Tuesday, December 28, 2010


In my younger days I used to spend New Year’s Eve engaged in merry making and loud music followed inevitably by a desperate search for the hair of the dog on New Year’s Day. These days I rarely get to see the ball drop at Times Square and the loud music has been supplanted by something more like Lawrence Welk and his bubble machines. The change is due in part to concessions to age and in part to the onset of wisdom

I like to think of this all as a quintessentially American tale, a metaphor for how America has lurched from merry making to bubbles for the past twenty years. In the nineties it was all about the sure bet of initial public offerings and Silicon Valley, followed by the dot com bubble that brought the partying to a screeching halt. Then one millennium ended and a new one began. The dot com lessons, if there were any, were forgotten. America plunged headlong into the world of easy credit and collateralized debt obligations. Americans bought houses they couldn’t afford or flipped them about as soon as the ink dried on the mortgage contracts. It was quite intoxicating and it seemed that the party would never end. But, like all wild parties, it did. The result was an economic hangover the likes of which Americans hadn’t seen since the Great Depression. And, we’re flailing around, desperately searching for the hair of the dog. In my youth pickle juice, a couple of raw eggs, or a bloody Mary would usually do the trick. Unfortunately, they’re no match for what ails America today.

The fact that we’re still hung over has little to do with lack of effort. Our government has poured billions of dollars of stimulus money into the mix. They’ve bailed out automakers and banks. They’ve borrowed trillions from the Chinese, the Saudis, and any other international payday loan shark or hustler they could find. But, the dog that bit us continues to bite. Unemployment is so bad that millions have given up looking for work. Retirement funds have been depleted and a lot of us are walking around with our hats in our hands, pleading “Brother can you spare a buck or two or ten?”

In a couple of days it will be 2011 and there is another bubble that may just be ready to burst. In a recent 60 Minutes report Steve Kroft noted that a financial crisis involving state and local governments is looming: “In the two years, since the “great recession” wrecked their economies and shriveled their income, the states have collectively spent nearly a half a trillion dollars more than they collected in taxes. There is also a trillion dollar hole in their public pension funds.” That would be bad enough, but as financial analyst Meredith Whitney, who was one of the few who predicted the 2008 bubble, warned in the same report, “The most alarming thing about the state and local issue is the level of complacency.”

I’m not sure what that means for Kansas and Emporia. Maybe we’re too small for a bubble. Maybe we’re far away and insulated. On December 22nd, the New York Times reported that Prichard, Alabama, population 27,000, had run out of money. As the Times put it, “So the declining, little-known city of Prichard is now attracting the attention of bankruptcy lawyers, labor leaders, municipal credit analysts and local officials from across the country.”

Prichard had been warned for years that there was a bubble on the horizon, but no one listened. Apparently, Prichard wasn’t insulated, nor was it too small.

Our legislators here in Kansas have billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities to KPERS and keep kicking the can down the road, hoping the problem will just go away. Our city commissioners are so strapped for cash they’re considering fees for putting out fires or extricating someone from a car with the Jaws of Life. Desperation, it seems, may be the mother of invention. As police Chief Gary Smith put it, “It’s not easy to budget some expensive events.”

You’d think that our leaders would get the message. But, it seems that their hearing has gone dim. The Emporia Recreation Commission is talking about building a new, improved center, to the tune of millions. The city and USD 253 are carrying enormous loads of debt. Mill levies continue to climb; Emporia’s population is in decline; household incomes are stagnant.

Something’s gotta’ give. Like the rest of America, Kansas and Emporia are in desperate need of the hair of the dog. The question looming for us and our leaders is whether or not we’ll be willing to take the cure.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


We’ve just come through the election season. The jockeying for power is over, at least for a while. Power seems to have shifted in the direction of the Republican Party. Time will tell whether or not that’s true.

If the money spent on the elections is any indicator there was a lot to fight for. Who would control the power of the national purse? Who would have the power and the votes to legislate? Who would have the final say on how the trillions of dollars we and future generations of Americans pour in to government coffers is to be spent?

No wonder the in-fighting was so vicious. As philosophers have observed over the centuries, power can be quite intoxicating. Sadly, it’s this intoxication that often leads people to grasp for power and then misunderstand or misapply it once they’re elected.

In the 1930’s, Mao Tse-Tung told his fellow revolutionaries they must “grasp the truth that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” To us, Mao’s ideas seem extreme. But, if we look at power along a societal continuum I think we’d be forced to admit that we’ve given government enormous power over our lives. Government can legally pick our pockets before the direct deposits hit our checking accounts. Government has tremendous power to coerce us to do things, even when we don’t want to do them. And, I think we’d also be forced to admit that government power is growing with each election cycle. And, therein lies the real danger. As Irish statesman Edmund Burke observed in a 1771 political speech: “The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.”

But, is that all that can be said about power?

In a little over a week millions of Americans will be attending candlelight services celebrating the birth of Jesus. For a few hours the commercial aspects of the holiday will be put on hold. Hopefully, the dust-ups about whether the pre-Christmas festivities are called Christmas celebrations or seasonal celebrations, the arguments about nativity displays, or the pointless debates about whether or not Jesus was actually born on December 25th will be forgotten.

For those of us who believe, there should be a much richer understanding of what the Christmas season is about. Rather than arguing with our critics and feeling powerless, we should see that real power often moves through unseen or un-observed channels.

I’ve heard it said that the more things change the more they stay the same. As with many things, there’s a grain of truth in that adage. Centuries ago, the Roman senate was legislating in much the same way our political leaders legislate today. Taxes were levied then and people were moved like pawns, as they often are today. But, there are those rare moments when something special happens to break the cycle. The tectonic plates of history shift. This, I think, is one of the fundamental meanings of Christmas. It’s the story of something remarkable that happens in a small, backwater town. And, it all happens while the Roman Empire rules, moves, and shakes the world. The characters we see don’t fit the stereotypes we have of the powerful. The revelations come to outsiders rather than insiders. There are the shepherds. Why them and not the high and mighty? There’s Simeon, an old man with a keen eye and Anna, a widow/seer. Why them and not Herod’s pillow prophets? Why then and not now? Why word of mouth to announce the news rather than Facebook or Twitter?

The message flows outside the normally accepted channels of power. It seems, as 19th century poet Percy Shelley put it:

“The awful shadow of some unseen Power
Floats though unseen among us, - visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower.”

Unseen, perhaps, but not unfelt or beyond the possibility of experience.

The older I get, the more I’m coming to see that Christmas is, or should be, about the gentle application of power. It’s not about the power to name the festivities or who has the votes to pass the “desired” legislation. It’s not about who is to be the community icon or celebrity; it’s about those who are willing to live and serve quietly in society’s shadows and margins. It’s not about the power of the purse; it’s about the human heart and the power to gently tug it in the direction of grace.

The message of the season was summed up in three words by the angels making the announcement – “Peace!” “Good will!” Unfortunately, the message is as difficult to grasp today as it was two thousand years ago. It does seem that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Saturday, December 04, 2010


My wife and I just returned home from a trans-Atlantic cruise. For over three weeks we strolled leisurely through the streets of Rome, Florence, Barcelona, Cartegena, and Cadiz. On board the ship my days would begin with a pre-dawn walk on the track circling the putting green and bocce courts. When my walk was complete I’d get my wife and we’d go to the Ocean View Café for the breakfast buffet. One morning it might be eggs benedict. On another it might be smoked salmon or an omelet. For those with hearty appetites there were meats, including roast beef, pastries, roasted peppers or tomatoes, and assorted cheeses. After breakfast I’d stroll along the lower decks and pass by the shops, the casino, the library, and the ever present entertainers. Each night, after seeing the sights, we were treated to sumptuous meals, served by third-world waiters. Then, we’d attend a show. After each show we’d return to our room. The bed would be turned town, with a wrapped piece of chocolate on each pillow, courtesy of our steward, a young man from Indonesia. By 10 o’clock we’d turn in, to be gently rocked to sleep by the waves.

Looking back on it now it sounds absolutely decadent, the stuff that only the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, or the richest of the rich dared dream of just a few generations ago. For my wife and me, middle class Americans, a cruise is now possible. For others like us, middle class might mean a recreational vehicle, a boat in the driveway, a 2,000 square foot home with a downstairs den, or a storage locker across town that’s full of never-to-be-used junk.

Things certainly have changed over the past few generations.

We shared our evening meals with two very nice couples, both from Florida. After an evening of breaking the ice, one of the Floridians mentioned the elections that were going to take place in America the following day. I confessed I had very little interest in the outcome. As the conversation progressed I heard a lot about the dismantling of the American middle class. I asked what that meant. “The fat cats are swallowing everything up. There’s nothing left for the rest of us.” I thought about what I’d heard as I finished my portion of mushroom crusted Colorado rack of lamb. “Really?” I asked. “We’re cruising our way along the Mediterranean, stopping at exotic ports of call. We’re eating steak tar tare, lobster, crème brulee, bananas foster, and washing it all down with the finest wine. We’re being doted on by people from Indonesia, Serbia, Belarus, Colombia, and the poorest corners of the earth. If we want we can go to the casino and drop our cash into machines that virtually scream ‘You’ve got way too much money; let us take it off your hands and redistribute it for you.’ If the truth be known, on some sliding cosmic scale we’re the fat cats and I think the people pampering us know that quite well.”

We couldn’t ever agree, but our conversations about the destruction of the middle class always ended cordially. He still believed that he was living a diminished life because of the fat cats. I was suffering from pangs of guilt and the pains of over eating.

I took a valuable lesson from the dialogue. Class envy, when elevated to an art form, will make one blind to his own wealth and jealous of everyone a rung or two above him.

The trans-Atlantic crossing was quite boring. There’s a lot of water between the United States and Europe. I found myself occasionally going to the 15th deck and looking out at the vast expanse of water all around me. I thought of others who’d made the crossing before Nancy and me. There was her grandmother, who emigrated from Switzerland in the late 19th century. She probably spent her days in steerage, sans the crème brulee. There were the ancestors of African-Americans, who were chained, against their will, in the holds of ships, facing the prospect of being sold to a plantation owner in the land of opportunity. I thought of my Irish ancestors, who made the crossing in what came to be known as the “famine ships.”

I have no idea how we Americans fit into the scales of cosmic justice. All I have on this side of eternity are tantalizing clues – camels trying to negotiate the eyes of needles, parables about the debilitating effects of envy, the deceitfulness of riches, and the proclamation of the first being last and the last becoming first.

Given that, I’m not in the market for another cruise, a boat, a storage locker full of junk, or heart full of envy. I think I’ll be content with what I have.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


"Four legs good, two legs better"

On a recent edition of C-Span’s “Washington Journal,” a young Democratic strategist named Dylan Loewe spent about forty-five minutes pitching his book “Permanently Blue: How Democrats Can End the Republican Party and Rule the Next Generation.” A snippet from chapter one follows - “That’s the kind of permanent majority the Democrats are on the verge of building: a single party, democratically elected to control the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House without interruption for an entire generation.”

Loewe’s analysis is impressive. As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin noted, “Combining passion and eloquence with deep research and sharp analytic skill, Dylan Loewe has produced a spellbinding book that should stimulate debate and provide hope to progressives everywhere.” It seems to add up. A charismatic leader, shifting national demographics, strong political organization, millions, possibly billions, of dollars in the campaign coffers, and weak political opponents all point to the very real possibility of a permanent Democratic majority.

I considered calling in to the program to remind young Mr. Loewe that Karl Rove, George Bush’s evil genius, had predicted a permanent Republican majority a little less than ten years ago. But, I decided against it. There was no reason to rain on a young man’s parade. Current trends may not be favorable, but political trends shift quickly nowadays. We may be heading for one party, progressive/Democratic Party rule.

Given that, I’ve spent the past week considering what the implications of Loewe’s thesis might be.

The most important feature of such a system would be maximum efficiency. There’d be no more blue state, red state nonsense. The Party of No would be eliminated. There wouldn’t be any need for problematic things like elections. If we held them at all, there would just be one choice on the ballot, named “the progressive of your choice.” The winners could claim 95% or better mandates. Saddam would glow white hot with envy.

The gridlock would cease. We’d all be blue; we’d all be Keynesians. The legislation and edicts could pour down in torrents. Every societal problem could be solved. Agencies could be created. Czars could be appointed. The Party faithful could start hoisting ladders to heaven.

There would be some knotty problems to solve on the way to a one party utopia, the principal ones being our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. For over two hundred years we’ve held that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator…” But, with a bit of legal skullduggery it could easily be changed to read, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Government lawyers could dance around, a la Napoleon, cracking whips and proclaiming “Four legs good, two legs better.”

It might be better to do away with our founding documents all together. Have you ever read such negative stuff in all your life? All the talk about “Governments deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” or “absolute Despotism” and “usurpations.” And, worse yet, all those negatively tinted amendments in the Constitution – “Congress shall make NO law,” “the right of the people…shall NOT be infringed,” “NO solider shall be quartered…,”Excessive bail shall NOT be required,” “The right of United States citizens shall NOT be denied or abridged.”

The new ruling paradigm wouldn’t have the usual hallmarks of despotism. There’d be no goose stepping. We’d be treated to a new breed of despots, dancing around the halls of power in Birkenstocks.

I’m sure there would be dissent at first. But, given time and the judicious use of Conan the Barbarian’s principle to “crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women,” the complaint box would dry up. If that failed to squelch all dissent, the legislative branch could re-invigorate the World War I Espionage Act, upgrade the Patriot Act and thereby make any opinion contrary to the ruling opinion illegal. Violators could be shipped off to Death Valley gulags, to be re-educated or fed gruel and moldy bread for the rest of their lives.

Seeing all the potential for progress, it makes me wonder what on earth our founders were thinking about. I sometimes see myself as a bit of a contrarian, but I couldn’t hold a candle to those guys. You’d think they’d have just gone with the flow. But no! They complained, in writing, about the taxes, plundering, and suspending legislatures. Some of them even signed in quadruple font. When the time for fighting came they carried flags reading “Don’t Tread On Me” or “Live Free or Die.” What on earth were they thinking?

Well, there you have it. In a little more than a month we might know whether or not Loewe is right. If he is, Birkenstocks may be “in” and our founding documents may be on the way out.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010


On August 26th I wondered what the next shoe to drop might be. I got my answer the next day. I was expecting a shoe. What I got was a hobnailed boot.

In a convoluted attempt to justify what appears to be a 3.5 mill increase on property taxes, Lyon County controller Dan Slater said it could have been worse, thanks to a county wide sales tax increase approved in 2008. Instead of a 12 or 13 mill increase, we’re ONLY getting about 3 and a half.

You’ll have to pardon me if I don’t break out in a string of “Hallelujah’s.”

The 2008 sales tax was cleverly marketed as property tax relief. So, a 3.5 mill increase in property tax and a one cent sales tax have somehow become a great act of municipal generosity. It was like hearing the executioner say the choice will be strychnine or hemlock, the guillotine or the electric chair.

I don’t think folks expected Betty Grable in ’08, but I don’t think they bargained on Frankenstein, which is exactly what they got.

County officials were quick to come to Dan Slater’s defense. As Tammy Vopat put it, “I don’t remember anybody actually coming out and saying keep the mill levy flat.” “I think that people are smart enough to know costs have gone up. There’s no way without cutting something you’re going to be able to keep the mill levy flat.”

If it was an attempt to invoke sensitivity it fell flat on me. Our officials don’t seem to understand that sensitivity is a two way street. To be honest, they appear to be willfully ignorant of the economic impact their decisions have on Emporians who are least able to afford them.

A few years ago we moved my wife’s mother to Emporia. Velma’s a proud woman. During WWII she worked on a B-25 assembly line putting pilot switch boxes together. She was conscientious, knowing how critical the quality of her work was to the men who flew the missions. She’s now a 91 year old widow living on a fixed income. She is the primary caregiver for a developmentally disabled son, who also lives on a fixed income. I don’t think her case is unusual. There are a lot of Emporians living in similar circumstances. They’re not stupid. They do know that “costs have gone up.” When I visit my mother-in-law and her son in the morning, for example, she’s very aware that her property tax bill is higher now than it ever was in Kansas City. She knows that she pays more for water here than she did in Shawnee. She knows that the price of staples like bread, milk, sugar, and flour are creeping up. She also know that sales taxes add another penny or two to every dollar she spends “shopping Emporia first.” When the temperatures soared above the century mark a few weeks ago she didn’t want to turn the air conditioning on, worrying that the increased utility cost would have to be leveraged against a “luxury” like okra, one of her son’s favorite vegetables.

I think a lot of us are getting tired of being flimflammed by officials who appear to be honor graduates of the Marie Antoinette school of sensitivity.

When I was twenty I took a job as a door to door salesman, selling encyclopedias. After two days of training, having the mantra “it will only cost a dime a day, less than the cost of a cup of coffee” drilled into my head, I was sent on the road with the company’s best salesman. He sold a set at the second house we went to. It was impressive. I think he could have charmed the apples off wallpaper if given the opportunity. A few houses later, when my turn came, I kept going back to the mantra – “Sir, this will only cost a dime a day, less than the price of a cup of coffee.” It seemed to be working; the man was on the verge of buying. But then I got hit by a pang of conscience. The man and his family were obviously living on a very limited income. I knew he couldn’t afford the encyclopedias, nor did he need them. I began folding up the marketing materials and explained, “Sir, you really don’t need these. There’s a library down the street and your son can use the encyclopedias there for free.” As soon as we left I got fired. I slept well that night, knowing my conscience was clear.

In the end we’ll get a property tax increase heaped on top of the sales tax increases. I’d like to hope for better, but I don’t have that much faith. Nothing will change here until our leaders truly understand that sensitivity is a two way street.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


In an early August op-ed, Peggy Noonan laid out how many feel about the growing disconnect between “average” Americans and their political, civic, and cultural leaders. As Noonan put it “But do our political leaders have any sense of what people are feeling deep down? They don't act as if they do. I think their detachment from how normal people think is more dangerous and disturbing than it has been in the past. I started noticing in the 1980s, the growing gulf between the country's thought leaders, as they're called--the political and media class, the universities—and those living what for lack of a better word we'll call normal lives on the ground in America. The two groups were agitated by different things, concerned about different things, had different focuses, different world views.”

I don’t know what to make of it. At times I feel that events in Washington, D.C. are in a far away galaxy and there are times when I feel they’re like a huge asteroid poised to crash through the ozone layer. I find myself occasionally thinking back fondly to the days when Ike was the President and I was the stickball champion of Chatham Street. And, there are days when I feel that the serenity of the Flint Hills can protect me from the madness.

Unfortunately, the respite is only temporary. The disconnect is everywhere. There’s no escaping it.

On August 3rd the Gazette reported that “Even in tough economic times, 64 percent of Emporia voters agreed to continue a half-cent sales tax for economic development and property tax relief through 2024.” There are 13,808 registered voters in the city of Emporia. There were 2,156 votes in favor of the extension. The truth is, only 15.6% of those registered voted to approve the extension. Why did so few vote? Was R.D.A president Kent Heerman right when he claimed “it looks like voters were very interested in continuing industrial and economic development and property tax relief.”? Or, could it be that we’re seeing detachment and disenchantment played out locally?

In the wake of the vote, Steve Sauder thanked “the very astute voters in Emporia for extending the ½ cent sales tax through 2024.” Where does that leave those who voted no? Apparently, they’re not very astute. What about those who didn’t vote? Feeling disconnected? Were they were thinking “What’s the point? The deck is stacked.”

Last week, the city commission approved a budget with a gaping $750,000 hole. Among the line items that escaped the hatchet was a $250,000 subsidy to the municipal golf course. The prevailing argument in favor of the subsidy was that quality of life things like the golf course make Emporia appealing. A few budgets ago a $50,000 annual taxi subsidy for retirees on fixed incomes and folks with disabilities was scrapped. Apparently, seniors pushing walkers or wheezing through oxygen bottles must make Emporia less appealing. Oh well. I guess it’s all for the best, isn’t it?

I can’t figure out this mill levy thing. The school district approved a 2.55 mill increase in their budget, blaming it on decreased valuations. I’ve lived here since ’99. Property valuations have increased by 48% over that time. Following their rationale, the mill levy should have decreased over the same period. Yet, the school district levy has increased by about 30% since ’99. Overall, my property taxes have increased by 88%. If the formula weren’t so expensive, it would actually be funny.

A lot of Emporia’s ham and eggers have tried to tell their leaders they’re tapped out, but it doesn’t seem to be working. You don’t suppose the communications cables have been disconnected, do you?

The city is $35 million in debt. USD 253 is carrying another $27 million. That’s about $2,500 for every man, woman, and child in Emporia, or about $10,000 for the average Emporia family. On top of that, our federal government has us in hock to the tune of $44,000 per citizen. Our poverty rate is close to 20%. And, our leaders are wondering why folks aren’t “shopping Emporia first.” Could it be a sign of disconnect? You betcha.’

What’s the next shoe to drop? A few more mills, perhaps? $650,000 worth of Astroturf at Soden’s Grove? By the end of the year the city is going to have to figure out what to do with the old Arts Council building. I wonder if Mayor Jim Kessler, who has vowed to create revenue out of thin air, has a plan to set up the presses and print the money when the Arts Council vacates.

Peggy Noonan was right. There’s a massive primal scream building up in America. I fear that unless our leaders, at all levels, get connected, the sound of the explosion to come will make Krakatoa seem like a whisper.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Harry Truman was reported to have once said “You can line up ten economists end to end on the floor and you’d never come up with a straight line.” He was almost certainly right.

Since I retired a few years ago I’ve done a bit of dabbling in economics, principally to amuse myself as I amble off into the sunset. I’ve read the classics from Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” to Marx’s “Das Kapital,” with a bit of Hayek, Friedman, Pipes, DeSoto, DeSouza, and Higgs sprinkled in. I’ll admit my bias. Adam Smith and the free market capitalists make sense to me. Marx? I got about half way through “Das Kapital” and decided to ship it off, free of charge, to some east coast Marxist who could make better use of it.

This past May I decided to tackle John Maynard Keynes’ “General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.” It’s now August. I’ve made it as far as chapter 10, “The Marginal Propensity to Consume and the Multiplier.”

Theoretically, I should like what I’m reading. Granted, I’m only an eavesdropper, but I think I’ve read enough to understand that (1) We’re all going to die (2) Thrift is bad (3) Consumption is good (4) Consumption is all the better if you can get government to pry the loot from the hands, bank accounts, and investment portfolios of the rich, their children, grand-children, and great grand-children and give it to guys like me right now so that we can consume like drunken sailors.

What’s not to like about that? It may not make sense, but it doesn’t have to. The notion of enshrining inter-class and inter-generational theft may not be an honest way to spend five shillings, as economist Paul Samuelson once put it. But, as he also said, it’s “pure genius.”

It’s no wonder politicians have become such skilled practitioners of the pickpocket’s art. They’re geniuses too. They can appropriate money they haven’t earned, from people who have. And what are they doing with the money? They’re creating a totally dependent class of citizens and an army of government bureaucrats that would be the envy of Genghis Khan’s pillaging hordes.

For the past 10 years this has been a very bi-partisan effort. George Bush, a closet Keynesian, gave us trillions in debt and deficits. Barrack Obama, a full bore Keynesian, has set the pedal to the metal. We now have fourteen trillion in debt and if the Congressional Budget Office is right we’ll add another eight trillion by the end of the decade. And you and me? We’re just along for the ride in the back seat, with the geniuses at the wheel. It may look to us like we’re careening down the edge of a cliff with no brakes and no clutch, but they know better. We may be scared out of our wits, but they’ve got the cure. “Just shut up and take a slug of the Sneaky Pete. Everything’s gonna’ be fine.”

The alternative to this is austerity and smaller government, which was just voted in by the British. As I write, British Prime Minister David Cameron is slashing and burning like a wild man. His task, as he sees it, is to drastically reduce the size and power of government that has “turned able, capable individuals into passive recipients of state help.” Now I ask you. How much fun is that? It seems downright uncivilized.

Is it really a good idea to have “experts” at the helm when you’re trying to navigate your way between disaster and catastrophe? I remember a young student from my days in grad school. He was absolutely brilliant, theology’s equivalent of Keynes. It was widely accepted that he could manipulate the Almighty like a child playing with Silly Putty. There was a word - eschatology - he became quite enamored of and he managed to squeeze it into every sentence he uttered. One day it might be the “consequent eschatology of Schweitzer.” On another it might be “eschatological developments and the social milieu.” I once asked him how he would explain what he was saying to a cab driver. He looked at me, nonplussed, and said “Cab drivers aren’t worthy of this.” I suspect many of his parishioners, if he ever had any, have long since been devoured by Scylla or sucked down the vortex by Charybdis.

Given the fun I’ve had to this point, I can hardly wait to get to Keynes’ chapter 24 – “Concluding Notes on the Social Philosophy Towards Which the General Theory Might Lead.” As I look out the windshield I think I know we’re it’s heading and I want to scream, “We’re going off the cliff; we’re gonna’ crash and burn!” But I’m no expert. Maybe I’d better take another slug of the Sneaky Pete to dull the oncoming pain.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


One of my morning rituals is gathering our mail. For a couple of weeks now, as we lurch toward the dog days of August, I’ve noticed something. Our mailbox is fuller than it has been for some time. And, the load our mail carrier is toting is getting heavier and heavier as the days pass. What’s the reason for the increased workload? It’s obvious. Our political primary is less than a month away, with national elections coming in November.

There are some consistent themes in the literature. Taxes are too high. So are deficits and debt. Second amendment rights need to be protected. Our borders need to be sealed. Conservatism, as defined by the candidates, is in. The glossies say it all. “I’m pro family, pro life, pro education, pro gun, pro business, pro farmer, pro jobs, pro social security, pro apple pie, and pro America.” “I’m against illegal immigration, high taxes, big government, terrorism, bailouts, unscrupulous mortgage lenders, fat cats, and political chicanery of any kind.”

What they fail to tell us in the glossies is that this elected excellence never comes to us pro bono. We, the people, may have altruism in mind, but there are lobbyists skulking around, honey dripping from their canines and carpetbags full of perks in their hands. Nothing I hear from the current crop of political saints leads me to believe that things will magically change in one election cycle.

I’ve had a few friends tell me I’m too cynical about government and the political process. About the only defense I can mount is that I tend to think I’m not cynical enough. The older I get the more I appreciate H.L. Mencken’s words - “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety.

It also appears that I’m not the only cynic around. A July 22nd Gallup poll revealed that millions of Americans rate our Congress about on par with drug dealers or forgers.

Now, it’s not that I’m ungrateful. Politicians have rewarded my cynicism many times. I remember Watergate….Abscam….Duke Cunningham….and Jack Abramoff. I remember a politician who kept a bundle of lobbyist’s money in his freezer for safe keeping….Marion Barry snorting cocaine….Rod Blagojevich trying to sell a senate seat….Charlie Rangel being charged with multiple ethics violations as part of an on-going swamp draining project. And, it wasn’t too long ago that Eliot Spitzer, New York’s chief crime fighter, was caught cavorting with high dollar escorts.

Sometimes I think there must be something in the water that politicians and their appointees drink. For example, in 2007 Christina Romer, the Obama administration’s chairperson of the Council of Economic Advisors published an academic study about the macroeconomic effects of tax changes. The study laid out the debilitating effect of taxes on both consumption and employment: “A tax increase is followed by a large and highly significant rise in the unemployment rate.” “In response to a tax increase of one percent of GDP, the maximum fall in personal consumption expenditures is 2.6 percent.” Interestingly, as a political appointee she’s now touting the benefits of the stimulus package and mountains of debt and their “positive impact” on employment. It won’t be long before she’s touting the virtues of what Kansas politicians call revenue enhancements to create even more jobs.

Dana Priest of the Washington Post recently published a series on the size and scope of the security apparatus that has sprung up in the wake of 9-11. Her findings were eye popping. “1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States, employing an estimated 854,000 people.” There are so many people and programs involved that not even the Secretary of Defense knows what’s going on in the belly of the beast. How, pray tell, can this insanity be unwound? The minute someone mentions redundancy, too much information, and billions of dollars in waste, the programs’ supporters will howl, “Do you want another 9-11?” The only “sensible” response will be to create thousands of additional organizations.

The I.R.S. recently reported that the homebuyer’s credit that was supposed to stimulate home sales didn’t stimulate much beyond fraud. Millions of dollars in credits made their way to convicted felons, including many serving life terms. Millions more made their way into the hands of folks claiming the credit multiple times for the same home. The I.R.S, in a fit of transparency, admitted to problems in auditing the program and promised to try to do better in the future.

Thankfully, this cycle will be over in a few months. In the end, though, not much will change, other than the distinct possibility that Emporia’s mail carriers will be candidates for the chiropractor’s table.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


It’s said that gossip and rumors are more entertaining than the truth. I’m not sure, but I think they’re almost always as interesting, especially trying to figure out where truth ends and fiction begins.

Every family has wonderful stories, shared during holiday get-togethers, funerals, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, birthdays, or baptisms. Sometimes they revolve around skeletons in a musty old closet. Most often they revolve around some ancestor. We all seem to be able to claim a famous person on our family tree – George Washington, Joan of Arc, Winston Churchill, the Wright brothers, or the King of Siam. A horse thief or two occasionally slips into the conversations. Interestingly, though, I’ve never met anyone willing to lay claim to Rasputin, Al Capone, Attila the Hun, Lizzie Borden, or Bernie Madoff. Some families even have members who claim they were King Tut, Queen Nefertiti, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Lily Langtree in a past life.

It’s been said there are only six degrees of separation between anyone alive today and anyone who has ever lived. When it comes down to it we’re all linked, for better or worse. If we were to look long enough and hard enough we’d find the rumors and quirky stories we carry around go all the way back to Adam and Eve.

My wife, Nancy, has become the Catron family archivist. Years ago, when we lived in New Jersey, she told me that one of her distant relatives was once a Supreme Court justice. I was skeptical, but politely kept my doubts to myself. I became a true believer upon visiting the Supreme Court and seeing his portrait on display in the basement gallery.

Of course, not everyone in her family tree was famous. One, in particular, had become infamous. A couple of months ago she was rummaging in a file folder looking for information about her great-grandfather, John Knierim. Over the years I’d occasionally heard stories about him. From the little I heard I was able to glean four bits of information. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was a Methodist preacher. He smoked a pipe. And, rumor had it; he frequented saloons, finding his way in through the back doors, thus preserving his ecclesiastical reputation. The rumor was rooted in a tidy piece of gossip that he had somewhere in the course of time “fallen off the wagon.” The sordid details shocked and entertained his fellow Methodists. As soon as the local skeptics and agnostics got wind of it, the story confirmed their suspicions that he was, like most religious folk, a hypocrite. Once their suspicions were confirmed, they spread the tale like a prairie fire. Their motives were, of course, entirely noble.

Nancy’s rummaging proved fruitful. She found an affidavit, dated July 30, 1897, which has shed some light on the rumor. The text of the affidavit, filed by John’s son, George Knierim, follows:

“On the 16th day of June, 1893, I went with my father John Knierim to Clinton, Henry County, Mo., where we bought a Deering Selfbinder Harvester. On our way home, with the Harvester and a can of oil on the wagon, near the town of Deepwater, Mo., about 4 ½ miles from our house, we met with the following described sad accident. Some dry hay in the bottom of our wagon caught fire, doubtless from father’s smoking. Before we could extinguish the fire it reached the oil can, causing quite a flame, which scared the horses so that they made quite a side jump, which caused father, who being stiffened considerable from rheumatism, to fall from the wagon, whereby his left hip was injured so that it has made him a cripple for his lifetime, being able to get around only with crutches or cane. I was the only person with father when this sad accident took place. I can also further state that said fall and injury was not the result of vicious habits.”

Well, there you have it. John Knierim really did “fall off the wagon.” The circumstances of the fall were, however, a bit different than those that persisted in the rumor mill. It appears the affidavit may have been filed in order to get a veteran’s pension for his service in the 31st Ohio regiment. It was either that or his way of proving to his critics that his fall was not the result of “vicious habits.”

His fellow Methodists must have been quite relieved; his critics sadly disappointed.

The affidavit was filed 113 years ago, but it could easily have been written today. We’ve gotten much more sophisticated over time, but, the human habits of gossip and rumor mongering still abound. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


The following op ed will be published in today's Emporia Gazette.  I'm hoping Professor Peterson reads it and agrees to pay our taxes next year.

Well, they’re done. Our taxes have been filed. My wife depressed the “enter” key and that was that. All that’s left now is to wait for tax independence day, which I think will come just in time for a bit of Christmas shopping.

Each April of my adult life I’ve been afflicted by a seasonal disorder. It’s become so familiar now that I’ve given it an acronym – M.S.A., which stands for Monetary Separation Anxiety. There’s no known cure for it.

I suppose an attitude change might help. A month or so ago John Peterson wrote a piece about how delightful the whole tax process is. I read it three times to be sure it wasn’t satire and I’ve concluded there was nothing tongue-in-cheek about it. He’s dead serious. He really enjoys paying taxes.

I learned some amazing things. I never realized that taxes are solely responsible for our culture. Does that mean we’ve got the tax man to thank for Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Louisa May Alcott, Gertrude Stein, the Metropolitan Opera, Van Gogh, Vermeer, El Greco, Michelangelo, Georgia O’Keefe, and Andy Warhol? Apparently so.

I never knew that if I gave more money to the government I could own that Swiss chalet I’ve coveted for years. But, if the Swedes can do it, so can I. And, if we all pony up another twenty or thirty percent to the government we may eventually own Europe, making us new age imperialists on a grand scale. Can you imagine?

Of course, none of it costs us a dime. The government just gives and gives and gives…and gives. It’s like the old Dire Straits tune – “Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free.” What a country!

I can’t recall the last time we got any money back. In fact, that might be the mother of all non sequiturs. The government isn’t giving anybody anything. Generally speaking, people have just overpaid during the year, allowing the government to use their money as float, without interest. Even greedy bankers give better rates of return.

It doesn’t work much better at the city or county level. I’ve never gotten a tax return check from either of them. If they’ve sent the moolah it must have gone somewhere else, like Forrest Gump’s million dollar wound, because “I ain’t seen a dime of that money.”

I used to think that death was a way of escaping the government’s clutches, but age and experience have shown me otherwise. Someone (I think it was George Will) recently observed that death itself, under our current system, is a taxable offense.

But, maybe Professor Peterson is right. There’s got to be a silver lining or a pony buried in the manure that I’m missing. Maybe I should spend some time lobbying on behalf of the government. I could lobby for a new state motto, to be emblazoned on our license plates – “KANSAS – Our taxes are just a smidge lower than Sweden’s.” I might be able to talk the city commissioners into erecting a new sign near that Taliban vintage tank that guards exit 127. It would read – “EMPORIA – Even the Sheriff of Nottingham would be a piker here.” Maybe we could have a parade. We could all play kazoos, wear red, white and blue party hats, toss confetti, and watch marching bands and floats pass by for hours. The parade meisters could instruct the bands to play “The Tax Man” as they pass in review. It could start an annual tradition, rivaling December’s “seasonal parade.” In time our commissioners could levy some sort of celebration or parade tax against participants and spectators. Oh, joy!

This kind of joy could spill outward from Emporia, like ripples on the water. In time they’d get to Europe, particularly Sweden where things are so swell. Maybe we could get them to pay for our national defense, and while we’re at it, we could get the French, the Dutch, the Italians, the Spanish, the Taiwanese, the Japanese, and others to chip in their fair share. That way, I’d get to concentrate on paying for my grandchildren’s college educations while “old Europe” and “new Asia” protect me and my loved ones from Osama and other enemies who are lurkin’ about.

I see what Professor Peterson means. Taxes can be a real hoot. It’s a bit late this year, so I’ll have to bite the bullet. But I think next year I’ll send my tax bills to him, care of the Gazette. I want give him an additional opportunity for joy. In fact, I recommend that Gazette readers who are so inclined also forward theirs to him. It’ll make his April, 2011 a real barrel of monkeys.

Thursday, April 08, 2010


The following op ed is being published in today's Emporia Gazette.  The local school board and superintendent are not happy with me.  They're dragging out the heavy ammo (statistics) to prove they are absolutely essential to the well being of every Emporia family. 

I'm not buying the party line. 

The op ed follows:

At a recent eggs and issues forum I was asked if I was going to behave. What else could I do? I behaved…. grudgingly. I did have question or two or ten, but I just sat there, rehearsing the lyrics from an old “Kiss Me Kate” tune:

“Oh, why can’t you behave?
Why can’t you be good?
And do just what you should?”

I understand the Board’s displeasure with someone like me. No one likes being around a guy with a pin in has hand, particularly when they’re carrying a string of balloons themselves. I get the message. Why afflict the comfortable when what they’re really looking for is comfort and assurance?

But, it’s about two weeks past Eggs and Issues, and I’m in a misbehavin’ mood again.

What have I learned? If I’m to believe the Excel spreadsheets, line charts, and bar graphs there is a direct correlation between money and quality of output in education. Test scores here have improved and, until recently, funding levels have also increased. About the only way to complete the syllogism would be to conclude that more money means a better education or that less money equals an inferior education.

I suppose I should blindly trust the data.

Mark Twain was fond of saying, “There are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.” I think he was right. Numbers can be used to prove almost anything. I suspect that, given time, I could offer convincing proof that Jell-O is one of the prime causes of death in this country. After all, most of us will die in hospitals and most of us will ingest an inordinate amount of Jell-O while we’re there. What other conclusion could one draw?

Every time I hear some expert tout the numbers I get a sick feeling in the pit of my gut. The Board of Education cites numbers. Well, two can play that game. For every number they present I see scores of others that lead down a different path. For example, the most recent (2006) assessment tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) seem to indicate we have a serious problem. Over 400,000 students from 57 countries were tested. In the area of science, students from Finland had the highest score, an average of 563. The Estonians weren’t far behind, at 531.Slovenia did pretty well (519), as did the Czech Republic (513). Where did the U.S. rank? Statistically tied with Latvia and a couple of points better than Lithuania. The results in mathematics were every bit as alarming. Finnish students averaged 548. Estonians averaged 515. Slovenians averaged 504. American students averaged 474, a bit better than the Croatians.

What do these results say? Do the Finns have more money to throw at education than we do? Are the Estonians and Slovenians cookin’ the books? Are their kids just naturally smarter than ours? The answer to all of the questions is a resounding “No!”

I realize that education is not a cost-neutral venture. But, I think it’s eminently fair for taxpayers to ask where their education dollars are going. In 1993 Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institute asked where the money was going and found what most of us intuitively know. “A study of education expenditures in New York City found that less than $2,000 reached the classroom out of more than $6,000 spent per pupil.” Where was the money going? “Educational bureaucracies, both at boards of education and in the schools absorb much of the money spent to educate students.” This past Sunday the Kansas City Star revealed that while Missouri spends about 48% of its state budget on education, Kansas spends 65%. Further, Missouri spends far fewer dollars on its administrative costs of education than Kansas.

Of course, we all know that Emporia is a world away from New York or Missouri. There’s no rigid, top heavy bureaucracy here. Right?

I’ve been told that I have personal axes to grind. Not true! This is only personal to me because I care. I can only imagine how much more personal this is to the parents, students, and teachers of USD 253.

Is there a way out of the wilderness? Not without fundamental change. Things will never work as they should here until we scrap the top down, self-congratulatory management model we’re currently using.

Can we get there? I think so. It could begin by inverting the organizational pyramid, adopting a silo busting mentality, developing a lean staff structure, and finding ways to put that money directly into the classroom.

Granted, these seem to be small gestures. But, they would be steps in the right direction

Friday, March 26, 2010


The following piece was published in yesterday's Emporia Gazette.  The reaction so far has been mixed, with the general public supportive and the local school district upset, claiming that I've played hard and loose with the truth. I expected.  Things like that happen when someone's feet are held to the fire  Well, I'm right and they're wrong.  It's as simple as that.

The op-ed follows:

When recently asked to justify the “need” for three assistant superintendents at USD 253, John Heim answered, “Their leadership has been an essential component to the district's academic accomplishments, sound financial condition, and ability to attract and retain high-quality teachers.”

The gobbledygook came at a time when the axe was being laid to a school district wrestling with a severe financial crisis. About a month ago the school board met to consider cuts to make up the huge deficit. Based on potential cuts explored by the Performance Based Budgeting committees almost everything was on the chopping block. The reductions proposed amounted to 42 FTE’s. Based solely on the numbers, the proposal was quite impressive. But when one digs into the guts of the report there is something glaringly absent. Potential cuts included “close K-4, 5th and 6th grade centers, increase class sizes at all levels, HS athletics, fine arts, school tutorial and enrichment program, library services, building technology, activity bus routes, safe and drug free schools program, and implement more aggressive energy management program.” There was nothing about reductions in executive or upper management positions.

It was a tale repeated in the recommendations of all 293 Kansas school districts. Statewide, the various PBB committees recommended 5100 FTE’s in potential cuts, ranging from reductions in reading programs, tutorial programs, maintenance, scholars’ bowl, forensics, all day kindergarten, elementary music, art, English, science, foreign languages, reductions in instructional days, etc. I went through the report several times to be sure that my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Each time the same thing glared right back at me. The strategy employed appears to be protecting the bureaucracy/aristocracy at all costs.

One could argue that some program cuts might be beneficial. But, is it reasonable to assume that the safest place to be in this tangled mess is in an executive, upper management, or staff position? Is it reasonable to assume the only ones in danger of having their professional heads lopped off are those closest to the students, who should be the paramount interest in this increasingly grisly equation?

How can this be? John Heim said it. He’s “essential,” and so is the rest of his management team.

At an earlier public meeting some constituents offered olive branches. One of the most notable was a recommendation for wage cuts to be implemented across the board, aimed at protecting the integrity of the current classroom structure. I suppose the proposal might work, but I suspect it would be frowned on by those in upper management who deem themselves “essential” to the education of our children.

In a subsequent meeting, Mr. Heim presented three or four alternatives, each outlining possible cuts. As with the PBB, management remained untouched. It was an interesting process to observe. Mr. Heim outlined the potential cuts, then sat back, smiling like the Cheshire cat. The board then went on, in turn, talking about eliminating a bus route here or a school there or an hour or two here or expressing joy that there may be the possibility of eliminating only half of the teaching positions outlined in the PBB report. I could see why Mr. Heim was smiling. He and his management team remained above the fray, safe from the dreaded axe. It was so sad that it was actually funny. The school board spent its time straining out gnats and swallowing camels; Mr. Heim’s smile broadened with each camel swallowed.

In defending his position, Mr. Heim cleverly drew comparisons to private industry, arguing that the school district is indeed running like a business. They have corporate structures. So does USD 253. What on earth could be wrong with that?

In his book “Barbarians to Bureaucrats – Corporate Life Cycle Strategies,” author Lawrence Miller described the life stages of corporate entities, from inception, with the prophet/barbarian who has an idea to explore or a customer to serve, to its demise, overseen by the bureaucrat/aristocrat who has a career and legacy to protect. In this final stage, the needs of the customer are supplanted by the needs of those in power. Mr. Miller also observed that the only way to break the vicious cycle is for customers and shareholders to revolt, demanding that the corporate silos be torn down and the needs of the customer once again met.

When good companies see the light, they inevitably return to the needs of the customer. This is what USD 253 needs. Unfortunately, with the help of a compliant school board and an aristocrat at the helm, we appear to be far from the desired target. Could it be that a shareholder/customer revolt is the only thing that can trigger meaningful change?

Friday, March 12, 2010


The  piece I'm now posting was published in last night's Emporia Gazette.  The writing was mine, as was the mug shot.  However, credit was inadvertently given to nationally syndicated columnist Jay Ambrose.  I actually feel quite flattered.  The content of the op-ed follows.  I hope you enjoy it:

The President called it “Snowmageddon.” After two blizzards in two weeks our nation’s capitol was buried in white. The wheels of government ground to a halt. Nothing was happening, not even the bickering and gridlock we’ve grown accustomed to. For some it was a godsend. For others, however, the icy blanket was cause for weeping and gnashing of teeth. Somewhere in the bowels of government an up and coming analyst reported that “Snowmageddon” was responsible for 100 million dollars a day in lost government productivity.

I think using the words government and productivity together might be an oxymoron. But it’s not surprising. Government officials, at all levels, have come to believe they reside on Mount Olympus raining legislation down on us “average” souls like divine thunderbolts.

Back in the early sixties I was stationed at Harmon Air Force Base in Newfoundland. With winters that began very early and dragged on incessantly, “Snowmageddon” was just a way of life there. Most GI’s thought of Harmon as bad duty. It was different for me. My mother was born in Newfoundland, in a little fishing village named McIver’s Cove. So, what was considered a curse for most became a blessing and the opportunity of a lifetime for me.

I made my first visit to McIvers in the middle of a terrible winter, even by Newfoundland standards. I still remember the bitter chill in my bones as I stood desperately knocking at the door of my Uncle Billy and Aunt Mabel’s house. And I have fond memories of seeing them greet me with the warmth so typical of the people of the Maritimes.

In time I got to meet all my uncles (most of the women of McIvers had gone to Maine or Massachusetts). There was my uncle Philip, who was still a lumberjack at age 77. There was my uncle Billy, the youngest of the Park boys, who worked as a night watchman at the lumber mill in Corner Brook. There was my uncle Ned, a veteran of the Battle of the Somme, who still carried a trophy of the Great War in the form of a crippled right hand, courtesy of a German rifleman. And, there was my uncle Fiander (pronounced Fye-ander). He was a confirmed bachelor, considered to be the gadabout of McIvers.

While I loved all my uncles, Fye was very special to me. It took very little to make him happy. He lived in a small cabin, with no electricity. He had only one extravagant worldly possession, a battery operated radio, purchased to tune in to his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. We spent our time together talking about the simple life, family, values, lost traditions, war and peace, and so forth. Fye had little more than a third grade education, but he was one of the simplest, wisest men I’ve ever met.

I once asked him what folks in McIvers did during the long winters. There were three, he said. “We stay inside, make love, and boil water for the tea.”

Sometime during my tour the Canadian government decided it would be a good idea to pave the road going through McIvers. To that end, they met with the men of McIvers. “We’re going to pave the road,” they announced. The Park boys, ever obstinate and unprogressive, couldn’t understand why the paving was needed. “The road is perfectly good as it is. We’ve no need of paving.”The government tried government logic. “You don’t understand. This is what you pay your taxes for.”
“For paved roads?”
“Yes,” one of the government reps said.

The logic that followed was homespun and compelling. “Well, there’s no sense our paying the taxes, then, because we don’t want the road paved.”

The impasse was still in place when I left Newfoundland in 1964.

I’m sure by now the Canadian government has found some way to get that road paved. There’s probably an oversized highway sign as you enter McIvers today, proudly declaring “your tax dollars at work.” Such is the nature of progress, especially unwanted progress.

I’ve thought of praying for a blizzard of common sense to descend on our Capitol, but I don’t have that much faith. However, if Punxatawny Phil is right we have six more weeks of winter and reason to hope. I’m praying for more snow. Who knows, if it keeps on snowing our legislators just may have to take my Uncle Fye’s advice and “stay inside, make love, and boil water for the tea.”

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


I got word last week that I'll have a bi-weekly column published in our local newspaper, the Emporia Gazette.  My by-line is "Right Turn."  My first colum, titled "Get off the Tracks" was published on February 25th.  I'm hoping my vanity doesn't get the best of me.  So far I've taken a somewhat subdued attitude toward things, insisting that Nancy not only refer to me as "Slick," but also as "Mr. Columnist."

I've got the Gazette's permission to cross polianate the columns to this blog.  So, here goes.  "Get off the Tracks" now follows.  Subsequent colums will follow on a bi-weekly basis.

 There is a bit of bi-partisan agreement building in America these days. Government debt is bad and our current profligate ways may soon do us in.

The problem to this point is that the government overspending and borrowing continues, unabated, faster than the Times Square tote board can calculate it.

In an op-ed penned earlier this week, liberal columnist Al Hunt looked over the grim numbers and noted: “The numbers are stunning. Over the next 10 years, under President Barack Obama’s budget, the total deficit would be $8.5 trillion; by 2020, the interest payments on the debt would be almost as much as projected spending on all discretionary domestic programs and as much as Medicare outlays that year. The national debt would be approaching $20 trillion in 2020; nice symmetry, horrifying economics.”

About the same time, conservative publications like Business Week and Bloomberg began looking beyond the massive economic losses since the bursting of the “great asset bubble” and cheap money of the Bush years to the very real potential of “a debt hangover and reckoning” brought on by the trillions of dollars of borrowed money and deficit spending currently in vogue. It seems that one bubble bursts and another mysteriously pops out of the government pipe.

You’d think we’d learn from the pain. Unfortunately, we don’t. Last year, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff published “This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly.” The title says it all. One century it might be tulip bulbs. In another it might be buying stock “on the cuff.” In this century it just might be a government takeover of everything but our home gardens.

One of the hair raising things Reinhart and Rogoff noted was that there seems to be a tipping point for disaster, expressed as a percent of government debt to G.D.P. Historically, that number has been ninety percent. At the point of handoff from George Bush to Barack Obama, our national percentage of debt to G.D.P was 84%! Is it credible, then, to assume we can avoid careening toward the magic 90% by borrowing and spending more?

While I try to think of myself and family as being safe from the ravages of government fiscal policy here in conservative Kansas, the reality of things slaps me like a Muhammad Ali left hook. The current budget deficit here is $400 million. Our local school district faces huge financial problems in the classroom. Yet, our leaders were recently able to find enough money for Astroturf and “absolutely necessary” road construction on 18th Street.

A recently published report, co-authored by Dr. Barry Paulson and Dr. Arthur P. Hall, revealed that at the end of 2008 KPERS, our state employee pension plan, had a funding deficit of $8 billion. The reasons cited (poor asset mix, unrealistic assumptions on rate of return, low employee contribution rates, early retirements) aren’t nearly as important as the deficit number. It’s in the billions, with a B! Solutions are being offered – decreased benefits, increased employee contributions, or increased employer (Kansas taxpayers) contributions. Does one really need to guess who’s going to bear the brunt of the solution?

As for answers, I don’t have a clue. Some experts tell me I should spend and consume more (Cash for Clunkers or “shop Emporia first”). Some say I should join the Tea Party movement. Really smart marketing guys tell me I should buy gold. The political parties tell me they have legislative saviors in the wings, just waiting for my vote. Others say I should just accept the fact that higher taxes and bigger government are my only salvation.

I think I hear the faint whistle of the oncoming freight train, boxcars loaded with fiscal disaster. Given that, about the only solution that seems to make sense to me is to get off the tracks.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Pilgrim Way

“Since you call on a Father who judges each man's work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.”

- I Peter 1:17 (New International Version)

Life in America these days seems so out of balance. Environmentalists tell us that nature is out of balance, on the verge exacting its long overdue revenge on its ravagers. The economy is out of balance. The stock market can’t seem to find a point of equilibrium. The debts, both national and individual, are fast becoming un-scalable mountains. The deficit of political trust is enormous, and it’s growing. On a personal level, the age-old American ideal of responsibility is being slowly subsumed by an ever growing sense of dependency and entitlement. And, religion, which should be the core balancing mechanism in society, has become a compliant follower of social trends. America’s civil religion has become what Richard John Neuhaus described in 2009 as “mass Gnosticism.”

A little more than a generation ago we Evangelicals were in the throes of making America the “Christian” society we all wanted it to be. Our tears flowed when we heard Ronald Reagan speak of the “city on the hill.” We came to believe that our birthright and responsibility was to build the New Jerusalem promised thousands of years ago.

It all seemed so right at the time.

Seeing America as she is today, floundering in a sea of competing ideologies, it begs the question – how did the wheels come off the wagon?

Before he died in January of last year, Richard John Neuhaus penned what I believe was his most important book, American Babylon. I read it right after Christmas and I’ve been pondering Father Neuhaus’s insights and implications ever since.

This morning, as I write, three things come to mind.

First, we are living as exiles in Babylon in much the same way the children of Israel did thousands of years ago. America is not our final destination. This should seem self-evident, but our track record since the eighties reveals otherwise. We have been too locked in time and space for too long and, as a result, we’ve failed to see the self-evident truth that should be propelling us home.

Our pilgrimage will one day end in the New Jerusalem. And, the New Jerusalem we seek will not be built by human hands. Abraham saw this when he left Ur of the Chaldes, seeking a city whose builder and maker was God. It’s the city Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego chose over the wealth of Babylon when confronted with the probability of death in a fiery furnace. The prophets, both great and small, chose the New Jerusalem over social respectability and acceptance. And Jesus, who we call the High Priest of our confession, said very clearly that, while he was a king, his kingdom was “not of this world.”

America is not our final destination! We are indeed, strangers and aliens, pilgrims seeking a city we haven’t yet seen.

This brings me to my second point. Does this mean that we Christians are jettison our societal responsibilities here in 21st century Babylon?

Absolutely not! We must embrace them. Our role, as citizens of two worlds, is to reflect the values of the city we seek. We live here in a society of competing interests. We should be seeking to be transmitters of a new community of common interest. The world we are passing through is a world dominated by self-interest. The one we should reflect is governed by love and grace. The exercise of power is the order of the day here in Babylon. In the kingdom to come, our king is, and will be, a servant-king and our role here and in the New Jerusalem should/will be that of servants as well.

My third point follows. We should be the most hopeful people in Babylon. This is not the time to hang our harps in the willows. It is as much a time to rejoice as it has been for the multitudes who’ve gone before us.

Father Neuhaus has completed his journey. He closed American Babylon, his last work, with these words:

“As Christians and as Americans, in this our awkward duality of citizenship, we seek to be faithful in time not of our choosing but of our testing. We resist the hubris of presuming that it is the definitive time and place of historical promise or tragedy, but it is our time and place. It is a time of many times: a time for dancing, even if to the songs of Zion in a foreign land; a time for walking together, unintimidated when we seem to be a small and beleaguered band; a time for rejoicing in momentary triumphs, and for defiance in momentary defeats; a time for persistence in reasoned argument, never tiring in proposing to the world a more excellent way; a time for generosity toward those who would make us their enemy.”

We who are pilgrims would do well to heed his words.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


The view of Haiti we in America have witnessed through the video, photos, and media narrative pale in comparison to the human misery being experienced by the people of Haiti. Their national pain can be heard in the screams and moans echoing almost constantly from the rubble. Bruised and battered people wander aimlessly in the streets. Doctors, medical supplies, and the volunteers needed to bring healing are in critically short supply. Given this grim scenario, some Haitians bravely dig through the fallen buildings with their bare hands in desperate attempts to rescue those on the cusp of death beneath the twisted and smashed concrete.

At such times even the necessary international response seems so inadequate. The reports coming in are grim – as many as a half a million may have died in the quake, with thousands more dying as the needed help makes its way ever so slowly to the disaster’s epicenter. People seem strewn across the scarred land like dead wood drifting on un-caring sea. Is any flotilla of aircraft carriers the world can muster enough? Even if we load cargo aircraft to the gunwales and fly them to Port au Prince in never ending waves, will it be enough to end the misery?

The questions are moot, really. The world must act and do whatever is necessary to alleviate the suffering and begin the rebuilding. In doing so, answers to those questions will come in the days and months ahead. It will be a difficult battle, tinged with despair, but it’s a battle that must be undertaken with the utmost of purpose.

Sometime yesterday, in the wake of the tragedy, evangelist Pat Robertson made the following observation:

“And so the devil said, ‘Ok it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another.”

The response was swift and predictable. Robertson was denounced as a fanatical bigot.

It would be easy to say, as a Christian, that Robertson’s words were nothing more than a matter of bad timing, but I can’t. They were un-Christian.

What is Haiti, then, if it’s not cursed? Are the people of Haiti just unlucky? Are they just unfortunate pawns in some crass evolutionary game? Why is it them these things seem to always happen to and not us? As the people of Haiti dig deeper into the earth for their loved ones and the rest of the world digs for answers, there’s an answer right there on the surface I think we may have missed in our desperation. Haiti is a nation of sorrows, acquainted with grief. It’s a nation in desperate need of healing, not off-the-cuff root cause analysis.

There’s a story recorded in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John. It’s the story of Jesus’ and his disciples encounter with a blind man. The encounter is prefaced by the disciples’ questions about what had caused the man’s blindness. Was it his sin that was the root of his problem? Or, was it his father’s sin? Jesus said that it was neither. He made a startling claim – “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.”

How can this be? How can human misery be a portal to “the work of God?” Can this principle, if I can call it that, apply to the enormous tragedy we see today in Haiti?

The message to me, as a Christian, seems clear. I (we) must be about our Father’s business, which is reconciliation and healing. It is when we engage humanity on that basis that the “works of God,” the miracles of healing, take place. The question posed to us, in the form of need, is clear, and so is the answer. We must be about the healing work of God in Haiti.

I tuned in to C-Span this morning and was taken aback at the question posed early on. Using Pat Robertson’s statement as a back drop, the audience was asked about the statement. It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. I must admit I got a bit upset and called in. In due time I got on the air and expressed my belief that C-Span would have been better served to use the time to do some fund-raising rather than engaging in salacious journalism. I tried my best to express the theological implications of my reading of John 9. I went on, too far I’m sure, about Haiti and my view, that over the years I’ve lived I’ve seen this type of tragedy played out over and over and over again. I’ve seen the bloated, dead bodies in the streets for over forty years. I’ve read about the rampant political corruption. I’ve seen the international promises of aid wither and die on the vine as the world turned its attention away from Haiti’s misery to turn its attention to the heady promise and potential wealth of the new global economy. When, I asked, is the world going to really do what needs to be done in Haiti, whatever that might be?

In the face of my onslaught the host was very gracious. C-Span could have done better and so could I.

In the wake of the earthquake and its physical aftershocks, there are philosophical aftershocks also being felt in the wake of Pat Robertson’s words. The tragedy of Haiti will, I suspect, soon be overtaken by the societal war taking place between the religious and irreligious here at home. I fear that the end result will be that Haiti is placed back on the treadmill, waiting as the next tragedy crouches at the door. The NGO’s, religious groups, and missionaries, including CBN's Operation Blessing, will bravely move on, like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. They’ll plug away, day by day, uncomplaining. Their work will be little noticed here as Haiti’s current woes fade into the rear view mirror of history. Here in America, the compassion of many, particularly the anti-religious, will recede. There will be great crowing and thumping of chests about caring inner selves for a little while. But it will pass. People will congratulate themselves profusely for the kindnesses they’ve offered the “less fortunate.” People will get back to work. There will be the inevitable climbing of the corporate ladders and the cut throat office politics that comes with the climb. The fine wine will once again flow in the trendy restaurants dotting Soho and Foggy Bottom. People will make nice for a while. But, in time they will once again resume coveting their neighbor’s wives and possessions. Life will go on.

Jesus’ words haunt me right now. “The night is coming when no man can work.” I look outside my window. It’s a grey winter day. The mulberry tree has been stripped of its leaves. It’s a bit past mid-day. Night is coming; I can feel it coming on. And so it is with us and Haiti. In a world so programmed to forget misery, the pain so close to us now will be overtaken, as it always has, by self interest.

The creeping darkness of night is coming; I can feel it. There is little left of the day. We must use it! This all begs the final question – will we?