The Wicked Servant



Scripture tell us:

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.      

 At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.  But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him.

‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart. Matthew 18:23-35

The numbers tell us:

2.98 Trillion: number of dollars provided by the US Treasury through TARP and by the Federal Reserve to stabilize  Wall Street Banks.  (Wall Street Journal)

1.45 Trillion: number of dollars American corporations are sitting on and not investing. (Forbes)

1.2 Trillion: number of dollars the Federal Reserve provided Wall Street Banks in emergency loans through 2011. (Bloomberg)

942 Million: Total compensation paid to the top 56 executives of the 9 major banks receiving TARP funding in 2007. (CNN Money)

12.8 Million:  Average pay of top bank CEOs in 2011.  (Huffington Post)

8 Million:  Lowest CEO pay in 2012 out of the top 5 banks.  (Forbes)

0: Number of senior financial officers prosecuted for criminal activity related to the housing and stock market crashes since 2007. (Truth Out)

18: Number of years of accumulated wealth (1992-2010) wiped out for American families between 2007-2010. (New York Times)

59.1 thousand: Decline (40%) in median household wealth from 2007 to 2010. (New York Times)

2.2 million: number of homes  (out of 16 million households underwater) refinanced through 2012 by banks under the Home Affordable Refinance Program HARP.  (CBS News)

7.5 million: number of jobs lost in the Great Recession. (ABC News)

19.2 million: number of  home foreclosures since 2007.  (Realty Trac Inc.)

17 Trillion: Amount of wealth lost by American households during the Great Recession (AP)

Since 2007 the American financial industry has received trillions of dollars in government bailouts while presiding over the loss of trillions of dollars in American wealth, millions of American jobs and  the foreclosure of almost 20 million American homes.  


So who’s the wicked servant in American society today? 

And isn’t it time for their masters – We the People, to hold our errant servants accountable for their failure to extend to their debtors the same mercy that We the People extended to them?   

Perhaps the titans of finance have survived unscathed and will remain unaccountable for their actions precipitating the Great Recession. But perhaps, during this Lenten season, these same titans of finance should keep in mine the statement in Matthew coming shortly after the parable of the Wicked Servant:

“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24

Note to Wall Street Titans: Eat healthy.  Exercise.  Get plenty of rest.  Given your actions the last few years, I wouldn’t be in any hurry to get to the next life if I were you.



Happy Mothers Day, American Moms!

Once again it is time for us, individually and as a society, to pay honor to the 82.5 million women out there who have done their biological part to part to perpetuate the species (and, particularly, the American portion of said species.)  Mothers around the country will be awakened Sunday morning to breakfast in bed, taken out to sumptuous buffets, received heartfelt cards and be showered with lavish presents.

(That the breakfast will most likely be burned and spilled, the buffet overcrowded and out of shrimp, the card the result of at least 30 intense seconds spent perusing the best schmaltz the Hallmark people could mass produce and the presents handmade by seven year olds with limited manual dexterity, of course, only makes the day all the more personal and sweet.)

Yes, we Americans really know how to show old Mom (note: mom’s do not like to be called old)  just how much we really, truly and deeply care about them.  That’s why America  ranks (big foam finger ready, patriots?) 42nd in maternal mortality rates! Thanks to our concerted effort we have fewer moms dying to become moms than in 130 other countries!   (So what if American moms have a 10 times greater risk of dying than Irish moms do?  DO the Irish take their mom’s to Home Town Buffet?  So there.)

Who cares if the latest Save The Children survey found that the US comes in 28th in the list of best countries to be a mother in, behind the likes of former Eastern European Communist states Latvia and Slovenia ?  Do the Slovenian kids give their moms T-shirts with family pictures on them?

And so what if the United States is one of the only countries in the world (along with Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea plus the Aussies and the Kiwis) that doesn’t provide guaranteed paid maternity leave to new mothers?  It’s not all of our responsibilities to pay goldbricking women for being careless or foolish enough to get pregnant and produce the next generation, after all.  Yeah, the Swedes may give their moms up to 450 paid maternity days but do they give them Hallmark cards with cute kittens on them?  Written in English?  I think not.

Yes, moms, we love you so much it hurts. Of course, the hurt is yours, not ours. Yours and your babies.  We seem to let a lot of them die, too.

They say you put your money where you’re mouth. Well, there  is no day of the year that allows us as a nation to more clearly declare just how we feel than on Mothers Day.   So take the $126.90 we’ll spend on average on you moms out there  in lieu of universal pre and postnatal care and guaranteed paid maternity leave. Take it  with a mother’s smile.  Then get back to work Monday  because your not being paid to have kids, you know.  Oh, and next time you do have a kid, American moms, try not to die doing it. Okay?

You’re making the rest of us look bad.

In Nobody We Trust

This week’s Pew Research poll showing public satisfaction and trust with government are at all time lows should come as no surprise to anyone.   The American People’s  trust in their  government has been declining since JFK was blown away in Dallas .  As the chart above shows, one assassination, Vietnam War,  Nixon Watergate Scandal and a decade of 1970s Stagflation later public trust had plummeted from  near eighty percent  to the low twenties. Reagan restored some degree of trust, Bush I lost it, Clinton restored some then Bush II lost it.  (Note to Americans: Next time a guy named “Bush” is on the ballot, vote the other way.)

Two things have been driving this trust-deficit:  recurring  business cycles and increasing middle class anxiety.  While the public vents its frustration with the vagaries of their standard of living on Congress and government in genra, the   real  problems confronting America’s faith in its government (and, therefore itself) are far more systemic.  Which means, whatever the November midterm elections is going to have precious little impact on American’s trust in their government, no matter the outcome.

Look at the trust poll above.  Now look at the graph below with the  last 30 years with a rough overlay of economic recessions.

Trust in government always plummets with an economic downturn, as during the recessions of the early 1970s,  late 70s & early 80s, early 90s and today.  Then,  as recovery sets in, trust goes back up.  The Reagan boom saw trust go back up to a ten year high; the Clinton boom sent it even higher.  Americans seem to see the world through the narrow prism of their own pocketbooks.  (And, yes,  we ARE that simple and shallow.)  So, when times are good we trust government.  When they’re not we want to burn it to the ground.

The only other thing that spikes and depresses trust are major foreign policy events such as the 1st Gulf War and 9/11 (spike up) and the protracted Vietnam and Iraqi wars (trust down.)  How many congressmen are or are not reelected really has no impact on any of this.   Barring a major attack on America any time soon, the only thing that will bring a sustained return to trust will be economic recovery.

The second factor in all of this is the simple fact that, since the late 1960s, getting and staying in the broad middle class has become a progressively more tenuous proposition for an increasing number of people.  The pillars of the middle class have been growing incomes, secure home ownership, access to affordable healthcare and education and the promise of retirement.  All of these have come under growing pressure for the last generation.  This has made the middle class antsy.  Antsy people trust less.

Between the Second World War and the early 1970s the standard of living doubled in a generation.  It now takes 3 generations to replicate the gain.  Most Americans are living much better than in 1960or 1970–but it’s taking longer to see the gains of children over their parents.  Political Scientists call this “relative expectation,” the problem of people expecting improvement faster than government can provide it.  This leads, again, to middle class antsiness—like blue-collar support for George Wallace’s rebellion against “big government liberals.” (Read “government helping the poor and people of color and not blue collar whites who were starting to lose jobs not to affirmative action but to globalization.  Those textile jobs disappearing in the Southern US weren’t going to Watts or Harlem, they were going to Japan and Hong Kong.  Now they’re going to Vietnam and Bangladesh, exportation of low-end Chinese goods being SO early 21st century now.)

During really harsh economic times (like the Great Depression) relative expectation turns into “relative deprivation”—where the middle class, now desperate as it sees itself sliding back towards poverty, wants to find enemies to blame (and supports more radical political movements—aka fascist—that promise to restore the power of the Volk by making government more socially intrusive,  powerful—and authoritarian.) Thus the rise of the Fascists in the 1920s & 1930s.  We haven’t seen economies as bad as the 1930s in western democracies.  With each recession, though, more reactionary political movements form (e.g. the Wallace reaction to civil rights, the Militia movement reaction in the 1990s and even, one dare say, the Zonian reaction of this week, essentially criminalizing  being Hispanic while in the Grand Canyon State).

For most American households the Great Recession is far from over.  Even when it is in two or three years, most American households will probably find their buying power no greater than it was in 2007 which, adjusted for inflation, is not a whole lot better than it was in 1997 or even 1987.  Only this time Americans will not have an easy-credit gravy train to hitch on (those mortgages and credit cards becoming more elusive for the masses) which, in the long run, is a good thing. In the short run it’s going to hurt like hell.  And that means a prolonged visit by two really annoying relatives – Aunt Expectation and Uncle Deprivation.

So, for all of those who are hoping that a “Throw the Bums” out movement come November will make everything in America right as rain, lot’s of luck with that.  First, the bums rush ain’t gonna happen.  Congressional reelection rates have been averaging 90%-94% plus for several decades.  Even the 1994 Republican Revolution resulted in an incumbent defeat rate of less than 10%.  If, on the off chance, this November produces a changeover in the 10%-20% range (at the extreme – that’s 80 seats) it will hardly constitute a thorough housecleaning.

Second, even if we started over with a 100% new Congress (and imagine the fun with all those newbies on Capitol Hill—the lobbyists will think they’ve died and gone to paradise and their 77 legislative virgins) trust in government will not, Q.E.D., return.   Until the economy goes back up (meaning unemployment goes down and household economic security as measured by buying power and  mortgage viability goes up) trust stays low.  And until the middle class economic miracle of the 1940s-1950s get’s replicated again, trust never returns to the glory days of yesteryear.

Meanwhile, for those Progressives and Liberals hoping that things will tilt their way once the unpleasantness of the 2010 midterm is behind them, lot’s of luck with that, too.  The economic downturns of the 1970s & 1980s turned America from a center-left New Deal society to a Center-Right Reagan Revolution land.  Baring a quick turn around in the economy—or, worse, a further downturn—America becomes a plain old right society.   Which should give the GOP another grand decade or two of prominence before shifting demographics undercuts it.

Most pundits have fretted about the American left becoming like the European left.  They should be equally concerned if the decline in trust and middle class economic insecurity results in the American left becoming more like the European right.

Roasted Pork

Loyal reader LJdiver posted the following comment to my “Tea Partiers Unite” blog:

ljdiver Says: Here is the 2010 list of pork!

Consider your tax dollars well spent!

Intrigued, I followed the link.  According to the Citizens Against Government  Waste (America’s self-described #1 taxpayer watchdog) :

The Congressional Pig Book is CAGW’s annual compilation of the pork-barrel projects in the federal budget.  The 2010 Pig Book identified 9,129 projects at a cost of $16.5 billion in the 12 Appropriations Acts for fiscal 2009.  A “pork” project is a line-item in an appropriations bill that designates tax dollars for a specific purpose in circumvention of established budgetary procedures.  To qualify as pork, a project must meet one of seven criteria that were developed in 1991 by CAGW and the Congressional Porkbusters Coalition.

Now let’s see, the total Federal Budget for 2010 was $3.55 trillion .  That would make the pork percentage of the budget–lessee—divide $16.5 billion…carry the two…My gosh – how outrageous!  That means that–are you ready for this, outrage in hand–the percentage of pork in the Federal Budget is .0046478873 or, to round it , five-hundredths of one percent.  My Lord, if only we cut all that pork out we’d only have to find another trillion or two to balance the budget!

My point in all of this is not to justify government waste no matter how trivial it all amounts to in the big scheme of things.  Government can be more efficient, no doubt about it.  (As can Wall Street in handling what’s left of my 403(b) and me in handling my food to exercise ratio.)

I do have two beefs with the most vocal of the  anti-pork crowd, though.  First, given that, according to the CAGW figures,  my Nonfat milk has more fat in it that the Federal Budget  I’ve got to question why it’s worth spending so much time and effort on attacking government for the money it shouldn’t spend rather than attack it for not spending the money it does more effectively?  (Unless, of course, all these pork-attacks are a smoked pork screen to hide the real agenda of these “save the taxpayer” advocates which is to attack ALL government spending. In which case the argument being waged is purely ideological and not fiscal.)

Second, must one person’s pork is another person’s well-balanced meal.  I grabbed one of the CAWG’s “pork” items completely at random from the list. It’s $200,000 for:

KidsPeace, Altamonte Springs, KidsPeace Florida Therapeutic Foster Care Program (Juvenile Justice)

The earmark was sponsored by Florida Senator Bill Nelson.  Now, I can see where some might consider Therapeutic care for foster kids a big waste of time.  I mean, if anybody really cared about them they’d have real parents, wouldn’t they?  Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouse for they likes of them?

You get my drift.

So LJDiver, I can’t really say I consider this piece of pork to be necessarily badly spent.  As for the list as a whole I repeat, $16.9 billion in pork is something to think about cutting.  But slaughtering a piglet that small just ain’t gonna feed the whole Deficit family.

The Golden (Door) Rule

I scratched my head last week when San Diego County’s Board of Five  (or you may know them by one of their other handles like “The Gang That Couldn’t Say No To Back Country Development,”  “The Cast of That Seventies Show Minus The Ethnic Guy Now All Grown Up And Republican,” or their street name, “Cinco Blancos”) said a close “nyet” to  the Merry Merriam Quite Contrarian ( to existing density, traffic flow, environmental impact and fire safety plans) Mountain proposal.  I mean, what’s another 2,700 rural houses after the last three decades of wilderness-conquering expansion?

Sure, the Merriam Mountain project violated the General Plan.  Sure it raised the hackles of the local yokels who thought that rural meant rural and not suburban on its way to mid-city urban.  When has that mattered a pallet of building materials in theis county? So when the 3:2 thumbs down came down, bringing the Mountain down with it, you could have knocked me over with an 18kt Golden Door Charm available from the Golden Door Boutique (a steal for only $780).

So you can imagine my surprise when I read that it wasn’t the locals that brought down the mountain. It wasn’t the General Plan or safety concerns that kept them from paving paradise.  The tipping point in the debate was the fact that the spa of spas of the hoity and the toity, owned by the Blackstone Group, the equity company of equity companies for the wellest heeled of the wellest heeled (You know the Blackstone Group—the place retired Bushes go to get really, really rich and not the paltry rich being an oilman or President of the United States makes you?)  was in a snit about so many common rabble moving in within a shiatsu massage of their hallowed grounds.

Whodda thunk it?

So now local grannies can stitch samplers for all our kitchen walls with the new San Diego Golden (Door) Rule:  “Mega-Equity Money Does On To Smaller Developer Money as Smaller Developer Money does on to  Neighborhood Interests.”

And that, class, concludes our Easter Weekend Moral Philosophy Session.

Like Rick Steves—With Bombs

So I can now add another entry to my list of  “Places The Luna Family Has Been That Have Later Been Bombed.”  Some people pick up little shot glass or thimble souvenirs to commemorate their travels.  The Luna Family?  We bring back memories of future terrorist sites.

I’m not kidding.

Back in August of 1999 when we first arrived in Russia, the Von Luna Family, ready to sing and frolic their way through the hills of the former Soviet Heartland (note: there are almost no hills in the former Soviet Heartland),  landed in Moscow.  (Second note: Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow makes Buffalo International Airport look like the Ritz…). We spent the next day, before training 300 miles east to Nizhny Novgorod where I’d be lecturing for the next year, seeing some of the Moscow sights.  After walking all around Red Square we stopped off—me, the wife, four daughters and grandma—at the glitzy Manezh Mall at the foot of the Red Square  to get out of the heat and get something to eat.  We dined downstairs at the food court, having our first dinner—and only bad meal–of our stay at a little Russian takeout.  We finished eating and walked back to our hotel, the Belgrad, out on the Garden Ring Road.  Walking up the pedestrian shopping street, the Arbat, we heard all these sirens going off.  Reaching the Ring Road we saw dozens of official vehicles, lights flashing, going by.  We got back up into our rooms and turned on the TV.

A bomb had just exploded in downtown Moscow.  By the Kremlin.  In the Manezh Mall.  In the food court. It went off about twenty minutes after we had left.  The next time I was in the mall—about a month later—I could see from the repair work where the bomb had gone off—about twenty feet from where we’d been sitting.  While we were blissfully enjoying a bad meal an explosive device had been ticking down a few yards away.  The blast injured dozens of people.

I didn’t take it personally.  I didn’t think whomever placed the bomb was gunning for one lowly American community college professor and his family.  A radical anti-consumerist group claimed responsibility for the blast the next day, claiming they were protesting the corrupting influence of Western consumerism on the Russian spirit.  A few days later bigger bombs ripped through three apartment complexes in three Russian cities killing almost three hundred people.  The Yeltsin government blamed Chechen terrorists for the apartment bombings as well, belatedly, for the Moscow mall blast.  The second Chechen War had begun.

Since then we can put pins in “look what just blew up” map for both the March, 2004 Madrid train station (we were there summer 2000) and the 2005 Edgware  Road Tube Station bombing (we stayed in London about three blocks from the station during the summer of 2004, using it daily.)

Now I can add Monday’s  terrorist bombing at the Moscow Lubyanka metro station.  My daughter and I passed through the station several times in 1999/2000 during one of our many forays into Moscow that year.   Detsky Mir (Children’s World) Moscow’s premier department store for kids—a truly wondrous place—is just off the station.  So is the infamous Lubyanka—the KGB’s notorious headquarters into whose bowels thousands of prisoners disappeared ‘nere to be seen again.

(I always found that juxtaposition:  a wonderful children’s department store across the street from a heinous secret police headquarters to particularly apropos in underscoring the contradictions that  are Russia.  That and the way  the GUM Mall—the ultimate symbol of western capitalist consumerism—is reflected in the polished granite of Lenin’s tomb. Or the fact that, in Nizhny, there was a big prison directly across the street from the University I taught at. )

So, if your planning a trip any time soon you might want to run your itinerary by me to see if we Lunas have been there.  If we have, there seems to me more than an outside chance that it might blow up…

Give Thanks

As traditional as pumpkin and leak  pie and turkey with jalapeno nigiri stuffing  , I serve up to you, faithful City Beat readers, my annual Thanksgiving blog.  Bon Appétit and have a happy day.

It is time, once again, for the traditional National day of Thanksgiving, left to us by our Pilgrim forbears . Of course the Pilgrims were a branch of the English Puritan movement, violent revolutionaries who triumphed in the English Civil War of the 1640s, overthrew their king, cut of his head and, under their leader Oliver Cromwell, established history’s first modern military dictatorship. Well, no-one is perfect. (The Puritans, as you may also recall, were also big on authoritarian Democracy, meaning the community could chose its leaders but, once doing so, no-one had the right to dissent, for to dissent was to put oneself in Rebellion against the will of the community, which was a big no no — hence the Cromwell dictatorship. (I’m sure that little historical fact, even more than the turkey and pumpkin pie, makes the Puritan holiday all the more special for the Anne Coulters of America!)

Beyond such historical musings, of all our national days of celebration and solemnity this day stands out because it gives us all a moment to pause and consider the fact that none of us–even in this age of rugged individualist capitalism and ubermensch conservatism–are completely the masters of our own destiny. Each of us owes, in no small part, whatever we have to be thankful for to the divine provenance that guides us and to the community of our fellow men whom support us, without which we would be left to struggle alone as do the beasts of wood and glen.

There are numerous reasons for we as a nation to give thanks. There are, of course, Thanksgiving’s 3 F’s (family, food and football) and the big S (shopping!) to be thankful for. Now, purists, please, least you bemoan the commercialization of Thanksgiving, do know that, as a holiday, it only really took off once it became firmly associated by the rising retail department stores of turn of the 20th century America with Christmas shopping, so the After-Thanksgiving sale is legitimately just as much a part of the tradition as the Turkey and Pilgrims in funny buckle hats (which they never really wore – nor did they eat turkey—you want a traditional Thanksgiving slap Bambi on that platter–but enough icon popping.) There are worse things than living in a country with a McDonalds or Starbucks on every corner, and one of those is living in a country too poor to afford a McDonalds or Starbucks on any corner.

Here are a few other less jocular notions you might reflect on while cataloging your list of things to give thanks for over the past year:

If your child is not one of the ten million American children—almost one in five– living in poverty, give thanks. If you are one of America’s 2 million millionaires, give thanks. If you are one of America’s 228 billionaires, give a lot of thanks.

If you are not one of the 40 million Americans, including over two million with severe disabilities, who have no health insurance, give thanks. If you are one of the 45 million Americans still covered by a pension plan, give thanks.

If you were not one of the 50 million Americans downsized over the last twenty years, give thanks. If you are a CEO with an average compensation of over $10 million dollars–250 times the average pay of your corporate worker–give thanks. If your are part of the 30% of American workers able to save for future, give thanks. If you are not one of the 30% of American workers barely making enough to get by on, give thanks.

If you are one of the 50,000 families with estates large enough to have to pay federal estate taxes last year (only 2% of all estates) give thanks. Paying taxes on wealth beats all heck out of simply being poor. If you are in the top 5% households that own 59% of all our Nation’s wealth, give thanks. If you are in the top 1% of households that own almost 40% of our National wealth, just give a big old mess of thanks. You own 200 times as much as all of the people in the bottom 40% of households combined.

And, finally, if you are not one of the two million Americans in military uniform, or hundreds of thousands wearing a police badge or firefighting gear, give thanks for the valor and sense of duty of those who are.

  Last but not least, if by the end of the Obama administration I can deduct at least a few of these thankful items off the list,  then we can all give an extra helping of thanks.