Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The problem with Ryan's Medicare Plan....

is that no one can make money selling health insurance to elderly people.  They get sick too often.  Every year a bunch of them die after running up big medical bills.  Just to keep a 75 year old person healthy costs a lot of money in doctor's visits, drugs and preventative maintenance.

The Ryan plan gives seniors a voucher to buy insurance on the open market.  It is a massive government intervention in the health insurance product.  It creates a market for an inherently unprofitable product.

Every insurance company is going to want to collect as many of these voucher checks as possible.  Every senior is going to have one and it will be worth thousands of dollar.  But once the insurance company has the customer, the only way to make money is to minimize the care that senior gets.  The result will be empty shell insurance plans:  the best thing about the plan is the advertisements.  It turns out that all sorts of unexpected things are not covered, and that the reimbursement rates are low. 

After a while, the insurance company will cancel your coverage.  Even with the voucher, they will start losing money on some people.  Those people will go on the traditional Medicare system.  However, the health care costs of the people on Medicare will be rising very rapidly; after all, the sickest seniors are on it.  Some bright young GOP congressperson will be being praised in DC for having the courage to "tackle the tough questions about runaway Medicare costs."  A new privatization plan will be offered with even bigger checks to the insurance companies.  In the meantime, traditional Medicare will be a cheap dumping ground for sick and poor elders, with low reimbursement rates for overcrowded doctors and lesser hospitals.

Once a person gets even sicker and needs constant care, then a person moves  into Medicaid for long term nursing care.  But Medicaid will have been shrunk so much that many of us face a future of being warehoused in low quality nursing homes.

Now it may be that many of these abuses by insurance companies will continue to be curbed, under Obamacare.  But if GOP has the votes to pass the Ryan plan for Medicare, you can be sure that Obamacare will be gone too.  

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Romney's Taxes and Occupy

Everyone asks how Romney could be so unprepared to release his tax returns when he has been aiming at the Presidency for years and years and years.  How could he be willing to give McCain 23 years of tax returns in 2008, and unwilling to reveal more than a fraction of that in 2012?

(Let's leave aside the suspicion that no one in McCain campaign higher than an intern did anything more with Romney's tax returns than put them in a box on the shelf.  Romney was never seriously considered as McCain's running mate.)

What happened?

Occupy happened.

In 2008, the real question was: "Was it legal?"  Did the candidate pay the amount of taxes that the law required?  At the end of the Bush administration, it was assumed, even admirable, that one would take advantage of every possible legal means to minimize paying income taxes. 

In 2012, we are much more tuned in to the question of the inequality of wealth and income.  Occupy brought the 99:1 ratio into popular consciousness.  Romney's tax returns are now a vivid example of how the ultra-wealthy play by different rules, how they make and protect their wealth from the common obligations of society.  The scandal is that whatever Romney paid, it WAS legal, even if he paid nothing on 20 million dollars of income.  Romney's tax returns will be a case study in how our economy was legally looted by speculative, financial capital.

The sea change in our politics is this lens of the 99:1 ratio, which comes from the Occupy movement. Inequality, not legality, is the key issue.

Romney wanted this election to be a referendum on Obama's economic performance.  Occupy changed the terms and so, the election is shaping up to be instead, a referendum on the 1%'s mismanagement, exploitation and looting of the nation for the last 32 years.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Peacebang and Perils of Reformation

The Perils of the Reformation.

Peacebangs latest post about "Transformation" in Liberal Religion demonstrates the endless circularity in which liberal religion talks to itself.  And it shows that our never evolving circular discussion among ourselves about what is wrong with ourselves traps us. 

Now everyone who knows me knows that I love Peacebang, so I am not hating on her.

Go read her post and come back.

She begins by responding to the talk about the language of "transformation" now attached to the Unitarian Universalist Justice GA in Phoenix.  This establishes the target or the strawman of the piece: the notion of liberal religion whose work is to transform people into political activists. 

Time out: someone wise once distinguished between reformationist talk and revelatory talk in religious dialogue.  Peacebang, for the most part talks a reformationist discourse. 

So does most Unitarian Universalist theological inquiry and talk. 

Reformationist discourse is talking about what kind of church we should be.  It's part of the great project which has captured the UU imagination since 1968 -- answering the great existential question of "what is wrong with us?"

So reformationist discourse goes down a well-worn path:  what are we doing?  Why isn't it what we should be doing? What should we be doing, instead? If you look, you will see that this well-worn path is the outline of most discussion of Unitarian Universalism.   Somewhere in there, you also need some reference to our lack of growth and/or limited demographic diversity.

So for Peacebang, what we are doing is talking about political activism as transformation.  We shouldn't be doing that because is so limited compared to the personal growth and maturation that we all need.  What we should be doing is offering other ways of transformation -- which she does, and even says that we are already doing it, just not enough.

Her commentary shifts the focus back to ourselves.  Our ridiculous selves.  Our vain claim that we might have done some good.  (I actually think that what was transformative about Justice GA was that the calculation of what good it was going to do for us was tenuous.  We came from all across the country to stand with a community under great pressure from their local government.  Did it matter if it did us good?  Maybe all that should be counted is whether it did that local community any good.) 

I am convinced that this reformationist focus on ourselves became an engrained worldview during the period of Unitarian Universalism's exile period of 1968 to 2008, when all forms of conservativism were on the offensive and all forms of liberalism were on the defensive.

 "What's wrong with us?"  

One of the things wrong with us, I am told, is that the only way to go deeper into Unitarian Universalism is to become a minister.  That is usually said in evidence of our lack of spiritual practice or theological depth.  I think that it demonstrates that the real work of Unitarian Universalism has become fixing Unitarian Universalism.  Given that, why wouldn't you become a minister?

Peacebang offers up several examples of real transformation -- several personal movements of the spirit that matter.

"all who move beyond the littleness of their opinions, preferences and comforts and into the world as a helper, a healer, an advocate, and an intimate in the human struggle."

She imagines the following examples:

Starting a support group for the unemployed, visiting the bereaved, ending one's reactivity to the reminders of religious past, compromising in church community, even just standing up for oneself. 

These point to the revelation to which we in liberal religion are witnesses.  We have come to know that these kind of gestures and commitments make for a different and better life.

Revelationist discourse witnesses to the wisdom that a religous body has come to know.  Reformationist discourse analyzes how a religious body is failing to live up to its purpose.

I believe that Unitarian Universalism is an effective witnesses to the call to go into the world as "a helper, a healer, an advocate and an intimate in the human struggle." 

UU Reformationist discourse usually ends with a some vision of what we should say and we should do.  Unfortunately, it often seems like  not nearly as much energy and genius has gone into that vision than has gone into the analysis of what we are now doing, and doing wrong.  Our vision is often at the end and buried under a lot of snark and self-deprecation verging on self-disgust.

We should be calling people to those visions.  Go into the world as "a helper, a healer, an advocate and an intimate." Our good news, our gospel and our revelation is that you can and to do so will bring you love and save you from boredom and despair. 

Of course, Reformationist discourse is tremendously off-putting, compared to preaching our shared gospel.   Why would anyone want to throw in with a group of people whose main concern is what is wrong with themselves?  Or people who think that everyone should be a UU, except the ones who currently are.

Preachers!  Throw out the first half of your sermon. 

Peacebang!  Start at the end. 

Quit speaking to the other ministers about what kind of church we should be, and tell us all, clergy and lay alike, what kind of people we should be.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Behind the Man with the Gun Lies the Apocalypse

If God made all the world and all the world's people, when and why would God unmake us all?  The question is inevitable  for all the cosmic monotheists of the world.

All the world, or maybe just all the world's institutions, will someday be destroyed in a cosmic cleansing fire.  The end of the world.

Really, when you think about it, it is hard to imagine as a real prospect.  The Earth is a watery rock floating in space with a 25,000 mile circumference.  It will endure.  Humanity itself will hard to wipe out.  The world is so large, with so many micro-environmental niches, that it is likely some humans would survive even the most devastating environmental disaster. 

No, the end of the world, the apocalypse does not arise from any concrete reality, but as the logical consequence of the thought of a single-creator God. It is a mental construction.

Not that the apocalypse has not captured the human imagination.  As a meme, it has jumped out of theology and religion and entered into politics, sociology, psychology and mass entertainment.  And it is not feared, but waited upon.

And for some, it becomes a purpose of their life to invite it, to provoke it.

Doesn't it seem that every man with a gun, carrying out his deadly mission of a mass shooting in a public place is trying to provoke, in some way or form, the cleansing fire of the apocalypse.  The race war, the revolution, war that will end the world.  Sending up a signal flare so that God may target His thunderbolts.

It is not guns; it is not the theology; it is not the cause; it is not the mental illness, though all of these play a part.  It is the yearning to play a part in the ending of it all. 

Of course, they usually get their wish.  The mass shooting is often suicide by attempted apocalypse.   Their world does end. 

But some live, remaining as impenetrable characters of nihilistic yearning: the Joker. 

All visions of the apocalypse are genocidal fantasies -- a projection onto God of a violent murderous rage that would destroy all "those" people.

It will not work that way.  In all ways that matter, life will be going on -- almost all of us people will be here tomorrow, plus some new ones.  -- the universe is unconquerable -- we have no choice but to learn how to live with it.

Learning about Immigration

My sermon today, reflecting on some of what I learned at Justice GA.

Learning About Immigration

The story from “The Death of Josseline”

I am a big picture kind of guy.  When I engage a social and political issue, I want to get the big picture about it -- set it into its overall historical and political context.  How did it come to pass that we are in the situation we are in.  How did we come to the place where hundreds of people are dying in the deserts of Arizona, trying to sneak into the United States of America to work, by trying to walk through some of the most dangerous unfriendly terrain possible?  How did we get to the point where it is controversial, and perhaps illegal, to leave water in the desert for those thirsty travelers?

This year’s General Assembly was held in Phoenix, Arizona and was dedicated to learning about immigration, especially immigration from Mexico and Central America in the Southwest.  There is a story there of how that came to be in itself. 

Briefly: in 2010, Arizona’s legislature passed a bill that was seen as overtly hostile to the immigrant community in Mexico.  It essentially required police to check the immigration status of anyone about whom it was reasonable to suspect that they were in the US without documentation.  It is inescapable that the practical effect of this law would be place all Hispanics in Arizona under suspicion and require them to be able to produce documentation of their citizenship at all times. 

A large nation wide protest was called for Arizona, including a boycott campaign; various organizations chose not to have conventions and conferences in Arizona.   This was in 2010.  The UUA had already committed itself to having its General Assembly in Phoenix in 2012 -- they work about 5-6 years in advance.  So there was a call from within the UUA to move the General Assembly.  Naturally, this was controversial in and of itself.  Add to that, the UUA would have had to lose about $600,000 in deposits already paid, if it moved the meeting.  

Two camps developed, you might say.  On the one side were the Institutionalists -- who said -- look, we’re broke, the UUA has lost about 20% of its income in the recession, is cutting millions from its budget, and we cannot afford to throw away $600K to make a political point.  On the other side, let’s call them the anti-racists -- said “look, injustice is here, a boycott is on, lots of people are boycotting, Major League ballplayers on down.  Everybody has a price of their soul, the number for which they will sell out -- are you saying ours is 600K, which is about $4 per member?

Interestingly enough, it was our local Arizona congregations who saw another way through this rapidly polarizing situation.  They, especially the church in Phoenix, but also
some others locations, had been all ready working on the immigration issue with local partners, community organization in the Arizona immigrant communities.  Those organizations suggested that the UUA come, but come to learn about the immigration issue, and to stand with them against the racial profiling and other injustices of the situation there.   And that is what we did. Instead of a regular GA, we had a Justice GA.  About 3600 Unitarian Universalists from all over the country, many of whom are opinion leaders in their community, came to learn about an issue that was unfamiliar to many.  It was by all measures, a great success.  We heard local speakers from Chicano and Native American communities, from law professors on the doctrine of discovery, from Washington think tanks on immigration etc.  A small number of local people, immigration activists participated in all of our sessions, working toward and achieving a relationship of mutual respect and partnership. 

I learned a lot, but it has taken me a while to sort it all out.  So I have been processing away ever since.  This sermon has helped me think about it.

I think I want to give you two main big picture points. 

The problem of what we call “illegal immigration” is a solvable problem.  In fact, on the broadest policy level it has been solved.   The first element of the problem is that we have about eleven or twelve million undocumented persons living in the United States -- about the size of the population of the state of Ohio.    Secondly, although we need their work, our visa and work permit system does not allow us to easily get the labor to do what people want to get done.  I recall eating in restaurant in Oslo, Norway; the server was a college student from Sweden.  Norway and Sweden had work permit and visa regulations that made it very easy for a Swede to work temporarily in Norway.  Our server was going home to Sweden at the end of the summer. The third problem is that because there are limited legal ways to work temporarily in unskilled labor in the US, there is a large flow of unsanctioned migration across our borders, which sets up a criminal black market, and danger.

The basic elements of a what is called comprehensive long-term immigration reform are then, three things: (1)  a path to citizenship for the present undocumented residents in the country (2) a more flexible visa system that allows the people who want to do jobs in the United States to get here to do the jobs and then return home, all within the system and (3) better border security.

These three elements were addressed in a bill in 2007.  The bill had the support of Edward Kennedy and most Democrats, President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain.  It passed the House of Representatives and received 53 votes to bring to the floor in the Senate.  If the US senate operated by majority rule, it would have passed.  Of course, there were elements of the bill that some people objected to, but it could be a policy framework upon which to build.

The issue upon which this potential reform act foundered was the widespread fear that it’s path to citizenship represented an amnesty of some sort.  Which brings us to the second big picture point I want to make. 

For almost the entire history of the Republic, immigration policy has been made with an eye to preserving the racial character of a European white America.   Immigration policy has been made with a white nationalist assumption -- that the United States is a country ordained to be a predominantly white.  Real Americans are white. 
No one says that anymore out loud, although if you listen to country music for example, you hear many songs extolling the real America of white small towns and the All-American girl as blue-eyed and blond.  In fact, any reference to “real America” usually has a racial subtext, or presumption.

No one says it out loud now, but for most our history, they did. Historically, the discussion of immigration policy was about how to shape the national character by controlling what nationalities were able to come into the country. 

For most of the country’s history, white Europeans have had almost completely free immigration rights into the country.  Most of our ancestors in this room came without restriction.  Less than 1% of the people who presented themselves at Ellis Island were rejected -- usually only for carrying infectious diseases, or moral reasons -- most notably prostitution on the ships.    

But on the other side of the continent, and throughout much of the same time, Chinese people were excluded from coming into the United States.  Too many Chinese would spoil the national character, it was thought.

For a long time, immigration slots were available on a formula proportional to the present population of the United States.  Hence, there were many spots available for British and German people, because these are large communities in the US -- much less for people from Asia, Africa, Latin America.  Even now, when immigration slots are assigned on the basis of education and skill, the explicit goal is to shape American culture by regulating who can come and can’t come in.  Could there be no better proof that the goal of immigration policy has been largely to preserve the present ethnic mix of the United States?

These same fears of a changing culture in America seem to be bubbling under the surface of in some of the contentious points in immigration discussions -- English as the offical language, suspicions that a path to citizenship for millions of residents is a plot to increase the Democratic vote, or Arizona’s companion law to SB1070 which forbade the teaching of Hispanic culture and history in Arizona schools and restricted bl-lingual education.

With this in mind, it is useful to step back from Arizona and see what is going on there. 

Tucson and Phoenix are, you must remember, unsustainable and artificial cities.  My father and mother moved to Tucson in 1971 and when I would visit, my father would often say, as we looked out over the city from the foothills -- that in 100 years it would all be gone.  They would drain the Oglalla aquifer, the underground water source under much of Arizona, run out of water, dry up and blow away.  It is more of moon colony than a real economy.   But they are currently active and thriving cities, attracting two different populations.  One is a largely white, older population from all over the United States.  The other is poorer, spanish-speaking population from Mexico and Latin America, who were there first, but in much smaller numbers. You could argue that both of these populations are invaders and settlers.  But it is the white population that has the power and the money. 

The conflicts in Arizona now are conflicts between communities.  The white community is alarmed at the growth of Latino and Latina population.  They know that many are here outside of the official immigration process and would to induce the “illegals” as they call them to leave.  Self-deportation they call it.  To make life so difficult for undocumented people to stay that they voluntarily leave.  Nothing against the legals, just the illegals. ON the ground, however, this distinction is meaningless -- people with papers and people without papers live in the same communities and are intertwined within families.  And the fact that by being born here, children have different citizenship status than even their parents.  To put pressure on quote illegals unquote is to make the entire Chicano community under pressure -- to turn the hostility of the government toward an entire community.  Self-deportation is a lower level of ethnic cleansing.

It is no surprise that the Chicano community, both documented and undocumented is fighting back.  And I am perfectly comfortable being on their side.

You see, I mourn for another America -- several other Americas that were possible, but not allowed to be.  These other Americas are siblings to us, but died young and never saw maturity.

There is an America that does not include this southwest arizona -- that did not divide the Tohono O’Odam nation with a straight line drawn on a map in the Gadsen Purchase.   That those people who intermarried and intermixed with the Spanish settlers would have had the freedom to develop on their own.

There is an America that could have been after the Civil War -- suppose we had stayed the course on the Reconstruction and built an interracial democracy in the South.  Suppose the Negro slaves did get their 40 acres and mule, and they retained the vote and the rights of citizens that were promised by the 14th amendment.  Just suppose -- suppose there had been no lynchings and segregation and economic exploitation by the share cropping system.  Suppose their work had made them wealthy.  Suppose there was no need for the Great Migration.  None of what happened was inevitable, the whole history -- the re-enslavement through debt, Jim Crow the loss of voting rights, segregation, the exclusion of agricultural workers and share croppers from Social Security -- all that were conscious decisions made in the light of day with the tacit approval of people like us. 

I mourn that lost America -- an America that was not allowed to mature.

I mourn the lost Chinese America -- what would our country have become had the Chinese not been excluded in the 19th century?  Suppose we had not confiscated the land of Japanese American farmers in WW2.  Lost Americas that could have been.

And the most mind-boggling of all -- suppose Europeans had migrated to the New World, and not conquered it. 

We all know that the demographic transformation of the United States is coming -- that someday soon, the majority of people will not be what we call ‘white people.”  We carry a faith that it will still be the country we love, different but still the same. 

Historians may look at the entire period of 200 years between the Civil War as the period when the old white power structure held on against a rising tide of population and cultural diversity.  They put up a long struggle, those Euro-Americans, but in the end, it was not meant to be. 

But there were some along the way and in increasing numbers, embodied a greater love for all humanity, that welcomed this transformation and eased its way.  I hope that we are in that number.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Writing off Christianity?

DairystateDad writes in a comment to an older post:

I question how sweepingly you write off the Mainline churches here & in your other talk/post, the one on secularism. Similarly, I question how sweepingly you seem to write off Christianity in general, especially in that post. Individual Mainline congregations are thriving, as far as I can see -- and often they have a strong and decidedly progressive social justice mission. (DairyStateMom attends one, & it's not the only one by far.) And there's a lot of what I see as positive ferment in pockets of Christianity, in movements like the Emergent Church, which is similarly engaged with missional work that often aligns well with our values as UU s. I wonder what your take is on these developments is... on UU's Living Their Mission

Good ministry is good ministry, whoever does it, and it doesn't much matter what I think of it.

Understand that my basic theological approach is Christian.  I do think that Christianity is a busted brand in the west and largely unconnected with any liberatory impulse.  Too many people have justified too many systems of oppression in the name of Jesus for too long.  So, I believe that it is Good Friday for the church.

I just don't think that our task, as Christians now, is to "defend the faith."  It is to do the work of the faith. It is to have faith -- not loyalty to the historic institutions of the church, not even loyalty to rituals and doctrines and formulations of the church, but simple faith that if we carry on in reverence and gratitude ("loving God") and develop our capacity to act with compassion and justice (loving our neighbor), we might witness the resurrection of the church.  Or not.  After all, at the core of our faith is the belief that death and resurrection is how God works.  But, there is no guarantee that we will see the moment of transformation, ourselves. 

Please understand, DairyDad, that I serve a pretty traditional UU church that says the Lords Prayer weekly, reads the Bible weekly and has a covenant that mentions Jesus, God and Worship, all in one sentence.  And the core of my ministry is preaching and teaching, much more so than the tasks of administrative and institutional leadership to which I give more time than I would like.   But I cannot see the purpose in devoting my preaching and teaching to trying to persuade people that despite all that they can see, that there is a warm, humane, liberating Christianity, now hidden and suppressed, and slowly emerging from the church they have walked away from. 

You can call it "writing it off".  I call it "letting it go."

Let's see what happens next.