy reactions to those facts might be, but we don't get to treat facts as if we're at Old Country Buffet.

Media figures need to return to being humble newspeople making difficult situations easier to understand. If the CBO says that the Health Care Law will reduce the deficit over time, repeat this fact every time anyone says otherwise. Currently, the person doing this better than anyone else is Anderson Cooper. If more journalists would follow his lead, we'd be a healthier society. On the other hand, we have the stories of how Fox executives suggested particular wording in talking about policy in order to create a specific impression. Such behavior should be denounced by professional journalists everywhere.

Enough ranting about the media and how they not only don't understand a group like No Labels but seem to want to make Labels more rigid (makes their job easier). Maybe in this week where compromise actually happened we'll find some new descriptions of reality.

One more Story. It's The Story. Last time I commented on the Holiday Parade, Christian America, and the War on Christmas. I know there's no war on Christmas and having people say Happy Holidays is nothing more than a combination of secular society and consideration for Jews. But it is still interesting that the story of Jesus being born in a stable is part of our overall sense of the Christmas season. People who've never gone to church know about Angels and Shepherds and Magi. Maybe it all comes back to the moment when Linus asks for the lights to come on in the auditorium. But people know the story. They get it mixed up with acquisition and Santa Claus and once in Illinois we saw a pig in the creche (which isn't quite kosher). But the Story remains. Somehow it cuts through all the other stuff this time of year. It's a miracle, really.

To use another line we all know, God Bless Us Every One.

Next blog post in 2011. Have a Marvelous Christmas.

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Stories, Your Stories, and Our Stories

I like stories. They go a long way to remind us who we are, where we fit, and where we're going. I don't really mean stories we learned as children or fiction we read as adults or drama we watch on television.

I'm more focused lately on the stories that we use to define identity. This is a theme I've been trying to address over the past couple of months. Identity stories are often used to divide "us" from "them".

I finished a wonderful book over the weekend, Christian America and the Kingdom of God, by Richard Hughes of Messiah University. Richard is a wonderful person, a sweet spirit, and a deep Christian. Hughes describes the history of our civil democracy, explores the periods of activity attempting to define us as a Christian Nation, and contrasts the view of Christian Nationalism with a commitment to the Kingdom of God. He is persuasive in showing the connections between biblical inerrancy, dispensational theology, and political strategy.

It's a great book and one can't argue with its logic. But I realized after reading it, and even e-mailed Richard to this effect, that those who make Christian America part of their narrative don't care about logic or the details of history. To them, being in Christian America is all tied up in who they are and how they function in the civil society. If they were to accept Richard's excellent analysis, they would be at a loss as to where they fit.

But the narrative they've tied their identity to not only isn't true historically, it's unsustainable in the present. It actually creates risk that their positions will not be taken seriously over the long run.

Let me illustrate with some recent examples; two from Oklahoma and one from California. The first illustration from Oklahoma relates to their recently passed referendum to ban Sharia law from being applied anywhere in the state. Statistics show that the total Muslim population of Oklahoma is less than half a percent. There has never been any conversation about introducing Sharia law into Oklahoma (or any other state for that matter). So what is the point? It appears to be a means of writing into law the privileged position of Christian Oklahomans.

The second example comes from Senator James Inhofe (the one who is sure global warming is a hoax). He has refused to participate in a Parade in Tulsa because it's called a "Holiday Parade." Inhofe explained to Fox and Friends that Christmas is about Christ's birth and that's what he wants to celebrate. First, Hughes' book makes clear that favoring Holiday over Christmas is not unlike Jefferson talking about The God of Nature. It is kind of religious (in a sociological sense) without being specifically Christian. That's a good thing in terms of both first amendment criteria and in creating a big tent that allows diversity. A simple Google search finds that about 1% of Oklahomans are Jewish and that the Christian population of the state (the 8th most religious) is only 65%. A Holiday parade seems to be something that would represent the breadth of folks who live in Oklahoma. So why is Inhofe offended?

The third example involved the Federal Appeals Court hearing regarding the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that amended the California constitution to define marriage as being between only one man and one woman. The initiative passed by a slim majority (52% to 48%) and was subsequently declared unconstitutional by a state judge. Today's hearing was the federal appeal of that action. Since it was televised on CSpan, I got to watch. The proponent for Prop 8 argued that a) the CA supreme court had invalidated heterosexual marriage, b) that two-parent marriage is best for children, and c) that marriage supports procreation. As I listened to his argument, particularly after reading Richard's book, I was amazed at the narrative he was clinging to. Why would he argue that his marriage was threatened? Why does he put so much weight on "the people's voice?" Where does childrearing fit into his story? I have read conservatives like David Brooks argue that society should favor committed relationships in any form. If the people's voice is sacrosanct, what happens if the next initiative fails? Where does divorce fit in? And what about the recent surveys saying that young people, especially those with less education, don't feel marriage is necessary for companionship or procreation?

What I'm recognizing is that these stories are mythic in character. It's not that they're related to evidence or logic. They speak to what people deeply feel.

But as I've written in earlier posts, the situation on the ground is changing. The percentage of folks, particularly younger folks, who claim no faith at all is increasing. Muslims, Hindus, Arabs, Persians, Vietnamese, Chinese, Ukrainian, and Latin American populations will not only continue to be part of America, they will be more mobile than they've been in the past and many will settle in Oklahoma. Some have significantly higher birth rates which has tremendous long-term demographic implications. The flip side of the recent terrible stories of gay teen suicides is that folks are "coming out" earlier and earlier. It will be very common for today's school children to go through their school years with at least one close friend who is gay.

So our past stories will become increasingly fragile. We can choose to fight to hold on to our story or we can figure out how to write new ones.

One book I return to on a regular basis is called Primal Leadership, written by the Emotional Intelligence psychologist Daniel Goleman and some business folks. It's a marvelous book. I've not always put it into practice as I'd like, but it provides some guidance to working with others and I keep trying. The authors talk about how four domains work together to inform leadership: self awareness, self management, social awareness, and relationship management.

I haven't worked out all the connections yet, but I'm thinking that these four domains provide us with a means of working on civil discourse and the narrative style that requires. When are we feeling threatened and why? How do we remain open while considering other positions? How do our arguments impact others? How can we put the building of civil society ahead of simply how I want things to be?

Here's what I wish could happen. Senator Inhofe would be invited to the Holiday Parade. His first reaction would be discomfort that his Christmas Parade had been retitled. He would need to talk to leaders about why Christian components of the holiday season was important to him. But he would also need to be reminded that for many people in the parade, Hanukah might be significant and for others, simply celebrating family is enough. It might be possible then to see how a narrative could be created that brought all these differing views together as a celebration of community and what makes Oklahoman life so wonderful. (Maybe I'm pushing things, but I have friends in Oklahoma and giving the benefit of the doubt!)

What we need is a more vibrant, more versatile, and more variant approach to narrative. To truly go back to our founding as a country. This is where we find story. It's in what Alexis de Toucqueville found when he toured America in its early years -- a diverse people who were able to build a common story. Not by holding to the stories from the Old Country (well, a little bit, but that became hard to maintain) but by writing new story.

One more thing. Next Monday is the official launch of a group I've joined called NoLabels.Org. It is an effort by politicians, journalists, and civic leaders to return to a form of civil discourse that isn't defined by party or political labels. I'm excited to be a Founding Member. I wish I could go to New York for the big launch event (I looked into it but the schedule didn't work). But I'm hopeful that by working with those different from me we can craft the new narratives that have the resilience required for today's challenges.

Anyone else interested in delving in some Creative Writing?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Looking for Reality

I don't care about Bristol Palin.

The latest flare-up involves what happened on Dancing With The Stars last week. Bristol, whose dancing has not been among the most skilled, was kept on for another week while Brandy was eliminated!

Oh My Goodness!

It's a horror, may be a conspiracy, could be manufactured for ratings. The conspiracy version is that Sarah Palin fans want to support Bristol as some kind of statement and since the viewers "voting" overrides the "judges" "scores", this creates the result. This doesn't count Bristol's other reality show about teen mothers or her absolutely tasteless public service announcement (with "The Situation" from Jersey Shore) against teen pregnancy.

Oh, and I refuse to watch Sarah Palin's Alaska on TLC. It's not just that her syntax makes me crazy (it does). But why do I want to watch a show about her? Would she watch a show about me? Or You?

The reason I avoid these two shows (and the Singing shows, the Skating shows, the Weight Loss shows, the Businessman shows, the Race shows, the Survivor shows, the Bachelorette shows, etc.) is simple.


We call them "Reality" shows, but the industry calls them "Unscripted". The characters are picked for their extremes, the situations are contrived to create drama (right after this commercial break), and the outcomes are pumped up as if they were world-changing.

I'm not looking for more silly situation comedies or police procedurals. I'm just thinking about how much of our shared discourse is about this Unreality. What are we NOT discussing because we're all distracted by the Reality? (I've commented before about how "the family" in Fahrenheit 451dominates everyone's social lives via wall-sized television screens. Wonder what Bradbury thinks 47 years later?)

But it's not a stretch to see that we do the same thing in other venues. Sunday morning cable talk shows are the source of weekly "news". But we have contestants who are selected to create drama, play pre-defined roles, and score points. It's only a short hop to having Daisy Fuentes come on after Meet the Press and say, "if you thought Mitch McConnell was the best, text 3451, but if you thought Chuck Schumer was better, text 3452 -- regular rates apply".

I've discovered a new Monday vice. It's a running blog from Jason Linkins at the Huffington Post. He does real time commentary on the news shows. Be warned, his language is sometime rough and his snarkiness score is off the charts. But his reflections demonstrate how useless these staged "conversations" are.

They don't enlighten because THEY AREN'T REAL!

So what should we be talking about? There are a lot of folks (Tea Partiers as well as others) who are concerned about the long-term good of the country. Last week, the New York Times put up an interactive site that allowed folks to make choices to balance the budget. It was actually fun to consider. Over one million people reviewed the site and many calculated their responses. And while there clearly isn't consensus on how to proceed, as the following link shows, it's at least a great start.

Here's another example of what Reality means. If you follow politics, you know the names Arianna Huffington and Mary Matalin. Arianna is the founder of the Huffington Post and a recognized progressive. Mary worked with vice president Cheney's staff, ran GHW Bush's campaign in 1992, and can be a harsh voice on the right (but is still married to James Carville -- go figure). But Mary and Arianna participated in the StoryCorps program NPR reports as part of its National Day of Listening. Both become REAL people who struggled to get where they are, who were supported by their mothers, who struggled with pregnancies, and who actually admire each other regardless of (or maybe because of) their differences. It's a touching conversation.

So once again, let's try to focus on what is REAL. As we gather with friends and family for Thanksgiving, it's the opportunity to truly engage. Not as characters playing roles, but as REAL PEOPLE. And that's worth giving Thanks over.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"I Don't Belong to an Organized Political Party..."

"...I'm a Democrat", Will Rogers, 1935.

As I've written before, since I'm a student of what passes for civil discourse I regularly subject myself not just to articles on political sites but also to the comments folks make in "response" to those comments. It's often painful, mostly maddening, and largely irrelevant to the actual content of the original column. But that pretty well describes the current state of civil discourse in the society at large!

In my earlier posts, I have suggested that we need to have more honest conversations about the nature of the problems we face as a society. I have asked all parties to be committed to telling the truth in the midst of disagreement. I have suggested that we call out those who continue to repeat false claims. (My newest idea is to have the big "X" from the Family Feud game show appear on the screen when a politician repeats a known untruth! $200 million a day -- BEEP!)

There is a critique to be made of my position. It suggests that all matters of exaggeration, distortion, or fantasy are equal and that some of what was said (socialists, death panels) is so extreme as to deserve special condemnation. This is the critique the progressive caucus made of Jon Stewart's rally. It argues that we Democrats have suffered and need to release our own angry protest. I've had friends and family members make the same observation about my writing.

As I look to answer those who want to push hard at the Republicans, or to launch fundraising organizations to match those on the right, I am still looking for a "Higher Way" for civil debate. And while I don't have enough of an answer to satisfy me, some things I've read in the last three months speak strongly that such a search is preferable to the tit-for-tat strategies that have characterized our political dialogues for a couple of decades.

As I've read books by a biblical theologian, a British social theorist, and a moral philosopher, I find some common ground in the search for this Higher Way.

The biblical theologian is N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham for the Church of England. In his book After You Believe, he argues that our task as Christians is be living the coming Kingdom. His interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and Paul's Epistles calls us to celebrate the Image of God in others and thereby show the world the contours of this kingdom that is both to come and unfolding in our midst.

The British social theorist in Anthony Giddens. He has done amazing work in articulating the mechanisms through which society reproduces itself over time through a process of Structuration (don't ask). The very short version is that through repeated interactions we define ways of describing the world which then shape future interactions. Societies shift as these various processes tying individuals to larger organizational groupings are reshaped. Because we're in the midst of it at the time and the changes take significant time to unfold (often generations), we're not duly attentive to what's happening around us. He's not just an excellent social theorist but is also active in European politics and has written about the nature of globalization and how we need a "left of center" government he calls The Third Way.

I'm currently reading Justice, by Michael Sandel, philosophy professor at Harvard. It's a remarkable book that talks about how we together define a good society. He argues, following the work of John Rawls, that we should understand our lives together in terms of an idealized society rather than pursuing our self-interests. He talks about how Kant called us to hypothetical ideals as opposed to views of utilitarianism, libertarianism, or arbitrary free markets.

All three of these authors would support my position that the nature of productive civil discourse needs to be re-imagined. We don't want more of the same "in your face" kinds of dialogue. We need to search for justice for all, replicate those structures that support that effort, and commit to partnering with God as He births his Kingdom.

Let me insert two more pragmatic reasons why I'm calling for more abstract notions of the Common Good. First, what we are doing just plain doesn't work at its core. Years ago when I was teaching social psychology our textbook had a wonderful section on negotiation. I can't remember all of the required components, but the one that has always stayed with me was the need to support the legitimacy of your opponent in the negotiation. Without that belief, good faith negotiation is impossible. I would argue that the name-calling of today's debates (especially when conducted through the lens of the media) destroys claims of legitimacy on both sides rendering fair conclusions near impossible.

The second reason is that Newton's Third Law doesn't work in Civil Discourse. Newton's Third Law says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It works really well on physical elements in the right conditions. But it doesn't work in politics. Every action has an accelerated reaction. What was the outrageous claim becomes the new baseline. And I agree with all my Democratic friends that the Republicans have been far better at raising those stakes in recent years than we have.

In a bizarre way, I'm proud of that. That's why I'm searching for the Higher Way. So I ask my Democratic friends whether progressives, blue dogs, neo-centrists, or whatever: let's redefine the rules of the game. Let's focus on the greater good over protected interests. Let's not demonize those on the other side regardless of what they say. Let's put the long-term Idealized Common Good ahead of winning.

Yes, we run the risk of losing in the short run. But in the long run, we stand for a vision of the civil society that can be well articulated, defended against attack, and will become part of rhetoric that reshapes how we live together in the ways Wright, Giddens, and Sandel suggest.

I also read Carl Hiaasen's Star Island and am halfway through Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I'm sure they connect somehow but I'll let that wait for another day.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

"Houston, We [Have] a Problem"

The actual quote is "Houston, We've Had a Problem" but stay with me.

I've been thinking about problems. Probably because I've had enough time to read political sites, pay attention to what was said during the campaigns (and mostly not said, but I'm ahead of myself), and consider the real issues facing contemporary society.

What I've noticed is that nobody is really talking about the problems we face. Instead, there are countless examples of specifics of solutions that then get tossed around as dividing points between parties, candidates, and cable new networks.

  • Want to argue about immigration issues? We talk about border security, going after employers, empowering police in Arizona to confirm individual status, and exploring the costs of the deportation of 12 million people.  
  • Want to talk about the economy? We talk about tax levels, outsourcing, labor unions, extended unemployment benefits, and infrastructure investment.
  • Want to deal with education? We talk about state funding, local control of textbooks, teacher's unions, testing to standards, and parental influence.
  • What about the war in Afghanistan? Should we increase drone attacks across the border, negotiate with the Taliban, have a fixed date to start withdrawal, or unconditionally support the Karzai government?

In all of these, and countless others, we don't talk about the nature of the problem we're trying to fix. Admittedly, sometimes that's not possible -- military action in Afghanistan may have been necessary without the time to properly analyze it, but somewhere in the last decade it might have been helpful.

But if graduate school taught me anything, it was the importance of properly defining the problem if one is to successfully analyze it. In fact, the world is full of insurance agents who never finished their dissertation because the research tproblem was too vague.

I think the heart of our challenges as a society rest in our inability or unwillingness to explore these problem definitions. If Republicans and Democrats, progressive and libertarians, tea partiers and career politicians, journalists and small business leaders, retirees and twenty-somethings, city dwellers and farmers, could sit down and say, "What are we concerned about?", amazing things may happen. At the very least, simple campaign slogans might be less palatable.

Take Social Security as an example. The program as originally designed was to support the needs of the orphans and widows (a Biblical imperative). There were real folks who were hurting. One may argue that churches, charities, and neighbors might have dealt with it, but in the midst of the depression they couldn't. Over time, it became a means of guaranteed income regardless of your situation (which is why it's called an Entitlement). But before we talk about Social Security as a Ponzi scheme (according to Governor Perry of Texas), or being "your money," we need to talk about what it is we want it to do. Surely we could agree that we need to care for the poor and needy in our midst. Forget "lock boxes" or "privatization". How do we come together for the social net we require as a society? (I'm assuming most of us aren't in favor of starving grandmas.)

What about the Housing Bubble, the Finance Industry, and Foreclosures? A rational conversation would begin to focus on how to align affordable housing, reasonable mortgage rates, proper loan evaluation, appropriate risk management for lenders, and planned development for cities. We got into this situation by NOT having this conversation. Instead, we based an economy on expanding demand (and creating it), massive construction employment, the financial benefit of making easy loans (both initial loans and equity loans), the game-playing of refinancing, the creative financial instruments of derivatives and "collateralized debt obligations", and robo-signers on foreclosure documents. It's only a focus on the solutions and not the problem that allows critique of "those who bought more house than they could afford" or "greedy bankers". Our failure to think through what we were trying to do allows us to pretend that we have no options.

I could do more but you get the idea. The general point is that there are issues we're trying to deal with as a society simply by sloganeering and occasionally passing legislation (if we can get a majority) that takes a stab at the amorphous blob that is the problem. And since we didn't define the problem, we have no real way to discuss the potential solutions without all the name-calling.

The Health Care "Debate" is the horrible but real example: how do we define minimally appropriate care for our citizens at a level that is affordable for the society? What does that look like? Is it in our interest to see folks healthy? These are important conversations that don't deal with "public options," "death panels," "mandates," or "massive government takeovers."

But we're not having them. I'm ready for coffee with anybody from any political persuasion who's ready to help define a problem. When do we start?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

"The Times, They Are A-Changin"

(With Apologies to the Man From Hibbert)

I'm getting a head start on the analysis of the midterm election cycle two days before election day. In fact, I've been thinking about these things for quite a while and thought I'd offer my reflections in advance of the media's deconstruction of Obama's style (I like Maureen Dowd, but she's getting on my nerves!), the political strategies used or missed, the Tea Party as a force or a corporate tool, policy overreach or timidity (right or left, respectively).

I'm taking a few steps back from the immediate situation to think about some of what's going on. If I'm right, it's the kind of truth-telling we need to be engaged in. Instead we're avoiding it, distorting it, and mostly yelling about it.

Here are two sound bites from the 2008 campaign. They both say a lot about what's going on. One the one hand, Sarah Palin spoke to rallies in medium sized towns and focused on what "Real Americans" believe in. On the other hand, Obama created a firestorm by claiming than in uncertain times, folks "cling to Guns or Religion."

Palin's comments were similar to the kind of blather all politicians spout. They talk about "what the American people want..." based on no more information than what the politician hears from constituents, lobbyists, pollsters, or commentators. If they were honest, they'd at least say, "I'm hearing from folks who think ...".

But there's a much larger issue to Palin's Real American comments that connects directly to Obama's comments. Clearly, it wasn't the right wording for Obama. But imagine if he had said, "in uncertain times, people cling to what is comfortable". The important thing in his statement was the CLINGING, not the thing clung to. Palin's comments about REAL Americans suggests some others that don't share the values of those to whom she spoke.

Underneath both ideas is a recognition that things are shifting. Even if the Norman Rockwell small town America fantasy has been eroding for decades, we're now beginning to realize that the world as it's been imagined is not what we will see going forward.

The anxiety that goes with this change is real. It was well stated in a column by Frank Rich in the New York Times in August of 2009 ( He is writing about the upcoming third season of Mad Men, but speaks of it as being at a point where the known world is shifting.

"What makes the show powerful is not nostalgia for an America that few want to bring back — where women were most valued as sex objects or subservient housewives, where blacks were, at best, second-class citizens, and where the hedonistic guzzling of gas and gin went unquestioned. Rather, it’s our identification with an America that, for all its serious differences with our own, shares our growing anxiety about the prospect of cataclysmic change. “Mad Men” is about the dawn of a new era, and we, too, are at such a dawn. And we are uncertain and worried about what comes next."

As I have watched the Tea Party candidates, viewed hundreds of grainy ominous toned attack ads, read liberals attacking the president for not pursuing their agendas, and tried to make sense of it all, I keep coming back to Frank Rich last summer and Bill Moyers from 25 years ago. The Moyers reference goes back to his documentary days. He had travelled to Wisconsin to interview Briggs and Stratton employees whose jobs had been lost due to their plant closing and moving to Mexico. These were folks who'd played by the rules as they understood them, relied on the plant being there forever, and now found themselves with no options and few chances for retraining. It's as if we turned our back on a generation of good folks. And we're still doing so.

The things that we have known, or at least believed to be true, will not look the same in the decades to come. Let me offer some examples of changing times:

  1. Semi-skilled manufacturing job opportunities will continue to shrink
  2. Economic struggles in rural America will be felt more strongly than in suburban areas
  3. The family farm has been overtaken by agribusiness conglomerates
  4. Housing costs will not see the kinds of rapid growth of the past 10 years
  5. Construction will not return to its mid-2000 levels
  6. White Americans will be a demographic minority within 40 years, without considering the impacts of illegal immigration
  7. The percentage of folks with no religious affiliation is higher than it's ever been which in turn allows the rise of "atheist fundamentalists" like Richard Dawking
  8. The movies put out by Hollywood that draw the most attendees are things like Saw 7 and Jackass 3D
  9. There are more people with non-Christian faiths in America than ever before
  10. The financial sector is increasingly distant from everyday life (how many times has your bank been sold?) and the rules it uses benefit them and not us.

Okay, now I'm depressed.  But my point is that these changes are underway. And politicians, pundits, and journalists are not talking about them to help people prepare for these new realities. Is it any surprise that people feel like they're losing a semblance of control, "clinging" to symbols (real or not), and demanding to "take the country back"?

But like the Mad Men, there isn't a back to go to. 

This is the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future. In that wonderful movie (more so than the other two), Marty McFly is able to go back and change the past and improve his family situation. But Doc Brown was right -- you can't take that chance. Better to live where you are.

So we have some tough years ahead politically and socially. The sooner we begin to address the societal changes in positive and honest ways and move away from finger pointing and name calling the better we'll be. This is what Jon Stewart was talking about in his serious speech at yesterday's rally

The Times are in fact A-Changin, but it doesn't make it "The End of the World as We Know It" (apologies to REM).

Monday, October 25, 2010

"You've Got Your Wish, George: You've Never Been Born."

I love It's a Wonderful LIfe. It' a fabulous piece of Americana and a helpful contrast to the kinds of rhetoric we've been hearing lately. Too bad it's only played at Christmastime. 

The picture above takes place in the little shack next to the river Clarence (the angel, left) and George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) jumped into. George wishes he'd never been born so that all the trouble he thinks he's caused would go away. Clarence (after appropriately consulting with the Powers That Be) gives him his wish and you get to see what Bedford Falls looks like if George had never existed. 

Besides the message that we all impact those around us (for good or for ill) there's another reason why George Bailey's story is important. This is an exercise in what is called a counterfactual. It says, what if we'd done that other thing when we had the chance? It's counterfactual because, unlike Bedford Falls, we can't create the alternative reality to see what might have happened. We wind up stuck with the reality we have. Any attempt to evaluate the "what if"s is mere fantasy (like imagining what could have happened if the Chargers had made that field goal).

The current political environment is filled with counterfactual arguments. Consider the rhetoric around the Stimulus Act signed by President Obama in February 2009. The $787 billion investment was designed to strengthen the deteriorating economic circumstances of early 2009. One third went to tax cuts, one third to contracts/grants, and one third to benefit support. At the time, the economy was shedding 650,000 jobs a month in December 2008, January 2009, and February 2009. The unemployment rate was 8.1%

Today, there are at least two brands of counterfactual arguments in play. On the one hand, folks like Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, and others argue that the stimulus bill was  about half the size needed and we would be far better off if the president had forced through a bigger bill (as if that would have passed). On the other hand, there are a host of voices including Republican leadership, Fox News, and Tea Party activists arguing that the stimulus was a waste of money, had no impact, and isn't the American way. They argue that we should have let bad banks fail, call out bad mortgage holders, not support the auto industry, and cut taxes on corporations in order to "support the job creators".

But neither Krugman nor Cantor can prove their points, absent the work of Clarence the Angel. We don't have a way to imagine what would have happened if we had acted differently in February of 2009. Is it reasonable to argue that the unemployment rate would be around 6% if the stimulus had been bigger? Does it make sense that if we'd done nothing, that the economy would be stronger today (or, alternatively, have an unemployment rate nearing 18%)? 

This is not to say that the Obama administration didn't make mistakes. Christina Romer did suggest that unemployment could be held to 8% in a report written in December 2008 before fourth quarter numbers were in, a figure that was too specific and incomplete. It would also have helped if the administration had laid out a time table that could be tracked in terms of dispensing and implementing the stimulus funds. And they've recently discovered that "shovel ready" meant "project defined and ready to begin the long permitting process" But the critics, who demagogued the stimulus for two months before  it passed, were asking "why hasn't it worked?" a mere five months after it was signed.

We can't imagine what would have happened if we had invested infrastructure dollars in the levees of New Orleans prior to 2005. We can't estimate what would have happened if the Iraq War had lasted just a year. We'll never know what would have happened if the Padres August-September losing streak had stopped at 6 games instead of 10. It's fun to talk about and keeps pundits or sportscasters busy, but doesn't advance our common efforts.

The real question should be: "What will we do next?". It's a Wonderful Life ends with all of George's friends coming to his aid when he was in trouble. From there, George has to figure out how to move forward to strengthen the Building and Loan, improve his community, protect against the greed of Mr. Potter, and support his family. But he will continue to take the long view (which Buildings and Loan were based upon, unlike today's financial markets; a theme I'll address is coming thoughts about Michael Lewis' The Big Short and the foreclosure paperwork troubles) and not worry about what might have been.

The facts are tough enough without spending all of our time with the counterfactuals. But then what would they pontificate about all day on cable news?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On Telling the Truth

So I've finally started a blog. For years I've been worried about the breakdown in dialogue in modern society. We don't discuss issues and solutions -- we talk to those who agree with us about what's wrong with those who don't. And when we do address those we disagree with, we engage in name-calling, stereotyping, and hyperbole.

I grew up in Indiana, became a Democrat in high school, became a sociologist, remained a faithful evangelical, have spent my career in Christian higher education, and currently live in California. That makes me a contradiction in a number of ways. I love politics, even though it is mostly exasperating.

Here's what I've come to believe. I know it's simplistic, but it is also eye-opening. I've decided that we'd be a lot better if all of us, starting with me, became committed to upholding the Ninth Commandment.

You Shall Not Bear False Witness Against Your Neighbor
 (Exodus 20: 16, Deuteronomy 5:20)

Jesus made it very clear that we were to have a broad tent when it comes to defining neighbor. In fact, extending grace to those who persecute us is right there in the Sermon on the Mount. So this clearly isn't about simply geographic neighbors.

As we enter the final ten days of this midterm election season, it seems that every commercial I see is a political ad. Far too many of them from both sides of the political spectrum contain mis-statements, exaggerations, distortions, logical errors, and occasionally lies.

Check out websites like and you learn that they gauge political statements as:
Mostly True 
Barely True 
False and 
Pants on Fire. 
Anyone who gets a rating below Mostly True (giving folks the benefit of the doubt here for misunderstanding) is knowingly Bearing False Witness. We should call it that. And once a campaign ad has been outed for being inaccurate, it should be labeled as such in subsequent showings. The groups have the first amendment rights to say what they want, but lies should be called such.

Carly Fiorino doesn't want to send California jobs overseas. Barbara Boxer hasn't destroyed health care for senior citizens. Meg Whitman won't destroy the social support system. Jerry Brown won't be soft on crime.

There are real differences in the ways these candidates would prioritize solutions to the state's problems and those should be discussed in ways the voters can hear. Not by scoring cheap shots, cherry picking individual votes, making logical leaps from an isolated comment in the past.

A related problem is that we don't talk to each other about these important social issues. We talk past each other. Or we talk to those we agree with. We no longer have the kinds of social places where we have to work through our differences. Instead, we stay in our own circles, read our preferred webpages, watch the cable channel that agrees with me, and nod our heads a lot. Even in the places where we ought to talk about these things, like the congregation, we pretend to set aside our concerns to be like-minded.

I confess that I don't spend enough time reviewing conservative websites or news channels. I confess that my social circle doesn't include enough folks who disagree with me (or if they do we don't talk about it).

One more problem with our discourse. We live on the grade school playground. Far too often, the response to a critique is "oh yeah?". Tea Party rallies with extreme statements and slanders against the president are defended with "where were you when anti-war protestors were calling the president a war criminal?" (speaking of Bush but it could have been Johnson). This misses the point of the ninth commandment. It's not about matching past mis-statements with new ones. It's about telling the truth. If I agree that those opposed to the Iraq War went too far in their rhetoric about President Bush, will the current groups stop calling President Obama a Marxist? It wasn't true then and it isn't true now.

The other form of playground argument is what I'd call the "booger face" strategy. If you read comments on political sites (like I punish myself with because I'm interested in the nature of discourse), you'll find people saying things like "you Pelosi/socialist/liberals are losing big" and "you right wing nutjobs don't have a clue". I'd say it's the kind of language third grade boys use at recess but that's unkind to third grade boys.

These are difficult times. I've got some thoughts about what makes them so challenging and I'll explore those in future posts. But we got here by not telling the truth about ourselves, our challenges, our options, and our intentions. And it seems to me that the primary way forward is to draw a line in the sand on November 3rd. Let's make that the first day of the Era where we begin to Tell The Truth.