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Archives for Politics, Business and Economics

Tea Party v. Thai Party Protests

Apr
15
2009

It’s tax day, that chilling annual reminder of just how much of your hard earned money state and federal government needs to do the people’s business, especially when the people’s business includes such necessary pursuits as wooden arrow manufacturing and rum distillation – just two of the 9,000 or so outrageous “stimulus” earmarks that have already been largely forgotten by the public.

For those who haven’t forgotten, today is the day groups of people will gather at various central and symbolic locations around the country to hold “tea parties” in protest of taxes and Congressional abuse of the public funds they’ve been charged with managing.

But “protest” just doesn’t seem like the right description. How about: gripe, carp, or grouse? Heck, gather and network are probably more fitting adjectives; these tea parties actually look like they might be a lot of fun.

My guess is that today’s tea party gatherings won’t turn so ugly and, in spite of the good intentions of those who are organizing them, the result will be one collective yawn heard resounding through the halls of Congress and state legislatures across the country. The phenomenon of these so-called protests, scheduled through oh-so-trendy social media utilities such as Facebook, Twitter, and Meetup, is almost laughable. Clicking on an invitation may give participants the warm and fuzzies over being involved in civic activism, but it’s far too easy for politicians to ignore such passive events, even when they are punctuated by an actual gathering of people.

Such events ask nothing of their participants, who tend to go on with their lives as soon as the clock says it’s time to make the next appointment.

“Oh, a tea party? You mean I get to spend an hour with a popular radio host and then head on down to Newbury Street? Sure, I’m in. Sounds like a blast.”

Contrast with the riots in Thailand – where the stakes are high and the folks at the front line are risking life and limb to get their point across. Anti-government groups recently clashed with the military in Bangkok in protest of the current administration, which came to power under a coup. What began as a peaceful demonstration turned violent, with ousted premiere-in-exile Thaksin Shinawatra encouraging his supporters and threatening to lead a revolution. The potential consequences of having been involved in those protests are severe: two people were killed, more than 100 injured, and arrest warrants have been issued for many identified as leaders. There are even reports of the establishment of organizations to investigate the mysterious disappearance of some of the protesters.

This sort of uprising is more in keeping with the spirit of the original Boston Tea Party, which, though not terribly violent, was a genuine risk to those who participated, and served as a precursor to armed revolution against an oppressive government. The government in Thailand knows the folks who clashed with the army and who burned buses are serious about their beliefs. King George and Parliament knew the colonists were serious about theirs as well.

Today, Congress knows that we are only serious about things like American Idol and whether our new iPhone has an “app for that.” And until our elected officials get a sense that we’re serious about our frustration – by taking action, not just gathering to gab about our “issues” – we can only expect more of the same.

On one hand, the more the folks in places like D.C., Boston, Sacramento, Des Moines, and Jefferson City ignore the public’s rumblings, the more likely it is those rumblings will erupt like Mount Redoubt. On the other, accepting a Facebook invite, even when the cumulative number seems big, isn’t an effective form of protest. It’s time to starting thinking of other ways to get the point across.

Demanding accountability and throwing the bums out on Election Day would be a great place to start. It’s what the founders had in mind to prevent the necessity of further violence, after all. They experienced the horror and tragedy of armed revolt and had the wisdom to offer a means to avoid it in the future. Unfortunately, the public’s continued failure to take advantage of this measure may have dire consequences.

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Keeping pace with the times, I am now on Twitter posting thoughts on faith, politics, privacy, and the occasional random observation or comment. Look me up and follow me as spinzo.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 9:12 AM | Permalink

Rx: Self-Help for Hard Times

Mar
31
2009

There’s an old story about a minister who lived in a town on the banks of a river that, one particularly wet season, spilled its banks. As the flood waters rose, the man went to the church to pray for God’s help and protection for the town. Shortly thereafter a truck drove up and offered to take the reverend to safety.

“Thank you, but I’m trusting in God. You should help others in greater need,” he replied.

Hours later the water had risen high enough to flood the first floor of the church. The minister was on his knees praying in his second floor office when a boat motored up to the window and a offered to take the reverend to safety.

“Thank you, but I’m trusting in God. You should help others in greater need,” he replied.

As the river continued to rise, the minister scrambled to the church’s roof and was in deep prayer when a rescue helicopter flew overhead and dropped a rope down in order to take the reverend to safety.

“Thank you, but I’m trusting in God. You should help others in greater need,” he replied.

Shortly thereafter the church collapsed under the force of the water and the minister perished. Standing before his maker, the man disappointedly asked, “God, I trusted you to see me through the flood. Why did you not answer my prayer?”

“I sent a truck, a boat, and a helicopter,” God replied. “What were you expecting?”

You might think this story would have some relevance to the situation in Fargo, North Dakota, but I thought the parable was more apt to our nation’s current financial situation.

I see captains of American industry waiting around for a parting of the skies and a booming voice (echoing from somewhere in the vicinity of Washington, D.C.) to tell them everything’s going to be alright; the only thing they need to do is show the proper obeisance (while begging for their stimulus check). Meanwhile, the very thing they need to move forward (and take the economy along with them) is, perhaps, the most obvious thing: guts and confidence.

I recently read an opinion essay by author Jean Strouse in the New York Times describing the situation during the United States’ banking crisis of 1907, which found President Theodore Roosevelt otherwise engaged while giants of American industry marshaled the resources necessary to prevent the collapse of our financial system. Sure, they were motivated by self interest, but isn’t that the whole idea?

Among the heroes of that situation, banker J.P. Morgan knew that if his fortune – and the fortunes of those who trusted and invested in him – were to survive the crisis, he was going to have to do something about it on his own. Roosevelt and the U.S. Treasury weren’t poised to write any checks to cover the losses incurred by Morgan or any other wealthy industrialists. Morgan consorted with his peers and figured out a solution to the problem. It was either that or fail.

J.P. Morgan was one man, but he was a man who acted decisively to not only avert disaster, but helped restore confidence in the market. Strouse argues that Morgan almost single-handedly turned the situation around because he understood the stakes and was willing to do what it took to win. Because of his actions we now look back to 1929 – and not 1907 – as our nation’s darkest economic hour.

The stakes have changed dramatically today, and so has the American industrial philosophy. “Too big to fail?” Blasphemy! CEOs of the current age aren’t motivated to succeed as they once were. In most cases their contracts guarantee massive salaries and generous severances, win or lose, so the daily objective has more to do with maintaining the status quo than with taking risks. Stockholders like money, but they abhor risk. Today’s risk takers aren’t occupying offices on Wall Street, but are found in America’s garages and incubators, or overseas in places like South Korea, Singapore, and India.

Strouse believes America’s economy is waiting for a new Morgan to step forward and suggests Warren Buffet might be that man. I disagree. Financially, Buffet’s as smart as they come, but he’s notoriously penurious and, apart from a shrewd accumulation of discounted shares, he isn’t likely to wager Berkshire Hathaway‘s value to spur confidence in the markets. He’ll spend words to bolster confidence, but he won’t ask his shareholders to squirm anymore than they already are.

Sadly, I don’t think this century has a J.P. Morgan. So, while the economic floodwaters continue to rise, we can’t afford to wait for a miracle. Instead, it’s time for Americans to revive their collective confidence and do as individuals collectively what we seem to be waiting for someone else to do for us: Get in the boat and help row.

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Keeping pace with the times, I am now on Twitter posting thoughts on faith, politics, privacy, and the occasional random observation or comment. Look me up and follow me as spinzo.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 4:49 PM | Permalink

The Message of Madoff

Mar
12
2009

Most Sundays I spend my evenings inside the medium security prison at MCI Shirley here in Massachusetts, fellowshipping with men whose lives have taken unfortunate turns. I’ve gotten to know some of the men who regularly attend the ministry, heard their testimonies, and have been challenged by some of what I hear. I’m not being casual with the word when I say I genuinely love these men, my brothers in Christ.

I’m not ignorant of the fact that the acts these men committed often involved other people, victims and their families, and that there are some cases where the damage done was irreversible. I’ve wept at times while coming to grips with the grim reality that attends prison ministry. I have answered a call to bring a message of hope and encouragement to a demographic that desperately needs it, and while there are some who resent the work I and other prison volunteers do, I make no excuses on behalf of these men, and I’ve never heard any offered by them.

Today, crooked financier Bernard Madoff takes a step closer to boosting the nation’s prison population for masterminding and carrying off a massive, decades-long fraud scheme that ruined the lives of thousands of innocent investors who trusted the Wall Street baron with their futures.

Bernard Madoff has pleaded guilty to 11 felony counts and the possibility of a 150 year sentence, but because of who Bernard Madoff is, the resources he yet has available, and the “non-violent” nature of his crime, it’s likely that he won’t do hard time, even if he does live out the rest of his life on the wrong side of the razor wire.

I’ve got a big problem with that.

That Madoff didn’t brandish a Roscoe in perpetrating his crime shouldn’t get him off the hook. To the contrary, the book on Madoff’s Ponzi scheme describes his sin as so cunning and calculated that well-meaning folks unwittingly helped him in his deception. They trusted him and he violated that trust to draw more victims into his web. In addition to money, reputations were lost and some took it hard. After losing more than $1 billion of his own money as well as the fortunes of clients that trusted him, investor Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet was so burdened by the weight and consequences of his apparent inadvertent guilt that he decided to take his own life. Retired British soldier William Foxton, upon learning that he’d lost his hard-earned modest fortune to Madoff, also chose to end his own life.

It’s said that all prisons are filled with innocent men, and if you don’t believe it just ask them. My experience has been to the contrary. Most of the men who gather in the chapel during Sunday night’s Most Excellent Way service will tell you bluntly that they are guilty of their crimes. Repentance requires admission of guilt, after all, and forgiveness can only come when there’s genuine contrition. Sometimes it takes getting caught in one’s deeds to bring that kind of brokenness, but even when God forgives absolutely the state still requires that time be served, and prisons like MCI Shirley are filled beyond capacity.

I don’t for a moment believe that Madoff is beyond redemption, but if he lands in Club Fed instead of a less comfortable facility, what kind of message does that send to folks struggling in the shadow of his tony Manhattan townhouse?

Our Declaration of Independence affirms the concept of equality, yet that ideal has never been a reality in America, and if the court treats Bernard Madoff with more deference than a kid who foolishly decided to earn his bread peddling dope under a street light, or who stupidly got in a scrape over a matter of respect, or who concocted a losing scheme to take money under an empty threat, the message will resound with clarity through every struggling neighborhood in the country.

In spite of the tremendous symbolism of President Barack Obama’s presidential victory, in the United States of America there are still too many who are more equal than others.

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Keeping pace with the times, I am now on Twitter posting thoughts on faith, politics, privacy, and the occasional random observation or comment. Look me up and follow me as spinzo.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 3:00 PM | Permalink

An Evangelical’s Goodbye to Dr. Dobson

Mar
2
2009

Dr. James Dobson stepped down last week from his post as chairman of the worldwide Focus on the Family ministry.

I have been critical of the political involvement of Dr. Dobson and other evangelical leaders, and will continue to watch how he and Focus on the Family ply their influence in the political arena, but I thought it appropriate to take this opportunity to spell out my feelings as a Christian who is interested – to be polite – in the politics of the day.

I admire Dr. Dobson as an evangelical leader whose ministry has clearly been blessed and is a blessing to many. Through Focus on the Family Dr. Dobson has built a positive and effective ministry that reaches tens of thousands of families around the world each day with a message of hope and edification. Whether or not you subscribe to the Focus perspective on life, for many people the ministry’s counsel on marital issues, child-rearing, and social and moral teaching is a much needed source of comfort and guidance. Focus on the Family’s multi-media organization effectively uses all the available tools of communication to daily reach out and help people.

But Dobson’s taken advantage of his prominent position, using his pulpit to play politics and influence policy by weilding his influence among millions of Christian voters as leverage. Now, I am not against civic involvement on the part of Christians. As an Evangelical, I follow state and national politics closely and express my opinion often. I believe I have a duty as a citizen to follow my conscience and faith on political issues, but regard this as a matter of personal choice, not religious obligation. I resent being told by anyone, let alone a religious figure, that I have a moral responsibility to act in a certain way and I will continue to speak out against influential Christians like Dobson who use their position to manipulate the political process. There is a world of difference between debate and exploitation, and I believe the pages of holy scripture clearly show a better way to bring about social change.

In the Bible, the Seventeenth Chapter of the Book of Acts records an incident in which an angry mob gathers in the city of Thessalonica because of the preaching of Paul and Silas. Those behind the mob complained to the Roman authorities that the missionaries were a threat to Rome because they told of a king other than Caesar, and that they were spreading discontent everywhere they went. “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too,” they protested.

Of course, Paul and Silas were not spreading sedition or inciting rebellion. They were simply preaching the gospel message, that “this Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ” — and they turned the world upside down. In my opinion, that’s the model the Evangelical movement should follow if it wants to change the country and world: preaching and leading by example, not preaching with an eye on accruing power in the civic arena.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s there was a phenomenon in this country that became known as the Jesus Movement that grew out of and because of the simple preaching of the gospel message. At its height there was no political agenda to the Jesus Movement. To the contrary, the Jesus Movement took hold in stark contrast to the political climate of the day as many of America’s youth found in Jesus what they failed to find in their political and cultural leaders (right and left). They responded to the unadulterated message of hope and love that was lived by Christ, preached by the Apostles, and recorded in the Gospels. They turned their world upside down.

That message hasn’t changed in the two millennia that have passed since the crucifixion; neither has the desire of individuals to use that simple message to achieve selfish ends. Dr. Dobson has resigned, but the legacy he and other evangelical leaders leave behind – a ministry as political as it is spiritual – is one that should leave with them.

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Keeping pace with the times, I am now on Twitter posting thoughts on faith, politics, privacy, and the occasional random observation or comment. Look me up and follow me as spinzo.

Posted by Mike Spinney at 7:00 AM | Permalink

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