The Sources of our National Divide

May 7, 2018

As a result of responsible data collection, reasoned analysis from trusted public thinkers, and some old fashioned common sense from those with a keen historical sense it is now clear what has driven and continues to drive our terrible political polarization and unrelenting social anger. Let’s take a look at the sources of our national divide.

One of the primary foundations of our national divide is income inequality. The renowned French economist Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century  and University of Michigan social scientist Ronald Inglehart use a wealth of data to verify a twist on the old adage- the rich are getting richer the while rest of us are standing still. In the United States the top ten percent of Americans now take home nearly half of the national income. For the rest of Americans wage growth is relatively stagnant. There have been some recent small gains, but most of the working classes are pretty much where they were ten years ago. The nation’s largest employer, Wal-Mart, pays most of its workers in the $ 8-12 range. The United States is now one of the leading countries in terms of income inequality.

With that kind of pay inequality it is no wonder that people are angry as they live paycheck to paycheck and have to scrape together money in case of a family emergency, even as simple as paying the deductible for a car accident. That anger is part of the answer for Donald Trump’s base of support and the joy over the tax cut which put some money, usually a modest amount, in the pockets of the “forgotten Americans.” But a few more bucks in a paycheck is not going to ease the anger or solve our national division. That same Trump tax bill actually increased the gap between the rich and the working class and will continue widening the gap in the coming years.

Then there is the 21st Century equivalent of the industrial revolution – the information revolution. As documented by Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs and Paul Krugman of the New York Times that smartphone or laptop may be a godsend to you and your family but it is part of a gigantic shift in how we work in this country.  Foreign trade is not putting people out of work, rather it is automation, all those mechanical robots on assembly lines, those cameras that have replaced toll takers, the swanky new garbage trucks that pick up the refuse without the help of two assistants, and computerized banking programs that have put tellers on the unemployment lines.  The list of automation destroying old line jobs is endless and will only grow in the coming years. It would be great if there was a public-private partnership to retrain workers in the new growth areas of work, but right now there is only anger and despair as the information revolution replaces the industrial revolution. The divide marches onward as more and more Americans blame somebody, anybody, usually a politician for their sad future. Of course the answer is in the willingness of people to adapt to a new age, but that is easier said than done.

Then there is the immigration/racial divide.  The history of this country has too often been defined by periods of anti-immigration nativism, racial animosity and plane old bigotry. From “No Irish Need Apply” to the Know-Nothing Party to the Neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville there has unfortunately been a strain of antipathy toward those who appear different and are not “American.” Trump used this antipathy for his benefit as he championed the wall, harshly criticized Muslim-Americans, and made clearly racially charged comments against African-Americans. He got the votes he wanted but in the process pushed this country into a national divide as too many of us forget how we became a great nation and how we often welcomed those “huddled masses longing to be free.” Sadly, it has become easier and easier to find a racial reason for our all that ails us, rather than see racial harmony as the key to building unity.

Finally, our national divide continues and even spreads because of our longing to return to the days of family, church and community of the 1950’s. Especially for those who were brought up in that era of calm and order, today with its open society of gay marriage, LGBT rights, recreational marijuana, pornography, violent video games, atheism, and a growing secular bent America is a place that is viewed as headed to hell in a hand basket unless we return to the old days when we didn’t have all these free thinking abominations. If we would only say Merry Christmas rather than Happy Holidays in order to accommodate those who make up a growing diverse nation, all would likely be better, at least that is the argument from  those who remember the Ozzie and Harriet 1950’s television show. But of course the 1950’s are not coming back – the family is in tatters, nearly 40% of young people are irreligious, and more and more people are holed up in their bunker homes afraid to become part of a vibrant community.

So what to do? Peace and unity are not around the corner. We will just have to struggle through this mess for a while, perhaps for another generation.  We just don’t have the political leaders or the political will to unify and compromise and find consensus. We very well could be headed to hell in a hand basket, but one thing to remember, this country, despite difficult times in the past, has always found a way to rebound from adversity. The American spirit may be in retreat but it is not dead and likely will re appear to bring us to a better day; it just won’t happen next year.

 

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2017 Was a Terrible Year

December 12, 2017

2017 was a terrible year, and no it was not only because Donald Trump took the oath of office on January 20th, although inaugurating Number 45 certainly didn’t help matters. 2017 was a terrible year because of devastating hurricanes and wildfires, senseless mass shootings, grotesque men preying upon women, a further descent into incompetent government, and the loss of some of my favorite celebrities – Mary Tyler Moore, Fats Domino, George “The Animal” Steele, Chuck Berry, and Batman ( Adam West, the real Batman).

2017 was a terrible year because in both the public and private sectors feelings of shame and personal embarrassment took a big hit as people we thought we knew and admired contributed to a decline in our collective culture. Lying became an acceptable form of behavior; cheating on all levels was commonplace; bullying of the innocent was a regular occurrence; anger and intolerance exploded; and the values that we as a nation took for granted began to be chipped away.

2017 was a terrible year because those who controlled the levers of public power saw a need to replace a process of governing based on moderation, consensus, and compromise with mean-spirited partisanship and unnecessary favors for the rich and well born. Rather than building on the past and reforming what didn’t quite work, the mantra was reject and repeal. Meanwhile the gap between the rich and the rest of us got wider and wider.

2017 was a terrible year because the world stood on the brink of war, agreements designed to improve life were ignored or violated, millions of people were displaced, and far too many people and their governments could not muster the courage to open their hearts and their wallets to those in desperate need. Not In My Backyard became more than a slogan, but a way of looking at the space outside our homes, and not caring one bit.

And 2017 was a terrible year because what progress may have been made to create an integrated society took a big hit as racial, ethnic and religous tensions escalated, people forgot who Jesus made friends with, phony patriotism took over sporting events, and those who pump billions into our economy doing work that we shun were told to get out.

I am a big believer in hope as a way of dealing with those people, events and conditions that make our great country less than what it can be. 2018 is right around the corner and one can only hope that it will be a better year as we bring that terrible 2017 to a close. Let’s keep hope alive.

 


USVI. and P.R.

September 22, 2017

My wife and I and our daughters have been to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico many times, always to enjoy the beautiful beaches, those delicious Pina Coladas and most importantly the wonderfully warm people. It looks like we will not be returning to these US territories any time soon- Irma and Maria have destroyed the American paradise.

Like typical American tourists we often spent our time at the centers of sun-bathing, dining and of course shopping. But in walking around St. Thomas, St. John and San Juan we made a point of going off the beaten path to walk around the neighborhoods that are less frequently visited.

What we saw in those walks is the stark economic reality of these islands. Our Caribbean possessions are more than tourist paradises, they are home to thousands of people who are just making a go of it. Cinder block shacks with tin roofs on dirt roads are commonplace, men and women sitting around idly because they can’t find a job,and kids begging for dollars in front of a J. Crew outlet are proof that all is not well on the islands.

Watching the reporting from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico confirm that it will take years to rebuild the islands. But because so much of these dots on the map are dependent on the tourist trade, the poverty endured by the people will only deepen. The spirit to make the USVI and Puerto Rico a tourist destination again is present among the people, but it will easily dissipate as aid falls off, unemployment skyrockets and international attention turns elsewhere. Already some of the interviews of hurricane victims bemoan the fact that the Americans only care about these possessions during the tourist season and view the people as put on the islands to care for their vacation needs.

It is truly sad to see the devastation of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico – two truly magical places on the planet. One can only hope that our government and the private sector do not forget these paradises and the wonderful people who live there, after all they are Americans like us.

 


Jesus and Joel

September 5, 2017

Ever since Pastor Joel Osteen of the Lakewood mega-church in Houston gave lame excuses for not opening the doors to flood victims ( the church was flooded and later the city never asked him) the Twitter universe has been up in an uproar. Osteen later did open up the doors but the critics continued their verbal onslaught.

Amidst all the fury over Osteen’s $10 million dollar mansion, his custom suits and his net worth estimated at $ 56 million, most of the Twitter attacks focused on his so-called gospel of prosperity, a bastardization of the real Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John that chronicled the life of Jesus and his message.

A close reading of Osteen’s message in his books and televised sermons show little reference to Jesus and the early Christians. That’s not by accident. Osteen and many of his evangelical preachers do not want to talk about Jesus who befriended the poor, who lambasted the arrogant rich, who asked his followers to give up everything and follow him, and who gave comfort to the tax collector, the prostitute, the sick, and the dying.

The evangelical movement and its front line pastors like Osteen, Falwell, Swaggert and Graham are really not followers of Christ, but enormously rich charlatans who promise a better life with more money if people would just give them their hard earned cash. The Jesus who lives a life of poverty and throws the money changers out of the temple does not fit in with the gospel of prosperity that claims to be Christian but is just the scam of false prophets.

Being a true follower of Jesus is really hard as it is based on sacrifice, support for the downtrodden and the outcast, and a denial of wealth, which is why being a true Christian is not a terribly attractive religious lifestyle. If Pastor Osteen and the other charlatans want to promote the gospel of prosperity that is their right, and if their followers want to help these guys live in the lap of luxury, that is their right as well.  But to call themselves Christians is the ultimate lie. Jesus would have come to the aid of the homeless in Houston and he would have told his followers to do the same. No lame excuses.

If anything good can come out of the Houston catastrophe maybe it will be a clearer understanding of how a real Christian behaves, not one whose net worth is $ 56 million and who lives in a $ 10 million mansion. Instead of trying to pry money out of his followers, Joel Osteen should read the real Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and acquaint himself with Jesus, the champion of the poor and the neglected.


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.