November 2010


What is the difference between Ireland and Iceland, Alex?

Yes, I’m stealing the joke, but it is a rather darkly funny one borne out of the latest round of currency crisis.  The EU is coming under fantastic pressure right now, as the spread between German debt and the weaker members of the union widens.  Unless you have a real stomach for potential losses, I would not be holding Irish, Portuguese, Greek, Italian, or Spanish debt right now.  There might be some interesting plays in there for short term gains, but the bailout plans that Germany has offered have been telegraphed to involve the bondholders taking losses.  So trade away, but don’t be caught holding the hot potato.

There are a lot of factors that go into all of these crises, and it would be far to simple to identify one factor.  But there are some common threads that explain some of what happened.  In my not so humble opinion, I think there has been some good press covering the unevenness of revenue collection in several of these nations.  Iceland is a little different, but it will share a root in the problem of shared goods and costs.

The NYT did a good story on tax evasion in Greece, and Vanity Fair had one on the Vatipedi Monestary and their role in land swaps and private enrichment.  And now, in the story at the top, we see another strange imbalance.  An unreasonably low business income tax that gives name to the Double Irish, a tax evasion scheme that is used by large multinationals to bury profits and inflate losses.

I will grant my colleagues on the right one thing.  Eventually, a tax rate can become so high as to induce evasion.  But what that doesn’t say is how that rate gets raised.  In my mind, there are two great promises we’ve made that we can’t keep.  The first is an effective rate of business taxation that allows for hyper-wealth creation.  I know our rates are still respectably high, but as long as there is low ground elsewhere, money will move.  Evasion makes sense if there is somewhere to go.  The other promise comes in the form of pensions and entitlements.  I acknolwedge that many of these may need to see reductions in future years.  But those promises were made to individuals, ones who right or wrong, depended on the assurances they recived.  A last minute clawback can’t be considered fair.  See also, the Minneapolis Police/Fire pension mess.  We shouldn’t have promised those benefits.  But we did.  We might be wiser about future promises when it comes to entitlements, but it really is too late to negotiate most of the deals we’ve made in the past.

The first promise, however, is one that has been implicit, not set in stone.  Businesses do rely on it, but they were never granted such assurances.  They still have the possibility to generate income against which to balance increased liabilities.  Austerity measures rightly get a bad rap.  They are generally creatures of conservative governments willing to create economic retrenchment to avoid re-balancing the field.  The rich always survive a recession better than the poor.

But how else to talk about laying clear which promises we can’t keep?  Or to take a hard look at the effect of a Irish level business tax? Austerity implies a harshness, but it also invokes a simplicity and clarity..the equality of monastic asceticism.  Should a Irish deal go forward, or the German economic engine be further required to backstop European losses, it is my sincere hope that austerity will mean a renewal of shared sacrifice, not saddling Labor with a bill that Capitol rang up.  Let’s take this moment to say collectively…you can’t run a nation on a 12.5% business tax rate, or with huge numbers of people evading ever rising taxes.

When Iceland and Ireland were pressed to assume the debts of their banking sectors, we saw the urge to nationalize losses similar to our own TARP and bailouts.  This, to some extent, will remain irresistible.  Immediate losses require capping for the general good.  But the question is if the resulting austerity will be the poverty of the people who took losses on both ends of the transaction, or if it will be a clarity about who will pay the next round?

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So…I’ve been making some snarky jokes and getting upset about the new TSA backscatter machines and the “enhanced” patdowns.  But I thought I’d be a little more honest with what is upsetting to me in this situation.

I learned about these changes after we had made plans to travel to CHI.  I didn’t have a lot of choice in rescheduling or driving down.

I knew there was a chance I would be selected for additional screening.

At that point my choice is, be viewed naked by someone I can’t see, have someone touch me in ways I may not consent to, be fined 11k and face civil charges for trying to leave the area.

As someone who was sexually assaulted as a child, these choices suck.  As someone with anxiety, these choices suck.  Hell, as a regular Joe…the choices suck.  People who are powereful rarely feel choices like this.  The consequences aren’t that bad, or they quickly return to a world in which they set out the options.

I want to take this moment to realize how far reaching a power is if it can make someone take these choices.  Maybe their job is at an airport concession.  Or they have to travel for work.  Or they are trying to see someone for the last time.  There are lot of reasons a person might not have a choice in refusing this screening.  There are even more reasons a person might not be able to bear to have this happen to them.

I don’t think about what happened to me that often.  I don’t experience strong flash backs, but it does come up from time to time, and it affects me in ways that can really hurt.  Standing in line, I was trying to force a smile so that I wouldn’t be selected.  It felt an awful lot like that bus ride when I was young…hoping not to be targeted.

I just can’t think of a good reason to make anyone feel that way.

27th Week of Common Time, Year C

Job 19:23-27a

‘O that my words were written down!

O that they were inscribed in a book!
24 O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock for ever!
25 For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!

With many thanks to Nicole Mullen’s “Redeemer,” i’ll try to say a few words about what this passage is saying to me at the moment.  Job is one of those great teachable moments in scripture, where lessons abound.  There is the silent vigil as well as the eponymous comforts that his friends afford him.  There is the questioning, and the open ended rebuke.  For the textual critic, there are additions and emendations to pour over.  Working with the received text, there is a great deal of layer and back and forth to deal with.

What i’m finding fascinating today, however, is the way that words preface this great declaration.  Pens of iron, letters set in lead on stone…these are fantastic things to be thinking about.  what does the certainty of knowledge have to do with redemption?

plenty, of course.  it seems obvious to us, especially those in the church dedicated to apologetics.  we talk about luther’s anxiety over salvation, wesley’s method, and the carefully chosen rhetoric of the revivalist.  whatever your particular approach to salvation is…you had better know where you stand.  entering the second millenia of the church, we’ve lost any sense that salvation in christ is surprising.  it is a fact.  the means are debated endlessly, the borders of grace are fought over, and the interpretations split the church.  each one holds their truth to be written in iron.

perhaps the missing piece here is that salvation, is of course the ultimate surprise. the person being saved does not have expectations.  they are brought out of the shock of their peril and into the shock of the rescue.  they sputter for breath, they act as though they were still in danger, they still hold the same fear.  some time later,they come to their senses.  but if we are being saved by grace, we should scarcely claim we’re taking it better than a drowning man does being dragged back to shore.

job’s certainty doesn’t come from abstraction.  his knowledge comes out of trauma.  it comes out of dramatic reversals and unimaginable pain.  it foreshadows a resolution that hardly seems to answer the questions of good and evil that are raised.  much to himself as anyone, he cries for certainty to cover over the wrenching loss he’s gone through.

feel the certainty of grace.  but feel it as the surprise that it is, the gift of salvation come into a world that cannot ever preserve that moment.  not in iron.