Friday, July 29, 2011

Sticking to Principles

I consider myself to be a highly principled person. I also understand that living with other being requires some degree of give and take. Total lack of flexibility on one's part requires that the other always be the one that compromises, and thus unprincipled.

Of course, if you're a principled Republican dealing with unprincipled Democrats you needn't ever negotiate. Go ahead and sign pre-election pledges that make sure you'll never have to engage in any form of compromise. Compromise is for unprincipled scum, like Democrats.

As I was saying, I think of myself as being principled. This came out again in Washington DC when I attempted to use an ATM at a restaurant across from our hotel. I requested $100, and the ATM dispensed but $20, along with a note stating it was out of cash but that I was being charged $2.15 for the transaction anyway. That $2.15 was on top of the $2 that AAA charges every time I use my travel card. Thus my $20 withdrawal cost me $4.15!

Being highly principled, I was not about to accept such treatment. I asked for the manager of the restaurant and explained in great detail what had happened. I finished with a flourish, "Four dollars and 15 cents is an unacceptable price for withdrawing twenty dollars!" The manager was sympathetic: "I could reimburse you out of my own pocket." Being highly principled, I couldn't allow her to remedy the situation at her expense. Then she played the trump card...

"Would you like a cookie?"

Oh, those soft yet crispy oatmeal cookies we'd been enjoying! My resolve melted like butter on a summer sidewalk. "Sure, I'll take a cookie!" I left the restaurant $4.15 poorer, enjoying the richness of a fresh, oatmeal and rum raisin cookie.

Note to President Obama: Try baking some cookies before your next conversation with Speaker Boehner and the House Republicans. They are a highly principled lot, I know. But then, so was I.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Back Northwest

Sally and I just returned from 9 days in Washington, DC. The timing of the trip was not our decision, as Sally was attending the national gathering of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. I had always heard that DC was pretty hot in the summer. Yep, it was. The heatwave that gripped much of the country last week was in full force in DC. Triple digit temperatures combined with high humidity to produce heat indexes in the range of 115 degrees. Sweltering.

Still we enjoyed ourselves. Though we didn't do some things we might otherwise have attempted, such as bike riding or longer urban hikes, we got around quite a bit, carefully planning our outdoor activities to end before 10am. It was a successful strategy.

We returned to Spokane thankful that dry heat just isn't as debilitating as all that humidity. It was 91 for our jaunt home via buses 60 and 43, but seemed quite pleasant.

For a quick visual review of our trip, I posted some photos on facebook. The album can be accessed by clicking here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Soccer - Women's World Cup

I just watched a Sunday sports event so riveting that Sally (!) even watched and got excited. The U.S. and Brazil, two tournament favorites, matched up in the quarterfinal. The first 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time merely featured an own-goal by Brazil, a controversial foul and red card on the U.S., a penalty kick save by U.S. goalie Hope Solo that was disallowed for some imaginary violation and re-awarded, and a second goal by Brazil following a missed offside call.

Thus the U.S. played 55 minutes short one player, trailing much of that time. It seemed the game was destined to be remembered as one the refs gave away. And then....

And to think I could have been in church this morning.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Second Look at Stewardship

I've always been at odds with church fundraising philosophies. In the past few years church stewardship resources have taken the position, expressed one way or another, that they are "encouraging generosity." Reading between the lines, I understand them to say that their members are not being generous enough toward the church. I have yet to hear a church admit that it should be more generous to causes or people beyond it's own institutional needs.

I like to think that I am already a generous person. Indeed, I am capable of amazing acts of generosity. I am, however, somewhat discerning about the causes I support. For example, just cause you say you need my money seems a poor reason for me to fork it over.

If churches really wanted to bring out my generosity they should spend some time realigning their financial priorities toward saving the planet, changing the world, and challenging injustice rather than buying new furniture, or developing programs aimed at guilting me into being more generous.

On my commute to the church over the past two years I regularly drove by one or two individuals standing at the corner of 5th and Walnut with a cardboard sign stating their need. The individuals were representatives of a small group of regulars who took turns and shared signs. I know there are organizations in Spokane that provide services for the homeless (though admittedly they don't serve Coors Light) so I didn't contribute.

Perhaps those panhandlers should have offered drive-by educational sessions encouraging generosity. Right before distributing pledge forms....

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Slavemakers III - A Clarification

A comment from my smarter younger brother prompts me to say a further word or two about corporations. Given my professional experience in not-for-profit organizations, both religious and secular, it might be surmised that I maintain a more positive assessment of such ventures. Nay, not so. Whereas for profit corporations make no bones about existing for the profit of their stockholders, nonprofits craft lofty mission statements that easily distract the uninformed into believing that they exist to serve higher purposes. The naked truth is that the overriding purpose of all organizations, including nonprofits, is to continue their own existence, mission be damned.

If churches just had access to more resources they would be able to... do much more of the little to which they already aspire. Witness the Crystal Cathedral. Churches spend the vast majority of their resources on staff and facilities. Vast. Given more money, they expand staff and facilities. Liberal religious groups generally act as if this is not true of them, but that is only because they are inept at attracting the numbers of members and dollars that more conservative groups leverage.

My brother's comment to the effect that corporations simply reflect the sorry human condition raises a significant question for me. Who is responsible for, or even responsive to, the question of the greater good? Corporations in the U.S. and the world do exactly what they say they will do, which is maximize the profit of their shareholders. They utilize their power and resources in the public sphere in that pursuit. Rather than blaming the corporations, I should ask why we allow any group that is not committed to the greater good to exercise such influence. And what is the greater good? And who the hell are we?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why Politics is at Loggerheads

In the late 1970's a gubernatorial candidate in Wyoming blamed that state's high single-car accident rate on speed limits being set too low. In the mind of this candidate, drivers were on the look out for police rather than watching the road. The solution proposed was raising or abolishing speed limits. It seemed simple enough. Too many single car crashes? Then drive faster.

I was reminded of this story this week in the wake of the tragic death of a motorcycle rider in Onondaga, New York, killed when he went over the handlebars of his bike, hitting his head on the pavement. The biker, Philip A. Contos, was participating in a ride to protest helmet laws. While many noted the irony, one commentator noted that had their been no helmet laws to protest, the protest ride would not have been needed and Mr. Contos would still be alive.


One need not follow the news too closely to see other examples of tortured logic in public discourse. For example, if the Federal deficit is indeed the greatest threat facing us in the future (which it is given that human caused climate change doesn't exist), then we should clearly take an absolute stand against seeking increased Federal revenues. Perhaps Mr. Contos was not the only one who's been riding around without a helmet.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Slavemakers II

OK, so you think my last post was a bit over the top regarding corporations? Here's some more grist for the mill....

We have reached the point where universities are not so much engaged in the business of education as they are in the endless quest for grant funding in support of research. Our society doesn't provide adequate funding for higher education, requiring professors and departments to spend a significant portion of their time and energy pursuing grants. Where do grants come from? The public sector used to be the major player in this regard, though that role is decreasing as concern about deficits and refusal to hike taxes hold sway on Capitol Hill. So what gets funded? Whatever the major grantors wish. Who are the major granting bodies?

Here's a fun example: Writer Michael Pollan documents the establishment of a major research effort at the University of California-Davis investigating the significant presence of antioxidants in chocolate. The grant is funded by the Hersheys Corporation.

* * * * * * *

It isn't bad enough that corporations are defined to be "persons" in our political process. The money contributed by corporations is now deemed to be speech. Thus there can be no limit on what corporations spend making the case for their issues or candidates. This fact, hand in hand with corporate lobbying and the revolving door between government and the private sector.... Are you paying attention?

* * * * * * *

Budget deficits, no new taxes and the desire to privatize financial support for nonprofits means that funding for efforts to serve the poor and oppressed in our society must come from the corporations that most benefit from the status quo. Note the incursion of commercials on "Public" television. A little charity is OK now and then, but any organization that advocates systemic change or attempts to talk about the root causes of social ills in society?

* * * * * * *

We don't really need healthcare reform in the U.S., and especially not a single payer system. The market can handle this just fine. For example, don't you love the way the market handles the development and promotion of pharmaceuticals? Ask your doctor how they feel about patients pressuring them to prescribe drugs for conditions they don't exhibit. Ask your doctor how much support they receive from Big Pharma in the form of gifts and benefits as they are working their way through medical school and beyond. Go ahead, ask your doctor, if you can get in to see one.

* * * * * * *

My kids tried to get me interested in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, set in a world where the federal government had ceded most of its power to private corporations and entrepreneurs. It no longer seems like fiction. David Korten wrote an evocative book with the eye-catching title, When Corporations Rule the World. I now wonder what he meant by using the word "When".

Let's keep on shopping, serving, and defending our benevolent keepers. Let's proudly wear their logos on our hats and t-shirts, and enjoy the game or the concert in the beautiful venues to which they have been granted naming rights. Corporations are truly benevolent, after all, providing us with salaries, job security, health benefits and pensions we can depend on, right? And they provide economic benefit to the community and protect the environment, right? After all, they live here too, right? Right?

Monday, July 4, 2011


There's an interesting article on the BBC Nature website about a species of ant in the northeastern U.S. that differentiates between other ant species that come into its nest. When most ants enter their nest, the trespassing individual is simply carried back out. However, the article noted that an enemy species known as "Slavemakers" was vigorously attacked. You can read the article Here.

I was most taken with the "Slavemakers", a term applied to several species of ants. Though the specifics of their strategy vary, each kidnaps the pupae or replaces the queen of another species and enslaves the others to be their workers. This strategy is what makes them such a powerful enemy... one to be fought at all cost.

It occurs to me that corporations apply the slavemaking strategy within the context of human community. Through ubiquitous advertising they enslave us to products and lifestyles requiring us to serve their biding in all aspects of our lives. Through lobbying they have convinced us to grant them "personhood" in law, earning them the rights of individuals without commensurate responsibility. We are so blinded to their tactics that we invite them into our homes through television and internet advertising so they can influence our young.

In the end, we owe all we have to the corporation. We work our whole lives seeking to achieve the lifestyle they dangle before our eyes, and trying to pay the resulting debt. We vote and speak our loyalty to them for the privilege. The entire western world has become a company store, and our souls are in their hands. It seems nothing short of the destruction of the Earth will stop them, though that prospect is no longer outrageous.

We could learn a lot from ant species like the Temnothorax longispinosus. We need to learn to recognize the enemy. Never give up. Never surrender.