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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Economics

I do not know much about economics. That needs to be stated from the beginning. I know we're in a lot trouble right now and I am seeking to understand the consequences but my learning curve is large. What I have realized however is that this tough economy is not really hurting people who have comfortable lives, like me for instance. I have not had to change my lifestyle in order to adjust to the economic circumstances. I can still buy food AND gasoline AND pay my bills. Any loss I've incurred is a paper loss that I will likely recover over time. To our credit, my husband and I live within our means. We are lucky that our means allow us to live a nice life, but even so, we carry no debt whatsoever and I feel pretty good about that about right now. But, there are many in life who are devastated by the rising costs of food, shelter, energy, and gasoline. They are having to make choices about what to buy and how to life. Taking a vacation is the farthest thing from their mind. They'd just like to take their kids for an ice cream cone once in awhile and even that has become hard to do. A struggling economy prevents the rich from getting a lot richer but it doesn't often prevent them from living well. A struggling economy cripples the poor with burdens they often can't bear and end up needing assistance. Conservatives say that the government shouldn't bear that burden. The private sector should. OK, but who's doing it? Especially when the government has in part created the burden.

It has been interesting to note the role that Sweden seems to be playing in the current economic crisis that the U.S. is facing. Apparently back in the 1990's Sweden faced a similar meltdown and have therefore been called upon to offer their perspective on how they returned their economy to a robust place. The International Herald Tribune ran an article on Tuesday that helped explain the situation. The center piece of the newspaper article highlighted the differences between the way in which Sweden "bailed out" its banks and the manner in which the U.S. Treasury is proposing we do the same. The paper reported the following: "Sweden did not just bail out its financial institutions by having the government take over the bad debts. It also clawed its way back by pugnaciously extracting equity from bank shareholders before the state started writing checks. This strategy kept banks on the hook while returning profits to taxpayers from the sale of distressed assets by granting warrants that turned the government into an owner." My understanding of the current situation is that in America, under the current suggestion, it is the shareholders who stand to lose the least and the taxpayers who stand to lose the most, the total opposite of the Swedish solution. Swedish officials say that "the tough approach toward the banks paved he way for success. It eliminated a "moral hazard", the problem of relieving investors of bad decisions. The demise of shareholders also underpinned the political consensus that helped restore stability to financial markets even before the bailout was fully under way." Putting taxpayers on the hook without offering anything in return could be a mistake, said Urban Backstrom, a senior Swedish Finance Ministry official. "The public will not support a plan if you leave the former shareholder with anything."
I don't fully understand why the shareholders should be protected. Plain and simple, the stock market is a gamble. Now when in Vegas, if you place a bet and it goes bad, the House does not let you off the hook. They don't care if you are rich, and therefore basically unaffected in your lifestyle by the loss of money, or if you are poor and end up hawking everything you do own and living in your car, or worse, a cardboard box. Why protect the gambler? That's why the stock market has high risk options and low risk options. The high risk options can earn you a lot of money but can also cost you. I just don't understand why the U.S. is so afraid to have rich people lose some money while the common person is losing their house, car, and shirt.
We need to do something, but there also needs to accountability and the losses should be shouldered by all involved and the gains should be returned to the taxpayer in some measure.
OK...enough ranting about something I'm still trying to understand. In this case I have to say however, listen to Sweden. Their plan worked.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Lables

Labels play a role in our religious and political conversations. Take the word Evangelical for instance. It is so loaded with negative images that I won't use it to describe myself anymore. This in spite of the fact that I have a very high Christology and still believe the Bible to be the measuring stick of all that I strive to do. In my mind however, the word has been co-opted by the Christian Right Wing and therefore represents a brand of Christianity with which I have little in common.
Liberal is another good word. If you use the term Liberal in Evangelical circles, well, you might as well have said heretic. Here's a news flash: Being liberal is not being sinful. I have been a bit afraid to label myself as a liberal but believe it or not, in the midst of this election, I am proud to take on the moniker. Liberals created Social Security. When Liberals have been in office, historically, the stock market is strong. Liberals want to create programs who protect poor people over protecting profits for large corporations. Liberals understand that we don't live in world where everyone ascribes to same value system and therefore we don't have the right to legislate what people should believe. Liberals seems to understand the division between church and state better than Conservatives.
Conservatives accuse liberals of being godless. We're godless because we think abortion should be legal. We're godless because we understand diversity. We're godless because we believe in civil rights for homosexuals. We're godless because we don't think that wearing a flag on your lapel is THE signal that a person is indeed totally patriotic. We're godless because we're soft on the war on terror. But this is where I take issue with this line of thinking. First of all, I am not godless. I am a committed Christian seeking to integrate my understanding of Jesus Christ with the ideals I set forth in my life. But I also understand that I can't force that world view on anyone else through legislation. So what I personally believe doesn't necessarily indicate what I think the law should be.
Let's take abortion. The Conservative bottom line is that they don't believe the government should be the organ that provides relief for people who are down and out. That should happen through the private sector. And yet, they do think the government should be involved in deciding whether or not it should be legal for a woman to abort an unwanted pregnancy. Christian conservatives spend a great deal of time and energy on this issue. It is often the only reason they will vote for a candidate. I really struggle with this perspective because often they haven't even tested the rest of the candidate's positions on other issues to ensure that they are actually going to set forth a political path that jives with the rest of their value system.
One of the first things I'd like to see in the abortion debate is a label change. I do not like the traditional positions of Pro-life/Pro-choice. Why? Because it intimates that those of us who are pro-choice are not pro-life which is ridiculous. It also intimates that those of us who are pro-choice also have no moral issue against abortion, which is also wrong. I much prefer the use of the terms pro-legal or anti-legal. No one loves abortion. No one thinks it is a great choice when faced with a difficult pregnancy. But many in our country and in our world believe that is it necessary to allow the option for women for whom a pregnancy would create greater hardship. Just because we think something is wrong doesn't mean we should legislate against it. And just because we think something is wrong doesn't mean that it isn't sometimes necessary. Take divorce for example. There is hardly an issue in scripture that is more clearly defined as sin. Jesus actually comes out and says in the book of Matthew, I hate divorce. Scripture indicates that in most cases, re-marriage is equivalent to committing adultery. Why is the Christian right not lobbying that divorce be illegal? Is this not akin to deciding that abortion is morally unacceptable and therefore should be legislated against?
A better route to take would be to embrace women facing unwanted pregnancies and providing them with support, emotionally, spiritually and fiscally so that they can face their pregnancy and give the child up for adoption if in the end, they still feel they can't handle the child. If more Christians who oppose abortion as a legal right were to put some teeth into their position by advocating for and lending a helping hand to the women who are tempted by abortion we would see a real change in the way in which the legal right to abortion is exercised. Instead many simply shout out against the rights of the unborn child and allow the living breathing mother to suffer under what are often crippling circumstances that definitely do not seem pro-life.
For the record, I consider myself to be pro-life on the following issues.
The War: I have been against the war in Iraq from the start and have remained unconvinced that the overwhelming loss of life on both the American and Iraqi sides has been much too costly.
Violence and Gun Control: As a nation, our gun perspective is out of control. The fact that there are murders reported on the nightly news across our nation tells me that this issue have reached a crisis point, and yet, Christians are not lobbying for greater gun control. How in the world is gun control not a pro-life issue?
Capital Punishment: Most people who oppose legal abortion support Capital Punishment. HELP ME. Is life life, or is life only life when you haven't done anything wrong? What about redemption? Is redemption not the center piece of all that Christ is about? Is responding to violent action with violence a good solution? How can anyone take us seriously on the issue of human rights when we are one of the last western nations to practice capital punishment?
Torture: It's just wrong. Plain and simple.
I am a pro-life person who happens to believe that women have the right to have a safe, clean, legal abortion when they feel it is necessary. How do I square this with my Christian world view? I think it showers compassion on someone who finds her self in a difficult place. And I think compassion should be the label Christians are most clearly known for in our world.


Where to begin?

I am back in Sweden after spending almost a month in the United States. It was quite a month. For the first time in 10 years we were in the U.S. for the political conventions and aftermath. We were there when McCain announced that Sarah Palin (OK, honestly, I just wrote PAIN instead of Palin which is an easy typing error, but points to something greater, I'm sure.) would be his running mate. We experienced the 24 hour news cycle available on not 1, not 2 but numerous channels all sharing their "fair and balanced" perspective. And we loved it. It did blow us away on numerous levels however. How many times can you analyze something? Apparently there is not end to what can be said about a piece of clothing, a simple hand gesture or a sneeze. Now, for those of you who live in the U.S., I can greatly appreciate the information fatigue factor as even I experienced that towards the end of our time. I do miss having access to MSNBC on our cable here. CNN gets wearisome and the International coverage isn't the same as the U.S. based. Our other option is BBC World which is a good alternative to American news in general.
I have decided that I need to write about my thoughts and perspectives as this election draws near. I am so troubled by so many things that I actually didn't sleep very well last night. I've decided that reading the newspaper and watching the news are NOT good sleepy time activities. There is much to be anxious about these days and the solutions are not obviously forthcoming.
To be fair to those of you who don't know me well but still read my blog, a thought that brings me great humility by the way, you should know that I am a firm democrat. I am not a swing voter and my views are definitely left. And yes, I am also a Christian which is maybe why I feel so compelled to speak my thoughts into cyberspace. But while I am pretty grounded in what I think, I have made a concerted effort to try to understand where the other side is coming from. So far, I've been disappointed or just point blank disagree with their reasoning. We live in a world where all of us must be able to understand and interact with people who are totally different than we are. Gone are the days when homogenous groups will happily live their lives protected from difference. And I say thank God. God has given us a diverse world. We need to learn how to live in it and that means at least understanding that more than one world view exists even if we don't embrace it. It also means understanding that not everyone in our nation is living the American Dream and they are being slaughtered by policies that favor the wealthy. And to go one step further, our world does not share the American perspective. Swedes are very different than Americans and this is evidenced by their horrified amazement that half of all Americans actually want someone like McCain at the helm.
So I am going to attempt, through a series of blogs, to paint a picture of where I'm coming from. I welcome feedback and comments, but I will not stand for a lack of respect in comments. I am looking for a civil discourse among thoughtful people that I think is sadly missing from the American scene. I have Republican friends with whom I have had some good discussions. We sharply disagree but have been able to speak our minds with clarity and resolve and not resort to name calling in order to make our point. What saddens me most in all of this is that I don't see Christians being much different than the rest of society. WHY IS THAT? Perhaps that is the greatest question of all.

Monday, September 8, 2008

30 years After High School


This past week-end I attended my 30 year high school reunion. I hadn't been to a high school reunion since my 10 year so it had been 20 years since I had seen any of these people. I have not kept in touch with anyone from high school so it was with a mixture of excitement, curiosity and nerves that I put on my black dress and walked into the Hilton Hotel for this gathering.
It ended up being a great experience that left an array of impressions in my mind!
First, I have to admit, California is a different place. The invitation said that the dress was cocktail in nature. Most of the women wore black, knee length dresses, but some were in slacks, one even in jeans. The men on the other hand, were dressed in "California Smart Casual", meaning, no ties. The Tommy Bahama type of shirt (fancy Hawaiian shirt) ruled among men's attire and it was interesting to note how few were dressed up. You would not have seen this type of gear at a Swedish gathering, where every man would have been in a black suit, white shirt, understated tie! It was refreshing and interesting to see this southern California twist on our gathering.
The women surprised me. Many had big hair and loads of make-up. The cosmetic surgery industry is alive and well in southern California! I was surrounded by a sea of glamour pusses and it was clear to me that I no longer belonged in the OC. (Orange county). Of course, many folks were much more down to earth but generally speaking, it was a bit of a spectacle.
Most surprising and outrageous to me was how drunk people got! I'm thinking, OK, we're almost 50. We're at a public gathering with people we haven't been with for many years. Do you really want to leave a drunken impression with them? Very strange. I'm all for having a drink with good friends, but getting blasted in behavior altering ways just lacks appeal. The bar was happy. The drinks were fortune, right up there with Swedish prices.
People have made lots of money in sales, technology and real estate. I was surprised how uncreative the professional scale was. Many were in still living in the general Orange County area and some have kids going to our former schools. Having left Orange County right after high school and rarely living there again, it was interesting to see how entrenched people are in that scene. Quite a few have found their way to the north west, Washington and Oregon, but clearly, I was the one who had ventured farthest from the nest!
I did win the award for having come the farthest for the reunion. No surprise there, but I did win one other award that was very fun. I was voted the person who had physically changed the least since high school! AWESOME! I'll take that any day! There were several others who also looked exactly the same and then many more who looked entirely different. The men who are balding is the biggest difference! Not too many were overweight, again, a reflection of the lifestyle and culture of southern Cal. (and perhaps a tummy tuck along the way!)
I would say about 50% of the people I was hoping to see were there. I was genuinely happy to see many from our cheer squad (I was school mascot our senior year!) and a group of boys from the posse I ran with were there as well. Not many girls from that same posse were there and that was a bit of a disappointment. The conversations were lively and fun. Some people have done really well and have enjoyed life and are still enjoying it very much. Others have had some pretty rough years with divorce, business failures, and health concerns. What I love about getting together at this stage of life is that you can be generous with one another. We've lived long enough to know that life isn't all that simple, being popular isn't the most central value, it's fun to see what even the most random stranger from high school is up to. People were interested in our life as pastors in Sweden. Most thought my living in Europe was a "very cool thing" and it was fun to gush about my lovely husband (who chose to eat pizza at home) and realize all over again that I do love my life, I do love where I've landed and I am indeed a very blessed person.
I am happy I went. I may not see many of these folks ever again, but at least now I know what a few close friends from high school are up to and it feels good to re-connect to that part of my life again.

Big Government

One of the fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats is this concept of Big Government. I find it fascinating as both parties have plenty, it just gets played out in different ways. So for instance, if the government were to take over health care, for instance, Republicans get all nervous about socialized medicine and the lack of choice and fear the basic decline in care and services. However, if the government takes over a financial institution, like say, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, then that is for the good of the people because if we have a problem with our financial institutions, then that creates havoc for our nation. How is the government taking over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac NOT Big Government?
Big Government of me is also realized in the enormous amount of money we spend on our military. Our budget is so skewed towards defense I am happy at this point that I don't pay any tax to the US. The war in Iraq is something I have opposed from the beginning. I think the amount of government money we are pouring into that situation is ridiculous. I'd rather see that money spent on health care. But for some reason military spending is not seen as big government but spending it on health care is. I find it all very fascinating.
I have learned a few things about health care in the past 10 years. The system in Sweden is far from perfect, but let's face it, so is the situation in the US. I have had excellent health care in Sweden. I have needed surgery as well as the care of specialists. I have needed to see my family physician and a physical therapist so I have needed to explore the range of medical care. At times it has been hard to navigate the system. And at times it has taken a long time. But overall I have been very satisfied with the level of care I have been provided and the cost has been modest. Yes, we pay very high taxes in Sweden, but at least the bulk of our taxes are being used in ways that benefit me: Health care, clean city, care for the poor and disenfranchised in our city. All of these things give me a high quality of life that provide a great lifestyle for me.
My mom has very sick over the past year, fighting ovarian cancer. She has had chemotherapy and surgery. She has regular blood work and Drs. appointments. Her care has been excellent and available, but it has cost my parents in ways that I find unbelievable. They also have "good insurance" with a standard 20% co-pay. 20% ends up being quite a lot of money when the treatment cost is in the thousands. For awhile my mom needed a post-chemo shot that required at $500.00 co-pay. CO-PAY! There is no cap on what they should be shelling out, no limit to what they have to spend on health care. We are so thankful that at this point in their lives, they have the ability to fund this treatment. But we all wonder aloud what people do who don't have the means to pay for such treatment. Is it really our view as a nation that they simply shouldn't have the privilege of care? I can't believe that as one of the wealthiest nations in the world we really believe that.
Neither Sweden or the US have it completely right. But at least in Sweden no one has to make the choice to either pursue medical care or buy food for their family. Every single person has the right to medical care. It is not connected to employment benefits, it is a right afforded to them by the government because Sweden has said this is a core value to us. Yes, I pay, through my taxes, for this right. But I don't mind because I would rather provide health care for the poor in my neighborhood than see them suffer.
I totally disagree with the concept of lowering taxes so that people will have more money to purchase health insurance. This keeps the insurance companies fat and still means that people have to make a choice about how to use their money, especially if money is tight. Most lower income people won't use that extra money to buy insurance because they need energy, fuel, and food every day and they are having trouble covering those costs. Why not decide that as a nation, we are interested in creating a healthy society where health care is a right? Yes, there are a million problems associated with such a move, but doesn't that sound like a good challenge for the years ahead?

The Political Landscape of America

Being back in the States for the Democratic and Republican political conventions has been quite the experience. It was good to see this process in action. One week I was drowning in Democrat love, the next fuming over the Republican rhetoric that I found quite distasteful at points. Yes, I am a supportive member of the Democratic party. But I have to say that I genuinely went into the experience of the Republican convention with a somewhat open mind, hoping to come to a better understanding of why people, especially Christians, get so excited about Republican ideals. It didn't work. All it did was make me mad and here's why.
Sarah Palin gave an incredible speech. She did far better than I expected her to on the national scene. However, Sarah Palin's speech was full of sarcastic, acerbic, inflammatory statements against Barack Obama. She belittled his life as a community organizer and elevated her own status through pithy remarks that have nothing to do with anything important in the political process, such as being a hockey mom who resembles a pit bull. Rudy Guiliani wasn't any better. It was like he was doing stand-up comedy and he was so disparaging of Obama that it was almost embarrassing. What's really hard for me to take is how people cheered. And many of my Republican friends who are also Christians were loving all of this. I don't get this. I understand that the two parties have very different perspectives on the role of government and espouse very different value systems. That I can live with. But why all the mean-spiritedness? Why the belittling of people for one's own political gain? Fine if you think someone is unqualified, but list why you think that, don't just attack them personally. Fred Thompson did a nice job of summarizing McCain's career. It is noteworthy and impressive, but it's about the only thing of substance the entire Republican convention set forth. They barely addressed one pressing issue in our nation, like the war in Iraq, our badly damaged reputation overseas, health care, education. For a party that's been in charge for the last 8 years, 6 of which they held the house and the senate, they are sure needing to talk about change an awful lot. McCain all but divorced himself from the current administration and that was probably the center-piece of the Republican convention...prove those watching that it won't be McCain, more of the same.
During the Democratic convention, I was excited because night after night we heard excellent speeches, from gifted orators, a skill that has been sorely missing from our public discourse over the past 8 years. They set forth the case for electing Obama, in part by listing the failures of this administration, but they never attacked Bush personally, or spoke of Cheney in a disparaging manner. You can disagree with their assessment, but at least they weren't mean. The meanest it got was when Obama said that McCain wouldn't go to the cave where Bin Laden lived. We could've lived without that comment, I suppose.
So, here I am. An American living in Sweden, wondering about my nation. Of course, politics are dirty and ugly. But as Christians, where do we fit into this conversation? Do we just ignore the lack of ethics and values that we see in order to promote our party or do we seek a better conversation? I am interested in a better conversation. One where we can agree to disagree in a civil, respectful manner. One where I can look my Republican friends in the eye and challenge their perspective and enjoy a drink with them afterwards. Pie in the sky? Perhaps, but why not give it a try?