A long and difficult winter seems to have finally ended. In Garrett County, the season was baiting and cruel. Our first heavy snowfall dumped upon us by Frankenstorm Sandy in October, followed by a bizarre autumn melt and mud season, followed in sequence by a half-dozen or more of these painful accelerated cycles: cold, snow, warming, melt, mud, repeat. In the lengthening April daylight, the final late-March snow cover has reluctantly melted, and as the dark-brown mud and grey matted grass reappears, so does my desire to write.
My winter has been filled with listening to others’ storytelling as well as adding a few notable chapters to my own personal narrative. Around the national campfire we call mass media there are some notable storylines -- pick your venue, channel, or favorite social media feed.
REFRAIN: The stories we tell about ourselves are powerful. They carry intention. They carry resignation.
VERSE: The American two-party political system is broken and dysfunctional. Our elected officials cannot perform the most basic of governing and legislative tasks; they care more about the funding that will purchase their image-and-media-fueled re-election campaigns than they do serving the needs of their constituents. No matter public opinion. No matter social imperative. No matter decline.
VERSE: The right to bear arms [heavy pause] is a sacred American right. It protects us: from each other, from an overreaching government, from outsiders and those that are not one-of-us, from evil. Guns confer power and self-reliance. No matter that the writers of the Second Amendment had no imagining of an AK-47 or other such future creation. No matter that a striking majority of Americans support making it harder to own weapons of war. No matter that the evil now regularly comes from one-of-us. No matter if it’s harder to acquire a driver’s license than a gun. No matter.
VERSE: American government is too big and is failing. It must be cut, it must be pruned, it must be starved and leaned in the most dramatic biggest-loser-like fashion. The basic services of government: roads, schools, social services that act as a safety-net for our elders and the neediest among us – take them to the chopping block! No matter that paying for our democracy is an act of patriotism; no matter that civil service, once an honorable life’s work, is now being gutted and out-sourced, no matter that private corporate America while hungrily devouring the out-sourced pieces of government owe no loyalty or service to the people. No matter that they serve only the market & consumption. No matter that (recent) history is littered with examples that these private enterprises do not have the interests of the people at heart.
REFRAIN: The stories we tell about ourselves are powerful. They carry intention. They carry resignation.
I’ve been thinking about these stories that we tell, and thinking about new stories that I hope we tell.
New stories about a government that is effective. New stories about elected officials that understand and appreciate that the drafters of the Constitution consciously built a structure for governing that was designed for compromise and balance – understood that compromise is at the heart of our democracy, and that compromise is an act of strength and patriotism not of weakness.
New stories about a Second Amendment that doggedly preserves the right to bear arms but is balanced with controls that protect our lives and the lives of our children from an increasingly violent and unbalanced society.
New stories about the compassionate heart of our nation. New stories about our intelligence and integrity and cultural richness and diversity -- about functional and high-performing public schools, about visionary investment in the infrastructure that will fuel our future, about functional civil service agencies that once again attract the best and the brightest and stand guard to protect our collective interests against unconstrained corporate capitalism that wishes to only inspire consumption with no regard to our higher selves or the higher calling of our democracy.
I hope to tell these new stories.
This week, I return to prose. I suppose like most Americans, my past week has been occupied with less poetic matters: 1) heat, 2) our dependence on electricity, and 3) the state of our democracy.
The heat. The heat. The heat. Even in normally cooler Mountain Maryland, the heat this week approached a humid and stifling 90 degrees. It wrapped everything like a blanket, and seemed to dull my other senses. We have no air conditioning at the farmhouse. During the day, we closed the windows against the heat; at night, we opened them hoping for a bit of breeze that might make sleep possible. We wondered whether it might be time for central air conditioning. Just east of us, in Washington, the heat was even more intense: 105 degrees on Friday; 102 degrees as we packed our supplies and left the FRESHFARM Market at Dupont Circle this morning. Four hours of cheese mongering in the heat left us listless and dehydrated – running inside; seeking a darkened and air-conditioned room.
Power. Power to cool. Power to live. We dodged the proverbial bullet this round; we did not loose electrical power. Millions of Americans across the mid-Atlantic weren’t so lucky. Some still have not had power restored. I have been compelled by the irony – is it irony or pathos? – of the circular dance we find ourselves in with the planet: we need electricity; our electrical grid is largely powered by ancient and non-renewable carbon-based fossil fuels; our carbon emissions are heating our planet like a greenhouse; the heat sends us rushing into electrically-cooled artificial environments of our making. The circle begins again. This spinning; this circle dance with the planet – mother nature, call her what you like – being literally manifest in the weather she brings: destructive, tornado-like spinning and blowing that renders our power grid useless. I have found myself musing about the FireFly Farms’ producers – the farmers who tend the goatherds and raise the crops to feed them. Four of our now five family farming partners are old-order Amish families; families that have made the choice to live without electrical power that they cannot generate on their own. I am humbled by the bravery of this choice, and muse about the lives my great grandparents lived.
Blue state; red state; donkey; elephant – this week we celebrated the 236th anniversary of our democracy. Here too I have mused: mused about the other circular, angry and destructive dance in which we seemed to be locked. Recently, I heard Krista Tippett’s On Being
interview with Jacob Needleman, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at San Francisco State University and author of The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the American Founders.
I recommend it to you. It made me muse about the nature of this second, this political dance: its importance and my own obligations to our collective. I am reading Needleman’s book and have no desire to reduce it in this blog. What struck me, what set me thinking, was the manner in which Professor Needleman talked about our American rights and freedoms: that they are manifest most in their giving not their taking. As an example: our right to free speech is manifest most in the ceding of that right to the other participants in our democracy. Easy to demand your voice be heard; not so easy to make the space for another’s voice. Easy to demand your right to pursue the convictions of your religion, not so easy to allow another to pursue the convictions of theirs. The velocity of our political dance could, I believe, be slowed dramatically if we were all more practiced in this ceding of rights to others – if we resisted the urge to run into the cooling air of like-minded opinion.
For the first year in its new location, FireFly Farms Creamery & Market was at the center of the Accident, Maryland Annual 4th of July Homecoming Parade. Hundreds lined Main Street and watched. Politicians, businessmen, civil servants, club and church members, musicians and marching bands suffered the heat to join the parade. It made me proud. And, when the confederate flag – flying behind a bright yellow souped-up truck – went past, my breath caught. I ceded the right to free speech; I found myself wondering what the flag was meant to “say;” I found the afternoon even hotter.
Pablo and I recently attended the US Chamber of Commerce’s
Small Business Summit in Washington, DC. We were honored to be there. Earlier in the year, our local Garrett County Chamber of Commerce had nominated FireFly Farms for recognition in the US Chamber’s “Dream Big” small business of the year award. We were pleased and proud to be recognized as one of the nation’s 75 blue ribbon winners.
The event was a good mix of content, conversation, and social networking. The conference, and my conversations there left me with a number of distinct take-aways. These were the clear messages of the conference and were certainly the themes amplified in the conversations of the attendees and presenters:
Confessed: I am a moderate.
- Government regulation is bad. The amassed entrepreneurs seemed convinced that new regulation – of any kind – would deter business growth. Special ire and concern was directed at Dodd-Frank, and the proposed new regulation of financial services.
- Free enterprise – unrestrained commerce, I took this to mean – is good. Beyond good, it is one of the defining characteristics of our American democracy that we must fight to preserve. And, in the collective opinion, there was a distinct sense of urgency about this coming election and its importance to preserving American free enterprise.
- Businesses, to grow and survive, need access to capital. Excessive government regulation threatens this access. Uncertainty regarding new regulation is causing banks to cease their lending.
My experience suggests that there are very few absolutes: that black and white are rarely, if ever, encountered; that life is a wonderful mix of grey. I am increasingly disenchanted – dare I say, disgusted? – by the polarization of the national political debate; the blatant hubris on both sides, each believing with such certitude that their version of the truth is immutably correct.This morning, as serendipity would have it, I heard a re-broadcast of Krista Tippett's interview with physicist, mathematician, cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin on her NPR program On Being. I highly recommend it to you. It reminded me of how “grey” human life is.
So, regarding this tug-of-war between government and enterprise, between public and private, I will not presume to suggest that I know the answer. I will only suggest that the answer is somewhere in the grey of the middle. We need an effective government and civil service to ensure the public services of are executed efficiently in service of the public interest. My father was part of this civil service: a retired statistician and computer scientist at the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And, we need regulation to protect citizens from the unbridled profit-seeking of big business. This is our lesson from the previous decade, no? This is the poorly articulated battle cry of the Occupy Movement that slowly fizzles in our cities, no?
Unbridled government is no more the answer than unbridled business enterprise. Confessed: I am an academic.
I strive to be a life-long learner. I want to fully understand an issue; to explore all of its facets and to reach my own conclusions based on my convictions, new insights, and past experiences. My education has taught me to question hyperbolic and absolute statements.
And so on to the question of Dodd-Frank and the excessive regulation of financial services – the excessive bridling of business capital provided to American business: this much I recommend: read the Act
. Read Dodd-Frank in the light of the recent housing market and broader financial services collapse. My read – and my experience – suggest the following:
Confessed: I am a patriot.
- Residential mortgage lending is – by far – the largest source of collateralized lending in this country.
- Residential mortgage lending is (certainly was) the funding source of choice for American entrepreneurs. It provided funds to my own entrepreneurial efforts.
- With the fall of housing and the dramatic contraction of mortgage credit, concern over continued access to capital for American entrepreneurs is warranted.
- The Dodd-Frank Act seeks to constrain government-backed residential mortgage lending through the proscription of “qualified residential mortgages.” These carefully and rather narrowly defined mortgages look very like the mortgages of our parents: large down-payments and good credit requirements. And only these qualified mortgages could be backed (or guaranteed) by a federal entity – assuming, of course, that any federal entity survives from the carcasses of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. Constraining the government’s – and by extension the taxpayers’ – exposure to this risk is warranted, no?
- The Act’s careful constraint of the government’s “foot-print” in residential mortgage lending leaves a broad and open space for private capital to enter and innovate – as competitive market dynamics require. Naysayers will cry that such credit innovation outside of the carefully defined space will not occur – will not occur because the retained capital requirements for these “non-qualified” mortgages is too high, is cost-prohibitive. Ensuring that private enterprise is reserving sufficient capital – is pricing the risk of the financial instrument correctly – and is therefore funded sufficiently to bear the downtown without a “too-big to fail bail-out” is warranted, no?
- As private capital innovates and enters the market – as they eventually will; profit motivation and competition will drive them there – access to capital will get more expense, most certainly.
Our American democracy is an amazing and wonderful thing. We must fight to preserve it; to keep it in our collective hands, where it belongs. I am convinced that we are each obligated to participate in its keeping, and that its keeping is only accomplished through considered, informed, and measured debate.