Month: June 2020

It’s been quite a half year

On this final day of the first half of 2020, I’m reading Lyn Alden’s excellent newsletter. She’s an engineer and an insightful economist. She writes:

“…3 months after initial COVID-19 shutdowns, we’re still shedding existing jobs faster on a weekly basis than we were at the peak of the Great Recession.

“…the number of continued claims that has been hovering around 20 million … is about 3x as high as the level that was reached during the Great Recession, which didn’t touch even 7 million at its worst point.

“…once we get to a point where 10 million of these unemployed folks manage to get back to work from this crisis (however long that takes), that will still leave more people with continued jobless claims than the worst point in 2009.”

We have much work to do to get our people back to work!

Wisdom from Old Prof

Jeff Miller has been a professor, economist and financial advisor. He helps people manage investments from his retirement community in Arizona.

One of his current ventures is Dash of Insight. Jeff writes a weekly “Weighing the Week Ahead” article that helps me understand what’s happening in our world and in our markets–no small achievement these days.

This week’s installment includes a chart about COVID-19’s spending impact that Jeff sifted from Harvard University by way of Statistica. I’m now passing it on to you.

The 0% line represents U.S. consumer spending for the same period in 2019. The red line represents spending this year. Notice the sharp drop between March 15 and April 1, and how spending languished more than 30% below last year’s spending until the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve began their massive effort to prop up the economy through unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and loans to businesses.

We’re still 8.9% below the 2019 level. Here’s the Old Prof’s summary:

“Stock market strength has provided a false sense of security. … Few investors have considered the actual downside risk in their portfolios.

“There’s a good solution ahead. It might be a vaccine, but more likely will be a combination of partial solutions–social distancing, regulations, testing, tracing, and a slower pace of reopening. Individual effort will help but leadership is required. I cannot force my fellow shoppers to wear a mask.”

Fine and normal

On Friday, American Airlines announced that as of Wednesday, July 1, they will begin filling the middle seats with passengers. According to CNBC’s Phil Lebeau, airlines cannot make a profit with one-third empty seats. Maybe they could squeeze out a small profit if they rented mannequins for cautious passengers to place in the middle seat. I see marketing potential for mannequins that advertise products.

This thought was inspired by a Thursday article in The Washington Post, “Everything is fine and normal. Just ask the mannequin at the next table.”

The article, by Maura Judkis, is about the creative owners of the Open Hearth restaurant in Greenville, South Carolina. She writes, in part:

“At Korean baseball stadiums, an Australian cafe and an Ohio boarding school, they’re cardboard cutouts to replace fans, customers and students. At some restaurants, they’re stuffed animals. At others, they’re realistic, store display-quality mannequins wearing full outfits, sitting at tables with place settings, theoretically helping you enjoy your meal by making a half-empty cafe feel more, uh, normal.”

Valor takes many forms

We (four humans and two dogs) spent some time yesterday on a walking tour of downtown Birmingham, including Railroad Park, the Rotary Park, the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail and Kelly Ingram Park.

Various types of valor are commemorated along those paths, including the children who faced Bull Connor’s water cannons and police dogs and many countless people who sacrificed to make America better.

Kelly Ingram Park was the scene of many Civil Rights protests in the 1960s. One walkway cuts diagonally across the park as it leads toward a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. As you make that walk, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute emerges on the left.

It was a memory refresher for me and I learned some new things, such as the story of Osmond Kelly Ingram (1887-1917). He was the first Navy enlisted person killed in World War I. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Here’s a link to his story of valor.

Last night’s local news included part of a two-minute video featuring players from the University of Alabama football team who are doing what they can to make America better.

“Then & Now: Magic City Rotary Trail sign,” Birmingham Magazine, Nov. 29, 2018

The luminous web

From Barbara Brown Taylor’s 2000 book, The Luminous Web (pp. 73-74), Richard Rohr included these words in his daily meditation for yesterday, which helped me navigate the challenging state of our nation and world:

I am large compared to a virus and small compared to the sun, with a life that is permeable to them both. Am I alone? How could I ever be alone? I am part of a web that is pure relationship, with energy available to me that has been around since the universe was born.

Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.

At this point in my thinking, it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity—the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that make it all go. This is the God who is not somewhere but everywhere, the God who may be prayed to in all directions at once. This is also the God beyond all directions, who will still be here (wherever “here” means) when the universe either dissipates into dust or swallows itself up again.

A spider’s web at sunrise on the Appalachian Trail, 2014 (photo by Cathey Leach)

A context for this era

One of the most memorable people I’ve met was Phyllis Tickle (1934-2015). I first read her work in the late 1980s and our paths crossed twice when she was in her 70s. She wrote The Great Emergence in 2008. It offers a context for understanding, and grappling with, our current tumultuous era.

Historians will look back on this pandemic as a catalyst for hastening many changes that were already in the works, such as the widespread use of virtual meetings. My aunt’s congregation sent an email yesterday entitled “Job Posting,” in their search for “a part-time audio visual technician.”

Yesterday’s email also included an announcement that this year’s Methodist “annual conference” has been postponed again, this time to late September. It will be a “multi-venue, in-person satellite experience, live-streamed.” These emails inspired me to re-read Tickle’s take on technology:

… computer science has unleashed upon us nanotechnology and artificial intelligence…. (which is part of our) movement to a more and more interiorized or imaged religious praxis. Millions of Americans now receive their entire pastoral care and have their whole religious instruction and engagement on the Internet…. the computer and cyberspace … have connected each of us to all the rest of us.

A clothbound, pre-Kindle device known as a “book”

The sensible center

Jon Meacham’s American Gospel, a Fathers Day gift, describes how our Founders created a nation where religion wouldn’t be singled out for special help or particular harm. He wrote:

The great good news about America … is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it. Belief in God is central to the country’s experience, yet for the broad center, faith is a matter of choice, not coercion, and the legacy of the Founding is that the sensible center holds.

Our Founders learned from the religious wars and crusades of Europe and from periods of religious intolerance in the colonies. Their goal was to establish a country based on principles that were greater than the human imagination and that could not be taken away by human power.

So, they turned to the faith that was most familiar, Christianity, enriched by their awareness of other faiths and secular philosophies. Meacham wrote:

The balance between the promise of the Declaration of Independence, with its evocation of divine origins and destiny, and the practicalities of the Constitution, with its checks on extremism, remains perhaps the most brilliant American success.

A march in Eastaboga

Several lifetimes ago I spent three years splitting time between Eastaboga and Atlanta, serving a congregation on weekends and studying theology on weekdays. Services were cancelled on race weekends in the community that is home to the (then) newly opened Talladega Superspeedway.

Yesterday, my mind was flooded with memories of dear Eastaboga friends as I watched the last 30 minutes of the GEICO 500, itself memorable as the third place finisher crossed the checkered flag going backwards.

The race was memorable because drivers and fans demonstrated the best of America by rallying behind Bubba Wallace, who finished 14th in Richard Petty’s #43. The only black driver in NASCAR’s top tier was a catalyst for NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag from its tracks. Someone put a noose in Wallace’s stall, prompting his fellow drivers and crews to push his car and march behind him to the starting line yesterday at Eastaboga.

Bubba Wallace takes a selfie (L.A. Times story linked above)

On presidential speech

Prior to last week, the 1921 massacre in Tulsa’s Greenwood District was only vaguely part of my consciousness, as was Juneteenth. I was helped by two 1921 speeches given by a republican president, Warren G. Harding (1865-1923). Both speeches were unknown to me.

Three days after Greenwood, Mr. Harding was the commencement speaker at Lincoln University, our first degree-granting historically black institution. He shook hands with each graduate, honored “the Lincoln men” who fought in Europe, and of the Greenwood tragedy prayed, “God grant that, in the soberness, the fairness, and the justice of this country, we never see another spectacle like it.”

Later in 1921, Mr. Harding spoke to 100,000 people at Birmingham’s semi-centennial. He was the first president to visit the deep south since the Civil War. Blacks and whites were separated by a fence. It was a long speech, though shorter than Mr. Trump’s on Saturday.

He spoke with presidential substance in a Ku Klux Klan era:

But the demagogues who would array class against class and group against group have fortunately found little to reward their efforts. That is because, despite the demagogues, the idea of our oneness as Americans has risen superior to every appeal to mere class and group. And so I would wish it might be in this matter of our national problem of races.

“When Bigotry Paraded Through the Streets,” Joshua Rothman, The Atlantic, Dec. 4, 2016

The six-foot rule of thumb

Congregations are beginning the gradual process of physical, rather than virtual, gathering. Today is the first Sunday that my aunt’s church in Tennessee is wading back into the water. They’re Methodists, so wading is a major step.

Churches, businesses and other groups are finding ways to carry out their mission. Some of the existing architecture is difficult, but we’re adapting. My original knee-jerk reaction was negative about the “six-foot” rule of thumb, but on the other hand I’ve enjoyed having more elbow room.

Today, the Talladega Superspeedway will host the GEICO 500 race as part of the NASCAR Cup Series. To provide physical distancing, fewer tickets will be available and will be limited to people who live within 150 miles of the track. Temperatures will be checked. Face masks are required.

The six-foot rule of thumb doesn’t apply to the race cars, however.

This one is making the rounds on Facebook.