Monday, March 30, 2009

The Recession as Sporting Event

It is almost a cliché right now to write a column about the difficult economic times. Everyone has done it. The news broadcasts and papers can hardly go a day without leading with some more grim news about unemployment, down turning markets, corporate bonuses, or federal deficits.

One sad thing about all this is that it begins to sound less real the more we hear it. Worse than that, by showing it on television, it becomes a kind of perverse entertainment for the majority of Americans who still have their jobs, houses, and SUVs. Oh, they may worry about keeping those things, and they may cut back on spending, but truthfully, a whole lot of people are not really hurting all that much and many will be able to weather this storm without too drastic a life style change. I just read a newspaper story about families struggling but also finding the money to send children out of state to summer camp. That’s not poverty but inconvenience, and it is dismissive of those who really are facing a financial or housing crisis.

When the children no longer have cell phones and the house cuts back to basic cable (or better yet, no cable), that’s when it starts to hit home. Yes, I know how embarrassingly wealthy that means we really are. But instead of counting our blessings, we grouse about the villains getting even more, with bonuses that seem to reward incompetence and companies being declared too important to fail while our neighbor is being put on the street.

Let us all declare a moratorium on the grousing, shall we? It is not helping your neighbor’s foreclosure situation or you brother’s job loss. Yes, we should be angry, and yes we should change the laws that made all of this almost inevitable. But we all should have remembered pharaoh’s dreams, handily interpreted by Joseph. The lean years are going to come from time to time, regardless of who we have to blame for them. We should get ready for them.

Credit card debt was never a good idea, except for short term emergencies. The stock market was never supposed to provide a quick investment return. Adjustable rate mortgages were a bad idea when they surfaced in the 1980s and they burned buyers then. Why did they look better now? And subprime loans were just irresponsible from the get-go, for both the lender and the buyer.

The Christian response to difficulty has always been to go out on a limb and place our trust in God. Yes, planning and saving for the future is a good idea. So is paying off debt. But so is giving of your time and money to help out those who really have been hurt by this economy. If you are not going out to the movies so much right now, you have a few hours to give to volunteering. A couple of extra cans will hardly break your food bill, but they can certainly keep someone else from starving. Many communities are rehabbing existing homes that have been foreclosed and making them available for lower income families; it’s cheaper and faster than building new ones, and greener too.

This is not “Go out and spend,” a sad leftover from the last administration. It is go out and help. Go out and make a difference. Go out and change someone else’s life, not just your own. Go out.

The temptation is to ride this out at home isolated from what is happening if we are able. That is exactly the wrong way to respond. The recession is not a spectator sport or a dark television comedy. What is happening to too many people is real, and if you are not one of them, don’t sit on the couch doing nothing. Get involved.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On Being Single

It sucks!

Oh, I know you are going to assume this is some endless bitching about not being able to find someone. You are wrong. I actually like living alone.

No, being single sucks because the world revolves around couples and does not see the challenges single people have. And now that we live in a nation that assumes two income families, it really sucks.

Why? Because my mortgage is not half of yours. My grocery shopping takes just as long, and I don't get a discount on a gallon of milk. Cleaning my house takes twice as long as when two people do it. I don't get to pass off cooking dinner (no, I don't just eat carry out or fast food all the time). I pay more taxes than you do for the same amount of money. When I finish mowing my lawn, I still have to do all the indoor work. I can't even bitch about the partner who isn't doing their share of the work.

And then of course there is the church. You know, that institution that really does not know what to do with single people (despite being headed by one!). Or young people. Or seniors. Or children. Wait! Who exactly does the church serve well? Oh, I suppose that's another column.

Show up somewhere without a partner and you completely throw off the plans for the evening. Go out to eat and you get stuck at the table by the kitchen or stared at by half the room.

So what actually started this rant? Yesterday, I heard a presentation about high deductible insurance programs with attached health savings accounts. The idea is that your employer pays money into the HSA with couples/families getting more money than singles because they will (presumably) have to pay more out. I'm fine with that. I think everyone should have access to health care, and sadly, in this country, that means insurance.

The problem comes with money that might accumulate if you are healthy. If you get to age 65 with money left over in your HSA, you get to spend it. Any way you like. On your boat or Fiji vacation. Now, put aside the notion of rewarding people for things that may not be in their control (which is still most of our health concerns). What this has the potential to mean is that the married employee can accumulate much more money than the single employee does. Put another way, married employees (potentially) get paid more than single employees for the same job.

Fortunately, at this time this does not look beneficial for my neck of the woods. Our current insurance plan is actually a bit cheaper. Thank God.

Someone will probably quote the workers in the vineyard to me. I don't think that's relevant because the real issue here is that our screwed up health care system just got even more screwy with this new idea.

If the word socialism wasn't brought up every time anyone speaks of needing a fundamental shift in the way we provide (or don't provide) health care in the country, we might actually be able to do it and stop paying twice as much as the rest of the world without the best results. So maybe that's what I'm really pissed off about.

We keep propping up an fundamentally unfair health care system out of fear of things that the New Testament actually commends to us (i.e. pooling our resources for the good of those who have need.) We're so sure it could only be horrible, and you hear stories of how bad it is in some countries. Funny how there are plenty of other countries with national health care that never get mentioned in those tirades. You know why? Because people generally like their health care in those countries (try most of Scandinavia, for example).

Yes, I know how families with children can say various systems discriminate against them in many ways. There are plenty of voices out there making that clear. And I like kids, so don't think this has anything to do with them. It took adults to create the various inequities we have developed in our culture.

But say a prayer for all those single people out there. And please don't pray that our lonely existence will be ended. Plenty of us are not feeling lonely. Pray that we don't lose our jobs because we don't have a second income to fall back on when times get tight. When that happens, our health insurance, if we have it, will disappear with the job, and let's face it: bad health care is better than no health insurance.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Random Thoughts

So, look, there are days when you just don't have deep theological thoughts, right? Well , this is one of those days for me. You've seen columns like this in the newspaper (Remember newspapers?). They occur when the columnist just doesn't have anything to talk about. So, random thoughts for the day:

1) You can cook a chicken in half the time if you a) cut out the backbone and lay it out flat, butterfly style (this takes literally a minute and can be done with kitchen shears, and b) preheat the oven to 450. salt & pepper are obvious and then you can choose (My favorite is garlic and rosemary). A five poound chicken will be done in 35 minutes, with nice crispy skin.

2) Snow makes everything look better except the streets you have to drive over.

3) The sixth Dr. Who is really annoying.

4) Listening to Creed a few years later shows you just how pretentious they really were.

5) Christians don't really embrace new ideas very well, do we?

6) Today marks 24 years of being a priest. Next year, we party, even if it is in Lent!

7) Facebook has made it possible for you to stalk people without trying. They tell you what they are doing!

8) By the end of Ash Wednesday, I had been exposed to mono, strep, the flu, that nasty sinus thing that is going around, and God only knows what else. Using fortified wine for communion must really work 'cause, so far, I have not gotten any of it!

9) What do you do with old cleaning fluids that you no longer wish to use because you are trying to go green (see last entry)? How do you throw them away?

10) Happy birthday, sis.

11) Why does two men or two women getting married threaten anybody else's marriage? I at least understand some of the other arguments, but I really don't get that one.

12) Do you realize that 60s rock is to current music as ragtime was to the 60s? Somehow, the Beatles have weathered better than Scott Joplin or the Charleston did. And the Stones just keep going in their wheelchairs....

13) With historically low interest rates, why is my credit card (currently no balance and paid off on time when there was one) raising my interest rate by 8% and upping my default rate to over 29%? That's absurd. I didn't make all those bad investments!

Okay, that's enough for now!