Bailout, Bankruptcy, and Cultural Revolution

Six weeks after the flailing labor movement helped Obama win a second term, the US Treasury has announced its intention to divest itself of General Motors shares. The Detroit News reports that if GM share prices remain constant at current levels, taxpayers will sustain a loss of about $13 billion.

I want to draw attention to two political details in the article. First, we all recall the derision Mitt Romney met for his advocacy of saving GM through the bankruptcy process. I recall Romney chiding Obama during one of the debates that bankruptcy is precisely the process the administration followed. David Shephardson, the author of the Detroit News piece, confirms Romney’s version of the administration’s GM bailout.

The Treasury initially owned nearly 61 percent of GM as part of the bailout as it swapped about $42 billion of the loans for stock in the reorganized company after it exited bankruptcy in July 2009.

The Obama administration forced GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy as a condition of getting additional government aid.

So yes, the Obama administration forced GM into bankruptcy, and yes, the way they did it ensured that taxpayers would foot the bill.

The second political peculiarity is in the choice of words GM CEO Dan Ackerson used to describe cultural changes necessary at GM in a 2011 Detroit News interview:

“Whoever comes after me; it’s going to be a more important appointment than mine because he or she will have to carry on a cultural revolution here. It’s just like the Communist Party in China in the 1960s, there has to be a cultural revolution here,” he said.

So GM henceforth must act “just like the Communist Party in China in the 1960s.” Here’s a little tidbit from Wikipedia on that lovely episode:

The most gruesome aspects of the [Cultural Revolution] campaign included numerous incidents of torture, murder, and public humiliation. Many people who were targets of ‘struggle’ could no longer bear the stress and committed suicide. In August and September 1966, there were 1,772 people murdered in Beijing alone. In Shanghai there were 704 suicides and 534 deaths related to the Cultural Revolution in September. In Wuhan there were 62 suicides and 32 murders during the same period

Torture, murder, public humiliation. suicide. Why, that’s an excellent business plan, don’t you think? I trust that Mr. Ackerson is simply displaying his total ignorance in this ill-chosen simile. Still, this is a chilling image coming from the government-chosen CEO of “Government Motors.”

Dr. No

It finally happened. A doctor told me to stop running.

I’ve been running for 37 years, since I slinked back into my parent’s home after three years as a nightclub musician. I don’t remember why I started; I just remember that I ran around the block and limped back wheezing. I kept at it, six blocks, eight, a half mile, a mile, two miles. Within a year I was running around the hills of Yakima, Washington.

Running is the perfect exercise for me. I’m built for it, small-framed. It doesn’t depend on a schedule or a building or a club membership or a partner/competitor. I just lace on my shoes and run. It gets me outside, and I go wherever I want, whenever I want.

I’ve run in a few races; the Tacoma Narrows; the San Francisco Bay to Breakers (where I finished in the top three percent); the Spokane Bloomsday. But running for me was never about competition. It was about exhilaration. I have never felt so well or so utterly alive as during and after a run. It has something to do with endorphins, the “runner’s high.” There is nothing that can lift me out of a black mood more reliably than a good run. Running keeps me fit, so I can help neighbors move and do whatever else I ask my body to do. It keeps my blood sugar, my blood pressure, and my weight down. At my last biometric screening, the nurse said, “You’re going to live forever!”

Lately I’ve been running trails near my house with my two dogs. I’ve lived in this little valley for more than a decade, and just this last summer I found another trail not a quarter mile from home. Sometimes I run through residential neighborhoods, sometimes through parks, sometimes along country roads.

A little over two years ago I started running in Vibram five-finger shoes, otherwise known as barefoot or minimal runners. I like running with these best of all. I can feel the road or the trail. The only problem is that my toes freeze when they get wet at temperatures below 50 degrees.

Sometime over the last decade, I can’t remember when exactly, my big toe on my right foot began to ache, just a little. I ignored it, and fiddled with my shoes, with over-the-counter orthotics. Running both seemed to aggravate and relieve it. It would ache at the beginning of my run, but feel great by the end. I figured life was a race to see how long I could keep running before my toe wore out. I never mentioned it to my physician; it seemed trivial, and I suspected that any physician who looked at it would tell me to stop running.

For a slightly longer period, I have also had toenail fungus. (I think I know where I picked it up, in a slimy steam room in Juneau, but that’s another story.) Two weeks ago I saw my GP for a physical. I mentioned my toenail fungus. The fungus has survived the standard medical procedure and everything else I could throw at it. The good doc referred me to a podiatrist I’d seen before.

The day before I saw the podiatrist, I ran about six miles in my “five fingers.” My feet were a little achey. The bad knuckle on my left big toe was swollen and the skin was red. Before treating my toenails with a nifty laser gun, he pointed at the swollen knuckle and said, “That’s arthritis. You should have that checked out.” Of course I knew it was arthritis already. My wife’s a nurse, and that makes me an expert. So I reluctantly made an appointment.

The nice young lady that took my vitals and x-rays was just getting over a bout with bronchitis. I used to get bronchitis before I started running. As she was crawling around on the floor positioning my feet for the x-rays, I pointed out to her, paraphrasing a famous book title, that everything she needed for life she learned in kindergarten. She laughed and coughed.

The good doctor, and he really is a very good doctor, solemnly pointed out the bone spurs, the misshapen bones, and the utter lack of cartilage in the joint. He said I should start with orthotics, that if that didn’t work it would be a clean-out operation, and if that didn’t work it would be a fusion operation. He also said I should stop running.

I died.

So what is the difference between my toe the day before and the day after the podiatrist examination? A diagnosis. I have believed for a very long time that far from promoting life and health, too often a diagnosis kills. One of my neighbors was struggling with a recurring sinus problem. He was getting polyps. The doctors would remove them, he’d feel better for awhile, but they’d come back. He called in about his next appointment and the scheduling person told him, “You don’t have to come in. You have cancer.” That night he dressed up, walked out into the woods behind his house, and shot himself to death. The diagnosis killed him.

A few years after I started running, I worked for a few days picking fruit in an orchard. My back started aching and spasming. I  saw a specialist, a very smart, older man who had worked at the Mayo clinic. After examining me, he said, “You know, we could spend thousands of dollars investigating whatever it is that is making your back ache, and we would wind up telling you you have a problem you have to live with. So why not just tell you that now? You have a problem you have to live with.” I liked that. I can live with a problem, I can do things about it. It is not a diagnosis. A diagnosis controls, limits, and restricts. It is subject to medication and surgery. Ick.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to try out the orthotics. I’ll refrain from running through most of the winter. It’s too wet anyway, and I never run much in the winter here. I’ll buy an elliptical machine for cardio workouts. My wife wants one, and I’ll reluctantly use it, preferably during football games on TV. And I’ll let the doc examine the toe again in a few months. Then I’ll ask him to tell me how I can minimize damage to the toe when I resume running. After all, I have what, 20 years max left running? I don’t know any octogenarian runners. My toe will probably fall apart, but at least I’ll be happy.

A moral foundation?

I’ve just taken Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations survey. Haidt is an academic psychologist who, along with his colleagues, has come up with a schematic for how humans come to their moral positions. Briefly, there are six moral foundations:

1. Care/harm

2. Fairness/cheating

3. Liberty/oppression

4. Loyalty/betrayal

5. Authority/subversion

6. Sanctity/degradation

Haidt has recently written a book about this, The Righteous Mind. On the website for the book he writes a blog. In one of the blog posts he rebuffs a critic of the book, Chris Hedges, who, according to Haidt, unfairly characterized Haidt as personally believing the following statements:

People who work hard should get to keep the fruits of their labor. People who are lazy and irresponsible should suffer the consequences.

Haidt protests, “I’ve never taken a journalism class, but I don’t think it was appropriate for Hedges to take that last sentence out of context and present it as though it was my personal belief.”

I got to thinking about this. I honestly can say that I cannot think of a single person, including Haidt, who does not believe this statement insofar as it concerns him/herself. Let’s consider Haidt: he has worked hard, earned a Ph.D., published books, and is becoming famous. I cannot believe that he rejects the proposition that he has worked hard and deserves to keep the fruits of his labors. Note that the proposition he putatively rejects does not include the word all as a modifier of “fruits.” Thus one can, for example, happily pay a portion of those “fruits” as taxes, and still keep [most of] the fruits of his/her labors.

Bear in mind that Haidt’s labors have brought him other “fruits” besides monetary remuneration. They have brought him a modicum of fame, a secure academic post and all the perks of power and privilege that accrues to such a post. Am I to believe that he does not believe that he deserves, by virtue of his labor, to keep these, that they might just as morally be commandeered by someone else?

How about the second half of the statement he professes not to believe: “People who are lazy and irresponsible should suffer the consequences.” Note that the sufferers here are not the unfortunate, the poor, the sick, the intellectually incapable, or anyone else but those who are “lazy and irresponsible.” Does Haidt perhaps believe that lazy and irresponsible persons should be awarded Ph.D.’s, academic tenure, and book contracts in the absence of hard work? Of course not. It is inconceivable that anyone should think so.

Haidt’s problem here is that he identifies himself as a liberal democrat, and in his book (which I have not yet read but intend to buy on Monday), he says he was trying to understand and articulate the values of Republican critics of his work, and so far as I can tell, in this instance he has correctly identified at least a portion of those values. But as a self-identified liberal democrat living and working among people of like mind, whom he is trying to teach how to defeat said Republicans in political debate, he cannot appear to identify with their values. so he rhetorically rejects them.

As is often the case in human discourse, I suspect that Haidt has not really articulated what he meant. I suspect that what he means to say is that he thinks Republicans imagine that anyone who is “suffering the consequences,” i.e., not successful in measurable ways, is “lazy and irresponsible.” Perhaps there are some Republicans who believe this, but I don’t personally know of any. But as I have said above, I also can’t think of anyone who doesn’t believe about him/herself that they have the right to keep the fruits of their own hard work and that they may very well rightly suffer consequences should they behave lazily and irresponsibly. I do know persons who, although they recognize their right to keep the fruits of their labors, nevertheless freely give them away. but that is an entirely different proposition.

A Girardian explanation of politics and business

This essay, based on notes from a lecture by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and now a hedge fund president and venture capitalist, uses Rene Girard’s mimetic theory to analyze the founding of businesses and nations. Inexplicably Girard is not mentioned. Among the many things Thiel explains is an answer to the question, why does the Occupy movement focus its wrath on the one percent? Why not the top five or ten percent? Why not the top .01 percent? The answer relates to the movement from monarchy to democracy: from a unitary leader, who is simultaneously very powerful and dangerous and at mortal risk through the mechanism of scapegoating, to the mob, who wants to depose him/her. According to Girard, cultures learned to avoid the war of all-against-all by focusing their wrath on a single victim, who was at once an extreme insider and an extreme outsider. This scapegoat was charged with sole responsibility for all of society’s problems, making him/her very dangerous. At the same time, his/her execution brought about temporary unity, for which the scapegoat could be recognized as having god-like powers. The monarchs were those who figured out how to postpone their own sacrifice and seize that god-like power.

The 99% vs. the 1% is the modern articulation of this classic scapegoating mechanism. It is all minus one versus the one. And it has to just be the one. 99.99 people or percent is too granular. Scapegoating 0.1 doesn’t really work. You need a whole person to play the victim. Similarly, 98-2 doesn’t quite have the same ring to it either.

This might also explain why the Occupy movement seems to have so much trouble gaining traction. The number of people in the unitary “one percent” is quite large and diverse, and includes many individuals against whom the activists are reluctant to focus their wrath, such as Warren Buffett, who accumulates for himself vast fortunes and power, while seeming to support some of Occupy’s positions. Buffett would seem to be an expert in evading the scapegoating process.

At any rate, this is an excellent primer on Girardian analysis and its implications for the modern world. Read the essay here.


Who should moderate political debates?

Had this thought while reading about Newt’s dust-up with a journalist during a debate: Why are all political debates moderated by journalists, and journalists alone? Journalists report and shape “the news”; why does this uniquely qualify them to moderate debates? I can think of much more interesting choices: a team of economists from academia and enterprise; a group of philosophers; representatives from various religious faiths and atheists; the heads of the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce; even the heads of various political parties. Journalists have had more than their chance; time to let people from other walks of life enter the debate.

Help me brainstorm about other points of view that might be invited to moderate political debates.

Three Pinocchios for Obama

President Obama gave a major speech on the economy this week. Glad he finally got around to it. Today his campaigner-in-chief, David Axelrod, defended the speech. As reported by Patrick Brennan, Axelrod said the president provided “a very thorough explication of his views on what the great challenges facing this country [and] his view on the economic challenges facing the country.”

That’s too bad, because Glenn Kessler, who writes the Washington Post column, “The Fact Checker,” observes that Obama’s explication is “silly” and “wrong” when compared to those pesky things we call facts. Ouch.

Read more here.

BTW, three Pinocchios represents three-out-of four on the scale of mendacity, indicating “Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.”

Update: Here’s Daniel Henninger’s take in the Wall Street Journal: Obama as The Godfather.

There is that defining moment when Michael Corleone says to Fredo, his brother, “You’re nothing to me now.” When even as party leader, a president of the United States gives a major speech in which people get singled out repeatedly as basically enemies of “the middle class,” one has to wonder if they are nothing to him.

You then have to wonder about the tenor of another Obama term in office. If in fact there are categories of Americans he simply doesn’t like, a second Obama term, like the last half of “Godfather II,” could be a clinical exercise in hammering the people he singled out in this speech. Metaphorically speaking.

Metaphorical would be the best-case scenario.

Mic check!

As I was driving home yesterday evening I heard this story on NPR. It describes a communication strategy used by Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

This is how it works: Someone screams “mic-check” to grab everyone’s attention and get the people’s mic started. The speaker will then say something, for instance, “Thank you for your patience tonight,” which the crowd repeats. This goes on until the speaker is finished.

The article quotes Sheila Nichols describing mic check’s uniquely participatory character:

[The] people’s mic forces people to be participatory, to listen, to understand that we’re in it together… And it’s an active experience that forces people to be a part of something that’s a whole…It’s sort of an undefined, decentralized experience overall, which is what makes it an amazing and unique experience.

Participatory, undefined, decentralized… I’m not so sure. Does any voice have the privilege of the public mic? Or is there an explicit or tacit understanding within the group regarding who are the leaders to whom the group will grant its collective voice?

Here is an example of “mic check” in action, in the “pepper spray” incident at UC Davis.

In this instance a small handful of leaders are directing the crowd’s collective action in confronting the police. The crowd is not deliberating, it is obeying the commands of these leaders, chanting their slogans and instructions. Watching this, I recalled the children’s game, “Simon says,” in which one person instructs the group in a series of silly actions, and tries to trip them up by slipping in a command without first saying, “Simon says.” In the UC protest, the group leaders’ voices were recognized as “Simon says,” and the voices of the police were not. The crowd follows their Simons with near robotic obedience, although a  few of the wiser ones have enough sense to know that their Simons are putting them in danger, and get themselves out of harm’s way.

More importantly, perhaps, this scene illustrates a process Rene Girard describes as “mimetic contagion.” “Mimetic” refers to imitation. The leaders are focusing a group’s attention on a common enemy, in this case the police. The group literally imitates and acts out the words of its leaders. The group finds its unity not so much in shared ideals as in the identification of a common enemy. Girard observes that one of the greatest achievements of western civilization has been the establishment of the rule of law and its accoutrements, including a near-universally respected judicial system and police force. In effect, by identifying the police as their common enemy, the group aims its attack at this core of civilization. This has been a common theme of the occupy movement, particularly in its insistence that laws intended for the common good, most notably laws enforcing public health practices and prohibiting camping in urban public spaces, ought not apply to OWS demonstrators. I’ll be writing more about Girard’s mimetic theory in future posts.

The NPR narrator sums up the grand, egalitarian principle that supposedly guides the OWS use of mic check:

It was the process of working as a group, building consensus, and listening to every word everyone had to say that was most important to them.

“Listening to every word everyone had to say.” Apparently we must take the term “everyone” with a shaker-full of salt. The article concludes with this sparkling example of consensus building and listening to every word everyone has to say:

Protesters have taken their call-and-response to disrupt public meetings and events. Newt Gingrich recently got mic-checked.

As he introduced the Gingrich Productions’ film City Upon on a Hill, someone called out, “Mic-check!” A crowd repeated, and the protester then said, “We love you Newt … thank you for standing up for corporations.”

Michele Bachmann also got mic-checked, as did President Obama on a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire.

So then, “mic check” is not about “listening to what everyone has to say,” after all. One can’t know, I suppose, whether the writer of the piece recognizes the disjunction here. But clearly the leaders of this “decentralized” movement use “mic check” to guide and direct their willing mob to instruct them in what and how to think, what to say, to whom to listen, and whom to ignore or disrupt.

The story concludes:

Occupiers say the people’s mic is coming to a shareholder’s meeting or public event near you.

I can’t wait.

Professors teaching students to act like… professors.

I once aspired to become a university professor. I graduated from college with a BA, went to a theological seminary and on to graduate studies. After the nearly twenty-year odyssey, I did not land an academic position. What then?

Now I’m reliving my higher-education choices from another perspective, that of a father who’s daughter Catherine wants to go to college. In fact, she’s already in college, a participant in Washington State’s fabulous “Running Start” program: local school districts pay tuition for promising high-school juniors and seniors to take courses at the local community college. Running Start is not what worries me. It’s the next step.

Catherine wants to become a published writer of fiction, and in order to develop the necessary skill-and-knowledge base to accomplish this, she’s planning to major in English.

Now this might work, or it might not. One thing that’s certain is that a BA is not a necessary credential for successfully authoring fiction. I say this on the narrowest of samples: my son Joe, ten years Catherine’s senior. Joe was a terrible high-school student (in fact, a terrible K-12 student). He wanted to play role-playing games as soon as he could talk. His early sketches were all of pirate ships. As he grew older he created what he called “boffer” weapons—lengths of PVC pipe surrounded with padding secured by duct tape—so he and his friends could do battle without breaking bones. He passed standardized tests, and failed his classes. After years of exasperation we entered him into a high-school completion program  at the local community college, where he finally got on track, earning both a high-school diploma and an AA. His “major”? Theater, although he failed some of those classes, too.

Despite the world urging Joe to buckle down and conform, he has relentlessly pursued his own interests. He married a girl he met at a Christian camp at age 15, and with whom he carried on a trans-continental romance. She’s an accountant with an excellent job. Joe, meanwhile grew more and more serious about swordplay, exchanging plastic-and-ducttape for steel blades, and taking classes in fencing and sword-fighting. He was also committing some of his stories to written form. One of his fellow sword-play enthusiasts turned out to be a well-known fantasy and science-fiction writer. We told Joe, “Tell him you’re a writer; maybe he can help you out.” Joe wisely demurred, and after several months said writer turned to him during a workout and said, “Joe, you’re a writer, aren’t you?” Joe was invited to submit a writing sample, and then he was invited to join the writing team for a new fantasy series, The Mongoliad. Eventually Amazon bought partial rights, and Joe got a real paycheck. Joe now has an Amazon author page. And he’s still managing online role-playing games.

Working on The Mongoliad has provided Joe with an experience surpassing a graduate course in writing and publication, and he has earned remuneration. So my question is: how will Catherine fare pursuing the more “normal” route,  paying for a four-year college education? Will her professors be able to teach her how to write?

Perhaps, perhaps not. Professors are particularly good at being professors, i.e., analyzing other people’s work, and teaching students to do the same. I’ve run across two pertinent articles making this point, both linked by Alex Tabarrok on the blog, Marginal Revolution. The first, “The Magic of Education,” by Byran Caplan, deconstructs the pretenses of higher education by pointing out that professors are isolated from The Real World.

Most professors’ experience is almost as narrow as mine.  If you want to succeed in academia, the Real World is a distraction.  I have a dream job for life because I excelled in my coursework year after year, won admission to prestigious schools, and published a couple dozen articles for other professors to read.  That’s what it takes – and that’s all it takes.

The mechanism by which what students do in college translates to good job performance is essentially magic, or more technically, “signalling”:

According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows (“signals”) about the student.  Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist – three crucial traits for almost any job.  When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he’s likely to be a good worker.  What precisely did he study?  What did he learn how to do?  Mere details.  As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you’ll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.

Fine, if you aspire to “a job,” in which your job is to learn tasks, which you will then repeat for the rest of your life. But successful fiction writing requires more than an ability to “quickly learn what you need to know on the job.” It requires the curious combination of imagination channeled by self-discipline, in a word, creativity. Most of the professors under whom I studied throughout my two decades of higher education wrote for other professors. An English professor might write a treatise on Chaucer or Longfellow, but write a short story or a novel? I don’t remember any. So as soon as I can pry Catherine away from the movie she’s watching at the end of a straight-out 12-hour day, I’ll advise her to find out who the English professors are at the colleges she’s considering, and then do an author search on them to see what they’ve written. If they haven’t published fiction, they probably can’t teach her how to write it.

Seth Roberts responds to Byran Caplan with a critique of professional academia’s myopic focus on IQ and “brilliance.”

At Berkeley (where Bryan went and I taught) and universities generally, the highest praise is brilliant. Professor X is brilliant. Or: Brilliant piece of work. People can do great things in dozens of ways, but somehow student work is almost never judged by how beautiful, courageous, practical, good-tasting, astonishing, vivid, funny, moving, comfortable, and so on it is. Because that’s not what professors are good at. (Except in the less-academic departments, such as art and engineering.) To fail to grasp that students can excel in dozens of ways is to seriously shortchange them. To value them at much less than they are worth — and, above all, to fail to help them grow and find their place in the world after college.

The exception Roberts notes, particularly art, has been crucial for both my kids. Catherine’s been involved in the local community college theater program for many years. Academic theater is a different animal from academic English. In the theater department you learn how to do theater. You also learn theory and analysis, but the main thrust is to learn the theater production enterprise from the inside out. You learn how to act, how to stage manage, how to construct sets, by doing it. And the professors are people who in their spare time do theater.

Roberts goes on to describe an open assignment he gave to one of his classes, in which they could do anything, so long as it did not involve the library and was off-campus. He was most impressed that one of his students gave a lecture to a high school class. Why? She had paralyzing stage fright, and decided to overcome it. This completely transformed his own perception of her.

Yes, Roberts says, people who succeed in college tend to be more successful in society. But the people who study such things have

failed to see the possibility that the whole world had been shaped to reward the things that the people in power (i.e., they themselves) are good at. Not because those talents work (= produce a better economy). But because they are easy to measure (by college grades). The glorification of IQ has had a solipsistic aspect and has ignored what should be obvious, that diversity of talents and skills promotes innovation. Without a diverse talent pool, any society will do a poor job of solving the problems that inevitably arise.

In my short experience as a college lecturer, I quickly realized how easily I could reward the wrong things. I realized that if I required a hand-written essay during an exam, I was privileging those students whose penmanship flowed from their hand, and whose thought processes were linear. These attributes had nothing to do with the content of the courses I was teaching. Examples abound.

My hunch is that successful fiction writers don’t flow out of college English departments. My hunch is that the broader one’s life experiences, and the more fervently one pursues one’s own interests, the better writer one will become. College can facilitate and enrich this development or hinder it. As long as Catherine continually bears in mind that professors are, for the most part, principally good at being professors, she’ll be fine. I hope.

Interesting Links

The first, a column by David Brooks, argues that it’s socially acceptable for me to wear a Harvard sweatshirt to indicate that I’m in the academic one percent. I have two, and a T-shirt! Apparently there are many ways to construe the one percent. I suspect that every human is in the top 1% of something or other. If there are seven billion people in the world, then there are seventy million people in the top one percent of any given category. Even if we consider only the categories of income and wealth, the number of Americans in the top one percent world wide is a big number.

The second, a sneak peek at a forthcoming documentary called The Silent Majority, draws some parallels between Occupy Wall Street and the protests during the 1972 election. Richard Nixon and his campaign coined the term The Silent Majority to refer to all those people who weren’t out in the streets protesting. The video linked to the article shows some home-video Super 8 footage shot over Nixon’s shoulder of his admirers by one of his aides. It’s astonishing how many young people there were in the crowd. I don’t think it will bode well for President Obama if the OWS protests gain strength between now and the election.

The third is a blog post by a former Harvard classmate, Peter Enns, in which he is analyzing the ongoing debate among Christians on what role, if any, evolution should have in the Christian understanding of the universe. I made some comments there, including this one:

There is an issue in one of the comments above that I struggle with every Sunday morning (in the pew, not the pulpit). It is the implicit and also explicit equation: The (Christian) Bible is the (only and unique) Word of God. And Word of God comes to mean something like “words directly uttered by God for which the human writers were merely intermediaries.” My current pastor put it this way: “God speaks to us through the Bible; we speak to God through prayer.” I find this odd, because it is not what parts of the Bible teach about prayer; clearly God speaks to humans through prayer in biblical stories. Personally, I see the Bible as “the word of God” in a different sense of the genitive: not composed by God, but about God. It is, in fact, a collection of rather widely disparate points of view about God, the unity of which is located in the Jewish-Christian community from which it sprang. Parts of the Bible teach that God is also revealed through nature and through the human conscience. So for me the very notion that “The Bible is the Word (i.e., comprehensively and uniquely divine text) of (i.e, from) God” is itself imposed from the outside onto a collection of texts that as a whole does not teach this doctrine.

I welcome your comments.

A Tale of Two Workers


In light of the debate raging about the unfairness of income inequality in America, I thought I’d share the stories of two men I know, one in the bottom fifth of income, and one in the top fifth.

Worker A is in the bottom quintile of income. He is an itinerant worker who is also a union member. Unable to find steady work in his field, he travels from town to town, living out of a suitcase and staying in motels and occasionally in his car between towns. He does not have a permanent residence, so he stays with his parents for a week over the Christmas holidays. By government and activist definitions, he is officially homeless.

Worker B is in the upper quintile of income. He is a small-business owner. He does not belong to a union. He works locally, but takes out-of town jobs when they suit him. He owns a nice home on 11 acres, and is about to pay off his mortgage. He has leisure time for participation in the arts, and helps support his local church.

Worker A is a college drop-out. He graduated from high school and went to the local community college for one quarter. Realizing he had no idea why he was there, he left and went to work as a laborer. Looking to develop a trade, he re-entered community college the following year in a electronics technician program. He also tried to enlist in the air force, where he had been promised electronics training, but was declared 4-F, a medical disability due to poor eyesight. After one year of vocational training he dropped out, because of the eye strain involved in doing the close work required by the profession. He lives paycheck to paycheck.

Worker B has a Bachelor of Arts, a Masters, and a doctorate. He has worked in several careers. His training has given him the flexibility to navigate the difficult economic climate. He has money in his retirement account and cash on hand.

Worker A’s father is an alcoholic from generations of alcoholics. Although the family managed to maintain a middle-class lifestyle, the emotional climate at home was less than optimal. One of worker A’s siblings developed a mental illness.

Worker B’s father is an engineer with a good state job. His father was unable to complete college, but due to years of independent study managed to pass the civil engineer’s license exam without a college degree. His mother works for a bank. Worker B’s parents instilled into him the value of hard work and education. Both of his siblings graduated from college.

Worker A married his high-school sweetheart when he was 20. But as soon as his work turned into permanent itineracy, the marriage fell apart. He is now divorced. He does some recreational drugs, some on a regular basis. This has at times jeopardized his already-tenuous employment.

Worker B is in a stable marriage and has two children. He doesn’t take any drugs, except by prescription and only when absolutely necessary. He once threw out a prescription for Xanax. He does enjoy a beer in the evening.

Through no fault of his own, worker A was born into disadvantage. He is a hard worker, but he has been unable to take advantage of the meager opportunities provided him. If anyone is deserving of government help, it’s him.

Through no merit of his own, worker B was born into advantage. His parents taught him to direct his own life and to pursue his dreams. They helped him through difficult times in his life. If anything, worker B has not maximized the advantages life has offered him. Looking at him now, one might conclude that he has coasted through life to prosperity, and could afford “to pay a little bit more.”

Now for “the rest of the story.” Worker B doesn’t really think he needs to help out worker A, and he’s even more certain that increasing his contribution to the federal treasury wouldn’t help worker A one bit. This is because worker B is worker A, 36 years later. Worker A realized that the path his life was on was a dead end, and might become literally so. Responding to the witness of a friend, he confirmed his childhood faith and became an adult Christian (if a lousy one). He quit his job as an itinerant nightclub musician, moved back in with his parents, got a manufacturing job, began saving money, and went back to square one at the community college. This time he applied himself, went on to a four-year school, and graduated.

While in college he married again, and as it turned out his wife found her dream profession as a registered nurse, and went on to earn a significant living. The worker continued to work at academics until he had earned three degrees, dabbled in several careers, and ultimately decided that the best thing he could do for his family was to support his wife in her career and find ways to give back to the community. And yes, we have a great life and great kids.

It’s all in how you tell the story, isn’t it?