Friday, December 19, 2008

Santa, Aslan, Harry Potter, and God


It's C-day minus 6. Are the decorations up? Presents bought and wrapped? Meals planned? Cookies baked? Sugar-high children restrained?

In all the rush, has Christ gone missing again?

You might want to make a pot of spicy tea, settle down in an overstuffed chair, and read a fairy tale.

That approach would make sense to Tony Woodlief, a management consultant and writer who, in his wonderful op-ed piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (thanks, Molly, for the tip), pits Chesterton, Lewis, MacDonald, Rowling, and St. Paul against "puritans and atheists" who prefer their truth straight up.

St. Paul?

There's "a seeming paradox in St. Paul's letter to Roman Christians," Woodlief writes:
"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. . . ." How does one see "invisible attributes"? Only people raised on fairy tales can make sense of that. It belongs in a terrain where magic glasses can illumine what was heretofore hidden, where rabbit holes open into wonderlands. No wonder some atheists like Mr. Dawkins want to kill Harry Potter.
Many years ago my daughter Heidi was walking home from school when she overheard this earnest exchange between two first-graders walking a few paces behind her:
First Child: Did you know that there are people who don't believe in God?
Second Child: That's nothing. I know people who don't believe in Santa Claus!
That child would be in her thirties now. I hope she still believes in magic.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tapas vs tuna noodle casserole

Yesterday Mr Neff wrote about the value of small. Confidentially, I thought his article could have been smaller. But I really liked these paragraphs. Maybe because they involve food.

* * * * * * * * * *

From "A Perfect Pearl: A small gospel can be a beautiful thing" by David Neff

Last January, Mark Labberton began this final series of Christian Vision Project essays by comparing the gospel many of us live by to a bland bowl of lima beans. "Many have the impression," he wrote, "that the gospel is small, smooth, and tasteless."

When I re-read Labberton's essay, I began to think of a different kind of "small" food. I thought of tapas, the small portions of intensely flavored dishes that have long served as appetizers in Spain. Over the last quarter century they have become an entire cuisine in some American restaurants. The first time friends invited me to a tapas restaurant, I was not intrigued. It was the 1980s, and American culture still celebrated the all-you-can-eat buffet. The idea of going to a restaurant to eat small portions didn't seem special to me. But my first tapas bites were a revelation. An epiphany. The intense tastes of garlic or cumin or chilies brought such a rush of flavor that it reoriented my whole approach to eating. This was food that could not be wolfed down unthinkingly, like the 1950s American cuisine of my youth: tuna noodle casserole, Jell-O salad, mashed potatoes. These little dishes demanded that I nibble slowly, chew thoughtfully, and savor.

Hear the parable of the tapas menu. God offered us something that could have been small, obscure, and forgettable. He didn't offer us some grand universal principle. His gift was the life and death (and resurrection!) of just one person in a small country repeatedly crushed and occupied by foreign powers. He does not give us love or peace or brotherhood. He gives us Jesus, who died like a common criminal.

But when we pay attention to the small thing God gives us, it changes our entire approach to life. We see the world differently. What had seemed insignificant now demands our full attention. What had seemed ordinary now seems interesting. What had seemed a dead end now promises great potential—the redemption of the whole world.

(c) 2008 by David Neff
Used without the author's permission or even awareness


Friday, December 12, 2008

Vinita Hampton Wright on presents and presence


Vinita Hampton Wright is a dear friend, publishing colleague, and exceptionally wise woman. She is the author of many books, fiction and nonfiction, including the just-released Days of Deepening Friendship: For the Woman Who Wants Authentic Life With God.

This article by Vinita will be posted on Loyola Press's web site next week. It's a wonderful meditation on Christmas joy in a crumbling economy.


*****************************************************
Presence in the Midst of Crisis

Of all times for the financial health of the world to end up in Intensive Care—just as the holidays entice us to splurge, to buy a little beyond ourselves because gift-buying and gift-giving are expressions of care, appreciation, even remembrance. We bake richer foods at Christmastime. And wrap things in shinier paper. And we like to spend a little more, just because this time is special. It is a time for feasting and lingering. It is a time for extravagance.

There is some justification for extravagance at this time of year. We are celebrating the love of an extravagant God. The Christ Child is the ultimate gift. God’s love is lavish, overflowing. God did not hold back from us, in sending Jesus, the son of God. In that birth we were given God’s very self.

And so, this year in which money is especially the focus of stress and strategy, perhaps we should think in terms of giving the self instead of stuff. God gave God’s self in fairly plain wrapping—the infant of two pilgrims with limited resources. No fine blankets or silky bassinet for Jesus. No huge basket of Ghirardelli’s chocolate treats for his parents. But the presence of that child was so rich and fine that poor shepherds, great intellects from far countries, a pious widow, and an old prophet were all drawn to him with tears and joy.

What kind of presence am I to those I love? If I can’t give a hefty gift certificate or even a nice set of bathroom towels this year, how can I be more present to that person for whom I’ve been willing to pull out an overextended credit card in years past? If I can offer no great cash value, then what is left? My stories? My welcome? My precious time for a phone conversation? My visit that lasts longer than it takes to exchange wrapped boxes?

This has been a stressful autumn for my husband and me. Unemployment, then underemployment, then major house repairs, and family too far away to travel to easily. And what we are discovering is that, to come home in the evening and eat a simple meal together, to give a long hug and a word of encouragement, to spend a little more time with our dogs and cats doing nothing but petting and cooing—all of that is lavish enough for us. There will be no expensive dining out this year, no big party thrown for friends. There will be cooking together in the kitchen, looking for the best price on clementines. There will be one trip to a family wedding and brief stops at other relatives on the way back. On each stop we will enter the home and be there with smaller gifts but a bigger sense of us—us coming in the door, giving hugs, having a relaxed conversation, enjoying the presence of those we don’t get to see very often.

We tend to forget, don’t we, that God’s presence is enough. God’s grace is sufficient. We forget that and follow after the big pay-off, the nicer car, the gadget that will make life more convenient, the vacation that will be more romantic and exotic than all the others. We hanker after finer and pricier presents, when the only answer to our real desire is that awesome Presence.

This Christmas seems like a great time to spend more time in that Presence. And more time exploring the power and wonder of our own presence with others.

(c) 2008 Vinita Hampton Wright
Used by permission

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Home cooking and love

Like other forms of human affection, cooking delivers its truest and most enduring gifts when it is savored in intimacy — prepared not by a chef but by a cook and with love.
--Marcella Hazan, New York Times, "No Chefs in My Kitchen"

Once upon a time, restaurants lured customers with promises of "home-cooked" meals, food just like Mother used to make. But nowadays we Americans spend nearly half of our food dollars in restaurants, and home cooks now want to imitate professional chefs.
  • "No need to leave home, make reservations, and go out," says www.copykat.com. "You can make recipes that taste just like the restaurant without ever having to leave home."
  • Buy lots of (expensive) equipment and you can cook "Just Like in a Restaurant Kitchen," suggests Sara Levine in the Washingtonian.
  • Google "restaurant taste" + frozen and you'll find a plethora of prepared foods to make your meals (to quote my father-in-law) "just like downtown only not so crowded."
Apparently it's not just the high-end restaurants that home cooks are dying to emulate. In Top Secret Restaurant Recipes: Creating Kitchen Clones from America's Favorite Restaurant Chains Todd Wilbur tells you how to copy food from IHOP, Olive Garden, Pizza Hut, Dennys ...

O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that.
--King Lear

Marcella Hazan to the rescue! Restaurant food, she writes, is entertainment. Home cooking is something else:
I am my family’s cook. It is the food prepared and shared at home that, for more than 50 years, has provided a solid center for our lives. In the context of the values that cement human relations, the clamor of restaurants and the facelessness of takeout are no match for what the well-laid family table has to offer. A restaurant will never strengthen familial bonds.
Enjoy your turkey leftovers at home, with someone you love.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A very material Christmas



At least 100,000 nonprofits nationwide will be forced to close their doors in the next two years as a result of the financial crisis, according to Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University.
The dire prediction was made Wednesday at a forum on the impact of the crisis on nonprofits and social service delivery in New York City.

--crain's new york business, 19 November 2008


One December years ago while dispiritedly shopping for Christmas presents, I suddenly realized what Marshall Fields's Musak was playing:

"If I were a rich man (ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum) ..."

I suppose they were trying to set the mood.

Well, the mood this year is indigo, or darker, and decisions must be made. Should Christians celebrate the Nativity with schadenfreude, rejoicing that, after decades of manic spending, Americans may this year reject materialism in favor of the season's true meaning? Or should patriotic Americans (who are still employed) gather their credit cards and spend as much as they possibly can in a last-ditch attempt to rescue the economy?

There's a way to resolve this dilemma, but few there be that find it.

First, let's get one thing straight: the true meaning of Christmas is not about spirit. It has little to do with the vague goodwill that carolers and eggnog are supposed to produce, and even less to do with mystical piety or disembodied spirituality. Christmas--the incarnation ("becoming flesh"--meat, as in chili con carne)--is about a God who loves the material world so much that he becomes part of it.

In the Hebrew scriptures, this God is described as favoring lovemaking, babies, feasts, and comical animals well before the Christian scriptures add that he was born in a barn, became a healer, and earned a reputation for his taste in food and wine. The true meaning of Christmas is about God's love for the material world--so no guilt trips about buying presents and having a great dinner, okay?

Then should we try to rescue retailers by grabbing our credit cards and charging out on another out-of-control Christmas spending spree ($460 billion in 2007)? Here's an alternate idea, one that simultaneously honors the material side of Christmas and helps the economy:

Go out and buy to your heart's content, but give a percentage of what you spend to someone who really needs it.

The economy doesn't care what you do with that thing you bought. You can give it to a coworker who will thank you politely and then put it on a shelf in the basement. You can give it to a teenager who will return it for something much cooler. You can give it to a child who will be confused about its origin because it's one of approximately 98 gifts she got this year. Or you can give it to someone who is out of work or homeless or hungry or cold.

Alternately, you can give the value of the gift--a percentage of your Christmas budget--to an agency that knows who needs help and is equipped to provide it.

How high should the percentage be? To put the $460 billion spent on Christmas last year in perspective, look at the revenues of several major relief organizations:
Total of these five charities, $6.7 billion. That's less than 1.5% of what we spent on Christmas presents last year.

Imagine what would happen to the economy--and to human happiness--if we donated a full 10% of our Christmas spending ($46 billion! the equivalent of eight Red Crosses!) to people in need. Perhaps some to a national organization that responds to emergencies, some to a local organization where we might volunteer time as well as money. (The next post, "What to get the Neffs for Christmas," tells how to find the agency of your dreams.)

The thing is, most of us could do this so easily. Even during a recession. And without giving up presents or carols or a good Christmas dinner.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

What to get the Neffs for Christmas

Long lines, empty shelves and Thanksgiving chickens are just a few symptoms of the economic downturn's effect on food banks and community pantries across the country. People are turning to charitable organizations for their Thanksgiving meal this year in record numbers, while donations have dropped significantly and funding has been slashed. Charity organizers across the country say the lagging economy has forced individual donors to keep money to themselves, while businesses that usually donate are struggling to stay afloat.
(CNN, 25 November 2008)

Memo to anybody who is wondering what to get Mr Neff or me for Christmas this year: We love you and are grateful that you are thinking about us, but we already have so many books that our house is beginning to sink, so many calories that our pajamas are getting tight, and so many attractive objects stored in our basement that the furnace maintenance guy no longer knows where to squat and set his toolbox.

We think this would be a fine year to help those struggling charitable organizations.

But since we don't want to wake up in the middle of the night worrying if you still love us, could you just send us an email (or a comment on this blog post) wishing us a happy Christmas and telling us you love us so much that you contributed to [fill in the blank]? That would make us feel warm and useful.

If you're wondering who would best use your donation, check out Charity Navigator. There you can browse for charities by category, location, size, and rating. You can see if your favorite charity earned the coveted four stars--and if not, why not. You can find out what percentage of moneys raised actually goes to charitable projects, and what percentage goes to administration and fund-raising. You can see how much the CEO earns, and what percentage of total revenue that salary represents.

You can browse for articles, such as "Top 10 Best Practices for Savvy Donors" and "Tips for Giving in Times of Crisis." Once you've found a charity you want to support, Charity Navigator even offers the option of donating online.

In this time of financial feelings ranging from uncertainty to despair, we prefer donating to organizations that
  • have a 4-star rating, indicating that they use their funds as advertised and have a sound financial base
  • specialize in human services, including food distribution, housing, and help for children
  • channel over 95% of donated funds to their intended use (a far higher percentage than is required for the 4-star rating, but we want the most bang for our buck)
  • serve either nationally or in the Chicago area, where we live
Catholic Charities USA makes the grade, as do Feeding America and the Northern Illinois Food Bank. The American Red Cross is close. So that's our Christmas wish list (but feel free to surprise us). And please, let us know about your wish list in return.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Tiggy and Muffin brainstorm about the First Dog

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle ("Tiggy," on the right) and Miss Wagamuffin ("Muffin," on the left) have some advice for the Obama girls. It is based on about eight years' experience of being dogs. Here is what they have to say:

Dogs are wonderful! Every family should have one! A dog is a girl's best friend! May we sit on your lap? Can we go for a walk? Will you give me a treat? Why are you just sitting there when you could be throwing a toy for me to chase?

But seriously, girls--all puppies are adorable. If a hundred puppies gathered in your backyard, you could easily fall in love with all of them. Choosing the right one for years of happiness, though, takes a little thought. Here are some things we hope you'll think about.

1. We dogs usually depend on the mom. We think she's our mom, too, and we like to follow her around and ask her for things. (Lap? Walk? Treat? Toy?) Be sure to choose a dog your mom wants to spend plenty of time with.

2. We plan to live 14, 16, even 18 years. When you adopt a dog, you are making a long-lasting commitment. Your puppy will probably still be in your family when you leave to go to college, when you get your first job, when you get married. This is another reason to choose a dog that your mom is crazy about. You want that dog to be there when you come home to visit!

3. We know you are thinking carefully, because you realize you need a low-allergy dog. We found a list of low-allergy dogs here. We like the list, because between the two of us we represent four of the ten breeds mentioned: yorkie and schnauzer (Tiggy), poodle and shih-tzu (Muffin). The other low-allergy breeds are maltese, portuguese water dog, soft-coated wheaten terrier, lhasa apso, irish water spaniel, and kerry blue terrier.

4. We like your idea of getting a cross-breed (we are cross-breeds, and we are just about perfect!). Cross-breeds are often healthier than purebred dogs. If you get a purebred dog, though, you'll be OK if you get it from a very careful, responsible breeder. The Humane Society has recommendations on how to find a responsible breeder.

5. We hear you are favoring goldendoodles. They are lovely dogs with good dispositions. But watch out--you may be allergic to the golden half. Portuguese water dogs and soft-coated wheaten terriers look a bit like goldendoodles, but might be better for your allergies. Or you might want a cross-breed that includes two low-allergen dogs.

6. Are you sure you want a big dog? We have to ask this, because we are little dogs--and as we have explained, we are wonderful. People with allergies often need to bathe their dogs once or twice a week. Our mom puts us in the kitchen sink and uses a sprayer to rinse us. Bathing us doesn't take long at all, even though she carefully cleans up the sink with bleach and disinfectant afterwards (she wanted us to tell you this, in case you ever come to our house for dinner). If we weighed 50 pounds, our baths would be a much bigger production.

7. Also, big dogs need a lot of outdoor exercise. We love our walks, and when the outside temperature is above 40 degrees, our mom walks us a couple of miles a day. But when it's raining or terribly windy or cold--you're from Chicago, you know what we mean--we stay inside and run up and down the stairs for exercise. We can do this because we weigh 10 and 13 pounds. Are you willing to take your dog for long walks or playtimes outside in all weathers? And have you noticed that people who take big dogs for walks have to carry really big plastic bags?

8. Have you thought about how you are going to train your puppy? He or she will need to go to doggy school or to work out with a personal trainer. Some people think medium-sized or big dogs are easier to train than we littler ones. Hey, it sure is necessary to train those big guys--you don't want a 90-pound doofus that jumps on visitors, especially if the visitors are heads of state! But we little dogs need training too. We love to work for treats.

9. Be sure to get a dog who likes to do what you like to do. I (Muffin) am a lap dog. It is my calling in life. If there's a lap, I sit on it. If there's a face, I kiss it. I like to play now and then, but most of the time I'd rather just sit on you and adore you. On the other hand, I (Tiggy) am a terrier. I can't help myself--if I see something unusual, I bark. If I see something little and furry, I chase it. If I see an overstuffed chair, I dig a hole in it. This is what I do. My mom loves me anyway because I'm cheerful, good-hearted, playful, and sweet. We (both of us) want you girls to find a dog that likes to do what you want to do. And what your mom can tolerate (see points 1 and 2). And it would be good if the dog didn't bite reporters...

10. People are talking about whether you should get a puppy or an older dog. We came to our happy home when we were past puppyhood. I (Tiggy) had lived with someone who said he had "too many dogs." Silly man, he didn't have me spayed. What did he expect would happen? When I was about to give birth, he took me to the pound. I might have died there, but a rescue group found me and gave me and my puppies a temporary home for a couple of months. Then I moved to my present home. I (Muffin) got lost. I lived on the streets of Chicago until somebody found me and took me to the pound. Then I was moved to another pound. A rescue group found me there, and from there I was moved to my present home. We (both of us) think that it's wonderful when people rescue older dogs and give them a chance at happiness. On the other hand, if a responsible, caring family like yours had taken us when we were puppies, we would never have had those scary experiences. So it's OK if you get a rescued dog, and it's OK if you get a puppy from a responsible breeder. The important thing is to give your dog a permanent, loving home.

We are eager to see pictures of your new dog. Or dogs. Two girls, two dogs--makes sense to us. Talk to your mom!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

To my grandchildren--yes we can!

To my Texas grandchildren, Katie, Susan, and Christopher--

Tuesday night I watched the election returns with a group of friends including an 11-year-old boy. He was well informed and articulate, and I enjoyed hearing his perceptive comments as the results poured in. At ten o'clock, when Mr Obama's electoral tally passed the necessary 270, I wished you were in the room too. I would have enjoyed spending that historic moment with you.

I couldn't help thinking back to the presidential election of 1960, when I was a 12-year-old eighth-grader.

John F. Kennedy
I was passionately interested in that presidential campaign. The contenders were John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, and Richard M. Nixon, a lapsed Quaker. Many Protestants were terrified. Norman Vincent Peale, an extremely prominent author and minister, had written that if a Catholic became president, American culture and freedom of speech would be at risk. I believed the fearmongers, and when I awoke the day after the election to learn that Kennedy had won (it took a long time to count all those paper ballots), I was scared.

I don't know how you feel about the election of 2008. I know how Texas voted, so I am guessing that you know people who aren't too happy about the results. Some are even afraid. Here are some wise and calming words from Michael Gerson, speechwriter to President George W. Bush for several years, about why all of us can be proud to call Barack Obama "Mr President":
This presidency in particular should be a source of pride even for those who do not share its priorities. An African American will take the oath of office blocks from where slaves were once housed in pens and sold for profit. He will sleep in a house built in part by slave labor, near the room where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation with firm hand. He will host dinners where Teddy Roosevelt in 1901 entertained the first African American to be a formal dinner guest in the White House; command a military that was not officially integrated until 1948. Every event, every act, will complete a cycle of history. It will be the most dramatic possible demonstration that the promise of America -- so long deferred -- is not a lie.

New energy
The election of 2008 was historic, and its importance goes far beyond Mr Obama's race. Something is happening in America that I haven't seen since the 1960s. Record numbers of young people are getting involved in public life. Once again, people are thinking we can make a difference in race relations, poverty, world peace, health ("Yes we can!"). There's a kind of positive energy going around that may even reach out and embrace people who didn't originally want Mr Obama to win. People's opinions may change between now and the inauguration.

During the two months between John F. Kennedy's election and his inauguration in 1960, my opinion changed. For one thing, I really liked his wife, Jacqueline, who was only 31 years old and breathtakingly beautiful. For another, I began to believe that the U.S. Constitution was safe with Mr Kennedy even though he was Catholic, and I was inspired by what he was saying about peace, poverty, human rights, and racial equality. And then I especially liked what he said toward the end of his inaugural address:
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
Selfish decades
Forty-eight years passed between the elections of Mr Kennedy and Mr Obama. We Boomer kids grew up and went to college and went to work and had families. We lost our idealism. Some of us got cynical. After the Vietnam War and the Nixon years, we concluded that government couldn't be trusted. After various scandals in businesses and churches, we didn't want to trust those institutions either.

Some of us decided it was more important to ask what our country, or our business, or our church, or our own God-given talents could do for us, never mind the other guy. The 1970s became known as the "me decade," as "the belief that hard work, self-denial and moral rectitude were their own rewards gave way to a notion ... that the self and the realization of its full potential were all-important pursuits" (Time, August 3, 1981).

It only got worse in the 80s, sometimes called the "greed decade." Americans spent lots of money and paid less taxes, and the national debt tripled. During the 1990s and beyond, people continued to buy more and more stuff, going deeply into debt when they ran out of money. They tore down perfectly good houses and built McMansions. Even average houses more than doubled in size, though families got smaller.

Many people practically stopped saving money. The national savings rate fell from around 10% in the 1960s to 2 or 3%--and in 2005 it even went negative, meaning that people had more debts than savings. Sacrifice, deferred gratification, budgeting--these words nearly dropped out of the national vocabulary. Even after the attack on the World Trade Center in 1991, our president did not ask us to sacrifice. To the contrary, he advised us to go to Disney World.

We forgot

We seemed to have forgotten the inspiring words of President Kennedy's inaugural address. He told us that liberty requires sacrifice:
We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
He warned us that our task would be enormous:
[We are called to] struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
He said that we had to take care of the poor as well as the rich:
If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
He predicted that significant change would require many years of hard work:
All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
And he challenged us to get involved in the struggle, to work to create the kind of world we want to live in:
With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.
We listened, nodded, and then went about our own self-absorbed business.

Another chance

The theme of Mr Obama's inauguration will be "A New Birth of Freedom," words taken from President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Lincoln did not see freedom as a gift, but rather as "a great task." President-elect Obama agrees with Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy: these are difficult times, and a lot of hard work lies ahead of us.

Tuesday night I thought of John F. Kennedy as Barack Obama spoke to 240,000 supporters in Chicago's Grant Park and the nation on TV. Mr Obama, like Mr Kennedy, told us that liberty requires sacrifice:
It can't happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.
He warned us that our task will be enormous:
You understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime -- two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.
He said that we have to take care of the poor as well as the rich:
Let us remember that, if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers.
He predicted that significant change will require many years of hard work:
The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term. But, America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.
And he challenged us to get involved in the struggle, to work to create the kind of world we want to live in:
Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other. . . . And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.
Yes we can!
The people in Grant Park shouted back, "Yes we can!"

The big question is, Will we?

We Boomers who were excited adolescents in 1960 had the same opportunity you kids have today. We too had an enormous task, and we too had the choice to sacrifice, to struggle, and to work hard and persistently to make the world a better place.

Some of us did just that. Too many of us, alas, chose to be selfish instead. In spite of President Kennedy's challenge, too many of us kept on asking what our country could do for us, not what we could do for our country.

I hope you and your friends get excited about our energetic new president-elect. But whatever your political persuasion, I hope you'll ask--now and all through your lives--what you personally can do for your country, your family, your community, your church, and your world.

I'm ashamed of what my generation has given yours to work with, but most of us aren't dead yet. Maybe we still have time to clean up our act. Maybe we can now turn into wise elders. Your generation, though, has an opportunity to set us a shining example.

If all of us together--Boomers, and your parents' generation, and you who will be running the country in 2040--commit to sacrifice and struggle on behalf of others, then Abraham Lincoln's words will be fulfilled. Then Barack Obama's inaugural theme will come true. Then, and only then,
this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and ... government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Yes we can!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Pro-lifers--hope or experience?

Two months ago I wrote A plea to pro-life voters, followed by The speech I wish Mr Obama would make. Today, the day before the election, I write again to pro-life voters. Not to those who truly believe that Republicans know how to manage the economy and conduct world affairs, but to those who agree with Mr Obama on nearly everything except abortion. I urge you --when you vote, consider the record. What's important isn't what a candidate says about abortion, but what actually happens under his watch.

What has happened over the last 28 years--20 years of Republican presidents running on pro-life platforms, 8 years of a Democratic president vowing to keep abortion "safe, legal, and rare"?

Short answer: the Democrats did better.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate decreased under the Bush administration, as it has under every administration since the mid-80s. The greatest decrease in abortion rates did not happen during a Republican administration, however, but during the 90s when Mr Clinton was president. No one knows exactly why--less sex? better contraception? better sex education? aging Boomers no longer fertile? less shame about unwed motherhood? less poverty?

Unwed motherhood is certainly on the rise. In 2006, 38.5% of live births were to unmarried women, says the Centers for Disease Control, noting that "this represents a 20 percent increase from 2002, when the recent upswing in nonmarital births began." But unwed motherhood does not necessarily go up when abortion goes down. Since 1980, abortion rates have decreased and single-motherhood rates have increased during all Republican administrations. By contrast, during the Clinton years abortion rates decreased significantly while single-motherhood rates held steady. Check it out here.

Abortion aside, what about other threats to human life? Under President Bush's leadership, over 4,000 of our military personnel have died; up to 100,000 have been wounded; and nearly 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died. War too is a pro-life issue.

During the primaries, when support for Mr Obama started to gain on that for Mrs Clinton, The Economist headlined an article "The Triumph of Hope over Experience?" During the presidential campaign, journalists and bloggers have applied Dr Samuel Johnson's phrase to voters who favor Mr Obama, 47, over Mr McCain, 72. I think they have it exactly backward--especially for pro-life voters. A vote for McCain is a hope that he will reverse the experience of his pro-life predecessors.

Dr Johnson was talking about a man who, having endured an unhappy marriage, immediately remarried (Life, vol. 2, 1770). A lot of us are unhappy about rising abortion rates, rising rates of single parenthood, rising numbers of war dead. If we go ahead in spite of our experience and elect another Republican--one who expressed support for Roe v. Wade before he changed his mind in order to appeal to the Religious Right, one whose knee-jerk response to any question is to use military power--we will get what we deserve. More of the same.

Consider this definition attributed to Albert Einstein: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Please vote sanely.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Vote to help Sherry

An editorial in today's New York Times neatly outlines the candidates' health-care proposals and recommends Mr Obama's, but with reservations. You have time to read it. It's short --under 1500 words--and free of exaggerations, recriminations, accusations, and all the other -ations that characterize political ads nowadays.

Thanks to Mr Neff's job, I have good health insurance, though I'm not one of those "young, healthy workers" who might benefit from Mr McCain's proposals. Still, I'm a lot luckier than some of my friends, including one I talked with this weekend.

Sherry has no medical insurance. Her husband is seriously and chronically ill, and for the last decade she has spent most of her waking hours caring for him. A regular job is out of the question, and so they are trying to survive on his disability insurance. She thinks she is becoming diabetic, but she can't afford to find out--or to treat whatever condition is causing her discomfort. In another year or two, she'll qualify for Medicare, and then she hopes she'll be able to take care of her own health.

Fortunately, her husband is a veteran from way back when veterans got excellent benefits, and they live near a town with a VA hospital. His health care is excellent. But they are now coming to a crossroad, and Sherry doesn't know what to do.

His health continues to deteriorate, and he may soon need full-time custodial care. It is available, but it costs over $6000 a month. The only way they could afford the fees would be to apply for Medicaid assistance--that is, to go on welfare. But if they did that, she told me, they would lose their VA prescription benefit--an unthinkable option, since her husband is being kept alive and manageable by means of an expensive pharmacopoeia.

So this exhausted woman in her 60s, at the risk of her own health and life, will continue round-the-clock caring for the chronically ill, difficult man she loves and promised to care for in sickness and in health. She'll do this for as long as it takes. Maybe for as long as she lives.

In my first draft of this blogpost, I wrote, "Her faithfulness is inspiring. I hope it will inspire you to vote for the candidate most likely to offer her the relief she desperately needs. And I hope the relief comes before she collapses."

A reader pointed out that neither candidate's program is likely to solve Sherry's particular problem, and I agree. So here's an alternate closing paragraph:

When you go to the polls, keep Sherry in mind, along with the other 45.7 million Americans who lacked health insurance in 2007 (the number dropped from 47 million in 2006 thanks to government-funded health insurance programs, according to David Johnson, chief of the Census Bureau's Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division). Both candidates want to increase the percentage of Americans with health insurance. Which one is more likely to do so? And which will give more relief to those who need it most--the old, the sick, and the unemployed?

Monday, October 20, 2008

THE ABSTINENCE TEACHER by Tom Perrotta, THE BODY AND SOCIETY by Peter Brown, and I DON'T by Susan Squire

This review was originally published in Books and Culture online  (October 2008) as "Abstinence Now and Then."

In Tom Perrotta's more-or-less comic novel The Abstinence Teacher, published last year and now out in paperback, an odd attraction develops between Ruth, a divorced feminist sex-ed teacher who hasn't been to bed with a man for two years, and Tim, an evangelical ex-doper whose wife is studying a book her pastor's wife gave her, Hot Christian Sex.

"Considering the somewhat puritanical character of the Tabernacle, the book turned out to be surprisingly racy," Perrotta writes. "The authors, the Rev. Mark D. Finster and his wife, Barbara G. Finster, proclaimed the good news right in the Introduction: 'For a Christian married couple, sex is nothing less than a form of worship, a celebration of your love for one another and a glorification of the Heavenly Father who brought you together. So of course God wants you to have better sex! And He wants you to have more of it than you ever had before, in positions you probably didn't even know existed, with stronger orgasms than you believed were possible!' "

There are no characters even remotely like the Rev. and Mrs. Finster in Peter Brown's magisterial The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. I had been reading some of the saints and doctors of the ancient church, and I was puzzled. Why, I wondered, did early monastics think they were honoring the Creator when they shunned the company of others and gave up most food, all sex, and even clothing and shelter? Why did a great saint, Jerome, write, "I praise wedlock, I praise marriage; but it is because they produce virgins"? Why did an even greater saint, Augustine, believe he had to be "continent," that is, to give up marriage and sex, in order to follow Christ? Why are there so few married people on the list of Catholic saints, even post-Vatican II saints? Hoping for answers, I picked up Peter Brown's recently reissued classic.

The answers he provided were not the ones I had hoped for. Brown didn't unearth any church fathers with "healthy"—that is, 21st-century—attitudes about the human body. He found no model marriages, no godly gourmands. But instead of criticizing our forebears for supposedly unenlightened attitudes, he emphasizes the difference between the early Christians' philosophical context and our own. "I wrote this book so as to instill in its readers … 'a sense of salutary vertigo' about the Christian past," Brown explains in the introduction to the book's 20th-anniversary edition. "I wished to make them aware of a gulf between themselves and their own past that was wider than they, perhaps, expected it to be. It was a gulf that could be bridged only by showing, to that distant, Christian past, the same combination of wonder and respect that makes for fruitful travel in a foreign land."

If ancient Rome and Alexandria are foreign to most readers today, the world depicted in The Abstinence Teacher is depressingly familiar. Marriages fail. Children rebel. Coworkers fight. Most people drink too much. Almost nobody abstains from sex, which is likely to be recreational, impulsive, or adulterous (if other people are involved at all). Marital sex is either sad (Tim can't stop lusting after his first wife) or silly (see Hot Christian Sex above). If you enjoy a book whose characters are likely to live happily ever after, The Abstinence Teacher is not for you.

And yet it is a sweet book whose flawed, wistful characters look for, and occasionally find, love. Though religious people are teased, they are not ridiculed. A Jewish environmental lawyer with a "Don't Blame Me—I Voted for Kerry" sticker on his Audi says to Ruth, "You gotta give credit where credit's due. These Christians turn a lot of lives around. From what I hear, Tim was a complete wreck before he found Jesus."

Turning wrecked lives around—this is where the second century meets the 21st. Even more than Tim, who gave up drugs and alcohol and one-night stands but hung on to music and soccer and marriage, the early Christians believed that conversion to Christ meant literally passing from one mode of existence to another, moving from death to life. "Christ's victory over death had brought about a stunning reversal of the crushing flow of irreversible negative processes that made the tyranny of the demons seemingly irresistible on earth," Brown writes. "Sexuality edged itself into the center of attention, as a privileged symptom of humanity's fall into bondage. Consequently, the renunciation of sexual intercourse came to be linked on a deep symbolic level … with man's ability to undo the power of death."

While their neighbors fought death by founding families and perpetuating their names from generation to generation, some Christians believed they had already entered the immortal realms and therefore had no need to marry and produce children. For these Christians, abstinence was a sign of their new life. Others believed that it was acceptable to marry and beget children, but only in one's youth—and even then, the sexual act should be miraculously completed without any accompanying passion. "By the year 300," Brown writes, "Christian asceticism, invariably associated with some form or other of perpetual sexual renunciation, was a well-established feature of most regions of the Christian world."

No longer. Nowadays even celibate Catholic priests avoid appealing to asceticism as an explanation for their unusual lifestyle, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that "the marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, … is ordered to the good of the couple, as well as to the generation and education of children." What happened to cause such an attitude shift? When did Christians decide that "God wants you to have better sex"? Peter Brown doesn't say: his interest is more historical and philosophical than practical. For the ancient theologians he quotes, the body is strangely detached from everyday concerns such as hunger or pain or sexual desire. Instead, it is made "to bear the symbolic weight of mighty aspirations."

There are no mighty aspirations in The Abstinence Teacher, nor is there much intentional abstinence. There is, however, a great deal of isolation. By contrast, abstinence was the ideal of just about everyone quoted in The Body and Society, yet the would-be abstainers were far from isolated. Most lived in families or monasteries, and even the desert hermits formed clusters of like-minded ascetics. Tom Perrotta enjoys such dichotomies, but I'm still looking for ancient Christians who valued marriage and community, sex and passion, children and animals, good food and wine, all things bright and beautiful. I may have to give up: the attitude I seek apparently developed during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, not the Roman Empire.

That, at least is Susan Squire's view in I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage. Though the delightfully sassy Squire romps through the history of sex with nary a thought of "symbolic levels," much of her raw data matches Brown's: "All [first-century Christians], as fervent believers in Jesus as Christ, are certain that in the next five minutes, hours, days, weeks (soon, anyway), earthly life will end. Urging people to conceive more of it is not going to be part of their game plan. In an apocalyptic frame of mind, the value of marriage and children would be approximately nil."

It's a downhill slide from St. Paul, who thinks it is better to marry than to burn; to Tertullian, who suggests that it is even better to do neither; to St. Augustine, who connects lust with original sin; to Innocent III, who writes that men and beasts, being made of slime, are the vilest of God's creations, and that this "vileness is reproduced 'from the filthiest sperm … in the stench of lust.'" The flesh will out, of course—medieval kings and queens, for example, seem not to listen much to theologians, and troubadours sing of loves that the church does not sanction—but only a theological tsunami will change the tone of official ecclesial pronouncements.

The tsunami comes in the form of Martin Luther, "a 40-year-old virgin wearing a monk's cowl" who blasts celibacy's theological proponents, starts a matchmaking service for priests and nuns, and eventually marries and fathers six children. In his wake, love becomes not the sin but "the expectation. Romantic, compassionate, erotic, intellectual, emotional, physical—hopefully, and delusionally, all at once and all the time. No surprise that divorce is common, or that hope continues to triumph over experience. The cure for lust is now the cure for loneliness, that cure being love."

Tim and Ruth, the protagonists of The Abstinence Teacher, take the love cure for granted, yet they remain lonely and isolated. One believes in abstinence, at least under certain circumstances, but can't live up to his beliefs. The other thinks abstinence is an aberration, but can't find the love she craves. Offering neither self-help nor salvation, Perrotta accepts them as they are: "standing side by side, not quite touching, but close enough that she could breathe in the sleepy smell of his body and feel a gentle current moving between them. They kept staring straight ahead for a long time, almost as if they were afraid of looking at each other, the silence gathering around them, thickening, until the world outside the window disappeared—the sky, the houses, the trees, the airborne leaves, even the man on the car [Tim's pastor]—and they were alone."

Friday, October 17, 2008

How to be a saint, though married

Want to be a saint? Your best bet is to become a priest or a nun. It also helps if somebody kills you violently. If you're married, however, you might as well forget about sainthood, though you raise your chances if (1) you give up sex and/or (2) all your children are celibate.

This weekend the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux will be beatified. (Beatification is the church's recognition that you are in heaven; canonization, which requires an additional miracle, recognizes you as a saint. You have to be beatified in order to be canonized.) Thérèse's parents, Louis Martin and Zélie Guérin, had hoped to be monastics. After their wedding, says James Martin, SJ, in "His Wife's a Saint, So Is Her Husband" (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 17, 2008), they "refrained from sex for 10 months.... Eventually, a frustrated Zélie escorted her husband to a local priest, who assured them that raising children was a sacred activity."

During the remaining 18 years of their marriage, Zélie gave birth to nine children. Four died; the other five all became nuns. Even the fiercely ascetic St. Jerome would have approved. He's the tortured translator who wrote this in a long letter to a female friend:
I praise wedlock, I praise marriage, but it is because they give me virgins. I gather the rose from the thorns, the gold from the earth, the pearl from the shell.

Jerome would also have approved of the first married couple in history to be beatified together--Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi, who were beatified only seven years ago. According to an article in the National Catholic Reporter, the Quattrocchis had four children. Three joined religious orders, and the fourth never married. As for Luigi and Maria, for over half of their 46 years of marriage they lived sexlessly as brother and sister.

These beatifications happened several years after former Newsweek religion writer Kenneth L.Woodward published Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn't, And Why. In a fascinating chapter called "Sanctity and Sexuality," he tells about the 1987 World Synod of Bishops, convened "to discuss the role of the laity in the church and in the world" (340). At the synod, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints presented a list of lay possibilities for sainthood. Woodward summarizes what happened:

The congregation, I observed, had nearly three years to come up with appropriate candidates to beatify or canonize during a synod devoted exclusively to the laity. And in the end, the congregation delivered two virginal rape victims, another young martyr who never got the chance to marry, a lifelong bachelor, and a man who left his wife and children behind to go to the missions.

"The message couldn't be more obvious," I said [to a consultant to the congregation]. "When it comes to sanctity, sex is still something to be avoided and celibacy is preferable to marriage. What good is all the talk about the sanctity of marriage if the congregation cannot come up with even one example of a holy and happily married saint?" (343)

Well, now we have our examples. The Quattrocchis and the Martins aren't saints yet, but they're on the way. And someday even you might be a married saint. Just give up sex, and be sure your children do too.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A false sense of well-being?

A friend just e-mailed: "But you don't have any happy songs for yesterday (and, hopefully, today)!" Mea culpa. I was thinking of some possibilities, though. Anyone want to offer some lyrics to one of these--or to others of your choice?

Up, Up and Away
Bridge Over Troubled Water
Here Comes the Sun
I Feel Fine
We Can Work It Out
Good Day Sunshine
Dancing in the Street
The Beat Goes On

Of course, you may not feel as upbeat as my friend. Perhaps you are of the David Brooks (aka Eeyore or Puddleglum) persuasion. Check out his column "Big Government Ahead," which begins with this warning:

[M]ost economists say there is a broader economic crisis still to come. The unemployment rate will shoot upward. Companies will go bankrupt. Commercial real estate values will decline. Credit card defaults will rise. The nonprofit sector will be hammered.

If Brooks is right, I'll still have plenty of opportunity to use songs like the ones I worked on over the weekend while walking my dogs, a moderately glum version of "Mrs Robinson":

Here’s to you, Henry Paulsen...
Jesus left your office long ago.
Woe, woe, woe.

and a slightly more upbeat "The Day the Market Died":

Bye, bye to the pie in the sky
Found a Chevy at the levee but the gas tank was dry
Bernanke and Greenspan drinkin’ whiskey and rye
But hey, this could be a good time to buy
This could be a good time to buy...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bonds, Stocks & Tears


What goes up
must come down
Wall Street, Main Street
got to go round
Jesus drives a Prius,
GM suffers for its sin
Take another aspirin
See the candidates spin ...

Thursday, October 9, 2008

When I'm Old and Poor


When I get older, hair turning gray,
A couple of years from now,
Will there still be money for a bottle of wine,
Or will I be standing in the food pantry line?

I'm clutching my food stamps, I'm down on my knees,
Please unlock that door.
Will anyone heed me, will they still feed me
When I’m old and poor?

You’ll be poorer too,
And if you say the word,
I could stay with you....

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Wall Street Park


Someone let my money down the drain...

I don't think that I can take it
Cuz it took so long to make it
And I'll never have retirement plans again

Oh nooooooooooooo ...

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Droopy Tuesday


Good-bye, droopy Tuesday
Now the Dow is black and blue
My funds shrink with every new day
Dollars, gonna miss you...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Another Black Monday for the Grandmas and Grandpas

Monday, Monday, so bad to me
Monday, Monday, it was all I feared it would be
Oh Monday morning, Monday morning couldn’t guarantee
That Monday evening I'd still have funds in my 403-b.

Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day,
Monday Monday, sometimes it just turns out that way
Oh Monday morning you gave me no warning of what was to be
Oh Monday, Monday, how could you leave me in bankruptcy?

Every other day, every other day,
Every other day of the week is fine, yeah
But whenever Monday comes, but whenever Monday comes
You can find me cryin' all of the time.

Monday, Monday ...

Friday, October 3, 2008

Life imitating soap opera: The Amazing Mrs Pritchard

Imagine, if you can, a world leader with little previous experience, troubled children, a husband with a compromised past, a funny Northern accent--but boundless confidence that with honesty and common sense, she can clean up the mess in the national government.

No, not that one. I'm talking about Ros Pritchard, the eponymous fictional heroine of a TV series that aired on BBC One in 2006 and on Masterpiece Theatre last fall.

The concept was too far-fetched for the Brits, apparently. The Amazing Mrs Pritchard "fared poorly in the ratings," says a Wikipedia article. Americans liked it somewhat better. Ginia Bellafante, writing in the New York Times, called the five-part series "a guilty pleasure," and Matthew Gilbert's review in the Boston Globe pronounced it "likable."

Mr Neff and I watched Mrs Pritchard on DVD long before we had any reason to think life might imitate public entertainment. The premise is intriguing--who among us has never thought he or she could do better than our elected officials?--yet the tone is light. This is soap opera, not French film. Jane Horrocks plays Ros with a just-right combination of wackiness and high purpose, and Janet McTeer as Catherine Walker is a formidable foe and foil.

Mrs Pritchard is safe to watch in a mixed group of Republicans and Democrats, and it's likely to be more fun than the next two debates. You can order it from Netflix or Blockbuster (or pick it up at the Wheaton Public Library).

For more information about Mrs Pritchard's fictional political party, the Purple Alliance--halfway between red and blue!--check out their website.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wall Street in perspective: or, $1.2 trillion isn't as much money as you might think

Yes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 778 points yesterday, the biggest point drop in its history, equal to $1.2 trillion dollars.

This morning Chris Cuomo, news anchor at Good Morning America, sounded like he'd been up all night drinking strong coffee. He kept nervously interrupting Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colorado) as she tried to explain why she had voted no on the bailout package and what she hoped would be included in a revised bill. Eventually Musgrave's fellow interviewee, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), lost patience. With a motherly smile Kaptur, 62, leaned forward and lectured a sheepish-looking Cuomo, 38:
Let me just say that--now you're very anxious, I can hear your voice there. For the sake of the country, and even the sake of the markets, I think you should operate prudently and with a little bit of calm in your voice today.
Good advice for us all.

To put the excitement in perspective, let's compare yesterday's 7% loss to two other Black Mondays: 1929 and 1987. On Monday, October 28, 1929, the market lost 13% of its value, and on Monday, October 19, 1987, it lost 22.6%.

See? Things aren't so bad.

There. Now that we're breathing normally again, we can move out and get a broader perspective. A day makes a difference, but it takes years and even decades before we understand just what the difference is.

Black Monday 1929 ushered in the Great Depression. On September 3, 1929, the Dow had stood at 381.17. By mid November, it had plunged 40%. Nearly three years later, on July 8, 1932, it bottomed out at 41.22. That's a total drop of nearly 90%, and the Dow did not return to pre-Depression levels until 1954--25 years after the slide began.

In comparison, Black Monday 1987 was little more than a blip. Though it recorded the largest single-day percentage loss in Wall Street history, the market made a complete recovery within two years.

So what kind of tumble did the market take yesterday? A 7 percent loss on the day Congress refuses to bail out failing financial institutions doesn't seem all that significant. More ominous, perhaps, is the fact that at yesterday's close the market was down 26.8% from its all-time high of 14,164 less than a year ago, on October 9, 2007; or that it was down 21.9% year-to-date.

Time will tell, and I'm willing to wait a few more days or even weeks for Congress to try to sort things out (though I'm cynical enough to wonder if the folks who brought us this mess--whether in Congress or in the executive branch--are the best ones to get us out of it).

Meanwhile, if you're still anxious and unable to operate calmly and prudently, I have adapted a Sunday-school song for you. Mr Neff does not think it is funny.

Hear the dollars dropping!
Listen as they crash.

There goes our retirement.

There goes all our cash.


Dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping--

Hear the dollars fall!

Soon they'll be worth nothing.

Soon we'll lose them all.


Monday, September 29, 2008

US health care in perspective: or, $2.3 trillion is a lot of money


Given the justifiable concern about the world's economy--as I write, Congress is voting on the bail-out plan and Wall Street is sinking yet again--we haven't been hearing a lot about health care in recent days. Maybe we should. Sure, $700 billion is a lot of money. But in 2007, the US spent $2.3 trillion on health care. And though housing prices are tumbling, health-care costs keep going up.

Clearly we've got problems: aging Boomers, greed (on the part of Big Pharma, insurance companies, physicians, hospitals, malpractice lawyers, crafty individuals--hey, maybe greed is part of the human condition), increasingly expensive technology. Both presidential candidates recognize the problems, but so far neither has come up with a compelling solution.

To put the American situation in perspective, let's compare the United States with three other Western nations: the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. It's an arbitrary choice based on my interests: I'm a citizen of the US, have worked in the UK, have studied in France, and have often visited my closest childhood friend in Italy, where she has lived for over 30 years. If you'd rather look at different countries, you can follow the links and find info about 186 others.

Q. Which country has the best health care? That seems to depend on whom you talk to. This summer one English friend told me about her rotten experiences with, and resulting hatred of, Britain's national health-care system. A few weeks later, another English friend told me about the excellent--and free--medical care she regularly receives and loves. My childhood friend, who has had several surgeries in Italian hospitals, is enthusiastic about Italian health care; but she recently mentioned that Italy, apparently influenced by Catholic views on suffering, is poor at offering pain relief to terminally ill patients.

Anecdotes are more interesting than statistics, but they make poor public policy. Attempting an objective comparison of worldwide health care, the World Health Organization's 2000 report compared health-care systems in 190 countries on the basis of a wide and complex range of factors. Their oft-quoted overall ranking put France first, Italy second, the United Kingdom eighteenth, and the United States thirty-seventh.

(A. France)

Which country spends the most per capita on health care? The WHO report, whose statistics are now ten years out of date, put France in fourth place on spending per capita, Italy in eleventh place, and the United Kingdom in twenty-sixth place. Interestingly, the United States was in first place. In the late 90s we spent more per capita on health care than any other nation on earth--and we still do.

The OECD's 2008 report based on data from 2006 indicates that the United States spent 15.3% of its gross domestic product on health care, followed by France, 11.1%; Italy, 9.0%, and the United Kingdom, 8.4%. This percentage includes money from all sources: public, tax-supported programs (such as Medicaid and Medicare in the US), as well as private payments from insurance companies and individuals.

(A. The United States)

Which country spends the most public money per capita on health care? Here is something truly amazing. Scroll down to the second graph on the OECD report page and see how public and private spending is divided up. Total per-capita health-care spending in the US was $6714 in 2006. Of this amount, slightly over $3000 came from public funding. France, Italy, and the UK spent less from public funds than we did--yet all three countries have national health-care programs. In fact, Italy and the UK spent less on total health-care funding--including both public and private sources--than the US spent on public funding alone.

(A. The United States)

How much would a national health-care program cost American taxpayers? Our taxes would go up--I'm willing to bet on it. Not that they would have to. Presumably we could imitate France and devise a health-care program with better results and lower costs, all for less than we are presently taking in through taxes. (Yes, the French pay significantly more in taxes than we do--just not for healthcare.) But we won't imitate France, and we will raise taxes. It's a shame, but that's how we do things.

But wait--even if our taxes go up, that doesn't necessarily mean our paychecks will go down. In 2007, the average cost to your employer for the health insurance that covered you, your spouse, and your two kids was $12,100, says the National Coalition on Health Care. You no doubt spent less than that out-of-pocket, but the total cost is part of your total compensation. What if your taxes went up, but your insurance costs went down?

The Census Bureau reports that in 2007, the median family income was $62,359. If the family included a married couple, their income was $72,785. According to an article at MSN Money, the current average US tax bill (after deductions, exemptions, and credits) comes to 13.6% of total income. That's less than the current cost of health insurance--19.4% of the median family income and 16.6% of the median married-couple family income.

So how much would a national health-care plan cost U.S. taxpayers?

If we add on to present programs, taxes will shoot up; but if at the same time we stop paying for private insurance, wages could also rise.

If we start from scratch, paying close attention to what has and hasn't worked in countries that already have national health insurance, we could finance the entire program without raising taxes, and we could cancel our private insurance while we're at it.

(A. It depends.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

McCain is right

In 1870, just before Italian troops occupied the Vatican and just after most delegates from the Western hemisphere hurriedly left for home, the first Vatican council promulgated the dogma of papal infallibility. It was not the church's finest hour, but it led to one of the most-quoted dicta in the English language. Lord Acton, an English Catholic, wrote this to the Anglican bishop of London in 1887:
I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.
Members of the U.S. Congress should be forced to pay attention to that quotation--the whole paragraph, not just the famous sentence--several times an hour as they decide what to do about the current financial crisis. If there is a Congressional sound system, perhaps Lord Acton's words could regularly interrupt the soft music. Because no matter how dangerous the current financial situation, we may be facing even more dangerous abuses of power if Congress votes to give the treasury secretary everything he wants.

Paul Krugman, in this morning's New York Times op ed piece, "Cash for Trash," noted that some "are calling the proposed legislation the Authorization for Use of Financial Force, after the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the infamous bill that gave the Bush administration the green light to invade Iraq."

Krugman summarizes the administration's proposal thus:
... a taxpayer-financed bailout with no strings attached — no quid pro quo on the part of those being bailed out.... Add to this the fact that Mr. Paulson is also demanding dictatorial authority, plus immunity from review “by any court of law or any administrative agency,” and this adds up to an unacceptable proposal.
"After having spent a year and a half telling everyone that things were under control," Krugman says, "the Bush administration says that the sky is falling, and that to save the world we have to do exactly what it says now now now."

This sounds uncomfortably like the situation in 2001-2, when the president argued and Congress agreed that Mr. Bush needed to be authorized to do whatever he deemed necessary to fight terrorism. One result of the Authorization for Use of Military Force has been a major increase in executive power, often at the expense of human rights. If Congress decides to give the treasury secretary free rein to do whatever he deems necessary to fight world financial meltdown, executive power will increase still more.

In 1973, during President Nixon's second term, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote a book called The Imperial Presidency. In 2004 in his book Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, journalist Charlie Savage applied Schlesinger's term to the George W. Bush administration. If Congress passes the treasury secretary's proposed legislation, presidential power will have gone way past imperial. What term will historians and journalists coin to describe the result?

John McCain was slow to see the financial juggernaut coming, but his comment this morning was right on:
"Never before in the history of our nation has so much power and money been concentrated in the hands of one person, a person I admire and respect a great deal, Secretary Paulson," McCain said. "This arrangement makes me deeply uncomfortable. And when we're talking about a trillion dollars of taxpayer money, 'trust me' just isn't good enough."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Eat to enjoy


"Instead of Eating to Diet, They're Eating to Enjoy" is the headline of Tara Parker-Pope's article in this morning's New York Times. "The more time people spend on tasks like food shopping, cooking and kitchen cleanup," she notes, "the more likely they are to be of average weight. The Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture found that people of normal weight spend more time on meal-related tasks than people who are overweight or underweight."

This observation goes well with Richard Watson's advice in The Philosopher's Diet: How to Lose Weight & Change the World: Remodel your kitchen! Knock out a few walls! Add a fireplace! Buy a lot of kitchen tools! Here's his reason:
An obsession with food is a love affair. I'd much rather work with lovers of food than haters of fat. If you love food, you'll respond to kitchen dreams. But if you hate fat--something you can grab hold of and feel it being grabbed--then you hate yourself. And kitchens.

(By the way, did you borrow my copy of The Philosopher's Diet? I can't find it anywhere. [Thank goodness Amazon has a search feature.] You can leave it on my front porch between the doors. No questions will be asked.)