Monday, November 30, 2009

The World on His Shoulders

As the President prepares to inform the nation from West Point of his intentions on Afghanistan, I cannot help but reflect on the incredible burdens that lay on the President’s shoulders. From international crises and risk points in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, threats of nuclear proliferation in unstable and hostile regions, human rights abuses in China, Pakistani-Indian tensions and the ever present risk of nuclear escalation, the rampant dysfunction in Russian society, the epidemic of HIV/AIDS in Africa and Asia, the spread of Islamic terrorism in Indonesia, African genocide and ethnic conflict, Mexican drug violence, the futility of Israeli-Palestinian peace and the rising influence of Hamas and Hezbollah extremists; the list goes on and the tensions never cease. From the seemingly safe confines of America, the world’s troubles appear distant. Yet cumulatively these troubles far outweigh in importance the rest of the President’s agenda.

U.S. foreign policy affects almost every aspect of our daily lives. Prices, jobs, the supply of oil, taxes, the life and death of our men and women in uniform, and the safety and security of our ports and means of transportation -- all are impacted by exertions of American power and influence in foreign lands. This is, of course, not new, nor is it unique to President Obama. I have always believed that, despite our emphasis in presidential elections on domestic politics, the economy, abortion and gay marriage, health care reform, and hypothetical Supreme Court nominations, in the end what is most critical to our country’s future is how we as a nation interact with the rest of the world. Issues of war and peace always trump domestic squabbles.

When at its best, the United States can bring hope and light to the world, by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and providing aid and comfort to the neediest people. U.S funded programs like the Peace Corps, the Inter-American Foundation, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, combined with the efforts of non-governmental organizations like Oxfam, Lutheran World Relief, and Doctors Without Borders have launched ripples of justice in some of the darkest regions of the planet. At its worst, American foreign policy can inflict pain and suffering, cause destruction and wreak havoc, such as when we bomb villages and kill innocents and call it collateral damage. Sometimes the use of military power is essential to our security and the security of our friends and allies; some wars are necessary. But they should always, always, be the last resort.

Our actions have consequences, good and bad. When Peace Corps volunteers teach children in Serbia to read, or help a Cameroon farmer apply better agricultural techniques, Americans plant the seeds of peace. When we fire drone missiles into the valleys of northwest Pakistan, we inevitably sow disharmony and create future terrorists. Fair or not, much of the world's population views America through their own narrow lenses. When American values are proudly promoted by U.S. corporations and institutions abroad, we damage our credibility when our actions fail to live up to our proclamations. People and nations who should be naturally aligned with us instead turn away in disillusionment and disappointment.

There was a time when we could view the world through the bipolar lenses of the Cold War, when the only thing that really mattered in U.S. foreign policy was the Soviet-Chinese chess match and the East-West balance of power. Today, we live in a multi-polar world, one in which power is increasingly dispersed, distributed over many actors -- governments, NGOs, militia groups, major corporations and lending institutions, and world bodies -- rather than concentrated in the hands of a select group of nation states. The issues seem endless and insurmountable: the Iranian nuclear threat; the conflict with North Korea; the Israeli-Palestinian morass; the international debt crisis and the Dubai effect; mounting trade deficits; the effect of climate change on lesser-developed countries; our dependence on foreign oil; the international narcotics trade; uncontrollable immigration; world hunger and the spread of disease; the growth of Islamic extremism and, of course, terrorism.

The President has attempted, like many Presidents before him, to remain focused on his domestic agenda – health care reform and the economy. His domestic plate is certainly full. But how the President exerts American power and prestige around the world – whether he falls victim to an entrenched mindset that sees all problems as requiring a military solution, or whether he has the confidence to trust in American principles and the powerful example to which a compassionate democracy can bear witness – will determine his legacy in decades to come.

It is not always possible to reconcile morality with the hard facts of history. The United States, as the most powerful nation in the world, has never systematically thought out the legitimate uses and the inevitable limitations of power. The answer presumably does not lie either in mere swagger or in mere compassion. For President Obama, as with his predecessors, his decisions on foreign affairs, diplomacy, and the use of U.S. military might are his and his alone. In confronting the myriad of issues in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Africa, the consequences of the President's decisions will be with us all for years to come. I trust this President to make thoughtful, rational, and foresighted decisions; I may not agree with his speech tomorrow night on Afghanistan, but I will listen with an open mind, knowing that at least he understands the profound impact of his burden. The world is a heavy one.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Saint in the City: The Life, Faith, and Theology of John Steinbruck

Starting in February 2006, I began a series of conversations and correspondence with the Reverend John Steinbruck, formerly the senior pastor of Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C. I had been a member of Luther Place for several years when I lived in Washington, attracted to Steinbruck's articulate sermons and the church's emphasis on and commitment to an ideal of Christian social justice that I rarely see emulated in other churches. This essay is based on my conversations with Steinbruck, supplemented by some good old fashioned research.
To those who know him, John Steinbruck is a man of contradictions. A former Naval Chaplain with the rank of Captain, he preaches peace and protests the makers of military weaponry. The son of working class immigrant parents, he is an Ivy League educated man of letters. A faithful husband, father, and family man, he devoted his life to helping those without homes and families. A broad shouldered, husky man with a football player’s build, he possesses the gentle touch of a kind grandfather. A man of faith in an age of secularism. A preacher of the Social Gospel in an age of conservatism. A dissenter in an age of conformity. He is at once a prophetic visionary and a political pragmatist, a thoughtful intellectual and an impatient man of action.

It was not always so. In the summer of 1953, young John Steinbruck was in despair. He was a 22-year old Penn student, studying at the Wharton School of Finance, and he hated every minute of it. He did not fit into this "seminary for capitalists," as he would later call it. He was a man without direction, no sense of purpose, and casual faith. A bit of a hell-raiser, he frequented seedy bars and hustled money throwing darts and shooting pool. One afternoon, feeling down and out, having just ended a disastrous romance, he walked into a corner drug store. There, among the trashy romance novels and magazines, was a single paperback copy of Out of My Life and Thought by Albert Schweitzer. The book cost him thirty-five cents. It changed his life.

In Schweitzer, Steinbruck found an embodiment of moral virtue, a role model for a life of devoted service. Schweitzer wrote that, although he had enjoyed life as a philosopher, musician, and biblical scholar, he was plagued by "the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it." That so many people in the world were "denied that happiness by their material circumstances or their health" led Schweitzer, at the age of 30, to enroll in medical school. He would eventually build and re-build a hospital in Gabon, West Africa, and devote the remainder of his life caring to the medical needs of Africa's poor.

Steinbruck's spiritual search led him as well to Martin Wiznat, a Lutheran pastor in Philadelphia with a powerful speaking voice and a magnetism that engaged people, traits that would later be attributed to Steinbruck himself. Wiznat's theological world view was unlike any Steinbruck had ever heard. Steinbruck had been raised in the literalistic religion of his German immigrant parents, in a little known sect called the Faith Tract Mission. A pietistic movement, the Faith Tract Mission was a fundamentalist brand of Christianity that was in rebellion to the more formal, established Catholic and Lutheran churches of Europe. Steinbruck found it a religion of self-denial that encouraged a detachment from the world. Through his relationship and talks with Wiznat, Steinbruck "suddenly discovered," as he told the Washington Jewish Week in 1990, "that religion and faith could be respectable and did not require believing in three impossible things before breakfast every morning."

Wiznat saw something special in Steinbruck and remarked that God may have larger plans for him. Inspired but somewhat reluctant, Steinbruck, an industrial engineer by day, began to dabble in seminary courses by night. His continued discomfort in the world of American commerce led Steinbruck eventually to enroll full-time in the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia. There, Steinbruck was taught by energetic young professors who had studied under the top theologians of Europe -- men such as John Reumann, William Lazareth, Robert Borneman, and Martin Heinecken, intellectual giants in Lutheran circles. Steinbruck learned critical thinking in biblical analysis from scholars way ahead of their time, who took seriously Schweitzer's Quest for the Historical Jesus. Although not talked about publicly, these professors raised important questions concerning aspects of doctrinal Christianity, such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, with an eye toward re-defining that which is truly fundamental to the faith. It was the beginning of Steinbruck's personal quest to engage Christianity as a worldly-wise faith tradition, one that did not shy away from the harsh realities of life here on earth; one more interested in saving lives than saving souls. “I don’t need to resort to miracles to confirm my faith,” he told me when I sat down with him a couple of years ago. “I am to deal with the realities in the world – racism, war and peace. If 45 million people have no health care, then it is my obligation to do something about it.”

In 1956, Steinbruck married Erna Guenther, the embodiment of altruism, a woman with an unending commitment to social justice. She was light years ahead of Steinbruck in her devotion to the church, and she possessed an unwavering faith. When Steinbruck met her, she was working long hours volunteering at a Lutheran settlement house in Northeast Philadelphia, where she assisted young children and displaced refugees. Years later, when the Steinbrucks had put into place a consortium of shelters and clinics servicing the homeless in Washington, D.C., while Steinbruck preached the visionary sermons on Sunday morning, it was typically Erna who worked tirelessly behind the scenes the rest of the week preparing the food, fixing the plumbing, catching the rats, and making the beds. "John Steinbruck talks it, Erna does it," was a common refrain.

Following seminary, Steinbruck became an assistant pastor at a small country church in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. It was not a good fit, and he always seemed to find himself in trouble. When he downed a few beers at a local watering hole following a church softball game, he offended the teetotalers of the congregation. When he rode his motorcycle through town in his clerical collar, he challenged the congregation’s image of a small-town pastor. When he refused to join the Lions and Rotary Clubs, he disrespected local custom. "After that," Steinbruck told the Washington Post in a magazine profile of him in 1985, "I thought it was healthier to move on."

Steinbruck thereafter sought city churches, which he believed were great arenas from which to practice his brand of theology, and which offered many opportunities for creative ministry. He found that urban churches reflected the suffering and afflictions of their surroundings -- poverty, crime, decaying neighborhoods. It was in the city that Steinbruck found his true calling, confronting the affects of racism, discrimination, homelessness, economic inequality, and the injustices of American society.

Steinbruck served for ten years in Easton, Pennsylvania, a depressed industrial town with a melting pot of cultures and ethnicity. It was the early 1960's and the civil rights movement was in its infant stages. As some of his congregants were working-class blacks, Steinbruck became sensitized to issues that most suburban pastors avoided -- racially discriminatory practices in every aspect of the community -- that required action more than prayer.

In 1968, Steinbruck befriended two similarly-minded local clergymen, Rabbi Norton Shargel and a liberal Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Francis Connolly. In an attempt to confront the racial and other injustices in American society at that time, the three men formed an interfaith coalition, which they dubbed "ProJeCt," an acronym for Protestant, Jewish, Catholic. ProJeCt quickly caught on with the congregants of each religion, and they began working together to find solutions to the problems threatening a community that was tired of divisiveness among people of faith and favored a more positive approach to solving problems. The business community and local media embraced it and, not long thereafter, ProJeCt established a youth center, an infant wellness program, a free dental clinic, and summer programs for disadvantaged kids that took them to community parks and beaches. Now 41 years later, ProJeCt remains among the most effective community organizations in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley.

Through his friendship with Rabbi Shargel, Steinbruck became closely associated with the Jewish community, an association that would profoundly affect his ministry for the rest of his life. Rabbi Shargel taught Steinbruck that "as one works, struggles, with those who are strangers, we learn what pains them." Steinbruck accompanied Rabbi Shargel and Father Connolly on an interfaith trip to Israel in 1969. The Six Day War a recent memory, Steinbruck experienced first hand the positive exuberance of the Jewish homeland, its Zionist ideals of community, security, and cooperation. He also experienced its sorrow and pain. He visited Yad Vashem and the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto. He learned of thousands of years of Jewish struggle and survival, and the history of anti-Semitism that has so often tainted the Christian Church. He visited the Western Wall, walked the streets of historic Jerusalem, touched the waters of Jordan and Galilee, and experienced the celebration of life -- and constant fear of attack -- that embraces Israel's daily routine.

Always a scholar, Steinbruck was deeply influenced by the writings of Krister Stendahl, a former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, who authored a seminal work on the apostle Paul. In it, Stendahl argued that the Covenant of Sinai remained at once valid and viable, and that Christianity was historically and theologically wrong in attempting to fulfill an evangelistic "mission" to the Jewish people. Steinbruck found this work liberating, believing that the history of proselytizing among the Jews was responsible for much of their brutalization and suffering, including the Inquisition and centuries of persecution, culminating in the pogroms of Eastern Europe and the Holocaust.

Steinbruck discovered the meaning of kiddush haShem, pursuing justice at all costs, from the teachings of Seymour Siegel, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. This concept, together with the writings of other great theologians -- Dietrich Boenhoeffer and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel among them -- helped Steinbruck develop a central message, which eventually would define much of his life's work. As he told the Washington Post:
We are on this planet to exemplify that light, that bread, that living water, those metaphors that Jesus used, to live out the truth in a non-violent way, simply to do justice, live justly, try, in the space over which you're responsible . . . to create an oasis . . . to which the stranger can come and find refuge.
Steinbruck would put into place this concept of biblical hospitality at Luther Place Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., where he became senior pastor in 1970. Founded nearly a century before, in 1873, Luther Place was an historic, moderately sized, red stone church with a steeple located on Thomas Circle in the heart of Washington. Just five blocks from the White House – “King Herod’s Palace” as he used to call it – the church straddled an invisible border at 14th and N Streets between the halls of power, including embassies, fancy restaurants, and posh hotels, and the city's red light district, encompassing some of the nation's worst urban blight.

When Steinbruck arrived at Luther Place, he found a congregation beset with many of the problems confronting most big-city churches. The civil uprisings that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., had left scars on Washington's neighborhoods and businesses. Prostitutes and pimps, drug dealers and dope fiends loitered and lingered on the street corners. Steinbruck confronted a dying church with no sense of purpose. They owned 21,000 square feet of land, including five buildings, yet had visions only of building a parking lot. For Steinbruck, this was disgraceful. That Luther Place had so much space that was used only at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning was a violation of everything he believed and preached.

The church was renting out most of its properties on N Street, two of which were being used as houses of prostitution. One night, Steinbruck received a call at 3:00 a.m. because a pimp had thrown a young prostitute out of a third-story window. Traumatized, the congregation voted to tear down the row houses. Steinbruck thought otherwise, and under his leadership and guiding hand, a new way of thinking emerged. "All of a sudden," he recalled, "it occurred to us that the way to go was not to close up but to open up. We felt that if our space and our facilities could be used in demonic and anti-human ways, they could also be used in inspirational ways." Luther Place would become an open refuge to the “least of these” – the wandering, nomadic homeless of the nation’s capital.

By the early 1970’s, homelessness had become a huge problem in Washington, with growing numbers of mental patients released into the streets, a consequence of the de-institutionalization of mental hospitals. In response, a coalition was formed between the Community for Creative Non-Violence (led by homeless advocate Mitch Snyder), the Sojourners Community (led by the Rev. Jim Wallis), and Luther Place (led by Steinbruck) to provide shelter for those in need. Luther Place provided the space. "You don't need five years of seminary to realize that, when someone knocks on the door, you should open it," Steinbruck would later say. Inspired by Matthew 25 (“I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me”), Luther Place established an emergency shelter, first with blankets, later mattresses, sprawled on the floor of the church sanctuary. Ten bodies, then thirty, then fifty, filled the sanctuary.

Not long thereafter, Steinbruck recalled, "We made an amazing discovery – homeless people need to eat!" So Luther Place developed a food plan and prepared meals. As many of the homeless were drug and alcohol addicted, they opened a drug counseling and treatment center. As many were suffering from mental illness, with medical needs long neglected, they developed a medical clinic and provided psychiatric counseling. All of this occurred without a plan or the wherewithal to pay for it. Yet people responded. Although the CCNV eventually went its own direction, Luther Place members volunteered and a growing community of supporters eventually chipped in, including the Sojourners Community, the Catholic Worker Movement, and the Jewish community. Wesley Methodist Seminary students volunteered for overnight duty. Many others provided financial and logistical support.

Conditions were primitive at first, but in time more and more volunteers appeared and the church became instantly filled wall-to-wall each night as, in the words of Steinbruck, “the grapevine community network reached the forsaken.” Luther Place, which had been struggling to justify its existence, now could not perish for the sake of those who needed it to live. By opening its doors to the homeless and becoming a place of urban hospitality and refuge, those who presumed to save the homeless, were saved by them. "When you have a reason to live, you live," Steinbruck said.

What eventually emerged was the N Street Village, a remarkable consortium of services that help the homeless regain their self-confidence, develop life skills, and prepare, step-by-step, to return to mainstream society. Today, the N Street Village is a four-story, $16 million complex made up of shelters and clinics that offer food, clothing, housing, medical care, and social and psychiatric services to homeless women and their children. “If you want to find Jesus,” Steinbruck insists, “go to where the outcasts are -- the sick, the homeless, the poor." With prostitutes and pimps outside the church, the mentally ill homeless inside the church, Luther Place created "an integrity of the Gospel that was not planned."

Steinbruck is always careful to note that the transformation of Luther Place and the "Miracle on N Street" was not about him and he refuses to take credit for its success. In fact, there were a lot of people other than Steinbruck who were instrumental in carrying out the mission that became N Street Village – Erna Steinbruck, the lay leadership of Luther Place, its assistant pastors and administrative personnel, the members of the congregation, and the many other religious and secular organizations and individuals who provided financial and logistical support. Together, they have helped provide hope and sustenance, food and shelter, care and compassion, to thousands of homeless women and families for nearly 37 years. But none of this would have occured without Steinbruck’s vision, prodding, and ability to articulate and apply the concept of biblical hospitality, of welcoming the stranger in our midst, into the real-life, worldly mission of the church.

The Miracle on N Street is only part of the life and legacy of John Steinbruck, the man of contradictions. He would go on to lead Luther Place in many other acts of Christian social conscience -- providing sanctuary to Salvadoran refugees, and protesting the plight of Soviet Jewry, apartheid in South Africa, and the U.S. military buildup. He would be arrested for numerous acts of civil disobedience, resulting in church censures and an expanding assortment of critics. He would be invited to the White House during the Camp David accords as a symbol of Christian-Jewish unity, then banished from its grounds for the next decade for trying to convince the Reagan White House to donate the leftovers from state dinners to the homeless (they refused). He would be honored as a distinguished alumnus at the seminary for capitalists, the Wharton School of Finance, where he delivered a speech called, “The Managerial Theory of Loaves and Fishes.” In all of his actions, he exemplified the ideals of Schweitzer and Bonhoeffer, King and Heschel, and inspired countless others -- those with a strong sense of faith and those on the brink of faithlessness -- to help mend and heal a broken world.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Lingering Great Recession: Jobs Needed

Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.
--Franklin Roosevelt, Inaugural Address 1933

Confronted with bread lines, soup kitchens, and nearly a quarter of Americans without work, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew on his first day in office in 1933 that America needed a massive jobs program. Although Roosevelt wanted private industry to hire workers, he understood the limits of capitalism and knew that, to create jobs in the short term, government needed to hire people. Roosevelt did not doubt the ability of Americans to respond to a national crisis. In a display of ingenuity and creativity not matched since, he proposed legislation establishing the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Public Works Administration (PWA). Combined, these agencies funded tens of thousands of projects and put millions of people to work, building waterworks, post offices, bridges, prisons, airports, swimming pools, athletic fields, playgrounds, and railroad stations, many of which are still being used today.

  • At a time when America’s needs seemed limitless, WPA workers painted murals on post office walls, delivered books to rural areas, wrote plays, composed music, and employed more than eight million Americans. Its accomplishments were stunning, as it built or improved 651,000 miles of roads, 19,700 miles of water mains, 500 water treatment plants, 24,000 miles of sidewalks, 12,800 playgrounds, 24,000 miles of storm and sewer lines, 1,200 airport buildings, 226 hospitals, and more than 5,900 schools. Among the WPA’s most famous projects were LaGuardia airport, the San Antonio Riverwalk, and the Timberline Lodge in Oregon.
  • The CCC, Roosevelt’s favorite New Deal creation, was up and running within 37 days of Roosevelt’s inauguration. It put to work 500,000 young men (women were excluded from the CCC), who were taught skills in carpentry and masonry and performed useful work related to conservation and the development of natural resources. These young men, who lived in military style camps throughout the United States in national parks and forests, went on to plant more than three billion trees, erect 3,470 fire towers, and construct 97,000 miles of fire roads; they fought forest fires, built campgrounds, and implemented disease and insect control. By 1942, the CCC's projects positively affected virtually every state in the country.
  • PWA’s workers built the state capitol building in Oregon, the highway linking the Florida Keys to the mainland United States, San Francisco’s Bay Bridge, the city hall building in Kansas City, Outer Drive Bridge in Chicago, Washington National Airport, the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state, and Ellis Island Ferry Building. Between July 1933 and March 1939, the PWA funded over 34,000 construction projects, including airports, electricity-generating dams, and aircraft carriers. It also constructed seventy percent of the new schools and one third of the hospitals built during that time.

The investment in America’s infrastructure during the New Deal made possible the incredible economic growth that occurred after the end of World War II. Much of that infrastructure remains in use today, from bridges and dams to schools and sidewalks.

Although conservatives love to point out that New Deal spending did not end the Great Depression – it took American involvement in World War II and the mobilization of a war economy to do that – in reality, Roosevelt’s programs dramatically reduced unemployment. The unemployment rate dropped steadily from its peak at 24.9% in 1933 to 14.3% in 1937, when Roosevelt, eager to return to a balanced budget, raised taxes and cut spending. Not surprisingly, unemployment jumped back to 19.0% in 1938 and only the deficit spending of the war finally lifted the U.S. economy out of its doldrums more than three years later.

In hindsight, it is apparent that Roosevelt, whose conservative instincts precluded more radical measures, did not do enough to put even more Americans to work. Nevertheless, his jobs programs not only employed millions of American citizens – providing them with productive work and increased self-esteem – but also greatly enhanced the nation’s infrastructure. The New Deal employed millions of Americans at a relatively low cost and, while it did not end the Depression, it reduced the suffering of countless American families.

We could use a little of that New Deal spirit today. The unemployment rate in the United States is now at 10.2%, the highest it has been since the dark days of the Great Depression. It is even worse for African Americans and Hispanics, who face unemployment levels in their communities hovering above 15% and 13%, respectively. If you count the underemployed and those of all races who have given up looking for work (and who are not counted among the ranks of the unemployed), the rate exceeds 17% of the American workforce. We are indeed in the midst of a Great Recession. President Obama and Congress rightly responded to this latest crisis with a $787 billion economic stimulus package in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but there is little evidence that these billions have been targeted to putting real people to work in real jobs. We bailed out the banks, gave modest tax credits to middle-class Americans, and plugged the leaking budgets of state and local governments, but we have done nothing approaching a Rooseveltian solution to massive job losses.

Paul Krugman, the award-winning economist of the New York Times, correctly noted in a November 12, 2009 editorial that the United States does not have a jobs policy, but a GDP policy. Our policymakers believe that stimulating overall spending will make GDP grow faster, thus inducing the private sector to stop laying-off workers and to start hiring again. Americans are justly proud of our economic system, which has historically produced goods and services and created wealth at rates far exceeding anything ever before seen in history. The standard of living of most Americans has steadily increased over the past sixty years, with America the envy of the world. Although the industrial nations of Europe and Asia have largely kept pace with, and in some cases exceeded, the growth and productivity of the American economy, Americans have generally prospered. We have benefited from an expanding and increasingly educated workforce, until recently a stable financial system, and a legal and regulatory scheme designed to promote free and fair trade while checking corporate excesses. Due to progressive reforms instituted during the New Deal and after, the elderly (social security and Medicare), the poor (aid to families with dependent children and Medicaid), and children (children’s health insurance programs, mandatory education, school lunch programs) are generally protected by government programs designed to provide a social safety net. Yet cracks remain, and have grown increasingly larger, as the ranks of the unemployed have swelled.

While long-term unemployment is at its highest level since the 1930’s, the bankers – bailed out with government largesse – thrive; it was recently reported that bonuses at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan Chase, among others, are up 60% from last year, with over $30 billion scheduled to be paid out this year. The growing inequality of American society continues to present ethical and moral challenges to the defenders of a free enterprise system that enforces a callous form of social Darwinism. Thus, unemployment is on the rise at the same time that productivity, as measured by the GDP, is up by an impressive 3.5% this past quarter, and 80% of the S&P 500 reported better than expected earnings.

Why such a disparity? The United States permits employers to hire most workers "at will" which allows employees to be fired without cause at the whim of an employer. The American corporation, upon the first signs of difficulties, cuts costs by cutting people; it is how companies become more “efficient.” Unemployment thus continues to rise while the corporate bottom line improves. Unlike Germany and some other European Union countries, which have strong employment protection legislation, in the United States we fire employees and let them fend for themselves, while those untouched by layoffs continue to prosper.

Imagine if you were a farmer with a large family. One year, due to a drought and bad weather conditions, you have a very poor harvest. Your accountant advises you that, due to declining revenues, you can make ends meet if you simply evict three of your seven children. This cost cutting measure will permit the rest of your family to maintain its present lifestyle. Do you accept the accountant’s advice? Would anyone accept as ethical the farmer who implemented such a cost saving measure? Of course not, as we naturally expect the farmer to have his family make do on less until next year’s harvest. Why do we treat our economy differently? We bail out the banks to shore up our financial system – rewarding risky behavior motivated by greed – rather than ask the rich to make do with less to prevent the increased depravation suffered by recession’s victims.

It is past time to borrow a page from the New Deal and use a significant portion of the stimulus money to put people to work. It is not as if we have a shortage of needs in this country. America’s core infrastructure – roads, bridges, sewers, airports, trains, mass transit – is outdated and crumbling. While poor road conditions cost us billions of dollars in repairs and countless hours of delays, China opens a new subway system every year and Europeans travel on modernized, high-speed rail systems from Paris to Frankfurt. Our cities have an epidemic of broken pipes, dilapidated and vacant buildings, and sinkholes – just look at Camden, Philadelphia, Newark, and most any Northeastern city for examples. One-third of our schools are rundown and in need of repair. Add to this the fact that our addiction to oil has prevented any serious consideration of transitioning to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, renewable energy development, and expanded mass transit systems, and we have a recipe for a long-term decline.

Economic relief without jobs makes no sense and has a devastatingly negative affect on the psyche of millions of Americans. Workers who have been unemployed for a long time find it difficult to re-enter the labor market even after economic conditions improve; and the hidden costs of long-term unemployment – the emotional damage, for example, to children and families when parents are unemployed – are immeasurable. As Krugman argues, “We need to start doing something more than, and different from, what we’re already doing. . . . [I]t’s time for a policy that explicitly and directly targets job creation.”

Most economists acknowledge that, historically, spending on public works has a far greater effect on the economy than tax cuts, as more money is spent and jobs created at home than abroad. Let us put Americans to work where the nation’s needs are greatest – retrofitting schools and public buildings, repairing our highways and sewer systems, expanding the nation’s broadband capacity, and improving our cities and landscapes. President Obama understands this; he has put Vice President Biden in charge of a team that is making certain that federally financed projects are targeted to meet real needs, are smart investments in America’s future, and are not wasteful. But Obama, like so many Presidents before him, is caught in that great Congressional power hold that is Washington. Although $152 billion is earmarked for infrastructure investment, it constitutes only 20% of the total stimulus package. And much of that money has yet to be spent, caught in a system of earmarks and legislative trading, which leaves far too much discretion in the hands of individual state governments on how to spend the money.

Although we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on supporting a corrupt regime in Afghanistan and putting at risk the lives of American soldiers, we somehow consider the concept of employing Americans with public money to be dangerous and subversive activity. How is spending public money to create jobs and re-train workers a bad thing, when unemployment hovers at 10.2%? Do we wish to have economic and social policies that protect and look out for the general welfare of our citizens, or policies that protect the haves at the expense of everyone else? I do not have all of the answers, but I believe that looking to the New Deal and adjusting it to today’s needs is a place to start.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Winter Recess 1977: Stop the Boat, I Want to Get Off

Accompanying the youthful exuberance of departing for college is the belief in limitless possibilities, the sense that life has expanded beyond the mundane existence of suburban New Jersey. I had just completed my first semester at Wittenberg and was home for Winter Recess, disappointingly bored with my hometown after three months of independence, new friendships, beckoning adulthood, and a fresh understanding of life and the world. I had a restless heart, otherwise known as the perilous existence of an 18-year old male with time on his hands. Although I had been looking forward to Christmas and catching up with my parents, reaffirming my affections for Lady, the family dog, and reacquainting with old friends, I soon experienced the routine normalcy of pre-college home life.

With gratitude, therefore, I accompanied my parents to Florida after Christmas to visit my mother’s brother, Norm, and his third wife, Mary. My Florida relatives – two uncles and a grandmother, all on my Mom’s side – always promised fresh perspectives and a few good laughs. My grandmother had recently buried her fifth husband and, before the glue dried on the coffin, rejected marriage proposals and the courtship of two men vying for her affections at the youthful age of 75. She explained later that Frank drank too much, while Bob was too religious and thus a touch boring. Anyone who spent a little time with my grandmother was sure to leave with a story. A woman of grand contradictions, she was both a fundamentalist Christian and a staunch Democrat who carried a bottle of whiskey marked “medicine” in her glove compartment. Although she would live to be 100, she had already lived an interesting, if difficult life, holding two jobs into her seventies and struggling always to make ends meet.

Next in line was my Uncle Billy. Approachable as a teddy bear, loved by all, one never saw Billy without a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, the time of day notwithstanding. In some ways, Billy had lived a charmed life. He was married to my Aunt Shirley, a woman of class and grace and wholesome good looks; much too classy for Billy, she remained, somehow, beholden to his sentimental charm. An uneducated man with few accomplishments, Billy was nevertheless my grandfather’s favorite son, having remained in Ohio for many years to help train racehorses, while the other children – Norm and my mother – departed the Akron hillsides and chose to live apart from Grandpa’s narrow confines. Billy had never really worked an honest day in his life – he spent many of his days drinking, gambling, and hanging out in bars – yet it was impossible to become angry with Billy, for he had such sad, droopy eyes, the kind that made people melt like putty in his hands. A flawed man with a huge heart and a generous spirit, he adored Shirley, took care of my grandmother, and was always good to my Mom, so Billy was all right in my book. Although he was not much of a role model, certainly not someone you wished to emulate, we eagerly sought and anticipated his company.

Perhaps the most normal of the bunch was my Uncle Norm – though the benchmark for normalcy on this side of the family was a red flag in itself. Norm was the educated, seemingly wise one, the oldest brother; he had served in the military, earned a Ph.D. in psychology from Case Western Reserve University, and possessed a sharp wit, deep intellect, and liberal politics (completely the opposite of Billy and my grandfather). Though he made his living as a clinical psychologist – we jokingly dubbed him a cynical psychopath – he had wide and varied interests, each usually accompanied by a stiff drink and a good joke.

One of Norm’s interests was boating, for which he spoke like an old Navy man who had heroically sailed the high seas and successfully navigated the oceans in demanding conditions. Eager to display his nautical skills, Norm offered to take us out in his new boat the morning after we arrived. Looking for adventure and possessed of an undeveloped sense of wisdom and incapacity to understand the limits of my mortality, I eagerly accepted. My father would go along for the ride, as would my Aunt Mary. My mother, in her typical display of foresightedness, declined.

“Are you sure the weather is alright to go boating?” my mother asked as we walked out the door.

“Nothing to worry about, Janie,” replied Norm, “if the boat capsizes we’ll tread water and down a few slugs of whiskey.” Norm looked at me with a devilish grin and one raised eyebrow, satisfied that his sister would worry in vain the rest of the day.

Norm’s boat was a small, modest, motor-powered vessel, not likely to be on display at the annual Yacht Show. As we left for the dock, I noticed that the sky had become dark gray, the air damp and chilly, with the wind growing progressively stronger. Mary turned on the radio, which broadcast official sounding, stern warnings for all boats to stay out of the Gulf of Mexico. Norm was not easily dissuaded, however, believing that the forces of nature did not apply to him; a skeptic to his core, he rejected any perceived or imagined signs from God. Norm was used to dealing on life’s margins; a pathological risk taker and non-believer on matters of religion, he liked to drink, smoke, chase women, and have fun. My father, risk averse and devoutly religious, considered Norm a suicidal maniac.

Figuring that Norm was an experienced boatman, we hopped aboard and set for sail. The water below was choppier than I had expected, but being a novice in oceanic travels, I protested not. As the wind grew stronger, the clouds darkened and hovered ominously above us. When we finally reached the Gulf, the waters had become rough and storm worthy, the wind blowing in our faces with an unwelcome fierceness. The environment had turned cold and harsh.

“What do you think, Norm?” my father queried.

“Don’t worry about a thing, Eddie; the water’s not that deep. Pour yourself a drink.” Norm laughed as if half-crazed, happily engrossed at the thought of venturing into rugged waters in storm-threatening weather with a boat the size of a bathtub. My father looked at me with a hesitant grin, shaking his head as if to say, “This crazy family I married into.” I suddenly missed the boredom of central New Jersey.

As we ventured further out into the Gulf, I noticed to my increasing dismay that not another boat was in sight. The shoreline became a mere speck on the horizon, uncomfortably distant. My father and I sat in the stern, watching anxiously as Norm frantically steered over and around each wave, intermittently joking about the perils of boating and laughing hysterically, steering wheel in one hand, gin and tonic in the other.

With swells of water crashing down on the hull and gusts of wind pushing us erratically in multiple directions, our little vessel rocked violently back and forth. Soaked from head to toe with the taste of seawater in my mouth, I was unprepared for this particular adventure, wearing nothing but a loose fitting windbreaker over a tee shirt, jeans and sneakers. Holding intently onto the grab rails as Norm forced the boat into the eye of the wind, somehow managing to stay afloat and keeping the boat on course, I had visions of sharks and eels feeding on us when we capsized.

After what seemed like an eternity, our planned destination, a small island with a dock and a restaurant – a sliver of civilization in a desert of rocky waters – appeared as an oasis in the distance. Little did I know, however, that maneuvering the boat to shore was going to be difficult and dangerous. The trick was to prevent the boat from being caught sideways by a breaking wave, for this boat could easily capsize. Mary delicately navigated Norm over and around each passing wave. My father kept a watchful eye on waves approaching from the rear, sticking his leg in the air when one came too close. I am uncertain from where he learned the ritual – perhaps divinity school – but it seemed to work.

Then, as we moved closer to shore, I turned to my left and felt a vast rush of water, as a large, monstrous wave approached us from portside. I looked in Norm’s direction, but quickly discovered that no one else was aware of the impending danger. A scene from the Poseidon Adventure flashed before me, the oncoming rush of water about to swallow our little boat and send us into the deep, cold waters of the Gulf.

“Look out!” I yelled, frantically pointing at the advancing onslaught, my blood anxiously rushing to my head. My father looked behind him, staring back at me with panic-ridden eyes. He stuck his foot out in a desperate, final effort to alter nature’s course, but his foot was no match for the fierce pounding of the Gulf’s fast moving swell of water. The wave crashed down on us, knocking the boat off course; Norm steered instinctively, rapidly, fueled by adrenaline and gin, as the boat dodged and weaved along the break line. By some work of magic, divine intervention, or both, we managed to stay afloat.

“That was a close one. How y’all doing back there?” Norm looked back as he broke into a large grin, unable to resist delirious laughter. “Isn’t this fun, Mark?”

“Barrel of laughs,” I replied, to which Norm inexplicably broke out into renewed hysterical peals.

Cold and wet, we docked the boat and quickly advanced to the restaurant, where we drank and ate and drank some more, laughing about our great adventure, with Norm and Mary sharing stories of previous perilous undertakings. I drank to celebrate life, Norm to recognize a good time. Happy to be on land again, we sat and relished the morning’s experience, failing to consider that we had yet to return from whence we came.