September 7, 2014

How Do I Hate the TREC Letter? Let Me Count the Ways.

When I learned of the latest communication from the Task Force for Reimagining the Church, I immediately planned to offer a comprehensive response to the “TREC Letter to the Church.” Then I read the letter. And I read it again. And I read what others were saying. And I concluded that my original plan would be a complete waste of time. Like the previous missives from this task force, the latest output is a pile of gobbledygook that hints of changes that, in my humble opinion, would be somewhere between counterproductive and disastrous.

TREC logo
So, this will not be a complete analysis of the TREC letter. Instead, I will try to offer some high-level criticism and raise objections I have not seen elsewhere.

Let me begin with a procedural concern. Ever since I read the “TREC Study Paper on Episcopal Networks,” I became concerned that the task force could not meet its November deadline for producing useful recommendations. I now have no doubt that the deadline will be met. And I have no doubt that the final report will be a disaster.

General Convention Resolution C095 required that TREC convene “a special gathering to receive responses to the proposed recommendations to be brought forward to the 78th General convention,.” That gathering will take place at Washington National Cathedral and on the World Wide Web on October 2. I assume that we now have all the work products of TREC we are going to have before that meeting. That, in itself, is scary. Scarier still is the fact that the task is convening its final meeting on October 3 and 4, with the intention of releasing its report by November 30. What if the work of the task force runs into a buzz saw, as seems possible, on October 2? It is a pretty fair guess that, even if the members of the task force want to, there simply will be no time to change the direction of the task force recommendation. The October 2 affair is a sham. There is time to pretty up the gobbledegook, but what we see on November 30 is going to look a lot like what we have seen already.

The task force might well have begun by building a picture of what it wants the future church to look like. Had it articulated such a vision early on, Episcopalians would have had a chance to either buy into the vision or to point the task force is a different direction. If the task force headed off in the wrong direction, a final course correction at the end of its journey is not going to land its recommendations at the right destination.

Rightly or wrongly, we can, infer the objectives of the task force from what it has written. It seeks a church that is less expensive to run, more authoritarian in its governance, less responsive to lay voices, indifferent to the needs of vast areas of the territory of the church, and which carries out its work of telling dioceses and parishes what to do using hired guns that can be hired and fired at will. This is not the church I signed on to.

A competent report for a group like TREC would:
  1. Articulate overall objectives against which its recommendations can be measured.
  2. Clearly identify each problem it intends to address.
  3. Analyze each problem and explain what the status quo is and how it contributes to the problem.
  4. Offer a plan to address the problem.
  5. Analyze advantages and disadvantages of the plan and how, on the whole, it ameliorates the problem and contributes to the overall goals.
Generally, TREC has not been clear about the problems it purports to be solving. Nor has it explained what improvements will be the product of the proffered solutions or how global objectives will be advanced.
Consider, for example, the idea of cutting the size of Executive Council and eliminating representatives from provinces. This will cut costs (good). It will make the group less representative (bad). It may or may not make Executive Council more efficient. Yes, it’s easier to make decisions in a smaller group—a group of one works best—but a larger Council brings greater diversity to the decision process and provides more bodies to carry on necessary committee work. Of course, if some of Executive Council’s responsibility is offloaded to, say, the Presiding Bishop, Executive Council will have less to do.

Consider now the job of the Presiding Bishop. If he or she becomes CEO with additional managerial responsibility—I’m uncertain about the lines of authority myself, and TREC has not clarified what the status quo is—should we be selecting Presiding Bishops for management expertise, rather than for spiritual gifts? It is unclear to me that we can find an adequate CEO and chief pastor in the same person. TREC says nothing about this concern.

Clearly, the office of Presiding Bishop has become more powerful as the church moved away from a bishop who simply convened the House of Bishops. If the Presiding Bishop has ultimate responsibility for both the spiritual and organizational health of The Episcopal Church, why is the office holder chosen only by bishops? Now, the House of Deputies merely rubber stamps the choice of the bishops. If we value a participatory church—it is unclear that democracy is a value of TREC—ordinary clergy and laypeople should have a real say in who becomes Presiding Bishop.

Perhaps what is most surprising are the problem that seem not to have come to the attention of TREC at all. Chief among these are
  1. The recent budget disasters in 2009 and 2012 (definitely not the fault of the General Convention)
  2. The failure to to discipline bishops in a timely fashion when it becomes clear that they are straying off the reservation
  3. The ambiguity, whether real or imagined, as to whether a diocese can leave the church (also, is the Dennis Canon strong enough?)
  4. The tendency of Presiding Bishops to attend meetings of the Anglican primates and leave the impression that they are in agreement with communiqués that are clearly hostile to The Episcopal Church
I could write an essay addressing each of these problems and more, but I leave that the the imagination of the reader.

Pray for our church. It surely needs your prayers.

Postscript. There is much commentary on the Web about the latest TREC letter. I do not intend to document it all here. My favorite essay so far is from the Rev. Tom Ferguson. I also have to mention Katie Sherrod’s post, coming as it does from another diocese that has experienced schism at the hands of a general church asleep at the switch. Read also what the Rev. Mark Harris has to say. The Lead has collected comments and links, including some I have recommended above. In any case, let your voice be heard before it is too late.

September 4, 2014

A Thought about Corporate Taxation

Let me begin by admitting that our system of corporate taxation is out of whack. It is not clear that corporations should be taxed at all. Our system taxes productivity and distorts the evaluation of costs and rewards. And it results in huge expenditures devoted to tax avoidance. Despite the notion that corporations are “people,” they are certainly not natural people who can enjoy profits. Only natural people—think stockholders—can ultimately enjoy the fruits of corporate earnings. It would make infinitely more sense than our present taxation method to drop corporate taxes and to tax all income at the same rate.

That said, it must be admitted that, in the current climate, major changes to the U.S. tax system—in anything important, actually—are impossible. Until the Republican Party regains its sanity or is destroyed—the latter eventuality seems preferable—we can make changes to our system of taxation only at the edges.

This brings me to the real subject of this post, but I want to begin with a disclaimer. I am not an economist, tax expert, or even a business person. I can, however, think logically. I’m sure that what I am about to propose would, in practice, have to be more complex than I can possibly imagine. I leave the pragmatic details to others.

There are untold billions of dollars, perhaps even trillions of dollars, being held by U.S. corporations overseas. The government would like this money to be repatriated, so it could be taxed. That is not happening because the corporations do not want to pay the 35% corporate tax on the money. Of course, these corporations virtually never pay the nominal rate, but, in any case, they would like to bring the money to the U.S., where it could be paid to stockholders, and pay as little tax as possible.

There are legislators who would like the government to allow corporate money held overseas to be brought to the U.S. and taxed at a rate lower than 35%, probably much lower (e.g., 3%). From one point of view, this looks like a win-win situation. From another point of view, it looks like a major corporate giveaway.

Those carrying water for corporate giants argue that corporations need an incentive to bring money into the U.S. I agree, but lowering the tax rate so that the government gets only a pittance out of the deal is not the only mechanism for providing incentive.

Here is another incentive idea: Increase the tax rate on monies brought into the country to, say 45%, beginning in perhaps six months. If corporations transfer the money to the U.S. promptly, the corporations would lose nothing—they wouldn’t gain anything, either—and the government would get the taxes to which it is morally entitled.


Random Language Notes

I’ve been accumulating several language issues I’ve wanted to write about, and I thought I’d just deal with all of them in one post.

Sewage/Sewerage

My suspicion is that most people use sewage and may not even know sewerage. They may even think the latter term to be made up or a mispronunciation. As it happens, however, both terms originated around 1830. Sewage is waste carried through a system of pipes for disposal. Sewerage can mean the same thing. (That’s the confusing thing about these two words.) More commonly, however, sewerage refers either to the sewer infrastructure or the process of removing waste via such an infrastructure.

I grew up in New Orleans, where sewers were the responsibility of the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, so, probably unlike most people, I learned sewerage before I learned sewage.

Dissociate/Disassociate

Both dissociate and disassociate are old words, having been invented around Shakespeare’s time. Again, people may know one term and not the other and think that the unfamiliar word is wrong. In practice, the terms are pretty much synonymous.

Probably because I am influenced by the use of the term dissociation in chemistry, to dissociate for me suggests splitting a union into more or less equal parts, whereas to disassociate suggests one part splitting from a larger body. (The partners decided to dissociate. Roger concluded that he had to disassociate from his club.) Others may be influenced in their choice of words by the psychological concept of dissociation. I’m not really sure how that idea affects one’s perception of the distinction, if any, between dissociate and disassociate.

Social

In a currently running NPR underwriting announcement, social is being used to mean social media. I find this jarring, and I had to hear the announcement several times before convincing myself that I had understood it correctly.

I can think of a several instances where people have taken a multi-word substantive and dropped all but the first word. Microwave oven has universally become simply microwave. Less commonly, transistor radio was shortened to transistor. In some contexts, Social Security number (or Social Security account number, SSAN) has become social. In a related transformation, long-playing record has simply become LP.

Some of these contractions work better than others. Microwave, I think, works well because hardly anyone has occasion to refer to one microwave and because references to objects such as a microwave cavity are confined to highly technical contexts.

I have always been upset by transistor to mean transistor radio. I had a clear idea in my own mind of what a transistor was and knew that many devices other than small radios used them. I therefore found the shortened term confusing and imprecise. Others may not have been bothered in the same way I was.

I do strongly object to social as a noun standing in for a longer phrase. Too many commonly used terms begin with social: social graces, social disease, social science, social work, social contract, social climber, etc. Moreover, social already has a meaning; a social is a kind of gathering or party. Perhaps this usage began as a nineteenth-century phrase, but, if so, I don’t know what that phrase might have been. The most common use of social as a noun today is likely in the phrase ice cream social. Perhaps we should just call that an ice cream.

Update, 9/5/2014. I heard the NPR underwriting announcement again today and realized it was for Constant Contact. One of the links on the home page of the company is labeled SOCIAL. The page linked to is about social campaigns, which, of course, use social media. If Constant Contact is using social to mean social campaigns, the usage is even stranger than I thought.

September 1, 2014

Thoughts on the Future of Israel

I was driving home from Geneva, New York, today and heard an episode of the radio program “Democracy Now!” a public radio program I had never heard before. Today’s program featured an interview with long-time Jewish leader Henry Siegman, a critic of Israel’s policies regarding Palestinian. (The interview can be seen or read here.)

Flag of Israel
Siegman offered much to think about, but what I found most interesting were his thoughts on the future of Israel. Siegman argued that Israel’s present government has no real interest in a two-state solution—it want all of Palestine. He asserted that Israeli settlements make that outcome nearly inevitable. Only two developments can derail that inevitability.

First, the U.S. could cut off financial and moral support for Israel. Our “special relationship,” he said, is based on common values, but, as things now stand, we are complicit in the “oppression and permanent disenfranchisement of an entire people.” At some point, America could say enough is enough and tell Israel that it is on its own. Of course, Israel cannot survive without American aid.

As much as I would like to see the U.S. cut Israel loose (or demand the complete dismantlement of all Jewish settlements intended to create facts on the ground), I am not going to hold my breath waiting for this to happen. The Israel lobby, after all, is even more powerful that the NRA. It owns Congress.

Siegman’s second possibility is a lot more interesting. Let the Palestinians surrender. Let them declare that Israel has won and can have all of Palestine. Then begin a civil-rights campaign demanding equal treatment by the Israeli government. (Siegman cautions that this move must be sincere, and the campaign must be non-violent.) Israelis will not stand for a democratic state that is no longer a Jewish one and will be forced to carve out a state for the Palestinians. (Or, better still, in my opinion, will be forced to dismantle the thinly disguised theocracy for a secular state.)

One more thought (this is my own): It is often said that Israel is our staunchest ally in the Middle East. Alas, Israel is also the reason we need such an ally.

Continuing a Labor Day Tradition

In 2011, I wrote a poem titled “Labor Day Lament, 2011.” Alas, the poem seems as relevant today as it did three years ago. This year, however, the American people have suffered yet another indignity at the hands of our corporate overlords, as Burger King moves to Canada to avoid U.S. taxes.

Today, I heard a report on the radio about another technique being used to rob American workers of their dignity and a decent wage. Apparently, in the restaurant industry, software is predicting the probable volume of customers minute by minute. Because of this, a server, rather than being hired for a reasonable shift, might be hired for 7:54 AM to 9:30 AM, then from 11:23 AM to 12:58 PM. It is easy to think that Adam Smith’s invisible hand is increasingly at the neck of American workers.

If the workers of America ever wake up and unite, things may get ugly. Anyway, my 2011 poem is below. It is also on my Web site, where it appears with an explanation of its construction and some of its references.

Labor Day Lament, 2011
by Lionel E. Deimel


With bosses making millions,
And millions unemployed,
Hapless workers, by the millions,
Have seen their dreams destroyed.

America the beautiful,
America the strong,
New order of the ages,
Where oh where did you go wrong?

We look for Christian charity,
For pity toward the poor;
We find instead indifference
And the rich demanding more.

Pollution from their smokestacks
The breath of infants robs;
They say that regulations
Will only kill our jobs.

America the beautiful,
America the strong,
New order of the ages,
Where oh where did you go wrong?

Our politicians ponder
How to fool the average Joe
Into thinking every problem
Can be solved by saying “no.”

For wrecking our prosperity,
No bankers went to jail;
They’d rather crush the middle class
Than let a big bank fail.

America the beautiful,
America the strong,
New order of the ages,
Where oh where did you go wrong?

Corporations are just people
In somewhat different guise,
So judges gave them license
To feed us all their lies.

The unions are retreating;
Their time, it’s said, is gone;
Amidst our countless troubles,
Tell me, which side are you on?

America the beautiful,
America the strong,
New order of the ages,
Where oh where did you go wrong?


1956 Labor Day stamp

August 28, 2014

Would Less Representation Be More Representative?

There has been much commentary lately about how legislative districts have become less competitive. Districts have been gerrymandered to be more Democratic or, more frequently, more Republican. One party becomes unbeatable in these districts and, because of the primary system, the more passionate (and radical) party faithful tend to select people who go on to win the general election. The resulting legislators, secure in their seats and holding fringe views, resist compromise and paralyze the legislative process. If there are enough such legislators, they can pass crazy laws. This state of affairs is exacerbated by the tendency of people to sort themselves geographically, making it difficult to create diverse districts even through nonpartisan redistricting.

Less remarked upon but at least as distressing is the tendency of local school boards in homogeneous districts to make decisions based on philosophy or religion, rather than on science or the informed opinion of professional educators.

Is democracy failing America?

Perhaps part of the problem is that the House of Representatives and similar bodies at the state and local level have too many members, i.e., because there are too many districts. If the House were half the size, for examples, districts in the states would have to be twice as big. The obvious objection to this is that individuals would have less of a voice in government. On the positive side, however, larger districts would likely encompass a more diverse constituency, resulting in more competitive races and, one might hope, more centrist legislators interested in governing, rather than in flauting their ideological purity.

The benefits of having larger school districts could manifest themselves even more quickly than the benefits of larger legislative districts. Pennsylvania has 500 school districts, which is widely seen as too many. There are some very fine school districts, but many are small, insular, and are funded largely by the underclass. Larger districts could offer more diverse and better funded school boards.

So, would less representation be more representative of Americans generally? Could be.

August 27, 2014

Flags in Church

I read a piece by Mark Sandlin this morning, the title of which was “10 MORE Things Churches Can’t Do While Following Jesus.” Number 2 on the list was the following:
2) Place a U.S. Flag in the sanctuary.

For me, this one is unbelievably straightforward.

Sanctuary space is meant for signs, symbols and experiences which point us toward God.

A flag points us toward a government.

A government is not a god – at least, it’s not supposed to be.

Worse yet, a flag displayed in a space of worship seems to indicate a sense of “chosenness,” “specialness” – basically good old fashioned American exceptionalism.

But, God loves us all equally.

A flag in the sanctuary suggests that God loves some nations more than others.

And, that actually points us away from God.

Get the flag out of the sanctuary.

Put it on your truck, wear it on a shirt or hang it in your yard – but, unless you are going to display the flag of every nation on Earth in your sanctuary, you are creating a worship space that points away from God.

Make it go bye-bye.
U.S. flagThe idea of banning U.S. flags from our worship spaces is not a new idea. Some prominent Episcopalians have advocated this. Anyone who is a student of American history and who pays attention to current events recognizes that there are dangers in conflating Christianity and nationalism. That said, I think the case against having an American flag in church—in an Episcopal church certainly—is weaker than Sandlin suggests.

To begin with, I dispute the assertion that the flag “points us toward a government,” at least as “government” is understand in most of the world. Whatever the deficiencies of our Pledge of Allegiance—see my essay “The Pledge of Allegiance Revisited”—it is on the mark in stressing allegiance “to the Republic for which it [the flag] stands.” Oaths taken by public servants (e.g., the President and members of the military) are clearer on this point, stressing faithfulness to the Constitution, which is more of an abstraction that would be a pledge to, say, the Obama administration. Although our Constitution is decidedly not a “Christian” document, it is not difficult to see it embodying an aspiration for “justice and peace among all people and respect [for] the dignity of every human being.” Moreover, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of religious bodies from government interference, a principle worth celebrating. These are ideals symbolized by the flag.

The stronger case for the flag in church, however, hinges on the nature of Anglicanism. At its best, Anglicanism does not identify church with state, but it acknowledges that church polity, ethics, and practice are not universals, but are best tailored to the society in which the church ministers. One hopes that the fundamental Good News preached in The Episcopal Church is the same as that preached in the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion). The cause of Christ would not be served by translating The Episcopal Church to Nigeria or the Church of Nigeria to the United States, however. The protestations of our presiding bishop notwithstanding, The Episcopal Church is very much an American church.

The American flag in an Episcopal church, then, is not equating God and country. Instead, it is acknowledging the mission field outside the doors of the church.

Note. Minor edits were made to this post 9/18/2014.

August 22, 2014

Words We Need (Maybe)

On several occasions recently, I have heard news people using the term “videotaping.” The word is more specific than simply “recording,” which might imply audio recording. Very little video recording is done on tape these days, however. I think we need new words for audio recording and video recording that do not refer to particular technologies.

Permit me to make some suggestions. (Alternatives are welcome.) Why not use “videcording” to mean recording video and “audicording” for recording only audio. (Usually, audio is recorded with video, though this is not necessarily the case. I don’t know how useful a word for recording only video would be, but security cameras usually do this.) Naturally, we would also have the words “videcord,” “videcorder,” etc.

A quick Web search uncovered words related to my proposed neologisms. I found a audio tape recorder whose model name was Audicord 23 (see here):


References to “videcord” are more confusing. It appears to be the name of a defunct UK company. “Videcord” also appears on a Web page of Textronix, Inc. I have no idea what it is referring to.

Home at the DFMS

In my post “Missing Episcopal Words,” I noted that the URLs http://episcopalchurch.org and http://dfms.org take the visitor to the same place. The latter URL is easy to remember and short, so I used it frequently. That was seven years ago, however, and the two URLs are no longer interchangeable. The URL http://dfms.org (or http://www.dfms.org) takes the visitor to a page named “Home,” which looks like this (click on image for a larger view):


DFMS home page

What, exactly, is the point of this page, particularly since “www.eiscopalchurch.org” is not actually a link? Wouldn’t it be more user-friendly simply to redirect to http://episcopalchurch.org? If the page is meant to discourage the use of the dfms.org domain, it would at least be thoughtful to provide a real link the the Episcopal Church home page (not, as the text asserts, to the actual Episcopal Church). Moreover, the social media links at the left make no sense. And why is the page named “Home”?

Who is responsible for this idiotic page?

August 13, 2014

Does Facebook Drive You Crazy?

Facebook logo
Despite some initial reticence, I have become a regular user of Facebook. I wouldn’t say I love Facebook, but it is useful.

I post on my own page, of course, but also on institutional pages such as that of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP) and the No Anglican Covenant Coalition. I also post on group pages (e.g, that of Pittsburgh Episcopal Cursillo) and institutional pages for which I am not an editor (e.g, that of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh). I post from my computer, my tablet, and my mobile phone. I mostly post directly to a Facebook page, but I sometimes click on a Facebook icon found on a non-Facebook page (e.g., on my own blog) to write a post. Many of my posts are of pictures or links to other material on the Web. I also post comments, some of which may also be pictures or links.

What drives me crazy is that making a post or comment works differently depending on platform, page, and my status with regard to that page. Moreover, the behavior of Facebook in any context keeps changing.

I don’t have the time or patience to catalog all the differences encountered when posting to Facebook, but I’ll note a few:

  • When I enter a URL, a picture from the referenced page, a title, and text from the page usually show up. But sometimes not.
  • When the  information above shows up on a page such as that of PEP, I can change the picture. On my own page, I cannot change the picture.
  • When I use a URL in a comment, information from the referenced page does not display. When I publish the comment, however, it does. I cannot change it, only delete it.
  • When I enter a URL in my mobile Facebook app, only the URL is shown. The post contains no picture, title, or text.
  • (This one sent me over the edge today.) I wanted to post a link to an event on the PEP page on the page of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. When I entered the link, the date and event information, including link, was displayed. When I published the post, the date, information, and link disappeared. The post gave no direct way to reach the PEP event post. Moreover, I could neither edit the post nor delete it.
I realize that not everyone encounters these frustrations, simply because people mostly post on their own Facebook pages, but does the inconsistencies of Facebook drive you crazy?