What else has been infected?

Most Americans can spit-out a few details about our current public health crisis. It is a truism in an age of individualism, however, that if a public issue does not affect a person directly, that person may not put much effort into learning what’s going on.

The picture regarding civic knowledge gets even muddier when we consider that there are other “viruses” at loose in society today. I am referring not to actual biological critters, but more social, economic, and political type bugs.

We have known for a long time that Washington D.C. has been infected with what has been called Potomac Fever. This is the phenomenon of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newbies to Congress seriously wanting to change the world, but quickly getting corrupted by money, power, fame, lobbyists . . . you name it.

Quinoa salad, chocolate cake and even socially distanced contact with other human beings can capture my attention pretty easily, let alone all the glitter and glam that catches people’s eyes in the nation’s capitol.

There one finds beautiful, friendly, accommodating people galore, and all the swag they bring along with them. So, what else is America infected with other than the virus? I would say, just like politicians, the average American is infected with love of money, power, fame, friends, flattery, likes, entertainment, free stuff, addiction (not-free stuff), loosening of restraints, luxury, sex, freedom from responsibility, to name a few . . . oh, and amnesia. We have lost our minds completely, at least that part of our minds where knowledge of the past is stored.

This blog will be posting commentary on current events with a silver lining thrown in . . . some powerful context, or perspective, provided by American history and world history, religious history and government history, legal history and social history.  And no, it won’t be boring, because history don’t lie.

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Ignorance is the real virus

A news item shocks us and we respond on a particular wavelength. Usually our concern has already been expressed by one of our favorite personal gurus. What would Jesus say? What did my favorite celebrity tweet? What is the political party line?

When was the last time you added a fact from history to give a little background to your argument? Today you are thinking Trump is not setting a good example on how to dig into an issue and inspire progress. The virus has not flattened many places, and has shown consistent daily decline in zero states. But the Commander in Chief just once again said, “Let’s see what happens.” And you know that kicking back and just watching things unfold is not the most responsible thing for the President to be doing.

What can we compare this President’s laid-back approach to?

Someone who has read a little American history could maybe compare today’s presidential behavior to presidential behavior in the 1930s when the polio virus was breaking out across the country. Then, Franklin Roosevelt encouraged a massive research and development project to find a solution. This effort led to the March of Dimes and ultimately to a vaccine for polio, but it took more than a decade. Now that was a serious national approach.

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The Puritans Knew How to Regulate the Economy

America has become a nation of profiteers who seduce consumers into buying stuff that is bad for them. Over the past decade consumers were seduced into buying homes they could not afford. The profiteers got enormously wealthy while the people lost homes and jobs.

 The tobacco industry puts cooling chemicals into the cigarette mix to smooth over the consumer’s pathway to cancer. They get rich while our children go bankrupt with medical bills. McDonalds built playhouses in their restaurants and seduced families for generations to eat greasy, fatty, sugary foods. The corporation makes billions but now our grandkids can barely waddle out the door to school each day.

Precious few regulations have been put in place as a result of the great recession that hit in 2008. In fact, there is a backlash against regulation. We even see Congresspersons and movies outing Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” philosophy of complete liberation of business and personal conduct.

But the founding fathers and mothers knew that while the impulse to economic freedom was often good in people, it needed to be carefully bound, especially on the local level, in order to avoid the kinds of rapacious behavior we see today. The colonies and states enacted laws to regulate what people could sell and buy (sumptuary laws). They enacted high taxes on things bad for individuals and for democracy (luxury taxes). They banned or heavily regulated “speculation,” the kinds of legalized gambling we see shot all through Wall Street and Main Street today.

 Now comes the news that 19 gambling casinos on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg will be temporarily closed down due to flooding. If this were the America of our ancestors, they would never have been built in the first place.

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A Debt We Owe

            According to a well respected textbook on American economic history, the Currency Act of 1751 specified that the new world colonies must retire all government debt by means of taxes within two years. Today, of course, budget gurus like Paul Ryan in the Congress, together with White House budget experts, have set a goal of reducing a mere quarter of the federal deficit over the next ten years or so—reducing a projected sixteen trillion dollar deficit by perhaps four trillion.          

            Just weeks ago the federal government came to the brink of a shutdown over what was to be done with the budget in the last half of fiscal year 2011. Much ballyhoo was made over the $38.5 billion in budget “cuts” worked out between the Congress and the President. Unfortunately, the Congressional Budget Office and other watchdogs now report that the great preponderance of those cuts were written in disappearing ink. Among the cuts were monies the government already knew could not be spent, like leftover 2010 federal census money. The budget package also included earmarks already scheduled for rescission under another law as inappropriate “pork” spending. There were also cuts to reserve funds, which are not programs, just pots of money. In addition, there were increases in defense and other spending neatly folded into the budget deal that the budget negotiators failed to offset against the $38.5 billion in cuts. This sleight-of-hand is a little bit like a checkbook writer crowing about cutting $150 from the grocery budget, while at the same time forgetting to mention the addition of $175 to the “eating out” budget. 

            The recent financial crisis in mortgage banking demonstrates that the private sector has been doing just as poorly. Interestingly, a Biblical commentator living in ancient Israel describes the situation of millions of unsuccessful householders today: “Of a truth many houses shall be desolate . . . “ (Isa 5:9) That same analyst describes creditors of his day in terms that aptly describe our own Wall Street bankers. They were seen to “join house to house . . . (and) lay field to field . . . that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth.” (Isa 5:8)

          Modern day mortgage bankers joined together one home loan after another on their balance sheets, luring borrowers into signing agreements they knew the families could not fulfill. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission estimates that $1 trillion in home loans made from 2005 to 2007 were fraudulent—either structurally unfair or unaffordable. Many of these homes were lost perforce. Then, even when borrowers were meeting their obligations, many banks foreclosed on those loans unethically or illegally. At the same time, bankers joined mortgage after mortgage together into high-risk securities packages they then marketed as sound investments. They amassed fortunes and lived alone without the riffraff of the middle class and the poor invading their space.     

          Another Biblical commentator, living some 150 years after this first one, suggested that by his own day the citizenry had been thoroughly dumbed down by the economically powerful. He rued the fact that the educated pundits predicted political events and economic trends so poorly, but he sorrowed even more that “my people love to have it so.” (Jer 5:31) Also, when economic crimes were committed, those in responsible government positions did not act but instead did “overpass the deeds of the wicked.” The reason given for their inaction is much like the reason for inaction from regulators and prosecutors today—because “yet they prosper.” (Jer 5:28)

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Justice for Wall Street Thieves

          There have been several recent reports about the lack of criminal prosecution of those in the mortgage banking and securities industries who broke the law during the years leading up to the first great recession of the twenty-first century. In fact, a New York Times story from April 14, 2011 indicates that no high-profile participants in the financial disaster have yet been prosecuted. Many vehicles like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and enforcement agencies like the Justice Department, the FBI and SEC, and state attorney general offices are available to prosecute white collar crime. But there has not been much of a push or clamor for justice and there has been no fundamental change in the financial system. The same bankers who brought on the crisis are still at the helm, many of them earning incredible levels of compensation and bonuses for questionable activities as usual.

          Indeed, the executive branch of the federal government shirked its responsibility to nip many of these practices in the bud, often hiring industry leaders to serve as chickens guarding the foxes of commerce. The regulators have not been called to account for their acts of official malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance. Effective regulators play a key role in oversight of the operation of the speculative enterprises, the type of banking and insurance industries that today produce largely untested and unregulated financial instruments like credit default swaps. Such innovation begged for stringent review leading up to the crisis, but never got it from regulators.

          One Biblical commentator excoriated the pundits of his day for predicting political events and economic conditions so poorly. But he noted that the citizenry were just as ignorant, because they “love to have it so.” (Jer 5:31) Also, when economic crimes were perpetrated, those in responsible positions did not act but instead did “overpass the deeds of the wicked.” The reason given for their inaction is much like the reason for inaction from regulators and prosecutors today — because “yet they prosper.” (Jer 5:28)

          Our political ancestors understood what we seem to have lost sight of today. The great Scottish political economist Sir James Steuart, whom the founders of the nation studied alongside Adam Smith, wrote: “I constantly suppose a statesman at the head of government systematically conducting every part of it so as to prevent . . . innovations . . . from hurting any interest within the community.”Where can such a statesman be found today?

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Entertaining the Plebians in Roman America

     While the world burns with revolution, radiation, and recession, the corporate world and its electronic media puppets numb Americans with mindless entertainment and celebrity soul-sucking designed to render them bereft of intellect and feeling.

     If viewers in Grand Rapids want to be more engaged in local democratic processes, television shows like the long-running Survivor series won’t let them. The show brazenly promotes a primitive social setting of tribal alliances like that long-ago abandoned by democratic civilizations, so viewers will find constitutional citizenship and ethical behavior strange and uninteresting.

     If viewers in Little Rock want to be more engaged in humanitarian community concerns, programs like Undercover Boss and Undercover Millionaire won’t let them. On these shows, corporate executives and the neuvo riche mix among the common folk—the consumers they regularly dupe out of college savings for children—and pay back a miniscule fraction of their ill-gotten gain to these same workers and neighbors. Gullible viewers are left to believe that the aristocrats are truly godlike and will take care of the poor, so the commonwealth won’t have to.

     If viewers in Denver want to be more engaged in local learning and culture, corporate sponsors of reality TV shows like the Amazing Race won’t let them. This show features Americans galloping around the globe interrupting life in foreign lands and affording viewers a passing glance at non-Christian cultures, so that we can sigh about the world’s economic and religious poverty, and gloat about our own invidious wealth and luxurious lifestyle, all the while sitting on our butts while our own community problems multiply catastrophically.

     If viewers in San Jose want to budget their resources more responsibly in the midst of a severe recession, product marketers sponsoring ridiculously inane game shows like “Minute to Win It” and “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” won’t let them. Game shows invite Republicans and Democrats alike to rush out to casting calls and try to land a spot on a show so they can grab large cash the easy and fun way without having to curb their outrageous spending habits.

     But there is yet another major focus of the attention-deficit-producing corporate culture in America as well. It is the culture not of the wannabe rich, but of the truly rich celebrity.

     The focus of corporate America, the central government, and education, military and religious institutions on heroes of skill and wealth pushes the anti-democratic, anti-science, anti-ethics agenda of the rich and powerful. Our leaders don’t want the people to get any bright ideas of their own. The only respectable ideas are the thoughts of the glam-infested pundits. The only legitimate activities, aside from the labor the working class does for the aristocrats, are the lifestyles and deeds of the bling-wrapped celebs.

     Supreme Court decision-making about First Amendment rights must compete for air time with Charlie sheen’s contract dispute over the marketability of his Greek god personality claims.

     The progress of Trece gang injunction enforcement must compete with commentary about Lindsey Lohan’s courtroom hemline and with the story of Paul Pierce’s gum-chewing conundrum on the Boston Celtics’ basketball court.

     The Lybian civil war must compete for column inches with Tiger Woods’ swing corrections that helped him hit the ball a little straighter at the 2011 Masters.

     Even “legitimate” news outlets like major corporate nightly television news programs now serve up prurient pablum to try to woo viewership of their poorly prioritized news products.

     America really does now seriously resemble Rome at the time of its transition from republic to imperial autocracy. The only question left is which charismatic militarist — Petraeus or Mullen or some other — is a better modern counterpart to the war-lusting Roman general of the eastern front in olden times? Pompey served as a foreshadowing of up and coming opportunistic rulers like Julius Caesar and the divine Augustus.

     Will the first American emperor be a G.W. Bush protégé or a Barack Obama look-alike? And will NBC, ABC, CBS, or ESPN be the first to purposefully sacrifice the life of an athlete on a program designed to mimic Rome’s ancient gladiator snuff contest?

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America only credits authorized rescuers as saviors and heroes. Unauthorized ones are neglected, or even reviled. In fact, the Christian world technically only permits one individual to be called “savior” — the long ago resplendent Jesus Christ.

Teachers, writers, public health officials, neighborhood watchers, dissidents, whistle blowers, anti-war activists . . . ordinary citizens . . . these are anathema to the American oligarchy who own our major institutions. Only celebrities are recognized as great deed doers — those who have money and who fawn at the feet of the rulers. And maybe well behaved police, fire and military, and an occasional good Samaritan or girl scout.

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Today’s Hypocrisy

Let’s talk about the utter hypocrisy of the American who nearly faints with the thought of a hardened murderer or kidnapper going to the gallows at home. Yet this same individual encourages the American imperial Presidency in its three-prong international war effort (Iraq, Afghanistan, Lybia). The President’s war machine blithely knocks off hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and wet-behind-the-ears soldiers on foreign soil without batting an eyelash. Such hypocrisy is the mark of a very confused, or else soul-less citizen.

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