Of Overreaching Concerns and Asset Allegation

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

What’s in a word?  That is an old question.  Often what is in the word may not be what the author intended.  The result can be humorous, and sometimes insightful.

Before retiring from the American Bankers Association, I became acquainted with a couple of examples where perhaps the wrong word presented an insightful meaning.  Listening to a seminar broadcast I heard the speaker explain the “overreaching concern” of his particular program.  Since the beginning of the Great Cessation and related lockdowns, I have heard many overreaching concerns expressed.  Perhaps we may learn from them.

On another occasion, in reference to money management, I became acquainted similarly by insightful accident with the term “asset allegation.”  I think that many a loan officer or bank examiner has had to come to terms with cases of asset allegation.

In 1775 the English playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan introduced us to Mrs. Malaprop, who delightfully uses words in unintended ways, at least unintended by whoever created the words.  His play, “The Rivals,” is a classic of English comedy.  In one example, Mrs. Malaprop, trying to convince her niece to give up on a young man of interest, expresses the wish that Lydia, the niece, would “illiterate him” from her memory.  In recent days, I think that we have all come across efforts by some to “illiterate” events from our historical memory.  Much to her happiness, Lydia ignored the advice.

Mrs. Malaprop, quite displeased with Lydia’s response, cautions her niece not to “extirpate” herself from the matter, explaining to the young girl that Malaprop has “proof controvertible” for her case.  Again, in recent days many have indeed been called upon to “extirpate” themselves or their ideas, prodded by noisy voices offering much “proof controvertible.”

In conversation, discussing what she considers proper education, Mrs. Malaprop recommends boarding school, where the student could obtain “a supercilious knowledge in accounts”.  I may admit that considering the CECL financial accounting rule, I have been tempted to wonder to what degree “a supercilious knowledge in accounts” might have had a role in its development.

I would also wonder, as I compare the variety of approaches across the globe to the current virus, whether some policymakers were subjected to Mrs. Malaprop’s advice that youth be “instructed in geometry” that they “might know something of the contagious countries”.

As a final reference, of many wonderful examples in the play, I would call upon Mrs. Malaprop’s advice that proper education of Lydia might lead the dear niece to “reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying.”  I have heard and read many things in recent days by many people and mused whether the time would arrive when these people would come to reprehend the true meaning of what they were saying.

In my days of Civil War reenacting I became familiar with the Union song, “Grafted Into the Army.”  Composed by Henry Clay Work, it pretends to be written in the words of a widow, immigrant to the United States, lamenting her son Jimmy being “grafted” into the army.  Military jargon can be difficult enough for those not in the army, even more so for someone arrived in a new society.  Jimmy’s mother does express pride in her son “Dressed up in his unicorn.”  Intended to provide lighthearted moments in a dark time, the song also tells of the widow mother complaining at “the captain’s fore-quarters” about her son being too young.  Many sons were too young, and too many did not return.  Mixed in the mirth is the sad message that Jimmy’s “brothers fell / Way down in Alabarmy.”

An anecdote from dining at a restaurant:  I had occasion to visit the restroom.  The following instruction, printed in large letters, was displayed prominently over the sink:  Employees must wash hands.  I waited there some minutes, pondering the appearance lately of many strange requirements, but at last I gained the courage to break the rule and washed my hands myself.

Of Children and Lockdowns

Photo by Thom Masat on Unsplash

In the heavy lockdown state in which I reside, the early stages of shutdown closed the outdoor playgrounds.  They closed the outdoor basketball courts.  To drive the point home that children were not welcome, the rims and nets were removed from the backboards—the worry must have been that some child might think of defying the governor’s orders.  I noticed at the time that golf courses remained open and were actively used, but I did not hear that many children frequented the fairways or the greens.

We all can agree that the lockdowns and closures of the Great Cessation are not pleasant.  There is a general wish that they would not have to happen.  There is a variety of views about how necessary this all has been.  I have not, though, heard anyone deny that children have been hurt the most.

Consider this partial catalog of harm to the children among us:

Education was abruptly interrupted.  Schools were closed.

  • In my major suburban county, government efforts to provide “virtual education” were repeatedly tried and failed and eventually abandoned.  The virtue remained elusive.
  • Education that requires group participation, such as music and arts, became unavailable.
  • Field trips were canceled. 
  • All school clubs’ and extracurricular activities—educationally valuable and greatly desired by children—ceased.
  • Personal belongings were quarantined in school lockers for months.
  • Public libraries were closed.
  • For the fall, the local governments repeatedly tried and failed, and eventually abandoned, efforts to reopen schools.  Children will be offered second class education at best.  That may work, to a limited degree, for well motivated children with consistent parental supervision.  Expect much less success for all the rest.

Social and recreational interaction was interrupted.

  • School sports were stopped, including practices, training, games, and facilities.  For many, that can include a whole year of skill development, performing, and advancement, a potential disaster for youth counting on a final year to demonstrate skills to help with college admissions.
  • School sponsored social events, such as dances, proms, plays, and other recreations were dropped.
  • School organized or sponsored service activities have been canceled.
  • Children were ordered to stay at home.  Enjoyment of friendships and development of camaraderie among peers were interrupted.  Usual exchanges with friends and neighbors, and the normal creative interactions, have been stifled.
  • The personal exposure to a variety of views and interests and backgrounds became limited.
  • Summer camps were closed and seasonal outings were taken off the table.
  • Recreational facilities were closed, including parks, sports venues, and pools.
  • Movie theaters and other entertainment offerings, such as concerts and spectator sports, became unavailable for warding off youthful ennui. 
  • Visits to extended family members declined.

Opportunities for character development have been curbed.

  • Churches were closed, including worship services, participation in sacred sacraments, associating in youth groups and instruction, joining in varieties of spiritual development activities, and involvement in service to the needy.
  • Similarly, the activities of service organizations are curbed, limiting youth participation and volunteer experiences.
  • Summer job opportunities became fewer, whether for wages or as summer internships.

Children’s health has been put at risk.

  • Regular doctor visits were for a time banned, and then later merely discouraged.
  • Routine treatments for chronic ailments were missed.
  • Vaccinations and other traditional child medical treatments have been skipped.
  • Dental visits were put off, as have been visits to the optometrist.
  • Medical attention has not been sought except for what was considered serious ailments or until they became serious ailments.
  • “Elective” procedures have been put off.

What do we offer the children in place of what has been closed to them?  As mentioned in this litany of childhood harm, local authorities ordered children to remain at home, but what kind of homes?  Not all children have the safe, comfortable, well provisioned and lovely homes we would wish or that officials envisioned.  Many habitations, rather than a haven and venue for learning, are without parental supervision, are dirty, uncomfortable, and unsafe, exposed to crime, drugs, and gang activity.  Children have looked to schools and other facilities, now closed to them by the lockdown, as places of refuge.  Lockdown policies can quarantine children into zones of hazard.

As summed up by a recent opinion piece from the American Institute for Economic Research, “Shockingly, it now appears that suicide rates among the young are on the increase, which is concerning since suicide is the leading cause of death for those under the age of 25.” (“CDC Has Become Centers for the Destruction of Childhood,” June 25, 2020)

What do we offer the children in place of what has been closed to them?

Children are the age group least vulnerable to the virus, the fewest to contract it, the quickest to heal, with by far the lowest mortality rate, and the tiniest record for contagion.  They have been covered in masks and fed on a daily feast of fear.  The irony is that the age group least affected by the virus is the group most deeply harmed by the lockdowns—against which they can do little to protect themselves.

Of Signs and Deception

It may seem immodest of me to point out how “insightful” was my posting, published at the very doorstep of the 2008 election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. I think I am in no danger, however, as the predictions were all too easy to make, the signs too clear then to justify special credit now. More significant, I believe, are how the lessons taught then apply as we enter another presidential election season. Give the greatest weight to what candidates do and what they have done, particularly when such evidence is distinctly at variance with what they say.

 

A well-known principle of propaganda is that if you are going to tell a lie, the bigger the lie the more believable it will be. Most people are so trusting that they do not want to believe in the enormity of a big lie. They do not want to believe that someone can intentionally say something appallingly false. Rather than disbelieve the liar, they will want to disbelieve the person who exposes the lie.

One of the biggest of lies is asserting something to be exactly the opposite of what it is. Such is the warmonger who claims to be the leading pacifist, the thief who claims to be the victim of theft—and accuses the real victim of being the criminal—or the bigoted radical who accuses opponents of intolerance.

In recent travels on the streets, roads, and highways I notice at this time of the year the beautiful Fall foliage—and the many political campaign signs. While for some there might be a distaste for seeing these, I feel to rejoice in the signs as evidence of a vigorous system of subjecting our political leaders to public vote.

Having said that, I do draw the line at the steady growth of the mega-yard and curb signs, the five-foot by eight-foot broadsides. So, already inclined to dislike such construction-size boards, I have been particularly disturbed to see what appears to be a planned series of Obama-Biden signs advocating policies that these two Washington insiders have long worked hard to oppose.

I have noticed three in this series. There may be others. The ones that I have seen show the names of the two candidates, followed by a motto reading something like, “Better Schools,” “Lower Taxes,” and “Energy Independence.”

If facts matter, and I believe that they still do (even if they are optional in the mass media), such messages on the signs of these two politicians should be jarring to the honest in heart. The political record of Obama and Biden are unequivocal on these three issues. They both have strongly and consistently opposed school reform, supporting doing more of the same old stuff that has been steadily undermining the quality of government-run schools since the 1960s.

Both have been leading advocates for raising taxes and opposing tax cuts. Even in the current campaign they advocate new tax hikes. They try to disguise their intentions with the assertion that their proposals supposedly would reduce taxes on 95% of Americans (including the 40% who pay little or no income taxes), while raising them on the rest. Either they failed with the simple math, or they hope that voters cannot or will not be able to apply simple math, but you cannot get enough taxes out of 5% to pay for genuine tax cuts for 95%. In fact, their proposals are just another camouflage for the old tried and failed policies of tax and spend. Not only does that always put more power into the hands of the politicos who take and then redistribute, but it is a highly dangerous thing to do in the teeth of an economic downturn. Taxes fall on income and investment, and whatever you tax you get less of. Now is not the time for less income and investment.

And as for energy independence, both Obama and Biden support programs that will yield little and have yielded very little new energy—at very high expense in government subsidies—while staunchly opposing expanded use of the energy resources that are abundant in the United States, particularly oil, coal, and nuclear energy. Independence seems to me to increase reliance on your own resources. Obama and Biden are consistent supporters of policies that keep U.S. energy resources under lock and key.

This should not be surprising from two candidates who campaign on change while advocating the oldest political formula in the history of government, that government knows best, that decisions about spending, whether for health, education, or job creation, are best made by power brokers in the halls of Washington power centers, rather than by families in their homes. Calling that change may be the biggest lie of all.

(First published November 2, 2008)

Of What We Know and What We Are

Recently, while reading in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I thought back to when my two oldest daughters attended nursery during Sunday School hours at church. We were then members of a congregation with many young families. There were so many children that they divided the nursery into Senior Nursery and Junior Nursery. The dividing line was between those who had turned two by the start of the year and those who had not yet reached that august age. My older daughter—who is a real sweetheart and has since become the mother of daughters herself—was very proud that she was in Senior Nursery, while her sister was in Junior Nursery.

The mysterious relationship between my reading of the Romans and those events of not so long ago is that both emphasize how brief and transitory this life is. Whether our mortal life is allocated more than 70 years or fewer than 7, the time all told is rather short, and I dare say mercifully so.

This life is filled with the rich, the beautiful, as well as what is poor and ugly, and mostly what is very much temporary and does not matter. The emperors of Rome came and went so quickly, few living to die of natural causes. They scraped and fought and intrigued and connived to possess what they could not hold for long and which at the end left them nothing. The royal purple for the emperors at last was little more important than whether my daughters were in Senior or Junior Nursery. It all mattered about the same.

Some things do matter, greatly. While they can involve tangible things, all that in this life of lasting value is intangible and survives the universal tomb. Now I am watching my children cope with the mighty challenges that life concentrates into the years of transition from adolescence to adulthood. Life’s calling, personal dedication, education, careers, marriage, family, truly life-changing decisions come at these young people inexorably in relentless and rapid succession. They have tangible elements of mortality to employ as tools to aid and markers to help measure the evaluating and making of these important decisions. They wade into deep problems when these material tools are mistaken for the real things.

As parents we watch, support, counsel, encourage, but the decisions are no longer ours. With no small amount of concern, and with generous measures of satisfaction, we can witness these whom we love the most exercise their own free will to lay out the remaining course of their mortality. For Mom and Dad, this period of life has been rich, sometimes painful, and frequently joyful. It is for us a harvesting time, even while for our children it is mostly a time of planting.

I am reminded that, with each graduation, one proceeds from the top of a staircase onto the bottom step of a new one. When my daughter left Senior Nursery, she was at the bottom of the classes of Primary. The seniors in high school become the freshmen in college. The college graduate becomes the “newbie” at work. In my employment I frequently am called upon to consider candidates for jobs. Shall I tell you how little impressed I would be to learn that a particular applicant had been student council president or editor of the yearbook?

I believe that so it goes in the heavens. We eternally progress from stage to stage, with Jesus Christ as our Guide, Leader, and Teacher, each stage well done qualifying us to begin the next, bringing us ever closer to become more like our Father in Heaven. The value is in this very real becoming. Our greatest worldly achievements of rank and fame have in heaven as little weight as our grade school awards convey into adulthood. With much concern God watches how we make our decisions, how we develop our character, with satisfaction and joy as we choose what is good and act well. Like wise parents, God cannot and will not choose for us, our choices at planting being part of His joy in the harvest.

Again, as I recall my children in nursery, and my grandchildren there today, I reflect that there is so much that I would tell them but which they would not begin to understand. There is a treasury of what I have learned in over 5 decades that I would share but that would be completely incomprehensible to a granddaughter or grandson in primary school.

Then I reflect that compared to my Heavenly Father, my treasury is the knowledge of an infant, that I even today am such a little child in terms of what I know. Indeed, were I to know all that there is available to know in this life, it would still be so very little compared with what our Father in the eternal worlds knows and has for us to learn when we once again live with Him. A modern Apostle, Dallin H. Oaks (a former university president), once remarked that an omniscient God is not all that impressed with our Ph.Ds.

But if I do well with what He has given and taught me, I have received the living hope from His Son that I may come step by step in the presence of the Father to know all that He would share, which is everything. That is humbling and exhilarating. I am glad that I have not really very long to wait, and that I can learn my first lessons even now.

Of the Meaning of “Still” and the State of the Union

These thoughts, first published almost a year and a half ago, still seem pertinent today.

Notice how frequently these days when discussing the state of the American union, or any parts thereof, people rely upon the word “still.” That is a bad sign. When someone says, “I am still able to see my own doctor,” he or she implies that continued access is in doubt. Rather than reassuring, it insinuates caution and reveals anxiety. What do you hear when someone says, “At least I am still married”?

You do not commonly hear people using “still” in connection with things that they are sure of. If a baseball player boasts, “I can still hit the ball out of the park,” is he likely to be in his prime or in the twilight of his career?

Allow me to offer for your consideration a dozen recent objects of STILL in public discourse about the condition of the nation:

  • The United States is still the largest economy in the world.
  • The United States still has the strongest/best military in the world.
  • The dollar is still the world’s reserve currency.
  • The United States still is a free country.
  • America still is the land of opportunity.
  • The Supreme Court still can be counted on to defend the Constitution.
  • By hard work and best effort you still can become anything you want.
  • My children will still have a better life than I have had.
  • My children will still live in a bigger house than the one I grew up in.
  • In this country you can still get the best healthcare.
  • America still has the deepest, most liquid, and efficient financial markets.
  • At least the air you breathe is still free.

Undoubtedly, you can think of more for the list. Then, there are some things we do not hear people saying “still” about any more:

  • America is the best place to get an education.
  • Americans make the best cars.
  • I can freely speak my mind.
  • I can trust what I hear or read in the “news.”
  • You can count on the elections not being rigged.

I forbear going on. You can add more if you wish. There are some topics where the doubt is too palpable for people to venture “still” in their expressions.

If we leave the discussion at that, then we have a sad commentary on the sad state of the union. The expression of “still” in our conversation can reveal a desperate clinging to the past with a forlorn wish that things will work out for the future, without doing the good works to make the good future happen.

I would suggest, though, that “still” can also mean “not over,” or “not gone.” We need not settle for “still” and do nothing about it. That which we value can be reclaimed from assault and reinforced, the erosion stopped, the tide turned. After all, John Paul Jones is famous for winning a naval battle from the deck of his sinking—but still afloat—flagship, because he used it as a platform from which to regain what was lost. “I have not yet begun to fight!” is still part of the American heritage.

(First published February 10, 2013)

Of Dysfunction and Governing the Nation

It seems that no more evidence is needed.  The establishment press, normally loathe to criticize the federal government, has at last become even fond of proclaiming that “Washington is dysfunctional,” although they do so as if announcing something worthy of being “news.”  The Senate has not passed a budget in some four years.  The House of Representatives regularly passes budgets that the Senate will not even consider.  The President—who has no budget-proposing role under the Constitution—proposes budgets that are routinely disregarded while declaring his intent to govern without the Congress.  At the same time, people feel more alienated from their government than ever before, in ever increasing numbers considering the nation headed in the wrong direction, regardless of the party in control of national policy.

In the most recent demonstration of the Washington breakdown, the Congress this year failed to pass the annual appropriations bills before the current ones expired.  Or, better said, the House passed appropriations bills, the Senate demurred, and the President announced that he would veto any appropriations legislation that offered either more or less than what he wanted.

The establishment press, amplifying executive branch efforts to promote panic and stampede the public, announced that “the government would shut down,” and yet 83% stayed open.  Some prominent public operations (that do not require any appropriations to operate) were closed at the President’s bidding, like the Lincoln Memorial and the various veterans and war memorials, but the President seemed to have enough money to travel to various campaign-style rallies to complain about the government shut down.  There was national confusion and consternation.

Perhaps what is news is that there is, at last, general agreement, and the President has helped demonstrate, that the federal government has become dysfunctional, by which we may mean, not doing what it needs to do.  I also notice that this condition has not been getting any better.  In addition to the recent, visible indicators, I would offer some longer-term measures.

Economic growth is depressed and has been declining for decades; employment is also down, with millions leaving the work force.  Government welfare rolls have expanded dramatically, suggesting that a very large portion of the population is either not able to take care of itself or has surrendered its responsibility to do so.  The federal balance sheet approaches ever closer to insolvency.  To avoid being gloomy and doomy, I will not recount dismal education trends, eroding family formation patterns, the precarious condition of national infrastructure, or our worsening international relations (with allies and opponents).

Yet, the federal bureaucracies are far larger, taxes—visible and hidden—are higher, red tape has become ubiquitous, and federal subsidies have fallen behind promises even as they outdistance the ability of the federal government to pay for them.  If government is the solution, then why is more government not making things better?

How could this happen?  Have we as a nation lost our ability to govern ourselves?  Have “partisan politics”—as though something new rather than part of our national intercourse since 1796—frozen the ability to consider, set, and follow national priorities?  Have the problems of modernity exceeded the ability of policymakers to resolve them?

A case could probably be made for each and all of the above explanations.  I think, however, that they are all symptoms of a more fundamental problem, one recognized long ago, at the founding of the nation.

As early as 1787 the Founders recognized that a central government would not work for the United States.  Even with just the original 13 states and 3 million people, the nation was too vast to be governed in detail from one capital.  That is why they created a federal system, under which the few, truly national concerns—such as national defense, trade, international relations, national standards of measures and sanctity of contracts, preservation of freedom and the rule of law, together with the means to fund these activities—would be handled by the national government.  All else was reserved to the States.

Note that I did not say given to the States.  Remember, the States and the people in them created the national government.  The States and the people in them gave to the national government its authority and power.

Today, the United States stretches across a continent and reaches to the isles of the sea, with over 300 million inhabitants.  It is even more impossible than ever to govern from a single capital, by a centralized government.  We all have seen the evidence, in addition to the growing dysfunction of Washington.  Everyday, people all over the nation struggle with rules made by the federal bureaucracies, rules that are often nonsensical where people live and work and play, rules governing the volume of water in our toilets, the content of our children’s food, the gasoline in our cars, the content of our communications, the form of our financial affairs, and many other elements of daily, personal life.  Even worse, they have become too vast and complex to be administered faithfully or complied with loyally. 

We could fault the executive branch bureaucrats who make them or the Congressmen and Senators who write the laws, but these people are no smarter or dumber than the rest of us, and just as well meaning.  They just have an impossible job.  No one can know enough to run so many things from Washington.

Consider the big issues that seem to have Washington all tied up in knots—in turn afflicting all the rest of us.  The new national healthcare systems are breaking down even as they get started.  National rules for farmers have Congress stuck over who should get subsidies and who should not.  National tax plans designed to take from some to give to others divide the people into winners and losers.  Environmental regulations impose costs on some in order to subsidize someone else.  National education programs follow each other in rapid succession, each with a new and high-sounding name, none of which do much to stem the continued decline in education.  And ever present with all of these national rules are unintended consequences that were not and probably could not be foreseen but which crush people’s businesses, destroy jobs, and disrupt lives.

These are all issues that the Founders never intended for the national government, issues that if governments should address at all should be left to State and local governments, where decisions can be made closer to the people who have to live with the results.

We have at hand a better, competent government, or at least its blueprint.  It is found in the structure of our Constitution that created a federal system.  Our Constitution is the recognition that only through a system that keeps governing as local as possible can a great nation exist in union and harmony.

What we are seeing play out before our very eyes is that our nation not only should not be governed by a central authority, but that it cannot be.  The sooner we recognize that and return to the federal plan of the Founders the happier, and the sooner Washington will be able to function as it should for the benefit of all rather than frustration for all.  The task is too big otherwise and doomed to failure.  It will not be a pleasant failure.

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