Paul Ryan – Atlas Shrugged or the Sermon on the Mount?

March 27, 2017

Paul Ryan went to St. Mary’s Catholic School in Janesville, Wisconsin. As a fellow Wisconsin Catholic who attended St. John de Nepomuc School in Milwaukee, I remember the nuns telling me about Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus kicking out the money-changers from the temple and Jesus often associating with the poorest of the poor. I am proud to say that those lessons about Jesus have stuck with me even today.

Somewhere along the line Paul Ryan forgot the lessons of the Gospels that I learned in Catholic school. It appears that while a college student at Miami of Ohio University Ryan became interested in the darlings of ultra-right capitalism – Freidrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and the novelist Ayn Rand. It was Rand, a Russian-American atheist who wrote Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, that apparently Ryan read and re-read until her ideas, grounded in cynical selfishness, condemnation for those who are poor, and a fanatical desire to rid government from redistributing wealth to those who are on the dole, filled his soul.

In his public image Ryan appears to be a nice guy – earnest, family-oriented, honest and a practicing Catholic. So how does someone who grew up Catholic embrace an atheist who is as far away from the teaching of Jesus as earth is from the moon? Maybe the nuns and priests at St. Mary’s didn’t teach about the Jesus that I know; maybe Ryan came under the influence of one of those sinister professors who brainwash students; or just maybe he has convinced himself that it is impossible for people to be poor through no fault of their own.

As a US member of Congress and now the Speaker of the House Ryan must have come in contact with the sick, the unemployed, the aged, the homeless, the hungry, in short those people Ayn Rand hated because they were on the dole. But rather than leading with compassion Ryan carved together a health bill that would strip the poor (that indelible number, 24 million), of an opportunity to live a better life, a healthy life.

In the wake of the Republican health care bill debacle more and more people are asking what Ryan has against the poor and why he was in such a hurry to redistribute tax benefits from the poor to the wealthy though the legislation? I can’t answer that question, other than say that Ryan should sit down soon and read the Gospels, especially Mathew 5-7 where Jesus says “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,”  Ryan might benefit also from Jesus saying, ” Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” I’ll take Jesus over Ayn Rand any day.

Politics Go

July 14, 2016

If I had any tech savvy or marketing skills I would try and develop an app to mimic the widely popular Pokemon Go, which is getting people out on the streets chasing those odd looking figures down alleyways and into buildings. But my app would be called Politics Go and would take the players on a trip across this country to find real Americans, real Americans who are struggling with serious economic, social and personal challenges that the political system is either ignoring or refuses to face.

The Politics Go app would take players to search for a veteran of our two recent wars who are suffering from post traumatic syndrome and contemplating suicide because there is little help available from the Veterans Administration.

The Politics Go app would take players to find the 43 million people mired in poverty in urban and rural areas in what is claimed to be the richest country in the world.

The Politics Go app would take players to meet those honorable police officers who risk their lives everyday to bring safety and order to a divided society.

The Politics Go app would take players to the mansions of the rich and well born who hide their wealth offshore to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

The Politics Go app would take players to a gun shop to purchase an AR-15 long rifle that has no purpose other than to kill people, a lot of people.

The Politics Go app would take players to Washington D.C., the center of our democracy, to find just one statesman or stateswoman willing to work with those they disagree with in order to fix our decaying country.

Sadly, my Politics Go app would be rejected as not interesting or exciting. The new world of augmented reality is about fun not about finding out about American reality. It would be great to see Americans walking the streets of this country trying to find veterans, poor people, police officers, tax dodgers, gun fanatics and failed politicians but a Politics Go app just wouldn’t sell; it would be too depressing.

The 47%

May 24, 2016

There are a laundry list of reasons why Americans are angry, disillusioned or filled with anxiety these days. For some they feel the country is headed in the wrong direction or is directionless, for others they do not trust President Obama, others are concerned about the impact of diversity on the white population, and others just see Washington as broken and a partisan mess.

Let me add another reason to this laundry list of national depression. In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Neal Gabler, an award winning writer, talked about the travails of the middle class. In his piece he referenced a yearly survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board that monitors American consumers. One of the questions asked was how the respondents would likely pay for a $ 400 emergency. The answer from 47% was that they would cover the $ 400 by borrowing the money, selling possessions or they would not be able to come up with the cash. Let me say that again, 47% of American consumers polled said that they could not come up with $ 400 for an emergency.

Now these Americans without the $ 400 are likely a cross section of our country – some may be receiving assistance, some are seniors on a fixed income, some are making minimum wage and some are folks from what used to be the solid middle class. (  I suspect a goodly number of the respondents were from what is generally described as the middle class since we are talking about a huge number- 47% of those who answered the questionnaire).

You want to know why people are angry and in a foul mood toward political and economic elites, the lack of $ 400 to cover an emergency is certainly at the top of the list. Income inequality is a fancy term used by economists to describe that in our economy there are winners and losers, but in the last twenty years, especially since the Great Recession, the number of losers has exploded and the middle class is in tatters.

Sadly, there is no short term solution to the $ 400 dilemma of the 47% – a comprehensive minimum wage increase is years away and is a band aid; significant pay jumps  for workers are not in the cards, only incremental cost of living bonuses; corporations are either sitting on trillions in cash and doing little with it or are shipping it offshore to avoid government-sponsored distribution programs; and any talk of freebies, whether college tuition, universal health care, parental leave or day care, are dismissed as socialistic and contributing to a furthering of that gaping hole in the national debt.

So the short and long term condition of the middle class is an acceptance of economic and financial struggle as a fact of life and a continued erosion of the American dream.What’s astounding is that at first glance $ 400 is really not a lot of money, but tell that to the 47% of American consumers.

The Best Manners in Boston

December 22, 2008

The people of Boston have a well-deserved reputation as aloof, unfriendly and too often ornery; they are short on their please and thank you and when it comes to driving courtesy, they are are downright miserable. But a few days ago I found the center of good manners in Boston, in a most unexpected place.

My wife and I, along with members of our church, volunteer once a month at the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter, where we serve the evening meal. This month the meal was a special Christmas feast of ham, carrots and potatoes along with some sweets. We served over 300 men in one hour, men who are not only down on their luck but often suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, various emotional and psychological disorders and of course poverty.

I can say without reservation that well over 75% of these guys went through the line, got their meal and immediately said either “Thank you,” “God Bless You”, “I Appreciate Your Kindness”, “This is Just Wonderful” or simply “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year”. Some even sang Christmas carols and laughed their way through the line. 

 On the way home the church members talked about the outpouring of appreciation from these homeless men and compared it to the silence and rudeness that they face everyday in their jobs; too often they see the unmannered Bostonians. Most were astounded that these men, who have next to nothing and will sleep on a cot or worse yet in a doorway, had the good sense and good upbringing to offer words of thanks for an act of kindness.

It was uplifting to serve these homeless men and to see that despite their misfortune, they haven’t forgotten to say thank you. We Bostonians can all learn a lesson in manners and gratitude from the homeless men at the Pine Street Inn.

Tis the Season To Be Hungry

November 25, 2008

For most of us this is the time of year when we Americans put on the pounds, especially on Turkey Day and all those days after when there seems to be an endless supply of turkey leftovers. But for an increasing number of people in this country eating to excess is not the problem, rather finding a sufficient supply of affordable food is the challenge. Amidst all the plenty in this land of unbelieveable wealth there is a growing hunger crisis.

Here in Massachusetts, which by most accounts is one of the wealthiest states in the Union , to be specific 4th in terms of per capita personal income, a recent study done by, a local non-profit called Project Bread found that from 2004-2006 the percentage of hungry families increased from6.2% to 8.1%; that translates into over 200,000 families that are hungry on a regular basis and 520,000 individuals who have difficulty putting food on the table. Since these figures are about two years old, add in the economic meltdown, unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcies and the escalating price of food products and the only conclusion that can be reached is that the situation is even worse now.

Reports from all over Massachusetts and indeed the entire country point to the rapid increase in hunger and greater demands made on food banks, food pantries and religious or community organizations that provide food to the needy. Some of these sources of food for the hungry are facing their own problems as their shelves become empty and contributions dwindle. So in this holiday season the hungry face a double whammy – not only are they hungry, but the people who they have depended on for food assistance are in trouble.

The hunger crisis in this country is compounded by the fact that there are serious health dangers that accompany food shortages for the poor. Type II diabetes, hypertension, and susceptibility to diseases and illness are but some of the side effects of hunger. There is also evidence about the connection between hunger and learning as children who are without sufficient food find it difficult to learn and perform poorly in the classroom setting. There is even a link between hunger and obesity as the needy purchase cheap but high caloric content food with their meager resources and end up facing another health issue. Childhood obesity among the poor is at an all-time high.

Hunger should not be a issue in Massachusetts or anywhere in this country. But what has happened in recent years is that those Americans at the lower levels of our economy saw their incomes and their opportunities barely creep upward leaving them vulnerable when times got tough. There is still cash aplenty out there in the wallets of those who benefited from the golden years. What needs to happen this holiday season is for those with so much have to spread the wealth, this time down the income ladder. Think of it as giving thanks for all those years of living well.

The Homeless Take Another Hit

October 9, 2008

One of the less reported consequences of the financial meltdown is the impact of housing foreclosures on those who live on the very edges of the economy. As owners of multiple dwellings walk away from their properties and hand over ownership to the banks, what they leave behind are poor people with no place to go. The result is a glaring spike in homelessness, just at the beginning of the cold season in many parts of this country.

In my state of Massachusetts data from the Department of Transitional Assistance shows that the numbers of individuals and families are increasing dramatically with no expectation that this crisis will abate. What is even more disturbing is that for the last few years both the Federal Government and individual states have been making some visible progress in taking people off the streets and into permanent housing. To its credit the Bush administration has aggressively addressed the homelessness issue with the formation of the Interagency Council on Homelessness led by one of the most outspoken advocates for the poor, Philip Mangano. Many states have followed suit with new programs to build housing complexes and even stand alone homes that provide individuals and families with the safety, security and dignity that goes with having a roof over one’s head.

But all of that hard work by the government, public and private money, and rising hopes for a better life are in real jeopardy of being destroyed as rental properties are taken off the market and the newly homeless come knocking at the door of underfunded shelters. With giving by generous Americans certain to fall off in the coming months and years and the foreclusre crisis far from over, the dream of ending homelessness is becoming a pipe dream.

It is important to point out that too often Americans view the homeless as those staggering, ragtag panhandlers that populate the streets of major urban centers. While the homeless population does include these types ( many of whom suffer from serious mental and physical disabilities, and of course alcohol and drug abuse), the largest group of homeless are the one parent families, usually a single mother whose husband has abandoned them, leaving her with the children he has fathered. In many respects the face of homelessness in America is a young child with not much of a future.

No one should be homeless in a country as rich as the United States, even though these are dark days. But for those Americans with no home and no certainty about permanent housing, the days are even darker. Sadly, because the homeless live on the margins and receive scant public attention or sympathy, the prospect of a major public or private response to this crisis is slim. What should be viewed as a desperate situation that brings anger and action in our country of plenty will just generate a collective apathetic shrug.