Tuesday, November 04, 2008

some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'

my eyes are so bleary
I guess I'm young
but I feel so weary
I've tried to express it
but I think its all a bore
its at the heart of me
a very part of me
speak slowly, I can't hear you
my mind keeps spinning
closer and closer to the rain on the roof
and the rain in my head
and the things that you said…
~ She & Him, Black Hole

Today I will vote for a new president. This year I will vote for Obama. I’ve pretty much been sure that I would vote for Obama since the 2006 Sojourners conference, and he’s not given me significant reasons to change my mind. Last election I was so disappointed with my options that I voted for the Green party candidate. I don’t even remember that guy’s name, but I remembered how he carried himself in the CSPAN debates with the Libertarian party, and I thought having more than two options would be a pleasant change. Back then, everyone told me if I didn’t vote for Kerry, I was voting for Bush. Hogwash. I voted for the possibility of having real presidential choices. I’m a naïve idealist like that.

Quite honestly, I could do the same this election. I’ve been disgusted by the excessive spending and marketing that goes into campaigning from both major parties. I can’t stomach Joe Biden’s idiocy much more than Sarah Palin’s, though I do feel he is at least more qualified. While I feel that Obama has run a more positive (or at least level-headed) campaign than John McCain, I do not think that he is the answer to this country’s problems. Realistically, I don’t think any candidate could hope to be the answer to all of our ills. I like Barack Obama. I like how he interacts with people. I like how he thinks through the issues. I do not think that McCain would destroy the country if he were elected. I respect John McCain, but I don’t like how he has carried himself in this election.

Our nation has serious issues. I’m not particularly devoted to this country, though it’s all I know and I do enjoy living here. I think we’ve kind of treated it like shit, and if the whole experiment falls apart, we deserve it as much as the next country. I don’t think any politician has the “right” answer for fixing our mess. They look at the problems, and they see the solutions from different angels. Particularly with the economy, where one side sees an advantage to supporting industry and wealth creation, which should eventually trickle down to benefit the nation as a whole. The other side, thinks we need to look out for easing the financial burden for those on the lower end of things, and that the people on top can pretty much take care of themselves. The truth is, both options have loopholes. If you take care of the people at the top, there’s no guarantee that the lust, the flesh and the pride of life will be held in check and that there will be any relief for those performing the grunt work. If you take care of the people at the bottom, the people at the top have enough resources to get around all of those pesky taxes you load them down with. Taken to extremes, we’re looking at options of oppression or revolt.

Whoever wins the election today will be faced with leading a nation that is at war, in debt, depressed and struggling to make ends meet (all while putting on a hollywood façade of peace and prosperity). No matter what they said to get elected, they will either have to look the people in the face and tell them that we have a hard road ahead and will be forced to make sacrifices or they will have to look the people in the face and lie to them. The latter option is the easier road.

I am comforted in knowing that the solutions are not as cut-and-dry as some make it out to be. It is not simply a matter of poor, lazy people voting democratic because they want handouts and intelligent, successful people voting republican because they want to keep their hard-earned money. I look at a tale of two Warrens. For five years I worked at an investment banking firm here in Little Rock that was once the largest off-Wall Street firm. It was impossible to work for that firm and not hold its leadership in high respect, because it was a very successful company. Warren Stephens in part of a rich legacy and is now CEO of Stephens Inc. About seven years ago I selected Woodstock for Capitalists as one of my viewing choices at the annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and fell in love with an extremely wealthy man named Warren Buffett. Both of these men are extremely intelligent, extremely respected and extremely wealthy. However, while Warren Stephens recently came out in support of John McCain and his economic policies, Warren Buffett is a prominent supporter of Barack Obama and is famous for his explanation to shareholders as to why he doesn’t pay enough taxes.

I generally choose to vote democratic. I don't particularly consider myself a disciple of Robin Hood, but I am quite fond of Dorothy Day. As a dorky undergrad, I actually chose to take both macro- and micro-economics as elective courses, though I didn't retain much of the information. What I understand about economics comes less from a business sense and more from a sociological one, and that, I'm beginning to think, is part of the reason for differing opinions about the economy and taxes. Don't get me wrong, I am a strong supporter of business. I've championed the business-as-mission idea since my college days, when I flew up to Boston to do research on the Christian Economic Coalition for my honors program project. In addition to my stints in the non-profit world (one of which involved working adding a for-profit sustainability component), I have worked for both an investment banking firm and a commercial bank. I also understand poverty and the middle-class struggle to make ends meet, both from my own childhood and from clients I have worked with.

The fact is, we no longer live in a nation where people can simply "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps", and we can no longer operate on a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. Do I think there is wasteful spending in government - ABSOLUTELY! I've seen it with my own eyes. Do I think there are problems with our welfare system - ABSOLUTELY! Again, been there, seen it. BUT, letting the allusive free-market sort out the disparities for us is a ridiculous assumption. First off, the income disparities in our country are astounding. It is not enough to say "people should be able to keep what they earn" and "don't penalize people for being rich". Our society has grown from one in which a person could claim a piece of land, build a house on it, grow some food, trade and barter and eventually make an income… but at least they had the basics. Certain costs are fixed, at least in the sense that there are services we all require regardless of income bracket: housing, food, transportation, healthcare, childcare/education. I have walked with families through the struggle of obtaining all five pieces of the puzzle and of the heartbreak that comes when one piece falls loose and the rest come tumbling down.

Even Adam Smith assumed a free-market economy would be regulated by a sense of moral obligation. But, as it turns out, pure capitalism is no more possible than our failed experiments in utopian socialism. It does not make economical sense that a few at the top would make exorbitant incomes while the majority at the bottom would struggle to make ends meet for basic necessities of life, and that the rich would not be expected to help make up for the economic deficit. We live in an age where it is possible for a person to work two jobs and still not make enough to provide the essentials housing, nutrition, transportation and healthcare for their family. The person who owns the company can make as much as possible, while paying their employees well below a living wage. And we say this is fair, because that person on top worked hard for what they got. Meanwhile, hundreds of hard working people performing the daily tasks that keep the company moving are struggling to make ends meet. Whether I make $5 million or $250,000 or $25,000 – I still have to afford a place to live, food to eat, and a way to get to my job. These fixed expenses make a greater dent in a smaller salary than in a large one. It’s really quite simple (in my mind, at least).

Elections can take on a fever pitch frenzy, and people get convinced that there is a “right” way and a “wrong” way. The fact is, there are just different perspectives, and none of us sees the way clear to fix this mess. For one, we are dealing with too many unpredictable human factors. In college, I use to have a button with a picture of a donkey, or ass if you will, and the words “Vote Democrat: The (insert picture) you save may be your own.” I thought it was cute. I wouldn’t wear it nowadays, because I know that the only hope for making any difference in our country is changing individuals, and that is a much greater task than checking a box on Super Tuesday.

It has to start with me. I has to start with how I live within my means, how I budget resources, how I care for people around me who are in need, how I live as an example of saving and making wise decisions, how I resist marketing and consumerism, how I support a local economy, how I balance personal responsibility and giving to others, how I live out fruits such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Until I am practicing these things, I can forget about expecting to see them reflected in my society and in my politicians. Politicians respond to the crowds, they market themselves in such a way that they can fulfill the people’s desires. If we want new politicians, if we want new government, we need new desires – and we have to start with ourselves.

1 comment:

JB said...

Amen to everything in that last paragraph. As for the economy stuff, I thought you were a writer -- we're not supposed to understand all that! Glad YOU have the brain for both ;)