The audacity of faith

Originally I began this post as an odds and ends piece, but when I selected an article on “Obama’s killer economy” as my first topic of discussion I made the executive decision that this subject needed more than a few words.

As it turns out, lately I have seen a few articles crop up about the hopelessness of a certain class of Americans, and whether it leads to a conscious suicide or the slow death of a thousand drinks, cigarettes, and pills doesn’t matter so much as the fact this is an issue. There are thousands of Americans who are right about my age (I’m 51) who somehow have decided to check out mentally, which often leads to their physical demise. To be perfectly blunt, if the Good Lord hadn’t brought Kim and I together there’s the chance I could be one of those statistics given the fact I needed to subsist for several years on a range of part-time work thanks to the utter destruction of the local building industry. If you look as possessions as “stuff,” I lost a lot of stuff over those years. Rather than focus on that, though, I thank God I was one of those who approached the edge of the abyss yet came back. (In the terms of our pastor at church, I am “the blessed man.”)

But somehow I have always had the optimism that there was something better on the horizon; indeed it panned out with Kim. I will grant it’s harder and harder to be optimistic about the world, but believers still persist.

Yet not everyone has that luxury of good fortune, or the faith that God is in control. And perhaps that’s part of the issue, as organized religion is slowly losing its influence on society – at least according to national surveys. (Of course, this is not to say that the devout have any fewer struggles than the unbeliever, nor is it fair to say that many of those who succumbed to the world didn’t believe in God and go to church. Church attendance or even leadership is, by itself, not a guarantee of doing good works either – there is no one who stands above temptation.)

However, there is the economic argument Kevin Williamson at National Review made (subscription required, so no link) that simply said “downscale communities deserve to die.” If you live in upstate New York, rural Oklahoma, or a place like the Eastern Shore (parts of which are slowly losing population) you need to go where the opportunities are. But NR‘s David French adds a key component I believe is missing from the argument:

For generations, conservatives have rightly railed against deterministic progressive notions that put human choices at the mercy of race, class, history, or economics. Those factors can create additional challenges, but they do not relieve any human being of the moral obligation to do their best. Yet millions of Americans aren’t doing their best. Indeed, they’re barely trying. As I’ve related before, my church in Kentucky made a determined attempt to reach kids and families that were falling between the cracks, and it was consistently astounding how little effort most parents and their teen children made to improve their lives. If they couldn’t find a job in a few days – or perhaps even as little as a few hours – they’d stop looking. If they got angry at teachers or coaches, they’d drop out of school. If they fought with their wife, they had sex with a neighbor. And always – always – there was a sense of entitlement.

If you look at it through the lens of those people “falling between the cracks” this may be what they define as “doing their best”:

And that’s where disability or other government programs kicked in. They were there, beckoning, giving men and women alternatives to gainful employment. You don’t have to do any work (your disability lawyer does all the heavy lifting), you make money, and you get drugs.

So let’s recap: we have an entire class of people in this country, counted in the tens of millions, whose very existence is defined as getting up in the morning, spending their day watching television or perusing the internet, eating courtesy of the taxpayers through their EBT card, lather, rinse, repeat, day after day. To break up the monotony they go out and buy their case of Bud Light, shop for the provider of their pills, and sleep with different people. It’s a community of strangers, of users.

Those who have known me for a time (and for the vast majority who do, it’s been a period of no more than 12 years since that’s when I moved here) know the sort of person I am, and alas I can be defined by my faults. Over the last couple years as I’ve become a regular church goer, though, I’ve found an extended family – granted, I couldn’t tell you the names of everyone who attends with me on Sundays, but they know me and if something were amiss they would ask about me and place me in their prayers. Sometimes that’s just the lift I need.

In the Book of Luke there is the tale of the prodigal son, who squandered the half of his father’s fortune he was entitled to on worldly things, yet grew despondent when the money ran out – so he returned feeling unworthy of being more than a lowly servant. Yet the father provided for him the best robe and the fatted calf, for as the father told the other brother, the one who was upset because had done as he was expected but received no reward:

“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:31-32)

America has become a nation full of prodigal sons and daughters, but ones who are still in need of return. We have all the riches to which anyone could aspire, yet millions are squandering their share on lives of loneliness, misery, and envy for those who have more than they do. As I note above, Americans have also turned from God – perhaps there is a parallel there?

I can’t sit here and tell someone in the predicament of dire poverty that simply returning to God and getting back to church will solve their problems. But what I can say is that having the church family may give those who are trapped in this vicious cycle something to live for – if they want to put the work in. It’s not something that takes a Sunday and you’re done, nor is it an easy path. But if one can feel better without taking the drugs, drinking the alcohol, or abusing relationships, why not take the opportunity?

The economic snow job

It’s funny to discuss this when we just had an 80-degree day yesterday, but the recent reports showing the economy grew at a snail’s pace in the first quarter of 2015 were blamed to some degree on the terrible winter weather we had, just as the contraction we endured in Q1 2014 was also blamed in large part on a tough winter. (So much for global warming, huh?) But is that really the problem?

Robert Romano at NetRightDaily did some quick analysis and found that there was some legitimacy to the argument, though not much. Now if I were to take a shot at it, I would come to a different conclusion.

In most of the nation, winter is already “priced into the market,” so to speak. We know that most northern regions of the country will have two to four bouts of significant snow, which will prove to be a disruption for a day to a few days. During the most recent winter, Boston was the unlucky recipient of huge snowfall in the latter half of the season – early on, it was an area considered in a “snow drought.” These fickle factors tend to average out over time, so I don’t think weather is the true issue.

So let’s look at a different factor. In the last quarter of the year, consumers spend a large part of their disposable income on holiday gifts. Stores ramp up their hiring during that time of year, usually picking up the pace in October so their new personnel is trained in time for the Black Friday crush of shoppers.

Once Christmas has passed, though, there’s necessarily a decline in consumer spending because people are tapped out after the holidays – they maxed out their credit cards or, if they were one of the dwindling few employees who received a holiday bonus, that money was spent. Moreover, many who were hired for the holidays are let go, meaning they have to tighten their belts as well.

In short, the first quarter of the year is spent catching up on bills and the family budget – the old “Christmas Club” bank account is a relic of a bygone age. And unless they filed relatively early, tax refunds often don’t arrive until the quarter is almost over.

But Romano also makes the point that the economy hasn’t seen consistent growth in over a decade:

(T)he economy has not grown above 3 percent since 2005, the longest sustained slowdown in output in U.S. economic history since the Great Depression.

Once upon a time 3% annual growth was considered almost recessionary  – just like the “experts” wrung their hands over 5% unemployment during the Bush 43 years – but now both these factors are cause for a happy dance.

I think the truth is that we have distorted the market so badly that economic growth like we had 30 years ago isn’t possible without significant changes in policy. The amount of manipulation being made by the Federal Reserve and Wall Street (but I repeat myself) has placed us in a situation where all eyes watch these two entities like hawks, peering for a sign that interest rates will return to normal or quantitative easing (which has propped Wall Street up for several years, leading to market highs) will come to an end. This balancing act can’t go on forever.

So our economy sputters along, sometimes firing on all cylinders but more often in a near-stall. It’s not the weather, folks.

The naked appeal

No, this is a G-rated post. But it was the tagline of a Tweet I received the other day:

I’ve mentioned Rich before in the context of how it is to be a blogger (even part-time as he currently is) and struggle financially. In his case, though, the job he lost was his primary source of income and as a fellow casualty of the moribund building industry I can relate quite well to Rich’s plight. So I looked at his site and read this most recent tale, finding that unfortunately the unemployment insurance system doesn’t apply for him and the initial bottoming out of the recession not only affected his livelihood, but the potential for him to create his own work.

Yet it could be a matter of survival for his former employer as well, as Rich relates:

The really sad thing, is the company I worked for, kept the 2 illegal workers from Peru, instead of keeping an American.  After all, why shouldn’t they?  They don’t pay taxes on them in any shape or form…nor do they pay overtime.  That’s what really angers me.  Why should any American company pay an American citizen, or legal resident, a living wage, when they can pay an illegal worker less than half?  I mean really?  Why bother to hire citizens, after all, we can live off of the dole, can’t we?

The frustration evident there slaps you in the face.

Now I can even tie Rich to my Bob McCarty story from earlier in the week, since he once had an avalanche of attention come his way when he passed along a rumor (from what he considered a credible source) that Barbara Mikulski was retiring as Senator. Unfortunately for both him and us, this turned out to be false – but Rich had thousands of readers for a time.

That spark soon died out, though, and Vail returned to the occasional post and perhaps making a few dollars a month from donations and ads. But now he needs a lot more.

As you may have noticed, I also have a few ads, mostly text link ads now since some of my other former advertisers are struggling as well. So in the spirit of paying something forward I took the ad revenue I received for last month out of my PayPal account and sent it along to him – my rent is paid for the month and I still have a job, part-time as it may be (along with my writing client.) It’s not a lot, but he can use it more than I can.

Maybe someday I’ll get it back in spades, but even if not that’s all right. As he noted:

I had hoped that I might be able to get a single dollar from each person who visited this site, so that I could at least have a faint hope of keeping a place to live…

My original hope was to get people to hit the tip jar for a dollar or two…and help me cover my rent for July. We’ll lose our apartment @ the end of the month, as the management company is very aggressive in going to rent court if you are 2 weeks late.

So I’m spreading the word.

But what really saddens me is that there are probably 500 Rich Vails in our country right now, bloggers who have used their ability simply to put out a “bleg” because it’s their last hope before they’re out on the street. Seeing that Rich and I are about the same age (he’s 50, I’m 48) and remembering the good economic times in America we were both blessed to grow up and live our first 40 years or so in, I have to sit and wonder if this really will be the “new norm.”

To me it’s a generational thing: those who are Baby Boomers will suck all the oxygen out of the economy as they age, while those of us who inhabit what’s known as Generation X will be saddled with the bill, as will our children of the Millennial Generation and so forth. Perhaps their children will get out from underneath the load, but first their parents will have to quit worrying about which Hollywood couples are making up or breaking up and devote some serious thought about real change in this country. (That is, if they can find jobs.)

I lived through what was supposed to be “the worst economy in the last 50 years,” the recession of 1991, and that slowdown put me out of work for a couple months – I was laid off on the very day my ex-spouse and I got the keys to our first house – before I found a job as a CAD instructor at a local college; eventually, my old firm called me back after five months. Before that, I lived in a city which struggled during the 1980s as Detroit transitioned from a city with an unquestioned Big Four automakers to one shellshocked by worldwide competition that was selling a superior product. (Then and now, Toledo also lived and died by the auto industry.) Those were some tough times in the first half-decade or so after I graduated from college in 1986 – it took me six months after graduation to get my initial job in Toledo, as the work was simply not there.

But those recessionary times have nothing – NOTHING – on the pitfalls I have seen over the last five years. I’m not going to sit here and blame Obama, blame Bush, or blame anyone else – I’m just going to ask a question: Does anyone really care about fixing the economy for all of us, or are they simply out to exploit their fellow man in a game of grabbing all they can while the opportunity is there?

I’m seeing way too little of the former and way too much of the latter these days. Don’t know if we need a revival, an upheaval, or a do-over, but this shit can’t stand. So much for the G-rated post, but that’s how I see it.

Anyway, help a brother out if you can.