Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Religion Of Prosperity

An interesting phenomenon of the last few years is the emergence of the “prosperity theology” movement within religious settings. Joel Olsteen has seemingly emerged in the forefront of this movement, but there are a number of religious speakers working within this financial success umbrella. For many of these practitioners, such success definitely seems to be working well for them personally. A number of more traditional religious speakers have expressed serious concerns about bringing “financial success” so prominently into a religious/Christian setting. But given the large crowds attending these presentations, there is undeniably a broad audience interested in this message.

I have a somewhat mixed reaction to this movement, although I do not have a lot of personal interest in pursuing this theology for myself. However, in light of today’s economic turmoil and multi-billion dollar bailouts, the topic seems very relevant to consider. On the one hand, I am all for any spiritual framework that looks to de-emphasize the traditional guilt and damnation philosophy that makes up the core of many religions. A positive message of uplift that affirms people and the opportunities available to them is certainly welcome. The challenge for people to take responsibility for their lives and their outcomes, rather than continuing a cycle of negativism and victimization excuses, is certainly needed. Helping people to “unstuck” their lives and improve their financial condition can be a helpful trend.

In and of itself, obtaining wealth is fine. When matched to, and supportive of, our life’s fuller meaning and values, well-matched and measured financial success can be both satisfying and enabling. When financial success supports clearly understood greater values and purpose, such a pursuit can be perfectly appropriate.

The troubling part of all this is what appears to be the lack of a greater context for this emphasis on achieving financial success. Money as an end unto itself is an empty-calories diet --- filling and satisfying in the moment, but without long-term nourishment. An excessive sugar diet can easily turn from a treat to an addiction, if not ultimately a life-threatening long-term diabetic disease due to an inflow in excess of one’s capacity to absorb. So it can be with money.

What I do not hear (at least with sufficient emphasis) within prosperity theology circles is the caveat that one should first establish clarity in his/her life --- purpose, priorities, focus, work. I.e. what is it that truly fulfills us? Obtaining the finances needed to achieve that quest is the true financial success. Without this yardstick of what constitutes personal success, the chase for the dollar becomes completely open-ended.

What are one’s true drivers for financial success? When is enough enough? Will a person simply display the finances that one has achieved by the toys that she/he accumulates? Or is the driver rather about obtaining the finances that are necessary to simply allow you to fulfill the true YOU that you are within?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Greed Reclaims Its Due

This past week we have watched the virtual collapse of our American financial industry. At least a significant component of it in the investment banking and mortgage guaranty segments. Cumulative wide-spread greed once again has asserted its ultimate consequences, and those consequences will affect all of us in some manner.

In such times, it is awfully tempting to look directly at those industry CEOs who led these companies that are now going under. Tempting because it is so easy to do, and it is so accurate. Marginal leaders reaped the benefit of profits virtually pushed to them by the herd mentality of mass consumers who followed an expectation of guaranteed can’t-lose financial success. Then, when the shallowness of that business leadership and decision-making surfaced, these CEOs were sent packing. Unfortunately, those CEOs have packed a lot of cash into their exit suitcases from the wealth that they have fraudulently taken, with no accountability to their firms or the taxpayers now rescuing them. The issue of excessive executive compensation has been talked about for years, with nothing done to arrest it. It seems to be a nice, albeit somewhat exclusive, club to belong to.

As right as it is to castigate these CEOs for taking their ill-gotten gains and running, their bigger failure is that their actions and greed invariably helped to promote a broader such environment within their mega-companies. If the CEO is paid that much without accountability for company success, then it leads many on the corporate ladder expecting their pro rata share. At any cost, from any action that will achieve it. Except that the big bucks still only go to the top folks, they have never filtered down proportionally. (So much for the now discredited Reagan-era “trickle down” tax cut theories.) So in airline companies, automobile companies, and so on, worker-bees who are in fact critical to the CEO’s success are laid off or receive less-than-inflationary raises while simultaneously executive compensation continues to grow. The corporate resentment and “who cares” attitudes understandably increase across the organization.

The loss of caring and professional integrity can also grow in direct proportion to the growth in company size. As we continue these mega-mergers, operating decisions get made further and further away. Local ownership and oversight diminish. Despite reams of government regulations and published corporate policies, increasing anarchy grows in these increasingly distant everyday operational offices. In pursuit of sharing in the apparent expanding financial bubble, increasing numbers of lone rangers start making up their own rules, out of sight. Bad credit decisions get made; mortgage sellers and loan officers detached themselves from their outcomes since that mortgage is just going to be sold off to another company; your “local lender” has almost no control over lending decisions made about you as your loan passes from desk-to-desk, company-to-company, individual loan into a bundled security package. It is all detached, faceless, nameless, and conveniently hidden from visible guilt. And inappropriate consumers are taken into the wolf’s den of sleaze, enticed by a vision of a better status in their lives. As an economic commentator recently said, “bad capitalism drives out good capitalism in everyone’s rush to keep up [with each other’s income statement].”

Yes, it is easy to point fingers, because there are so many worthwhile targets to point to. But are we prepared to point one of those fingers into our own mirror? Not all of us outraged, innocent-bystander taxpayers are quite so innocent. Collectively, we have been willing to stick our heads into the sand and ignore the reality that we have helped to perpetuate, if not cause, this financial breakup. We continue to demand credit to buy what we cannot legitimately afford. We are willing to vote into office politicians who give out money to us that they do not have through ill-thought tax refunds and stimulus packages, special grants, and giving specialized allotment supports and tax loopholes to selected business / industries / agricultural operations. We do not protest too loudly when our president asks us to pay for the mega-billions being spent for the Iraq war by “going out and shopping” (no sacrifices), when we should have been asked to cut back our buying and instead invest in our own country (instead of leaving the war to the rest of the world to finance for us). As stockholders in these big corporations, we have endorsed the big CEO salaries and golden severance packages as long as we have seen our stock investments rise. As our fear of financial consequences grows, we have increasingly demanded guaranteed protection and safety from the consequences of our financial decisions.

Sooner or later, fast-rising economic booms always burst. We’ll demonize financial leaders because they deserve it. We will watch political leaders gyrate to the music of shifting public opinion while they try to look like they know what to do on our behalf. But will we also look in our own mirror and acknowledge our culpability in not first putting our own house in financial order, and in not demanding that our business and governmental leaders (of all parties) do the same for our collective “we”? Are we capable and willing to reject our own personal “bridge to nowhere” but reject it meaningfully, honestly and from the get-go instead of making it a meaningless after-the-fact sound-bite?

The financial bottom line of all of this is that we have collectively been living beyond our means for 8 years or more, and we have lied about it to each other and ignored it to ourselves. At our peril. Our peril has now come due. In abrogating our own sense of self-responsibility, my 5 grandchildren will have to help pay off the bills we have so foolishly created.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Vice President Choice - Yes It Matters

Last week, John McCain introduced his choice of a running mate to the American People. Someone out of everyone’s radar screen, a political unknown from Alaska. A female on the Republican ticket for the first time. There is no question that her very newness has moved the spotlight, and her acceptance speech has generated cohesion and excitement in the diminishing Republican Party’s base of voters. But over the next weeks after the celebrity attention wears off, and the lens of detailed inquiry clarifies the focus, what has truly emerged here?

The short answer is that we see the continuation of raw and blatant politics, packaged up in the Karl Rove “spin and big lie” marketing tactics. If “experience” has been John McCain’s claim on the presidency, then how does his VP choice stack up to that? To wit:

· Fresh faces can be refreshing. But only if they bring something new to the fore. A new face on an old package will be seen through very quickly.
· Based upon her pronouncements and her record, former Buchannan-for-president supporter Palin’s politics are to the right of even George Bush! Be it energy policy (drill and drill some more), fiscal policy (more high salary tax cuts), anti-abortion (not even allowed for rape and incest, nor are individual “decisions” allowed --- even for her daughter). I expect more of these positions will continue to be detailed by others over the next weeks.
· The length and nature of her political and governmental experience are frankly laughable vis-à-vis becoming the #2 leader of this nation. What is even more sadly laughable is watching McCain campaign and honorable Republican officials squirming to try to convert that non-experience into something believable. Service in the PTA and mayor of 9000 people is creditable public (or community organizing!) service, but it hardly makes one specially qualified for the #2 national office.
· Neither does being the civilian leader of the Alaska National Guard make one a military leader. The real role of our national guards has been to provide local and humanitarian support, not a true military function. In their present service as part of the Iraq military force, however, they are totally subsumed to the US Department of Defense --- the governors are non-players. Sarah’s son going into military service may provide her with an empathy toward the difficulties faced by military families, but it will not provide any insight into managing the role of that military.
· Foreign affairs experience requires one to have experience with the needs and concerns of foreign nations and their leaders. Simply “living in a state next door to Russia” does not give any special insight into the conduct of foreign affairs, which requires dealing with over 175 countries which do not border Alaska. As one commentator said, “Saying that living next to Russia gives someone foreign policy experience is like saying that living next to Lake Michigan makes me a catfish!”
· If her gender is supposed to attract a new female vote, that does not seem to be working out. Her extreme domestic positions, once better known, will never pull over the Hillary voters. By several polls already, working mothers and traditional-mom Republican women are not necessarily supportive of her “5 kids with new baby + vice president” ambitions. She complained last spring about Hillary playing the “gender card” when complaining about the attacks on her, and said that she should be tough enough to play with the big boys, yet now any complaints on Sarah are “inherently sexist and unfair.” You can’t play it both ways.

I would normally agree with Obama and McCain that “family is off limits for political discussion.” But when your role as “mom” is presented as a qualification for the job (versus simply being a biographical line item), AND when as governor you line-item veto funding for sex education programs, then in that instance what happens in your own back yard thereby becomes a topic of legitimate discussion.
· So then we come to her acceptance speech. It was easy to see why many in Alaska like her, and probably many others in America who embody western frontier self-reliance and feisty take-‘em-on politicians. The self-described shotgun-toting moose-burger reformist proved this image true on that night. Except that she also showed a continuing sarcasm and insulting denigration to her opponent and people of different beliefs, while she conveniently made NO mention of her own political beliefs. She was able to talk at length about the only one issue with which she has apparent knowledge (oil energy). Then she lied about Obama’s tax proposals and her sale of the governor’s airplane (yes she listed it on E-Bay, but it didn’t sell and was subsequently sold privately). She further managed to completely skip over her being the object of a legislative investigation in Alaska about her ethical conduct.

All I saw in her speech was the specter of 4 (8?) more years of stalemate government in Washington, with continued bitter and ugly partisan battling. A naive in-your-face outsider reformer will be eaten alive by the Washington power structure, virtually assured to be Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. It takes compromise and good working relations with respectful goodwill to bring change to the mini-kingdoms of Washington, D.C. Sarah Palin’s style of meat-ax combat may work in Alaska for a time, but will bring neither change nor benefit to the American public.

So is it reasonable to question Governor Palin’s positions and experience with respect to her being a potential vice president? Yes, given that a) it substantively consists of only 1.5 years as an isolated governor, preceded by typical introductory community activities and positions that can be attributed to millions of other Americans, and b) her positions are so out of sync with millions of voters. John McCain and his team profess shock that her background is being questioned by the national press and American public, such that he cancelled a Larry King interview because of a CNN reporter’s tough questions to a senior McCain aide about Palin’s experience. The real shock is that McCain and company were so unrealistic to believe that they could spring a complete surprise on a voyeur American public and not expect all of this snooping and grilling to roar forward. It is reflective of the same disdain of “the public’s right to know” that we have witnessed these past 8 years.

Someone recently asked me, “So does the VP choice really matter? Isn’t it really all about the presidential candidates and what they believe?” My answer was, and is, a resounding “No,” that the VP choice matters a lot. For 3 reasons:
1. Other than selecting his campaign team, the VP choice is the first real statement about the kind of people a president will surround him-/herself with. You ultimately elect a governing team, and the many Department Secretaries and policy minions that make up the Executive Branch are as important and consequential as the president. (Think “Brownie, you’re doing a heckofa job!”) Just look at the cast of characters who have come and gone over the last 8 years, where they’ve taken us, and the results of their tenure. Who has John McCain now implied will be the members of his cabinet and advisors?
2. Since Walter Mondale’s VP service to Jimmy Carter, the VP has come to have a very substantial role in Washington. The role has become a true advisor to the president, a key voice in decision-making, and a direct influence over some operational functions. As the past 8 years demonstrates, we need to be very concerned about what advice and input our president is receiving.
3. Since 1841, 7 vice presidents have become president upon a president’s death; another one upon Nixon’s resignation; and under today’s presidential succession/incapacity laws, Wilson’s VP would have ascended to the presidency. On that count, 1 in 5 VPs have had to step into the job. 72-year-old John McCain would be the 6th president since the last succession occurred. This is a real statistical probability.

We not only elect a vice president, we also elect a president-in-waiting. Think a potential President Dick Cheney (the most arrogant and destructive Washington player since Joe McCarthy’s excesses in the 1950s), or even a president Dan Quayle. With all the persons of real talent, experience, and character available in the Republican Party, some of whom were fully tested and vetted by the recent primaries (think Huckabee if you really wanted to appeal to the right wing without having to pick an unknown inflammatory loose cannon), is Sarah Palin really the best choice John McCain could come up with? A person who is now completely under wraps because the campaign refuses to allow her in front of interviewers until they can properly train her for the national stage? Most importantly, what does this first “executive decision” say about John McCain?