23 October 2010


Life has been quite busy lately, which means I have had no time to write a decent post. What makes this worse is that there have been lots of things to write about. Instead of whining about it I'll just point you to the stuff that makes me think and let you do it on your own.

1. Halloween has my corner of Michigan in a tizzy because it falls on a Sunday. The pious, of which we have many, find it irreligious. You can read about it if you like. To me, this is straining at gnats. Halloween has lost 99 and 44/100 of its pagan meaning to 99 and 44/100 of the people. There is as much paganism in Christmas, with its trees and elves and flying sleighs, but these same folks do not ask us to do Santa on another day. Actually, that makes more sense. St. Nicholas' Day is December 6, but obviously that won't do because it would leave only two shopping weeks. God is good, but gold is better.

2. A major reason people seek a religious community is that they have kids and suddenly they are asking about God and stuff. Bruce Feiler writes about this in a recent NYTimes essay. Read it. Oddly, these conversations were quite rare in our house, and maybe just maybe, that was because religious life in our house was not unusual. Religion was part of their life from the outset, and Sunday worship was what we all did. When they did have questions it came from within their experience not outside it. So when parents ask me when to start bringing kids to church I say ours came at one week. Make it part of your family life, like eating dinner together and about as informal as well, and the whole issue becomes a lot easier.

3. For those stewing about income inequity, like me, it is helpful to get decent information. Lucky for me, and therefore you, there was this article written by Paul Sullivan. Read that too. The whole question, including the dreaded notion of "income redistribution" takes on a new aspect when you do.

4. Finally, an obituary caught my eye this week, so unusual and so intriguing, I just had to share it with you. Eric Joisel was a master origamist, whose paper sculptures are to paper cranes as Picasso is to coloring books. Read and sigh.

16 October 2010

The Real Enemy

Yes, the walls will come tumbling down come Election Day. The plaster and cardboard promise of the Obama administration has melted in the relentless rain or realism and republicanism.

So the angry right is telling us.

Over and over.

In commercials that will not stop.

There is no doubt that we truly do have the best country that money can buy. And yes that is a deeply sardonic and ironic sentence.

Yet it would not be possible without the lofty left as well, who "look down in high disdain" as a hymn I know says. By huffing and puffing about weakness and compromise, they have added their own sapper's effect to the conservative battering ram.

We have a perfect, if entirely understandable, example of how The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good. I am not a Rolling Stone reader, but a FB friend (shout out to Marie!) posted this link to a new article there. I commend it to you and urge you share it with others.

We seem to live in a political age where there are only two possibilities - perfection or damnation. It's as if every football play has to be a "hail mary" for the end zone and if it fails you condemn them for cowardice or failure.

Politics is a series of short runs and screen passes. (Yes, I did see the MSU game. GO GREEN!) And this president has been doing just that for two years. And most of the points have been field goals not touchdowns. Sure it would be great to see a big play. But you win on points not plays.

This president is winning. I for one will keep cheering.

11 October 2010

More Lazy Gardening Tips

Fall is falling now. The giant lovely maple beside the street is slowly letting go of its near 100,000 leaves. The hosta are curling up and getting brown. But the weather is warm this week, and so I had better do a token hour or two. First time in two or three weeks. Maybe more.

So on Saturday I went to shul and then came home to break the sabbath for two hours. First I pull up the sunflowers. They toppled over some time ago, from the squirrels climbing up to filch their seeds. They get close to the top and their weight is too much for the stalk which then crimps and folds. Sad sight.

Then it is the overgrown parsley which is crowding the rosemary. Various weeds had invaded, so that I barely see the one red leaf lettuce trying to bolt. Thank goodness we planted lots of pansies along the edge, but even they are getting louche and lazy now.

My asparagus is not yet brown, but when it does - off with their heads. Right now they look like a really ratty patch. On the other end of the bed my alpine strawberries are looking decent, but I am not sure I am willing to do all the work required for more than a few berries. But none of my non human neighbors like them, so the small crop I get from indolence is all mine. All I did was plant them. Very cool.

Some days ago a great wind sent dozens of green tennis balls, walnuts I think, from the tree next door. The squirrels have pried them open and left the debris all over the lawn. What slobs! I rake them up, along with the uprooted sunflowers, black eyed susans, milkweeds and other unwanted but eager squatters I have plucked. Then it is time to cut down the woody stalks of the hosta, asiatic lilies. My arms ached from raking them over the the side of the garage.

This morning I fought the ivy that grows through the fence from my neighbor, pulled down some other creeper that is crawling up my garage - AGAIN! Over ripe tomatoes squish underfoot. My two tomato plants keep on growing. They are so thick that fruit hides under the vines. That sounds like a shame, except that I cannot consume them fast enough. I have given away more than half of the crop. What fun that was.

A few more hosta stalks, a hair cut for the vinca and the lemon lily leaves, and I am done. I could do more, but as I said before, this is a relationship with other living things. When cutting the aim is not control but compromise. Holding it like my hair cutter does my own locks, the shears only trim. Trying for presentable not perfection.

When the frost comes the tomato will die back and I'll call the local dump truck guy to haul all of it to the town compost pile. Yes, I should do it myself. But as a lazy gardener that is simply one step too far.

05 October 2010

Who's Rich?

Nobody wants to pay taxes, with the possible exception of Warren Buffett and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The latter, a solid New England Republican, famously opined, "I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilization."

Because no one likes them, the question of who should pay how much is always loaded. Hence the furor over the misnamed Bush Tax Cuts. (They are misnamed because presidents do not make laws. For the same reason there is no such thing as Obamacare either. And they are not tax cuts but tax rates. But politicians like to talk about cutting taxes not setting them, and the incentive to rehabilitate the former president is another motivation.) Ought we continue with these rates, or should they be raised? The furor is not over whether average Americans (usually called middle class by politicians) should pay more, but whether above average Americans ought to pay more. You know the argument so I am not repeating it here.

What makes me think about it is something I read in the September 30 NY Times. It was a fascinating article because it considered something I have long thought about - Who's Rich? Go ahead and read it, but my interest is in settling this matter.

We know who is poor; namely, those who do not have enough to be secure in the basic needs of life like food and clothing and shelter (a short list). That can be calculated by looking at the costs for such things. But when do we go from enough to more than enough?

Peter Singer, the ethicist at Princeton and David Platt, a young evangelical preacher, both believe enough is around $50,000. More than that is more than you need. Recent polling tells us that happiness maxes out around $75,000. Not only does that make some sense because it deals with contentment not just survival, it allows for a little more cushion. The fight in Congress is over whether $250,000 is more than enough, considerably more than is rationally and religiously and emotionally necessary, according to Singer and Platt and Gallup.

My interest is moral. I say being rich is a moral state, a status relative to other people in society. As a cleric, I know that being rich is morally suspect. Just read a holy book or two and the opinion is always against wealth. One of the few things the world's religions tend to agree on, it turns out.

But one need not be religious to recognize the moral danger of wealth. As I mentioned in a previous post, money=power. When one person has much more than another, that person has more power than another. In a democracy, great inequities of power are dangerous to society. If the well being of society is a moral matter (and morality is by definition primarily about social relations) and democracy and equality are important elements in a good society, then wealth is a deeply moral matter.

But for precisely that reason it cannot be set by a number like poverty because wealth is always measured by how much one has compared to how little others do. If everyone had $1,000,000,000 no one would be rich at all. Being rich means have more than most people.

But how much more makes one rich? Twice the poverty rate? Thrice $50,000? Four times $75,000? About 73% of American households earn $75,000 or less. (No wonder we're such a cranky country!) That means one in four Americans have more than enough to make them happy.

But, you say, it takes more to live in New York than in New Buffalo. Rightly so. But not all people who make more than $75,000 are in New York or San Francisco or in Beverly Hills (90210!) or the other pricey enclaves of the rich.

But, you say again, they have larger bills to pay. Maybe so, but those bills came from choices made because the money was available, not the other way around. Morally, neither factor is mitigating.

But as one who lives above the happiness threshold financially, I know I do not feel rich when compared to the wealthy on TV and in the news. The income curve gets steeper and steeper. You may have heard that something less than 6% of the population owns or controls 25% of the wealth in the nation. In fact, almost everyone who is rich compared to average Americans is poor compared to the upper echelons of income and wealth. As the Wikipedia article on wealth distribution puts it: "While households in the top 1.5% of households had incomes exceeding $250,000, 443% above the national median, their incomes were still 2200% lower than those of the top .01% of households."

This leads me to believe that my initial analysis years ago still holds water, morally. That is, if you make more in a year than the average worker earns in a lifetime you are rich, in the morally suspect sense of the term. You have not just more than enough. You have too much - too much money and power for the well being of a free and democratic and therefore egalitarian society. It may be fine in a monarchy or an aristocracy, but in a democracy it is too much.

At the moment, that moral cusp is about 2 million. $45,000 times 45 years. I think tax rates ought to exceed 60% by the time you cross that line. It may seem wrong to you, if you have that money, and maybe it is in some personal sense. But the greater evil is that so much power and money reside in one mere fallible mortal.

Great wealth is a danger to a free society. But we don't hear our leaders saying it? Why?

Because they only get elected using money from those who far more than enough. You might say that today the rich do not buy civilization; they buy politicians. But that's another post. This one is already too long.

Discuss amongst yourselves.