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.