Sunday, July 29, 2012


As unbelievable as that may be (especially to me), I spent close to a decade on Wall Street.  No one was more ill suited, but much of my years there were spent working for Sanford I. Weill.  That made for an interesting time.  When I arrived, Sandy and three equal partners ran what was still a relatively small boutique brokerage.  They sat together in one large room, identical chairs and desks.  The message: no single top dog at Cogan, Berlin, Weill and Levitt.  The market dropped significantly on the day I arrived and never totally recovered during my tenure.  Took me a long time to take the hint.  It was a bear market but not for CBWL.  Beginning with its acquisition of the old line but tottering Hayden Stone, Sandy’s firm started on what would be a path toward phenomenal growth.  Within a relatively short time, Shearson Hayden Stone, as it became known, was an industry powerhouse and Sandy was its undisputed chief executive — What W would call, the decider.

I had left by the time Shearson was sold to American Express ultimately leading Sandy down a different and somewhat circuitous road.  It would ultimately put him at the top of the world’s largest financial supermarket, Citigroup.  In the final stretch of that journey, Sandy played an outsized role in convincing Bill Clinton and the Congress to overturn Glass-Steagall, the post Depression legislation separating commercial and investment banks.  The Gramm Leach Bliley Act enabled his Travelers Group to merge with Citi giving birth to the behemoth bank that we all now know would be too big to fail.

Fast forward to last week when the same Sandy Weill, who had retired from Citi shortly before Wall Street’s house of cards began to crumble, used an appearance on CNBC to advocate for what amounts to a reinstatement of Glass-Steagall.  While underreported, he had dropped a bombshell.  It would probably be too much to ask that Sandy fess up to being wrong in the 1990s — he simply says times have changed and what was right then is no longer.  One could judge him harshly for that, and rightly so, but he is just following the norm, a long line of business and political leaders who find themselves incapable of ever saying, I was wrong.  Indeed, Sandy has gotten a lot of flack about his change of heart including from Jon Stewart (called to my attention by Phyllis Prinz).

And hardly surprising, his biggest critics come from the community of which he has been a lead player.  These are the people who sit atop or benefit from today’s too big to fail banks.  Among them are those who have been raking in billions, some making their own trades with what may be customer money.  As far as I can tell, neither Bill Clinton nor his former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin (who ended up in Citi’s executive suite), prime supporters of Gramm Leach Bliley, have reacted, certainly not publically.  Sad to say, what we can expect is that any real discussion about reinstating Glass-Steagall type controls might be conveniently deflected by a critique of Sandy Weill.  He is the perfect target.  Focusing on the messenger here, no matter what he did in the past, is to miss the point and more importantly, to miss an opportunity to do something.

You might say that Sandy Weill is being hypocritical.  That what we saw on CNBC was a self-serving rich guy trying to burnish his tarnished image.  You may be right, no let’s say you are right.  Feel better now?  Pointing that finger may give us some satisfaction, but we may find ourselves with nothing more than a hollow self-indulgent moral victory.  Not having talked to, much less seen, him in years, I have no way of knowing or being able to judge his motivations.  What can be said is that, considering what’s at stake, and the potential of being side tracked from the very real issue at hand, perhaps we should give him a pass, even if a conditional one. 

Aside from a chance and brief encounter in Zabars a few years ago, I haven’t talked to Sandy in years, but I knew him very well.  He was a man of considerable integrity.  He and his wife Joan have contributed millions to good causes from supporting hospitals to Carnegie Hall.  But what you should know is that he is one of the smartest and most thoughtful executives I have ever encountered, and there have been many.  As Hercule Poirot would say, Weill's grey cells were always working, usually at double speed and over time. 

Perhaps the terrible things that have happened in the aftermath of overturning Glass-Steagall were predictable.  A good number of Senators including Bryan Dorgan, Barbara Boxer, Barbara Mikulski, Richard Shelby, Tom Harkin, Russ Feingold and Paul Wellstone opposed it.  But for a while the economy and business appeared (and I used that word intentionally) to be thriving.  Money was being made on both Wall Street and Main Street and no one, including John Q. Public, was asking questions.  Hear no problem, see no problem and for heaven’s sake, speak no problem.

Sandy is right; times have changed.  Oh, have they changed.  It isn’t only that the banks are too big to fail, but that they are too big to be either managed or supervised.  If Sandy’s protégée Jamie Dimon couldn’t spot a multi-billion dollar loss before it was too late, we know that to be the case.  Sandy was one to keep tabs on every dollar even as the dollars multiplied and one has to assume that Dimon was trained to do the same.  The problem is that, while companies may scale up, an individual human’s capacity has its limits — at some point it can’t keep up.  Of necessity, deciders these days rely on subordinates and are even unable to know what they are doing on a daily basis.

Breaking up the banks would likely be good for our financial system, but my guess is that it would also produce a lot of new jobs.  Economies of scale, the kind of thing that equity people like Mitt Romney tout, always involve consolidation of services and thus a loss of jobs.  The newly separated institutions would require their own infrastructures — specifically mandated to be separate. 

So, yes Sandy you didn’t apologize, and maybe you are trying to burnish your own tarnished reputation, but let’s give you the benefit of the doubt.  Of course making one comment in one TV appearance won’t be enough to say you are serious.   Taking a further risk to alienate your old pals and expose yourself to criticism will be required.  I hope your words won’t be ignored because further disasters lurk and too many people in your old business are acting as if nothing bad has already happened.  Business as usual doesn’t cut it.  No, business as usual is just plain frightening!

Monday, July 23, 2012


I wish this president would learn how to be an American.  These were the now much quoted words of Mitt Romney’s Cuban born attack dog John Sununu.  He, the former governor went on, has no idea how the American system functions, and we shouldn't be surprised… he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next…in Indonesia,…and…as a community organizer, which is a socialized structure. The president, who doesn’t understand how America works, flew out to Colorado on Sunday to participate in an especially American ritual: comforting families of civilian gun violence victims.  What appears to be truly American is that there are more weapons — hand guns and assault rifles — in the possession of individuals here than in any developed democracy.  And also very American it would seem is that we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, a disproportionate number of prisoners being African Americans.  If that’s how America works, I frankly don’t understand it either.

But John Sununu’s verbal attack bespeaks something far more disturbing.  While opponents have vilified virtually all of our presidents, no other chief executive has been called un-American.  So it’s hard not to conclude that what we’re hearing from Mr. Sununu and his ilk is good old-fashioned code.  And it’s a code familiar to any person of color or with a foreign sounding accent.  I had hoped that we were through with that stuff once President Obama won his majority victory in 2008, but I was wrong.   Sununu has apologized of course, but his words hang our there never to disappear from the eyes and ears of the receptive in cyberspace.

John Sununu, who you will remember was known for his sharp tongue while serving as Papa Bush’s chief of staff, is simply continuing a tradition of disrespect that started early into the Obama presidency.   It was then that, in a virtually unprecedented breach of public etiquette, the  words you lie (referenced in previous posts) were shouted out by South Carolina’s Joe Wilson during a presidential joint session address.  After all, for people like Wilson (and assumably Sununu) that outsider didn’t belong there in the first place.  In the same meanspirted way, Racist Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio recently boasted that he has launched yet another spurious Birther investigation into the president’s definitely fraudulent birth certificate.  And this guy may well win reelection.

Meanwhile Mr. Romney remains above the fray.  He has kept his friend John Sununu on the job as a primary surrogate; being satisfied that the former governor admitted to unfortunate language.  He can afford to do so because nobody doubts that he, unlike the president, is a real American.  How do I know that?  Because, as is the way with other super rich real Americans, he successfully avoids taxes with offshore accounts and the like.  As the presumptive nominee declared in January, I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more.  I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.   Oh, that’s precisely what I was thinking.  This man really understands how America works, at least how it works for the 1% of which he is a proud part.  Isn’t he the kind of president your want?

Let’s have a cheer for such real Americans, the kind that contemporary Republicans and their Tea Party constituents so admire.  If that were possible Abe Lincoln would be turning in his grave.  Even George W. Bush wants no part in the convention that will nominate this real American.  Thought, I’d never say it, but Amen W.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Can Liberal Christianity Be SavedThat’s the question posed by Ross Douthat, the always interesting conservative NY Times columnist and a committed Roman Catholic.  Of course, the same can be asked about Liberal Judaism or Islam. Better yet, would be to question if liberal religion is viable in the first place.  Taking the long view, a strong argument can be made that it is not.  The orthodox across all religions share one thing in common.  For them religion is essential to their being, as natural and necessary as breathing air.  They make no real distinction between the holy and the profane.  Consequently, life is a cohesive and integrated whole where religious practice is not an option but a necessity.  In contrast, the non-orthodox (while certainly not monolithic) generally approach religion as something to be done, often at a specific time and place.  I like to describe it as by appointment.  Appointments are meant to be kept but, the best intentions notwithstanding, they are often to be missed, something that can become a habit, feeding on itself.

With that in mind, it’s not surprising that orthodox leaders like the Pope whom Douthat references, stand fast against any liberalization.  They pushback against Vatican II-like reforms, seeing them as dilutive and ultimately destructive.  It’s hard to argue with that conclusion.  And that’s precisely what concerns Douthat even though he recognizes that progressive religion has played a key role in civil rights and other efforts aimed at bettering our society, what Jews call tikun olam.

At the same time, just as taken to its logical conclusion, liberalization may lead to destruction, we should not overlook the chicken and egg question.  Liberal religion may be positioned as modernizing belief and practice, but is it rather reactive — aimed at saving something that would otherwise be lost?  There is considerable data suggesting that people in the West (including the United States) are moving from religion at an accelerating pace.  They may be exiting from liberal churches and synagogues but also from the orthodox.  Only the influx of Hispanics can mask the full dimension of Catholic Church losses better seen in the forced closing of many parishes and schools.  Only 40% of those brought up as Orthodox Jews remain so as adults.

So the question posed by Ross Douthat may be interesting but it is ultimately the wrong one.  Considering current trends — the doubling of the no-religion-at-all group in the last decade — shouldn’t we be asking if religion can be saved?  I’d suggest both orthodox and liberal religious leaders, admit it or not, have that question top of mind and have developed different strategies in response to the perceived danger.

The orthodox are turning inward, hitting the reverse button if you will.  Their religion is becoming narrower, more doctrinaire and often more militant (in some cases violent).  They are closing all windows and drawing all shades to avoid even a trickle of air or light that might disrupt their way.  It is why Rome is reining in their nuns, which Douthat sees as something being done for their own protection.  I don’t buy it.  By the same token, liberals are desperately trying to find innovative ways that will engage their constituents while simultaneously hitting their own reverse button.  For them this means dipping into the tradition and in some instances reinstating customs if not ideas that had been previously abandoned.  All the while, they know that without embracing modernity they can’t sustain the flock or themselves.  A conundrum to which there is no easy response.

These are very different strategies and both may ultimately constitute short-term fixes.  The Higgs bosom is not the God particle, but a bit of matter that will give scientists greater insight into our origins; insights that obviate any Let there be.  Religion has been around a long time and it is sure survive far into the future.  It remains more resilient in some places than others, in some pockets even in places hostile to its teaching.  It survived Stalin.  But, as life itself, religion — the adherence to what some of us believe — is likely to be finite not eternal.  Measured against the rigors of scientific testing, it falls short.  The radical idea of religion as finite, is something its followers don’t dare consider because that, not liberalism or orthodoxy, is a real game changer.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Speaking of déjà vu, consider the devastating Penn State findings reported by former FBI Director Louis Freeh and the scandal that rocked the Catholic Church.  Both involved child abuse perpetrated by  trusted authority figures and both a massive cover-up justified in the name of institutional protection.  Not inconsequentially, each was also a product of a buddy system, the kind of protecting one’s own so often associated with corrupt police departments.  To be sure, Penn State’s scandal is far more contained focusing mostly on two men, the legendary late coach Joe Paterno and his sidekick, the now convicted Jerry Sandusky.

Paterno appears to have been more concerned with protecting his own legend than protecting the youngsters whom Sandusky abused.  University officials, now fired, were likewise more interested in protecting their beloved athletic program than in performing their fiduciary responsibilities.  But the real long-term story here transcends the despicable behavior of those involved.  It shines a light on a larger question, which is whether athletic programs  — particularly competitive sports like football and basketball — have taken on a disproportionate centrality in many of our greatest institutions of higher learning.

Coaches and players in contrast to professors and non-playing students live on the same campus in parallel and at times grossly unequal universes.  Looking at how the members of the first are compensated in salary and scholarships compared with the second, one might conclude that a university’s primary job is to play and win games rather than to educate or advance scholarship and learning.  There is something totally out of kilter in that picture.  Not so surprisingly, these parallel universes, along with a dislocated sense of values, reflect the current state of American society.  It has rightly become a primary issue in the presidential campaign.

I doubt Joe Paterno ever questioned why his own salary and his own program was funded so richly compared to the humanities and social sciences at Penn State.  The same holds true for similar level coaches at other schools, for example those who lead the rivaling basketball teams of Duke and UNC here in North Carolina’s Triangle.   The financial crisis brought Duke faculty a two-year pay freeze and meaningful salary cuts for their UNC counterparts.  I doubt commensurate burdens were born by coaches Mike Krzyzewski, Coach K, ($5 Million) and Roy Williams ($2 Million).  Full disclosure, I am not a sports enthusiast or fan, but that’s not the point being made here.  The fact is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the current compensation imbalance in the land whether at our universities (where president pay has also skyrocketed) or in the larger community were the fabled 1%, at least those still in the workforce, receive compensations that can only be described as obscenely out of touch with reality.  How does one justify CEO’s earning 209.4 times that of the average worker?  What year’s work can possibly merit the $131 Million compensation of McKesson’s John Hammergren?   You likely have never heard of him nor do I remember Mr. Hammergren having discovered a cure for cancer, not that a scientist credited with that game-changing breakthrough could even dream of such a payday.

The thing about Joe Paterno, the leadership at Penn State and the hierarchy of the Roman church is not so much that they were protecting their institutions (or self interest), but that they seemed so clueless about how it fit into the normal scheme of things.  It isn’t only that they possessed some sense of misguided entitlement, but that in some profound way they didn’t seem to understand the destructive implications of what they were doing nor how out of touch they are with most ordinary people.  So Mitt Romney doesn’t understand why his income, or specifically his off-shore accounts and tax avoidance, should be relevant to his run for the presidency.  It isn’t that he apparently eats an ice cream cone with a spoon, but that he is clueless as to how curious doing so is.  It’s like George Bush senior being befuddled by a checkout scanner or unaware of the price people were paying for something as basic as a quart of milk.

The Romney kind of folk live in a different universe, one in which quadrupling the size of your already $12 million dollar beach house in the midst of a deep recession — and while running for president — doesn’t seem in bad taste.  By the way, Democrat John Edwards was similarly clueless in presenting himself as a populist while building the most expensive house in the State of North Carolina.  In contrast, George W. Bush, whatever his failings maybe and whose fortune pales in comparison to Romney’s, tried to downplay his wealth.  Misleading as that might have been, it no doubt helped him win votes.  Romney is outraged that the President should question what was afoot during his Bain Capital stewardship.  He clearly considers more than the most minimal disclosure of his finances to be an invasion of privacy.  The candidate seems not to understand that people seeking the presidency give up the right to any such privacy.  When I give a man often unchecked power over my life, I want to know who he is and how he has conducted himself when no one was looking over his shoulder.

Penn State (and by association other universities and athletic programs) has lost some significant luster for what it did and also because its leaders were tone deaf.  The Catholic Church has seen its moral authority undermined for the very same reasons.  Mitt Romney is likely to limp into his convention a somewhat wounded candidate, one who also can’t seem to muster the thinnest thread for emotional connection with his supporters.  More than anything else, his past success and how he accumulated his fortune may cost him the White House.  Thanks to the Occupy movement, parallel universes are finally getting the attention they deserve.  While the inhabitants of one are busy talking to themselves and each other, the inhabitants of the other will be going to the polls — 99 to 1 still makes for a compelling majority.  Perhaps all is not lost.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Two words.

Andrew Carnegie was a man of steel.  Steel creates jobs.   Henry Ford was a man of cars.  Cars create jobs.  Thomas J. Watson was a man of computers.  Computers create jobs.  Robert Woodruff was a man of beverages.  Beverages create jobs.  Sam Walton was a man of stores.  Stores create jobs.  Bill Gates is a man of software.  Software creates jobs.  Entrepreneurs like them are among the most significant engines of our economy, always have been.  Their creations make things, bring them to market or provide a unique, often society changing, service. US Steel, Ford Motor, IBM, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart and Microsoft helped transform the country, taking it to a new level and directly or indirectly putting untold millions of men and women to work.

Mitt Romney is a man of financial engineering.  Financial engineering can be clever, perhaps at times even brilliant, but it invents nothing new.  Creating companies that turn innovation of one kind or another into something tangible and concrete is just not what private equity firms do.  They themselves are usually relatively small employers and except tangentially they don’t create other jobs.  Private equity firms may fix broken companies or facilitate their owners cashing out, but they have but a single goal: making money for themselves and their investors.  Sometimes, but not always, that means cutting payroll.  The role of private equity firms, who essentially reshape often troubled existing comanies as contributors to the economy can be debated.  It is probably less significant than the one played by venture capitalists who put private seed money into new and innovative enterprises.  One might argue that Apple, Google and Facebook would not exist without their early financial support.  But no VC would ever claim their role was more than being a smart investor looking for a big payday.  In doing so, and largely out of self interest, they might also offer a modicum of sometimes valuable business advice, but that’s about it.   Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg made their individual companies rock; it is they who can be credited with creating all those jobs.

So it’s kind of silly for Mitt Romney to claim creating jobs and equally silly for others to put him down for not creating them.  Job creator was not in Romney’s own job description, so to judge him as a past or potential job creator doesn’t wash.  If it makes you happy, it’s true that he invited the challenge by making the claim, but going there is beside the point.  That said, since jobs are a key issue in the current campaign, we should put the role of our presidents as job creators in perspective.

In truth, much as private equity executives have no substantive role in creating jobs, presidents have, at best, a very limited one.  For one thing, any program they might devise to stimulate the economy can only be implemented if Congress agrees and, most importantly, acts.  One of the truly weak spots in this downturn is in public sector jobs.  While there has been substantial (albeit, not enough) private sector job growth, government jobs are contracting along with budgets.  For a variety of reasons, they are unlikely to return to their former levels.  Even were that not the case, presidents can’t do much to impact when, where and if jobs might return.  Without funding, presidents can’t expand the federal workforce (Capital Hill controls the purse), much less impact on employment at the state and local level where they have virtually nothing to say.

If we are totally honest with ourselves, and the candidates return the favor, its unlikely that either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will have much chance of turning this economy around except perhaps at the margin.  The president may promise more stimulus and the former governor may feel that extending, and perhaps enlarging, tax cuts for business and the wealthy class will do the trick.  Even if these philosophically driven changes took place neither is a magic bullet.   I am for the former and against the latter, but stay with me here.  Our economic problems, and that includes the absence of jobs, have little to do with tax incentives or even with short-term stimulus that, by definition, is limited in both scope and duration.  What we’re witnessing now is not that any individual employer or group of employers fear making investments.  Advances in technology have reduced the need for as many employees as before.  Have you ever checked yourself out at Home Depot or a supermarket, made a purchase, renewed your car registration or banked on line?  Some worker is no longer needed to assist you with that transaction.  She or he has lost a job, one that isn’t coming back.  In fact, different technologies will wipe out other jobs as well.  Count on it and know that there is absolutely nothing presidents, Democrat or Republican, can do to alter that reality.

Our economic problems are systemic and in the global economy when Europe or Asia sneezes we are likely to be laid low with a cold.  If presidents have limited control in their own domain, they have far less in other jurisdictions.   The Euro is in deep trouble — defectively created and, as such, hard to fix.  We have little or no role in that, but be assured that last Friday’s job numbers reflect global troubles as well as our own.   Can Mitt Romney and his trickle down (speak of self-interest) approach do damage to our economy?  I think so, absolutely.  Perhaps by Election Day a majority of voters will agree with me.  But, as I’m suggesting, presidents are limited when it comes to the economy.  It’s the economy, stupid was a great tag line but it implied a promise upon which no president could deliver, including Bill Clinton.

To me this election, and my choice, comes down to just two words: Supreme Court.  I have always felt that way, a view reinforced on June 28, the day of the Affordable Care Act 5-4 decision.  Who sits on the Supreme Court, a lifetime appointment — now that is within a president’s power.  Talk about Iraq and Afghanistan and how George Bush screwed both up all you want, but that president’s most lasting legacy, can also be summed up in two words: Roberts and Alito.  As South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham so rightly said in the face of the now Justice Sotomayor’s nomination, elections do count.  And it did matter a lot that Al Gore (and the country) was deprived of his victory.  The current court’s conservative tilt and balance is the work of three presidents — Ronald Reagan (Scalia and Kennedy), George H.W. Bush (Thomas) and George W. Bush (Roberts and Alito).   As the youngest of the conservative set, W’s appointees are likely to last the longest including a Chief who probably will be in place for decades to come.

So if you’re voting the economy in the fall, I understand, but think your head is in the wrong place.   If your thinking just two words, Supreme Court, that vote and the reason you’ll cast it may really count.  If you want to help the country long term, tell your friends: two words.  If they can’t get to the polls on their own, give them a ride, let them lean on your helping arm.  More than anything else, our future may depend on how our vote defines those two words. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A president, just like me.

We Americans pride ourselves in being the prototypical democratic society, something we celebrate each July 4.  Our specialness stems in part from the fact that we, unlike most other countries, are a nation made up of immigrants rather than a predominantly indigenous population.  To be sure, some of those immigrants are now in their third, fourth or even tenth generation.  So there is an element of myth to our nation of immigrants story, and also a degree of lip service paid.  Down on the ground, as symbolized by the controversial (mostly struck down) Arizona law, we find some hostility and resistance toward immigrants these days, but that’s really nothing new.  At some point we, or our ancestors, were all looked on as strangers in the land.  We had funny names, strange accents — my mother who spoke perfect English pronounced shopping, chopping, to her dying day — odd customs or an unfamiliar/alien appearance.  Of course, those once strangers have been absorbed in the melting pot, have made their way and place in a now shared national story.  Well, yes and no.

From the days George Washington took office, we have been led almost exclusively by people who embody a stereotyped or, one might say aspirational, just like me look.  It turns out, just like me means Protestant Christian, Caucasian and definitely male.  In a sense, looking at our presidents probably gives us a more accurate picture of the American self-perceptive ideal than all those stories about immigrants and melting pots.  To date, only one non-Protestant, Jack Kennedy, has reached the White House and only in 2008 did we elect, again for the first time, a Catholic Vice President.   Needless to say, Barack Obama was the first elected African American and only time will tell if that is to be repeated any time soon or ever.  Whatever religious and racial barriers may have been breached, one significant barrier has not.  The presidency remains an exclusive men’s club, this despite there being (according to recent Gallup polling) more than 90% of us say we would vote for a qualified woman running for president. .

Gallup has been periodically asking the, would you vote for a ___ for president, since 1937.  Back then the study universe was limited to  women, Jews and Catholics.  Protestant was obviously the of course default.  By 1958 Blacks and Atheists were added (both scored badly) and in 1967 Mormons (reflecting George Romney’s candidacy).  Astoundingly, Hispanics weren’t added until 2007 and Muslims only this year.  Gays and Lesbians made the list in 1999 and 68% of respondents said they would vote for one (they are lumped together as one) in 2012.  There remain gaps.  Ethnic Indians aren’t included even though two are sitting governors and one, Bobby Jindal, is often mentioned as a potential vice president.  So too with Asians, a good number of whom hold public office, among them Chinese American and former Governor Gary Locke, now our ambassador to China.

Polls are interesting to some degree merely because they mirror what we’re thinking or what’s happening at any given time.   The inclusion of Hispanics and now Muslims reflects both.  But polls are often flawed, failing to include important data or asking the right questions in the right way.  According to Pew, another well regarded research organization,  Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.  So why aren’t they included in Gallup’s study?  There is also a big difference between how might you vote if the qualified candidate were African-American, and will you vote for Barack Obama?  

Gallup’s list has grown since 1937, but aside from Kennedy and Obama we’ve elected only male white Protestants.  People do act differently when a choice goes beyond the hypothetical and, just as when they are probed about, say church attendance, there is an element of not wanting to be seen in a bad light.  90+ percent of respondents say would vote for a woman, a Jew, a Catholic or an African American.  White, male, Protestant remains the default.  Demographics would suggest that may change in the years to come.  Our Latino community accounted for 56% of our growth rate from 2000 to 2010 and have themselves grown 43% in that decade.  At some point, one would expect the presidency and other high offices to be more reflective of the population.  And in that, no group lags more than women who account for 50.8% of us but 0% of our presidents.

Of greatest interest to me in the Gallup poll, and generally under reported, was that for the first time a majority (54%) of respondents said they would vote for an atheist.  Back in 1958 that number was 18% and by 1999 it had only climbed to 49%.  There are other studies that suggest the Gallup numbers may be generous and that a substantial majority of Americans would be uncomfortable with an atheist in the White House.   Indeed, were it not for younger respondents (18-29, 70% and 30-49, 56%) whose views tilt the total number toward majority, most older voters remain reluctant (an average of only 44% of those over 50 would vote for an atheist).  As  you might expect, Democrats and Independents are more receptive to an atheist than Republicans.  It is also not surprising that young people are more open to atheists as they are to Gay/Lesbian and, for that matter, to all other groups.  That is reinforced by a different but consistent finding, this time from Pew’s Religious Landscape Study.  While 16% of  the general population now identifies with no religion at all, that number rises to 25% among those under 30.  With all the negative news we have these days, including how narrow-minded so many of us are, our more egalitarian young people constitute a ray of brightness and hope.

CNN Journalist Anderson Cooper announced the other day that he was gay.  It was not big news because his identity had long been assumed.  But Cooper felt that a personal revelation like that might have interfered with his professional job.  I think we’re long beyond that, but these are very personal choices and his should be respected, not judged.  Just as gays and lesbians long felt it necessary to hide their identity, my guess is that many more people in public life than would care to admit so are neither religious nor do they believe in God.  Despite my characterization of our presidents being Protestants, the truth is a few including the great Abraham Lincoln had no church affiliation.  Lincoln invoked God, but we don’t know what he meant by it.   Jefferson, who did belong to a church most of the time, might well have not been very much of a God believer.  Again, we can only speculate.  The default in America for politicians remains being religious, preferably a religion just like mine (whatever mine might be).  Our polling has heretofore always confirmed that being an atheist is a political non-starter.  Perhaps, the new Gallup numbers suggest that could change in the future.  Perhaps, one day will bring more people out of God’s closet.  To be sure there is nothing wrong with believing in God, but a society in which women and men can be honest about their beliefs, including their atheism, would be an even better democracy..  Happy July 4.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Religion and politics: version 2012

Exactly how religion will ultimately play out in this 2012 presidential election cycle remains to be seen.   Last time around we had the candidates in both parties clamoring to establish their religious bone fides.  Pastor Rick Warren forced command nominee performances at his California megachurch where each man had to attest that he held Christ close to his heart.  Warren subsequently offered a prayer at the Inauguration, but little has been seen of him in this political year.  To my knowledge, there have been no Billy Grahamesque chitchats in the Oval Office.

With the President running for reelection, Republicans have had the primary season all to themselves.  While religion certainly didn’t disappear — most notably in the days when Rick Santorum had his moment — it didn’t really hold center stage.   That place was taken up as hopefuls focused their energy on pandering to the Teas, the force to be reckoned with post 2010.  Republicans may be attacking Democrats as usual, but they often seem even more at war with themselves.  That was evident in the primary states much as it has been in Washington where radical insurgents seek to gain control from the establishment.  Who knows how that will play in years to come, much of it likely dependent on November’s results.

There may be another more subtle reason why religion has receded somewhat: the emergence of a Mormon as the presumptive presidential nominee, a first.  The potential for getting into a Christian-Mormon conversation during the primaries was something to be avoided at all cost.  No candidate wanted to go there, certainly not the former governor.  You can speculate that the anybody but Romney effort reflected a possible anti-Mormon undertone, but I’d venture the candidate’s lack of color and more so his questionable conservative (as defined these days) credentials probably weighed more heavily.

Religion may have moved back a bit on the presidential campaign trail, but it certainly hasn’t disappeared from the larger political stage.   In fact, as reported by Reuters, we are witnessing a dramatic increase in partisanship from pulpits.  The article points to California Pastor Jim Garlow who defiantly tells his flock for whom to vote from his pulpit, consciously daring the IRS to intercede.  Law prohibits churches from promoting partisan causes and doing so could mean losing their tax exemption.  Garlow is not alone in thumbing his nose at political activity rules.  Far more important are the actions of America’s powerful Catholic bishops led my New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan.  The bishops have launched a full throat assault against President Obama (by name) and his administration in this election year.

Let’s put the tax issue in perspective.   Tax exemption status afforded religious institutions costs billions of dollars in annual federal tax revenue and even more, Reuters reports, in real estate taxes lost by now cash strapped municipalities across the country.  So the numbers and the stakes are high.  Of course, most religious institutions and leaders don’t cross the partisan line.  That makes the bishops’ blatantly partisan rhetoric especially noteworthy.  It should raise a red flag as a potential violation not only of the tax exemption rules but also of church/state separation.   So far the IRS is not taking the bait and that’s not altogether surprising.  It’s not that they might want to step in — remember big dollars are involved — but that in some real sense they are functionally being blackmailed into inaction.

Let me explain.  The argument being put forward by the bishops is that President Obama and his administration are hostile toward the Church and toward religion in general.  They object to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance cover women’s health, specifically contraception.  While this coverage requirement is totally waved for specifically religious institutions (churches, synagogues), it is not waved for hospitals and universities that, church-sponsored notwithstanding, serve the general public and purposes, employing, for example, non-Catholics.  Many of these institutions also are recipients of public funding of one sort or another.  The bishops argue their case within a framework of religious freedom painting the President as its enemy. 

The most extreme statement of their position came from Illinois Bishop Daniel Jenky who disdained President Obama with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda.  Astoundingly, in doing so he likened  the President to notable villains and past church enemies including Stalin and Hitler.  Secularist agenda is a popular accusation made by the partisan right (think Santorum), assumably part of an ungodly conspiracy.  What worse charge can you levy against a leader in this most religious country?  Despite the provocations, the IRS finds itself in an impossible no-win situation.  If the agency pursues what seem to be clear violations of tax-exempt status it may well be seen, or painted, as partisan.  More to the point, acting against these tax exemption violations would only confirm that the Administration has gone to war with religion.  That looks like blackmail to me.

You and I do not benefit from tax-exempt status.  Whatever contribution we may make to political campaigns, unlike what we give to our church or synagogue, is specifically not tax-deductible, and for good reason.  If it were, our fellow citizens would in effect be financially underwriting our partisan political activity.  Having personal experience in leading a religious institution and remaining a strong proponent of a free pulpit, I understand the complexities of this issue.   Priests, ministers, rabbis and imams want to voice what they feel is right and consistent with their beliefs and must be able to do so.  Constraining their speech would fly in the face of our constitutional right of free religious expression.  At the same time, I don’t think that such free expression includes an absolute right to tax-exemption. 

I’m not suggesting that we do away with that exemption — many religious institutions depend on it for their survival — but that the strings attached are appropriate, and that they should be enforced. I could not disagree more with the bishops’ position on contraception or having its cost covered by insurance.  Family planning is an important women’s health issue, but also for society.  Nevertheless, I think they have every right to express their view and to be governed by their own teachings so long as it doesn’t morph into partisan talk.  That is, when it turns political in the specific, when they tell voters how and for whom to cast their ballots in, for example, a presidential election, there should be a cost.  Simply put, as a citizen I can put up with helping to underwrite their faith-related works but don’t want to underwrite their partisan politics any more than they want to bankroll mine.

Money, the subject of an earlier post, is coming at this and all our elections from many places, not all of them obvious.  It isn’t only individual contributors to PACs that are flying below the radar, so too is the abusive use of tax-free dollars under the guise of religious freedom.  The first costs are more obvious and substantial of course, but the second should neither be underestimated nor discounted.  Both, while perhaps for different reasons, are ultimately costs to our democracy.