Geranium Farm Home     Who's Who on the Farm     The Almost Daily eMo     Subscriptions     Coming Events     Links
Hodgepodge     More or Less Church     Ways of the World     Father Matthew     A Few Good Writers     Bookstore
Light a Prayer Candle     Message Board     Donations     Gifts For Life     Pennies From Heaven     Live Chat

Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Sunday, February 22, 2009


When times are tough, the cheats get found out. We mentioned in passing in our previous post that yet another dishonest money manager had indeed got found out. Clients of R. Allen Stanford of Houston are apparently out some $8 billion, and even if all their funds are not lost, they have at least lost access to the funds while the investigation goes on. Press reports today relate that this is putting a squeeze on a number of Exxon retirees who live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the Stanford company has a large branch, and on the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra, a small organization that doesn't have a huge roll of benefactors. But the Stanford company was one of them and presently owes $30,000 in an overdue pledge. A couple of New York Yankee players report that they can't use their credit cards this weekend because their assets are managed by a financial advisor who deals with the Stanford firm.

In the latest report on the Madoff Affair, the trustee who is liquidating the Madoff assets to try to get some money back for the customers told a meeting of them this past week that there was no evidence that any actual securities had been purchased by the Madoff management firm for at least the last 13 years. All of their detailed periodic statements read well, but were completely fictitious.

Then there's the case of Roland Burris, the Senator from Illinois nominated by the now deposed governor Rod Blagojevich to take President Obama's seat. It turns out, sadly, that evidently Mr. Burris had in fact tried to solicit funds on the governor's behalf while lobbying to get the nomination. Star-crossed, seemingly, and sickening at what should be a time of such triumph for all of those people. Burris's real crime here, importantly, is less the soliciting than the fact that he seems to have lied to the state legislature about whether he had done it. That reminds me of Martha Stewart's run-in with the law. It wasn't the possible insider-trading that sent her to jail; it was the fact that she lied to the FBI investigators about her dealings with other parties in the situation. I also realize that this dishonesty is no respecter of position: both business sorts and government types have committed it.

Simple honesty. Is this lost to us somehow? White lies. Big lies. Total fabrications. How did that happen? Can we work on it?

As Lent approaches in a few days, we looked for some prayers about being honest. We find lots of confessionals for having been untruthful, but not anything in the prayerbooks we have that asks specifically for guidance in pursuing an honest life. Puzzling. We need some prevention as well as remediation. We could talk about the importance of integrity and the dangers of greed. But I'm groping for something simpler and more fundamental. Simple honesty. Telling and carrying out the truth as best we can.

We did find something to hang on to. Long-time readers of these columns who have really good memories may recall John Chervokas. He is a retired advertising executive ("Please don't squeeze the Charmin!") who wrote Pinstripe Prayers, a wonderful little book of prayers for various business situations. The one he has for this one is a "Prayer for Ananias". We quote this below; it fits remarkably with many of the current circumstances. We also looked up the associated Biblical citation. The tragic story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira is told in Acts 5, verses 1 to 11. And then we tried to find when during the Church year this lesson is read on a Sunday. Perhaps it might come during Lent, we thought, yielding up a great and timely sermon opportunity. Alas, according to the website The Lectionary (, it is not included at all in the Sunday readings in the RCL, Roman, Lutheran or Methodist schedules. We did finally find it in the Episcopal Church Daily Office, Year One, the Saturday nearest June 15. What can I say. For the present, we'll just have to read it for ourselves.

But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.
Now, pray for "Ananias" of the 21st Century (the text is modified slightly to update the 1984 issues).*

Watch over Ananias in button-down blue;
I've caught him again saying that he cabbed
in from the airport
When I know he took the bus
And pocketed the [$20] difference.

Watch over Ananias with ingratiating smile
Who puts in for a lunch
He had with his sister-in-law,
Claiming that she might be a source
of new business.

Watch over Ananias whose "Miscellaneous" expenses
Have become an Accounting Department joke.
How often has he – and we – felt
That the company owed us a little something more
And instead of asking,
We take,
We fake,
We make
Like no one knows.

Watch over the Ananias in all of us, Lord,
So that the moral queasiness
We feel about things like [detainee torture]
and [climate change]
We may feel about putting in for phone calls we never made.

Obviously, there are numerous Biblical references to "honesty". If we have overlooked or been unaware of a specific prayer you know that addresses such basic ethics, please pass it along. Or send it to Joanna's More or Less Church.

*John Chervokas. Pinstripe Prayers. Originally published by Seabury, 1984. Now apparently available from HarperCollins. Listed online at and

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Support of One Kind, Stimulus of Another

We promised more commentary on religion and evolution and economics, and that is surely forthcoming. But other current events deserve their own notice as well.

Flight 1549 Support Group
Ordinarily we wouldn't think to quote to you from People Magazine. But we're really taken by the cover story in the current issue (February 23) about US Airways Captain Chesley Sullenberger and the passengers on Flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson River on January 15. We've had some flying lessons (many years ago) enough to appreciate that when he says he was just doing his job that day, he really means that. The training and his experience as a glider pilot mean he knew how to angle the plane "just so" to have the plane skim along the water rather than plunge into it. Obviously, though, the extraordinary results have heartened us all, especially at a time when we need to have some genuine heroism in our lives. People highlights this in relating that the Captain was introduced last week to the audience at a Broadway show performance, and they roared spontaneously in a standing ovation.

The People story tells us something else about the aftermath of that flight. It was a truly traumatic experience for the passengers, and they've had some aftereffects. The magazine's reporters talked to a number of them about how they're feeling. While some immediately got back on airplanes and continued to go about their business, others have felt real dis-stress. They have formed an email chat group with each other and report needing to talk to the others on the plane. We've also had a serious traumatic experience – of a whole different sort, but a similar magnitude – and we can identify with one woman's comment that "no one else understands, like someone else who was on the plane."

This is what support groups are about in general, and having started one for our particular need almost 25 years ago when there weren't any close by, we can feel warmth and gratitude that society and culture today almost automatically foster this mutual self-aid and fellowship. God be with these people as they heal and move on! Read their stories in the People article (in the magazine only, and apparently not online), and please remember these good folks in your prayers.

Fiscal Stimulus
At about 3:00PM today, Eastern Time, President Obama will be signing into law H.R.1 The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which Congress passed last Friday, February 13. The signing is taking place, not at the White House, but in Denver, at a museum building where electricity is provided by solar panels. This is presumably meant as a symbol of some of the initiatives in the massive legislation, which offers $787 billion all told in stimulus spending and tax relief, of which $50.8 billion is targeted toward energy spending projects and $20 billion more in energy-oriented tax cuts and credits. As we've mentioned here before, education, health care and infrastructure spending get considerable attention as well. The so-named "individual aid" provisions include a $400 tax credit per person, payable through reduced withholding, a 13% increase in food stamp benefits, tax credits for first-time homebuyers, deductibility of sales tax on new car purchases, tuition tax credits, a subsidy for the unemployed to help them pay COBRA health insurance costs, and numerous other specialized items. You should see some of this personally up in the Spring, as soon as the IRS can revise the withholding tables to reflect the tax credit and your paycheck increases, maybe $25 at a time. If you want to watch all of this happen, look on a special stimulus program website:

An analysis released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) last week indicates that the stimulus program can help the economy, adding perhaps 2-1/2% to economic output by the fourth quarter of this year over what it might be otherwise. This would produce a slim rise in gross domestic product (GDP), instead of a 1.5% contraction previously expected in CBO's base-case forecast. The unemployment rate, which was 7.6% in January, might be held to 8.1% in the fourth quarter instead of the 9.0% projected in the base case.*

Despite the improved economic prospects, the stock market has not exhibited much enthusiasm. Today, the Dow Jones has fallen about 250 points and is trading just about 50 points above its recent multi-year cycle low, touched briefly in December. Investors aren't finding much to lift their spirits. New allegations of fraud were voiced today against still another big-name money manager. The highly touted bank bailout plan announced last week by the Secretary of the Treasury turned out to show little in the way of concrete moves forward and was seemingly focused more on enforcement actions. The stimulus bill itself includes a provision tightening pay caps on executives of banks that are receiving government capital funds; this is the government's prerogative as a major shareholder now in these institutions but it goes against the whole financial industry's mindset. While the move may sound desirable from an ethical point of view, it won't encourage renewed investment activity. And throughout the day, markets waited uneasily for the release of plans from General Motors and Chrysler, updating their own bailout status and prospects.

Sigh. Listless investors, with little uplifting to break them out of it. Well, consumer spending, according to broad data on shopping at retail stores and online, did increase unexpectedly in January. Wal-Mart today reported earnings for its January quarter that were down from a year ago, but noticeably better than stock analysts had predicted. So all is not lost, and the activity from the multitude of stimulus programs can generate movement in many sectors which should all get under way fairly soon. Maybe watching the money flow out through the Recovery website will help us grasp it more tangibly and act with more confidence.

*Congressional Budget Office. Letter to the Honorable Judd Gregg, February 11, 2009, page 5. and The Budget and Economic Outlook, Fiscal Years 2009-2019. January 2009. Both available on We've quoted the midpoints of ranges in CBO's Outlook document.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lincoln's & Darwin's Birthday

Thursday, February 12, marks the 200th Anniversary of the births of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin, two great names in modern world and cultural history. We speak here only momentarily of Mr. Lincoln: a hundred and fifty years after the major acts of his lifetime, there is little controversy over their significance. The culmination of their historical development now resides, even as we speak, in the American White House. To us, that says more than any paragraphs we might be able to compose here to try to celebrate Mr. Lincoln's Birthday. We're sure he would be thrilled and would feel more than a little empathy for the challenges Mr. Obama faces at present.

Mr. Darwin is another matter altogether. Thinking about him has prompted us to engage in some study about evolution and the science-religion debates, which do not lack at all for controversy. What comes from this for Ways of the World will be three articles: this one focusing on these debates, one applying some contemporary neuroscience to our individual experiences of God and one applying principles of evolution to the workings of the economy. In this pursuit, we've been looking for some answers to our own questioning, and we've found some that are most intriguing. But all is far from clear. So if you find in what follows that we misstate or gloss over any science, theology or history you are familiar with, please do use the "Post a Comment" facility at the end of each article to correct, clarify or amplify. Then we'll all learn more.

Science is younger than religion and often behaves like a young upstart that thinks it has all the answers. "Young" is a relative notion, and we cite as a fairly early example The Galileo Affair of the first half of the 17th Century. It's often popularly thought that Catholic Church leaders, blindly asserting the primacy of biblical explanations, simply dug in their heels in the face of the challenge over which, the Sun or the Earth, revolved around the other.

In fact, our reading tells us, Galileo was actually quite religious and also had the support of various Church leaders, at least in his right to publish his materials. Some went further. Cardinal Bellarmine, for instance, suggested that if science could show that a sun-centered structure was the correct version, then the Church might conclude not that science was necessarily in error, but that our understanding of Scripture might be incomplete. The eventual debate and trial of Galileo were intense and thoughtful on both sides. Possibly only Galileo's disputatious nature caused the Church to buck up against him.

Our chief sources here, Christopher Southgate and Michael Poole[1], point out one other significant factor. In Galileo's time, the Catholic Church was steeped in another struggle, the Counter-Reformation. Thus, it was likely more defensive about every question it had to address.

Such a context of challenge is also important for assessing the impact of Darwin's work in the mid-19th Century. At that time, historical biblical criticism was bringing debate to many issues in the Christian faith previously thought to be unquestionable. Further, developments in geology and archaeology were starting to indicate that the Earth is probably much older than the Genesis descriptions of Creation and later bible history imply. So in each of these situations, the Church was already in a defensive position.

But also, as with Galileo, the weakness of the Church in the face of the Darwin challenge is often exaggerated. Popular accounts of a famous debate between Darwin's spokesperson Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce highlight a sarcastic exchange about what part of Mr. Huxley's family might have descended more directly from apes. In fact, later comments about the meeting, even from Huxley's son, suggest that the Bishop argued quite well and Huxley had not come out ahead. Wilberforce had previously written a serious critique of The Origin of Species that demonstrated considerable knowledge and study on his part and the critique is said to have covered significant points in Darwin's work. So again, the consequent disagreements were largely honest ones that did not arise out of religion's blind dogmatic rejection of science's innovation.[2]

Moreover, there was outright support for Darwin from within the Church, at least in Britain. In this coming Sunday's bulletin insert from Episcopal Life, the Revs. Phina Borgeson and Thomas Lindell tell us about Aubrey Moore, an Anglo-Catholic theologian at Oxford and curator of the British Botanical Garden, who "embraced [Darwin's] work as a help in understanding how God is intimately and lovingly present to all creation."[3]

So does science need God? The 20th Century version of this dialogue sees more publicity for the "no" answer, in a train-of-thought known as "reductionism": Can aspects of "life" be reduced to purely natural, scientific concepts or explanations? Southgate shows how "it depends" on the type of question and the way it is formulated. He cites Francis Crick, who with James Watson discovered DNA and who has asserted that the "ultimate aim" of the current movement in biology is to explain all of biology in terms of physics and chemistry. Southgate agrees that this is perhaps accomplished for substances in living things: there appears to be no separate vitalism or "life force". But the accompanying issue of phenomena or processes brings a less complete answer: can we explain what goes on in life as purely the product of the interaction of atoms and molecules? The answer there is no, Southgate says: there are outside forces, such as environment, that exert a separate impact from that of physical science.

Similarly with E.O. Wilson. Wilson, author of Sociobiology (1975), argues that in fact life processes are tied solely to evolution. Even such an attitude as altruism is not inspired purely by religiosity, but can be reduced to the greater likelihood for survival by those who are altruistic: "I'll scratch your back and someone will scratch mine and we'll all live longer and have more kids." Here again, though, Southgate counters, many aspects of behavior can be understood only in economic and social terms that have little to do with reproductive success.[4]

The trend in thinking that the only purpose in life is to survive and reproduce has perhaps found its strongest expression in the work of Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (1976) and The Blind Watchmaker (1986). In the first of these, he explains, according to Southgate, that genes only want to survive and reproduce and the body they are in is nothing more than a "survival machine". The Blind Watchmaker carries a step further the approach from the Enlightenment era that God merely made the clock and got it going and now he stands back to see it run; by Dawkins's account, God seemingly doesn't even pay attention or care.

John Polkinghorne can help us with this. Professor Polkinghorne, physicist and past president of Queen's College, Cambridge, has been mentioned in this column before, when we noted his status as a recipient of the Templeton Prize for research in science and spiritual matters. "The theologian's response to the biologist's [Dawkins's] unbelief", he writes in Belief in God in an Age of Science [5], "must lie in proposing an alternative interpretation of the history . . . of the universe. . . . This . . . corresponds to a transition from a natural theology to a theology of nature. We are not now looking to the physical world for hints of God's existence but to God's existence as an aid for understanding why things have developed in the physical world in the manner that they have. . . . God has self-limited divine power by allowing [the world] truly to be itself. . . . It is in the nature of dense snow fields that they will sometimes slip with the destructive force of an avalanche. . . . It is the nature of humankind that sometimes people will act with selfless generosity but sometimes with murderous selfishness. That these things are so is not gratuitous or due to divine oversight or indifference. They are the necessary cost of a creation given by its Creator the freedom to be itself."

[1] Christopher Southgate and Michael Poole, "An Introduction to the Debate Between Science and Religion", Chapter 1, God Humanity and the Cosmos. Christopher Southgate, Ed. London: T & T Clark International. 2005. Pp. 22-25.

[2] John Hedley Brooke, "Learning from the Past", Chapter 3, God Humanity and the Cosmos, pp. 64-66.

[3] The Revs. Phina Borgeson and Thomas Lindell, "Charles Darwin, Christian faith and The Origin of Species", Episcopal Life Weekly. February 15, 2009.

[4] Christopher Southgate, "Theology and Evolutionary Biology", Chapter 6, God, Humanity and the Cosmos, Pp. 175-188.

[5] John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1998. Pp. 12-13.

We were directed to Mr. Southgate's materials by Phina Borgeson, "Evolution and faith in dialogue", Episcopal Life, February 2009, p. 9. We commend the article to you, along with the numerous other resources the Rev. Borgeson lists. Thanks much for Mother Borgeson's helpful work!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Economic Stimulus

Possibly by the time you are reading this, the Senate will have voted on its version of an economic stimulus program, similar to but not identical with the $819 billion bill the House passed last Wednesday. As of Monday afternoon, February 2, the Senate's modifications looked to run the potential cost to $887 billion – give or take.

The nominal purpose of this enormous federal government outreach is to administer a jump-start to the still declining economy. The proposal looks to do this through some tax relief, construction-oriented spending projects and expansions of various benefit programs, especially unemployment insurance and Medicaid. At the same time, several of the specific measures represent major new extensions of government participation. While these latter might be desirable according to some political and policy agendas, we're skeptical of the rush to shove them into law without much of the usual analysis and vetting. To say nothing of all the money being thrown around.

Traditional Stimulus Provisions
The main tax item is a refundable tax credit that marks the initiation of the "tax cut for 95% of Americans" that Mr. Obama campaigned on. Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office suggest that this will infuse about $117 billion into people's take-home pay this fiscal year (ends September 30) and $250 billion in 2010 through reduced withholding.

Unemployment insurance has already been liberalized twice over the last year and is due in this plan for further lengthening of recipients' eligibility. Food stamps, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or "SNAP", would also get a boost.

Some months ago, we argued here for "revenue sharing" to give some generalized relief to state and local governments whose budgets are in really tough shape presently. Such undesignated grants are not in this plan, but extra support for Medicaid and "state fiscal relief" are included. These would limit spending cuts, layoffs and tax increases that would otherwise be needed for those governments to balance their budgets.

The bill contains some standard highway spending, public transit and other public works, some under the rubric of making federal government buildings and military installations more environmentally compliant.

All of these items have strong historical precedents as fiscal stabilizers. Some "talking-heads" have argued that the construction works are too slow to get under way, but the mere passage of the spending authorization sets off planning and preparation activity and raises expectations. The Senate's bill may also contain provisions to speed the usual contracting and approval processes to get these projects going sooner.

New Initiatives: In an Omnibus Package?
More controversial – at least in our view, and what we've heard from some other commentators – are moves instituting federal support of individuals' health insurance, collecting and computerizing health information, a major foray into education spending, including construction funding and more Pell Grants, and energy and environmental projects. These programs and others may be quite worthy and desirable to the new, more liberal majorities in government. These issues are part of the platforms those people ran for office to support. But we're surprised to see them packaged together under the banner of "economic stimulus". Indeed, any government outlay could be deemed economic stimulus, and apparently this is the rationale for the slapdash treatment of some of these items. But since they are new, it would seem appropriate to have hearings and discussions on standards, budgets and other aspects of the federal governing process. One agency, for instance, with a current budget of about $17 million, would be allotted something on the order of $1 billion. How should they manage these monies?

Tax Cuts or Spending Hikes?
Another concern about the stimulus package is the overall division between lowering taxes and raising spending. Tax relief is more easily implemented, at the least the kind in this plan, so it might help sooner, as soon as withholding schedules can be adjusted. But consumers might save some of the resulting increase in their paychecks, diluting the intended boost to their spending. Thus, the shape of this current stimulus package tilts more toward government doing the spending to get the money into the economy, albeit with some delay. Which is better?

The issue of larger consumer saving during recessions is called the "paradox of thrift", in which consumers make the recession worse by holding back their spending to try to shore up their own finances. This topic would be good for an entire article here or more. Briefly, though, in some recessions that had different origins, we might have some concern about the deleterious impact of consumers' "thrift". But this collapse emerged in part from spendthrift consumers who could no longer pay their bills. We want them to get their debt down. We argued here last spring for you to use last year's tax rebate check to do just that. It's much better to have less debt rather than more - especially if you lose your job. So right now, we'd say that the paradox of thrift is almost a red herring, if it's being used as a reason not to cut taxes.

Ways of the World cannot by definition advocate for specific government positions or policies. But we can alert you to questions you can ask and features you should be on the lookout for. Know where your dollars are going. And the $900 billion total doesn't include the extra interest cost due to the ballooning government debt. Indeed, interest rates on long-term government securities have already begun to rise in anticipation of the larger borrowing needs. At the same time, if these programs are effective in stimulating the economy, then revenues will increase, so the stimulus will be at least partially self-supporting. We hope that's how it turns out.

Copyright © 2003-Present Geranium Farm - All rights reserved.
Reproduction of any materials on this web site for any purpose
other than personal use without written consent is prohibited.