July 26

When Will We Listen?

U.S. Coronavirus cases rise steadily.
CNBC image.

“Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious people—they will know that a prophet has been among them…” Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. (Ezekiel 2:3-5, 9-10)

With 3% of the population and some of the best medical technology in the world, the U.S. has 27% of the world’s Coronavirus cases and 23% of the world’s Coronavirus deaths. Something is dreadfully wrong. When will we ask what it is?

Virus cases in the European Union are plummeting. Yet the measures they took didn’t harm their economy nearly as much as our government’s response did. Why is our response so ineffective and economically painful?

During these times of crisis, the EU and its member states are working together and helping each other. (ECCEU Report)

The answer is relatively simple, and can be summed up in one word: greed. Greed is good, right? Gordon Gekko said so. So did Ayn Rand.

This may explain why our nation took the steps it did: downplaying the risk, being slow to close and quick to reopen, dragging its feet on testing, refusing to implement contact tracing, and even refusing to wear masks. Our own convenience has become an idol, more important than saving the lives of people we don’t know. Our own optimism has become an idol, outweighing the risk of sickness and death to those we do know and love. Our money has become more important than even our own lives.

Robber: Your money or your life!

Victim: Take my life, please. I’ll need my money for my old age!

The Bible says something different. While our churches argue about homosexuality, a topic that is arguably mentioned four times in the Bible, there are literally hundreds of instructions about the evils of not sharing our wealth. These range from Genesis (4:9-11) and the books of the law (Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus have too many to list here) to the prophets (again too many to list), the Gospel (ditto), and even Proverbs (e.g. 14:31; 19:17; 31:8-9) and the Psalms (e.g. 41:1, 82:3). We are to share our food and clothing (Prov 22:9; Is 58:6-7; Lk 14:13-14), even with immigrants (Dt 27:129), and even those whom we may believe are from a criminal class (Lk 10:25-37). Accumulation of wealth is an idol condemned (Is 5:8, Lk 12:16-21; 1 Tim 6:9-11).

Did God send the Coronavirus as a plague to punish an unjust nation? It’s possible (Dt 28:21, Lam 3:37). But in truth, the punishment we now receive we created ourselves. Cornonavirus showcases the fallacy of our “greed is good” culture. We wrote this future, God didn’t.

But will we listen to God now? God told us mortals what is good (Micah 6:8). We are called to put the good of the whole first, not our haircuts (buy a set of clippers here) or our gyms (try walking, or split your neighbor’s firewood). We’re called to wear a freaking mask–even if it’s only a little effective, every case we prevent avoids another potential death! We’re called to support widespread testing and, much as it rankles my libertarian conservatism, contact tracing. (Come on, folks– the government already knows where you’ve been because they have access to your cell phone location, and they can  listen to your conversations anytime they want! The intelligence agencies already know who we’re in contact with, they just don’t tell the health agencies.)

And we’re called to go out less. Yes, I’m going crazy with the kids home all the time. Yes, I occasionally have to substitute an ingredient or rethink a meal plan because I’m out of something and don’t run to the store every day anymore. Yes, I hate Zoom meetings and miss seeing people in person.

But the longer we avoid doing these things, the longer this will go on and the worse it will get.

Will we listen, or will we continue to be a rebellious nation?

P.S. As I wrote this post, the New York Times reported that Hurricane Anna, the first of the season, is bearing down on one of areas most hard hit by the Coronavirus. It’s likely to hit Corpus Christi, whose name means “the Body of Christ.” Wildfires are ravaging the West. Americans are no longer welcome in many other countries, including some we consider allies. Mothers are being tear gassed. Agents without uniforms are grabbing people off the streets. Reporters are being shot at, tear gassed, and beaten by authorities.

Are we ready to listen yet?

June 6

When A Picture Tells Two Stories

Every picture tells a story, but sometimes they tell more than one. Often the story we see is based on where we’re sitting. Because the view can look very different from different perspectives.

Take this graph, for example. It shows the number of households in each income bracket for whites and blacks in 2018. You can see that the household income for blacks, shown in red, is much more likely to be lower than higher. The outer ring, which shows the number of household earning less than $30 thousand per year, is significantly larger than the others. According to the Census Bureau, 6 million black households, or 37%, are in this lower bracket.

Based on this, we can expect blacks to be less likely to have less access to health care, education, legal help, and a wide variety of other resources essential to wellbeing. And statistics bear this out. Early reports are showing, for example, that blacks and other people of color are more likely to die of the coronavirus than whites.

But there’s another story in this picture, one that’s easy to overlook: There are far more poor white people than poor black people. According to the Census Bureau, there are 21 million white households earning less than $30,000 per year– more than three times as many! But that represents a much lower proportion (21%) of white households.

Both stories are true. Which is more important? That depends on where you’re sitting. Obviously if you’re in that lower bracket, the story that describes you and your community is most important.

It’s worth noting that the vast majority (92%) of black households live in urban areas. Only 8% live outside metropolitan districts. On the other hand, 15% of whites live outside urban areas. And rural whites are more likely to be poor than urban whites.

So are rural blacks.  Though a small minority of black households (1.4 million) are rural, they are far more likely (57%) to be in the bottom bracket. Numerically, the majority of low income black families live in cities (5.6 million vs 800,000 in rural areas).

And there are almost as many low-income white families (4.4 million) living in rural areas.

You can see how these statistics would pit two narratives against each other. Yes, black households are more likely to have lower incomes, and that’s an injustice that needs to be addressed. Yes, white families are less likely to have lower incomes, but that’s little consolation if you’re in one of the 21 million families that does.

Imagine, when people talk about helping one of these two groups, what the reactions are in the other group. “Why are you helping them and not us?” Because in this time of highly unequal wealth, when we talk about helping one group, we’re quite literally taking food from the mouths of the other. There just aren’t that many jobs that pay well.

If you think that doesn’t contribute to political polarization, think again. One side sees low-income whites as privileged racists, and the other sees income disappearing and a lot of effort to give what’s left to someone else.

The real problem is twofold: people of color have less access to resources, and resources are made more scarce by unequal distribution. This is not an either/or problem. It’s a both/and problem. We need to continue to break down economic barriers for people of color. AND we need to ensure that every family has the opportunity to make a living wage.

Otherwise, we’re pitting low income families against each other. And that rarely ends well.

 

 

 

 

January 10

Our Broken Social Service System

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The purpose of our social service system is to help people climb out of poverty, right? But too often, it does the opposite. Let’s take a fictitious but representative example.

Bob is married and has two young children. He has a decent job that provides health insurance. His wife is a full-time mom. They live in a 3-bedroom home that costs $1,200 per month– a little higher than the average 3-bedroom apartment, but not much. Their utilities cost $300 per month. They get by, but they haven’t saved much.

Bob loses his job. Without a job he can’t pay his rent, much less afford the $600 per month payment for COBRA health insurance. Fortunately, his family becomes eligible for food stamps ($650 per month) and Medicaid. He can also apply for HUD vouchers to help with his rent, but the waiting list is over a year out. He can’t move to a cheaper place because he has no income. What landlord in their right mind will rent to someone without a job?

Bob is having trouble finding a position that pays as well as his last one. So he takes a $12 per hour part-time job– a decent paying job in these parts– that leaves him time to pound the pavement looking for a better one. He now earns $1,500 per month. That’s just enough to cover his rent and utilities, but not gas or car insurance for the family’s (one) car, or clothes for interviews, or anything else. And his food stamps get cut to $450 because he’s now earning money. And the more he makes, the more his food stamps get cut. At $2,000 per month, which is just enough to get by with food stamps. they phase out completely. If he replaces the $650 per month subsidy with income, he loses his Medicaid. Then, not only does he have to come up with a premium for insurance, but his family faces a $10,000 per year deductible. And he starts to owe income taxes, which aren’t taken into account for social programs.

To break even, Bob now has to earn $50,000 per year, or $24 per hour. Or he has to find a job that provides health insurance. Neither is common in this area. The median income in the city is $33,807, which is 27% lower than the average for the nation. And if Bob’s wife looks for a job, they’ll have to pay for childcare. Childcare Aware lists this state’s average cost of childcare for an infant and a toddler at $19,396 per year— the equivalent of $9 per hour at a full-time job. Is it worth it to have Bob’s wife work for a net increase in income of maybe $3 per hour, while putting the kids with strangers for the day?

But let’s back up a little. Is Bob better off making less than $1,000 per month and getting enough food stamps to feed his family and have health insurance (Medicaid), or making enough to pay the rent and not being able to feed his family or pay for medical care? Ultimately Bob faces a choice between feeding his family and paying his rent. Neither is an attractive proposition. Where is the incentive to earn, when earning actually causes you to lose ground?

This state is not unusual. In fact, New Jersey has a higher cost of living and a lower earning threshold for social services. So does Pennsylvania. In Arkansas, the Medicaid limit is $114 per month!

How does this help get people out of poverty? If you can’t drive to an interview, if you can’t afford presentable clothes, it doesn’t matter what your skill set is. You’re going to wind up in a job like eviscerating chickens for $12 per hour. Or security for $10 per hour. Or a minimum wage job doing manual labor. And the inevitable medical expenses become long-term debt, putting you further in the hole.

Yes, unemployment is low. But the majority of jobs where I live won’t support a family. And if you lose the one you have… well, welcome to the world of perpetual need.

Category: Economy | LEAVE A COMMENT
August 5

Addiction, the Alt-Right, and Sociology

This wasn’t going to be my next post on the subject of addiction, but the mass shootings over the weekend changed my mind. At least one of the shootings was racially motivated.

What do mass shootings and the alt-right have to do with addiction? I believe they stem from common causes, namely a national ethos that gives no meaning to life other than accumulation of wealth, and a rising wealth inequality that makes the national purpose unattainable for increasing numbers of people.

But first, let’s start with some demographics. The alt-right draws primarily from the white working class. Mass shooters come primarily from the white working class. According to Ann Case and Angus Deaton, “deaths of despair,” which include overdose, alcoholism, and suicide, are rising fastest in the white working class. To understand any of these these problems, we have to ask ourselves what’s happening in the white working class.

Case and Deaton have done significant research on this. Focusing on deaths of despair, they note that only in the white working class have deaths of despair risen in proportion to the drop in income. In this demographic group, there is a direct correlation (or, technically, an inverse correlation) between income and morbidity (death). Why this correlation does not exist in other demographic groups is an interesting question, but beyond the scope of this post. I suspect minorities, because of a history of being left out of American prosperity, are less invested in the “American Dream,” and thus less despairing as the American Dream slips away, but I have no proof of that.

Statistically, whites are more likely to sink into despair over economic factors. And economic factors have not been kind to the working class over the past few decades. This has resulted in decreased life expectancy. Since 1979, opioid overdoses among whites have increased more than twice as much as opioid overdoses among blacks, from a slightly lower rate to a rate twice as high. The suicide rate among whites is more than twice as high as any other demographic group, with the exception of Native Americans who have a higher rate.

We can speculate about the cause of this despair. Unlike other economically excluded groups, the white working class used to believe they could attain the American Dream. It’s increasingly clear that they can’t. They have lost a reason for being, or telos–the main telos put forward by our economically-motivated society.

Moreover, whites are more likely to adopt Evangelical religious beliefs. Some 76% of evangelical Protestants are white. It’s difficult to generalize about this group because there is significant diversity, but there are some typical commonalities. At an Evangelical church I once attended, the pastor was fond of saying, “Any conversation about the Gospel begins with one question: Are you sure you’re going to Heaven?” This focus on afterlife was accompanied by attention to grace to the exclusion of works. They had us memorize Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” But never did I hear anyone read the next verse: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

What does this have to do with morbidity? Consider a person who finds himself or herself in despair. That person looks for solace at church. The church’s answer is, “It will be better in Heaven.” Is that not incentive to hurry the process along? Add to this a persistent link to the prosperity Gospel–if God has blessed you, you will prosper–and the religious outlook for the white working class isn’t exactly stellar.

Okay, you say. Perhaps this explains the rise in deaths of despair. But what does any of this have to do with the alt-right?

I’m glad you asked. Patrick Forcher and Nour Kteilly at the University of Arkansas have compiled a psychological profile of the alt-right. In their summary, the researchers noted that alt-right supporters:

  • Were more likely to be white
  • Were less likely to have more than a high school education
  • Were not optimistic about the current state of the economy.

These characteristics were shared by non-alt-right Trump supporters as well. Thus, the alt-right is, as expected, a subset of the white working class that has been negatively affected by the upward redistribution of wealth.

One big difference between the two was that alt-right supporters were more optimistic about the future of the economy. Their alt-right beliefs gave them hope for the future, much more so than their non-alt-right peers. This suggests that the rise of alt-right is a response to their deteriorating economic status.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Fascism grew in Germany during the Great Depression that devastated the German economy. Forscher and Kteilly note similarities between the rise of the alt-right and the rise of the British National Party among the depressed working class.

What this does tell us is that a broad spectrum of American problems, including suicide, alcoholism, drug overdoses, alt-right activity, and, I maintain, mass shootings, are directly related to the economic decline of the white working class.

It’s not quite that simple, of course. Clearly there are factors that drive this demographic’s symptoms, especially compared with other demographic groups that are even more economically excluded. For one view of these causes, I recommend Joe Bagaent’s Deer Hunting with Jesus, which documents the decline in influence of rural America. The losses of the white working class are not just economic, they are political as well.

Liberals may not like that this formerly-privileged group is taking up more of our attention than other groups that have never been privileged. But it is historically true that those who are losing privilege are a greater threat than those who ever had it. This is an issue we need to address.

But more than that, we live in a society that values our existence in dollars. Under this philosophy, economic loss can only lead to despair. There is no other source of hope.

As a Christian, I look to the Gospel. We are not judged by how much wealth we have. The purpose of life is not to accumulate. Nor is it to survive until we die and go to Heaven. “The Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). It is here, though it is (quite obviously) not fulfilled.

Christians have the Kingdom to offer those in despair. Are we showing it to them?

 

July 22

Another Look at the National Debt

Here are some interesting facts about the national debt.

    1. Today, the national debt is just over $22 trillion dollars, up from $5.8 trillion when George W. Bush took office.
    2. There are 83 million households in the U.S., so the national debt comes to  $578,947 per household.
    3. Think we should all write a check? The median household wealth (the number at which half the population has more and half has less) is $78,100. That’s right: most Americans don’t have anywhere near as much as their share of the debt.
    4. Over that same period in which the national debt more than tripled, median household wealth went down 22%.

Here are two questions to think about:

Where is all that money going? Not into the pockets of most Americans!

And…

Are you scared yet?

November 3

Are You Watching the Scores?

Are you watching the scores? I’m not talking about the West Virginia vs Texas game. I’m talking about atmospheric CO2. The numbers are frightening. CO2 has once again hit the highest level on record, and shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the rate of increase is accelerating.

According to the government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we passed the 400 ppm threshold in 2016. That was big news. 400 ppm was considered by many scientists to be the “tipping point,” the point at which catastrophic change became inevitable. But it’s gotten worse: in October 2018, the Mauna Loa Observatory measured CO2 at 409 ppm– and rising.

Let’s put that in perspective. According to Yale University, atmospheric CO2 was 280 ppm at the beginning of the industrial revolution (1760). When direct measurements started at Mauna Loa in 1958, that had risen to 316 ppm, an average increase of 0.2 ppm per year. By 1980, CO2 had risen to 340 ppm, an average increase of 1.1 ppm per year. The 400 ppm level of 2016 represents an average increase of 1.7 ppm per year.  See the pattern there? Average CO2 figures aren’t available yet for 2018 because the year isn’t over, but the unusually-high reading of 409 ppm is an increase of 4.5 ppm over the past two years.

That’s staggering.

What does it mean? In the interest of fairness, I’m going to refer to an article in Forbes by Earl J. Ritchie, a University of Houston Energy Fellow and former energy company executive who is “skeptical” about the human contribution to climate change. He argues that we don’t know for sure that 400 ppm was a tipping point, meaning a point of no return– but he does insist that we have reached a point where the world is going to change in very difficult ways.

“Regardless of whether we have passed the tipping point, continued warming, rainfall pattern changes, significant sea level rise and continued northward and vertical migration of plant and animal species in the Northern Hemisphere seem certain. We are looking at a changed world and must adapt to it.”

As I said, Ritchie is a skeptic. Yet even he sees the gravity of this situation:

“One should not view the possibility that we have passed a significant tipping point as a reason for inaction. Although I remain somewhat skeptical of the degree of human contribution to climate change, it is prudent to take reasonable actions that may reduce the problem. In addition, there are multiple possible tipping points with different thresholds. Exceeding one does not mean you cannot avoid another.”

97% of scientists agree that human activity contributes to climate change. Every effort to debunk this statistic has failed. You may disagree with them, but what if they’re right?

Already, millions of acres of ponderosa pine stand dead in the American Southwest, victims of the bark beetle, because winters are no longer cold enough to kill the beetle. Already, our children are getting sick because the Lone Star tick is no longer confined to the Deep South, and now ranges as far north as the Canadian border. It brings with it several nasty diseases and an allergy to mammal meat (beef, pork, lamb, venison, and more). Already, sea levels are rising due to melting ice and thermal expansion (matter expands as it warms). Parts of several island nations and Bangladesh are already under water. Storm tides and flooding are becoming more damaging even here in the U.S.

The Lone Star Tick

No matter what we do, it’s going to get worse. The climate is more like a ship than a car: it responds slowly to stimuli. Even if we dropped our CO2 emissions to zero today it would take a decade or two for the current CO2 levels to show their full impact.

The question is, how much worse are we going to make it? What kind of world do we want our children and grandchildren to grow up in? We’re not talking about distant generations here. I have a four-year-old who will have to live with the effects of what we do now.

Of course, we can’t drop our CO2 emissions to zero today, or tomorrow, or this year. Our whole economy is based on fossil fuels, and our food supply is based on CAFOs and industrial farming. We’re not talking about a little “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle.” We need a total remake of our economy.

And we don’t know how.

Those who have the power to change it don’t seem to be interested. They’re still focused on short-term profits. Sure, the old men who hold power will be dead before it gets really bad. But I have to wonder, don’t they have children and grandchildren? Are they that self-centered that they don’t care about their own kids?

I acknowledge, too, that no one wants to believe that what puts food on their table is bad. Challenge someone’s livelihood and you’ve got a fight on your hands. There are 6.4 million people employed in the fossil fuel industries in this country, and 6 million more in trucking. That’s a lot of jobs. The climate change industries are feeding a lot of mouths. It’s no wonder neither political party wants to talk about this. That’s a lot of voters!

We need real solutions. And we need them fast. I think we’ve reached the point at which climate change is the biggest problem we face. And we’re not going to get them by waiting silently for our fossil-fuel-funded leaders (right and left) to create them for us.

WE need to start talking. We need to start planning. We need to start looking for answers.

Or we need to start preparing our kids to live in an inhospitable world.

December 7

Minister’s Housing Allowance Under Fire

Pastor Matthew Bucher stands outside Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA. This small, socially conscious church is one of thousands that faces hardships if the housing allowance for ministers is eliminated. (News Leader photo.)

It’s not often that my past career as a tax accountant intersects with my future career as a minister, but the recent 7th Circuit Court decision does exactly that. An anti-religious group challenged the minister’s housing allowance, and won. That won’t be the end of the story. The decision will be appealed, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court. In the mean time, while ministers will suffer in the 7th Circuit, which covers IL, IN and WI, it’s unlikely the IRS will change the rules for the rest of the country until the matter is resolved by the courts.

The problem is, there’s a world of misunderstanding behind the suit and the decision. As one opponent of the decision said,

“This tax provision ensures that faith leaders like South Side, Chicago-based pastor Chris Butler receive the same tax treatment as other employees who must live in the communities they serve-like military service members, teachers, and overseas workers.”

And there’s the rub: secular employees who are required to be on-call, on-site are entitled to tax-free housing allowances. This includes not only teachers and emergency workers, but dairy farmers, factory specialists, and others. The key is the requirement is that they are on-call on-site, 24 hours a day.

The clergy housing allowance actually applies not only to “ministers of the Gospel,” as indicated in the original law, but to clergy of any religion. Why do they require a special law? Because their’s is a special case. Unlike most employees, IRS regulations specify that most ministers are to be paid as self-employed workers–sort of. They receive a W-2 from their church (not a 1099), but the church does not withhold taxes (including social security) from the minister’s check. The minister pays these taxes on Schedule C, just like a self-employed person. Presumably this is because IRS knows the part-time, probably volunteer church treasurer has no idea how to figure payroll taxes, and hiring a professional can be burdensome.

Like a self-employed person, a minister gets to deduct his or her business expenses. Oddly, though, if a minister makes extra money from performing weddings and funerals, for example, these must be reported on a separate Schedule C, along with their related expenses. Yet this extra income and expense is combined with their primary Schedule C to calculate the tax.

Unlike most self-employed people, but like an employee, a minister is allowed a housing allowance that is exempt from income tax (but not FICA taxes) if they are on-site on-call. And on their Schedule C, they are required to reduce their business expenses by the proportion of their income that comes from the housing allowance (so long as that housing allowance was actually used for housing)– but only for income tax purposes, since the housing allowance is taxed for social security.

For example, let’s say a minister earns $10,000 in a year, and she gets an additional $5,000 for housing. She has $750 of expenses. For self-employment (FICA) tax purposes, she earned $15,000 and gets to deduct $750. Her taxable income is $14,250. But for income tax purposes, 33.3% of her income came from housing allowance which is exempt from income tax, so she has to reduce her expenses by 33% and can only deduct $500 in expenses. Her taxable income is $9,500.

If this sounds complicated, it is. This is one of the most difficult calculations I’ve encountered in the arena of individual and small business taxes. And it gets worse once the minister is semi-retired and has pensions and other sources of income.

Moreover, it’s up to the church (or other employer) to determine whether the minister will even get a housing allowance. This differs from an employee, in which circumstances (i.e. on-call on-site) dictate whether a housing allowance is involved.

So, are ministers getting a benefit denied to secular employees–or are they burdened in a way secular employees aren’t for the same benefit? It’s hard to tell. There are some benefits to clergy, such as deducting their business expenses without having them subject to the 2% haircut on Schedule A. On the other hand, they pay both parts of their FICA (social security) taxes, twice as much as an employee. And they’re going to pay as much as 3 times more to have their tax return prepared!

The judge in this case recommended simplifying the law so that employees of any 501(c) organization are subject to the same laws. I concur. They will still have to address the status of ministers as statutory employees taxed as self-employed persons. But at least the system would be consistent.

Back to the original argument: The issue here is not that secular employees are denied this benefit–it’s that ministers by their nature are a special case.

 

Further reading: “5 Takeaways from the Clergy Housing Allowance Ruling

May 2

Fusion, the Future, and Us

Tokamak Energy in the UK has reportedly successfully tested a fusion reactor. That puts it on schedule to provide electricity generated from fusion to the grid by 2030, 13 years from now.

For those who don’t know, fusion is a clean source of energy that works (much like the sun) by fusing hydrogen atoms into helium. It produces no radiation or pollution, and requires only hydrogen, the most abundant element, as a fuel. No mining, no drilling, no dumping.

How abundant is hydrogen?

The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity. (Harlan Ellison)

Which brings up my next point:

We live in a world in which Scotland gets almost all its electricity from wind, in which Germany (hardly a sunny locale) produces so much renewable energy that some days it pays its customers to use electricity, and in which traditionally-conservative China is installing one wind turbine and a soccer-field-sized area of solar panels every hour. Renewable energy is the future, and fusion will eventually lead the way.

Where is the United States in this race to the future?

Unfortunately, we’re stuck in the past, building pipelines, drilling new oil wells, and lifting restrictions on coal companies.

What do you suppose will happen when the global fossil fuel industry collapses due to lack of demand? Economies that rely on oil will collapse with them. Those who work in oil will find themselves suddenly (but predictably) unemployed. Civil unrest will likely result. The Middle East will lose most of its income.

And, barring a future-oriented approach, we’ll be in trouble.

We don’t have a future-oriented approach. We have a short-term, profit-maximizing approach. But don’t worry: the invisible hand of the market will correct that in time. The market abhors outdated technology. And it’s merciless in its judgment. The market will correct us, but that doesn’t mean it will be pretty. How many companies still exist that failed to keep up with emerging technology? Not many.

The sad thing is, it didn’t have to be this way.

Back in the early 1980s, I was a dispatcher at an industrial gas company. We delivered liquid helium, used to supercool other materials, to a secret lab at a local government-funded facility. Our truck driver said they had some crazy idea that they could turn liquid hydrogen into helium and generate electricity doing it. They worked on it for several years. Then they started using enormous amounts of liquid helium. One day, the driver told us that whatever they were building, they had it working. (He had no idea what fusion was.) Two weeks later, the Reagan administration cut the funding and the project was closed down, never to be heard from again.

Why would our government shut down a project that produced cheap, clean energy? The more elucidating question is, who benefited from shutting it down? Instead of fusion, we got 30 years of fossil fuel domination, 30 years of CO2 emissions, 30 years of drilling, mining, spills, and pollution– and 30 years that included record oil company profits, heavily subsidized by tax breaks that shift the burden of paying for our government to us, the taxpayers.

Now England is developing fusion, and it looks like we’ll be left behind.

When will we start running our government with the future in mind?

I’m not holding my breath.

February 28

John Winthrop, American Prophet

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a2/JohnWinthropColorPortrait.jpg/220px-JohnWinthropColorPortrait.jpg
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a2/JohnWinthropColorPortrait.jpg/220px-JohnWinthropColorPortrait.jpg

“Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.

Therefore let us choose life,

that we and our seed may live,

by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,

for He is our life and our prosperity..

John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote these prophetic words in 1630. We may not know who he is, but we feel his influence in our culture every day. He’s the one who wrote (in the same document):

“We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”

It was Winthrop who instilled in us the idea that we are God’s chosen people.

But as his words above indicate, he also recognized that we faced the same dangers as the Israelites. Just because we were (in his view) chosen did not mean we were automatically good. He warned of worshiping and serving other gods, namely pleasure and profits.

Here we are in the 21st century, nearly 400 years after Winthrop wrote. Our national religion is capitalism. We rank ourselves by our income and our wealth. We shame the poor for not working hard enough. Our heroes are not martyrs or saints, but wealthy people: politicians, businesspeople, movie stars, and sports figures. Yet, at the same time, real economic advancement is more difficult than ever, and the percentage of people living in poverty is greater than at any time since 1965. Some 32% of those living in poverty have jobs. Yet we continue to cut taxes and complain about the burden of the poor, while the tax revenue we do collect goes overwhelmingly to the military.

I don’t think that’s what Winthrop had in mind. Take, for example, this except:

Question: What rule shall a man observe in giving in respect of the measure?

Answer: If the time and occasion be ordinary he is to give out of his abundance. Let him lay aside as God hath blessed him. If the time and occasion be extraordinary, he must be ruled by them; taking this withal, that then a man cannot likely do too much, especially if he may leave himself and his family under probable means of comfortable subsistence.

In other words, in ordinary times, we are to share our abundance freely with others, but not to the extent that he jeopardizes his family’s “comfortable subsistence.” In extraordinary times, we must do more, ruled by the need of others and not by our own needs. “A man cannot likely do too much.”

Winthrop’s position was based in the Bible, but his emphasis on charity stemmed from very pragmatic concerns: he saw that extreme divisions in wealth caused a destructive division in society. Those who were wealthy tended to look down on the poor, and the poor tended to resent the rich.

Fast forward to today: That’s pretty much what has happened.

In Winthrop’s day, and for the next 200 years, towns gave fuel, food, and money to their poor. It wasn’t until the 1850s that hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Potato Famine in Ireland overwhelmed this system, and states became more involved. And yes, the Irish were hated just as much then as Muslims are today. Yet few would look back now and argue that we shouldn’t have helped them.

Now we live in a world in which half the population lives on $8 a day or less. Compare that to the median income of $75 per day per person for Americans. (Yes, this is adjusted to reflect pricing differences between countries, giving an “apples-to-apples” comparison.) No longer do the poor in America look like the poor everywhere else, in eorther numbers of quality of life, as they did in Winthrop’s day. We are the wealthy. What are we going to do about it?

If Winthrop was right, we have a covenant that calls for charity. Otherwise, we will lose this land.

July 12

Two Masters

As I continue to seek my path to serve God, I am faced with this question: How do I balance the needs of the world with service to God?  Can I serve two masters?

So far as I can tell by my reading of the Gospels, Jesus had no worldly occupation.  Tradition suggests that he’d been trained as a carpenter by Joseph, his step-father.  But the Gospels don’t say he traveled across the Holy Land building houses.  It appears that he relied for sustenance on his followers and on friendly strangers.

I suspect that was easier in those days and in that culture.  There was no health insurance, no car payment, and no mortgage.  You had what you owned.  There was little debt.  Winters were mild.  People were more likely to feed a traveling stranger on the road.  (I remember my first mother-in-law, who was Jewish, frequently citing the maxim, “Feed a cold, feed a fever.”  The Jews were and are all about feeding people.)

I met an old woman in Sri Lanka who earned about $15 each month, and gave half of it away to those in need.  But her housing was free, her food was supplied, and free health insurance was provided to all residents by the government.  (Yes, even some third world nations have national health care.  Yet we’re told it’s not practical in the U.S.)

My culture taught me to believe that you grow up to get a good job, buy a house on credit, get some credit cards, and live the “good life” while working extra hours to try to pay down debts that rise more quickly than they can be paid. You pay for home insurance and car insurance to protect against any accidents or “acts of God.”  You pay for health insurance to cover any medical bills.  Although these days, you’re more likely to pay for health insurance that doesn’t cover most of your medical bills.

There’s a reason for this cultural teaching, just as there was a reason for the cultural teaching in the time of Jesus.  In those days, cultural survival depended on feeding each other.  Our cultural survival depends on an economy that requires us to spend more than we make.  Non-participation is not just discouraged, it’s been made nearly impossible.

It’s an insidious economic doctrine.  It makes the rich richer while keeping the poor at a minimum level and slowly draining the middle class.  It works to get us to think in terms of money and success, not betterment of society.  And for many people, it crowds out all other concerns.  We become empty, depressed, and angry.  Violence increases, yet we think only about controlling the weapons of violence and not its causes– if we think about it at all.  Drug addiction and suicide increase, and we think about controlling the means, if we think about it at all.  The people of our nation are suffering.  But we don’t think about it, because we’re suffering, too.  Our reason for existing is to pay the bills of an unfulfilling life, and that’s not much of a reason.

With so much suffering, if ever there was a time to serve God, it is now.  But how does a person serve God and not the economy?  To follow Jesus, must one give up everything and live on the streets, as He did?

There are people situated such that they can work a 30 or 40 hour week, earn enough money to pay their bills, and have time left over for both family and service to others.  But in today’s economy, these are a tiny minority.  More often, both one- and two-parent families have at least two jobs just to squeak by.

Of course, there are levels of “squeaking by.”  Do we really need a new(ish) car, cable TV, internet, a health club membership, new clothes, a microwave oven, and all the other trappings of American life we’re told we should have?  How many toys does my two-year-old need?  In my own case, I have jettisoned TV and the health club.  I drive a beat-up, 11-year-old Hyundai with over 170,000 miles on it.  I generally do not buy new clothes until I’m forced to.  And my internet costs $15 per month.  My recent move cut fuel expenses for my car from $500 a month to $80.  But rent is expensive, and at the moment I can’t afford health insurance.  I have a stack of medical bills totaling well over $20,000.

What is a God-seeking person to do?

If you were expecting an answer, I don’t have one.  But I do have the question, and it’s worth pondering.  In an environment of economic and cultural despair, how does one serve God?  Is it possible to serve two masters?

As I said, I don’t have the answer.  But I haven’t given up trying to find one.