Thursday, September 27, 2012

More awesomeness from Ross

After describing the amazing transformation of Washington, D.C. and surrounding regions from blight to astonishing affluence (and employing a Hunger Games analogy that I'm clueless about) Ross Douthat ends his column on Washington Versus America with this analysis.

For Mitt Romney and the Republican Party, what’s happened in Washington these last 10 years should be a natural part of the case against Obamanomics. Our gilded District is a case study in how federal spending often finds its way to the well connected rather than the people it’s supposed to help, how every new program spawns an array of influence peddlers, and how easily corporations and government become corrupt allies rather than opponents.

The state of life inside the Beltway also points to the broader story of our spending problem, which has less to do with how much we spend on the poor than how much we lavish on subsidies for highly inefficient economic sectors, from health care to higher education, and on entitlements for people who aren’t supposed to need a safety net — affluent retirees, well-heeled homeowners, agribusiness owners, and so on.

There’s a case that this president’s policies have made these problems worse, sluicing more borrowed dollars into programs that need structural reform, and privileging favored industries and constituencies over the common good.

But this story is one that Romney and his party seem incapable of telling. Instead, many conservatives prefer to refight the welfare battles of the 1990s, and insist that our spending problem is all about an excess of “dependency” among the non-income-tax-paying 47 percent.

In reality, our government isn’t running trillion-dollar deficits because we’re letting the working class get away with not paying its fair share. We’re running those deficits because too many powerful interest groups have a stake in making sure the party doesn’t stop.

When you look around the richest precincts of today’s Washington, you don’t see a city running on paternalism or dependency. You see a city running on exploitation.

My brother lives in Baltimore which is rapidly becoming part of the Beltway axis of power and money. Whenever I visit I'm both fascinated and appalled by the trends Douthat describes. Nowhere is the growing gap between the Two America's more pronounced (except maybe Palm Beach County where I live). This also points out the ideas deficit of the Romney campaign and Republican party who can't seem to do any better than recycle talking points from the 1980's that have nothing to do with the challenges of the shrinking middle class.

Does anyone really think that if Republicans take back the White House (and hold onto Congress) the growth of this Washington will stop? No. The benefits will go to another set of well connected insiders.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: exulting in life

The dearth of original material here recently is due partly to lack of time and partly to lack of inspiration. But whenever I'm lacking the latter all I have to do is pick up anything by Wendell Berry and my juices begin to flow again. Honestly, other than Holy Scripture, nothing inspires me more than WB. So, if this blog becomes nothing more than Wendell Berry's greatest hits -- well, there are worse things. I'm pleasurably working my way through the collection pictured, and a few nights ago I came to "A Few Words for Motherhood" (1980).

The motherhood Berry is primarily concerned with here is the kind involving four-legged creatures on the farm. For the reader unfamiliar with these rites of passage Berry describes the all-encompassing preoccupation that grips a farmer in "the season of motherhood." At bed time, in the middle of the night, and before the sun comes up, the farmer drags himself to the barn to "see what nature and breeding and care and the passage of time have led to."

Then there are the times when the mother needs help. Berry recounts a time when he and his wife and son helped a heifer give birth to a calf. After hours of labor the poor cow had only managed to deliver a foot. After interventions requiring string, sticks, and much huffing and puffing on the part of human and heifer the calf was born. Weaved throughout the account are Berry's musings on the primal intelligence of creatures we often call "dumb brutes."

Berry ends his story with a joyful peroration.

The heifer has stood up now, and the calf is trying to stand, wobbling up onto its hind feet and knees, only to be knocked over by an exuberant caress of its mother's tongue. We have involved ourselves too much in this story by now to leave before the end, but we have our chores to finish too, and so to hasten things I lend a hand.
I help the calf onto his feet and maneuver him over to the heifer's flank. I am not supposed to be there, but her calf is, and so she accepts, or at least permits, my help. In these situations it sometimes seems to me that animals know that help is needed, and that they accept it with some kind of understanding. The thought moves me, but I am never sure, any more than I am sure what the cow means by the low moans she makes as the calf at last begins to nurse. To me, they sound like praise and encouragement—but how would I know?
Always when I hear that little smacking as the calf takes hold of the tit and swallows its first milk, I feel a pressure of laughter under my ribs. I am not sure what that means either. It certainly affirms more than the saved money value of the calf and the continued availability of beef. We all three feel it. We look at each other and grin with relief and satisfaction. Life is on its legs again, and we exult.

Quotes from pp. 196-9 of The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural & Agricultural (Counterpoint, 1981)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

David Brooks on Romney's 47% "country-club fantasy"

David Brooks parses Mitt Romney's candid unscripted comments at a Boca Raton meeting with wealthy donors.

In 1980, about 30 percent of Americans received some form of government benefits. Today, as Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has pointed out, about 49 percent do.

In 1960, government transfers to individuals totaled $24 billion. By 2010, that total was 100 times as large. Even after adjusting for inflation, entitlement transfers to individuals have grown by more than 700 percent over the last 50 years. This spending surge, Eberstadt notes, has increased faster under Republican administrations than Democratic ones.

There are sensible conclusions to be drawn from these facts. You could say that the entitlement state is growing at an unsustainable rate and will bankrupt the country. You could also say that America is spending way too much on health care for the elderly and way too little on young families and investments in the future.

But these are not the sensible arguments that Mitt Romney made at a fund-raiser earlier this year. Romney, who criticizes President Obama for dividing the nation, divided the nation into two groups: the makers and the moochers. Forty-seven percent of the country, he said, are people “who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

This comment suggests a few things. First, it suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?

Read the whole thing here.

Hentoff on Dizzy

"Nat Hentoff is a legend" states the blurb on the back cover of The Nat Hentoff Reader (a book I picked up on a whim at our church's annual book sale). I won't argue with that assessment. I've long been a fan of iconoclastic voices like his that challenge and provoke, that don't fit comfortably into the usual paradigms, and resist easy labeling. Hentoff is probably best known for his dogged defense of the First Amendment. I admire his consistency in flaying censors of every stripe (one of his earlier books has as its title Free Speech for Me--But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other). Both campus leftists burning conservative student newspapers and religious conservatives trying to get books banned from the local library are targets of Hentoff's rhetorical blows, and he's that rare man of the left that believes unborn children have civil liberties worth fighting for.

But where Nat Hentoff shines most brightly is when he's writing about a subject he loves as much as the U.S. Constitution -- jazz. He's penned countless reviews and liner notes, hung out with the greats, and even recorded some of them. In a piece included here called "Jazz: Music Beyond Time and Nations" the author recalls his jazz epiphany as an eleven-year-old walking down a Boston street. Upon hearing a strange sound coming out of a record store (Artie Shaw as it turned out) this middle-class Jewish youngster let out a shout of exhilaration. A life-long love affair was born. Hentoff writes that if forced to choose between losing his sight or hearing, he'd choose blindness because of a deep hunger that only music fills.

One of the jazz legends that Hentoff had the privilege of knowing intimately was one John Birks Gillespie. The Nat Hentoff Reader contains a two-part 1995 profile of the remarkable human being known simply as Dizzy. He writes:

I knew Dizzy for some forty years, and he did evolve into a spiritual person. That's a phrase I almost never use because many of the people who call themselves spiritual would kill for their faith. But Dizzy reached an inner strength and discipline that total pacifists call "soul force."

He always had a vivid presence. Like they used to say of Fats Waller, whenever Dizzy came into a room, he filled it. He made people feel good, and he was the sound of surprise, even when his horn was in its case.

But in later years there was also a peaceableness in Dizzy. There was nothing passive about it. It was his soul force that resolved tensions.

For example, in the 1980s, there was to be a concert at Lincoln Center honoring Dizzy. He and a big band were, of course, to be at the center of the celebration. A few days before, I went to a rehearsal. Everyone was there but Dizzy.

No music was being played. The only sounds were a bitter argument between Max Roach and Gerry Mulligan. Each had some compositions on the program, and at the start the argument was about who was to have more of his pieces played. Then it became very personal and poisonous.

As tensions rose in the room Hentoff describes the embarrassment of the other musicians, until Dizzy appeared from the back of the auditorium where he'd been quietly listening. Without a word he stepped to the podium and cued the band to play "I'll Always Be in Love With You." As the bad vibes blew out the door Max and Gerry forgot what they were arguing about.

Hentoff adds that Dizzy "filled the room with reasonableness without getting involved in the battle. Most of the leaders I've known through the years would have scolded the antagonists for wasting valuable rehearsal time and acting like children. But Dizzy, by his very presence, had broken the tension."

If you're a fan of jazz, free speech, or just plain good writing, I think you'll enjoy this collection.

Quotes from The Nat Hentoff Reader (Da Capo, 2001), pp. 118-9

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: the first step toward a better economy

In this edition of Wednesday Wendell I'm linking to a piece by Slow Church blogger John Pattison -- "False Economies and False Gods". I hope you'll click through to read the whole thing, but here's part of it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about economics, partly because it is election season, but also because there is still too much dissonance in my own life between what I say I believe about God’s abundant economy and the way I actually operate. Too often I’m ungrateful, inattentive, and consumeristic (Berry describes consumerism as that venerable American doctrine that says “if enough is good, too much is better”). I’m quick to submit to an economy that is sometimes in outright opposition to the “deep magic” that orders the universe. (My daughter and I are going through The Chronicles of Narnia, so I’ve been thinking a lot about “deep magic” too.)

The economic machine has as its goal limitless growth, which requires an infinity of fuel, separates the end from the means, and prizes abstraction, quantity, efficiency, and speed over mindfulness, quality, discipline, and relationships. (Over the last four years, we’ve caught a glimpse of what happens when the machine seizes up.) Many Christians who oppose the teaching of evolution in school accept unquestioningly an economic Darwinism that exalts competition, scoffs at cooperation, and leaves for dead the slow and straggling wounded.

“A better alternative is a better economy,” writes Berry. “But we will not conceive the possibility of a better economy, and therefore will not begin to change, until we quit deifying the present one.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Happiness (Pascal)

The Stoics say, "Retire within yourselves; it is there you will find your rest." And that is not true.

Others say, "Go out of yourselves; seek happiness in amusement." And this is not true. Illness comes.

Happiness is neither without us nor within us. It is in God, both without us and within us.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées (465)