Saturday, August 27, 2011

Storms on Cable News

As a footnote to my post upstream about the film Network, I have to comment on the news and weather organizations and their fight for viewers by scaring them to death.  I confess I saw no more than ten minutes of CNN, MSNBC, HLN, FOX and the Weather Channel, but I can say this:

These reporters and anchorpersons should pop some downers and stop drinking regular coffee.  Whoever pays reporters to spend eight or more hours out in a hurricane should be arrested and committed to an asylum.  The reporters on the beach/street/boardwalk wherever seem to enjoy what they are doing.  I can only imagine that they are paid well for it or perhaps only hope to score career advancement for risking their lives live on TV.

As a matter of fact, it occurred to me today that what this country needs is a human sacrifice of a weather reporter in the hurricane to appease the weather gods and the gods of commercialism and national exceptionalism.  And to appease the Christian God whom we are told is not accepting our prayers for deliverance from disaster.
Cable news seems to exist mainly to catastrophize everything and to be happy only when there is a crisis.  Let me take that back.  We have precious few crises.  They are happy to make every natural and normal thing, big or small, into a crisis about which we must pop another paxil.

Oh how I miss the Canadian Broadcasting System.  Even Public TV and radio lets me down, although they still know how to appear calm in the face of doom.  Cause the world is gonna end and we’re all gonna die terrible deaths and there is nothing we can do to stop it.  And as a matter of fact, yes.  Wait til I tell you what I think of 911.  Partly my views were formed by witnessing a tornado close up in Kentucky in 1994.  More about that later.  Meanwhile, people in the midwest and west coast wonder what else has been and is happening in the world besides this hurricane.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Congressman Dances

Buck Bryan wrote an interesting letter to our Congressman, Chris Gibson last week, published in the Glens Falls Chronicle. I spoke with Buck so that I wouldn’t get him wrong. He is pretty moderate. But I have sent the following letter to Mr. Gibson and the Chronicle in response:

I thank you for two things: Voting not to defund the National Labor Relations Board, and your willingness to cut the military budget. (The Congressman is a retired Army Colonel and has a good voice on this issue.) But you had nothing to do with preventing default and you know it. You were part of the the group that took us to the brink and tripped the recent downgrade and the gyrations in the stock market. You want it both ways: You tell us that you support "cut, cap, and balance" and were willing to risk default to please the Tea Party folk . Then you tell us that you voted for the needed resolution to the debt ceiling crisis because if we had defaulted it would have been a disaster.

Buck Bryan says that DEBT and KILL have the same number of letters. This is completely irrelevant. Most people need credit (debt) to buy a house or car. I needed it this year for a new furnace. CREDIT makes GROWTH. (These words each have six letters; also irrelevant.) And to have credit, I need a job and income. For the government this means revenue from taxes. Trying to substantially reduce government debt has the effect of strangling growth.

The books Bryan recommends by Michael Lewis and by Gretchen Morgenson and Johua Rosner are good. But they don’t preach against debt by cutting spending, but explain how wall street recklessness and lack of government regulation of banks are the root of our problems. And of course they are about how both Democratic and Republican Congresses and administrations have been complicit in creating the boom and the bust we suffer. Don’t pander to the Tea Party, Mr. Congressman. Get busy on something that will make jobs and growth, not the populist party line.

End of letter. I have also been critical of the Congressman for scheduling only 2 or 3 "Town Halls" this summer, and those in very small out of the way towns. He isn’t unusual.  Majority of Congress Avoids Town Hall Meetings

Mostly he appears at events where he won’t be confronted. Here is what happened in the southern part of our district:

We still don’t have a Democrat to challenge Mr. Gibson next year, but I hope we can get Scott Murphy or someone of his caliber to run. Scott bravely faced the Town Halls in 2009 and calmed everyone with reasonable words about the health care bill, which he had obviously studied carefully.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Econ Not So Simple – Jobs

The Glens Falls Chronicle reports that Red Fox, the only independent bookstore will close.  Barnes and Noble is 24 miles away in Saratoga Springs.  The Borders there just shut down.  It is truly sad that a bookstore can’t make it in Saratoga or Glens Falls.  The owners say that the reason is the growth of e-books.  It is that and websites like,, and even  The editor of the newspaper comments that the big super book stores drove out the independents, and now Borders is gone, so even Saratoga Springs has no downtown bookstore.

I confess that I contribute to the decline of small shops in our towns.  I do as much shopping as I can online because it saves time and money.  I shop a lot on ebay and buy a lot of small items directly from China because the government there subsidizes postage so that I pay $3.00 for something that costs $20 at Staples or WalMart.  Also, there is a huge used goods market in the US now.  Most of my clothing comes from resale shops.  I shop Craigslist and garage and yard sales, too.

Garage and yard sales fall into several categories: On the low end what you see is landfill.  On the high end at the McMansions, there are often 3 car garages, stuffed with expensive toys and household items that were bought when the economy was roaring.  These people often price stuff at 80% of the new price, so they truly know the value of nothing.

My shopping behavior partly causes “structural unemployment.”  The jobs that are lost are as the British say, “redundant.”  They are no longer needed and there is no way to bring them back.  It is difficult to fathom that Michigan lost half a million jobs in the past few years.  A report in the Albany Times-Union says that fewer and fewer retail workers are employed in the region.  So are a vast number of workers simply not needed, in fact redundant?

I search for economists who can explain what I have been seeing the past few years.  One I found is Dean Baker, who explains simply where all the money and jobs went.  (The housing bubble was $8 trillion of phony wealth and equity!)  Baker has some interesting recommendations.
Reshape the Economy: Shorter Weeks, Longer Vacations   Rogoff doesn't seem to have any proposals except higher inflation, and Robert J. Samulson must work for the Koch brothers.

But it is not the case that workers have been laid off from jobs that still exist or that will return.  The jobs are gone.  Computerization, the applications of new technologies, the movement of jobs to countries with cheaper labor have done this.  It has taken 30 years of the application of personal computers and the development of the internet to make this happen so strongly today.  We may have a society now that requires only 30-40% of its people to be employed.

When I was downsized in 1996 (from the PCUSA) it was the result of “re-engineering.”  Declining membership and funds meant a need for fewer staff personnel.  At that time there was a slew of books on everyone becoming an entrepreneur.  Much easier said than done, and few people can make a living income on consulting or Ebay selling.  (I do that, too.)

I remember Nixon promoting a “guaranteed annual income” in 1970.  Daniel Patrick Moynihan (dem. Senator NY) wrote a book on why it failed and why it was needed.  It was a failure of political will of various groups to “compromise.”  Sounds familiar.  Both Nixon and Moynihan saw that there would be time when there would be not enough jobs for everyone.  So how would people live?  Everyone needs a share of the U.S. for basic living.  If one has motivation to move beyond what would be poverty, go for it.  Oddly, this was a plan spelled out by my friend, George, in high school around 1960.

Turns out it is an old idea, and I can imagine a society where more justice reigns than now and everyone shares in the world’s wealth.  You know, like from each according to his ability; to each according to his need.  I look forward to reading Terry Eagleton’s book.  Wasn’t Nixon a conservative Republican?

Monday, August 22, 2011

In Praise of Gore Vidal

I have to mention She Who Should Not Be Named, Michelle Bachmann, because she has denounced one of my favorite writers: Gore Vidal.  “She” blames some of her switch from Democrat to Repubican on Mr. Vidal, specifically his book on the Founding Fathers, Burr.

I read it when it was published in 1973. “She” says it was “snooty.”  So now I am half way through it again.  Actually, I would now call it “snarky.”  Vidal was a realist about famous people in the past and this made him a bit cynical.  He did TEN years of research on Burr, and learned a lot that does not support a view of the holiness of those great men.  He does reveal a lot about how politics works and worked itself out in the late 18th and early 19the centuries.

E.g., many of the early patriots thought that John Hancock would have made the best commanding general of the Continental Army.  But John Adams, wanting to get the support of Virginians, decided to support Washington for the job.  Burr and others repeatedly remind us of the failures of Washington as a general and his oddness as a person.  Burr was outraged by Jefferson’s hypocrisies and wrote great detail about them.  Burr is outraged again when Hamilton supports the Virginians in creating a capital city in Virginia, in order to get Congress to pay the states’ debts after the revolution is won.

What is revealing in this [and another book I am reading and shall review] is the similarity to political debates and differences to today, and the origin of today’s issues in the distant past.  The debate between Hamilton who wanted a strong federal government and a national bank, and Jefferson, who envisioned a nation of small farmers and tradesmen, is at the heart of the debt crisis and the Tea Party fantasies of today.

I should note that Vidal likes to use as a narrator fictional secretaries who can move about, hear, and report on the various words of different people.  He does this also in Lincoln and Creation.  Lincoln (1984) continues his search for truth in American history.  It focuses not on the Civil War, but the political battles in Washington and Lincoln’s personal life.

Even more impressive research resulted in Creation.  This is truly a marvelous romp through the axial age, that time in the ancient world when a Persian diplomat could have known Zoroaster, Socrates, the Buddha, Mahavira, Confucius, and Lao-Tze!!!!!!  Characters all living at the same time include Xerxes, Darius I, Pericles, Araxerxes I, Democritus, and Herodotus!!!!!! [Each deserves an exclamation mark.]   Creation is a short course in philosophy and religion.  Read the updated and unedited edition of 2002.

I was very interested in reading Julian (1964), which I discovered two years ago.  Alas, I have had difficulty finishing it.  It is promising because Julian was the last Pagan Roman Emperor (360-363 c.e.) AFTER Contstantine.  His love of Dionysian rituals and dismissal of the “Galileans” answers some of my questions – When did people give up on the Greek gods, why and how?  When does a religion “die?”  How did Christianity “win?”  What is the underlying connection between religion and political power?  I guess I have to finish it.

“She” has a lot to learn.  And so do I.  I want to read Vidal’s Empire (our entry into the 20th century), The Golden Age (the 1950's), and Live from Golgotha....

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Meaning of Life - A Sermon for Unitarians

I went “yardsailing” last week.  I saw a great many books, cds, videotapes, and dvd’s on every kind of spirituality and religious fad of the past 30 years.  I thought: Wow. There is so much hunger for understanding in times of confusion, so much searching for answers when they are none, so much anxiety and loneliness and desire to be part of something larger than ourselves.  And so much of the search leads nowhere.

At the last yardsale I heard a customer say something negative or discouraging to which the saleswoman asked “You know what’s coming, don’t ya?”  “Yes, I do,” said the other.  “I read the Bible.”  The woman said “Yup, the Lord is coming soon.”  I hustled away from them.  But I wish I had stayed and asked them about their beliefs.  Why do they believe such stuff?  Don’t they know that every time there is a political or economic or social crisis, someone cries out wrongly “The end is near?”

Recently I saw a fairly good show on the Maya calendar and the theory that the world ending in December, 2012 – because that’s when their calendar ends.  It must be that the world will end because the Mayans said so.  For some reason we tend to look for answers to our big questions by looking beyond and outside of our experience and the world that we know.

The show is called “Apocalypse Island” and features Jim Turner, who became interested and then obsessed by the findings of possible mayan like structures on an island many hundreds of miles south of mexico in the pacific ocean.  (Coincidentally, it is called “Robinson Crusoe Island,” because it was the basis for the Defoe novel.)  In the show Turner finds the island and the stones, but there is never enough evidence to prove his theory.  He continues to believe it to the end even when his colleague on the journey gives reasons for serious doubt.  I sure didn't see anything there.

As the show ended I suddenly realized what was wrong with his thinking and what is wrong with Christianity.  You see, the Mayans had this complex system, a construct about the world and how we should live in it.  And Christian churches built a system, a huge construct over many years.  Both systems are “pre-modern.”

Both Mayan apocalypse proponents and Christians are trying to apply myths and metaphors of the distant past to the present.  But what made sense to those early Christians and what worked for them doesn’t work so well today to our more scientific and rational world view.  What made sense to those early Mayans and what worked for them is over.  There are no Mayans today to live by the complex calendar that they created.  That calendar is simply an artifact of anthropology and history.  It means nothing.  It means no more than resurrection does to many of us.

About ten years ago I took my then boss, Bob Funk, creator of the Jesus Seminar, to a men’s Bible study group at a Presbyterian church in San Rafael, California.  They were very interested in what he said until a man started to figure Bob out the implications of what Bob was saying.  He asked:  “Do you believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ?”  Bob just said straight out “No one was ever born of a virgin and no one was ever raised from the dead.”  I really thought for a while that I might have to call a fleet of ambulances because several of those present looked as if they were going to die on the spot of strokes or heart attacks.

Richard Holloway, retired bishop of Edinburgh in the Anglican church of Scotland and author of Doubts and Loves, was in the US then.  He was interviewed for a radio program in Chicago and I was able to record it live from the internet.  The interviewer was shocked by what he was hearing, about how Jesus didn’t say or do most of the things the gospels say he did.  So in great frustration the show’s host asked in the last seconds of the program:  “Well, what do you think the gospel of Jesus was if you don’t think Jesus came to die for our sins?”

Without a pause Holloway exclaimed excitedly:  “Life before death, for everyone!”  This is what Christianity should be about, but isn’t.  Christians could construct a new version of their religion on the enjoyment of life, the end of sacrifice and violence, and helping each other.

Holloway made a statement in a lecture that year that astounded me for its simplicity.  When speaking about the Christian beliefs, he concluded “We made it all up.”  Well.  If we made it all up, we can make it all up again.  And that is what we do as a practical matter.  We make up our own answers to the questions of the meaning or purpose of life.  That is my point.  There is no meaning of life that is pre packaged that one can find by looking for it.  So the epigram I saw on a church’s sign board in the ‘60's was true:  “Life is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.”

John Shuck, my favorite Presbyterian minister, has written 72 entries on the meaning of life on his blog  One of the last is about Lloyd Geering (photo at right), whom John and I first met ten years ago at the Jesus Seminar.  Lloyd who is now 91 has a new book on Ecclesiastes, Such Is Life.  My text today is from his translation of something repeated several times in the short biblical book.

After trying to live by all sorts of goals and rules, the preacher or teacher says:
Let me tell you what I’ve come to realise:
It’s good and proper simply to eat and drink,
and take satisfaction in all the work
we do on the face of the earth.
After all, this is our human lot
during the limited days of life that Nature gives us.

No one can give us a meaning to life.  Christian churches proclaim that a providential, transcendent, supernatural God  gives meaning and purpose to our lives.  That might be, but we don’t know and can’t know.  All claims of revelation are suspect.

Humans eating around a table is the meaning of life.  Good work is the meaning of life.  As a good Presbyterian I learned that “the chief end of man is to glorify god and enjoy him forever.”  Now I would say, “the chief purpose of human life is to enjoy life and make life as pleasant as possible for others.” [I’m not very good at that.]

So here we are and in the UUA you covenant to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”   Brothers and sisters – there is no meaning to life except what we make of it.  Beware all who tell you what the meaning of life is.  But you already know and live it.

I make meaning by playing my saxophone, writing poetry and other stuff, enjoying my family, working in my woods, rebuilding things.  I find the meaning of life in the great American songbook from 1910-1960.  I find meaning in the snow peas and tomatoes that grow in my garden.  Where do you find meaning?  How do you make meaning of your life? [discussion followed]

Remember Monty Python about The Meaning of Life:  "Well, it's nothing very special. Uh, try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Truth about the LAMESTREAM MEDIA!

If you haven’t seen it in the last year or so, you must see the film Network with William Holden, Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway, directed by Sidney Lumet.  Made in 1976, it looks and sounds too much like today.  Also, I think that Madmen has taken some of the feel and setting of this story.  There are so many good lines and speeches I hesitate to mention one, but mostly I like it when Ned Beatty as the head of the network reads the riot act to Howard Beale:  Think about the attack on corporations here.

For all of it we have to thank one of the truly great writers of the 20th century: Paddy Chayevsky.  Famous for Marty and lots of great TV drama in the ‘50's, he also did Hospital, a gritty film starring George C. Scott that obviously inspired a number of TV hospital dramas.  He was a big contributor to Paint Your Wagon and The Americanization of Emily.

I have to plug Netflix here.  We get it through our Wii and at first the picture quality wasn’t very good and there wasn’t real widescreen.  In fact, films seemed squeezed from the sides.  It is broadband download through our cable making me wonder how do they get all those pictures in the little wires?  In the past week we suddenly have full widescreen and near HD quality.  Now we just need more films, but notice all the better quality made for cable TV shows they provide.  And the wonderful documentaries that otherwise are unnoticed and unseen.

To accompany the film, you need to listen to Don Henley and Dirty Laundry, from 1982.  It was originallly dedicated to – Rupert Murdoch.  What makes the media most lame is their unwillingness to dig into things that would yield some truth and understanding.  In the '90's we received Canadian Broadcasting Corp. news, and a channel of different world news outlets and I sure do miss them.  Thank someone for the web.

My sermon to the Unitarians comes Friday.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why I Am Not a Unitarian

Why didn’t I become a Unitarian?  Well I grew up Presbyterian and didn’t realize until recent years what a fluke that was.  Here is how it happened.  My Mother didn’t care much about churches.  Her Father who died in 1933 had been a “freethinker,” a devotee of Robert Ingersoll, who lived many years in Peoria IL where I later worked.  Now I am doing genealogical research on my Grandfather, because I realize that he lived not far from Peoria in the 1880's and 1890's.  I guess my maternal Grandfather was my spiritual Father.

I need to say here that I am still a Christian.  I understand that the language of religion is myth and metaphor, and although I am not a “supernatural” Christian, I think that the myths and metaphors of Christianity still have some utility, although they have been and are grossly misused.  Much more about these things later.

My Father had an Irish Catholic Father and a German Lutheran Mother.  This Grandpa liked the ladies and my Grandmother threw him out around 1927. [His Father, my Great Grandpa Maher left home for work in 1893 and didn’t come back.  A postcard a year later revealed he was bandmaster of the Ringling Brothers circus, but THAT is yet another story to be told.]

My Father’s Mother was disowned by her Father for marrying a Catholic.  [Her Father forbade her siblings to ever speak with her again, but one sister secretly kept in touch.  Another story to be told.]   She wanted her children to grow up with good Protestant religion and sent them off to a Presbyterian Church within walking distance (the working classes didn’t have cars), in Sioux City, Iowa.  I now realize that all my Father’s siblings remained Catholic.  Dad took me to the church he had known as a child.

I enjoyed singing in the choir at Westlawn Presbyterian Church from the age of 8 to 12, but left church in seventh grade before confirmation, because I thought it a class of bullies and the minister was quite severe.

In high school I read some Bertrand Russell and attended a Unitarian Church once.  Quite interesting, for they had installed an art exhibit in the entryway the week before.  Some of it was suggestive and so when I attended the hour was given to a debate on esthetics and censorship.  Some wanted the paintings removed, but the larger group decided to keep them.  I was impressed with the discussion.  Where else would it happen?

In Iowa City I attended the Unitarian Church once.  It was old and musty smelling.  When people liked the dry words they heard they stamped their feet on the wood floor and when they didn’t like what was said they hissed.  I was not welcomed and didn’t go back.

I still need to explain how and why I went to seminary and continued as a Presbyterian.  For now I will say that I learned a lot about church and academic politics in the ‘70's and ‘80's, earning a D.Min. and working for the then great Presbytery of Chicago (none are great now).  Seeing the corruption of all things in the midst of teaching about a caring God (much more about this to come), I went to the Unitarian "Unity Temple" (by Frank Lloyd Wright in all his glory) in Oak Park where the minister was a gay, ex-Presbyterian minister.  I checked into this and there are no records of how many Presbyterian ministers have left the denomination to the UUA.   This is because the PCUSA doesn’t recognize the UUA.  A minister leaving in that direction just disappears.  But I have met several.

In 1993 I applied for and was a finalist for a fund raising job with the UUA in Boston (down Beacon Street from the State House on the north side of the Commons.  I met John Buehrens, then president, and many fine individuals there.  They treated us well, putting Carol and me in the famous Union Club on the east side of Boston Commons.  They were honest and told me finally that the trustees preferred to see a lifelong UUA in the position.  I understood that.  We enjoyed a service at Arlington St. UU on the west side of the Commons.

While there I spoke with the “settlement” officer and asked what it would take to transfer and become a UUA minister.  “You would need another masters degree,” she said.  “You would have to do it as a resident for two years in Boston, Chicago, or Berkeley.  I told her that those were high requirements for someone with three degrees already.  She said, “I’m sorry.  If we didn’t have really high requirements we would be overwhelmed with ministers like you from other mainline denominations.”  So I was one of many, not a few.  So the answer to the title question is "they wouldn't have me."  I was employed instead at PCUSA headquarters in Louisville. [Yet another story that might be told about my knowledge of where a few bodies are buried, so to speak.]

Once years before in Duluth, friends who were Unitarian asked if I would be interested in mediating a dispute at their church and counseling them about church growth.  I thought about it and said “The problem is that I don’t know how to relate to an organization that is built around what they don’t believe.”  That was sort of true in the ‘70's.  In the ‘80's they developed a positive “covenant” and doubled their membership.  Of course, I can’t join or I would have to give up my “honorably retired” status in the PCUSA, which entitles me to a small tax break.  And I still have things to preach in Presbyterian churches that will have me.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Parables Jesus Didn't Teach

Zen Shorts is a children’s book by Jon Muth.  My older daughter, Mother of Sonja who is three, tells me that it is very popular.  Check out the author on Amazon; he has lots of other books, some with the same characters as this one.  It is about a Panda named Stillwater who appears in the backyard of three children, one of whom is named Michael.  I am confused because Pandas are Chinese and Zen is Japanese, but maybe I can sort that out later.

During the course of the book Stillwater tells them three parables.  Since these parables touch on the meaning of life as I planned to preach it, I read this parable to the children:

There was an old farmer.  One day his horse ran away.
Hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit and said sympathetically, “Such bad luck.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next day his horse returned, bringing two other wild horses. “Such good luck!” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the farmer.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg.  Again the neighbors offered their sympathy on his misfortune: “Such bad luck,” they said.
“Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after that, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army to fight in a war.  Seeing that the son’t leg was broken, they passed him by.  “Such good luck!” cried the neighbors.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.
“I get it,” said Michael.  “Maybe good luck and bad luck are all mixed up.  You never know what will happen next.”
“Yes,” Stillwater agreed.  “You never know.”
And I will probably never know how this story fell on the ears of my listeners.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Where do you find retired Presbyterian Ministers on Sunday morning?

Sometimes you will find one or more of them at a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  I don’t mean to shock or offend my Presbyterian friends, but the UUA is and has been for years the refuge of humanist, reason-driven Presbyterian clergy and laypeople.  In January I tried the local UUA in Queensbury, New York.  Yup.  There I met another retired PCUSA minister.  He teaches classes there on occasion.  Now I am there, too.

This summer this congregation lost its minister.  An interim arrives August 28.  So I filled in August 14.  The “worship” “service” [there must be better names for these things] begins with the sounding of tuned brass Buddhist gongs.  This reminded me of the Amida Buddhist church [that’s what they call it] that I attended in Sebastopol CA ten years ago.  There an 18" gong was sounded.  Every Sunday a layperson comes forward and tells a parable.  This is what I heard there and repeated Aug. 14:

Once there was a man who led a good life.  He had a wife and 2 children, a good farm and a good home.  Then his wife died.  His home was vandalized.  His children were killed, everything he had was stolen, and his house was burned to the ground.  There was a drought and his crops failed.

He became homeless and wandered the street.  He was down to his last coins and went into a bar and spent what he had on liquor.  He became drunk, stumbled down the street and passed out in the gutter.

A rich man came along and felt pity for the poor man.  The rich man put a valuable jewel into the man’s pocket and continued on his way.  The next day the poor man got up and continued wandering the streets, sleeping against buildings, relying on strangers for handouts of food.  He spent his whole life this way and died.  He had never looked in his pocket or found the jewel that he had possessed all those years.

Later, at the time of sharing joys and concerns, a man said that this story had parallels with his life, and that he treasured this congregation.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Econ Not So Simple – the Problem of Debt

I am now drawn to economists whose analysis of our situation is somewhat different from the ordinary (whether Keynesian or Friedman/Hayekian).  The problem is that I see this recession as fundamentally different from others in times before.  (More about that in a later post.)
Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard suggests that this is not a“Great Recession” but a “Great Contraction.”  “The real problem is that the global economy is badly overleveraged, and there is no quick escape without a scheme to transfer wealth from creditors to debtors, either through defaults, financial repression, or inflation.”  He and Carmen Reinhart write about this in their 2009 book This Time is Different, a book I want to read.

“A more accurate, if less reassuring, term for the ongoing crisis is the “Second Great Contraction.” The first “Great Contraction” of course, was the Great Depression, as emphasized by Anna Schwarz and the late Milton Friedman. The contraction applies not only to output and employment, as in a normal recession, but to debt and credit, and the deleveraging that typically takes many years to complete.

“In a conventional recession, the resumption of growth implies a reasonably brisk return to normalcy. The economy not only regains its lost ground, but, within a year, it typically catches up to its rising long-run trend.

“As Reinhart and I demonstrated, it typically takes an economy more than four years just to reach the same per capita income level that it had attained at its pre-crisis peak.

“Many commentators have argued that fiscal stimulus has largely failed not because it was misguided, but because it was not large enough to fight a “Great Recession.” But, in a “Great Contraction,” problem number one is too much debt. If governments that retain strong credit ratings are to spend scarce resources effectively, the most effective approach is to catalyze debt workouts and reductions.

“For example, governments could facilitate the write-down of mortgages in exchange for a share of any future home-price appreciation. An analogous approach can be done for countries. For example, rich countries’ voters in Europe could perhaps be persuaded to engage in a much larger bailout for Greece (one that is actually big enough to work), in exchange for higher payments in ten to fifteen years if Greek growth outperforms.

“Is there any alternative to years of political gyrations and indecision? ...I have argued that the only practical way to shorten the coming period of painful deleveraging and slow growth would be a sustained burst of moderate inflation, say, 4-6% for several years. Of course, inflation is an unfair and arbitrary transfer of income from savers to debtors. But, at the end of the day, such a transfer is the most direct approach to faster recovery. Eventually, it will take place one way or another, anyway, as Europe is painfully learning.”

I do think that any analysis needs to take account of the unresolved housing and debt crisis of 2008.  I don’t yet fully understand Rogoff’s theories or if higher inflation is the solution, but if we don’t seek understanding of these issues, we will join George Bush who said September 25, 2008 – “If money isn’t loosened up, this sucker could go down!”

The New York Times reported that he said this “as he watched the $700 billion bailout package fall apart before his eyes....  [The bailout discussions] dissolved into a verbal brawl in the Cabinet Room of the White House, urgent warnings from the president and pleas from a Treasury secretary who knelt before the House speaker and appealed for her support...

“In the Roosevelt Room after the session, the Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., literally bent down on one knee as he pleaded with Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, not to ‘blow it up’ by withdrawing her party’s support for the package over what Ms. Pelosi derided as a Republican betrayal.

“‘I didn’t know you were Catholic,’ Ms. Pelosi said, a wry reference to Mr. Paulson’s kneeling, according to someone who observed the exchange. She went on: ‘It’s not me blowing this up, it’s the Republicans.’

“Mr. Paulson sighed. ‘I know. I know.’”

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pet Peeve #2 – Incredible!

The stock market crash is incredible.  I don't want to talk about it.

I hear the word “incredible” used 100 times or more per day.  The other day in the car I heard a commencement address by Michelle Rhee, whom I really like, but she used the word at least 20 times.  It seems to be the adjective of our lifetimes to express many other things that could be said.

If you remember the film Princess Bride (1987), the character played by Wallace Shaun often exclaimed “Inconceivable!” perhaps in ironic mimicry of those who continue to cry “Incredible!”  (Shaun is the guy below Mandy Pitankin and Andre the Giant.  See Wallace in My Dinner with Andre and Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street.)

There was even a film called The Incredibles!

No word seems to show our laziness about words than “incredible.”  We could stop and think and use another word.  How about “inconceivable” or “unbelievable” if that is what we mean.  I tend to use “amazing,” “astonishing,” or “astounding” more frequently instead.  How about improbable, unlikely, unconvincing, baffling, befuddling, mystifying, bewildering, or stupifying?

A thesaurus search generated these additional options, depending on the situation or your actual meaning:  absurd, far-fetched, fishy, implausible, impossible, improbable, outlandish, preposterous, questionable, ridiculous, suspect, thin (some of these must be said ironically), unconvincing, unimaginable, unsubstantial, untenable, marvelous (be like Billy Crystal!), awe-inspiring, awesome (on rare occasions), extraordinary, fabulous, glorious, great, prodigious, superhuman, unreal, wonderful, fascinating, marvelous, prodigious, shocking, stunning, surprising, extraordinary, strange and wonderful, bizarre, boss (outdated), curious, exceptional, fab (also outdated), fantastic, flash (my Australian son-in-law uses this), gnarly, heavy, outstanding, phenomenal, remarkable, stupendous, unprecedented, or merely – terrific.

I'll bet we can  surprise each other with even more creative and improved vocabulary.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Econ Made Simple

I studied economics for two years, until the math got me.  I like it when someone can make the dismal science
understandable and useful.

Robert Frank of Cornell does a good job of this.  The following is from transcribed videos and written articles:

“The problem is that there is not enough demand to put people to work.  Businesses aren’t spending and consumers aren’t.  There is more production capacity than needed.  People fear losing jobs and hold back on spending.  Businesses and consumers won’t lead the way.  Only government is left.

“Government can invest in public works; the workers are there.  Markets are eager to lend to our government [Does this surprise anyone?]  The US has always been a good investment.  [If we say we are going to build for the future, the bonds will sell.]

“The cost of government debt compared with the cost of continued or worsening unemployment is very low.  A trillion dollar deficit costs us $25 billion a year to pay the interest on that. If we have an extra ten million people unemployed that’s $250 billion lost forever each year, so it’s a 10 to 1 tradeoff. [This replaces incorrect figures posted earlier.]

"Two things we can do: Declare a payroll tax holiday and exempt employers from payroll taxes for the first year of new hires’ employment.

“If we could put just half of the people who are either unemployed or underemployed back to work, national income would be larger by more than ten times the interest we’re paying on the 2011 deficit.

“The extra income tax revenue alone would be enough to cover the interest on last year’s debt.  Extra spending right now will not impoverish our grandchildren.

"According to the Nevada Department of Transportation, repairing a damaged 10-mile stretch of Interstate 80 would cost $6 million if we did the work today.  But if we postpone repairs, weather and traffic will continue to damage the roadbed.  If we wait just two years, the cost of bringing that same stretch of road up to par rises to $30 million.  There are thousands of similar projects crying out to be done.

“The Nevada cost inflation estimates, by the way, take no account of the special circumstances associated with the current downturn.  There are idle machines and workers who could do the work today, for example, but if we wait a few years, we’ll have to bid them away from other useful tasks.  Materials are cheap in world markets now, but if we wait, their prices will rise as the global economy recovers.

"Interest rates on 10-year T-bills are near record lows.  [Even if rates go up, they will be low by historical standards.]  They’ll be higher if we wait.

"No one proposes to allow the interstate highways to deteriorate back to gravel.  We either fix them now or we fix them later.  Fixing them now is MUCH cheaper, AND it will put unemployed workers back on the job.  If we REALLY wanted to impoverish our grandchildren, it would be hard to come up with a better strategy than failing to undertake these projects right away.”

"The unemployment problem is much more important than the deficit problem.  Deficits need to be reduced, yes, but not in the midst of a deep downturn."

Sunday, August 7, 2011

SNAP! Intermission (from other concerns) for the Poor

I learned Friday on a Fox News crawl line that a record number of Americans are now receiving food stamps, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In May, there were 45.75 million recipients of the aid, up 2.5% from the previous month and 12% from May of 2010.

Food stamps are now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and are now used by 21,581,234 households.

Much of the 1.1 million increase from April 2011 comes from the state of Alabama, in which food stamp usage shot up 120% from 868,000 to 1,762,000. New Jersey, Nevada and North Carolina all saw jumps in the 20% range. Every state posted a percentage increase, save North Dakota , which was essentially flat (where they are in an oil and gas boom).

The past three fiscal years have show a tremendous growth of SNAP usage. [All figures are approximate.]  In 2008, 28.2 million people used food stamps which grew to 33.5 million in 2009 and 40.3 million in 2010. In order to be eligible for SNAP, a single person must make less than $1,174 a month.  A family of four would need to make less than $28,000 a year; a senior couple less than $14,600. A single person can get as much as $200 a month in food stamps; and a family of four can get about $600.  Other factors apply, e.g., whether or not someone in the family is over 65 or disabled.

And this is a huge discretionary federal budget item that certain people would like to cut.  Imagine a country with more and more hungry people with less aid, fewer jobs, less unemployment benefits, no investment for further growth, etc. The population of the United States is around 311,907,122, meaning that almost 15 percent of U.S. residents use food stamps.

And of course, 30,000 children died in Somalia last month.  So how is your 401k doing?  How much will you save if the Bush tax cuts aren’t renewed?  And what is really important again?  For all of you who dislike politics, THIS is politics – how we decide who gets what and for what purposes.

If these things are not addressed at your church this morning, you should find another church.  Or stand up in church and tell the others about how the poor and hungry ought to come first.

Friday, August 5, 2011

War II – Tumbler-Snapper or Upshot-Keyhole?

When I was eight years old in 1952, my family bought our first TV set, a big 17" console.  Wow, a brand new medium for a curious kid.  I watched the political conventions and learned to “like Ike.”  (Adlai Stevenson didn't appeal to eight year olds.)  The biggest impact however was the live early morning broadcasts of atomic bomb testing from Nevada, just north of Las Vegas.

Imagine the effect on my eight year old brain of seeing this massive explosion, while at the same time, at school, being told to “duck and cover” because another country might drop those bombs on us.

This photo is something no one will ever see.  It is the millisecond of detonation of one of the televised explosions in 1952.  The detonation tower is visible faintly below the fireball.  The tests were given cute hyphenated names, and I think the one I saw was Tumbler-Snapper.  This photo is not the way we usually see atomic bomb blasts.

This, from Buster-Jangle in 1951 is similar to what I saw:

Area 51 may not be the most important part of the very large federal government lands in Nevada.  Area 7 is where 928 atomic bombs were detonated from 1951-1992.  All but 68 were above ground, sending clouds of radiation across soldiers and reporters to the midwest and to the northeast.  (Don’t worry, the government tells us not to.)

There is now an Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas.  When they opened a few years ago, I wrote them for information on the televised bomb blasts.  They had little info, but said it was probably KTLA in Los Angeles that skipped the broadcast signal to WOW-TV in Omaha which broadcast it to me in Sioux City, Iowa, on the edge of the Great American Desert, as some of us thought it.

I had serious nightmares about nuclear warfare.  As I got older I read Hiroshima by John Hersey, and saw documentaries on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Today, August 6, is the anniversary of dropping “Fat Boy” on Hiroshima.  Isn’t that name cute?  Something like 100,000 to 150,000 people died that day and about as many in the years that followed.  Did it end the war early and save thousands of American lives?  Maybe.  One thing we know is that communications between our governments were very bad and confused in July and August, 1945.  Japan was worn out and defeated before we dropped the bomb(s).  And another thing we now know: American patience with the war had worn thin.  There was little motivation to keep fighting after four years of devastating warfare.  See Clint Eastwood’s film, Flags of Our Fathers, mostly about the battle of Iwo Jima, for insight into the mood of the US at that time.  Patriotism had given way a lot to simple grief and sadness.

Later in the early ‘80's I fought the re-establishment of Civil Defense in New Jersey.  I think there were 80+ Soviet nuclear targets in New Jersey.  Yeah, hiding in a basement was going to help a lot.  I was asked several times to preach a sermon I had on war and the need for nuclear disarmament, called A Covenant with Death.  The text was from Isaiah 28: 14-20 --

Hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers
   who rule this people in Jerusalem.
Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death,
   and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
   it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
   and in falsehood we have taken shelter’;
Therefore thus says the Lord God....
I will make justice the line,
   and righteousness the plummet;
hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
   and waters will overwhelm the shelter.
Then your covenant with death will be annulled,
   and your agreement with Sheol will not stand;

We were the only country that has ever yet used nuclear weapons.  We still have thousands of them and who knows how many Soviet warheads are being traded around the world and to whom.  We have a defense budget seven to ten times that of China and equal to half of the world’s spending on war.  We spend more than a trillion a year now, counting the “off-budget” defense expenses.  (Al Queda, not so much.)  Also, there is not so much talk these days of justice and righteousness.  We have trusted in chariots and horsemen rather than God (Isaiah 31:1) or simple human reason.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Sexual Politics – An Apology

I need to apologize for my use of the word “whore” two posts back.  We need epithets that aren’t sexually loaded when we don’t mean to apply them to women.  Without them we just demean all women when we want to get at one or the people behind the one.  The woman in question is being used at least as much as she is using us.  Listen to this from a reader:

“The term "whore" is objectionable to me all by itself, even when not applied to anyone, but just as a concept that stands for evil intent and moral corruption.  A woman has a right to use her body as she sees fit and it can't be helped that men are ravenous for women's bodies so why not take advantage of the male weakness?  Women who want to accept money for sexual favors ought to be allowed to do so without being equated to the lowest form of life on earth.  I'm not saying that the woman in the ad is not selling something precious for money.  She is, it's just that what she's selling, and distorting/corrupting, doesn't belong to her, but to everyone on earth and she has no right to sully it with lies and profiteering.  If she were selling her own body I'd say, ‘Hey I don't want to see that on tv’ but couldn't fault her for conspiring to destroy the earth.  Whoring is an honorable profession. There are plenty worse things that could be said about the oil spokesperson.”

Everything is overly sexualized in our fundamentally repressed society.  Partly this is just a human problem. But partly it is a cynical use of sexuality and attractiveness by corporate elites and their advertisers, who want to control us or manipulate us into wanting what they are selling.  When you combine oil, coal, and subtle sexuality, and our reliance on all three – wow, what a combo.  I don’t know what to call them.  There aren’t any words strong enough to express my disgust.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Tangled Web I Wove

One thing leads to another.  And another.

Last week I found the Woodbury County Courthouse on Facebook and “liked” it.  It is an award winning Prairie Style design by William L. Foster, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s who designed a number of homes in the area.
A friend told me he went there for his marriage licence.  I said I went there for my driver’s license.  He said “That marriage didn’t last.  Hope your driving went better.”  As a matter of fact it didn’t.

My daughter and I were talking at a big family dinner last week.
“Sonja (who is 3) needs a backpack for pre-school,” she said.  We talked about how things have changed and how she didn’t carry a backback.  She liked floppy bags.
“I was sort of a nerd in high school, carrying a big tan briefcase,” I remembered.
“We have a picture of me learning to stand up on a brief case.  Is that the one?”
“Yup, I and my friends all bought big briefcases at 'Sioux City Stationery,' and I bought one that was like my lawyer’s.”
“You had a lawyer?  What was that about?”
“Well, this is a long story.  In 1962 after I graduated from high school, I bought a car, a ‘47 Chevy, from your Mother’s Brother.  It had bullet holes in it.  He and one of his friends had taken it to a field and shot it up and I now realize he did it with the (non-functioning) 1954 Mossberg 22 which happens now to be hanging on the wall above your Mom’s desk. This is a ‘47 Chevy slopeback; mine was gray:
“Well, I and a friend drove it around without a muffler and were reported to the police.  They came to my house and took me away for questioning.  I wondered what my Mother thought when my sister told her what had happened..”
“So you needed a lawyer for that?”
“No, they thought we had something to do with a car that was left in a park and burned the night before.  But we didn't and they let us go.  My friend and I blew the engine on that car, bought a 260 Jimmy dumptruck straight six engine from a junkyard and put it in the car.  A 260 was 4.25 liters, much bigger than the original one.
“We were so excited to get it running, we didn’t put a muffler on it and we just set the hood on the car without fastening it down.  Must have weighed 150 pounds, fitting snugly within the fenders.  That night we were driving about 60 mph on the new interstate (this was 1963), and the hood slowly lifted straight up, slowly angled upward, and slowly disappeared back over the car.  It landed on the highway and we quickly crossed the median and returned to where the hood was laying, and got out of the car to pull it off the road.
“WHAM!  A ‘60 white Impala hit the hood and stopped with sparks flying from under the car.  The hood had caught under the front of the car.  I went to the car and apologized to the elderly couple.
“It’s a good thing you ‘fessed up,” the man said.  “I am a retired California Highway Patrol officer, and I would have chased you to the ends of the earth.”

I checked at the Chevy dealer on the repairs to his car.  I was told they were about $40 plus towing (abut $20 then).  Then I got a letter from his attorney telling me that he was suing me for $500.

Now during high school I had taken the city bus home from school.  Many days on that bus was a lawyer with a big fat tan briefcase.  Mr. Furlong, whose law firm still exists, befriended me and wanted to know what I thought about politics and life, what my plans were for after high school, and whether I thought it was really necessary to go to college straight out of high school.  So when I got that letter, I knew who to call.

We went to court twice and the plaintiff didn’t show.  I asked my lawyer if the case shouldn’t be dismissed because of this.  He said it was ok.  The third time the plaintiff didn’t show, and my lawyer and the judge conferred.  My lawyer said that I had to pay $500, and when I objected to what had happened in court, he said “I have to practice law in this town, so I have to cooperate with the judge.”  My first lesson in politics and no doubt formative of my cynicism.

The settlement was for payments of something like $7 a month.  I paid for about 2 years and paid some of those payments to the plaintiff’s attorney in pennies.  Never heard from them again.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pet Peeve: The Energy Whore

That’s what I call her.  We don’t know who she is, but we have seen her for about 5 years on mild-mannered ads for oil and gas drilling, and the cleanliness of coal.  She is so reasonable, saying that we need solar and wind power, and nuclear and all sources of energy.  She tells us that oil companies aren’t rich, we are, because our 401k’s and pension funds are invested in oil companies.  She tells us that there is plenty of oil and gas in the ground and that the only problem is that the government that won’t let them drill where it is.  And they provide 9.2 million jobs!!!  (Someone ought to check that.)  She tells us that hydrofracking is really safe and will save us from having to buy any more foreign oil.

The ad here was run for several years before the BP spill in the Gulf.  It tells how safe and efficient oil drilling is now; why they can drill one hole and draw from multiple dinosaur cemeteries.  This ad was dropped for 9-12 months after the spill but now they have the nerve to run it again.  The way such ads work is that they are repeated very frequently and are so harmless sounding that we don’t pay any attention to them, but we buy the message.

If you believe any of this crap she tells us, I have a bunch of worn out bridges to sell you.  (It used to be that I would sell shiny, new bridges, but there aren’t very many of those now.)  Some of my friends believe in “peak oil.”  That is the theory that there will be no more increases in oil extracted from the earth; that we have hit the max and it is all downhill from here.  I don’t know, but we keep using more, and certain political groups deride wind and solar and all attempts to wean us off this sticky drug.  Note that significant businesses and countries like China are going full out to develop new sources of energy.  They know what’s coming.

Back to the title.  I hate to call any one a whore.   But this woman has sold her soul to the biggest devil in the world, the oil industry.   And she likes coal, too.  But the Johns that pay her are far worse.  They will do anything for money; they are the real whores; maybe even the Biblical whore of Babylon.  All of the ads are available on, and many of the comments there are more angry than mine.