Sunday, June 25, 2006

Taste of Champaign, Where I Annoy Socialists

I went to Taste of Champaign yesterday, which is becoming too big for its own good. Literally gobs of people fill West Side Park for the event, which I walk through every day to get to work. It’s funny how possessive I am of familiar places. What are all these people doing in my park? And where are the drunk guys who usually sit on the picnic tables? Well, technically there are still drunk guys sitting on picnic tables, but the familiar ones have been replaced with city-approved citizens having a good time.

In order to maximize the amount of money that can be extracted from everyone, you have to stand in long lines to get tickets, and then stand in more long lines to exchange those tickets for food at the vendor tents. It is a bit like a casino, where they want to decouple the activity (in this case the very small amount of food you get) from the actual amount of money you pay for it, so you don’t realize you’ve just paid three dollars for 2 nuggets of chicken satay.

I shouldn't complain too much though. It is run by the Champaign Park District and the proceeds go to scholarships for kids. I don’t mind being extorted for a good cause.

Anyway, on three separate occasions I ran into someone from the Socialist Party who wanted me to sign their petition to get on the ballot. I argued with all three of them, annoying them all greatly, and never did sign it.

Before I get shouted down for being anti-democratic (after all, I wasn’t being asked to vote for them, just to allow them to be on the ballot), let me explain. I have nothing against socialists. I'm too much of a realist to be an actual socialist, but I’m actually quite sympathetic to their values and desires to see more equity in society. I’m pretty confident that if Jesus were asked to choose between being a socialist and a capitalist, he’d have a handy parable about why the values of socialism (equality) are superior to the values of capitalism (greed). I just don’t see how running as a third party does anything to help their cause. Quite the opposite in fact – the only way they can affect an election is to help elect more Republicans, and by doing so, increase disparity.

The unfortunate truth is that our current political system is winner-take-all, and the only votes that matter in the end are the ones that are cast for a winning candidate. It seems to me that if they want to make the world a better place, they’d infiltrate the Democratic party and run where they have a chance of getting elected. And if they can’t win primaries, it should be obvious that they can’t win a general election either, and their time would be better spent working on the wider culture rather than running for office.

My question for each of the socialists was this: Why are you spending time helping Republicans, when you could be putting your energy into changing the winner-take-all system by advocating for instant runoff voting or for a proportional representative government like they have in Europe? Only then will 3rd parties matter, and not be counter-productive to what you are trying to achieve.

The ironic answer they gave me was: It is impossible to change *those* things. My response is that it is impossible to get elected as a socialist, but if you are going to fail at something, do it in a way that doesn’t hurt your cause. It should be a lot more possible to enact instant runoff voting, since there are multiple 3rd parties that can band together to work on it.

So, I didn’t sign the petition. I’m glad they are free to collect signatures and free to run if they collect enough, and that I am free to not help them waste their time on tactics that are at best doomed to fail, and at worst actively harmful to the cause of equality.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

How To Weaken Our Nation

So, this is another variation on the common theme of War is Bad, which I've been warned makes me boring and obsessive. I guess this should be considered (yet another) cry for help.

Two items caught me eye recently:
1. There is a new report about the unexpectedly high number of post-traumatic stress disorder cases the military is seeing:

2. The CIA determined that Osama bin Laden wanted Bush re-elected, which is why he released that tape a few days before the election:

So, here's a thought experiment:
Suppose you wanted to hurt the United States. Not just a one-time tragedy, but a whole series of things that will cause long-term damage to the country.

Here’s a laundry list of what you might want to accomplish:

  • Kill or physically injure tens of thousands of Americans.
  • Require us to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on another country where things mostly just get blown up.
  • Weaken our military by getting them bogged down in a war of choice, making it harder to defend the country against real threats.
  • Remove hundreds of thousands of qualified people from the workforce (say, via National Guard), forcing companies to find temporary replacements.
  • Inflame hatred of our country (for example, put soldiers in impossible situations where they fear everyone around them is a terrorist and can’t help but eventually kill unarmed civilians, including children and babies).
  • Weaken our international standing and turn the world against us (for example, scorn international treaties and organizations).
  • Weaken our national values (for example, advocate for torture as a valid interrogation technique, imprisonment without trial for foreign nationals, and wiretapping as an appropriate intrusion into privacy)
  • Weaken our ability to respond to natural disasters (for example, send people and equipment and money to an occupation effort in another country).
  • Finally, release tens of thousands of traumatized husbands, wives, mothers and fathers into the population that will strain the healthcare system and cause a ripple effect of stress and dysfunction on families for at least a generation.

Before thinking that I’m some tin-hat conspiracy theorist, note that I’m not saying Bush wants any of these effects to happen. It is just that he totally played into the hands of Al-Qaeda by starting this war, and continues to do so by refusing to disengage from it.

What’s so depressing and ironic about all this is that it isn’t Al-Qaeda that weakened us. They executed a specific attack on a specific day. Our reaction of fear, revenge and arrogance has caused far more harm to the nation than 9/11 did.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Corny Theology

There’s a question that eventually everyone asks at some point in his or her faith journey. It doesn’t matter whether you came to your faith early or late in life, whether you prefer singing four-part harmony to guitars and drums, or even matter whether you like to sit in pews or seats. Eventually, the question eats at all of us: How is having faith in God like growing corn?

Yes, admit it, this question has haunted you for years. It certainly has haunted me since moving to Central Illinois. But, finally, after fasting for thousands of hours (in very small time segments) and meditating faithfully every night just before falling asleep, I think I have a workable answer. I’m sharing it here, in the hopes that we can finally put this question to rest, and all go back to arguing about which Bible translation is the best, or placing bets on whether certain people we know are going to make the cut into heaven, which we all know to be life-affirming ways express our relationship with the Divine.

If you have the goal of stuffing your face full of corn come autumn, the first thing you need to have (aside from corn seed) is certain beliefs about corn that will guide your actions towards this desired result. Note that this specifically excludes the idea that you can simply buy your way into someone else’s corn. (In fact, scholars believe that Martin Luther would have included this in the list of grievances nailed to the door at Wittenberg, had corn been available to him at the time).

So what do you need faith in to have a personal bountiful harvest of corn? Basically, you need to believe that if you plant a bunch of corn seeds into decent soil after the last frost, and you keep them watered and they get decent sun, that they will grow out of the ground, pollinate, and produce corn, which you can then pluck off the stalk and eat and make corncob pipes with and make dolls out of the husks and still have enough left over for all the ethanol we need to save our country from its dependency on oil. Yea, verily, verily, I say unto you, corn is a good thing.

Note however, that there are number of other things that you can also believe about growing corn that are harmless, and yet yield the same results. For instance, you are entirely free to believe that corn only grows when you plant it while dressed in long flowing purple robes of silk, or that you must bow in silent prayer after planting each row, or that your field is the only place in the world where real corn grows. As long as you plant it at the right time in the right soil in the right environment, it will grow and be just as fresh and yummy when you harvest. Your dancing around each stalk when the temperature reaches 90 degrees causes no harm to the process, assuming you don’t crush any of the stalks. And Farmer Bob and Farmer Joe can disagree all they want about whether corn likes to be sung to or whispered to – the corn really doesn’t care in the end, as long as you do the necessary things it requires.

However, there are some beliefs about corn that do cause problems. If you believe that corn yields are best when planted in snow on top of rocks in mountains, or that herbicide is really the best watering technique, you’ll find yourself hungry come harvest time.

More interesting perhaps, are beliefs that merely cause your corn to underperform. Suppose you are morally opposed to weeding of any kind. This may be a fine moral position in many respects, if it is based on respect for all life, even annoyingly persistent life with no obvious value. But your corn will suffer, since it has to fight with the weeds for nutrients and attention. Or, perhaps you believe that some corn is immoral and you know it just by looking at it, so once a week you scour the fields looking for the bad corn to yank out of the ground. This will obviously give you less corn, although to be fair, it will probably make you feel better about the corn you have left in the end. And, of course, Farmer Bob will insist that it has more to do with the kind of dance you do during the full moon than anything else.

I think the most interesting beliefs about corn are the ones that work in your location, but not so well in others. For instance, you may believe that corn must always be planted on May 1st or it won’t grow. Given frost patterns in the Midwest, this would work well here, but try it too far north, and most years frost will kill the corn. Or, perhaps you live on a beach in the tropics, and corn doesn’t grow so well there no matter what you do, even after your singing and dancing, which only seem to work with the bananas. The bananas, however, are quite delicious. But, of course, bananas are said to be evil, so it takes some courage just to try them out.

What does this all have to do with faith in God? Well, it must be that those with the most faith in God are the ones who grow the most corn.

No, wait, that can’t be right. How about this: our beliefs about God are like beliefs about corn, in that some of them help immensely in our faith journey, some we hold very dear, but are actually irrelevant in the end, and others are very much a hindrance to a rich and abundant spiritual life. And while the basic nature of God does not change, like the basic principles of growing corn, we have to be careful to recognize which specific beliefs are foundational and which are relevant only to our own location and environment.

Although we can argue endlessly about which beliefs are the best, the proof really lies in what kinds of fruit (and vegetables) we bear based on those beliefs. Or put another way, what matters is what kind of people we become when we feed ourselves with the right kind of spiritual food.

And don’t worry too much if you can only grow bananas. They are actually very good for you, despite their troubling lack of similarity to corn. They are yellow, after all, which I believe to be the holiest, most nutritious and most sincere color of food. But be careful to cook them over low heat while wearing a tin foil hat or else the aliens will replace their nutrients with mind-controlling chakras. Laugh if you must, but I've never been controlled by aliens after preparing bananas that way.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Flat Tax and the Middle Child

Being a middle child, fairness is a big deal to me. I’ve been socially bred to desire and see fairness spread to all corners of the earth. It is pretty much a fool’s errand though. I long to be power hungry and controlling like eldest children or fun and irresponsible like youngest children. But alas, I’m stuck here in the middle, trying to make peace with everyone, and apparently mostly failing at it, given the general state of our conflict-ridden world.

The Flat Tax turned up in a lunch conversation yesterday, and it got me to thinking about fairness, especially as it relates to taxation.

You remember the Flat Tax, back from the olden days of the 90s. It almost seems quaint, now that we’ve mostly bankrupted the country by eagerly giving away large tax cuts to the wealthiest among us. In the days before compassionate conservatism, the wealthy used to have to work hard to transfer their tax responsibilities to others. A favorite tactic was whining that higher income is taxed at higher rates, and pointing out the unfair burden they must bear as a result. A Flat Tax, where everyone pays the same percentage, would be a much more equitable and fair way to pay taxes. Never mind that everyone’s income is already taxed at the same rate within each bracket (meaning that the first 7K of everyone’s income is taxed at 10%, and it is only the part above 325K that is taxed at the highest rate of 35%). It is unfair that the part of one’s income that is used to buy vacation homes is taxed at a higher rate than the part that is used to buy bread.

I gave my inner middle child some coffee and donuts and told it to mull this over. I’m not sure whether it was the sugar or caffeine, but it came up with a surprising but logical result. I think I could actually be on board with the Flat Tax, with one major condition. If it is unfair to tax people at different rates, then let’s solve the problem by just mandating that everyone make the same amount of money. Flat Income. Flat Tax. Fairness Achieved. We are all guaranteed to pay the same amount in taxes every year. This is much fairer than a Flat Tax, which only mandates that the same percentage be used. It is a foolproof solution to the problem of tax inequity.

I guess this idea isn’t really too surprising though. After all, it is really just the natural conclusion one would draw when calling for fairness in social policy. Frankly, I'm a little surprised that wealthy people would be advocating for this kind of thing. Seems a little socialist and radical to me. I’m also pretty sure it wouldn’t work very well in practice. But, hey, I don’t want to start poking holes in the logic people use to justify their stances. That would be unfair.

I think the lesson here is not to try to use fairness as an argument to a middle child, when, in fact, what you are arguing for is the right to be greedy. It is like arguing that you deserve more icing because you have more cake than anyone else. Middle children naturally see through such moves, and it makes us snarky.