Saturday, March 27, 2010

A world of stories (Sunday Reflections for March 28, 2010)

I vacationed this week in Santa Fe NM and one of its greatest assets is its 100+ art galleries. It is said to be the third largest art market in the country, after New York and LA. This time I was fortunate to be in a gallery when an artist whose work I had come to especially admire was paying a visit and we had a short conversation.

Richard Potter works in a technique called encaustic. Encaustic originated with ancient Greek ship builders who used heated wax to seal the hulls of their boats. Sometimes they added colored pigments to the wax for decoration and this eventually led to a new painting technique. Examples survive from the 2nd c. AD but its use goes back much earlier.

After languishing, the technique was rediscovered in the 20th c. and has become especially popular in the past twenty years. Today encaustic painting often includes collage. Layers of wax are used to hold almost anything to the board or canvas. Looking closely at Potter’s works you will see blades of grass, flower petals, string, paper and other items found around his rural studio location.

Looking at his newer works I also noticed small bits of printed text and music and I mentioned that to him. Potter laughed and said he’s always looking for ways to include Beethoven. He also named other composers and authors that he likes and then made an interesting observation. I include these things because we are losing our stories, he said—the myths, tales, and heroes which give culture its character and identity. On the gallery web site he says his painting “is a way of keeping our story alive, what I call the continuity of parables.”

Potter is one of many who are increasingly alarmed at our loss of common shared stories. This has been identified as one of the primary characteristics of postmodernism. It is one consequence of the mixing of peoples and cultures brought about by modern transportation and communication. Not only are new ideas, stories and traditions introduced when people move physically. Modern mass media does the same via television, movies, books, music, and the internet.

As just one recent example, rap music which originated in the American Black ghetto can now be found in poor urban areas on every continent. That rap has become a universal language for impoverished and oppressed young people around the globe may well be a good thing. It is obviously filling a need and may prove to have surprising power.

The question Potter and others are asking, however, is (to use his example) what happens to Beethoven? As our planet becomes increasingly homogenized, what happens to its individual cultural traditions, to their unique artists, prophets, heroes and thinkers, to the countless millions of stories which give each culture and its members their identity?

Recently samples of American high school seniors were shown to do poorly on the history and government test given to those applying for US citizenship. Other surveys have shown that most of those who identify themselves as conservative evangelicals or fundamentalists have very poor knowledge of the content of the Bible they claim to believe so seriously, often little better than the average public. I discovered early in my confirmation teaching career that most of my students couldn’t distinguish between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. They both occupied in their minds some vague and shadowy entity called “the past.” Meanwhile the Texas State Board of Education has decided that Thomas Jefferson will now be viewed as only a bit player in the country’s founding because it disapproves of his deism and promotion of separation of church and state.

This week I also visited Bandelier National Monument. This national park includes the village ruins of Ancestral Pueblo People who inhabited this valley from roughly 1150-1550, abandoned before European colonists ever knew of its existence. Santa Fe itself is celebrating the 400th anniversary of its founding and establishment as capital of the province of New Spain in 1610, even while recognizing its earlier settlement by thousands of Pueblo People. Yet most of us know little or nothing of these stories, remembering only Jamestown (1607) and Plymouth Rock (1620) when thinking of America’s first settlers.

Conflicting stories and resulting confusion is nothing new. In the past, it was the “winners” who decided which stories would be remembered and which forgotten. Now we are more accepting of other cultures, past and present, but are uncertain what to do with all of them. Often we get lost in endless arguments about which stores are “true” or right when we feel the stories we cherish are somehow under threat, especially when political or religious competition intensifies.

This coming week in the church calendar, Holy Week, is all about stories. Again the modern question will arise: Are these stories “true”? It may well be, as many scholars now say, that few of the events described actually happened. In some ways this can hardly be a surprise given how different are each of the four gospel accounts of that week. But is that where the “truth” of these stories is even found?

We don’t remember stories just because they happened (our poor brains would be overwhelmed). We only remember stories that give our lives meaning and identity. This is why taking away others’ stories is so devastating and why forgetting or losing our own stories leads to our feeling purposeless and directionless. Stories tell us where we have come from, what was important to our forbears, and gives us a compass to find new direction.

In this confusing time of intermixing cultures, we need to hang on to our history and traditions but do so with a looser grip. We can both celebrate our stories and at the same time recognize that they are not everyone’s stories, nor do they need to be. The stories of the world’s peoples are not in competition. We do not have to promote ours as true and everyone else’s as false. Indeed much of the tension in the world today is the result of people fearing their culture and values are being replaced by someone else’s. Their fear and anger are understandable.

We are entering a period of history unlike any other. Yet to go forward we must retain a connection with where we have come from. Our ultimate goal will be to achieve what Richard Potter calls a “continuity of parables.” Each nationality and culture will contribute their individual stories to a larger global tale, like the streams joining to make a great river. Leaving no one out, we will all add to this the most amazing of stories, that of human civilization itself.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Every country for itself

Martin Wolf is the star economics writer for the UK’s Financial Times. Today on her blog Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith dissects Wolf's latest column about the conflicting interests of the world’s two greatest exporting countries, China and Germany (or "Chermany" as he dubs them), and just about everybody else. Wolf says these two otherwise very different nations are in agreement that the world needs to keep buying their products but should stop borrowing so much. This message, says Wolf, is “incoherent” and pursuing such a strategy is a sure fire formula for deflation, the bogeyman of the Great Depression.

Smith agrees with Wolf that the austerity this would impose would be both disastrous for the borrowing countries (e.g. the Unites States) but would inevitably reduce China and Germany’s exports. The bottom line is that China and Germany are right that the continuing trade imbalance is unsustainable but their solution is no solution at all. They are trying to put the problem and the solution entirely on their trade partners but it’s not going to work.

What’s happening, according to Smith, is that all the participants in the global economic mess are each trying to resolve it on their own terms which, of course, can’t possibly work. An international problem needs an international solution but thus far there’s not much interest in that because politicians are listening only to their own constituents--a sure path to disaster. In Smith's words:

This battle of wills is rooted on every front in domestic politics, plus a collective inability to recognize that our current version of globalization is no longer workable. But we appear likely to test the current system to destruction rather than come up with less drastic ways out.

Monday, March 15, 2010

They still don't get it

It may be old news here but it isn't in continental Europe. The reports of clergy sex abuse in Catholic schools have rocked Germany and are spreading to other countries, as well. The wrinkle this time is that now the pope himself has been at least indirectly implicated in his previous capacity as archbishop.

The New York Times had a summary story on Friday. As it reports, one obvious potential casualty is Benedict's campaign to "re-Christianize" Europe. What glorious Catholic past would he have Europe to return to? Andrew Sullivan, in two posts yesterday titled "The Current Vatican's Death Throes," reports in amazement that the church hierarchy is responding with the same reflexive defensiveness seen previously in the US and Ireland.

In the second of Sullivan's posts, he prints excerpts of a reader's report of German press coverage of the unfolding story. The reader reacts with incredulity to an interview with Regensburg Bishop, Gerhard Mueller, who says:

"Leutheusser is a liar," referring to Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the Justice Minister. He goes on to says that the justice minister is part of a dark and secretive conspiracy led by Free Masons who want to bring the church down. This guy is just nuts. But how revealing of their strategy. Presented with undeniable evidence of abuse, they claim to be the victims!

The reader then quotes an editorial in the Bavarian newspaper Sueddeutsche:

The crisis of confidence affecting the church has not occurred because the church is an association of abusers. The church is in crisis precisely because, confronted with undeniable evidence of abuse, it expresses concern for itself instead of offering to help the victims of the abuse....

Repudiating Christ's call for self-denial, when under threat institutional Christianity time and again retreats behind walls of denial, blame and slander. It is unable to imagine its own welfare as not being identical with the mision of its founder. Nor can it imagine that its behavior could actually be that mission's greatest obstacle.

Mass delusion (updated)

Michael Lewis is one of the economics and finance journalists who are doing yeoman's work reporting the Great Recession and its origins. His piece "The End of Wall Street's Boom" was an early exposure of the insanity that had descended on New York's investment bank culture.

Sunday Lewis was on 60 Minutes in a great interview with CBS correspondent Steve Kroft. The nuance Lewis provides is to look past the good-guy, bad-guy dimension of the story. There were/are plenty of "bad guys"--no doubt about that. The questions are why were there so many and why was is it so easy for them to do such bad things? As Lewis says:

I'm afraid that our culture will come to the conclusion, 'cause it's always the easy conclusion, that everybody was just a bunch of criminals. I think the story is much more interesting than that. I think it's a story of mass delusion.

Indeed, in some ways, it was a delusion that gripped most of the country. Bernard Madoff looks more understandable once you realize to what extent the whole investment and credit culture had become one giant Ponzi scheme. Who, for example, wanted to blow the whistle on the sub-prime mortgage game when, as President Bush had declared, we were headed for the "ownership society"? Why couldn't everyone own their own house? Of course, what regulators or legislators wouldn't do in an organized fashion, the markets eventually took care of in a painful and chaotic crash.

Listening to Lewis's story, I keep thinking, "You can't make this stuff up." Watch and learn and then laugh or cry, as you choose. The videos are available below (with annoying Lipitor commercials) or you can read the transcript at the CBS News website. (Hat tip Barb for alerting me to this broadcast.)

Update: A guest post on Yves Smith's Naked Capitalism (see my previous post), draws attention to an important point Lewis makes about "the delusion": people involved had huge financial incentive not to see what was going on. Here's Lewis, preceded by Upton Sinclair:

Upton Sinclair said:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Bestselling financial writer Michael Lewis is now saying the same thing. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Lewis said:
"Wall Street is able to delude itself because it’s paid to delude itself. That’s one of the lessons of this story. People see what they’re incentivized to see. If you pay someone not to see the truth, they won’t see the truth."

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Indefensible Men

In the previous post and elsewhere, I have written about the culture of Wall Street and its role in the 2008 economic debacle. Here is an amazing post by Yves Smith at her blog Naked Capitalism. It was originally a magazine article and is a LONG read but well worth the effort. The reader discussion that follows is also astonishingly excellent. Starting the post and in the comments you will find quotes from Reinhold Niebuhr, Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, and others to give you some idea of the level of conversation.

In brief, “Indefensible Men” makes clear the enormous economic and cultural distortion that Wall Street has become. “Psychopathology” is the word that comes up more than once in the comments and it is not at all inappropriate. This is a world most of us have no experience with and can hardly imagine, yet it is impacting all of our lives and indeed much of the world—and not for the better. As the responders make clear, however, doing something about it will be a monumental undertaking.

We are in the midst of an economic, political, and cultural crisis of the first order. If it is at all possible, I encourage you to find an hour or so to read this piece and the conversation that follows.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Dream big (Sunday Reflections for March 14, 2010)

Your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. (Joel 2:28)

A little after 8 am, five days a week 52 weeks a year, I get in my “In Box” an email newsletter from This is a web site created by inventor, author and futurologist Ray Kurzweil. (If you’ve ever used an electronic keyboard or voice-recognition software, you’ve probably made use of something he has a patent on.)

Kurzweil is a dreamer but, as his life has shown, he also has the ability to turn dreams into reality. Now in the latter part of his life (or maybe not “latter” if one of his dreams comes true) he is focusing most of his attention on creating dreams, big dreams—visions of the future both near and distant. Many of his futuristic visions have been dismissed by others as fantasy but not all. And given his past accomplishments many hesitate to dismiss anything he imagines as “impossible.”

Each of the little e-newsletters he sends out has about a half-dozen story summaries, with a link to click on to find the full story if it interests you. These stories are all about things happening right now in countless fields of research and technology. The topics include biology, medicine, nutrition, energy, computing, transportation, physics, astronomy, climatology, communication, robotics, and more.

Many of the stories are truly amazing but for me what’s most impressive is simply the sheer volume of the stories. They arrive day-after-day so that you can’t help but thinking, “Wow, there’s a lot going on in the world.” And the result of that is to make me really—hopeful.

That’s important because we live in what can be a very discouraging time. We can be discouraged by our own personal circumstance or by the economic gloom that has covered much of the developed world. I know it affects me. It’s obvious that—unlike the TV commercial—there is no Easy Button to get us out of the financial and economic mess we’ve gotten into. We’re going to be here for awhile.

Yet as this newsletter shows, around the world people are working to solve problems and make our lives better. Most of these people are working with little recognition—they fly below the media’s radar. Yet they are doing truly remarkable things, many of which someday (and in many cases it isn’t far off) are going to make this world of ours a better place to live.

In many ways Kurzweil provides little glimpses of humanity at its best, of human beings fulfilling what we imagine is our ideal function and purpose: helping each other to live better and happier lives. It brings to mind those early and simple instructions in the Bible: "till the garden and keep it" and “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Obviously, however, that isn’t all that’s going on in our world. Indeed, what makes these newsletter articles stand out is that they are often so unlike what is in the news much of the time. Yet one other hopeful thing is that we seem to be asking serious questions about why that is. We are wondering about the ways we are spending our time and talents, energy and resources. We are asking serious questions about our collective values and priorities.

The 2008 financial meltdown has caused a harsh spotlight to fall on Wall Street and for good reason. Certainly the causes of the Great Recession are varied and complex but the Wall Street investment “too big to fail” mega-banks must take a lot of the blame. Their ever more complicated, multi-trillion dollar financial schemes and products (financial weapons of mass destruction Warren Buffett has called them) collapsed like a house of cards, very nearly bankrupting the country and much of the rest of world. The reverberations and repercussions are not over yet nor, apparently, are many of the risky bank practices that got us into this mess.

While not necessarily justifying their previous behavior, bank leaders have argued that these institutions provide a vital service to the country and the world. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein has gone so far as to say they are doing “God’s work.” The importance of banking services, especially making available investment capital, is not disputed. What is in doubt, however, is whether these banks are, in fact, providing those services. Rather, their top priority seems to have become not making loans but making money and lots of it—mindboggling amounts of it—however they can.

Wall Street’s banks are the most extreme examples but they are causing many to ask some basic questions about our economy and our society, our needs and priorities. For instance, there are many enormously talented people at these banks. They and their talents are a great resource—is what they are doing really the best use of that resource for our society?

Even more basic: what values are we teaching our children? What should their priorities be? Do we still believe making money and being happy are one and the same? What should be the goal of their education? If we say it is to be able to get a job, how do we deal with the fact the many of today’s jobs will cease to exist in the near future and many of the future’s best jobs haven’t even been imagined yet? And with our ever-increasing productivity and efficiency, is “having a job” even going to be the best way to think about adult life for future generations?

It has perhaps always been true that one of humanity’s greatest obstacles has been lack of imagination. We are creatures of habit. Those who ask “what’s over that hill?” or “what if we did it this way?” have more often been laughed at or scared off than listened to. What is remarkable about the world’s recent history is that such people have been given much more credibility and opportunity. Still, changing habits and ways of thinking are hard for all of us.

My daily e-newsletter from Ray Kurzweil tells me, however, that countless, mostly nameless, people are asking questions and searching for answers in a quest for a better life for all of us. Are they being encouraged? Are there enough investors willing to take a chance on their research and to make their discoveries reality? Are there other talented people who could be doing such things but who got misdirected into jobs or life paths that really aren’t benefiting themselves or the rest of us—or are benefiting themselves without consideration for the rest of us?

Great things ARE happening. Great discoveries are being made. Great problems are being solved. Imagine now if these weren't just stories in a newsletter but it was everyone’s daily reality? A dream? Perhaps. But dreams are where great things always begin. And this dream is based on belief in the greatness and goodness of the creation in which we live and of which we are a part.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Not so many Methodists

There has been a lot of speculation on whether the ELCA’s current financial woes are the result of the approval of gay clergy at last summer’s churchwide assembly. The other explanation, of course, is that it’s the result of the country experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Supporting the latter view is the report this week from The United Methodist Church that both its income and its membership have dropped significantly. National church receipts in 2009 were 84% of what was budgeted. This accelerated a trend from the previous year. Spending in local congregations dropped 3.63% in 2008 (the most recent year available for local data). UMC officials attributed the drops to the recession.

Of perhaps bigger concern is the full percentage point drop in membership in 2008, the largest since 1974. UMC membership has dropped from a peak of 10.8 million in 1968 to the current 7.8 million—a 28% decline in forty years.

An interesting category the UMC tracks are the number of people considered “constituents,” people somehow affiliated with UMC congregations but who are not members. This figure increased 1%. Church executive Scott Brewer interprets this (correctly I believe) as evidence of the growing number who are involved with churches but are reluctant to become church members.

I think he goes awry, however, when he concludes that this increase means “the picture may not be as bleak as the membership data alone indicates.” There is no reason to see an increase in “constituents” as a prelude to increased membership. Rather, it simply confirms the trend experienced by most churches that people’s relationships with churches are increasingly distant and temporary. Younger adults, especially, choose selectively among church activities and move in and out of church as they choose. The life-long church member is becoming a very rare breed.

One other statistic of interest was membership changes at the extremes of congregation size. “Churches with memberships of 100 and less reported a decline in membership of 2.25 percent, while churches with 3,000 and more members increased membership by 1.9 percent.” Small congregations have, until recently, been the backbone of mainline churches. One of the legacies of the Great Recession may be to permanently change that makeup. Not only are small congregations not competitive in a time of cafeteria Christianity, they are now financially unworkable, absent a large financial endowment. It seems almost certain that mainline denominations will increasingly be made up of fewer yet larger congregations.

Monday, March 08, 2010

We're all Greek now

Jeremy Warner is Assistant Editor of the UK’s Daily Telegraph and a highly regarded economics commentator. In his most recent column he looks down the tracks to see what’s coming and what he sees is not very reassuring. Basically the world’s economies are looking in the mirror and seeing—Greece.

The fear is not so much that Greece will set off some kind of financial chain reaction. The world’s economies are not a string of dominoes. Rather, there is a growing awareness that Greece’s predicament, while extreme, is not all that different from that of most of the economies staggered by the Great Recession. “Greece may be in its own particular class of basket case, but it is also just a harbinger of things to come for all fiscally stretched advanced economies.”

As Warner points out, while the global economic contraction has been severe, the financial cataclysm feared by many two years ago did not materialize. Wall Street has rebounded and there is debate about what date will be chosen as the official beginning of the recovery. And yet . . .

. . . there is a continued air of unreality about the whole thing. Everywhere in the West, and even in China, the “recovery” – such as it is – floats on a sea of public support, with the hoped-for rebound in underlying private-sector activity as elusive as ever. More worrying still, the stimulus is beginning to peter out of its own accord. Conscious of the dangers of ending support prematurely, many governments would hope to run large deficits for quite a bit longer. Impatience in the bond markets is fast closing off this option.

Here in the US the affects of the federal stimulus will soon be waning. The Federal Reserve has announced it will cease this spring its massive purchase of mortgage related assets. Interest rates are sure to creep up, likely causing real estate sales and prices to fall still further. The budgets of countless state and local governments are in shreds, yet budget cuts and tax increases are both loudly protested. Unemployment remains stubbornly high and if the recession develops a “double dip” this summer or fall, as many economists fear, it will certainly go higher.

What Warner is saying is that no matter how central governments shuffle and deal their fiscal cards, serious economic adjustments are now unavoidable. Greece is the first country to painfully discover this but it will not be the last.

As the drug-induced stupor of public support wears off, the pain will be almost universally felt. Public policy may have smoothed the comedown, but it hasn’t permanently suspended it. If there is one positive to be drawn from these widening deficits, it is this: they have at least focused attention on the intergenerational debts that we threaten to heap on to our children, and provided the wake-up call needed to address them. Sadly, the necessary structural reforms must begin with our unsustainable pension and healthcare costs. Which means that working longer and saving more will become the defining mantras of the next decade.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Alice in Wonderland economics

Via Mike Shedlock we learn of another example of the craziness of today’s financial world. The Nevada Federal Credit Union is paying its customers to withdraw their money. Yes, their message is: Please take your business elsewhere, we don’t want it. Why? Because it is costing them to hold money. They cannot find any worthwhile loan opportunities (it is Nevada, after all) and they can't engage in the high risk investing/gambling that the big boys on Wall Street can. They are paying more in required deposit insurance (.4%) than they can earn with short term Treasuries (.25%).

Here is a simple example of how artificial is the Fed’s current policy of holding interest rates at nearly zero--in other words, more smoke and mirrors. Economists and financial bloggers like Shedlock have been saying for a couple years now that most government interventions to right our economic ship are counterproductive. Their goal is to restart the country’s economic engine but do nothing to fix its problems. When your car needs a tune-up, if not an overhaul, pouring additives in the tank may get you a few more blocks or miles, but you’re still going to end up on the side of the road with the hood up.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Satisfaction (Sunday Reflections for March 7, 2010)

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55, reading for the Third Sunday in Lent)

Since their development in the so-called Axial Age (mid-first millennium BCE), the world’s great religious traditions have all tried to deal with the place of material wants and comforts in human life. More specifically they have addressed the paradox that our pursuit of material prosperity and the happiness we assume it brings often doesn’t make us happy but only more miserable, at least in the long run.

Buddhism teaches that it is desire itself which is the source of human misery. Judaism doesn’t go that far but says that our first desire must be fellowship with God which then trumps all others. As part of that tradition, Christianity and Islam endorse this view. Our unhappiness then, as Isaiah says here, comes from “labor[ing] for that which does not satisfy.” In Jesus words (Matthew 6), “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

In pietistic fashion, such admonitions as these are usually applied individually. We easily imagine a prophet or preacher wagging their fingers at us as our conscience joins in the accusation: Yes, I really am too greedy, too materialistic, too selfish, etc., etc. In fact, it is not at all clear that is the intent of this text from Isaiah. More to the point today, it is not at all clear that in the modern world that what you or I individually think or feel is what is really important. For even as modernity has championed the rights and freedoms of the individual, the complexity of modern life has meant that the most important choices and values are those determined collectively through our political and economic structures.

We are in the midst of the worst economic convulsion since the Great Depression eighty years ago. It has not resulted in the same depth of unemployment or business collapse but it is likely to persist for years to come. The problem, in the view of many economists, is that the recovery cannot take the form of a “bounce back” to what was before because what was before was unsustainable.

In fact, our economic problems have been decades in the making. This “Great Recession” is largely the result of previous attempts to cover over those problems rather than confront them directly. The fear is that we will make the same mistake again in trying to pull out of this downturn. It could happen, however, because there is no consensus on what the real solution ought to be.

As a result, we hear politicians and TV financial pundits saying that economic recovery will occur when consumer spending and home construction increases. However, there is near unanimous agreement that both of these things are what got us into trouble in the first place. Because real income has been flat for over a decade, consumer spending growth in recent years has been largely debt fueled via credit cards and home equity loans. Home construction was artificially stimulated by too-easy credit and the real estate asset bubble which, of course, has now collapsed.

In short, much of the economic prosperity of the past ten years (at least) has been smoke and mirrors. Most of the proposals to return to economic prosperity are more smoke and mirrors. Most people seem to realize this and are really angry about it but they don’t know either what’s to be done. Compounding this anger has been the spectacle of Wall Street “banksters” hauling off billions in bonuses, even while knowing they are only in business because of taxpayer supplied bailouts.

In Olive Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street, bankster poster boy Gordon Gekko declares unambiguously that “greed is good.” The events of the past few years have shown that is certainly the philosophy of Wall Street and of the international lords of finance. Over the past thirty years or so, it very nearly became the philosophy of American culture generally and of much of the developed—and developing—world.

Suddenly, however, things have gone wrong, perhaps very wrong. Will we just “bounce back”? Should we even try to? For decades we have been told that it would be impossible for the whole world to have an American standard of living. Can we really be surprised that the rest of the world is nonetheless trying to do just that, and with increasingly ominous consequences? Can we really be upset when gas prices go up because now hundreds of millions of other people want to drive cars, burn lights, run air conditioners, and fertilize their crops just like we do?

Proponents of our current economic system paint any alternative as a formula for gloom and stagnation. Of course, such proponents have almost all been handsomely rewarded by that system. “Greed is good” because greed leads to growth—but what kind of growth? As Gordon Gekko’s skeptical protégé Bud Fox asks him, “How many yachts can you water-ski behind? How much is enough?” How many miles of highways, how many shopping malls, how many square feet of yard and house, how many toys and electronic gizmos do we need? How much is enough? And, as Isaiah asks, do they “satisfy”?

Yet we are being told that we all need to get out there and start buying and building like before or the economy will never “recover.” But as any doctor knows, there are different types of recoveries and they are not all equally desirable. Indeed some kinds of recoveries are short-lived and unsustainable.

Most of our political and economic leaders know only this tune, however. It’s all they ever learned. And that’s probably true for most of us. Yet the signs are growing more numerous and more ominous that we, collectively, have to learn a new way of doing this thing we have called “the good life.”

How much do we need to be truly satisfied? Do we really even know what that means? And can we live a satisfied life which also allows everyone else to do the same without endangering the health of this planet we all share? When the conventional answers don’t work then it’s time to consider some unconventional answers, perhaps even some very ancient ones.