Thursday, February 25, 2010

A hill far away (Sunday Reflections for February 28, 2009)

Gobekli Tepe is in remote southeastern Turkey near the Syrian border. The name means “potbelly hill” and on it an archeological team led by German Klaus Schmidt has been slowly uncovering and studying one of the most startling discoveries of recent times. It’s been called a temple, or “temple complex,” but archeologists aren’t exactly sure what it is. What they do know is that it is old—really old. Older, in fact, than previous theories of human development said was even possible. Gobekli Tepe is, as a recent Newsweek article says,

a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn't just old, it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years ago—a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture—the first embers of civilization.

Schmidt’s team has unearthed circular floors of polished stone, benches, and T-shaped stone pillars weighing 7-10 tons and up to 17 feet tall. About half of the pillars are blank but on many are carved clearly identifiable animals native to the region. They feature larger animals like wild boar, cattle, lions, and leopards but also birds of prey like vultures as well as scorpions and spiders. There are few abstract images or human ones, yet one of the largest pictures has a headless human with a vulture poised over it. Schmidt’s theory is that this represents what is still known in Tibet as a “sky burial,” in which a corpse is exposed on a hilltop to be eaten by birds.

Gobekli Tepe is called a temple because we don’t know what else to call it. Archeologists have found no evidence anyone ever lived there. There are “no traces of daily life.” So people visited it and left. Yet clearly this was something very important, for as Schmidt says, “you don't move 10-ton stones for no reason,” especially in this very primitive period of human development.

The people of this time were hunter-gatherers. They had not domesticated animals, they did not practice agriculture, they did not write, they had no metal tools, they did not live in settlements but instead moved about as nomads. Gobekli Tepe is literally from the Stone Age. Yet many of these developments were not far off. Domestication of plants and animals occurred within 500-1000 years (writing, though, was still 6,000 years away).

That proximity has led to one new theory: that religion, or the organization of some kind of spiritual ritual, is what led to these other hallmarks of early civilization. Schmidt speculates that at its height, building Gobekli Tepe would have required hundreds of workers who would have needed to be fed and housed. Thus, at least a temporary village would have to have been established. Did that then become the seed for later permanent settlements in the region, as well as the social organization which they require? Gobekli Tepe is at the northern edge of what is known as the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of civilization. Was this its epicenter?

Did religion beget civilization? Perhaps, but if it did it wasn’t religion that many of us would recognize. For one thing, it likely had nothing to do with God, or gods. Consistent with other ancient shrines, like the French cave paintings at Lascaux, the concern seemed to be to create a transcendent connection with the natural world. To better accomplish their task, for example, hunters wanted to enter into the “mind” of gazelles, to experience “gazelleness,” to become one with the “spirit” of gazelle. Rituals to accomplish this then became the prelude to the hunt.

It’s not hard to see how concern with the “spirit of gazelle” evolved later into belief in a Gazelle Spirit, and a Bear Spirit, a Rain Spirit, and even a Human Spirit. And the concept of “Spirit,” of course, eventually becomes interchangeable with “god.” Still, our understanding of this early period of human development is very limited. It always will be, to some degree, because these early ancestors of ours experienced the world very differently than we do. It’s hard to get inside their heads, as one Smithsonian journalist visiting Gobekli Tepe found.

The gulf that separates us from Gobekli Tepe's builders is almost unimaginable. Indeed, though I stood among the looming megaliths eager to take in their meaning, they didn't speak to me. They were utterly foreign, placed there by people who saw the world in a way I will never comprehend.

The over 11,000 year distance between Gobekli Tepe and us seems enormous—likely the span of human civilization itself. Yet it is a drop in the bucket compared to the existence of life on earth (3.5 billion years), the age of the planet itself (4.5 billion years), or of the universe (13.5 billion years). To jump in such a relatively short time from these mysterious hand-carved stone pillars to the half-mile high Burj Khalifa in Dubai is truly amazing, especially when we realize how much of that development has happened in the past few centuries.

Yes, we’ve come a long way in a short time. And we seem to be moving ever faster, leaving us all feeling more than a little dizzy. Some would say we need to slow down. As primitive as they are to us, the stone monoliths of Gobekli Tepe took great effort to create and obviously meant a great deal to many people. The site seems to have been in use for centuries. The Burj Khalifa, on the other hand, was a huge project on a completely different scale yet the most common reaction has been, “Yes, but why?”

It is easy to take human civilization for granted. We shouldn’t. In reality it exists as a thin, fragile veneer on our world. God and the universe have taken a lot of time and effort to get us to this point. It is a wonderful achievement and a wonderful gift but also a great responsibility. We are stewards of our ancestors’ accomplishments.

The people of Gobekli Tepe took precious time out from the often overwhelming task of just staying alive to engage in a project of exploration and celebration. “Who are we and what is this world we live in?” they asked. Those questions never go away and answering them deserves the same level of commitment from us as these ancestors of ours gave millennia ago. As we go about our lives and as society wrestles with its challenges, we might ask: What projects of ours will leave future generations looking back at us with the same awe and wonder?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Staying in Iraq?

Tom Ricks has written extensively about Iraq. He is no idealogue and believes the US invasion was a huge mistake. That said, he is also a realist and believes that since we did invade we have a responsibility to ensure our leaving does not make things worse. In a New York Times op-ed piece today, Ricks expresses deep concern about the current timetable for withdrawal of American forces. He does not expect next month's Iraqi parliamentary elections to go well and fears significant civil strife in the months ahead. Iraq is still at the center of a Near East quagmire which could easily draw in multiple foreign powers if it begins to disintegrate politically. The effect on world oil markets is a nightmare Ricks thinks none of us want to even contemplate.

Bottomline? Come this summer, President Obama could be under considerable pressure to scale back the scheduled US military pull out. Ricks thinks he should heed that pressure and, in fact, the US should plan to leave 30-50,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely (given all the support personel needed, that's about the minimum necessary to have an effective force). He thinks Americans will understand this is a mess of our making and will give Obama the political leeway to go back on his promise to get the US out of Iraq. Is Ricks right? Do we really care enough anymore about Iraq to pay this price? Can we afford to?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Holy crap

The chorus is growing of those calling for major rethinking and restructuring of the American church. I’m not aware yet of people within denominational structures issuing such calls but they surely must be hearing and reading them. Those calls must be hard to hear, though, since the conclusion of many is that such denominational structures need to experience some of the most radical transformation and downsizing.

One recent essay comes from Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also the son of Loren Mead, an Episcopal priest and founder of the Alban Institute. For many years Alban has provided critical reflection on the deteriorating state of mainline Christianity in the US.

In “The Holy Crap Must Go” Walter Mead argues for a drastic downsizing of congregational and denominational facilities, structures and staffs. He parallels this with Luther and the reformers’ campaign against (among other things) the ridiculous accumulation of holy relics around the church and the absurd understanding of Christianity they facilitated.

Mead makes the now obvious case that churches simply cannot afford the parish buildings, professional clergy, seminaries and regional and national church bureaucracies that mainline Christianity (and others) have built up over the past century and more. The world has changed but churches have not kept up:

[T]hey are in trouble because they are trying to address the problems of the twenty first century with a business model and a set of tools that date from the middle of the twentieth. The mainline churches in particular are organized like General Motors was organized in the 1950s: they have cost structures and operating procedures that simply don’t work today.

This is an important observation and Mead is right that many/most institutions in society are struggling with these changes. In his brief description of a downsized church, however, he seems to be making a virtue of necessity. It just isn’t clear that after clearing away all the “crap” there will be much left to the church that will be of real interest to many people. Laity-led house churches will appeal to some (as they do now) but somehow it seems this is just acknowledging a trajectory already well established. “Church” will just be one of countless options people have providing opportunities for socializing, spirituality, service to others, and personal support. How well will church compete with the heath club, yoga class, 12-step meeting, or book group? How well does it now? It’s not hard to imagine future historians seeing this as the time that “the church” came to an end, even if Christianity somehow continues perhaps as a life-stance not unlike Buddhism.

Mark Christianson responds to Mead at his blog, Theological Oddments, that the church is having an “identity crisis, not [a] structural crisis.” I think he is right in putting the emphasis on identity but I am not sure the two are ultimately that different. I don’t think he or Mead realize how much of mainline Christianity’s identity is tied up in its structure, or to what degree that structure was created to support that identity. This is more obvious with Roman Catholicism but Protestantism is not nearly as different as it might present itself to be.

Christianson is commendably honest in admitting he doesn’t have an answer to the church identity question. In that admission, however, he points to why church leaders have been so reluctant to take it up: they don’t have an answer either. The result, as both Christianson and Mead realize, is a church that spins out endless programs, projects, experts and layers of administration, all to ensure that “things happen.” (When I questioned my bishop recently about a new synod congregational renewal program which has little if any prospect for success, he responded, “Well, we have to do something, don’t we?”) There is no basis for evaluating them or for promoting some while getting rid of others. Chaos results when the money runs out, as is the case now.

The reality is that over a century of critical biblical scholarship and theological reflection have chiseled away virtually all of the church’s pre-modern identity, and no modern or post-modern reconstruction has emerged as a convincing replacement. On top of this, dramatic cultural changes have eliminated or provided alternatives for most of the social needs met by religious communities, regardless of theology. The unspoken fear of church leaders is that if we get rid of the “holy crap,” there may not be anything left.

The bottom line is that Americans by the tens of millions have voted with their feet. Church is now something a majority of people simply don’t need or want, at least on any frequent basis. And the church cannot make the case, with real honesty or enthusiasm, why they should.

Yes, but what dust! (Sunday Reflections for February 21, 2010)

There’s a well known cliché that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Whether or not it is stranger, it is often more interesting because real events involve real people. And we do like to stop and stare.

Shortly after Thanksgiving the nation “stopped and stared” at a bizarre car accident: Tiger Woods hit a fire hydrant—coming out of his driveway. Later we learned his reckless haste in leaving home was because his wife was coming after him with a golf club. No, it wasn’t a club he had forgotten; it was one she intended to wrap around his head.

As the sordid story dribbled out in ensuing weeks, Woods experienced what Vanity Fair says was “one of the greatest recorded drops in popularity of any nonpolitical figure.” Woods went from being a gold-plated merchandise sponsor to being a corporate pariah. From being one the greatest sports heroes of our time, he went to being a schmuck.

While Tiger Woods fall was dramatic, it was that it was happening to him that was so astounding. Woods had created a stainless steel sports and public persona. His game was beyond compare and so was the value of his brand. His talent, his clothes, his watch, his car, his house, and—yes—his wife all proclaimed SUCCESS by any standard of popular American culture. Woods and his well-paid handlers together prevented any significant crack from appearing in that carefully crafted image—until that stupid fire hydrant got in the way. The crack that then appeared disgorged virtually a whole other person—the Tiger Woods who had been behind the curtain all along.

In the end it was the age-old clash of image versus reality, the compartmentalization of two different lives that inevitably merge at some certain point, whoever you are. He exhibited the same superhuman confidence off the golf course that he exhibited on it, apparently convinced he would never be caught despite the stupid sloppiness at the end—text messages, voice-mail messages. He deluded himself into thinking he could be something that he wasn’t: untouchable. The greatest feat of his career is that he managed to get away with it for so long in public, the bionic man instead of the human one who hit a fire hydrant. ("Tiger in the Rough" by Buzz Bissinger in Vanity Fair.)

Lent has traditionally been a time for self-examination. Typically this has meant looking for and looking at one’s character flaws, bad habits, wrongs needing to be righted, grudges needing to be let go of, persons needing to be forgiven. All-in all, certainly not a bad practice.

The Tiger Woods saga suggests what could be a valuable, contemporary recasting of Lenten discipline. Rather than asking, “What about me needs to be changed?” perhaps we need to ask, “Who am I, really?” In his startling and well-publicized comments, Britt Hume said Woods needed to come to Christianity to find redemption. Regardless whether, as Hume claimed, Christianity is the best place to “find redemption” it’s not obvious that is, in fact, Woods greatest need. Rather, it seems the first thing he needs is to figure out just who Tiger Woods really is.

In the gospel for Ash Wednesday, Jesus exhorts his followers to practice their piety in secret and not be like the scribes and Pharisees who “blow trumpets” to draw attention to their good deeds. Jesus labels them with one of his worst put-downs: hypocrites. Their public piety, he implies, hides a much more sordid reality in their private lives. Imagine if they played golf.

The gospel for the First Sunday in Lent tells the story, prior to the beginning of his public ministry, of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. In effect, Satan confronts him with the question we all struggle with and sometimes hear verbally: “Who do you think you are?” If you’re really the messiah, Satan says, then prove it. He assumes being the messiah is a defined thing. To each of the temptations, however, Jesus responds, “No, that’s not me. I know who I am and those things aren’t me.”

Who are you? In the Ash Wednesday liturgy when the ashes are applied, a verse from the ancient book of Genesis is recited: “Remember: you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This verbal slap-in-the-face is part of a reality check given by God to Adam and Eve after their misadventure with the serpent. However wonderful that fruit was, here’s the truth: You’re still going to die. Ouch.

Recently, however, those words have taken on a new meaning, perhaps more dignified and certainly more awesome. The use of ash is appropriate: scientists tell us we aren’t just any dust but carbon-based dust. That’s the stuff of life. And we can trace that dust to a pretty amazing origin. All this carbon-based stuff was created in the furnace-interior of the universe’s earliest stars and then scattered in all directions, across billions of light-years, in their dramatic explosive deaths. We are all literally made of star dust.

And think what’s been made of that dust! Those atoms have been arranged and re-arranged over countless evolutionary ages and eons—to us! Those stellar building blocks now form our skin and bones, muscles and organs, systems and fluids, and the most amazing entity perhaps in the entire universe, that grayish blob at out top we call “our brain.” It is that organ which has evolved over millions and billions of years to ask this question: Who am I?

It is the dizzying reality of modern life that we change our public identity almost as fast and as often as we change our clothes. We move in and out of so many roles in the course of our life it is little wonder we often find our selves in a daze wondering: Who am I—really?

The gospels imply that one reason Jesus can resist Satan’s temptations is because of a prior event. At his baptism by John, Jesus hears a voice declare, “You are my son.” So in our own baptisms it is announced that each of us is also a "child of God.” In the Psalms it says we are “little lower than the angels” and, as Jesus reminds his audience, that we are “gods.” And we should remember that in Genesis at the end of his creating God looks at everything he has made, including human beings, and declares it all to be “very good.”

We are amazing creatures. We have come to this point following an amazing evolutionary, cultural and historical journey. It is a journey which we are still on, beckoning us forward to an infinite future. The twists and turns of our individual lives can easily leave us dazed and confused: Where am I? What am I? Who am I? Lent is a gift of time to step back from all that and be reminded of our true and essential identity: We are dust but it is the dust of the universe, filled with the very breath of God.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

No "easy" button

Quote of the day:

Our economic future is more and more a product of the political choices we make, and those are increasingly difficult. We have no good choices. We are left with choosing the best of bad options. Some countries, like Greece, are now down to choices that are either dire or disastrous. There is no “easy” button.

From "Between Dire and Disastrous" by John Mauldin on Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture. The letter is somewhat long but a clear and succinct description of the Greek economic conundrum and its consequences for the whole developed world. In brief: no country is very far from being the next Greece.

Friday, February 12, 2010

You also go into the vineyard (Sunday Reflections for February 14, 2010)

He went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.”' He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.” (Matthew 20)

I’m old enough to have lived through a few recessions. I’m also old enough to have parents who lived through the Great Depression. The current economic downturn is being viewed as somewhere in between these categories, hence its designation as the “Great Recession.”

The cover story of the current issue of The Atlantic is a disturbing report on the long-term effects of this recession’s worst consequence: our persistently high unemployment. The article summarizes the extensive body of research on the experience of unemployment. This includes unemployment’s consequences years after the experience, for individuals, communities and society.

We all recognize the emotional stress of being out of work. Research shows, however, that it is probably more devastating than we imagine.

Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick, in the U.K., and a pioneer in the field of happiness studies, says no other circumstance produces a larger decline in mental health and well-being than being involuntarily out of work for six months or more. It is the worst thing that can happen, he says, equivalent to the death of a spouse, and “a kind of bereavement” in its own right. Only a small fraction of the decline can be tied directly to losing a paycheck, Oswald says; most of it appears to be the result of a tarnished identity and a loss of self-worth. Unemployment leaves psychological scars that remain even after work is found again, and, because the happiness of husbands and the happiness of wives are usually closely related, the misery spreads throughout the home.

Persons unemployed early in their adult lives are more prone to heavy drinking and depression years later. The lifetime earnings levels of young people who enter the work force during times of recession are permanently reduced compared to those who begin working in economically healthy time. And the significantly higher unemployment rate of men versus women is disruptive to both families and communities.

The weight of this recession has fallen most heavily upon men, who’ve suffered roughly three-quarters of the 8 million job losses since the beginning of 2008. Male-dominated industries (construction, finance, manufacturing) have been particularly hard-hit, while sectors that disproportionately employ women (education, health care) have held up relatively well…. At the time of this writing, it looks possible that within the next few months, for the first time in U.S. history, women will hold a majority of the country’s jobs.

Higher unemployment rates for men contribute significantly to violence, crime and drug abuse. Neighborhoods and communities that had seen real progress in these areas are now watching this progress reversed. Domestic violence rates are increasing. Out-of-wedlock births are increasing while marriage rates are declining.

Compounding the effects of this recession is that for most people it is exacerbating downward economic trends underway for at least a decade.

In a Pew survey in the spring of 2008, more than half of all respondents said that over the past five years, they either hadn’t moved forward in life or had actually fallen backward, the most downbeat assessment that either Pew or Gallup has ever recorded…. Median household income in 2008 was the lowest since 1997, adjusting for inflation.

The article’s author concludes that, while still mostly unseen at this point, the length and severity of this recession is causing serious disruption to personal lives and communities across the country. These consequences will be broad and deep.

We are living through a slow-motion social catastrophe, one that could stain our culture and weaken our nation for many, many years to come. We have a civic—and indeed a moral—responsibility to do everything in our power to stop it now, before it gets even worse.

There is wide acceptance that this recession is “different.” We are not just experiencing a hiccup in the business cycle but a serious breakdown in our economic engine. The recovery will likely be long, slow and uneven. Many communities and industries simply will not come back to their previous conditions.

This Great Recession is also raising questions about some of our economic realities and assumptions. The devastated construction and finance industries grew—with government collusion—to compensate for stagnating incomes and the loss of previously well-paying manufacturing jobs. Rather than face these problems directly, there is yet strong temptation to re-inflate these essentially nonproductive “bubbles.” In another case of economic denial and fantasy, government at all levels have been running ever-increasing deficits and accumulating enormous unfunded employee benefit obligations. None of this is going to be fixed quickly or easily.

But there are even more fundamental questions being asked. Why are so many communities in near-permanent states of depression? Why are economic inequalities growing? Why are we unable to have economic prosperity that doesn’t endanger the ecological health of the planet? Why are so many businesses focused on quarterly profits rather than long-term growth and development? Why can we not provide affordable health care to all our citizens? Why are there such enormous disparities in education? Why is our political process paralyzed when it comes to dealing with these problems?

The last question may be the most telling. The answer to it is that dramatic changes in our culture and indeed the world have resulted in new challenges for which there are no easy answers or consensus. Globalization is improving the standard of living for millions of previously impoverished people. At the same time, however, it is lowering that standard for millions of previously well-off people, as well as replicating much of the social chaos and ecological damage previously experienced in the developed world.

But the real challenge is even more fundamental. Technological innovation is creating such high levels of efficiency that in many areas of the economy, human labor is nearly superfluous. Bluntly, we are running out of things for people to do. This may be more recognized in Great Britain where what we call being “laid-off,” they call being “made redundant.” Yet surely it is now an accepted human right that no one can be considered “redundant.”

The challenge for us as a society is to reimagine what constitutes valuable work. There is no end to useful things people could be doing. For those things to constitute gainful employment, however, the benefits of economic efficiency have to be redistributed. Rather than making a relatively few investors fabulously wealthy, rather than constantly building and shrinking enormous corporate and government bureaucracies, rather than building ever-more houses and shopping malls, rather than manufacturing and marketing evermore pointless toys and gadgets—perhaps we need to be asking some really basic questions: What makes us happy? What makes for a good society? What do we want our world to look like?

For the truth is (but which we are too startled to realize) the human race is on the verge of making those questions, about which ancient people only dreamed, ones we can actually answer and do something about. In other words, as a species we are rapidly entering a whole new world which is asking of us a very different question than we faced before: Now that we don’t have to work to stay alive, what do we want to do that make us happy? Our problem, as so often happens, is that having finally gotten what we dreamed of for so long, we aren’t sure now what to do with it. Somehow, though, I think that’s a good problem to have and in solving will make us better people.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

But what if they're wrong?

Right now the markets are doing their best yo-yo imitation again, this time in response to the PIIGS debt crisis (PIIGS=Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain. Eastern Europe and the Baltic states also have some serious financial problems. Many don’t think the UK is in all that great shape, either. And then, of course, there’s Dubai. Oh, and did I mention Turkey?) The immediate concern is Greece, which is running an enormous deficit and may soon be unable to finance its debt in the bond markets, thus risking a default. Greece’s economy is relatively small but everyone’s fear these days is of contagion, a chain reaction. One default will cause interest rates to spike for all the other unhealthy countries, risking their defaults. Pretty soon a third of the EU is insolvent, overly exposed banks are tottering, and it’s fall 2008 all over again.

US markets are way up today (though still bouncing around quite a bit) on the news that the EU has agreed to “help out” Greece. Is this a bailout? Details will be worked out in coming days, the new EU economic affairs commissioner says. And the devil will certainly be in the details. German tax payers are not excited about paying for Greece’s fiscal irresponsibility—but the Greeks aren’t either, apparently. The government has only just begun reigning in spending and already there are strikes with many more promised to come. And if Greece is bailed out, who else will be coming to Strasbourg (EU headquarters) hat-in-hand?

By why should we care about Greece, or the PIIGS, or even Europe? Near the end of his life, Otto von Bismarck is reported to have said that the next Great War would begin over “some damn fool thing in the Balkans.” In 1914, of course, that is exactly what happened. Today’s economic interconnectedness is not unlike the diplomatic alliances which quickly pulled most of the world into war. The lack of real understanding of the consequences of those connections is also similar. What would happen if Greece defaulted on its debt (or Portugal or Spain or Dubai)? No one really knows, and for that reason no one wants to try it and find out.

The United States remains the world’s single largest economy but it has obviously been rocked on its heels. There is some awareness by the average worker/voter that these global imbalances are playing a role in our domestic economic problems. For a generation now we have known that our dependence on foreign oil is a problem. For nearly as long we have watched with alarm the movement of manufacturing overseas to countries with much lower labor costs. With the economic reversals of the current recession, real wages and living standards have been flat for the past decade. Some would argue they are actually in decline.

On the positive side China and India, the two previously impoverished and largest nations on earth, are booming. Of course, the resulting prosperity is being very unevenly distributed, and they are both experiencing all the other complications of modern industrial economies, including urban congestion, pollution, crime, rampant political corruption, and social disruptions of all kinds. Brazil, Vietnam and other Third World countries are having similar experiences. And they all view with suspicion the developed First World’s sudden concern with global warming and greenhouse gases—which the developing countries are all now producing in abundance.

The real issue, however, is much bigger than Greece, or the PIIGS, or even the EU, for that matter. We are all in a global economy now and no one really knows what that means. We are learning as we go along, and that’s not a particularly comforting realization. We know there are major global economic imbalances and that they are major problems. Two disturbing things about that reality are 1) the economic and political experts have no idea how to right those imbalances and 2) those imbalances are getting worse. This is not a good thing.

*    *    *

The official story of both the previous Bush and current Obama administrations is that, through their daring and aggressive actions, the country was pulled bank from the brink of economic catastrophe. Now we must simply wait for the admittedly painfully slow recovery, and then our economic ship will be righted and sail along happily once again. They may be right. There are also reasons to worry that they are partially, or even very, wrong.

What’s of concern now is not just disagreement on the cause of this “Great Recession” but even what really happened in 2008. A helpful explanation I read recently is that government officials see the events of 2008 as essentially a “panic,” an economic psychological event. What’s necessary then is to restore confidence, calm the markets, and get everyone to start investing, hiring, and spending as before.

There is another unofficial view, however, that the situation is more serious—perhaps much more serious. For those who espouse this position, 2008 was not simply a panic but a real economic crisis, exposing significant problems which need to be dealt with now if we are to avoid similar or worse crises in the future.

One way to summarize the crisis viewpoint is that the economy is being seriously distorted by attempts to patch over the consequences of the global economic imbalances. This is what is causing the “bubbles,” the artificial markets of recent years that have inflated and then disastrously blown up, e.g. the housing bubble most recently and the tech bubble before that. Bubbles give the illusion of growth and prosperity for awhile, and then they pop. In the aftermath, the economy as a whole has moved little, if at all, but with significant resulting chaos and disruption. The housing excesses (in both quantity and quality) in the 2000s were just as economically pointless and unproductive as the tulip bulbs of 17th century Holland.

The concern is that the 2008 TARP bailouts and 2009 deficit-financed stimulus have (again) swept our economic problems under the rug. The current run-up in the stock market is at least a mini-bubble, the result of the government pumping billions of dollars into the economy with nowhere for it to go. While everyone acknowledges too many houses were built at too high prices, we are again hoping for prices to rise and home construction to rebound. Consumer wages and assets have fallen yet we are again hoping they will start borrowing and spending. We just need to get the economic juggler juggling again (paying no attention to those marbles rolling around the floor) and everything will be fine.

The causes of the 2008 economic convulsion will be analyzed for years to come—which is not particularly comforting to realize. To this day there is no consensus among economists or historians on either the cause of the Great Depression eighty years ago, or on what finally pulled the world out of it. The conventional answer to the latter, a world war, is also hardly reassuring (but that, too, is disputed).

What was catastrophically unique about the housing bubble was that it was fueled by an enormous growth of credit. Most of that debt has been transferred to the federal deficit or is still hidden on the books of the TBTF banks via fantasy asset valuations. The story is much the same across Europe, especially in the PIIGS and the UK. The strategy seems to be to play an international high-stakes shell game: keep shuffling the bazillions of dollars of global debt around so no one will notice. In the meantime, wait for tax revenues and asset prices to rebound and—poof!—the debt will disappear.

Needless to say, there is a lot of doubt this scheme is going to work. Or the strong suspicion is that it will only work by the creation of yet another bubble, with the same disastrous results. This strategy is derisively described as “kicking the can down the road.” Of course there is the very real possibility that the can will be run over and flattened before it gets to its “destination,” as Greece’s problems are rudely reminding everyone.

Since this scheme requires the rebuilding of “confidence,” Western leaders are unanimously insisting that the corner has been turned and recovery is underway, however slowly. None will publicly express doubt that the juggler can keep all his balls in the air. Joining them in this phalanx of optimism are, of course, the world’s bankers and financiers (including, very likely, your own investment advisor). Their survival depends on them being right.

But what if they’re wrong? Given they’re huge miss in not anticipating the most recent economic meltdown, that has to be recognized as at least a possibility. And there is ample reason to suspect it is much more than just a possibility. What’s scary, though, is that it’s not at all clear what the alternative strategy should be.

Most of those who say we are in the midst of a serious economic crisis believe we need to stop playing financial games and swallow the necessarily painful medicine. But then what? Big banks are allowed to fail, inept businesses go bankrupt, prices fall even further, government shrinks, wages fall, unemployment rises—and then where are we? The assumption is, that like a diving plane, the economy will eventually resuming flying at a new, though lower level. But what if the economic pilots can’t pull the nose up in time?

Another possibility, it seems, has to be at least considered: namely, that there is no answer. Is it possible that our long-running, free market capitalist system has finally run its course? It may not just be irony that within less than a generation of the demise of communism, its rival system, capitalism finds itself on the ropes. Perhaps the longer view of history will be that something fundamental about industrial society came unraveled at the turn of the millennium.

This doesn’t mean we are necessarily on the verge of some economic cataclysm or dystopian future. It could be the world is on the verge of something new and different—and better. Wrenching global economic disparities and ecological deterioration certainly argue that a better system could well be awaiting discovery. Getting there, however, as history and present events indicate, will likely involve significant trauma and upheaval. In any case, it may well be time to stop patching the old wineskin and instead start looking for a new one.

Update: Baseline Scenario has a comprehensive summary of its revised global economic forecast, which corresponds to many of the issues I address above. Its final point: 22) We are steadily becoming more vulnerable to economic disaster on an epic scale.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Nothing like a good story (Sunday Reflections for February 7, 2010)

Are you a rational person? Most people would answer “Yes, of course,” but there is a growing body of scientific evidence that we use our emotional faculties far more often than we are aware. In other words, we behave and make choices “irrationally” a lot more than we think we do. And recently this has prompted questions about what this implies for politics.

In a study during the 2004 presidential campaign, a group of men—half Republican and half Democrat—were given MRI brain scans while assessing statements by George Bush and John Kerry in which they clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, these men jumped on the statements of the candidate of the opposing party while looking past their own candidates’ bloopers. What the MRI showed, however, was that while doing so the men relied almost entirely on parts of the brain associated with processing emotion, conflict resolution, and making moral judgments. The brain area responsible for logical reasoning, however, was quiet as a church mouse.

Based on such evidence, politicians are being advised not to rely so much on information and statistics when making their case for laws or programs. It just doesn’t work; people aren’t persuaded. Instead, they’re either put to sleep or they get angry because they feel they’re being patronized and talked down to. The political struggles over health care and global warming are recent cases where this has happened.

Rather than lots of data, researchers say that what a politician really needs is a good story. In other words, they need to put their case in the form of a narrative involving people’s lives. People need to be able to emotionally engage in an issue and imagine how it involves them personally.

Reading about this recently made me think of the dilemma of contemporary Christianity. For the past two hundred years, churches have been struggling with both the growth of scientific knowledge and scholarly challenges to Christian teachings and worldview. Fundamentalist churches have simply rejected most of this and insisted nothing about Christian beliefs and teachings has really changed. More moderate churches, on the other hand, have tried to adjust to the modern world and work these discoveries into their theology and faith life.

It hasn’t worked very well, however, and the biggest puzzle has been figuring out what to do with the Bible. The problems with the Bible (as I’ve written about before) are pretty obvious, starting with the simple fact that it’s really, really old. It’s written in languages no one speaks anymore and comes out of cultures that disappeared long ago. As a result, it’s often difficult for people today to figure out what the heck it’s trying to say.

The other challenge has been the growing realization that the Bible is essentially non-historical. In other words, many if not most of the events and people it talks about didn’t happen or exist the way the Bible describes them. And in saying that, scholars tell us that makes the Bible fit in with all the other literature of the ancient world—it’s exactly what we should expect. To tell what actually happened or what someone actually said simply wasn’t the reason people wrote these books.

From before recorded history, people have told stories. Sometimes they were based on actual people and events and sometimes not. Whether they were or weren’t had nothing to do with the quality of the story. Nor did it stop people from changing or adapting stories for new circumstances or to use them in new places. One characteristic of a good story was that it was very flexible. Similar ancient stories, including biblical ones, can be found in many different cultures and told in ways that fit those cultures. And in most cases, there’s no way to tell where the original story began (if there even was such a thing).

Today, then, it’s not a surprise that most biblical stories have gotten pretty creaky, if not forgotten altogether. First, it’s a challenge for most people just to find them since by modern standards the Bible is so disorganized and loaded with “filler.” Then if they do find them, the stories as they’re originally told are often kind of bizarre, convoluted, and “foreign.” There is an appealing kernel in there somewhere but it’s buried in its long dead and ancient setting.

Recognizing the value of these stories, modern culture has responded predictably by trying to adapt many of them to contemporary life. This happens through movies, books, plays, TV, and all the other places story telling goes on. Often these stories don’t look like biblical stories because characters, settings and even plot lines have changed, yet the biblical and spiritual messages are still there.

Shakespeare was one of the first to integrate Christian themes into popular, non-biblical stories. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has a Christian holiday as its setting, and Christian themes of charity and personal redemption, yet uses no biblical characters, only contemporary fictional ones—including ghosts! The 1950s sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still has a visitor from another world come to Earth to warn its people about the consequences of their self-destructive behavior. Indeed books and movies in the sci-fi/fantasy genre are often filled with spiritual and theological themes. Star Wars, the Tolkien Hobbit adventure stories, and just now Avatar have been popular block-buster examples.

And yet curiously churches have been mostly suspicious if not hostile to such efforts. They have been more approving of actual biblical adaptations. Yet even these they realize alter significantly the biblical story, as all historical re-enactments do—and often not for the better. And so you get The Ten Commandments, which (at least at the time) was highly entertaining but was certainly biblically and theologically rather dubious. Or there is The Passion of the Christ, which while moving probably told more about the wounded psyche of Mel Gibson than it did about the reality or theological meaning of Jesus’ death. (One doctor said that anyone who bled as much as Jesus did in the movie would have died long before he got to the cross.)

The result, it seems, is a church stumbling along trying to keep its stories frozen in the past while dismissing contemporary stories that are meaningful and moving for people today. Moderate and liberal churches then fall back on: 1) esoteric theology which to most people is as opaque as atomic physics, 2) the social benefits of congregational life which most people now find in other places or 3) appeals for political and social justice. This latter may be fine and even biblical but it runs into the same problem as those statistics-quoting politicians above. Without a good story it tends to put people to sleep or just really tick them off.

In 1960, when introducing John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson made this comparison: In classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, "How well he spoke" but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, they said, "Let us march." Eloquence and reason certainly have value but ultimately the goal is to motivate people to act with compassion and, when necessary, fight against evil. For the church to recover its relevance in the world it must have more than good ideas. It must also have good stories which point people in the right direction and then move them to say, “Let us march.”

Thursday, February 04, 2010

People of State of New York v. Bank of America

As global markets hit a big banana peel today, not all the financial excitement in the Big Apple was on Wall Street. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo filed suit against Ken Lewis, former CEO of Bank of America, in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. Former B of A CFO Joe Price was also named in the suit.

In brief, Lewis is accused of defrauding Bank of America investors and the federal government in the purchase of Merrill Lynch in the fall of 2008 and in its applications for TARP bailout money. This summary gets to the heart of the matter:

Bank of America agreed to buy Merrill on Sept. 15 after just 25 hours of due diligence, according to the suit. When the board of directors met that day to approve the transaction, they thought they were going to buy Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., the suit says.

Cuomo said Bank of America scheduled a shareholder vote to approve its plan to buy Merrill on Dec. 5, 2008. By that date, Merrill incurred losses of more than $16 billion, Cuomo said. Bank of America’s management, including Lewis and Price, knew of the losses and knew that more were coming, Cuomo said.

After the merger was approved, Lewis told federal regulators the bank couldn’t complete the deal without a taxpayer bailout because of accelerated losses from Merrill, Cuomo said. However, between the time the shareholders approved the deal and the time Lewis sought the bailout, Merrill’s losses only increased by $1.4 billion, Cuomo said.

Reading stories like this, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry: “When the board of directors met that day to approve the transaction, they thought they were going to buy Lehman Brothers”! A day of “due diligence” to buy one of the biggest banks in the country as it was going into financial free-fall!? But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The question everyone is asking is the role of the Treasury and Federal Reserve in orchestrating this takeover. Even as Lewis’ counsel was dismissing the law suit as “totally without merit,” reports were circulating that the defense would subpoena both former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke to testify. And who knows—maybe Tim Geithner will make a cameo appearance. We may yet find out what was going on in those late night phone calls between New York and Washington in the midst of the global financial meltdown. And who knows: even justice may yet be done.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The enemy is at home

Watch and think about this short and provactive speech by an Iraq veteran on the real reasons we are (still) there and the tragedy that "poor and working people from this country and sent to kill poor and working people in another country to make the rich richer. His conclusion: "the real enemy is at home." It is so easy to forget the profit motive for war but soldiers see it like this young man and another vet returned from Afghanistan I just spoke with. And, of course, Eisenhower knew and warned us about it. Be sure to catch the James Madison quote at the end. (Hat tip Mish.)