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.