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To Be a Public Servant

To Be a Public Servant    —by Jinny Batterson

In the many memorial tributes to former President George H.W. Bush, one of the phrases most often used goes something like, “He exemplified a life of public service.”  Though “Bush 41” generally downplayed his accomplishments, he served with distinction in the U.S. military during World War II, and as a young man later succeeded in a variety of academic settings, sports competitions and business enterprises. He was part of the American political landscape for over thirty years in both elective and appointive offices—member of Congress, special envoy to China, head of the CIA, Vice President, and President. 

Perhaps as we pay George H.W. Bush deserved tribute after a long, distinguished life, we may take a minute to ponder the more general question of what makes a public servant.  Does a particular office confer it? Is there a curriculum or course one can take to learn public service?  Is it ingrained, a character trait one is born with?

My guess is that, like many aspects of life, being disposed toward public service is part nature, part nurture. The senior President Bush was born into privileged circumstances, but was also schooled to honor his responsibilities to the larger community. If we sometimes under-appreciated his efforts while President to create a “kinder, gentler America,” his intention to generate such a shift in emphasis was evident, and he used his office and the tools at his disposal to try to nurture public spiritedness. 

Most of the public servants I have known have been neither holders of high political office nor members of the military. While not often in the public eye, not necessarily in physical danger, they’ve nonetheless been necessary to the flourishing of our lives. They’ve been data entry clerks, or customer service representatives, librarians, researchers, scientists, technicians, computer programmers—each fulfilling a task to improve the way the public sphere works.

Let’s honor President Bush’s legacy by paying him tribute, and also be renewing our commitment to public service and public servants at all levels. Some opportunities for public service are described on the website of the Points of Light Foundation—https://beone.pointsoflight.org/. Others abound in different areas of the internet. Find one, and become a public servant, whatever your other title(s) may be.

Who Did You Expect?

Who Did You Expect?     —by Jinny Batterson

My life so far has been fortunate—no privation, little discrimination, generally good health, many chances for love and adventure.  Much of the time, though not always, people I’ve met have lived up to (or beyond) my expectations. On those rare occasions when someone’s behavior has disappointed me, more cynical or world-weary friends have shrugged at what they regard as my naiveté. 

“Of course so-and-so let you down,” they’ve announced. “What did you expect?”  

Increasingly for me,  the appropriate question is rather “Who (or, for the grammar police, “Whom”) did you expect?”  As I mature (a work in progress), I become more aware of instances when I’ve pre-judged people and turned out to be fairly far off the mark.

The first occasion that stands out is my initial in-person meeting with the leader of our 1980 group tour to China. In those pre-internet days, I’d exchanged postal letters and paperwork with Ms. Baum and talked with her on the phone. Until we both arrived in San Francisco’s airport departure lounge for our trans-Pacific group flight to Hong Kong, I had not actually met this native New Yorker. I’d assumed from her accent and phone demeanor that she was of Jewish background. She seemed somewhat pushy and no-nonsense, ready to take on the world. I was surprised to see that she was African-American, not ethnically Jewish. She could be somewhat pushy and no-nonsense. Her prior experiences as both social worker and travel agent had prepared her well to take on whatever bureaucracy attempted to get in her way, regardless of ethnic origin or nationality. She turned out to be both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.

Earlier this fall, I signed up to work the polls in the 2018 mid-terms. After on-site training, I exchanged emails with the woman who’d be my site supervisor for early voting. Her written English was good, clear and simple. Her family name was a common one, her given name, ending in “a,” suggested to me she might be African-American, or maybe Hispanic-American. When we met, I could detect no skin coloring or hair texture to suggest ancestral links with Africa, no hint of foreign origin in her accent. She seemed at first a very “vanilla,” somewhat conservative American. During our work, she showed her passion for ensuring that anyone who wanted to vote was given maximum opportunities to do so. She’d sit patiently with someone lacking appropriate credentials, or with an address not yet entered into the electoral system database of rapidly growing Wake County. She knew the rules well. She could suggest pulling up an electronic copy of a utility bill on a portable phone. She might advise going home to retrieve a needed ID and then returning later in the day. In rare cases, she’d have the potential voter fill out a provisional ballot, explaining how and when to check whether their vote had been counted. The workforce she’d helped assemble to follow her lead was the most visibly diverse I’ve ever participated in. She was both different from and similar to the “who” I’d expected.    

I’ve just spent Thanksgiving with parts of my extended family that I barely knew growing up in Maryland in the 1950’s and 60’s. Only once had I had a chance to visit these North Carolina farmer cousins from a rural area near Charlotte. What little I remember from that farm stay involves ponies tame enough so even I was persuaded to take a short ride. I got to see my grandmother’s sister-in-law make glorious biscuits using milk straight from the cows. The cousins closest to my age teased me good-naturedly about my lack of country skills.

After moving to North Carolina a decade ago, I became reacquainted with some of the cousins who’d left the farm to settle in Raleigh. They’d tell me enticing stories of an extended family Thanksgiving gathering at “the shed.” I pictured the locale in my mind: an expanse of gently rolling hills, empty except for a few horses or cows grazing in pastures. “The shed” would be a slightly cleaned-up farm outbuilding. Twenty or so aging cousins of Scots-Irish ancestry would assemble for our midday meal, then say interminable grace before we could eat. Someone would have cooked a turkey and brought it still warm to the feast. We’d eat plentifully, exchange pleasantries, carefully avoid politics, and then everyone would go home.

This year as we drove into the neighborhood nearest our destination, I had trouble reconciling my mental image with current reality. The surrounding area may once have been farmland, but the vicinity had long since become part of suburban Charlotte. A mid-rise apartment complex dominated the nearest street corner. The “shed ” had been expanded and modernized from an earlier role as storage space for some cousins’ plumbing business. It was now a comfortable, well-appointed venue with adjustable seating for up to a couple hundred people. Nearly that many cousins of all ages were in attendance, along with baby equipment, pet dogs and a few footballs.

We did have a short sung grace before the long, snaking buffet line formed. We did generally steer clear of contentious political topics. People caught up on family news since the previous get-together. One 20-something cousin had recently returned from an extended Peace Corps stint in South America; in the next generation up, a househusband described his four years of helping school their daughters while his family was on assignment in southern Europe. One attendee I didn’t get a chance to talk with directly had a skin tone and accent that implied ancestry or origin in India. The Reas still cherished their rural roots and pioneering ancestors, but the clan had gotten more diverse and widely traveled—both different from and similar to the “who’s” I’d expected.

The remaining holidays of late autumn and early winter are likely to have more extended family gatherings and chance meetings. May I remember not to pre-judge those I encounter, to be more careful not to let “who I expect” get in the way of meeting current reality with an open mind and heart. 

Rea Thanksgiving at “the shed”

China Memoir–Launched and Languishing

China Memoir, Launched and Languishing   —by Jinny Batterson

Memoir front cover

In May, 2018, I finished the initial self-publishing process for a memoir of my interest and experiences with mainland China, a book long in the making. Following conventional advice, I hosted a “launch party” for Where the Great Wall Ends at a small local Chinese restaurant, inviting lots of friends and acquaintances. Nearly twenty people showed up, including my primary editor and my book designer. Guests listened politely to my book introduction while munching egg rolls and sipping tea. Several attendees bought copies of the book. Seeing the book actually in print and having people actually purchase it was magical to me. Not quite like birthing a human child, but still a labor of love.

After this initial marketing effort, I pretty much left the book on its own, intermittently sending out a review or gift copy, hoping for a referral or two. Sales have dribbled in. I donated multiple copies to our local public library system. Some have gotten checked out. Recently I put up a very basic book version on Kindle, though my knowledge of Kindle formatting conventions is rudimentary. The preview on my non-Kindle laptop had lots of extraneous editing marks and some formatting glitches at the ends of several chapters, but the Kindle price is less than half that of the print version.    

As this year’s holiday gift-giving season approaches, I’m sending out an appeal for additional readers and/or purchasers. The promise of untold wealth from royalty payments was not part of my motivation for writing the book, but I would like to reach a wider audience than what has materialized so far. Whatever our China experiences or political persuasions, I believe it’s important to make some efforts to understand this big, diverse country, including its long history and its natural environment. China occupies many of the same latitudes in the northern hemisphere as the United States; its land area is roughly the same size. Its culture, geography, and resources are quite different from those of the U.S. Of course my perspective is limited, but I’ve had nearly forty years of intermittent tourism, travel, and teaching in many parts of China to draw on as I crafted my narrative. 

If you have a China-interested or China-background relative or friend, please consider Where the Great Wall Ends as a possible gift. If your monetary resources are limited, please consider checking out a copy from a Wake County, NC library branch, or, if living elsewhere, requesting a copy via interlibrary loan.  Very best wishes for the upcoming holiday season, whatever your background or traditions, and many thanks for your interest.   

III

III     —by Jinny Batterson

A veteran of dramas both global and
intimate, he was sired by a socialist
who alternated families while shepherding
a mid-20th century experiment in cooperative living.
As soon as he could, he escaped to serve time
in the Navy. Afterwards reticent about his military
experiences, he let drop only something vague
about intelligence and early computers.

Out of the service, he worked for a time
as a banker, then shed most
trappings of conventional life and
headed to hippiedom’s heyday:
1960’s San Francisco.
.

He studied acting, acted for years as a catalyst
for companies and organizations wanting to make
better use of technology. Along the way, he jettisoned nearly
all of his name, becoming just III. His only personal
concession to technology: a telephone with a number that
spelled out “TANTRUM” plus a basic answering maching.

I knew him later in life, a graying pony-tailed
“jiggler” at our small annual conference,
noted for his deep-throated laugh, his facilitation skills,
a deep aversion to being photographed.
In multiple conference sessions, he coached us:
“Boundary is everything.”
He honored the boundaries of us non-smokers by
limiting his cigarette consumption to the outdoors.

He allowed just one physical likeness: a basic pen-and-ink
sketch a friend drew, strictly for promotional purposes.
Despite III’s pared-down lifestyle, he became a packrat
of conference clothing, saving all twenty-five garments from
his years of participation. After outliving his father by almost
a generation, he died of a stroke. I mourned,
first from afar, later at a Pacific beachside
service his partner organized, bringing along
hand-me-downs from III’s conference sweatshirt collection.

Our advance crew filled a fire pit on a chill misty afternoon.
Once the fire blazed hot, we wrote or sketched some
of our favorite III memories. Shivering in our sweatshirts,
we let the fire devour the papers, arcing their residue skyward.
We told III stories to the young, lamely imitated III’s signature guffaw.

Not until I returned from the beach
did I notice a small burn mark on this year’s
sweatshirt sleeve–the size and shape of a cigarette ember.

III memento

What We Pay Attention To Matters

What We Pay Attention To Matters     —by Jinny Batterson

Here in North Carolina, we have the option of voting early—this election cycle, nearly three weeks early.  On the very first day of the eighteen days set aside for early voting in the county where I live, I cast my ballot.  I’d earlier signed up to work as a non-partisan election official at one of the early voting sites in our county.  Mostly because of this temporary job (and because I need to spend at least some of my time sleeping), I’ve been sheltered from widespread exposure to news events and negative campaign advertising. This has proved to be a real blessing. 

Once I finish my early shift at about 2 in the afternoon, I come home, take a nap, take a walk, share an evening meal with my husband, then bed down early so I can repeat the cycle, starting at about 4:30 a.m. the following day.  I’ve been vaguely aware of hateful tweets and sporadic violence, but mostly I’ve spent my after-dark hours sleeping and my before-dark hours either working or enjoying the autumn weather outdoors. 

On the job, we’re forbidden to talk politics, a wise decision, I believe. Still, from some of the partial stories other workers have shared with me, I get the impression that we represent a pretty wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions. We have younger workers, some coping with student debt, others concerned about underemployment—mismatches between the skills they’ve trained for and the jobs they’ve found so far. We have middle aged workers who worry about aging parents and/or the fluctuations in their 401Ks in a volatile stock market.

The long and short of voting at a central NC early voting site

We come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, from a petite ballot handler to a former basketball center. Some older “temps” are retirees like me; others still work part-time, sandwiching in scant time for personal lives amid hectic work schedules. One of my 60ish coworkers has a vocabulary that suggests he may not have had the same chances for formal education that I did. His line of patter can sometimes border on bigotry, yet he spent some of his off-hours last week comforting a colleague whose wife had a terminal illness. 

Our range of voters also is wide—from the just-turned-18 to a frail elderly woman whose grandson wheeled her up the elevator and into the voting area to cast her ballot one more time. She was born in 1920, the year that women in the U.S. first obtained the right to vote in national elections.  We see office workers on their lunch hours, professors eager to encourage their students to vote, students puzzled about voting procedures, custodians, construction workers, and others whose dress and demeanor defy easy labeling. 

It would be unrealistic to believe that our democracy is in great shape. Being subjected to predictably inflammatory tweets, predictably bloody lead news stories, and predictably negative campaign advertising can be discouraging. Whatever the outcome of this current voting cycle, we will have lots of work to do to help heal some of the breaches in our social fabric, whether we are citizens or elected officials. Yet I’m encouraged by the civility of the voters and polling officials in the small corner of the electorate where I work. Many people DO show up to vote, over a million so far in North Carolina. They wait in line, sometimes chatting with each other. They’re glad to get their ballots and to make their opinions known.  Perhaps if we pay more attention to what’s going well, we may be in a better position to help alleviate what’s not. 

Softening Hearts, Hardening Infrastructure, Widening Perspectives

Softening Hearts, Hardening Infrastructure, Widening Perspectives

                                            —by Jinny Batterson

It’s been a rough couple of months here in North Carolina: two hurricanes (Florence, then Michael), a polarized government, widespread agricultural losses, increasing poverty, damaged schools and infrastructure. 

Yet there’s been heartening news as well. Many established charities such as the American Red Cross have sent disaster recovery teams to the worst impacted areas. Local citizens in areas less damaged by the storms have created both short-term and long-term relief efforts. A neighbor who specializes in local fundraising set up a Sunday-afternoon event at a nearby shopping center and raised over $10,000 in cash plus thousands of dollars worth of non-perishable food and household goods for hurricane relief. Because of the extent of the damage, both in the Carolinas and elsewhere, it will take continued efforts by private donors, non-profits, government agencies, and financial institutions to help promote recovery.  The natural environment will never be the same; repairs, rebuilding, and/or relocation of homes and businesses will take months if not years. 

After hurricane Florence decimated the coastal Carolinas, major roads and interstates were flooded and impassable for over a week, making cities such as Wilmington, North Carolina effectively islands.  Residents who’d evacuated were asked not even to try to return home as soon as the first few roads were reopened—what limited road travel was possible needed to be reserved for emergency and supply crews.  Now that the immediate crises are over, people are starting to grapple with longer-term problems: should rebuilding be limited in areas that seem more and more prone to drastic weather?  Should building codes be changed? How do we adapt our infrastructure to be more resilient? Do we need to pursue alternatives to a predominately road-based transportation network?

Simple solutions seem elusive and likely counterproductive. Perhaps we need to rethink some of the implicit assumptions we’ve made about how the world works.  Rather than considering ourselves outside nature, it may be time to widen our perspectives and acknowledge that we humans are just one piece in a complex, evolving whole.  Among the groups that have challenged some of my existing perceptions are:

Transition networks (https://transitionnetwork.org/), a set of local-global initiatives to work toward more resilient local economies in the face of escalating global challenges

Bioneers (https://bioneers.org/), harnessing scientific knowledge toward solving human problems

Biomimicry 3.8 (https://biomimicry.net/), which looks at other life forms (some with over 3.8 billion years of experience on earth) for innovative ways to re-engineer human-made systems

What partial solutions have you discovered?  What “small/local” actions are you taking to make our future more livable?  Please share some of your thoughts. 

Seven Harmful/Helpful Political Habits

Seven Harmful/Helpful Political Habits   —by Jinny Batterson

(I’ve expanded an earlier version of this post that was written in 2014. Many of the issues remain the same; my wordiness has increased. Please read and pass along to anyone you believe would benefit.  Thanks!)

As a citizen in a democracy, I am a member of multiple levels of government whether I like it or not. Democracy, it is often said, is imperfect, but still better than the other options. Recently many opinion leaders in the United States have questioned whether we Americans are losing “the habits of democracy.” Over the years, I’ve sometimes exhibited bad political habits. I’m trying to reform, to become a more effective member of a democratic society. Below I’ve listed seven of my bad habits, with possible correctives. Recognize any?  

1) Politics is serious business, so I need to engage in it with utmost seriousness. 

Many of us with reformist bents can allow our passion for improving the world to overtake our sense of humor and proportion. Whenever I’ve done this, often I’ve tripped over my own earnestness or outrage, alienating potential allies—sending nasty letters to elected officials, carrying protest placards, scowling. Successful politicians of many different persuasions, from Ronald Reagan to Nelson Mandela, have learned to take themselves lightly while taking their causes seriously. There are good reasons why campaign photographs show candidates smiling.

Even in these polarized times, it IS possible to be well-reasoned, polite, even humorous. When I’ve taken the time to cool down before approaching officials at any level, I’ve had better success at getting them at least to recognize my perspective, even if they may not entirely agree. As a wise mentor once told me, “A smile is the shortest distance between two points of view.”  

2)  Politics is dirty, and most politicians are crooks, so I don’t want to get involved.

The list of our national, state and local political scandals seems endless. I can find it tempting just to walk away from politics to avoid being tainted, too. I hear about “dark money” (large contributions that are difficult to trace) and its influence on elections. Not surprisingly, some politicians in all political parties have accepted large sums from PACs, superPACS, possibly even foreign sources. I could not compete with large donor groups, even if I won the lottery.

However, that does not exempt me from making my small contribution—money, in-kind donations, and/or labor—to support candidates and causes of my choice. I can research the sources of candidates’ campaign contributions through public records and watchdog groups. I can vary the sources of my “partial” news (neither impartial nor complete) to try to understand multiple perspectives. Most important of all, I CAN VOTE, even when my possibilities seem less than ideal.   

3) Government can solve all our problems.

  I can let my expectations of government get overblown, instead of trying to make a difference where I have the most expertise and potential impact. Much as I’d like for my elected officials to snap their fingers and instantly reduce any negative impacts of globalization and automation, reduce unemployment to zero, eliminate poverty, and mitigate climate change, I realize that expecting governments to do too much too quickly can be self-defeating.

My most visibly effective actions have been at the local level—lobbying for enhanced facilities at a nearby park, or speaking out to oppose the rezoning of a small stretch of undeveloped green space. I can get informed and make a small difference; many small differences DO add up. 

4) Government is the problem.

On several occasions, I’ve lost my temper in conversations with “faceless bureaucrats” over regulations I thought were obsolete, needlessly harsh, or downright stupid. I can find parts of government maddeningly unresponsive, from the local to the federal level. 

It’s far easier for me to remember government actions that inconvenience me or limit my perceived choices than to remember valuable government services, from filling potholes on winter-damaged roads through providing police, fire and military protection, to dispensing veterans’  benefits, to underwriting healthcare subsidies for the elderly and the poor. Sometimes I may need to give the “faceless bureaucrats” a pat on the back.

 

5) Local politics does not matter.

I can too easily focus on the “big” political races, glossing over the reality that the government level that impacts me most directly is local: zoning rules; property tax laws and rates; school pupil assignments; the placement of roads, parks, and greenways; economic development plans and procedures.

To be most effective, I need to focus much of my political time and effort on local issues. Besides, for citizens and officials alike, learning needed consensus building and compromise skills starts close to home. This was hammered home to me shortly after I moved to North Carolina, when a school board election that drew just over 10% of the county’s voters created a temporary majority opposed to diversity. They reversed a decades-long pattern of economically-based integration in the county’s schools. in the next election cycle, turnout doubled, though still low in an odd-year election. A more moderate school board took office.

6) If I just elect the right candidates, all will go well.

In several previous election contests, I’ve voted for a successful candidate I thought would be best for the town/county/state/country. When little immediately changed, I got disappointed. Partly because our national population has increased nearly a hundred fold since the U.S. became a nation, many officials at all levels represent increasingly large populations—in their districts, their state, or our nation as a whole. 

Therefore, if I want the elected officials who represent me to reflect my views, I need to do more than use my vote to support candidates whose views most closely reflect my own. Voting is a necessary first step, but not the only one. I also need to remind successful candidates, once elected, of my views on issues that affect me—coherently, respectfully, and repeatedly.

7) “Watershed” elections are crucial; some losses are irreversible.

As I’ve lived through more and more election cycles, I’ve come to believe that hyperbole about potential shifts in policy as a result of a single election can be counterproductive. Of course presidential elections can matter. Of course it can matter which political party controls national appointments and committee assignments. Many substantive changes, though, take decades or even generations. It took 58 years from the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson that established a “separate but equal” doctrine for public facilities to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision ending legal segregation of public schools. An initial national Women’s Rights Convention was held in 1848. A U.S. constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote in national elections was not ratified until 1920. Conversations and disagreements in our broader society about the rights, responsibilities, and roles of minorities and women continue to this day.

I’m skeptical of overblown claims, both of single-election disaster potential, and of single-election long-term gains. At the same time, I’ve concluded that it is important to vote in EVERY election, not just the high profile ones. Also, I need to stay engaged, informed, and involved, regardless of who holds the presumed power at any given time—I need to remember that truth is always eventually more powerful than a lie.

After especially bruising mistakes or defeats, I pick myself up and start again. If each of us works to become less prone to our own bad habits, we CAN change our governments at multiple levels for the better. Rather than the polarized extremes of political culture we are too often exposed to, we can move toward the “more perfect union”  envisioned by our nation’s founders as they wrote the preamble to our U.S. Constitution. 

As you work to reform whatever your bad political habits happen to be, first and foremost, PLEASE make it a habit to keep your voter registration current, and PLEASE vote—in every election!      

Losing Our Leaves, Leaving Our Losses

Losing Our Leaves, Leaving Our Losses   —by Jinny Batterson

Not yet the part of autumn with luminous light,
But already the leaves have begun to drop.
Those still on the trees are ragged-edged
From the winds of recent storms.

We, too, begin to droop, weighted
Down by the trillions of gallons of water
And waste churning through our coastal plains
As hog lagoons and ash ponds drain oceanward.

If we’ve not been media hermits, we’ve
Been exposed, too, to a flood of tantrums
And tears from high office seekers, office holders,
Commentators, and accusers alleging past violations.

Whether we sense a booming, blaming paternal voice
Out of Eden, or a quiet niggling of conscience
Before the morning’s ever-breaking news,
We start to see the fig leaves we wear.

A loss of innocence is the hardest loss to bear.
The desire to appear blameless is universal–for
Genders, races, nations, high office aspirants alike.
Yet endure such losses we must, maybe more than once.

By the time trauma has receded, by the time an anguished outcry
Gets voiced, will we excuse ourselves with well-rehearsed denials:
“Overwrought, imagining things, too long ago, never happened,”
Or can we acknowledge the hurt, muster the collective grace
To answer with contrite, action-backed apologies? Will we,
Both injured and injurer, leave our losses, begin to rebuild trust?

Is Anyone Really Stealing American Jobs?

Is Anyone Really Stealing American Jobs?  —by Jinny Batterson

Recently, a friend forwarded to me an email of guidelines for “buying USA,” comparing some everyday items, from greeting cards to toothpaste, that are marketed in the U.S. but now often made in other countries. I have no objection to buying more of the goods I use from hardworking Americans, but I do object to the thinly veiled inference that workers in China (or Mexico, or some other lower-wage country) are stealing American jobs. Wording of the message forwarded to me matches one posted by a real estate developer from near Charlotte, NC in March, 2016, as that year’s election cycle was heating up (see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ace-hardware-made-usa-very-encouraging-david-e-johnson-pe). My initial reaction to the message: Oh, rats! Here we go again, blaming job losses on low-wage workers in other parts of the world, when those workers actually play only a small part in American job losses. This mid-term election cycle, I’m concerned that both recycled and more recent posts and tweets are trying to persuade American voters that a broad trade war with China will help save American jobs. 

Over the past forty years, I’ve been able to spend a fair amount of time visiting with workers in China. They don’t want to steal anyone’s job. They are just trying to improve their lives, like workers everywhere. In the 1940’s,1950’s and 1960’s, many Americans left grinding rural poverty for better manufacturing jobs in cities. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, many Chinese also left the countryside in search of better paying urban jobs. By now, Chinese wages have risen. The Chinese government is starting to tighten regulations to rein in the pollution that significantly shortens Chinese lives. Some jobs are leaving China for other countries with lower wages and/or laxer environmental rules.

After I sent a semi-coherent reply to my friend, I let a later draft sit. I needed more time to simmer down and reflect. I realized that I’m very lucky.  So far, my retirement income is comfortable. I do not have to pinch pennies. I can afford to be selective in my buying habits. As much as possible, I patronize local sources. When we lived in Vermont, I made a special effort to buy cheese from our area farmers’ co-op; in Virginia, I bought a lot of local apples; here in North Carolina, I shop the local farmers’ markets; I eat ribs and barbecue at local restaurants. For less-localized items, I check labels along with prices to see where a product originated and how it was produced. Even if they’re somewhat more expensive,  I will sometimes buy U.S.-made goods to help support American workers. At holidays or when buying specialty items, I often purchase “fair trade” products so that some of my coffee, chocolate, and gift purchases will help support those with the lowest wages. Overall, I try to be an informed, careful, caring consumer.

Despite all sorts of “buy from nearby” campaigns, and despite what we may want to believe about fair and unfair trade, for at least a generation the biggest cause of job losses worldwide has been the quickening pace of replacing human workers using automation. According to a Financial Times article published just after Mr. Trump’s election (https://www.ft.com/content/dec677c0-b7e6-11e6-ba85-95d1533d9a62, December 2, 2016), about 85% of U.S. manufacturing job losses between 2000 and 2010 were due to automation rather than to moving jobs overseas. The same article compared the average hourly wage for a human American welder ($25) with the operating cost to have a robot do the same work ($8). If you include the installation and maintenance costs for the robot, the gap narrows slightly. However, the cost difference is likely to continue growing. 

Some trade agreements can damage the interests of workers and/or put at risk the natural environment that supports human life as we know it. Global trade has rarely been without its distortions and inequities. (For example, ask almost any Chinese about the British practice during the 19th century of exporting opium raised in the British colony of India into China to offset the costs of British imports of tea and porcelain, or consider the trans-Atlantic slave trade.) Negotiating worthwhile trade deals can be both time-consuming and extremely difficult—blogs or tweets alone don’t cut it. 

One of my grandfathers lost his job in 1930 when the company he was working for at the time replaced their human bookkeepers with calculating machines as a cost-cutting measure. On President Herbert Hoover’s final full day in office, March 3, 1933, he signed the “Buy America Act” that had recently passed the U.S. Congress. The Great Depression of the 1930’s was not solved.

Americans suffering from job losses need assistance and encouragement rather than attempts to divert the problem onto others. Automation, used wisely, can help improve lives; used foolishly, it can devastate human workers, even entire communities. Global competition, used wisely and fairly, can help spur innovation and growth. Used foolishly, it can pit groups that have many common interests against each other.

Blaming will not solve anything. Please let’s take time together to consider the deeper issues. 

The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited

The Rich Man and Lazarus Revisited   —by Jinny Batterson

During my childhood, my most formally religious aunt used to give me books of Bible stories, adapted for children. One of the most difficult stories for me was Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It concerned death, not totally unknown even to small-town American children in the 1950’s, plus a kind of cosmic reckoning:

In a gated estate there lived a rich man, who (revised standard translation, part of Luke’s gospel, chapter 16) “was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”  Outside the rich man’s gate was a poor, diseased man named Lazarus, “who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.”  Sharing was apparently not part of the rich man’s ethos, so Lazarus languished in distress.

After a time, both Lazarus and the rich man died. Lazarus was carried by angels to heaven, “Abraham’s bosom,” a welcome change. The rich man, by contrast, went to Hades, a realm of fire and brimstone, just near enough to heaven so the rich man could see Lazarus there, hanging out with Abraham in comfort. The rich man cried out: “Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” Nothing doing, Abraham explained. The rich man had had his chance at comfort while alive. Now the chasm between his current locale and Lazarus was deep and impenetrable, allowing for no crossovers.

During the 1990’s, I was briefly exposed to a widening gap in perspectives between rich and not-so-rich. I had a short-term subcontract with a major accounting firm at their downtown office. At the time, I was living in an inner city neighborhood that suffered the side-effects of a worsening epidemic of crack cocaine: robberies, arrests, lengthy prison sentences, even murders. It was a scary time. Occasionally I went out to lunch with my accounting firm colleagues. Once, I asked my supervisor whether the city’s worsening poverty and crime bothered him.

“I don’t have to notice poverty or crime,” he responded. “After work, I ride the elevator down to the guarded basement garage to retrieve my car. Then I drive out the expressway to my home in a gated community in the suburbs. No poor people interact with me at all. It’s not my problem.”  For most of the years since that encounter, I’ve lived in relative comfort, while trying with mixed success to learn and practice the discipline of sharing.

Though some quote an incident near the end of Jesus’ ministry as a justification for ignoring those in poverty, saying, without the surrounding context, “you always have the poor with you,” the vast majority of Jesus’ sayings and actions support the view that caring for “the least of these” is a sacred duty. 

The year 2018 so far has been filled with more than a little fire and brimstone—volcanic eruptions on Hawaii’s big island, huge wildfires in much of the U.S. West. In the part of the country where I live, the major problem has been floods. So far, they have yet to approach Biblical proportions, but the aftermath of Hurricane Florience in eastern North Carolina has been severe enough so that our current equivalent of Noah’s Ark has deployed, in the form of government rescue boats and the “Cajun navy,” a set of volunteers with small boats who previously plied their crafts in last year’s major flooding in Houston, Texas.  Florence drenched already struggling regions with over two feet of rain. Among the hardest hit were the region’s poor. Relieved to have been spared the worst of the storm, I watched media coverage of a flooded housing project where building maintenance had long been ignored or postponed. Videos showed some of the problems: peeling paint, exposed pipes, stained ceilings. Residents complained of asbestos-laced insulation. The electricity had gone out, and no one knew when it might be restored.

Beyond temporary aid, what could be done to help?  Should we as a society put more emphasis on affordable housing, less on high-end real estate? Would rebuilding and/or relocating require higher taxes? Could we somehow craft a renewed ethic of sharing? 

As I struggled to make sense of our society, seemingly rather badly out of kilter, I went out for a walk. The days were getting shorter. It occurred to me that our earth was in the period around an equinox—one of two occasions each year when the sun’s rays hit our tilted planet directly over the equator. Around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, all creatures everywhere on earth experience days and nights of roughly equal length.

Instead of a chasm between wealth and poverty that gets harder and harder to cross, maybe we need something approaching a human “equinox.” Maybe we can head toward a narrower “wealth gap,” with adequate basic provisions for all living beings. Getting to a more equitable distribution and use of earth’s resources will take skill, political will, and good character. It IS possible, though. Nature creates equinoxes twice each year. Can we learn from her before flood, fire and brimstone get worse?  Happy fall, y’all!