Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Louisiana Scofflaws Cry the Blues

It's sad. So many of those in the Louisiana fishing industry who have been harmed by the BP oil well debacle will not qualify for BP's reparations because they can't document their 2009 income. Why not? Well, they didn't file tax returns, that's why. Doing business on a cash basis and not paying taxes is traditional, it turns out, just like in the country of Greece and other semi-civilized places. Now it's time to pay up for these sins, folks!

After five minutes of research I found that Louisiana has only a four percent sales tax (it's 8.25% where I live), a 2,4, or 6% state income tax rate after generous deductions, and very low property taxes. I suppose that's because the state has lots of industries and natural resources extractors that put taxes and fees into the state coffers. Louisiana is a very tax-friendly state, made much friendlier when lots of folks don't even file tax returns.

Somehow this news makes me feel much less generous when it comes to government relief for hurricanes or oil blowouts in Louisiana. We pay much higher taxes here in New York, and they're much harder to avoid. Why should we send that money to bail out the scofflaws who don't do their part?

Well, my Christianity tells me I should be generous, so I'll make an offer. BP should pay compensation to these people if they are willing to pay five years back state and federal taxes on the amount they claim as lost income from their fishing business. Amnesty! Sounds good to me. Otherwise, go fish!

Regulation - An Often Meaningless Panacea

Yesterday's supreme court decision regarding the personal applicability of the 2nd amendment has gun control advocates "up in arms", so to speak. They seem to like the status quo in places like Chicago where the city is swimming in handguns but only the criminals have them. I'm no fan of handguns, but I can understand the decision; if one wants to defend him/herself against a criminal, one's got to have a weapon. "Regulation" to the point of banning something has turned out to be a total farce in this instance. That brings me to highlight a few other regulatory fantasies.

Marijuana cultivation and sale is against federal law, but it's the highest grossing agricultural product in our country and some states have even partially ("medically") legalized it.

Coal mines and oil drilling platforms are regularly inspected, but recent events have proved that many operators have figured out the system and how to get around it or ignore it.

The SEC and and the accounting profession have a myriad of regulations covering financial reporting, but some big companies and investment firms have "cooked their books" with impunity for years before being caught (or not).

Many states have laws banning cell phone and texting usage while driving, but one out of four drivers in my town, where it's illegal, seem to be on the devices almost all the time.

And yes, it's illegal to enter the United States without some form of official approval. Somehow, at least 12 million humans ( four in every 100 U.S. residents) are here without approval of any kind.

I'm sure you have plenty of personal examples of regulations that seem to have little or no effect on conduct. That's the problem with regulation - without effective enforcement, they are meaningless or even detrimental. People assumed, for example, that Bernard Madoff's operations had been scrutinized by the SEC, much to their impoverishment.

In my view, government entities that make regulations should be required (by a regulation) to make a convincing case that the regulation will be enforced generally. That is, that adequate resources have been assigned to ensure the regulation will be followed by the great majority of those affected by it. If the regulation does not pass this test, it should be put on hold until such time as the case can be made.

Most of us learned, early in life, that parental instructions are to be followed only if we wish to, or if we are likely to be caught violating them. And, if the punishment for violators is minimal, forget #2. These are laws of nature. Why, then, do we let our governments spend their time making laws that they know are either unenforceable or will not be enforced? It's time to regulate the regulators!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Thanks, Praise, and Payback

This is the sermon that I delivered at Christ Clarion Presbyterian Church this morning. It's based on Psalm 39, 4-7 and Matthew 5, 43-48. It's from both my mind and my heart.

Thanks, Praise, and Payback

One of my favorite songs is one by James Taylor, called “Walking Man”. I like the melody, and I like the idea of the singleminded person portrayed in the lyrics. “Everyone else stops and talks, but the walking man walks.”

Most of you probably know that I’m trying to finish hiking the Appalachian Trail. This year I’ve already walked 145 miles in the New England mountains, and I’ve got to hike another 70 in July to finish Vermont. In total, I’ve already walked 1,700 miles in ten states, so you can imagine why I identify with the “Walking Man” song; except for one thing, that is – I do stop and talk a little with most of the people I meet on the trail.

Walking so many miles in the wilderness allows me to experience something that I value very highly – solitude – life with minimal distractions. I’m alone with my thoughts, and I’m usually surrounded by the world at its most elemental level – nature, filled with beauty but also with challenges if one has to walk through it, day after day. As I subconsciously plan where I’m going to put my next footstep, to avoid a root, a rock or a puddle, my conscious thoughts often turn to the temporality of life, how short it is when compared to the mountains I’m climbing – mountains that have been there for several hundred million years, all of them being slowly worn down by wind, rain, and ice. I think about all the things that had to happen for me to even exist, and about the miracle that I have intelligence and can consider how all this came to be and what it means. I recall that everything I can see is made of elements formed in the hearts of stars, billions of years ago and so far away. And, here I am, the walking man. What does it all mean?

It’s at times like this when the thoughts of men and women from the Bible often come to mind. As I walk through primitive places, I can place myself closer to the Israelites who walked through the desert to the promised land. I can think about the pain of the Hebrew exiles as they walked from their homes to Babylonia and captivity. I can ponder Jesus’s years of walking from town to town to speak about God, or of Paul’s travels across the Roman world. All of these people had points of view on that big question – what does it all mean? And that’s what I had in mind as I thought about the scriptures for today. So, I chose a very thoughtful and contemplative passage from the Psalms, and then a part of Jesus’s sermon on the mount that is particularly special for me.

In the scripture that Sharon read earlier, we hear the Psalmist contemplating the meaning of life. “Let me know my end, and the number of my days”, he asks. He understands that he is a temporary being, here today and gone tomorrow, and that everything he values is fleeting and insignificant. It’s a sad and searching moment. Is there anything of permanence, anything worth waiting for and holding onto? After setting everything in his life aside, he asks “And now, Lord, what do I wait for?” From somewhere deep within him, an answer comes, an answer of faith - “My hope is in thee”. We all, at the core of our being, want to know what this life is all about, and we know that only God will be able to provide the answer. So, we thank God for everything, continually, and we wait for God to fill in the blanks each day of our life, and in the life to come. Our hope is to finally rest in God. This was true three thousand years ago, and it is still true today.

When our hope is in God, it’s natural to be filled with thanks and praise. Thank you, God, for creating everything, including all of us. For the heavens full of stars, for the warmth of the sun, the beauty of the flowers, for the incredible miracle of every sensory experience and emotion, whether pleasant or not. God’s power and majesty is beyond comprehension. Knowing this, every breath I take, every thought I think, every experience of my life is God’s gift. What gift could be more valuable, more deserving of thanks every day? Does it matter that my life will some day come to an end? I don’t think so. Who of us would prefer to never have lived – not me, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine never holding a loved one, never feeling the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, never existing in any way. How can we not join with the Psalmist and, with confidence and heartfelt thanks, repeat the the simple truth of faith – “O God, my hope is in thee.” For me, there is no alternative.

Let’s jump forward eight or nine centuries from the time that poignant Psalm was written, but we’re still in the same country. Jesus has been roaming, walking, visiting small towns and preaching out in the open. People follow him everywhere because he’s been doing amazing things. His words follow a similar pattern wherever he goes. He repeats his summary of the Ten Commandments – “Love God and your neighbor as yourself”. He tells people that God wants far more from people than simply following a rule book of laws – he wants them to live a life of love from the heart, to have gentle spirits, to be peacemakers. Years later, Matthew compiles Jesus’s words in Chapters 5 through 7 of his gospel. This story, of Jesus teaching on a hill as he often did, is known as the Sermon on the Mount.

Verses 43 through 48 of Matthew 5 always get my attention. The passage has two primary thoughts. The first is that God gives everyone an equal chance; God does not play favorites. Jesus says, “Your father makes his sun rise on the good and the bad alike, and sends the rain on the honest and the dishonest.” In this world at least, God does not punish bad behavior or reward good behavior. Wonderful things can happen for anyone, as can tragedies. Regardless of how we live, life will have its perils and disappointments. The same rain that waters one person’s crops washes away another’s home. The same sun that produces the lush foliage outside this window also parches marginal land into desert and drives affected families into despair. Even in our own relationships, no matter how hard we try, how lovingly we behave, sometimes even our best intentions do not bear fruit. We are to accept that this is the way the world works. But this does not in any way alter the fact that our world and our lives are the greatest gifts we can imagine. They are God’s gift to us, and Jesus says, “Your heavenly father’s goodness knows no bounds.”

The second thought in this passage is about payback. God did not give these gifts without having some heavy expectations about our response. Just as God gives the sun and rain to good and bad, equally, God expects us to treat everyone we meet with equal love. “Forget about the old idea of loving your neighbor and hating your enemy”, Jesus says. “If you love only those who love you, what reward can you expect? Everybody does that. I want you to be special, I want you to act like me.” Well, I don’t know about you, but I find this command to be very challenging.

The way I see it, being like Jesus does not mean just doing good when you get a chance. It means actively looking for opportunities to do good. Jesus often stopped what he was doing, or diverted his attention from another task, so that he could minister to someone who was ill or needed his help. How often do we do that? The thing is, God does not consider that kind of selflessness to be exceptional. It’s expected. It’s the payback for our gift of life and the boundless goodness of God. Can we do it? Maybe we can, much more often than we think. A good way to start would be to echo the Psalmist every morning when we get up. “O God, my hope is in you.”

So that’s it. The scriptures tell us that life is short and often unpredictable, but God’s goodness is boundless. Our every day, our every moment, is a miraculous gift from God. What else can we do but say, “Thank you, wonderful God, for all of this.” Thanks and praise. Then, it’s time to roll up our sleeves. It’s payback time.