Saturday, November 18, 2017

MONEY LAUNDERING IS BAD BUSINESS

Image result for money laundering


The news is a bit dated now, but it’s still important. Paul Manafort, one of Donald Trump's former campaign managers, has been indicted by a federal jury for money laundering and tax evasion. What's next? There's an old proverb that says a very good prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich if he had a mind to. Robert Mueller is very good at what he does, so, we'll see.
Lest you think I’m being flippant, let me assure you that I understand the seriousness of the charges Mr. Manafort faces. In fact, If he had contacted me several years ago, I could have warned him about the dangers of money laundering.   
I’m married to an eagle-eyed accounting whiz. She’s meticulous and she’s as honest as the day is 24 hours long. There are days when I may be working on something here on the second floor while she’s on the third floor reconciling our books in Quicken. Just about the time a bolt of inspiration is about to strike me, I hear the dreaded words. “Okay, Slick, what did you buy at Wal-Mart last week? It cost 97 cents.” My response is almost always “I dunno.” I think you can guess what’s next. I go upstairs and read the receipt. “FLTLS HEAVY 0017500207222...0.097” I haven’t got a clue. I then go to Wal-Mart’s customer service and discover that it’s spray starch. I’m tempted to ask why they didn’t they didn’t label the receipt “spray starch,” but realize that would be pointless. When all's said and done, my accountant gets the information she needs and I try to find that lightning bolt that was about the strike me before I was interrupted.
What does this have to do with money laundering? A lot.

Most of us have occasionally left a stray dollar in the wash. In our house, that money becomes Nancy’s property even if I’m the one who carelessly leaves it in my jeans prior to depositing them in the washer. It’s usually not a problem, but sometimes there’s more than a buck at stake.

A while ago, Nancy inadvertently left four twenty dollar bills in a pair of her jeans. They went through the fill, wash, rinse, and spin cycles, along with scads of loose change I’d been leaving in my jeans for who knows how long. When she retrieved the jeans, the twenties had been thoroughly shredded. We worked feverishly to put the money back together, piece by piece, thanks to Nancy’s eagle eye, I was able to take the pieced together money to the bank and retrieve sixty of the eighty dollars that had been laundered.

But, there’s more to the story. All the loose change I’d been laundering broke the washer. I can’t remember the exact amount of money Jim, Guion’s repairman, dug out of the washer in the process, but it was enough to buy us a couple of burgers at J’s Carry Out. I don’t know how much the repairs cost, but suffice it to say good professional help these days isn’t cheap.

I learned a couple of valuable lessons when the smoke cleared. First, a good accountant is a godsend. Second, money laundering can get quite expensive. If only Paul Manafort had spoken to me before he launched into what might become his very expensive adventure.

What a witch’s brew we have. Our political air is full of shady deals with foreign powers, money laundering, collusion, conspiracy, tax evasion, under the table sales, and dossiers. I suppose I should be discouraged, but I think I should try to look at the bright side. This whole mess is about the only  thing about our politics that’s bipartisan right now.  Michael Flynn is nowhere to be found. We haven’t seen hide nor hair of Trump the younger for some time. The Podesta boys, who were locked arm and arm with Mr. Manafort, are scurrying for the hills, waiting for the next shoe to drop. Hillary’s just written her best imitation of a Greek tragedy,  buying dossiers, selling  “smidgens” of uranium to the Russians on the sly, while the Russians are probably selling it to the North Koreans and Iranians. Bill made a half a million bucks for a speech he made in Moscow, thanks to the generosity of Vladimir Putin’s bankers.

It’s enough to make my head spin.

I’m not sure this is going to end well. I think it might look a bit the old slaughter operations at Tyson. Folks who worked there used to tell me that cows came in one end and everything after that was a bloody mess.

How can those of us on the sidelines escape what’s coming? About the only advice I can offer comes from  Hamlet’s words to Ophelia - “Get thee to a nunnery!”

Thursday, November 02, 2017

STOP THE INSANITY - PLEASE!



"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."  

  • From Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s eulogy to George Washington (1799)

The above statement would almost surely have been accepted by most Americans as true until a few days ago. Then, on October 26th, Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, banished our first President from his place of honor. In a letter to their congregation, the church’s vestry said they were going to remove two plaques that had been erected in 1870, one honoring Washington and another honoring Robert E. Lee. They explained their reason for doing so this way:

“Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some you have entertained angels unawares.” Christ Church lives into this call, feeding the hungry with our Lazarus ministry, welcoming the stranger in our refugee ministry, and inviting all to worship with us. The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques.”

Washington’s history with Christ Church goes  back to 1773, when he purchased pew number five. The Washington Papers project credits him with being a vestryman and a lifelong contributor to the church (source Rod Dreher’s “American Conservative,” October 28th).

What had Washington done to merit such rejection? While it’s true that he was a slave owner, it’s also true that he emancipated a large number of them in the 1780’s. He would have emancipated all of them if he hadn’t been legally prevented from doing so by the language of a will.

Was it from the way he put down the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790’s, when he led a 10,000 man state militia into Pennsylvania that crushed the rebellious farmers who had refused to pay the federal excise that had been levied on liquor?

Some of our Presidents have done far worse. Woodrow Wilson used the Espionage Act of 1917 to suppress and imprison socialist Eugene Debs. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator and savior of the American union, suspended the writ of habeas corpus, a fundamental American legal right. Franklin Roosevelt, who shepherded the nation through the Great Depression and World War II, put thousands of loyal Japanese-Americans into internment camps. Richard Nixon gave us Watergate.

Does the vestry of Christ Church really expect us to believe the reason they’re relegating George Washington to the catacombs or wherever else they’re going to plant the plaque because a symbol honoring him is making some people “feel unsafe or unwelcome?” Who are these people? How many are there? Rod Dreher’s words here are exquisitely insightful - “Find five people who did this. I dare you.”

I spent a few of my formative years as an acolyte at Christ Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As it is with its sister church in Alexandria, Virginia, the church I attended has a long,  storied history. It was founded in the early 1760’s. I can still see in my mind’s eye a plaque in the narthex wall commemorating what the vestry in those times claimed was the “first shot fired in the American Revolution.” Legend has it that some brave patriot taunted the British as they were on their way to Lexington and Concord and a stray shot aimed at him wound up in the narthex wall.



There is another plaque in honor of Abraham Lincoln, who visited the church some time during the Civil War. There was also one other plaque. It was there to honor George Washington!

So, what’s next? Should the Christ Church I attended remove the plaque honoring our first President? Should it be removed for the sake of ecclesiastical symmetry? Should Lincoln’s plaque stay until some offended soul complains about the way he suspended habeas corpus? Or, should it go right now?  And, what of the plaque below the bullet hole in the narthex wall? Shouldn’t it stay? After all, a bit of historical fantasy is good for tourism. Right?

Is it any wonder that the number of baptized Episcopalians in America has declined by 25% since 1980?  (source: Covenant - the Living Church, July 2017)

I’m am really getting tired of the offense and willful blindness of our history that some self-absorbed leaders are taking at every turn. I realize that our history hasn’t always been pretty. We’ve done some good. We’ve  done some bad. It’s all part of who we are. If those taking umbrage don’t like it, they need to stay at home, lock their doors, turn off the TV, radio, computers, and steer clear of social media. That way, they won’t have to deal with us and we won’t have to deal with them.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

HEROES



There’s a lot of media buzz about the heroic defense of our First Amendment professional football players have mounted in response to our President’s intemperate remarks about what they’re doing.

Many in the media seems to want us to embrace them as heroes, but I can’t bring myself to that place. The players were well within their rights to protest, but calling their actions heroic is a bridge too far.

I can think of others who stood for what they believed who were truly heroic, not only because they stood up for what they believed, but also because they did so willingly, at considerable risk to themselves.

On October 22nd, 1965, not long after I’d arrived in Vietnam, a young Chicagoan named Milton Olive, who was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, was killed in action. He and four other soldiers were moving through the jungle on a search and destroy mission. The Viet Cong started lobbing grenades at them. They were in trouble. Image result for milton olive

The medal of honor citation speaks eloquently of the type of man Milton Olive was: “Private Olive saw the grenade, and then saved the lives of his fellow soldiers at the sacrifice of his own by grabbing the grenade in his hand and falling on it to absorb the blast with his body.”

Milton Olive risked everything for his fellow soldiers. He didn’t have to. He had surely felt the sting of prejudice during his life. He was African-American. Further, one of the men he saved, Robert Toporek, was southerner. He and Olive had fought one another before they arrived in Vietnam. Somehow, that fight opened the door for brotherhood. Toporek, who survived the firefight, described how it happened - “After that, we were brothers. We were fighting the same Viet Cong. We didn’t care what color your skin was, what race you were.”

Robert Toporek, the white southerner, lived. Milton Olive, the African-American from Chicago, died to save him. That’s heroism born out of love.

Sophie Scholl was born in Germany in 1921, to what has been described as “free-thinking Christian parents.” She grew up reading Socrates, Augustine, and Pascal. She learned from the Bible that “words must be made real in actions.” (James 1:22) Her father taught her that “What I want for you is to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be.” By the time she was 21, she had seen the evil of the Third Reich and believed that time for both words and action had come. She helped form an organization called “the White Rose” in 1942. For about a year they secretly printed anti-Nazi literature and distributed it. The sentiments were printed in bold fonts with simple messages - “LONG LIVE FREEDOM’”or “DOWN WITH HITLER.”  It wasn’t a glamorous protest, with media breathlessly hanging on every word they published.

In 1943, she and her “co-conspirators” were caught and subjected to a show trial. The Nazi judge’s verdict was a foregone conclusion. Sophie was to be executed on the guillotine. Her last recorded words to her cellmate spoke volumes - “Such a glorious, sunny day and I must go...What will my death matter if, because of our actions, thousands of people will be awakened and stirred to action.”

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Sophie Scholl was 22 when she died. She could have remained silent in the face of the evil around her, but remaining steadfast in principle meant more to her than life itself. That’s heroism of the highest order.

The Little Sisters of the Poor is a Catholic order of nuns that was founded in 1839 by Saint Jeanne Jugan. Her mission statement for the order was simple - “My little ones, never forget that the poor are Our Lord; in caring for the poor say to yourself: This is for my Jesus – what a great grace!”

The American branch of the order provides food, shelter, and nurture to the old, infirm, and poor. They ask nothing for themselves. They own their dignity and faith, nothing more. They take vows of poverty in order to do their good work.

Image result for the little sisters of the poor

Yet, the Little Sisters have run afoul of our government. They’ve refused to obey what they believe to be an immoral Obamacare mandate to provide abortifacients to those they employ. They’ve been threatened with fines so steep they would have to shut down their operations.

Their case has gone to the Supreme Court. It’s still in limbo. The Little Sisters are standing firm. They’re risking everything for what they believe. That, I submit to you, is heroism.

I have no axes to grind with the N.F.L. I just don’t consider what they’re doing heroic. When it comes to heroism, there are plenty of candidates who are more worthy of that honor.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

MEMORIES




“Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind
Memories, sweetened through the ages just like wine”
  • Mac Davis/Elvis Presley - “Memories” (1968)


The recent hurricanes have triggered a lot of thinking for Nancy and me. We’ve found ourselves wondering how we would respond if we’d lost our home and  all our earthly possessions. Would we be so crushed we wouldn’t be able to go on?

In terms of material wealth, we’ve been blessed far beyond anything a reasonable person could, or should, expect in life. Pop theology would tell us we earned it all. Christian theology, on the other hand, tells us, that material wealth is often a trap on the road to perdition.

Knowing that, we see that the most valuable things we have are one another, our shared faith, and the memories we’ve built in our 31 years together.

I met Nancy at a time in my life when marriage was the last thing on my mind. I’d done marriage once and I’d failed miserably at it.

My logical approach to life was simple. Being a bachelor freed me up to spend  Saturdays with my buddies, not antique shopping.

It started slowly, with pleasant conversations outside Broadway Baptist Church after a class Nancy and I were attending. As one week blended into another, my admiration for her grew until I was head over heels in love.  I was like the cartoon character whose heart was bouncing on the end of a spring, with train whistles blowing smoke from my ears.

I was hooked. We were married on September 13th, 1986.

My most vivid early memory came when we moved to New Jersey. We rented an 1836 Victorian house in Montville. It was a lovely place. Nancy especially loved watching the birds in the morning as she sipped her coffee. On this special morning, she spied a visitor she hadn’t seen for a while. “Oh, Phil!” she exclaimed as she squeezed my hand tightly. “It’s the flicker.” The moment might have escaped my notice if it hadn’t been for the power of the squeeze. Nancy is quiet and contemplative. She prefers silence and introspection in the mornings where I prefer noise and activity. The power of that squeeze taught me that, while Nancy is quiet, there are very powerful things stirring in  her soul. That little bird clearly had a very special place in her heart.

I’ve never forgotten what I witnessed that morning. I’ll always treasure it.

A few years passed and the morning found us still living in New Jersey. Unlike her normally quiet times, Nancy was making a lot of noise downstairs while I was still trying to sleep. I got irritated  enough to ask what was going on. “If you get cleaned up real quick, we can make it to Cape May for breakfast,she responded with a sense of urgency.

Cape May, which is known for its bird sanctuaries and quiet little inns, was a hundred miles to our south, but how could I refuse?

A few hours later we were sitting in a little inn, ordering breakfast. As I looked around, I noticed something that had until then had escaped my notice. I was aging. I saw the other patrons and realized, “My God, I’m as old as them.” I was having an encounter with my mortality. Nancy seemed to pick up on it asked a really strange question. “So, Slick, tell me what you’ll do with your life if I die before you?” I saw right away what she was trying to tell me. Our morning encounter wasn't just about my mortality. It was about ours. I tried to avoid answering, but it wouldn’t work. Nancy persisted. “I finally blurted out, “I don’t want you to ever die,” then started blubbering like a fool. Nancy would have none of my sentimentality. “Look, Slick. We’ve got three choices - you before me, us together, or me before you and if I go before you I won’t be coming back just to please you. I’ll be in heaven, so you need to get past your sentimental Irish ways and figure out something productive to do with your life if I die before you.”

I didn’t sink in at first. It wasn’t till later that night as I read a passage from C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed,” that I saw how selfish I was being. If push were to come to shove, I'd have been willing to snatch her from heaven if it would benefit me. I’d forgotten that Nancy was a person distinct from me, that she wasn’t put here just for my amusement.

I think this is what Lewis must have been feeling when he wrote of the grief he felt when he lost his wife, Joy Gresham,  to cancer: What sort of a lover am I to think so much about my affliction and so much less about hers? Even the insane call, ‘Come back,’ is all for my sake. I want her back as an ingredient in the restoration of my past. Could I have wished her anything worse? Having got once through death, to come back and then, at some later date, have all her dying to do over again? They call Stephen the first martyr. Hadn’t Lazarus the rawer deal?

Memories have been added over the years - international trips to Switzerland, Ireland, France, Austria, Israel, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom, quiet morning conversations,  planting gardens, sipping wine on our front porch on cool Kansas nights as we watched the world pass by

We've been together for 31 years now. They've been the best 31 years of my life!

It’s so true. Possessions come and go, but memories stay. They really are the permanent things in our lives and we need to treasure them.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

ANCHORS OF SANITY






Events in Charlottesville and the President’s response to them have all but sucked the oxygen out of the public square. It’s understandable. Neo-nazis and their ilk live by a creed most of us find absolutely disgusting. They have earned the condemnation being heaped on them, even if the President refuses to see it.

There are also other stories that hit the back pages of the news that are no less important than Charlottesville. That became very evident when I read the news coming out of Iceland and France on the morning of the 16th. In a dispatch from C.B..S. News, the people of Iceland reported that only two Down Syndrome are born in Iceland annually, thanks to mandatory pre-natal screening, which in turn has led to abortions of most unborn Down Syndrome children. They were quite proud of what they’d accomplished.

It’s also  being reported that that France has gotten the same sort of result with their mandatory pre-natal testing. Over 90% of pre-born Down Syndrome children in France are aborted before they’re born.

Apparently, the result didn’t completely satisfy the French authorities. On the morning of the 17th I read an essay written by J.D. Flynn written in “First Things,” the publishing arm of  the “Institute on Religion and Public Life.” This is from one of his early paragraphs:

“Last year, the Conseil d’Etat upheld a government ban on a television commercial highlighting the lives of people with Down syndrome in video was judged to be “inappropriate” for French audiences because it conveyed happy people with Down syndrome, who were “likely to disturb the consciences of women who had lawfully made different personal life choices.”

I guess French sensibilities are fragile, just not fragile enough to stop the abortions.
It makes me wonder who the next target might be. The autistic? Those with cleft palate? Spina Bifida? Fragile X Syndrome? It makes me wonder when, or if, this will be coming to America.

One of my great joys in life is spending time with Nancy’s developmentally disabled brother, James. I’ve known him for 31 years now.  I know him alternately as James, Beanblossom the Great, and my twin brother-in-law.

James wasn’t born with any syndrome. He was the older of a set of twins. But, early on in life he developed spinal meningitis and double pneumonia simultaneously. The result is his developmental disability. Some of his cognitive skills are very limited, but one thing I’ve always seen in James is his uncanny ability to read discomfort in other people. He’s a great judge of character. He also a has one of the firmest moral compasses I’ve ever seen in a person. You can’t make James do something he morally objects to, not even under the threat of death. You’ll never find James preaching hate or carrying a Tiki-torch around Emporia.

Can James be difficult? You betcha.’ I’ve had more than one occasion when I’ve told him he’s driving me up the wall. Those little flare ups almost always end with James and I hugging tightly and forgiving one another.

The developmentally disabled can often teach us profound life lessons. My next door neighbor, Dewane Reed, is autistic. I think his disability may be profound, although I’ve never discussed it with him. The degree of his disability isn’t important when compared with his simple humanity. One of the connections we had early on was our mutual love of slapstick comedy. We both love the Three Stooges. I’ll sometimes see him early in the morning or the evening when my day’s labors are done and launch into my bad imitation - “Hey, Dewane, How you doin? Whoop, whoop, nyuck, nyuck, nyuck...coitenly!” I usually top if off by slapping my head, a la Curly. The silliness amuses Dewane no end.

Like James, Dewane just wants to be loved and do a good job. It makes life pretty simple. You’ll never find him sporting a swastika or carrying a Tiki-torch around town. And, unlike our political leaders and fat cat developers, James and Dewane aren’t dreaming up clever ways to pick their neighbors’ pockets.

The people of France and Iceland have decided the world is a better place without the likes of James or Dewane. It seems to endow them with a sense of superiority. As Flynn put it in his essay, “Shunning—or aborting—disabled people lets us pretend that we are stronger, smarter, and more independent than we really are.”

God, I hope this never comes to America. I don’t think I’d want to live in a world without James and Dewane. They’re anchors of sanity in an otherwise insane world. We need them far more than we need the spectacle of neo-nazis in their jackboots. In fact, we probably need them more than we need slick politicians or fat-cat developers.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

DEVELOPMENT DONE RIGHT

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On Saturday morning I took a pleasant morning stroll around Kansas City's River Market with our pups. While they concentrated on the scents left by other neighborhood dogs, I focused on all the changes that have taken place in the River Market since we bought our loft in an old industrial building about 10 years ago.

As Nancy and I were considering a second place in Kansas City, we explored Westport, the Plaza, and Crown Center. While each area had its charms and appeal, we eventually decided on the River Market, in part because the price was right and in part because we were offered a fifteen year tax abatement to buy our loft. It just made sense. The planners understood that if the incentives are given to homebuyers rather than developers and other speculators, a thriving community will spring up and businesses, almost exclusively small ones with good paying jobs, will follow the people who have moved into the neighborhood.  

When we first bought our loft, there wasn't a l ot of neighborhood activity. There were what you might call the old staples of the River Market– the Steamboat Arabia, Planter's Seed, the Al Dente Café, Carollo's Italian Market. But, my, how things have changed. As the dogs and I strolled along, we passed Houundstooth, a small specialty tailor's shop, Nature's Own, a health food/grocery store, The Farm House, a delightful eatery where all the food served comes from local vendors, small restaurants like A Taste of Brazil , Beignet, Bloom Baking, the Opera House. We passed a new loft development being built on the corner of Fifth and Grand and a recently completed loft complex a block north of that. A bit further east, there's a new condominium complex.

At 6:15 A.M. I heard the clang of the streetcar making its first daily stop.  It's become a familiar sound in the River Market for a over a year now. While some residents weren't sure about the streetcar project when the issue was being debated, the referendum passed and residents and business owners have now seen that the service has been a roaring success. It's given local residents free transportation to the Power and Light District, the Crossroads and Arts districts, Union Station and Crown Center. It's also given residents from other parts of Kansas City free transportation to enjoy the River Market vibe. The project has been so successful that the residents of the city south of the River Market have just voted to approve extending the streetcar service south all the way to U.M.K.C.  

Toward the end of our walk, we went west. The development is omnipresent there as well. At the far west end of the River Market district there's a huge apartment complex and a small convenience store. As we got back to our place on Second and Main, I looked across the street at one loft complex that was completed a few years ago and another that is under construction. When it's completed, it will be totally "green," including rooftop gardens.

Ten years ago, the River Market was struggling in the aftermath of rampant crime and mafia influence. Today, it's the place to be in Kansas City. The area is overflowing with life.  The shops, cafés, and bistros are full to the gunwales.  How did that happen in such a short time? It was simply economic development done right. Incentives were given to homebuyers rather than developers and residents got to vote on other issues as development moved along. The result of this "development done right" has been beneficial for everyone – residents, the city, business owners, and even developers.  
When we got back to Emporia on Sunday evening I took the dogs for a walk downtown and spotted some hopeful signs. Lofts, with what will be small shops on the lower levels, are being built, thanks to Cory Haag, a young entrepreneur who seems to get the concept of people first. It's development done right in the right place.  

On Monday I drove  to Wal-Mart and couldn't help but notice the Hobby Lobby project in its final stages. It's a testament to what I believe is old school economic development, where few profit and many pay. Pretty soon now we'll have another big box retailer and more westward sprawl, thanks to a combination of an incentive-seeking developer and readily available land. The developer will profit, as will the landowners who sold to the developer. What will the rest of us get? A one percent bump in sales tax on any purchases we make at Hobby Lobby.  

While it's good to see a few encouraging signs in downtown Emporia, it's discouraging to see that too many of the old ways still persist. It makes me wonder if we'll ever learn.