Kleptocrats, Unite!

Rachel Maddow is building the case that Rex Tillerson’s actions at the State Department – and principally the firing of the top career civil servants – are consistent with the goals of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

To those that understand Putin’s Russia, the goals are simple: transfer as much wealth as possible from the Russian state to private ownership. This is called “kleptocracy” – government serving the financial interests of the leadership. Putin has made an art of this game, becoming arguably the richest man in the world.

As CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson was awarded Putin’s “Friend of Russia” designation for his stand against U.S. sanctions that impeded Exxon’s ability to exploit oil and gas resources in Russia. The methods used to enforce those sanctions were situated in the U.S. State Department. Those methods were also used to bring pressure against Exxon for its actions elsewhere in the world.

So Tillerson’s business history supports the conclusion that the State Department, with its focus on human rights and equity, is a nuisance to those trying to get business done in the world. My guess is that this is consistent with Trump’s goals, particularly as it has become clear that our President is almost certainly in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for which the sentencing mandates jail time. Cleaning out the top of the State Department will allow the administration to identify and elevate career diplomats that share their priorities, and perhaps protect themselves from prosecution.

So Rachel, don’t push the Russian connection too hard. Trump and Tillerson share with Putin the attitude that government should be turned to the purpose of making money. Their kleptomania may be sufficient explanation for their policies. Regardless of whether Putin is using blackmail to coerce their actions, the Trump administration is composed of people that appear to be inspired by Putin’s success.

On Politics and Altruism

The Huffington Post has picked up on the clarion call sounded by Judith Herman and others regarding their psychological profile of Donald Trump. Cynics respond that all politicians are power-seeking, and therefore possess significant personality defects. While that may be so, brains do evolve as we mature.

The brain is plastic, and evolves structures as we age that are responsible for socialization. The most evolved structure, which doesn’t appear until most are in their twenties, is responsible for the expression of altruism. Sociopathy (which I see manifested clearly in Trump’s behavior) is the tendency to treat other people as objects. It is indicative of a lack of even the most basic structures of socialization that are entrained with nursing, which delivers the most basic of rewards for collaboration. Forget psychoanalysis: scans of brain activity reveal whether people have even the basic machinery necessary for responsible leadership of others. My guess is that Trump is seriously deficient in that regard.

Louis Cozolino, who teaches at Pepperdine University, also has a practice in psychotherapy that guides adults through experiences that help them to evolve the neurological mechanisms of socialization (see The Neuroscience of Human Relationships). In other words, there are methods for treatment of these disorders, and we should try to educate the electorate to prefer politicians that engage in such counseling. Altruism is the ability to act for the good of others, and is something that everyone should prefer in political leaders.

Of course, the fullest flowering of altruism appears in our great spiritual leaders – those whose service is pursued without any external evidence of seeking for power. It is granted to them by the world they serve. One of my favorite quotes is from Tagore, the educator and poet who was Gandhi’s cultural collaborator:

Power said to the World, “You are mine.”
The World kept it prisoner on her throne.

Love said to the World “I am yours.”
The World gave it the freedom of her house.

In my post Man and Woman, I flirted with the assertion that the capacity to express altruism (characterized as “unconditional love” in that context) is what made Adam and Eve fully human. Conversely, from a psychological perspective, sociopaths are little more than lizards.

Jobs Jobbing

Steven Bannon is spinning his political agenda as “jobs, jobs, jobs.” His candidate, Donald Trump, is pushing three methods for creating jobs. The first is tax cuts for the wealthy and business, a replay of the failed “trickle down” economics first foisted upon us by Reagan. The second is to protect American jobs from foreigners by restructuring our trade relationships and deportation of illegal immigrants. Finally, we have infrastructure spending, long a Democratic priority frustrated by the Republican Party’s “no new taxes” policy that has locked the federal gas tax at $0.28 per gallon.

None of these proposals make much sense over the long term. Since Reagan, top-down stimulus policies have resulted in the largest income disparity in the nation’s history, with manufacturing jobs replaced by retail work. Overseas workers are themselves being displaced by automation, with electronics manufacturer Foxconn in China laying off 60,000 workers this year after installing robots, and illegal immigrants do the jobs that Americans won’t. Finally, infrastructure spending is not a permanent solution to unemployment – it will only make a significant dent now because the situation has been allowed to become so dire, with so many bridges, roads and dams in danger of collapse.

The future of employment was cast in a new light for me by a recent OECD study on computer use. In an assessment of users in advanced economies, the study revealed that only one-third of users could do more than fill out forms. This was also typical of most manufacturing jobs. As variability in sources of supply were reduced, it was less and less that the skills of the craftsman were required. Workers were trained to perform procedures.

Unfortunately, artificial intelligence and automation is assuming most of those tasks. Cortana will fill out our order forms for us. The Army is testing robot chefs that learn to cook watching videos on YouTube. In the near future, self-driving trucks will begin to erode the last great mainstay of blue-collar work, throwing 5 million drivers out of work.

From my experience as a fab tech in college, I know that it wasn’t the work that made such jobs enjoyable. People whose minds aren’t engaged by their work invest that energy in politics – whether innocent socialization or profiteering. During a year spent routing, sanding and soldering, my peers would disrupt each others concentration by squirting isopropyl alcohol on unsuspecting bums. And while I was building book cases using a wood working shop owned by one of the technicians, he took me out to a party run by a packer who had built a cinder block building behind his house stocked with goods that had “accidentally” fallen off of the forklift. I came away with stain and varnish.

While both examples sound abusive, they demonstrate an aspect of work that no machine will ever be able to replicate: building trust that allows us to have fun. Studies of laughter among apes shows that it serves primarily to indicate that aggressive behavior is regulated by empathy. Scratching, biting and hitting doesn’t progress, except accidentally, to actual injury.

One interpretation of our 24×7 political system is that this activity is being elevated as work in its own right. It is currently financed principally by mining out of the wealth held in the middle class commons. On the one hand, financial services companies no longer take a percentage of portfolio gains, they reap a service charge on each transaction, regardless of gain to the investor. Churning of retirement funds transfers wealth to the financial elite. That elite then finances the careers of politicians that vote for deregulation and lower taxes. The middle class, sensing incipient doom, then commits from its remaining wealth to fund the campaigns of revolutionaries such as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.

This impulse toward social cohesion is not always driven by desperation. Regional currency systems ensure that neighbors buy from each other, conserving wealth in a form that the money-center financiers can’t access. Sustainable multi-crop farming requires ten times as many workers as monoculture. With the spread of artificial intelligence and augmented reality, the inefficiencies and environmental degradations of family farming can be overcome, and communities rebuilt around the social cohesion that historically characterized agricultural societies.

My friend Sister Gloria celebrates her resuscitation of plants that appear to be dead in their pots. She simply applies her will to their survival. The biological capacity to heal through spiritual investment is explored in more depth in Stephen Harrod Buhner’s beautiful treatise, The Lost Language of Plants (reviewed here and here). This is the skill exercised by our nurses, and expressed as nurturing by teachers. It is a skill that our captains of finance and industry, so focused on exploiting resources to capture wealth, have been hostile to for thousands of years.

It is faith in this capacity that I believe will restore our broken political and economic systems. This capacity of intuition, that guides living things into a mutually supportive future free of fear, will be supplemented and supported by information systems that analyze information and prescribe treatments. Those decisions, however, are meaningless without the fundamental benefit of nurturance: the transmission of the spark of joy that fortifies our desire to survive.

As was the industrial age, this economic transformation will be frightening to those that cannot perceive its virtues. We are seeing such a fundamental shift. I doubt that Donald Trump and Stephen Bannon understand its nature, for they attained power by trumpeting doom. What they fail to understand is that in the new era, it is exactly those social and emotional skills that cemented the cohesion of industrial teams that will be of most value. The information age will unleash the nurturing potential that was held captive by the industrial age, ushering in an age of healing and sustainability.

Inerrancy

When I began taking flute lessons again at 50, my teacher kept on insisting that I needed to record my practice sessions. I understood why: I was substituting speed for clarity and precision. The notes came out in a blur that began and ended on the right notes, but that didn’t communicate anything in the middle.

But the thing is that I conditioned myself to that expectation of velocity, and I’ve stuck with it, slowly eliminating the extraneous motion and learning to focus the air flow. I’m beginning to sound like a flautist.

This was particularly apparent today after I came back from Dance Tribe in Santa Barbara. I felt like playing dirges, and since I don’t have any in sheet music, I just played slowly. I was pleasantly surprised by the clarity of tone.

I’ve been calling patiently to Hillary all week, and resolved to dance this morning for healing. While waiting for the doors to open, I offered Out of Eden’s Every Move I Make and the Katina’s Draw Me Close. I got part way through Sheena Wellington’s The Christ Child’s Lullaby before cutting inadvertently over to Lauren Daigle’s I Am Yours. Fifteen minutes of tears later, I realized that I could have taken another path: Shiva’s Dance of Destruction. But I held my resolve, and spent most of the first hour of the dance working my way in to the root of the pain. When it was over, I thought “You know, Hillary, your pain is a link to the things that beset us.” I walked out into the sunlight, and made them present to the Ancient of Days.

Yes, that is an intentional reference to Daniel 10.

I am hardly proud of all this trauma. Particularly because much of it originates in Christian confusion – this idea that we are “one nation under God,” which means that the Bible should be the moral law of the land.

I finally heard an interviewee on NPR explain the Evangelical premise: Christian faith requires conversion of the heart, and a belief in the inerrancy of God’s word. Politically, that departs from the ten commandments, headlined by “thou shalt not kill,” and continues through pro-life logic to a determination to see the Supreme Court recomposed to overturn Roe v. Wade. It was that determination that caused almost all white evangelicals to vote for Donald Trump.

I could tell them that they are wrong – wrong all down the line. Jesus reminds us that God “desire[s] mercy, not sacrifice.” He commands us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” As promised in Jeremiah, Jesus dethrones the law, eliding it to “Love God and your neighbor.”

Why does he do this? Because the Law is not God’s word. Read the covenant with Noah: “By man shall man be judged.” The whole of the Pentateuch is a lesson in natural consequences – that threatening people doesn’t lead them to do good, it just corrupts those that mete out punishment. It’s not God’s Law, it’s man’s law propagated under the authority granted by God. This is why Jesus casts the law aside.

Look even at “Thou shalt not kill.” What does that mean? Only people, or does it also include other forms of life? And what about the capital punishments of Leviticus, or the genocide of Deuteronomy? The only conclusion to be drawn from the progression is that human priorities were present in the Law from the beginning.

So why was the Law allowed to persist? Because it served the purpose of building the capacity to reason in God’s chosen people. That fragile tool allows us to overcome our animal instincts, discerning and strengthening creative behaviors.

Jesus came when enough people were prepared to recognize the lesson delivered by the law of natural consequences – the religious and political practices of his era were a terrible abuse of faith. The people’s hunger for truth and justice caused many to accept the invitation to “follow.”

So what about our world today? There are still those that need the discipline of reason, and should they chose to follow some version of the Bible’s ethical code, that’s good for them. But there are also those that envision bringing a child into this world, and dread the prospect that that child will live a life twisted by fear and want, or casually crushed by violence. They know what it’s done to their lives, and they can’t imagine that anyone would want to repeat that experience. And then we have those that wish to have a child, but want to do it under the right circumstances, when all the benefits of family and community can be at their disposal as they grow.

None of us are inerrant. Even Jesus protested “Why do you call me ‘Master’? There is only one that is good.” We all make mistakes, and those mistakes cause us pain. Love is the tool that heals us of the consequences of our mistakes. Jesus tells us to love God because it calls that healing power closer to us. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors because that allows God to see them clearly, and so to heal them most effectively.

The soul of the aborted child will find a loving family capable of providing for its security and growth. Is that not what it would desire?

Maybe, then, we should think of the “Word of God” in the way the John invoked it: the logos that was and is with God. The source of all creative power, the force that amplifies all that is good. Simply and wholly: Love. In its infinite possibilities, love overwhelms any law of human reason. It leads people through error into repentance, and thus to wisdom. It prepares them to do better next time, rather than denying them the right to try at all.

From this perspective, all the dross of human vanity and folly falls away from Scripture. It reads as Jesus characterized it: the effort of a loving “daddy” to guide his children into maturity.

We shouldn’t be in such a hurry to write perfect laws, for love undoes the strictures of government. It is an error to chain it to law, for when the Kingdom arrives, government will fall away. We will all have the benefit of the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and so no law except the song of compassion in our hearts.

Hillary: Next Steps

The fundamental problem with Bernie Sanders’ socialist agenda is that governments do not respond to the needs of individuals. In delivering services, they must categorize people and compartmentalize society.

I think that Hillary and I agree that the suffering of the American middle class demonstrates that reality. Prior to the neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party, the middle class financed college education by paying itself 7% interest for loans against deposits that earned 6% interest. The deregulation of the Savings and Loan industry under Reagan was the beginning of a long tilt of the playing field, under the auspices of government, against the middle class in favor of the economic elite. This extended not only to the financial services industry, but also to the CEOs that run Main Street, men and women that dilute our pension plans by awarding each other enormous stock options packages.

Where Sanders sought to lead a messianic revolt against the system that threatens to throw the baby out with the bath water, Clinton proposed a more modest program of adjustment. Sanders, with his unfounded charges of corruption against both Clinton and the DNC, validated Trump’s campaign rhetoric. He has as much to do with the loss as anyone, and for him to claim the mantle of the progressive movement is hypocritical in the extreme.

So the electoral and political system is broken. We’re going to have to solve our problems ourselves. As a Christian, I see it this way: the idol of the federal government has been cast down. We can no longer seek security through claims of justice against the public purse. We must rely upon the compassion of others.

Love is the only path forward.

So where does this leave the candidate that I still honor? Well, finally able to focus her full powers on charitable work. Hillary, take the Clinton Global Initiative into Detroit and Flint and Cleveland. Side-step the broken federal system, and bind people together, face-to-face, hand-to-hand, in the glorious promise of healing that transcends geographical, political and national boundaries.

I am certain that Christ will join you there.

God’s Bargain

One of the charms of Democracy is the barren privilege of our belief that we can bargain with an incredibly powerful being – our government – that knows almost nothing about us. We have a vote, and we hang on the words of candidates, hoping to hear a promise that we can bind with our vote. Those that draw upon other resources (whether the free market or faith) to garner security tend to wish to limit the role of government. Those looking at success from the outside often wish to draw upon governmental power to avert personal calamity. In most of the electorate, those two impulses join in incoherent combination. Witness, for example, the Floridian retiree who pronounces that entitlements must be cut to reduce the federal deficit, but insists that Medicare and Social Security are sacrosanct.

Entitlements for the elderly were established as a “New Deal” during the Great Depression. At that time, the elderly were the most impoverished segment of society. Since that time, the elderly have become the wealthiest segment of the population, being replaced on the lowest tier by our children.

The challenge of loving people unconditionally – of saying that you will invest in the survival of others without regards to merit – is to create conditions in which the loved ones may choose to use their power to hurt themselves and others. In our modern democracy, the elderly – the community with the most time for political organization – have used that opportunity to steal power from those without a political voice – children. That hasn’t happened directly, and any specific senior citizen would be angered by my characterization. But governments are aggregates, and my statement, in aggregate, is irrefutable.

The Bible, of course, is the story of Unconditional Love’s attempt to enter into and glorify the world. It celebrates episodes of human grace, but for the most part it is a record of iniquity – of the rejection of unconditional love in favor of material possessions (land, wealth or political alliance) that provide security. Inevitably, the strategies of material possession create competition between individuals and communities, often culminating in violence.

How does God deal with this problem? Well, in the Old Testament, generally by disassembling the nation. In the record we have Noah’s Flood, the subjugation of Egypt, the culling of the Golden Calf, the jealous threats of Exodus and the exile to Babylon. So we have this paradox: the gifts of Unconditional Love are showered on the people, but when they abuse them, they suffer terrible punishment.

Unfortunately, the power of this rebuke was projected onto individuals. If the nation should suffer as a whole for sin, so must the individual. Personal misfortune was interpreted as a consequence of personal sin, when in most cases it occurs as a result of sins committed by others. The hungry child sleeps at her desk while the septuagenarian on social security tees up on the golf course.

Jesus rails against such hypocrisy in the opening verses of Luke 13. He speaks of Galileans whose blood was added to the Hebrew sacrifices, and the people killed by the collapse of a tower, and warns that they were not alone in their sin. To the audience, he proclaims twice:

Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.

But then Jesus tells a strange little story about a landowner that planted a fig tree in his vineyard. When it bears no fruit, he orders his gardener to cut it down as it was “wasting the soil.” To this, the gardener replies [ESV Luke 13:8-9]:

Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put manure on. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.

In many other parables, Jesus speaks of himself as a landowner, prince or bridegroom, but in this case, I see him renewing his role as a tender of life, most familiarly through the parables of the shepherd. To those familiar with the story of the Golden Calf, it might come to mind that God threatened to destroy the entire Hebrew nation, and relented only when Moses assumed responsibility for their future conduct.

Here Jesus says that the problem is not with the Hebrew people (the tree) but with the ground they are planted in. He vows to spread his loving spirit on them, and counsels that they will flower and bear fruit under his care.

And if not, then God may destroy them. Note that: the landowner orders the gardener to cut down the tree, and the gardener offers to care for it another year, building a bond of caring that means that the landowner must do the work of clearing the ground.

In disobeying the owner the following year, will the gardener himself by cut down? Is Jesus offering this assurance to his disciples: “I will care for you as Moses did, and if you fall, I will fall with you.” Recognizing both that sin must not be allowed to take root in the land, but also committing himself without reservation to preservation of the tree of human spirit that will eventually spread Divine Love over the entire world?

Ultimately, the only stable security is in knowing that we are loved. God is the only perfect source of that love, but his restless seeking to heal the world means that we cannot take that love and hide from the world. We cannot “retire” in comfort. We must go into the dark places where people hunger and live in fearful ignorance and bring them love. If we do not, love will pass round us seeking another way, and the sins of others will overwhelm us.

God’s purpose is pure, and embraces everything. It can serve us only if we serve others.

God loves us, but he cannot be bargained with like we can bargain with a government.

But why would we want to?