Why Do Extremely Wealthy People Hate the Idea of Higher Marginal Tax Rates?

As I write this, Howard Schultz, billionaire and former CEO of Starbucks, is mounting an independent campaign for the presidency of the United States. And he seems to be running for that office because he’s horrified at the idea of paying a higher marginal tax rate on the part of the income that is over $10 million. And he isn’t alone in that horror. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, billionaire Michael Dell was asked about that tax rate and quipped, “Name a country where that’s worked… ever” only to be corrected when MIT professor Erik Brynjolfasson replied, “The United States!”

According to Paul Krugman, taxing high incomes at extremely high rates—though below 100%—makes sense. On the one hand, at a certain point, there is no practical difference between the amount of money that an extremely wealthy person has and an infinite amount of money. Think about it this way: I have enough money that I would never notice if less than a dollar disappeared. I can afford far more of anything that costs a penny than I would want, which means that, for all practical purposes, I can afford an infinite number of things that cost a penny. For a billionaire, the same principle can be applied to items that cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, or dollars.

On the other hand, the government still wants those people to bother earning that money so that it claim the revenue. In theory, a 100% tax would discourage people from working for that 10 million and first dollar. But since they would still work for 30% of the amount over $10,000,000, the government could tax the dollars over that amount at 70%, keep the incentive, and reap the taxes.

And that means, as Krugman puts it, that “the optimal tax rate on people with very high incomes is the rate that raises the maximum possible revenue.”

Now, Krugman knows far more about economics than I do, but I disagree with an important part of his assessment. For two reasons, once you’ve reached an annual income of $10,000,000—and probably far less—money isn’t really an incentive to work harder or longer. First, you don’t really control how much you make. Shultz’s income isn’t governed by how many hours he works or how hard he works during those hours. It’s governed by what decisions he makes regarding the investment of the money he already has (and he can even pay people to make those decisions for him). Second, he’s effectively living in a post-scarcity society, and just as spending a few thousand or million dollars doesn’t really mean anything to him, neither does making that money. I can’t prove it, but I really doubt that more meaningless money is really an incentive for the extremely wealthy. There has to be an entirely different incentive structure in place.

But that’s not the question I want to explore here. The question I want to explore is this: why are these billionaires so horrified by the idea of a higher marginal tax rate when that rate will mean effectively nothing in terms of their quality of life?

Over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Paul Campos proposes some ideas… which he then dismisses:

They want to make sure that their great-grandchildren have more money than they could possible squander? No, because great-grandchildren are usually an abstraction. People don’t really care about them.

They believe in some sort of supply-side economic model? Okay, but why do they believe in that economic model when it flies in the face of all available evidence?

They hate those kinds of taxes on principle? Okay, but what’s the actual principle for whose sake they object?

They’re greedy? Okay, but what does greed mean in a context where more money doesn’t mean anything?

Money is a way of ‘keeping score’? Okay, but that’s pathological in a context where money doesn’t mean anything.

You want to be able to buy something that really would put a dent in your wealth, like the presidency of the United States? Yes. That’s probably it.

I think that Campos is missing something here: there’s a cultural logic to wealthy people—especially extravagantly wealthy people—hating taxes. And it’s sort of related to ideas like greed and ‘keeping score’.

Now, I need to be careful here. What I’m about to say isn’t a bit of armchair psychology. I’m not about to suggest that people who are extremely wealthy believe certain things at either the conscious or subconscious level. Instead, what I’m about to suggest is a matter of cultural logic or social imagination. It’s wrapped up in the collection of all of the things—institutions, traditions, symbols, practices, and so on—that help us think of ourselves as an ‘us’… the shared, often unspoken, understandings of how things are and how things should be.

A big part of the social imaginaries of modern capitalism is the link between material wealth and personal value. To put that another way, the more wealth someone has, the more of a person they are. For example, we often talk about people being paid what their work is worth or, even, what they are worth.

Or, as another example, we act as though Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth qualifies him to talk about and influence education policy, healthcare reform, or whatever.

Or, as a final example, we imagine that a wealthy businessperson is qualified to be the president of the United States because he is a wealthy businessperson.

And I strongly suspect that link between material wealth and personal value is felt more strongly by people who are wealthy than by people who are not (partly because I suspect that we tend to find personal value in the things that we have a lot of, are good at, and so on).

If the social imaginaries that a person is embedded in sees a link between material wealth and personal value, then it makes sense that that person would see taxes as a bad thing. That person might even see taxation as a form of violence because, when the government demands money through taxation, it isn’t just taking money, it’s taking personhood. This is related to the notion of ‘keeping score’. The billionaire is a person partly because he’s a billionaire, and taking some of that money—making him a mere multi-millionaire—makes him worth less than his fellow billionaires, not just in terms of his material wealth, but in terms of his very personhood.

(This also helps explain why some people who are very wealthy don’t see a desperate need to fund social programs that help people living in poverty: those people are literally worth less than the extremely wealthy).

There’s a theological side to this: ‘The idea that material wealth is the same—or almost the same—as personhood’ is a pretty good description of greed, not just as a kind of personal vice, but as a sin. On the one hand, it’s a form of idolatry: material wealth is an object of worship. On the other hand, it’s a form of self-harm: instead of finding their value in their status as a bearer of the image of God, they find their value in their status as a bearer of material wealth. It is, perhaps, the most common sin: exchanging God for mammon.

So, what do we make of Schultz’s campaign? He’s afraid. He’s afraid that a popular uprising against the extravagantly wealthy will hurt him. Not literally, of course, but by taking away the source of his personhood. And while he’s right that such a popular upraising will begin a higher marginal tax rate, he’s wrong that it will hurt him in any way. In fact, giving up some of his wealth might even free him from the grip that wealth has on his soul. And it’s sad that he doesn’t see that. It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for him.

Almost.

Entitlment (Noun): Something to Which a Person Has a Right

Let’s talk about entitlements.

Americans don’t really like the idea of entitlements. We tend to think of entitlement as something that a person wants, but that they don’t deserve. At the best, politicians argue that we simply can’t afford entitlement programs. At the worst, charity skeptics lament the sense of entitlement that some people—especially people living in poverty—might develop. 

And, of course, we resist the idea that we receive entitlements. We tend to believe that the only way to deserve something is to earn it. Other people might benefit from entitlements (that is, they might get something that they don’t deserve). We have always earned what we have (that is, we deserve what we have).

Our attitude towards entitlements means that any time ‘entitlement reform’ comes up, I start seeing people argue that programs like Social Security are not entitlements. 

“You see,” say the people making that argument, “I paid into Social Security while I was working; and now that I’m retired, I am simply receiving a benefit that I earned. That is an earned benefit, not a loathsome entitlement.”

And the problem with that argument—the problem with our whole American attitude towards entitlement—is that it misunderstands what an entitlement is.1When it’s applied to Social Security, it also misunderstands how that program works. But that’s a subject for a different post. Whether something is an entitlement has nothing to do with whether a person earned it. An entitlement is simply something—anything—to which a person has a right.

Sometimes, we are entitled to something because we earned it: if I work a job, I am entitled to a paycheck. Sometimes, we are entitled to something because we as a society have decided that it’s something people should have: if I am charged with a crime, I am entitled to due process. I am entitled to both. Only one is conditional.

And that distinction is important. We can tell a lot about a society by what it believes people are entitled to (and who it believes is entitled to what).

The founders of the United States were very concerned with the legal system. They guaranteed things like a right to face your accusers, a right to call witnesses on your own behalf, a right to be tried by a jury, and a right to legal counsel. But it would be generations before we decided that everyone was entitled to those things.

In 1935, we decided that (some) people are entitled to cash payments from the rest of the country, so that they can live even if they can’t work. It began with (some) retired workers. And, over the decades, we’ve expanded it to include other workers, their spouses and minor children, people who are disabled, and others. We even decided to help (again, some) people who are just having trouble making ends meet. Social Security, Medicare, Disability Insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program are all part of one entitlement package: The Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance Program.

And someday, maybe, we’ll decide that people are entitled to quality medical care, a good education, meaningful work, food that is nutritious and tasty, a comfortable place to live, and so on.

And there are three problems with arguing that things like Social Security aren’t entitlements.

First, it focuses on the wrong problem. The problem isn’t that people are calling things entitlements, it’s that they’re trying to take those entitlements away. And the people who are trying to take them away will try to do that even if we all agree to call them earned-benefit programs. They don’t hate these programs because they’re called entitlements. They hate them because they help people who need help.

Second, it makes us think in terms of transactions. It makes it look like we only deserve these benefits because we’ve earned them. And that makes it seem like there might be people out there who haven’t earned them, who don’t deserve them, and who should be left on their own. And that means that, even if we could all agree that the people who earned them benefits should get them, the argument only shifts to who has really earned them. Or to put it another way, when we start arguing that programs aren’t really entitlements, we start arguing on the terms that have been set by the people who want to ‘reform’ them.

Third, it limits our imaginations. This is related to my second point, but we need to make our ideas about what people are entitled to broader, not narrower.  We will only move forward if we can begin to imagine what I wrote above—that people are entitled to quality medical care, a good education, meaningful work, and so on—and begin working on ways to make that dream a reality. Arguing that the few programs we have aren’t really entitlements only makes that farther.

An entitlement is merely something to which someone has a right. If we remember that, then we can avoid arguing on terms set by the very people who want to eliminate the few entitlements we have… and we can start working to make sure that everyone can enjoy the life to which they have a right.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Politics Is Not about Campaigning. It Is about Governing.

Excuse me for a minute while I get pedantic… and a little ranty.

Not too long ago, I was listening to a political podcast, and they starting talking about the difference between policy and politics. And they talked about it this way: they said that representatives needed to do the right thing—choose the right policy—regardless of how the politics would play out. They made it sound like governing was one thing and politics was another. They made it sound like the politics of a moment was about how things would play out in the media, on the campaign trail, and in the voting booth.

And that’s wrong.

It’s become a truism that the media cover politics like it’s a horserace. They act as though the biggest question around any policy work—from a speech to a vote—is how it will affect the next election. And our current political moment is one result of that. We have a president and a political party who seem wholly unconcerned with how their actions will affect people, and almost entirely concerned with whether those actions make them look like their winning. But government isn’t about winning… it’s about helping people.

Or, at least, it should be.

Politics is the work of figuring out how we will live together. That work—and the policies that it produces—should be the focus of political coverage. The horserace is fun. But our country will be better if people know how policies are enacted and how they affect real people, not just whether one candidate or another moved ahead in the polls.

The Revolution Will Be Commodified

Last week, Nike unveiled Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces of an ad campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of their iconic ‘Just Do It’ slogan. That’s something to celebrate. Kaepernick has been marginalized by the NFL and mocked by the political right for his protests against police violence in black communities. Having his face on print ads and his voice in commercials has helped reignite a national conversation about those protests and, maybe, it will encourage more conversations about these issues.

But I’m not writing this post to congratulate Nike for good marketing. Nike has been an expert at using both advertising and earned media to sell its products.

I’m writing this post to expand on something that I put on Twitter and on my personal Facebook timeline, and that generated some serious discussion. Here’s the content of the original post (on Facebook, I added an edit later):

God, I hate to be that guy, but does anyone know Nike’s current practices around sweatshops, prison labor, and environmental exploitation? Asking, apparently, for all of my friends.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like the message of the new ads. I just kind of think that the motivation isn’t justice so much as it’s profit. And we shouldn’t let an ounce of social justice sauce cover a multitude of sins.

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Let me start with some background. Most of my friends, almost regardless of what part of my life they’re from, share two things in common. First, they are strongly supportive of social justice movements in general—though different people have different issues that their own struggles are centered on—and of Kaepernick’s protests in particular. Second, they tend to be suspicious when it comes to the motives of large corporations. A lot of my friends are people who have participated—or who are participating right now—in boycotts of Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A, Amazon, and other companies.

While Nike’s ad debut sparked a predictable outcry from the right, I also saw something I wasn’t expected among my friends. On the right, people were cutting the Nike Swoosh off of their socks, burning their shoes, and otherwise destroying things they owned in their frustration with Nike and with a protest that they don’t understand. Among my friends, I saw people celebrating Nike… and people bragging about how much Nike stuff they were going to buy.

One of the things I write about in my upcoming book is how capitalism shapes the ways that we think. Capitalism isn’t just an economic system that we happen to use, it involves a specific way of imagining our world. In the book, I mostly focus on how capitalism encourages market thinking: the idea that anything can be bought and sold, that assigning a price is the same thing as determining a value, and that transactions and trades are the basis for social interactions.

In the book, I focus on charity, and we can see one of the big ways that capitalism and market thinking have affected charity in the ways that charity skeptics promote a kind of compassionate capitalism as the solution to poverty. Charity skeptics are obviously skeptical about charity, but they embrace more capitalism-friendly tool like microfinance, entrepreneurship programs, and so on.

But the reaction to Nike’s ad campaign highlights another way that capitalism affects how we think, and, specifically, how we think about justice issues. I don’t have a clever name for it yet. For now, let’s call it ‘justice branding’.

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Brand loyalty is an important idea. Most of us are loyal to a few specific brands. And, once we are loyal to a brand, we tend to stick with them unless something major happens. I’ve worn Skechers sneakers for ages; I even bought the same design several pairs in a row. I drive Toyotas because I grew up with them. Different clothing items come from L.L. Bean, Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Brooks Brothers. My ice cream is Ben & Jerry’s. My tomato sauce in Newman’s Own. My computers and phones are Apple. I use Expedia for travel.

And I am fully aware of two things. First, I am psychologically locked into these brands in the same way that other people are locked into their preferred brands. They aren’t rational choices. In fact, I buy most of them because they worked once and it is almost always easier to buy the same brand the next time than it is to switch to something new. Laziness wins.

Second, most of them—if not all of them—have deep ethical problems. I know that my lifestyle is dependent on sweatshops, slavery, poverty, child labor, environmental destruction, government oppression, and dozens of other evils that I preach against on a regular basis. The fact that I am embedded in a web of marginalization, exploitation, oppression, and violence is precisely what I mean when I say that I am a sinner. It isn’t just that I sometimes break rules—though I absolutely do that, too—it’s that my very way of life relies on systems and structures that hurt others. And the fact is that I am complicit in those systems and structures.

I’ll come back to that another time. For now, I want to focus on this: justice identities are ascendant brands.

Politics has always been about a certain amount of branding. I vote for Democrats because that is usually the party that is most closely aligned with my views and that win, but it’s also true that my family has supported Democrats for as long as I can remember. I am a progressive because, well, I support the things that progressives support. But it’s also true that I grew up in a liberal family, went to liberal schools, belong to a liberal denomination, and so on. Social realities have shaped my political choices, and my politics have shaped the social circles I choose. It’s not a delightful idea, but the fact is that the way I select candidates probably isn’t that different from the way that I select tomato sauce.

In today’s highly polarized political environment, these identities are incredibly important. And that’s not only true along the Republican-Democrat axis or Conservative-Progressive axis. A lot of factors come into play to give someone an identity as pro-Kaepernick or anti-Kaepernick.

And Nike knows that.

According to Vox, Nike, “has had Kaepernick under contract since 2011, and reportedly began negotiating a ‘new, multi-year pact’ with him months ago, well after he initiated the lawsuit alluded to in the ad’s text. The timing is not a coincidence.”

Nike knew that people would be mad at the Kaepernick ads. I’m sure that Nike knew that people would not only destroy their products, but would buy their products in order to destroy them. And I’m sure that Nike knew that people would broadcast that destruction on the internet. Nike knew that it would make money from people who wanted to reinforce and broadcast their anti-Kapernick identities.

Nike also knew that people would be elated by the Kaepernick ads. I’m sure that Nike knew that people who normally didn’t buy Nike products would rush to buy Nike products in order to show their support for Kaepernick. And I’m sure that Nike knew that people would talk about that on the internet. Nike knew that it would make money from people who wanted to reinforce and broadcast their pro-Kapernick identities.

And there’s one more thing: Nike knew that each of those identities, broadcasting their actions on the internet, would not only reinforce a message to people who shared their identities, they would galvanize the other side! People would buy Nike products to destroy or wear just to own the people who were doing the opposite.

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Ethical consumerism is probably impossible. And apparel companies present a particular challenge to anyone who even wants to try to be an ethical consumer. Global supply chains are often opaque. We all know that an American brand might sell clothing made in China, Bangladesh, India, or any number of other countries. Just as importantly, that clothing might be made by en entirely different company, in a factory owned by another company, and transported by yet another company, and so on. By the time we actually get to the person sewing an item of clothing in a factory in Bangladesh, the work might have been contracted and subcontracted so many times that the American brand has no idea who is making them.

And that means that American consumers often have no idea who is making their clothes. In his book Out of Sight, labor historian Erik Loomis writes about corporate mobility in general, and puts it this way:

Corporate mobility— supported by state and federal governments through trade agreements, free trade zones, and labor law exceptions— has outsourced industrial risk to the world’s poor, separating the costs of industrial production from consumers and undermining labor rights and environmental protections in the United States and around the world.1Erik Loomis. Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe, Kindle Edition. (New York: New Press, 2015), p. 11

We might now know who is making our clothes, but the people who are making them are almost certainly poor and exploited women of color.

And when we start talking about justice identities, that matters. Nike used to have a reputation for deeply unethical labor practices that were enabled by their supply chains. At the time, Nike took the attitude that, since they didn’t own the factories, they couldn’t control what happened in them, and therefore they weren’t responsible.

Now, I’ve been assured that Nike has made major improvements in their labor practices. But they are still a multinational apparel company using global supply chains that often support labor exploitation in developing nations.

And that matters when we think about racial justice and justice identities. The question I wanted to raise in my Facebook post and Tweet is whether those of us who are pro-Kaepernick were being too eager to support the use of one of the faces of Black Lives Matter by a company in an industry that regularly exploits black and brown lives in other countries. Were we saying #AmericanBlackLivesMatter while living as though #BangladeshiBrownLivesDon’t? Were our identities divorced from our actions?

As I wrote above, ethical consumerism is probably impossible. Especially when it comes to apparel, we almost certainly don’t face a choice between good and evil. We face choices between evil and evil. But that doesn’t mean that we’re absolved of our responsibility or that we don’t have a need to repent. And while we will often fail—and I will certainly often fail—to make the most ethical decision among a selection of unethical ones, we have a responsibility to try nonetheless.

And part of that is asking how corporations and marketers might be manipulating our justice identities: are we buying something because a company is doing the right thing, or because they are creating an image that we want to be associated with?

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So, where does that leave us?

First, Colin Kaepernick appearing in Nike advertisements is a good thing and there is room for celebrating that this is happening. Hopefully, it will reignite conversations around protest, police violence, and related issues. Even if it doesn’t, it provides recognition to a figure who has been marginalized by his profession for his justice work. We can recognize and celebrate that even as we acknowledge that profit—not justice—was probably the primary motivating factor for Nike.

Second, even as we celebrate this ad campaign, we can recognize that Nike, the broader apparel industry, and capitalism in general have major ethical problems. And if we are serious about our justice identities, we cannot simply suspend our criticism in the face of an ad campaign that speaks to those identities. We can celebrate that Nike did a good thing—and we can buy Nike products—and still call Nike and ourselves to lives that are more aligned with justice and mercy.

Third, to take that point even further, those of us who are Christian can celebrate this ad campaign as a good thing done by a sinful company in a broken world. And when I say that Nike is a sinful company, I mean that it is no different from other companies or us as individuals. We are all caught in those webs of marginalization, exploitation, oppression, and violence that I mentioned earlier. And while we can strive to do our best within those webs, we are dependent on the grace of God to push us further.We can celebrate that Nike did a good thing—and we can buy Nike products—and still call Nike and ourselves to greater repentance.

Fourth, and finally, it is important to maintain our hermeneutic of suspicion when we see something that we like. It might even be especially important to maintain it then. As justice identities become more important brands, there will be more and more companies who seek to manipulate them in their advertising: who want us to align with their message instead of their practices. We should be aware of that and we should be critical in the face of that.

So, by all means, buy your Nike stuff and celebrate the ads. Just be careful about falling into the kind of thinking that appeases the pleasure centers of your brain while tarnishing your soul. Because the revolution will be commodified, and there is a difference between the substance of that revolution, and the shiny packaging that will hold a cheap imitation.

Footnotes   [ + ]

What If We Didn’t Treat This as a Crisis? (A Revision and Expansion)

Last week, I published a post about Anthony Kennedy’s retirement. In that post, I was trying to make two important points:

First, while many of my friends and colleagues are treating Kennedy’s retirement — and Trump’s second Supreme Court nomination — as a crisis, that changes very little for many Americans. To summarize a guest on Lovett or Leave It last week, the left has treated the courts as Alexa for civil rights. We’ve expected the courts to implement progressive policies. But that does not mean that most people have enjoyed the results of those policies. Those of us who are relatively privileged might experience this as an emergency, but for countless Americans this is simply the way things are.

Second, while the left needs to pay attention to and respond to crises like this, we also need to be developing institutions that will both help us craft and implement progressive policies and defend those policies once they’re in place. And we have to be vigilant in doing that, not only because we want to create and defend progressive policies, but because we need to reassert and defend basic small-d democratic norms.

Since I published that post, I’ve had a couple of conversations that have made it clear that I didn’t make that case very well. So I’m going to use this post to try to make that argument more clearly. As with everything on this blog, this is still preliminary, so I won’t make any guarantees that it will be perfectly clear.


As I said in that previous post, Kennedy’s retirement isn’t a crisis. It’s mundane. And I said that knowing that a more conservative supreme court will restrict reproductive rights, diminish LGBTQ rights, damage voting access rights, and do a host of other things that threaten both progressive goals and small-d democratic values. While many people who are like me — that is to say, relatively privileged — see these as absolute crises, for many Americans, that will change surprisingly little.

Abortion is a good example of this. Every woman in America enjoys a constitutional right to have an abortion. However, according to the Guttmacher Institute, many American women face substantial limits to this legal right. Simple physical access is a challenge: five states had only one abortion clinic in 2014, and more than 20 states had five or fewer. That makes it difficult for women who may have a travel a long way to get an abortion if they need or want one. In addition to the physical limitation, 19 states require a second physician to be involved in the procedure after a certain point, 19 states require that an abortion be performed in a hospital after a certain point, 43 states prohibit abortions after a certain point, 11 states restrict coverage of abortions by private insurers, 18 states require women to receive counseling or specific — and sometimes dubious — information, 27 states have waiting periods, and 37 states require minors to have parental involvement in their decision to have an abortion.

So, for example, Kansas has four abortion clinics. It requires a second physician to be involved after the viability of the fetus; prohibits abortions after 20 weeks except in the case of a threat to the woman’s health; bans ‘partial birth’ abortion; limits both public funding of abortion and the ability of private insurers to cover abortions; mandates that prospective patients be told about a link between abortion and breast cancer, fetal pain, and negative psychological effects; has a 24 hour waiting period; and requires parental consent for minors. So, while a woman in Kansas might have a constitutional right to abortion, she doesn’t really have a practical right to one.

And there are many other ways that states work to restrict abortion rights.

Of course, this isn’t just about abortion. It is already shockingly easy for states to restrict voting access (and ensure that the voting process entrenches right-wing power), for businesses to refuse to cater to same-sex couples, for employers to maintain unsafe working conditions, and so on. The world that my progressive friends and colleagues are afraid of is the world that exists for countless Americans.


Part of the reason that the world that many of us are afraid of is the world that exists for many Americans is that progressives have relied too much on the courts to institute policy. Abortion, same-sex marriage, and other rights are not in place because we passed laws protecting them. They are in place because courts have ruled. To return to something I said in the introduction, we’ve relied on an Alexa-get-me-gay-rights strategy to implement progressive policies. And we simply don’t have the power to change from a judicial to a legislative strategy right now. Every branch of the federal government is controlled by the right, as are 33 governor’s mansions and 32 state houses; and the right has worked hard to guarantee that it will maintain its power through voting restrictions, gerrymandering, and institution building. I suspect that it will take decades for the left to develop the power structures to guarantee civil liberties and small-d democratic reforms — and implement progressive policies — through legislative means.

That brings me to the importance of institution building. One thing that the right has been very good at is building institutions that spread its worldview and set people up to take power in civil society. There are ideologically right-wing think tanks (e.g. The Heritage Foundation), membership organizations (e.g. The Federalist Society), universities (e.g. Liberty University), media channels (e.g. Fox News), and so on. And these organizations enjoy influence on right-wing members of government. For example, Trump is selecting his Supreme Court nominee from a list that was created for him by the Federalist Society (and his commitment to choosing from that list was a way of proving his conservative bona fides). While the left obviously has similar organizations, none of them have this kind of influence on the culture or on left-leaning politicians.

One of the most famous and most powerful examples of institution-building on the right is the religious right. As early as the 1930s, the political right was actively courting right-wing religious figures like Rev. James Fifield Jr, the pastor of the wealthy First Congregational Church of Los Angeles and a founder of the right wing and pro-corporate Mobilization for Spiritual Ideas. Fifield praised capitalism, business, and free markets; and he denounced President Roosevelt and his New Deal. And, of course, the organization had radio programs, television programs, and a magazine. Fifield was not an evangelical, but a Congregationalist. In fact, he received his B.Div. and an honorary D.Div. from my alma mater, the now-very-progressive Chicago Theological Seminary.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the modern religious right — now a coalition of evangelicals and Catholics — became a major force in American culture. Even in 1975 — two years after Roe v. Wade — an evangelical ethics textbook by Norman Geisler was pro-choice! But the rise of the modern religious right is the result of investment by the political right (and, to a degree, vice versa). The political right helped build the institutions of the Christian right. And that investment has paid off: in 2016, the Christian right was more than willing to overlook Donald Trump’s moral turpitude in hopes of seeing more conservative policies and court decisions that would restrict a host of civil rights for groups that they don’t like. And the holy grail, of course, would be additional Supreme Court Justices who would chip away at — if not outright overturn — Roe v. Wade.

To put it simply, the right has spent a few generations building and maintaining substantial institutions that have helped it gain political power. And a devoted member of the right can get a degree from a college that will reinforce that worldview, attend a church that will reinforce that worldview, watch and read news sources that reinforce that worldview, join clubs that reinforce that worldview, and so on. And those institutions will mobilize their members: they will work to make sure that their members attend rallies, write their representatives, show up at protests, and — most importantly — vote.

The left simply doesn’t have anything comparable. Part of the reason for that is that the right has been very successful in ‘playing the refs’ and making sure that moderate platforms — and even many liberal and progressive ones — include right-wing voices for fear that, if they don’t, they will be cast as biased. So, for example, the homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, white supremacist Pat Buchanan was a respected commentator on MSNBC for almost a decade. Comparably leftist commentators don’t appear on most liberal platforms, let alone moderate or conservative ones.

And, of course, the right has been successful in using its political power to weaken left-leaning institutions. Unions are still a powerful force on the political left, but moves from the right have been diminishing unions for decades. And the most recent of those moves is the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME.

I’m not going to suggest that the left build institutions that mirror the ones on the right. I don’t think that would reflect liberal or progressive values. My point is simply that while the left can win elections, it doesn’t have the institutional power to mount a sustained campaign to alter how our government works or to protect progressive policies over the long-term. The right is prepared to roll back progressive policies and enact conservative ones over the course of decades. I have little confidence that the left is prepared for the same kind of long-term work.


Instead of sustained institution-building and preparing to work over decades, the left has relied on mainstream small-d democratic institutions to implement progressive policies. That has now put us in a position where, as the right captures more of the levers of power in the government, we are seeing those same policies get rolled back. In a fair world, this would be deeply problematic, but not hopeless. We could work on winning the next set of elections and get back to implementing a progressive agenda. But, as I’ve already mentioned, the right has made serious investments in entrenching its own power. So Hillary Clinton could have 2.9 million more votes than Donald Trump and still lose the presidential election. And in Wisconsin, Republicans can control almost two-thirds of the state assembly seats despite winning barely more than half the votes in 2016 (and, in 2012, despite not winning even half the votes). Similar circumstances are at play in other elections.

What this means is that it is harder and harder for the left to gain formal political power. And that means that it is harder and harder for the left to implement or defend progressive policies. And that puts us in the situation that we’re in now: lurching from crisis to crisis, hoping to stem the tide of policies that range from the conservative to the fascist.

As I said in my original post, moving from crisis to crisis is exhausting. And it’s showing. The response to Trump’s original travel ban was massive protests at airports across the country. The response to the Supreme Court’s ratification of the most recent version of that ban was considerably more muted. I suspect that’s because we were more focused on the crisis du jour: the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on the Mexican border. We are ill-prepared to mount the kinds of defenses of progressive policies and small-d democratic values that are needed right now.

Before I was a pastor, I was in the nonprofit sector, and one of the things that I learned about there was the multi-tier work of disaster relief. While we tend to focus on organizations that appear in the immediate aftermath of a disaster like a hurricane, there are also other organizations that show up later. The first organizations are devoted to crisis-response. The second set are devoted to rebuilding. And while the first set of organizations might be present for a few months before moving on to the next crisis, the second set of organizations can be at the site of a disaster for years, slowly and purposefully working to redevelop communities. So, for example, while some organizations showed up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to help in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (providing emergency shelter, restoring power, getting supplies to people, and so on), other organizations are still there rebuilding communities. Disaster recovery is both short-term and long-term work.

And so is political change. We need some people who will respond to crises. We also need some people who will do the long-term work of building institutions, regaining political power, defending small-d democratic values, and so on. And that is work that will need to be passed from generation to generation. Because even if we could implement a wish list of progressive policies — and restore the norms that our democracy depends on — we will always need to defend those policies against and protect those norms from those who would destroy them.

Scenes from #FamiliesBelongTogether

Weather just does not cooperate with rallies in the Quad Cities. But despite temperatures in the 90s and a head index over 100 degrees, people gathered in VandeVeer Park in Davenport, Iowa, to rally in support of immigrant families who have been torn apart by the administration’s zero-tolerance policy, ICE raids, and deportations. Everyone there recognized the same basic truth: the United States desperately needs substantial and compassionate immigration reform.

What If We Didn’t Treat This as a Crisis?

Like a lot of progressives, I was upset to hear about Anthony Kennedy’s looming retirement. He was a conservative justice, but he was a conservative justice with principles. And, sometimes, those principles led him to rule in favor of people who were oppressed and suffering. Those principles made him a swing vote, and his vote on the Supreme Court made a difference.

Now, he has ceded his legacy to a reactionary Republican Party and the people who lead it. And I have no doubt that over the next generation the Court will chip away at reproductive choice, LGBTQ rights, voting access, and dozens of other things that aren’t just items on the progressive agenda, but fundamental parts of a small-d democratic legal order. With this retirement, the Republican Party and the pseudo-conservatives who run it will have a huge influence on the direction of this country for a generation or more.

And, of course, if a question about whether a sitting president can be indicted comes before the Court, Donald Trump will have effectively chosen his own judge.

But…

A lot of my friends and colleagues are treating this as one more crisis in an increasingly long list of crises. That’s exhausting. Those of us who are progressive are running ourselves ragged trying to respond to event after event. And I think that might be the wrong response to this and, frankly, to the almost countless violations of democratic norms and subversions of democratic values that we’ve witnessed over the last year-and-a-half-ish.

Frankly, this isn’t a crisis. I’m not saying that because it’s acceptable. I’m saying it because it’s mundane.

Reproductive choice has been under assault since the day Roe v. Wade was decided. LGBTQ rights have been attacked the moment that each one was gained. People have fought to restrict voting since the first minority voter arrived at a polling place. And there are countless other examples of the attempt to deny rights to those who should have them and to roll them back once they are recognized.

The fact is that for a large number of Americans, the ‘crisis’ that I and my friends and colleagues are hyperventilating over today isn’t a crisis at all. It’s the way that the world is.

The fact is that for a large number of Americans, the 'crisis' that I and my friends and colleagues are hyperventilating over today isn't a crisis at all. It's the way that the world is. Click To Tweet

And we need to respond appropriately. We are not in a crisis that came from nowhere and can be solved over the course of a few protests or a few elections or a few court cases. We are living in the result of decades of meticulous work by the far right. And we need to respond in kind. We need to make the work of justice and mercy a part of our daily lives — yes, a part of our daily lives, not the whole thing — and recognize that this is not a sprint, but a relay. We will do some of the work. And our children and grandchildren will do some of the work. And untold generations will do some of the work.

Because the fact is that those small-d democratic norms and values are fragile things. Unless we guard them vigilantly, people who are entranced by wealth and power will break them.

Small-d democratic norms and values are fragile things. Unless we guard them vigilantly, people who are entranced by wealth and power will break them. Click To Tweet

As the saying goes, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

Blood on Our Hands, Grace in Our Veins

Terry Pratchett is best known for his Discworld novels. The world that they’re set in is reminiscent of fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings, and Pratchett riffed on the tropes of those worlds to bring humor into a setting that is often far too dry to be believable. And while the early books rely on medieval stasis (e.g., some alchemists may invent movies and threaten to awaken an eldritch abomination, but everything goes back to ‘normal’ in the end), later books see change come to the Discworld. Personal digital assistants (powered by imps), network communications (via semaphore towers), printing presses, and other technological wonders were slowly changing the Discworld before Pratchett died in 2015.

In Going Postal, Pratchett introduced Moist von Lipwig. Moist is a conman and charlatan whose death was faked by the ruler of the city-state of Ankh-Morpork so that he could be recruited to revive its postal system. Since this is a fantasy novel, a golem parole officer has been assigned to him. They have this memorable exchange (Mr. Pump capitalizes the first letter of each word, even in speech, and pronounces Moist’s last name with a ‘v’ instead of a ‘w’):

“Do you understand what I’m saying?” shouted Moist. “You can’t just go around killing people!”

“Why Not? You Do.” The golem lowered his arm.

“What?” snapped Moist. “I do not! Who told you that?”

“I Worked It Out. You Have Killed Two Point Three Three Eight People,” said the golem calmly.

“I have never laid a finger on anyone in my life, Mr Pump. I may be — all the things you know I am, but I am not a killer! I have never so much as drawn a sword!”

“No, You Have Not. But You Have Stolen, Embezzled, Defrauded And Swindled Without Discrimination, Mr Lipvig. You Have Ruined Businesses And Destroyed Jobs. When Banks Fail, It Is Seldom Bankers Who Starve. Your Actions Have Taken Money From Those Who Had Little Enough To Begin With. In A Myriad Small Ways You Have Hastened The Deaths Of Many. You Do Not Know Them. You Did Not See Them Bleed. But You Snatched Bread From Their Mouths And Tore Clothes From Their Backs. For Sport, Mr Lipvig. For Sport. For The Joy Of The Game.”

And I’ve been thinking about that, lately. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco.

Pacheco was a high schooler in Des Moines, Iowa. He had been brought from Mexico to the United States when he was three years old. He was undocumented. He was protected by DACA. He was a DREAMer.

But last fall, he was stopped for speeding and arrested for driving under the influence, an immigration judge revoked his DACA status for misdemeanor offenses, and he was arrested as an undocumented immigrant by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He was given a choice: be deported and take all of the penalties of a deportation, or ‘return’ to Mexico voluntarily. To avoid the penalties and leave the possibility of returning to country he grew up in open, he chose the ‘voluntary’ route.

He was escorted to Mexico by ICE. Then he was murdered.

It’s easy — and right — to put the blame for his murder on the people who slit his throat, whoever they may be.

It’s easy — and right — to put the blame on ICE and the administration that empowers it. They may not have known that Pacheco would be killed, but they knew that they were deporting him to a country with a murder rate nearly four times that of the United States (thought Des Moines has a surprising amount of crime). Even if he hadn’t been killed, ICE knew that they were sending him to a place where life would have been harder, and in a myriad small ways they were hastening his death.

And it’s harder — but no less right — to put the blame on everyone who participated in the process, and on everyone who failed to stop it. The unfortunate fact is that a lot of people have a share in the death of Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco.

And before we get complacent and say that at least we have nothing to do with it, all of us have hastened a few deaths and hardened a few lives in a myriad small ways over the years. All of us have a share in some slaves, all of us have a share in some murders, all of us have blood on our hands.

Moist von Lipwig killed 2.338 people. I don’t know how many I’ve killed. But the fact is that I have some repenting to do. So do you. So do all of us. Maybe this is what original sin is: the fact that we are all embedded in systems of death and destruction, whether we know it or not.

Maybe this is what original sin is: the fact that we are all embedded in systems of death and destruction, whether we know it or not. Click To Tweet

But maybe the opposite is true, too. Maybe we’re also caught in webs of grace, whether we know it or not.

Last year, I quoted a post by Addie Zierman, where she wrote this about giving what seem like small gifts:

Most of all, I remember the jolt of understanding that fell across my heart as I stood in that shipping container house and realized that the answer to the open wound of poverty is not, in fact, some Extreme Home Makeover (Move that truck!). It is not some lavish gift or building donation. The answer is not even to move into the heart of poverty and live some martyr-ymissionary version of life.

The answer is a lot of average people doing a lot of average things.

The answer is donations that feel completely inadequate in the face of the world’s great need. $10 here. $20 there.

It’s money for eyeglasses or for a new coat. It’s letters in the mail. It’s community leaders and public servants who care deeply and have the resources to enact their passions. It’s programs like World Vision’s “Go Baby Go,” that gives mamas like Ani information about child development and resources to foster learning and creativity in their children.

The fact is that most of us are not murderers or robbers or human rights violators, even if we have a share in murders and robberies and human rights violations. And the fact is that most of us aren’t heroes or great philanthropists or life-savers… but we also have a share in heroism and philanthropy and saving lives. Giving a few dollars to a panhandler matters. Talking to someone who doesn’t get enough company matters. Being compassionate to someone who is feeling down matters.

Through a myriad small kindnesses, we repair the world.

Giving a few dollars to a panhandler matters. Talking to someone who doesn't get enough company matters. Being compassionate to someone who is feeling down matters. Through a myriad small kindnesses, we repair the world. Click To Tweet

But I want to be clear about a few things. First, I don’t think these balance out. I don’t think that every share in kindness counts against a share in death so that doing one cancels the other. Morality isn’t a balance scale, and it’s not so nice and mechanical. Doing something nice doesn’t get us off the hook. Plus, that’s the kind of thinking that can lead to scrupulosity, and that would be a bad thing.

Second, we need some bigger kindnesses. I’ll admit that I haven’t done my part. But we need more people to stand up for immigrants like Manuel Antonio Cano Pacheco. We need more people to stand against gun violence, sexual harassment and assault, mass incarceration, and the myriad other ways we hasten the death of others.

The fact is that we have a lot of work to do to get the blood off our hands and share the grace in our veins. Let’s get to it.

On Hymns and Local News

I am a nerd.

I’m a nerd about my faith. I read the Bible, I study theology, I talk to people about Christianity in general and mainline Protestantism in particular.

I’m also a nerd about news and politics. I read the Washington Post and Vox.com and other news sites and blogs. I listen to Crooked Media and On Point and other podcasts that cover politics. I watch national and local news on television. And I study the issues.

And here’s the thing. I know that other people in my congregation aren’t nerds about their faith, and I know that other people in my community aren’t nerds about news and politics. And the people who aren’t nerds include both people who agree with me on things and people who don’t. But the fact that people aren’t nerds about these things does not mean that they aren’t consuming information about these things. 

That’s one of the reasons that I’m particular about the hymns and other songs that we sing in worship on Sunday morning. Most people — especially the people who aren’t nerds about it — learn the tenets of their faith through songs. When we sing about the Jesus being a sacrifice to make atonement for our sins, we learn that that’s what Christianity is about. When we sing about justice and charity for the least among us, we learn that that’s what Christianity is about. As much as I might like to believe that sermons and classes make a difference — and they do make a difference — songs are where people really learn about their faith. So it matters what songs we sing.

As much as I might like to believe that sermons and classes make a difference — and they do make a difference — songs are where people really learn about their faith. So it matters what songs we sing. Click To Tweet

And local news does something similar.

On the front page of one of my local news broadcast’s website right now there are stories about a man who was arrested for smuggling firearms, the number of guns that have been recovered by police, a boil order for a nearby town, and another town that’s giving away free lots to people who will build homes on them. There are local weather forecasts and alerts. And there are links to state and national stories from their broader network. On tonight’s broadcasts, local anchors will report on these stories and more, forecast the weather, and give us the sports highlights.

But local news does more than report on the community. It also tells community members what they should pay attention to. When my local station reports on a local nonprofit, it is saying that that local nonprofit is important. And when it reports on sports (and not so much on the arts) it’s saying that sports (and not so much arts) are important. Local news matters because it is informative. It’s also important because it shapes what its viewers think matters.

And that’s why Sinclair Broadcasting is dangerous.

Sinclair Broadcasting is an unabashedly right-wing, pro-Trump media corporation that owns about 200 local television stations in more than 100 media markets. Right now, it reaches about 39% of U.S. households. It’s also trying to buy Tribune Media, which would expand its reach — both through its own channels and through agreements with other channels — to more than 70% of households.

That’s dangerous because Sinclair Broadcasting issues must-run segments to its local newsrooms. Some of these are identified editorials from Sinclair Broadcasting’s own staff, like former Trump administration special assistant Boris Epshteyn. Others are read by local news anchors, as highlighted in this video from Deadspin. That means that the same people who objectively report on local politics, community events, and sports, are also reading politically slanted stories. And they are not always telling viewers what is coming from their local station and what is coming from Sinclair Broadcasting.

Democracy relies on informed citizens… and on citizens who know where their information is coming from. A politically biased corporation crafting news stories and editorials, and putting those stories and editorials in the mouths of local anchors who are usually objective and credible, undercuts democracy. That’s true regardless of which side of the aisle that politically biased corporation is on. But right now is it a right-wing corporation mandating that local news broadcasts toe its line.

A politically biased corporation crafting stories, and putting them in the mouths of local anchors who are usually objective and credible, undercuts democracy. Local news matters. Protect it. Click To Tweet

So, what should we do about this?

First, find out which of your local stations are owned by Sinclair Broadcasting and get your news from somewhere else. Both Wikipedia and Vox and help you find those stations.

Second, let people in your community know what Sinclair Broadcasting is doing and encourage them to do the same thing. You might share this post, but I also recommend sharing this segment from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.

Third, as always, pay attention to your media diet. I know that I tack to the left, and I make sure that I seek out media that offers a different viewpoint. I also make sure that I look to reliable news sources before I believe a story that’s too good — or too bad — to be true. These include the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, and CNN. Always double check stories.

Local news matters. Protect it.

Scenes from a #MarchForOurLives

Winter decided to throw one hopefully-last storm at us on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. But despite the rapidly accumulating heart attack snow — it’s called that because it’s wet and heavy, and people push themselves too hard when shoveling, inducing heart attacks — hundreds of people from the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois gathered at Vander Veer Park.

We were invited into St. Paul Lutheran Church (ELCA), where we took up two rooms. Speakers — including students, teachers, and community members — spoke in one room and then the other. Then we headed outside to march around the park showing our signs. There was chanting, cheering, and — since the park sits between two of the busiest streets in the cities — honking.

Hundreds of thousands of people — maybe more than a million — marched in Washington, D.C., and around the country. And I’m happy that a few hundred were willing to march in bad weather in Davenport, Iowa. Far too many people are injured and killed by guns in this country. Some of those injuries and deaths are from mass shootings. Many more are from guns used in crimes and suicides. As a country, we need to admit that we have a gun problem and begin making the kinds of changes that can address it.

As a country, we need to admit that we have a gun problem and begin making the kinds of changes that can address it. And I strongly suspect those won't be little changes. Click To Tweet

And I strongly suspect those won’t be little changes. They will need to be big, sweeping changes. Things like outlawing some kinds of guns, creating real licensing programs based on everything from the kind of gun to the individual’s training and mental health status, red flag laws, and banning both open and concealed carry. 

Yes, that will inconvenience some people. And yes, it will feel to some people like their rights are being taken away. But, in reality, it will simply be a reassertion of the second amendment’s own words. Gun ownership and use will be well regulated. And that will mean that our children — and all of our friends and neighbors — are safer.

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