Guest sermon text: “And in society at large.” (9/14/14)

I was asked to give a guest sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto when the parish minister was at the church summer retreat. There was no set topic, so I decided to write about Principle Five of the Seven Principles. Essentially, I ask what Principle Five really asks of us, and argues the need to promote economic democracy, socialism, worker control, whatever you’d like to call it. Given September 14, 2014.

“And in society at large.”
Andrew J. Mackay

Should you have time to do some real, intense, dedicated pondering, the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism is dynamite daydream material. They represent the foundation of a moral philosophy; ourselves, our church, our societies emerge from that foundation. This morning I’m going to take one principle and explore its meaning and potential.

Principle Five recognizes that the community supports “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Those last five words- “and in society at large.” It is not a specific checklist. Rather, it urges us to evaluate the whole interdependent web of existence that we find ourselves a part of. That phrase compels us to dream big. Envision a world nourished by the roots of democratic freedom.

As a sociology student, the definition of society is important. To dive into Principle Five requires us to define our terms. Without clarity of language this journey would be like an astronomer trying to study the planet Saturn without knowing where it is or what it looks like. [pause] The word comes from the Latin socius, which can be translated as “companion” or “ally”. Society binds people together in friendship and trust. Hopefully, it should rest on our humanity and common feeling. Author Anat Shenker-Osorio wrote in 2010 “The belief that we are all competing with each other for scarce resources, that life is by nature a zero-sum game, ignores critical truths that rightly deserve the designation of ‘natural law’. Humans are a social species. We are pack animals; we like to be together lots of the time. Some of our greatest joys and oldest cultural practices involve sharing: our homes with a stranger, bread and wine with friends, material goods with our families.” The aspect of our lives where zero-sum thinking dominates, to the detriment of many, is the structure and culture of the economic system.

Large business pursues optimal profits, with much collateral damage. Chemicals spill into the West Virginia water supply, jobs are moved from Ohio and Illinois overseas, retail workers are not given enough hours to qualify for full-time benefits. We are a part of the economy, the reason it exists, yet often we feel helpless and swept up in something beyond our control. This economic power then influences our political democracy. UUs for years have been working against the influence of money on politics, so the danger is well-known. Politicians driven by business interest cash often ignore their constituents. According to an October 2013 poll, Americans held a higher opinion of the DMV, hemorrhoids, and cockroaches than Congress. I am 24 years old and gridlock, both in this state and in Washington, seems natural.

In society at large, everything is interrelated. If one aspect lacks accountability and popular control, it will harm the others. Without addressing core issues, attempts to build a better world will be undermined. There exist many proposed solutions for a more just economy, from the general public and UUs in particular.

Much of today’s activism is built around making large businesses yield to the popular will. Some of you may get email newsletters asking you to sign a petition against Wal-Mart, or Exxon-Mobil. Bad behavior! Environmental waste! Corruption! Send them a message! It is a demand, we want a say, this can’t continue. At this year’s General Assembly, a high-profile resolution was passed, moving to divest from fossil fuel conglomerates. Our UU community aims to use economic power to create a sustainable society. Divestment is often linked with boycotts and sanctions to make corporations and whole states change their ways. California was host to the Delano grape boycott in the 1960s, where popular will forced powerful agricultural interests to stop exploiting migrant farm workers. Worldwide action punished South Africa economically for its vile system of apartheid.

This all points to a desire for more democratic control in the American economic system, by workers of a particular business, and the general public who must deal with the fallout of business decisions. Both groups, employees and the communities they live in, must deal with the trauma of outsourcing, cuts to wages and benefits, and disregard for the environment. In a lifetime, the average American will spend 90,000 hours at work, but the typical worker has no say in how her company is run. Unions increase worker power, but their scope is limited, and less than 7% of private sector workers belong to one. The public company is run by a small board of directors and a small set of principal shareholders, who often are the same people. The UUA is part of an interfaith group that buys shares in companies to create pressure for reform. Such efforts can only go so far- corporate stock gives disproportionate power to holders of special types of shares. And the reality is that promoting economic justice may mean cutting profits and endangering stock price. Working within the system where profits are expected to increase indefinitely means calls for justice may go unheard.

The world of privately-held companies lack any internal accountability. In the US, the largest private companies have $1.8 trillion in annual revenue and employ 6.2 million people. Their work can be damaging to humans and the environment. The two largest private companies in the country are Cargill, which sells palm oil and soybeans from areas that used to be rainforest, and the petroleum multinational Koch Industries.

Not to despair. The world of today has never been inevitable. There is a place for the democratic process in the economy. Some existing businesses show a different way of doing business. There are cooperatives all around us, where workers and consumers get a say. Credit unions in America serve 44% of the economically-active population. They are community not-for-profit organizations, where account holders are the owners and elect their leadership. To have a say in a large banking chain, you need to purchase quite a lot of stock. You are not a part-owner of Wells Fargo or Bank of America just because you opened up a checking account. You are not consulted on their business decisions. Credit unions and other cooperatives are owned and run by the community, and their decisions by nature factor in the human element. The Manhattan board of a large bank doesn’t have to consider the effect of foreclosures or high interest loans on a small community. A local credit union does; the leadership and ownership live in the community, and must personally deal with the fallout of destructive policy.

In the past year I’ve learned of an idea created by credit unions that shows the value of a democratic, community-run mindset. Several states now allow a contest called save-to-win. Most states have a lottery, with big prizes and lots of advertising. Lotteries are played by the poorest Americans, and few ever win. It is in some sense a poverty tax, where people are exploited by their hope for a better life. Save-to-win is simple: for every $25 put into a savings account, you get a raffle ticket for a drawing at the end of the week, or month, or year. It has created the excitement of a regular lottery, while increasing the savings of poor Americans. People are excited and motivated to save for their future. Credit unions have created a lottery where you can’t lose. This is a part of a society of companions and allies. There is more than the zero-sum, everyone can win and thrive.

Cooperatives go beyond the local credit union or organic food mart. The Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain is a diverse organization with many cooperatives, divided into finance, industry, retail, and knowledge. They employ 74,000 people, and by company rule, no person can make more than 8 1/2 times the lowest-paid worker. In a country still devastated by the credit bubble, Mondragon has stayed strong.

The economist Richard Wolff, who you may have spotted on Moyers and Company or Charlie Rose, has crafted an initiative called “Democracy at Work”, where businesses can be created that are self-directed by workers. A few years ago I saw him speak in Berkeley, and his words were invigorating. The framework for democracy in the economy, that largest component of “society at large” exists. There are realistic solutions. It is a matter of will.

If companies were run by the workers, would their jobs and factories would have all been moved overseas? Or would they have taken initiative, and made the enterprise work here, whatever it took? Would a worker-run factory pollute the groundwater, when the leadership would have to come home and drink it? When we send petitions, or move our money, or boycott a company, we are demanding accountability. The best way to make the economy accountable to the people is to make the people accountable for the economy.

In Matthew 21:12-13, Jesus finds the Temple of Jerusalem filled with money-changers and vendors. The money-changers were turning the currency of poor pilgrims into a special temple scrip, at a large markup. This system still haunts us today, though instead of temple cash it is called Disney Dollars, and the pilgrims have been replaced with sunburned tourists. Jesus is furious of this exploitation. He flips the tables over and drives the lot out with a lash. As they leave, he shouts “It is written . .  ‘My house will be called a house of prayer . . . but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’ It is rare that we see Christ in such a fiery temper. Something about the operation of the Temple made him livid. He did not admonish the money-changers, and he certainly did not simply forgive their misdeeds. He flipped a table. A popular meme three years ago had a painting of the scene with the caption “The First Occupy Wall Street.”

The scene shows the importance of sacred places and sacred institutions. The Temple is the holiest place for the Jewish people, and it was being sullied by profiteering. Perhaps some things should be above profit. Our political democracy today is built upon profit, as special interest cash creates a skewed set of priorities for elected officials. We have our own secular temples, that we cherish and treat with special care, and perhaps the moneyed interests need to be driven from those places too. The best way to achieve democracy, a deep and encompassing democracy, is to change the way money is spent and businesses are run.

The 17th of September will mark the third anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. If nothing else, the movement sought to link the economic power of the 1% with its political power and influence. The question of why Congress is less popular than cockroaches has a complicated answer, but money has certainly steered it to this point. When myself and fellow members of Occupy San Jose handed out flyers on how to join a credit union, and picketed banks, and along with local non-profits encouraged churches and small businesses to divest from large banks who were foreclosing on houses in their community, we had an idea that there may exist a better way of doing things. Perhaps there is a place for democracy in society at large.

Short laws don’t fit complex societies

Sen. McConnell next to his claimed mountain of ACA regulations. (Nicolas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

Every so often someone, somewhere proposes a constitutional amendment requiring laws to be as simple as possible, and as short as possible. It’s part of the long tradition of suspicion towards bureaucracy. Why is the budget the size of three phone books? Why can’t Congress just get down to the core of it? Tea Party groups and other small-government conservatives often take hardline stances towards making government more common sense, often by taking a howitzer to the various agencies that seem to make stuff complicated. Each Republican presidential primary is a smorgasbord of tax plans, each aimed at hacking the IRS down to a skeleton crew.

The issue is that government of any size is incredibly complex. Any large institution is- look at the metric tons of paperwork produced by a sizable corporation. Large bills like the Affordable Care Act are not the norm, but they are common. Over three hundred million people live in the United States, who then interact with everyone else on Earth. Even the simplest ideas, those common sense two page proposals, will gain weight as it is connected into the legal system.

Ultimately the task state and federal governments have is not to make their laws briefer or in much simpler language, but making the scope and purpose of a law coherent. Most of a long bill’s paperwork, or tax regulation, is the legal machine code created by a dedicated battalion of lawyers. The specifics of those U.S. code alterations are not important, rather the public needs to grasp what their practical effect will be, and what principle is guiding their use. Doing the paper stunt, where politicians show how giant a given bill can be, is just that- a stunt.

Many ideologies attempt to simplify society, but society refuses easy guidelines. It is monstrously complicated because people are different in a million tiny little ways. I expect solutions to societal problems will be complicated. They just need to be sufficiently graspable.

The young, the old: society trying to keep itself together

Two crucial processes exist in modern life. One is society trying to get the younger generation ready for present reality. The other is society is trying to help (or sometimes make) older generations adapt to present reality. Tension between these age cohorts could be considered a more complicated version of the generation gap.

All groups are insulated, as everyone self-selects their friends and company. The young and old are special. Children have yet to shoulder the full weight of the social system. Their experiences are rarely independent of their elders. Even at 24, this split for me is clear.

For instance, I was just old enough to understand what 9/11 was without relying on someone. I understood that terrible people do exist, that the places targeted had great value, and that nothing was going to be the same from then on. Those entering college this fall do not have the same base of knowledge, something that the author of Gin and Tacos explains well as a professor having to deal with 18 year olds. As he states, we are failing in some regard because the present reality depends on both the distant and recent past. We teach the Civil War from elementary school onwards. History classes rarely give the same scrutiny to the post-Vietnam era.

I have a problem with how the tension between older generations and the middle strata of American society gets portrayed in the media. Clearly this line is blurry. People of typical working age are creating the technology and ideas that move things forward, but not exclusively. Also the political ruling class trends older, with many elite players being past retirement age.

However, stories about the gap tend to focus on narrow difficulties, like how inventions like the Internet have been difficult to diffuse among those who grew up with typewriters and rotary dial telephones.

If we are honest, it goes far beyond that. The civil rights movement marches on. Even I needed some help with discussing gender identity and sexual orientation. To spread new expectations requires going into communities that have their own standards. Children are far easier to teach than 60+ individuals, and that is a clear point of conflict in “the generation gap” or something similar. There is an expectation of change, but it will never fully translate.

This bit of sociology fascinates me. Popular media tends to ascribe special qualities to a generation; The Wire collected over a century’s worth of ‘the youth are so dang selfish, the worst ever!’ A better way to view it is in the rate of social change. When culture changes rapidly, the disparity between one group of individuals and another rises. In a time like now, when change is rapid and spread across all aspects of life, the stress of holding it all together is great and it shows. What is society but many different groups, held together by a few fragile chains?

Imperialism

Modern television news-
a dirge of
bourgeoise society
dragged out
for 24 hours a day;
agony made spectacle

The collapse of yet another
African republic from
one half-century
of high tragedy
a brief slice
of the crawl
between news regarding
reagents centuries
past their place
but whose grandfathers
hold all the blame,
stowed in marble
sepulchers.

What constitutes progress: consumerism and sustainability

On Monday, I published something about the economic collapse of a industrialized nation, as expertly chronicled in the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demrick. A huge, widespread shift backwards in economic development has happened in many places over human civilization, but the North Korean example is both recent and unusual. War is the most common destroyer of people and their economic capital, but the 1990s showed that international politics could be just as brutal.

I was mulling the term “de-evolution” to refer to what happened in North Korea, but I then thought of my own biases. To some degree, coming from an advanced post-industrial nation, I’m a chauvinist for a certain, consumer-oriented type of economic development. The number of TVs per 1,000 people, the electricity usage of a city, how much they export and how much personal debt they take on. Though I don’t subscribe to the “whoever has the most stuff wins”model of progress, it made me broaden my thinking. Clearly the North Korean example was an unwanted and ultimately deadly series of events. The society had grown to rely on thing like artificial fertilizer, large amounts of electrical power, and a complex and demanding transit infrastructure. When the lights went out, so went industry and agriculture. Disaster.

But, what if a society moved in such a manner, but didn’t require complex industrial products? A society that plans for a regression into a less consumerist, industrialized mindset. I wouldn’t call that a de-evolution- it’s an evolution on a different path.

A few years ago I took a series of long-distance train trips across the United States. During my trip on the Coast Starlight, running from Seattle to Los Angeles, I read the famous novel Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach. Published in 1975, it stands alongside The Dispossessed as an important utopian novel of the late Vietnam period. Both work along similar lines- an absence of consumerism, collective ownership, changes to the social and family structure. However, Ecotopia takes place in my backyard, not another solar system.

I read it during a journey through the lands that formed the nation of Ecotopia. For  a couple days the train rolled through the thick forests, mountain passes, and undulating farmland that carpeted a whole valley. Callenbach was speaking of a society that moved beyond petroleum and artificial products, but didn’t miss them.

When I was 18 I created an independent study that allowed me to examine urban decay and how different parts of the 20th century attempted to revitalize cities. After reading about the iron-fisted destruction of the Bronx by Robert Moses, one tends to gain sympathy for new ideas of sustainability and community. New schools of urban planning emphasize mixed development, environmentally-friendly building, and walkability. The Bay Area sometimes follows these lines, though one look at the traffic-choked highways shows there is much work to be done.

However, much of this thinking is a side-step. Cars aren’t eliminated- they’re made more efficient and perhaps made less necessary through public transit. Cities are still big concrete jungles- just with newer housing and perhaps a couple new parks. It’s not eliminating consumerism, but rather changing to more responsible brands.

Whether this type of society will stave off the huge problems posed by climate change is an open question. Large cities in industrial or post-industrial nations still use huge quantities of water and non-renewable resources. It’s not just the cars, but the pesticides, plastics, and consumer electronics.

Ecotopia has the advantage of being a utopia in the confines of a work of fiction, but it is a portrait of a society that made serious decisions over many years. Large cities like San Francisco are partially abandoned in favor of smaller, more self-sustaining suburbs. Major thoroughfares are turned into gardens and walkways. Policy changes don’t implement authoritarian population control, but do address whether a high birth rate is a major priority. Overall, many of the developments since white migration became substantial in the mid-19th century are slowed or stopped altogether. At the end of the day, there is a smaller electrical grid, a less robust transit system, and very little production of objects which cannot be replenished. In some ways, it’s like 1995 in North Korea, except as a desired outcome rather than a crisis. I, the consumer growth chauvinist, can see a society that moves forward despite moving back in my usual perspective.

Much like Unitarian Universalists have moved to the interdependent web over a linear chain of being, what progress and what regression are should be reconsidered. Society has overall goals that are not always quantitative- happiness, community, tranquility. There is no number of cars per city or megawatts of power consumed that is required to achieve these goals. What is needed is a system that works on the whole, and can work well into the future.

How you achieve that is the great debate.

John Galt is a fictional character in an imaginary world

A musing, more than anything.

Chris Kluwe is a pretty good NFL punter and unusually good at tearing apart bad ideas. He’s been the leader in the movement to end homophobia in sports and went out of his way to endorse same-sex marriage and equality. He’s profane, intelligent, and a true Californian. Not surprisingly, I like him a lot.

This Salon article is an excerpt from his new book, focusing on his reaction to having read the gigantic tome that is Atlas Shrugged. He pretty much distills the major issue with the book as a corner piece of a variant of libertarianism- it’s a work of fiction. I don’t mean that in the idea that only serious peer-reviewed papers can contribute to political philosophy, but rather than a work of fiction gets to get rid of all the issues with the world that exists today.

The nomination of Paul Ryan as MItt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate sparked a number of articles that look back at Ayn Rand’s body of work. The 2012 consensus- it’s terrible. This is consistent with the reception upon the release of Atlas Shrugged in 1957, in which Whittaker Chambers of the National Review stated “Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve.”

John Galt and all the sorta-Messiahs of Rand’s books, are people who live in a world where unavoidable tragedy and endemic inequality aren’t an issue. Or rather, they’re not an issue to the titans of business that get to play the heroes. Kluwe points out that society exists in many ways as a way to not let unavoidable catastrophe cause swaths of the population from being ruined and without hope. The welfare state exists and in many circles should be expanded because it’s trivially easy to see people getting hit in the gut by random chance.

Besides living in a place where unexpected crap just doesn’t exist, it also ignores what President Barack Obama was getting at when he said “You didn’t build that.” Yes, you can exist apart from the tyrants in government and he weak people who rely on society- well, unless you count the roads you need to succeed. And bridges. Airports. Electrical infrastructure. Some system of justice. Regulation of the coal mine that’s belching pollution onto your mountain resort for the elite. And so on.

The surge in outsider articles in the past year have a common theme- authors were very into Rand until at the latest about 20 years old. Thus they thought it was a great ideology until they learned of all the other ones.

It seems that on the free market of ideas, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is valued pretty low.

The long run is…

The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. -John Maynard Keynes

Economics is sometimes thought to be a science that can predict the future. Certain inputs, certain past trends, they come together to crystallize and make the future known.

Yet, the idea of a long run is silly. In time our lives will change and exist in a new set of conditions. But this is not really the ‘long run’ because the long run implies stability and predictability. In reality, we live in a succession of short-runs where things can change quite a bit.

The long run is the economic equivalent of settling down in life. It assumes that individuals will stop all this nonsense and behave rationally. And perhaps an individual could choose that path. But society is the life of the party, and having too much fun to slip into this “long run.”