Sunday, May 29, 2011

Balancing the Budget

When a friend of mine was in college she spent a year abroad in Plymouth, England. While there she discovered the ATMs would honor her requests for withdrawals, even if her account did not have enough money in it to cover the withdrawals. Within a few days of making such an unwarranted withdrawal, she would get an official letter from the bank saying, in effect, “Please stop asking us for money you do not have.”

Being a cash-strapped college student, my friend would honor the bank’s request---until she needed money. She would then go to the nearest ATM, ask for money she did not have, and receive exactly the amount she asked for. Again, the letter would come a few days later asking her to PLEASE STOP asking them to give her money she did not have.

This image of a bank playing the victim because they kept giving my friend money whenever she asked for it has been on my mind a lot lately.

The United States is currently in debt to the tune of over $14 trillion. Over 40% of this debt is owed to United States citizens and institutions who have bought government bonds as an investment. Another 18% is owed to the Social Security Trust Fund. China holds roughly 10% of this debt and if they demanded payment for all the bonds they hold all at once, our government and economy would come crashing down. (But then, so would their economy, since without American consumers to buy their products the Chinese economy would go belly-up.)

The reason I am reminded of my friend and those poor British bankers is that America’s debt is not something that has happened behind our backs. Each budget presented to Congress by the President has been approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Many of these budgets have had huge deficits built right in. And yet Congress has approved them anyway. This has happened under Democratic and Republicans Presidents and under Democratic and Republican Congresses. The biggest single-year deficits since World War II have occurred under Barack Obama, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan.

The reasons for any particular year’s deficit are hard to counter. There is always a compelling reason to spend more—wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a global economic crisis---yet, in the end, the procession of reasons for spending more than the government takes in have left us generations-worth of debt.

In this scenario, it is not Congress who are playing the part of those English bankers who could not say no to my friend with her cute American accent and beautiful blue eyes. No. It is us—you and me. The American taxpayers. Year after year we return more than 90% of the Congressional incumbents, in spite of our growing deficits and debt. Congress, in effect, comes to us and says, “We spent all the money and now we want you to give us the chance to do it all again.” And, oddly enough, we say “Okay—here’s the charge card—go for it.”

President Obama put together a bipartisan commission to come up with recommendations for tackling the problem of the National Debt. Their final recommendations were contentious—even among the commission members. But they also lay out a path to fiscal responsibility and a slow balancing of the books. The recommendations were contentious because they involved financial pain for lots of people—lots of VOTERS. You and me. And it seems that we are judged unwilling to vote for legislators who will ask us to sacrifice. From the rise of the Tea Party and the calls from many states to limit the collective bargaining rights of public unions, it seems as if Americans are waking up to precarious state of our national finances.

Personally, I am glad Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has put a budget plan out there. I strongly disagree with his mechanisms for getting spending under control, (tax cuts for the wealthy, in fact, deepen deficits and "voucherizing" Medicare would be a disaster), but he has laid out one vision for trying to get spending under control. I hope the Democrats will formulate a plan of their own soon. And I especially hope President Obama will talk to Americans over the next five years about how to tame out appetites for Federal spending. It has got to start with him and the Republicans showing a willingness to compromise.

OF COURSE we will need to make painful spending cuts Democrats will be opposed to. We will also need to raise some taxes and Republicans will be opposed to this. This is the very definition of a compromise: A solution with which both sides are equally unhappy. In order to get to this point of compromise we need to send a clear message to our representatives in the House and Senate. We need to tell them that we want to get spending under control. We need to do what those bankers in England couldn’t—we need to say no when asked for money we don’t have.

President Obama has shown himself willing to compromise and I have hope that members of his own party and Republicans as well will join him in making hard cuts and painful compromises to get deficits and the debt under control. Instead of a strongly worded plea for Congress and the President to stop asking for money they don’t have, we need to send a stronger kind of message. We need to vote people out of office if they are unwilling to negotiate balanced budgets in good faith and with a commitment to spreading the pain to everyone.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Barack Obama = Atticus Finch

My class of sixth graders has been reading Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird this month. Today, I am showing them the movie version. I just now saw the scene where Atticus leaves work, comes home, and kills a rabid dog with one shot. It struck me forcefully in that moment how much Barack Obama is like Atticus Finch. Osama bin Laden was his rabid dog—his chance to show the hard edge that exists under all the beliefs about the importance of taking someone else’s perspective. And when he had to, he pulled the trigger.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Let the Great World Spin

Words exist to communicate. They carry an idea from one brain to another. Sometimes they are not very good at their job. For example, sometimes we are left guessing just exactly what someone meant when they said, “We all know what the problem is here.”

But other times words are incredibly efficient—for example, when someone yells “Fire!” and everyone runs out of the building. In this particular instance, that one word carries a lot of information. It manages to say, “To all of you who can hear me right now, there is a fire in this structure. It is a dangerous thing. If you can hear me you should get out of this structure as quickly as you can. You should also tell others of this danger.” As a ratio of meaning to words, “Fire!” packs quite a wallop.

On the train on the way to Philadelphia today I finished reading Colum McCann’s kick-in-the-stomach collection of interconnected short stories called Let the Great World Spin. It got me thinking about words and their efficiency. Edgar Allen Poe had a theory about short stories. He believed that a short story should be about one precise feeling or effect and every word in the story should contribute to that effect. Even the most lyrical and beautiful of sentences should be cut if it got in the way of the feeling the author hoped to create in the reader’s soul.

Somehow, in his 349-page collection of eleven stories centered on the true-life walk of Philippe Petit from one of the World Trade Center towers to the other on an August morning in 1974, Colum McCann manages the literary equivalent of yelling “Fire!” Taken as a whole, the stories of the twelve characters in Let the Great World Spin manage to convey the full range of what it means to be a thinking, feeling human in the world. This book is miraculous.
It is one of the most efficient books I have ever read. The meaning-to-word ratio is huge. Some of my favorite sentences are below:

“No shame in saying that I felt a loneliness drifting through me. Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world, with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.”

“I guess this is what marriage is, or was, or could be. You drop the mask. You allow the fatigue in. You lean across and kiss the years because they’re the things that matter.”

“She likes the people with the endurance to tolerate the drudge, the ones who know that pain is a requirement, not a curse.”

“The only thing worth grieving over, she said, was that sometimes there was more beauty in this life than the world could bear.”

And sometimes more pain. And somehow Colum McCann has taken both—as well as everything in between—and put it to just the right words to say it all. And more.

“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Perils and Pleasures of Being High

My life is lived mostly at ground level, in two dimensions. I look up sometimes, but I hardly ever consider the spaces much above my head as part of the immediate physical world I inhabit.

This weekend my world expanded to three dimensions for a little while as I was running up the highest point in New Haven. It is called East Rock and it is a 350-foot high basalt formation that, even if I am generous, cannot be said to “loom” over the city. It more-accurately “glances over the shoulder” of New Haven. There is a road that leads to the top and I like to run up this road most Sundays.

This past Sunday I was near the top of East Rock, running along the road that skirts the edges of a cliff in some places and offers a good view of the Mill River valley below. The drop from the road down to the valley floor is at least 300 feet. As I neared the edge, two turkey vultures blasted up into view mere feet ahead of me, riding an updraft from below and startling the poop out of me. It looked to me like someone had yanked an invisible string and pulled these birds up from the valley floor and high into the air in front of me.

I stopped and watched them for a while as they continued to rise without even a flap of their wings. Vultures are not known for their good looks, but these two birds were the epitome of grace as they made the tiniest of adjustments to their outermost wing feathers to affect changes in their drift and glide. Watching these birds reminded me of the third dimension I walk around in all the time. My wife skydives for fun, so she looks at the air above us differently than I do. She certainly sees it as another medium, like water, that humans locomote through. I just about never think of it that way, but watching those vultures made it clear to me that there is a third dimension—life is not just length and width. There is also depth.

As they soared out and away across the valley and toward West Rock I lost sight of them and continued my run.

And as I did it came to me that most of my relationships are also lived in those same two dimensions. There is a length and a width to them, but the depth is something I hardly ever recognize or explore. The times when this third dimension comes most reliably into focus are when I or someone close to me says something honest. Often the truth catches me by surprise and all in a moment reminds me of just how surface-y and full of shit most of my moments are by contrast.

Being honest and saying what is really there not only makes that third dimension in my relationships “pop” into focus, it also provides lift to reach some pretty amazing places if I am willing to stay in them. Choosing to love someone is a brave decision that loses much of its power if, over time, that love is lived out in two dimensions instead of three.