By Tom Ehrich
The juxtaposition was coarse and sad.
On the top left of The Times’ front page were photos of rescue workers searching for victims of yesterday’s mile-wide tornado in Oklahoma.
Top right was an article about Apple Inc.’s determined effort to avoid paying tens of billions of taxes to the US through an elaborate web of phantom companies and overseas tax havens.
Spanning the fold was the photo of a four-year-old girl burying her father, killed in battle.
While rescue workers dug with their bare hands to save human lives and the daughter of a fallen soldier carried the carefully folded American flag in her arms, Apple’s lawyers were scouring the globe to dodge their ethical duty.
My advice to Apple CEO Tim Cook when he testifies before Congress: don’t be clever, don’t mouth platitudes about obligations to shareholders, don’t pretend it doesn’t matter. Be ashamed. Be embarrassed.
What Apple has done — and many other corporations do, as well — might be within the law. But it is profoundly unethical. It is a violation of the covenant we all make as citizens to care for our fellow citizens.
Your company benefits greatly from the infrastructure provided to all enterprises, such as enforcement of contracts, public services and education, not to mention the freedom to dream great dreams. You cannot just take that and not give back.
The heroes in this land are teachers who shield their students from gunfire, neighbors who band together after the storm, first-responders who run toward danger and then stick around to deal with danger’s consequences, men and women who stand in harm’s way and sometimes don’t survive, and survivors who stand at the grave and commit to living.
You could get away with making billions from electronic wizardry. But when you shun your duty as an American citizen and withhold funds that states like Oklahoma desperately need, squeezing a bit more magic into a smartphone seems small and vain.
So, Tim Cook, when the hard questions are asked, keep a copy of The Times in front of you. Which do you want to be: the man selflessly digging through rubble to rescue a child, or the man digging for gold by evading taxes, employing workers in unsafe conditions, and lobbying government for favors?
By Tom Ehrich
When he faced withering criticism, President Truman pointed to his Oval Office desk and said, “The buck stops here.” He took action.
Most presidents since Truman have said, “What buck?”
President Obama says, “Oh, that buck never reached my desk. And I’m really angry about it.”
Democrats in Congress say, “Hey, somebody stop that buck.” Republicans say, “Gotcha! Didn’t see that buck coming, did you? Here comes another.”
Meanwhile, as the buck bounces, the nation’s infrastructure continues to crumble, public education at all levels is on starvation rations, big banks are back at their risky and self-serving folly, military veterans are committing suicide at the rate of 26 a day, families are in chaos, corruption is rife, and large industries cannot hack it without cheating, lopping off jobs, and hiring the desperately poor to work in unsafe conditions.
Thus systemic dysfunction becomes the new normal for a nation whose lofty ideals now far exceed its ability to take action.
A divided citizenry disagrees on which “rascals” to “throw out,” but I suspect we are united in disdain for our extravagantly paid and privileged leaders.
Avoiding accountability becomes the new management art form. When J.P. Morgan Chase shareholders began to vote against their own chairman, insiders stopped publishing vote tallies. The Justice Department played “big brother” in chasing down Associated Press reporters for writing inconvenient articles. Gun lobbyists deny any connection between lax gun laws and rampant gun violence. Silicon Valley lobbies hard to hire technology stars overseas, rather than push their own school systems to work harder at teaching technology.
At all levels, from large enterprises like Yahoo to the small shop on the corner, workers fail to show up for work, fail to complete assignments, and yet still expect to be paid.
Is it as bad as all this? No, it’s worse. If you were to tabulate the signs of dysfunction, it would break your heart.
Is there hope? Oh yes, there is hope. At ground level, people are taking action to make lives better. They are doing the best they can to counterbalance official malfeasance and C Suite bullies.
I see a wonderful new attitude in faith communities, as pride and isolation give way to desire for mission. The example being set by Pope Francis is promising.
As people expect less from those who presume to lead, they are finding common ground.
It would be good if President Obama abandoned diffidence and discovered a passion for political action. It would be good if Congress’ absurd antics gave way to concern for the nation. It would be good if the wealthy realized “enough is as good as a feast,” as my father often said.
Until that “glorious summer” arrives, we are on our own and probably will be the stronger for it.
By Tom Ehrich
AUSTIN, TX — I am deep into a disturbing and yet riveting read: “Random Family,” by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.
Disturbing, because it describes a New York neighborhood not far from my own in miles but light-years distant in the human condition.
Now I know first-hand the cost of unrelenting poverty: the serial pregnancies of teenagers like Jessica and Coco, the drug wealth of Boy George and Cesar and then their imprisonment, three-generation households unable to provide consistent care for any generation, lost children, frightened teenagers, weary and drugged out grandmothers, men who prove their manhood by impregnating girls but don’t know what to do next.
I also know about dreams that won’t die, strong devotions, moments of grace, and systems that try.
LeBlanc’s 2003 non-fiction narrative is riveting because it doesn’t patronize or idolize its people. It just describes their world and tells their stories, gathered over 10 years of research.
I think my Manhattan apartment small, but compared to the projects on Tremont Avenue in The Bronx, I live grandly. I think myself strong and capable, but if I had been born into Boy George’s brutish world, instead of a middle-class family-friendly neighborhood in Indianapolis, would I have had the strength of character to survive intact?
I read “Random Family” on my flight to Austin, and then stepped into a seemingly prosperous world where all the cars are huge, money flows, and politicians inhabiting bubbles sneer at the Jessicas and Cocos across the tracks.
The gaps dividing us are vast, and yet they were formed largely by chance, not personal merit. I am grateful for good fortune. Now I wonder what should come next.
April 26, 2013
By Tom Ehrich
By chance, President Obama has become our national “Mourner in Chief,” and we seem to be grateful for it.
After years of his predecessor’s cold diffidence in the face of tragedy, it is helpful to see the President and First Lady wiping tears from their eyes in West, TX, while mourning firefighters killed in a plant explosion.
Just a week before, he stood in Boston and joined its mourning after two bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon.
Before that it was Newtown, CT, and coastal towns battered by Hurricane Sandy.
Whereas some called for vengeance — let’s declare war on someone to make the pain go away! — the President seems to have figured out the better, more mature first response is to mourn with those who mourn.
Action, including crime-solving, investigations and possibly retaliation, usually can come later. But the pain of tragedy requires grieving, not revenge.
Yes, anger is a stage in grieving. But great damage is done when we get stuck in anger. Besides, actions taken in anger are rarely wise and effective. Anger is usually a cover for the fear that arises when events, storms and people go haywire. We need to deal with the fear before we act.
Thus, Bostonians responded immediately to the bombings by declaring, in effect, we won’t live in fear. In what sounded more like determination than macho bluster, the city’s temporary motto became, “Boston Strong.”
Perhaps the cruelest response after Newtown was that of the National Rifle Association, whose message echoed the mobster in “Oceans 11,” “Be afraid, be very afraid — now go buy some guns.”
Our complex, diverse and often troubled nation has no shortage of angry avengers. We need more who take the time and compassion to grieve. When we have grieved, our words have content and our actions flow from reason, not reaction.
By Tom Ehrich
When special interests buy a Congress and make legislators afraid, this is what you get.
They ignore recent tragedies and the desire of a vast majority of Americans, and they capitulate to the gun lobby.
They impose a little public embarrassment on egregious banking executives but otherwise leave them alone to continue preying on the American public and boosting profits.
They ignore the outcome of the 2012 elections, because in their precious chambers, the balance didn’t shift that much, thanks to gerrymandered districts. The people spoke loud and clear in November, but Congress feels no duty to listen to anyone but lobbyists bearing gifts, partisan ideologues bearing scorn, and pollsters bearing reelection scenarios.
They ignore the wise advice of economists and adopt the austerity agenda that is already crippling Europe. Instead of adopting policies that could strengthen the American economy, they pursue discredited policies that will enable them to do further damage to the American economy and threaten retirees and the poor, while handing even more of the nation’s wealth to the greedy 1%.
When legislators are bought and intimidated, they ignore the common citizen, the public interest, the course of wisdom, and our American values. The nation apparently means nothing to them.
We can do better than this self-serving gang of rascals.
By Tom Ehrich
Okay, my blog beat is life and faith, not technology. But I still have an opinion on tanking personal computer sales.
The tech blogosphere is alarmed by sagging sales of desktop and laptop computers. Some call it “death of the PC.”
The common wisdom is that people are switching to tablet computers and smartphones. Some blame lackluster PC hardware offerings by Dell et al. Some blame Microsoft’s latest iteration of Windows.
I think the problem is much more disturbing and encouraging than that.
On the disturbing side is the question of creating content vs. consuming content.
Some use technology to write articles, essays, on up to dissertations and books. Or to manage spreadsheets, create presentations, manage databases, track customers, write code — in other words, to do the work that business, education and the arts require.
That is work for a desktop or laptop. None of that content-creation work can be satisfactorily done on a mobile device. I have tried. Without a cursor or decent keyboard and without an ability to keep several apps open, the iPad makes content-creation frustrating, often nightmarish.
Mobile devices are made for consuming content — playing games, watching videos, reading emails, articles and books, checking the weather, and using social media. Oh, and telephone calling.
I use four devices — desktop at my office, laptop on the road, tablet on the sofa, and smartphone on the move — and each is great.
The disturbing decline, it seems to me, is in content creation. Fewer people are writing, managing data, making the quality of contribution that constitutes “creation.” Too many are like locusts, feasting on the work of others.
I read the stats on declining PC sales and see less writing, less thinking, less dreaming, less desire to develop one’s mind. I see more hunger for fun and games.
On the encouraging side, I think people who do create content are shifting how they work. They use web apps, accessed by a browser, not requiring the latest in PC hardware. They are simplifying how they create content, moving to tools like Draft, a splendid app just for writing, as opposed to the bloatware put out by Microsoft.
How much better could Office or Windows get? The problem isn’t Office 2013 or Windows 8; it’s the upgrade path itself no longer seeming necessary.
On the one hand, we aren’t educating enough people who yearn to write, think and create. That’s a problem. On the other hand, people are abandoning the upgrade treadmill and extending the useful life of what they own. That sounds wise.
This isn’t “death of the PC.” It’s something far more complex and worthy of sustained attention.
By Tom Ehrich
Of New York City’s 1,500-plus parks, my favorite might be Bryant Park, a 9.6-acre rectangle set behind the New York Public Library in Midtown Manhattan.
Gone are any vestiges of the park’s bad old days as a haven for drug users. Today, on a warm spring day, we bought food at Metro Cafe and stepped off 42nd Street and joined a crowd of office workers lingering at small tables.
Soon the park will offer Monday night movies on its lawn, as well as a mass yoga class and freestyle laying-about. Office workers will bring laptops and tablets to use the park’s free wi-fi as a second office. Not the quietest workspace, but still remarkably freeing.
I especially like walking briskly through the park on my way to work. It feels like a touch of Paris — still empty, though on its way to being the most densely occupied park in the world.
The urge toward freedom is built deeply into us. Even in urban congestion, we find places where we can see the sky, feel grass, laze about, and talk about something other than business.
Architectural historians refer to Grand Central Terminal as “New York’s cathedral.” But I think our worship space is actually the parks that enable us to be ourselves, honest before God.
By Tom Ehrich
After the Jazz/Gospel service early Sunday afternoon, I ate a slow Thai lunch at 84th and Lexington and headed up to 85th for a cookie before my evening commitment.
Outside Koffeecake Corner I came upon a fellow singer in the Gospel Choir. Big smile, warm greeting, wasn’t the service awesome, waiting for my friends, have you tried their cookies, see you at rehearsal.
Those two minutes proved two things. First, even in Manhattan, you occasionally see someone you know on the street.
Second, that seeing is like meeting up with God. A surprise, a delight, it transforms an ordinary street corner. I am part of something bigger than the world I see and touch every day.
If faith is shared primarily by stories, then faith will be a small canvas that shows a single glimpse of God’s reality, but also suggests something far larger.
That larger isn’t something we can control or comprehend; our insistence on doctrines and “truths” has been prideful. The more that is God will always extend far beyond our sight. When Jesus showed startled disciples his hands and side, they had no idea what they were seeing. It was enough for the moment, and later they would see more. Other followers would see even more than that — and God would still be beyond our grasp.
It is enough to be surprised by small glimpses. Open minds matter more than settled beliefs.
Later, at Lifeline, a friend who has reached a critical stage in recovery from addiction said her oldest child had called after a long silence. That call brightened her day at the recovery center where she lives for now. It reminded her of the more in her own life.
By Tom Ehrich
When I was a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal, our competition in breaking news was Reuters.
It was a black day if Reuters moved a news story before we did. I once kept a long-distance telephone line open from Pittsburgh to New York for 30 minutes, so that I could be first to report a change in US Steel Corp.’s dividend.
In this age of digital news, the Journal’s competition is The New York Times. I had assumed The Times normally won, because their overall coverage is so much more substantial and balanced than Murdoch Madness.
But the Journal broke the news of a papal election 11 minutes before The Times did — an eternity in news time, if not in church time. Just now the Journal ran a brief on the Pentagon beefing up West Coast missile defenses a full 46 minutes ahead of The Times.
My hunch is that The Times hasn’t yet raised the performance bar for its digital staff. They did a superb job of analyzing the election of Pope Francis, and that matters. But do does timeliness. In this realm, speed means quality, and being first conveys trustworthiness.
Now, at this point, you might be asking, Who in the world cares about those eleven minutes of lost news time? Surely getting it deeply and correctly matters more than getting it first.
No, not more than. Just as much, perhaps, but not more than. And that is a point I wish religious folks could grasp.
People insist on defining what matters to them. If given any opening, they will assert their interests and needs, and you can be sure you haven’t guessed everything on their list.
To some news readers, speed matters more than depth, and that’s just the way it is. To some Christians, a presentation of God who looks like them conveys truth — female, dark-skinned, young, tolerant — and your presentation of God as male, white, old and narrow doesn’t convey truth. You can accept that and show an open mind to all, or reject it and drive much of the population away.
Does this mean God is a commercial product designed by shallow focus groups? No, it means God isn’t just one thing, but many things, each containing a piece of God’s truth, and none containing all of that truth.
You can try to talk someone out of their interests, needs and beliefs. Or you can respect them and treasure the other person for seeing what you are unable to see.
Now that would be an interesting sight: people thanking each other for being different.
By Tom Ehrich
Behold the new One Percent.
In New York City, where a simple breakfast (two eggs, bacon and juice) at the swank 44 restaurant costs $29, an estimated 21,000 children sleep in homeless shelters each night.
That’s 1% of the city’s total children. The homeless-children count is up 22% from a year ago, according to The Wall Street Journal.
It’s the worst homelessness since the Great Depression, and it’s happening in other cities, as well.
Meanwhile, the other 1% — those whose relentless greed contributes to the expanding ranks of the poor — is being invited to pay $14 million for an apartment in the Dakota, at 72nd and Central Park West, where John Lennon once lived and urged people to “imagine no possessions…no greed or hunger…all the people sharing all the world.”
It’s easier to imagine than to do, it seems.