Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bush passes the buck on economy

Consumers, Congress is to blame for any economic discomfort you are having, not the Unitary Executive. Got that?

In a Rose Garden press conference Tuesday, President George Bush blamed Congress for high gas prices, high food prices, rising foreclosures, and more. According to President Bush, the current Congress is responsible for the oil industry not creating new oil refining capacity for the last 30 years. And Congress is to blame for thwarting domestic oil exploration. And Congress is to blame for a global spike in food prices. And Congress is to blame for everything that could possibly contribute to the economic mess we're in. So, please don't blame President Bush or anyone in the White House for this fine mess.

Besides, your stimulus checks are in the pipeline, so be patient. You might be facing foreclosure, but any day you'll be receiving a check for $600. You could use that for a moving van, instead of just taking whatever fits in your car when the bank takes your house. If you are finding it hard to feed your children, that 600 bucks could buy some groceries. You could also use the money for a tank of gas. Think of it as a little pick-me-up in the midst of your enduring hardship. In the meantime, consider asking Congress to make the Bush tax cuts permanent and urge your representatives to permit drilling in ANWAR.

President Bush allowed that there are no quick fixes to ease your pain. If you were Bear Stearns or one of the Bush Pioneers things might be different. You'd get more than $600 because you'd need more than that to maintain the standards to which you've become accustomed. But if you actually need to work to: pay your mortgage, feed and clothe your family, pay tuition bills, gas your car, save for retirement and meet medical expenses, expect the pain to persist.

President Bush bemoaned the lack of a magic wand saying “If there was a magic wand to wave, I’d be waving it, of course." Then, gripped by clear sight he added, "But there is no magic wand to wave right now." Was there ever?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Toad restores hope

Big Yard Bob is a powerful toad.

Big Yard Bob has a message for Michigan: the news isn't reality.

My children named Bob years ago when they spotted him by the sandbox. He became their seasonal companion in the mud behind the shed, under some leaves, here and there. They could never be sure he'd join their adventures, but often he did.

Big Yard Bob is the reason we stopped fertilizing the lawn. It had nothing to do with Earth Day. We worried about his toady skin absorbing the poison meant for grubs and crabgrass. We didn’t want him eating things coated in pesticide. We didn’t want to kill one of our children’s best friends. We'd grown to appreciate Bob's surprise appearances and the thrill it gave the kids.

Even as the children became adolescents, trading the sandbox for iPods and calculus and Facebook, Bob kept to the yard. We’d spot him as we gardened or mowed.

Yesterday, I saw him -- a burly specimen of toady muscle. He leapt away from the mower into some leaves under a bush. And he reminded me that all the bad news in the world cannot suppress the wonder of a single toad.

Bad news can smother us. Negativity pummels daily: credit crunch, financial meltdown, global recession, food shortages, soaring energy prices, foreclosures, plant closings, layoffs, outsourcing. It just goes on and on.

A single Bob spotting returns me to my senses -- to my awareness of the real world, the natural world, the world of a life force that will not be suppressed by financialization, war, greed, corruption and hate.

Bob lives in the real world and he reminds me that I do too. Bob has no rights, but he is free. Bob is radically alive. Bob lives in the present moment. Bob is not American. Bob is not a Christian. Bob is not a Democrat or Republican. Bob cannot be destroyed in the media. He's not a consumer, voter, property owner, sports fan, or anything else other than a toad.

And we are -- if we can remember among the cyber noise and bad news -- completely, utterly human. None of the trappings we've come to "need" make us human -- identities, work, religion, addictions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, possessions, affiliations, afflictions. We were fully human at birth and as children, before we filled our minds with notions of who we "really" are and who we want to be. Before we accumulated false antidotes to our deepest fears.

Our responses to the news and anything else we encounter affect our perception of reality. These responses can increase suffering or help mitigate it. This is our power as human beings. We can make positive or negative change in the world. As bad as things seem, we can adjust our responses to make things better. We have a choice in the matter -- to attend to the thing immediately before us with full attention and care.

Try it. Take a deep breath and just attend to what is before you. Smile at a stranger. Focus on the present moment. Throw off the cognitive tangle of economic, political and global crises and be where you are. You'll be amazed how different it all looks as light and hope break through the obscuring illusion of fear.

Big Yard Bob is real. So is hope.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Dalai Lama urges understanding across religious traditions

The Dalai Lama taught about wisdom, compassion, and the nature of the self, but not politics in two, two-hour Dharma talks Saturday at the University of Michigan. Speaking to a reverent crowd of thousands, he urged people to adhere to their own traditions, saying that a multiplicity of traditions and religions serves the diversity of human beings. He said that while some people find different religions threatening to the point of embracing fundamentalism, "genuine harmony on the basis of mutual respect is essential." The spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet said that as he learns about Islam, Christianity and Judaism through personal experience "my genuine admiration and respect to those traditions grows."

Hours before the first lecture, some of that diversity gathered outside.

Chinese students from University of Michigan prepared for non-violent protest before Dalai Lama's presentation. About 50 students gathered at the peak of the protest. Liang Zhang, a University of Michigan graduate student in electrical engineering and president of the Chinese Student and Scholar Association said, “The theme of this rally is to support the Beijing Olympics and to protest the violent behavior that’s been taking place during the Olympic Torch run. Also to protest political interference in the Olympics." He added, “I think we have to listen to voices from different sides and different perspectives -- not only from Dalai Lama and not only from Chinese government, but from more vast points of view."

Arjia Rinpoche heads the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, IN. During the Cultural Revolution he was required to work in a labor camp. After release from the camp, he served as Abbot of Kumbum Monastery, one of Tibet's six great monastic universities and held high positions in the Chinese government. One of the eight high lamas of Tibet, he escaped Tibet in 1998. Referring to the presence of demonstrators at Crisler Arena he said, "This is a free country so you can have demonstration or protest without any fear of gunshot. In Tibet, unfortunately we cannot do that.” He continued, “My concern is that only through genuine dialog and negotiation can solve the problem, either violence or crack down with guns doesn’t work."

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A different music in Hill Auditorium: a conversation on Buddhism and art

Last night a different music resonated in Hill Auditorium, as Gelek Rimpoche, Richard Gere, Bobby McFerrin and Philip Glass shared thoughts on Buddhism and art with a sell out crowd.

There is no easy summarizing of their conversation, but some key points emerged.
1. That the student/teacher relationship familiar to many musicians, artists, and other vocations is related to the guru/student relationship in Buddhism.
2. Similarly, that the tradition and practice are conveyed from one person to another.
3. As an artist becomes a master by fully embodying a tradition, so too for the Buddhist who approaches enlightenment.
4. Practice in artistic disciplines is very similar to practice in the Buddhist sense -- meditation, compassion, right livelihood. It is in the repeated doing of the thing that one simply becomes it.
5. Although Tibetans in Tibet are suffering brutal repression of external expressions of Tibetan art, the spirit of the practice cannot be extinguished. It resides in people.

Those hundreds of Ann Arborites who waited happily in a block long line to pick up their tickets certainly got their money's worth at $5!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Dalai Lama coming to Michigan to uplift

"Michiganders need some upliftment" in the midst of their economic suffering, said Rimpoche Nawang Gelek, the man who invited the Dalai Lama for this week's visit to Ann Arbor.

Gelek Rimpoche, the founder of Jewel Heart, a Buddhist organization headquartered in Ann Arbor, told Michigan Messenger that he invited the Dalai Lama to Michigan "to lift the sadness in the air over the state" and to bring "a little something bright, a little happiness inside so we can take a second look at our economic situation." A startling and generous thought, given the world's attention on the controversy surrounding China's summer Olympics and last month's deadly violence in Tibet.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama will visit Ann Arbor April 19 and 20 to teach on "Engaging Wisdom and Compassion." His visit to the United States this month comes amid increased tension in Tibet over Chinese rule and worldwide calls for a boycott of this summer's Beijing Olympics. The Dalai Lama said Friday that he does not support a boycott of the Olympic games and has repeatedly called for an end to violence in Tibet. He also said in Seattle last week that he is not seeking the separation of Tibet from China.

Describing himself as "an independent Michigander," Gelek Rimpoche is a 69-year-old Buddhist teacher and former Tibetan monk who fled Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese takeover. He plans to make a statewide "post-Dalai Lama tour." "Whatever message he gives I will repeat," he said. "I have not the capacity of the Dalai Lama to uplift people, but still the message has a blessing."

He did not speculate about any particular resolution to the crisis in Tibet, but said rather "my concern is to stop the suffering."

"China wants Tibet. Alright, China, you can have it, if you treat people like human beings just like themselves," Gelek Rimpoche said. He pointed out that China has actually made political and social progress since the time of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. "Compared with that, they have come a long way."

As for Chinese presence in Tibet, he said that even after 50 years, China has failed to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans. And, with vast economic and military power and "beautiful public relations," China has the "complete upper hand on everything except the sympathy of the world."

While Gelek Rimpoche hopes that the Dalai Lama's visit will be uplifting, he allows for the possibility of protesters and cautions supporters to practice "non-engagement." His concerns seem apt. Monday, in Seattle, hundreds of pro-China demonstrators picketed at the University of Washington, where the Dalai Lama was receiving an honorary degree.

His advice to people attending the Dalai Lama's presentations in Ann Arbor, should there be anti-Dalai Lama protest: "You can listen, you can think and make your mind by your own intelligence, but don't try talk to them and try to convince them they're wrong. That is my main point. That can create trouble, and I hope that will not happen."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Why are the IMF and the World Bank worried about hunger?

Let's be clear about this: the IMF and the World Bank are not humanitarian organizations. They are global economic development and financial management organizations.

So why are they worried about surging food prices and global hunger? Global food riots and social unrest destabilize global economic development.

If people with low blood sugar are crabby, starving people can be seriously unruly. Facing a life and death situation, unruly people riot and call for revolutionary change to the status quo. This can impede global economic management and development.

Explanations for the current hunger crisis include: over population, food crops being used for fuel, drought, inflation, more people eating meat leading to higher grain prices etc.

At the risk of being reductionist, let me suggest that greed, fear and cognitive dissonance are the real culprits. Greed drives speculation in commodities and currencies. Greed makes people hoard. Greed keeps those who have more than they can possibly use from sharing with those who have nothing. Greed makes multinationals seek the cheapest possible labor in the remotest corners of the earth. Most people on earth subsist on what we consider pocket change -- maybe $2 bucks a day. They make our clothes, consumer electronics, and children's toys.

Fear keeps people who have something from identifying with those who live on nothing. It is too frightening to think you could be that person eating clay, salt and vegetable shortening in Haiti. It is terrifying to think you might not be able to feed your kids as they plead doubled over with hunger pains.

Cognitive dissonance and denial are the other culprits. Do you really deserve to eat while others starve? Does anyone deserve to starve? Chubby, overfed Americans love to hear that we are the greatest nation on earth. Indeed, manifest destiny still rings true for many. We are uniquely blessed and chosen by God. Our grocery stores are jammed with food from around the world because God loves us more. We eat up the gospel of guilt-free abundance preached by new agers and fundamentalist Christians alike. Don't be ashamed of God's blessing, they say. God wants you to prosper. God wants you to have more and more.

Might God also want you to share your bounty with those angry mobs suffering low blood sugar, unable to purchase basic food stuffs like corn and rice and beans halfway round the globe?

If we're fat and happy and feel entitled, why question policies that have brought about another world hunger crisis affecting people elsewhere? Why look into global development policies that lock poor people into cycles of debt and greater poverty? If we're too worried about filling our gas tank, we probably won't spend time worrying about people in India, Egypt, and Senegal filling their stomachs (let alone people in our own backyard).

In a global economy, hunger is largely a political problem. We seem to lack the will to eliminate hunger because it would require rethinking everything and making profound structural changes to global economic systems that are byzantine and hidden from our daily experience. Sadly, hunger seems something to be managed not eliminated.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Consumer confidence continues to slide -- hits 26-year low

Worries about inflation and jobs continue to drive down U.S. consumer confidence.

The Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary consumer sentiment index for April fell to 63.2, lower than economists had expected. The index hasn't been this low since March of 1982 during a previous period of profound economic slowdown.

Consumer expectations for near-term inflation rose to the highest level since late 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

During that same crisis, the University of Michigan Survey of Consumer Sentiment actually created the preliminary mid-month number. In a recent interview, director of the survey, Richard Curtin said as soon as Iraq invaded Kuwait, "our number dropped steeply. I was faced with waiting until the end of the month and saying 'surprise' or giving people a heads up in mid month where our number is heading."

Being a leading economic indicator, the index anticipates economic trends. Based on this and other indicators, experts foresee a protracted, consumer-led recession.

Election fatigue: a long winter of political cabin fever

I have a serious case of election fatigue, and I'm not the only one. Just Google it. From Bitch Magazine to Jack Cafferty, folks are ready for this thing to be over.

The Democratic primary season has gone on too long, just like the winter. This season's election fatigue feels like a bad case of cabin fever up north. It may be spring -- daffodils and crocuses are popping up in Ann Arbor -- but yesterday there was a winter storm warning in the Upper Peninsula (even blizzard warnings in Minnesota). Consider this: Spring weather will reach the U.P. long before a the Dems have a presidential candidate.

We've been trapped in the narrative of delegate counts, race vs. gender, pastors gone wild, Hillary's tall tales from Bosnia and more for so long, we are numb. How many more campaign ads must we deconstruct? Still we persevere, knowing that this, like the snowy season, shall pass.

As early as January, the fatigue had begun to set in for some. But the Michigan primary kept interest alive among state voters, political professionals and campaign junkies. Today, who really cares about the principles behind the allotting of Michigan's Democratic delegates? Who wants to keep watching the Michigan Democratic Party display its ineptitude, ineffectiveness and division? It would be more fulfilling to de-thatch the lawn and spread grub pellets.

We want a break from our election companions, the intrepid Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but everywhere we turn there they are -- bowling, eating doughnuts, walking factory floors, saying things they regret later. Our other election companions, the pundits, grow equally tiresome. You know readers are fed up when they go after Maureen Dowd (see: "Hey Maureen Dowd, Please Shut Up"), one of the more articulate and even-handed columnists of the day.
The 24/7 information environment and a news cycle disconnected from the rising and setting of the sun have distorted our sense of time. Time in the virtual environment of blogs and streaming feeds has the feel of a Las Vegas casino. The virtual realm propagates itself without reference to the natural world of sun and shadow.

We hear that Democrats need to fall in love with their candidate. It's too late for that. The candidates have spinach in their teeth, and we know they snore. The days of easy infatuation are behind us. Familiarity, meet contempt. After months of the Bickersons on parade, many voters will actually be fooled and think that John McCain is a refreshing change.

According to the most recent Rasmussen polls, McCain is the candidate most likely to win Michigan, albeit by a very slim margin. Just enough to game the system, a cynic might say. When the Michigan Legislature was changing the primary date, we frequently heard proponents say, "No candidate can become president without winning Michigan." I don't think this is what the Democrats expected.

So for now, it looks like we'll have at least six more weeks of this Democratic primary campaign. There may not be a groundhog to tell us what to expect, but maybe the good people of Pennsylvania will send a clue on April 22. Never mind the candidates' position statements, will Pennsylvania primary voters see their shadows?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Take a media holiday and be not afraid

It's O.K. to turn off the television, radio and internet and put the paper in the recycling before reading it.

You can take a media holiday and clear your mind of the ups and downs of the economy and the scandals of our trusted political leaders. None of this ultimately matters. It is a diversion from reality.

Yes, these are radical ideas coming from a person who spends time reporting and writing about current events. But these ideas are not contrary to my best interest or yours. In fact, they may be precisely in our best interest. If you take a little time away from the media chatter, you may find a way to reconnect with what actually matters.

For example, when your children come home from school excited about something they learned, that deserves your full attention.

Calling your aging parent a little more often to check in, that matters.

Reconnecting with your senses -- sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell -- and fully enjoying your dinner, no matter how humble, matters.

Appreciating the love present in your life and returning it fully will save you from the fear of loss that seems to drive recent economic news.

For your well-being, go ahead and take a media holiday and be not afraid.