Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Minsky Moment

Apparently, economists have known for decades that the kind of financial crisis we now are experiencing could happen. In the 1960’s a banker turned Harvard economist named Hyman Minsky put forth the “financial instability hypothesis.” Minsky predicated that when interest rates are lowered to make the borrowing of money easier, a euphoria overtakes bankers and investors that makes them irrationally giddy. Eventually, the financial institutions where these bankers and investors work overextend themselves to the point of collapse. When that happens, we have reached the “Minsky Moment.” Unfortunately, we have arrived at the place old Hyman predicted. When he first put forth his views, Minsky was viewed as a financial crackpot. Now we know he was a prophetic genius of market economics.

Years of financial market deregulation have set us up for this crash; we now know that. What Minsky believed was that markets need vigilance and regulation. He believed that capitalism run wild would collapse on itself.

Our new president should go back a dig up some of Minsky’s papers. Barack Obama is right to call for tighter regulation of financial markets and holding institutions accountable. If he decides to help the auto industry, he ought to do so with strict guidelines to build more fuel efficient cars. The short term thinking of so many companies and the desire to simply focus on the bottom line have led to a way of doing business that is anti-community, anti-environment, and self-destructive. Only as corporations regain a sense of their original charter –which is to serve the common good – can long term stability return. Because the human propensity for greed is so strong, regulation will have to force some corporations be those good citizens. Hopefully, others will see that such a move is not only in their best interest, but in the best interest of the communities they are supposedly called to serve.

Unfortunately Minsky is not here to see his predications come true (he died in 1996), although I doubt he would take much solace in saying “I told you so.” Even so, we must take this time to learn a hard lesson. So let’s start by reading and heeding Hyman Minsky’s words. If you want to a get a glimpses of what he said you can read about his theory here.

Sports Integrity and Global Warming

One of the few vices I afford myself is Sports Illustrated magazine. When my weekly issue arrives, I often find a quiet spot, skim through it, and read the lead articles. Then throughout the week, I pick it up and delight myself in the great distraction of college and professional sports. I love the pictures, the personal stories, the statistics, the predictions and the team updates. I even read about the high school and college stars that will never make it big but who are featured in “Faces in the Crowd." I love my SI!

Now I will admit that in the great scheme of things there is little that is redeeming in the magazine; it is pure diversion. When I was a preacher, I would convince myself that I could get great sermon illustrations from reading Sports Illustrated; I confess it was lie then and it is now. I just read it for the pure enjoyment of sport.

However, increasingly I have become concerned about the integrity of the magazine from a purely sports perspective. Several years ago they instituted the annual “swimsuit” addition, which is no more than a reason to show beautiful, thinly clad, women in exotic places. Recently, the label “swimsuit” has become suspect, as apparently the models now prefer skinny dipping. They have less covering on their bodies than the Playboy bunnies I used to gawk at when I was a teenager. Each year when the SI swimsuit issue comes, I have been embarrassed that my three young, impressionable daughters might think their father is a pervert (yes dear, all men are perverts!). So I always throw it away before they have a chance to notice.

Then several years ago, SI offerred an optional golf section. If you wanted you could have golf added to your particular magazine. As much as I had to admit that golf was indeed a sport, I was never any good at it. Furthermore, I had no desire to read about guys with names like Tiger, Shark, Vijay, and Sergio. So I turned down the offer. However, then they did away with the "optional" part, and simply made golf a regular section in the magazine. Since golf is almost played year round is some part of the world, there is golf almost every issue. My eyes glaze over, as I have to admit that some people like sports that I don't like. I can live with that.

However, a few years ago, SI crossed the line – they added a NASCAR section. No questions, no warnings, no options – there it was being presented on a par with baseball, football, basketball, hockey, track, and even golf. As far as I am concerned car racing may be a competition, but it is not a sport. Yes, people make a lot of money driving cars, and I’m sure the Big Three automakers and the oil companies sponsor them big time, but a bunch of guys and a couple of women driving around a track for 500 miles is not a sport. Sports require sweat, blood, tears, and physical exertion. Okay, so you have to hold on tight to the steering wheel, and the torque is exhausting when you go around a curve at 120 miles an hour, and pit crews have to be pretty skilled to change tires that fast, but a sport – puleeez!!!

So imagine my horror when the most recent issue (November 24, 2008) featured NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson on the cover. First of all, what grown man goes around being called “Jimmie,” and secondly in the name of sport integrity, he’s not an athlete, he is a driver! I get hives just imaginining that this may be a sign of more sports degradation to come.

So here’s my solution. Given the fragile state of the environment and the need for a reduction in our carbon footprint, NASCAR must be banned. For cars to buzz around a tract at 120+ miles per hour, they have to burn up a lot of fuel. Unless NASCAR takes to racing Priuses and Honda Hybrids, they must be banned for the sake of the environment. Imagine how much cleaner the air will be in Daytona, Charlotte, and Woodstock, NY. Families will be reunited, trees will grow again, and sports will be saved as an institution. Yes, NASCAR races must go the way of chicken fights and gladiator matches. They are inhumane, uncouth, and bad for the air we breathe.

Not to mention, I won’t have to cancel my subscription to Sports Illustrated.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Honoring Veterans of Peacemaking

On this Veterans Day I want to re-post a blog that I first put up on 11/7/06 honoring veterans of peacemaking. On this day when so much is made of war, we who see non-violence and negotiation as the way to healing differences need to find and honor the heroes of peace who have gone before us. So here is that posting from two years ago.

This coming weekend, is Veteran’s Day weekend, a time when the country honors the veterans who have served in the military and fought in our country’s wars. When I was a Baptist pastor, I could never get past this weekend without having someone in the congregation (not me) ask all the vets to stand up and be honored for “defending our freedom.” Now I realize that this kind of rhetoric is about as central to the American psyche as hot dogs and apple pie. I don’t doubt the vets’ sincerity or their courage, but I think they were and are often misled and misguided, as evidenced by the immoral wars we have fought over the last several decades, including the one we are in now.

As a pacifist, I want to ask for equal time for all those folks (many who were vilified) for their tireless efforts to work for peace in a war-mongering world. So I declare (for myself and anyone else who would like to join me!) this weekend as a Peace Veteran’s Day and put forth a few of my favorites to be honored for their work for peace through the years.

John Woolman- a Quaker in the 18th century who spent 20 years convincing his fellow Quakers to free their slaves

Elijah Lovejoy – a Presbyterian journalist who was killed by a mob in St. Louis for his opposition to slavery prior to the Civil War.

AJ Muste – a labor organizer and pacifist in the early 20th century

Mahatma Gandhi – a natural choice – the one who gave us satygraha (soul-force)

Martin Luther King Jr. – another natural choice, the one who tied satygraha to the ethic of Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount and gave us the “dream”

Dorothy Day – the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement

Jimmy Carter – a tireless worker for peace in the public sphere and a man who was consistent in his search for peace even when he was considered “weak”

Dan Buttry – a friend and mediator throughout the world who has worked to bring reconciliation in Burma, Northeast India, and many other places in the world

Arthur Rouner – my pastor growing up who retired to start a reconciliation ministry has worked inmany places including India and Rwanda

Daniel Berrigan – a leader in the anti-Vietnam War movement

Clarence Jordan –founder of Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia (which influenced Jimmy Carter) and a leader in racial reconciliation

Elias Chacour - Palestinian priest seeking to bring Jews, Christians and Muslims together in dialogue

Desmond Tutu – a leader in the South African reconciliation movement

Paulo Freire- Brazilian educator who taught campesinos to read the word and the world simultaneously.

Myles Horton –founder of Highlander Research and Education Center, a place that has trained social activists in labor, civil rights, environmental causes and immigrant rights for 50 years.

The list goes on. This list is neither exhaustive nor complete; there are many more tha could be added. Feel free to add your own. These are a few of my peace heroes, veterans of the peace cause. Let us honor them in our thoughts, but more so by following their example.

Thoughts on Proposition 8

Christian singer/songwriter Darrell Adams once introduced a song he had written poking fun at popular religious practices by saying, “There is something in this song to upset everyone.” I feel somewhat the same way about what I want to say in regards to California’s Proposition 8. Some will feel I have crossed over some sort of line, while others will be angry I have not gone far enough. So be it.

Last week the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency was accompanied by a rising hope of a more open and inclusive spirit in U.S. society and culture. So it was with sadness that I learned of the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which overturned a California State Supreme Court decision allowing same sex couples to become legally married. In May the court had decided that the state discriminated against same sex couples when it did not allow them to marry. Since June nearly 18,000 couples received marriage licenses. Though Proposition 8 does not nullify those marriages, it does amend the California State Constitution to read “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California.” So henceforth, same sex couples can not get legally married in California.

Reflecting on that result I find myself in an ambiguous position of agreeing with one side of the debate, yet fully understanding the other side. As the brother of three siblings in same sex relationships, I feel like they have been unduly denied a simple right that I and all other heterosexuals have. While part of me wonders why gays and lesbians would want to seek marriage, given the abysmal divorce rate (nearly 1 in 2) of heterosexual couples, I also recognize that the passage of such a law normalizes and legitimizes relationships that heretofore have been considered immoral by some, abnormal by others, and simply “different” by others.

Fifteen years ago I espoused the view that homosexuality was not normative in God’s eyes. I based that position on a reading of the Bible that noted that anywhere homosexuality was mentioned in Scripture it was either criticized or condemned. Over the previous 15 years I had attended numerous debates and read countless books on the topic, even writing a paper on the topic when I was in seminary. However, over time I became convinced that whatever the Bible had to say about homosexuality, it was not talking about a committed relationship akin to marriage. In some cases the Bible’s position was based on ancient views of human sexuality no longer held even by the most devout Christian. In other cases, the homosexuality mentioned was connected with pagan religions. However, the major obstacle for me was while I could discount or explain away the few passages that did mention homosexuality, I could find no statement positively affirming same sex relationships. The pro-gay Biblical argument was an argument from the absence of condemnation, not the presence of affirmation. At the same time I saw the committed relationships of my siblings and others, some of whom were dedicated Christians, and I could not accept that God would categorically condemn someone for loving someone of their own gender. I changed my position not so much on the basis of new view of Scripture, but rather the compelling evidence of the commitment and love of same sex couples I knew personally. I decided I would leave the theological debates up to God, and choose to err on the side of grace rather than judgment.

Yet even in the days when I opposed homosexuality on moral and Biblical grounds, I never believed that meant that gay/lesbian couples should be denied basic human rights. Laws discriminating against gays/lesbians in the areas of employment or housing did not seem fair. The same goes for gay/lesbian marriage. When I was a pastor, I might not have performed a ceremony for a gay or lesbian couple, but I did not feel I had the right to impose my view on society as a whole given the vigorous debate on the issue.

Today, I have changed my attitude toward homosexuality overall, and support the right of same-sex couples to marry. Nonetheless, I work for a Christian college that does not allow or support same sex romantic relationships. While I generally affirm the overall mission and culture of my school, this is one area where I personally disagree with my school’s position. At the same time a few years ago I was quite proud when Eastern University was one of only a handful of Christian schools that welcomed members of Equality Ride to dialogue at their campus. Equality Ride is program modeled after the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights movement, where young people go to Christian schools and military academies challenging schools to reconsider their policies regarding gay and lesbian relationships. Most schools banned the Equality Riders from coming on their campuses. By contrast Eastern invited the students to come for two days, set up opportunities for dialogue and generally allowed students and faculty to interact with the guests and each other on the place of gays and lesbians in the church and in society in general.

Like the Equality Riders, many supporters of gay rights liken their movement to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. This approach does not hold much appeal to African Americans who see their struggle for equality in quite a different light than gays and lesbians. In fact polls indicated that a majority African-Americans and Latinos in California supported Proposition 8. Tactically, I think the gay rights movement needs to come up with a different metaphor for their cause. For many people who support bills like Proposition 8 the issue is not so much about rights as it is about morality. While I may not agree with their view, I recognize that to talk about rights when people are thinking morality is to talk past one another. In that sense it becomes like the abortion debate where people are talking at each other, while not really hearing one another because they in essence are speaking a different language.

What is needed is a new kind of dialogue built on respect and listening. David Black, the president of Eastern, took a great deal of heat from the Board of Trustees for allowing the Equality Riders to come on Eastern’s campus, but I applaud him for the willingness to allow people of different perspective to engage in meaningful conversation. While in the end Eastern did not change its policies as a result of the visit, it sponsored a respectful and open dialogue conducted in a way that seems like a model that others could follow.

I am sure the supporters of Proposition 8 feel like they achieved some sort of moral victory last Tuesday, and certainly the opponents feel like a terrible injustice was institutionalized. Regardless of what the outcome had been, one referendum or even 100 referendums can not alter the fact that we can no more will away the debate over same sex relationships than we can alter the path of the Earth around the Sun. Deeply personal issues like the right of same sex couples to marry can not be solved in a court room or ballot box, but rather across a table of respect and openness. As Barack Obama embodies a new day in inter-racial dialogue in this county, my hope is that we can look at other areas such as gay rights where we as a nation disagree, and find ways to dialogue meaningfully and respectfully with the goal of finding common ground and living together constructively despite our differences.