Rise of the Plutocrat, chapter 1: Influence peddling

Arthur Levitt states it as baldly as possible:

I would hate to imagine what would happen if we applied the same kind of sliding scale to the many people who have received job offers by way of their familial relationships. If that happened, there aren’t many people in finance who would escape the accusation that their hiring was the byproduct of influence peddling.

Oh, the horror.

While one may sympathize with the overall thrust, the essay nonetheless presents a basic defense of hiring within one’s social class. This is deeply anti-meritocratic, as he notes

Lines on a résumé can’t substitute for certain qualities.

That would be contacts.

The overall point is this is one more story about the rise of the plutocrats (aka the One Percent). With the rise of great wealth, the earlier standards of meritocracy get pushed aside. Essays like this knowingly or not, are about the raising of the ladder.

God the Stranger?

John Suk bravely explores what a  post-theistic stance looks like.

the contemporary approach to the question of who God is and what God does that is most interesting is Richard Kearney’s, as described in his book, Anatheism: Returning to God after God. Kearney describes God using the metaphor of stranger.
 God is a stranger. God is so, in part, because the portrait of God that emerges in scripture is deeply coloured by a billowing sea of unknowing that the authors of scripture swim in.
 So God is a stranger. And this, for me, is what post-theism is all about—finding a way to accommodate not the tried and untrue God of the status-quo, but to find the stranger, who may even give life.

Suk is obviously moving into some deeply personal waters, a way of knowing but not knowing as it were. As with all pilgrims, the language must be his; it is not language that one disputes.

But this business about “God as stranger” did catch my ear as another pilgrim. Leaving behind the ordinary narratives of the status quo is unsettling to say the least, not least because one must surrender in order to find. In the midst of this seeking, perhaps some caution on the meme of God as stranger is in order.

First, there is the nature of that very word, “stranger.” Already at the outset we are in world of us and Him, Our Angel of the Jabbok so to speak. Sneaking into that concept is the hint of self, that I still get to define God, even if God is a stranger, or an empty place at my table. I’m still (subtly) in charge.

Of course, to say God is a stranger is also to say that God is a stranger in the world I experience, that the world can’t speak.

Is that really the case?

Abraham Heschel in Man is Not Alone starts with this world, and more specifically our sense of wonder. The world contains a surplus of meaning; things inevitably point to something other. And off in the corner of our eye, are these experiences of the indescribable, the ineffable. Wonder. This certainly is a  sunnier way of encountering the Unknown.

Another challenge to the stranger is  the idea of forgiveness/hope. How do we start over again, what we do “the day after”? As with the wonder that rises from the surplus of meaning in the world, is there a surplus of possibility for my life? For our life together? Can we do something different? The possibility of transformation is every bit as strange as that of the unknown God.

What I suspect Suk is reaching to is not an epistemological stance, nor an ethical one, but something more intimate. To speak of God as stranger is to whisper another, softer prayer, not that we may find, but that we may be found, and that being found  we may find ourselves beloved.

On orthodoxy and community

Rod Dreher is concerned about the relationship between orthodoxy and the current emphasis on community within the church in  Christianity without Orthodoxy, in doing so he perhaps has two questions in mind.

First, there is the matter of practice,

How do you decide right from wrong on a controversial church teaching? . . . How do you determine that now is the time for you to stay when a divisive issue comes up in the church community, or when the line has been breached, and your understanding of truth requires you to leave on principle?

In his southern context, the question of race (and Jim Crow) lurk right below the surface, if that. And then there is a second, not-quite-the-same question, one certainly more global in nature:

We are so accustomed in our culture to not applying reason to religious experience, to only thinking of it in terms of emotional resonance, that to draw those lines seems somehow, well, un-Christian to many. How any religion survives the loss of a sense of the need for orthodoxy, I don’t know.

Both questions are rather protestant in nature, the former being the classic practice flowing from conviction (typically biblical). The latter one would appear to imagine the existence of a common orthodoxy, expressed across very diverse traditions. A fundamentalism, if you will (we differ but we all believe the same core truths). A more honest approach may be to acknowledge that what the Eastern church means by “orthodoxy” is not the same as what Rome means, let alone what an Evangelical may believe. This would be a functional definition of orthodoxy rather than a specifically theological one.

Of course, Dreher could be thinking of the more specific and normative meaning of orthodoxy as that practiced by the Eastern church (aka the Orthodox Church).

As to the relationship of orthodoxy and community, the relationship is surely dialectic. Orthodoxy explains what the community is about, it interprets the historical experience with God. The shape of the community  expresses some convictional norm, an orthodoxy at least of culture if not of theology/ideology. These convictions may be expressed explicitly in statements, and more often or in parallel, by narratives — the stories we tell about where we have come and how we got here.

In similar fashion, the practice of the community reflects or exegetes the convictions of the community. Hence the charges of dead orthodoxy or of hypocrisy when the practice of community appears at variance with the statements of formal orthodoxy or belief. What we state we believe exists as a hypothesis to be demonstrated in how we live. Practice and conviction walk together.

Where are they anyway?

With the Supreme Court decision, same-sex marriage is rapidly institutionalizing, at least in Blue America. The shift has not only dismayed traditional and religious conservatives, but challenged them as to how they should response, and particularly, how exemptions might be carved out.  Rachel Zoll at AP captures the current state of affairs well.

While commending her report, Terry Mattingly at Get Religion asks an interesting question,

Where are the views of religious liberals in this story? Where are the leaders of the denominations that actively favor same-sex marriage and what they view as the modernization of both ancient religious doctrines and the nation’s approach to the First Amendment? This is not, trust me, just a debate between religious people and secular people.

So the camp of the “orthodox” made it into this story. Where are the believers in the camp of the “progressives”? What are they saying about these religious-liberty cases?

Perhaps the simplest answer is that while religious liberals may have an opinion they are not speaking out. There’s little to report because there’s little actually being said. This is in contrast to the last moment in the culture war turning on the same theme of religious liberty, that of contraception. Then, leaders in the mainline did speak out.

By contrast, in the campaign for same sex marriage in New York, the religious left was not part of the reported lobbying. Where the religious community has come together to lobby for same sex marriage in Massachusetts or Illinois it has been through the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, a largely Unitarian-Universalist led group.

The silence is notable: where are they? After all from internal battles in denominations, there are certainly any number of articulate voices on the pro- side. Shouldn’t we hear their view? This would be Mattingly’s view:

Some on the religious left SUPPORT the changes and have political and doctrinal reasons for doing so. The moral left is NOT all secular.

The silence however, probably lies elsewhere, away from an uncurious reporter. Two reasons suggest themselves.

First, there is the nature of the actual political battles. Much of the recent political heat has been around the question of exemptions. As Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, expressed it

same-sex couples should not, without very good reason, be allowed to force dissenting religious organizations to recognize or facilitate their marriages.

In terms of the conflict, “facilitation” is seen as encompassing a variety of services (photography, bakery, even a bed and breakfast). Behind the conflicts is the insistence on an individual’s personal conviction.  Theologically, it is grounded in a mild Calvinist understanding of the whole of life being religious — thus, even the civic arena, especially the civic arena can become a center for conflict. This viewpoint has also led to the extension of potential religious exemptions into previously neutral settings, e.g. the notion that a for-profit corporation may have a legitimate religious viewpoint. Given the religious liberals’ more communitarian focus and their role (still) as custodians of the establishment, these themes make the religious conservatives concerns less palatable.

Of course, the frank trafficking in fear by some on the Right also serves to delegitimize  conservative concerns. But there’s more than the usual politics at work here. The conservative push bumps into a second, far more significant issue: civil rights.

Within the religious left, gay rights are generally seen as an extension of civil rights, a natural outworking flowing from the same biblical injunctions as to the treatment of the neighbor. As a moral principle, it is an application, derivative of a broader issue. That derivative nature as much as anything reduces the moral valence of the objections. The issues are not central to the identity of the religious left.

The history with the civil rights movement adds another layer of reluctance. The exemptions that are sought in the name of “religious liberty” are  the very sort of practices with accommodations that the church had fought to overturn during the civil rights era.

Finally, it would be a mistake on the Right to think that the religious left is necessarily indifferent to religious liberty. If anything, it is this centrist tendency in the mainline that offers the real hope for pragmatic accommodation, or support should the worst fears begin to be realized.


Rust Belt Chic

Jordan Ballor highlighted an interesting article from Joel Kotkin in New Geography. The quote that caught Ballor’s attention is worth pondering:

“Instead of chasing hipsters, Cleveland urban strategist Richey Piiparinen suggests cities such as his rebuild their economies from the ground up, tapping the strong industrial skills, work ethic and resilient culture deeply embedded in the region. Large factories may not return en masse to Cleveland, Detroit or Chicago, but a strong industrial economy and a culture embracing hard work could stir growth in service-related fields as well.”

This was an interesting piece, given Kotkin’s greenfield, suburban tilt. Hipsters or new urbanists can’t save a community by themselves (the mistake of “Cool Cities”) but they can still play an important role in the revitalization of the city as a diverse community.  Creative, problem solving communities need a certain critical mass to thrive — this is the sociological and economic truth underlying Richard Florida’s work. Communities need to be sticky if they are to thrive.

Of course,  strong, diverse education opportunities are another important part for revival.

Kotkin’s piece also missed the sheer amount of intellectual property generated at the research universities — something that Longworth captured in Caught In The Middle. By most lights it has generally been under-monetized, generating incredible number of patents but falling behind on the development into community building businesses. The model for growth here would be that of Pittsburgh which oddly does sustain a “hipster” community (i.e. Kotkin’s animus blinds him to the realities).

The need to monetize IP through entrepreneurial activity pushes tax and economic policy in one direction in the state, while the need for stronger Community Colleges (the trade school) requires steps in another. Resolving this tension has been politically difficult to date — the elected Republican party has been adverse to these sorts of economic and educational investments — there is a rant here that will be left for some other day.

Where do we put our money?

While West Michigan is known for its charity, that work gets translated into very different outcomes. It’s the difference between Art Prize and the Kalamazoo Promise. Something is going on, but what? It certainly seems worth a study (well as long as some one else pays for it — a kind of irony in itself),  as MLive explains

Through GVSU’s Russell G. Mawby Fellowships in Philanthropic Studies, (Michelle) Miller-Adams will examine “why two similar communities have produced such different models of philanthropic behavior, and what are the implications of the different models for philanthropy and volunteerism in the broader communities,” according to the university.

As a first pass, several issues seem to come to the fore.

First, as a philanthropic community, the tenor and tone of the giving will be determined by the leaders. Here, the number of fortunes in question are actually fairly small: Upjohn, Stryker, the Amway nexus, Steelcase, and perhaps the Cook money. With such a small sample set, some of the variation may simply be that of the particular character of the families themselves.

Second, it may be the relative age of the money. The older fortunes (Upjohn, Steelcase) arose in a more communitarian framework; these are generally industrial fortunes, the fruit of great enterprises.  Newer money has grown from more entrepreneurial enterprises, Amway being the leading example. This latter money tends to support entities that reflect similar entrepreneurial, civic building enterprises, such as the Van Andel Institute.

Third, there is perhaps a religious element here, as well. The Grand Rapids fortunes — particularly those flowing from the Amway nexus, and from Meijer — are anchored in the Dutch-American culture. Both the Steelcase money and the Upjohn fortunes flow from more generally American backgrounds, grounded in mainline religion. (Interesting to note that the lumber baron Blodgett himself was something of a notorious doubter).

For those of us with far less exalted means, the questions still remain: what do we invest in, what projects capture our time, our resources?

What has been distinctive for both communities has been the creativity leaders have brought. When resources and creativity meet, good things can happen.

The danger of oops.

News comes that Ted Nugent’s wife was busted for carrying a concealed weapon in the airport. And why was the gun there?


But when it comes to guns, the question is more than a little oops.

The entire premise of concealed weapons is something of a  promise made to general society. That promise is one of responsibility. The advocates of CCW assert that they will be mindful — and most are — but then when one violates that mindfulness? That’s a problem. Society can tolerate mindful gun owners, but careless ones? They’re a danger.

It’s the oops that kills, as accidental gun deaths so sadly show.

HT: Eclectablog


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